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Another Fall Of Festivals (A 2010 Preview of Sorts)

Another Fall Of Festivals (A 2010 Preview of Sorts)

Is there anything more tired than the current state of film festival coverage? As this blog slowly pushes its way through its sixth year, I can’t help but look at the flow of the days and feel both excited and a little bored with the inevitability of it all; here we go again. Again. The internet carries the feeling forward; the same people attending the same events, writing everything from serious criticism of the general state of film festivals to a blow-by-blow account of their own fabulous social calendar (“dinner with X and Y… what a night!”). Much has been written (okay, Tweeted, but that counts… right?) about a recent piece by Girish Shambu that calls the Toronto Film Festival to the (red) carpet for a lack of seriousness and a lack of commitment in providing cinematic context through an archival program (I hope that’s a fair summary). The comments that follow highlight a back and forth between the festival’s defenders (few) and detractors (many) as well as those who invoke other events around the world as examples of failure and success. It’s a fascinating conversation, one made even more so by its complete lack of anything approaching a practical understanding of actually programming a film festival.

I won’t repost the long conversation, but I highly recommend it as an important read that highlights, for me anyway, the exhausting disconnect between the academic demand that a festival inform and educate and build appreciation for cinema and the complete disregard for successful, practical strategies for making it so. Anyone who believes that a festival should program only the best and “most important” films (as if they were determined a priori) alongside a curated tour through a programmer’s singular vision of what is “important” in film history is proposing an event that discounts the wide variety of taste and interest among international audiences. More importantly, it seems to me that the most critical of commenters are living in a fantasy world where only one kind of festval is valuable; the ideal, utopian one that they themselves would program. To read some of these comments, you’d think Jean-Luc Godard is personally handing out prints of his new film, if only anyone would care enough about cinema to show them. The way the film business actually works is completely absent from the conversation.

I wake up every day alert to the fear that I live in a world where film programming, a fun and wonderful job if I do say so myself, is perceived as the lowest form of curation, with film the lowest of the “fine arts”; in the age of the Netflix queue, anyone with an opinion can program, right? It has raised the question in my own thinking; is there such a thing as a professional film programmer? Because I see myself as one and I am worried I am deluded. What is the meaning and value of my labor? As with any cultural work, the ability of people who don’t know the job to armchair quarterback their way through a litany of complaints as they build their dream event seems to me dismissive of not only the economic and civic responsibilities of being a film programmer, but of the diversity of audiences themselves. To dimiss their interests in favor of your own canon of what is “important” is a fast way to ensure empty theaters. This gives me the distinct impression that these critics see the dream of programming their own tastes as presenting pearls before swine; education and film culture is incredibly important, but it is also multifaceted, and I think it is incredibly condescending to think that there is a single, “best of all possible worlds” way to program. Especially in a public, state-sponsored event like Toronto, which honors the diversity of Canadian audiences; Toronto has so many films and so much to enjoy and envy, I just rub my eyes in disbelief when I see people leveraging criticism against such a vast and vibrant event. Yes, volume brings hits and misses, but can’t we live with the fact that not every movie is for us, and that this, in spite of our faith in our own tastes and informed opinions, is part of what makes a film festival great?

I could go on all day about this, but I want to talk about the movies I am excited to see, so let me leave you all with this anecdote, told to me by Werner Herzog as he offered praise for the courage of film programmers. One year, and my memory escapes me as to which, Herzog was invited to co-program the Viennale. The filmmaker seized the opportunity and included a large retrospective of the films of Jean Rouch, whose films Herzog admires very much. Herzog invited Rouch to attend, and programmed a celebratory evening honoring the director in an 1800 seat theater. The date arrived for ‘An Evening with Jean Rouch’, where Herzog and Rouch were to talk about Rouch’s career after a screening of the seminal Les Maîtres fous. Before they walked on stage, Werner told me that he peeked out from behind the curtain and, to his horror, saw less than 40 people in the theater. The show went on. Herzog vowed to leave Austria, and soon did. Nothing like the reality of indifference to throw a cold glass of water on what you love.

