Here are a few last, random thoughts on the Toronto film festival, which came to a close yesterday:
It Was a Very Good Year. In the week I spent there, almost everyone I talked to seemed to agree — as did I — on the generally exciting quality of the movies. The fact that so many of those films connected with the anxious urgency of the moment lent the programming (intentionally or not) a certain seductive coherence. At times, coming out of a movie like Collapse or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, it was almost like attending the Whole Earth on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown film festival — and I mean that as a compliment.
Best Film I Saw. Hands down, Up in the Air. An exquisite reminder of everything that a Hollywood movie can still be, Jason Reitman’s sublime comedy about a jet-setting down-sizer addicted to the frictionless pleasures of life on the road touched a nerve as deep as any film at the festival. Yet it also gave George Clooney the chance to prove, yet again, that he’s the most effortlessly compelling old-style-meets-21st-century movie star now working.
Branding, Canada-Style. I get that the folks who preside over the Toronto International Film Festival want to nudge it into the age of hip corporate media recognition by giving it a catchy logo-nickname. But couldn’t they have done better than deciding that the moniker of the event should be its initials — TIFF — pronounced as a single word? It’s official: Every introductory speech now has to make a point of referring to the festival as “Tiff.” That doesn’t sound like a world-class movie jubilee — it sounds like the world’s angriest, and most trivial, congressional subcommittee.
Most Constant Topic of Film-Centric Party Chatter: The Incredible Shrinking World of Independent Distribution. The cliché of the moment is that it’s now really all just about two distributors: Sony Pictures Classics and IFC. That’s a gross exaggeration, of course, and a snobby one: It makes it sound as if Miramax and the Weinstein Company don’t distribute artistic films (the reality is quite the contrary), and it also shortchanges stubborn little companies like Magnolia and First Run. What the cliché captures is that the major players are steadily getting winnowed down. The collapse of studio specialty divisions — Paramount Vantage, etc. — isn’t just a matter of a landscape with drastically fewer options. It represents the slow fade of a dream: the notion that movies can be “special” and popular, small and big, at the same time.
The Little Movie That Could. Yesterday, when Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire took home this year’s audience prize (which is all Toronto has — there’s no jury), it became the very first movie to do so after accomplishing the same feat at Sundance. I saw Precious back when it was called Push, at its very first Sundance showing, and I loved it (here’s the take I posted that day), but if you had told me that the movie would now be edging into the status of Oscar contender, I’d have said that was a pipe dream. It’s been an inspiration to see that dream look, more and more each day, like a reality.
One of my fondest memories of Toronto is back in 1998, when I first saw Todd Solondz’s Happiness. It was one of the most exhilaratingly unnerving movies I’d ever watched — a scandalous comedy of desperation that seemed to draw back a curtain on the sexual and romantic lives of its characters, revealing the secret things they did, some of them kinky, a few of them criminal, a lot of them just…private. The movie forced you to confront the continuity between the lust and despair it showed you and what was going on off-screen, maybe even in your own life. Happiness was Solondz’s last zeitgeist moment as a filmmaker. He has made at least one movie since then that I thought was powerful, the 2005 Palindromes, but it never connected with an audience (postmodern abortion comedies in which a bunch of different actresses play the same depressive teenager have a way of not doing that), and for years I’ve been waiting for him to seize the moment again.
He’s obviously trying to in Life During Wartime, because the movie is a sequel to Happiness. It features half a dozen of the same characters, all played by new actors (the effect is sort of Palindromes lite). Only Happiness, dark as it was, had the feeling of a voyeuristic adventure: We couldn’t wait to see what Solondz’s ordinary misfits would do next, even if, in the case of the suburban pedophile Bill Maplewood, the film put you in the disquieting position of sympathizing with someone it presented, in no uncertain terms, as a sexually compulsive monster. Life During Wartime almost completely lacks that What’s going to happen next? erotic-moral-pathological suspense, because no one in the movie really does anything. Instead, they all sit around and talk about the past: about situations from years ago, and about what Solondz presents as the cosmic conundrum of guilt and forgiveness. Namely, how do you forgive the unforgivable?
Bill Maplewood, now played by the brilliant and dourly fish-faced Ciarán Hinds, has just gotten out of prison, and he wants to make amends, but his crimes still echo through the lives of his wife (now played by Allison Janney), and his son Billy (Chris Marquette), who’s now in college, and his young son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who has learned from the Internet what his father was. Meanwhile, Joy, the pale anhedonic vegetarian wallflower (now played by Shirley Henderson), has gone and married a violent drug abuser, but she keeps hallucinating conversations with her former boyfriend — played, in the film’s one truly startling and heartfelt performance, by Paul Reubens, who catches the tragedy of neurotics who hold on to their misery until it’s too late.
The disappointment of Life During Wartime is that Solondz, instead of taking his characters into new realms of amorous exploration, mostly just lets them rattle on about their wasted lives. He treats the original film as if it were a sacred text that now had to be footnoted. At times, the movie is like Ingmar Bergman with whiny Florida Jews instead of depressive Swedes, but Solondz’s dialogue here doesn’t hypnotize, it diagrams, bleakly. You no longer quite believe what you’re watching. Life During Wartime once again presents people trapped in their fears and desires, only now, after 10 years, it’s the filmmaker who’s trapping them. Solondz has taken the dark side of love and, unlike before, committed a truly unpardonable sin — he’s made it drab.