Commentary & Opinion
12:25 pm
Mon September 23, 2013

Rob Edelman: What Is Hot?

Before and during the recently-concluded Toronto Film Festival, I found myself inundated with emails drawing my attention to a range of films. None were hyping the titles with major movie stars and Oscar possibilities. The publicists of these films likely were turning away journalists who craved one-on-one interviews with a Meryl Streep, a Brad Pitt, or a Julia Roberts.

Instead, publicists were campaigning for media coverage with such email subject lines as “MEDIA ALERT,” “Media alert and coverage request,” “Interview opportunities,” “Filmmakers Available,” and “Screening Reminder.” One encouraged scribes to come see “The Doc Film Everyone...is Talking About.” Another suggested that writers “Take 96 min. to watch one of the gems of the festival.” None of these “gems” were such high-profile titles as 12 YEARS A SLAVE, LABOR DAY, GRAVITY, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, THE FIFTH ESTATE, PRISONERS, or AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY.

The “news” that emerged from the festival centered on such questions as: Is 12 YEARS A SLAVE worthy of all its pre-festival hype? (Well, the answer here is an unequivocal “yes.” The film even earned the festival’s People’s Choice Award, chosen by Toronto audiences as their favorite festival film.) 

And what about a film like DALLAS BUYERS CLUB? Like 12 YEARS A SLAVE, the fact-based story of a free black man who is kidnapped into slavery in the 1840s, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a tough sell for mainstream audiences. It also is fact-based, and is the tale of a Texas redneck-turned AIDS activist. Matthew McConaughey is the star. According to various reports, he shed between 35 and 50 pounds to play the lead character, and he just may emerge with an Oscar nomination. So will two of his co-stars: Jared Leto, cast as an AIDS-afflicted drag queen, and Jennifer Garner, playing a sympathetic doctor.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a fine film and it focuses on a deadly serious issue, but it earns its hype because of its stars and built-in pedigree. However, plenty of other films also pointedly and potently deal with serious subject matter. But they will not earn the kind of press that DALLAS BUYERS CLUB will because they are documentaries or foreign-language titles, or they do not feature actors with the pedigree of a Matthew McConaughey.

One such film screened in Toronto is IN REAL LIFE, a fascinating, informative documentary directed by Beeban Kidron. IN REAL LIFE explores a 21st-century phenomenon: addiction to the Internet. Today, teenagers constantly are checking their electronic devices but are not thinking about what they are doing, who they are in contact with, or how this is impacting their behavior and their world view.

Kidron asks some critical questions: Have we outsourced our children to the Internet? Is the Internet transforming young people into zombie consumers? Are kids spending more time with their friends online than in real life? As a result, is meaningful human connection somehow lost? Kidron interviews a range of individuals, from teen boys who are addicted to online porn to two young people who feel as if they are in a “relationship,” even though they never have met. Their only contact has been online. She also explores the manner in which web sites are designed to lure users into returning to them and how an individual’s history is archived by private companies for commercial purposes. In other words, is the Internet about making connections? Or is it about marketing?

IN REAL LIFE is a film that deserves to be seen and pondered, but it likely will not earn the kind of exposure that it deserves because it was not made by Michael Moore.

IN REAL LIFE is, indeed, a very sobering reflection of, well, real life. One evening while in Toronto, I attended a festival-related party in one of the city’s clubs. And here, so many of those present were not conversing, or dancing to the live band, or otherwise socializing. Instead, they were standing off by themselves, in their own isolated little worlds, composing and sending messages on their electronic devices.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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