Friday, September 21, 2012

Different modes of watching films at TIFF

I actually found out that I can survive on little sleep, if what I get in return is an early movie screening, the very first morning after the midnight show of Levinson's The Bay, leaving an exhibition on X-Men makeup artist Gordon Smith at the TIFF Bell Lightbox to attend a screening of Hannah Arendt. Since this is nothing that I usually experience, I enjoyed my different engagement with the films that I watched while very tired, the heightened emotionality, the focus on aesthetics and formalist elements, rather than the payoff of a plot that comes together, or the frustration if it does not, and I took it as part of the festival experience. Watching Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux in this state, a film that has been criticized in Cannes for not offering a cohesive story and overburdening the viewer with visual stimuli, turned out to be one of the most rewarding visits to King Street during our entire stay at Toronto. The questions to the present actress at the Q&A betrayed both the frustration of those that were in search of its overall meaning, trying to make sense of the elements of this message ("so what does the rugby sequence contribute to the narrative, if anything?"), as well as the enthrallment of those that were mainly interested in the visuals and the affects with which they responded to them. It makes me wonder whether a lowered state of attention can in fact contribute to the enjoyment of certain films or film genres/styles systematically, and what the political implications of producing such films, or rather encouraging such modes of engagement would be.

The other major way in which my viewing of film was altered as part of the festival experience were the midnight shows that Nathan has already described so vividly in his post. For me personally, it was the last midnight screening at the Ryerson Theatre that most significantly merged the experiences of me as part of a community of festival attendees and of me as a film spectator. The communal rituals that had been part of the "pre-show", which consists of ads of several of the festival's sponsors, stopped being a running commentary to the events on screen and developed an energy and noise unlike that the nights before. The ironic rhythmic clapping to the house beat of the L'OrĂ©al ad ("You're a reel beauty") became so loud that the music was hardly audible any more, and the clapping became faster and faster independent of it- no longer a commentary, but a communal activity celebrating the midnight screening crowd as a community for a last time, almost entirely disconnected from the original subversive act of mocking the high gloss ad campaign. The way we all reacted to the film screened- John Dies at the End, with director Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep) present, was very much influenced by this atmosphere, the construction of a feeling of counter-culture inside of the festival (first by protesting the sponsorship as a communal practice, then by finally turning that protest into a ritual independent from its original purpose) left us feeling in charge of our common viewing experience, and grateful to the people around us that helped us constructing it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Where'd you go?

When we first arrived (already well into the festival), for the first two days all of my screenings had at least the director/s in attendance and sometimes others such as writers, stars, etc. available for Q&As after each screening. For me, this was something I'd heard about in festival screenings, but was unprepared for in its reality. Others have done great posts on this already so I will keep this short, but while I had attended screening Q&As before I'd certainly never had the chance to see so many, for so many disparate kinds of films, in such a short timeframe before and the experience was utterly fascinating. Not only to see what these filmmakers had to say about their films (such as Barry Levinson's intriguing introduction to The Bay where he only told us material in the film was 85% true, and Ben Wheatley's unsettling claim that Sightseers is his 'light and fluffy' film) but also the types of questions people asked--getting an immediate sense of people's impressions.

What I wanted to write about here, though, had to do with the last few days we were there, the last 3 days of the festival, where all of these people had suddenly vanished. It started by programmers stating that so-and-so unfortunately had to leave early and then quickly progressed to it being commonplace for a programmer's assisstant to announce that so-and-so unfortunately had to leave early. As suggested by the last sentence, the filmmakers were not the only ones who began to bow out, but I increasingly saw less of the lead programmers who had until that point very enthusiastically, effortlessly and enjoyably given introductions to both films and filmmakers. As to the programmers, I can hardly fault their dissapearance as at this point they were all probably running on something close to 2 weeks without sleep. In the case of the filmmakers, however, I did begin to question why it was they went away and, perhaps more to the point, what this suggests about why they were here in the first place.

Perhaps I didn't want to be too cynical by assuming that they were all here solely for the purposes of promotion, but even so why does the importance of this promotion end before the end of the festival? It would be interesting to see the attendance numbers and how much they drop after the first week, though once we got to that last Sat I can say that all the screenings I went to were sold out and filled with large rush lines waiting. Obviously it becomes widely felt that some job or opportunity has been completed, though I'm not sure I'm ready to wiegh in on what that is. Just to say one was at the festival? To stick around long enough for the industry/critic screenings? All of these are distinct possibilites, but I suppose this post is primarily about my own experience and how I felt like what had quickly become an integral part of the festival experience for me had just as quickly died. I began wondering, as a festival-goer, how much of this Q&A experience did I feel I was owed? How integral is it now that it's been so quickly taken away?  

