September 16, 2008

Toronto Dispatch. 9.

Michael Sicinski on the directions taken in this year's Toronto International Film Festival - and on Bruce McDonald's Pontypool. Notes follow.

Toronto 08 By way of wrapping up TIFF, there are a few housekeeping matters that require some attention. I don't wish to dwell on them. But yes, the first festival since the full assumption of power by the Bailey / Cowan team does send up a few red flags of concern. It's not just that the inclusion and exclusion of certain films based on premiere status clearly reflects a need, beginning to border on mania, to shed the old "Festival of Festivals" mantle in favor of a chimerical quest for world-class status, the anxious hope of finding that next new Thank You For Smoking or, um, Bella. Quality suffers under this scenario, and the just-announced date shift at Venice, which effectively moves that festival head to head with TIFF, will only make matters worse. Nevertheless, I personally found much more to like than to dislike this year, thanks to my editor's generosity in allowing me to avoid most of the high profile premieres. Others weren't so lucky.

Similarly, the scaling back of press screenings, and in the case of the now-infamous Paris, Not France, the cancellation of press screenings altogether, starts to give the impression - unintended, no doubt - that TIFF may see critics in the same way many studios now do, as a regrettable annoyance to be marginalized as much as possible. Now that the Paris debacle has unfolded, with a reportedly substandard, festival-unworthy DVD supplement unspooling as part of a Paris Hilton publicity stunt, one has to question the festival's motives, or its comical lack of guile. Has TIFF been had, or was it part of a mutual back-scratching media-whore arrangement unbecoming to all parties involved? (Given that glitz is a fact of life, and even the Real to Reel section cannot be expected to remain immune, why didn't the festival program James Toback's Tyson, a doc that would have provided a media event and, by all reliable accounts, is also a worthy piece of nonfiction cinema? As it is, this year's TIFF included pretty much every piece of 2008 celluloid with the Sony Classics logo except the Mike Tyson film. Very odd.) In any case, it's a good idea to reserve judgment while the new team finds its feet. But let's just say that 2008 was an off year, and that TIFF put some of its own odd imperatives ahead of providing the best that world cinema had to offer.

Having said all that, may I remind any and all disgruntled readers, who may think I am being unduly harsh or picking at microscopic nits, that criticism is, or should be, an act of love, and that I keep coming back to Toronto because despite its flaws and foibles, it is a festival I love quite dearly. The volunteer staff is second to none, the city is friendly and effortlessly navigable even in the pouring rain, and even its worst screening venues (those would be the Cumberland 4 Cinemas) are still a cut above those of most North American film festivals. Even when this or that individual selection is iffy, the Midnight Madness experience is a blast, and, on the (allegedly) opposite end of the cultural spectrum, Wavelengths is provided with the resources to debut a landmark new work such as Jennifer Reeves's When It Was Blue, which did, in fact, exceed all expectations. (Now, for some real fun, let's see Madness's Colin Geddes and Wavelengths's Andréa Picard attempt a co-presentation!)

Pontypool Although I was (sort of) joking with my hypothetical "Midnight Wavelengths" suggestion, it could be a place for certain films that fall between chairs, engaged in avant-garde ideas and monster-movie attitude in equal measure. After all, experimental cinema and cult films share a rampant devotion to their form that goes beyond entertainment, toward a kind of extra-cinematic identification. It's a kind of passion, for the films themselves, and for the community that develops around them. And so, for my final film under discussion, the future of love itself is on my mind. What kind of emotional investiture are we capable of making, when we feel as though our world and our person may be in jeopardy? No film I saw exemplifies this quite as much as Bruce McDonald's Pontypool. McDonald is one of Canada's leading filmmakers whose international profile hasn't been as high as it probably should be, and he has been enjoying a small renaissance lately, heralded by last year's Ellen Page film The Tracey Fragments. Now, with Pontypool, he solidifies the comeback.

Based on a novel which in turn became a radio play - the film displays this, to no detriment whatsoever - the film takes place during one late winter's morning, Valentine's Day to be exact, at a radio station in the Ontario hinterlands. Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie, a character actor in a commanding star turn) is an AM shock-jock apparently run out of Toronto on a rail. After catching wind of a bizarre riot outside a doctor's office in town, and a very disorienting visit from a local singing troupe, Mazzy and his two-woman crew (Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly) discover that a mysterious virus has overtaken the town, reducing the infected to mindless, chanting zombies.

