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'Citizen Kane' for free? How low can the Toronto festival stoop?

TORONTO -- How did the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival stack up against previous years? I've been to 31 of them, and as usual I had a great time. I saw about 30 movies, interviewed some fascinating people, met a lot of friends, and saw movies with audiences who know and love them.

I guess I was in the minority. You should read the attacks by some of the festival's longtime supporters. Toronto's splendid free weekly, Eye, wrote the festival "seems to have been entirely created by the accelerated news cycle, which ensures the regurgitation of every last gripe." Veteran Toronto Sun critic Bruce Kirkland believed it has become "elitist" and has sold its soul to rich patrons, and was shilling for funds to complete the Bell Lighthouse, its expensive new headquarters.

And Rex Reed of the New York Observer, here since Year One, had a really, really, really bad time. Moaning that the festival had tested his "patience, IQ, trash resistance, and bladder control," he complained that "the fun days when fans and critics and movie moguls all stayed in the Sutton Place Hotel and turned the Bistro 990 across the street into their local commissary, trading anecdotes with John Cassavetes and hanging out with Clint Eastwood, are only memories, like first marriages."

There was even worse. He complained that Toronto "blocked off an entire square to show free movies like 'Citizen Kane' to the unwashed masses with empty wallets and no entree to the main events." Holy Batman, Rex! Have you forgotten the glorious night in 1972 when we jammed into Piazza San Marco in Venice to see a free screening of Chaplin's "City Lights" and were joined by unwashed masses with empty wallets and no entree to the main events?

Eye Weekly speculates that I may be "never be coming back for more" after a fellow critic smacked me with a program book in the Thwack Heard Round the World. Say what? Stuff like that is part of a festival. I only get smacked once in 31 years? I get to see more than 1,000 movies? I'll be coming back. Besides, the Thwacker was a New Yorker. This year two people that I know were Torontonians offered me their seats.

I dunno about the hype part of the festival. I never go to the press conferences. And excuse me, but I don't give a fart in a windstorm if David Schwimmer was "spotted," or that Lindsay Lohan came with her "gal pal," or that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. attended a luncheon. My broken hip has healed, and I forge ahead like the nut I am, actually going to movies.

So did some others. More than 400,000 people attended more than 300 films. Reed seems to be recalling a festival held for an inner circle.

Even in the early years, it wasn't true that "fans and critics and movie moguls all stayed in the Sutton Place." With 294 rooms, it wasn't quite large enough. A lot of critics couldn't afford it. And in the early years most of the fans were living at home in Toronto.

Isn't it good that the festival has grown so enormous? That hundreds of the films would have been below the radar without TIFF? You create your own festival. If you have press credentials, you're golden. You get information on every film at the festival, and every single one is free for you. You roll your own. You don't like the mob scene at the Galas? Fine, go to the screening room of the National Film Board of Canada. No paparazzi there. You don't like unwashed masses seeing "Citizen Kane" for free? Why not, Marie Antoinette?

Oh, and Reed wrote, "The parties this year have been dismal, the bar bills astronomical, the food all served on sticks. (I never want to see another chicken kabob again as long as I live.)"

I would observe: (1) avoid almost all parties, because they waste valuable moviegoing time; (2) your bar bill is under your control; and (3) there are hundreds of decent restaurants within a short walk of festival venues, including a little Indian place I know that will serve you a three-course meal in 15 minutes and charge you less than $10. If you want only free food, the chicken on sticks comes with the territory.

Besides, the chicken usually also comes with that nice Thai peanut sauce.

But I rant. The festival is what you make it. For many years I have praised the Trail Mix Brigade. That's my nickname for the thousands of movie fans who take off from work during the festival, plot a schedule of five or six films a day, and sustain themselves with backpacks jammed with bottled water and Trail Mix. These people love movies. They have a feast laid out for them by TIFF, and it doesn't come on sticks.

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