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Twenty years ago James Quandt was a kid from Saskatoon who scheduled his holidays so he could faithfully attend the Toronto International Film Festival.

"Yes, I was one of those," he admits with a quick and possibly sheepish smile. Today he quietly runs what has become the most prestigious of TIFF's subsidiary operations, Cinematheque Ontario; which means he spends his life watching the best films ever made.

Launched only 11 years ago, with Quandt as founding director, the Cinematheque has grown into one of the most industrious of the worldwide fraternity inspired by the original Paris Cinémathèque. All year long it offers Torontonians the chance to see the complete work of famous directors from around the world.

It has the scholarly autonomy not to be overly worried whether you've heard of them (Jean-Luc Godard) or not (Kon Ichikawa). In the past few years it has been able to produce hefty, scrupulously researched books to accompany some of the retrospectives. These have given Quandt a growing international reputation as a thinker and writer about film. (Quandt stepped down as the Cinematheque's director several years ago to focus on the role of senior programmer; Susan Oxtoby is the director of programming.)

At this time of year the Cinematheque is eclipsed by the noisy annual flight of TIFF as it rises, heron-like, from its digs at the corner of Carlton and Yonge in downtown Toronto and decamps to the Park Plaza Hotel for two weeks of noisy partying, celebrity-squiring and promiscuous consumption of movies. "We, on the other hand, stay right here," says Quandt, surveying the chaos at 2 Carlton St. as his film-festival colleagues prepare to depart. The Cinematheque has matured into a temple to cinema at about the same time that its parent is increasingly accused of selling its soul to the U.S. commercial film industry.

Some observers have glumly opined that there's an even bigger problem: World cinema itself is in decline.

Globalizing culture has taken the edge off once-exotic national cinemas, and the bracing Cold War conflict which gave tragic depth to much great cinema has mutated into bland consumerism.

Typical of the pessimists is Ottawa film scholar Peter Harcourt, who recently said that "the overall quality of film has declined, and the sense of a stylish film has vanished."

Quandt disagrees. "I don't believe that cinema is over. We're living in a great period. But it's harder to see the films," because the commercial end of the business has a stranglehold on theatres and has shut down the art film houses.

Instead of a general decline, Quandt sees a flexible situation where some familiar foreign cinemas -- the European ones especially -- are indeed in decline. But at the same time, great new national cinemas are evolving in unfamiliar places.

"There are always national cinemas receding or emerging. Whatever happened to Italian movies? That industry is quiescent. On the other hand, Iran and Taiwan right now are interesting places. For a small place, Taiwan is producing a handful of great films every year. And Korea is emerging." Even as we speak, he is glancing at his watch so as not to miss a screening of Korean director Kim Ki-duk's Address Unknown. Last year, Kim's The Isle astonished the public at the Toronto film festival.

The Cinematheque pays its bills, amazingly enough, largely through box office. Its screenings of classic Robert Bresson or neo-realist Italian movies from the fifties very often sell out to enthusiastic fans. Why then don't the commercial houses set aside some screen space to service this public?

Quandt doesn't have an answer, and in some ways seems resigned to the widening gulf between cineasteslike himself, and the commercial filmgoing public. "It sounds snobbish, but I find little of interest in contemporary commercial cinema. I would rather see Le Talent again. With most commercial films I'm looking at my watch after 10 minutes. It's a Pavlovian business of pushing people's buttons."

Of the great European cinemas, the one that's in the best shape is that of France, he believes. "Because in France, movies are central to the idea of the national heritage. They think of Robert Bresson as an artist in the same league with a writer like Proust."

But the most interesting work is coming from Third World countries where authoritarian governments force people into tragic situations, and politics is played for high stakes. In the prescreening of films in this year's TIFF, for example, he has been most impressed by a Chinese film, The Orphan of Anyang, in which novice filmmaker Wang Chao used strategic editing to suggest the cruelty of the Chinese police -- without leaving himself open to arrest. "I love it. It's a devastating portrait of Chinese society, hidden in the soundscapes and ellipses of the film. And I wonder if that filmmaker is in trouble because of it."

Although he doesn't think social strife is necessary to great storytelling, he admits that in European and American cinema, "the subsiding of a polemical approach to politics, the loss of certainties where people knew which side they were on, has led to a lot of films marked by free-floating anxiety."

