25 July – 10 August 2008
For the past few years, whispers have circulated of the Melbourne International Film Festival’s (MIFF) intention to cull its juggernaut-sized cinema choices down to something a little more curated, a little more manageable. 2008’s festival was certainly not that year. As overwhelming as ever, the steamroller of screenings over 17 days ensured that two different patrons may well attend completely different festivals. Just as it’s impossible to see everything, it’s impossible to discuss everything seen.
Allow me to focus, then, on some of the strange and exciting shifts which made this year’s program unique, and that potentially mark it as a moment of transition for the festival. MIFF 2008 has a newfound interest in the visceral over the intellectual; in looking back towards the past as much as the future; in the sometimes awkward mix of art and cult cinema; and proof that, as Richard Moore said when announcing the line-up, “commercial is not a dirty word”.
Last year, Moore kicked off his first MIFF with controversy: the Michael Moore documentary Sicko was chosen as opening night film, eschewing the tradition of launching with something Australian for a US-centric polemic just weeks away from a general release. This year, Moore selected another documentary in Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood to kick things off with a bang. As a mission statement for the festival to follow, this evangelical celebration of underappreciated ‘70s and ‘80s genre film in Australia was a clear warning shot against the bow of pretentiousness. It’s imbued with a genuine sense of fun, and avoids the error of preaching only to the already-converted genre buffs; it also serves as a eulogy for director Richard Franklin – who was interviewed, but sadly, did not live to see the film’s release.
The aforementioned scale of MIFF means that it’s always been tricky to identify a particular style of “MIFF film”. It will be enlightening to see if the recent establishment of the MIFF Premiere Film Fund changes that. Not Quite Hollywood is also one of the first six films in part funded by the festival itself. It’s somewhat cheeky to claim ownership over these titles – while not conceived as a finishing fund per se, the funding came to these six projects very late, in order to ensure these projects would be ready for this year’s program. Circumstances also dictated that they’re all documentaries, but fiction features are promised for next year.
The other stand-out from the fund is Bastardy (d. Amiel Courtin-Wilson): a modest character study of Jack Charles, indigenous actor, charming storyteller and Melbourne junkie. It has its flaws, especially in the haphazard fashion archival footage of Jack’s acting career and poetic landscapes are used. This material is mostly treated as wallpaper, and could have added so much more to the film’s impact. However, the genuine intimacy between subject and filmmaker over the many years of production makes it a powerful work, especially when legal concerns blur the lines between the two.
Some of the other MIFF Premiere Fund projects are far less successful. Whatever Happened To Brenda Hean? (d. Scott Millwood) is a cause-driven project that’s obviously a labour of love, but stumbles badly. The environmental message periodically lurches close to political advertising, and worse, the director’s offer of a reward for any information about activist Brenda Hean’s 1972 disappearance has the unfortunate side-effect of making him the film’s “star”. He’s constantly framed in shot with interviewees, and it quickly smacks of narcissism. Angel of the Wind (d. Tahir Cambis) charts the difficulties of staging a Tokyo theatre production in Melbourne, but watching it, you can’t help but think that charting the difficulties of the documentary itself would have made a more compelling story. It is a wholehearted mess, with time-wasting faux-filmclip sequences and thematic elements appearing and disappearing at random. It can’t even be saved by the solid “the show must go on!” narrative structure, and is a disservice to the theatre piece it is supposedly celebrating.
The festival experience is, inevitably, uneven. You’ll see a stretch of a half-dozen winners, and then whole days will pass in which you’re punished by the mediocre. (If we’re still searching for vehicular metaphors, perhaps a rollercoaster is more accurate than a steamroller.) Sometimes, cinematic failures are so bad as to be intriguingly baffling, such as the alternative history lesson in Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (d. John Gianvito). This entry in the Free Radicals program was my “Emperor Has No Clothes” film of the Festival. Gianvito’s politics might be laudable, but his leisurely tour of monuments and tombstones results in something that, at best, belongs on a loop in an art gallery; at worst, belongs in a poorly-photographed coffee-table book. The patron behind me angrily tapped me on the shoulder as the credits rolled, demanding: “Did you enjoy that?” He wanted someone to tell him it was as pointless as it seemed to be, and I was happy to reassure him.
