TORONTO—Generous and accommodating, Toronto is the film festival that can be whatever you want it to be. With hundreds of journalists pondering a menu of nearly 350 movies, consensus is rare. When I left the table, two English-language films were clear critical darlings: Sofia Coppola’s wistful Lost in Translation, which opened here last week, and Guy Maddin’s hilarious The Saddest Music in the World, picked up at the festival by IFC Films. (Four days into the fest, Miramax acquired the undisputed subtitled fave, Takeshi Kitano’s lively but disappointing samurai flick Zatoichi.)
That The Saddest Music also happened to be Canadian only enhanced its profile. Even before screening, the movie won the trifecta—featured on the covers of all three local film magazines. Linear as Maddin movies go, although inexplicably based on a scenario by British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, The Saddest Music imagines an international competition of melodic bathos, held during the winter of 1933 in the “World Capital of Sorrow” (and Maddin’s hometown), Winnipeg. The contest is masterminded by an embittered beer magnate (Isabella Rossellini, playing a double amputee) who lives in what looks like a set built for the 1930s Flash Gordon serial and plans to flood the U.S. market with her suds once Prohibition is repealed.
Like all Maddin films, The Saddest Music suggests something exhumed from an alternative history of motion pictures. The constant blather seems designed to reinforce the idea of the movie as a primitive talkie. In the tradition of The Big Broadcast (1932) and its sequels, grotesque comedy and erotic melodrama are punctuated with musical performances. The U.S. team goes all the way to the finals with a version of “California Here I Come” scored for pan-pipes and a chorus of Eskimo women. At the press screening I attended, the movie was accompanied by volleys of laughter and saluted with spontaneous applause.
A scarcely less eccentric, even more bargain-basement musical extravaganza had its world premiere in the funky confines of a soon-to-be-demolished onetime vaudeville house where its author—Neil Young—had attended the movies as a boy. Shot in grainy Super 8, Greendale is splendiferously primitive, with Young’s recent song cycle—part topical protest, part garage-rock cantata—lip-synched by the cast in lieu of dialogue. Young’s Our Town schematics and eco-libertarian, flag-waving anti-Bushism might strike some as naive, but the movie is a triumph of three-chord energy. The driving Crazy Horse backbeat achieves an entranced Sufi-like climax with Young’s disembodied voice exhorting all to save the planet and “be the rain.”
As if Greendale was not sufficient, Toronto launched the holy grail of classic-rock docs. Festival Express presented the long-lost footage of the summer 1970 Woodstock on wheels, a money-hemorrhaging bacchanal in which the Grateful Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin, and a half-dozen other bands took a chartered train across Canada, stopping only for a series of riotous concerts—or to replenish the booze supply. The on-train jams are fascinating, and given the financial disaster, Buddy Guy’s cool yelping version of “Money” is wonderfully appropriate. Nevertheless, one waits for Joplin, who, several months from eternity, uncorks a performance of “Cry Baby” for the ages—by far the most vivid evidence of her presence ever committed to film.
Once you began looking, musicals were ubiquitous in Toronto. The year’s second Ramones doc, End of the Century, was shown as a work in progress; George Hickenlooper’s crowd-pleasing The Mayor of Sunset Strip, a portrait of gnomelike L.A. scene maker and DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, was sold for more money than any doc in history save Bowling for Columbine. The most entertaining of the festival’s world premieres was Richard Linklater’s Jack Black vehicle School of Rock—a commercial comedy that, written by Mike White, cannily harnesses Black’s obnoxious perpetual-motion machine to an engaging satire of heavy metal pretense and pop music messianism. (“Now raise your goblet of rrrrock!!!” Black bellows in a paroxysm of hot-air guitar.)
Also a world premiere, Robert Altman’s more genteel “musical,” The Company, is a surprisingly benign look at the terpsichorean life—so bland it might have been written by the innocuous little striver played by co-producer Neve Campbell. Toronto’s hottest premiere was a grimmer meditation on show business transformation: Taking a role intended for Nicole Kidman, Meg Ryan gets naked and frisky in Jane Campion’s arty thriller In the Cut. Aggressively grim and gory, yet wacky enough to suggest a police procedural in the Land of Oz, the movie was eagerly anticipated and largely disdained. What promises to be more fun than the movie will be the attempt to recoup for feminism Campion’s own attempt to recoup the slasher flick.