The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Looking Back at Toronto 2008

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35 Rhums

One of the biggest regrets I have coming back from the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival is that I didn’t have a chance to write more on-the-ground dispatches, especially since each day brought new encounters, exciting experiences, and often tragicomic turns of events. But our schedule was jam-packed this year, and running from place to place to catch a press screening or do an interview, often with five or ten minutes to spare, eventually took its toll. (Not having free Internet access in the two major hotels where the festival sets up shop was also a huge drag.) Nevertheless, we had some heavy-hitting cross-posters, namely Filmmaker magazine’s Scott Macaulay and Esquire’s Mike D’Angelo, helping us out with coverage. To them I extend our heartfelt thanks.

In hindsight, despite some restrictions on what I could see, I was lucky enough to have caught some good films at TIFF, including Ari Folman’s recovered-memory fantasia Waltz with Bashir and Matteo Garrone’s gritty Neapolitan gangland epic Gomorrah. Of the rest, only two have really left a long, lasting impression. The first, surprisingly enough, is Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which I saw at a “sold out” press screening with hundreds of my colleagues at one of the biggest of the Varsity multiplex theaters, the day after the film swept the top prize at Venice. For once, a festival film lived up to its hype: Mickey Rourke’s soulful, heartfelt portrayal of a washed-up professional grappler trying to make ends meet and reconnect with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) after a near-fatal heart attack was a poignant, beautifully acted character study that brought honest-to-god tears to my eyes. The film reminded me a great deal of the Rod Serling–penned 1962 drama Requiem for a Heavyweight, in which Anthony Quinn, as the title character, retires from the ring after a dangerous head injury and attempts to find work and a new sense of purpose, only to return to the fight world as a wrestling clown. Rourke’s character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, is in a similar position, both physically and emotionally, though Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay gives his story a different arc. Once a star on the WWF circuit in the ’80s (a circumstance alluded to in the film’s brilliant title sequence, a nostalgic montage set to Quiet Riot’s adolescent teen anthem “Metal Health”), Randy is now relegated to vanquishing opponents in high-school auditoriums and community centers on a traveling circuit with mostly younger competitors. Randy’s a likable, lifelong fuckup who, like Quinn’s Louis “Mountain” Rivera, is broken and battered from years of punishing tournaments. His closest friends are a preteen neighbor boy he plays video games with in his trailer and Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper. It’s no surprise that, following his hospitalization, he eventually finds work pulverizing meat at a deli counter. But Rourke breathes new life into such sports-film clichés, with a self-reflexive candor and empathy that I never dreamed was possible from the actor at this stage in his career, despite solid turns playing brooding, uber-masculine types in turmoil. The Wrestler is playing in late September during the 2008 New York Film Festival, so if you’re in the area, don’t miss it.

At the end of a long, loony, and sometimes trying week of screenings and back-to-back interviews, my last day in Toronto was really my favorite. For one thing, I was determined to enjoy every minute of my remaining time, knowing it would be a bit of a bummer to pack up, pile in the car, and return to the concerns and responsibilities of everyday life I’d left behind in New York a week earlier. I nearly lost my optimism early in the morning when, after a furious caffeine-fueled attempt to line up intelligent questions for the day’s interviewees, I met Barbet Schroeder’s publicist in the lobby of the Sutton Place Hotel (central hub of the sales and industry offices) and remembered that we were supposed to have found a location for the shoot. Uh … whoops. My bad. I tried to play it cool and asked her to bring Schroeder, director of a new erotic thriller set in Japan called Inju: The Beast in the Shadow, down in five minutes. Meanwhile, Ana Maria and I headed outside and tried to find an embankment or bench nearby where we could do the interview without too much ambient noise. (It was morning rush hour.) As if on cue, a security guard hustled us away from a spot where we’d chatted up Il Divo director Paolo Sorrentino the day before. Then, Ana Maria suggested asking Barbet to do a “stander” inside a Plexiglas bus stop on the corner. I was skeptical, but to my delight, he not only agreed when I returned to fetch him in the lobby, but seemed to enjoy talking to us inside this makeshift street-level studio.

Jeff Goldblum, Adam Resurrected

When we wrapped that conversation, I shook hands with Schroeder, thanked Ana Maria for her cool-headed problem-solving and guerrilla intuition, and sprinted north several blocks to the Intercontinental Hotel for another series of interviews. Anxious, pasty-faced paparazzi flocked outside the revolving door of the entrance, as they did most mornings, like an undulant tumor on the edifice of the building. I headed inside and looked for our cameraman Fernando before meeting reps for Rory and Kieran Culkin, who I was scheduled to speak with in the Proof Lounge patio. Celebs milled everywhere, yakking on cell phones or waiting for interviews to begin or noshing on croissants. Lucky for us, the Culkins were funny and easy to chat with and the rest of the morning went pretty smoothly. Finally, my last interview took me to the third floor, where, after some confusion about time slots and exact suite locations, I was eventually introduced to Jeff Goldblum, star of Paul Schrader’s new film Adam Resurrected. Goldblum, who for some reason doesn’t merit an entry in David Thomson’s highly idiosyncratic “Biographical Dictionary of Film,” is as odd and offbeat in person as he is onscreen. I don’t know how tall he is—my guess is 6’5”—but he’s also dapper, strikingly handsome, and almost extraterrestrially charismatic. We had a brief chat about Adam Stein, the former circus entertainer and Holocaust survivor he plays in the film, which is adapted from Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk’s cherished novel, but it was his mannerisms and speech habits that fascinated me. Goldblum is a charmer, as many career actors learn to be when dealing with press, but somehow, the way he made continual eye contact and repeated my name every time he spoke made our conversation seem ingenuous. On his way out, off camera, we talked about how Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin had both expressed an interest in playing the role of Stein after Kaniuk’s book was published, and Goldblum mentioned how he hoped a bit of Chaplin’s madcap energy, at least, came across in his performance. No worries, Jeff: there’s more than a little Chaplin in your whole way of being.

Seconds after this memorable (and for me, festival-closing) encounter, I was once again racing down the street—sprinting, actually, with my computer bag as baton—to the Cumberland Theaters, where Claire Denis’s new film, 35 Rhums/35 Shots of Rum, was scheduled to begin. I had been anticipating every new work from Denis since 2004, when I had the pleasure of speaking with her for a couple of hours about her oeuvre, first in New York and then by phone at her home in Paris. I love Denis like no other living filmmaker, so each time one of her characteristically earthy, elliptical features unveils before my eyes, it is more than a happening—it’s an Event. To my great relief, I made it to the theater just as the house lights went down, and the film’s first images—shots of a drab rail yard, random passengers on a commuter train, a middle-aged black man quietly observing the tracks while drawing heavily on a cigarette, waiting, waiting—I relished with a mindset of complete gratitude. Gone were the worries of the past week, all that came before and all I’d soon deal with upon returning home. There was a purity to my experience of cinema that afternoon I’d not felt in a long while. And I was rewarded, about halfway through 35 Rhums (a lyrical story about the relationships between a multiethnic group of working-class Parisians) with a quintessentially Denisian sequence I’m dying to see again: Several characters, stranded at a restaurant after hours when their car breaks down, hesitantly gravitate to the dance floor, while the Commodores’ “Night Shift” gently nudges them—and us—into an achingly cool, almost ethereal intimacy. It was the sexiest scene I’ve seen at the movies all year, maybe in two years, and the perfect way to cap my Toronto experience.

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Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 4:26 pm

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