Tag: The Flying Dutchman

Head & Heart & Movies & Me

(photo via)
Movies were one of my first great loves. I would sit in the grand silence of many an old cinema, with scratchy red seats, the velvet sheen long since worn off, and spider webs wrapped like lace around the dusty, grey crystals of faded, wheezing-gold wall sconces, floors sticky with a thousand screaming-kiddie afternoons and breathless teenaged nights. It was magic. Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocky, Jaws, Clash of the Titans and Flash Gordon, and later, Thelma and Louise, Aliens, JFK, and Tim Burton’s Batman were a part of my culture diet, alongside nights at the opera and afternoons at the museum. Along the way, I developed a desire to direct movies, write movies, produce movies, be in movies. 

When I was old enough to attend the then-named Festival of Festivals (which later grew into the behemoth that is the Toronto International Film Festival), I purposely sought out the strange, the unusual, the odd — stuff that I might never see again. That’s what a film festival’s really for, isn’t it? The blockbusters could wait. Along with the big, ballsy blockbuster stuff, I had developed a love of smaller fare: the intimate wordplay of Woody Allen’s work, the poetry of Federico Fellini, the deliberate thoughtfulness of Ingmar Bergman. The work of Wim Wenders, whose visual poetry and keen integration of timing, color, sound, and performance feel quietly operatic, yet grandly passionate, fired my imagination with tales that deviated from the orderly narratives I’d seen in so many Hollywood movies. The smaller works introduced me to new ways of looking at old myths, and the courage to dream up new ones. 

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Even as I wrote, I continued to watch, waiting in interminable lines (and frequently terrible weather) to be let in to the dusty, dark palace of my dreams. I clearly remember the many magical elements of De vliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman, seen at the film festival): long silences punctuated only by breath and wind, brown-and-gold tinged cinematography, the mud around an actor’s face. Terence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line utterly awed, silenced, stunned, into a very intense head and heart-space. Walking home later, the rain drops that sat, jewel-like, on the grey, lined cobblestone streets of Dublin looked different, filled with a magic I knew nothing of, but could only marvel at.
This wonder extended itself to all types of movies, provoking equally powerful reactions and throwing open doors of creativity and dreaming, inspiring stories and screenplays that meshed the human, the historic, the fantastical, and the frightening. Going to the movie was a ritual, usually exercised opening night; there was something about the occasion that seemed exciting, and important to be a part of culturally. Sure, the actors were hot/interesting/cool, but what friends and I really wound up talking about over drinks in a smoky bar later was the way things were filmed, the way they sounded, the shadows, the light, the performances – the way everything came together and made us feel. And that’s ultimately what it was about: feeling. Big or small, indie or studio, if we felt something, if we were moved, if we came out of there and found everything looked different, the source hardly mattered. Being moved and being entertained were not mutually exclusive experiences. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I happily hopped between the small, medium, large, and super-gulp worlds of movies with ease, untroubled by questions around budgets, marketing, demographics, brand, or even hype. I simply went because I loved movies, and I loved the experience of going to see them.

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I don’t know when the divide came, or how. It’s strange that so many of the filmmakers I admire aren’t around anymore (“dead” doesn’t necessarily translate literally in Hollywood), that so many of the actors whose worked I followed are either now a part of blockbuster franchises or relegated into old fart-style roles, that films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Only Lovers Left Alive should be anomalies. And yet, in the landscape of contemporary movies, they are, and they’re treated more as lovable/weirdo/cool/hipster-y outsiders than full, firm, equal – and necessary – parts of the film industry. The sharp rise of delineations between blockbuster and indie rile, depress, infuriate, but hardly surprise; it feels as if hype is somehow more important than heart – real heart, not the cliched, easily-digestible kind manufactured by the bucketful and ladled out by studios keen on a quick ROI. Why should head and heart be so separate? Small sparks might provide temporary heat and light in the film world now, but nothing like the roaring fire I once felt. 

