Reflections and Essays


I was one of those kids who looked forward to the start of school. Not that I loved getting up in the morning or doing fractions, but I was usually bored by the end of summer. More importantly, I always loved the feeling of starting new, with a blank slate and endless possibilities.

I don’t have any desire to take another class. Grad school cured me of that. But I am thankful that every fall I get to walk into a classroom and teach, to relive that idea of starting over, with 50 somewhat impressionable students who all can get an A if they work hard enough.

It turns out that my blog is about a year old. I started towards the end of August last year, as I geared up for the Toronto Film Festival. Looking back, the blog’s been about what I expected: periodic bursts of writing followed by long passages of silence. As I start anew this fall, with another two college classes and another jaunt to Toronto, I’m tempted to start over with the blog and pretend that this year will be different, that this year I’m really going to buckle down and try to write every other day or at least every week.

And maybe I will. But as I turned 40 this summer, I took stock of my life and finally admitted that part of my personality is akin to boom and bust–furious moments of activity balanced by quiet moments of “recovery.” Odds are, that’s how my blog will always be, despite my best intentions.

Fortunately for the few faithful readers who’ve stuck with me, I’m about to enter one of those manic times. For some reason, being at the Toronto Film Festival brings that out in me. Not only do I want to see 40 movies in 10 days, but I want to write about them and share my experiences with you. And what always surprises me is that even my friends who don’t care about film seem to enjoy my Toronto blogging. So look for a festival preview post on Thursday, with a rundown of what I’ve already seen and what I’m looking forward to.

But in advance of that, here’s a “speech” that I’d give my college students tomorrow, on the first day of class, if I was brave enough. Excuse the meanderings of a college prof comfortably entering middle age.
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To read and to learn is to understand.

Our culture has taught us that our first instinct should be to mock, to condescend, to distance the unfamiliar even more from our daily lives.

But I firmly believe that one of the highest goals of learning and of art–literature, music, painting, film, etc.–is to reveal something that we haven’t seen before or perhaps have forgotten, and by doing so to connect us to each other and to help us understand.

Therefore, the first goal of learning and reading should be to understand as best we can what the speaker or author is trying to communicate. In saying this, I am necessarily making a moral claim–that we shouldn’t jump to analysis and certainly not to judgment until we have first waded to understanding.

In this class, you will often read things that you disagree with, that I disagree with. I assign those to teach you to read first, to wrestle, to grasp. Only after that can we declare what we think. And at that point, we must declare what we think if we are to show the author any respect at all.

Let me throw down a challenge. Do not construct your identity based on what you are not -> I am not a geek. I am not a cheerleader. I am not the guy sitting in the third row. I know what it’s like to say what I’m not. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I assert every day that I am not my parents. Even as the evidence piles up that I am exactly like them. And declaring what you’re not has its value, but don’t let that be your foundation. Instead, construct your identity based on what you are or, even better, what you want to become. And when I say ‘become,’ I’m not talking about your profession but about your character.

Many of you are sure of what you want to do in life, but most of you will change professions many times. If you had told me at 20 that I would be teaching media theory, writing movie reviews, and tutoring high school students, I would’ve laughed at all three possibilities. But that’s what I do.

But my career is not who I am. Rather, it’s the choices I made in my twenties that have defined my character. Those are what have made me who I truly am. And the same will be true for you.

I’m sure that many of you will go home today and email a friend about this boring professor who wants you to be a better person. As if that ranked in even the top 50 most important things in your life: right above cleaning the stain in your bathtub and right below finding out which episode of Family Guy is on tv tonight.

You’d be surprised, though, how little that mockery bothers me. It’s not that I don’t care what you think. In fact, I care deeply what you think, and I look forward to hearing it throughout the semester. Especially if your ideas clash with mine.

No, your mockery doesn’t bother me because it doesn’t define me. I am defined by my character, and that’s stable enough to withstand any ridicule. And that character arose out of choices I made when I was your age, choices that involved reading and learning and understanding. I hope the same will be true for you.

Earlier posts in the Barcelona series are here, here, and here.

