The Movie Lovers
MSPIFF SCREENING LOCATIONS:
Historic State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
Bell Auditorium, U of M, University Avenue and 17th Street SE, Mpls.
Oak Street Cinema, 309 Oak St. SE, Mpls.
Riverview Theater, 3800 42nd Ave. S., Mpls.
Crown Theatres' Block E 15, 600 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
Macalester College, John B. Davis Lecture Hall, 1600 Grand Ave., St. Paul
ADMISSION PRICES & FESTIVAL PASSES:
Opening Night Screening and Gala: $12 ($10 Minnesota Film Arts members)
The Historic State Theatre Box Office requires an additional $2 fee for its Renovation Fund
Closing Night Screening and Gala: $10
($8 MFA members)
General admission: $8 ($7 seniors/students, $6 MFA members)
Gold Pass (admission to all films and events): $150 ($120 MFA members)
Ten-Film Discount Pass (admission to 10 films): $65 ($50 MFA members)
24-HOUR FESTIVAL HOTLINE: 612.331.3134
FESTIVAL WEB SITE: www.mnfilmarts.org/mspiff2004/
Note: The festival schedule is subject to change; call the hotline to confirm screenings.
THE MOVIE LOVERS
Film Freaks Dish in the Lobby, Critics Weigh in from the Couch, and One Local Latvian Takes a Shot at the Big Time. Everything's up for Grabs at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.
Talking about a movie after you've seen it can be either a privilege or a burden depending on the movie, the person next to you, and the mood that the three parties combine to create. Perhaps only post-coital conversation is trickier, more delicate, more loaded than that after a screening--and not necessarily. (Talk about The Passion and you know what I mean.)
But at a film festival, discussion of every sort--idle chatter, pointed critique, random gossip, confession, compassion, complaint--is absolutely essential. The vertiginous experience of constant reeling--four or five films a day if you're doing it right, six if you're insane--naturally puts a premium on human interaction to keep the viewer somewhat stable. I don't imagine that anyone is crazy enough to try to see even half of the 130 films screening at six Twin Cities locations over the course of the two-week Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival--but I wouldn't blame you for trying. (To begin, check out the ticket and venue information above.)
Our own frenzied picks from the fest's first week can be found in the pages that follow (along with a profile of a Twin Cities-based documentarian). These reviews are part of the process by which all of us in the audience endeavor not only to get our own bearings on what we've seen, but to position the movies as well. Just as the old tree in the forest requires ears for its fall to make a sound, the new film at a festival demands our interpretation--our direction--in order to find its place in the world. Part of the unique appeal of a film festival, with its heightened potential for meaningful interactivity, is that it's where the audience member gets to act most like an artist. You've heard the proverbial word of mouth? Well, you create it when you see a brand new movie and tell your neighbor what you think.
At City Pages we decided to stage our own version of the lobby chat. We corralled five far-flung experts in the art of watching movies and discussing them--Bob Cowgill, Mark Peranson, B. Ruby Rich, Amy Taubin, and Matthew Wilder--and got them to talk. This roundtable discussion was unusual in at least two ways. First, it was less about the movies per se than about the process by which we come to see them--or don't. Second, it was a roundtable discussion that didn't take place around a table; matter of fact, a good portion of it didn't really take place at all.
Here's how it worked: The panelists answered our questions individually by e-mail, then convened in real time later via conference call to discuss the "conversation" that we'd created by compiling their responses. The new material generated by the hour-long phone chat was woven into the virtual one--and it's this re-edited version (!) that you'll find on p. 17. (Rest assured: No panelists were misquoted in the making of this feature.)
Those of us who've just finished spending another winter in front of the television set are quite familiar with this method of shuffling variously contrived material and presenting it as "reality." I'd venture to say that our virtual roundtable comes closer than Court TV to the real function of cinema, which is to gather bits and pieces of experience and put them together in a way that makes some particular sense of the world. Come to think of it, that's also the function of a film festival.
So Did These Movies Just Fall off the Back of a Truck? Five International Film Devotees Debate What We See, What We Don't See, and Whether Turkey Could Be the Next Big Thing.
Editor's note: During the week of March 8, City Pages asked a quintet of critics and curators to discuss the weird wonder that is the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, and the ever-evolving role of film festivals in general. What follows is an edited rendition of some lively exchanges that took place by telephone and e-mail.
CITY PAGES: Let's start with the most basic question: What's the value of an international film festival?
MARK PERANSON: For the most part, film festivals give false hope to foreign filmmakers that there are a lot of people worldwide who really care about foreign films. I'm kidding.
BOB COWGILL: I think an international film festival should provide two essential elements: a program of remarkable aesthetic value and a window unto the diversity of world cinema. The number of foreign films that play in major U.S. cities is much lower today than it was in the halcyon days of the late '70s. A good festival will help correct the balance--in one gargantuan two-week orgy of movie watching.
