The writings of Bill Mousoulis
Looking Both Ways:
July 20–August 7, 2005
Question: Why did the film festival cross the road? Answer: Because it didn’t know how to go either left or right. In her report on the 52nd Melbourne International Film Festival two years back, Michelle Carey suggested that, for the future, MIFF “needs to trim the fat and truly think about curating a program and subsections with meaning rather than merely filling in the template”. The “template” being: 19 days, four or five cinemas running simultaneously, approximately 250 different sessions, a broad range of programming, some half-hearted forums, a casual “street press” festival guide, in short: an attempt to be all things to all people. The 2005 version of MIFF stuck to this template. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I saw 50 of the 250 sessions, and that constituted, for me, a pretty good festival. If the template was trimmed, to, say, 200 sessions, that would be disastrous (for me and my ilk) as it would almost certainly mean the elimination of left-field titles. To think that 50 commercial titles would be eliminated is too idealistic. So, all things considered, this template that MIFF fills in each year is pretty good.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked. Why not give the programming spectrum some sharper edges? To the left, more radical work, and even to the right – say, a Tarantino or Lynch. Danger one end, pizzazz the other. We certainly don’t need more MOR films. Why not have active curators who can enthusiastically introduce their films? James Hewison (executive director) and Nick Feik (programme coordinator) gave too many perfunctory intros this year. They spread themselves too thin. Why not give the forums more respect? Make them work better in the unwieldy Festival Club space. Give them 90 minutes, not 60. Make the audience listen. And the biggest “why not” – why not make the festival guide less trashy? As Adrian Martin pointed out in his critique of MIFF, “Screen Gems” (1), the festival guide is “substandard”, full of “PR hype”. But it probably needs to be that way, to ensure the commercial viability of the festival.
For better or worse, let me use this dreaded festival guide to navigate my way through my MIFF experience this year.
The “International Panorama” section, kicking off proceedings in the guide, contained 55 titles, “international” not including Asia. As with all the sections in the guide, the films are not listed in any discernible order, apart from a slight “programming bias” order. Commercial works like Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004) and Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2004) sit next to arthouse fare like 5 x 2 (François Ozon, 2004) and Yesterday (Darrell Roodt, 2004) sit next to experimental exercises like Chain (Jem Cohen, 2004) and World Mirror Cinema (Gustav Deutsch, 2005). I saw 11 of these titles, including three artful, distinctive, powerful works: L’enfant (The Child, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2005), Le Pont des Arts (Eugène Green, 2004) and Rois et reine (Kings and Queen, Arnaud Desplechin, 2004).
L’enfant finds the Dardenne brothers still utilising their insistent brand of realism, but this time they pull back on the intensity, and up the compassion. It’s a more measured style for them, their mise-en-scene giving more space to the characters, whose frayed emotions charge the screen. Great acting, sure, but also great cinematic form, as the Dardennes stretch time and space in a daring, exciting way. Le Pont des Arts is the opposite of frayed: it’s a lovely, stylised, poignant tale of a girl driven to suicide by the cruelty of her music teacher. Seemingly a romantic-tragic fable, complete with Bressonian acting and Ozuian mise-en-scene, it’s enlivened (or “twisted” may be a better term) by a gentle tone of camp. Very unusual! But very entertaining. Rois et reine also has an unusual mix of dramatic and comedic elements. This film is a whirlwind of touches, most of them delicate and delightful. Its fast style ultimately gets the better of it though – it seems to trap itself in its need to unveil more and more, leaving it ungrounded and inconclusive at the end.
A similar problem besets Mon père est ingénieur (My Father is an Engineer, Robert Guédiguian, 2004), also in the “International Panorama” section. Its use of flashbacks to unveil its back-story works clumsily in the overall construction. It makes us not care for the characters, despite the ever-present grace of Guédiguian’s beloved Ariane Ascaride and Jean-Pierre Darroussin. Other titles viewed in the “International Panorama” section: Vento di terra (Vincenzo Marra, 2004) – a clumsy, overcooked melodrama; Clean (Olivier Assayas, 2004) – engaging and colourful, but a little too “clean” emotionally; Forty Shades of Blue (Ira Sachs, 2004) – a warm and humane, but also dull, indie flick; Palindromes – enjoyably perverse, but also profoundly flat; A Dirty Shame (John Waters, 2004) – campy, trashy sex comedy, it was a much-needed tonic the night it was viewed; P.S. (Dylan Kidd, 2004) – dreadful mainstream fare; What Alice Found (A. Dean Bell, 2003) – a light concoction, barely redeemed by its “small”, indie nature.
Next up in the festival guide, the “Australian Showcase”. This comprised around 20 titles, of which I saw seven. I am a critic of MIFF’s programming of Australian content (see my “Dreams for Australian Cinema”), but I believe they get it wrong by only one or two sessions each year. This year, it seemed pretty pointless programming the highly-commercial Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005). The two best films in the program (of the ones I saw) were Satellite (Ben Speth, 2005) and The Marey Project (James Clayden, 2005).
