The Last TicketTo Manhattan

Life is not like the movies. That truth hit us where we live in the middle of the 26th Toronto International Film Festival. Things had been beatific; we were feeling pretty good about the future of film. The food was swell, the parties swellegant. The movies were better than ever, there were plenty of them, and the stars were coming at us in sections. We got Sissy Spacek in the morning, Kevin Kline in the afternoon and Michael Caine in the bar at night. War movies, horror movies, outer-space musicals for phony French intellectuals and oversexed Brazilians, tortured American teenagers with everything pierced but their eyeballs–every taste was sated. I was starting to like it there.

Then, on that infamous morning of Sept. 11, world tragedy struck, killing thousands and ushering in a chilling new age of sobering reality and terror. When freedom and democracy are threatened, the civilized world is under attack and the homeland that is as vital to you as the sound of your own heartbeat declares an act of war, the place to be is not the movies. Suddenly, what we were seeing on the screen seemed pale and downright stupid in comparison to the actual scenes of horror, devastation and heartbreak we were watching on live television. Shocked critics, producers, actors, directors, publicists and just plain movie fans joined together in unity (safety in numbers, you know) in bars and cafés, staring in ashen-faced disbelief at the TV screens. We were watching the same images you saw at home–the kind of destruction that has become second nature in action movies (Hollywood has been blowing up stuff for years)–but when you’re watching the courage and heroism of real people under fire from another country, the isolation brings both pain and panic.

As New York, normally an hour away by plane, became remote and inaccessible, all hell broke loose in the attempt to get home. Cell phones failed. Limo drivers offered rides for $900. Some people bought used cars, others bribed taxi drivers, despite five-hour delays at the border crossings.

Naturally, the Toronto Film Festival was seriously derailed. The closing of the airports made the arrival and departure of films and their stars impossible. Parties, opening-night galas, red-carpet premieres and press conferences were canceled. Jeanne Moreau and Richard Harris huddled over drinks in the hotel bar. Gene Hackman grabbed the last plane leaving the ground for Destination Anywhere (“I have no idea where I’m going, but I gotta get out of here!” he waved), and Debra Winger headed in the direction of Niagara Falls behind the wheel of a rented car. Festival director Piers Handling closed down the event for one day, then resumed screenings for those of us left behind. The people of Toronto, it must be noted, were friendly, grief-stricken and fiercely united in their support. American flags waved from windows, blood banks filled with unprecedented numbers of donors, schoolchildren began a pennies drive to aid the relief-and-recovery efforts of New York firefighters. The generosity of spirit and pro-American solidarity Toronto is famous for was inescapable, making it even more difficult to summon much interest in depressing films about child abuse, drug addicts, adultery and the dysfunctional American suburbs. By the time I finally landed the last coveted rail ticket home on a filthy train that took 14 hours to reach New York and ran out of everything en route, including drinking water, I never wanted to see another movie again.

This too will pass, and in retrospect my memories of the vast variety of films unveiled at the best film festival in the world will outlive my memory of the loud protests of Italian actress Monica Bellucci, insisting that, terrorists or no terrorists, she had to get to Australia in 24 hours because she was holding up the start of the sequel to The Matrix . Before Armageddon, I was quite taken by two war films with a different twist. Dark Blue World , an epic by Jan Sverák, the celebrated Czech director of the Oscar-winning film Kolya , is about the bravery of two fighter pilots who escape to England when Czechoslovakia is invaded by Nazis, join the R.A.F., fall in love with the same British war widow, and test the boundaries of friendship and patriotism in the sky and on the ground as World War II builds to a sweeping climax. Only one survives, but when he returns after the war to Czech soil under Russian rule, it is not a hero’s welcome. Brilliantly directed and sublimely acted, with a respect for complex characters and a refreshing lack of sentimentality, Dark Blue World blends action, romance and tragedy in a work that has both intensity and entertainment value .

