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Critical Consensus: The Locarno Critics Academy Breaks Down the 2012 Festival

Critical Consensus: The Locarno Critics Academy Breaks Down the 2012 Festival

Critical Consensus is a biweekly column in which critics discuss new releases or events in the film world. In this special edition, Indiewire critic Eric Kohn moderates a discussion with the eight participants in the 2012 Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for college-age film critics that took place over the past two weeks during the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The participants in the following discussion are Michael Nordine (USA), Ari Gunnar Thorsteinsson (Iceland/Sweden), Adam Cook (Canada), Giovanni Vimercati aka Celluloid Liberation Front (Italy), Beatrice Behn (Germany), Claudia Piwecki (Italy), Marc Menichini (Italy) and Zeba Blay. Links to the work they published during the festival can be found throughout the conversation; an organized list of their writing can be found here.

Let’s begin by discussing the Golden Leopard winner, Jean Claude Brisseau’s “The Girl From Nowhere.” Some of you were surprised by this decision.

MICHAEL NORDINE: It had a cheap look to it. It seems like it must have been a consensus choice [by the jury]. I just can’t see people feeling really strongly about that film.

ARI GUNNAR THORSTEINSSON: The only thing I find interesting about it is that it fits so well into the theme I feel has been developed throughout the festival of horror coming out of romantic relationships. “The Girl From Nowhere,” along with “Jack and Diane,” is probably the most literal interpretation of that theme. But I still think it’s a pretty poorly made film. It looks like it was edited in Windows Moviemaker.

COOK: Well, that’s true, especially after Brisseau’s other movies, which are more aesthetically refined. But it’s fitting with the film’s overall stripped-down, very personal and intimate approach.

NORDINE: “The Shine of Day” was very stripped down, but it still looks nice. “The Girl From Nowhere” looks like it was shot on a camcorder at times. That doesn’t add anything.

COOK: I wouldn’t say that detracts from it.

NORDINE: It did for me.

So which film would you have awarded the Golden Leopard instead?

NORDINE: I would have given it to “Leviathan.” No question.

THORSTEINSSON: I liked “Leviathan,” it’s something worth seeing. I was a bit ambivalent going out of it, but the images have stuck with me more than I anticipated they would. My favorite thing in competition is “Compliance,” but I figured that wouldn’t win because it has already been discussed and hyped up before Locarno.

COOK: I would’ve given it to “Leviathan” as well.

CELLULOID LIBERATION FRONT: I have a problem with “Leviathan.” I did like it. The imagery is very impressive and strong, but it does not register the human factor of the actions it captures. It’s totally an aesthetic work that does not convey any human aspects of the activity it’s showing, which is fishing.

NORDINE: But that’s because they’re only part of this big thing. The movie is so industrial that they’re just cogs in this big machine. There’s one scene where you’re watching this fisherman watch a movie play on DVD for several minutes until he falls asleep. Every time you see these men, you think, “This must be hell on their bodies.”

COOK: You almost feel the physical pain.

CLF: I don’t agree. What I didn’t feel was the physical pain, the fatigue, the loneliness of being in the middle of the sea. Because it’s one of the few jobs of our post-industrial world where most work is immaterial, it would have been constructive to show the sweat, the fatigue.

BEATRICE BEHN: I looked at it more as an industrial film as an aesthetic choice. I thought it was an interesting film in terms of film history, because it’s the second stage of having the camera unchained. There was a point when cameras could be moved around for the first time. They could have the first tracking shots. For me, this is a new, huge step. I saw framing and images I’d never seen before. It blew me away. I found myself with the POV of a fish. It’s a dead fish surrounded by other dead fish! I felt miserable. That was mind-blowing.

CLAUDIA PIWECKI: If you had included more humanity in it, you would have had to use more words. But that’s not really part of it.

COOK: It doesn’t have to be dialogue-based. I think it’s trying to abstract the experience and make it strange to us.

CLF: And what’s the purpose of abstracting it? I see what you mean, but I didn’t get it.

COOK: It’s something new. What that means, I can’t tell you. It’s a sensory experience more in line with Stan Brakhage.

BEHN: It just shows incredible possibilities that no one has even tried before. I want to see more documentaries like this.

NORDINE: And what makes that even more impressive is that so much of the time they’re literally just throwing cameras around and letting them go in and out of the water. It’s kind of rudimentary, but the results are incredible.

