Toronto Dispatch: Eye of the Tiger

Taking TIFF's temperature through Sylvester Stallone's paintings, world premieres from Payne and Egoyan, and future-facing works.
Chloe Lizotte

Sly Exhibit. Courtesy of the author.

Take the elevator to the fourth floor of the TIFF Bell Lightbox theater and follow the sounds of proggy synthesizers. You’ll find a small gallery containing about a dozen neo-expressionist paintings; many depict solitary wanderers against backdrops of stormy neutrals. But before you have a chance to revel in these angsty brushstrokes, you’ll have to encounter the artist—it’s not optional. His image is plastered all over the elevators, lobby, and on an enormous cube in the center of this room: stare into the smirking visage of Sylvester Stallone, sequestered in an art-filled living room. “SLY EXHIBIT,” reads the text on the poster. A red “N”—the classier, minimalist version of the Netflix logo—is stamped at the bottom like a seal of approval.

I wasn’t familiar with Stallone’s visual art before Netflix and TIFF shared it with me. According to a 2021 piece in Artnet about a solo exhibition in Germany, Stallone has been painting since the ’70s, and is inspired by Julian Schnabel’s “heavy interaction with the canvas.” TIFF’s Stallone show was a promotional tie-in with their closing night feature, Thom Zimny’s Sly, a “valedictory” documentary about the actor’s career. As I encountered pieces like Backlash—half-painting, half-mirror, turning the gaze back toward the spectator—the Rocky IV (1985) soundtrack blared incongruously through the speakers. An original Rocky (1976) script was on display, and a few mythmaking quotes from Stallone were printed on the Netflix obelisk, like “I knew forever my fate was determined on the pen.”

Sly Exhibit. Courtesy of the author.

Dine-in theater chains wager that cinemagoers want total experiences, Martin Scorsese says Marvel’s a theme park. Only at a film festival could I enter a room like this: an immersive environment that so nakedly, so seamlessly, merges art and advertisement. If you’re reading Notebook, you probably know that film festivals are under siege, but even an institution as large and corporate as TIFF is on shaky ground. It’s about to lose Bell as its lead sponsor next year, and it is facing backlash for continuing to partner with fossil-fuel vultures RBC. As this real-world infrastructure crumbles, power players like Netflix—try as they might to pretend otherwise—still seek laurels and cachet for their projects; if they truly didn’t care, they would shy away from festival gala presentations, and develop their own alternative. These experiences are about making a mark on the real world, since dominance over a virtual world is more abstract, less satisfying. Somehow, Sly Exhibit is more cynical than the simple act of displaying Stallone's art because he’s famous; star power is no longer enough to guarantee breaking even. In this context, his paintings are on the same level as nostalgic artifacts and Netflix logos, which seek to make the corporate product flesh. Otherwise, Sly is just one of countless virtual tiles on a streaming menu.

Let’s understand what’s being obscured by the imperative to eventize a festival. I’m skeptical that Sly is worth a passionate defense as a work of cinema—I left Toronto before it screened—but I would rather watch the film than be swallowed up by an advertorial diorama. A vanity doc like this should be considered on its own terms; either let it be raked over the coals for setting money ablaze, or let it prompt anodyne reflections on the guy who made Rocky and these haunting paintings. Recentering the art—the films, yes, but even Stallone’s paintings—is maybe an obvious wish for a future festival ecosystem, but the way we parcel our attention seems critical; it’ll dictate which problems we’ll confront head-on, and which values inform new, improved structures. 

In her Locarno coverage, Jessica Kiang already wrote at length about one of the strongest films at TIFF, Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World, which she observes is “strangely plaintive in what it asks of us: not to expect too much from the end of the world, just please, please, please try to notice that it's happening.” Jude is determined to look outward at the world, letting his films expand and shapeshift to capture its vulgar gestalt, training his camera on the marginalized as they are steamrolled and silenced. This outward focus is central to Jude’s satire of late capitalism, so I was struck by the range of films at TIFF that turned inward. These movies often literally depicted artists wrestling with creative stasis: the crisis of self-consciousness for an emerging orchestra conductor in Chloé Robichaud’s Days of Happiness; the diet-cola version of Hunter S. Thompson (Willem Dafoe, trying his best) in Patricia Arquette’s painful directorial debut, Gonzo Girl. “Regurgitation of greatest hits keeps the lights on,” he barks to his assistant, defending his inability to write anything fresh in the early ’90s. For all of the film’s bad acid trips, this quote stayed with me: an aphorism for the reboot age, frank about the market-driven temptation to coast on one’s reputation.

