Beautiful Losers

What defines a successful film festival? Judging by the noises the media make about this topic, a successful festival is one that launches some Hollywood producer’s latest studio release–and allows him to expand his swimming pool. Anything that might get in the way of such a project–the art of film, say, or the curiosity of a festival audience about what’s happening elsewhere in the world–is to be discouraged in the pages of the trade papers, which generally set the tone for the mainstream.

By this standard, out of the seven festivals I’ve attended so far this year–in Rotterdam, Austin, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Pesaro, Montreal, and Toronto–only the last was a solid success, and the 36th Chicago International Film Festival, which begins screening its hundred or so programs this weekend, will be another flop. No swimming pools will be expanded as a result of any of its screenings–not even its few prerelease showings of Hollywood movies, most of which will open commercially a week or so later.

I’m grateful. I won’t be bugged by local publicists or any of their west- and east-coast associates who in late August start deluging me with calls, E-mails, and faxes about interviewing actors and directors in Toronto in September–publicists who know that I don’t do infotainment junkets but are apparently so browbeaten by their bosses they feel they have to ask me anyway, sometimes repeatedly. Moreover, when I attend press shows at any of the “unsuccessful” festivals, including Chicago’s, I won’t be surrounded by colleagues who get up and leave as soon as they decide that a movie won’t bankroll someone’s pool expansion–something they do frequently and noisily at Cannes and Sundance, and something that’s becoming a serious problem at Toronto. This year at Toronto I attended a press screening of Olivier Assayas’s exquisite three-hour Les destinees sentimentales–a period film, recently picked up by Winstar, that moves briskly throughout, without wasted motion, but not one that will ever expand anybody’s pool–and I found myself so distracted by the sound of closing seats that I regretted not attending the public screening, where the audiences are invariably more open-minded and polite.

To be fair, one of the nicest things about the Toronto festival–still one of my two favorites, along with Rotterdam–is that it remains broad enough to accommodate all sorts of interests. Even so, films that appeal to less mainstream interests tend to get more and more marginalized every year, not because there are fewer of them or because audiences for them are dwindling–on the contrary, they seem to be growing–but because industry bullies with outsize wallets are shoving the rest of us out of the way, buying up all the members of the press who are for sale to use as battering rams. Edward Yang did win the prize for best direction at Cannes, but any audience member there who saw his Yi Yi (showing this Sunday at the festival) could have told you that there was no contest between the virtuoso way he handles a comic Taipei wedding and the jazzier but less skillful and less nuanced way Robert Altman handles a comic Dallas wedding in Dr. T and the Women (the opening-night film, which showed on Thursday and will open soon commercially). But characteristically, the media decided to treat the Altman farce as important and the Yang family saga as esoteric–partly because Altman has Richard Gere as his star, partly because of ethnocentric bias, partly because of the bucks at the disposal of Hollywood publicists. Of course money can’t perform the actual work of criticism, but it sure can function as propaganda, steering critics and audiences toward and away from products.

There’s a grotesque discrepancy nowadays between the number of films made each year and the infinitesimally small number that get screened at festivals. (Which makes it absurd and presumptuous when critics hold forth on the state of world cinema–how could they possibly know?) Yet the number of screenings can still be overwhelming; looking at a festival catalog is not unlike spending an afternoon at the stock exchange. So low-budget filmmakers who manage to get their work shown are under immense pressure to compete with the publicity machines of the big-budget directors. It’s dismaying that some filmmakers I admire have started insisting that I look at their rough cuts or tactfully informing me that their lives are in my hands just before (or sometimes just after) I look at their pictures–tactics that differ only in scale from those of the studios and a sign that the malaise is reaching epidemic proportions. (This time of year, the busiest, I also get tapes every week from unknown filmmakers who expect me to neglect my ordinary reviewing duties to look at them; I wish each of these directors knew about all the others.)

Almost anyone in the business could tell you that the process by which some films become household words and others disappear is much more dependent on money, publicity, the whims of big shots, and big-festival clout–such as high-profile placement or a prize–than on whether audiences respond to them. The worst part of this madness is that almost everyone pays for it in the long run–talented but unknown filmmakers as well as ordinary spectators. Only the steamrolling studios and their lobbyists benefit from such a vile atmosphere, but since they’re generally the ones running the show we’re expected to shut up and be grateful for whatever they impart. That helps explain why Sundance is treated in the media as if it were an annual religious celebration held for film lovers–even though it’s an agent-run event that every critic I know despises.

