Taking Control of Chaos: What It’s Like Binge-Viewing Over 60 Hours of Movies at a Film Festival
Even for a professional, movie-fuelled disassociation is inevitable when covering TIFF.
We all think of filmgoing as a leisurely activity—I mean, the minimum requirement for the viewer is to just show up and sit there for 90 minutes or so—but a film festival is a different beast entirely, especially for someone who's obsessed with movies. Incessant filmgoing is not something I dabble in for 11 days just once a year. It's a year-round activity, an obsession that never grows old. But for any Toronto cinephile, TIFF is the most manic period in the city's filmgoing calendar.
The festival is a little more complicated if you're also a journalist, as you find yourself in a relentless (if very often pleasurable) grind: a marathon interrupted by the occasional sprint. Doing this right requires a massive time commitment and a singularity of purpose, but even that can't protect you from the dark side. For all the great films you've seen in past festivals, the impending TIFF melee also triggers memories of tedium, exhaustion, and movie-fuelled disassociation.
The days before the festival begins are all about tying up loose ends. In a sense, covering TIFF is a lot like going on vacation—with two crucial differences: (1) you return home every night and (2) you constantly have work to do. During the festival, you become one of those people who is always too busy to answer emails, even invitations to cocktail parties featuring free drinks and movie stars.
Knowing it's impossible to see everything worthwhile, you try to find a reasonable balance between your interests and your obligations. Past experience teaches you that sticking to this schedule is virtually impossible, but piecing it together is still a gruelling process. After all, every film you choose is 20 films you miss.
DAY 1: Thursday, September 10
Going into my first film, I learn that the co-director of The Chickening has sent responses to my interview questions, and the interview needed to be edited immediately. As a result, The Chickening—an insane re-mix of The Shining—is in the back of my mind the whole time I watch Hitchcock/Truffaut. Several hours later, I'm ready for my second screening of the day, but I wind up at the wrong theatre. Fortunately, texts from my editor and a fellow contributor confirm that they're in line at the right theatre, helping me secure a respectable seat.
As your festival routine kicks in, the only people you maintain regular contact with are those similarly immersed in the alternate universe of TIFF. In addition to my editor, the core of my entourage is an old friend who works in acquisitions for a California-based distributor. I only see him once a year, but we tend to find time for dinner, drinks and/or movies just about every day of the festival.
After our first festival meet-up, I wind up in the longest movie line I've ever seen—at the first public screening of Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next. Experiencing TIFF in more digestible doses, the public is often in a better position to enjoy the proceedings. This may explain the exaggerated enthusiasm often found at public screenings. Where to Invade Next turns out to be one of Moore's least accomplished efforts, but the audience dutifully rewards his good intentions with a standing ovation.
DAY 2: Friday, September 11
You're always in a rush at TIFF, but this is especially true during the chaos of the first weekend. Thanks to delays at the Princess of Wales Theatre's press and industry screening of The Martian, I only have seven minutes to get to the Scotiabank for Youth, my third screening of the day. Wondering why I'm late, my editor sends a series of texts to check on my status. I scramble to respond while delicately weaving through a flurry of people moving in every conceivable direction. After a decade covering the festival, this scenario is so familiar that the obvious dangers don't even cross my mind. And then someone passing in front of me stops abruptly, forcing me to do the same. My phone flies from my hands, landing facedown on the sidewalk. When I pick it up, my worst fears are confirmed: the screen is completely smashed.
This was a fitting blunder, as TIFF often feels like a much-needed experiment in cell-phone deprivation. If you fully commit to the festival, your phone is likely to go dark for upwards of 100 (non-continuous) hours.
Which is actually not such a bad thing. Surviving the chaos and clutter of TIFF requires a kind of single-minded focus that is increasingly difficult to achieve in these phone-saturated times. To take it all in, you have to block out some of the usual distractions. When your phone is rendered almost unusable, this shift is even more dramatic, heightening your senses and making you far more attentive to your surroundings. Still, if you can avoid breaking your phone, that's probably for the best.
DAY 3: Saturday, September 12
Phone etiquette has grown far more civilized at TIFF, but my first screening of the day (Evolution) is disrupted by a flash photo, a line-crossing faux pas that could only be an accident. This screening is also disrupted by mysterious house music booming from a neighbouring theatre, even though no film is scheduled in that time slot.
