The Movie Lovers

The world makes out all right at the International Film Festival


Unknown Pleasures

CP: The MSPIFF schedule overall is quite strong this year; the volume of great and important documentaries is particularly exciting. But, to nitpick, there are a number of key films that are missing from the festival--significant films that haven't yet screened in the Twin Cities. There's Unknown Pleasures, the digital-video drama about young people in rural China; the avant-garde horror movie Twentynine Palms, which has become scandalous because of its sex and violence; Chris Smith's comic documentary [co-directed by Sarah Price and Dan Ollman] about political pranksters, The Yes Men, which is opening the Wisconsin Film Festival this week; and the independent thriller Love Object, which Amy raved about in Film Comment a while back. Cineastes in the Twin Cities have been reading about these films and are dying to see them.

Tim Lane

TAUBIN: I think Unknown Pleasures, The Yes Men, and Love Object are fabulous, so it's a pity they're not in the festival. Might some of these films have made the curators nervous in terms of how the festival's board--or its funders or its sponsors--would react? Love Object could be viewed as misogynistic--I don't think it is, although it certainly plunges into the debate. The Yes Men is politically hot and irreverent. And the spare quality of Unknown Pleasures could make programmers worry that viewers would walk out in droves.

PERANSON: So much of this is dependent on factors that are beyond the programmers' control. I requested a tape of Love Object when I was programming for Vancouver last year, and was told that festival screenings were not in the producers' plans at that time. From what I know, they still aren't in the producers' plans--which is ridiculous if they ever want the movie to be shown in theaters. The best festivals will always strive for a mix of quality and diversity. But I don't think that awful films--and there are some awful films in the MSPIFF this year--should be shown just to provide geographic diversity. The Norwegian film Johnny Vang, for example, is simply awful by any standard.

COWGILL: I'm sure that the desire for diversity in the festival didn't crowd out the likes of Unknown Pleasures. The problem, clearly, is that the films people want to see are controlled by distributors. And as far as I can tell, every festival screening is a risk for a distributor.

PERANSON: In many cases, the problem doesn't have to do with films that have distributors; it has to do with films that don't have distributors. As far as I can tell, based on programming films at Vancouver and talking to other people who work at festivals, the biggest problem is that good films without distribution tend to be shackled to big-money sales agents who will flatly refuse to deal with programmers at smaller festivals.

TAUBIN: A lot of it comes down to timing. It's always going to be hard for any smaller festival in the U.S. to get a film whose producers have their sights set on Sundance. Programmers at Sundance are instructed not to accept a film into their competition category if it has played somewhere else. The irresistible appeal of Sundance to producers has been enormously harmful to other festivals in the U.S.

RICH: It really needs to be said that this world of film festivals is becoming an increasingly crowded field. In the 1980s it was a very different story: A festival, even a smaller festival, could be allowed to stake out its own territory. The Chicago Film Festival, for example, took off when it did partly because the Cold War was going on, and there were huge Eastern European populations coming to see Polish films that couldn't be seen anywhere else. But this isn't the model that we tend to think of anymore when we think of film festivals. Where that old-fashioned community-building element is missing is where a festival becomes a more brutally corporate, sponsorship-driven event. We have to wonder what has fueled the rise of film festivals in the past decade, and consider the difficulty this has created for every festival that's trying to position itself in the marketplace.

TAUBIN: Yes. And if you're looking at it from the position of someone who's not programming a festival, it can seem as though festivals are actually strip-mining the film culture rather than stimulating it.

COWGILL: The field is crowded, no question about it. If there's only one print of a film available, or two prints, the producer will be forced to determine which festival is going to get the print. But I'd challenge the "strip-mining" notion somewhat, because I'm not sure whether in Minneapolis there would even be a market for many of these films. If you didn't "strip-mine" the available films in a given year, the vast majority of them wouldn't play here--and if they did play here, they wouldn't attract the bare minimum number of [ticket buyers] needed to break even on a one-week run. For the bigger films, the films with distributors, festival screenings basically function as word-of-mouth previews. They can, as in the case of Run Lola Run five years ago, help launch a picture in a given market. They can also kill it, as in the case of Assassination Tango.

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