At Toronto’s festival, BRIAN D. JOHNSON faced an onslaught of political rage, cruelty—and explicit sex

Brian D. Johnson September 27 2004


At Toronto’s festival, BRIAN D. JOHNSON faced an onslaught of political rage, cruelty—and explicit sex

Brian D. Johnson September 27 2004




At Toronto’s festival, BRIAN D. JOHNSON faced an onslaught of political rage, cruelty—and explicit sex

NICK NOLTE, Tom Green and the Governor General walk into a bar. It’s no joke. Just another night at the film festival that ate Toronto. The occasion is a soiree to celebrate the premieres of Clean and Childstar, two movies featuring Canadian actor Don McKellar. The party is spread over three floors of the Drake Hotel, a chic temple of the arts. At the bar, Nolte orders three separate glasses and, like a mad scientist, mixes his own cocktail of vodka and Sprite. In the basement, the Governor General dances

with the Icelandic ambassador to the rhythms of a hip-hop band. Tom Green jumps on stage and edges toward the microphone before he’s politely ushered off. But he manages to chat up the Governor General, and asks if she’s there alone. Atom Egoyan, meanwhile, spends along time deep in conversation with punk actor-director Harmony Korine (Kids), but after Korine compliments him on his “performance in the jail scene” in Clean, Egoyan realizes he’s been mistaken for McKellar. The same night, McKellar gets mistaken for Egoyan by one of Clean’s co-producers.

Such is the nature of celebrity in Canada, where you can be recognized without being identified. But that’s also typical of festival fever, a delirium of films, faces and themes that swim together with promiscuous abandon. In one of the Toronto program’s oddest movies, I * Huckabees, Dustin Hoffman plays an “existential detective” who probes coincidences in his clients’ lives and raves like an aging acidhead about how everything is connected to everything else.

But you didn’t have to be mad, or on drugs,

to connect the dots in the wheeling constellation of cinema and stardust known as the Toronto International Film Festival, which ended this weekend. What emerged from this blur of328 titles was a cinema of extremes— extremes of sex, politics, intolerance and slaughter—with enough coincidences lighting up the Zeitgeist to turn a film critic into a conspiracy theorist. First your heart goes out to veterans protesting the Vietnam war in Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. Cut to paranoid, post-9/11 America, where a deranged Vietnam vet in a surveillance van tracks a suspected Arab terrorist through the streets of L.A. in a Wim Wenders drama called Land of Plenty. Then cut back to the 70s, to The Assassination of Richard Nixon, in which an American terrorist played by Sean Penn asks: “What happens to the land of the plenty when there’s plenty for the few and nothing for the plenty?”

One minute a 12-year-old boy is losing his virginity in McKellar’s Childstar, then a 12-year-old girl is plotting to get pregnant in Todd Solondz’s Palindromes. You try to embrace Kevin Bacon as a reformed child

molester in The Woodsman, then in Mysterious Skin you wince as a boy is initiated into sex by his Little League coach. Dazed, you walk out into the sunshine and watch police arrest a video artist for taunting demonstrators protesting a Canadian documentary about him killing a cat.

Before moving on to genocide, let’s talk about sex—adult sex between consenting actors. That was a hot topic at more than one festival party, as critics breathlessly pronounced this to be the Year of the Penis. Proud members delivered towering performances in a record number of graphic films— from Anatomy of Hell, Catherine Breillat’s male-bashing diatribe, to The Raspberry Reich, Bruce LaBruce’s trifle of gay agitpom. For me, however, the most remarkable was Michael Winterbottom’s explicit chamber piece, 9 Songs, in which two legitimate actors play out a love affair that leaves nothing, not even ejaculation, to the imagination.

The film consists of sex scenes intercut with performances by rock bands. But here’s what’s unusual: it doesn’t pretend to be about anything, and the lovers actually seem fond of each other. Winterbottom must be the first non-porn director to shoot a movie full of hard-core sex without harnessing it to a polemic of gender politics. 9 Songs is just a sweet portrait of two lovers bathed in the toasty glow of infatuation. Who knows where this might lead. If porn crosses into the mainstream, we’ll never hear the end of it. Measuring a star’s ability to open a movie and outgross the competition could take on a whole new meaning.

At least one movie devoted to carnal pleasure favoured talk over action. Kinsey tells the fascinating story of the American sexologist who interviewed thousands of Americans about their erotic activities, shattering taboos by challenging notions of what’s “normal.” Directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), Liam Neeson constructs a dynamic yet gently nuanced portrait of Kinsey that should make him a leading Oscar contender.

Neeson was just one of a half dozen actors at the festival unleashing Oscar-calibre performances. In Alejandro Amenábar’s Mar Adentro (The Sea Within), Javier Bardem executes a seductive, heartbreaking performance in the true story of a Spanish quadriplegic fighting for the right to die. In Ray,

Jamie Foxx reincarnates Ray Charles with thrilling veracity. In The Merchant of Venice, Al Pacino’s Shylock subverts the play’s inherent anti-Semitism by uncovering a cache of empathy between the lines. And copious tears flowed at the premiere of Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, a resort manager who turned his luxury hotel into a refuge for Rwandans fleeing a reign of terror. One indelible scene shows a van driving through fog on a road that becomes mysteriously bumpy—because it’s paved with corpses.

