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David Ehrlich

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David is the Senior Editor of Film.com. His interests include the New York Rangers, movies about movies, and regretting this personal bio.

The TIFF Diaries: 100 Hours at the World’s Biggest Film Festival

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Real talk: I’ve wanted to go to TIFF for longer than I can remember. From afar, it always struck me as my ideal festival: A gloriously unmanageable slate of quality work from all corners of the globe, a lovely and accessible city, and an emphasis on film that overwhelmed the generally toxic presence of the film industry. TIFF seemed to combine the best of every fest, offering the caliber of cinema you’d find at Cannes, the corporate-sponsored obsession with buzz that defines Sundance, and the nuclear holocaust of alcohol and karaoke that epitomizes a week at SXSW.

Due to high school, college, and eventually graduate school conflicts perennially making it impossible for me to attend, I’ve known for almost a decade that 2013 was going to be my chance to make this happen. Legend has it that a wedding at which I’m the best man had to be postponed because the bride and groom had the extraordinary nerve to schedule it during this year’s festival (but that is only the stuff of legend).

And so it was – two weeks ago I flew up to Toronto as an accredited member of the press, cautiously optimistic that my experience would match my expectations. And … it didn’t. It decimated them. From the films to the city to the people with whom I enjoyed both, TIFF was by far the best and most fun film festival I’ve ever attended. Given how great a time I had up in the land where Tim Horton is king, I thought it might be fun to offer this stream-of-consciousness diary of my Canadian adventure (there’s a pretty good chance that I was very, very wrong about that). While most of my time was spent in the cavernous dark of a Scotiabank auditorium – I saw 33 features over the course of 7.5 insanely sleep-deprived days, a cinematic overload unlike anything I’d ever known – and the press screenings are so blissfully concentrated in one place that I don’t feel I can accurately account for what the fest might be like as a member of the public,  I nevertheless wanted to offer an idea of what TIFF was like in the trenches. The psychotic ramblings below account for my first 100 hours at the fest, and in the unlikely event that I don’t completely regret publishing this, I’ll post a second installment early next week.

Here’s hoping I see you in Toronto next year.

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

12:30 P.M. I’m walking towards customs at YYZ (which was named after the Rush song, and not the other way around. Don’t look that up, just embrace the “Life of Pi” approach and accept it as the truth). I assume that “customs” in Toronto = receiving free healthcare and watching the Maple Leafs lose a hockey game.

12:45 P.M. It turns out that “customs” in Canada is more or less the same as customs in America. I don’t know it at the time, but this will be the longest line I wait on during TIFF.

1:37 P.M. The customs agent tells me that he reads Film.com. Desperately thinking of something nice to say in response, I tell him that I totally think Canada got screwed out of some credit at the end of “Argo.” I am permitted to enter the country.

2:35 P.M. I’m staying with my esteemed colleague, Mr. Jordan Hoffman, in a cute apartment near the street where Sarah Polley filmed “Take This Waltz.” From our second-floor window I can see the exact spot where that movie ripped my heart out.

3:22 P.M. Downtown Toronto / TIFF headquarters is a 20-minute trolley ride from where we’re staying, a straight shot down a cute commercial street. I board the trolley and fish around for the $3 in coins I flagrantly don’t have. Taking pity on me, the driver offers me a ticket and says “Don’t worry about it, brother.” Jordan, I don’t think we’re in Manhattan, anymore.

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3:46 P.M. Woof. A not-at-all embarrassing 30-minute rock block of selfies, and that’s the best I could do.

5:07 P.M. Seated for my first movie of the fest, a junket screening of “Prisoners” at a swanky hotel. Terrence Howard was standing by the entrance when we came in, so I guess you could say that he [redacted joke about Terrence Howard’s history of domestic abuse].

Read Film.com’s review of “Prisoners” here.

7:41 P.M. It turns out that Googling “‘Prisoners’ release date” is not the most effective way of learning when “Prisoners” comes out.

8:10 P.M. I’m at a party that’s essentially the physical manifestation of my Twitter feed. It’s like I’m inside the computer.

11:30 P.M. My cab driver thanks me for riding in his car. As a New Yorker, I naturally react to this small act of kindness as though the cabbie has revealed himself to be The Bone Collector.

