The Festival That Ate My Brain (1997)

The Festival That Ate My Brain

I think it’s true what they say, that in every city God has paused to show her face, and in some cities that face looks like Expo, or the Calgary Stampede or the World’s Fare, but in Toronto it looks like the International Film Festival. There were days in the springtime, when the Festival was still months away, when you couldn’t open the window without seeing it, or stumbling over it on your way out the door, it just seemed to be everywhere you looked.

When I was little we all thought of heaven as a series of line-ups, like check-out time at the local supermarket. There would be line-ups for people who could do the most push-ups, or people who could stand in the shower for hours without turning into a prune, and you would just rush around trying to get into as many as possible before they sent you down to earth. But it wasn’t until the festival began, with line-ups that lasted far longer than the movies we waited to see, that something like happiness, something like the memory of heaven descended upon our city.

Was this the first distant tug of nationhood, the first assertion of a national identity, that the most perfect organization of humanity could have taken shape as a line-up? What could be more Canadian than this after all, apart from the Festival itself, which would draw from heaven its first principle of staging, that line-ups were the ideal group experience, the very incarnation of desire, whose perfectly formed anticipations would provide for us all a palpable sense of wonder. It’s this sense of amaze that prompts even the most cynical of the ushers to repeat in a hushed litany that God spoke first and then took a week off to see the Festival.

As a film student the Festival was a bit like getting invited to a smorgasbord dessert table with a thousand chefs circling the pile, shrieking at you to gorge, to indulge in every excess, to catch the early show at nine and make it all the way, your butt widened and numbed from an alternating current of caffeine injections and left behind popcorn, to the midnight show appropriately dubbed madness.

Even better, now that you’re an aspiring filmmaker these long days of sitting may pass as work. It would be one of the necessary sacrifices undertaken by the aspirant, and serve to quell, if only for a week, the relentless voice of the ascetic which continues to sound from within, decrying a slovenly work practice, insistently requiring a daily libation which threatened always to take the place of the day itself. This monologue of conscience which has never managed to leave you, seems soothed somehow, placated by the sop of the festival. Unwittingly, you had stumbled across the first law of the festival, that pleasure could be had without cost or consequence, that there was not a fixed amount of pleasure in the universe after all, so that the intense happiness of one was necessarily balanced by the misery of another. Standing before this bounty, this infinitude you are filled with an emotion which had been a stranger to you until now: grace.

As an aspiring filmmaker, you’ve just begun to name the tools of your craft, watering the small dream that one day the slightest of your inclinations might be broadcast the world over. Each day you take your dog for a walk and his furtive roadside pissings, a little on this bush, a little at the head of this trail, has granted you an image of success. You imagine your future will proceed in just the same way, these small puddles of longing managing one day to congeal into bodies of water that might take you, no the thought seems too ridiculous to even utter yet, there it is, it’s inescapable. One day you hope to show your own at The Festival. To flip through a catalogue and find yourself cast in the same typeface as Wim and Marguerite and all the others. To have the text surrounding your movie pressed into theirs, in a kiss, an alphabetic embrace that would reassure the world that while the wars of inequity raged on outside, here in the Festival catalogue, all films were created equally, cherished with even hands, each image joined in the unified chorus of the book.

It’s 1986, and for the past six years I’ve been trying to catch up with the elusive thrall of experimental film. If there were no rules for this practice, if it had not quite succumbed to Lenin’s notion that ethics are the aesthetics of the future, then there was little audience either, and amongst our narrowing cult of emulsion benders there were few mentions of awards or show times. We seemed content enough to share our small yields with one another. The Festival, or the Festival of Festivals as it was then named, was not even a distant dream for the most ambitious amongst us. It was, simply put, part of a cinematic world which had nothing to do with us.