With so much time spent alone in lines or waiting for movies to start, eavesdropping is an unavoidable part of TIFF. Members of the industry are often heard revealing elliptical details about themselves, hinting at mysterious biographies that never fully come into focus. Of course, overheard TIFF conversations extend far beyond the boundaries of the festival. During an amusing subway ride on day three, I overhear an adolescent boy mercilessly mock his father for expressing an interest in Deepa Mehta's Indian-Canadian gangster comedy, Beeba Boys.
If you have non-passholder friends who happen to be festivalgoers, there is one way to stay in touch during TIFF: public screenings. However, a case could be made that this is more hassle than it's worth, particularly during opening weekend. On Saturday night, I join four friends for a public screening of Maggie's Plan, but we spend roughly two hours in the cold/rain before we're allowed inside the theatre. I vow not to make that mistake again.
DAY 4: Sunday, September 13
As I leave my first screening of the day, I get a text from a friend in Montreal asking if I plan to see a film called James White. In a strange piece of synchronicity, this happens to be the film I just emerged from. Not long after this, another friend texts to ask if I can recommend any films to his girlfriend... who just happens to be walking past me while I'm in line for Black Mass. During the chaos of TIFF, these kinds of coincidences create a false sense of order that's vaguely reassuring.
As I take my seat for Black Mass, a European distributor engages in a friendly chat with someone standing in the aisle. Once this visitor wanders off, the distributor wipes the smile off his face, turns to his colleagues, and starts venting about a variety of slights and infractions. He's "offended" by this and "disappointed" by that. His cohorts roll their eyes, but the man's frustration only grows. Eventually, his companions tell him he needs professional help. Whatever the cause of this crisis, two thirds of the trio dart from the theatre halfway through the film.
For the most part, covering TIFF is a smooth, even idyllic experience. Given all the obvious perks of a press pass, it's easy to tolerate the occasional drawback, but there are a few. For example, you may find yourself watching films from seats you'd never tolerate under normal circumstances. During Hardcore—an ultra-violent Midnight Madness selection shot entirely from the protagonist's point-of-view—I wind up in the second row, a vantage point that renders this film almost unwatchable. (At one point the protagonist smashes his phone after falling from a moving helicopter, an incident that seems no more traumatic than my own phone mishap a few days earlier.)
The occasional sub-par seat plays a role in the frequent walkouts at press and industry screenings, but this also stems from the price of admission (free) and the abundance of options and obligations found elsewhere. Except in very extreme cases, I have a strict no-walkouts policy. For press, suffering through the occasional film is part of the job. It's a different story for distributors—who are really there to sample as many films as possible—but I still interpret every walkout as a scathing insult.
If you don't believe in walkouts, you become very familiar with the feeling of being trapped in a movie that is failing to achieve the desired effect. In my experience, it only takes around 15 minutes to determine if a film is working, and it's rare for any film to nosedive or make a miraculous recovery. By my estimate, approximately 20 percent of the films I see during the festival are walkout-worthy. If you tough it out, your mind wanders to other things, hatching plans for later in the day and generally making the best of a bad situation.
DAY 5: Monday, September 14
After my fourth screening of the day, I meet my California friend for a quick drink. My plan is to see Janis: Little Girl Blue in half an hour, making this a rare five-film day. But our quick drink turns into four hours of boozing, bringing us into contact with a gathering of American theatre programmers and a party hosted by the Fantasia Film Festival. It wouldn't be TIFF without a few nights like this.
DAY 6: Tuesday, September 15
Watching dozens of films in a condensed period of time has some unanticipated effects. For one, it tends to exaggerate the significance of recurring themes and incidents. If you saw Black Mass and Spotlight, you might conclude that Boston is nightmarishly corrupt and dangerous. If you saw Baskin and The Lobster, you might develop a strange neurosis about knives and eyeballs. If you saw The Other Side and The Family Fang, you might feel compelled to shoot cars with assault rifles and/or potato cannons. Those are the first three examples that come to mind, but the list goes on and on.
