Patricio Guzman's 'Nostalgia for the Light' offered a stunning philosophical treatise at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Toronto's New Lightbox Offers Transcendence

B. Ruby Rich September 16, 2010

The biggest news at the Toronto International Film Festival this year was neither a film nor a celebrity, but rather a new building with a futuristic though corporate name: the Bell Lightbox. That's the new home of the Toronto International Film Festival (or "tiff," as it's branded itself) and it's a stunner. The Bell Lightbox opened its doors on September 12, and with one scissors-clip of the celluloid ribbon, it upstaged the red carpet and drew everyone's attention to the city's new cathedral of cinema (or whatever it is going to be called in its lighted-box future). And that's despite the crankiness induced in the visiting press corps and industry gang, myself included, who hated losing 35 years of neighborhood expertise in the move to the Bell Lightbox's downtown location.

Of course, we'll have to adjust: The building is a beauty. Five floors of galleries, offices, theaters and cafes anchoring a high-rise condo tower, the Lightbox is a new cultural capital for film. First: it's very, very glam. Canteen, its sidewalk café with the cheeky Hollywood-studio name, filled immediately with film festival attendees, meeting and greeting. Its more-than-500-seat theater is superb, from luminous screen to perfect sound and fabulous red curtains that part for the movie like those movie palaces of yore. With five theaters of differing sizes, the Lightbox should be able to serve all manner of film tastes. And then there's the gallery space, where opening installations by the like of Guy Maddin and Atom Egoyan demonstrated how brilliantly film is already mutating off the screen into the art world. The space should allow tiff to explore new art-world versions of film, as well as the artistic influences on filmmakers, in the days to come.

Looking across the Atlantic to the Pompidou and other European spaces for its model, Bell Lightbox is clearly a building built by and for cinephiles, right down to the outdoor staircase that lights up the night sky —and leads onto a seventh-floor roof. Did I mention it's a great party space, too? (I'm sure corporate sponsors have taken note already, but that's okay; It will take a lot of their money to keep this show spinning.) Festival staff proved downright giddy introducing films in the new theaters, thrilling at the dream come true. There's an indoor café too, with a view of the crowds arriving and departing from the theaters. I'm not crazy about the ramps that crisscross the open space and look too much like an airport, but that's a bit of a quibble: The architectural trade-off is a view straight across an atrium to the nerve-center, a glass control room where a dedicated technician sits in front of screens and controls, managing it all.

And then there were the films: lots of really good ones, including one that this writer even appears in, and an eager audience for them all. It was the audience, not the critics, not even the buyers, that really made Toronto into a world-class festival. In 2010, the year of worried looks, disappearing distributors, and lower acquisition deals, the local audiences are as fantastic as ever: smart, generous and full of cinephilic enthusiasm. Hey, that's what got me there in the first place 25 years ago it's what and keeps me coming back.


Some of my favorite discoveries were the oddities: films that didn't easily fit into one category or another, films that too easily could fall between the cracks —unless a critic is on the spot to champion them! Humbly, I try to do my part.

Norwegian Wood almost didn’t get seen at all, due to a rare festival glitch caused by a malfunctioning digital projector. For the record, this is the first time I've ever stood in a corralled pen of critics, all cooling our heels past starting time, only to hear: "The film is almost finished downloading." But the wait and indignity paid off.

The newest film by French Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung is set and shot in Japan: fitting, since it's adapted from the Haruki Murakami novel. A sort of Jules and Jim in reverse, the film focuses on Watanabe, a 19-year-old student in 1960s Tokyo who is torn between two women: a true love who is terminally traumatized and a spunky new love who is tiring of waiting. Mark Lee Ping Bin's cinematography lifts the entire film to soaring heights and plunges its characters into physical landscapes that prove short on redemption, while Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood provides a perfect soundtrack to passionate devotion. Luminous and heartbreaking, the film somehow infused me with nostalgia for a place I'd never even inhabited.

