Paris – a city in love with cinema
Cinema is everywhere in this city. On any given day, upwards of 600 different movies are playing in hundreds of theatres and forums around the city. There are 108 English-language films playing today for example, from Carrie ('76) to Cheri ('09). Cult favourites from The Bride of Frankenstein ('35) and The Fearless Vampire Killers ('67) to Taxi Driver ('73) and Psycho ('60) are playing... but so are a block of relatively obscure movies such as Robert Aldrich's Grissom Gang ('71), the excellent Karl Malden- directed Crisis ('50), and The Music Lovers ('70), a strange Ken Russell-directed film about Tchaikovsky's life and music.
The French seem to be in love with the Americana represented in film while simultaneously despising all things American. It's one of those infuriating and wonderfully hypocritical French things that has no rational explanation. This is a culture old and strong enough to withstand the onslaught of endless American marketing, taking exactly what it wants from other cultures while maintaining its own. There are, for example, somewhere around 25,000 pizza joints and 300 Irish Pubs in Paris but no Italians or Irish people to be seen. American film would seem to fall into the same category.
French Cinema is a separate and sacred thing. It's odd how the national film industries of other countries raise and fall but the French just never stop cranking out quality films, year in and year out. That so many of the great film makers have hailed from this country is a testament to the nurturing and supportive audience that exists here (and the uncontested government funding that naturally follows).
With Cannes and TIFF coming to represent the two premier yearly film festivals, it's interesting to compare the two cities and how they approach film. The fact that Cannes is held 650km from the Paris is telling. Parisians just don't need the attention (even though they're at the epicentre of French film culture, their festival is at the beach) whereas Torontonians are validated by TIFF and thrilled to be the centre of something for two weeks every year. That being said, Toronto might just be the film festival capital of the world. It's become our forte. In a nutshell, I think Parisians are film fans and Torontonians are festival fans.
Unfortunately, TIFF has been changing over the last decade – from a festival that showcased film, to a festival that showcases celebrity. That isn't to say that Toronto isn't knee-deep in interesting and unique films for those 2 weeks (because TIFF continues - though sheer volume and it's interesting side-programming - to attract a terrific mix of the best and worst that cinema has on offer), but rather to point out that the focus of the festival (and perhaps more importantly, the media coverage surrounding it) has morphed into a star-gazing event that has made the festival financially stronger, but culturally cheapened it. Cannes seems mired in its own set of problems lately.
As Toronto continues to develop into a centre of film appreciation, we could take a page or two from Paris. TIFF's excellent Cinematique is a step in that direction offering up year-round access to a terrific cross-section of important films from various directors near and far, past and present. What we seem to lack is a mix of commercial theatrical screenings of films from the past offered for the sole purpose of enjoying the film. Toronto just doesn't seem to have the cultural gravity to see something from the past as worthy of money from the present. Andy from the Fox Theatre in the east end says they tank every time they do a classic other than Casablanca. Can you imagine how many would show up for The Grissom Gang? It's possible that we Torontonians favour watching our classics on DVD instead of out at the theatre but I'd hazard a guess that the new-is-better consumer culture of North America plays a big role too. We've all had people ask why some $60.00 Criterion title isn't a $0.99-for-a-month rental. “But it's so old?....”
We've got a little ways to go in T.O. to catch up to the vaguely preposterous French in terms of film sophistication. Every major city in the western world seems to have a hugely successful Film Noir festival except the city where festivals work best, our own. Once we build an greater appreciation for films from the recent and distant past, we'll have it all. One step at a time.