One artist who has suffered from this is Jean-Luc Godard, who now lives in isolation and makes an occasional ruminative film about events such as the Holocaust. Or Bertolucci, "who used to make political films and who is now searching for a new kind of innocence in the world." In both cases, the public finds the recent films of these artists "less forceful than their earlier work."

He also feels that globalization has homogenized once-remote cultures, even as it creates a huge and bored First World public looking for exoticism. The result can be seen with a filmmaker such as Tony Gatlif. His breakthrough was Gadjo Dilo, about the tragedy of Romas (gypsies) trying to live in modern Europe. But his latest film, Vengo, struck Quandt as "a spectacle of Roma culture that seems to be aimed at the world-music crowd."

And yet, and yet -- "I still think contemporary cinema is rich."

Last year, he asked fellow curators and scholars to assemble a list of the 10 best films of the nineties. The result was heavy on Iranian and Chinese movies; the only one of the 10 with commercial exposure was Lars van Trier's Breaking the Waves. The winner was an obscure Spanish film called Dream of Light.

Toronto-based critic Mark Peranson organized a parallel survey of working film critics, who ranked Dream of Light far behind American films such as Groundhog Day -- which didn't appear on the Cinematheque list at all.

That led Peranson to accuse Quandt's team of elitism and isolation from the public. "It wasn't fair, actually," says Quandt. "Some of the curators did put Groundhog Day on their lists. But the purpose of our survey was to underline the great films that didn't get exposure in the commercial system."

On his wall is a somber poster from one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last films before his death in 1982. German film today, with a very few exceptions -- such as Run, Lola, Run -- is "what the Germans would call an attempt to make 'international' films. These are mostly awful. But if you ask them what they think of Fassbinder, they're embarrassed by him."

Like many Europeans, the Germans consider that films rich in history and references to their own culture "are retrograde. Even somebody like Volker Schlondorff, who once made The Tin Drum, is turning out international co-productions that are really dull."

Something even worse has happened to Japanese film, one of Quandt's favourites. "When I think of films from the sixties, like Oshima's Realm of the Senses, it's just as violent as some of the anomic youth films that get made there today. The same subjects. But the older filmmakers had a political analysis of the situation.

"The new films, it's not that they're rejecting politics. It's as if politics just isn't there.It's as if this heedless violence is coming from nowhere."

He sighs. He wants to be an optimist, but at the end of the day "so many of the new films seem so empty. I'd rather go back and see a really great film for the 10th time." FILM WEEK In the run-up to Thursday's opening of the Toronto International Film Festival, Globe Review will bring you daily features on Canadian and international cinema. Today: Profile of James Quandt, guardian of world cinema. Tomorrow: Sex in Canadian movies: Excerpt from a new book by film critic Katherine Monk. Thursday: TIFF director Piers Handling on Kubrick, Godard and today's cinema. Plus: A reader's guide to the Best of the Fest. Yesterday: Bruce Sweeney and Last Wedding. Quandt's Top 20 James Quandt's 20 favourite films of the last 15 years. " L'Argent by Robert Bresson can't quite make the list, because it was made in 1983," he reports. "But nothing made since quite compares." Histoire(s) du cinéma, Nouvelle vague, JLG/JLG, Origins of the 21st Century, Eloge de l'amour, Allemagne neuf zéro -- all directed by Jean-Luc Godard (France) Cities of Sadness -- Hou Hsiao Hsien (Taiwan) The Last Bolshevik -- Chris Marker (France) Xiao Wu and Platform -- both directed by Jia Zhangke (China) Sicilia! -- Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet (Germany) Ossos -- Pedro Costa (Portugal) Short Fuse -- Warren Sonbert (USA) The Wind Will Carry Us -- Abbas Kiarostami (France) Days of the Eclipse and The Second Circle -- both by Alexander Sokurov (Russia) D'Est -- Chantal Akerman (Belgium) Khroustaliav My Car! -- Alexei Gherman (Russia) Woman of the Port -- Arturo Ripsten (Mexico) Abraham's Valley -- Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal) Jeanne la pucelle -- Jacques Rivette (France) Lo Zio di Brooklyn -- Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco (Italy)

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