2000 TIFF Festival Daily Update #3: "Line Stories"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 9, 2000

One of the most common misconceptions people have about going to film festivals is that they're all about seeing movies. Nothing could be further from the truth. To borrow an old adage, movies may be what gets us there, but it isn't what keeps us coming. Going to the local multiplex and seeing five features back-to-back does not replicate the film festival experience, no matter how interesting and entertaining those productions may be. What's missing? The pomp and glitz of a world premiere, to be sure, but even that's not the main ingredient. The most telling absence is the lack of what I like to call "line stories."

Unless you're Roger Ebert, attending a festival means standing in line - sometimes for a very long time. If you don't have a ticket, you stand in line to get one. If you have a ticket, you stand in line to get the best available seat. This isn't just the case at Toronto - things are the same all over, whether it's sunny Cannes or freezing Park City. There are people who spend as much, if not more, time standing in line as they do watching movies. And they enjoy every moment of it, because the lines are where the action happens. That's where they hear the most interesting (and sometimes apocryphal) stories about what transpired before, during, or after a particular screening. That's where the rumors start flying and the actors are sighted getting out of their limos. That's where they learn the buzz about what to see and what to avoid. And that's where they engage in spirited, 30-minute conversations with people they will never see again.

It's still early days - this year's edition of the festival is barely old enough to be considered a toddler -- but I have learned a few things from standing in line (much of it for David Mamet's new film, State and Main). The first is that one of Roger Ebert's recent observations is 100% correct. Everyone in Toronto seems to be armed with both a cell phone and a palm pilot. The former, now stripped of its status as an indicator of prestige, is simply a tool. People no longer flaunt their cell phones; they use them when the need arises. (I have one, but I never bring it with me to screenings, nor do I employ it in public. I simply find it to be more convenient to use for making calls than the hotel telephone.) But the palm pilot - that's another matter. It's a toy to be shown off. People whip those things out with only the slightest provocation.

The second thing is that if you want to get into a public screening of a Mamet movie, you'd better have an advance ticket. This was the part of the update where I had intended to give an overview of State and Main. Unfortunately, since I never got closer than 30 people from the front of the line, there's not a lot I can say (the buzz claims that the film is good but not great). But I enjoyed spending time talking to four or five others in the same predicament, and learned from a young woman named Suzanne that my decision to skip a planned screening of The Goddess of 1967 in favor of The Weight of Water may have been a good move (I'm not so sure - see below). She called the movie bleak and unappealing and was unswerving in her approbation of it.

Ignoring the Opening and Closing Night Galas and some of the high-profile Perspective Canada features (which, not surprisingly, generate a lot of local interest), State and Main is the hottest ticket at this year's festival. It was the first movie to sell out both of its screenings, and, at the 1500-seat Elgin, only about 50 people were admitted from the rush line (about 100 fewer than is the norm). Right behind State and Main is Almost Famous, which has generated some of the most positive reviews to come out of this festival since last year's American Beauty. (I don't have a ticket to that film either, but since it opens next weekend, it's no big deal). Then there's The Weight of Water, from director Kathryn Bigelow, which is a hot property primarily because of its impressive cast. Or maybe because Elizabeth Hurley, now in post-Hugh Grant mode, shows off her shapely breasts. It certainly can't be the story, which, to be blunt, is pretty bad.

To date, Kathryn Bigelow's biggest claim to fame is being one of James Cameron's exes (not exactly an exclusive category). As a peace offering following their breakup, Cameron allowed her to direct Strange Days, which he had originally intended to helm himself. Her direction of the futuristic, hyperkinetic thriller showed a great deal of promise, but, with The Weight of Water, Bigelow has taken a big step backwards. Hot tickets at Toronto can easily turn into big busts - it's hard to imagine a bubble bursting with a louder "pop!" than the one surrounding this film.

The movie covers two time frames. The first, which transpires in 1873 on Smuttynose Island off the coast of New Hampshire, relates the story of a double murder, as German immigrant Louis Wagner (Ciaran Hinds) is convicted of brutally killing two women, spinster Karen (Katrin Cartlidge) and her sister-in-law, Anethe (Vinessa Shaw). The sole survivor and lone witness is Karen's sister, Maren (Sarah Polley), whose testimony puts Wagner's neck in the hangman's noose. But, as things turn out, Maren may be hiding secrets of her own.

A century and a quarter later, a photojournalist, Jean (Catherine McCormack), is investigating the case, and believes she may have uncovered new evidence. This occurs while she's on a several-day boat trip with her poet husband, Thomas (Sean Penn), Thomas' brother, Rich (Josh Lucas), and Rich's girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). But, while Jean is obsessing over Wagner's conviction, her marriage is slipping away. Thomas is increasingly indifferent to her and Adaline is doing everything in her power to attract his attention. Jean doesn't know what to do to rekindle what she and Thomas once had (or, perhaps she knows but is unwilling to do it).

The Weight of Water plays out like a conventional murder mystery that has been forced into an art film structure. The continual skipping back-and-forth between time frames might have worked if there was a reason for it, but the jumps seem to happen at random. Bigelow attempts to apply a kind of parallelism to a story that inherently has none. The result is a dysfunctional movie that comes across as the product of a mainstream director trying - and failing - to do something artistic. Almost every decision that Bigelow makes concerning The Weight of Water's structure is wrong, damaging the film's flow. The material is not inherently uninteresting, but the way the director approaches it renders it confusing and aimless.

Bigelow's approach has also muted her actors. Sean Penn is so low-key that he occasionally blends in with the pretty backgrounds (when he isn't spouting the kind of pretentious nonsense that poets in movies are always expected to recite). Equally subdued are Catherine McCormack and Sarah Polley, two fine young actresses who deserve better treatment that they are given here. The only one to exhibit a spark of life is Elizabeth Hurley, who gleefully bares her breasts and spends an inordinate amount of time seductively sucking on things (ice cubes, crab claws - basically anything she can get her lips around). And, while I don't mean to disparage Hurley's ability as an actress, you know a movie is in trouble when she's the standout.

The Weight of Water contains multiple ax murders, lesbianism, incest, a hanging, and a storm at sea - yet, despite all of this seemingly enticing material, it's a bore. The reason is simple - Bigelow is so intent upon making a non-exploitative movie that she de-sensationalizes the film to the point where it loses all energy. The elements are all in place, but, it's like going to the pages of National Geographic to find pictures of nude women - they exist but they aren't going to provoke the desired reaction. So it goes with The Weight of Water, a close second to Dr. T and the Women for Toronto's biggest early disappointment.

And that's the story I told the people standing with me in line to see State and Main...

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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