Chandler's TIFF Diary: The Final Frontier
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Chandler’s TIFF Diary: The Final Frontier

Parties, movies, dreamy celebs, etc.: Writer and filmmaker Chandler Levack takes a deep dive into the world of TIFF, and we're all invited to join her.


FRIDAY

12 PM to 5 PM: So I did a badbadnotgood thing. Well, maybe it’s not criminal. But last year, when I was pass-less and miserable, my friend Virginia Abramovich (my good director pal that I went to the CFC with) lent me hers when she went out of town. This is how I managed to see Top Five, which is now one of my favourite movies ever. (Choice Chris Rock quote: “It’s hard to fuck someone on a pedestal.”) Anyway, in the interest of good karma and paying it forward, I lent my pass to Virginia for the day and she supposedly got her mind blown by Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. I promise it’s all in the best interest of promoting the Canadian film scene and inspiring minds. Please don’t hate me, TIFF Press Office.

5 PM to 6:30 PM: Virginia and I have dinner at Canteen where we mostly discuss the pros and cons of being female filmmakers. She tells me about Q&A that happened a few weeks ago when she attended a shorts festival in Washington. The audience member went down the line of male directors asking them what they shot their film on and finally got to her, tagging on, “if you know.” I relay an experience of directing a music video and instructing a crowd of 50-plus extras when a girl in the crowd stopped me and asked, “That’s great – but shouldn’t we wait for the director to get here?” (We have worse stories but they’re not really fit to print.) Right before the festival started, the programming team wrote a tweet detailing just how many of their shorts and features program were directed by women. But what I’ve been noticing during the screenings is still a dominance of male-driven stories with women used as props. During the festival, there was an event at the Spoke Club where a group of local directors and producers (including Hannah Cheeseman, Katie Boland, Dan Bekerman) made a pledge that their future work will pass the infamous Bechdel Test. In the end, I think it comes down to funding bodies who want to put their money behind female filmmakers and their scripts, not as a tokenistic gesture but because they believe in the work. So get on that, you guys.

6:30 PM to 8 PM: My mom meets me at the Bell Lightbox. I have a ticket for her for Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs. She hates my new overalls. We walk over to the Winter Garden Theatre and I finally see TIFF through her eyes. “Oh my god, there are so many people here,” she says. “I saw Michael Moore – and he WAS wearing a baseball hat.” The 20-minute walk feels like a lifetime (she’s walking in heels and being a trooper about it, but we have to go so slowly) and we finally make it to the ticket holder’s line. “Oh my god – it JUST keeps going!”, she says as we walk past the theatre towards Massey Hall. “No – it’s not going past Massey Hall – it is! It is! Oh my god, Chandler!”

Several nightmare scenarios are imagined where we are not going to get into the theatre, then not be able to sit together. We manage to get a great seat and she runs into her cool friends from her ’70s advertising days and I finally see my mom in her element, laughing when I “arr” at the piracy sign and explain what it means. This is my first time in the Winter Garden and I love that it looks like a Shakespearean play.

8 PM to 10 PM: Louder Than Bombs is a super subtle, beautifully realized drama about a family ripped apart by their mother’s death. It’s a funny, raw and honest English-language debut by an acclaimed Norwegian director. And it’s about the secret inner world everyone wrestles with, the pains of individuality and how families can hurt and help each other feel less alone. Gabriel Byrne plays a dad; with Jesse Eisenberg and newcomer Devin Druid (great name) as his two sons who are all coping with their sudden death of their famous war photographer mother, played by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert. Her need to work was an act of abandonment and all three characters retreat into their own secret worlds to cope with their loss. Trier makes an interesting choice to blur the line between the past and present, as memories and present day drama begin to collide. Trier really understands human behaviour and there are countless stunning scenes and character revelations and shots to commend this film on. (While it was playing, I kept thinking, there are easily a dozen spectacular short films in this one film alone, such as the scene where Byrne’s character stalks his son or the incredible opening sequence featuring Jesse Eisenberg at the hospital talking to his ex-girlfriend with his daughter just born.) The performances are true and the pains are acute. This is drama that is honestly concerned with people and loves its characters. You should see this film.

10:30 to 11:30 PM: My mom and I walk out of the theatre and she catches up with her friends while we all avoid making eye contact with Zanta. Afterwards, we go for a slice of pizza, catch up and I drop her off at the GO Train. It’s basically the best night out in Toronto I’ve had in a long time.

