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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 Filmjourney.org. 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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