Mid-Night vs Mid-Day Festival Madness

It would seem that the hour of midnight continues to hold special significance to patrons of TIFF. Their Midnight Madness screenings offer a distinctly different experience from the more 'reasonable' festival hours. The phrase 'midnight movies' often immediately brings to mind the films of the 1970s such as Pink Flamingos, El Topo, The Harder They Come, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, though I think it's important to understand midnight movies more as a set of exhibition practices than as an automatic attribute of films or audiences at the hour of midnight. Certainly midnight becomes used as a screening time frequently not in conjunction with fringe content or boisterous audiences, but instead as a way to grant another air of exclusivity to a screening. Today the practice of opening films at the multiplex on Thursday at midnight has become increasingly prevalent (to the extent that on any given week there are usually multiple films enjoying such privilige). In my research I have seen local newspapers advertising exclusive midnight screenings for clubs and churches as early as 1910. I would also have to argue that no midnight screening today captures the essence and culture of the 70s which made midnight movies such a noteable practice-- the rise of home video, and now online streaming and databases, has made the classic 'midnight movie' experience of the 70's fairly null and void in any holistic sense. However, that history certainly influences the way some programming choices are engaged with and nostalgia for the group interaction of 'fringe' texts does survive and can be seen in spades at the TIFF Midnight Madness screenings.

Since TIFF is a festival where virtually every screening contains an air of exclusivity, their choices for Midnight Madness screenings promote not only the exclusivity of the films, but in the festival experience of watching as well. In his introductions, Colin Geddes promotes the films not based primarily on their form, nations or directors, but instead by promoting the amount of blood, death, drug use and base content to be found in them--feeding the desires of the audience to see something not only historically 'midnight-oriented', but also as different from the more highly-regarded festival films which many have been viewing throughout the rest of the day. Before the films even begin, we all observed, the midnight audience has developed a number of group responses to the typical line of promotions that all of us had been seeing all day. Most notoriously, a L'oreal commercial with strong bass-line music that tips back and forth over that subtle line of club and strip club music. As one of the main TIFF sponsors, this promo played before every screening I saw, typically to be ignored by most audiences. At the midnight  screenings, however, at least 80% of the audience began a rhythmic clapping and jeering at the ad which, I have to say, did result in the ad being much more fun and had the experiential effect of making it pass by much more quickly--in other words the clapping almost completely obscured and changed the usual tone of the ad. In the few daytime screenings I attended where an extreme few would attempt to repeat the clapping exercise they were greeted with very minimal support (at most 5% of the audience) and often annoyed glares from other festival-goers. This practice amongst the midnight audience showed a sense of camraderie in the shared annoyance with the ad and desires to 'alter' it as well as a shared agreement upon the different social rules present during the midnight screening. The film also involved a much higher rate of response, laughter which would probably be deemed inappropriate elsewhere, as well as an encouraging sense of relaying felt reactions to the narrative, such as 'booing' hated characters when they appear. At the Q&A for the midnight screening of The Bay, director Barry Levinson mentioned that this was the first film of his that he'd sat through and watched with an audience for at least the past 10 years because he became so enamored by the audience participation.

I was probably most surprised that these practices were not continued when a Midnight Madness screening played during the day (in what would be its 2nd or 3rd screening at the festival). During the day these same screenings enjoyed a level of engagement mirroring that of any other film at the festival--respectful and quiet engagement. Perhaps this is due to a collective understanding that only the truly devoted stay up for the midnight screenings, or maybe it's just plain more fun to be wild and crazy at midnight. I like to think that the separation between night and day here has more to do with a need for the festival and some of its patrons to stretch out and stop taking things so seriously for a little while. In the end, it's probably just more fun at midnight.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The "Friendly Festival" and the Illusion of Populism

As the "world's largest public film festival," TIFF takes pride in calling itself "the friendly festival." While this might seem at first as little more than an awkward attempt at Canadian humo(u)r, the emphasis TIFF puts on its major award —the Blackberry® People's Choice award— suggests that TIFF takes this claim quite seriously.

