Reflections on MIFF 2007

The Milwaukee International Film Festival, which wrapped up last weekend, has been an occasion for me to think about films and festivals. This entry will be on the films, and someday soon I hope to follow it up with some points about festivals.

I saw six films at MIFF. They were from four continents, made by directors young, old, and in between. I saw one documentary, one undisputed masterpiece, and several by fest circuit "names." I think I chose well from the scores of options, or perhaps I am afflicted by FJSS, (festival judgment-skewing syndrome); either way, I liked everything I saw. I know some people can see six films in 36 hours at Toronto, but I've been trying to teach my class, write my book (and blog), and see my family all the while, and there's a new TV season to keep tabs on, too.

Here's what I saw, in the order of viewing.

Madeinusa (Peru-Spain, 2006, dir. Claudia Llosa) is one of those films where much goes unspoken. The main character is an adolescent girl in an Andean peasant village where Easter is celebrated by a festival of misrule during which God will not be aware of sin. The girl is reaching sexual maturity, and during the festival her father intends to take her virginity but only after she participates in a village ceremony to celebrate nubile maidenhood. Then a handsome man from Lima materializes and he gets there first. At the end she is on her way to the big city instead of him. Her name, the film's title, is pronounced Mah-den-ee-YOO-sa and is supposed to be a common one in her culture, but it was chosen for the character to make possible a joke: when she is kissing the stranger she sees on the label of his shirt, "Made in U.S.A.," and misunderstands this to be her name. This jab at globalization serves to connect the film to an eternal theme of cinema in the developing world: the double-edged effects of modernization at it simultaneously improves and eradicates everyday customs and rites of local populations. The film is shot with a mixture of uncomfortable close-ups and stunning landscape shots of mountains and water, and it captures the feeling of an authentic, remote space. Madeinusa has the humanist, ethnographic texture of a tradition of international art cinema that runs from De Sica to Satyajit Ray to Kiarostami, and with one or two exceptions the actors are non-pros. Nice to know they still do make 'em like that. (The director is the niece of Mario Vargas Llosa, if that means anything to you.)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (UK, 200?, dir. Ken Loach). Technically not a MIFF entry, this one showed during the fest at one of its venues (the UWM union theater) and is a recent Cannes prizewinner, so I consider it part of my MIFF. Cillian Murphy plays an Irishman in the 1920s who is recruited to resist the vicious British Black and Tans. Murphy has a face you can stare at all day and it's easy to make him a sympathetic character, which his certainly is. The film contains some scenes of disgusting violence for something this artsy (one involving fingernails made me queasy), which ups its visceral impact. I admire Loach for sticking to his anti-imperialist principles all these years, and wish there were more politically-motivated filmmakers who are as adept at storytelling as they are at making a point. But I also sometimes think Sam Goldwyn was onto something when he said "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." In this film Loach seems too eager to boil over, making a narrative of occupation and insurgency that not only revisits his own nation's history but also works as an allegory in the age of Bush and Al Qaeda. So my thumb is up for the film's historical agenda, its cinematic qualities, its use of folk music, its performances, and its willingness to be a real downer. I'm not so keen on its larger agenda. Another note: I don't think I understood more than half of the dialogue but in a story this unsubtle it doesn't matter.

Woman on the Beach (S. Korea, 2006, dir. Hong Sang-soo) is a relationship dramedy. I had seen some of Hong's earlier, more formally experimental efforts, and had read that this one would be his most accessible. I guess that's either good because it will help spread the appeal of a major talent, or bad because it means he's sort of selling out. I don't know--I can't see this sort of thing crossing over beyond the fest circuit. The style is still pretty forbidding. Long scenes in which characters are shot from oblique angles, avoiding shot/reverse-shot, sometimes showing the backs of heads in lazy long takes. In many scenes Hong zooms mid-shot in a way that just seems awkward. The camera rests stone still on its tripod for takes of twenty or thirty seconds or more, an art cinema technique that seems just as irritatingly familiar as the current Hollywood technique of keeping the camera moving at every instant. Emotionally the storytelling is pretty cool and distant. The film is set at a seaside resort in the off-season, and the colors are pale and sickly. It tells a gently paced story about a love triangle, then one of the three characters is dispensed with so that the rest of the film can be about a different love triangle. For a comedy it could have been funnier, and for a drama it could have been more dramatic. But I might be a bad critic for this kind of film; the generic material is pretty similar to much of what's on television and I fear that American TV has spoiled me for certain kinds of subtlety. I like a story that hooks me within a minute and offers twists and reversals every five or ten.

