Published at: Aug. 12, 2009, 2:18 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
LATAURO DOES MIFF #5
The Event: The 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival
The Protagonist: Latauro (AICN-Downunder)
The Mission: Just another film festival wrap up? Perhaps, but my intention is larger. Film festivals are frequently seen as elitist, but they're usually the exact opposite. Far from being intellectual exercises, these sessions remove the hype of stars, publicity, and pre-existing properties, and simply show you amazing films you otherwise would not have seen. In a year that saw far too many people arguing over which robot movie will make more money, TRANSFORMERS 2 or TERMINATOR 4, the films at MIFF reminds us how bullshit such arguments are, particularly for people who genuinely love films. My mission was to let as many people as possible know about films that may not, in other circumstances, be talked about.
Today's Lesson: A huge congratulations to all involved in this year's MIFF. Though I often complain about inexplicably late sessions or utterly awful marketing campaigns, I absolutely adore this festival, and appreciate the massive amount of work put into it by both paid staff and the army of volunteers. But this year's MIFF was very different to any other year. Apparently, the past two weeks has seen the festival garner more international press that its last fifty-eight years combined. Why? Read my review of 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE below, and you'll find out. Worth reading is this piece from The New Yorker; the attention this event has garnered validates my below assumption that the screening of August 8 was the most important film event of 2009. Amongst all the politicisation and intense arguments are the films themselves, some utterly remarkable pieces of work that remind us why we love cinema in the first place.
SILENT WEDDING: What a wonderful, wonderful film. This is the sort of find you want when you pick a film based on little more than a potentially-interesting description. The description was thus: a small village only moments away from a big wedding is informed that, because Stalin has just died, they are under an enforced week of mourning. That means no celebrations or laughter of any kind. Not wanting to arouse the attention of the communists, the village has the wedding in complete silence. This silent wedding sequence is brilliant and beautiful and hilarious, but only lasts about fifteen minutes of the film. The rest of the film is just as entertaining, filled with scenes and characters as well-developed as anything I've seen this year. This is one of the absolutely highlights of MIFF 2009, and had better have a wide release date.
DOUBLE TAKE: There was one thing my friends and I all agreed on when we read the description of DOUBLE TAKE, supposedly a mockumentary that takes real footage of Hitchcock and mixes it into a story of intrigue amidst the Cold War: it was either going to be completely brilliant, or a total disaster. Sadly, it veers towards the latter. On one hand, you have the story of Hitchcock meeting his double. On the other, the story of Vice President Nixon meeting Krushelov. In between, we see a variety of old coffee ads. The questions in one's mind evolve as the film goes on: "How will this all come together in the end?" "Will this all come together in the end?" "Why didn't it all come together in the end?" The film is wholly unsatisfying, utterly confused about its own identity (and not in an appropriately self-aware fashion). The footage of Hitchcock is poorly constructed. The same shots of him walking around the PSYCHO set are repeated ad nausuem, and makes it impossible to maintain any suspension of disbelief. We're also treated to the true story of a man famous for looking like Hitchcock, but this isn't woven into they narrative in any way: we just occasionally cut to him talking about meeting Tippi Hedron or something. The Cold War footage is equally random. At first, I thought they were going for some sort of duality metaphor, with the two Hitchcocks representing the USSR and the USA, and if they were, it didn't work in the slightest. A very messy, unfocused film that does not satisfy.
MURCH: WALTER MURCH ON EDITING: If I were to put together a Justice League-style team of uber-editors, Walter Murch would be one of the first I'd pick (alongside Thelma Schoonmaker and Jill Billcock). This is more a lecture than a documentary, much in the style of those "Hitchcock-on-Hitchcock"-style director books; a straightforward piece-to-camera in which Murch talks about his own editing techniques and what he's done over the years. It's an intriguing piece, particularly if you're an editor yourself, and very entertaining for fans of Murch's work.
