The Toronto International Film Festival is an event of certain pointed contradictions. There’s the celebration of art intersecting with the facilitation of commerce, sure, and, more specifically, the practice of criticism and the compromise of promotion, the latter act being in essence the unspoken purpose of accrediting journalists to begin with. This sort of thing isn’t especially worth indignation. In the context of a film festival, the exaltation of cinema represents a pretense at best and an illusion at worst—but if that’s the cost of providing film lovers with an opportunity to see dozens of great ones in the span of 11 days, so be it.
What interests me now, as the festival has drawn to a close, is a less insidious contradiction: That of the public and private experience. The peculiar social friction inherent in movie-going—the sense that, in a theater, one remains both alone in the dark and seated close among many—is exaggerated tenfold during the festival, when friends from across the globe descend on the city for a week of hammering out copy on deadline and staring silently at screens. As a critic you get to know dozens of likeminded individuals through both their writing and their personalities online, and the handful of major film festivals represent the handful of occasions during which the year-long gap between us is temporarily closed. The impulse to drop the film stuff and simply spend time with each other can be oddly overwhelming. A colleague of mine joked recently that he would prefer TIFF conduct two festivals in quick succession, one with movie screenings and one without, and I actually find this prospect deeply appealing. How better to enjoy both sides of the festival experience, the solitary and the social?
The frenzied schedule renders every fleeting interaction simultaneously fun and bittersweet. Everyone you see is hustling through a packed itinerary, and it’s hard to pencil in time for friends when professional responsibility beckons. It’s a sad sort of thing: The festival is what brings all of you together and the festival is what keeps you too often apart. It never becomes more apparent that writing about film is work than when talking about film is the alternative, and if the vitality and intensity of the conversations I had during TIFF are any measure, it seems likely that most critics in town for the festival would agree. The thought occurs to me often: How might I devise a system whereby eating and drinking and talking about movies could be a sustainable career? As much as I love criticism as it is traditionally practiced, it’s a shame that it has to be conducted alone.
I closed out my festival experience on Friday evening with the ideal valedictory double bill, a pairing that proved well-suited to the melancholy of a great week’s imminent farewell. The first was A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, an experimental fiction by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell found in this year’s consistently remarkable Wavelengths programme. The film follows an unnamed existential drifter (Robert AA Lowe, a major figure in contemporary drone and metal music) as he makes his wordless way from time with an Estonian hippy commune to living alone in the wilderness of Finland before emerging, finally, to perform a black metal concert in a Norwegian dive bar. Three locations, three discrete narrative suites, three ways of life, all of which are founded, naturally, on the tension between solitude and socializing, between the allure of self-imposed isolation and the comfort of the company of friends. Shot on rich, grainy 16mm and unfurling at an almost hypnotically slow pace, the film is a delight to simply bask in, and lost in the empty space of the images I felt myself reflecting on the similarly seductive rhythms of the festival’s silences and seclusions, of that time alone in the theater left passive and in thrall to the wonders of the purely aesthetic. The commune, the woods, the dive bar: What is the festival if not a string of variations on the same sorts of places, between the darkness of the cinema and the spell of friends and drink that wards it off?
Drinking, as it happens, figures prominently in the last great film I saw during the festival, Hong Sang-soo’s hilarious and touching Our Sunhi. Hong is one of my favorite working filmmakers, and, quite happily, he is prolific enough that scarcely a year can go by without a film of his making a high-profile festival appearance (Our Sunhi is in fact only the second of three films he plans to release in 2013, just to give you an idea of his pace). No film could serve as fitting a conclusion to the fest as one by Hong. There is, first of all, the matter of soju: As in all of his work, the empty bottles mount as every minute passes, and deep in the midst of all-night social gatherings the look of glass-strewn tables and the sounds of slurred speech cannot help but seem familiar. Repetition is a central structuring device for Hong, not only on a formal level within the context of each movie—as lines and even entire sequences are frequently locked in a feedback loop, spoken and repeated like a classical musician’s variations on a theme—but also, more broadly, in the sense that each new film seems a kind of repetition of an older template.
The Hong formula, such that it is—a student or filmmaker or teacher finds him- or herself lodged in some kind of romantic entanglement that plays out largely over drinks in one of Seoul’s many bars and restaurants—is so firmly established that the arrival of a new film has a kind of built-in inevitability. There is a sense of reunion in Hong’s films, as if the predictability of their structure carried the promise of familiar pleasures. The comparisons to TIFF itself are abundant and clear: The drinking, the socializing, and above all the feeling of melancholy—similarly the foundational elements of Hong’s cinema and the very fabric of the festival-going experience.
But what’s important here, for me, is that feeling of coming together, of catching up with an old friend you can’t see very often—a sort of euphoria with its own sadness built in. It’s hard to enjoy time spent with people whose company you adore when you know that you may only see these people eleven days a year. The thought that the fun will end lingers, making even the best times sort of sad. TIFF is an extraordinary experience, certainly: Between the often exceptional cinema and the always wonderful people, I don’t think there’s a week in the year I enjoy more. And yet it never fails to make me wistful. Earlier in the week I invoked a line from Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming, and it seems an appropriate note to depart on: “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now.”