11:30 to 1 AM: I’m in a kind of weird, solitary mood. There’s something about the weather changing and seeing a movie like that and talking to my mom about our family that makes me feel, well, lonesome. I try to sit in one of my favourite spots in the city (those giant swings that look like diaphragms in Christie Pits) but there’s a bunch of cool drunk teens in the park. I walk by Comedy Bar and run into four of my friends from the CFC, who are all attending the afterparty for the TIFF short film Portal To Hell! We talk on the street, I go in for a beer and then I head home, feeling a little better having been around people.

1 AM to 2:30: I go to sleep with Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman on. When I was a kid, my mom used to the play the tape over and over in her car and we had all our favourite songs. I loved “Where Do The Children Play?”, my mom was strictly a “Hard-Headed Woman” gal and my brother, for whatever reason, just wanted to hear “Longer Boats.” Me and Wes Anderson know that Cat Stevens heals all melancholy.

SATURDAY

10 AM to 3:20 PM: I’m having one of those days where I can’t get out of bed. When I do get out of bed, all my clothes look horrible on me and I don’t think I can make it out of the front door. When I do make it out of the front door, I can’t decide if I should take a cab or the TTC (curse my stolen bike!) so I stand on the sidewalk grimacing. The sky is threatening to rain. I’m supposed to rush Equals with Lauren Collins but I just can’t get my shit together. Then I remember that I’m also supposed to see Mark Slutsky’s short Never Happened on the big screen.

3:20 PM to 3:45 PM: There’s a sudden crazy, monsoonlike downpour and I’m so grateful for my recently acquired $5 Chinatown umbrella. I stand in the rush line in the pouring rain and offer a stranger from LA to stand under my umbrella, who then lectures me about development deals. Finally, we get into the Shorts program at Scotiabank.

3:45 to 5:45 PM: This was a weird program with films I liked and others I thought were kind of pretentious. I loved Mark Slutsky’s short Never Happened (I was a PA on it so I’m biased) but it has great performances by Aaron Abrams and Mia Kirshner, a cool sci-fi twist and it’s funny and punchy and cool. I also enjoyed the animated short Otto, the subtle performances in Benjamin and the closing film The Bodyguard, which speculates incessantly on the secret lives of bodyguards.

5:45 to 6 PM: I take a cab to the Ryerson Theatre for the Rob Reiner film Being Charlie. Having been a huge fan of Reiner works such as Stand By Me, This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Misery, When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride, my expectations are high. But this film fucking sucks.

6 PM to 8 PM: How can I explain how much I hate Being Charlie? It’s basically a movie where the main character is an 18-year-old entitled douche wad who is given carte blanche to spout self-aware comebacks (even when he is shooting up heroin) and never learns anything, but we are supposed to give him endless sympathy because he is a heroin addict with a father complex. All the female characters are constantly begging to have sex with him (the love interest), are being mocked for being unfuckable or offering endless unconditional love and understanding (his mom). His father essentially apologizes for not being good enough for this incredibly talented, wonderful boy and the movie ends with him doing standup. Common plays the Magical Negro drug counsellor. It’s a rehab comedy with an unfair third act complication (stop killing off the best friend to give your main character sympathy that isn’t earned by the script, movies!), backed by mediocre Tinder jokes (please kill me) and grotesque comments about getting pussy and ass, above all else. This movie hates women and Reiner and the screenwriters seem to know nothing about millenials or drug addicts. While the audience seemed to laugh begrudgingly and the lead Nick Robinson had that smarmy Ferris Bueller-delivery down pat, I think it’s frankly irresponsible for TIFF to program this shitty, mediocre film just because Rob Reiner has cache. (I still love you Rob Reiner.)

8 PM to 9:30 PM: I’m actually mad for having watched that film so I eat a bahn mi and stew a little. Then I walk over to the Lightbox and stand in a rush line for an hour for Hitchcock/Truffaut. Of all the films at the festival, this is the most high stakes rush line yet. People are really concerned they’re not going to get in and for a 9:45 PM screening on a Saturday night, it gives me a little film nerd-related pride. I get in, let out a little sigh of relief and get ready to learn.

