Disco naps, power walks, and girlwatching: A rambling guide to TIFF

Darren Hughes has kindly posted all of the movies for the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, providing a handy resource for all festival goers. Unfortunately, that happy number won’t include me this time around. The list got me nostalgic, as 2007’s fest was my first TIFF, and I’ve made a promise to myself to attend in odd years from now until my health no longer permits. We’ll see.

Looking through my email archives today in search of my TIFF correspondence from last September, I found snippets of an essay I meant to write but never got around to completing. (Quick head count for bloggers out there: What’s the ratio of posts you begin vs. posts you actually finish? I’m 4:1.) I had intended to write a series on the whole TIFF experience: scheduling movies (and documenting the concurrent, unexpected anxiety that results), listing my “to-see” list, reviewing some select films, and giving tips to newbies for next year.

I managed to do all but the last item—pretty good odds for me—and what follows is my attempt to polish and refine what I left unfinished a year ago. These are notes from a first-time TIFF-goer, tips (for me as much as anyone else) on how to approach it for next time, and random observations on enjoying a major film festival in the midst of a bustling city. Take what you will.

It pays to eavesdrop. When you go to see a movie at the local multiplex, the people in line generally talk about everything except for movies. Not at TIFF. Simply put, this is because you’ll be in line for 45 minutes at a time—even if you’ve already got a ticket to the screening—if you want good seats. TIFF-goers are ardent, informed chatters about film and, since most movies at the festival play at least twice, you’ll begin to hear buzz. I had two ticket vouchers for use at any screening, one of which I ended up using for My Winnipeg after spending 10 minutes listening to two people re-enact scenes from it and laughing out loud. Other than (perhaps) Honeydripper and Happiness, Guy Maddin’s “docu-fantasia” turned out to be the best movie I saw all week. Even if you don’t get good tips, eavesdropping is a great way to pass the time.

Speaking of which, bring a book. Several, actually. And an iPod, if you’ve got one. For the days you’re in attendance, you’ll run on festival time. This means: 1. You’ll show up 45 minutes early to a screening—and more like 90 minutes early if you don’t have a ticket to the screening, and are trying to rush your way in at the last minute; 2. screenings will begin and end late so, even once you’ve claimed your seat in the theater, you’ll be waiting 10-15 minutes before the lights go down; 3. you’ll spend time on the clean, efficient subway, and without a book you’ll either fiddle uncomfortably with your hands or stare at people; and 4. after three movies in a row, you’ll want to unwind with a cup of coffee in Queen’s Park, with something other than a flickering screen in front of you.

Prepare to chat. Butt in on conversations. Seriously. People in line were overwhelmingly friendly, and they travel from all over the world to be at TIFF. I guarantee you’ll have interesting talks. Once introductions are made (and sometimes when not—I had three conversations in which I didn’t learn the other person’s name until 20 minutes in), movie talk goes fast and furious. TIFFers are opinionated and sharp, and often funny. Last year, I ran into a mother-daughter team from Manitoba who make the trek every year. We talked nonstop for an hour—that line for The Mourning Forest was endless—and we bumped into each other on three or four more occasions throughout the week. The same thing happened with me and a South African transplant to Toronto, a fiery redhead who wore patchouli, and who “is here to see documentaries, and nothing but.” We became fast friends, and I saw her everywhere, too. It’s nice to have friends in a new town.

Schedule some time off. A blogger wrote to me beforehand, telling me something that seemed totally counterintuitive at the time but which proved true: The more movies you see at TIFF, the more you’ll want to see. You won’t get burnt out. That’s true—for a week, I was in an electric atmosphere that loved movies as much (and then more) than I did, with people who wanted to talk about films and how they affected their lives. The immediate contact between art and experience is galvanizing, and you want more of it. Still. All the same. You will want a day to decompress and absorb what you’ve seen so far. Take in some museums (I recommend the Bata Shoe Museum and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. Luxuriate with a filmgoer over coffee or drinks for three or four hours. Make a pilgrimage to the Beguiling. Enjoy the cool breezes and fresh scents of Toronto in early September—it’s as close to a perfect climate as you’ll find, so don’t miss it.

Take in at least one Midnight Madness movie. Yes, your feet will be dragging the next morning. Yes, you will in all likelihood be swathed in filmic gore and lots of flesh. Yes, you will probably be disturbed. But the most enthusiastic, packed house that I attended was for Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. The audience created a madhouse atmosphere that was fully engaged, so much so that they talked back at the screen, as if it were having a conversation with us. In a way, movies do talk to you, and the dialogue continues after the credits roll, as we chat about them with our friends while walking into the woozy, streetlight-drenched light, as we argue with a review or a blog post. Midnight movies tend toward the visceral, encouraging us to talk back at the screen—like Bollywood movies—and the Midnight Madness is a reminder of this potential in movies.

Knapsacks are essential. On any given day, you’ll be carrying the following: a water bottle, book, TIFF festival program, tickets, map, notepad, snacks, cellphone, camera. In all likelihood, you won’t head back to your hotel until the end of the day. So put it all in one place, and keep it with you. All of the theaters expect backpacks and knapsacks, and I never had a problem with any security guard or ticket taker.

Finally, bring some walking shoes. Toronto is a pedestrian city, with a wonderful public transit system and lots of interesting sites to see. September is a prime time to see the city in all its glory. Its women are the most beautiful in the world—and I’ve been to New York, Paris, Chicago, and San Francisco, so I’m not whistlin’ Dixie here. You’ll learn more about men’s fashion by walking down Bloor or Yonge in a Wednesday afternoon than you will in a year’s subscription to Esquire. But to see it all, you’ve got to hoof it, not sit in taxis. And for hoofing it, you need comfy shoes.

That’s what I got, and now I’ve gotten sad that I won’t be there this year. If you’re going, get a scoop of roasted marshmallow ice cream from Greg’s every day, and consider yourself lucky.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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