The 25th Toronto International Film Festival
feature by Carrie Gorringe, 15 September 2000

There's an old, well-worn adage about film festivals:  namely, that you never arrange to attend for only a few days at the beginning or at the end, because all of the "hits" are sandwiched into the middle.  Unfortunately, the choice this year was to attend at the beginning, but there were some great opportunities (and one hilarious dud) which compensated for a lack of breadth.  Here they are:

First, the dud.  At one point in his pre-Oscar career, you might recall, Nicolas Cage made an infamous, because genuine, meal from some bugs in the 1989 film, Vampire's Kiss.  Now, as the co-producer of Shadow of the Vampire, he gives Willem Dafoe the privilege of indulging in some outré dining of his own.  Vampire is a fictionalized account of the backstage history surrounding director F.W. Murnau's creation of the classic vampire film Nosferatu:  A Symphony of Horrors (Nosferatu:  eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922, usually referred to as Nosferatu;  the full title simply differentiates it from Werner Herzog's 1979 remake), or, at least, the historical background as the filmmakers would have liked it to have been.  Murnau, perhaps the most famous of the German Expressionist filmmakers, had a unique gift for combining subtle, fluid camera movement and psychologically "expressive" symbolism with images that are, for lack of a better term, "artistically" composed;  there is no indifference present in any shot of a Murnau film (his other works include masterpieces such as  The Last Man (1925) and Sunrise (1927) – the latter being his only American film and the one responsible for garnering the first Best Actress Oscar for Janet Gaynor).  His death in a car crash in 1931 restricted only his output, but not his long-lasting reputation or influence among film scholars and filmmakers.

Shadow wants to persuade its audience that Murnau (John Malkovich), in order to give Nosferatu its unparalleled on-screen atmosphere of terror, created an inadvertently Faustian bargain with his lead actor, Max Schreck (Dafoe).  Murnau forces Schreck to live the part of the undead twenty-four hours a day (to the point of locking him in the castle at night and making him sleep in a dirt-filled coffin!), taking Stanislavskian methodology to its irrational limits.  As the production is delayed due to a lack of funds, and as poor Schreck begins to lose touch with reality, believing that he really is Nosferatu, the balance of power on the set shifts from director to actor, bats lose their heads (see the outré dining experience listed above) and the lives of the crew are as in as much peril as the film's completion date.

Given this synopsis, there might be an expectation that something is really at stake (pun fully intended ) in this film.  This would be a wrong assumption.  Shadow of the Vampire is, instead, a silly, if sanguinary, excuse to waste copious amounts of film footage and talent (both historical and contemporary), one more apt to produce under-the-breath sniggers than gasps of disgust.  Call it camp laminated with a thin veneer of pseudo- historical respectability, deserving only of contempt for its façade of decadence.  Director E. Elias Merhige (who seems to specialize in films overflowing with overwrought imagery (such as 1991's Begotten) really has no fresh or accurate insights to offer, either about Murnau or his craft, and vainly attempts to disguise this lack with over-the-top dialogue and acting, and (presumably) shocking scenes of Weimar Republic depravity (someone should inform Merhige that Weimar nightlife was far more stylishly depraved than he could ever hope to imagine or depict; even Murnau's own death took place under circumstances that might be politely described as scabrous, as per Kenneth Anger's gleeful recounting).  Murnau, who was gay, is depicted – "stereotyped" might be the better verb to use --  here as a Teutonic screaming queen of the worst rank, with no redeeming qualities and dialogue even ranker than the stench of the dead to match ("Thank God for an end to all this artifice," he bellows as the company prepares to go on location, and it's all downhill from there).  Throughout the film, Malkovich and Defoe take turns gleefully tearing huge chunks from the scenery (thereby rendering them both eligible for this year's Klaus Kinski Memorial Award for Thespian Restraint) and each other as everyone else on-screen quivers in disbelief, though that's nothing compared to the disbelief this film engenders in the audience (many in the audience at Toronto began by sniggering and ended by walking long before the end credits).  The unfortunate Udo Kier, whose talents were reduced to little more than a prop in Barb Wire, has seen them reduced even further here.  Shadow of the Vampire may become a cult classic to some, but, after the blood and the hypodermic needles have been washed away and Dafoe's incredible makeup has been given full credit, it becomes a toothless affair at its heart, one which would have benefited from a liberal application of a stake during pre-production.

Documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman pick up where they left off with their last documentary on previously unknown aspects of gay history, Celluoid Closet.  Paragraph 175 depicts the little-known persecution of gay men by the Nazis during the Second World War.   The title refers to a law enacted in the nineteenth century which allowed for the imprisonment of any man caught in the act of sodomy;  interestingly enough, the same law also prohibited bestiality. Regardless of its existence on the books, the law was seldom enforced until the Nazis came to power, allowing for a brief flowering of gay and lesbian night life during the Weimar Republic.  One of the survivors of that period (Epstein and Friedman managed to obtain interviews with five) described it as a "homosexual Eden."

