ETHAN AND JOEL COEN: Real answers — sort of — to questions about violence in their No Country for Old Men.
In the pioneering early-’80s days of the Toronto Film Festival, the audience actually rose to its toes before movie showings for a canned recording of “God Save the Queen,” with Elizabeth II, white-gloved, up above on the screen. There was a lingering colonialism in the Dominion of Canada, and also a blue-nosed uprightness. Who can forget the Ontario provincial censor board’s routinely yanking erotic-themed films off the festival schedule? If you wanted porno movies, cross the border to Buffalo.
Nobody at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival (September 6-15) gave a hoot about Queen Lizzie, not with Brad Pitt and, yes, Paris Hilton in town — and censorship in Ontario has long been defanged. Check the ocean of adult-pages ads in the local alternative papers: “Oral $40, Complete $70.” Toronto now is an open city, far beyond prissy Boston. Which is why, with dirty-old-man hope, I arrived for the first festival screening of Martin Gero’s YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING, a boldly filthy first feature by an Ottawa-based director. But then the movie started. And instead of fornicating, a host of bland, soaps-level Canadian actors kept talking. Witless TVish talk. About Sexuality. Did they ever just shut up and screw? Who knows, because I bolted after a trying half-hour.
Where to get my festival jollies? I signed up for an interview with Hollywood actress Jennifer Connelly, she of the deepest, bluest eyes on our planet. But first I had to see her new picture, the Terry George–helmed RESERVATION ROAD, in which she’s the grieving mother of a young son killed in a hit-and-run accident. Here we go again: I made it through 25 minutes of this horribly directed melodrama, a botched version of novelist John Burnham Schwartz’s decent literary thriller. “I’m canceling my interview,” I called Focus Features on the phone. “Is there a reason?” an annoyed PR flak queried. “Not really,” I answered. This Focus Features rep wouldn’t have been happy with my explanation: chatting in a hotel room with Jennifer Connelly wasn’t enough payoff for sitting through the entire excruciating movie.
I wish I’d exited early from Michael Moore’s odious, self-love documentary, CAPTAIN MIKE ACROSS AMERICA, which shows the fake-populist portly boy on a 2004 campus tour trying to register students to vote for Kerry. Moore made sure his editor included countless shots of audiences cheering Michael and chortling at his jokes, plus the likes of Joan Baez attesting to his worthiness. Probably not since Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens, a lollipop to Hitler, have there been this many crowd scenes and testimonials in praise of one egomaniacal individual!
Another American work at Toronto was similarly liberal in its politics but offered modesty and restraint. In Thomas McCarthy’s THE VISITOR, a taciturn, WASPy college professor (Walter Jenkins) has his circumscribed tweed-jacketed life interrupted — and made suddenly meaningful — when he allows a Syrian drummer to stay in his apartment. One day, the musician is arrested as an illegal and threatened with deportation. The second work by the filmmaker of The Station Agent, The Visitor was the sleeper hit of Toronto 2007. Another favorite, but more as a guilty pleasure, was Stuart Gordon’s STUCK, which was shown as part of “Midnight Madness.” Mina Suvari plays an empathetic health-care worker turned vicious, selfish yuppie by the prospect of a job promotion. She leaves a homeless man (Stephen Rea) caught in her car window, seemingly dying in her garage, so that nobody will know she’s injured him in a hit-and-run. Slowly, slowly, he becomes unstuck, and then the gory fun begins!
The Coen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, from the excellent Cormac McCarthy novel about a psycho serial killer loose in today’s rural Texas, proved as good as its reputation out of Cannes. I took time away from filmgoing to attend the Toronto press conference, but with trepidation. Joel and Ethan Coen are probably the most frustrating interviewees of all major filmmakers, with their mumblings, hesitations, fragmented answers, and general disinclination to respond. Are they shy? Are they being coy? Whatever the reason, the Coens speaking about their movies usually makes for the thinnest of copy. And it didn’t start promisingly in Toronto. A reporter quoted David Cronenberg on how directors need to take responsibility for the way violence is used in their films. He then asked the Coens to comment.
“Hmmm,” they muttered, looking nervously at each other. “That David Cronenberg is a real conversation stopper.” Joel finally answered. “No Country for Old Men is a very violent film from a very violent novel. It’s not like we have opinions in general about violence in movies.”
Didn’t think they would. “Sorry for an intellectual question,” I began. “The McCarthy novel, with its over-the-top bloodbaths, reads much like Dashiell Hammett; it’s similar to his blood-simple novel, Red Harvest. I wonder whether you thought of Hammett while directing, or while talking to McCarthy.”