I’d been struggling for the past three years to stitch together a diary film which seemed to vanish to the touch, while each approach rendered one small moment clear, it immediately cast the rest into a hopeless and painful obscurity. The National Film Board had made available a single editing machine which was used in round-the-clock shifts by every independent filmmaker in the city, so each day at two or three or four in the morning I stepped over the heaping ashtrays and tried to find the thread, yearning the while for something simpler. I think that’s when White Museum took shape. It would be a film without images, just light on the screen, with a voice apologizing (this period is marked by a Canadian cinema of apology) for not having enough money to produce images. Like all detours this one took considerably longer than planned, and when I was through I screened it for the faithful and got righteously drunk and fell in love with everyone who had a kind word to say about it and swore revenge against all those who muttered noncommittally and then I went to bed knowing it was over. That’s when the call arrived. From someone I’d never met before, a stranger, and he’d seen my film and I wondered how he’d managed because usually I knew everyone who saw my movies, mostly they were friends I’d lured with promises of free love and pharmaceuticals. But now there was this stranger on the phone who says he’s seen this movie, well not seen exactly but heard it—it was blank after all, and that he’d like to show it AT THE FESTIVAL.

In later years you’d reach for the mainline to get this kind of rush, but could it really be true—were they going to run your movie in a regular movie theater? Not a converted church basement or the balcony of a friend with a screen flapping in the breeze but a real movie theater where people like you always work for minimum wage oozing kilos of melted fat over condiments. Where the names on lobby posters are enough to quicken the pulse of those given to starlight. You pinch yourself in disbelief that Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Swanson and you could have been born in the same world.

You think, when the day arrives, and your movie hits the screen with the irresistible force that only solitude and misanthropy can muster, that there will be people sitting in the audience that you’ve never met. Because during the festival people would go to see any old tired piece of shit, even yours, because it had been granted a birth in heaven and your friends can’t accuse you of selling out because you weren’t selling anything and after that terrible scene at graduation where you pissed on the camera you can invite your parents again knowing that no matter how threadbare your movie was they would be arriving not at a film but an occasion, and the vast media maw of the Festival ensured that all of its gatherings would partake of the same blissful ascent.

Today, the details of the screening are blurry, almost certainly drunk you’d never seen so many people come and see an experimental film, and certainly not yours, and you panic and ask the usher not once but three times what films will be playing tonight and when she pronounces your name it sounds like a city you’ve never visited. As they continue to file in you wonder if this was the beginning of something for you or its end. Each of the films, as they screened, seemed utterly perfect, gems, masterpieces, you can’t ever remember seeing movies this good, and then your movie turns on and it is long, it is an epic of insomnia, unbearable. Somehow it has managed to take every mis-take, every wrong turn and bad decision ever made in cinema and stuff it into a single film and the music that’s playing in the washroom is the same cut you’ve used in your film and you try to figure some way of blocking the door so no one else will notice and then they are laughing, laughing out loud in something like pleasure, an emotion generally frowned upon in the hallowed clubhouses where we usually gathered to learn our craft, and then it was over, already beginning to slip from recall, as if it had never happened at all.

Because its annual incarnation occurs in September, the Festival manages to coincide with the beginning of the school year, and for many of us, its glowing screens have taken the place of blackboards, its lessons become a code we practiced amongst ourselves, rehearsed in the long months before autumn. Was it because we were Canadians that we privileged the bureaucracy of movies, the elegant frame the Festival provided, beyond the movies themselves? Or did it owe more to the dizzying escalation of announcements that preceded the Festival, beginning earlier each year, with ever more extravagant promises, accompanied by extraterrestrial stars and parties where vast urns of joy were poured directly into the veins of participants, the whole city shaking with a delirium that could find release only in this cinematic bacchanal, this orgy of emulsion.

Perhaps, after all, the Festival owed its endurance to its simpler beginnings, to its founding principles laid out a couple of decades before: that cinema was the art of the destruction of images. That each film was endowed with an inevitable decay, its emulsion swollen from humidity, its colours fading, its surface mauled by projectors, until at last there would be nothing left. Each movie narrated the tale of its own end, and no one understood this better than the Festival, who would create an event that would preside over this demise, in a great celebration of disappearance. If the Festival had become, in the years of its maturity, the mirror in which we could all find ourselves, it was our own ends we glimpsed there, and the magic of the Festival, indeed its founding genius would lie in its ability to convert the horror of our own death into something like a smile. Our communal mourning had become, beneath its careful tendering, a festivity, a wonder to behold, and what might be more wondrous than this: thousands gathered to glimpse the possibility of their own decay, to celebrate our own end.

