- One of the most talked-about entries at this year’s Toronto Film Festival is a laudatory documentary about the Vietnam War service of Democratic U.S. presidential contender John Kerry.
- In other Toronto news, filmmaker David Cronenberg isn’t at all happy that the title of his notorious 1996 psychological drama Crash also happens to be the title of Paul Haggis’ all-star, Los Angeles-set social commentary that had its world premiere at the festival.
- Leading to a far more unpleasant controversy, the documentary Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat is centered on the horrific abuse of a stray cat.
Toronto Film Festival politics: Eulogistic Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry gets ballyhooed
Leaving aside media-engendered uproars surrounding Charlize Theron’s no-show and Kevin Spacey’s “show” sporting a dyed scalp, the 2004 Toronto Film Festival has been the site of a handful of political and social commotions.
For starters, the documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry has created a bit of a stir. Directed by George Butler (Pumping Iron) and loosely based on Douglas Brinkley’s book Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, which was published earlier this year, Going Upriver offers a laudatory glimpse into U.S. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam War military service and his subsequent role in the antiwar movement.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Butler eulogized his subject: “I truly believed the moment I saw him: This guy’s going to be president. Nothing in the intervening years has changed my view. He had real bearing, he had a presence. It was beyond his years even then.”
Perhaps hoping for the sort of topical controversy that has catapulted Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 to the top of the box office charts, Butler also remarked, “In 1965, a thousand people had died in Vietnam. In 2004, as of last week, a thousand people had died in Iraq. … Overwhelmingly, this film’s metaphorical purpose is to remind people what they might be getting into in Iraq. The errors of it and the parallels just seem very striking.”
Unsurprisingly, there are those expecting a backlash to some degree or other once Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry opens commercially south of the (Canadian) border.
Now, it remains unclear whether the Going Upriver to-do will erupt as a result of Butler’s rosy view of Kerry, his comparing Iraq to Vietnam, or because – in the quote above – the filmmaker failed to include as “people” the 10,000+ Iraqis who have died since the beginning of the American-led invasion.
John Kerry documentary uproar
Update: In fall 2004, there was indeed a bit of an uproar connected to a John Kerry documentary. The culprit, however, was the anti-Kerry Stolen Honor – and its announced (later cancelled) pre-election airing on stations owned by the far-right Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Lastly, despite Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and the non-cinematic Iraq War disaster, John Kerry lost his White House bid to Republican George W. Bush, one of the most ardent proponents of this latest West Asian conflagration.
Crash title clash: David Cronenberg vs. Paul Haggis
As for the controversy surrounding Paul Haggis’ Crash, that’s a direct consequence of the fact that the generally well-received, Los Angeles-set race drama shares the same title – but not the same plot – as the 1996 David Cronenberg movie (based on J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel) about car accidents, mutilations, and kinky sex.
According to the Toronto Star, those behind Cronenberg’s work are now threatening to take legal action against the producers of the new Crash.
Besides winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize, the 1996 Crash was awarded six Genies (the Canadian Oscars), including two for director-screenwriter Cronenberg. (Incongruously, the Best Film was John Greyson’s Lilies.) The cast includes Oscar winner Holly Hunter (The Piano, 1993), James Spader, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette, and Peter MacNeill.
By the way, the 2004 Crash director and co-screenwriter Paul Haggis also wrote Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, which opens later this year. An ensemble piece co-written by Bobby Moresco, the new Crash features Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Ryan Phillippe, Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle (also seen in the Toronto entry Hotel Rwanda), Jennifer Esposito, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Michael Peña, Shaun Toub, Bahar Soomekh, Larenz Tate, Ludacris, and Loretta Devine.
Animal torture horror
Lastly, Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat has drawn protests against – and lots of free publicity for – a documentary about three Canadian men who, as reported on CNN, in May 2001 videotaped their hanging a stray cat from a noose, and then proceeding to “slit its throat, before beating, disemboweling and skinning” the cat, posthumously named Kensington by animal-rights activists.
Director Zev Asher’s documentary doesn’t show the savage 17-minute cat-slaughtering video, which was supposed to have been “an artistic experiment” intended to highlight society’s hypocrisy in regard to the killing of animals for human consumption.
The three animal torturers/murderers – Jesse Power, Anthony Wennekers, and Matt Kaczorowski – were later sentenced to jail time. It’s unclear how long they actually served.
Glorification of deranged cat murderers?
In reply to accusations that Casuistry glorifies the killers, Toronto Film Festival co-director Noah Cowan defended the film’s screening, stating: “People who have viewed the film – and that includes several Toronto journalists and our curators – indicate that it certainly does not allow room to sympathize with the actions of the convicted criminals portrayed in the documentary and shows them to be morally bankrupt.”
In the New York Times, reviewer Dana Stevens writes that animal torturer Jesse Power comes across as “a more complex figure [than his two bloodthirsty partners], an intelligent and well-spoken but possibly psychopathic art student.”
Stevens adds that although Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat “clearly takes the position that the animal’s death was a crime, Mr. Asher’s film is likely to leave viewers eager to discuss the limits of artistic freedom and the extension of human rights to animals.”
Rumors that the three animal torturers/murderers’ next artistic experiment will be a short video protesting capital punishment in which each of them will execute himself by hanging, electrocution, and asphyxiant gas are absolutely – and, one might add, unfortunately – untrue.
“Toronto Controversies” endnotes
Toronto Film Festival official website.
John Kerry Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry image: ThinkFilm.
Holly Hunter Crash 1996 image: The Movie Network | Telefilm Canada.
“Toronto Controversies: John Kerry Military Service + Animal Torture” last updated in February 2023.