I had to see The Boss of it All (Denmark, 2006, dir. Lars von Trier) after reading about its formal experimentation. Von Trier set up a computer program called Automavision to determine where to point the camera and created a game called Lookey to keep viewers from slipping into passivity. Lookey is supposed to insert a number of elements out of context in the film, and if audiences figure out what they are and how they interconnect, they win a prize. I tried to find the out-of-context elements; no dice. And my internet searches have turned up no info on what the solution to the Lookey is. Leave a comment, please, if you have any leads. Anyhow, TBOIA is a ridiculous film about corporate culture, but it has some pretty funny awkward moments. The cowardly boss of a company hires an actor to pretend he's the boss of the company so that the real boss doesn't have to deal with grief from employees, and all this mistaken identity stuff means that hilarity ensues a la Shakespeare and Three's Company. For digs at offices, I also recommend The Office (esp the UK show) and Clockwatchers.

The film's style is pretty odd. Not only do camera angles change for what seem to be arbitrary reasons, cutting faces off by frame lines and decentering action (I wondered if the computer choosing them had actually been programmed) but color temperatures and sound quality are also different from shot to shot. Why? Could be it's just irritating. This would come from LVT's desire to poke fun at "artsy-fartsy culture," as he proclaims in an introductory voice-over, but ultimately I'm not sure who the joke is on. (For more on TBOIA, you gotta read David Bordwell.)

The Super Noble Brothers (USA, 2007, dir. Mark Escribano) is a locally made documentary about a family of artists of one kind or another. Two of the three brothers of the title are record-diggers, enthusiasts who go out in search of old LPs and 45s in garages and attics and storage spaces. They're also DJs and record-store owners. The third Noble does erotic, Haring-style paintings and struggles to subsist. The film was made over a period of eight or so years and this gives it a diachronic quality missing from many documentaries. TSNB is a celebration of unconventional creativity, of art pursued more for passion than fame or riches. And it's also celebration of ordinary people and a kind of vernacular creativity. It is scored with some fairly obscure (I think) funk music that the brothers collect--one describes their record store as "white guys selling black music to white guys"--and this alone makes it worth seeing.

This is the kind of movie for which the Milwaukee festival exists. A regional fest has a mission of showcasing regional talent and encouraging local creativity. At the screening I saw on a Sunday afternoon, the auditorium was sold out and many of the attendees seemed to know the filmmaker or some of his subjects, who were in attendance and answered questions afterwards. The film's setting is our own town, the streets and restaurants and architecture and patterns of speech we know so well. This makes it hard for me to evaluate it; I feel like I occupy its world and this is gratifying to me but perhaps not to someone from out of town. But I really enjoyed TSNB and hope it will be seen and appreciated far and wide.

Finally, at the end of the festival I saw Killer of Sheep (USA, 1977, dir. Charles Burnett), the undisputed masterpiece newly restored in 35mm. This is a film we can admire just because it exists, because it captures an experience of urban black America that might otherwise have gone undocumented in narrative cinema. But it's also an arresting work of art especially because of its lyricism, its wordless scenes conveying depths of emotion as characters' most basic struggles are matched to evocative jazz or blues or soul recordings, connecting them to a history African-American struggles. Two moments in particular that stick with me are the scene of the husband and wife dancing against the background of a bright window, and the final scene in the slaughterhouse where he kills and skins and dismembers animals, both of which are set to Dinah Washington's melancholy "This Bitter Earth."

This Bitter Earth
Yes, can be so cold
Today you're young
Too soon, you're old
But while a voice within me cries
I'm sure someone may answer my call
And this bitter earth
Ooooo may not
Oh be so bitter after all

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