AMY TAUBIN: A film festival is also a social event. So while it's an opportunity for audiences to get acquainted with countries and cultures they know nothing about, there can also be a discourse around these strange films that goes beyond the kind of conversation you'd have with your date or your spouse or your kids as you exit the multiplex.
B. RUBY RICH: Bring the world to your town and your town to the world, so to speak.
PERANSON: There are many different kinds of festivals, and they serve very different purposes. There's no point comparing a festival like the MSPIFF to Cannes or Toronto. There's no industry presence at the MSPIFF--which is a good thing, since the primary purpose of a festival shouldn't be to service the business community. But of course this also has an impact on the films that are shown.
COWGILL: Our audience development in Minneapolis--our ability to create awareness of the festival, to increase the interest and sophistication of the audience--isn't in the league of New York or Toronto, and I can attest that this fact weighs heavily in considerations of what the festival could and should be. But neither are we in Omaha or Kansas City or Oklahoma City--and for that, as a film lover, I'm grateful. Nevertheless, I'm always afraid that at any moment we could slip into the darkness, cinematically speaking--into a film culture that's completely controlled by Time Warner, Disney/Miramax, Sony, et al. In that sense, the role of the MSPIFF is to preserve civilization as discerning film lovers would want it out here in the plains.
MATTHEW WILDER: I think the most important thing for a festival that's a notch or two below New York and Toronto in terms of visibility is to get across the strongest possible work--even at the expense of maintaining all the delicacies in the geographic smorgasbord. There are so many extraordinary movies out there right now--movies that don't fit into the standard pattern of art-house distribution--that it's much more necessary to give them a proper berth than it is to ask, "So--what's Latvia up to this year?" Because the answer might be, "Well, not much, really."
COWGILL: Personally, I sometimes do feel that less is more. But when I was executive director of Minnesota Film Arts, I became persuaded that the MSPIFF approach--the "geographic smorgasbord," I suppose--is not only valid culturally, but is expected and valued by many festival patrons. Our festival has grown out of ethnic constituencies of the Twin Cities, and it continues to serve those constituencies. So there remains a kind of grassroots programming initiative [at the MSPIFF], as there has been ever since Al Milgrom started the festival more than 20 years ago. Would it be better for the MSPIFF to follow the New York model--with fewer films, each one meticulously curated, each one drawing a larger audience? Perhaps something would be gained in terms of intellectual and aesthetic cohesion. But the merits of serendipity--the sheer abundance of films in the MSPIFF, the unusual combinations that you're apt to find--are real, too. I don't think New York offers that.
PERANSON: My philosophy is: The more films, the better--as long as you can afford it. If you screen a film and only five people show up--and three of them hate it--you're still doing your job.
RICH: I've seen all kinds of festivals over the years: festivals meant to jump-start tourism or production, festivals meant to further the social or financial ambitions of those organizing them, festivals spun out of film societies, festivals set up to appeal to cinephiles who are unsatisfied with commercial distribution. It all depends on the time and place. In general, they're a way to turn films into events, like opera or dance--one-time-only occasions for which you "had to be there."
PERANSON: In the last decade especially, festivals have provided an alternate distribution system for films that might otherwise fall through the cracks. A "festival film," pejoratively speaking, is one that can only play in festivals; there's little to no audience for it elsewhere. But for that poor foreign filmmaker who has been toiling away for years on a film, he or she would love to see it play anywhere--to see people's reactions, to see a bit of the world. You could argue that festivals preserve the film culture by supporting filmmakers as much as audiences.
CP: But do some festivals mainly support the industry at the expense of both filmmakers and filmgoers? Whatever its virtues--and without a doubt it has them--a festival like Sundance seems to play directly into the culture industry's obsession with marketing and publicity.
TAUBIN: There's nothing inherently wrong with marketing or publicity. How would we know that something's available otherwise? The problem is that the marketing and publicity tend to focus on what
people already know--on stars, usually, or on a hook like "Local kid makes good."
PERANSON: The rhetoric surrounding any festival is inevitably misleading. Publicity doesn't seek to tell the truth--it seeks to stretch the truth. Almost any festival's program notes tend to refer to films on the schedule as life-changing masterpieces.
RICH: The glut of tributes and honorary awards at festivals is dubious, too. But the range of programming is crucial--particularly for a U.S. audience that otherwise has no access to the subjectivity of people in other cultures. It's nice to get to know the folks before our government bombs them into oblivion or deposes their leaders.
COWGILL: Clearly, festival programming could be a meticulous intellectual enterprise: In theory, the programmer could look at all of the films that are made in a given year and create a perfectly balanced, globally representative, and fully coherent program out of it. But in practice, the resources this would require are simply not available to [the MSPIFF], not by a long shot. At Minnesota Film Arts, there's a total of three staff people who work on the festival--and working on the festival is hardly their only responsibility during the year.
CP: It has to be said that the volume and quality of work those three people do--in a few short months--is truly astounding.
