By Meredith Brody
Certified movie-mad somewhat late in life (the joke among my siblings was that our parents took us out to the movies twice a year whether we needed to or not), i.e. when I went to college in a town that had both public transportation and movie theaters, I quickly graduated – not from college, but from seeing movies thrice weekly to seeing movies thrice daily.
The town was Paris, and I quickly made friends among a dedicated group – or groups, really – of cinephiles that I saw regularly at the Cinematheque, then operating in the basement of the Palais de Chaillot on the Right Bank, and in another subterranean movie theater in a municipal building on the Rue d’Ulm, on the Left Bank. It made perfect sense to us to start the day at 10 a.m. in a rep house or a first-run theater, swing by the inevitable 3 p.m. silent movie showing at Chaillot, and then grab a coffee before returning to Chaillot for the three movies showing that evening at 6:30, 8:30, and 10:30. (Oddments like attending classes and writing papers were inserted in the day, here and there. Opinions of the movies we’d just seen were shared as we walked or Metro’d to the next one, or while standing in line between screenings at the Cinematheque.)
There was a slogan for the weekly listings guide to Paris – “Votre semaine commence le Mercredi avec le Pariscope,” i.e. “Your week begins Wednesday with Pariscope,” – which in our case was literally true, as we seized the little magazine and began sifting through the movie schedules, trying to determine how to fit the most movies into our day. It was both exciting and frustrating to see the cornucopia spill out before us – more movies you wanted, no, needed to see, than you possibly could.
Nowadays I see more movies on my television than I do on the big screen, a function of economics and convenience rather than preference. I’m still a size queen as far as screens go (the most incomprehensible pronouncement, as far as I’m concerned, of my friend and erstwhile colleague Manohla Dargis was “A screen is a screen is a screen – isn’t it?,” in “The Revolution Will Be Downloaded – (if You’re Patient” in The New York Times this year. No, honey, a big screen is better.).
And I also prefer to watch movies with an audience, a large audience, a good audience – one that’s caught up in the spectacle and responsive to what’s happening on the screen, not to their companions or the little glowing screens of whatever communication devices they’ve brought with them.
I can find these audiences sporadically in the Bay Area at festivals and specialty houses – the incomparable Silent Film Festival and the Pacific Film Archive spring to mind. But once a year I travel 3000 miles to rejoin my flock and immerse myself in ten days of watching movies among the faithful, in temples of cinema with big screens, excellent projection, excellent sound, and am reminded of why I continue to love movies and the act of watching them en masse. (In both senses of the word: a lot of movies with a lot of people.)
My annual movie orgy is the Toronto Film Festival, which was luckily first brought to my attention by a friend and mentor from those Paris years, Jonathan Rosenbaum, who’d been attending from practically the first year. Thanks to his glowing reports, I first attended the Festival in the mid-eighties, and haven’t missed a year since.
In the earliest years, long before the Internet, arriving and opening up the Festival catalogue was a dizzying delight – many of the movies listed therein were previously unheard-of by me, often including their directors and national cinemas. I saw my first Pedro Almodovar, Tsui Hark, Edward Yang, Hou Hsaio-Hsien, John Woo, Atom Egoyan, Aki and Mika Kaurismaki, Terence Davies, Gus van Sant, Quentin Tarantino, Guy Maddin, Peter Jackson, Claire Denis, Manoel de Oliveira, Benoit Jacquot, Takeshi Kitano, Abbas Kiorastami, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies at the Toronto Film Festival. It was the only place, for many years, where I could be assured of seeing a Bollywood film, an art-house Indian film, a silent film with a full orchestra accompanying it, the new Jean-Luc Godard (sometimes with him there, too).
Nowadays I scour the Festival emails releasing news about the upcoming programs because for the last several years I’ve also been fortunate enough to attend the Telluride Film Festival, a like-minded but very different gathering of filmlovers who reconvene every Labor Day weekend in the rarefied air of the Rockies. Many though not all of the several dozen movies at Telluride, which unlike other festivals never announces its lineup in advance, show up in Toronto, which begins a few days after Telluride ends, so the 300-plus Toronto list is important in determining how to maximize one’s filmgoing pleasure.