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Thursday, March 22
I’ve wanted to see the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao ever since it opened ten years ago. While its spectacular Frank Gehry design always looked great in photos, I assumed it’d be even more impressive in person. So when I realized Bilbao was just a hop, skip, and a jump from Barcelona, Dave and I decided to make a day trip out of it. We thought first about renting a car and driving, but the 6-7 hours each way would’ve ate up too much of the vacation. Besides, the explosion of low-fare carriers in Europe has made getting around the continent a breeze. We were able to fly out of Barcelona at 7:30 in the morning, arrive at 8:30, spend all day in Bilbao, and then return on a 10:30pm flight. All for under $80. You can’t beat that.

You also can’t beat the Guggenheim, which lived up to ten years of expectations. It’s simply an awesome building. Its titanium shell and curved structure sets up geometric forms of almost infinite variety. Dave and I were incredibly fortunate in our timing. While it rained almost the entire day in Bilbao, the morning sun was filtering through the clouds when we first arrived. So we were able to photograph some amazing light reflecting off the museum. A half hour later and we would’ve had to content ourselves with dreary clouds.

Two other “attractions” were Jeff Koons’s “Puppy” and Louise Bourgeois’s “Mama.” My favorite shot of either is this one Dave took, though Dave and I were both kicking ourselves for being just a half second too late on this one. Imagine the man with the black umbrella just a few feet closer to the spider, and you’ll realize what a cool picture that would’ve been.

img_1739.JPGThe inside of the Guggenheim didn’t strike me quite as impressively. It doesn’t feel as organic as the outside. It hurt that half of the museum was closed for the installation of an Anselm Kiefer exhibit. I’m a huge Kiefer fan, so the fact that we were just a few days too early hurt a bit.

But the museum does have one indescribable room–devoted to “Matter of Time” by Richard Serra. I will blog about this at length (probably too much length) in the coming days, but it was one of the great artistic experiences I’ve ever had. I came back to the room three different times, just to try to imprint it on my memory. We weren’t supposed to take photographs, but when would I have a chance to come back? Even still, these pictures can’t begin to capture the experience of walking through Serra’s work.

After we finally had our fill of seeing, Dave and I set out to explore Bilbao. Unfortunately, the cold rain put a damper on things, but we were still charmed by the quaintness of this Spanish town. We popped in to a diner for an incredible glass of hot chocolate, though we avoided the hot mold bread on the menu. After a so-so dinner, it was back to the airport and back to Barcelona.

One other thing about the Guggenheim. The food in the museum restaurant is absolutely fantastic. Maybe the best meal of the week.

img_1776.JPGFriday, March 23
Another day trip awaited, though not quite as far as Bilbao. We took a one-hour train ride to Montserrat, where one of the most famous monasteries in Spain is located. I’ll blog about this in more detail, too, but it was a wonderful day. As you can see from the pictures, the sun was shining brilliantly. And unlike Barcelona’s dark, foreboding cathedral, the monastery’s basilica was gorgeous and inviting. Dave is a much better photographer than I am, so I prefer his shots inside the church.

Highlights of the day included a three-hour walk out to a chapel, with stations along the way devoted to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Since the monastery is set on a mountain, most of the walks lead you down. This one descended almost 500 feet. But of course, we had to walk that back up on the return leg. I haven’t been that winded in a long time. A surprisingly enjoyable lunch in an unusual cafeteria awaited us.

The monastery is most famous for being the site of the Virgin of Montserrat (Dave’s photo), a small statue that functions as a regional shrine. The day we were there, hundreds of schoolkids had arrived to walk past the statue and touch the orb. But by mid-afternoon, most of the people had left, and Dave and I were able to enjoy the church in peace.

We got back to Barcelona early in the evening, but two intense days of walking left us tired out. We ate somewhere (I can’t even remember where now), and I hit the sack early.

Saturday, March 24
It was our last day in Spain, and so we decided to catch up on a few things. I had been impressed by the artist Antoni Tapies, so I convinced Dave to check out the small museum devoted to his work. That was well worth the time and money, and I recommend it for anyone interested in 20th century painting. That’ll be another longer blog post down the road.

After a fantastic lunch, Dave and I wanted to get off the beaten path, so we took the subway (clean and easy to navigate) to an up-and-coming neighborhood by the coast and then walked along the Mediterranean. I would’ve dipped my foot in the sea, but the temperatures had dropped considerably, so I settled for some pictures.