COWGILL: Yes, it is. Ideally, the festival in Minneapolis would have a year-round staff devoted to its development; it would be liberally funded--something every nonprofit wants, of course. These are real things to want to have. But at the same time, we need to hesitate before we yearn to have our festival become more like, say, Sundance. Because while that kind of energy is vibrant and sexy--it attracts money and power and press coverage, it pays for salaries and helps sustain the enterprise, it's fun--we know that such energy tends to call the shots, that it tends to appeal to the controlling forces of corporate media.
CP: How much does a festival like the MSPIFF need the "major" films--the films that'll inevitably open at Landmark [e.g., Lagoon Cinema, the Uptown Theatre] or even in gigaplexes?
RICH: I think festival programmers would generally prefer to show only those films that aren't going to be available in the marketplace. But they're forced to invite celebrities in order to ensure the local media coverage that's needed to bring in the audience and the sponsors. Even Toronto, with its hundreds of films and blue-ribbon curatorial staff, has to fight to get the local press to pay attention to anything other than celebrities.
TAUBIN: As a film journalist, I need to have a hook to sell my editors on doing a story about a festival. Often the hook is a star or a preview of a major release. So what you hope is that the person who wants to be the first on her block to see the new Nicole Kidman movie--let's say Dogville [featured in this year's MSPIFF]--will also buy tickets to something she might otherwise not have gone to see.
COWGILL: Whether or not that's true, celebrities do help a festival's viability. If some movie star with a little panache came out of the woodwork and said, "Hey--I want to adopt the MSPIFF," that would be our fastest road to growth and glamour. I mean, Sundance is Sundance because Robert Redford has always been connected to it.
RICH: And now Tribeca has [Robert] De Niro.
WILDER: It seems to me that it's not only festivals that could benefit from celebrity salesmanship. I think you could argue that all of art cinema ought to adapt to the circumstances of our market-driven, celebrity-driven movie culture. It's crazy to try to sell Unknown Pleasures or Millennium Mambo in a marketplace where finding the next Il Postino is the order of the day. You have to get the films in front of an audience that'll respond to them; you have to allow them to be heard over the din of Armageddon 2. I say, be an absolute whore about it. Take a cue from the way that DVDs are sold. Get Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Coppola to explicate Rivette's Joan of Arc, or Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater to wax rhapsodic on Rehearsing "In the Company of Men", and you'll see those pictures outpace The Barbarian Invasions in no time.
CP: The MSPIFF has succeeded in hosting a few celebrities over the years: Robert Duvall, Josh Hartnett, Peter Bogdanovich. Is Peter Bogdanovich a celebrity?
RICH: What's interesting is that festivals offer a different definition of celebrity: a cinephile's definition of celebrity. So instead of needing to have, you know, Mel Gibson, they'll try to get Wong Kar-wai. I think it's crucial for regional festivals to get the filmmakers in town; it's part of the branding of a festival, one of the things that distinguishes a festival from ongoing exhibition. On the other hand, I was on the jury at the Sydney Film Festival this year, and they bring in fewer filmmakers--and keep them longer, to encourage more fruitful interaction--than any festival I've ever attended.
COWGILL: It's very expensive to fly filmmakers to Australia. And if airline sponsorship is curtailed, this crucial part of any festival's cultural value is curtailed. What I've noticed is that audiences do appreciate having even film technicians--editors, cinematographers--appear with the film to talk about it and answer questions. I don't know if it adds to one's immediate appreciation of the film itself, but it does remind us that film is made by human beings, by artists who sometimes have interesting things to say. It makes the whole enterprise seem more real somehow--more than a piece of machinery throwing images at us.
CP: So is increasing the number of appearances even by editors and cinematographers something that [the MSPIFF] should be striving to do?
COWGILL: Always. But that's part of the whole notion of festival growth, which is an incredibly expensive and tricky proposition. I believe our festival needs to get bigger. Now what does bigger mean? Bigger means that we'd be able to bring in more international filmmakers. Bigger means that we'd be able to get more producers and distributors to want to place their films here. And it means that we'd be able to hire more people to spend more time on programming; our staff is stretched desperately thin. But the tricky part is that growth may in turn lead to an internalized awareness of what, on one level, is "marketable," and that could affect the festival's integrity. It's my feeling that in order to secure major sponsorships, the festival has to have a certain number of major films and filmmakers.
TAUBIN: The question of what constitutes a "major" film or filmmaker is a good one. Many critics worldwide would say that Hou Hsiao-hsien is one of the greatest filmmakers working today. Yet only one of his films--Millennium Mambo--has been distributed in the U.S., and only barely distributed at that. The major figures in world cinema are often invisible in the United States.
WILDER: The MSPIFF--indeed, all U.S. festivals, with the possible exception of New York's--needs to spend more time securing the "major" films, and I don't mean the ones with Nicole Kidman. It isn't going to cost the festival more than some shoe leather and cell phone minutes to get a greater percentage of the work that has been rightly honored in the most respected European festivals. I do have to commend the programmers this year for bringing in at least two documentary masterpieces: The Five Obstructions, which is the best movie about the creative process that I can recall; and S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which is simply in a class by itself--a class beyond criticism, perhaps. But in past years, the MSPIFF has screened a lot of movies that made me seriously doubt whether anyone involved with the festival had even watched the movie. Forget about the films that seem to have fallen off the back of a truck: Anyone with access to some recent issues of Film Comment, Cinema Scope, and Sight and Sound could get a fair idea of what's interesting, acclaimed, and unseen in America.
