Brave new worlds

A movie festival thrives on the unexpected

Brian D. Johnson September 21 1992

Brave new worlds

A movie festival thrives on the unexpected

Brian D. Johnson September 21 1992

Brave new worlds

A movie festival thrives on the unexpected

There is a certain thrill about the movies that is increasingly hard to find in Hollywood, where film-making and money-making have become

synonymous. It is the thrill of the unexpect-

And that spirit of discovery is what film festivals are all about—events like the 17th annual Festival of Festivals in Toronto, which opened on Sept. 10 and closes on Sept. 19. After a summer of big-screen action and fluff, at the festival movies start to matter again. Showing 335 films from 42 countries, the 10-day extravaganza features work ranging from low-budget miracles to directing debuts by major stars—as well as the year’s new crop of Canadian films.

ed—of seeing movies that challenge commercial formulas, sexual taboos, political fashions and official histories.

Now recognized as the most important celebration of film in North America, the Toronto event is reaffirming its reputation this year with an impressive program. It also has perhaps the strongest Hollywood presence in its history, with a guest list that features Robert Redford, Billy Crystal,

Jeremy Irons, Tim Robbins, Joe Pesci and Barbara Hershey. But in many cases, the stars are promoting movies that involve creative risks. Directing himself for the first time, in Mr. Saturday Night, the saga of a comedian,

Crystal tries to show that he can be more than just another funny face. As the off-camera director of A River Runs Through It, Redford gambles that a family drama about fly-fishing will fly. And with Bob Roberts, actordirector Tim Robbins satirizes all that is sacred in American politics.

One star, however, was definitely not expected to appear at the festival for the world première of his new movie—director Woody Allen, whose Husbands and Wives strikes uncom-

fortably close to home. But the subject of Allen’s movie, sexual obsession, is a recurring theme in the festival’s program. It surfaces in films including Waterland, which stars Jeremy Irons in a gothic tale of incest and teenage passion; The Lover, which celebrates an affair between a 15-year-old girl and an older man; and Being At Home With Claude, a hot Quebec film about a homosexual crime of passion.

Sexual obsession is a persistent presence in many of the new Canadian movies. The festival opened last week with Leolo, Quebec director Jean-Claude Lauzon’s incandescent coming-ofage drama about a young boy’s sexual, spiritual and scatological trials. And it closes this weekend with Twist, a brilliant documentary by Toronto director Ron Mann about the dance

craze that unlocked the hips of a generation or two in the 1960s.

Leolo is a mix of visceral autobiography and surreal invention, a raging and romantic portrait of the artist as a young dreamer in the back streets of East End Montreal. Although it is undeniably daring and accomplished, it was a controversial choice to open the festival, dazzling some moviegoers and offending others.

But it is hard to quarrel with Twist. After making inspired documentaries about the cultish worlds of comic books, poetry and jazz, Mann has finally made a movie for the masses. Twist is a bright, invigorating and deftly satirical dance through the collective memory. It combines priceless archival footage with fresh interviews of singers Hank Ballard, Chubby Checker and couples who were regular dancers on TV’s American Bandstand. Without actually spelling it out, the film leaves a compelling impression that the Twist was the turning point in the history of pop music, the vortex that sucked up all the influences before it and put a spin on everything that followed.

The personal drama of Léolo and the cultural history of Twist are worlds apart. But they both invoke memories of rude sexual awakening. A

One of them, Gerda, by Toronto film teacher Brenda Longfellow, takes a slyly feminist approach to Canada’s most notorious sex scandal. Her subject is Gerda Munsinger, the gallivanting German immigrant who bedded then-associate defence minister Pierre Sévigny in the early 1960s and was later suspected of being a Communist spy. Diana Fajrajsl portrays Munsinger as a self-styled Marlene Dietrich, a heroine in her own Harlequin romance. Campy, candycolored re-enactments are intercut with archival clips and simulated surveillance footage—as well as a fresh interview with Munsinger herself, now living in Germany, who talks about being raped by Russian soldiers at 13. Director Longfellow does not re-in vestigate the case. Instead, she unravels the myths that made the scandal such a source of lurid fascination.

surprising number of the new Canadian movies are, in fact, provocative reinventions of the 1950s and 1960s. They include both documentaries and adventurous hybrids of fact and fiction. It is an unspectacular year for English Canadian cinema—nearly all of the leading directors are between films. But a variety of eccentric, innovative features have surfaced, many of them by first-time directors.

