Program explores underbelly of fame

Auds treated to new bigscreen zeitgeist

TORONTO Dysfunctional families are out and fame’s underbelly is in — that is, if this year’s programming slate at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival is anything to go by. Auds who in the past have made their way to Toronto to witness the meltdown of what at first appears to be a normal family (think “American Beauty” and “Happiness”) this year can expect to be treated to a new bigscreen zeitgeist: the quirky and unpleasant realities behind celebrity’s many facades.

“TV and the media has fed and is increasingly feeding –via the Star Channel, People Magazine and the like — on that notion of celebrity. But in a way, it’s no different from the gossip rags of the ’20s and ’30s,” notes festival director Piers Handling. “It’s just that there’s fewer and fewer taboos to where you can go; private life is public.”

As seen through the eyes of a number of the filmmakers featured on this year’s slate, fame comes as many shapes and sizes, as does the shoe gum we get to see underneath. Here are a few to look for:

  • Fashion: The fest’s opener, Denys Arcand’s “Stardom” was filmed as though it was pieced together from various TV shows. In following the rise and fall of a young supermodel played by Jessica Pare, pic explores the obsession with celebrity.

  • Music: What’s it really like to be a ’70s glam-rock band on tour? In Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” Patrick Fugit plays William, a music fan who scores a job following an up-and-coming band on tour (fronted by Billy Crudup and Jason Lee) for Rolling Stone Magazine, and gets an eyeful along the way.

  • Dog Shows: Things can get pretty hairy in the run-up to a canine standoff, as demonstrated in Christopher Guest’s comedy “Best in Show.” Parker Posey, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara head a cast of eccentrics whose pets are pitted against one another at the Mayflower Kennel Club. Pic was ad-libbed and shot in a documentary style.

  • Politics: Rod Lurie’s “The Contender” follows the nasty goings-on as rivals labor to discredit Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) by unearthing some dirt from her past after she becomes the first female vice president. Also starring Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman, the personal becomes very political in this thriller.

  • Chess: “The Luzhin Defense,” directed by Marleen Gorris (“Antonia’s Line”), is about a young chess prodigy’s love and obsession set in 1920s Italy. Based on the Vladimir Nabokov novel of the same title, the John Turturro and Emily Watson starrer offers a wrenching look at stardom and the pressure of performing in public.

“There’s a kind of natural curiosity, a natural voyeurism on the part of audiences, wanting to know what’s going on behind the scenes,” notes Handling.

Our increasingly intrusive interest in the private lives of public figures — most dramatically illustrated by the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky fracas and the media frenzy after Princess Di was killed — has perhaps made us think about the human fragility behind public facades.

“The stardom question has never disappeared,” says international programmer Kay Armatage. “Everybody wants a behind-the-scenes look at stuff. Everybody wants to know who the real stars are.”

The idea of a common film theme is nothing new, of course. “You always find four or five or 10 films coming out that are sort of about the same thing,” Armatage notes. “I think it’s because everybody in the world reads the same scripts”It’s like Marshall McLuhan said,” Armatage adds. “You take in ideas through your skin. So I don’t think it’s any accident that these things happen. To me, it’s more unusual when things come out of nowhere.”

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