COWGILL: You can put out all the shoe leather and cell phone minutes you want, but just because you desire a film desperately doesn't mean that you're going to get it.
WILDER: Okay. Then the question becomes, What will it take to get those films in front of the public? I mean, that to me is the most interesting question--above and beyond the other questions of diversity of representation and so on. "Diversity" is important, but not for its own sake. I for one am tired of festivals that program the umpteenth regional variant of the "Grandpa and cute kid learn a lesson" movie, but have too little to offer from, say, South Korea or Thailand or especially Japan.
CP: What's interesting is that the "Grandpa and cute kid learn a lesson" movies often sell out when they screen at the MSPIFF--which can't make it easy for programmers to want to turn down those sorts of movies in favor of, say, the critically acclaimed headscratcher from Taiwan that has had difficulty finding a sizable audience anywhere in the world.
COWGILL: I don't think festival programmers ever allow films to compete with each other this way. No film is turned down on the grounds of its challenge to the audience or weighed on a commercial basis next to a crowd pleaser. But any festival has to consider showing films that an audience may love. And maybe this is good.
CP: Audiences for art films in the U.S. haven't increased notably in the last decade--but they have increased for the MSPIFF. How on earth do we explain that?
COWGILL: What seems to be working here is the blockbuster complex: Produce a huge event that everyone notices for two weeks and the audience will show up for it. We've seen evidence that more people have been coming to more films simply because they're festival films. These audiences often don't know or even care particularly what the film is. Whatever else this might mean, I think it means that the audience is opening itself up to experimentation, to discovery.
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.
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.
CP: Some films were born to die--to be assassinated, even. But in general, what would it take for some of these producers and distributors to recognize the MSPIFF as a beneficial place for them to market their wares?
RICH: This is an age-old question. Either the heads of these companies believe a festival is building an audience or they believe it's stealing box office. There's nothing you can do.
PERANSON: You can kidnap their children and it still wouldn't matter: The penny-pinchers are in charge, and you have to deal with them on their terms. If a distributor doesn't want to give a film to a particular festival, maybe it's because a director had a bad experience there--a bad meal or whatever. Who knows? Maybe the festival misshaped a print three years ago and the distributor is still holding a grudge.
CP: It's probably fair to say that Miramax changed everything in the late '80s and early '90s in terms of the distribution of foreign films in the United States.
WILDER: What Harvey Weinstein at Miramax did more than anyone was to shift the import game toward the business of catering to upscale suburbanites--and flattering them. Weinstein reasons quite correctly that if you like NPR and Asian-fusion cuisine, you'll probably like the latest works of Giuseppe Tornatore [Cinema Paradiso] as well. But to suggest, as Jonathan Rosenbaum does, that Weinstein should be walking down to the ATM to hand Abbas Kiarostami his foreign sales check is as poignantly naive as a "Kucinich--Now More Than Ever" sticker.
CP: Miramax, rather late in the game, granted three of its films to the MSPIFF, including Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi, which it picked up in Venice last year and also screened at Sundance. TH!NKFilm is a company that's known for being a good deal more benevolent to smaller festivals than Miramax. This year it's giving six films to the MSPIFF.
TAUBIN: TH!NKFilm is a really smart company. I know they worked really hard to create a regional audience for [Gus Van Sant's] Gerry by packaging it with some of Van Sant's short films. I can't imagine why other indie distributors aren't interested in Minneapolis, which has a reputation for being a sophisticated film town. When I worked a bit with the High Falls Film Festival in upstate New York, I was surprised to discover that distributors were charging rental fees for films. As Mark said, festivals have become an alternate distribution network--a source of income for companies whose films may be too risky to release.
PERANSON: Not all festivals offer screening fees. The Cleveland Film Festival is giving an award to TH!NKFilm on their closing night--which seems a bit beyond the call of duty to me.
RICH: You have to keep good relations with distributors and sales agents if you want to get early access to films. But you don't have to be their bitch, if you know what I mean.
TAUBIN: I find it interesting that we're having this discussion at the exact moment when so many people are talking about an enormous shift in the distribution of specialized films. Right now there are people in the industry who are looking at schemes to open a film in one or two cities in a theater, release it on DVD, and air it on specialized cable networks--simultaneously. The idea is that the cable networks will advertise, the DVDs will sell, and people who need to leave the house on dates will go to see the film in a theater. Sarah Eaton from the Sundance Channel told me yesterday that DIG!, the Sundance documentary prize-winner, is opening in one New York theater in the fall at the same time that it comes out on DVD and airs on the Sundance Channel. That is a very peculiar model, but it's one that people are beginning to think a lot about. And I think it has the potential to render a lot of film festivals irrelevant.