Forbidden Love, a National Film Board documentary by directors Lynne 'Ferme and Aerlyn Weissman, holds the past up to another feminist mirror. It is a delightful collection of interviews with Canadian lesbians who talk about coming of age in the

repressive sexual climate of the 1950s

Men, meanwhile, wrestle with the emotional legacy of their 1950s upbringing in Father and Son, a documentary by Vancouver-based filmmaker Colin Browne. Several men, including Browne, author Michael Ignatieff and filmmaker Terrence Davies explore their unsettled feelings about their fathers. The observations add up to a critical essay on the nature of masculinity. And in yet another flashback to the sexual repression of the 1950s, Legal Memory, Toronto directors Kim Tomczak and Lisa Steele blend dramatic and documentary techniques to tell the story of Leo Mantha, who was convicted of murdering his homosexual lover.

and early 1960s. They tell funny, charming stories about their first loves and their double lives. They recall looking for their identities in torrid lesbian pulp novels. And the camera, scanning across such headlines as “Perverts called government peril,” conveys the moral climate of the era.

Hanged in 1959, he was the last man executed in British Columbia.

Disinterring history at the other end of the country, CODCO comic Mike Jones has directed Secret Nation. An uneven drama spiked with moments of trenchant satire, it suggests that a conspiracy of corrupt politicians swayed the vote that led Newfoundland into Confederation in 1949. The East Coast’s satirical tradition finds another outlet in director Paul Donovan’s Buried on Sunday. A Dr. Strangelove-style farce starring Paul Gross and Maury Chaykin, it is about a fictional Atlantic island called Solomon Gundy that is devastated by Ottawa fishing quotas. After buying a decrepit Russian nuclear submarine, the island declares its independence and aims warheads at Mount Rushmore and Canada’s Wonderland (an Ontario amusement park).

Meanwhile, to direct his first feature, actor Nicholas Campbell delves into a puzzle of con-

The madness of getting ahead in the music business also serves as the backdrop for two whimsical Canadian dramas, Hurt Penguins and Giant Steps. With Hurt Penguins, codirectors Myra Fried and Robert Bergman squeeze surprising results out of an outlandish premise. The story concerns two lovers in a struggling rock band (Michele Muzzi and Daniel Kash) who make a personal sacrifice to finance the recording of their first album. Muzzi’s character decides to acquire a patron by seducing a wealthy businessman. Predictably, the trick romance gets out of hand, but Fried’s script takes some witty turns. And Muzzi, an unconventional beauty with irresistible presence, makes a remarkable screen debut.

spiracy and paranoia on the island of Jamaica. With Stepping Razor—Red X, he has crafted a mesmerizing documentary about reggae singer Peter Tosh, who was murdered by gunmen at his home in 1987. Syncopating music with graphic images, the movie portrays Tosh as a Jamaican Malcolm X to Bob Marley’s Martin Luther King Jr.—a renegade haunted by demons and cornered by assassins.

Giant Steps, the first feature film by Toronto-based theatre director Richard Rose, aims for sensitive, stylish drama. A coming-of-age story, it is about a high-school student (Michael Mahonen) who plays a hot trumpet, an adoring girl next door (Robyn Stevan) and an aloof jazz legend (Billy Dee Williams) who serves as the boy’s

mentor. The movie’s impulsive narrative echoes the moods and ambitions of jazz with mixed success.

Whimsy runs amok in Impolite, a pun-riddled comedy about an obituary writer at a Vancouver newspaper trying to unravel the mystery of a tycoon’s mysterious disappearance. Directed by Vancouver’s David Hauka, Impolite is well acted and attractively shot. But the script, overinflated with cleverness, collapses in a rude heap of loose ends.

By contrast, Winnipeg director Guy Maddin’s Careful refines idiosyncrasy into high art. Maddin, whose international fans include American director Martin Scorsese, reinvents the past with a cinematic strangeness all his own. His movies, which include Tales from the Gimli Hospital and Archangel, are dreamlike fantasies that actually look like artifacts from the early days of motion picture history. Careful, a comic melodrama set in a fictional Alpine hamlet, resembles a talkie from the 1920s. Using a deliberately scratchy soundtrack and special film stocks, Maddin contrives a meticulous illusion. Careful is his best and most accessible film so far. Its fairy-tale plot concerns a scandal of Oedipal incest among villagers who talk softly for fear of triggering avalanches.

Careful offers a sublime metaphor for the national character—the idea of dark desires rumbling through the pack ice of Canadian caution. And Maddin’s work is an extreme example of the oddly clinical nostalgia that seems to obsess Canadian film-makers. But perhaps the most telling image is provided by Canadian director David Cronenberg. He portrays a pornography addict in a 19-minute short titled Blue. Directed by actor Don McKellar, it includes fragments of an explicit 1950s sex film—and comments from its nowelderly female lead. An actor directs; a director acts; a performer reflects. And at the festival’s circus of the unexpected, Canadian film-makers seem right at home.