Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)

A Few Thoughts

The Melbourne International Film Festival is a precious event; it’s that one time in the year when local audiences get to see not only the latest in world cinema but the most daring, challenging and exciting films and filmmakers from around the globe that otherwise would never get a local commercial release. In this sense, the Festival is not only a precious event it is crucial. And a film culture that aspires to keep apace with the international film community depends upon it. Therefore, we have a right to make demands on the Festival.

The role of the Melbourne International Film Festival is becoming increasingly important in current times especially due to the ‘commercialisation’ of art-house cinemas, as outlined by George Papadopoulos in this issue. If American Beauty can screen at supposedly local ‘art cinema’ theatres then what does that say about the state of the ‘art cinema’ product? Progressive art cinema distributors and exhibitors are rare. In this ever increasingly commercial, conservative climate in which the notion of ‘art cinema’ is restricted to Woody Allen films, safe satirical pieces on the American family, something like Ordinary Decent Criminal and High Fidelity, all that one can do is turn to special events like MIFF with hopeful anticipation.

While there were some remarkable highlights of the program, in particular The Wind Will Carry Us, Audition, Gemini, all the Claire Denis films and the Suzuki retrospective, MIFF 2000 also seemed to take this totally safe, middle-class approach in its programming. Yes, we got to see the Cannes winners (Throne of Death, Songs from the Second Floor), the latest and the best in Iranian cinema (Wind, Blackboards), cutting-edge Asian cinema (Audition, Gemini) and excellent documentaries (Benjamin Smoke, Mr Death: the Rise of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Hurt, Louis Prima: the Wildest!), but there were also too many films that were ordinary, average fare: Witchcraft, Passionate Women, I’ll Take You There, Chuck and Buck, Nobody Knows Anybody, Funny Felix. And maybe there were more that I didn’t see. In addition, the “International Panorama” section included a good deal of English-speaking commercial fare and middle-brow foreign films, the latter seemingly included on the basis that they were from a foreign country rather than for their cinematic worth (nothing illustrates this better than Witchcraft). Furthermore, to measure the Festival against its primary publicity pitch – “see what’s out there” – there was a striking absence of films from Central and South America such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico (the Brisbane International Film Festival [BIFF] compared favourably here). In terms of “seeing what’s out there”, our vista was restricted to mainly English-speaking (USA and UK) and tokenistic, European, films.

If the section titled “Towering over the Eiffel – new French cinema” was intended to pay homage to the French film industry as one that is “extraordinarily innovative and dynamic” then why weren’t there the latest films by French filmmakers Leos Carax, Benoît Jacquot and Olivier Assayas? The reason pertaining to the last figure seems especially suspect given the fact that Assayas is a ‘known’ director locally and whose earlier film Irma Vep screened successfully at MIFF in ’97. It is opportune for MIFF to pursue a particular director’s output, such as Assayas, on an ongoing basis since it rewards both the audience (increased appreciation of a director’s work through familiarity with consistent themes, style and this kind of ‘educational’ function of MIFF cannot be denied) and the Festival (since the ‘director’ is known, she or he is somewhat bankable). Other obvious absences: L’Humanite (Humanity, Bruno Dumont, France, 1999), the most controversial film at Cannes 1999; and Rosetta (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne 1998), which won the Palme d’or at Cannes 1999 (Though the latter is strictly speaking from Belgium and not France, Raul Ruiz, also included in this section, is strictly speaking an international émigré than a French filmmaker.) Instead we had such middle-class fare as Funny Felix (for which MIFF even brought the directors out) and Patrice Leconte’s latest film La Veuve de Saint-Pierre, which is most likely to get a commercial release.

The few gems in this section, however, cannot be overlooked: Little Fellas, Human Resources and, of course, the Ruiz delicacy Time Regained. MIFF is to be commended for including such wonderful and vivid films into its program. But to place a master like Ruiz in this section only points to the absence of other French ‘masters’ such as Chantal Akerman and Claude Chabrol equally worthy of inclusion.

The ideal film festival – conjured not only by the cinephile but also by the individual who sees film as a magical, liberating and revelatory medium – is commercially non-viable, financially unsustainable. Or is it? As is well-known, MIFF has gone from being awash in the red sea of debt to a glorified state of profitability and commercial viability. MIFF is now a massive event: with The Age newspaper on board as a major sponsor, the program went out to 30,000 potential patrons. This is just one of the particularly sharp and auspicious partnerships and collaborations sought by MIFF to ensure the Festival a prominent place not only in the local film and arts community but the community at large. This lateral, inventive and pragmatic approach toward ensuring the survival of an arts event is highly commendable. And its success was evident in the unprecedented and overwhelmingly high number of attendances and sell-out sessions at this year’s MIFF. With promotional and marketing strategies all sown up and a fair amount of guaranteed crowd-pleasers, soon-to-be mainstream ‘hits’, films with ‘names’ and all the ‘sex’ attractions to draw the crowds and balance the books (Wonder Boys, Ordinary Decent Criminal, Hotel Splendide, High Fidelity, The Virgin Suicides, Titus, American Psycho, Nora, The Ninth Gate, Bread and Roses, The Million Dollar Hotel, The Girl Next Door, Wadd: the Life and Times of John C. Holmes) one would think that this would in turn both allow – financially and pragmatically – and require – in terms of a programming ‘vision’ – a counter-effect whereby real risks and dares can be taken. But this was not the case at MIFF 2000.