Pontypool However - and spoilers commence here - this is no ordinary virus, and Pontypool is no ordinary zombie flick. The virus is transmitted in person, and over the phone. A Quebecois health advisory, en français, warns against speaking in English, and in particular the use of terms of endearment such as "honey" or "sweetheart." Once the virus takes over the cortex of the brain, a rhyme-based glossolalia gives way to the endless repetition of one word. In time, Mazzy, his producer, and the besieged doctor (Hrant Alianak) deduce that the virus is transmitted through the English language. Mazzy, given to quoting Roland Barthes in his jock talk anyway ("Trauma is a news photo without a caption"), recognizes that the only cure for the virus is the avoidance of sense, an active deconstruction within English, or what the Russian Formalists called "making [language] strange" through poetic devices. He saves Sydney the producer by recoding the word "kill" as "kiss," saying, "I'm going to kill you," and planting one on her. We all left Pontypool humming the same tunes. Language is a virus. Stop making sense.

Pontypool falls short of absolute genius, mostly because it is so resonant with intellectual ramifications it fails to explore. Instead, it abruptly ends, with no conclusion at all. But this "semiotic zombie film," as its correctly been called, has both a political and a socio-sexual dimension. Or, following the likes of Kristeva and Lacan, it shows the two to be one and the same. The compulsion to use language, or to allow language to use you, is a kind of internal colonization. Pontypool never names this, although it makes an implicit parallel to the colonization of French Canada by the Anglophones. But more than this, the zeroing in on terms like "sweetie" and "darling" on Valentine's Day is particularly suggestive. For Lacan, the most psychologically damaging form of language, that which puts our sense of Being most at risk, is what he called "empty speech." Lacan described empty speech as a series of worn-down tokens passed from person to person, gesturing toward meaning but actually bearing none. In this case, these terms of endearment are the hollow signifiers of "love" that are in fact stand-ins for the much more difficult work of active love, which, in Lacan's and Kristeva's philosophy, must always forge its own unique language. Pontypool calls on these heady ideas, with unrelenting wit and verve, without wearing its book-learning on its sleeve. Although certain aspects of its humo(u)r may be "too Canadian" to translate into a stateside release, I sincerely hope an adventurous distributor like IFC at least gets this wonderful film out on its VOD platform. It was a perfect way to end a less-than-perfect but always provocative TIFF.

- Michael Sicinski

Pontypool "The opening act of Pontypool is, without a doubt, the work of a master at play," writes Todd Brown at Twitch. "McHattie is absolutely brilliant as Mazzy.... Pontypool ends up as a significantly flawed but nevertheless compelling and gripping piece of work built around a fascinating premise. Now if someone would just film an adaptation of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash."

"This is an absurdly delicious plot that shouldn't be spoiled," writes Chris Stults of the Wexner Center. "I'll just tease you by saying that you should imagine Roland Barthes adapting Orson Welles's War of the Worlds radio play."

That Pontypool "wears its brains on its sleeve, in no way makes it less of a thriller, or for that matter, a great actor showcase (McHattie tears up the screen)," writes Kurt Halfyard at Row Three. "Bruce McDonald and screenwriter Tony Burgess surprisingly inject a lot of playfulness along the way. As genre flicks go, Pontypool is the full package deal."

Jason Anderson talks with McHattie, Burgess and McDonald for Eye Weekly.

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Posted by dwhudson at September 16, 2008 1:18 AM


Sorry, but having seen both, I think "Paris, Not France" is a more "worthy piece of nonfiction cinema" than "Tyson." "Paris" fails at most of what it attempts, but so does "Tyson," and attempting to deepen/rehabilitate the marketable image of a celebutante with no talent other than posing for pretty pictures is harmless mass entertainment compared to attempting to deepen/rehabilitate the marketable image of a convicted rapist with no talent other than inflicting physical pain.

Posted by: Karina at September 16, 2008 1:22 PM

Thanks for your comment, Karina.

And although I defer, since you've seen both films (and I've seen only extended clips of both thus far), in a way your response proves my point. Tyson is clearly a provocation, but hardly an empty one, and has been a launching pad for valuable discussions of the fissures in American perceptions of race and gender since it bowed at Cannes. It may well be full of shit, and even repugnant to many, but I suspect few would find it vacant.

Also (full disclosure), I trust Toback to be productively full of shit. Not everyone can provoke with intelligence, but in my opinion he almost always can.