9:45 to 11 PM: Hitchcock/Truffaut is a documentary destined for Netflix viewing, but it’s great, illuminating, film critic crack. It’s about one of the most important texts in film, which was a weeklong interview between the vaunted directors Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. With the publication of the book, Truffaut wanted to legitimatize Hitchcock as an important auteur, instead of a master entertainer. And they seem to genuinely love and respect each other in their interactions. While it’s unfathomable to think that Alfred Hitchcock was never taken seriously in his time, the film points to a then-critical consensus of him as a frivolous filmmaker out for cheap scares, instead of the incredibly thoughtful auteur making deep, complicated films about the American psyche. For the first time ever, we hear audio passages of their interactions about the making of films like Vertigo and Psycho, how he films objects and the influence of dreams on his work. (“Daydreams, maybe,” brushes off Hitchcock.) The doc has included on-camera interviews with great directors like David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Paul Schrader, Oliver Assayas, Martin Scorcese, and Peter Bogdanovich, amongst others, who talk about the influence of Hitchcock on their own work. One thing that really struck me is how precise Alfred Hitchcock is as a filmmaker, how there’s never a wasted frame. Seeing selections from films like The Wrong Man, Notorious, and The Birds, every angle is the right camera angle, every shot ideal for creating maximum emotional tension for the audience. He created his own cinematic language that even a group as eclectic as the directors interviewed could learn from and even when Vertigo slipped by without making a wave, continued to soldier on. Alfred Hitchcock may be an egomaniacal, manipulative director with his actors but he’s also one of cinema’s greatest artists. The film gives the impression that he’s not so much interested in people as he is in the highest expression of the form. But it also humanizes him (stay tuned for Alfred Hitchcock making a great James Stewart boner joke, for instance).

11 PM to 1 AM: I run into TIFF programming associate Kiva Reardon, my friend Sara McCulloch and Montreal writer Fariha Roisin with Mark Slutsky. They’re going to the TIFF closing night party, which is at a strange, Blade Runner-esque venue called Arcadian Court. I sneak in without a pass, which is my TIFF superpower, and eat a cheesecake on a stick. There is a female DJ playing guitar onstage in front of a fawning crowd who reminds me of the Mad Max flamethrower electric guitar guy and I ghost the party soon after.

1 AM to 2 AM: I take another cab home. Things I am not dealing with: how much money I have left in my bank account, the fact that my throat is closing in from a mysterious infection, all the other work I am ignoring during this week. It’s time for sweet, precious sleep.

SUNDAY

10:30 AM to 12:30 PM: Can it be? The final day of the festival of festivals? I don’t know if I have the strength to go on.

12:30 PM to 1 PM: I have one goal in mind today and that is to get into the screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film that I have never seen but slept through many times, with a live score by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and an introduction from legendary actress Kim Novak. I figure if I go at least two hours early, I have a fighting shot of rushing it. I take the TTC over and am immediately greeted by the huge line of people already waiting in the hot sun for hours. This is my final act of TIFF-indebted servitude. And I am trying to have faith.

1 PM to 3:15 PM: I wait in the rush line. For two hours. In the blazing sun. A woman on a wheelchair leaves her post and I push it up when the line moves. Another crazy woman with a giant bow in her hair tries to sneak five people in and everyone tells on her. Standing in a rush line makes you feel like you’re in Survivor where you would sell your brother out for a Kit Kat bar. There’s a 50/50 chance that I’m going to make it in and I try to imagine a crazy, Hunger Games-style competition where we all fight for our seats. Would I take a crossbow to the throat of this man talking on his Bluetooth the entire time? By 2:30 PM, the rush line has snaked through the entire square and spirits are low. I try to believe in the spirit of TIFF that has got me through and hold my breath as the line starts to move again. Finally, at 3:15, I’m in and am ushered into the upper level of Roy Thompson hall where I stare at James Stewart’s face and the orchestra at a disturbingly high angle. This screening of Vertigo is giving me… vertigo.

3:15 to 5:30 PM: After sneaking down to the lower level, I soak up everything I can about Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I know that this film has been dissected and analyzed many times (it’s like when I tried to write a paper on Ulysses for university, like literally what is the point?), but I was struck by its deep incredible darkness, sophistication of filmmaking and tortured view on human relationships. The live score by Hitchcock mainstay Bernard Hermann is achingly beautiful when performed live by the TSO. It’s ghastly romanticism, rendered in Technicolor, it’s a recently dyed blonde Kim Novak coming out of the bathroom, bathed in sickly green light. Vertigo is the most depraved love story I’ve ever seen and I think it’s the benchmark for every great film after it, from Gone Girl to Basic Instinct to Mulholland Drive.

5:30 to 6:45 PM: I walk out of Roy Thompson Hall beaming. Everything about this screening made so incredibly happy and grateful for the TIFF industrial complex. I stand in yet another rush line (only one more left!) for Jason Reitman’s Casual for about a second and walk back into my old haunt, Cinema #2.

