News of the World


The terror attacks on the Trades and the Pentagon blew a hole in the Toronto International Film Festival as well. Hundreds of journalists emerged from early-morning screenings to chaotic first reports of the events of September 11, rushing from the insular world of round-the-clock movies to a total immersion in the big CNN picture and the hours of redial required to get a New York phone connection.

Screenings were ultimately canceled (at least for a day). So far as the press was concerned, the 300-odd festival movies had already been abandoned in favor of a phantasmagoria of urban disaster, mind-boggling cartoon explosions, digicam special effects, world-obliterating violence, and incomprehensible conspiracy. In my case, the catastrophe was actually occurring a few blocks from home, but recurring “live” TV images of my neighborhood grocer, subway stop, and public school didn’t in themselves account for the awful familiarity of the images.

“He who imagines disasters in some ways desires them,” Theodor Adorno noted a half-century ago. Imagining this disaster is what the movies are all about. It was as though a message had bounced back from outer space. The giant dinosaurs, rogue meteors, and implacable insect-aliens who have destroyed movie-set Manhattans over the past few years were now revealed as occult attempts to represent the logic of inevitable catastrophe. The justly maligned big-budget re-creation of Pearl Harbor in particular seemed to have emerged from some parallel time-space continuum to provide an explanation for what was even now occurring. (The news on Wednesday that Warners was already postponing much of its fall slate only confirmed that terrorist warnings were no longer necessary.)

Screenings did resume during the restless 36 hours before the first packed, New York-bound trains were able to cross the U.S. border. But there was a clear distinction between the films one saw prior to Tuesday morning and the films one saw while killing time in the big waiting room that Toronto became after Tuesday. The tragic beauty of Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema eulogy In Praise of Love was all the more piercing; the callow posturing of its rote anti-Americanism was now impossible to shrug aside.

Toronto is typically the place where one previews the offbeat fall slate: I do remember seeing a few of those. There was the Christina Ricci portrayal of Elizabeth Wurtzel in Prozac Nation (old whine in a new bottle); the parental tragedy and Sundance favorite In the Bedroom (kind of a granola Death Wish); and the Jewish neo-Nazi exposé and Sundance cause célèbre, The Believer (intelligent tabloid lunacy with the feel, if not the look, of Sam Fuller). You could also preview the New York Film Festival—more about that next week—and also get a sense of what was likely to appear in next spring’s New Directors. Two prime possibilities: Dover Kosashvili’s ribald, near ethnographic Late Marriage and Wang Chao’s austerely framed Orphan of Anyang, both first features.

Late Marriage, a family comedy (and tragedy) set among Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Georgia, featured some sensationally patterned apartments, a funky wedding, and some good-hearted fucking (not necessarily in that order). Orphan, as filmmaker Wang put it, offered “something you have never seen in China . . . the truth.” Was this a metaphor? An unemployed worker reduced to selling his factory meal tickets becomes nursemaid for a hooker’s baby, as a majestic view of China emerges from Wang’s carefully composed images of makeshift brothels, ugly industrial buildings, dirty canals, outdoor food stands, and flophouse interiors.

Actually, there was one movie in Toronto that rose to the occasion. Peter Watkins’s six-hour projected video piece La Commune (Paris, 1871) was unfashionably intended to change the lives of its participants as well as its viewers. Watkins is still best known for his banned “documentary” of nuclear holocaust, The War Game (1969). Here, he makes a historical feature in the form of an experimental documentary. This visually spare and conceptually rich re-creation of a doomed political utopia, filmed in a vast, obvious studio with a large cast of non-professionals, begins with a few of the actors introducing themselves and touring the now abandoned, debris-strewn set. Thereafter, La Commune is filmed, literally, in the present tense—mainly in direct address delivered by the actors, for the camera of the guerrilla media enthusiasts of “Commune TV.” The government has its own suitably foppish newsreader. Watkins, whose first film, Culloden (1964), used a similar strategy, knows his newsroom clichés. This remarkable ensemble piece is a portrait of the public; the actors are never not in some way talking as themselves. Discussion of the issues that beset the Commune regularly segues into references to present-day concerns.

La Commune is meant to evoke the unfamiliar sensation of revolutionary euphoria, of living (and dying) in a sacred time. Watkins’s 210 actors researched their characters as much as they learned their lines. How much is improvised? La Commune is less a matter of acting than role-playing—an active participation in history. A synthesis of left-wing modernism—evoking not only Brecht and Dziga Vertov but the early Soviet mass spectacle and the didactic Godard films of the early ’70s—this is a movie played out in its own ruins.