Toronto Ends With a Bang

The Toronto International Film Festival, which just ended, rounded the midway point with a collage of passionate impressions, and climaxed with a happily exhausted sea of critics and journalists heading for the airport with six months of copy in their tote bags. In 10 days, I saw 40 movies and consumed about 10,000 crab cakes. Onscreen, I saw a lot of rape, poverty, suicide, child abuse, drug addiction, terrorism, teenage sex, global violence and working-class desperation, and offscreen, I saw a lot of Hollywood agents who dressed better than their clients. In the same day, I saw Nick Nolte on the street looking like eight miles of bad asphalt, a scruffy Mickey Rourke at a cocktail party pulling his pants down to expose his shortcomings, and the last vestige of old-star glamour, an ageless icon by the name of Miss Sophia Loren, descending a staircase in a floor-length black Armani, her famous cleavage still pulsating on cue for the paparazzi flashbulbs. Bellissima! You get it all in Toronto.

For 10 days and nights, the Avenue bar in the Four Seasons Hotel became the Canadian version of the Polo Lounge. You couldn’t find a place to sit down and sort through the festival’s 424-page program book without bumping into Francis Ford Coppola, Michelle Pfeiffer, Pierce Brosnan, Ralph Fiennes, Lynn Redgrave, Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Denzel Washington, Sissy Spacek, Michael Caine, Matt Dillon and Antonio Banderas. I saw Juliette Binoche and Salma Hayek huddled in a corner, doing their best for the good-neighbor policy. I watched Susan Sarandon run across the lobby in her bare feet to throw her arms around Robert Duvall. I saw Catherine Zeta-Jones throwing lighted cigarettes out of her limousine window. Irish “It Boy” Colin Farrell, who shaved his head but not his face, partied all night with Naomi Campbell, and I wished I had only a small puff of what they were smoking. At the rough-cut screening of Curtis ( L. A. Confidential ) Hanson’s rap movie 8 Mile , starring Eminem in his acting debut, Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas sat 20 rows apart, displaying no basic instinct whatsoever. Dustin Hoffman broke down and cried like a baby during the press conference for Moonlight Mile , while his co-star Susan Sarandon chattered away on a cell phone, ordering baseball cards for her son in New York. “Why is that one so cheap? Because it’s Canadian? It’ll go up in value if they legalize marijuana, so buy them all, but ask if we can get a discount.”

I quickly caught on: Toronto is a festival for listening as well as looking. Greg Kinnear, after an all-day promotion for his shocking, terrific performance as sex addict, murder victim and Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane in Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus : “This is crazy. A few years ago, when I was a member of the press, I would have been one of the people standing in line. I was just interviewed by someone I once interviewed myself!” At Norman Jewison’s barbecue, chic publicists wearing $20,000 TAG Heuer watches dragged around movie stars wearing blue jeans, while the A-list was stalked by Martin Short, fully padded and made up as his bloated, obnoxious TV persona, Jiminy Glick. Whoopi Goldberg gnawed on a spare rib and whispered in my ear: “I’m not plugging anything-I’m just hanging, man. But I love this stuff. You see a piece of pretentious crap, and they say: ‘That’s O.K., it’s a film festival-it’s supposed to show crap’. Then you see a commercial Hollywood movie, and they say ‘That’s O.K.-it’s an eclectic film festival.’ I mean, this is a scene, babe, and if they dropped a bomb, it would be the end of the film industry as we know it for the next 10 years!” She left with a purse full of maple syrup, from Mr. Jewison’s own trees.

You can’t argue with Whoopi: Toronto is more like Cannes every year. But in the long haul, every film festival is only as good as the films it shows. Toronto turned up many surprises, but only one masterpiece: Far From Heaven , the Saturday-night centerpiece, was greeted with lavish praise from almost everybody and a temper tantrum from Roger Ebert, who arrived late and couldn’t get in. The Canadian papers, which had been irritating visiting Yanks all week with thinly veiled anti-American jibes, had a field day crucifying His Lateness. A special screening was arranged in a V.I.P. room later that night. It was worth the wait. Far From Heaven , written and directed by Todd Haynes and produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, is a fond, brilliantly reconceived hommage to those three-strip-Technicolor Universal weepies produced in the 1950′s by Ross Hunter, most specifically the 1955 soaper All That Heaven Allows , which starred Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson as a New England widow and the young gardener she fell in love with, scandalizing all of her snobby friends at the country club. Mr. Haynes-who was obviously weaned on those glossy “women’s pictures,” like so many allegedly hard-core movie buffs-has audaciously recreated the moods, sounds, looks, emotions, even the lighting and camera angles of those dated love stories, while attempting to show what dark forces were really at work behind the perfect organdy curtains of 50′s America. What, he asks, if Jane Wyman wasn’t really a widow at all? What if her husband was really gay and dumped her for the arms of another man, leaving her too traumatized with grief and shame to tell anyone the truth? And instead of Rock Hudson, what if the gardener she turned to for compassion was black? Blurring the parameters of what Hollywood considered acceptable subject matter in the heavy-breathing soapers of the 50′s and substituting taboo issues that would have never passed the censors, he has re-invented the genre and fashioned a movie that is creatively sound, visually imaginative, emotionally involving and endlessly entertaining. Everything in Far From Heaven is filmed in the style of 1955. The lavish cinematography, the autumn leaves of Connecticut, the tracking shots of the white church steeples, the shiny powder-blue station wagons and two-toned Thunderbirds, the lush music by Elmer Bernstein-it’s all been magically reproduced. Julianne Moore is a retro vision in bright lipstick, full skirts, ladylike gloves, a perfectly coiffed Lana Turner wig that never moves (even when it rains), and the costume staple of every upper-class woman’s picture: the obligatory “I earned it, buster” mink coat. Dennis Quaid gives the best performance of his career as the tortured husband who longs for the love that dared not speak its name in the anal-pardon the pun-1950′s. Patricia Clarkson is a fantastic replica of the doting “best friend,” always played in Ross Hunter flicks by either Agnes Moorehead or Virginia Grey. The reasons why this great cinematic achievement left me overflowing with admiration are manifold, and I hope to explore them further when it opens in November.