Over the last few days, I've rolled the dice on several wild cards—with mixed results. Now halfway through the festival, I'm tempted to take risk out of the equation, if only for a few hours. I spend a big chunk of my day watching a pristine 35mm print of Michael Mann's 1995 epic Heat. With the director in attendance celebrating the film's 20th anniversary, this screening proves to be one of the highlights of my festival.
DAY 7: Wednesday, September 16
I'm feeling somewhat revived by yesterday's Heat screening, but the long hours and repetition are starting to wear on the nerves of some pass-holders. During a screening of Demolition, a journalist in the seat beside me squirms through every minute of the film, cracking his knuckles, chewing his press pass, and repeatedly pulling a hoodie off and on (generally backwards). As the lights go down before the screening, he even turns to ask what movie we're watching.
It's not clear if fatigue has anything to do with it, but factual errors also become more prevalent in pre-screening small talk. While waiting for Anomalisa—one of the best films I saw at the festival—to start, I hear someone express curiosity about High-Rise. After acknowledging some bad buzz, he explains that he's a fan of director Ben Wheatley, particularly "his last film, Kill List." (Wheatley actually directed two other films in the intervening four years.) When his friend asks what Kill List is about, he complicates matters further by summarizing the plot for Wheatley's Sightseers.
If anything, my pace seems to be accelerating, with one curious side effect: the line between fiction and reality is starting to blur. Just hours after watching a vicious killer torment several victims in The Girl in the Photographs, I cross paths with that very actor in front of TIFF Bell Lightbox—and I'm genuinely afraid. Even after processing the reality of this, I'm still half-convinced this dude is dangerous.
DAY 8: Thursday, September 17
As the festival crowds start to dissipate, everything about TIFF gets easier. This may explain why there's no sense of relief associated with the home stretch. In fact, the winding down process is somewhat bittersweet. Sure, it will be nice to eat normal food again and get a good night's sleep, but you start feeling comfortable with the simplicity of the festival routine: line up, watch movie, repeat.
That said, there's a limited supply of worthwhile new movies in the world, and you feel a diminished sense of potential with each passing day. Early in the festival, many films are screening for the first time, creating a sense that anything is possible. Some are gems, some are duds, some are a bit of both, but there's real excitement in the mystery. By day eight, you know what to expect, and most of the films that remain have been discredited in some way. At this late stage in the festival, even a worthwhile film feels like a non-event.
Keith Richards: Under the Influence is a perfect example. While this documentary hits all the right notes and Richards turns up for a lively Q&A, director Morgan Neville's introduction reveals that the film is coming to Netflix... tomorrow. This kind of buzzkill bombshell would never fly during opening weekend.
DAY 9: Friday, September 18
While watching Hitchcock/Truffaut on the first day of the festival, I found myself pondering the challenges of interviewing a filmmaker in another language. A week later, I'm at Rue Morgue Manor interviewing Yakuza Apocalypse director Takashi Miike—through his Japanese translator.
This was an irresistible opportunity, but it did result in a regrettable TIFF first. In the 11 consecutive years that I've covered the festival, this is the first time I've gone a full day without attending a screening. Even on the heels of a five-film Thursday, I felt no need to slow down, but I had to watch an online screener of Miike's film, do all kinds of research, and wait as the interview fell further and further behind schedule.
MOVIES SEEN: Yakuza Apocalypse
DAY 10: Saturday, September 19
With most of the press and industry now long gone and most of my writing assignments complete, I treat myself to all 381 minutes of Miguel Gomes' artfully eccentric Arabian Nights Trilogy. In this public screening, I'm seated beside Theresa ("like Mother Teresa," but with very different taste in entertainment), a spirited movie fan, who seems to be acquainted with almost everyone in our vicinity. Repeatedly describing herself as an old woman with limited stamina, she has nonetheless made it through 25 films at the festival. While quizzing me on my TIFF experience, she even manages to tell an off-colour joke about The Lobster. Under normal circumstances, this interaction might have been replaced by texts, email, or some other smartphone time-killer. Our brief chat proves to be a refreshing alternative, but as the festival comes to an end and everything goes back to normal, I can no longer ignore my most urgent errand: I need to get my phone fixed.
Top photo from The Lobster. All film stills courtesy TIFF