The first films I saw at Sundance 2013 started on a political note, and the list of nonfiction entries to come look to be even more charged.
Two documentaries made a schizophrenic double feature, starting with the tender, melancholy yet emphatic observational doc, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s “After Tiller,” which follows the work done by the last four doctors who perform third-trimester abortions in this country, all who knew or worked with murdered doctor George Tiller, who was gunned down in a Kansas church in 2009. In its quiet way, it’s an advocacy doc to uphold the law of the land: despite a crazy quilt of state regulations, what they do is legal under federal law.
But that was counterbalanced by a reckless, infuriating piece of work for Showtime, “The World According to Dick Cheney,” a credulous, near-hagiography of the former vice president’s decades-long political scheming and proud lying. Built around four days of interviews, “Cheney,” in this incarnation—the filmmakers say they have the out-of-DVD extras for the historical record—is told from his point-of-view, and the first hour, narrated by Dennis Haysbert, suggests that Cheney’s entire life was willed, as if a fated life narrative were unfolding before us. Read the rest of this entry »
The Chicago Underground Film Festival turns eighteen this week. On Memorial Day, we checked in with Bryan Wendorf, longtime artistic director and programmer (who’s quick to note the “hugely instrumental” role of festival coordinator and assistant programmer Lori Felker this year).
“Submissions were just over 1,000 this year, down a little from our highest point between 1999 and 2001,” Wendorf says, “which may be the result of spending less on advertising our call for entries. But this still gives us a lot of work to choose from.” But, for the first time in several years, CUFF thinks locally on opening night. “This is the first time in several years that we’ve opened with a local filmmaker’s premiere, ‘Some Girls Never Learn,’ by School of the Art Institute grad Jerzy Rose.” Kicking off with Chicago-made work, he says, “always means better attendance and I think a lot of people are excited by this film and by the festival as a whole. The past few years we’ve opened with work that had come with awards and positive word-of-mouth from other festivals, but people really get more excited by something local. Jerzy is a very talented filmmaker who makes films that are too odd for most indie fests but too ‘narrative’ for most avant-garde-experimental festivals. In many ways, he’s the perfect type of filmmaker for a festival like ours.” Read the rest of this entry »
Highlights of the final week of the 13th European Union Film Festival at Siskel include Bruno Dumont’s “Hadewijch,” (Sat, Wed) and Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain” (Sun-Mon). Dumont’s provocations have ranged from the murders of “L’humanite” to the sex-crazed “Twenty-nine Palms,” yet there’s something in his latest, a study of the boundaries of belief and fanaticism in Europe today, seen through the eyes of a teenage girl shunned from becoming a nun, who takes up with other religions in unexpected ways. Dumont delivers potent shocks, but the most potent aspect of all is his attention to faces and to light: I’m not sure about the coherence of the underlying ideas, but the images are filled with mystery and concentration. Eighty-year old Jacques Rivette’s “Around A Small Mountain,” runs hardly eighty minutes, and its slightness echoes his lifelong fascination with acting and role-playing. The last shot placidly observes as a full moon is slowly occluded by glaucous clouds: the clouding of sight, memory, the pulling of a final curtain. There’s also a repeat of Peter Bagh’s “Helsinki Forever” (Sun), memorable a poetic city symphony and cinema-essay, drawing on archival and fictional footage of the surprisingly much-observed location. (Ray Pride)
The 13th Annual European Union Film Festival occupies most of the month of March at the Siskel Film Center, which notes that it’s the largest showcase in North America for cinema from the EU. Fifty-nine Chicago feature premieres, from all twenty-seven EU nations: that’s a lot. The past couple of years, it’s been a refrain of mine, which bears repeating: it may be the best film festival in Chicago in terms of curatorial focus, concentrated scale, quality of attractions and ease of attendance, all in two of the best theaters in the city. Some of the movies are set for release, but it may be the only chance anytime soon to see the bulk of them. Spain currently holds the presidency of the European Union, so the fest opens with Fernando Trueba’s “The Dancer and the Thief,” that country’s Academy Award submission, and the first narrative feature from the director of “Belle Époque” in eight years. The big winner at Spain’s Goya Awards, “Cell 211,” a hit prison thriller, also plays this week. Other attractions: a preview of Niels Arden Oplev’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” (pictured) a 152-minute Swedish adaptation of the first of Stieg Larsson’s worldwide bestselling “Millennium Trilogy,” well-reviewed in its Scandinavian release, which Music Box Films will release nationwide in the coming weeks (with the two other adaptations coming late this summer). From Italy, there’s “Mid-August Lunch,” a comedy of manners in old age, produced by the director of “Gomorrah” and directed by one of its co-writers. (It opens at the Music Box in April.) There’s also the latest from writer-director Neil Jordan, “Ondine,”‘ which matches a mermaid and Colin Farrell. All three are captivating characteristics, at least from reports from Toronto 2009. Previews of other features will appear in coming weeks. (Ray Pride)
There’s a concept lurking whenever I talk to people who write about film, or filmmakers, or film people at festivals. Let’s call it “the conversation.”