On to a personal preview of a dozen films I am excited to see, presented to you in three dimensional, high definition alphabetical order…

Aurora by Cristi Puiu
Seeing It: The New York Film Festival

Cristi Puiu’s The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu ranked in my personal top 3 movies of the past decade, so it should come as no surprise that I am dying to catch up with Aurora, his new film. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Romanian cinema is the most consistent and excellent in the world right now and I don’t expect Puiu to be the one to break the streak. Of course, critical reaction has been obsessed with the film’s length (again, length says nothing about quality– it’s what you do with the time given that matters) and the fact that “nothing happens”, which leads to “boredom”. How about this corker from the late Peter Brunette, writing in The Hollywood Reporter:

“These days young Romanian directors seem to be indulging in a frenzied round of macho competition: How long can we baffle and bore the audience before we deliver the goods? How much will they take before walking out? It must be said immediately that the goods are, in fact, always delivered at the end of the best of these films, and that’s wonderfully true in Aurora as well. But what do we have to go through to get there?”

That sounds like an average Saturday night at my house, which is probably why I respond so strongly to the dark, absurdist nature of so much of Romanian cinema. The trailer is pretty great as well, and I can’t wait to see this film on the big screen inside the dark of the Walter Reade.

Black Swan by Darren Aronofsky
Seeing It: Toronto Film Festival

I was all in for this one before the movie started getting pretty great reviews in Venice; but now, I’m dying to see it. The trailer reminds me of a cross between The Turning Point and François Ozon’s Ricky, which, you know, amazing and say no more. Add in Darren Aronofsky who, I would argue, has made nothing but engaging movies from the word go (haters of Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain will find no harbor here) and what looks to be an amazing performance from Natalie Portman, and what’s not to like? I mean, aside from the guy in the NY Times who wrote:

Black Swan takes us into the ballet world and explores the huge physical and emotional demands it makes on a star performer. So, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes revisited? Not quite. The Red Shoes was, of course, inspired by a fairy tale, a story full of colorful fantasy, set in a sophisticated, glamorous, international world of grand hotels and limousines, tracing the trajectory of a prima ballerina at the height of her career spiraling toward a tragic end.” —RODERICK CONWAY MORRIS, The New York Times

Um, that’s not really what I think of when I think of The Red Shoes; if anyone suffers, it’s Lermontov, the genius director whose desire to see Victoria Page dance the greatest roles is destroyed by her drippy romance with a young, selfish, moody composer. The idea that Victoria dies for her art after working so hard is not what The Red Shoes is about; it’s about a woman trapped between her love of her work and the egotism of her husband’s love. Anyone who watches that movie and doesn’t end up thinking Lermontov is the right answer doesn’t understand creative work. But anyway, enough about how Black Swan isn’t The Red Shoes, just watch the trailer and tell me this doesn’t look like a lot of fun!

Boxing Gym by Frederick Wiseman
Seeing It:The New York Film Festival

Do I really need to type anything here? It’s Wiseman. It’s boxing. I am guaranteed to love it, so why waste time hyping this movie? I am throughly convinced that Wiseman will be remembered as the greatest documentarian of all time. So, he could make a film called Reading The Phonebook and I’d drool and run to it in a Pavlovian response. Does that make me lazy or insane? I have no idea, I just know myself well enough to know that this movie will be something I love. All over it.

Carlos by Olivier Assayas
Seeing It: The New York Film Festival (fingers crossed)

A scheduling conflict is threatening my ability to see Carlos which, at this point, is the one movie this year that I will be seeing come hell or high water (and probably more than once.) This 5-plus-hour (length!! It’s long! Oooh!) film (originally made for French television) tells the story of Carlos The Jackal, a figure who has always fascinated me. Carlos’ horrific actions in the 1970’s seem to exist as part in an alternate universe to my early years; the entire European leftist terrorist world seems insane to me, an example of everything that went wrong with the youthful idealism of the 1960’s. I’ve seen so many films that tackle this period, but none of them made by Olivier Assayas who holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite filmmakers. On paper, this is a movie I will adore; and the word of mouth on it is so strong that I fear my expectations will crush the film’s ability to surprise me. This is #1 on my list, top of the heap, the big kahuna. Fan boy nerd? Yes, but why not?

Meek’s Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt
Seeing It:The New York Film Festival

Did you see Blue Valentine yet? Have you watched Michelle Williams lately? She is, as of this typing, my favorite American actress; an unbelievably moving performer who leaves it all on the line in movie after movie, inhabiting her characters with such richness that you can’t help but feel whatever it is she’s feeling in the moment. I think she is horribly under appreciated by most people, and so when I read that she was re-teaming with Kelly Reichardt (another American director who hasn’t made a bad movie EVER) to make a western, my heart jumped; I LOVE westerns, even the shitty ones with slapstick in them. The idea of Kelly Reichardt tackling the genre with an amazing cast of women, well, I can’t help but be dying to see it. Throw in Michelle Williams and the movie jumps into the top of my must-see list. It looks like a good year for revising the genre; the Coen Brother’s True Grit is another movie I’ll be running to see. But knowing in advance that Reichardt + Williams + Western is an actual equation, I am really excited to get my eyes on this movie.

Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff

Nostalgia For The Light by Patricio Guzmán
Seeing It: Toronto Film Festival

Chile. Allende. Pinochet. September 11, 1973. Mass graves. Astronomy.

Which one of the above doesn’t seem to fit? Yeah, I was kind of taken aback as well, but the premise for Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia For The Light jumped off the page for me. Let me re-print the program notes from Toronto, because this movie just snuck up on me and, based on its premise alone, kicked my ass:

“Veteran director Patricio Guzmán, famed for his political documentaries on Allende’s Chile and the subsequent coup by Pinochet, travels to an entirely new environment for his latest film. Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. For astronomers its high altitude and lack of humidity provide the ideal atmosphere to peer into space, to look into the past and attempt to answer questions about the origins of stars, galaxies and the universe. The desert also provides an exemplary climate for the work of archaeologists, as the dryness prevents rotting and mummifies specimens intact. It is from here that Guzmán explores the importance to his country of the persistence of memory. Near the astronomers’ telescopes, which detect the oldest light in the universe, a group of women sift through the sand searching for any evidence of their loved ones. Hidden in the desert floors are the bones and body parts of the “disappeared” – remnants of the crimes of Pinochet’s dictatorship. By juxtaposing the quest of the astronomers with that of the grieving but determined women, Guzmán’s intimate and insightful documentary forces us to ask why, in a country where people are trying to determine what happened millions of light years ago, is there so much resistance to confronting the turmoil of the past forty years?”

I mean, that’s must-see stuff for me.

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow by Sophie Fiennes
Seeing It: Toronto Film Festival

I love Sophie Fiennes’ work and have been fortunate enough to program her past two films, The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema and VSPRS Show And Tell, at The Sarasota Film Festival. But this new movie looks like another leap forward entirely; a profile of the artist Anselm Kiefer, whose industrial works are brilliant and speak powerfully to me, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is a meditation on Kiefer’s process and ideas, and it looks absolutely amazing. I am very much looking forward to re-connecting with the artist and the filmmaker. There aren’t nearly enough non-fiction filmmakers working in the world of arts and ideas in a non-didactic way, but after the non-stop verbal of analysis of Slavoj Zizek in The Pervert’s Guide, Sophie has gone on to make VSPRS which mixes performance with behind -the-scenes, observational filmmaking and now Over Your Cities, which will be one of the first movies I see in Toronto. She is fast becoming one of my favorite non-fiction filmmakers; I only wish more documentary filmmaking would let go of tropes of fictional storytelling in favor of, well, this:

Poetry by Lee Chang Dong
Seeing It: New York Film Festival

If there is any movie in the past few years that has blown me away and gone on to zero distribution in the USA it is Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine; I consider the fact that this movie has never had a theatrical or home video release in here in America to be a grave injustice. It is a towering movie, one of the best of 2007 and now, it seems doomed to be lost to American audiences forever. That is a fucking tragedy if you ask me. While I cry over spilled milk, I at least have Lee’s new film Poetry to bring me comfort. And not only that, but Kino International has already picked it up for distribution, which only further cements my deep respect for that terrific company. While Poetry promises to be one of the highlights of the autumn, it only makes me want to dig a little and find a print of Secret Sunshine to play on principle. Here is a clip from the new film

Post Mortem by Pablo Larrain
Seeing It: The New York Film Festival

Two words for you: Tony Manero. If you know it, I can leave it at that and we can hold hands and look one another in the eye and say “holy shit! oh my god! this is going to be awesome!” If you don’t know Tony Manero, you have now been notified; get to the Netflixin’!. No movie has stayed with me like this one; as long as I live I will never get it out of my head.

Pablo Larrain, who wrote and directed Tony Manero, returns with Post Mortem, once again starring the amazing Alfredo Castro (yes!) as a mortician’s assistant who is infatuated with his neighbor, a burlesque performer. The movie is, like Tony Manero set in Chile in the early 1970’s (about which, see my description of Nostalgia For The Light above) and as such, I am instantly drawn to both the subject matter and, obviously, to the creative talent involved. One thing that tickled me is this sentence from the Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s description of the film:

“Set in 1973 in the last days of Salvador Allende’s presidency, the film stars Tony Manero lead Alfredo Castro (here sporting a mane of long, whitish-blond hair) as Mario…”

What I love about that is the mention of Castro’s hairstyle because, given the actor’s unbelievable screen presence, you know right away that shit is going to be funny and that Castro will deadpan the shit out of it. I’m laughing already. I see that the film is not playing Toronto, which is interesting to me; Larrain is a true revelation as a filmmaker, and this is one movie that I probably will be killing myself to get down to Sarasota. But if it’s not playing Toronto, maybe it’s a tough one to get your hands on.