THORSTEINSSON: It does have my favorite shot of the festival, when the camera comes out of the water and captures the seagulls flying upside down. That is incredible to watch. I’m not passionately against it, as I am with “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” I don’t understand why anyone likes that.

BEHN: I liked that film.

PIWECKI: I liked it, too. It was one of my favorites.

COOK: So did I. So you’re outnumbered!

NORDINE: I liked the opening sequence, but from there it seemed like another cutesy, ironic American independent more into its own aesthetic and characters than in trying to say anything.

THORSTEINSSON: It doesn’t have any emotional connection to anything. I also think it’s casually misogynistic toward the female characters. Jess Wexler has a totally useless nude scene. It just infuriated me. It has ironic distance from its own ironic existence. I’ve said this more than once.

Next page: How does the festival environment affect the type of reactions a film receives?

These are all movies that will receive more attention at film festivals than anywhere else. Mike, you wrote a lot about the festival environment, from the choice of the opening-night film to the bizarre thing that people chant from the back of the room at press screenings. Having now covered a festival for an intense two-week period, how do you feel about festival coverage in general?

NORDINE: I kind of don’t trust it. It can be really extreme sometimes, like when “The Tree of Life” premiered at Cannes last year and the story was that people booed it. It’s a select group of people who don’t always reflect how a film will perform beyond the festival. We were talking about “Ape,” which won a special mention from one Locarno jury and an emerging directing prize from another. I was going along with that movie for certain moments but for the most part I just thought it was bad.

BEHN: It was really bad. I do not understand that decision. If you give a prize like that, you have to really believe in your decision. There was hardly anyone watching this film. Some people left, a lot were asleep. I would have walked out if I hadn’t been writing a piece about it.

NORDINE: I think it’s great that festivals can put films like this on people’s radars. It’s awesome that something like “Leviathan” is one of the most talked-about films here. But it still raises the question of not believing everything you hear from festivals.

Zeba, you wrote about a number of films here that had already played in theaters elsewhere, like “Ruby Sparks” and “Bachelorette.” Did the festival provide a different sort of context for them?

ZEBA BLAY: When you’re working in this environment, you become very aware of the fact that a lot of people are writing about the same thing. I reviewed “Ruby Sparks” and “Bachelorette,” so when I wrote about them together, it was a lot more satisfying to look at them in a different way. Those two movies, as well as “Magic Mike,” were very interesting choices for Locarno’s Piazza Grande section. I was surprised to see them there and was trying to figure out what made these films relevant for people who haven’t seen them yet.

THORSTEINSSON: “Ruby Sparks” definitely didn’t seem like something I would have been interested in. But it played the same night as “Magic Mike” and both dealt with fantastical representations of the sexes. I was really interested in seeing how it would play with the audience. The Piazza is an outdoor section of the festival that seats 8,000 people. In another context, I would have thought “Ruby Sparks” was dumb and innocuous, but with all those people, it made me look at it a different way.

Along similar lines, the festival provides a new context for older films. Adam, since you wrote about the new “History of Cinema” section at Locarno, how do you think that addition impacted the festival?

COOK: I think one of the most important things a festival can do is not only show what’s new but bring attention to films we’ve forgotten or that are underappreciated and allow them to share the same stage as these other films people are talking about. The Otto Preminger retrospective is really important; a lot of the films they showed aren’t available commercially. It’s not just the films but how they’re shown. Last night, seeing “Bonjour Tristesse” on the Piazza with that crowd was a really special experience.

Giovanni — or, if you prefer, Celluoid Liberation Front — you wrote about the films of Marco Ferreri that were screened at the festival. How did Locarno’s presentation of this filmmaker affect your relationship with his work?

CLF: First of all, this was the first time I watched these films on the big screen, which was a privilege since his films aren’t shown very much. They only showed three films by him, but I took the opportunity to shed light on a filmmaker who unfortunately isn’t very well known. It’s amazing how Ferreri’s work is more relevant today than it was 30 years ago.

COOK: Do you think he’s as important a filmmaker as other Italian filmmakers whose names we hear again and again?

CLF: Yes, and much better than people like Bertolucci, if not Fellini. They tend to say that all filmmakers were ahead of their times, but I think Ferreri really was, in some way, ahead of his time. If you watch his films today, you can definitely see that.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the festival can also present filmmakers at early stages of their careers in a new light. Beatrice, you wrote about Ben Wheatley. He’s only three films deep but all of them screened at Locarno — including his latest, “Sightseers.” Why do you think he has attracted so much acclaim this early in his career?