11:40 P.M. Jordan and I are poring over our schedules for the following day. Looking at the TIFF screening grid is sort of like the cinephile version of being a kid in the candy store, except you’re much more likely to gain weight at TIFF. Jordan is waffling over what to see, but eventually decides to see “Child’s Pose”, this year’s Golden Bear winner. He justifies his decision by proclaiming “Romanian films are to now what… you know… whatever.” His argument is convincing, so I add “Child’s Pose” to my schedule.

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THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 5

7:30 A.M. Our shower has two temperatures: scalding hot and freezing cold. I suspect that it was designed by Hugh Jackman (#PrisonersHumor).

8:07 A.M. A mentally unstable woman gets on the trolley, and begins screaming that she’s going to murder everyone on board. But every time she says “I’ll kill you all with a knife!” She  follows it up with “eh.” As in, “I’ll stab every single one of you to death, eh?” It’s oddly endearing.

11:49 A.M. After seeing Jafar Panahi’s “Closed Curtain” for the second time, I’m seated for “Child’s Pose.” This tiny Romanian film that will play for a week in a basement in Lincoln Square is playing in a 600-seat theater with Dolby Atmos surround sound and a screen the size of a Kaiju. The subtitles are so big I swear I can speak Romanian.

12:02 P.M. Am fost nu glumesti.

1:37 P.M. Standing in the middle of the Scotiabank lobby, gawking at all the semi-familiar faces. Seriously, this place is like sleep-away camp for movie critics, but without the whole “everyone laughing at you because you refuse to take off your shirt for the character-building night swim in the lake filled with brain-eating amoebas” part. Which is a shame, because that was totally my favorite part of sleep-away camp.

1:42 P.M. “There’s Elvis Mitchell!” I think to myself as I look around the room.

1:42 P.M. “Here I am!” Elvis Mitchell thinks to himself as he looks around the room.

2:00 P.M. Seated for Cannes sensation “Blue is the Warmest Color.” You know, the movie with the graphic 10-minute lesbian sex scene.

3:10 P.M. And they’re off!

3:11 P.M. This sure is… athletic.

3:13 P.M. I haven’t seen anyone switch positions this many times since  Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign (nailed it!).

3:15 P.M. The fact that I’m thinking about Mitt Romney right now probably says something about the way Abdellatif Kechiche filmed this sex scene. Or maybe it just says something about me. I report, you decide.

3:17 P.M. Still going.

3:19 P.M. This is starting to feel less like softcore porn and more like a very special episode of “Planet Earth.” The sex is at once both highly ethnographic and completely false. It’s like Kechiche’s idea of lesbian lovemaking was entirely gleaned from tube sites. I’m struck by how the thing that most differentiates itself from “porn” are the ellipses. Porn doesn’t believe in montage, dialectical or otherwise. Porn exits in a pre-Griffiths world. Porn = our link to early cinema?

3:21 P.M. Still going.

3:24 P.M. Well, at least we got to enjoy 12 minutes without anyone checking their cellphone.

Read Film.com’s review of “Blue is the Warmest Color”.

5:30 P.M. The multiplex reserved for press & industry screenings at TIFF is pretty much heaven. If the last scene of “This is the End” was set in this place, I’d be like “yeah, that seems about right.” For example, right now I’m drinking a draft beer, wondering how long I can resist the Pac Man arcade game where the controllers are shaped like giant Pac Men. And Pac Women. Pac *Things.* Whatever, I’m not racist.

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8:16 P.M. Exactly one minute into Sion Sono’s “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?” Toothpaste commercials will never be the same.

10:15 P.M. I don’t want to overhype this movie or anything, but I’m reasonably confident that “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” is mankind’s greatest achievement.

Read Film.com’s review of “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?”

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 6

8:15 A.M. Seeing a Polish film called “Ida.” I’d see “Labor Day”, but I’m told that you’re not supposed to see anything that white after Labor Day.

2:44 P.M. Point blank: TIFF has the best volunteers of any film festival in the world, and it also has the most of them. In order to maintain, uh, order when guiding lines into the theaters, the volunteers form a human bumper alley. It’s as adorable as it is effective, and it makes walking into every movie feel like you’re being ushered into Willy Wonka’s. Of course, it’s important to note that you’re never actually being ushered into “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, because TIFF has standards.

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3:30 P.M. The fact that I haven’t slept since I was in another country is starting to catch up with me. The whole “sleep on the floor in a heap like I deserve” approach isn’t really working out, so I wander around downtown Toronto until I find a store that might be able to help me out. I buy a roll-up mattress pad for $50 from a mountaineering co-op that makes me promise I’ll fulfill my monthly shift requirements. I have no doubt that elsewhere in Toronto, Michael Fassbender is currently going through the same thing.

