Watts in 'The Impossible'
A perfectly delightful rich full relentless festival day, except when I look back and realize that everything I saw was in English, which I find mildly embarrassing and slightly unadventurous on my part, especially when attending a festival screening over 300 films from 60 countries.
But I saw what I saw: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” at a packed 8:30 a.m. press screening; “The Iceman,” by an Israeli-born director, Ariel Vromen, whose two previous features (“Rx” and “Danika”) I hadn’t heard of, and which played at Telluride and Venice; “The Impossible,” a Spain/US co-production about a family that miraculously survived the Christmas 2004 tsunami in Thailand; and “Shepard & Dark,” an intimate documentary about the nearly-fifty-year friendship between playwright/actor Sam Shepard and his one-time father-in-law Johnny Dark, now a reclusive odd-job-worker.
It would have taken an entirely different cinephilic nature than mine to resist the auteurist pull of “The Master,” one of the big three must-see films in Toronto, along with the Wachowski/Tykwer “Cloud Atlas” and Terence Malick’s “To the Wonder.” Well, two down, one to go: I found “Cloud Atlas” to be a big fizzy uneven mess. And “The Master” is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie: clearly the work of a focused and uncompromising artist, who elicits stunning performances, in a series of increasingly opaque and stylized dramas. I very much like “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights” (which is one of those movies I get stuck on if I happen to stumble across it on TV); find much to like in “Magnolia;” found “Punch-Drunk Love” painful to watch and especially listen to (that insistent score); and don’t entirely understand “There Will Be Blood.”
I’m not quite sure why some people have said that “The Master” isn’t about Scientology; what else is it about? Philip Seymour Hoffman is a writer of genre books, including science fiction titles, who creates a philosophy called The Cause that attempts to help people return their minds to “perfect” through relieving past traumas in question-and-answer sessions: read L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics, auditing. He forms a strange relationship with a twisted, mean-spirited, alcoholic ex-Navy man played by Joaquin Phoenix, in an airless duet that somewhat befuddles me – why does the narcissistic cult leader fixate on this peculiarly nasty, damaged, unself-aware refugee from film noir? Except for “Punch-Drunk Love,” I’ve seen all of Anderson’s movies more than once (and even that one I’d be willing to give another whirl), but I admire his movies more than I love them.
While watching and enjoying “The Iceman,” especially for another of Michael Shannon’s pitch-perfect and solidly physical performances, I question myself: why is this movie, in which people kill each other in unrelenting retribution for reasons big and small, so much better than, say, Kitano’s “Outrage: Beyond,” another roundelay of relentless violence? (As I often say, I like violence in movies – that’s where it belongs.) “The Iceman” has characters, settings, emotion, humor; it’s not up there with “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas,” but it aspires to be.
“The Impossible” also offers violence, this time from nature, and the sentimentality inherent in tearing a family apart, subjecting its members to fear and pain, and then miraculously assembling them again. Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and especially the young Tom Holland and the adorable tykes who play the two younger brothers, perform admirably as a happy family who survive against, well, impossible odds. The tsunami is so skillfully depicted that you’re not surprised when they reprise it. I’m in favor of emotional manipulation when it works. The one moment of cynicism sets in when the real family is pictured in the credits and they’re dark-haired, with Spanish names; “Ah,” you think, “they not only had to make them white, but also blonde.” I’m told exactly that point was made by a Spanish-accented questioner at a Q-and-A at another screening, and director J.A. Bayona made no bones about it: to get the movie made, he needed stars, and Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are stars. (One assumes the parts might even have been first offered to Brad and Angelina.)
Frequently at Toronto I see a movie that causes me to think about the passage of time, and this year I’m plunged into such reflection while watching “Shepard & Dark,” which I go to see because programmer/publicist Sylvia Savadjian mentioned it to me this morning. It’s one of those movies I marked down on my completely irrational, everything-in-the-catalogue-sounds-wonderful-to-me list, which is always more than twice as long than is humanly possible to cram into ten days, and I probably would have forgotten about. It’s kind of an amazing story: Joe Dark met Sam Shepard by accident after seeing one of his earliest plays in 1963, invited him over for spaghetti with the family of an older woman he was seeing, and Joe married the woman, while Sam S. married O’Lan, her daughter. They all lived together for a time, until Shepard left O’Lan for Jessica Lange, but Shepard and Dark kept up a five-decades-long correspondence, also documenting their friendship in photographs and films. In the course of selling the correspondence to a college and attempting to edit a collection of the letters, Shepard and Dark spend some time together that threatens to break up the long friendship. Show on one of the festival’s biggest screens, this small movie will never look better. I found it as moving as “The Impossible,” or “A Few Hours of Spring,” but considerably less manipulative.