THE 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE: I don't say this lightly: today's screening of THE 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE was almost certainly the most important film screening anywhere in the world in 2009. By now, you probably know the story: China insisted that MIFF not show the film about the oppression of the Uighur people in Western China and uninvite its subject, Rebiya Kadeer, who they claim is a terrorist. MIFF refused. China tried influencing Australian politicians, everyone from Federal appointees to the Melbourne Lord Mayor. They also refused. China pulled out all of its films from the festival at the last moment, the MIFF website was repeatedly hacked into, and, from what I understand, some MIFF people received death threats. Because of the publicity, this screening -- which was the film's world premiere -- was sold out. At the last moment, MIFF organisers moved it to the Melbourne Town Hall (not a traditional MIFF venue) to fit in the hundreds of extra people who wanted tickets. This won't mean much to anyone who doesn't know Melbourne, but the queue stretched from the Town Hall across to Collins Street, then up Collins Street to Russell Street, and possible further, though it was at that point that I lost sight of it. Out the front of the venue, news cameras captured two Chinese men in a heated argument that almost turned to a fight until the police stepped in. I hate to use the cliché, but the atmosphere was tense. In we packed, and the screening was introduced by Festival Director Richard Moore. Director Jeff Daniels and Rebiya Kadan were both introduced to thunderous applause, and the film soon begun. At this point, I think it's safe to say that the film didn't need to be particularly great to get a reaction out of the crowd. The fact of us watching was, in itself, a political act, one that almost rendered the film at the centre of the controversy moot. But it was good. Look, it was actually great. It's a documentary about East Turkmenestan, invade by China in the 1950s and rebranded as China's Xinjang Province. Since taking over, the Chinese government has banned the Uighur language and oppressed its people, handing all of the region's opportunities over to the imported Han Chinese. This story is told through the eyes of Kadeer, a woman who began life as an impoverished housewife, and soon became the most vocal Uighur activist in the world. We see how she became who she is, what she's doing now, and the impact on her family. Her sons are currently imprisoned in China, and Kadeer knows that if she stopped fighting for the Uighurs and renounced her activities, they'd be set free -- but she can't, a fact that her eldest daughter (who resides with her in Washington) is clearly furious about. I don't often say this about documentaries, but it should have been much longer. It's a tight, taut, well-paced 55 minutes, but I could have done with another half an hour to flesh out more of the facts. At the Q&A following the film, Daniels was asked why the opposing view was not represented. He told us that he'd repeatedly tried to get anyone from the Chinese government to comment, but all he got was questions about his own motives. The screening was fairly incident-free, but the air was electric. The fallout from the screening is yet to be fully appreciated, but it was an experience I cannot forget.
BRAN NUE DAE: The big Closing Night Gala actually took place on the second last night of the festival (the thinking being that nobody wants to party on a Sunday night). We all packed into the Greater Union cinemas (as we bustled in through the doors, I met John Clarke!), and, after what felt like an hour of speeches, the film began. The Closing Night film was an Australian film, a musical based on the play that's about twenty years old. The first thing you notice is how wonderfully bright it is. Andrew Lesnie is a talented bugger, and this is surely one of the best-shot Australian films ever made. The songs themselves vary; some are quite good, others don't really hit their mark, much like the performances themselves. There will be a lot of debate over who is great and who isn't, but there are some clear highlights (for me, Aussie singer Missy Higgins as a traveling hippy and Ernie Dingo as an old homeless man were the big winners). It's very good, but not quite great, though I'm interested to see whether my opinion will go up or down on repeat viewings. And this is a film made for repeat viewings; it's short, bright, colourful, funny, and moves along at a brilliant pace.
