Toronto International Film Festival 2012 | The Bay, Leviathan and digital projection
At TIFF 2012, if you aren't bleary-eyed by now, you haven't been paying attention. With one day to go, we're at the point in the fest where even the simple act of sitting down for a movie can quickly become surreal. Last night I attended a screening where viewers were exhorted to rise to greet the visiting Countess of Wessex—who surely enjoyed the evening's entertainment, a grim drama about a 12-year-old girl forcibly recruited into a group of Congolese rebels. I had a slightly less out-of-place sighting earlier in the the day. Arriving at the last second to an anonymous auditorium in Toronto's gigantic Scotiabank 'plex, I turned around to see that a certain safari jacket–clad director had opted to spend his morning at the same film.
Good on him; now more than ever, it's important that auteurs pay attention to how movies are being shown in mainstream theaters. With The Master drawing raves for its 70mm presentation, one of the major talking points of this festival has been the conversion to digital exhibition. On Thursday, TIFF's artistic director, Cameron Bailey, tweeted the following: "#TIFF12 film tech stats: 13 films in 16mm, 37 in 35mm, 1 in 70mm, 79 in HDCAM and 232 in DCP. #digitalhappened." Indeed, one of the instructive things about spending the week watching so many DCPs (the acronym stands for "digital cinema package"—the term for a digital "print") is having the opportunity to compare the extremes the new medium offers.
Up until now, the key question of the conversion from a quality standpoint has been whether digital is as good as film. But can it even be said to be consistent on its own terms? Depending on processing, bulb strength and a host of other factors you'd need a technician to explain, the DCP here has struck me as more hit-and-miss than 35mm ever was. In just the last few days, I've seen projection so dim I felt like I was trapped at a bad sports-bar presentation. On other screens, the image has sparkled with a clarity near what we've come to expect from celluloid. And we're not talking about wildly different theaters; these are auditoriums down the hall from one another.
Nothing I've seen at Toronto this year—and not much in a lifetime of filmgoing—has been as stunning as the 70mm showings of The Master. But on Thursday night, as I watched Christian Petzold's Barbara, a slow-burning, late–Cold War drama set in East Germany, I was struck by how great it looked. Soon I realized there was nothing special about the way the movie had been shot. It was just that after I spent days marinating in pixels, the richness of one of the fest's few 35mm prints had begun to seem like something new.
That said, the digital revolution isn't just about how movies are shown, but how they're made. Since Wednesday, two films at the festival have boldly demonstrated the new possibilities that digital affords—at least as a medium for shooting.
Barry Levinson's The Bay is certainly one of the least-expected titles here this year. Approached to make a documentary on the environmental plight of the Chesapeake Bay (which according to the director is "40 percent lifeless"), Levinson, finding the topic had already been covered in doc form, opted to make a found-footage horror film. Indeed, The Bay counts Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli among its producers, although the story unfolds through a mixed-media presentation rather than a rigorously observed handheld-camera gimmick. What we see consists of excerpts cobbled from a variety of sources and formats. A CDC official swaps notes with the lone remaining doctor in an epidemic-plagued coastal town; a local TV reporter documents the way the vacation spot has suddenly emptied out on the Fourth of July. While perhaps on-the-nose in telegraphing its horrors—Levinson simultaneously wants to educate the viewer and maintain the mystery necessary for suspense, in some ways irreconcilable goals—The Bay has craft to spare and, courtesy of mutant isopods, more than its share of squirms.
Another big fish in a festival filled with little ones, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan is a movie without analogue, and the rare film that can genuinely be said to have rethought cinematic space. It was shot with waterproof digital cameras on a fishing boat 200 miles off the Massachusetts coast. Closer to Stan Brakhage freakout than formal documentary, the movie eschews context and has almost no dialogue; what little conversation we hear is mostly unintelligible. The dexterity afforded by digital can't be overstated—there are moments in Leviathan when you literally can't tell up from down. The camera dives beneath the waves without warning or slides across the vessel's deck, buried amid the day's piscine catch. From underwater, we look up at seagulls swarming overhead. Almost entirely impressionistic, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's film seeks to confound viewer perspective; there are shots that seem bereft of a guiding directorial hand. (Dennis Lim has an excellent report on the movie's making.) Pondering technology's invasion of the natural world, Leviathan remains conscious of its own role in that ecosystem. The film doesn't just explore the chasm between man and nature; it embodies it.