Prior to every screening, we must suffer through one of three trailers detailing how a film that won the People's Choice award (such as American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, or The King's Speech) went on to achieve financial and critical success (quantified in terms of Academy Awards). The trailer then urges us to vote because, together, we can "Make the Next Big Film."It's still unclear to me whether the trailer is suggesting that critical taste legitimizes popular taste or the other way around. Either way, I find it telling that an attempt at some kind of symbiosis between tastes is even made (and a whole other post could be written about how this favors films with feel-good endings that encourage impulse voting).

Even more interesting still, though, is how the entire voting process is a sham — a not-so-subtle attempt to get large, heavily promoted releases by major directors some street cred heading into awards season.* The winner is determined by a simple one-ticket-one-vote system. After a screening, you simply deposit your ticket stub in a box (or enter the bar code number online) to cast your vote. The problem here is that some films are screened numerous times in 1000+ seat theaters while others are screened only once for a few hundred people. Based on the possible number of votes alone, larger releases with pre-festival buzz will fare much better than an unknown film that generates excitement at the festival itself (sorry, Leviathan, but you're going to have a tough time taking on Argo).

Furthermore, TIFF's promotion of the voting system seems completely arbitrary. Some theaters are full of voting kiosks, others have only one. TIFF personnel are sometimes present after the film reminding people to vote, but sometimes they aren't. Some screenings are preceded by a long explanation of the voting process, and others simply mention that a film is eligible. Indeed, I had no idea that an online system was even in place until one of my final screenings. And this is purely based on anecdotal evidence, but in my experience, many of the smaller films (Motorway, Shepard and Dark) were pushed much less heavily than some of the larger releases.

The problem is, I'm not sure how to fix this system (nor am I suggesting that this system is broken where other methods of choosing the 'best' film are not). A system that factors in the number of potential votes might help, but even then there would be other issues to contend with. The point, though, is that all awards are structured by logistical, industrial, political and economic decisions outside of voters' control, and the manufactured correlation between 'popular' tastes and larger-scale films serves only to naturalize a discourse that equates major releases with the desires of "the people." If TIFF really wants to live up to its mandate of "changing the way people see the world through film," it needs to rethink and re-envision (or, at the very least make transparent) the concept of People's Choice.

*This doesn't always work, but a look back at recent winners speaks for itself.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Evaluation Calibration

I’m always interested to observe how watching so many films in a row affects my judgment. The first films I get to see have an automatic start-up bonus: I’m eager, excited, willing to take in everything with open eyes and lots of faith in the festival’s programming decisions. But soon, distinctions crop up, what looked like good films become relativized by better films, or films that didn’t work so well for me during the screening begin to grow on me as I compare them to later fare. It’s like a crash course in aesthetic judgment, a training school for evaluating films quickly, decisively (and then revising those evaluations again). For example, I watched a stretch of several films in a row that I considered middling or fair for no particular reason until the encounter with Noah Baumbach’s lovely Frances Ha  made me look back and ask: why hasn’t anyone else had the impulse to shoot in black and white? Why weren’t the editors of any of those other films as awake in the cutting room as Jennifer Lame, Baumbach’s not-at-all lame editor? Why can’t more films take chances on narration in similar ways, speeding things up to condense a whole family-Christmas-visit into 3 minutes but then slowing them down to draw out a dinner party until the protagonist’s self-absorbed ramblings grate as much on the audience as on the other characters (an effect that is fully intentional and put to fantastic use in the film’s overall approach to tone and character)? So after Baumbach’s film, I’m suddenly re-thinking all the other films I’ve seen in terms of cinematography, editing, pacing, and narrative. But then I ask myself: are these really my criteria, can any one film provide a yardstick for measuring all others? Yesterday’s encounter with the aftermath of revolution in Egypt in After the Battle wouldn’t have held up terribly well under this lens (the female lead is almost too likeable for the film’s own good, the editing is fairly conventional, though there are some effective cinematographic flourishes…); and yet I found it a very powerful film for its differentiated, nuanced, and presumably only lightly fictionalized look at the epicenter of the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square through the lens of class and gender. In other words, I notice shifting not only my judgment of particular films around until they form certain patterns of value in my mind; rather, I also constantly recalibrate the very criteria by which I evaluate individual films as opposed to others: am I judging a film by how it looks and feels? By its theme or content? On formal, aesthetic grounds? Of course, it’s never just one thing, but watching such widely different offerings as After the Battle and Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, an American-Japanese historical epic (Emperor) and the ruckus of a multi-hour bus ride through the Bronx (Michel Gondry’s impressive The We and the I), a German biopic (Hannah Arendt) and Baumbach’s character portrait of Frances Ha in the space of a couple of days is an excellent lesson in reflecting on and trying to articulate (at least for myself) what makes a good film.