If you were after less risky fare, artist-themed documentaries are a “safe bet” at MIFF, as interest in the subject instantly bolsters interest in the film. This year was no exception, with wildly popular documentaries on Marlon Brando, Roman Polanski, Kathy Acker, William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Gilbert & George, and many more. Similarly, a film’s country of origin can hold as much appeal as any synopsis or star. The urge to dip into the cinema of other cultures is a powerful one, and worth encouraging; more superficially, though, it allows all the fun of wild cinematic generalisations. One of my favourite eavesdropped conversations at MIFF involved someone happily summarising all Czech cinema in a few simple words. Admittedly, I’m not blameless: I announced that Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn was only a mime away from becoming The Single Most French Film of All Time, striking every cinematic cultural cliché dead-centre.
Jar City (d. Baltasar Kormákur) is both solidly engaging and a perfect example of the power of geographical novelty. A bleak forensic drama, although occasionally and welcomely punctuated with odd comedy, it derives much of its appeal from the local details that embroider a fairly standard storyline. Disturbing meat-based meals. Depressing flats against majestic Icelandic mountains. Although perfectly enjoyable in a masochistic fashion, it was still a strange moment to see the queue for this session stretching well over three blocks from the cinema – and I can only guess that its Icelandic credentials was a large part of that. Muddy cinema projection helped reinforce the notion that this belonged more on late-night television than the big screen.
The success of last year’s screening of Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) at MIFF has resulted in a collection this year’s Romanian Wave program – although, with films dating back to 2002, it’s perhaps better characterised as a faux-retrospective. It provided an audience catch-up with Mungiu’s previous film, Occident (2002). It’s a lesser work, but interesting to his style developing, and I admired the way he is so generous with his characters, refusing to make anyone a villain even as they might be standing in the way of others’ happiness. It’s just a shame the adoption of nervous, non-linear storytelling undercuts audience engagement, rather than enhancing it.
Another already-few-years-old Romanian movie, The Death of Mister Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005) is a perfect example of a film that benefits from its festival context – providing audiences primed to cut creative slack when required. Here, allowing oneself to sink into the film’s languid pacing and near-invisible directorial style pays off in a remarkable way. In almost real-time, we see Lazarescu ignored, chit-chatted around, barely addressed as human except to blame him for drinking himself to ill health. Hospital dramas have long been an excuse for frantic shouting and life-or-death decisions, but this response to television emergency rooms is near-faultless. No miracles, no answers, but still the occasional attempt at something akin to heroism – even if it’s just resisting bureaucracy one last time.
One of the odd qualities of a festival is the strange double-features they accidentally create, with wildly diverse films, side by side, inducing a kind of thematic whiplash. Sometimes, though, the schedule intentionally creates some gems, and seeing Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and Terrence Davies’ Of Time and The City together was one. They are both mediations on very different cities by men who were shaped by them; films about the impossibility of remaining objective about history. The bombast of Davies’ angry poetry about Liverpool – furious at how bad things once were, and equally (and perversely) furious that those things have changed – is bleakly funny, and a massive shift from his much-loved dramas. It would have become unbearable with a longer running time, but it’s short and sharp enough to be winning. Watch for Davies parroting the Beatles’ “Yeah, yeah, yeah” with such withering scorn that, somewhere, Paul and Ringo must have felt a chill.
Of Time and the City seemed even more bombastic after the feather-light touch of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. The way this dreamy recreation of his childhood mixes fact and fiction in equal portions is just one of the conceptual games that make it so enjoyable. (Pointing out his siblings are played by actors, while also claiming his mother – B-movie heroine Anne Savage – is not? Fantastic.) There’s real emotion sitting under the strange ideas, though, and his obsession with the past – the same perverse tug both away from, and back to, his childhood – is one to which everyone can relate.
La Antena (d. Esteban Sapir) shares with Maddin this obsession with looking back, as well as the nostalgic and expressionistic aesthetic of silent film. Visually, La Antena is beyond beautiful. Elements that could have been simple gimmicks are enhanced by Sapir’s conceptual care with them. (For example, onscreen dialogue spelling out “running out of time” ticks like a clock.) The film’s reach certainly exceeds its grasp here, especially when it comes to a few overt symbolic statements that are striking only as surface rather than subtext, but I’m eagerly waiting for Sapir’s next film which, with any luck, will be a masterpiece.