Dave wanted to shop for some wine and cool shoes, but shopping doesn’t interest me when I have nothing to do. Much less on my last day of exploration. Besides, I wanted to experience Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet” a few more times. So we went our separate ways, only to meet up later in a bar to watch the Spain-Denmark football match. Apparently, Barcelonans care more for their club football team, with the national team being much lower on the totem pole. So the one place we found to watch the game was an English bar, where more of the patrons were Danes. Still, watching soccer in Europe was a nice cap on the week.

We were fortunate to bump into someone who reminded us that Europe moved to daylight savings time that evening. We had completely forgotten and would’ve almost certainly missed our flight the next morning. As it was, we had no troubles in Barcelona and made our respective connections in Paris despite cutting it close. Seventeen hours of travel later, I walked into my Chicago apartment, happy to be home but thrilled to have experienced an amazing week of being a tourist in one of the great cities of the world.

Ok, those are the nitty gritty details. For those interested in more hi-falutin’ ruminations, I’ll try to get to those this weekend. Thanks for reading, and feel free to post your own travel stories. Where have you been that was particularly exciting or exotic or transforming?

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The introduction to the Barcelona blog is here, while the first Details post is here.

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Tuesday, March 20
Dave and I realized the night before that our week was about to get crowded. Wednesday we were splitting up because he wanted to do a four-hour bike tour and then take a Catalan cooking class. Thursday we were flying to Bilbao, and Friday we were heading to Montserrat. All of that meant that if we wanted to do certain things together, we better get those done on Tuesday. That led to a jam-packed day in which we went to the Museum of Catalan History, the Sagrada Familia and the Picasso Museum. And on top of that we had the tastiest meal of the entire week, or one of the tastiest–it’s so hard to choose.

Anyway, the Catalan history museum isn’t on the map for most tourists, judging from the sparse attendance. In fact, Dave and I were two of the few adults there. There were a number of school groups, though, and the kids looked just as bored as I had been at history museums when I was a child. Fortunately, I’m an adult, and so I found the whole thing much more interesting. The material and dioramas were dry, but the information was still fascinating. And it was helpful to see how Catalonia had developed over the centuries into a distinct culture/region. I’m a sucker for medieval history, so I found that time period particularly fascinating, and learning about the Spanish Civil War helped put that part of the 20th century in a greater context. Afterwards, we followed the advice of the Barcelona guidebook Dave had brought and had lunch at one of the best paella places in town.

Next, we decided to head to the Sagrada Familia by first walking to Citadel Park. The park itself is nothing special, particularly compared to Parc Guell, but it does have the impressive Arc de Triomf. As one guidebook wryly puts it, though, it’s not clear what triumph Spain has to celebrate. Still it made for a fun picture.

img_1575.JPGAnd then we tried to find Gaudi’s most impressive structure. But as often happened that week, I got lost. I couldn’t figure out which way was which. And even looking at the sun didn’t seem to help. Finally as the afternoon was winding down, we gave up and hailed a cab. A fortunate choice, as that gave us plenty of time to explore what is simply an incredible cathedral. Gaudi designed it, and they’ve been trying to build it, off and on, for 125 years. As you can see from my pictures, “on” is the current mode, with scaffolding all over the structure. Still, even what we could see was hugely impressive. Dave remarked that when it’s completed (in another 20-30 years), the Sagrada Familia might be the world’s most amazing building.

The Picasso Museum was open later, so we had plenty of time to get there and enjoy. I like Picasso a lot but only certain aspects of his work: his Cubist paintings and the works in which he’s relatively controlled. When he has a wide color palette, I find him less satisfying. The museum itself is a rather dull affair, and the lighting is surprisingly poor. Furthermore, since the work was taken from Picasso’s estate after he died, these are all the paintings that he couldn’t sell. Some of his early works are fun, while others are clearly indebted to various Impressionists he had been studying. And three rooms are given over to dozens of paintings inspired by Velazquez’s “The Maids of Honor.” This last section has a cool multi-media presentation that compares Picasso’s works to Velazquez’s masterpiece, which makes what Picasso was doing much more accessible. Though, as I told Dave later, it doesn’t quite extinguish the smell of fraud.