Embracing the Awkward

One of the unique pleasures of coming to a film festival like this is getting to experience the Q&As that follow almost every public screening here. Johannes gave a peek into this in his earlier blog post about Hannah Arendt in his mention of the wonderfully phrased question posed during that film’s Q&A, “Why so many cigarettes and so little Heidegger?” Perhaps the more interesting moment for me though came earlier in that Q&A when a woman gave a strange and rambling response to the film which seemingly did not contain a question at all. From our seats near the back of the beautiful Elgin Theater (side note: what a gorgeous venue! And what a tragedy that TIFF labels it the “Visa Screening Room”), I was unable to hear what the woman was actually saying, though Johannes thought she was restating and elaborating on the “Hannah Arendt betrayed the Jews” idea that is elaborated in the film. The mood in the auditorium was quite uncomfortable as the woman droned on, with the moderator of the Q&A repeatedly trying to get back control of the whole affair by stating, “I’m sorry, but if you don’t have a question we’ll need to move on…” Finally the moderator just called on someone else even as the woman continued to talk.

It might seem an odd moment to highlight, but for me it is a perfect encapsulation of the odd and uncomfortable pleasures the Q&A can provide. Call it perversity, but for me there is something utterly delightful in seeing the air of sanctimony that permeates most screenings here pierced by these moments of awkward spontaneity. In that sense, at least for me, Q&As tend to be more interesting for the bad questions than the good ones. Occasionally a filmmaker says something illuminating about their own film (see Johannes’ post for an example), but more often than not I find I would rather think about a film on my own immediately after seeing it rather than hear a filmmaker talk about what they think their film was about. Instead, give me the awkward moments that result when just any person is given a chance to talk. After the first screening I attended hereBarry Levinson’s delightfully exploitative found-footage horror film The Baythe questions ran the gamut from decent to outright terrible. Perhaps my favorite question came from one audience member who wanted to hear about what happens after the film concludes. It would be hard to explain exactly why this question was so silly without describing the entire plot of the film, but needless to say this question is particularly ridiculous for this film given its structure and ending, and even more so given that Barry Levinson did not even write the film, meaning that asking him that question is like asking Martin Scorsese to explain what happens after the credits roll in The Departed. To his credit, Levinson deflected the question with aplomb, as he also did when another audience member asked him, “Most found footage horror movies suck, but yours doesn’t. Why is that?” Meanwhile, during the Q&A after the film Leviathan (which, to repeat Katy's remark, was amazing, though I'm unable to really discuss it yet), one audience member asked about the filmmakers' response to the vitriol expressed in one blogger's criticism of the film. Luckily, the filmmakers responded with a nice mix of bemusement and sarcasm, saying they wished to put a particularly critical quote from the blog on the poster for the film. Still, the unscripted nature of the moment meant there was an excitement in the room, a feeling that if the same question had been asked to a different filmmaker, fireworks might have ensued. For me then, in a place where cinema is taken quite seriously as art, where thousands of festivals employees and volunteers are constantly making sure that everything is going smoothly, and where a “master control room” watches all (see my last post), there is a pure beauty in the uncomfortable spontaneity of the Q&A.

Giving in to the Pleasure of Cinema

I often worry that studying film can be a danger to loving film. It is hard not to critique a plot hole, or imagine a new, more effective ending, or be disappointed when a shot is unclear or lingers too long for our tastes. Even harder yet is avoiding analysis of the film on political, social, historical or ethical terms - even commercials and trailers are subject to my academic eye.

Something about watching film, in wonderful theaters, with other people who love film makes it easier to remember that I love watching movies. I love the thrill I feel when the house lights go down. LINES OF WELLINGTON was nearly three hours long, but only when the lights came up did I realize so much time had passed. I was utterly transported to the film's time and space, and my own broken leg reality fell away in the face of 1810 Portugal.

I am not quite ready to write about LEVIATHAN yet, I feel as if it is making its way into my bones. I am looking forward to more films experienced purely for the love of sitting in a seat, watching a screen and giving in to the power, and pleasure, of the moving image.