OUTRAGE: Following BRAN NUE DAE the night before, Girl Friday and I had decided to skip the big, fun, booze-filled after party due to the fact that I'd just contracted the horrible head-cold she'd had for several days. We soldiered on, though, as there was only one final day of MIFF left to go. The following morning, she went off to see the Madness concert film, and I went to see Kirby Dick's OUTRAGE, the documentary about closeted gay politicians in the US. I was a big fan of THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, and, as I have a big interest in US politics, this film was a must-see. Not surprisingly, it's a very ballsy flick, completely unafraid to out politicians who, it becomes clear at the end of the film, are still maintaining an image of heterosexuality. Now, I should point out that I have zero interest in the gossip culture, or of the parsing of people's private lives. The reason OUTRAGE is exempt from this is that so many politicians campaign against gay rights whilst maintaining a gay lifestyle. This sort of base hypocrisy justifies the entire premise of the film. A few complaints: right off the bat, Kirby puts up some text that positions the film as having an agenda, and mentions a "global conspiracy". The outing of the agenda immediately polarises the audience, and shouldn't be in there; it's another case of "show, don't tell", where the desire for notoriety (and the publicity that brings) seems to outweigh the need for the film itself to be objective. Secondly, mentioning a "global conspiracy" makes you sound a bit crazy, like there's some sort of secret cabal keeping gay issues secret, instead of -- as the film itself seems to confirm -- a culture where many in the media aren't sure how to address gay issues for a mainstream audience. Additionally, the film lacks a strong momentum for the most part; the first hour is largely a collection of stories about gay politicians, and though these anecdotes are both important and entertaining, it gives the film an episodic feeling, like it's not really going anywhere. This is addressed and corrected in the final thirty minutes or so, where the film gains speed and key conclusions are drawn. Hypocrisy in politics is always an important issue to look at, and OUTRAGE does it, for the most part, very well.
FISH TANK: I will never understand why people leave films minutes before the end, but I can take a guess. With dramas, there's a feeling that you know what's coming. Once you get into the home stretch, you have a fair idea of how the whole thing will wrap up, and there won't be any sort of science fictiony/thriller-style twist that will alter everything that's come before. Except that's not true. A lot of people seemed to leave about two minutes before the end of FISH TANK, an English film about an angry teenaged girl living on a council estate, and in doing so, they pretty much missed the point of the entire thing. A deceptively clever character-based drama about a girl completely unsure of her place in the world, FISH TANK is far more than the sum of its parts, and that doesn't fully become clear until the beautifully-rendered final moments. An incredibly well-made film.
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE: The first thing you notice about this film is its cast: Robin Wright-Penn, Alan Arkin, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Maria Bello, Zoe Kazan, Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci, Robin Weingert... that's not a cast to scoff at. Directed and adapted by Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur) from her own book, it's the story of Pippa Lee, the sort of character you would normally find in an unnoticeable supporting role. She seems to know it, too, and harbours a desire to be her own leading character. As she and her aging husband (Arkin) enter what feels to both of them to be the final stage of their lives, she looks back at her upbringing and what brought her to her current position. Though it lacks the biting satire that would be brought to it by, say, Sam Mendes, it's an excellent film from start to finish. It's also the career best work of both Robin Wright-Penn and Keanu Reeves, with Wright-Penn in particular giving a truly brilliant, nuanced performance. The film was marred by a projection error: the sound dropped out twice for about a minute. The second time, Reeves's character was in the midst of a speech about his life. The sound came back on and he said something to the effect of "And that's all you really need to know about me". Great.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE: The final film! Quite by design, I'd resisted the temptation to see GIRLFRIEND as soon as possible, preferring to leave it as my final MIFF session ever. As I've said many times, Soderbergh is my favourite director, and the opportunity to close out this year's MIFF with his film was impossible to pass up. Had I realised I'd be cold-ridden and practically unable to breathe, I probably would have rethought that. Nevertheless, I was fired up, and the film certainly didn't disappoint. The film takes its central premise (an escort who provides the full experience of having a girlfriend, not just the sex) and explores its every facet, from the clients to the escort herself to the people around her. We see it from every angle, and the film is perhaps the most chronologically disjointed of any of Soderbergh's films. More than a gimmick, it enhances its own goal: to challenge our opinions and our eagerness to judge. Had it been told in a straightforward manner, GIRLFRIEND would have been a great, clever film that simply challenged our opinions on what an escort's life was like. With its jigsaw-like rearranging, it presents us with moments and motivations that are given a completely different spin when seen later in their proper context. Set (and possibly shot) in later October of 2008, it's also a snapshot of a country heading towards an election with its economy in turmoil. That economic turmoil is a key element of the film, adding an important poignancy to the relationship between money and basic human connections. As possibly the most adventurous and successfully-experimental directors working today, Steven Soderbergh has again given us a film unlike anything else out there. After a complex look at these different people, their interactions, their motivations, their effects on one another, the film's final shot shows us a moment of intimacy that dares you to define it, to categorise it, to judge it. You can't, and therein lies the film's brilliance.