COWGILL: Well, festivals may become irrelevant from the distributor's point of view, but not from the audience's point of view. What I've noticed is that people are still yearning to share new cinema with other people in a discrete, localized setting. A film festival provides that experience of communal discovery. Certainly DVDs have hurt repertory cinema, but I don't think they have hurt festivals. Not yet, anyway.
CP: Well, here's something that could certainly hurt festivals: the electronic distribution of cinema by satellite from studios to chain-owned digital theaters. Most likely this development is just around the corner, and most likely it'll allow the big players to continue consolidating their power at the expense of the little ones.
PERANSON: As for whether people see a movie on film in a theater or at home on video: I don't think most people care all that much. Even most cinephiles are content to trade tapes and discs amongst themselves, especially as actual film becomes increasingly rare. With DVD, everything gets released somewhere: No need to rue the fact that certain films aren't coming to your hometown; you can buy the DVD on the internet. As DVD distribution becomes more prevalent, I think it could actually benefit film festivals, since the risk of a festival screening to a distributor becomes irrelevant if there's no theatrical run to worry about. And when films become available immediately, festival programmers will be forced to broaden their horizons to include more surveys of national filmmaking, more director retrospectives, more historical programs.
TAUBIN: Clever programmers will have a new opportunity to create tie-ins: "Come see the latest work of a director whose previous films are now available on Netflix."
CP: But shouldn't the really clever programmers be trying harder to unearth the ultra-low-budget variety of world cinema that'll never be available through Netflix? What about the thousands of films each year that are shot on digital, that lie outside conventional circulation channels, that lack reputation?
COWGILL: If you put the words trying harder in front of the MSPIFF staff right now, you might get popped in the nose.
CP: So what's the next "big" national cinema?
RICH: For me, the most exciting cinema right now is Palestinian: That was my big revelation two years ago when I was programming for Toronto. Take Ticket to Jerusalem and Divine Intervention, for example: completely different films--their directors would probably hate each other's work, in fact--and yet they both convey the extreme surreality of daily life in Palestine. The pressure-cooker environment, the desperate circumstances, have created in Palestinian artists a kind of inspiration that's fueling some very dynamic and interesting cinema.
PERANSON: I think the next big cinema is Aramaic. I'm kidding. Seriously, I'd say we're in the midst of the biggest sea change in national cinemas that I can think of: from the nation of fiction to the nation of documentary.
TAUBIN: I don't know about "big," but Argentina and Turkey--despite discouraging economic conditions and political turmoil--have recently produced some extremely interesting filmmakers. At the same time, we talk so much about "national cinemas," but at the moment there's a whole genre of films about diaspora, about people who are stateless, crossing borders. That's really interesting.
WILDER: What about Hong Kong? American highbrows have pretty much turned up their noses at recent HK fare. But Bryan Chang, the director of Among the Stars and Under the Crescent, is the most interesting Asian filmmaker to emerge in the last few years. His movies have more to do with trends in American visual art than with the pop of '80s Hong Kong or the Antonioni-ennui of Tsai Ming-liang or Zhang Ke Jia. His movies have all the fervor and sincerity of seventh-grade diary entries. And they're suspenseful: You keep waiting for the quotation marks to arrive, and they never do.
PERANSON: I think it's mainly a matter of faddishness. Iranian films were hot, now they're less hot because people are always looking for the "next big thing."
TAUBIN: If national cinemas have cycles, it's partly a function of the fact that filmmaking energy doesn't last forever--not in individuals, and not in a culture, either. Sometimes it's the case that everything that needed to be said has been said. Sometimes criticism of the country's cinema--criticism of its popularity--can come from within, and sometimes it can be damaging. One of the things you run into all the time at festivals where roundtable discussions feature producers from developing countries is the notion that if a film plays well outside of, say, Tunisia, then that means the filmmaker has sold out, that she's making films for the "international market." That's an ongoing line, and it drives me crazy. You get this extremely fundamentalist take on what national cinema is--this absurd notion that it can't partake of international film culture.
WILDER: For some psychological reason I can't quite decipher, most thinking art-lovers suffer from varying degrees of fickleness in relation to an artist's popularity: "I liked him before he got big, but now..." The question is, "Why did Iranian art cinema or Hong Kong action cinema or Japanese horror sprout when it did and then wilt--arguably--a half-generation later?" I think the latter part is easier to figure out than the former. Film movements--especially in the hypermediated world of entertainment journalism--burn out quickly or morph into new shapes. This is a natural part of the process by which new work comes to light. The more interesting question is: What cultural forces liberated all these artists in a particular place and time to do work that in some way resonated with the feelings of those near and far? The artists aren't forming a movement in that case: History is.