No Man’s Land is, by contrast, a modestly financed, noirish look at the Bosnian conflict with surprisingly comic touches. Two soldiers from opposing sides, a Serb and a Bosnian, both badly wounded, find themselves trapped in the same trench, stranded between front lines in a neutral zone, a no-man’s land over which nobody wants to exercise authority. A third man lands on a land mine that will blow them all to hell if he moves, so despite political differences, these sworn enemies are forced to tolerate and depend on each other to stay alive. When the rescue squad from the U.N. arrives, the French evacuation officer, the German bomb expert and the British television crew can’t communicate. Harrowing and funny, No Man’s Land makes you sweat and think at the same time. This first feature by Yugoslavian-born Danis Tanovic does an extraordinary job of showing the insanity of war in a fresh light.

War as a microcosm of world despair was a popular theme. The Grey Zone dramatizes the powerful story of the Sonderkommando , the special units of Nazi-recruited Jewish prisoners rewarded with food and wine for herding their fellow inmates into the gas chambers at Auschwitz. People staggered out of the screenings, warning ticketholders with empty stomachs to eat in advance. Buffalo Soldiers is a complex story about the criminal activities of bored American G.I.’s on an Army base in West Germany in 1989. Joaquin Phoenix is the paper clerk who steals everything from heroin to Mop and Glo, selling the spoils to the military police, who peddle it to enlisted junkies as well as the German black market. Despite excellent performances by Ed Harris as the idiot base commander, Scott Glenn as the murderous sergeant who begins his cleanup campaign by using Mr. Phoenix’s new Mercedes for target practice and Anna Paquin as his oversexed daughter, the film is a grim indictment of the American military in peacetime. The cynical point: Soldiers are soldiers, and the military does what it is trained to do, war or no war; if there’s nobody to kill, they’ll kill each other.

The Americans were more interested in films about death and its repercussions among the living. The best of the batch was In the Bedroom . Less successful is Irwin Winkler’s Life as a House , a well-intentioned tear-jerker with a sturdy, sympathetic performance by Kevin Kline as a nice guy trying to make amends for a wasted life after he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. Building a new house with a junkie son who hates him, an ex-wife who hates him, her new husband who hates him and a wide variety of neighbors who hate him, his determination to leave one final symbol of unselfish creativity behind in the form of an architectural marvel keeps you going for awhile–but when everyone turns huggy in time for a sappy ending, the film loses its grip and incredulity reigns.

Prozac Nation , an indictment of freaked-out society in the age of pharmaceuticals, is so predictable and self-indulgent that it turns out to be nothing more than this year’s Girl, Interrupted . The feisty Christina Ricci gets a workout as a budding writer rendered helpless by clinical depression, but with Anne Heche miscast as her psychiatrist, one constantly wonders who needs the Prozac more–the patient or the shrink. I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was all about, having just suffered through a depressing mess about suburban neurotics called The Safety of Objects , in which Glenn Close kills her paralyzed and comatose son by stuffing a plastic bag over his head. By the time I wandered into Prozac Nation , I would have happily welcomed a Prozac myself.

If an overstuffed official program wasn’t enough, there were counter-festivals throughout the city featuring Fritz Lang’s German masterpiece Metropolis , a complete, uncut print of Hitler’s 1934 Nuremberg rally (“Warning: Some May Be Offended!”) and the films of Mae West. Then tragedy struck. Screenings were sparsely attended, boycotted by their own stars. “I lived through the war in Europe and survived, and in time the world will survive this insult to human decency, but who has the heart to be frivolous at a time like this?” asked a teary-eyed Jeanne Moreau. Shots of ground zero looked like scenes from bad Hollywood movies, while the movies themselves seemed pallid, irresponsible and inappropriate, even by Hollywood standards. Desperate to take our minds off the devastation unfolding on the TV screens in our hotel rooms, some people even showed up to watch The Fluffer , a sort of trailer-trash version of Boogie Nights , about the adult-video industry. “Where else but Toronto could you see a gay porn flick at 8 o’clock in the morning?” quipped one critic. The titillation was only a temporary salve. Back in the sunlight, on the TV screens, Diane Sawyer was counting body bags.

A civilized world under siege and groping for saner values signals a need for change that doesn’t necessarily guarantee better art, but it might inspire nobler thoughts, loftier dreams and higher standards. Every generation has its defining moment. We have now seen ours. As Lillian Hellman wrote, when German terrorists invaded Washington in Watch on the Rhine , “We have just been shaken from the magnolias.” From this day forward, nothing will be the same–including the movies.

The Last TicketTo Manhattan