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Peter saw his first movie when he was just a little boy, and has never gotten over that experience.

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Toronto Day Four

Posted September 09, 2008

Every Little Step

Every Little Step

One of my favorite things is to ride the elevators of the fancier hotels--The Four Seasons, Hotel Intercontinental, or Park Hyatt--if just to eavesdrop on the conversations. Any number of young, handsome men poured tightly into immaculate black Prada suits whisper the names that will roll by on the credits of the films I'll see this week. It is not so much the gossip I love--although I love good festival dish--as feeling the vast subterranean economic engine that hums just beneath a festival like this. Every now and then, in an elevator or in a hotel hallway, or getting into a taxi, one sees evidence of the army of corporate, regional and personal publicists, agents and managers, acquisition and production executives, party and event planners, marketing teams, etc. The massive and covert operations that are attached to the festival produce in many--or at least in me--a sense of awe and anxiety, a fear that there is always something more interesting, important and influential happening somewhere else. All of this baggage, while necessary, makes the simple creative pleasure of just putting on a show seem downright naïve.

But two very different films here pay tribute to the pains and pleasures of performance. James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo documentary Every Little Step chronicles the casting process behind restaging the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line, a musical about casting a musical. The original musical came from chorographer/director Michael Bennett who in the early 70s gathered 20 or so dancers in a room with a big jug of red wine and a reel-to-reel tape recorder and asked them to talk about themselves. Even then he knew the show would be called A Chorus Line, and it would be work-shopped from the real stories and people around him. The documentary, which follows the men and women trying out of the revival, not only know the musical, they all feel it is in some ways their own story. The film falls into that noble tradition of documentaries covering the theatrical process, most notably Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker 1997 Moon Over Broadway. The weird meta quality of the characters trying out for characters whose stories could be their own makes the pain and pleasures of the performers auditioning all the more poignant. One of the most remarkable moments comes not from a character who has hung in there month after month, call back after call back, but from a single audition for the role of Paul, the kid in A Chorus Line who relates how his family found him doing drag at the Jewel Box Revue one night. After auditioning hundreds of possible Pauls, the producers are introduced to a kid who delivers a performance that makes the search for Paul no longer unnecessary. It is like watching magic on stage, suddenly out of nowhere, exactly the right actor.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Kevin Smith also remembers the pure joy of putting on a show in his comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Best friends and fellow slackers Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks have fallen on hard times with no clue how to come up with the money to pay not only the rent, but also the water, electrical and heat that has been turned off. The answer comes to them at their high school reunion when Banks' high school crush, Bobby Long (Brandon Routh of Superman) shows up with his boyfriend (Justin Long), both of whom are superstars of the gay porn world. Eventually they decide they too can make tons of money by having sex with strangers and getting others to do the same thing in front of camera. Utterly filthy and deeply endearing, Porno turns into both a traditional love story and stirring anthem to the ennobling effect of creativity. The rag-tag team of mall rats that Zack and Miri gather to be their cast and crew find that the pleasure of performance gives them a self-worth they had never known. As well as finding a porn talent within they never knew they had.

Three Blind Mice

Three Blind Mice

Once you start thinking of performance and theatricality, you began to see it in every character and every film. The complicated role of an informant pretending to be something to his friends and families other than what he is. Kari Skogland's Fifty Dead Men Walking recalls the true-life story of Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess), a small-time con man recruited by British intelligence to learn about bombs and assassinations of the IRA before they happen. It was a performance of truly life-altering proportions. And then there is the performance of deceit, as in Adrian Sitaru's Hooked, the Romanian Dogma-styled drama of a couple having an affair who accidentally hit a street prostitute on a country road. Thinking she is dead, the couple tries to dump the body in the woods when their supposedly dead girl suddenly wakes up. What to do? Deliver an inept performance as a happy couple on a picnic who have just found the body. And in the traditional of sailors on leave--think On the Town meets The Last Detail--there is the costumed and institutional performance of the military man. Australian talent Matthew Newton (who also wrote and stars the film) dramatizes the one night misadventures of three sailors on the eve of being shipped off to Iraq in Three Blind Mice. This is a theatrical tour de force as two of the sailors take off to find the third whom they fear is deserting. Of course, as the night slowly turns into dawn, the real story, and the characters behind it, turn out to be completely different than what you expect. And once again, while costumes can help actors find characters, the uniform does not make the man.