This year duplications included the Korean Secret Sunshine, winner of the Best Actress prize at Cannes; Juno, an unknown quantity [ed note: not any more]from first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody and second-time director Jason Reitman; and a first film from Romania, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, winner of the Palme d’Or at cannes – all of which I saw in Telluride, in a row, in the same tiny theater, marveling at the mother-child themes that rippled through all three of them in many different ways. But others, including Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan antibiography I’m Not There, Barbet Schroeder’s chilling documentary Terror’s Advocate, and Noah Baumbach’s family tragicomedy Margot at the Wedding, were skipped until Toronto.
Where I somehow managed to shoehorn them in among the 50-odd other titles I saw there (including Lady Chatterley, which wasn’t playing at the Festival but which I caught in a Toronto theater since I arrived a day early). My film-going at Toronto is decided by several factors: hotly-anticipated movies by directors I love, hotly-anticipated movies by directors I’ve never heard of but highly touted by people I trust, events (such as silent films with orchestral accompaniment or old movies being revived or shown with special guests), and movies from newly-emerging national cinemas that I don’t know well, such as the Philippines or Iran. Last on the list are the big Hollywood and independent movies that are scheduled to be released soon after the Festival ends (in some cases starting their commercial run in Toronto even before the Festival ends).
Sometimes, however, the lust to be among the first to see a new movie, even when it’s multiplex-bound, is too strong to resist. (Or scheduling is such that it’s the only movie you can fit in at that time.) I loved seeing Woody Allen’s tragicomedy Cassandra’s Dream, opening in the US on January 18; Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel; and Lust, Caution, by Ang Lee.
But I’m even happier to have seen Le Deuxieme Souffle by Alain Corneau, It’s a Free World by Ken Loach, Christopher Columbus, The Enigma by Manoel de Oliveira, Angel by Francois Ozon, and Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog, none of which have popped up in a theater anywhere near us soon (but look out for them!)
Some of my favorite directors let me down, with disappointments including Eric Rohmer’s Les Amours d’Astree et de Celadon, Takeshi Kitano’s Glory to the Filmmaker, and jacques Rivette’s The Duchesse of Langeais.
Since I always yearn to see about 150 of the 300 programs I read about while leafing through the program book, the 50 or so I manage to squeeze in always leave regrets: save for Brian De Palma’s Redacted , I didn’t see any of the many Iraq-influenced titles, including In the Valley of Elah , Rendition , Battle for Haditha [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0870211/], Operation Filmmaker [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0984213/], and Body of War [http://www.bodyofwar.com/]. (And tellingly, I haven’t caught up with them since). I also deeply regret not seeing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [http://jessejamesmovie.warnerbros.com/], another one I missed on the big screen, which from all reports it deserves to be seen on.
But out of the sixty or so movies I managed to squeeze in between Telluride and Toronto, I did have a clear favorite: the Coen brothers’ genius interpretation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, beautifully shot, with astonishing performances from Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, and Josh Brolin, among others. (David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, screened only in his hometown Toronto fest, which I saw at a press screening in San Francisco before heading to Telluride, comes in a close second. In fact, it’s the only movie of everything I saw that I’ve found time to see again.)
But seeing No Country for Old Men would have been a much less thrilling experience if I’d seen it in a Bay Area multiplex at an empty matinee or even an opening-weekend rout. It’s the extraordinary attentive audiences at Toronto that make going there such an imperative.
But even seeing No Country for Old Men, perfectly projected, in a audience that seemed to be as happy as I was, wasn’t the high point of Toronto 2007 for me.
No, it was actually something that happened at the very last movie I saw, Dainipponjin, a Japanese movie from an unknown-to-me director, Hitoshi Matsumoto, which was part of the Midnight Madness program. The audiences at the midnight screenings are if anything even more enthusiastic than the regular Toronto audience, but I learned several years ago that if I skipped the midnight screenings, I had a much better chance of staying awake through the next day’s showings. So this was a repeat screening of this unknown quantity, which seemed promising: a send-up of the old, beloved Japanese monster-horror films like Rodan and Godzilla.
I had two tickets for the screening, but my intended companion couldn’t join me. So I walked up to the first person in the Rush line, waiting for her chance to spend $20 on a last-minute ticket to the sold-out show. I told the young Japanese woman that I had an extra ticket, and handed it to her.
It took a couple of seconds for her to realize that I was giving her a free ticket to the movie that, it turned out, she had waited in line for two hours to see. And then she burst into tears. (The movie wasn’t all that great. But the audience was).