After three different “museums,” Dave and I are ready to get some food and call it a day. Tapas awaits.

Wednesday, March 21
When Dave and I travel together, we often split up around the fourth day. It’s not that we’ve gotten tired of each other (well maybe a little), we just both need to be alone at times. And it helps because we also have different interests. A four-hour bike tour of Barcelona holds no appeal for me. Going to another art museum and cathedral holds little interest for Dave.

img_1662.JPGSo I spent some time in the morning wandering through the Raval neighborhood west of the Rambla. Then it’s off to Barcelona’s contemporary art museum. The modern building was designed by Richard Meier. It strikes me as arrogantly oblivious of its surroundings, but the plaza is a big hit with the skateboarders. The permanent collection has some nice pieces, particularly of Antonio Tapies. More on him in a separate post. But it was the incredible installations of Janet Cardiff and George Miller that caught my eye. One room felt like I was walking into someone’s subconscious, while “The Killing Machine” was a profoundly creepy meditation on the institutionalization of torture. Best of all, though, was Cardiff’s stunning “The Forty Part Motet,” but I’ll blog about that at greater length.

More wandering led me eventually to Barcelona’s main cathedral, Catedral de la Seu, or the Gothic Cathedral. It’s an impressive building, but it’s so dark inside and so devoted to the Catholic veneration of the saints that I found it rather oppressive. Standing on the roof or in the beautiful cloisters was much more inviting.

With my eyes tired of looking, I decided to settle in for a long but early meal. In fact, I was almost the only person in restaurant at 5pm, but that didn’t make the paella taste any worse. I also had the experience of reading the Herald Tribune in a foreign country. I realize that some of the Herald Tribune’s coverage is taken from the New York Times, but it’s still interesting to see how another part of the world sees the U.S. With irritation and bafflement is a short summary.

After a very relaxing meal, I took to the streets for some more wandering as well as playing with some night photography. I turned in fairly early, as we had an early flight to Bilbao in the morning. Dave came in after his cooking class, and we caught up on our respective days.

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Note: my first Barcelona post, an introduction of sorts, can be found here.

img_1526.JPGIn my first post, I mentioned that my Barcelona blog was going to be more essays inspired by the trip than traditional travel writing. But I realize not everybody’s interested in that kind of thing. So let me first offer the details about my week in Barcelona. I’ve uploaded all my pictures to flickr.com. So you can click on each of these pictures, and it’ll take you to the larger and sharper picture at flickr. I’ve also embedded many of the pictures within links in the text, just so I don’t overwhelm the blog with too many photos.

I flew out of Chicago on Saturday night, the 17th of March. After flying through Paris, which has a beautiful terminal but a maddening layout, I arrived in Barcelona around noon on Sunday. I met my friend Dave, an old college friend and travel companion (more on him in a later post), and we ventured to our hotel. Well, not a hotel per se. Spain (and Europe, I believe) has a class of hotel in between a hostel and a hotel called a pension. Our pension was just a few blocks off the Rambla, which meant it was a fantastic location. And the price was spectacularly cheap. My entire hotel bill for seven nights was $170. But with that price and location, you can imagine what the room was like–small and uncomfortable. Dave and I don’t spend much time in the room, though, when we travel, so we can put up with it. And we had a lovely view out of our small balcony.

Sunday, March 18
After getting settled, we wandered around our neighborhood, the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), getting the lay of the land. We ate at an over-priced cafe that had the distinct pleasure of being right on the Rambla. There we watched the crowds wander past, many of whom were intrigued by this pathetic but effective “living statue.” Unlike many of the other statues, who have gorgeous costumes and stand motionless for hours, this guy just sits inside his construction. Most passersby assume that the legs sticking out are real; and wanting to know what happens, they throw in some money. And all this guy does is stick his head out and give a thumbs up sign. That’s it. But because a new set of people passes every minute and because curiosity still kills the cat, he makes out like a bandit. Dave and I joked that we needed to franchise this guy–set up ridiculous living statues in cities all across Europe and live off the proceeds.