Following the final session, those of us still standing wandered around until we found a late-night bar that did both alcohol and hot drinks. Until the wee hours of the following morning, we discussed the previous several days, beginning with the challenge of "top five favourite films", and moving onto "biggest disappointment", "best moment", "what do you wish you'd seen?" etc. It was a great conversation, and helped me to realise that I'm not prepared to rank the films I saw just yet. Sure, I'll do a top ten at the end of the year, but the nature of the festival and the disparity of films left me more comfortable with leaving the films unranked. If you want to know what I loved and what I didn't love, the previous entries are linked to below.
My final tally of films was 65 (not counting the short film I saw, and not counting the non-MIFF screenings of UP and PONYO that took place during the festival; additionally, this number includes the two films I ended up walking out of for various reasons). During the festival, I discovered that it's possible to see seven films in one day without completely losing your marbles. I got to watch BALIBO with Jose Ramos-Horta, and 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE with Rebya Kedan. I took part in arguments over politically-charged decisions that made sense, and acts of defiance that didn't. I got to spend two weeks watching a large number of utterly brilliant films that, were it not for MIFF, I likely would not have seen.
LATAURO DOES MIFF #1: BALIBO, THE COVE, ALL ABOUT ACTRESSES, IN THE LOOP, THIRST, KIMJONGILIA, THE BEACHES OF AGNES, ALPHAVILLE, LETTER TO ANNA, VICTORIA, PIERROT LE FOU, MOMMO, MOON, and IT CAME FROM KUCHAR
LATAURO DOES MIFF #2: HOME, ABOUT ELLY, RED RIDING: 1974, AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK, HUMPDAY, STILL WALKING, LAND OF MADNESS, RED RIDING: 1980, VAN DIEMEN'S LAND, THE BURROWERS, BURMA VJ, RED RIDING: 1983, AWAY WE GO, and THE HURT LOCKER
LATAURO DOES MIFF #3: VARESE: THE ONE ALL ALONE, BRONSON, THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD, CHE Parts One and Two, HANSEL AND GRETEL, CELIA THE QUEEN, DEAD SNOW, PAPER SOLDIERS, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, AN EDUCATION, and FLAME AND CITRON
LATAURO DOES MIFF #4: CITIZEN HAVEL, MOTHER, SHADOW PLAY: THE MAKING OF ANTON CORBIJN, THE EXPLODING GIRL, IT MIGHT GET LOUD, THE WHITE RIBBON, THE MAID, MORPHIA, ANTI-CHRIST, ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLOND-HAIRED GIRL, DEFAMATION, THE MAN WHO CAME WITH THE SNOW, BLACK DYNAMITE, HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN, and HOME MOVIE
LATAURO DOES MIFF #5: SILENT WEDDING, DOUBLE TAKE, MURCH: WALTER MURCH ON EDITING, THE 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE, BRAN NUE DAE, OUTRAGE, FISH TANK, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE, and THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE