(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2002)
My wife knows a couple whose son is a movie producer, and he recently produced a family film called Virginia’s Run which had its Toronto premiere at the Sprockets film festival – that’s the annual kids-friendly offshoot of the Toronto film festival. They gave us a couple of tickets, so we went up to Canada Square on Saturday afternoon. Virtually everyone in the theatre seemed to be connected to someone in the movie, and this wasn’t entirely a good thing (the grandmother of one of the actors was sitting behind us, and she yapped away through the whole film) – on the other hand, it made the experience seem much more immediate and tangible than a conventional trip to the movies.
That same week, Toronto also had a Jewish film festival, a documentary film festival and a black film festival, and in the past week or two there’d already been a minority images film festival and French film festival. There may have been others. When we saw Virginia’s Run, the theatre was vibrant and buzzing. There were signs in the lobby for some kind of animation display, and before the film, someone stood up and described where we should stand afterwards in the event of being parted from the people we came with (a practice the Scotiabank theatre might usefully adopt on Friday nights). Just like at the film festival proper, the movie was introduced by the producer and a “starlet” (that’s the term he used) from the film, but they seemed much more light-spirited and relaxed than the people who introduce the adult movies every September.
This was a great reminder of cinema’s effectiveness at forging communities and sub-cultures, even if they only exist for a few shining hours. Going to the Carlton for instance, the makeup of the audience doesn’t seem to vary much whether it’s a Taiwanese movie or an Iranian one or a French one. It’s an “art film” location, and that’s the audience it gets. I assume most festivals market themselves more strategically and get the word out to their target audiences. I’d love to visit all of the Toronto mini-festivals at some point, spend some time soaking up their different nuances and ambiences. At one or two a year, I’ll be through by 2060 or so.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Virginia’s Run itself did very much to galvanize the audience, not even the kids – it’s just too shapeless and shallow (horse lovers will like it more than others will). Anyway, that was that, and then (maybe feeling in need of something more adult) we spontaneously decided to go to Changing Lanes, the Ben Affleck-Samuel L Jackson urban thriller. I do the double bill thing relatively often, but my wife never does. It was so exciting to have her along – we even went to Taco Bell first.
There’s nothing too esoteric about the Varsity Saturday afternoon audience, and there’s nothing about the movie that would have required it to be. I don’t think Changing Lanes is quite as deep or as subtle as some reviews claim. The movie is about a rich lawyer (Affleck) and a struggling insurance salesman (Jackson) who get involved in a fender-bender, from which the lawyer bolts. Arriving at court, he finds he left a crucial file at the scene of the accident. Jackson has it, but won’t give it back. Affleck pays a crooked computer hacker to have Jackson declared bankrupt; Jackson retaliates by loosening one of the wheels on Affleck’s car.
When I describe the plot that way, it sounds like the tit-for-tat of a Laurel and Hardy duel, and the movie does have a blackly comic quality to it. It also has a rueful moral quality, as both men reassess their values and behaviour. But since the action is all confined to a single day, the picture can’t escape the feeling of contrivance and excessive compression. The portrayal of the business world is particularly superficial, such as the scene where a senior corporate lawyer, on hearing a crucial document may have gone missing, takes about ten seconds to blithely come out with a scheme to forge a replacement.
Changing Lanes is a fair-sized hit and it’s being viewed as a cut above the formulaic melodrama. I think that only illustrates how much standards have slipped. The film certainly evokes and refers in passing to a range of serious matters, but it hardly pauses for contemplation.
Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner
The following day I went alone to Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner. The film runs over three hours, and at one point I had to get up to go to the bathroom. I’d never noticed before, but the Cumberland 2 has an emergency exit right next to the main entrance, and I went out through the wrong door. I found myself in a corridor that clearly wasn’t the way I’d come in, but I had no idea how that could have happened. I felt more disorientated than I have for a long while, as though something fundamental had changed.
I think this speaks to the effect that the film was already having on me at that point. Arguably the most notable Canadian film in years (well, you can argue it’s the most notable ever made), it’s a tale of the Inuit, spanning generations. The film forges its own narrative and visual language so comprehensively and successfully that you feel it’s mere coincidence that something occasionally looks familiar (a shot outside a tent, capturing a silhouette of a couple making love, is the sole example that I registered as a potential cliché).
Yet we can recognize the rivalries and emotions and joys and frustrations, even if the culture within which they manifest themselves is governed by radically different expectations. These are nomadic people whose lives shift based on the movements of the caribou and the seal. Their destinies are inextricably linked to the environment, but the film seldom shows the animals – it sticks close to the people, rendering them vivid and detailed even as they’re perpetually dwarfed by the ice and snow. But Atanarjuat is forged as much in legend as in conventional narrative. It seems simultaneously both real and imagined.
When I went to see Atanarjuat, the audience was almost completely quiet, almost mesmerized. Maybe this is all one really needs to know about how cinema creates communities. You put something unprecedented, unimaginable on the screen, and the world will thereafter be divided forever between those who’ve experienced it and those who haven’t.