Satellite is an example of formalist, minimalist narrative – very rare in Australian film. Lo and behold, the director actually hails from New York, and is schooled in the ways of Jost, Akerman, etc. It shows. Three individuals walk and drive through Melbourne, occasionally crossing paths, but never really connecting (certainly not enough to create a “story”). Speth’s formal play is engrossing, the way he moves his characters through the cityscapes, the way he applies interesting rhythms to these movements, the way he stylises the visuals and sounds. The security guard doing his shopping and having some lunch, after his long night’s work, is a sublime, breathtaking sequence. Sadly, the film drifts a bit in its closing stages. The Marey Project is the latest film from veteran avant-gardist Clayden, and he is in magnificent form. Far from the severe fragmentation of his previous feature, HAMLET X (2003), The Marey Project, whilst still a huge puzzle to work out, is sensual and pleasurable, in its exploration of sex, power, murder, cinema. Instead of HAMLET X’s abrupt cuts and extreme dramatics, this film has beautiful dissolves and intriguing whispers. It’s an eerie work, reminiscent of La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962), in its clash of science with humanity.
I found three of the other Australian films worthy, but not without flaws: Blacktown (Kriv Stenders, 2005) is an admirable exercise, a low-budget DV narrative blessed with a wonderful lead character and actor (Tony Ryan), but marred by conventional dramatics disrupting the delicate, moving realism the film sets up; The Magician (Scott Ryan, 2005) boasts a great central performance (from the director himself) and is exciting in an overall sense, but is way too thin in both its narrative and thematic ideas, betraying its origins as a student film; Jabe Babe: A Heightened Life (Janet Merewether, 2005) is an inventive doco on the life of an unusual person, with the director utilising a particular cinematic form that nicely illustrates the subject’s condition (Marfan Syndrome, causing Jabe to be “big”), but the film’s inventive form also, ultimately, divests the film of any emotive power: we aren’t as moved by Jabe’s story as we should be.
And now to the bad news, for with Australian cinema there is always bad news. I decided to check out one of the hyped features on show: Look Both Ways (Sarah Watt, 2005). The festival guide calls it an “astonishing” film. For me, the only astonishing thing about it is how awful it is. As a treatise on death, it is tepid at best, flippant at worst. As a narrative construction, it is over-earnest and cliché-ridden. Crucially, the film is unnatural – nothing in it rings true, the characters, the settings, the ideas. The characters are so self-conscious – they converse with each other spouting lines like “What kind of a line is that?”. This is embarrassing. It’s a sign of immaturity – in the characters and in the scriptwriter (Watt herself). It strikes me that the makers of this film, its funding agencies, and the audience watching it and enjoying it, are fundamentally middle class, middlebrow and cine-illiterate. I’ll stop my critique at this point, but let me point out that I’m not being polemical here (for an underground cinema, against a mainstream one, etc.) – I really think this film sucks. Mind you, I’m in the minority (I write this report in the film’s first week of release, and even Adrian Martin has given it a positive review). I also found the 50-minute Stranded (Stuart McDonald, 2005) cliché-ridden and average at best.
Next in the festival guide, some Asian sections. It was a delight to see all of Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke’s films again. As well as being a rigorous formalist, Jia has a beautiful feel for the ordinary person, evidenced by the numerous scenes where his main characters interact with their families. His new film The World (2004) is disappointing however: its form verges on the conventional, and it also betrays a bizarre desire to “entertain”, especially with its animation sequences. The Jia retrospective was placed within a “Horizons: New Chinese Cinema” section, which contained a dozen more films, unseen by me.
“Sliced Life: Fruit Chan” was the major retrospective presented by MIFF this year, comprising seven of the director’s works. Most of the films, however, were screened just once, and they were out of order (some are connected), so the scheduling left much to be desired. As a result, I caught only two of the films – Little Cheung (1999), which I found engaging and enjoyable, if somewhat conventional, and the newest work, Dumplings (2005), which is a minor work no matter which way you look at it. Of the “Brain Monkey Sushi” Japanese works, on the opposite page to Fruit Chan, I saw none.
“Uchida Tomu: A Visionary Discovered” was another retro, and a welcome one at that, of a little-known director, Japanese, who directed over 60 features. The package presented (only) five of those films, from the latter part of his career (‘50s and ‘60s). I caught two of them – A Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955) is an impressive, eclectic samurai film, full of marvellous moments and unexpected twists; Chikamatsu’s ‘Love in Osaka’ (1959) is a more sober affair, but still constructed with confidence and flair.
