Blindness, deafness and babbling zombies

One of the maddening things about TIFF, at least for a journalist trying to cover it single-handedly, is that most the action is front-loaded into the opening weekend. That’s when the big, star-driven movies premiere. The Hollywood studios invite a horde of North American press into town for junkets to promote these prestige pictures , and many of those same journalists have gone home by Tuesday or Wednesday. Which means if you want to get maximum media exposure for your film, you need to show it on the opening weekend. Which makes for a hectic time, to say the least. All this is by way of an apology to say it’s hard to find time to see all the absolutely unmissable films, interview all the absolutely irresistible stars and find time to blog on a daily basis. You’re always running to catch up to a festival that seems to be forever sliding through your hands.

It certainly doesn’t leave much time for parties, even though there are enough of them that you could make collecting bold-face names over cocktails a full-time job. Everyone keeps asking me, “Are you having fun?” Well, I don’t like to complain about life in the fast lane. Hey, I’m not in Afghanistan. But no, it’s not a whole lot of fun.

Last night, however, after screening my last movie, I did force myself to attend a party, even though I wasn’t in the mood. I thought maybe it will be like having sex when you don’t feel like it: it will turn out to be just what the doctor ordered.But first a film-critic digression. I’d just seen the premiere of Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool. The movie started about half an hour late. While we waited for the print to arrive, McDonald entertained us by giving a long, baroquely detailed explanation of how he spent $10 million making the movie. He accounted for all the budgetary items, and explained how there was still lots left over, and how he spent the surplus on digitally placing a cowboy hat on the head of lead actor Stephen McHattie in all of his scenes with seamless results. Bruce was so convincing for a moment I swallowed his story, until the movie finally started and I realized this was no $10 million picture, but an elegant little mini-budget horror comedy shot mostly in one room with more talk than action. Pontypool is a droll metaphysical satire involving four characters, economically confined to a radio-station as an epidemic of cannibalism in the outside world slowly closes in on them. Adapted by Tony Burgess from his own novel, it’s avant-garde fare, more Andre Breton than George Romero (this flesh-eating epidemic is linguistically spread, and its victims turn into babbling zombies.) The script’s cerebral convolutions are more over-wound than Tom Stoppard on acid. But some of the local references to ice-fishing and drunken OPP officers are hilarious. And found the whole thing as amusing as it was preposterous. It’s immaculately directed and the performances are a treat. McHattie acts up a storm as the caustic DJ of the radio station, a leathery maverick who struggles to maintain his sanity as the zombies converge. And Hrant Alianak deftly steals every one of his scenes as a deadpan academic who deciphers this verbally induced plague with a priceless air of emotional immunity.

I chose to attend Pontypool over the premiere of Blindness, a much bigger movie about an epidemic that afflicts the senses—which was written by McDonald’s former cohort Don McKellar. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, this Canada-Brazil-Japan co-production opened Cannes in May, where it was slammed by much of the press. I liked it, with some reservations. Since then, the filmmakers have re-cut the movie, and eliminated much of the voice-over, which one of the sore points with the critics. I will see the recut version before it opens commercially Oct. 3, but last night I chose to catch something fresh from a Canadian filmmaker.

I did, however,drag my butt to the Blindness party, which was held late last night at the CTV/CityTV building on Queen St. It was a big-deal soiree. You walked from the red carpet into a tunnel of white fog—which was exactly how you entered the Blindness party in Cannes on opening night. But instead of stepping out into the fresh air of a beach on the Mediterranean, we walked past white statue mimes in their underwear into a packed room permeated by more white fog. I had a variety of strange conversations, including one with a vehement industry type who was outraged by the perfect whiteness of Paul Gross’s teeth in Passchendaele.

There was a small VIP area protected by velvet ropes beside the DJ booth. I entered it, because it was there. Soon I found myself trapped in a sardine-can crush of celebrity flesh. Which is every bit as claustrophobic as regular flesh. The party’s special guests were so jammed together you literally could not move. Within a few feet of me were Julianne Moore, Gael Garcia Bernal, Mark Ruffalo, Sandra Oh, Adrien Brody, Patricia Rozema, and Don McKellar. I managed a few words with Niv Fichman, the film’s producer, who seemed overjoyed by the TIFF screening. After what he called “the world’s largest press screening” in Cannes, his film was now getting a more favorable response, and a new life, in Toronto. “What’s so great about the new digital technology,” he said, “is that we didn’t have a locked picture.” That allowed Mireilles to rework the film, addressing some criticisms, and now Fichman seems very upbeat about its chances. Next month it will soon be opening on 1,200 screens in North America.

I also exchanged a few words with the diminutive but dynamic Gael Garcia Bernal, who always looks like he’s having fun no matter where he is. I asked if tonight’s premiere went better than one at Cannes. “Yes, much better,” he grinned.

I was chatting with Patricia Rozema when a new DJ—Moby!—took over the turntables on the stage beside us. He was a man on a perverse mission. He cranked up the volume until it was very, very loud, then pivoted one of the speakers so it pointed directly at the VIP area. It was like being sprayed by machine-gun fire. I looked over to see Bernal and Moore plugging their ears. The shriek of the “music” was so piercing everyone started stampeding out of the VIP area, like concentration camp prisoners fleeing a surprise assault by their guards. Which seemed strangely consonant with the theme of the movie the party was designed to celebrate, an allegory of incarceration and sensory deprivation.

I followed the VIP refugees, who dispersed into the crowd, and bumped into Adrienne Clarkson. We tried to converse,but the music was still so deafening you had to be a lip-reader to communicate. So there I was, holding a glass of vodka in white fog, yelling into the ear of the former Governor-General, wondering why we were there.

Life doesn’t get any more glamorous than that.

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