When walking back towards the Bell Lightbox from the Scotiabank theaters, I thought back to the reverse dash I’d performed at 11 a.m., when I was hotfooting it to “The Iceman” and saw Jonathan Marlow in the outdoor café. I only had a moment to mime disappointment and confusion (with a bit of “It’s Paul Thomas Anderson, y’know?”) thrown in. I find myself wishing that he was still in the café, and I turn the corner and miraculously he is, talking to the wonderful Nancy Gerstman of Zeitgeist Films. (He assures me he has actually not spent the entire day in the café, it just seems that way.) Nancy promises us that she will come to San Francisco for Noir City, Eddie Muller and Anita Monga’s wonderful film noir festival in January, having missed Anita’s equally wonderful SF Silent Film Festival in July.
I decide to tag along with Jonathan to a cocktail party thrown by the San Francisco Film Society to introduce its new executive director, Ted “Good Machine” Hope. (I actually find an invite in my email when I return home, which I why I know the venue was called Cabin Five, a nice woodsy room tucked away behind a big white restaurant that I remember, vaguely, from other parties, other years.) This is around the time in the festival when I feel guilty for skipping parties and dinners in favor of movies. (See, I can feel guilty about anything.) I am trying to make an effort.
I ask a lady bartender what cocktails are on offer: she says they do classic cocktails. When I ask for an Old-Fashioned, straight up, she looks confused, so I say “Or a Manhattan.” She replies, “We have Blue Hawaiians, and Sex on the Beach…” I quickly settle for a gin & tonic. The three hors d’oeuvres I snag are stellar: excellent mac’n’cheese with fried onions, sweet potato fries with aioli, and little triangular duck confit sandwiches. I bring one of each to SF Film Society programmer Rod Armstrong, who is downstairs manning the door, as I leave to attend Olivier Assayas’ Master Class, an hour-long conversation about his life in film.
I’ve known Olivier for a long time, back when we were both writing for “Cahiers du Cinema,” him frequently for five years, me occasionally for a few. So afterwards we go out for a drink with publicist Susan Norget, Frenchwomen who program at BAMcinemathek and the Three Continents Festival in Nantes, and avid festivalgoer and one of Toronto’s favorite filmmakers Atom Egoyan, who joins us direct from a screening of Laurent Cantet’s “Foxfire.”
And then there’s one of those lavish festival dinners for Olivier, at Le Select, which is almost as Parisian as last night’s Le Paradis, where I ate sweetbreads in solitary splendor. There are a couple of dozen people, or more (I lost count and my head after a few glasses of wine, on top of the SF Film Society’s gin-and-tonic and the Bloody Mary I had on the way here, yippee!), and life stories as well as chat about the festival’s films are exchanged in instant intimacy, or at least politesse. They only do sweetbreads at Le Select on Thursday, so after probably an overlong consultation with our extremely patient and helpful server, I end up with cassoulet. Which is perfectly OK, but I prefer both the shared plates of charcuterie we begin with and the floating island I can’t resist for dessert.
Two real meals in two days! Will wonders never cease? Olivier and I say goodbye around 1 a.m. after an orgy of cinephile chat – Gremillon! “Magic Mike,” which we both liked, “Haywire,” which I liked and he hasn’t seen; Duvivier! “Family Plot,” which he insists I have to see again, and long matching reveries on the divine Sacha Guitry. He flew in for only a day-and-a-half after having to remain in Venice to receive the screenwriting award for his autobiographical, 70s-set “Après Mai,” aka “Something in the Air,” and is en route to additional festivals. “Make a movie, see the world, you told me,” I say, but he is eager to return to work on his next movie, a Ingmar Bergmanesque story about acting, starring Juliet Binoche.
I am eager to go to sleep. Tomorrow I plan to see movies in Italian, Spanish, French (and, OK, a couple in English).