TORONTO — It began with mermaids and continued with dragons and fireworks in the street. Toronto's 12th annual film festival, well under way since its Sept 10 opening, is almost over. Continuing for 10 nights and nine full days, with awards to be announced Sunday, Toronto's indefatigable moviegoers have had a wide-ranging, eclectic assortment spread out for them.
In addition to the core of international films that make up any serious festival, there are what the benefactor-set loves, evening galas of a glamorous and generally non-controversial nature, preferably with Hollywood and/or international names in tow: like "The Glass Menagerie," saved for tonight's closing with its director Paul Newman and half its stars, Joanne Woodward and Karen Allen, here.
Opening night was an appeal to hometown pride: the fey, if heavily strained "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing," by Ontario-born writer-director Patricia Rozema, fresh from Telluride and the film's success in Cannes. (There were a few dissidents who took inordinate pleasure in New York Times critic Vincent Canby's remark in a subsequent review that "it was like watching a 500-pound elf.")
The first week also produced director Alan J. Pakula and actors Albert Finney and Matthew Modine with "Orphans." Last Friday saw "The Princess Bride," Rob Reiner's tongue-in-cheek swashbuckler.
Thursday the North American premiere of "Dark Eyes," Nikita Mikhalkov's Cannes favorite for which Marcello Mastroianni won best actor, was greeted rapturously by the gala crowd in Toronto. Friday afternoon saw the surprise triumph of "Babette's Feast," with Stephane Audran, by the Danish Axel Madsen from a story by Karen Blixen, a film as special and succulent as the great meal that is at its centerpiece.
Thursday also marked the appearance of Diana Keaton with the Charles Shyer "Baby Boom" or Annie Hall Gets a Baby, exquisitely calibrated toward the growing pregnant yuppie pack.
Presumably heartened by "Barfly's" quite jolly reception in Telluride, Faye Dunaway decided to make an appearance with director Barbet Schroeder and the film on Sunday.
Like "Barfly," "Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll," is another hit from Telluride; an all-stops-out, rip-roaring documentary portrait of Chuck Berry.
On Sunday, the winner of the festival's only juried section, its "Perspective Canada" award, will be announced, an event of no little consequence because it is now accompanied by $25,000 (Canadian). It's an award for any aspect of film making--production, direction or the less frequently recognized editors or cinematographers. Last year, director Deny Arcand's "The Decline of the American Empire" took the honors.
There is a 40-film Asia-Pacific retrospective--works from Hong Kong, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam--which opened with banners, a dragon procession and Hong Kong film maker Ann Hui's exuberant, three-hour epic retelling of "The Romance of Book and Sword," the eighth remaking of that Chinese classic, set at the fall of the Ming dynasty.
For the thoughtful, there have been two complete presentations of controversial director Peter Watkins' 14 1/2-hour documentary "The Journey," an investigation on the subject of nuclear war, and in particular, what Watkins sees as the media's role in worldwide ignorance about nuclear weapons issues. Thus far, the reviews and reactions have been as controversial as the film maker's subject.
It has been called "frighteningly effective" by the Experimental Film Coalition newsletter and "a blunt political tool, at best," by the Toronto Globe and Mail's Jay Scott.
What distinguishes this festival from any other carefully programmed collection worldwide are the extraordinary Toronto audiences, who turn out in droves at almost every hour and who can be overheard wrangling about film facts in restaurants and coffee houses, banks, bars and subways.
What will be interesting to weigh will be the impact of the more raw, less artsy Asia-Pacific films on this same audience. Sophisticated Toronto moviegoers, who are certainly dedicated, also seem to be risk-takers.
This year, with some 40 retrospective Asia Pacific films to choose from, the audiences are more racially balanced, but no less ardent.
Helga Stephenson, the festival's new director, chosen early this year after 10 years working behind the scenes, had a taste of the Toronto fanaticism and loyalty on opening night. Preparing to introduce the "Mermaids" contingent, the ebullient Stephenson was faced with a wall of applause.