Day 1: My Journey to TIFF 2010: Wearing Dior at Taco Bell

En route to the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, I feel compelled to begin this week of film festival coverage by describing just what kind of stamina it takes to actually get to the mythological film world mecca in the first place. Sadly, the journey is not always full of glamor, starlets’ pretty shoes and hot gay parties. In fact, at least for me, this epic trip frequently begins with a bargain-basement Amtrak train ticket, eating at Subway constantly, arduous border-crossings, and more often than not, months of meticulous planning and re-planning being undone at the very last possible second for little or no reason.

For a representative of an independent website like me, traveling to an out-of-the-country festival is fraught with anxiety and scrambling: scrambling to actually fund the trip; scrambling to get my non-movie writer life in order before leaving for more than a week; scrambling around Toronto bug-eyed and crazy to see as many movies as quickly as possible and write something of decent, coherent quality; and finally, scrambling to have one’s voice heard in a sea of indie and corporate-owned sites and blogs who can afford to not bring original, academic analysis to the table because of ridiculously high traffic (this hierarchy of writers is marked by a bold letter “P” for “priority” on the passes of those particular deities, who get first crack at access to a wider variety of film screenings that the lowlies do, much like Cannes’ color-coding system). All I know is by the time I return to Massachusetts, my dogs will hate me, as will a few studio flacks and maybe a couple of filmmakers.

It is hard for the underdog to stay afloat in an industry that claims to financially suffering and cutting back, while still throwing grandiose rooftop parties to celebrate movies that don’t deserve to be celebrated in the first place. Perhaps you’ve heard: internet journalism just about the furthest thing from a cash cow for most of us regular types who must do a very dicey juggling act to make the whole shebang actually gel. More succinctly, in the immortal words of the infinitely quotable film critic Karina Longworth “what [we] do for a living sometimes looks like journalism (in my case specifically, it often looks quite a bit like criticism), but on any given day, I also play the roles of activist, stand-up comic, camp counselor, therapist, and DJ. Above all, I think of myself as a hunter.”

To help out with this year’s big game expedition, the kind folks at the TIFF administration building have generously donated a press badge to my cause to help off-set the rather exorbitant costs of spending an entire week in their (generally) fair city. I’m unsure how people can afford to see all of these movies without one. This year I feel quite fortunate to be given a seat at the table that will allow me to peek into the behind-the-scenes mad science that delivers the year-end movie goods to theaters around the world.

In fact, with such an abundance of films in this year’s program, the emphasis of my coverage this year is going to be on editing what I screen and what I write about. In previous years, I simply went balls-out, trying to see anything and everything suggested, convenient or unknown, to mixed results of exultation, black-eyed insomnia, and general crackheadedness. Since being here is without question a position of privilege (as much as jaded vets might try to convince you otherwise), I think making smarter decisions than previous years (like, why did I bother with The Jane Austen Book Club?!), and not just being a shill for any old film dangled catnip in my face by eager publicists, is essential with so many different themes and filmmakers competing for the attention of writers, critics, bloggers, sales agents, and anyone else who looks tasty that crosses their paths.

Its all about making informed choices here at the new TIFF ground zero, adjacent to the notorious, bustling Queen Street, smack dab in scenic downtown Toronto. Its very lovely indeed, but once you arrive, you better be ready to work as hard as the thousands of other film industry professionals who bust their asses 24/7 to make this all happen, no matter what kind of letter your press pass may or may not have on it.

First, you pick your credentials up from the brave, friendly-despite-fatigue press office and then pretty much immediately head off to a dark theater where you will see one of the newest, hottest titles on beautiful, gigantic, state-of-the-art screens with crisp, booming sound. Then you go see maybe four more before that day is officially done. Going to the local multiplex will be completely unacceptable once TIFF has spoiled you. There is a lot of talking and a lot of schmoozing; be prepared to give your personal elevator pitch for every project you’re working on, to anyone who asks, or to anyone who is nervously trapped in a rush line or a dark, musty corner, along the way. By the end of day two, you will be donning gigantic dark sunglasses that only Mary Kate Olsen could love, and desperately dodging eye contact with everyone in the vain hope of either actually getting some work done or desperately trying to hide the fact that you already have a hang-over after staying out all night at some random, sexy party where some random, sexy film people made an appearance.