Under the Nazis, however, gay life became a homosexual hell.  Gossip and innuendo became the basis for evidence of gay and lesbian activity.  Over 100,000 gay men were sent to concentration camps, marked with a pink triangle (the now-contemporary symbol of gay and lesbian rights), and subjected to torture and death, a fate that few survived (one survivor describes a quite-literally gut-wrenching punishment in the "singing forest" of Buchenwald in which, if it was ever possible, gays suffered greater pain than Jews).  Lesbians were not subjected to this same persecution;  the Nazis defined lesbianism as a regrettable, but curable, condition (this attitude was no doubt an offshoot of their belief in the inferiority of women).  After the war, West Germany refused to recognize gays as legitimate victims of Nazi brutality, preferring instead that they remain quiet and closeted.  The current German government is of the same opinion;  one of the interviewees had his case for compensation rejected in 1999.

Epstein and Freeman uncover a wealth of revelatory material to demonstrate unequivocally the existence of a gay subculture, as they did to a more general extent in Closet.  However, as with its predecessor, Paragraph 175 has a hurried feel, as if the filmmakers are trying too hard to cover too much information.  Consequently, the documentary sometimes has a shallow feel and leaves its audience wanting more information on particular aspects of gay life, especially the pre-Nazi period.  Even with that particular flaw, Paragraph 175 is an important step in mapping the lives of men whose historical value is in increasingly short supply.  It is an invaluable document in recording another aspect of the Holocaust, and will premier on HBO in January 2000.

In that dreadful, shadowy era falling just after Kristallnacht and just prior to the onset of the Holocaust, Europe's Jews were desperately – and, most often, vainly – attempting to escape from the maw of the ever-advancing Nazis.  Countries such as Canada and the United States were the first to turn them away, because of high-ranking individuals in their immigration departments who were vehement anti-Semites. Mark Jonathan Harris and Debra Oppenheimer's latest documentary,  Into the Arms of Strangers:  The Story of the Kindertransport is a story of one transitory moment of hope for a blessed few. 

Through incessant begging, and by any other legal means possible, British organizations persuaded the British Parliament and the Nazis to allow ten thousand Jewish children  from Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia to be transported though Germany to Holland, and then by ferry to England.  Unfortunately, the parents of these children were not allowed to accompany their children, so the children were "adopted" by British families in what all involved assumed would be a temporary situation.  The usual experiences of emigration – some children are exploited by adoptive parents and some are deeply loved – are made even more painfully poignant when these now-grown children recount the day (and each can remember it exactly) when letters from their parents just mysteriously stopped coming, and the reason why is so horribly clear.  Even more horrible is the tale of a child destined for the Kindertransport whose father could not stand to be parted from her and dragged her off the train at the last minute;  because of that act, her final destination was Auschwitz.  As she recounts the tale, the ambiguities of her feelings for her father are still ever-present, and the audience, rather than leaping to condemn her father, must ask the very uncomfortable question:   how can one relinquish one's own child, perhaps forever, even if one knows that not doing so could result in his/her death?  Some may be able to answer it without hesitation;  most of us, no doubt, wouldn't even want to contemplate.

It's obvious that both director Harris and producer Oppenheimer (he a film professor, she a television producer) bring more than a professional tone to this topic, and this film is a further burnishing of the reputation they earned from their Oscar-winning documentary The Long Way Home in 1997, the topic of which was the plight of post-war concentration camp survivors.  Comprehension of the film's scope becomes more poignant when it is known that Oppenheimer's mother was one of those lucky-but-unlucky Kinder; nevertheless, the first-hand viewpoint on display here is evocative, but never sentimental. It is a clear-eyed document of what it is like to be persecuted by an entire nation, desperate to escape and seeing a lifeline just within reach. 

One of the central themes at this year's festival, whether intentional or otherwise, seemed to be variations on the theme of celebrity.  The most notable of them was Québécois filmmaker Denys Arcand's eponymous Stardom.  Arcand, notable for his erudite and acidulous wit (especially present in Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal), presents a familiar tale of rags to riches to rags, as a young hockey player from Cornwall, Ontario becomes a supermodel, then watches her life become an uncontrollable vortex as she is unable to keep up with the unspoken ground rules of fame, a situation not unlike living like an ant under a magnifying glass in the hot sun.  There are the usual hangers-on, such as parasitic agents (Thomas Gibson, from Will & Grace, is a standout in this capacity), husbands who become embittered when their trophy wives become more famous than themselves (Dan Ackroyd, who gives a compelling, heartbreaking performance as the man who becomes romantic road-kill after a vicious collision with what fellow Canuck Joni Mitchell once referred to as the "star-making machinery") and trophy husbands (Frank Langella, marvelously reptilian as the politically ambitious husband who finds his increasingly unstable supermodel wife to be just a little more than a professional liability). As the woman at the center of it all, Jessica Paré is sensational;  she conceals the requisite maelstrom of emotions under a porcelain-perfect veneer.

