Skip to main content

Illustration by Paddy Molloy for The Globe and Mail

From the celluloid ooze of the Toronto International Film Festival, the deep thinkers emerged, stood erect and issued this decree: "In the beginning will be the Beginning." So, next Thursday, the fest kicks off not with the traditional Canadian offering but with the grandly titled Creation , a Brit flick all about Charles Darwin's learned struggle to trace our arrogant species back to its humble origins. Of course, human nature being the battleground it is, that decree has upset the cultural nationalists who cling to a different axiom, the one that insists Cancon productions enjoy a God-given right to lead any cinematic parade held on indigenous soil. But, apparently, the TIFF organizers are looking at the bigger picture this year, keen to spark a little controversy by starting with an eminent Victorian who sparked a whole lot of controversy. What's more, they're eager to start something else too, to initiate, in their words, "the kind of conversation we hope will happen around the film fest."

Sounds like a plausible theory. And, since I've seen Creation, let's begin the chat. Not surprisingly, the movie has Darwin (torturously played by Paul Bettany) personally engaged in the battle that would shape his legacy. The script wastes no time laying out the conflict: "Science is at war with religion." Clearly, that war embodies a deeper tension between empirical fact and transcendent myth, the one documenting reality and the other transforming it, often for the purpose of pointing to a higher truth.

As coincidence would have it (and conversation demands), exactly that same tension flows through the history of the movies. An early scene in Creation , set in the late 1850s, shows a vintage camera taking a silver-nitrate photograph, a reminder of technology's own evolution. Indeed, the origin of cinema hovered a mere four decades away. By the 1890s, the medium was born and immediately divided between the empirical push of fact and the mythic pull of fiction. In France, the Lumière brothers were cranking our their short " actualités, " most famously Arrival of a Train at a Station - yes, an actual train pulling into an actual station.

Story continues below advertisement

Meanwhile, drawing on his theatre background, Georges Méliès was making fictional narratives like A Trip to the Moon , complete with camera trickery and stagy special effects. At the time, both these films ignited a sensation in the crowd - audiences ate up the fact and the fiction alike. But Méliès always had the upper hand, and as cinema matured, dramatic features would soon dominate, just as they dominate every year's roster at TIFF. We like our stories, we need our myths.

We liked them so much that movies became "shows" that, since there was money to be made, quickly became "show business," thereby firing up another ongoing battle - between the hard facts of the business and the artsy aspirations of the show. Occasionally reconciled, usually not, that tension seems eternal, permeating films and film festivals alike. Business gets conducted at TIFF, even as TIFF conducts its own business - looking for superior pictures to fill its artistic quota, and bringing in big stars to boost its bottom line.

Ah, those glittering stars. Even back when the screen was silent, the movies had that magical capacity to create an instant galaxy of stars, certain special actors adored and inflated by the camera into mythic figures, speaking to our fantasies of beauty and sex and power and heroism. Especially beauty. In Creation , Darwin is heard to say, "Nature selects for survival, man for appearance." If so, movie stars are the apotheosis of appearance. Their screen presence is physical virtue magnified a thousand-fold. And in that magnification, in that mythic status, there's undeniably a poetic truth.

A poetic truth, but not a literal truth. Onscreen, George Clooney and Penelope Cruz are myths; off-screen, on the red carpet or in the interview room or flanked by their publicists or sweating in the late-summer heat, they're just actors, attractive to be sure but, otherwise, mere mortals who happen to have won the job lottery. Science wouldn't dispute that. What does dispute it, eagerly and profitably, is the religion of our times - the religion of celebrity, which has a vested interest in equating the myth with the actor, the poetic with the literal truth.

Back to Darwin's struggle. Viewed scientifically, every religion is a mythic narrative whose faithful subscribers believe that the story's poetic truth is also the literal truth, thus turning a secular text into sacred scripture. For example, treat the Bible as solely a wonderful tale ripe with metaphor, and Darwin's theory of evolution is perfectly compatible with Genesis's myth of creation. They both tell important truths, one empirically and the other poetically. But treat the Bible as literal fact, "gospel truth," and that compatibility gets ugly and fiercely competitive, forcing the likes of poor old Darwin to reconcile the irreconcilable, to shake his balding head at the prospect of man and dinosaurs simultaneously roaming the earth. Leave that notion to horror flicks.

In that sense, religion isn't just doing battle with science; it's at war with myth too, and with the very idea of metaphor and symbol. The religion of celebrity is no different. It wants us to believe that, even away from the screen, even divested of their roles and their costumes and all that attendant imagery, the Clooneys and the Cruzes are still mythical, not just lucky actors with gigs but larger-than-life presences somehow endowed with a vast range of sublime gifts. Should they prove otherwise, tumbling from grace like any mortal, the same religion that mythologizes them will crucify them. That's the happy side-benefit of buying into any belief system - for every hero to worship, there's a heretic to hiss.

Of course, buying is the operative word. Entire industries have arisen to encourage our leap to faith, to spread this gospel of literalism that breezily equates the actor with the role and the man with the myth. The media are in that business. TIFF is in that business. The religion of celebrity is far stronger than science because it's so much richer and loads more fun - a bejewelled orthodoxy with Hollywood as its Vatican and, for 10 days in September, with Toronto as its Chartres.

Story continues below advertisement

But, you might well ask, where in this cinematic equation is God, the creator of these starry firmaments? Well, the closest thing to theism in the movies is the "auteur theory," which posits that the director is God, the great architect and invisible hand (at least for directors who don't double as actors) singly responsible for the whole of the film's creation. Darwin, I suspect, wouldn't have signed on to this theory, choosing instead the atheistic argument that treats movies as messy collaborative ventures, a kind of collective mutation where intent collides with happenstance, structure with serendipity, yielding results of varying quality and dubious fitness, many doomed to imminent extinction.

Happily, for true believers in the auteur theory, TIFF is a terrific opportunity to get chummy with God. Not having the same public visibility, directors tend to walk at the edges of the red carpet, in the long shadow of the stars they forge. But that makes them approachable deities. Over the duration of the festival, you might meet God strolling down the sidewalk, hanging out in a corridor, downing a drink in a local watering hole. You might strike up a chat, perhaps even continuing this conversation, which, in God's better mind and yours, may well evolve into something entirely new and different, more profane or profound. Either way, ain't it simply divine.

Report an error
About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.