Irritating your hangover from hell even further will be the self-importance of a large portion of your fellow attendees, who, as the saintly Sissy Spacek taught me earlier this year, “will remain nameless”. Should some very important internet film person have his/her BlackBerry or iPhone on during a screening, for any reason, just set your phaser to stun and kindly wake up the competition once the credits have rolled (this is actually a good idea for an item to put into the little gift bags the fest gives out to the press, no? At least consider giving one to Roger Ebert for defense against Lou Lumenick).

The last time I came to this celebration, I saw a young woman simultaneously working texts and emails on her phone with the left hand and browsing the web with another device using the right. I didn’t even own a smartphone — can you even imagine something so coarse? I was completely apoplectic with rage over the very thought of someone polluting the cinema with all of that light and garbage. I could not fathom the vile levels of disrespect such a depraved individual must be wallowing in. Now, being a complete hypocrite, I understand that in order to really maximize this experience, the little guy must be in constant communication with sources in order to ensure the best coverage and to ensure their planned coverage will stay on the calendar; whereas before I thought all of these people were simply being assholes. Maybe some of them were. And maybe some still are (French guy at Little White Lies who spit an entire bottle of water at the row in front of him while emailing, I am talking to you!).

The point is, if you don’t have a BlackBerry, a blog, and/or cute shoes, you probably shouldn’t even bother coming to Toronto, home of some of the sexiest, most stylish people in the world (outside of New York, natch). If you decide to come anyways, without those items, and even dare to go to a screening of Rabbit Hole or Black Swan, be prepared for the fearsome, judging wrath of all of the gay men who will be there. I kid, I kid… but it is really tremendous to see that the queer male presence at the fest extends well past the directors and talent but well into the administration, the volunteers, the reporters, the publicists, and I even think I saw one really adorable gay janitor. Toronto is a welcoming space for the international queer film community, which in addition to its own bustling LGBTQI scene and community, feels pretty awesome.

On the last visit back in 2008, I’m sorry to say, I saw some movies that were not-so-great (like The Other Man, one of the most ludicrous movies I have ever seen — No, I’m still not over it). Nothing in that particular year could even come close to 2007’s glorious spate, which included such bonafide modern classics as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Eastern Promises, and No Country for Old Men. 2010 looks like another mixed bag. Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (starring Matt Damon) is garnering a thunderstorm of buzz and enjoying sold-out public screenings yet curiously hit a wall of major snark from critics; Robert Redford’s as-yet-acquired period piece The Conspirator (set during the Lincoln assassination, starring Robin Wright Penn and James McAvoy) will have its world premiere; and the hotly-anticipated remake of the Swedish vampire phenomenon Let the Right One In, titled Let Me In is also here making the rounds and should not be confused with the dreadfully flat Never Let Me Go, which I will look at in-depth later this week.

I Am Slave

Amidst these studio power players and industry legends, spectators will be presented with ample opportunities to expand their cinematic horizons with heady indies that focus the spotlight on women, such as Gabriel Range’s intense drama I Am Slave, a film that finds its 12-year-old Sudanese female protagonist Malia (Wunmi Mosaku) taken against her will to work for a family in London. Sony Pictures Classics has picked up the inspirational Life Above All, another hard-scrabble portrait of contemporary African female experiences, while Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ! Women Art Revolution takes aim at the treatment of women in the world of fine art with an assist from the Guerilla Girls, a group of anonymous, radical feminist performance artists dedicated to balancing the scales of gender representation in high art circles through (often) brazen acts of public activism. Reports from this year’s fest will definitely be looking at the action through an intersectional, feminist lens.

I will attempt to include elements of traditional film criticism (as usual), reportage of the shoes of actresses (again, as usual), the legend Nicole Kidman, and more discussion of Black Swan than you ever thought possible. In between screenings I will be talking with some of the most intriguing film artists and personalities about the work they have brought with them from just about every corner of the globe. Again, I won’t name names because I hate to jinx anything before it actually takes place. You never know what will happen or fall apart. No schedule is set in stone here, no matter who you are, who you know, or who you work for. Look for our generous guests to be mainly European and/or Queer — straight, white American filmmakers and actors from studio movies are beyond reproach for the most part, sadly, despite my many futile requests that fell on deaf ears and cold shoulders (thankfully, the gays and the non-Americans tend to make better films anyways).

There will also be commentary on festival events and happenings — and this year with construction complete on the gorgeous new TIFF headquarters, the TIFF Lightbox there are numerous goings on, including a block party, concerts, public talks (courtesy of the fine folks at Indiewire), screenings of old favorites and much, much more that will no doubt put me, my gay judgment, and my cute shoes through the wringer for eight long days.

As exasperating as it all can be, I would not want it any other way.