An initial flick through the program also highlighted MIFF 2008 to have a new push of retrospective programming. Not Quite Hollywood inspired an “Ozploitation” program all its own, showing some of the Australian perhaps-classics featured in the documentary. The opportunity to see the quirkily Hitchcockian fan-letter Roadgames (Richard Franklin, 1981) and stripped-back, utterly heroless Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston, 1978) was a definite treat. Disappointingly, however, these are already available on DVD in Australia; in fact, all but one of the Ozploitation screenings – Dead End Drive-In (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1986) – are available.
Is the point of a retrospective not about availability, but about the opportunity to see something on the big screen? Tell that to the people who walked out of THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971), part of the Tribute to Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight program along with classics from Bresson, Fassbinder, and more. Lucas is such an unstoppable tinkerer of his own material that I’d argue the chance to see the non-recut and non-mastered version is important, but the degraded print quality seemed to be too much of a loss for many patrons. Are we too used to our shiny flatscreens refusing to acknowledge the passing of time? Or is print quality just more important than screen size?
The most talked about retrospective – in part, obviously, because of the guest appearance of the director himself – belonged to George Romero. While cheerfully introducing Martin (1977), he admitted that while many of his fans would prefer if he only made zombie movies, it remains his sentimental favourite. Martin is a fast-paced, lurching mix of different genres – an opening rape and murder like something out of Haneke; a Turn of the Screw-style refusal to admit whether or not something supernatural is at work; there’s even a sweetly macabre romance is buried in the last half. As a deconstruction of vampire legends, it’s made more poignant by the fact that Martin is a self-aware monster, complaining that the movies get the details wrong, always conscious of his place in popular culture.
The decision to play a “bonus clip” before Martin, featuring an expert explaining the entire plot of the film, was a confusing one. Is the inference that everyone in the cinema had already seen the film, so there was no way they could be spoiled? Cult cinema often implies that everything is re-watched rather than watched. Like poor Martin, we must be aware of the complicated web of influences surrounding and informing cult cinema before the plot unfolds, right? The midnight-movie feel of MIFF continued in the impromptu decision to have a Romero signing for his fans; MIFF patrons lining up with their zombie DVDs seemed more like something you’d see at a comic convention than a film festival, but there’s no doubt it was appreciated. When Romero’s own Diary of the Dead premiered at the festival, a happily zombified audience was there in full costume, ready to stain cinema seats with fake blood (and real vomit, as it happens).
This clock ticking closer to twelve was apparent in more programs, too: both the Night Shift and Forbidden Pleasures programs flaunted their cult credibility. Without an appropriate amount of familiarity with Sergio Leone, would the raucous late-night screening of Miike Takashi’s Sukiyaki Western Django have had any impact beyond the purely visual? The Japanese actors struggled with the English, and that particular cinema soundsystem is decades from its best days, which meant that whole sections of dialogue were impossible to understand. Luckily the increased budget of Miike’s first foray into English-language cinema provided an even higher share of amazing visuals than usual. Miike, as always, runs riot.
A certainly amateurishness is often worn as a badge of honour by cult cinema, and part of George Romero’s charm is how he’s managed to retain a knocked-together, faux-verite style throughout his career. True amateurishness can be poison, as it is in Bruce La Bruce’s zombie film, Otto, or Up With Dead People. It’s an example of “synopsis appeal” so important to a filled-to-the-brim festival guide. All the keywords are present to ensure success: undead hero, hardcore sex, queer cinema. How can a film that checks those boxes be so relentlessly dull? There are some cute concepts buried inside – a blank-canvas hero of the kind Warhol would discover, a character who exists in a permanent aura of a silent film – but these moments are far too far apart, and buried under endless expositional narration and self-satisfaction.
According to Moore in his opening comments, Spanish horror [Rec.] (d. Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza) was chosen as the closing night film for a specific reason: it generated the most screams, laughs and gasps of any film he’d seen. This is the inverse of the meditative pleasures often present in art cinema, prioritising bodily reactions over quiet ruminations. (Hell, even filmmakers’ Q&As were replaced in part this year by directors DJing in the festival lounge, replacing cerebral discussion with booty-shaking.) It’s a shame that underneath the visual attacks of [Rec.] lie a fairly unmemorable horror flick, although enlivened by first-person camera style and clever used of its limitations. You can see the American remake, now only months away, already lurking inside the original – and that’s not the tragedy it might have been.