Meanwhile, history’s grand master of genocide is portrayed with scary brilliance by Bruno Ganz in Downfall, a monumental German epic about Hitler’s final days. Despite chilling scenes—Mrs. Goebbels cracking cyanide capsules between the teeth of her sedated children—it gives a human face to the Nazi leadership, with a wide spectrum


Bardem were among half a dozen actors who unleashed Oscar-calibre performances

of good and evil. It’s Das Boot in the bunker.

Playing another lost soul caught in the crosshairs of history, Sean Penn enacts the death of the American Dream as real-life hijacker Samuel Bicke in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Separated from his wife, estranged from his kids, and losing his grip on reality, Bicke is an office furniture salesman trying to be an honest man in an America ruled by lies. He’s killed while trying to hijack a plane and crash it into Nixon’s White House. I first saw the movie in Cannes, where it didn’t generate much heat—eclipsed perhaps by the conflagration of Fahrenheit 9/11. Since then, first-time director Niels Mueller has done some recutting, and those of us interviewing Penn in Toronto were required to see it again. A second viewing confirms that it is indeed a powerful film, a Death of a Salesman for the Nixon era that casts Bush’s America in a macabre light. And Penn’s performance, a slow burn from vulnerability to rage, feels more true than his Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River.

I SPEND A NERVOUS 20 minutes alone with the actor in the backroom of a bar.

Dressed in layers of black, Penn, 44, chainsmokes and chews ice cubes. The chiselled face with the slim moustache looks tanned but not terrifically healthy. Gone are the sunglasses that he wore to shield himself from the blaze of the cameras at a press conference a few hours earlier. And after a night of drinking, his blue eyes have a ravaged intensity. As we talk, I feel I’m walking on eggs. I bring up the fact that, although the movie was scripted before 9/11, the contemporary resonance is overwhelming. “A film has no relevance if it’s not about the time within which it’s made,” he says. In Cannes, I remind him,

he said he never thought he’d look back on Nixon with nostalgia. Penn smiles. “Well, it’s not a big laughing joke to call him a statesman, or a crook. Now we’ve just got a crook.” So far so good. But then I suggest parallels between Bicke and Travis Bickle, the deranged terrorist played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Penn frowns. “I’ll be quite candid with you. I would resent anyone making comment on those kinds of comparisons because they will hurt this movie. I understand the reason it comes to mind. We’re all subject to interframing things. But I think if you gave this film a mediocre re-

view that didn’t mention that, it would be much better for this film than if you gave it a glowing review and did mention that. This film needs to be viewed on its own.” Moving right along, I shift the subject to acting. I hear an ice cube shatter in his mouth. “Acting,” he says, “it’s a secret for me, and I try to keep it that way.” But he keeps going. “There’s a big myth in acting. They’ll say it’s about listening. But they don’t continue the sentence. It’s not listening to what the

other person’s saying; it’s listening to what you hear them say. Which can be two very different things.” Penn now seems to be talking about the conversation we’re having. “It doesn’t matter what you said. If I want to throw that off, I’ll build blocks to make sure I hear the wrong thing every time. That gives you a lot of variations to play with. It’s the subtext that’s true.”

And he says there was no end of subtext in Samuel Bicke—a lost idealist “willing to

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get out there in a hurricane in a little rowboat. There’s something very touching about that. He owns certain ideals that less tragic people would be blessed to have.” The actor looks weary. “You’ve got me toward the end,” he says. “I’m getting hungry for world news, to know who’s died out there.”

SOME MOVIES at the festival opened a rabbit hole into a world behind the news. Turtles Can Fly—on Iran-Iraq co-production, of all things—takes us to a Kurdistan village on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A teenage entrepreneur sells satellite dishes to villagers so they can divine their future on CNN, and enlists child amputees to collect unexploded land mines, which he sells back to the Americans.

Racial mistrust was perhaps the most insistent theme in the festival. And it surfaced pointedly in Crash, an Altmanesque panorama of characters on a collision course in Los Angeles. Making his feature debut, Canadian writer-director Paul Haggis apologized to David Cronenberg for stealing his title—“I couldn’t think of a better title.” Maybe he can be forgiven. With a dynamite cast that includes Cheadle, Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon, Haggis sets up a compelling maze of racial stereotypes, then demolishes them with breathtaking finesse.

Not all of Toronto’s hits were freighted with political import. Writer-director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt) provided a welcome tonic with Sideways, the witty yarn of a womanizing groom and his nerdy best man taking a road trip through California wine country. But it was hard to escape the lengthening shadow of homeland insecurity. And German auteur Wim Wenders has drawn what may be the consummate portrait of paranoia in contemporary America with Land of Plenty. It was written in a month, then shot on video in just 16 days. Starring Michelle Williams as a Christian naïf coming home from the Middle East and John Diehl as a brain-fried Vietnam vet “upriver” in the slums of L.A., it’s a comic and ultimately poignant tale of human frailty. The title is taken from a Leonard Cohen song, which provides the film’s coda: May the lights in The Land of Plenty / Shine on the truth someday. In the penetrating light of the new cinema, that dream now seems a touch closer.

The byline on last week’s festival story was omitted. It was written by Brian D. Johnson.