Posted by: msic at September 16, 2008 2:45 PM

You mention "the inclusion and exclusion of certain films based on premiere status". Do you have any concrete examples or are you generalizing? If you're generalizing, I don't see anything new in this regard, the fest has been playing the Canadian/North American premiere game for the better part of the last decade at the very least. And even then, they clearly turn a blind eye year after year to being scooped a weekend ahead by Telluride. I find it odd that you've decided to peg this on Bailey. (And hasn't Cowan moved on from TIFF to Lightbox?) Will you be likewise castigating the New York fest for insisting on a North American premiere for its opening night film, which prompted the removal of the Cantet film from the TIFF lineup?

Or do you just mean that the TIFF's perceived quota of world/north american premieres causes some worthy films to get pushed out? That's probably true, and likely a necessity of trying to balance showcasing that which has debuted elsewhere with the discovery of new voices. I think that if a film truly resonated with TIFF programmers, they'd find room for it in the fest, providing the rights holders are amenable. Which isn't to say that all films in the festival find resonance with programmers, of course. Clearly some programming decisions are made to bring in star power, attract press attention, please distributors and sales agents, etc. It's all a big juggling game, but again, this is business as usual.

The Venice date shift effect is negligible since TIFF also shifts next year (first Thursday after Labour Day is Sept 10), once again overlapping Venice by three days. In any case, wouldn't a complete overlap work to TIFF's advantage, or do you think Venice would have more clout in a head-to-head situation?

Sorry that you think that the inclusion of populist films is so odious, but again, it's nothing new. TIFF has always had a very populist bent.

Posted by: Don Marks at September 19, 2008 11:09 AM

Regardless of what one thinks about TYSON the film (and I personally thought it was one of the best movies to premiere in Cannes this year), I suspect Joyce Carol Oates (who once wrote 10,000 words or so about Tyson's "terrible beauty" in the pages of Life magazine) among many others would disagree with Ms. Longworth's assertion that Tyson the man possesses no talent other than the ability to inflict physical pain.

Posted by: Scott Foundas at September 19, 2008 7:37 PM

Thanks for your insights, Don. As a Torontonian, I know you bring a lot of on-the-ground historical perspective to the issues that I, as a distant observer, cannot. Also, you make your points well and I don't want to belabor things, so I'll try to be as brief as I can.

I did end up generalizing, since I felt I should address what I perceived as a shift (the degree is a matter of some debate) in festival priorities. I'm always more interested in films that institutional politics, but it's not very realistic to ignore them either.

Since it was a piece on TIFF, that's the festival in my crosshairs (so to speak -- I think my criticisms are fairly mild compared to, say, Scott Foundas's, with which I generally agree). But yes, I think overall the obsession over premiere status hurts filmmakers, festival goers, probably gives programmers needless ulcers... I'm sure it must benefit someone, like maybe boards of directors or corporate sponsors, otherwise it wouldn't persist. But it's bad for film culture. And it does get weird. I, too, have never really understood the Telluride thing, whereby their obvious North American premieres become artificially coded as "previews" by a tacit, universal head-turning agreement.

But as for TIFF, Bailey himself has staked a great deal of the festival's credibility on world premieres, particularly the beefed-up Discoveries section (which is premiere-heavy but not totally comprised of world-preems). With the notable exception of Kore-eda's Still Walking, a TIFF world premiere that was inexplicably passed over by Cannes, most of the world premieres were met with a shrug, and the Discoveries section (excepting road-tested items such as Hunger and Tulpan) didn't light the world on fire. We can chalk it up to an off year, but then it becomes harder to justify certain exclusions.

As for the Toronto / Venice issue, I'm glad TIFF will shift as well, but yes, I think the head-to- head benefits Venice in the long run, for a certain type of art cinema, but TIFF will probably come out ahead as the launching pad for Hollywood's fall release slate.

In any case, I think on my brief comments as a sort of nervous red-flag rather than any sort of condemnation, and I hope they didn't sound that way. The jury is certainly still out on the new team, and everyone owes it to them to give them a chance to find their legs.

Finally, I don't find populist films odious in the least. Just smug, poorly written ones, or right-wing trojan-horse cinema. It's not their inclusion, per se, that's the problem, but when their breakout status appears to become the new benchmark of success. "Let's find the next Juno" is a phrase as problematic, on all levels, as "Let's find the next Nirvana" was in the mid-90s. And I kind of like Juno.

Posted by: msic at September 19, 2008 8:59 PM

Please allow me to correct myself above: Kore-eda's film was not a world premiere at TIFF. It was an international festival premiere, since it had already entered general release in Japan. I knew this, but misspoke/mistyped. Apologies.

Posted by: msic at September 20, 2008 3:46 PM