A better, if far riskier, selection might have been French horror Inside (d. Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo) which combines stylish and confronting imagery with the mentality of B-grade schlock. As a mother-to-be is violently attacked in her home, the attention to detail of the varying sources and shades of blood are painterly, even beautiful – and yet it is impossible not to laugh when a would-be rescuer is stabbed through the neck with a knitting needle. The MIFF guide gleefully assured that “This movie will offend”. This is presumably due to the shots of her unborn baby, thrashing with fear in the womb – a concept so hysterical it seems like it must be a jab at the familiar “won’t somebody think of the children?” mentality. The minimal narrative is less important than the way the gorgeous soundscape and endless splatter create a soft, dim womb-surrogate for the audience. I’ll leave it to others to decide if this is a post-horror masterpiece or a hyperbolic slasher film with delusions of grandeur, or if the distinction even matters.
Washing our hands of all this gore, I wanted to recommend one of MIFF’s success stories: the Next Gen program. As most films in the festival are unclassified (and therefore unable to screen to those under 18), this is the second year that a small number of films were rated for younger viewers. It would have been easy to throw some typical kid-friendly fare into this section, but the films on offer were pleasantly complex. Persepolis (d. Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud) isn’t really a children’s film at all; while the adaptation may lose some of the more explicit moments of the original graphic novel, I wonder if it would still appear in this section if it wasn’t animated. Never mind. It is a perfectly engaging and often funny movie about the real world.
The most unexpected treat of this program – and, for me, perhaps of MIFF 2008 in total – was Fighter (d. Natasha Arthy). A Danish film, Turkish lead actress, and Hong Kong fight choreography give it a thoroughly international pedigree. It’s amazing that slow-motion action scenes can sit so seamlessly next to kitchen-sink drama, but cultural concerns over assimilation filtered effortlessly through kung fu conventions. Fighter offers no clear answers to the complexities of being torn between cultures, and doesn’t cheat to give a happy ending to Aicha, the Turkish girl struggling to find her own place. The moment in which the identity of a masked attacker from Aicha’s dreams is revealed is a powerfully overt piece of pop-symbolism – and one that smacks down with more impact than many of the more “serious” political statements in the festival. Even with a very small audience for its single screening, it generated more than one burst of mid-film applause.
If I had to follow Fighter’s lead and find a single symbolic moment to sum up MIFF 2008, it’d be Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In (d. Tomas Alfredson). It is, in essence, a bloody kids’ film, and one that refreshingly doesn’t perpetuate the lie that if you stand up to bullies, they will respect you. It’s shot beautifully, all snow and blood and overcast skies, with boxes of warmth in small apartments contrasting with everything else; the relationship between the boy and his new “friend” is also genuinely moving. The film is torn, however, between twin desires. Does it wish to be a prestige art picture? A solid twist on the horror genre? The nervous tension between these two halves means that while both are perfectly interesting, neither is entirely successful.
Perhaps it was all the time spent queuing between sessions, but I found myself wondering what the point of a festival, exactly, is. Is it to see films that you can’t see elsewhere? The global DVD market, illegal downloads (for those who would, uh, stoop that low) and films already guaranteed local release make that less and less of a motivating factor. The latter category this year included: Michael Haneke’s intriguingly redundant remake of his own Funny Games; or the slickly inspiring tightrope documentary Man On Wire (d. James Marsh); and the slow-burning Waltz With Bashir (d. Ari Folman), which takes its time letting every element at work build to a knife-thrust of an ending, impossible to ignore.
I often hear talk of seeing films on the big screen, as they were “meant to be seen”; indeed, festivals are often the only chance for a small release to be witnessed in a cinema. Perhaps that’s true – but isn’t blurring together three films a day, with no time for reflection, doing them a disservice, too? The avalanche of imagery and sensation created by a film festival might better lend itself to rambunctious, visceral, and occasionally assaultive pleasures. If MIFF finally does begin to shrink down and curate more tightly, I will be fascinated to see if it continues this slow creep towards midnight cinema.
Melbourne International Film Festival website: http://www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au