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Do We Have the Right to be Frustrated with the Palm Springs Film Festival?

Do We Have the Right to be Frustrated with the Palm Springs Film Festival?

Call it a case of situational ethics. In an American filmgoing environment in which audiences appear increasingly reluctant to shell out for tickets to foreign-language films (a nice woman at a holiday party explained it thusly: “I like reading, but I don’t like reading while watching a movie”) and distributors are becoming pickier over which foreign-language films they will sink limited resources into for marketing and exhibition, an American festival that carves out over 75% of its 187-film program for these very films should be applauded for bravery.

And the Palm Springs International Film Festival, in its 23rd edition and running through Monday January 16, has certainly bucked the tendency among most U.S. festivals — which are exquistely sensitive to the pressures of ticket sales revenues, sponsor and board expectations and audience feedback — of reducing the portion of subtitled films and increasing the slice of presumably audience-friendlier English-language titles. By the metric of sheer international representation, perhaps only Toronto’s and Vancouver’s international festivals surpass Palm Springs in all of North America: 62 countries, ranging from Albania to Jordan, Estonia to Venezuela, with reliably large supplies of titles from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the U.K. and, in a change, a surprising six films from Belgium.

Adding to the international mix this year is a new sidebar on Arab cinema (titled, with a groan, “Arabian Nights”) and, in a dramatic improvement with Mark Cousins (“The Story of Film”) as guest curator, an international selection of archival prints of seldom-seen films by Yasujiro Ozu (his 1947 “Record of a Tenement Gentleman”), Satyajit Ray (“The Goddess” from 1960), Youssef Chanine (1958’s “Cairo Station”) and Souleymane Cisse (“Yeelen” from 1987).

Perhaps more fundamentally, Palm Springs affords audiences with one of the few chances to see films on the big screen carrying laurels of acclaim from Berlin (Michael R. Roskam’s “Bullhead,” Zuzana Liova’s “The House”), Rotterdam (Agusti Villaronga’s “Black Bread”), Cannes (Pablo Giorgelli’s “Las Acacias,” Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Elena,” Nanni Moretti’s “Habemus Papam”), Locarno (Morten Tyldum’s “Headhunters”) and Venice (Kongdei Jaturanrasmee’s “P-047,” Tomas Lunak’s “Alois Nebel,” Vincent Garenq’s “Guilty”). Most of these have little chance of getting distribution, let alone playing anywhere close to where many audiences live. This is an important contribution, especially under today’s nasty conditions.

Even better, the festival’s audience shows up; most screenings are generally between 90-100%, which has usually been the case since I began to attend the festival in 1999. Somewhat less so now than then, this is an audience that also reads (and not only subtitles): Before the lights go down, the generally older audience will commonly be in their seats early and reading the daily newspaper—that’s right, a newspaper. In another throwback, and partly a reflection of many of its print sources, over 50% of the screened films (an estimated 100 of the 187) are presented on reels of 35mm film. From a purely film-versus-digital perspective, Palm Springs represents an interesting case of running against tides.

And then there’s the Oscars

Palm Springs is therefore a curious festival, though not necessarily always for the good. It suffers from two basic problems that its organizers tend not to consider problems at all. As a factor of both the calendar and geography, the festival has been eager to embrace the Oscar season publicity machinery, so enormous particularly in nearby Los Angeles that it virtually threatens to block out the rays of the ubiquitous sun. 

It has done this, firstly, with a fundraising gala for the festival’s local film society. Awards are doled out to a host of awards season contenders—this year they included Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Glenn Close, Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron, Michelle Williams, Gary Oldman, “The Artist” director Michael Hazanavicius, “The Help” star Octavia Spencer, Stephen Daldry and many, many more. 

These prizes (including something called “The Vanguard Award” bestowed on “Young Adult”) are designed only as honey to attract stars to the festival and as a means to promote their awards caliber. (To be sure, Palm Springs isn’t alone among Southern California festivals in January to do this: the Santa Barbara festival also similarly engages in the Oscar bubble, with yet more awards.) Note that virtually none of the honored films actually play in the festival, and that virtually none of the stars are visible outside of the gala cocoon, thus producing a strangely schizoid effect of two festivals functioning in separate parallel universes.