 Is this all clichéd and slow-moving at times, as some critics have charged?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, the pace is sometimes glacial, but those who accuse Arcand of resorting to stereotypes need only look at show business as those from the outside see it (and, sad to say, from the inside as well).  Arcand demonstrates with an astringent omniscience  just how the media acts as a self-selecting middleman between producer and consumer, but one should not automatically assume that the film is a critique of the capitalist system in which these three components operate;  the film is more of an assault, however subtle and understood ex post facto, on the moralistic, intellectual and aesthetic pretensions of media representatives (as per the side-splitting scene which skewers the pompousness of French cultural critics) than it is evidence of audience manipulation.   Considered in retrospect to Arcand's entire body of work, Stardom feels less like a feature film and more like one of Arcand's National Film Board of Canada documentaries (such as the banned On est au coton (1971), a vicious pun on the lives of exploited textile workers in Quebec, and the controversial Duplessis is Still Among Us (1972) concerning the ways in which former Premier Maurice Duplessis, in conjunction with the Quebec Catholic Church, suppressed political dissent and standards of living for ordinary Québécoises), with their simultaneous tone of outrage and ironic detachment. 

 In addition, perhaps the semi-drubbing that Arcand has taken in this instance probably has more to do with the earnestness and precision of his attack on yet another cherished – and mostly unacknowledged – clichés in the Biz, one that has been the basis for both legend and bad movies of the week:  movie stars may have a lot of fame, but are besieged by psychological miseries beyond comprehension or help.  During an interview at the Festival, Arcand slyly suggested that the pooh-poohing of fame by the media was an attempt to conceal the obvious: except in a few tragic and notorious cases, misery has very little to do with it. 

Unlike other "exposés" of Hollywood life (any version of A Star is Born comes immediately to mind, as does State and Main, below), whose bites are somewhat blunted by the lack of perspective between filmmaker and subject (not to mention Hollywood's own sensitivity to having its hands bitten by those it's feeding), Arcand's work is at once less approachable and more daring (because more intellectual).  It may not find a large audience, but Stardom succeeds in finding the entertainment world's jugular.

Now, celebrity from the good old-fashioned point of view.  The hot ticket one equally hot day, not surprisingly, was the premiere of Cameron Crowe's latest film, Almost Famous, and yes, for all of its dreamy, fuzzy nostalgia about what it was like to be with the bands of the 1970s, Famous is a solid, exquisite piece of filmmaking, more heartfelt, probably, than anything that will be released or will have been released this year.  Along the same lines is State and Main, the latest film from director/playwright David Mamet, which tells what happens when a film crew desperately short of cash attempts to finish its project in one small town after another before it runs out of money.  Trouble is, the leading man  (Alec Baldwin, who finally reasserts his strong sense of comedic timing after years of allowing it to lie fallow) is fond of seducing teenage girls, a weakness which has pushed the company on the road one too many times for its bank balance's comfort.  The players:  the director (the always flawless Mamet stalwart William C. Macy) and the producer (David Paymer) who are always at each other's throats, the nitwitted leading actress with delusions of thespian grandeur (Sarah Jessica Parker, who sparkles in the role) and the playwright-turned-screenwriter (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who is so disillusioned about the dismembering of his play in the name of Lord-knows-what, that he falls in love with the owner of a local bookstore, played by Rebecca Pidgeon (in fact, both Famous and Main feature Hoffman in key roles, so perhaps one might call this a film-festival subtext).  The wit crackles manically in every scene, but unfortunately the entire enterprise has its bite overly softened by the use of slapstick, giving the whole film a "we're-just-joking-really-we-are" atmosphere.  State and Main is deftly-written satire, but it's satire with a damningly slow leak.

Finally, the confused and waterlogged, if well-acted The Weight of Water, was a bit of a  disappointment, regardless of the best efforts of all involved.  It involves the uneasy combination of a nineteenth-century murder mystery with a "real-life" interpersonal premise plucked straight from Roman Polanski's first feature film, Knife in the Water.  There's sexual tension everywhere, as storms threaten to overwhelm a sailboat carrying two couples, both within and without;  one of the boat's occupants will either get to the bottom of the mystery or to the bottom of the ocean's floor.  Despite the plot's plagiaristic melodrama, the brilliantly brooding presence of Sean Penn, Sarah Polley's empathetic portrait of an immigrant woman who alternates between disappointment and resentment, and Elizabeth Hurley's erotic interactions with ice cubes will quell the queasiness of most.  

Until next year…

Be sure to read our reports from these other film festivals as well:

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