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The 26th Toronto International Film Festival

     The last time that a film festival got derailed by world events was a celebratory occasion: when the Wall separating East and West Berlin was collapsed during a Berlin Film Festival. Who cared about seeing movies when, across town from the Fest, you could do as I did one amazing February afternoon? Hoisted up nine feet, I stood among hundreds on one section of the Wall, cheering as the Russians bulldozed another.

     Obviously, the mood was less ebullient earlier this month at the 26th Toronto International Film Festival. Who could stomach watching movies when, the fourth day of the fest, the world appeared to be ending? The many Americans in Canada - press, publicists, directors, movie stars,etc. - stumbled about in collective shock, moving numbly from CNN on monitors to struggling to get through to New York on cel phones, to, eventually, formulating patchwork arrangements to traverse the Ontario-U.S. border and arrive home - without encountering a second wave of terrorists. A typical plan: six California show-biz people pooling money for a mini-bus and a three-day drive to LA.

     The Toronto Fest closed down for about forty hours, and then, cautiously, started up. Slowly, those who had disowned the cinema on Tuesday began, on Thursday and Friday, to watch movies again. Me too. Exiled in Toronto, we could do nothing about crashed planes or the downed World Trade Center. Inside theatres, those who so wished could escape a bit in the dark. Others, caught every minute in the tragic events, could try to mediate through film art what had happened.

     Wouldn't you know it? There was a film, Denis Couchard's Tar Angel, so close to real events. It's about an Algerian immigrant family in Montreal in the weeks before citizenship. The grateful father, Ahmed, practices the national anthem, "O Canada." To his chagrin, he finds out via TV news that his 19-year-old son, Hafid, is part of an underground organization that has broken into government offices and deleted computer files. The film climaxes at a rural airport with a confrontation between Canadian police and young Moslems, labeled by the government as terrorists. Tar Angel won't be playing soon in the USA: Quebec's Couchard is sympathetic to the causes of the Arab youth. The only violence comes from the cops, who beat to death an unarmed Hafid.

     The movie at Toronto which seemed best to address the doom and despair in the air was my favorite American one screened, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, by Jill Sprecher (Clockmakers). Her new film - ambitious, wryly philosophical - offers a running argument between cockeyed optimism about life, and extreme pessimism, as dramatized in interconnected New York stories inhabited by a stellar cast: Matthew McConaughey, John Torturro, Clea Duvall, and, fabulous, Alan Arkin.

     Arkin plays a cynical middle manager in an insurance company so perturbed by the polyannish temperament of one of his workers that he fires the upbeat soul to see if the guy will shrivel at last. Nope, Arkin is foiled! Even in unemployment, the guy finds a dabble of sunshine: a chance to spend more time with his family. In another story, a fragile, good-hearted young woman (DuVall) has her world thrown off by an auto accident. After a traumatic time in the hospital, she is accused of stealing by her insensitive ex-employer.

     Does everything turn to merde? Is the WTC bombing the story of life itself? "I was mugged in New York and formed a very negative attitude toward other people," Spechter, an ex-NYU filmmaking student, explained at the screening. The story with Clea DuVall, she said, was the movie's most autobiographical, down to the poignant feel-better conclusion. Hopeless Clea riding on a subway, is suddenly waved at, encouragingly, by a stranger on the platform. "We started writing from the end scene," Spechter said. "That happened to me."

     Filmmaker Rose Troche (Go Fish) also brought to Toronto a wighty feature, The Safety of Objects, from A.M. Homes' short stories; but this was a pretentious, empty glance at the lost of suburbia. It's only reward: a star, white-collar performance by the under-utilized Dermot Mulroney, who exudes here an old-Hollywood Tyrone Power-like charisma. Another American film which disappointed was Buffalo Soldiers, about our Gis - Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris - stationed in Germany in 1989 and getting by smashingly peddling contraband goods and heroin. Here, post-M*A*S*H, post-The Three Kings, was more slick cynicism and jaded souls. The film ending has been done: an apocalyptic explosion, Americans falling off a burning building.

(Boston Phoenix - September 2001)


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