Nearly 25% of the program is devoted to an exhibition of the majority of films submitted to the Oscars’ foreign-language race. It used to be worse: Before it wisely applied some curation to the process, the festival would gather up every possible foreign-language submission it could manage. Now, the field of over 60 submissions is somewhat winnowed. On paper, this sounds wonderful; in reality, it results in a bizarre programming conundrum: The large majority of a typical year’s supply of submissions isn’t terribly good, many of them selected in strange and often highly political ways by those countries’ industry committees and small groups. (This process remains the one zone of the Academy Awards entirely beyond the control of the Academy itself and has never been fully investigated by reporters.)

By the people, for the people

A by-product of the festival’s choice to show these films—by now, so institutionalized that Palm Springs is primarily known on the international festival circuit for this selection—is that it takes space away from far more deserving films, which itself is incredible considering the sheer mass of the program itself. Given that Palm Springs is that conceptually wonderful thing—a festival of festivals—this is a pity.

This factor ties in with the festival’s other key problem, which is that it has become a captive of its audience. Palm Springs’ general tendency is aggressively middlebrow in its taste and sensibilities. The lineup is weighted toward crowdpleasers, comedies and love stories (or at least, films dominated by these tendencies and genres) — a direct result of the festival having studied and researched its core, reliable audience. For every narrative-twisting “P-047” on view, there are many more in the vein of Sameh Zoabi’s jaunty Israeli-Palestinian comedy, “Man Without a Cell Phone.” 

Perhaps understandably: After Sunday’s screening of “P-047,” whose dreamy tale of two unlikely Bangkok house thieves is cunningly and brilliantly structured like a Mobius Strip rather than a straight line, voices in the row behind me grumbled as the credits rolled, “Glad that garbage is over.” 

Former Palm Springs programmers (and filmmakers) have despaired about the hostile receptions that such cutting-edge films such as Carlos Reygadas’ now-legendary debut, “Japon,” have received at the festival. The result can be viewed in two ways: Palm Springs is a shrewd, well-judged management of a lineup designed to appeal to the well-formed sensibilities of the majority of its regular ticket-buying base. Or, Palm Springs has an inability or unwillingness to develop the current and new audiences, perhaps open to different kinds of films but still untapped.

Festivals must be balanced in their approach, if they hope to survive. Palm Springs—and it’s hardly alone in this regard—has visibly allowed the audience to set the terms, resulting in an imbalance toward safe movies. Thus, our situational ethics problem.

With Palm Springs, we can be happy with what we’ve got, because it could be a whole lot worse—no zone for international cinema, just another zone for more indies fighting to be heard. Or, we can be dissatisfied with a festival where international cinema has a prominent showcase where it’s needed most, despite the fact that the best and most vital films of that cinema are less often shown than light-on-the-stomach entertainments. Take your pick.

Robert Koehler is a film critic and programmer. His criticism appears in Variety, Cinema Scope, Cineaste, Film Comment and He has contributed film criticism and writing to Cahiers du Cinema (France and Spain), Die Tagezeitung and the Christian Science Monitor. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics.

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Wil Loy

Consider this: What is the age range of most of the directors of the "safe" films you disparage? And, does describing a film as "horrible" make it "cutting edge"? And do we really need to program even more films for a younger audience?

Darryl Macdonald

I am dumbstruck by Robert Koehler's summation of the PSIFF, not only because it's riddled with misconceptions, inaccurate assumptions and downright falsities – bad enough in and of themselves – but also because he failed to speak to either Artistic Director Helen Du Toit or myself to give us the opportunity to address the issues he raises before writing his ludicrously tepid summation of the Festival and its programming. Robert – who has occasionally programmed for festivals himself, is clearly from the 'ivory tower' school of programming – a fact which has become clear to me through all the years and dealings I've had with him. While he is perfectly entitled – indeed eminently qualified – to provide his own opinions about the merits of individual films, I have some experience in the programming of festivals myself, having 30+ years of experience as a programmer, first as Director of Programming for the Seattle International Film Festival (the most highly attended film festival in the nation), while simultaneously the Director of Programming at the Vancouver Film Festival for four years, the Hamptons Film Festival for three years, and as the Director of Programming of this Festival for it's first 4 years prior to returning here in 2003 to take the reins as Executive Director. I take issue with his overall opinion that the programming of a curated section of official Foreign Language Oscar submissions here "takes away from (the programming of) far more deserving films", particularly given the fact that we've selected 40 films for this section out of a total of 188 features programmed for the 2012 PSIFF. That leaves ample room to present what our 8-person programming team considers a broad, diverse and comprehensive overview of the essential films available to lovers of international cinema this year – minus, of course the films that we may have wanted to play but couldn't – a factor more dependent on the availability of prints, permissions or promises than on any oversight on our part.
Again, we have a programming team of 8 people (myself included, along with Mark Cousins, who programmed this year's beefed up archival selection) who have a diverse range of tastes and bents, the better to provide a broad range of choices to an audience with equally divergent filmic views. From my perspective, that's what a film festival – at least all but the most rigidly thematic film festivals – should have on offer. I've always believed in programming something for everyone – not everything for some ONE. That is how, at least from my perspective, we help to grow an audience for more challenging cinema in this country. But more on that later…