After a delicious meal, we headed over to the Olympic Stadium to see a football match. We weren’t seeing Barcelona’s main team (FC Barcelona, for which you can even buy a refrigerator in the team’s colors). Rather, we watched Espanyol facing off against Levante. The atmosphere was fantastic, the football was lousy. I know Europeans love to make fun of MLS soccer in the States, but I’ve seen much better football here in Chicago than we saw with Espanyol and Levante. Still, much fun was had, and the walk back down Montjuic to the coast was lovely.

Monday, March 19
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After waking up, we headed over to the Boqueria, a market of abundance. I’m a sucker for fresh fruit, so I visited the Boqueria several times that week. After a delicious breakfast, Dave and I began walking. Up the Rambla, then criss-crossing up to the Mansana de la Discordia, or the “city block of discord.” This is the site of one of Antonio Gaudi’s most famous buildings, the Casa Batllo, and right next door is Casa Amatller, which I liked just as much.

After taking lots of pictures, we continued to head north to Gaudi’s second-best design, Parc Guell. I love city parks. I’ll write more when I get around to the subject of public spaces, but Parc Guell is such a wonderful public space. Full of beautiful tile benches and sculptures, stone “trees” and spectacular views, it’s delightful and raucous, thought-provoking and serene. All depending on where you are. As with all great parks, it provides a variety of forums, some grand and others intimate.

Walking back towards the center of town, we (actually I) got lost and couldn’t find the subway stop. But our faith in the children of the world was restored when several kids getting out of school helped us find our way. After that, Dave and I parted ways for the evening. My sister, who spent part of her college junior year in Barcelona, had encouraged me to take in a concert at the city’s most spectacular hall, the Palau de la Musica Catalunya. Words can’t describe this Moderniste marvel, and my photos certainly don’t do it justice, either. There’s no way to really capture the outside of the building, and you’re not supposed to take photos inside. I did anyway (of course), but I had to be surreptitious, which is why they’re a bit off center. Oh well. At least you get an idea. Oh, and the piano recital was quite nice, too.

Afterwards, Dave and I had a late dinner, though it was actually a bit early by Barcelona standards, where lunch is often taken between 2 and 3pm, with dinner commencing sometime after 8 or 9pm. The food was simply fantastic, a common theme throughout our trip, and we headed back to the hotel most satisfied.

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I know I said I hoped to start blogging about Barcelona two weeks ago. But the realities of grading papers and catching up with movies have made that difficult. It hasn’t helped that my perfectionist tendencies have re-surfaced. Not with my writing so much, but my photos. I have a number of pictures I want to share, but it’s taken me a while to figure out the best way to post these on the blog (clicking on the photo will take you to a larger, clearer version). And I’d still be figuring that out if Dave Stirling hadn’t offered his invaluable help. Anyway, enough excuses. I’m not exactly sure how many people besides my mom have been waiting for this with bated breath, but let’s kick off the Barcelona blog.

The Apology and Explanation
I’m not a travel writer. Every once in a while, I have fantasies about becoming one. I mean, wouldn’t that be the greatest job? Getting paid to travel the world, stay in fantastic hotels, eat amazing food. I could live like that.

Honestly, though, I wouldn’t be a very good travel correspondent. The sad reality is that I’m just not observant enough. I can’t tell you how many times old girlfriends shrieked in exasperation because I didn’t realize they had changed their hairstyle. I rarely notice the small but revealing detail. I usually overlook the critical facts that flesh out good travel writing.

Instead, I’m a big picture person. I like to be inspired by something and use that as a springboard to discuss all sorts of other topics. I prefer to wax poetic about the world at large rather than the small aspects of one little corner of it. This is true of my film writing, too–I have to remind myself, as Neil often implores me, to use the details of a movie to undergird my larger ruminations. Otherwise I flit from generality to generality.

Which is why my Barcelona posts will be more essays inspired by my stay in Barcelona (and the day trips to Bilbao and Montserrat) rather than a traditional travel blog. Obviously, I plan on letting you know what I did, but don’t expect long discourses on the food (which was fantastic) or the nightlife (uh…). Instead, expect some navel gazing about interacting with history, the nature of space in the Bilbao Guggenheim, finding God on a mountain and in the speakers, and the joy of discovering. Hopefully, that won’t be too dull. And even more hopefully, it will inspire you to respond with your own reflections. I’ll try to emulate girish, who has such a nice way of posing questions that inspire fellow bloggers to converse. And for those of you who have been fortunate to go to Barcelona, please chime in whenever the mood grabs you.