Spoiler Alert: don’t click on the next link if you’re epileptic. 

10:51 P.M. All of the Oscar bloggers just got out of the festival’s first “12 Years a Slave screening.” In order to save them the unspeakable hassle of trying to come up with even nominally creative ways  to describe the experience of watching such a beautiful, brilliant film, I do them the favor of creating this message.

11:00 P.M. My review of “Tom at the Farm” is really starting to come together:

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(you can read how it eventually turned out here).

11:17 P.M. The walls of our apartment are super thin, and the couple in the next room is arguing rather loudly. I begin blasting The Weeknd to drown them out.

11:18 P.M. The couple in the next room is now doing something else rather loudly. In a matter of moments, I have gone from innocent bystander to sex DJ. You are all my puppets, Toronto! (maniacal laugh).

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 7

8:05 A.M. I’m in line for “12 Years a Slave.” Call me crazy, but I like to start every Saturday morning with a soul-scorching 130-minute movie about systemic human atrocities. I’m weird like that.

8:30 A.M. Seated in the packed multiplex auditorium, waiting for the movie to begin. I’ve heard great things about the film, and I’m very excited to be attending one of the 2D screenings.

10:40 A.M. “12 Years a Slave” crowd goes absolutely nuts for the post-credits stinger where Harriet Tubman recruits Chiwetel Ejiofor for the Underground Railroad Initiative. Rumor has it that the sequel will arrive in the summer of 2015.

10:45 A.M. Okay, I get it now. The whole reflexive “Oscar!” reaction to this film is sort of like your brain trying to make sense of the stimuli in a dream. It’s such a staggering emotional experience that people have been at a loss afterwards, the word “Oscar” becoming a shorthand to describe an experience that has otherwise left them speechless.

Read Film.com’s review of “12 Years a Slave.”

1:06 P.M. Finally about to see “Gravity”. The weight is over!

1:10 P.M. The film begins with a few title cards talking about how there’s no sound in space…

1:12 P.M. …Except for overbearing symphonic scores. Apparently those are heard in space just fine.

1:15 P.M. Okay, raise your hand if you thought that “Gravity” would open with a Macarena joke. I can’t tell if this is more or less unexpected than “12 Years a Slave” opening with the lead character fingering a stranger, but I should probably put that on the back-burner for now because something is happening in this movie and Sandra Bullock’s character is going from “panicked” to “slightly more panicked.”

1:29 P.M. How the hell did they make this movie?

1:30 P.M. …How?

1:41 P.M. …How?

1:49 P.M. But like, seriously… how?

2:45 P.M. For such an obviously innovative experience, “Gravity” sure is a deeply regressive film. Or was I supposed to be laughing at the last shot? Oh well.

Read Film.com’s review of “Gravity”. 

4:30 P.M. Seated for a crudely animated Korean drama called “The Fake.”

5:01 P.M. Slumping my head onto the shoulder of the stranger next to me during a crudely animated Korean drama called “The Fake.”

5:14 P.M. No longer seated for a crudely animated Korean drama called “The Fake.” My first (and last) TIFF walk-out, but less because I wasn’t in the mood for a cartoon version of “Secret Sunshine”, and more because I wasn’t in the mood to be on this mortal coil. Sleep beckons, but – as is often the case – Harry Potter beckons louder.

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7:12 P.M. I hop out of a cab in front of the Ryerson Theatre for a public screening, the world premiere of Michael Dowse’s “The F Word”, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. As soon as I step onto the sidewalk, the crowd LOSES THEIR MINDS. I never had any idea that Toronto had such unbridled love for visiting movie critics. I’ve gotta say, it feels nice.

7:13 P.M. Oh, Daniel Radcliffe was in the car behind me, never mind. Whatever, he’s just some short, obscenely rich British kid. Who cares?

7:14 P.M. OMG I MADE EYE CONTACT WITH DANIEL RADCLIFFE I THINK I JUST SELF-ACTUALIZED. WHAT A MAGICAL FEELING, THIS IS MY “JODIE FOSTER ON THE ALIEN BEACH IN ‘CONTACT’” MOMENT.

8:00 P.M. Sitting in the cavernous theater and waiting for the film to start, I decide to make small talk with the person sitting next to me. Surely only good can come of this.

Me: Hey, so have you heard anything about this?

Guy to My Left: Kind of.

