Sunday, May 6, 2018

Slums of the film festival

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

I'd never use this space to advance a personal grievance of course, so it’s as a matter of objective commentary that I report on the Toronto film festival’s refusal to issue me a press pass for this year’s festival. Well, they didn’t actually refuse – they just ignored my request. I thought a circulation of 12,000 might have counted for something, but maybe, gentle readers, you just don’t seem arty enough. But I shouldn’t blame you. My cultural credentials were shot as soon as I gave Lethal Weapon 4 twice the rating of Smoke Signals. They were probably worried I’d be a conspicuous lowbrow – a dissenter chanting “Jackie Chan rules” during Bernardo Bertolucci’s press conference.

The movie vigil

Anyway, I didn’t want to go to the festival any less because of this painful snub, so I got up at 4 am on September 3rd and hauled myself over to College Park to stand in the ticket order line. If you’ve never been part of it, the film festival involves a highly complex ordering process that entails visiting the box office on at least three separate occasions. The key date is that on which – two days after announcing the film schedule – they collect advance ticket orders. These are processed on a first come, first serve basis, starting at 9 am, but given the festival’s popularity, all the best movies would already be sold out if you actually turned up at that hour. Some people arrive the previous evening and spend the night. Arriving at 4.30 am, there were well over a hundred people in front of me. The line ultimately circled the south side of College Park, then trailed up Yonge, west on College, down Bay at least to Gerrard, and even further south for all I know.

My early start paid off – I got ninety-five per cent of the movies I wanted. But many of those who struck out will undoubtedly make an earlier start next time. I go an hour earlier every year and never make up any ground. I dread the day when I feel obliged to spend the night there (now you start to see how my interest in getting the press pass might not have been wholly altruistic), but how far off can that be?  Still, although I’m not any sort of morning person, and the street got pretty hard on my rear end (wiser people bring folding chairs), the time passed surprisingly quickly, eavesdropping on others in line and diligently reviewing an extremely long and dull but somewhat important work-related document (I was really pleased with that aspect of it – I got to charge virtually the whole stint!)

The cinematic zoo

My big gripe is that the incredible enthusiasm for obscure movies that erupts in Toronto for ten days each September seems disproportionate to the general year-round appetite for such films. Last year I tried to get tickets to an afternoon showing of Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth, but it had already sold out. I eventually saw it commercially six months or so later – me and the four other people in the theater. The picture lasted a mere  two weeks. How do you reconcile those two extremes of audience interest? The Cinematheque Ontario regularly shows wonderful, rare movies by cinema’s greatest directors, to half-empty theaters. I appreciate that it’s easier for people to fill their quota of challenging cinema in one dose – take the week off and cover the waterfront. But that’s not much of a place for art cinema in the scheme of things – to be experienced primarily in a concentrated tumble of sleep-deprived viewing excess.

Roger Ebert recently pointed out that the film festival circuit is becoming, in effect, the primary means of exhibition for more and more foreign films. I think the Toronto festival has enough clout in these parts to be a bit of a bully. Instead of giving the best ticket selections to those willing or able to wait in line the longest, why not give priority booking to people who’ve been to the Cinematheque at least ten times during the year? You can debate the pros and cons of that, but at least it would characterize the festival as being rooted in – and the high point of – a thriving film culture, rather than as a short-lived annual explosion. It’s in danger of resembling a cinematic zoo – wildly popular for its many strange and exotic exhibits, but of little or no relevance to the survival of those species in their natural habitat.

And you know I’m sincere about that. What axe could I possibly have to grind?

Among the masses

Anyway, my original idea was to cover the festival highlights in these pages, but I guess they didn’t want me to do that, so let’s head back into the commercial jungle and the current Slums of Beverly Hills. A film far more accomplished than its raucous trailer and Adam Sandler-ish title suggest, it’s about an economically-stretched father of three, played by Alan Arkin, and his family’s ups and downs in the down-at-heel outer regions of B.H. The film’s raunchy energy is much better rooted in a meaningful plot and worldview than were the bad-taste selling points of There’s Something About Mary. For instance, a scene where two women (well-played by Natasha Lyonne and Marisa Tomei) dance around the room while throwing back and forth a vibrator is titillating and laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also a perfect expression of how Tomei deliberately draws the younger woman toward sexual awareness, despite the fragility of her own state. And the end of that scene, with Arkin entering the room and catching his daughter enjoying the vibrator a little too much, may be predictable, but – along with just about everything else in the picture – has an accomplished light touch.

The ending is sentimental, but very level-headed – the family doesn’t get out of the slums. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I wanted the hand-to-mouth experience to triumph. Shut out from the film festival’s equivalent of the great mansions, naturally my only option is to enjoy the communal experience of the proletariat. And I really do enjoy it. The press pass would have been pretty neat. But the main thing – whatever it takes – is to see the movies.

(2018 postscript – I did receive a press pass the following year, and held on to it for a decade. You can read many of the resulting reviews on this website. But I haven’t seen a single film at the festival since 2009).

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