It’s 1993 in Vancouver, on one of those cloudless spring days where you imagine if you were tall enough you could see right round the world until you could just make out, faintly, at the close of the vanishing point, the back of your own head. I’ve got an appointment with Dr. Richards and stumble upstairs, bracing myself for the waiting room. With an all HIV/AIDS practice, his office is a cruel mirror for me, as I watch young men, many barely twenty, moving blind and slow and gutted into one of the many generously upholstered chairs. We stifle raspy coughs and joke with Dianne the receptionist until he appears at the door and waves me in. I’m here to get the results of my latest blood work. “Well, it’s pretty much what we expected” he begins and I nod, knowing this was just a routine check. “Are you having trouble breathing, say, when you walk up stairs?” And because he’s on the eighth floor and the elevator’s broken again today I wonder if he’s doing a brain check, trying to figure whether all those years of worry have finally washed away my grey matter. So I nod, and then he nods and then he nods again and then he says, “Well your counts are very very very low and I really think you should go on AZT.” I go blank because my counts had been high and stable for a couple of years now and I don’t feel any different than usual, so I ask if it’s okay to do the tests again in a couple of months and he nods again, only he looks worried now or maybe it’s the sun in his eyes. I leave, feeling shaky and confused because I’m dying, and it doesn’t feel any different.

When I get home there’s good news—the BC government has granted me money to make a new movie, which was going to be a personal film about HIV/AIDS, only now the thought of making a diary movie seems trivial, because this would surely be my last film. So I set about writing a new long movie, a feature which we could shoot in the house I was looking after while a friend was on vacation. It was called Valentine’s Day, and told the tale of a couple of women, lovers, and what happens when one of them becomes positive.

While I’m editing I realize that this is the film that will tell everyone who doesn’t already know that I’m positive, and that this will almost certainly occur at the Festival, and that sometime before that, I would have to tell my folks. Cutting the film was like listening to a child unable to speak, like walking into a half-finished house, a stranger’s house, and trying to see where the doors and windows ought to go. And it meant listening too to the siren call of the Festival, which waited with party invitations and people in suits looking for The Next Big Thing or even a number of small things that might rub together, and I wondered that the line between public and private, between being a filmmaker and a fan, should be so clearly drawn. In Toronto at least it was simple, either you were in the Festival, or you watched.

When the film was finished I still hadn’t told my folks, finding in myself a depth of procrastination I hadn’t realized existed before, and then it got accepted into the Festival, and then of course my folks asked, like everyone asks, each year, did you get a film into the Festival? I told them I had, but still couldn’t tell them what it was about. I had another movie accepted, a short thing called Frank’s Cock but that wasn’t exactly the kind of thing you want to bear home to your folks either. “Look mom, it’s Frank’s Cock!” When I told my mother the title she asked if it was a movie about farmers. A week before the screening I mailed them tickets with a brief note telling them I was positive and that they should call me. A couple of days before the letter arrived my mom had been sleepless and anxiety ridden, and when we spoke she said the letter came as a relief because she finally knew what it was. We gathered at last beneath the marquis of the Festival and cried and held each other, just like a family, and sniffled through a movie that seemed haunted by my declaration, and Babz came and made everybody laugh during question period, even those who were thoroughly confused by it, and then we all shook off and had a long drink together. I wondered how many other secrets were being laid bare because the Festival demanded it, how many other families had grown beneath its call for congregation. After meeting its weathering stare for some twenty years now, what new organizations of the social lay nestled in the womb of its projections, slouching towards Toronto, to be born?

Originally published in: Take One, Winter 1997 and Plague Years: a life in underground movies (Toronto: YYZ Press, 1998)