What would it be like if festivals allowed audiences to make their own choices about what to see and what to value, without caring about the films’ subsequent commercial careers? What would happen to the notion of clout and success if the only things that mattered were the interests of the audience? The answers can be found at festivals like Chicago’s–a triumphant and user-friendly “failure” because it has little to do with furthering industry careers and a great deal to do with expanding the choices available to us as viewers.

I’m convinced that there’s a meaningful correlation between a relaxed film-festival atmosphere and a relative absence of money. The best time I had at a festival this year was at the small one held in late June in Pesaro, a working-class Italian resort on the Adriatic coast. There wasn’t a rich person in sight, and all the movies were free, paid for by the local communist government. It’s such small potatoes that I doubt it even registered on Variety’s radar. I was the only American present, and I had a ball, because they let me watch movies for the sheer hell of it. I can’t prove it, but the charming fact that one of the better bookstores in town stayed open well past midnight on weeknights seemed related to the absence of money as well–or at least to the remoteness of shopping-mall culture, which perhaps comes to the same thing. The absence of money may also explain the kick-ass free concert by Emir Kusturica and his son’s band, No Smoking, in the city square, where I saw movies outdoors most other nights.

It was in that same square that I caught Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards and Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses, two movies that helped create the biggest news in world cinema this year–the unmistakable emergence of an Iranian new wave. I’d been hearing people talk about such a movement for years, even comparing it to the Taiwanese new wave of the late 80s and 90s, but I hadn’t seen much evidence of one until this year. I think what’s been heralded until recently–apart from films by Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf and a few works by their disciples–has been a theoretical construct more than a body of work, something more along the lines of Dogma 95. (Americans who went for the sucker bait craftily dangled by Lars von Trier and others might want to know that Dogma 95 has recently been upgraded to Dogma 2000, complete with a secretariat that issues certificates. According to Sean Farnel in the excellent Canadian magazine Cinema Scope, the new model even has “a brand name price tag [about 1,000 Canadian dollars to register a low budget film–they’ll take more if you can afford it].”)

A corollary of the news of an Iranian new wave was the dawning discovery that, like Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, it’s best understood in collective terms rather than as the product of a few auteurs. Of the ten or so new Iranian features I’ve seen this year, only a couple–Majid Majidi’s fairly traditional tearjerker The Color of Paradise and Mohammad Ali Talebi’s The Willow and the Wind (a simple but effective thriller written by Kiarostami, playing next week at the Film Center)–seem relatively untouched by the social upheaval one finds reflected in diverse ways in all the others. In addition to Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, I highly recommend Circle, Blackboards, and Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine–my three current favorites, in order of preference, none of which happens to be showing at the Chicago festival, though the latter will be at the Film Center next week–as well as The Day I Became a Woman, Tales of an Island, and A Time for Drunken Horses, all of which are showing at the festival, along with Djomeh, which I haven’t seen.

These films testify to a kind of collective sense of discovery that seems to be taking place inside Iran on a massive scale, which gives even minor films in the movement a certain flavor and importance. Indeed, sometimes apparent throwaway efforts come across as the most euphoric, including “Testing Democracy,” the second episode in the two-part Tales of an Island, in which Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Shahabodin Farokh-yar express their shared high about the February parliamentary elections with the kind of serious frivolity I associate with Robert Frank and the beats around the time of Pull My Daisy.

In an exemplary gesture that points toward what seems most energizing about the Iranian new wave, Makhmalbaf has deliberately suspended his auteurist status to facilitate the filmmaking of others, including members of his family, helping them create such wonderful works as Blackboards and The Day I Became a Woman. And it could be argued that the most politically meaningful “Kiarostami” film to date has been made not by the master but by one of his former assistants, Jafar Panahi. His Circle–a formally and ethically profound and poetically defiant statement about the subjugation of women, which deservedly won several major prizes in Venice last month and arguably qualifies as the first Iranian noir–proves that certain formal elements associated with Kiarostami, such as the use of real time and the omission of major facts about the characters, are in no way incompatible with radical political agendas and can even serve to further them. As Panahi–the same man who made The White Balloon and The Mirror–points out, that we never know why the women convicts we follow in the film were arrested, or whether they’ve left prison legally or illegally, doesn’t matter in the slightest; what matters is that they’ve left a small prison for a larger one. Similarly, the relaying of identity from one woman to the next–a kind of compulsive continuity that evokes Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty–is too passionately articulated and finely felt to register simply as didacticism, even if it has didactic aspects. And the use of real time and ellipses is instrumental in implicating us in the struggles of these women and others–starting with a woman giving birth in a hospital at the beginning of this vicious circle and concluding with a hardened prostitute in a jail cell. (As Deborah Young observed in an eloquent review in Variety, a film that implicitly equates hospital and jail is radical, regardless of where it comes from.)

