TIFF Memoir

An event calling itself the 45th annual Toronto International Film Festival kicked off last Thursday with a drastically reduced slate of films, a mix of streaming and socially distanced public screenings, a limited and entirely virtual press gallery, and celebrity Q&As held via Twitter. As someone who has himself been tasked with reconceiving square-peg events into the round hole of the pandemic, I sympathize with the dilemma faced by TIFF’s executives and organizers. It’s a no-win situation, but they’ve made a festival. Good for them. That said: this is the first TIFF in many years that I won’t be participating in. It’s nothing personal. I just don’t want to go to a movie theatre right now, and I also don’t want to pay $30 for a virtual screening when Tubi is available on another browser.

TIFF occupies such a disproportionate space in Toronto film culture that kvetching about it is a hobby for local cinephiles. But the fact is, I love TIFF. I love seeing movies when they are shiny and new, and I love seeing famous people, and I love waiting in a line that stretches around the block, and I love the particular energy that overtakes the patios on King Street for 10 days every September. I love the whole thing. As a teenager, I remember watching a local show called Reel to Real where critics Geoff Pevere and Richard Crouse would stand on a street corner in Yorkville and talk about their festival experience between screenings of Where the Truth Lies or Head in the Clouds, and I have never fully outgrown the fantasy of wanting to be on that street corner with them. TIFF has done a commendable job of finding ways to show movies this year, but the festival isn’t the same without the street corner. I hope it will be back next year.

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The Gary Graver Story

(The following was first published in The Important Cinema Club Journal in February 2019)

In 1970, a young cameraman named Gary Graver cold-called called his hero, Orson Welles, to offer his services. Graver (born in 1938) had seen Touch of Evil as a teenager, and wondered why the director of this great film had been given so few opportunities to work. Graver told Welles that if he ever needed a cinematographer, he was available, and money was not an issue. Welles brushed Graver off, but called him back later that day. Only one other cinematographer had volunteered his services to Welles: Gregg Toland, who shot Citizen Kane. Clearly this was a sign. So began a collaboration that lasted until Welles’ death in 1985. Together, Welles and Graver pursued a bewildering number of projects, from for-hire hackwork to Welles’ final masterpieces.gary-graver-star-wagon

Graver did exactly not come with Gregg Toland’s pedigree. When he met Welles, he had been working regularly with Al Adamson, the drive-in auteur behind Satan’s Sadists and Dracula vs. Frankenstein. But Welles had also been exiled to the fringes of Hollywood, and was shooting in the sorts of impoverished circumstances in which Graver also toiled. Used to operating fast, cheap, and resourcefully, Graver brought these skills to Welles’ late works. Over time, Graver’s duties extended far beyond the camera: he became Welles’ all-purpose gofer and right-hand-man. Whenever Welles performed a magic trick on TV, it was always Gary who was “plucked from the audience.” They are said to have spoken on the phone almost every day. Continue reading “The Gary Graver Story”

Video Stores I Have Known

Sometime in the late ‘90s, when I was still just a lad, my dad laid out to me the future of entertainment. Soon, he said, the internet would advance to such a point that it would be possible to watch every movie ever made without leaving your home. You would have some sort of plug-in on your TV through which you could search for your desired title and “rent” it instantly – no video store required. When would such a development come to fruition? Not for a long time, my dad said, but “they’re working on it now.”

I had mixed feelings about this prognostication. On the one hand, even at that age there were movies I wanted to see that were not available at my local Blockbuster – and thus, may as well not even exist. On the other hand, my family’s weekly trip to Blockbuster was my most treasured weekly ritual. Dad and I agreed that nothing would replace the special feeling of browsing a video store’s aisles. Well, twenty-and-change years later, it’s safe to say that most people have found the video store experience to be very replaceable. As of this writing, two video stores remain standing in downtown Toronto (Bay Street Video and Eyesore Cinema), which is two more than most cities have. God bless them, long may they reign. Continue reading “Video Stores I Have Known”

The Eternal Present

Movies in Quarantine

The last movie I saw in a theatre was Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du lac. Later that same evening came news that Tom Hanks had contracted coronavirus, which was the exact moment when the situation became real. Bresson felt like a suitably apocalyptic note to go out on, as well as a somewhat more dignified farewell than, say, Sonic the Hedgehog, which I saw a few weeks earlier followed by cheap wings and beer at the local dive bar. That was a great night, by the way. So was the night in January when the boys and I had dinner at Mandarin and then hit up Dolittle for larfs. Nights like those once felt unremarkable and maybe even a little wasteful, and now feel like a lost Eden.