When one flicks through the programs of international film festivals or even a local film festival like BIFF, which screened L’Humanité, The Legends of Rita (Volker Schlöndorff, Germany), The Other (Youssef Chahine, Egypt), and M/Other (Suwa Nobuhiro, Japan), and the pages of cutting-edge film publications, one can’t help feeling a little cheated by MIFF and other specialist exhibition outlets over the years. The work of important filmmakers like Fruit Chan, Manoel de Oliveira, Sally Potter, Barbet Schroeder, Takeshi Kitano, Fernando Trueba, Tsui Hark, Stan Brakhage, Chantal Ackerman, Philippe Garrel, Abel Ferrara, Nagisa Oshima, Volker Schlöndorff, Youssef Chahine, Arturo Ripstein, Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, Im Kwon-Taek, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Agnès Varda – all way passed the early stages of their career and all still active today – remain largely unknown to the majority of the local film community. It’s as though MIFF 2000 ignored this tradition entirely. And although MIFF has included films by several of these filmmakers in the past, their latest films were not included in this year’s program.

While there were some great coups with films ushered in direct from Cannes 2000, such as Blackboards and Songs from the Second Floor, there were other notable films which also premiered at this year’s Cannes not included in the program: In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai), Dancer In The Dark (Lars von Trier) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee). Whilst it is undoubtedly a difficult task to secure prints so soon after their Cannes premiere, one can only hope that these films make their way to our shores on another occasion.

Another problem for the Festival, it seemed, was its size. With the amount of side-bar spotlights (everything from animation to Ken Russell, experimental cinema to short documentaries, city-based films to digital work, and so on), forums and major programs, it was impossible to see most of the Festival if not all of it. After a while, the size of the Festival became a gesture to grandness, to include “everything”, or a strategy to ensure that there would be something in the program to appeal to all corners of the market-audience. If only this ambition of the Festival was matched by an equal degree of rigor, consistency and vision in its programming. My main contention is that I do not see an innovative and creative festival program and a commercially successful festival as being mutually exclusive. With the vision and skill of Sandra Sdraulig, MIFF has become the latter; now, it needs to develop and facilitate the former. Including more ‘daring and challenging’ films could hardly be a scary and dangerous prospect when at this year’s MIFF films like The Wind Will Carry Us and Beau Travail were sold-out events.

In Praise

In general, the kind of cinema that I am interested in seeing at a film festival is that kind which is challenging and exhilarating, intelligent and inventive, passionate and non-pretentious, that makes you step outside of yourself, out of your comfort zone. More specifically, I am interested in seeing films from world cinema that either work in the tradition of international art cinema (Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer); that are inventive, playful, disrespectful (exploitation, pop, underground – in this regard the special Beat program which screened at the BIFF would have been excellent); and that reinvent classic genre forms. MIFF 2000 offered a hand-full of films out of its 300+ program that met these expectations, for example, I could place Claire Denis’ films roughly in the first area, the entire Suzuki retrospective in the second, Audition in the last, and Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us as the film that exceeded all my expectations. These films plus others already mentioned made the event worthwhile.

A special event was the Australian documentary Hurt – a community-project – which completely disarmed me with its deep compassion and respect for the lives of many young Australians who had been scarred and disadvantaged by forces beyond their control. This documentary gave back to these young people what had been taken away – a voice, a sense of identity, space to breathe and reflect. The stunning work of co-director Philip Crawford, recent VCA graduate, is notable for its willingness to journey into the dark and emotional worlds of the characters. Other Australian feats included Better Than Sex and Angst. The former is a talkie-driven film about a casual relationship that turns into something more. Though at times it became a touch slight and banal the overall humour, gentle direction and very likeable performances gave it credence. In fact, there appears to be emerging in contemporary Australian film a certain lighter and subtler style in films like Better Than Sex and Angst distinct from the heaviness, ‘grotesqueness’ and quirkiness in such films as Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding. Instead films like Better Than Sex and Angst exhibit a style that is more restrained and modest, highly and acutely attentive to the details of daily life and (sub)cultural identity, and whose characters are far less exaggerated or even caricatured. Unlike Love and Other Catastrophes, Angst didn’t have that feeling of self-consciousness, what Jake Wilson describes in this issue as “narcissism”. Angst seemed to me to be a genuinely modest and understated film that was happy to revel in the daily lives of its most unglamorous characters.