Circle premiered in Venice just before Toronto and recently showed at the New York festival. No one knows for sure when it will open in Iran. It’s equally unclear when or how it will reach Chicago (which is also true of Jia Zhang-ke’s Platform, from mainland China, which also showed in New York and is the film I most regret having missed in Toronto). Circle recently found a distributor, Winstar, though given the paucity of independent theaters in the U.S.–the only ones that might show it–I wouldn’t be surprised if it took another year to reach New York and six more months to reach Chicago (the same time it’s taken The Wind Will Carry Us, which premiered in Venice last year). And if the U.S. becomes the last country on earth where it gets released, it’s probably what we deserve for tolerating a policy of fingerprinting every Iranian who enters this country. (When I met Panahi at the closing-night party in Toronto I learned that he was willing to go to New York only if U.S. Customs waived this disgusting and humiliating practice. They finally did, but only at the last possible minute; the policy hasn’t changed for other Iranian visitors.)

I do regret that the Chicago festival doesn’t include some films that showed at Cannes, including Nagisa Oshima’s weird and fascinating Gohatto (“Taboo”), Terence Davies’s The House of Mirth (it’s not the kind of work that really suits him, and it lacks his signature moments of religious ecstasy; but it’s a luminous and faithful adaptation of a great novel), Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (as compressed and as restrained as Happy Together was all over the place), and the aforementioned Assayas film. Nevertheless, Chicago is showing more of the best movies I’ve seen at other festivals than it has in over a decade. I’ve seen almost a third of this year’s offerings, and I can’t remember another year when the festival had so many rewarding, entertaining, and illuminating films (apart from a few pieces of the usual meaningless padding).

That these movies can be seen in relatively relaxed and congenial circumstances is something to cherish and celebrate–a great contrast to the boorish press screenings at Cannes, where loud hissing greets many of the greatest films shown there. The Chicago festival is splintered this year between three parts of the city, which can make it harder to hang out with other festivalgoers and harder to get to some films. But it also may give some people access to films in their own neighborhood–and you can be sure the strategy wasn’t designed to create the kind of snobbish mob scenes typical of “successful” festivals.

In past years I’ve usually made contorted efforts to rank all the festival films I’ve seen, but this year I’d like to list just the ones I like best, which include half of the 28 selections I’ve seen. My top choices, in roughly descending order, are: Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (which also sometimes goes under the awkward English title A One and a Two…), the original (and longer) version of John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (my selection for the critic’s choice section of the festival), Chantal Akerman’s The Captive, Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman, Joe Dante’s The Second Civil War and Matinee, Serge Le Peron’s The Marcorelle Affair, Im Kwon-taek’s Chunhyang, David Gordon Green’s George Washington, Clara Law’s The Goddess of 1967, Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses, and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Legends of Rita. Seeing any or all of these films is my idea of time well spent. If it’s not yours, you have plenty more films to choose from. The reviews and descriptive capsules below are designed to help you wend your way through the possibilities.

Screenings this year are being held at the Music Box (3733 N. Southport), at 600 N. Michigan (entrance at the corner of Rush and Ohio), and at the University of Chicago Doc Films, at the Max Palevsky Cinema (1212 E. 59th St.). Single ticket prices are $5 for weekday matinees (Monday through Friday before 5 PM); $6 for weekend matinees (Saturday and Sunday before 5 PM); $10 for all shows after 5 PM, $8 for Cinema/Chicago members. Passes that are good for everything but opening night, closing night, awards night, critic’s choice programs, and special presentations are also available, and are good for up to two tickets per screening; they cost $50 (six tickets, seven for Cinema/Chicago members), $110 (16 tickets, 18 for Cinema/Chicago members), or $250 (50 tickets). For $54 you can pick four of the six critic’s choice offerings, which are otherwise $15 each, the same price as awards night. Special presentations are $13, $11 for Cinema/Chicago members. Tickets can be purchased at theater box offices at least 15 minutes prior to the time of the screening; they can also be ordered by mail (Cinema/Chicago, 32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601), by fax (312-425-0944), or by phone (312-332-3456; Ticketmaster, 312-902-1500). For more information call 312-332-3456.

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