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Festival Diary, by Johanna Schneller
I'm hoping to have the scoffing knocked out of me

By JOHANNA SCHNELLER, The Globe and Mail
September 5, 2002

The Toronto International Film Festival has been up and running for exactly one day, and already a critic has said to me, "It's the kind of film where the director thought he had a vision, but didn't." I've overheard two reporters from the Toronto weekly Eye hilariously chew apart another director's career: "He had a best-before date of 1989." And I've had a Canadian publicist say the dreaded words, "We have no more interview slots for Canadian press, only for Americans."

Welcome to Torontowood.

I love this time of year, when green moviegoers turn red and orange with instant authority, when you feel the first cool snap of repartee in the air. Attending the festival as a member of the accredited press is about two things: Seeing, and Scoffing Knowingly at what you've seen.

Meeting on the streets and in the lobbies of Torontowood, reporters carry out a ritual, kind of like dogs sniffing each other's bums. First we ask, "What have you seen?" closely followed by, "Who have you seen?" and "How did they look?" It's all about the Seeing - you have to establish your Seeing credibility to ensure that your Scoffing is informed. The more inside the scoffing, the better.

This year's scoffing is already so world-weary, it's less about what's happening at the festival than what isn't happening: which stars were scheduled to attend and now aren't (Samantha Morton, Giovanni Ribisi); what movies had great advance word of mouth but didn't measure up (I can't list them for you yet - I still have to interview their stars, ha ha); which films aren't festival entries at all (some distributors quietly slipped non-festival, big-studio comedies such as Stealing Harvard and Slap Her, She's French into the schedule of festival fare screened in advance for local press); and why the press is no longer headquartered at the Park Hyatt (all hotels grow to hate the fest. In the face of hysterical, incessant demands, glamour fades).

Despite all this suspicion and ennui, I'm still hoping for something genuine from the next 10 days. I'm hoping to have the scoffing knocked out of me. I'm hoping that I see beautiful, surprising films, and that when I interview the people who made them, they say meaningful, memorable things. After 2001's brutally truncated Festival That Wasn't, I want this year to be the Pollyanna Fest, a cornucopia of sincerity.

There was a lot of chat last year about how films would have to change in the wake of Sept. 11 - that they'd have to become more relevant, more honest, less crass. But the movies that were released after the attack were made long before it, and when they came out they did just fine. Soon - very soon - everybody stopped talking about making amends and went back to talking about making money. The festival should be one of the few places we can still talk (without our tongues in our cheeks) about making art.

While living in L.A. 10 years ago, I read scripts for a successful producer, either rejecting them outright or recommending them to my higher-ups. (It's one of the great ironies of Hollywood that the lowliest, most anonymous drones making $50 per script, like I was, control that first crucial rung on the ladder of success.) Scripts were judged in four categories: story (the overall arc, including the mise en scène and any themes or ideas), plot (the specific machinations of the story), characters and dialogue.

Then, as now, I cared least about plot. Unless the main point of a film is its twists, such as The Sting, Memento or The Usual Suspects, I never care much how the story gets from A to B. I like to be fully immersed in a world, and I'm a sucker for truly smart conversation. But, to me, the greatest consideration of all is characters. I want to see fully formed human beings on screen, behaving in all the shrewd, sad, stunning, screwed-up, sappy, startling ways humans do. It's also why I like to meet the actors and directors who spend their lives making characters breathe.

So, this week, bring on the characters. Give me men of passion and panic, such as Terry Gilliam in Lost in La Mancha. Give me women like Cate Blanchett's delicate murderess in Heaven, the indomitable aboriginal children in Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Samantha Morton's translucent shopgirl in Morvern Callar. Let me do more than See them; let me feel them. And let them be unexpected and unique, even the familiar ones - the pampered movie star, the harried publicist, and yes, the scoffing reporter.


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