The much-loved “Regional Focus” section graces the festival guide next. There were 23 titles in the section this year, of which I saw seven. The unexpected highlight was This Charming Girl (Lee Yoon-ki, 2004), from South Korea. One of the particular thrills known to cinephiles is the delicious sensation of experiencing a great director’s work for the first time. Yes, I have no doubt Lee is a great director. As usual with any virginal cine experience, it can take a while (maybe 10 minutes, maybe 30) to pick up on the director’s distinct style, tone, feel. This Charming Girl is disorienting early, as Lee utilises a fast style (hand-held camera, jump cutting) on completely banal material (our heroine watering her plants, etc.). But the film, and the viewer, settle in. Building slowly, with very economical flashbacks, the portrait of our damaged heroine develops and attains an astonishing power by the end – when we see her crying late in the film, it is profoundly moving because it is a shock to see her do so. Despite her trauma and grief, all film, she didn’t cry, not once. It’s a cheap effect in films, and Lee wisely avoids it. Then again, this suits this character – she is stoic, brave, able to overcome tragedy. Damn MIFF schedulers again – This Charming Girl was on only once.
Okay, I know the revered masters also had films in “Regional Focus”. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang, 2005) is a scream: poignant romance, porn, comedy, musical, all rolled into one, it truly is the work of a master; Hou Hsiao-hsien fares a little less successfully with his own divertissement, Café Lumière (2003), as its exterior scenes don’t resonate as they should, even if its interiors are gentle and beautiful; 3-Iron (Kim Ki-duk, 2004) is a modest but lovely film from one of the world’s most exciting auteurs currently, as he manipulates his abiding themes of violence, redemption, love in increasingly inventive ways; and another South Korean modern master, Hong Sang-soo, weighed in with Tale of Cinema (2005), again a modest film, but again an interesting variation on the director’s abiding themes (cinema, destiny, the battle of the sexes).
“Cinema Argentino” contained eight titles, of which I saw two: the realistic Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso, 2004), with its wonderful extended real-time passages, and quiet, cumulative power; and El Cielito (Little Sky, María Victoria Menis, 2004), an intelligent work (but with a somewhat implausible narrative), the director having a great sense of space and great sense of editing.
The nine titles in “New Europe: Visions from the Edge” now look very interesting to me, but at the time, I caught only one of them: L’intrus (The Intruder, Claire Denis, 2004). As a director of bodies, feelings, movements, colours, sounds, Denis is firing on all cylinders at the moment – the moment-to-moment cinematic play is extremely enjoyable. Somehow, she represents the characters in her world in both a corporeal and poetic manner. And she has the confidence to not only utilise ellipses, but to also infuse the realistic narrative with traces of metaphor that aren’t telegraphed to the viewer. Michel Subor is extraordinary, as a man attempting to alleviate his eternal ache, but his is only one of numerous extraordinary visages in the film.
“Emergence: New Women Filmmakers from Europe” contained six films, of which I saw two: Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004) has a great overall idea, but its details are bland – it’s a clever allegory on femalehood, with a feminist sensibility, but it is simply poorly executed, the script not honed enough, and the editing lax; El Cielo Gira (The Sky Turns, Mercedes Álvarez, 2004) has a similar problem – again, a great premise, but the final result not as sharp and effective as it should be (even given the film’s contemplative nature).
“Homelands Now: The Middle East in Focus” was a major program at this year’s MIFF, with just under 20 sessions devoted to it. Clearly a “festival within the festival”, I decided to not attend any of it, as I felt seeing only several titles wouldn’t do justice to the themes on show. I also missed all of the films in the “Zero to Hero: Survival of the Fittest” (sporting films) and “Documentaries” sections. But I did catch one of the films in the “Film on Film” section, the inspiring portraiture Le Fantôme d'Henri Langlois (Jacques Richard, 2004), and I also had some fun with a number of the films in the “Backbeat: Music on Film” section.
Of the “Sideshow: New Media”, “Animation Gallery”, “Animation Shorts” and “Short Films” sections, I just saw a few things here and there, nothing to really comment on. But within the “Experimental” program, amongst a number of good short films, was the new work from the Austrian supremo Peter Tscherkassky, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2004), another glorious 35mm B&W quasi-horror film, via the reconstruction of found footage – forget about any notion of “moment-to-moment” cinematic play, here we have a “frame-by-frame” play, and it is truly exhilarating.
As you can see by all the sections I’ve listed in this report, MIFF is an expansive, impressive festival. Staging around 450 sessions is no mean feat, and the organisers should be congratulated. The worst thing that could happen to the festival is that it becomes smaller. The best thing is that its programming becomes more adventurous. But that is unlikely to happen, because, broadly speaking, Melbourne audiences are conservative. As MIFF now begins to plan its 2006 incarnation, we hope it continues to, at the least, look both ways when programming its material: to the crowd-pleasers, but also to the difficult films. It really can’t compete with international festivals in the vein of Venice or Rotterdam, but at least it can continue enhancing its stature as a solid, non-glitzy, user-friendly third tier festival. As director for the past few years, James Hewison has also given MIFF a distinctly Asian flavour, which has drawn both praise and criticism from people. But it is bold initiatives like that that will help keep MIFF interesting and an event to look forward to each year, rather than one that is to be increasingly accepted in its averageness.
(1) The Age, July 16, 2005.
© Bill Mousoulis 2005.
This report first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.37, October 2005..