PERANSON: When what's new happens to fit well with an audience, that's when you have the start of a trend. Obviously the American pop-culture trend is toward reality: reality television, reality crucifixion, whatever. And documentaries: The more "hot" the documentary topic--child abuse, for example--the better. In a way, the popularity of documentary is working in the opposite direction from, say, the popularity of Iranian and Taiwanese cinema, which was led largely by critics. In the case of documentary, the demand lies with the audience. It's a desire for authenticity.
WILDER: Most Western tastemakers like "authenticity," too--especially when it involves suffering. This is what allows Hou Hsiao-hsien to be known as one of the greatest filmmakers working today, while Abderrahmane Sissako is shoved to the back of the bus. Sissako [whose Waiting for Happiness screened at the MSPIFF in 2003] is a Russian-trained filmmaker from Mali; his movies have the geographical density of James Joyce and the switchboard quality of Robert Altman, but what flows forth from the screen is love and pleasure. Each of his movies is a euphoric testament to the resilience, humor, sexiness, and sheer oddity of the people of Mali. They are not difficult films to like--which paradoxically may explain the short shrift they've been given relative to sufferers like Hou and Béla Tarr [The Werckmeister Harmonies].
CP: Speaking of suffering: The experience of last year's MSPIFF seemed to benefit from the context of war and the discussion that it inspired both in and out of film circles. Is there a sense in which any festival is only as strong as the larger context--global and otherwise--that lies around it?
COWGILL: This question provides one of the rationales for the festival more effectively than I could state it. A festival provides news, and the confluence of interests among conglomerate media and current American foreign policies would seem to make an international festival contextually relevant and politically necessary for years to come.
TAUBIN: Sometimes a film festival can be a refuge from the horrible world as it is today.
RICH: Let's not forget the old Busby Berkley/Depression era model. "Films"--just like "movies"--can be an education or an escape, a reflection of the larger world or a retreat from it. To me, there are three movies in this year's MSPIFF--Goodbye Dragon Inn, James' Journey to Jerusalem, and The Corporation--that are by themselves enough to give the festival its soul.
WILDER: I'll put in another word for S21, a film whose act of remembering the victims of the Khmer Rouge is almost sacramental. As a matter of fact, both S21 and The Five Obstructions are among the best movies I've seen in years. The MSPIFF audience is blessed to have them.
PERANSON: The most important element of a regional festival is the audience. So it helps to have a place where people who are eager to talk about the films can congregate after the screening, whether in the lobby or over drinks. Much better if it's over drinks.
COWGILL: Take out pretense, take out glitz, and what's left? It's a cliché, but it's true: What's left is passion.
Our Picks for the Most Noteworthy Fare in the MSPIFF's First Week
Bright Young Things
Historic State Theatre, Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Updating Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies to pre-WWII London, writer-director Stephen Fry follows a would-be novelist-turned-reluctant gossip columnist (Stephen Campbell Moore) through a roundelay of soul-sucking social affairs peopled by decrepit aristocrats, blithe flibbertigibbets, and moneyed cads. Fry's indictment of Jazz Age flippancy comes complete with madly whirling camera and fidgety cutting; it might even sting if this were 1940. Fourth-billed actor Michael Sheen will be present to introduce the screening on opening night.
A Talking Picture
Riverview Theater, Saturday at 2:30 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
The great Portuguese nonagenarian Manoel de Oliveira delivers a coy, verbose meditation on history, civilization, and the fate of humanity. The first of two parts finds a university professor (Leonor Silveira) on a pleasure cruise from Lisbon to India; the second has Capt. John Malkovich presiding over a long, multilingual discussion with three grandes dames (including Catherine Deneuve). My indecision about Oliveira's odd, personal film--his Titanic--leads me to believe there's life in the old coot still.
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
Riverview Theater, Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
Like Elaine May before her, Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) mines human misery for laughs without trivializing. In this dark comedy, she slowly unpacks the mystery of a good-looking, self-absorbed loner's half-assed attempts to do himself in. There's a transcendental logic to the movie's idiosyncrasies (including an elaborate puking gag) and a genuine concern for the way we connect to the past and make sense of pain.
Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 5:00 p.m.
Clothes make the man in this compact, Chekhovian film shot on digital and set in the backwaters of present-day small-town China. Pressed into service at his family's laundromat, Wang Xiaojian (Liang Hongli) dons a policeman's unclaimed shirt and discovers that power is a combination of appearance and self-confidence. The movie's richness derives from the mixed motives of the characters--Xiaojian extorts bribes to pay for his ailing father's hospital bills--and from first-time director Diao Yi'nan's low-key, economical storytelling.
Riverview Theater, Saturday at 6:45 p.m.
While moviegoers keep showing up to watch a madman torment Ashley Judd, a real psychopath lingers in our midst: the corporation. That's the provocative premise of this vigorously edited documentary--made, naturally, in Canada. Cataloguing every industrial insanity from terminator seeds to libertarians who would privatize a flea, the film makes a punishing case; indeed, even the viewer may require a touch of masochism to endure all 150 minutes. Co-director Mark Achbar will be present at the screening.
Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
This latest inflammation from impish troublemaker Lars von Trier shoves yet another distaff Christ figure down the road to Calvary. Unlike the simple martyrs who preceded her in the von Trier canon, thoughtful Grace (Nicole Kidman)--who takes refuge from Depression-era gangsters in the titular village (and abuse from the townsfolk)--is something of a sociologist. And, as we discover, she has her limits. Von Trier takes an arch, cerebral approach to the typically loaded material, effectively abstracting the heroine's trials into semi-absurdist parable.
The Story of the Weeping Camel
Block E 15, Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Saturday, April 10 at 1:00 p.m.
Shot in the far reaches of Mongolia's Gobi desert, this ethnographic documentary began as an attempt to capture the dying traditions of Mongolian camel herders and ended up as a portrait of the bond between a mother camel and her estranged newborn--as well as a bona fide film-fest sensation. We get the money shot--the camel cries--and it's very touching. Whether the film's exploitative techniques can be excused by its wide exposure of a soon-to-be-steamrolled culture is your call.
Macalester College, Saturday at 9:30 p.m.
Named for a swaggering, gravel-voiced promoter of used-car sales events, this marvelously entertaining doc by Hollywood veteran John Landis doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive report on the current economy or even on the life of one Michael "Slasher" Bennett. Instead it captures the anxiety of auto shopping, an enterprise wherein the buyers' skepticism collides with the sellers' cynicism to produce a kind of stalemate that keeps on rolling even though no one is getting what he wants.
Riverview Theater, Saturday at 10:00 p.m.
Billed as the first American entry in the Dogme cycle, this Gen-X Big Chill relies (mostly) on available light and sound while following several Class of '81 grads in the hours before their 20-year reunion. From the town mayor to the class loser and the disillusioned Army man, everyone tries to right old wrongs and start anew--although the ties that bind seem tenuous at best. Co-director and Minneapolis native Mark J. Poggi will be present at the screening along with screenwriter-producer Kimberley Shane O'Hara.
Block E 15, Sunday at 5:00 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Sunday, April 11 at 7:00 p.m.
Pothead nursing-home orderly Todd (Michael Bonsignore) toys with the residents by pretending to be a deceased relative calling from heaven, but sobers up after meeting Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley). Though director Elliot Greenebaum's aesthetic inertia seems appropriate to his portrait of one life going nowhere and another nearing its end, his hero's transformation remains merely contrived.
Heir to an Execution
Macalester College, Sunday at 5:00 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Sunday, April 11 at 4:45 p.m.
This first-person doc finds the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg--the "atom spies" executed at the height of the McCarthy era--coming to grips with her ancestors' true beliefs, and with the sense that the case against them was significantly inflated for purposes of political show. Though Ivy Meeropol isn't the most artful of filmmakers, her work is intensely intimate: By the final scene, the Rosenbergs' granddaughter is awakened--and the viewer is hooked.
Since Otar Left
Riverview Theater, Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.
Like the German Good Bye, Lenin!, this French film pines for the lost ideals of European socialism through the tale of family members conspiring to keep bad news from a fragile matriarch. When the title character dies in a construction accident, his sister (Nino Khomasuridze) and niece (Dinara Drukarova) begin forging his letters in order to keep up the spirits of his doting, dying Georgian mom (Esther Gorintin). Visually flat, the film draws its power from the archetypal story of what happens when people's principles slip away.
Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 9:30 p.m.; and Macalester College, Wednesday, April 14 at 9:00 p.m.
"I'm Hollywood's new hard-on," crows Troy Duffy, the Beantown bartender tapped and then dumped by Miramax in the months after Ben and Matt's Good Will made young and unknown "auteurs" hot. Project Redlight would make an apt name for this alternately hilarious and excruciating doc, the protagonist's arrogance being as colorfully obnoxious as it is utterly unearned. Having buried Duffy's Boontown Saints, Harvey Weinstein was reportedly interested in Overnight--for about 15 minutes. Co-producer Todd Fosse will be present to introduce the second screening.
Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 9:45 p.m.
This near-sepia-toned Czech mood piece is most effective as an hour-long string of stark images: dirt flowing out of a backhoe, newborns wriggling in their own placental jelly, the massacre of wild dogs. Whatever heady lessons director Harutyan Khachatryan means to draw from nonfiction classics of the silent era, The Documentarist thrives for sharing with those films a preference for human action over cinematic style.
Macalester College, Monday at 5:45 p.m.
The subject of this dry, cunningly subversive documentary is a Finnish men's choir that distinguishes itself by screaming, yelling, bellowing, and shouting its repertoire, which consists of whatever the group's prankster director sees fit to plunder. Though the choir's percussive, exclamatory music is more novelty act than art, there's a wonderful excoriation of nationalism in how the group amplifies the primal bellicosity of the world's national anthems.
Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 7:30 p.m.
