A Void in September

August 17, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

For all the benefits fatherhood brings, there are sacrifices as well. This September, for the first time in fourteen years, I will not be traveling north of the border the week after Labor Day. Since 1997, my summers have ended with a ritual that includes roughly a week at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) followed by a "vacation from the vacation" - a few days of decompression free of writing and movie-going. This year, however, will be different. Baby Michael will be four months old around the time the festival begins and I have decided it's more important to spend that week in September with him. Still, I'd be lying if I claimed I won't experience a few "wish I was there" pangs.

Although it doesn't make sense to attend the festival from a personal point-of-view, what about from a business perspective? After all, although ReelViews is not lucrative enough to be considered more than an avocation, it provides me with a little extra income and I run it like a business. Every Sunday, I spend several hours tallying the advertising revenue (which, it must be said, has been paltry this year - fewer clicks on ads and lower rates, but that's a function of increased ad blindness and a faltering economy) and balancing the books. Lately, I have been pondering dumping the amazon.com links altogether because they generate almost no return, either because the number of people buying DVDs and Blu-Rays has dropped dramatically, or the number of people using my links to buy them has decreased. Either way, they amount I'm making from them doesn't justify their upkeep, but I'll keep those links intact until the end of the year (at least), hoping things will pick up during the holiday shopping season. But I digress...

The reality is that I can continue to do my job as a film critic without ever attending a film festival. Most of the movies I see in Toronto are available to me during regular press screenings and those that aren't, I often don't write about. In any given year, I see about 30 films during the festival, but only discuss 2/3 of those. Most of the low-profile films I see, I see purely for personal satisfaction. I watch the majority of mainstream releases a second time before finalizing the review because I can't always trust my judgment of something seen in a film-festival atmosphere. It can be different experiencing a movie on its own during a regular local press screening than as #3 of 5 on a crowded festival docket. Details get lost. One's focus isn't as sharp. There is occasional "bleed" from the production seen immediately before or after. There have been times when my opinion of a film has shifted (either up or down, although not greatly) when seeing it in non-festival circumstances. This is the reason I do not assign stars in festival reports.

This lesson came into bas relief with Paul Haggis' Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2006. I saw the movie for the first time at TIFF during the 2004 festival and decreed that it was mediocre. When the film was released to the general public a year later, I didn't bother to see it, opting instead to recycle and amplify my festival coverage for the review. I soon came under fire for "undervaluing" the movie. I decided to see it a second time during its theatrical release and was surprised to find it more cohesive and compelling than I remembered - not Top 10 material, to be sure, but warranting a recommendation. I re-wrote the review and changed the rating from **1/2 to ***. Those interested in doing a little ReelViews archeology can find the festival report for Crash here and the final review here. Note the change in tone.

Curiously, my daily TIFF reports are among the least popular features to appear on this site, with most of them drawing no more than 1000 readers. More people will peruse this ReelThought than have read any of my festival reports (and there are well over 100 of them, covering 13 years). The daily traffic bump to the site when I'm in Toronto is less than 5% and the revenue bump, if there is one, is negligible. Since I spend about $2500 per year for travel and accommodations, that puts me in a financial hole every year since almost none of that is directly recouped through the site. So, based purely on what my balance sheet says, attending TIFF is a losing proposition. It's also draining. Seeing five movies a day is one thing; seeing five movies a day and filing a write-up that takes three hours to write and edit is another thing altogether. Sleep? Who needs it? At the end of last year's festival, I decided that, going forward, I would cut back my columns to every other day (Thursday, Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday). Of course, that plan - like others - went out the window on the night I returned home; that's when Sheryl informed me she was pregnant. Still, if I return in 2011, the nature of my coverage will be somewhat different.

It was the week after Labor Day in 1997 when I first arrived in Toronto. I remember the time period clearly. The route from my hotel on King Street to the main festival venues caused me to pass the Princess of Wales Theater. Since Princess Diana's death had occurred only a few days earlier, the volume of flowers was astonishing. The only other time I have seen something like it was outside the American Consulate in 2001. As is always the case when you're in a strange city for the first time, you don't know where you're going or what you're doing. I ended up taking an unplanned walk far to the north of downtown Toronto one night when I got turned around. My sense of direction is usually impeccable, but not that night. Still, it gave me a chance to see some things I might not have seen had I taken a less scenic route. I don't remember many of the movies from that year, although Gattaca was among the best. For me, the highlight was my first face-to-face meeting with Roger Ebert, with whom I had been e-corresponding for almost a year. We spent an informal evening together - grabbed a bit to eat, wandered around the city a little, then caught The Edge, toward which he was more favorably inclined than I.

2001 was, without question, the most memorable festival in many ways. I arrived in Toronto on Thursday, September 6 and was joined that evening by Sheryl, who flew in from Chicago and was experiencing her first (and, to date, only) Toronto Film Festival. It was very early in our relationship, but this seemed like an excellent choice for our "second date." (When you have an on-line relationship and end up spending widely separated chunks of time together, it becomes difficult to define the term "date.") Constrained by her work and school schedule, she was unable to stay beyond the weekend, so I waved goodbye to her as she got in a cab on the evening of Sunday, September 9. Only a small number of people knew it at the time, but the clock was already ticking.

