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Film TIFF 2018: What is TIFF? Seeing Michael Moore glad-handing without his baseball cap, and other scenes from Day 1

Director Michael Moore arrives for the world premiere of Fahrenheit 11/9 at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 6, 2018.

VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

It’s easy, and often very fun, to mock the annual Toronto International Film Festival for its pageantry and pomp and circumstance.

What fruit hangs lower than the gawkers who line kilometres of red carpet to catch glimpses of Hollywood hunk Chris Pine, Franco arthouse hunkquette Isabelle Huppert, or intergalactic uber-hunk-assassin-thing The Predator (appearing outside the Ryerson Theatre for the Midnight Madness kickoff film, Shane Black’s The Predator)? The eyes of the hardy cynic and cinephile roll reflexively at the gaudy “brand activations” and general hurly-burly of glitz and glamour and lineups that descend on Toronto, every year, as sure as the ill-begotten hype around another doomed Leafs season, as perennial as the autumn chill.

But TIFF, for all its ostentation and silliness, undoubtedly offers glimpses at sights unseen: a beaming Captain Kirk in the flesh, a hulking, dreadlocked space murderer, or, rarest of all, American documentarian Michael Moore, sitting slumped and utterly unhatted.

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Read more: The Globe’s guide to TIFF 2018 movies

It puts one on the backfoot, seeing Michael Moore – whose whole thing is wearing a baseball cap, even in a tuxedo – at ease in a bank district bar, scalp and shaggy hair exposed. It’s like spotting Tom Wolfe in saggy athleisure-wear or Burt Reynolds sans moustache, may they both rest in peace. Moore, the one-time menace of the American political establishment, the Oscar and Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker, and writer/director/producer of banner TIFF premiere Fahrenheit 11/9, is such a consummate character that it’s rare – and, frankly, a bit refreshing – to see him out of character, in a bar, hatless. I repeat: hatless.

Yet there was Moore, receiving fans and well-wishers with exhausted good humour at the postpremiere party for Fahrenheit 11/9, his latest documentary index of America-in-crisis (a party peopled by industry types and, peculiarly for a glitzy film fest bash, David Hogg and other survivors of the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida). It was a sight so singular that my shin-digging companion, Will Sloan (co-host of what is arguably Canada’s top Michael Moore-themed podcast), snapped a photo. “He’s just occupied such a big part of my brain for so long,” Will tells me, half-amused, half-genuinely starstruck. Such encounters are, I think, what TIFF is about.

Or part of it, anyway. An element of TIFF 2018’s prefilm branding makes its own case for what, precisely, TIFF is. Per the on-screen preroll, TIFF is, among other things: a cinema, a charity, a party, a “launch pad.” Yet another boring brand activation, sure. But it got me thinking: What is TIFF? Perhaps such mock-insightful, higher order questions should be saved for later in this batch of daily dispatches, when my eyes are dry and my brain is a tangle of half-remembered movie titles, and I can’t recall which famous Chris is which. But why not think about it now, if only as a way of making sense of things upfront, instead of with the cool clarity of hindsight?

So: TIFF is anything and everything to everyone. Or everyone who gives a rip about TIFF, anyway. (To those who don’t, TIFF is likely little more than a pain-in-the-rear re-rerouting of the King streetcar, and an extended 4 a.m. last call at the Adelaide and John Street Hooters.) And understanding this lights a path toward making peace with one of the world’s biggest, most unruly film festivals, and one of Canada’s most publicized cultural to-dos.

Take me – who else? – for instance. Eight accredited TIFFs in and that hard-won cynicism comes almost too easily. I’m predisposed to be bored of it. Where that lanyarded press badge once worked as a key unlocking an unfathomable trove of cinephilic delights, it quickly came to signify something entirely more dull: work. The work of shuffling around between screenings and interviews and happy hour feedings and interstitial waiting rooms filled with stubby bottles of water and other bored, lanyarded-types. Undoubtedly easy work, yes. But work all the same. Soon, the hope of encountering some rare, hitherto under-seen (or entirely unseen) piece of film-art fizzles after years of grimacing at reel after reel of trumped-up aspiring Oscar bait.

Then, like a lighthouse lantern piercing a veil of wan fog, comes Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Not the Eugene O’Neill play. The latest film by Chinese director Bi Gan. An elliptical, erotic, melancholic, drizzly detective noir that gives way to a rapturous, nearly hour long sequence that unfolds in both a single take and in 3-D.

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Long takes are the province of certain strains of experimental, “slow cinema” – arguably to the point of cliche. (They are also less impressive in the age of digital cinematography, which accommodates such extensive indulgences in absence of clunky cameras and finite reels of celluloid.) But this film yokes the clichés of arthouse to those of post-Avatar 3-D postconversion with such conviction and beauty, that I found myself, quite literally, in awe. No joke. I have never gasped at a title card before. For even a junior TIFF vet like myself, Long Day’s Journey Into Night provided that which keeps me returning to film festivals like this, and to cinema itself: something I had never seen before.

It was, in its way, as strange and arresting and pseudo-surreal as seeing Michael Moore glad-handing without his hat. Such singular, seemingly unduplicatable sights are what TIFF, at its very best, is. And of course, such transitory, breathtaking encounters also offer a sobering reminder that, jobs-wise, watching and writing about movies really isn't so bad.

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