As thousands of filmmakers, critics, paparazzi and movie fans descend on Canada for the 40th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, they may find themselves defending a medium widely believed to be in crisis.
The movie industry has just experienced one of its most lucrative years ever, but that’s precisely the problem: With effects-laden behemoths and comic-book franchises such as “Jurassic World” and “The Avengers” ruling the day, cinema has become a big, loud, dumbed-down monoculture, unfriendly to the brand of subtle, self-consciously artistic films that festivals such as Toronto’s are meant to celebrate. The drumbeat of cinema’s demise has been a steady one for the past several years, with such luminaries as Steven Soderbergh taking early retirement and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas bemoaning the blockbuster culture that they helped create in the 1970s.
Earlier this summer, former New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley recalled her colleagues’ skepticism when she took the job, looking down their noses at an easily dismissed populist medium. At present, she noted, that medium is experiencing an exciting golden age, and it’s the film critics her co-workers pity. Rob Reiner, who brought “The Princess Bride” to Toronto in 1987, said in a telephone conversation this week that “there’s no way in a million years that anybody would make ‘The Princess Bride’ today.”
He will return to TIFF for the first time this year with “Being Charlie,” a drama about a young man reentering life after rehab, co-written by his son Nick. They originally pitched the idea as a television series, Reiner said, before he agreed to produce it as an independent feature at his production company, Castle Rock.
“All those adult dramas — ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘The Wire,’ ‘House of Cards’ — all of those really high-quality TV shows, they’re doing those things studios are no longer doing. Most of the people who are writers, directors, actors, got into this because we like to create. We’re creative people, and that’s what we like to do. If there’s no outlet for that, we have to go to indie financing or TV.”
Even TIFF, as the Toronto festival is known to regulars, seems to have succumbed to the TV-is-the-new-cinema hype: This year, the festival will begin exhibiting the best in international television programming, in a sidebar called Primetime. (Screenings will include NBC’s “Heroes Reborn”; a documentary about Keith Richards that will be shown on Netflix; and the Hulu series “Casual,” created by director Jason Reitman.)
“Film and television have been converging for years, with many filmmakers gravitating to television to experiment with that medium,” TIFF’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, said when he announced the Primetime program in April. He said the move is meant to acknowledge “the growing intersection between these two moving-image cultures and industries.”
Notwithstanding the fact that TV’s golden age may be overstated, the convergence that TIFF is embracing is far from complete. Indeed, the festival’s lineup this year bolsters the argument that cinema is still a vital, creatively vibrant, singular medium despite the naysayers. Among the 289 features that will unspool over the festival’s 10 days, there are plenty of examples of stories and artistic visions that could never be translated to the format-agnostic, time-shifting habits of the modern-day TV viewer.
“Victoria,” a girl-on-the-run thriller shot entirely in one take (not a simulated one a la “Birdman”); the tightly focused, obliquely staged Hungarian Holocaust drama “Son of Saul”; “Anomalisa,” the latest head trip from Charlie Kaufman; and Miguel Gomes’s six-hour epic “Arabian Nights” all evince the kind of ambition and attention to formalist detail that make big-screen theatrical films a distinct aesthetic experience far deeper and more visually dynamic than the complex characters and novelistic stories that have brought television into its latest golden age.
Even the more understated offerings at TIFF this year suggest that film as an art form will never collapse entirely into TV, despite the latter’s enticements. The Danish drama “Land of Mine,” which had its world premiere Thursday as part of another new sidebar called Platform, tells a little-known story about German prisoners conscripted into defusing land mines after World War II that one could easily imagine as a tasteful series on HBO or PBS. But director Martin Zandvliet has used a wide-screen canvas, stark, stylized composition and a desaturated color palette to communicate with images in ways that would be hopelessly lost on an iPhone or home screen.
There are many higher-profile titles premiering at TIFF this year, including Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” the historical drama “Stonewall,” the political satire “Our Brand Is Crisis,” and the biopics “I Saw the Light,” about country music star Hank Williams, and “Trumbo,” starring Exhibit A for TV’s golden age, Bryan Cranston. Other hot tickets include “Spotlight,” “The Danish Girl,” “Black Mass,” “Beasts of No Nation” and “Room,” all of which recently played festivals in Telluride or Venice or both. The reason why thousands of faithful filmgoers will trudge into dark rooms during the bluebird days of a Canadian late summer is what they’ve come to know year after year: that among these titles — or, more likely, the films they stumble upon by accident — lies the potential for beauty, transcendence and astonishment that can’t be obtained from staying home and surfing, second-screening, binge-tweeting and recapping.
This, finally, may be what will forever distinguish movies from television, no matter how dumbed down or sophisticated each of them becomes. It takes commitment, not only from filmmakers willing to exploit cinema’s unique aesthetic properties — its scale, visual textures and immersive seduction of the senses — but also from spectators who willingly give of their time, tushies and emotional bandwidth to succumb to the spell of the theatrical experience. With TIFF underway as of Thursday, festivalgoers will be upholding their part of the contract that keeps movies alive and breathing: sitting alone, together, in the dark, entering the same dream and maybe, if they’re lucky, emerging transformed.