This theme of a riveting interiority driven by obsession continued, surprisingly, in At Ellen's Age, German director Pia Marais' look at a flight attendant (the eminently watchable Jeanne Balibar) who walks off the job, albeit in somewhat less spectacular a fashion than Jet Blue's recent headline-grabber. Thrown by her male partner's admission that he's made another woman pregnant—or possibly by the sight of a tiger being captured—she goes on a bender the likes of which the cinema has never quite seen before: peculiar motel hook-ups, aimless wandering, joining an Animal Rights collective and finally a departure from the scene as hundreds of liberated rodents scamper through the night. This is a woman who has spun too far off her flight path to return to demonstrating seat-belt protocols. We may never know what's going on inside the head of her character, but with Balibar in the role, our attention never strays. Oddly magnetic, it's a film that goes home with you.

Jeanne Labrune's Special Treatment is a dark-horse of a different color, with a storyline that would normally make me run away: A prostitute is looking for a psychoanalyst, a psychoanalyst is looking for a prostitute, and … you figure out the rest. Ah, but when the prostitute is played by Isabelle Huppert, and no cheap jokes are on offer, it becomes a fascinating exercise in wish fulfillment and client satisfaction. At moments, it could almost be titled "Jeanne Dielman, Part Two." She may be "Ellen's age," but her choices are very different, and so's her landing. I loved it.

Just as I started to believe that all love was obsessive, along came Beginners, a sort of romantic comedy that wasn't about obsession at all, but rather, the lack of it, the exact antithesis of all these other films. Commercial artist Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is haunted by his parents, his retrospective view of their marriage and his inability to commit to anyone. His loneliness plays out in stark contrast to the ever-present flashbacks of his father (Christopher Plummer) who comes out as a 75-year-old widower and makes up for lost time with ebullient dynamism, a gay posse and, yes, personal ads. Director Mike Mills (of Thumbsucker fame) has hit his stride with this film, evidently based in part on his father's life. Plummer is just fantastic. And so is McGregor, fresh and believable. And Melanie Laurent is equally cool as the girl of his dreams. The film has an old-fashioned sweetness and romance to it that's truly engaging. I'd be tempted to dub it "the American Amelie," if only I hadn't hated the French one.


One of the films I was most eager to see was Meek's Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt. I'm a major Reichardt fan (and will be introducing a tribute to her at the PFA in November), but I found it hard to imagine her doing a period film and this one was a western set in 1845 along the wagon trail to Oregon. With all her films fiercely contemporary, what would Reichardt do? Wonder no more: This is a film that refuses to split the past off from the present, which in Reichardt's case, means refusing to change pace or camera, script or casting, to fit an imaginary West enforced by the Hollywood sheriffs. This is a very different cowboy-and-Indian story, and far more female than anything else: It's an anti-Western of the best kind. With Michelle Williams once again starring, Meek's Cutoff never comes close to leaving the audience behind. With spare elegance, the past is rendered as contemporary as it's ever been. I just loved this uncompromising vision.

Another form of magic entirely, showed up in the documentary realm: Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the first 3-D documentary. Sound crazy? Well, it's Herzog. Much in the mold of his prior myth-making docs, this one sets out on an exploration. In this case, though, even Herzog need hardly exaggerate: he's allowed to tag along with a tiny group of scholars given rare access to the legendary Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave in southern France. This is the unbelievable site of paintings executed on the walls by human ancestors over 30,000 years ago. I've been fascinated ever since its discovery in 1994. It's the kind of subject, you might say, put on earth to be filmed by Herzog. And so he does, gaining access where no other filmmaker ever has. Interestingly, the 3-D doesn't really do much for the paintings: after all, they're on the walls. What it does do is render the cave's stalagmites and stalactites utterly present, otherworldly, and render its visitors extra-present, extra-real. Even Herzog's typically self-important narration doesn't mar the experience of 3-D as a medium of awe. The IFC just picked the film up and will be releasing the film theatrically, so you needn't take my word for it.