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And so it begins.

I arrived in Toronto safe and sound Wednesday evening after a long day of class (six hours worth) and running around. Today was my first day of the new semester at Columbia College. It feels like I have great students this semester, but the first few weeks are always tiring, as I have to be extra alert to how people are reacting and how engaged they are. And then I had to get things ready for the two fine people–Cliff Doerksen and Mike Hertenstein–who are taking over my classes next week while I party at TIFF. Oh, not party. Uh, watch movies. Yeah, that’s what I meant to write.

Speaking of, I thought I’d offer a preview of the fest and which movies I’m likely to see. Those who have read my TIFF blogs in the past know that things can change on the ground, as the buzz builds around a movie for which I don’t have a ticket or mediocre reviews come in for a ticket I do have. I also got shut out of a few movies in the initial ticketing stage, so I’ll either be rushing those or trying to find a suitable replacement. The early weather report is for a lot of rain over the next week, which would be the first time I’ve ever dealt with that in Toronto. Not that I’m going to melt, but part of the fun of TIFF is standing in lines and striking up conversations with people next to you. That might not be quite as much fun if I’m getting soaked.

And I can definitely see some lines in my future. TIFF veterans (or veterans of my past blogs) know that you’re not necessarily shut out of a movie just because you don’t have a ticket. The rush line is a venerable TIFF tradition, where people wait, sometimes for 2-3 hours, for the chance to grab a ticket to a sold-out show. Often several dozen people will get in, as seats open up, either because ticket holders don’t arrive or publicists don’t use all of the tickets they’ve held aside. But sometimes you wait in vain, which I guess is part of the excitement. In all seriousness, though, I’ve had some wonderful experiences in rush lines, as I’ve gotten to know fellow film lovers.

But before I tackle the movies I hope to see, let me give you a sense of my schedule and what I definitely will see. Rather than go chronologically (that’s too easy), I’ll break them up by my motivation in choosing them.

Auteurs

These are the movies I’ve selected just because I love the directors’ past work and am willing to take a chance on whatever they do next. After the Wedding is directed by Susanne Bier, who also made the fantastic Brothers and Open Hearts. Climates is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s follow up to his brilliant Distant, and though the reviews aren’t quite as strong, that’s good enough for me. Half Moon is another film from Bahman Ghobadi about Kurds caught between nations. I hated Tsai Ming-liang’s last film at TIFF (The Wayward Cloud), but he’d have to make several more clunkers for me to give up on him, so I’m excited about I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. Anything Aki Kaurismaki does is gold, and Lights in the Dusk sounds like a perfect way to close out the fest. I’m not as big a fan of Iranian director Jafar Panahi (The Circle) as a lot of cinephiles, but I appreciate his work, and his latest, Offside, appears to be an interesting change of pace. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth sounds a lot like his The Devil’s Backbone, which was one of my favorite movies of 2001, and the word out of Cannes was exuberant. If you happened to read the New Yorker article a few months back about Werner Herzog’s latest, Rescue Dawn, you’ll know that it’s a must see, if for no reason than to see if he can pull it off. But I’ve also become a huge Herzog booster the last few years as I’ve had a chance to catch up with his work. Finally, the great Thai director Joe Apichatpong might be the most inventive filmmaker working today, so Syndromes and a Century is an easy choice.

Prize Winners and Rave Reviews

As you might guess, these are films that have won prizes at other festivals or received strong reviews. Bamako has been called a triumph for Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako. Everyone seems to love The Host, and I get a chance to see it with a raucous Midnight Madness crowd. Requiem was a big winner at Berlin and has wowed the critics. Summer ’04 is another example of the revitalized German film scene. Finally, Ten Canoes is by the director who made The Tracker, and the early word on his latest is outstanding. That might be my most anticipated film of the fest.