Unless your name is Christopher Nolan, the closure of movie theatres probably hasn’t been at the top of your mind. You’ve probably been thinking more about the safety of your older and/or immunocompromised loved ones, or the possibility that you will be laid off by your employer. If you work from home, you may be coping with how your work life has suddenly infected your home life. If you’re single, you may be struggling with isolation, and even if you’re not single, you’ve probably still felt a bit lonely (have you been to a Zoom birthday party? It’s kinda hard to make small talk). That said, with nothing else to do in the evening, there’s a good chance you’ve been watching more movies than ever. In this space, I would like to record a few observations about watching a lot of movies in these strange and difficult times. Continue reading “The Eternal Present”

The Motern Cinematic Universe

Notes on the Art of Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh

When I was six years old, I directed a superhero movie with my parents’ video camera called Superwillie. I starred as the title character, and my dad graciously played the villain, a Freddy Krueger-like character named “Claws.” A lot of kids make backyard movies like this, and if you grow up to become Steven Spielberg, it becomes part of the story of how you were always destined for greatness. If you don’t become Steven Spielberg, you stop making them. Matt Farley never stopped.

Farley is the owner of “Motern Media,” which is less a production company than a DIY brand, like Dreamland Films was for John Waters. With his friend Charles Roxburgh, he began making feature-length movies in college for budgets of zero dollars. Now in their early 40s, they have graduated to making movies for several thousand dollars. With Farley as lead actor/co-writer/sometime-director, and Roxburgh as co-writer and most-time-director, they specialize in comedy horror movies, with the emphasis much more on comedy than horror. Their titles include Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, Freaky Farley, Slingshot Cops, and Monsters, Marriage and Murder in Manchvegas. All are shot in quiet Manchester, New Hampshire with a recurring troupe of non-actor friends and with special effects that are almost on par with the ones Roger Corman was using in the ‘50s.

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Notes on Woody Allen’s Memoir

If you’re a white, male cinephile of a certain socioeconomic background, there’s a good chance that Woody Allen established for you the archetype of what a great auteur looks like. Here was a man who wrote, directed, and often starred in his own films, with a set of recurring ideas and preoccupations, blessed with total creative control. A man of such good taste, and so indifferent to the whims of publicity, that he didn’t even bother to pick up his Oscars, preferring instead to stay in New York to play jazz with his band. A man with such high personal standards that, despite directing the likes of Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Crimes and Misdemeanors, he believed he never made a truly great film.

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The January Movies

As an experiment, I decided to invest a lot of my free time these past few weeks into seeing the January 2020 movie releases. January is generally agreed to be the worst month of the year for movies, so why would I do such a thing? First of all, it’s the start of a new decade, and having spent a lot of time reflecting on the 2010s – a decade of vast, sometimes tumultuous change to the cinematic landscape – I liked the idea of “a new year… a fresh, clean start” (to quote Calvin), “like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on” (to quote Hobbes). Secondly, after all the Christmas blockbusters and Oscar bait, I liked the idea of wallowing in filth.

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Cinema is Roger Corman

(The following was written as liner notes for the Important Cinema Club Bargain-Bin Classics Blu-Ray release, Roger Corman: The Auteur,” which makes a great stocking-stuffer)

Cinema is a battleground between art and commerce on which commerce usually wins. It is an inherently collaborative medium in which most of the masterpieces are the product of a single authorial voice. It combines all the arts into one super-form, but it has always been populist, and just a little bit déclassé. Its images are frozen in amber, but the same images can change radically depending on our age and the context in which we view them. It is a medium through which to escape the world around us, but also to make sense of it, and to experiment with ideas that our parents and teachers would prefer we didn’t. It is an art form defined by compromise, and a career path where few succeed, and yet it is still irresistible because, as Orson Welles said, it is the biggest electric train set a boy could ever have.

There is one producer/director whose career encapsulates all of these contradictions, paradoxes, agonies, and ecstasies. Cinema is Roger Corman.

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Against Entertainment

2010s Faves

Assembling a list of favourite movies of the decade is obviously an arbitrary exercise, so I used a few questions as a guide. Which movies from the 2010s do I think about the most? Which movies have most influenced the way I think about movies? Which movies seem to best capture “the spirit of the times”? It’s interesting to see which movies emerge and which recede.

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The Fall Movies

(Warning: spoilers throughout)

How totally has the Disney Company come to dominate the cultural landscape? There have been no new movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe since early July, but it still managed to almost swallow the most expensive adult drama of the year. In the weeks leading up to the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, conversation about the film has focused almost exclusively on the director’s claim that superhero movies are “not cinema” – a discourse cycle that climaxed with Scorsese’s extraordinary op-ed in the New York Times.

In his essay, Scorsese laments “the gradual but steady elimination of risk” in studio films that are “made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes” – unlike artist-driven films where “my sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded.” He laments the stranglehold that franchise movies have had on theatres: “If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.” He accuses the financial dominance of “worldwide audiovisual entertainment” of being used to deliberately marginalize “cinema.” And he laments the power of “some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude towards the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary – a lethal combination.”

Continue reading “Forward”