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Contempt and Loathing at the Calgary International Film Festival

Sometime around seven o’clock on Thursday evening I lost the last of my enthusiasm for the Calgary International Film Festival. I can pinpoint it to the moment a petulant Gary Burns looked over at me and muttered “Fuck off”. In my ensuing rage I made an attempt to rob Canada of one of its upstart commercially challenged/critically acclaimed directors. And in the rabid melee that followed I discovered not only something about myself but a few ugly truths about the underbelly of Calgary’s annual veneration of film.

In truth, it started a few days before the festival when my editor contacted me to enquire about the sources of my story on the puff piece I did for the pending film fete. I quickly listed my sources and facts for the article that was more a public service announcement than article. Turns out, their publicist had accused me of being libelous, a bad speller, and implied I was a world class asshole. She wrote out an email screed saying that <bleep> reporting like mine was no longer welcome at the festival.

I was stunned, banned from the Calgary International Film Festival, how would this ban work? Maybe a picture of me posted inside the door at the venues, or an ID check for all cauliflower eared bald guys with luminously white skin; better yet have the audience shun me by turning their backs to the screen? My curiosity was piqued and I was eager to test the sanction.

Before I had a chance to realize my dream to become a Calgary film terrorist the next thing I know I’m in the company of a beautiful woman at the opening “Lights Gala”. The publicist had changed her mind, sought contrition through largesse, and graciously given my editor tickets to the swank party that was above my pay scale. Previously, I’ve only once before paid $150 to see a movie but that was with two large drinks a bucket of popcorn and a hooker—this was the big time for this third string writer and film geek.

The gala reminded me of my high school grad party. This time I had a date and moreover I was there but the evening nonetheless was dedicated to watching a movie and it was generally disappointing all the same. My date was a friend of a friend who was impressed by the fops and dandies who populate the film scene. She wasn’t impressed by my calloused hands or aging Saturn LX. She made it abundantly clear to me that she had a can of bear spray in her purse and would use it without prejudice if she were to feel any calloused palms on her person.

Imitation being the ultimate form of flattery, the Calgary International Film Festival lauded Toronto’s choice by choosing for the opening gala, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. The film’s penultimate gala was second to Toronto’s recent world premiere in more ways than one. The provincial party was replete of any cast or crew—for actors and the director who live in Igloolik this is about as damning a snub as imaginable. The copywriter for the festival, fond of purple prose and gloss, accurately promised an evening of “effervescence” in the company of “luminaries”—in other words no celebrities but free euro-trash beer, loud jazz music, finger food, and some pretentious company—a perfectly enchanting evening excepting the boring film.

As I hungrily bit into a burger (raw in the middle) my date predictably disappeared into the crowd of dark framed glasses and black turtlenecks. Later, after vomiting up my undercooked meal I was offered both cocaine and ass in the small washroom by one of the luminaries who had apparently branched out his film business. Only a couple of hours after the party started I lost control of higher processes and was effortlessly shunned by the service people. Stumbling and incoherent from my acute food poisoning, and exacerbated by cheap Teutonic lager, I exited out of the party as desperate society pages photographers did their best to not make eye contact with me.

A few days and couple of pints of IV fluid later I made my way to the second film of my itinerary. Back at the scene of the food crime I watched Half Nelson, an exceptionally fine film. To compensate for resurgent abdominal pain I stuffed my prescription pills instead of popcorn into my mouth and unwittingly fell into a deep slumber before the film ended. Slumped over with vomit on my shirt and pills on the floor I was awoken by an angry woman who was on her cell phone talking to the police about my lamentable state. I left the theatre faster than on the previous occasion only to pass out in the alley behind Centennial Parkade and be liberated of my wallet and shoes.

Back to the beginning with Gary Burns–when six hundred cinephiles and I, more than half with prepaid tickets to the premier film, were wondering why only a couple of dozen people had been admitted to the Globe theater that had a capacity of 378. The crowd that had been lined up for two hours waited testily to view the film Radiant City , a documentary co-directed by Gary Burns and Jim Brown on the horrors of suburbia. Meanwhile a huddle of CIFF volunteers anxiously surrounded Executive Director Jacqueline Dupuis in an effort to mitigate a riot. An intelligent and fearful Dupuis made a rapid exit across the street and never came back.

I was literally next in line watching the events unfold and I asked the young pimple faced authority what the delay was. Sweating profusely while he eyed the crowd he confided in me “the director filled the theatre with his friends and family there’s no room for ticket holders”. At precisely that moment Burns stepped out of the theater to escort a party of four through the doors as an exasperated Globe worker begged him to stop. “Hey Gary, why don’t you give a private screening for your family and friends and let some ticket holders in?” I reasonably suggested to the Calgary auteur. That is when the F-bomb dropped and Mr. scurried back into the theater behind the double doors to a chorus of boos.

Repressing my impulse to drag Burns by my car back to my suburban sprawl home, I went up to the nearest employee, who claimed to be a manager, and I told him he had better make an announcement in the next minute or I was going to do it for him. The young man panicked and ran to another employer, ostensibly the real manager, and began talking in tongues and pointing at me between gulping breaths.

News of the incident was filtering down the line and people were cursing and pressing forward. The kid with acne was charged with delivering the bad news, the manager retreated to the ticket booth, and the kid gave us tickets to another show of our choosing. He took a lot of abuse for the cause that night and was crying by the time he was done. I wiped off a gob of spit hanging from the back of his head in sympathy later that night and when I asked him for his name for my story he went into a full breakdown. I did the obligatory thing that is required in such circumstance, I left him in a pile outside the theater as two bag ladies closed in on the easy prey. Gary and Jim who had been asked to say a few conciliatory words to their crushed fans chose to remain in the air conditioned theatre on the unusually warm September evening. By the time the two directors were done partying it up in the Kaboom Room were their sycophantic guests the boys carcass was long gone.

The paper of record for Calgary , The Herald reported that the screening of Radiant City “left festival insiders aglow with the buzz of having a huge hit on their hands.” Adrenaline can be a great high but those flushed cheeks I saw on Dupuis et al were clearly from the flight response and not the pride of a job well done. To add insult to injury the story quoted Gary commenting on, “the crowd of 6000 left cooling their heels outside” as, “it was super […] it was great to see a packed house enjoy the film.

I watched two more films, both absolute shit, but the director was present and he didn’t pack the house with genetic similars so I braved through them and gave him a polite reception. In the end I saw only four films and waited some 5 hours in lines.

At the close of festivities, the Calgary International Film Festival was given a passing grade by most, with the Herald describing it kindly as a “tumultuous year”. Five dozen scheduling errors, countless late starts, out of focus films, and a director who hijacked a screening didn’t manage to dampen the hunger of Calgary’s starved film going public, me included. Next year I’ll brave the festival again. Like a bulimic teenage girl on a binge, I’ll be craving contemptuous self loathing and cultural hunger to filling my gaping maw with a metaphorically and literally nutritionally replete and culturally raw smorgasbord only later to retreat to the humiliation and introspection my necessary purging will demand.

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