National Cinema

Over the years, I’ve found I gravitate towards certain national styles. I’ve been a fan of Iranian cinema for over ten years, so I like to keep up with what’s going on there: A Few Days Later…. I’m disappointed that there aren’t any Moroccan films this year, as the several I’ve seen the last two years have been marvelous. But I’m excited about the apparent emergence of Romanian movies. Last year was Death of Mr. Lazarescu, while this year brings the well-reviewed 12:08 East of Bucharest and The Way I Spent the End of the World.

Cool Photos

Don’t underestimate the power of the striking program photo. I’ve had great luck in past years choosing movies just because something in the picture rubbed me the right way. Opera Jawa, Times and Winds, and The Violin all fit into that category.

Fun, Fun, Fun

I’ve realized in past years that I need to mix up my schedule. Since I’m naturally drawn to slow, meditative dramas, it makes sense that a lot of those would find their way onto my schedule. But 40 over 10 days can be a bit much, so this year I decided to choose at least a few movies that wouldn’t require a whole lot of thinking: Jade Warrior, Summer Palace, and Summercamp! sounds like they’ll fit the bill.

Getting Paid

To offest the costs of TIFF (at least a little bit), I’m doing some freelance work for Time Out Chicago, which includes covering movies like Chronicle of an Escape, Thicker than Water, and hopefully The Italian, assuming I can get into what is strangely a sold-out screening. Who knew that a Russian film about a little boy would be so popular?

The Combo Movies

Or movies I’m interested in for a variety of reasons. Hamaca Paraguaya–Argentine film is starting to make a name for itself, and this earthy, slow drama sounds right up my alley. Trying to get a ticket to D.O.A.P. is absolutely impossible, and I’m not sure I want to get swept along in the hype anyway, but The Prisoner, or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair looks both formally interesting and politically compelling. Belle Toujours and Fantasma are on a double bill together. The former is by the great nonagenerian director Manoel de Oliveira, while the latter invokes Goodbye, Dragon Inn, one of my favorite movies of the last several years (I’ll put up my review sometime soon). Dong is a documentary by the up-and-coming Chinese director Jia Zhangke, while Invisible Waves pairs director Pen-ek Ratanaruang and cinematographer Chris Doyle. Grbavica features what seems like a compelling mother-daughter story, and it’s set in the Balkans. Red Road combines a striking photo with comparisons to Michael Haneke. The Banquet stars Zhang Ziyi. Enough said.

Films I Hope to See

I got shut out of Manufactured Landscapes, but given that the buzz is great and it’s a documentary about images and photography (a huge interest of mine), I’m definitely going to try to rush that one. Woman on a Beach sounds like it has promise, and it fills a slot that’s otherwise open. And I’m trying to decide between L’Intouchable and Day Night Day Night, which play at the same time. Any thoughts?

And there’s one last film that I won’t be able to see: Colossal Youth. The write-up in this issue of Cinemascope has me drooling, and the interview with director Pedro Costa is extremely insightful. Unfortunately, there’s no way to fit it into my schedule without giving up something even more important. I just have to hope there’s a Costa retro in Chicago’s future.

The Already Seen

A few TIFF films were shown in Chicago last week, so I got a head start on the fest.

Stranger than Fiction–every film critic in the world will use the phrase Charlie Kaufmann-esque. The plot is too clever by half, but it eventually builds to something earnest and even moving. Will Ferrell puts on his serious face (seen previously in movies like Winter Passing), and he’s fine. The direction gussies things up with on-screen graphics, and certain plot contrivances pop up to move things along, but Marc Forster has made a solid movie. Not worth taking a slot from something else you want to see, but it’d be a nice change of pace if you have too many European miserablists on your schedule.

The Last Kiss–schematic storyline leavened by some funny dialogue and solid performances. Zach Braff seems to be re-channeling his performance from Garden State, and the director re-uses that film’s musical motifs. Nice to see Blythe Danner in a somewhat meaty role. Certainly not worth giving up a fest slot for, but not a bad date movie when it comes on cable next spring.

Starter for 10–formulaic college dramedy with British sensibilities. One of those movies where you absolutely know that the hero will, in the end, walk by the pretty blonde to kiss the brainy brunette.

