Skin Flicks

The naked truth about putting together a regional showcase like the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. And a revealing body of blurbs about the best and the not-best of the fest.


One occupational hazard of being a film critic--among many, including increased susceptibility to eyestrain, lower-back disfigurement, post-dramatic stress disorder, and severe social anxiety (I could go on)--is a dangerous unfamiliarity with what it feels like to watch a movie with a paying audience. Obliged by early deadlines and the consumer-guide function of popular criticism to see movies alone, or in the loud company of totally psyched radio-giveaway winners, or in a group of three or four fellow professionals who scarcely acknowledge each other's presence (that social anxiety thing again), reviewers generally miss the firsthand knowledge of how a film truly meets its public.

Which isn't to say that the goal of the critic--except maybe the critic at an industry-servicing paper such as Variety--is to adopt the consensus view of a movie that no one has seen yet. Still, I have to acknowledge my deep satisfaction with the news last summer that opening-night crowds watching A.I. at Mann's Chinese Theater were convulsed in fits of inappropriate laughter. The critic, whether exercising his own artificial intelligence or not, couldn't help thinking: See--I was right!

Anyway, if there's a risk that comes with watching too many movies in a sort of plastic-bubble environment, I should be out of danger within a few short weeks. Hold your applause: I'm not quitting--just preparing to take a monthlong paternity leave. In the meantime, I'll have U Film Society's 20th-annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, and with it the welcome opportunity to catch several dozen of the more than 120 movies screening over 21 days at 7 area theaters to some of the most appreciative paying audiences in the world.

One occupational hazard of being a paper's film editor (among many...) is that there often isn't time to watch all the movies being reviewed by other critics--particularly while editing coverage of a massive enterprise such as the MSPIFF. Indeed, I have a lot of catching up to do this year. And judging from the capsule reviews collected below--easily the most positive batch of festival blurbs in the nine years (!) that I've been tracking this behemoth in City Pages--there's a lot to look forward to. (Note: We'll follow this upbeat report on the MSPIFF's first week with coverage in subsequent issues of movies screening in weeks two and three.)

In addition, while our accompanying feature about the regrettably marginalized status of the MSPIFF in industry eyes--"The Flyover Festival?"--reveals that many "A-list" fest titles are off-limits to U Film, there are a handful of movies I saw at Sundance and Cannes this past year that I'm eager to revisit: Martin Scorsese's impassioned survey of Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy; Claude Lanzmann's quietly devastating Holocaust documentary Sobibor; and French director Laurent Cantet's ingenious Time Out, whose tricky tale of an unemployed businessman will likely provide the perfect precursor to my own hiatus.

Speaking of which: Before then, if the fates allow, I'm hoping to squeeze in two more screenings (on April 6 and 13) of Hou Hsiao-hsien's rare and wonderful Millennium Mambo, whose chest-thumping techno soundtrack and cobalt-blue mise en scène I haven't been able to get out of my mind for more, nine months. But of course, that plan is entirely contingent on whether another new masterpiece--Untitled, as we're calling it for now--comes out on schedule. --Rob Nelson

Fred Petters for City Pages

How to Program an International Film Showcase When the Industry Can't Find Your State on the Map



You want glamour? Go to Cannes or Toronto. You want cinema? Well, you can still go to Cannes or Toronto--or to Venice, too. But if you're willing to settle for movies--the sort that are shopped around at industry-only "market" smorgasbords in Cannes or Berlin, where the festival competition is merely the caviar in a film glutton's feast--then you might as well stay in the Twin Cities.

With a catalog of some 120 titles, dominated by the sort of world cinema that doesn't tend to win awards overseas (or even compete for them), the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival--now in its 20th year of operation under veteran fest director Al Milgrom and his handful of sleepless cineastes at U Film Society--occupies a territory far below that of the global-festival A-list. It also resides underneath those larger stateside festivals that have more history (San Francisco), more ticket sales (Seattle), or more industry credibility (Sundance). You might say the MSPIFF sits somewhere on the "R-list," being a regional festival on a par with events of similar size and scope in places such as Cleveland and Denver. And it ain't easy being on the R-list: When producers and distributors respond to the mention of your festival with a smirk of indifference, it means that putting such an event together will be accompanied by sacrifices of all sorts.

Indeed, it's a minor miracle that the MSPIFF, a nonprofit dinghy in an ocean full of money-grubbing sharks, continues to exist on its shoestring-and-popcorn budget, and near the bottom of an industry player's list of priorities. It might sound like a cliché, but it's true: Money matters. Securing a print of a film for a single festival screening can cost several hundred dollars--which is a great deal of money to the likes of U Film. Simply put, some festivals have more cash, thanks to corporate sponsorships; a greater degree of audience support, because of the size of the host city; or, in the case of festivals in countries more committed to the cultivation of art than the U.S., some government seed money that allows for a salaried staff to raise corporate dough. Commerce, you see, draws sales agents: rapacious hustlers whose companies hold the worldwide rights to the vast majority of international festival fare, and who'd much rather sell their wares to a national distributor than deal with R-list festival programmers for a mere one or two play dates.

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