Style plays as much of a role as content here. I greatly miss the grand experience of movie-going in an old cinema. The contemporary glass-and-metal popcorn palaces just don’t cut it; movie-going is a seduction, what with the raising of a curtain, the teasing of trailers, the shared silence, the delicious anticipation, the film itself a penetrating, all-encompassing, extended main course, with little side plates of things to dip in and out of for fun or rumination (or both). Multiplexes are, to my mind, the opposite of sexy; attending one is akin to going to a peep show featuring a plastic performer. I don’t feel seduced, I don’t feel beguiled, I don’t want more. Everything’s too loud and everything’s very ugly. Watching movies on a laptop is strange and uncomfortable, ease and convenience replacing the slow brew and simmer of a movie-going experience that feels long ago and far away. 
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Getting the movies out of one’s blood completely is, however, an impossible task. Very often find myself thinking in cinematic terms, directing scenes in my head, framing visuals I see or imagine, coming across various faces and casting them in the many unpublished narratives that sit, Leviathan-like, on my hard drive. My faith is partially restored by digital culture too, and by my work as an arts journalist; interviewing various filmmakers whose work I admire, connecting with other film lovers on social media, and the ease with which digital culture now allows one to access movies new and old, has lead to a kind of cinematic renaissance of sorts. I’m looking at old works with new eyes, and new works with far more critical readings and realizations, armed as I am with a knowledge of an industry in flux and the tyranny of what is perhaps best termed “kinder-mind.” 
When I like something, it’s good to be able to proclaim that love loudly, with a modicum of possible influence (maybe?) and to find a community with which to share that love; expressing dislike (and cynicism) is a much harder task, especially when something (or someone) is extremely popular, and it’s something I grapple with. I hope I’m getting better, and I hope there are more movies on the horizon to inspire, entertain, move, and beguile – and more places to be seduced in. There’s still few things better than having your breath taken away in the darkness.

Action

I always feel like the calamitous meets the surreal this time of year. Maybe it’s seasonal, what with the changing over from summer to autumn. Transformation and transfiguration are afoot. There’s a strange energy of walking through the threshold of something vaguely important, especially for me this time of year. Early September comes and goes and I always feel like something has totally shifted.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 irrevocably underlined, on a personal level, this profound sense of shifting from one mode into another. And yet, along with sadness and fear, there’s also a mountain of excitement that comes with this change. The annual Toronto International Film Festival is on and the city goes mad for movies. Sure there are the “stars” but people are also interested, I believe, in seeing something new, unique, and unusual. It was this promise -this encapsulation of strange, surreal, and transformative -that propelled me to start attending the film festival so many moons ago. Now, as a journalist covering the fest (my second year), I’m finding myself wistful for the old days, if also equally inspired by the way the event brings the city together and makes people excited about Toronto. Sure, there are foreigners everywhere, and it’s usually the celebs getting the flashbulbs, but people are still out and about, curious to be a part of a larger event, and taking a chance they might see something special at the multiplex.

I’m only covering a handful of things, but they’re goodies. I’ve already done a story on two of the Bravo!FACT shorts, a piece on the National Film Board of Canada’s animated works, and a feature interview with director Guy Maddin. While they’re smaller works, I kind of feel it’s the spirit of these quiet, poetic works that still nicely encapsulates the original feeling of the TIFF -back when it was called the Festival of Festivals. I still have programs from that time on bookshelves in my basement, and every time I see their aging spines, flecked with creases and scratches, I harken back to all those times I lined up in the rain, or the wind, or the heat, just to catch that exact “something special.” The Toronto International Film Festival was a big reason why I went on to film school long ago. I loved the movies. Lately I’ve been re-examining that time in detail, examining my motivations, my choices, and the eventual outcomes that lead me here, now. It makes for heavy thought (if equally boring reading, ha) but it also gives me a unique perspective on the fest, and my own personal memories.

Without going into a laundry-list of moments and meetings, I’ll just share a few special TIFF-going experiences. The first was meeting Nigel Hawthorne, who is perhaps best-known to North American audiences as poor mad King George in The Madness of King George. (He was here at the time for Twelfth Night.) He was warm, funny, and very sincere. Once he gleaned that he had a true theatre afficionado stood before him, he really opened up, whence a stream of lovely conversation between us poured forth. In a similar vein, I remember seeing the premiere screening of Al Pacino‘s Looking For Richard. I know a lot of critics -theatre and film -balked, but I loved the energy of his work, and I still really adore his huge, vocal passion for Shakespeare and theatre in general. During the screening, Pacino was seated a mere two rows behind me and I recall turning around to observe him watching, to see if there was any kind of rise -or if he was even still sitting there. Indeed he was, furiously gnawing on his nails, eyes like saucers, a knee against his chest. I’ve never seen anyone look so nervous. I actually felt sorry for him. Then there was a Dutch film called De vliegende Hollander; it took the mythic roots of the flying Dutchman and combined it with elements of history, fantasy, and other European folklore (mainly central and Eastern), fashioning a surreal, deeply poetic, and utterly moving piece of cinema. To my knowledge, it never got a North American release, and yet it was easily one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen at the TIFF (yes, ever). I remember returning to film school the week after, re-energized and re-inspired for the year ahead.

And though I’m not working in film now but covering its artists instead, it’s moments such as these that make me glad to have been part of this event, and at such an important, seminal time of year. Today is grave for so many people (and let’s not forget Chile, please) but in Toronto at least, there is a symbol that embraces these contradictions of life experience, balancing them with the magic of light and dark, to show us something beautiful, important, and perhaps most importantly, connecting. We may sit in cinemas, not talking, staring at a dance of shadows and projected light -but we’re all together, in the magic of the dark, creating our own shared world. That has to count.

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