BEHN: In the beginning, I was surprised he had only done three feature films. He does a lot of TV stuff and viral videos, but it’s so lowbrow that we shouldn’t talk about it. Then he gets into the “History of Cinema” section alongside Leos Carax. Watching Wheatley’s films, it stood out to me that he makes genre films, which are usually not that well represented at festivals. He really is an auteur. I don’t know where he’s going to go in the next couple of years, but he does have the potential of becoming our generation’s Kubrick.

THORSTEINSSON: Whoa! That’s a bold statement.

BEHN: It is — but wait. I said he has the potential. Whether he uses it, we shall see. A lot of people have potential and then just fail and die. Maybe he will, too. But it’s more than three funny little genre films.

THORSTEINSSON: (laughs) I’m waiting for the headline: “Ben Wheatley fails and dies.”

BEHN: But I enjoyed seeing his films in a row. I do find myself in a position where I’m an ambassador for his films here.

THORSTEINSSON: One of the critics who visited our workshop talked about advocacy as a big part of the job…

CLF: …especially at a festival like Locarno, where a lot of the films won’t get a commercial release.

Next: What role do Swiss films play at this Swiss film festival?

We’ve talked about a lot of films but still haven’t dealt with any Swiss filmmakers. Claudia, you wrote a lot about the Swiss films at the festival.

PIWECKI: What I learned here was that contemporary Swiss cinema is mainly known for its documentaries. It would have been interesting to hear from people who have never been in Switzerland to figure out what they thought about “Image Problem,” which is specifically about an issue involving Swiss culture.

MARC MENICHINI: I think those filmmakers are manipulating the people they’ve interviewed and us, the audience. They look at us from above and think we’re stupider than them. There’s a strong case that can be made against the directors. It’s along the lines of Michael Moore and “Borat,” but it misses the point of both of them.

CLF: It’s not meant to be a documentary. The directors of the film have a clear intention and want to show what they perceive to be the grotesque side of Switzerland. They use this mock documentary form to forward their own views. It’s not trying to be objective. I thought it was really cynical and ironic. Michael Moore has more documentary pretensions.

MENICHINI: I’m just wondering if being farcical allows you to forget about the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Are you allowed to lead your protagonist in a way that doesn’t portray him or her in a faithful way?

CLF: If you do it overtly, yes. If you’re pretending to document and instead pushing your own point of view, then it’s unethical.

MENICHINI: That’s what we’re seeing. I’m really questioning what their motives were when they made it. With Michael Moore, it’s significant for him to go annoy the people he annoys. In “Image Problem,” they’re annoying people who are meaningless. There’s no use for speaking with them.

PIWECKI: That’s not true. They also speak with government officials. What’s striking about the movie is the way it claims that you have to tell people something as an order to make them express their opinion. For me, that’s the reality in Switzerland.

For the two Swiss critics: Do you consider this predominantly a Swiss festival or are the Swiss films mainly here by default?

PIWECKI: I think it’s obvious they have to make that section.

MENICHINI: It would be not acceptable if they didn’t have any Swiss films in competition. You need these films. If you take “The Swiss Miss Massacre,” which played in the Piazza section — that film is apparently not particularly good, but the director is a big name in Switzerland, so it’s normal that his new film will be presented here. Whether it belongs in a competition is probably something we should question.

BEHN: Berlin has an entire section for German film that’s very different, quality-wise, from the rest of the festival. It’s a local thing. You need your sponsors, you need to satisfy your local film community.

PIWECKI: …otherwise the state won’t give money to the festival.

To wrap things up: As this conversation has made clear, you’ve all produced a lot of diverse work over the last two weeks. What will you take away from the experience?

BLAY: It’s been very inspiring to come here. Before I came to this workshop, I spoke to other working critics, and a lot of them were negative about career prospects. Being at this festival and talking to all these different people made me realize — I know it sounds cheesy — that I can do it if I work hard enough, because there’s a whole world involved in this. It’s small, but it’s big at the same time.

NORDINE: I didn’t get into this until people were already shouting that the sky was falling and there was no hope. Because this is what I want and love to do, I never allowed myself to take on that mentality. That this is actually a venue geared toward younger people who also can’t accept that things are spiraling downward is really great.

For the unedited audio of this discussion, click here.

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