Rocking the celluloid casbah

If you're looking for proof of just how big the Toronto International Film Festival has become, you could count the paparazzi that line the red carpets, preventing you from getting even a glimpse of just one of Angelina's back tattoos. Or you could tally the millions of dollars paid for the unrepresented indie films picked up by fest's end. Or you could go to the press conferences, superstar melees wherein access is monitored by bouncers more muscle-bound than a homicidal pro wrestler, and security checks rival the Pentagon's.

But if you really want to measure how far the event has come from its scruffy, laid-back roots, just keep an eye on the scalpers. Here, they wear suits and ties, their hair slicked back like Michael Douglas in Wall Street. An hour before any one of the fest's hottest titles, you can find them working the already staggering lines, pacing up and down the street like cracked-out, accordion-playing monkeys. They talk a mean game: "You know, 90 percent of the people in front of you are waiting for that," one ticket-pusher insisted when I told him which movie I was hoping to snag a seat for. Good to know. His premium was a mere $10 more than the official $22, but given the screening, it can be two or three times as much.

In Toronto, it's the schlubs — the pasty, middle-aged men who look like they haven't seen natural light in days, the empty-nester moms getting their first taste of freedom — who end up being your guardian angels. Giddy with anticipation, they buy up as many tickets as their passes allow them before the fest; if they manage to score entry to something better later, they hand them out for free to the weary, varicose-veined cinephiles camped out in rush lines.

All the while, normal Torontonians — the ones who opt not to spend a week's hard-earned vacation in darkened theaters every September — walk by on their lunch breaks in amazement. To quote one bewildered twentysomething office worker: "What movie could be worth that?!"

What movie, indeed. It takes a crazy kind of perseverance to tackle a festival like the TIFF, and for every year you get a sneak peak at a Capote or a Borat or a Boogie Nights, there are countless Beyond the Seas and In the Cuts. But when it comes to pure movie love — and not just idle stargazing — Toronto audiences are unrivaled in their knowledge, passion and mania, and they're happy to share each and every one of their opinions with you should you happen to share an armrest or square-foot of sidewalk with them. Not to mention their politics: Native festgoers are just as ready to engage you on the subject of Iraq, who'll get the 2008 presidential nomination or the pronunciation of "General David Petraeus" as they are on the matter of Keira Knightley's curious choice of eyeliner, or the highs and lows of director David Cronenberg's filmography.

If it's that unique combo of artistry and social relevance that Canadian movie fans live for, they couldn't have asked for a better lineup than the one that unspooled at the TIFF this year. While many blog inches were devoted to the lack of big film buys at this year's fest, the fact remains that in terms of profile, vitality and quality, this was one of the best collections in recent memory, featuring a smorgasbord of veteran directors working at or near the peak of their powers (Cronenberg, Ang Lee and the Coen brothers, to name a few), as well as upstarts hitting their stride (as represented by Jason Reitman's Juno, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James or Tom McCarthy's The Visitor).

It helps that the sorry state of the world seems to have gotten their creative juices flowing. Toronto has long welcomed any and all films critical of U.S. policy, but previous years' Fahrenheit 9/11-wannabe documentaries and would-be provocative "statements" — Death of a President, anyone? — left even the most fervent lefties disappointed. The '07 TIFF, on the other hand, suggests that filmmakers have moved beyond producing pandering agitprop and gutless, fence-sitting psychodramas. Brian DePalma's Redacted earned the lion's share of this year's war-movie buzz: A mock-doc re-creation of the rape of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her family at the hands of U.S. troops, it plays like a Casualties of War sequel crossed with The Blair Witch Project. Even if the too-slick-by-half DePalma can't convincingly emulate the style of a fly-on-the-wall camera crew — the movie pretends to be a combination of one grunt's camcorder footage plus a foreign-made documentary — it's still the director's most engaged work in years.

The conceptually similar Battle for Haditha re-creates the 2005 massacre of two dozen Iraqis at the hands of one Marine convoy, enraged after a roadside bombing killed one of their men. But as directed by former documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt and Courtney), the movie is a harrowing you-are-there account, shot in Jordan and employing numerous ex-Marines as actors. It's Black Hawk Down with a soul: Everyone from the servicemen to the civilians to the insurgents is a three-dimensional character, racked with indecision and remorse.

Even the major Hollywood efforts to address life during wartime represented a step forward, if not a giant leap. Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah and Gavin Hood's Rendition represented pointed statements against, respectively, the dehumanization of soldiers and the inhuman treatment of detainees, although ultimately neither could escape comparisons to turgid Lifetime movies.

Meanwhile, even "this year's English Patient," the seemingly apolitical period romance Atonement, set its star-crossed romance against a harrowing, World War I backdrop. (Cue the inevitable Gone With the Wind battlefield homage.) Actor-director Stuart Townsend — otherwise known as Charlize Theron's significant other — dipped his toes in the shallow end of world events with Battle in Seattle, a star-studded docudrama about the riots that shut down the 1999 World Trade Organization conference. Resorting to every cliché and leftie bias in the book, Battle still managed to be an entertainingly cheesy primer on the power and perils of activism.

The fest's other big theme — namely, "long live rock" — even managed to snake its way into the war flicks, and vice versa. Chronicling the lives of Iraq's only hardcore act, the Vice magazine-produced Heavy Metal in Baghdad pondered the fates of four pro-Saddam headbangers in a post-invasion world (in a nutshell, no more gigs). Director Todd Haynes' audaciously entertaining I'm Not There offered up a few subtle Vietnam parallels while it imagined the "many lives" of Bob Dylan, played at various stages by Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Richard Gere, among others. Its polar opposite could be seen in the 'Nam-era Beatles-rehash Across the Universe, a lamentable boomer-bait musical from Frida director Julie Taymor. Resurrecting the same anti-authoritarian, anti-war vibe that was already stale when Hair came out, it framed a Titanic-style romance against the backdrop of '60s youth revolution, cheapening both halves in the process.

Even the films on the margins managed, in some oblique way, to reference the war. Maverick director Gus Van Sant's latest film, the ponderous-but-hypnotic skateboarding flick Paranoid Park, featured a cast of unprofessional teens recruited from MySpace, often making up their own dialogue. In-between ollies, grinds and hook-ups, one poses the question, "Since when did you care about what happens in Iraq?" More often than not, the same thing could be asked of the filmmakers who showed up this year for the TIFF.

Michael Hastings is a Metro Times film critic. Send comments to [email protected]
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