The conversation is the cultural conversation: how does storytelling stand out and seep into the larger consciousness in the twenty-first century? I’m writing this as the early figures have come in from Sunday: yes, “Avatar” has been beaten at the box office for the first weekend since it opened by “Dear John,” a movie directed toward a female audience, from a Nicholas Sparks novel. “Dear John” made $32.4 million, $10 million more than the most optimistic estimates. Multiple movies directed toward multiple constituencies or demographics, all making money: that’s how an industry survives and thrives.
But the Monday morning number that’s more striking is the ratings estimate of the Super Bowl, its 106 million viewers set to topple the “Most Watched Television of All Time” title held by the last episode of “M*A*S*H.” There’s the conversation: what gets more than a roomful of people talking for more than five minutes. It’s more than the nominal idea of the “water cooler conversation”: it’s about a notion or an idea taking root and being handed along. With new distribution strategies, it’s a difficult concern for, say, a social-issue documentary like Steve James and Peter Gilbert’s superb contemplation of the death penalty, “At the Death House Door,” which was financed by IFC and made available on cable and on demand. In the mid-1990s, when “Hoop Dreams” was made, a theatrical release window before video was the first of a series of platforms, and along the way, not only the film but its concerns were discussed in the media. But nowadays, there’s the danger that a finely tuned documentary with sports at its center can have a sterling first-shot audience if it debuts on ESPN, but it doesn’t strike a chord in the culture. “On-demand,” on the vast scrolling menus, can mean “no demand.” Each film becomes part of the cultural clutter; it’s a plateau instead of a platform. Subtextual issues of race, class and economy don’t become part of the conversation.
Steering clear of how “the conversation” is steered in contemporary politics, and staying with movies, in the case of “Avatar” the most prevalent conversational topic has been “is it worth the extra money?” and “Oh yes, it’s worth the extra money.” Nothing wrong with a smooth ride. Then other factors, and media memes erupt: is it an anti-American tract? Is that abrupt ending transcendent or nihilist? Is its story a match to “Strange Days,” a movie by Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron about transplanted consciousness that had its genesis at the same time as “Avatar”? Is this ride a rebirth of the moviegoing experience or the death of literate cinema? Its sleek success as the highest-grossing movie in history becomes a topic in itself: are 3-D and IMAX tariffs going to necessitate putting an asterisk beside its entries like a steroid-injecting baseball player? (Probably not questions to pose directly to Cameron: filmmakers and writers are supposed to be a little off the mark in life, and surfacing after years in the “Avatar” bathysphere, he’s living up to his own bold reputation.)
Nothing succeeds like success, it’s said, but nothing gets talked about like success. One of my treasured experiences this decade was seeing the entirety of Jacques Rivette’s twelve-hour-and-fifty-three-minute-long “Out One” over a Memorial Day weekend at Siskel; sold out, buzzing, a conversation onscreen and off, but quickly, you realize that single 16mm print has only been exhibited less than fifty times and that auditorium holds 197 people. 197! That conversation will eddy outward.
After Sunday night’s Super Bowl, not being in the company of full-on sports fans, the conversation afterwards was about the eight spots for upcoming movies and for a single commercial that were satisfying as narrative in the way that good movies are. Notably, it was the first broadcast ad for Google search. By yesterday afternoon, before it was identified as the ad Google would run, more than a million people had watched the sixty-second clip, “Parisian Love,” since its YouTube upload in November. A slosh in the bucket, still, compared to the Super Bowl audience.
There are a lot of striking things about it (including cleverly avoiding the clever ending of clicking on “I’m Feeling Lucky” as the final image of the commercial), but in terms of moviegoing today, and how people talk about movies (such as “The Hangover” or “The Blind Side”), as well the evolution of the distribution of smaller films, of foreign language films, “art-house films,” to use a phrase used as little as possible by distributors today, is the embedding of the phrase “Who is François Truffaut?”
It’s a bright, breathless ad but in the middle of its rush, that was the pause for me: that question has to be asked? But immediately the eyes-wide realization: that rhetorical question breezed past 106 million sets of eyes, not 197. Audiences are fragmented, attention is diverted, but subversive little details drop into the conversation. Plus, it’s the best short I’ve seen so far in 2010, with a late, great filmmaker name-checked in an elegant piece of commercial whimsy. And yes, “Avatar” is anti-human.
