Although Vermont is a rural, sparsely populated place, it had a larger-than-life presence at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival. The Green Mountain State figures in the plots of a few movies and is actually home to actors -- and one director -- associated with several other selections. So there was a bit of geographical synchronicity at the prestigious, 10-day extravaganza.
Thank You for Smoking is a sharp satire about the tobacco industry that stars William H. Macy, a Goddard College graduate with a getaway cabin in Woodbury. He plays a Birkenstock-wearing, maple-syrup-promoting U.S. Senator from Vermont, "where the cheddar is better," according to a poster in his office. This cheese winds up playing a pivotal role in the character's campaign to put a poison label on every cigarette pack.
Macy's real-life wife is Felicity Huffman, who once spent summers in Burlington with the Atlantic Theater Company and just earned an Emmy for her work in "Desperate Housewives" on ABC. She gives a remarkable performance as a man in the process of becoming a woman in Transamerica, an absorbing indie.
Eugene Hutz, a resettled Ukrainian refugee who came of age in the Queen City and now lives in the Big Apple, appears in Everything Is Illuminated. He's hilarious as a malapropism-prone hipster guiding an American visitor (Elijah Wood of Frodo Baggins fame) on a quest to understand his grandfather's Old World legacy. The film is touching and funny in equal measure.
Luis Guzman of Sutton can be found in Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, the tale of an underdog racehorse that I didn't catch. Neverwas, which I did see but wish otherwise, concerns a man seeking information about a children's fantasy book written by his late father. The younger guy's love interest, portrayed by the always annoying Brittany Murphy, mentions that she's been living in Vermont. God help us.
The idea that God's on our side as a nation is an unmentioned subtext of Why We Fight, by Mad River Valley resident Eugene Jarecki. After winning a top award at Sundance, his stunning documentary about America's wars wowed Toronto audiences. Jarecki attended the Canadian fest with wife Claudia Becker, who heads the annual MountainTop Film Festival in Waitsfield -- which will host the film's Vermont premiere in January.
Why We Fight would make an ideal double bill with Winter Soldier, screening at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier on September 21 and 22. Shot by 18 filmmakers, it chronicles a three-day 1971 hearing held by disillusioned Vietnam vets, including Norwich native Rusty Sachs. "We were a loosely organized bunch of kids trying to find a way to do something meaningful to end the war," he says. "We thought that the American people should know what was going on there in their name."
Sachs, now 61, signed up with the Marines as a helicopter pilot in the late 1960s. At the gathering -- which also spotlighted his friend John Kerry -- veterans testified about atrocities they either committed or witnessed. Sachs offered some secondhand accounts. "I have friends and colleagues who told me about flying missions in which bound and gagged Vietnamese prisoners were tossed out of airplanes," Sachs notes.
In a subsequent D.C. antiwar demonstration captured on camera, the disaffected group, which went by the name "Winter Soldiers," tossed away their ribbons and medals in honor of fallen comrades. "I was sobbing," Sachs recalls of his own experience on the steps of the Capitol building, which is included in the wrenching footage.
A graduate of Harvard University who also attended Vermont Law School, he now runs the National Association of Flight Instructors, which requires a regular commute from Norwich to Wisconsin.
As Bush was preparing to invade Iraq, Sachs says he thought, "Something stinks here," and "Oh, my God. Not again!"
As the leaves begin to turn, the Key Sunday Cinema Club resumes. The fall-winter series begins on September 25 and runs through early January, presenting seven sneak previews at Burlington's Roxy Theatre. Attending the films -- most of them as yet unreleased -- is a little like going to a surprise party: the titles remain a mystery until members show up at each 10:30 a.m. session.
"We'll bring in primarily English-language fare because that's what the distributors put out there in autumn," says Andrew Mencher, operations director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization. "It's aimed at awards consideration."
The local chapter is among eight locations around the country with cinema clubs, which foster discussions and encourage audience feedback on comment cards that helps distributors evaluate their marketing plans.
For more details, visit http://www.keysundaycinemaclub.com or call toll-free 1-888-467-0404.