TIFF’s Vanguard Programme: So Long, And Thanks For All The Films
The news today that the Toronto International Film Festival is dropping the Vanguard programme from its slate of films hits me hard.
In 2007 I was disillusioned with the snarky tenor of online film discourse that existed back then (and still exists, sadly) so I started my own pop culture blog, Popshifter. Fast forward to 2012: after five years of articles and reviews on Popshifter under my belt, I was hoping to branch out into more publications.
Someone (Doug Tilley, ahem!) tipped me off that TIFF was looking for film bloggers. That’s how I connected with Colin Geddes, who was programming TIFF’s infamous Midnight Madness as well as Vanguard, a programme which he referred to as “Midnight Madness’s cool older sister.” I sent Colin some of my reviews and he asked me if I was interested in blogging for the Vanguard programme that same year. What really surprised me was that he offered me a few tickets in exchange, which I didn’t expect, but for which I was grateful. Within a couple of years, I was also writing for TIFF’s Midnight Madness blog, which had been around much longer than Vanguard and was more established.
Writing for the TIFF blogs was an amazing experience, and it introduced me to a bunch of other film writers as well as Colin’s second in command, Peter Kuplowsky. Colin recently announced that after 20 years of TIFF programming, he is leaving to follow other pursuits. Fittingly, Peter is taking on his Midnight Madness mantle. (No word yet on whether or not he will start wearing red pants.) Through TIFF, I also met Carol Borden, the editor of both blogs, and someone I consider not just a friend, but also a mentor.
What was it like being a TIFF blogger for five years? It was a challenge to try and find out ways to promote films that didn’t already have coverage from other festivals, films often directed by newcomers who didn’t have much in the way of already existing publicity. Even more challenging was that we were tasked with publicizing films that we had not even seen yet! So while everyone else was trying to cram as many films into the day as possible, we TIFF bloggers were trying to cram in as many blog posts as possible and watch movies in between.
This led to a not a lot of hours of sleep but a lot of delirium. While the Official Midnight Madness Mascot was the isopod (inspired by the 2012 film The Bay), we felt that Vanguard needed its own Official Mascot, and thus a Mascot Battle was born.
From Joe Swanberg to the directing duo of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson to giant pencils to mole crickets to Mads Mikkelsen’s moustache, we had a hilarious time with the mascot battles, as well as Siân Melton’s amazing GIFs. And I couldn’t write about the TIFF blogging insanity without mentioning “Peeps Choi” and “red carping.”
Over the last five years, I wrote at least 130 blog posts for TIFF and saw 40 movies. I also met several of the filmmakers, such as Peter Strickland (whose love of mole crickets is legend) and Aleksander Nordaas (who contacted me to thank me for a review of Thale and has kept in touch with me ever since). I got to shake the hand of Fabrice du Welz which kind of blew my mind at the time (and still does).
The best part about all of this wasn’t the movie tickets or meeting people in the film industry, although that was great. It was that for two or three weeks every fall, I was part of a real community, all of us working towards the same goal. I will cherish that forever. And I will miss it when this year’s TIFF rolls around. Yes, Midnight Madness is still in existence and yes, it’s still wonderful, but there was just something special about Vanguard. Its absence leaves a giant, moustache-shaped hole in my heart.
It also makes me wonder what the future is for films that are not strictly horror but definitely part of that indefinable term, “genre.” Is there still room at TIFF for movies that Midnight Madness’s cool, older sister would like? I hope so.
What follows is my review of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, which screened as part of Vanguard in 2012. I hope you enjoy it.
Gorgeous cinematography, ghastly characters, and an incredibly cute dog. These are the three main things I took away from Sightseers. These things, and also this: Ben Wheatley is one twisted dude.
If we're talking twisted, I must also include Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who portray Chris and Tina in Sightseers. The pair had already created these characters for live comedy shows and along with writer Amy Jump and Wheatley himself, has now brought them to film fruition. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein's creation, however, Chris and Tina are not misunderstood. They truly are despicable people. It's okay to think they're monstrous.
It's a big gamble to make the protagonist a bad person; it's an even bigger one to have two bad people. In truth, no one is very likeable in Sightseers, except for the dog. It results in a lot of howling laughter; some of it feels justified, while some of it will make you feel terribly ashamed. These conflicting feelings can take place one after another, layered repeatedly throughout the entire movie.
With no overarching conflict to resolve, Sightseers becomes even more dependent upon its characters. You may think you have them figured out in the beginning, certain of who you'll be rooting for and against, until the movie pulls the rug out from under you, watches mutely while you crack your skull on the floor, and then snickers.
As a contest of "who is the least repugnant?" it seems that Tina is the clear "winner," but she's no anti-hero like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle or Alex from A Clockwork Orange, dysfunctional figures that elicit sympathy due to the terrible circumstances of their lives. Even with a manipulative harridan of a mother, Tina becomes more difficult to root for than Monster's Aileen Wuornos, and not just because Wuornos was a real person.
In this way, Sightseers is more brutal and cynical than your average horror movie because there is no point to the bad behavior. There's no message of hope or triumph of the human spirit, even though Tina is the Final Girl. Though she does undergo a change from the beginning of the movie to the end, it's not one that induces a wave of relief, only the grim realization that she's just become more awful.
Do not misunderstand: Sightseers is a ridiculously funny, can't-breathe-from-laughing so hard movie. Remembering the oversized pencil, the knitted crotchless panties, the line about Daily Mail readers, and the misuse of the word "muse" will make you laugh during the movie, and later. I think ultimately, however, the movie will have the last laugh, at our expense.