The Holdovers (Alexander Payne, 2023).

Perhaps these concerns capture a moment that’s difficult to artistically respond to or summarize. Devil’s advocate, though: “There is nothing new in human history,” a walrus-esque Paul Giamatti opines in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, which finds Payne retooling his own career trajectory. Giamatti portrays Paul Hunham, a taciturn and gleefully sadistic classics teacher at a Massachusetts prep school in 1970; we meet him grading papers and muttering “vulgar little philistines!” to himself. Hunham is stuck supervising the boys who aren’t able to travel home over a cold, depressing winter break, which he structures around a military-style boot camp and textbook readings about Sparta. Circumstances involving a rich dad’s helicopter are contrived to lock Hunham down alone with spitfire-y loner Angus (Dominic Sessa, an unknown plucked from a Deerfield drama class), as well as the school’s Black head cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam. Hunham gives his little lecture on history as he guides Angus through the Greco-Roman sculpture galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts, noting that our experiences are never that different from those of our predecessors, and we must learn from the past to prepare for the future. Empathy prevails, and the characters form a makeshift nuclear family: Hunham eventually softens; Angus’s steely layers are peeled back; and beyond noting the financial and structural inequities of Mary’s son going to war rather than college, the trio does not dwell on racial strife in early ’70s Boston.

The Holdovers is designed to sweep a mid-’00s Golden Globes ceremony, and not only in the sense that it’s crowd-pleasing comfort food. It is a deliberate throwback: the sight of Giamatti is a reminder of his original Payne linkup, Sideways (2004), which was a dominant presence during awards season. It’s also easy to forget that Payne’s second-most-recent release was the Kurt Vonnegut-indebted sci-fi epic Downsizing (2017). With this unfairly maligned big swing in the rearview mirror, it makes sense that a back-to-basics script might stand Payne’s best chance of getting financed. The forecast seems grim for the director’s rough edges, but then again, perhaps it’s a small miracle that Downsizing was even released, or that something as caustic as Election (1999) could be an indie hit—there’s nothing new in human history. The Holdovers does win Boston-area authenticity points for a sequence set at a candlepin bowladrome; the characters are right that it is harder than twelve-pin.

Seven Veils (Atom Egoyan, 2023).

Meanwhile, Atom Egoyan’s Seven Veils has a more ambivalent relationship with history; as it wrestles with a classic text, it depicts a director’s anxiety about channeling external influences. At the outset, we meet an intense theater director, Jeanine (Amanda Seyfried), as she starts working on a production of Richard Strauss’s Salome for the Canadian Opera Company—a restaging of the version on which she apprenticed at the start of her career. This version will be performed in memory of its original director, Charles, who has recently passed away. In Jeanine’s initial remarks to the company, she mentions that she wants to make a few small, significant changes to Charles’s version, and it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that this has to do with the way that their personal backstory—and details from her own youth—shaped the onstage action. On top of this, Jeanine’s staging closely resembles Egoyan’s own explicit production of Salome from 1996, as well as his 2013 remounting of it; Seven Veils features its original cast members and incorporates identical design elements, such as disquieting, suggestive camcorder videos and freaky shadowplay. 

Jeanine is mainly focused on trying to direct a coherent production, but as she comes to grips with her interpretation, everything blurs together. There are theater politics to navigate, like toxic personalities on set, and a simmering rift with the opera company producers, who ask her to honor Charles’s legacy as faithfully as possible. Salome is almost too deeply embedded in Jeanine’s personal life for her to fully separate herself from it: at the start of the film, we see Jeanine standing pointedly on the director’s bridge that connects the stage to the seats, the space where the art is offered up to the viewer. The idea of surrendering to this intersection might sound a little played-out, but for Egoyan, this is simply what the job entails. All of these layers of influence intersect into a foundation for the drama, but what plays out onstage is beyond his control; why would anyone return to classic forms, if not to refresh them through collaboration? On Salome’s opening night, Jeanine hides during the standing ovation; if she’s done her job, her direction should haunt the show like a ghost.

Aggro Dr1ft (Harmony Korine, 2023).

Ghosts can return unexpectedly. In 2003, the pop-prog band Muse made a video using a thermal camcorder for their Deftones-lite song “Stockholm Syndrome.” Inspired by the POV scenes in Predator (1987), they let ice cubes melt on their arms to make it seem like their skin was melting, and added subliminal frames of creepy handwriting and their drummer farting on a lit flame. (Thanks, MuseWiki.) When I was in middle school, I loved this video, but I watched it too many times, and then I moved on to other bands. So some of the novelty of the infrared aesthetic of Harmony Korine’s Aggro Dr1ft was lost on me—it made me nostalgic for how much more fun Muse seemed to be having. To be fair, there is something deeply funny about directing actors like they’re stiff Bressonian models in Grand Theft Auto cutscenes, all driving through a toxic-vaporwave Miami that’s besieged by tacky Elden Ring demons. Jordi Mollà is also hilarious as the film’s main character, a lonely assassin named BO—perfect—who, in Malickian voiceover, restlessly intones mantras like “I am the world’s greatest assassin…I am the world’s greatest assassin…I am the world’s greatest assassin…” An extremely wooden Travis Scott is also here with a reptilian tongue. 

This is a vibes-forward confection, and its diffuse aura speaks to Korine’s anxieties about staying relevant—he’s just turned 50, his production company EDGLRD is trying to figure out the future of cinema, he’s inspired by his kids’ video games and TikTok feeds. Jude is also invested in his kids’ TikTok feeds, though; he and Korine may have different goals as artists and provocateurs, but only one of them feels like a genuine product of the contemporary moment. Taking Dr1ft to task for feeling lightweight is probably taking Korine’s bait—but shouldn’t lightweight stuff seem even a little cool? But then, I thought Muse was cool as a kid, and if Aggro Dr1ft is destined to be a high-school stoner classic, I’m mostly curious how people who were born in this century will feel about it. The ironic-but-not emptiness of the central assassin, the obvious juvenilia of the world around him, the triteness of anything you could say about it…it all falls flat. Beyond film-festival fare, there are better, crasser visions of worlds overtaken by digital effects, like Conner O’Malley’s new site EndorphinPort, or Miami native Nick Corirossi’s fucked-up twist on Taxi Driver, Bolt Driver.

Laberint Sequences (Blake Williams, 2023).

As for a film I actually wanted to get lost in, there was Blake Williams’s 3D short Laberint Sequences. It begins in Barcelona, surveying the scenery of the Laberint d’Horta hedge maze; the 3D accentuates the depth of these pathways, and I spent the first few minutes adjusting to the resulting illusion of dimensional space. The natural placidity of the location is undercut by the artificiality of the cinematic perspective: there’s something deceptively methodical about the camera’s smooth horizontal panning, the straight lines of the hedges. We’re unsettled further by a trip up a monorail, taking us to a new, empty interior, a station on our way.

Soon, a rupture: Williams puts us in an apartment alongside a voice actor (Deragh Campbell) as she records overdubs for an early 3D film, The Maze (1953). The sequence she’s dubbing—of two characters navigating a hedge maze by candlelight—eventually overtakes the screen in a miraculous ending sequence. The black-and-white footage from The Maze begins to invert color, dissolve, and overlap with itself; meanwhile, a light show of red, blue, and green toggles between our eyes in the 3D glasses. Atop all of this, Campbell ventriloquizes for one of the characters in an antique-y English accent, calling out to her aunt, whom she’s lost in the maze. A written description cannot do this climax justice, but its emotional impact is sudden and totalizing: deconstructing the scientific components of vision, systematically breaking down a cinematic trance, while powerfully evoking the desire to lose oneself in the maze.

The Human Surge 3 (Eduardo Williams, 2023).

Then there was Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge 3, easily the most future-facing feature at TIFF. Honing a methodology he adopted for his 2019 short, Parsi, Williams traveled to Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Peru with a 360-degree camera in tow, with which he filmed acquaintances, friends of friends, and people he cast in advance online. He sometimes hands the camera over to his actors, who, at one point, send it tumbling down a slope, audibly losing track of it. Afterward, Williams reviewed the dailies and edited them while wearing a VR headset: what you see onscreen is what Williams chose to look at while editing. The result is a collection of trance-like scenes that pass by like drifting clouds—everyday banter about gig work, precarious lodging, and love lives; surreal interludes where characters fall asleep, disappear, or materialize on a different continent. My personal favorite is a chance encounter between two characters on the street: one insists he had a dream about the other, the second person argues that they’ve never met before and he’s lying through his teeth, and the first person admits (or white-lies) that yeah, he was totally kidding about the dream, he’s never seen the other person before in his life. All the while, Williams’s POV pans in a horizontal circle, caught between the two of them.

Like a refrain throughout the film, characters ask each other “Where are we going?”; the response is always that it doesn’t matter. If this were all there was to the diffusion of The Human Surge 3, it would be pretty boring, a bravura but empty technological experiment. But the film’s defiantly plotless, low-blood-pressure meandering does more than offer up a new type of onscreen narrative. Williams is curious about how the internet lets us beam ourselves into other spaces—the feeling of surfing Google Earth is a strong structural reference point; there’s also a sequence set on a grassy hillside reminiscent of Windows XP’s Bliss desktop background. But despite the first-person-POV technology he’s using, Williams makes total absorption impossible. We drift down crowded city streets, lingering on signage without context, as characters wander in search of uncertain temporary lodging; we feel lightly disoriented, too. We see rising river levels in Peru, an ambient backdrop to a group of teenagers chatting and flirting: a vision of the next generation and the environmental reality they’ll inherit.

All the while, characters sleep, dream, and if seeing is believing, literally take flight. Williams has said that he sees the imagination as a way to liberate oneself from the constraints of monotonous jobs. Although The Human Surge 3 is more oblique in-text about gig work than its similarly globetrotting predecessor, The Human Surge (2016)—2 does not exist, a funny joke about franchising and gaps in logic—its collaborative, free-associative format responds to its limitations. Williams offers his camera to the people he meets: Where are we going? This cinema is mobile and liberating, but it also speaks to a moment defined by directionlessness, as well as our inability to comprehend or transcend it. In one masterful sequence, Williams pans up to rainforest treetops and rotates the visual so that it looks like a pixelated pinwheel—as though the sky were the top of a circus tent, or the domed roof of a game environment. This felt like the pinnacle of everything Williams has built toward: the surreal artificiality of a deceptively immersive environment. I’m excited to see where he’ll go next.

Mademoiselle Kenopsia (Denis Côté, 2023).

There are other moments that hit me like Williams’s pinwheel: a cross-cutting sequence with N95 masks and balaclavas in Joshua Gen Solondz’s We Don’t Talk Like We Used To, fizzling with whooshes of static; or the way Angela Schanelec attends to footsteps in her beautifully elemental reworking of the Oedipus myth, Music, where violence is kept offscreen, and sorrow bursts forcefully through in song. I was compelled by these sequences of tension, concealment, and release: a cinema on the edge, but without misleading prophecies. As for the future of the medium? Even Eduardo Williams probably requires one more phase change to get there.

One more parable before we part: in Denis Côté’s entrancing Mademoiselle Kenopsia, a woman (Larisa Corriveau) lives alone in an abandoned building. In real life, this used to be a hospital in Quebec; here, it’s, a haunted house with vacant infirmaries, with our hero as its caretaker, keeping it from sliding into total decay. She makes calls to an unseen interlocutor about strange noises in the pipes, then veers off on existential tangents, reflecting on the feeling that she was born in the wrong moment. As we spend time with her, we lose our sense of perspective on time and place, too. She encounters bizarre people and apparitions, who, in her boredom and alienation, are sources of fascination, horror, and libidinous desperation. Here, limbo is anticlimactic, frustrating; Corriveau’s performance makes it work, twitchy at the slightest provocation. Making desperate, circuitous calls, forever, in spite of the passage of time—who couldn’t relate?

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TIFF 2023TIFFFestival CoverageAlexander PayneAtom EgoyanHarmony KorineBlake WilliamsEduardo WilliamsDenis CôtéSylvester Stallone
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