With this jaw-dropping collage of denatured celluloid, filmmaker Bill Morrison turns the cosmic joke of decay into a creative boon: a celebration of life's exuberant dance with destruction. The subjects of old film, seen in various stages of volatile decomposition, seem to struggle against encroaching darkness or blinding flares; bulbous burn holes suggest the triumph of organic metastasis over the original geometry of a multi-paned window. Things fall apart--but we continue to rage against the dying of the light. Morrison and composer Michael Gordon will be present at the screening.
Riverview Theater, Tuesday at 7:15 p.m.
Yet another late-'60s/early '70s concert epic, this long-delayed document of the trans-Canadian festival headlined in 1970 by the Band and the Dead is unique for its lovingly culled shots of train-car jamming between gigs. The viewer's interest is either there or it isn't, although anyone who doesn't marvel at Buddy Guy's blistering (and ironic) performance of "Money (That's What I Want)" should have his ears examined by a medical professional.
Minnesota Shorts Showcase
Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday, April 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Whatever the reason, a high percentage of shorts in this solid collection--including the satiric "Video Kid" by Laura Dean and Isaac Gale--deal with the elusive nature of identity in a fragmented, media-obsessed culture. The most emotionally satisfying of the batch is Wyatt McDill's rough-hewn "Garbage Man," which subtly weighs the effect of economic hardship on socialization. Elsewhere, Dave Novak's beautifully rendered "Solder Man" uses digital animation to detail the struggles of a plucky paper-clip man, while the inscrutable "Digits" by William Scott Rees and JoEllen Martinson suggests a nightmare Target commercial directed by Godard in his Vertov period.
With her first film, Mara Pelece asks the question that's on everyone's mind these days: What does it mean to be Latvian?
Okay, maybe not everyone's mind. But the anxiety and curiosity that frame Pelece's documentary Between Latvias are as new and pervasive as global trade itself. What does it mean to be a nation in this day and age, anyway? Even an American one?
Where the late Jean Rouch in 1960 asked Parisians, "Are you happy?" against the backdrop of the Algerian war, and where Twin Citian Mark Wojahn went cross-country in 2002 to ask everyday Americans, "What does America need?" during the long buildup to the ongoing war with Iraq, Pelece now talks to Latvians across the continents--random hockey fans, prominent politicians, soldiers, poets--about their collective identity as the homeland prepares to enter the European Union.
"You can totally divide me in two halves," says one young Latvian-American in the film, switching in and out of English almost half-consciously.
"That's typical of people our age," Pelece says of the response, watching this scene with me on her laptop during a recent interview at Montana Coffee House in Minneapolis.
The idea for making Between Latvias occurred to the director, naturally, while enjoying some all-American beer and volleyball with other Yankees whose only immediate bond was the common language of Latvian.
"I was just raising the issue of, well, what are we doing here?" Pelece says, recounting summer getaways with the American Latvian Youth Association. (Youth for Latvians means anyone age 35 and under.)
Raised in Prior Lake by immigrants who arrived from Latvia as children, Pelece has no trace of an accent now. But she spoke Latvian at home, attended school where only Latvian was spoken, and was fluent enough to turn her idea into a film.
"In the documentary, one woman actually says, 'If Latvia becomes Russified, we're going to be the ones that save Latvian culture.' That's kind of the responsibility that was pushed on us."
Like indigenous nations the world over, Latvians are few (only 1.5 million people), and have struggled to keep their language alive. The inhabitants of the seaside Baltic territory have lived under German, Polish, Swedish, and Russian rule. Under the Nazi occupation, 90 percent of the Jewish population was murdered in concentration camps. Latvians endured the military colonialism of the Soviet Union, whose government imported Russian labor. (Descendants are still there, and call themselves Latvian, though Russian and Latvian speakers flock to different discotheques.) Pelece's grandfather's cousin, a writer, lived in Siberia for 20 years after one round of overnight deportations. In 1986, when Pelece was 15, she visited Latvia for the first time, and found a surveillance state under the gloss of her organized tour.
That journey, Pelece says, also coincided with one of the first big demonstrations, and with the beginning of a period that many modern-day residents of Riga recall wistfully in her film. "I remember the fascination of seeing our flag for the first time," says one woman. "After that, everything went through the roof."
Pelece doesn't attempt to reconstruct the revolutionary events of 1991. But enough Latvians refer to the barricades in Cathedral Square, where the population made its historic stand against a possible Soviet attack, that you begin to infer their power: This was the last moment many Latvians could be sure about their national identity at all.
Still, many of the people Pelece approaches have no answers. Or they ask, "Why are you even asking this question?"
The director wasn't surprised to find, when she began shooting in 1999, that few precedents existed for her project. She notices a difference in reactions to her queries between people under age 27, and those over 27, who have retained a certain "closed-off way of being" from the old days.
"A lot of people I talked to were very shy about speaking," Pelece says. "People there aren't used to having a voice."
--Peter S. Scholtes
Mara Pelece will be present to introduce the MSPIFF screening of Between Latvias at Macalester College's John B. Davis Lecture Hall (1600 Grand Ave. in St. Paul) on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.
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