Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Paul Cox, Toronto, Sept 1986

THE FILM FESTIVAL IS IN WINDING DOWN right now, which is a good time to try and remember when the ten days of the Festival of Festivals, later the Toronto International Film Festival, were the highlight of my year. So why not start at the beginning?

1986 wasn't the first year I'd managed to score a press pass for the festival - I'd covered it for my college newspaper a year or two previous - but it was the first year I brought a camera along. I was working for Nerve, the free music monthly that would be my first post-collegiate venue as a writer and shooter, in what we would call an unpaid internship nowadays; it would be at least a year before there was money available to pay us, and another year before Nerve stopped publishing. (Probably not coincidentally.)

Paul Cox was the epitome of a festival director at the time; he'd made his mark with films like Lonely Hearts and Man of Flowers earlier in the decade, and was in town with Cactus, a marriage breakdown film starring Isabelle Huppert. He was an intense interview, expressing what I would almost call a militantly humanist philosophy, and an utter contempt for mainstream filmmaking and Hollywood.

His passion and conviction was so hard to deny that I remember leaving the interview stoked, perhaps even converted to his worldview. It would take a day or two before I remembered that I actually liked a lot of big, dumb mainstream filmmaking; it didn't help that his films post-Man of Flowers took on a dour tone that made them feel penitential.

Cox had been a photographer early in his career, which is probably why he was such an obliging subject, using his pipe to create a bit of atmosphere that I wasn't technically able to seek out or provide on my own at that point. I like to flatter myself that Cox, an Australian but Dutch-born, was the inspiration for my Dutch Masters homage in this shot, but I frankly only noticed that later.

Jean-Jacques Beineix, Toronto, Sept. 1986

The festival was still pretty manageable back then, headquartered almost entirely in the Park Plaza (now the Park Hyatt), a slightly shabby New York-style hotel in Yorkville whose rooftop bar was popular with the city's publishing establishment. It's still my favorite place for a $20 martini. (But since I can't afford a $20 martini, I haven't been there in years.)

In a year or two the festival would move to a bigger hotel, then start sprawling out into four or five different buildings, but in 1986 I shot everything at the Park Plaza or, in the case of French director Jean-Jacques Beineix, on a hotel balcony. Beineix had a huge festival hit a few years earlier with Diva, a film that still makes me nostalgic for the early '80s, but he'd followed it up with Moon In The Gutter, a stylish but overwrought bomb.

Things would change with the film he brought in 1986 - Betty Blue, a tragic but wildly sexy love story starring Beatrice Dalle. It would be a huge hit for Beineix - his biggest, ultimately, with a cult following it retains to this day, along with a broken trail of once-young men who had the line between crazy and hot blurred for them at an impressionable age.

Access to talent was still controlled by a handful of festival publicists in 1986, so I always did my best to ingratiate myself with the (mostly young) women who ran the publicity desks. I could be wrong, but this might be the year I put myself in the good books of a particularly pretty publicist by stealing a handful of wind-up Godzilla toys from the shop where I was working to present as a gift, knowing she had a thing for Toyo's nuclear city-destroyer.

This also might explain how I ended up with an interview and shoot with Beineix, who was the big buzz at that year's festival (along with David Lynch, who was there with Blue Velvet. More on him later.) I don't remember much about the interview, but I like the Gallic smirk on his face as he surveys the streets below the suite at the Park Plaza, a look that sums up the immense satisfaction you might feel when you prove that you weren't a fluke.

Horton Foote, Toronto, Sept. 1986

Horton Foote was famous for his screenplay for To Kill A Mockingbird, and had written the script for Tender Mercies a couple of years before I photographed him at the festival, where he was doing press for On Valentine's Day, a movie based on his own stage play that seems to have been forgotten today.

Foote was a Texan, and represented the literary (and more than slightly melancholy) aspect of the South that's been buried today under an avalanche of rednecks, troubled lawmen and sexy vampires. It was once a powerful cultural idea, though, and Foote seemed to embody it effortlessly. His cousin, the historian Shelby Foote, would become another stand-in for that noble Southern aspect with his appearances in Ken Burns' Civil War PBS documentary series.

I didn't have to do much with Foote apart from find a bit of window light and let my Spotmatic take in the genial, wise forbearance he was kind enough to extend to a young writer and photographer very much out of his depth.

Horton Foote died in 2009.

These three photos were printed together in a feature I published in Nerve, and the prints have been sandwiched together, moving from box to box over nearly thirty years. Working on the scans in Photoshop, I paused for a second with my cloning tool and wondered whether I should be spotting out the dust marks that had lingered on these prints for almost three decades, then realized I was being silly.

After each issue came out, Nerve's editors Dave and Nancy would hold a staff meeting at their apartment that inevitably turned into a party. When this issue was being post-mortemed, I remember Myke Dyer, another writer/photographer at the paper, singling my shots out for what seemed like effusive praise. Myke was older and, to my mind, far more sophisticated - he had an actual, real girlfriend and everything, and I felt terribly flattered.

It had been a year since I'd bought my first camera, and here I was at the film festival, taking presentable, perhaps even more than competent photos of celebrities that I'd developed and printed myself. It felt like a milestone - a test that I'd passed, and from this moment I on I knew that, whatever other ambitions I might have had, I wanted to be a portrait photographer.

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