Me: Tell me the truth, you’re just at this movie to see Harry Potter, right?

Guy to My Left: Not really. I’m at this movie because I wrote it.

Me: …I really wish I hadn’t asked you to tell me the truth.

*And scene*

Note: Some of this conversation may or may not have been a sleep-deprived fever dream.

Read Film.com’s review of “The F Word”.

11:45 P.M. Jordan and I are in the apartment slaving away at some reviews. I make a mental note that it’s probably a good time to retire the phrase “slaving away,” at least in the context of sitting at a table writing about movies. In fairness, the table is very squeaky.

11:54 P.M. Jordan is blasting some live Phish. In related movie trivia, “12 Years a Slave” subject Solomon Northrop famously took his own life seven minutes into a Phish concert (spoiler alert?).

11:58 P.M. Jordan wants you to know that the 2nd 10 minutes of 12-28-12’s “Tweezer” is “sublime.”

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 7

8:05 A.M. God damn you 8:30 A.M. screenings, you do it to me every time. Oh the redheads said I shred the jello, but I’m jello baby. Wait, I think I may have confused some of the words in that Weezer reference. But whatever, I’ve been “sleeping” on the floor for a week (“sleeping” being a euphemism for “not sleeping”, as opposed to “sleeping” being a euphemism for “sex”), and I just asked a stranger on the trolley how long they’ve lived in “Totoro.” So.

10:40 A.M. Credits roll on a didactic but involving and well-intentioned costume drama called “Belle”. Just the dose of Tom Wilkinson I needed to perk back up.

12:05 P.M. About an hour into Richard Ayoade’s “The Double.” The score is amazing. I make a note to learn more about it later.

12:45 P.M. And by “learn more about it later” I mean Google the composer, get his Twitter handle, and immediately start harassing him about how I need that music immediately. Because I saw his movie (for free) so I am now entitled to any part of it I want forever and ever until I become obsessed with something else. That’s how it works, right?

12:46 P.M. After exhaustively mulling it over for 27 seconds, I’ve decided that “The Double” is the best film *not* about slaves that I’ve seen at TIFF so far.

Read Film.com’s review of “The Double”.

1:15 P.M. Seated for “Can a Song Save Your Life?” Which I think is a heartfelt medical drama in the vein of “Patch Adams” in which a widowed young doctor (Mark Ruffalo) moves to a new town that can’t afford surgical instruments, so they sing until the cancer goes away.

1:30 P.M. Oh sweet god I wish I had been right.

1:40 P.M. This is like a remake of “Once” that’s been written and directed by Ryan Seacrest. Except it’s actually written and directed by the guy who made “Once.” It’s too bad you can’t auto-tune a screenplay.

2:45 P.M. Well that was my ‘Nam.

Read Film.com’s review of “Can a Song Save Your Life?”

4:30 P.M. To thank my ears for enduring “Can A Song Save Your Life?” I’m running over to the Elgin Theatre to see the world premiere of the new Godfrey Reggio film, “Visitors”, which will be accompanied by a live performance of the score, composed and conducted by Philip Glass and performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I’m not not excited.

4:50 P.M. I’m sitting in the middle of a gorgeous, 100-year-old theater, surrounded by some of my favorite film writers. To the chagrin of everyone sitting nearby, I take advantage of the fact that this will be the only time in my life that Godfrey Reggio-based humor might actually play. For the next 12 minutes, all Powaqqatsi jokes are legal.

5:02 P.M. Steven Soderbergh takes the stage to introduce Godfrey Reggio. The dude is approximately nine feet tall and wearing a cocktail attire zip-up tracksuit. YOLO.

6:30 P.M. Now *that* is how you do a live-read.

6:45 P.M. Sodebergh is leading the Q&A, and he’s an amazing moderator. Philip Glass is mumbling most of his answers, and I’m desperate for Soderbergh to ask the composer to repeat himself. Because Philip Glass humor is my favorite genre of humor.

7:05 P.M. Leaving the Elgin on my way to the “Visitors” party, I see thousands of people cramming the sidewalks in the hopes of getting a glimpse at the star of the next movie to play at the venue … Colin Firth. One woman is wearing an obviously homemade t-shirt on which she’s ironed about 50 different photos of the actor. The text across the middle of the shirt reads “Would birth for Firth.” Ah, the magic of cinema.


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Tags: 12 Years a Slave, David Ehrlich, Diary, Gravity, TIFF, Toronto International Film Festival