TIFF Day 7: Ballet for Breakfast, Rock for Lunch

An invigorating day in Toronto includes the triumphant, crazy “Black Swan” and a special preview from Bruce Springsteen

The festival may continue until the weekend, but Wednesday was my last day in Toronto. And if I went into the day feeling pretty ragged, I came out of it energized, courtesy of a wildly invigorating movie and a rock icon who's been shaking up the town the last couple of days.Black Swan

It started with a 9 a.m. screening of “Black Swan,” which I’d managed to miss due to scheduling problems and the lack of a proper credential. Wednesday morning was my last chance – and after three hours sleep, an hour on the sidewalk in a rush line, a big cup of coffee and a scramble for a seat, all I can say is: holy crap.

Whipping up an overheated fever dream about artistic obsession, identity and madness on a grand scale, Darren Aronofsky has ostensibly made a psychological thriller about a fragile ballerina (Natalie Portman) teetering on the verge of insanity as she prepares for a new production of “Swan Lake.”

At the same time, though, he’s made a film that itself teeters on the verge of insanity, with a final half hour – blood and paranoia set to the thundering strains of Tchaikovsky’s familiar music – that approaches the hallucinatory intensity of the most harrowing sequences in the director’s “Requiem for a Dream,” and is a hell of a lot more fun to boot.

It does for (and to) Tchaikovsky what “A Clockwork Orange” did for (and to) Beethoven. 

At the same time that Aronofsky uses overly-familiar music but pumps it full of new life, the director take a hoary genre – the backstage melodrama – and makes it weird and fresh and vital. It’s “The Red Shoes,” if those shoes are red because they’re covered in blood. It’s nuts. It’s scary and crazy and scarily, crazily good. I don’t understand the lukewarm comments I overheard from several people around me at the end of the screening; to me, you either embrace “Black Swan” or you run from it screaming.  

As for the obvious follow-up question – yeah, but what are its Oscar chances? – my first instinct is to say, who cares? But obviously I do care, and I’d guess that it’s a favorite for a Best Picture nomination (passion counts in the nominating process, and this movie is going to have passionate fans) but a longshot for a win (because in the final voting you need consensus, and it’ll likely scare off a lot of people).

It reminded me of a quote from Bruce Springsteen during his TIFF interview the night before, when he talked about how artists need to be crazy obsessives: “You want to go that one extra step, where somebody could say, ‘Why would he do  that?’”

Black Swan is the biggest “why did he do that?” movie I saw at TIFF, and my most exhilarating screening experience of the festival.

By the way, the albino crocodiles in Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” finish a respectable second. And that’s telling: if you’re looking for magnificently bizarre movie images and Werner Herzog’s radioactive mutant crocodiles are only the runners-up, you know somebody has taken a trip way  down Crazy Street.

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My final event in Toronto was off the festival grid: up in Little Italy, in a rundown movie theater that is definitely not part of TIFF, Sony Music Canada and the Bruce Springsteen camp invited some staffers and international press to a preview of the upcoming deluxe boxed set edition of Springsteen’s 1978 album “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” a landmark package which includes the Thom Zimny documentary that screened the previous night at a festival gala.

Bruce SpringseenIntermittent encounters with Springsteen over the past couple of decades got me an invite to the 64-minute presentation, which included eight of the songs that’ll be included on two extra CDs (which will themselves be dubbed "The Promise"), along with film clips of four different Springsteen performances that are part of the three additional DVDs.

“This kind of came out of the blue, but it was a nice surprise,” Springsteen said of the Toronto trip. “The movie was going to be part of the box set, and suddenly the film festival wanted it. And it was great to see it on the big screen, and to see it in a room full of my fans. It was a lovely night.”

Previewed songs on the box set, the most exhaustive that Springsteen has ever released and one of the most comprehensive documents of the creative process that any artist has released, include a version of the elegiac “Racing in the Street” with a far more aggressive, rock-oriented arrangement; a pair of Phil Spector-style pop songs in the uptempo “Gotta Get That Feeling” and the lush ballad “Someday (We’ll Be Together)”; the infectious “Ain’t Good Enough for You,” which with new lyrics would later turn into the Gary U.S. Bonds hit “This Little Girl”; “Talk to Me,” which was given to Southside Johnny, who seems to have simply put his voice on the Bruce recording; and a dramatic seven-minute arrangement of “The Promise,” a revealing and crucial mid-70s song that to the astonishment of fans was kept off official releases.

Live videos shown at the preview include an extended “Prove It All Night” from Phoenix in 1978 and a version of “The Promised Land” from Houston that same year, as well as two tough, dramatic performances of “Darkness” songs that were recorded without an audience in an Asbury Park, New Jersey concert hall in December, 2009.

Afterwards, Springsteen chatted with a small group before everyone adjourned next door for lunch. He said the feeling of Zimny’s film was inspired, strangely enough, by the “desaturated and gritty” look of the Jean Claude Van Damme movie “JCVD.”

He also said that the 2009 filming, in which he performed the entire “Darkness” album for cameras but no audience, came after the band had finished a string of tours that had occupied much of the previous decade – and that when he told his wife, Patti Scialfa, that he had one more performance to do, she said, “Okay, but we’re having people over tonight. Be home by seven.”

He and the band played each song twice, and Bruce was home in time for dinner.