Chicago not-for-profit film production company Split Pillow has produced “Life as Lincoln,” a seventy-minute documentary darling, directed by local filmmaker Caitlin Grogan, about men who make their living—or at least part of their living—as Abraham Lincoln impersonators. “Presenters” is the term they prefer, and as the film focuses on three of these men it shows duties much more rewarding than ribbon-cutting at mall openings. Lincoln presenters are often called upon to appear and speak at schools; they are educators as much as they are entertainers. Grogan’s film, which bounces between Decatur, Indiana, Kentucky and Washington D.C., shines a light on three men who take their jobs as Lincoln very seriously—in many ways, we learn, their calling toward the great president saved their lives. Read the rest of this entry »
The Numero Group, primarily known as a record label, is venturing into new media with “Celestial Navigations,” a compilation of the work of Long Island filmmaker Al Jarnow, who’s created everything from children’s animation on shows like “Sesame Street” in the 1970s to trippy, experimental short films. “He has a really fascinating body of work,” says Numero Group’s Ken Shipley. “When we looked at it, we were like, ‘How can we piece this together the same way we piece a record together?’” Shipley says that the difficulty of putting together a film like this is comparable to the difficulties they face when putting together one of their comp records. “The life of a project tends to be about somebody being passionate about that discovery and driving it to the next place,” he says. “We have so many projects on our white board, there’s probably not enough time to complete them all in the lifetime of the label. A project is driven forward because someone becomes passionate about it.” Asked why exactly Numero Group decided to venture into film, Shipley shrugs, “For us it’s just, ‘Let’s make some cool shit.’” “Celestial Navigations” plays at the Siskel Film Center February 19-20. More info and footage from the film can be found here. (Tom Lynch)
The rumpled red carpet at the State Street entrance of the Siskel Film Center has a bright yellow sign right beside it early Friday evening: FALLING ICE.
In the lobby upstairs, James Allen Smith is nervous. The lobby stirs and buzzes. Smith’s feature documentary, “Floored,” is about to have its first Chicago showing. Three shows on two screens that follow an open-bar reception are sold out. Most filmmakers are nervous before a debut, but this is also a crowd comprised largely of its subjects, floor traders from the CME. They’re potentially its most fervent, eager audience as well. Smith, smiling, realizes he’s clutching an extra copy of the film in its gray plastic box. Greetings are cheery, masculine and plentiful.
“Whoo! Woo! How ya’ doin’, buddy!”
There are women in mostly separate scrums—here’s a fur, a Chanel clutch, “Yes, I remember, we met on the street in Glencoe”—but it’s the men who swan and peacock. There’s some Brooks Brothers with intermittent bowties. A young trader who’s featured loiters in a designer plaid porkpie atop a thick, distressed leather coat. A man juggles two iPhones and a silver card case like a cigarette case. Trader Joseph Gibbons, a producer of the film, wears a bold purple tie below large horn rims and shaved head, twirling a black cigar almost a foot long, the most expensive Tootsie Roll in the Loop. Read the rest of this entry »
Film festivals are retrenching around the world as economies contract and sponsorships dwindle. The Chicago Underground Film Festival’s 2008 edition ran in late October, just as the financial crisis began, at a venue that was difficult to get to by public transportation, during an Indian summer heat wave, opening on the closing night of Chicago International, which also was the night of Barack Obama’s primetime infomercial, just a week before the election. The results were disappointing. But a move to September this year, at the Loop-located Siskel Film Center promises better things. Festival director Bryan Wendorf is optimistic. “The economy didn’t really impact the number of films submitted. The quality, as always, ran the gamut from awful to brilliant but there was plenty to look at and choose from.”
Trends emerge during programming. “I never look to program around a predetermined theme, but once the films and videos are chosen patterns emerge,” Wendorf says. “This year there seems to be a lot of work dealing with ideas about place, home and globalization. Some of the work, like Lucy Raven’s experimental documentary ‘China Town’ deals with this in a very conscious and direct way while other works address these issues from more oblique angles.” Another trend is for work on digital video to exploit its own textures rather than pretending it’s the same as film. “Video is almost infinitely malleable. But the festival has never set out to be a ‘new media’ showcase and we are still seeing great work on 16mm and 35mm.”
French director Alain Cavalier, who turns 78 next month, has been known in recent decades for his minimalist work, from the set-bound saintliness of the tableaux-driven “Thérèse ” (1986) to his austere DV essays, deeply personal explorations like “La rencontre” (1996) and long-take interview pieces like “Les Braves: Jean Widhoff” (2008). Yet his 1962 “Le combat dans l’ile,” an audacious political thriller hatched in the midst of the New Wave, is made with sterling craft. Clément (Jean Louis Trintignant, still young, ever-stoic) belongs to a right-wing terrorist group in a time when French conflicts in Algeria and Vietnam could only be alluded to in movies. Betrayed by a fellow conspirator, Clément goes on the run with his wife Anne (Romy Schneider, luminous) and winds up hiding in the country at the home of a friend since childhood, the more liberal Paul (Henri Serre). Triangular tension emerges with political undertones. Trintignant’s character bears some of the same conflicts and hits some of the same notes the actor would refine in Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” (1970). The silvery black-and-white cinematography by Pierre Lhomme (“Army of Shadows,” “Four Nights of a Dreamer,” “The Mother and the Whore”) is often exquisite. 104m. 35mm. (Ray Pride)