Wild Rose may sound like a familiar tune, but you’ve never heard it performed quite like this.
The Toronto International Film Festival was one of Roger's most cherished annual events on the moviegoing calendar. For over three decades, he attended the festivities, covering the latest enticing offerings while penning profiles of promising talents like David Gordon Green, as well as industry MVPs including Pierre Rissient and recent Ebertfest guest Jeff Dowd. He always made sure to savor the chicken pot pie at George Christy's TIFF luncheon, and would write about it in his vividly detailed dispatches. While at the festival on September 11th, 2001, Roger considered scrapping his coverage, until he realized that one of the reasons people go to the movies is to treasure the gift of life. "Artists are like priests," he wrote. "They share our mortality, but are closer to the mysteries."
The following year, Roger penned a definitive appreciation of TIFF, hailing it as the most important in the world, after Cannes. "Last year's festival was ripped in two on Sept. 11," he wrote. "I walked out of a screening, heard the news, and the world had changed. Now comes the 27th annual festival, opening today. Are movies important in the new world we occupy? Yes, I think they are, because they are the most powerful artistic device for creating empathy—for helping us understand the lives of others. We turn to Toronto every September in a spirit of hope. [...] Toronto declares the opening of Good Movie Season, which runs from the festival's opening night until the deadline for Oscar nominations. Yet even though the next Oscar winner will quite possibly premiere during the week, Toronto is not about Oscar handicapping, but about the little film you find in a half-empty screening on Tuesday morning, or in one of the 20-seat "VIP" screening rooms, which seem devoted to Not Very Important Pictures. I have here a list of all of the films in this year's festival, and it is probable that the best one is hiding somewhere in the fine print."
Roger dubbed dedicated cinephiles at TIFF the Trail Mix Brigade. "These are festivalgoers who take vacations from their jobs, cross-index the program with a fury, and squeeze in five or six screenings a day by devising ingenious itineraries and living on bottled water and Trail Mix," he wrote. "They carry knapsacks filled with the necessities of serial moviegoing, from aspirin to ponchos to house slippers. They explain their strategies to me. One instant friend last year said she had given up on trying to predict which films to see, and had decided to simply attend as many screenings in the Master's Section as possible, on the logical grounds that a great director might make a great movie."
When fellow critic Rex Reed took TIFF to task for hosting free screening for the "unwashed masses" and only providing food served on sticks at parties, Roger penned an impassion rebuttal. "My broken hip has healed, and I forge ahead like the nut I am, actually going to movies," he wrote. "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? [...] 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."
During Roger's final visit at TIFF, he made a spot-on prediction. "The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture will be Ben Affleck's tense new thriller 'Argo,'" he declared. "How do I know this? Because it is the audience favorite coming out of the top-loaded opening weekend of the Toronto Film Festival. Success at Toronto has an uncanny way of predicting Academy winners; I point you to the Best Pictures of the last five years in a row: 'No Country for Old Men,' 'Slumdog Millionaire,' 'The King's Speech' and 'The Artist.'" Indeed, "Argo" went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and was selected by Roger as the best film of 2012.
When my beloved Roger transitioned on April 4th, 2013, TIFF hosted a special tribute to him at the festival, honoring his legacy of reaching mainstream audiences, film connoisseurs and the international industry with his inimitable writing. "Roger was a huge presence at the festival for over 30 years," said TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling. "He was one of the key people who put the Toronto International Film Festival on the map, and we feel it is only fitting that we pay tribute to Roger in the way we would hope he would have wanted – in a cinema surrounded by friends, family and the Toronto audience, which was so close to Roger's heart." That tribute was so moving to me because I know that Piers and the others at TIFF had grown to view Roger as family.
Since 2014, Roger's legacy has been honored with an annual tribute luncheon where a filmmaker revered by him (and me and Cameron Bailey) receives the coveted Golden Thumb award. Martin Scorsese, Ava DuVernay, Agnès Varda and Wim Wenders were the first four honorees. This year, the award will go to French master Claire Denis.
I can scarcely believe that Piers Handling is stepping down as the head of the festival. There will be a tribute to him this Friday, September 7, along with the Women In Film gala. At some point I will look around and just know that Roger's spirit will be applauding along with the rest of the crowd.
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