Le Quattro Volte by Michelangelo Frammartino
Seeing It:The New York Film Festival

The description sits squarely in my wheelhouse:

“An old shepherd lives his last days in a quiet medieval village perched high on the hills of Calabria, at the southernmost tip of Italy. He herds goats under skies that most villagers have deserted long ago. He is sick, and believes to find his medicine in the dust he collects on the church floor, which he drinks in his water every day. A new goat kid is born. We follow its first few tentative steps, its first games, until it gains strength and goes to pasture. Nearby, a majestic fir tree stirs in the mountain breeze and slowly changes through the seasons. Le quattro volte is a poetic vision of the revolving cycles of life and nature and the unbroken traditions of a timeless place. The story of one soul that moves through four successive lives.”

Just based on the premise and what I’ve heard about the film from people I generally trust, this one seems the most likely of the bunch to be a true masterpiece. My Italian is shit, but the trailer is so amazing (kids playing King Of The Mountain? um, yes please), I can’t avoid dreaming about what this movie will be when I finally get to experience it.

Rabbit Hole by John Cameron Mitchell
Seeing It: Toronto Film Festival

John Cameron Mitchell directs Nicole Kidman in an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning stage play by David Lindsay-Abaire. I don’t want to say too much, but obviously, as the parent of a two-year old boy, this movie pretty much represents my absolute worst possible nightmare, so I can’t imagine how I will cope with the film. I have been having a really hard time with films about children in peril or who suffer, breaking down constantly and racheting up my own parental anxiety. But movies can be a great cathartic tool, and frankly, John Cameron Mitchell has never worked on anything that hasn’t brought me to tears at one point or another. I am really interested to see where this one goes, if it is more in the vein of Birth (what’s up with Nicole Kidman and imperiled children?) or something more conventional. Either way, I’ve been looking forward to this one for some time now, and I can’t wait to see it.

Sadly, I couldn’t find a trailer for the movie, so here is a trailer for the 2009 Arcadia High School Production of the stage play. Enjoy!

The Social Network by David Fincher
Seeing It: The New York Film Festival

David Fincher has made some of the my favorite films (let me leave it at that… if I start talking about Zodiac I could type all night…) so when i read that he was making “The Facebook Movie” I got a little nervous. How could he possibly make a film about a social website? Don’t get me wrong, I am completely addicted to Facebook myself and am fascinated by the changes in my life it has wrought; the ability to connect in real time with people I work with, am related to or haven’t seen or heard from in years, is a truly incredible phenomenon that has made the world a much, much smaller place. It also sometimes reminds me of the pleasures of falling out of touch; I can barely talk to anyone about my life today without having them tell me they already read it on Facebook– it must happen once a day. Even my wife, sitting across from me in the living room, will sometimes get on her laptop only to look up and ask me a question about my day, something about what she found on my Profile page. It’s at once scary and fascinatingly great.

So, in the hands of David Fincher, I expect the story of the company’s birth and meteoric rise to thematically engage these dilemmas; I get the feeling that The Social Network will be one of the movies of and about these times, something that will serve as a generational touchstone the same way, oh, say, All The President’s Men captured the 1970’s*** . This could be the movie of our moment and I expect nothing less than greatness from Fincher. If anyone can deliver, he will.

Here’s the trailer (featuring a great version of Radiohead’s Creep). Feel free to post it to your profile.

I promise to report back from the festivals on Twitter (follow me @BRM) and on the blog, where I hope to make time to write down my thoughts on these and many other films. See you in the cinema and thanks for taking the time to check in.

*** September 5, 2010: I just read Scott Foundas’ piece on The Social Network and I see that he has drawn a comparison between this film and All The President’s Men. I had not read that when this was written; it looks like we are of the same mind about zeitgeist defining 1970’s films that seem to inspire David Fincher.

**** September 20, 2010– Just found out this past week that Secret Sunshine will be getting a release in the USA via IFC Films, coming in December 2010. Very happy and excited.

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