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Ten Days in the Dark: The 2004 Toronto International Film Festival

A piece of "Primer."

A sampling of movies from the Toronto International Film Festival from the editor of, who was celebrating his fifth TIFF.

TORONTO -- I don't think of Toronto as being a particularly exotic location, but after spending a week here strapped into my multiplex seat while spinning through space and time, into one person's imagination after another, I must admit that, during the ten days of the film festival at least, there's probably a greater wealth of (vicarious) experience to be had here than in any other place in the world.

And cross-cultural encounters extend beyond the cinema at times, too. I remember last year, when I failed to book a hotel with broadband internet access, spending hours on the phone with my ISP's "tech support" people, just trying to get a local dial-up number.

"Where are you calling from?" the phone rep repeated. She said her name was "Jane," but "Jain" would have been more like it, as her accent and the slight delay in her responses made it clear she was a product of outsourcing -- probably sitting in a cubicle in Bangalore or Mumbai.

"Toronto." I said for the fourth time. "Ontario. Canada."

"Oh," she responded with a mild jolt as the geography of the situation finally hit her. "We don't have any dial-up numbers in Canada," pronouncing that last word as if it were as exotic and inaccessible as Shangri-La.

Well, for a brief period every year, Toronto is Shangri-La for movie lovers. Some notes on a few night-blooming specimens I encountered in 2004:

In the glorious documentary about Hollywood cinematography, "Visions of Light," William A. Fraker tells a story about framing a shot through a doorway for Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby." Polanski had him compose the shot of Ruth Gordon talking on the bedroom extension phone so that the camera itself was out in the hall and her head was hidden by the door jamb. The effect was subtle but spectacular -- audiences actually leaned in their seats trying to see around the frame and listen in on her conversation.

With its jittery camerawork and multi-tasking/overlapping dialog, "Primer" sustains a similar tension at feature-length: You feel like you're eavesdropping, perched on the edge of your seat, craning your neck and trying to take in and process everything you're straining to see and hear, throughout the entire movie. The technological science-fiction thriller "Primer" won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, 2004, and like that other hand-held thriller that emerged from the ski slopes of Park City, "The Blair Witch Project," it is more notable for the effects it wrings from its fidgety style than for the story it tells. Premise: Some Silicon Valley (-ish) entrepreneurs are putting together a start-up, based on new technology they've been tweaking, in a suburban garage. But the technology begins to take on unexpected properties, including an ability to manipulate time itself. That's all you need to know (and, perhaps, all you will know after a single viewing). After one trip through "Primer's" silicon-chip maze, I'm not entirely sure just where it took me, but I felt like I was leaning forward, trying to catch up, the whole way there.

"Keane" plops you down within the claustrophobic pressure of another man's skull and gets you to experience the world as filtered through his fractured consciousness for 90 minutes. This film by Lodge Kerrigan ("Clean, Shaven") begins, in medias res, inside the troubled reality of a deeply disturbed man who, moment by moment, seems barely capable of keeping himself from unravelling. We have no clinical perspective, no emotional or experiential distance from him, just the fact that we are here with him.

Is he mentally ill? Why is he so panicky and tormented? And just how "seious" is his condition? How delusional? How potentially (self-) destructive? One minute he seems relatively lucid, then he's frantically looking for his daughter who has vanished from a Port Authority bus platform. But, wait, that seems to have happened over a year ago. What happened to her? And could he have had something to do with it? Or did she ever even exist outside his tormented/fragmented memory?

Kerrigan keeps his camera in a tight orbit around Keane's head -- his universe -- so that we are limited to seeing only what he sees (or imagines). The movie offers no explanations or excuses for Keane's mental plight; it just pulls us into the frightening and disorienting world as one tormented man sees it and says, simply, "Look." And once that happens, there's no looking away. You've seen this guy, or someone like him, on the streets before; but never from right over his shoulder like this.

Back in 1977, documentary director George Butler captured another political figure of 2004 in the nascent stages of his career. The movie was "Pumping Iron" and the rising star was Arnold Schwarzenegger, back when he was more interested in being "Mr. Universe" than "Mr. California."

After a brief childhood bio and an account of what, exactly, Kerry's "swift boat" missions in Vietnam actually were, the most fascinating part of "Going Upriver" is seeing Kerry's emergence as a young, articulate but impassioned voice in the anti-war movement -- through his speeches and organizations of anti-war rallies, his testimony before congressional committees, and his appearance on TV news and talk shows.

Give Richard Nixon credit -- he recognized when somebody was "good" (as in eloquent, effective), even if they were on the "other side." We hear Nixon and Haldeman on a White House tape admiringly discussing Kerry's public appearances against the war, while cooly assessing the threat he posed to the administration's war policies. And it's startling to hear, shortly thereafter, the voice of since-convicted Watergate dirty trickster Charles Colson tell the President that he's recruited a "swift boat" veteran of their own, and are grooming him to go up against Kerry on the public stage. That man is John O'Neill, the same figure who re-emerged all these years later fronting the specious, right-wing-funded "Swift Vote Veterans for Truth." Talk about historical perspective: Some things never change. But the most troubling undercurrents of the film (which was begun before Kerry began campaigning for president; the latter-day Kerry is never shown) have to do with the many ways in which the military and political quagmire of Vietnam -- America's involvement in a bitter civil conflict that it failed to understand or prepare for -- resembles our similar more recent bungled approach to war in Iraq.

John Waters' movies are semi-Warholian in that they combine the matter-of-fact recording of visceral physical realities (nudity, sex, scatology, you name it) with humor that's campy and conceptual. In other words, their humor comes from the clash between the characters and the material -- the simultaneously flat and hysterical attitudes of the actors (often nonprofessionals) as they throw themselves valiantly into performing Waters' inelegantly overwrought/over-written dialog. That's funny.

The idea of someone opening a package containing feces is not particularly funny; but in "Pink Flamingoes" (1972), the way Divine operatically exclaims in mock horror, "Someone has sent me a bowel movement!" is hilarious (in part because the over-scaled Divine is feigning to be so much more shocked than he knows we are).

In his priceless memoir, "Shock Value," Waters recalls his mother's reaction to a fetishistic sex practice (toe-sucking, or "shrimping") in one of his early films: "There is no such thing as that!" she insisted with a mixture of denial and outrage. "You made that up." Well, you know what they say: Nothing is as ridiculous (or unsexy) as somebody else's fetish. And that's the problem with "A Dirty Shame." Set in the platonic ideal of George W. Bush's America, the population of a small town is split down the middle in their attitudes toward sex. People are either for it, or agin' it: the Sexies vs. the Neuters. True to Waters formula, the "outsiders" (who are really the insiders) eventually embrace and convert (deface and pervert) their nemeses and everything climaxes in an orgy of some sort or another.

Unfortunately, "A Dirty Shame" just isn't very funny, and that's precisely because the kind-hearted auteur so clearly finds the rather mild sexual shennanigans these folks display neither dirty nor shameful, but just a bit of well-worn fringe on the marvelous and intricately woven tapestry of human sexuality. For the first time, Waters seems to view his characters from a great distance; he doesn't have anything of himself invested in them. And so, we're left with a dirty joke sans soil. Waters should go back and look at Luis Bunuel's later films, from "Belle de Jour" to "That Obscure Object of Desire" (made when the Spanish Fetishist-Surrealist was 77), for pointers on how Dirty Old Men can age lasciviously and still retain their comic potency.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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