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Toronto film events deliver a dose of madness and melodrama

Movies and madness

For 20 years, Toronto's Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival (running Nov. 9-17) has been exploiting one of the deeper and more fascinating characteristics of the movies: As a medium, it not only can replicate the experience of mental instability with suggestive precision, it provides audiences with a forum in which to confront and consider issues of mental health and addiction that, at least until very recently, have rarely been a matter of public discussion or debate.

At least since Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) marshalled the formidable visual lexicon of German Expressionism to tell the story of high horror and delirium, movies have brought us as close to the threshold of madness as any mass medium can. Indeed, so many classic movies – Vertigo, Psycho, Persona, Repulsion, Taxi Driver, Blue Velvet, Dead Ringers and The Shining, to name a very few trade in visions of damaged subjectivity. You wonder if this isn't the thing that movies were made for: to tap into the collective madness that crouches in us all.

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This year, Rendezvous presents an eclectic mixture of documentaries and fiction features, with an emphasis on providing opportunities for public discussion and feedback throughout the event. (I am moderating one of these, a day-long symposium called The Changing World of Documenting Madness.) Of the films I've had an opportunity to preview , there are at least three that are particularly impressive: Beer is Cheaper than Therapy (Nov. 12) is a powerful feature documentary about American soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder near the massive military base in Fort Hood, Texas; The Maze, a gorgeously updated and expanded version of a 1969 documentary on the late Canadian painter and mental illness sufferer William Kurelek (Nov. 13); and Moving Up (Nov. 13), a sensitive but painful portrait of an Iranian garbage collector who becomes increasingly consumed by his impossible dream of becoming a famous novelist.

Movies and melodrama

A different kind of madness attends the work of the late German director Werner Schroeter (1945-2010), whose films are the subject of a comprehensive retrospective launched by TIFF Cinematheque at Bell Lightbox beginning this week, called Magnificent Obsession: The Films of Werner Schroeter.

Schroeter's was the madness of an artist unbridled but fully in control, the creator channeling the most outrageous of visions and ideas into the most elegantly strange and beautiful of forms.

Probably the least famous of the German filmmakers who collectively comprised what in the 1970s was called the New German Cinema – whose ranks included Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlondorff, Margarethe von Trotta, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders – Schroeter was nevertheless a key member of the cohort. He was a gay, opera-fixated filmmaker, theatrical director and actor whose insistence on arch artificiality was less a matter of camp irony than a declaration of his politics. Like many of his postwar filmmaking contemporaries, he saw the development of radical new filmmaking forms as necessary not just for their break with the bleakness of the immediate past, but as a way to create "a new reality." Since the real world had utterly fallen, it behooved the true artist to make his own – which Schroeter did, consistently and often spectacularly, in a career that spanned nearly 40 years and included more than 30 features and documentaries, and several opera and photography projects. He moved from avant-garde expressionism to experimental dramatic features that suggested what fellow director Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession) might have made if he'd been born a generation or two later.

Despite his idiosyncrasy, Schroeter maintained certain definite artistic, temperamental and thematic affinities. He loved opera for the bold assurance of its own reality (one of his very first films was a tribute to his lifelong beloved, Maria Callas); he loved women's melodrama for its accommodation of lavish visual tropes and emotional extremes; and he loved pushing himself and his audience to new frontiers of experience. Oh yes, and he loved the colour red. If you attend this retrospective, you will see red like you never have before.

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Editor's note: An earlier online version and the print version of this story contained incorrect information. This version has been corrected.

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