The highlight of the “International Panorama” section, and in fact the highlight of the entire Festival, was Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, a film that resolutely defied convention but that was filled at every moment with a rich gentleness, humour and a deep compassion for life. MIFF is to be highly commended for screening this film and for consistently screening Kiarostami’s films over the years (Taste of Cherry screened at MIFF 1998). The “Regional Focus” was also an important part of MIFF, particularly within its (assumed) definition to exhibit cutting-edge, non-commercial world cinema. The films Audition, Gemini, Seventeen Years, Postcard, Nang Nak were all utterly thrilling in different ways. Though the selection that made up the “Regional Focus” is only a small sample of current Asian cinema, it was a worthy selection. Personally, though, I would be happy for other parts of the program to be cut down or eliminated in order for more programming space to be devoted to current Asian films.

Retrospectives are one of the Festival’s strongest and richest features – in this case MIFF is to be highly commended for its two major retrospectives: Seijun Suzuki and Claire Denis. The former, though very restricted, was a precious package. The latter was invaluable and priceless. The ability to view all of Denis’ films back-to-back and see the development and variation of technique and theme throughout the course of her career was extremely rewarding. The popularity of Denis’ films, in particular Beau Travail prove that there exists an audience for intelligent, humanist and non-narrative films in Melbourne and that it’s through intelligent promotion and wise presentation (such as, in this case, showcasing the full output of Denis’ career) that results can be beneficial for all.

The Buñuel package was a very modest one, serving well an ‘educational’ function for those unfamiliar with his key films, while the Ken Russell retrospective was easily overlooked and missed in the rush to see other competing films on the schedule. The “Documentaries” section was spotted with occasional gems like Louis Prima: the Wildest!, Benjamin Smoke, Mr Death: the Rise of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. and the mildly interesting The Girl Next Door. The “Citadel – film & video exploring the city limits” program, curated by Experimenta, was filled with generally highly negligible and uninspiring shorts, the only interesting film being Amber City by the prolific Jem Cohen.

In terms of the presence of experimental cinema in the program “Peepshow – titillation & the moving image” was a highlight and it was a relief to have some form of rigorous, experimental and intelligent approach to the moving image within the Festival program. Unfortunately the program’s validity and credibility was compromised by the ‘sex-content’ implication in the program’s title, which although drew crowds and secured sell-out sessions seemed to attract people for the wrong reasons. As a viewer interested in experimental cinema, I found the “Peepshow” program to be exciting and inspiring. Films included the wonderfully inventive and satirical The Morphology of Desire (Robert Arnold, 1998), the haunting removed (naomi uman, 1999) and the highly visceral work of Dietmar Brehm. The highlights of both programs however were The Amateurist by Miranda July and Cama (Bed) by Ximena Cuevas – two contemporary, prolific, intelligent and cutting-edge female video artists.

Of particular interest was July’s The Amateurist, a 14min-short, which is a disturbing meditation on ideas of human productivity, and the imposition of ‘systems’ on humans as frameworks for measuring productivity and for regulating and rationalising daily life.

The Amateurist

The story consists of a woman, dressed conservatively and professionally, who ‘imposes’ and ‘reads’ numbers on the body of a young, barely clad woman who appears on a TV monitor. Both characters are performed by July. The film switches between two main shots: that of the professional woman, always appearing in close-up, with the TV screen located immediately beside her (within which the latter appears confined within an unspecified space but ultimately confined within the borders of the TV monitor) and a ‘receiving’ screen-shot upon which numbers, ordered by the professional woman from the subjugated woman, appear. The cheesy optimism and sentimentalism of the professional woman contrasts with the attitude and disposition of the objectified, confined woman which varies from happiness to tiredness to anger to frustration. The TV-bound woman is an “amateur” who wakes up every morning asking “what will I do today”. The controlling-woman says if she were a “professional” she’d know that others decide this for her.

The combination of pathos, irony, satire and black humour makes The Amateurist an unnerving experience. It is particularly haunting and affecting in its ironic and perverse emphasis on ‘systems’ and the idea that arbitrary systems subjugate and regulate the body and creativity. July’s take on the modern world, and how people and things are defined, is resonant and haunting. It is the arbitrary systems that regulate our daily lives which July interrogates. As Chris Chang offers in an interview with the artist “Arbitrary systems hold the world together and when you remove reality-based content you can arrive at, for example, the eerie emotional formalism of The Amateurist.” (1)

It’s with the spirit and artistic ingenious of a 26-year old artist from Portland – along with the sounds and images of many other films – that I left the 49th Melbourne International Film Festival, and for that I’m thankful.

Endnotes

  1. Chris Chang “Renaissance – Riot Grrrl Rising”, Film Comment, vol.36 no.4, July-August 2000.