The Toronto International Film Festival ends tomorrow, but most journalists have already skipped ahead to extrapolating trends. There’s much loose talk about potential Oscar front-runners — “Up In The Air” apparently has a lock — and much free-floating despair about the tough climate for making, purchasing and marketing indie films. But at least one person thinks the recession’s been good for movies, by getting those arty directors to tone it down.
Peter Howell of the Toronto Star wraps up the festival sounding exhilarated and gratified for all the wrong reasons. He salutes Steven Soderbergh, Atom Egoyan, Werner Herzog, Todd Solondz et al. for showing “they’re willing to compromise if it keeps them behind the camera in tough economic times… Did they sell out? No, they bought in, if you accept the notion that it’s okay to appeal to more than just film critics and fellow directors, especially if you can do so while retaining your signature style… They realize there’s little to be gained in current times by making hermetic cinematic statements that few people get, and which distributors and exhibitors don’t want to carry.”
Let’s discuss. Howell seems to be willfully misinterpreting the motives of most of the directors he’s discussing. If Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” is indeed a commercial comedy, it’s also by all accounts a very strange one, slapping ’70s TV stars and an anachronistic Marvin Hamlisch score on top of a ’90s story. Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” is reportedly as insane as anything he’s ever done; I suppose that working with Nicolas Cage in English could count as a “compromise,” just barely. Solondz gave “Life During Wartime” “his strongest narrative in years,” but that doesn’t really seem like “moving to the middle.”
In Egoyan’s case, Howell has a point: the director worked with Ivan Reitman (of “Ghostbusters”) to massage his sensibility into a mainstreamish erotic thriller. But one director who’s had a tough streak over the last decade and accordingly is doing something about it doesn’t make a trend.
Howell’s also, annoying, suggesting that the type of films festivals value are incompatible with “fun,” which is unfair. Fun is, of course, relative, but in the case of a guy like Soderbergh — who’s made some of the most insanely stylized and instantly recognizable blockbusters of the decade — it’s ridiculous to claim that personal expression and entertaining a broad audience are mutually incompatible.
This is reverse snobbism, a patronizing pat on the head for filmmakers who grow up and stop being so arty, like a business school kid getting angry about the art school layabouts across the street and then praising them for making ads. You can be personal and make commercial movies. You can even alternate commercial and uncommercial films, and they’ll be equally personal. A recession doesn’t make movies better if they pander.
[Photo: “The Informant!”, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2009]