On September 11, I left my hotel at about 8:30 in the morning, headed for the Cumberland Theater, where Joy Ride was playing. Sometime during my trip uptown, perhaps while I was riding the subway, the first plane hit. By the time I arrived at the theater, the North Tower was already in flames, but the second tower had not yet been struck. The first I heard about the attack was when someone I knew wandered into the auditorium at 9:20 and remarked that planes had flown into both towers of the World Trade Center. Foolishly, I thought he meant private planes, not jetliners. I didn't think much of it until I emerged from Joy Ride. A report blaring from a parked truck's radio stated that both towers had collapsed and were no more.

The festival closed down at 2 pm on September 11, allowing those of us attending to sit in our hotel rooms and watch the TV coverage. Although it officially re-opened the morning of September 12, it was a shell of what it might have been. Half the guests and many of the prints were stuck overseas and an understandable pall hung over the proceedings. No one felt like celebrating; attending screenings became an obligatory way to pass the time. I was scheduled to fly out on September 14, but it was several days after that when I was finally able to get a flight. Every year since 2001, September 11 has fallen during the festival, and I have been in Toronto on that date. When you're in the same place that you were in 2001, it's impossible not to reflect and remember. Here's the festival update from 9/11/01.

The first year I was at the festival, the main venues were the Uptown, the Backstage, and the Cumberland (where it all started). The Elgin and Roy Thompson Hall were used for galas and special presentations. And the brand-spankin'-new Varsity 8-plex was making its festival debut. By last year, the Uptown and Backstage were both long gone, having been bulldozed to make way for high rise condos, but the other venues continued to be in use. This year, with the opening of the Bell Lightbox, it appears there will be a reconfiguration of venues. Rumor has it the Varsity will no longer be used for the festival, although it's unclear whether that applies solely to press/industry screenings or whether it includes public showings as well.

Obviously, the reason I attend TIFF has little to do with whether it makes business sense or not and whether it gives me "early access" to some of the year's end Oscar bait. It's all about the rush and the sense of discovery. Every movie offers a new experience and, with five of them in a day, that's five new worlds to plunge into. Then there's the sheer thrill of dashing from one screening to the next, nailing down a place in line, and talking eagerly to fellow festival-goers (many of whom are strangers) about what's good and what's bad. Get up early, shower, grab a cup of strong coffee, see a movie or two, catch a meal on the run, go back for another film before a hasty dinner followed by a couple more after, get to bed late - rinse, lather, and repeat. It's a week divorced from reality, separated from the everyday mundane minutia of life within the hermetically sealed environment of a film festival. Seven days and 30-35 films (although dedicated attendees without deadlines might manage as many as 40 or 45) - some will likely be among the best of the year and, unfortunately, there will be some duds as well. When it's all over, exhaustion sets in, but it's a "good" kind of exhaustion. The festival experience is hard to describe and impossible to replicate in other circumstances - you have to go through it to understand it. It can also be addictive. I know of at least one critic who spends his year hopping from festival to festival because he can never get enough.

Festivals have their life cycles. Opening Night is the birth - expectations and hopes are high and everything seems possible. Everyone is psyched. The quality of the Opening Night Gala is almost irrelevant - it's a time to get dressed up and join the party. The first weekend represents the carefree period of youth, when the best offerings of the front-loaded festival go on display and when conflicts generate frustration. Sleep deprivation hasn't yet set in, so the likelihood of dozing off is minimal. Things settle down by the mid-life period of Monday and Tuesday, but there's still some good stuff to be found. It's getting to be a grind, however, and the end seems to be approaching fast as the beginning recedes in the rear-view mirror. Non-standout films are blurring together into an undistinguished mish-mash. By Wednesday, the festival is losing steam as old age sets in. There are no longer lines at the box office, many journalists and stars are departing, and the best the festival has to offer has slipped into the past tense. Weekend #2 represents the end, with the Closing Night film feeling almost funereal. Another year, another festival - time to get ready for next September.

So I won't be there in 2010. I console myself by recognizing that I won't have to endure the punishing 10-hour drive each way which, even in the best of conditions, is no fun. And by looking at the weak lineup and saying, "If there's any year to miss, this is the year." Truth be told, last year wasn't that great - after a pretty good 2008 (the Best Picture Oscar winners for both 2010 and 2009 showed at the 2008 festival). Toronto can't be blamed for a weak roster - that's a function of what's available and what the studios are offering and, over the last two years, pickings have been slim. Still, it isn't about overall quality, and I know this. That's just something I tell myself to feel a little better about missing a week I always look forward to.

But there is a salve to the wound, and he is squirming around on a blanket near my feet as I write this. I am giving up Toronto not out of necessity but out of choice. As much as I'd love to be pounding the pavement during the day and tapping on the laptop keyboard while munching on room service at night, staying home with my young son is the better option. Festivals come and go, but Michael's first year will not repeat. There are times when even the greatest movie events take second place.