On the anniversary of 9/11, the film festival closed down until 11 a.m. to give mourners a chance to reflect in their own way, then reopened with a controversy. The feature 11’09″01 -a compilation of 11 films, each running 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame, by 11 directors with 11 separate viewpoints about the tragedy that shook the world-was greeted by flaring tempers and heated debates. Japan’s Shohei Imamura used his screen time to compare the terrorist attacks with America’s bombing of Hiroshima. Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu, best known for the critical hit (and commercial flop) Amores Perros , came up with a black screen, depressingly intercut with flashes of bodies falling from the flaming World Trade Center, a voice on a cell phone saying “I love you,” and the sounds of floors collapsing inside the towers. Ken Loach denounced “American hypocrisy,” recalling another 9/11 (in 1973) when America overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratic government in Chile and replaced it with a murderous military dictatorship backed by the C.I.A., and ending his film with the words “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you.” India’s Mira Nair pleaded for ethnic tolerance by following a Pakistani mother in New York whose missing son was a suspected terrorist -until his body was found in the W.T.C. rubble and he was given a hero’s funeral in a coffin draped with the American flag. Israel’s Amos Gitai contributed a dismal mess about a loopy, self-righteous TV reporter whose live coverage of a suicide bombing gets pre-empted by breaking news from America. The best film was (no surprise) by Sean Penn, featuring Ernest Borgnine as a grief-stricken man who loses his wife in the attacks, then finds a ray of hope when her flowers bloom in the sunlight that is suddenly exposed by the space where the fallen towers once stood. Other pieces suggested that Americans brought the tragedy on themselves and got what they deserved-a heinous attitude that left most Americans justifiably defensive and mad as hell. A good idea gone bad, 11’09″01 has understandably not been bought for U.S. release, and-according to its producers, who cannot sell it-never will be.

In memoriam, I much preferred Jim Simpson’s sensitively directed film adaptation of Anne Nelson’s evocative Off Broadway play The Guys , a beautifully acted two-hander with Sigourney Weaver as a writer from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and Anthony LaPaglia as a shaken fire captain from Brooklyn, who seemingly have nothing in common until they join forces in the daunting task of preparing church eulogies for eight of the 343 missing firefighters in the aftermath of 9/11. As the words come rolling out, they construct memories, and as the stories of the missing heroes come to life, the movie makes you question and re-evaluate your own feelings of grief and despair in a common tragedy shared by perfect strangers. Despite material that is basically uncinematic, the film never seems static, and the two actors are so natural that it never sounds scripted. Mr. LaPaglia’s character grows from a tight-lipped, burly, buzz-cut bear of a man into a gentle soul capable of great sensitivity, occasionally brushing away a tear. Ms. Weaver’s intelligent probing and concerned humanity reach beyond the words she sets on paper. Together they examine the damage to our lives, redefine what getting back to normal is, and ponder the consequences of what might happen next. The Guys is small but powerful in its unifying theme: Grief does not discriminate; we are all in this together. More than anything else I’ve seen to date about the changed and frightening new world we live in, The Guys helps us face the big questions we keep asking ourselves in our sleep: “Why?” “Is anyone really O.K.?” “Where do we go from here?”

From the profound to the profane, I followed City of God , a brutal and shattering Brazilian film about teenage crime in the favelas (the slum neighborhoods on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro), with a nightmare called Bubba Ho-tep , about an Egyptian mummy who rises from the dead to terrorize the kids in Mud Creek, Tex., but is foiled by an elderly Elvis Presley. (You can’t make these things up.) From the French shocker Irréversible , in which luscious Monica Bellucci was sodomized in the most graphic and dehumanizing nine-minute rape scene in cinema history, to The Four Feathers , a boring, pointless, long-winded endurance test and Pepsi Generation remake of the 1939 costume epic full of sand, swords and marauding camel caravans that had no place in any film festival without a drive-in, I stayed in my seat until my eyes gave in and my back gave out.

All that and hiccups, too. This year in Toronto, the official sponsor was Piper-Heidsieck. Champagne as a source of advertising revenue for a serious nonprofit festival of art and culture? How tacky. A lot of high-minded cinéastes protested it-loudly and arrogantly. They also drank it heartily, daily, even with popcorn.

That’s how it went in Toronto 2002. Next year, I take my masseur.