Thursday, September 20, 2012

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.

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