The final film I see at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival is Aleksei German’s Under Electric Clouds, a collection of gloomy vignettes set in a pre-apocalyptic Russia. Yes, I think you could call it “pre-apocalyptic”: for all of the dilapidated buildings and wasteland exteriors, the film’s mostly unspoken catastrophe hasn’t yet left its cocoon. It crouches, it waits, the credits roll and we file out of the multiplex.
Under Electric Clouds is not intended as a metaphor for the film industry, but it’s hard not to feel a similar sense of foreboding as the festival’s last screenings wind up. That this 17-day celebration of art cinema exists at all is testament to art cinema’s fragility. We go to many of these screenings aware that we may well never get the chance to experience them again – at any rate, not through any Australian distribution networks. The Melbourne International Film Festival trades on that knowledge. It seduces us with the promise of seeing a marginalised cinema, a cinema barely tolerated by the free market.
With our country teetering on the edge of recession, that’s a tenuous arrangement. Even after 63 years, there’s no certainty that the festival, which depends partially on state funding, will still be rolling around in 10, 20, 30 years. In the post-celluloid age of torrents and streaming platforms, that may not be a tragedy; indeed, the idea of an annual curated event may soon be an anachronism. But change, inevitably, brings uncertainty.
The history of cinema is full of such moments. Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room (2015) harks back to one such time: the end of the silent era; the end of cinema’s adolescence. The art form survived and flourished, of course, but many of its early works didn’t, abandoned in rubbish bags or warehouse fires.
Maddin and Johnson’s film is a mock recreation of these lost silents and early talkies, wringing knowing laughs from the tropes of those films as we encounter them today – damaged film stock, exaggerated gestures, idiosyncratic title cards and all. This is not quite parody in the sense of, say, Airplane! (a.k.a. Flying High, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, 1980), or Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979); those films capitalised on genres that still held currency in popular culture. The Forbidden Room is an arcane, obscure exercise. It feels like a lost film itself.
If you want to know where art cinema is at nowadays, the common wisdom goes, you take a trip to a southern coastal French town in May, and hope to God you can score one of the good media passes. Otherwise, for those of us marooned on the southernmost mainland state of Michael Haneke’s seventh continent, you wait for the manna to trickle down into Melbourne.
Is Cannes such a drawcard any more, though? Of 19 films in competition, only seven make it in time for MIFF; and, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin aside, it is a mostly lacklustre bunch. The most disappointing must be the Cannes Jury Prize winner The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos), a film that is at once conceptually original, technically unimpeachable and stagnant; safe in every respect, from its cool, self-aware irony to its (by now, clichéd) cop-out cliff-hanger ending. Where is the passion, or the wayward creative energy in a work like The Lobster? This kind of filmmaking feels like a dead end.
The only way out of a cul-de-sac is backwards, and there is no better antidote to such Capital-A Arthouse box-ticking than MIFF’s “Psychedelic!” program. This is cinema at its most joyful and unfettered. Consider, for instance, the scene in Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (Czechoslovakia, 1966) in which a grey steel train track suddenly bursts with colour, its rails multiplying then merging again, its sleepers speeding away from the camera as if they were extras in a filmed futurist poem (which, incidentally, just so happens to be the premise of Australian Albie Thoms’ Marinetti from 1969, another film featured in the psychedelic retrospective). Like so many of the beautiful moments in Daisies, it does not advance a narrative or argue a point – it is anarchy for its own sake.
Films like Daisies still get made nowadays, I guess; but if so, they’re not coming to your local arthouse cinema any time in the near future, and they’re almost certainly not receiving Screen Australia funding. It’s telling that most of the films in MIFF’s psychedelic section are over 40 years old. Apart from, say, Guy Maddin, where are the big-name contemporary filmmakers cutting celluloid to pieces?
