Toronto Film Fest coverage misses the mark

By Kirsten Varsek

A few years ago, while absentmindedly flipping through the pages of an unmemorable magazine at the Vancouver airport, I saw the only member of timeless rap group Swollen Members who had deluded himself enough to embark on a solo career. You know, the one who released that unforgettable video of half-naked girls flouncing around Stanley Park in an effort to make people believe there was a budget to film in San Diego. Despite valiantly marching up and down the aisles, no one attempted to make eye contact with him. Upon chatting about the incident with a friend, she replied, “I saw Brian Mulroney at the airport once.” “Did anyone go up to him?” “No, ’cause we’re Canadian. Well, and it was Brian Mulroney.” Disgraced former prime ministers aside, our collective Canadian identity seems to pride itself on our docility and respect for celebrity out of a dogged indifference. But just as sheer logistics may have disproved “sex-in-the-canoe,” national media coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival makes Corner Gas look like an exercise in absurdist philosophy.

The official TIFF website states that the festival is “one of the world’s most important cultural events…also [serving] as a platform for this country’s artists to share their stories.” Opening up Facebook Chat, I pounced on an unsuspecting “friend:” “If I say TIFF,” I typed, “what do you think of?” “Dunno. Megan Fox?” At least he’d heard of the festival. As for TIFF’s unrivalled Canadian content, the only film I could think of was J’ai tue ma mere, or I Killed My Mother, which was astoundingly written, directed and starred in by 20-year old Montreal native Xavier Dolan. But my memories of the film dated back to this year’s Cannes coverage, where the film won three prizes. Anything I had read on the subject was probably only as a result of looking for photos of Hayden Panettiere’s misspelled tattoo. Searching for a coherent list of Canadian films in this year’s festival, I stumbled upon the blog Canadian Film Dose. I found its short summaries upon each entry reminiscent in tone of the articles about the Canadian connection to Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men. Those articles had been about the New Brunswick-born hairdresser who created Javier Bardem’s infamous haircut.

Flipping through the Globe and Mail and Calgary Herald‘s TIFF coverage, I found articles entitled “Fox Hunting,” “All Star Day,” and “Egoyan Moore Gervais Garner.” On the Globe’s website, I was faced with a profile shot of Colin Farrell, an interactive section detailing the six degrees of separation between Jennifer Connelly and Matt Damon, and a best-and-worst dressed. Continued searching within the giant CTVglobemedia network elicited this quote from Morley Nirenberg, executive producer of the half-hour entertainment news show ETALK: “TIFF is the Super Bowl for entertainment coverage in Canada…We want our viewers to experience the celebrity, films, reviews, glamour, gossip…” ETALK, of course, has left its mark by producing segments detailing which Canadian brands American celebrities deign to clad their well-photographed posteriors in, as well which fortuitous restaurants have seen the cast of Twilight pick at salads. Nirenberg, in her reference to the Super Bowl, implies that Canada is starved for American advertising, or, in this case, the American proximity to Lauren Conrad.

TIFF cannot be blamed for capitalizing on the attention it receives by hosting Oprah Winfrey: while still a not-for-profit, TIFF now counts Bell, Starbucks and BlackBerry as corporate sponsors. What’s astonishing is how much celebrity coverage has proliferated into every single facet of festival-related media space. Articles about the controversy surrounding TIFF’s cinematic spotlight upon Tel Aviv focus upon the war of words between Jane Fonda and Jon Voight– that Voight is Angelina Jolie’s father is almost never left unmentioned. Even publications which religiously ignore any sort of news filtering out of Toronto dedicated entire pages to a George Clooney press conference. Then again, these same publications spent more than a couple of pages detailing how to track down Brad Pitt when he was in town filming The Assassination of Jesse James. I recall no such media frenzy during Legends of the Fall– though, to be fair, I hadn’t yet hit puberty.

TIFF’s celebrity blitz does not exist in a vacuum: the rise of the celebrity hound has been thoroughly engrained from the prairie granaries to the birthplace of poutine. Is this sort of celebrity obsession morally or intellectually abhorrent? Does it even matter? Its existence is undeniable, and the fact the Paris Hilton is still being photographed indicates it’s unlikely to dissipate in the near future. But for a nation still grappling with the idea of a unified cultural identity, where does this mania fit into our self-conceptions? Many Canada Day surveys have decried the validity of several Canadianisms– again, see: canoe; sex– but they persist nonetheless. For a country so vocally against the inescapable creep of American popular culture, and the insistence upon venerating the much more “culturally-chaste” bastions of Jian Ghomeshi, Margaret Atwood and Randy Bachman, how did an emulation of the American institution of celebrity plant itself? Our love affair with American popular culture is nothing new, nor, do I think, does it deserve condescension. Really now, can we dismiss Karen O in the presence of Avril Lavigne? Yes, many of our great minds have filtered South , but they’ve also taken with them some of our wonderfully unique aesthetic tastes to broadcast to the wider world. We know what sells to our coveted demographic, and it happens to be American sex, but then, how many of us miss the Kokanee Ranger ads? Or insist upon rooting for Rick Mercer, no matter how precariously obsequious he becomes in his commentaries? The danger is not that we acknowledge and pursue American popular culture- it is that we consciously begin to adopt its exact structure at the peril of our own cultural lens. The TIFF media coverage leaves no trace of irony, or Canadian context, but rather appears to be happily indulging in some temporary and benevolent American attention.

Yes, Jennifer’s Body was written by Diablo Cody, but articles featuring the film do little to examine how Cody’s Canadian framework may have influenced the dark humor, instead focusing upon the fact that, Cody is Canadian. And isn’t it just nifty that the film was shot in Vancouver? And thank you, Megan Fox, for gracing our Northern climes. That media outlets feel the need to produce shows like ET Canada, which boast little more Canadian content than an ex-Much Music VJ, is to me what signals an unwelcome invasion.

I live to judge red carpet couture, but I could not imagine coming up with the cruelties I do without my background in Slings & Arrows or the Molson Canadian “I Am” ads. Please, don’t stop importing photos of Teri Hatcher at a marathon, but please, please, let Luba Goy write the caption.

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