As for the factual misstatements and outright distortions in Koehler's piece:
– We're presenting films from 73 countries, not the 62 he cites
– George Clooney and Gary Oldman both participated in the Festival's Talking Pictures programs following Festival screenings of their films, contrary to his assertion that "virtually none of the stars are visible (at the Festival) outside of the 'gala cocoon'"
– the Festival lineup includes a total of 28 comedies and 6 'black comedies' out of its total of 187 films, contrary to Koehler’s assertion that the Festival is “aggressively middlebrow in its taste and sensibilities… weighted toward crowd pleasers, comedies and love stories". In fact, the Festival program is and is intended to be simply an authoritative reflection of the current international cinema, rather than a reflection of our audience's tastes or "a captive of it's audience" as Koehler puts it. And if there are more comedies, love stories or otherwise audience-friendly films in the international arena this year than recent years, does he dispute that the current cinematic zeitgeist among filmmakers may be leaning in that direction internationally?

Would anyone other than Robert characterize THE TURIN HORSE, BULLHEAD, DIE STANDING UP, BLOOD OF MY BLOOD, ELENA, THE GOOD SON, MICHAEL, GUILTY, IN DARKNESS, THE KID WITH THE BIKE or ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, along with the huge number of other dramas and topical film subjects on view in the Festival lineup as light weight or middlebrow? I think not.

I think that the '90 – 100%' attendance he cites at screenings here, along with the accolades our programming continues to receive from filmgoers and other critics and members of the film industry attending the Festival in growing numbers each year speak for themselves. Perhaps it's time to take a look at your own range of tastes and bents, Robert, and realize that a festival programmed from a single perspective would be a very dull festival indeed.

Michael Medeiros

"Palm Springs — few California locales have undergone a greater demographic shift than this once-famed Hollywood hideaway, for decades a rock-solid Republican region that has quietly become home to thousands of liberal arrivistes."
Michael Medeiros – Bennettparkfilms

Jim Tushinski

I've been attending the PS Film Festival for a good number of years and Mr. Koehler's assessment mirrors my own frustrations and mixed emotions. It is wonderful to see all the foreign films and that there is audience here for that (something you'd never guess the rest of the year). But over the years, the programmers have definitely moved toward lighter fair (especially with protagonists over 60–the audience here lives for the kooky senior citizen movies) and the audience attendance has skyrocketed because of it. This year in line, the over-60 crowd (which is the vast majority of festival goers here in Palm Springs) has been saying how much they have enjoyed the films this year. This is a distinct difference from past years when it was all about how horrible some of the films were. Too much swearing…too much sex…too much violence…too many depressing movies. No one has ever come to the PSIFF looking for cutting edge cinema, but it has really become a populist film festival over the last 5 years, driven almost entirely by what keeps its core audience comfortable and entertained.

Karen B.

I refuse to go to festivals that showcase awards, galas and celebrities over the films. It's sad because Palm Springs could be a great place for a festival. But this one looks like its licking the behind of award season and serving 'soft' easy-to-digest films for the old people in the community. It doesn't take risks.

Doug Frerichs

I was at that screening of P-047 too, and I wasn't surprised at that response by the audience. I'm not saying that I was with them, but rather I knew they would react that way.

I have no doubt that the festival leans towards those more light-hearted and commercially enjoyable films is because of the audience. From my experience at the festival, the more elderly-inclined audience for sure enjoys the more light-hearted flicks, and are excited to see something related to the oscars. I wonder how the structure of the film selection when or if the demographics of the audience changes significantly

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