6:45 to 7:25 PM: Jason Reitman’s new Netflix show Casual is one of the offerings from TIFF’s first TV series. And I know there are a lot of Reitman haters out there, but I really liked the first two episodes. It’s about a brother/sister/daughter all living under one gorgeous California mansion and it’s a quippy family comedy that’s easy enough to sink your teeth into. Alex (played by newcomer Tommy Dewey) is a snarky, dating app developer prone to meaningless hookups since he wrote the algorithm for them, his sister Valerie (played by SNL’s Michaela Watkins, always welcome in anything) is a late 30’s therapist rebounding from her husband leaving her for a younger woman. Her 16-year-old daughter Laura (played by Tara Lynn Barr) is also figuring out her sexuality, the pilot plants a seed that she’ll probably try to have sex with her photography teacher. I liked the chemistry between the brother and sister and I truly think it’s time for Watkins to have a breakout role. She’s incredibly wry and human in her performance here, a Julia Louis-Dreyfus for a new age. And although no one ever talks like Zander Lehmman’s wry, self-effacing dialogue, these are complicated people who still want to have meaningless sex and these are the times we live in. So let’s embrace that, shall we?

7:30 to 8:30 PM: Finally, we have come to the end of TIFF. The red carpets have been rolled up, the winners have been announced and the McCafe DJ is finally closing down his turntables. In my hour-long break before the final TIFF 40 film I’ll ever see, I say congrats to Platform winner Allan Zweig (who just won for his documentary Hurt in a juried competition helmed by Claire Denis) on the escalator. While FaceTiming with my brother, I see recently-anointed Best Canadian Feature winner Stephen Dunn (the director of Closet Monster) take a selfie in the lobby of the Lightbox. Congrats Stephen!

I stand in my final rush line for Evolution and run into my friend Alicia who works at the festival and still needs to come into work tomorrow. (Shouldn’t the day after TIFF be like the new Labour Day?) TIFF is over and I feel bittersweet but thankful for that.

8:30 to 10 PM: Evolution is a French movie made by Gaspar Noie’s wife/creative collaborator Lucile Hadzihalilovic that I really didn’t understand. Don’t me wrong, it’s gorgeously filmed and fully realized body horror (which again, I realized is one of my least favourite genres ever) that I’m sure will appeal to smart, savvy people. But what the hell was going on? As far as I can tell, it’s about a boy who lives in a strange dystopian all-female community (the setting was reminiscent of Jansco’s The Round Up, shout-out to the Hungarian cinema class I barely passed) where they fertilize a group of young boys to mate like starfish. They keep cutting back to this stunning redheaded woman with starfish puckers on her back and the boy disfiguring a starfish and drawing them onto pads of paper. You are supposed to be transfixed by this harrowing portrait of young masculinity but instead I was like what-the-literal-hell and zoned out. Basically, this is a film that looks an absolutely gorgeous Nick Cave music video. (That colour palette tho.)

10:30 PM to 1 AM: After doing a little post-TIFF catch-up with filmmaker AJ Bond and producer Laura Perlmutter outside the Lightbox, I walk home, head to the 24-hour Metro and buy a package of frozen Chinese dumplings. I make those for dinner and watch the season four opener of The Mindy Project, eating dumplings in bed while texting my friend Nick about Don Henley. TIFF is over. And now it’s back to our regular scheduled programming.

FINAL TIFF TALLY

Movies seen: 28*
*this includes The Witch and Closet Monster, which I’d seen before the festival, the shorts programmes and the Jason Reitman Live Read

Movies that legitimately changed my life: 3

Movies that were pretty great: 17

Movies I don’t even remember seeing:
7

Movies I legitimately hated: 1

Movies I regret not seeing: Into The Forest, Green Room, Maggie’s Plan, Heart Of A Dog, Right Now, Wrong Then

Pumpkin spice lattes consumed: 2

Champagne drank: Countless

Most ridiculous overheard comment: “That’s the life of an entrepreneur!” (this was actually overheard by Sara McCulloch)

Time spent in rush lines: 8.5 hours

Times I cried in a movie theatre next to a stranger: 2

Times I made a pirate noise at the piracy warning: Every time

Best celebrities I met: Rachel McAdams, Moby, Matthew Weiner

Most awkward celebrity encounter: Liam Hemsworth

Favourite scenes: Opening scene of Jesse Eisenberg in the hospital in Louder Than Bombs, Jennifer Jason Leigh (as a puppet) singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in Anomalisa, the escape sequence in Room

Weirdest thing consumed at a party:
Anchovy paste on a radish

Best thing consumed: a tasteless but nevertheless satisfying mini lobster roll

Amount I love the Toronto Film Festival: With my entire heart, fibre of being

Amount I need to sleep: 36 hours, minimum

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