Almost as good as the film was the sight of Herzog, a day earlier, apologizing in advance to Roger Ebert for making a film in 3-D when Ebert had written a widely-circulated column denouncing the technology as a mere scam to increase ticket prices. Ebert was in the audience for the festival's documentary conference, where Herzog and Errol Morris squared off on stage in conversation. It was quite a comical dialogue, and one I hope the festival can put online, as Herzog took Morris to task for taking too long in post-production. "You still are not disciplined!"

Well, I don't know about that. The documentary that Morris brought to the festival, Tabloid, is a tight little disciplined film about a very loose, undisciplined woman by the name of Joyce McKinney. The title refers to her discovery by the tabloid press in the 1970s, when she was arrested in London and charged with carrying out a libidinal attack on a Mormon missionary with whom she was obsessed (yes, please cross-index with films above). A former "Miss Wyoming" with a high IQ, she had tracked him to London and allegedly kidnapped him, holding him "captive" in a cottage in Dorset for what she remembers as a "honeymoon." Instead of a wedding, though, she got a jail cell. Morris conducted a number of interviews with her, did his due diligence, and assembled a fine investigation into the workings of fantasy and the nature of projection. While slight as a Morris work, it's a finely wrought tale of love gone wrong and a thrilling excavation of an era.

Documentaries, as usual, were some of the most enticing films on offer. Windfall tracked the threat being posed by so-called alternative energy in its chronicle of a small town in upstate New York riven by fights over the installation of wind turbines; it will change your view of the gentle windmill completely. Tears of Gaza gets down and dirty, refusing to spare viewers the sight of wreckage as bombing engulfs Gaza, leaving dead bodies and mangled lives in its wake. Mother of Rock is all about the life of Lillian Roxon, a woman of her time, journalist, rock fan, and author of the Rock Encyclopedia, ex-friend to Germaine Greer and Linda Eastman (a.k.a. Mrs. Paul McCartney), discoverer of Iggie Pop (who speaks at length and with great affection about her) and a breaking story in her own right.

Two of the best-received documentaries were by the Bay Area's own. Charles Fergusen's Inside Job is a scrupulous investigation, forensic in its details, of the 2008 financial collapse —and the reasons behind it. Fergusen is the anti-Michael-Moore: He gives us all the facts, timelines, charts, histories. And he makes us even madder! Not only is this a terrific expose of the times we live in, and a damning condemnation of Obama's financial team, but it may well be the start of the rehabilitation of Eliot Spitzer, in his earlier crime-fighting persona.

Finally, Lynn Hershman Leeson registered two standing ovations and counting at the festival for her new documentary on the history of the feminist art movement, W.A.R. Women Art Revolution. Full disclosure: I'm in it, so I can't really comment. Fuller disclosure: Women kept rushing up to me around Toronto and hugging me for my comments in the film. I've been in a lot of documentaries, but nothing like this has ever happened before. The film is shaping up to be a come-home-to-mama moment for a lot of women, both those who lived through the early days and those who didn't. I think Hershman Leeson may have a hit on her hands.

Finally: Guzman Reborn

Patricio Guzman, the lifelong chronicler of his beloved Chile and its fate at the hands of Pinochet, returned to Toronto for the first time in many years with a new feature, Nostalgia for the Light. I've kept it for the end because it was such a surprise, such a moving masterpiece. Who knew that Guzman was a lifelong lover of astronomy? He journeys to the far reaches of Chile, the dry desert where the most stars can be seen, where the heavens feel closer than anywhere else: the Alacama desert, site of one of the world's most important observatories. As Guzman begins to link astronomy to history, comparing and contrasting their functions, he slowly begins to expand his circles of inquiry. The dryness of the desert also mummifies bodies. History, horror, the universe, the earth beneath our feet, the galaxies above. Micro and macro. The universal, the particular. Obsession and magic. This is Guzman's leap into a different sort of cinema: a philosophical treatise that is as stunning to the eye as it is disturbing to the brain.

Sitting in the Bell Lightbox, the screen aglow with the visions of the Alacama, I was enthralled. So was the audience around me. Ah, for such transcendent moments do film festivals exist.