Well, that’s about it for Day 0. Given that Friday is a full, full day of movies, I may not start the actual TIFF blogging until Saturday. But I hope to be consistent once I get started. Thanks for reading.

For the last few years, I’ve resisted the idea of starting my own blog. Even as everyone I knew around me (especially film folk) was starting one, I was content to sit back and let The Phantom Tollbooth archive my stuff. The main reason was that I just didn’t think the world needed another blog. What good was it going to do to add my little voice to the cacophony? I also had dreams of starting a larger web site with a bunch of friends, one that would be more collaborative and less hermetic. But the reality of that project dawned on me last summer, when several of us tried to get one off the ground but failed in the face of busy schedules and differing visions.

The realization that a web site was more likely to arise organically out of something that already exists provoked me to think more seriously about starting a blog. Add in a number of friends who encouraged me to get off my duff and start one, as well as the professional realization that a blog was becoming a necessary calling card in the culture sphere, and I finally admitted I couldn’t resist the onslaught anymore. So I decided on a name, found a decent host, and prepared to start my blog. Last January.

Yes, I’ve actually been paying for blog space for the past eight months. Months in which I thought a lot about my blog and did precious little about it. I’m not sure how other bloggers felt when they began, but starting has been strangely intimidating. I want this to be a reflection of who I am, and that’s a pretentious, arrogant know-it-all who wants to stand out in the midst of all the noise. But actually creating a blog that would do that–well, the reality pales in comparison to my own vision.

At Darren Hughes’s off-handed recommendation, I decided to use WordPress as my blogware. The advantage is that WordPress is customizable; if I get sophisticated enough, I can make this look more like a real website and less like, uh, a blog. The huge downside is that the learning curve is fairly steep, especially for someone like me who’s done almost no web coding. CSS? Isn’t that an acronym for some non-profit organization?

It hasn’t helped that so many of my good friends have beautifully-designed and -written blogs, ones that make me want to weep with envy (look to the side to see a sampling). I check out the blogs of Darren and Girish and others, and I’m overwhelmed by what I know I can’t do.

What’s changed this summer? Well, I finally swallowed my pride and acknowledged that the blog doesn’t have to be perfect, that I can launch something that’s only a faint glimmer of what I eventually hope to publish. It’s helped that I’ve had a lot more time since I moved in early July. Also, I knew I wanted to have the blog ready to go before I headed to the Toronto Film Festival. Doug Cummings, Mike Hertenstein, and Darren have been great about hosting my musings from Toronto in past years, but I want to have my own place this time around

So, here it is. As I suspect is true for most blogs, this one will be a work in progress. Initially, it’ll be a place to post whatever film reviews I’ve written and interviews I’ve conducted (look for both new stuff and archived material I particularly like). Over time, I hope to expand beyond film and write about politics and religion as well as personal reflections. Some friends have suggested I be specific and focus on movies, but I think the blog should be as wide-ranging and expansive as I care for it to be. If I want to post a random interview with a colleague, so be it. If I want to write about my memories of cutting down the Christmas tree with my family, I’ll bore you with that, too. But to be fair to those who are coming to the blog specifically for my cinema-related thoughts, I’ll warn you if a particular essay goes off in a wildly different direction.

My plan over the next several days is to start putting up reviews from the last several months (three examples follow below). Then next week (hopefully Monday or Tuesday) I’ll post about my Toronto lineup. And then this will be the place for my Toronto reactions. I made a point of getting wi-fi in the hotel room, so I should be able to post pretty much every day from Sept. 8-17. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Ok, enough of my ramblings. Finally, I want to offer a number of thank yous to people who have helped and encouraged me in getting this off the ground. The design is modified from a theme created by Patricia Muller. Thanks to Neil Robinson, Joe Carey, Mike H, Jeffrey Overstreet, Mike Leary, and Dahlia Hanin for their steady encouragement and gentle proddings. To Darren, Doug, and Girish for inspiring me with their fantastic blogs. To Rob Davis for lots of helpful feedback. To Mike Stemle for getting me over the coding hump. To Shari and Linda for their long-time support at the Phantom Tollbooth. And to David Stirling, who helped me crop the photo at the top of this page (it’s the Chicago skyline as seen from my apartment on a particularly stunning summer evening).