Sometimes, you have to look in unexpected places. Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul is not by any means an exponent of psychedelia – there’s often a surreal quality to his films, certainly; but his is an aesthetic of leaves rustling in the breeze, of mundane architecture, of the imperfections of human skin. The spirit of Chytilová, however, lives on in two key sequences in his film at this year’s festival, Cemetery of Splendour. The first, a superimposition of hospital beds over shopping centre escalators; the second, a series of night-time tableaux run through shifting colour filters. This is radical filmmaking, and these are the most jaw-dropping moments of MIFF 2015.
A couple of weeks after the festival draws to a close, The Herald Sun newspaper publishes an unintentionally hilarious hit-piece on the event. “Now, I am not a total intellectual philistine,” its author declares, “[but] the fact that most of these movies have absolutely zero popular appeal should be a cause for concern. Why not have a film festival full of movies that people actually want to go and see?”
The feigned concern in this case relates to suspicious inner-city activities and the ever-besieged taxpayer dollar. But she is right on one thing: if films were distributed solely on the basis of popular appeal, the Melbourne International Film Festival’s sole purpose – if it were to exist at all – would be to showcase the product of the big studios. “Art film” would be even more marginalised than it currently is. We should not shy away from acknowledging that interesting and challenging art, as a general rule, doesn’t sell. In a neo-liberal economy it is, at best, tolerated, like the festival crowds mingling with bemused Hoyts patrons at the festival’s multiplex venue in the Melbourne Central shopping centre. We cannot presume that it will always be this way.
What MIFF provides us with for now is access to an incredibly diverse array of styles and genres; a means of arguing, conveying ideas or simply interrogating the form. This is what cinema has always done; but here is the art form’s status quo, curated; and, by extension, an insight into its future.
Some works seem acutely aware of their place in time. Gaspar Noé’s Love is another in a sequence of public experiments with the 3D gimmick. It is as if he and his immediate predecessors – Herzog, Wenders, Godard – are, through practice, trying to explore the purposes that this technological advancement might serve. For Noé, ever the showman, it is merely a new use for ejaculation, but his pornography succeeds precisely because of its lack of ambition. Love is woefully acted, tediously self-referential and ideologically primitive, but it carries a surprising degree of emotional resonance. And let us not forget that unsimulated fucking, of which Noé’s film contains copious amounts, is documentary.
Interplay between documentary and fiction is hardly new as a concept, but there is still exciting ground to be covered within that intersection. A case in point is Joshua and Ben Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, a brilliant piece of psychodrama that – through its re-enactment of scenes from the lives of New York drug addicts, playing themselves – functions as both pseudo-vérité and, well, vérité. Joshua Oppenheimer, meanwhile, follows his own remarkable psychodramatic documentary The Act of Killing (2012) with the relatively more conventional (but no less devastating) The Look of Silence.
MIFF provides us with an opportunity to encounter new means of interacting with films, too: in one of the festival’s many public events, US-based critic Kevin B. Lee explained to us the history and changing form of the video essay, using his own ground-breaking work in the field as an example. This, too, is filmmaking.
Months have now passed since the end of the film festival. Some of its higher-profile titles have filtered into regular distribution, often restricted to the small scattering of independent multiplexes around the country. Others are still promised on “coming soon” lists; some, we know from previous experience, will take over a year to reach local screens again. Some will only be accessible on DVD through international suppliers, or on soon to be blacklisted torrent sites, or not at all. It is a system that already feels archaic, as if it belonged to a time when distributors still exerted a large degree of control over when and how people saw films.
Cinema’s always in its death throes; cinema’s always transitioning, becoming something new. How we will watch the best films of 2025, or 2050, may be radically different, perhaps unimaginable, perhaps quite recognisable. For now, at least – for the cinephiles of Melbourne, and those who travel from interstate – it revolves around a two-week event in late winter. 2015? Yeah. It was real.
Melbourne International Film Festival
30 July–16 Aug 2015
Festival website: http://miff.com.au/