WISCONSIN FILM FESTIVAL 2009

A moderate sized but respectable film festival, the WFF has grown each year to its current crop of 198 films from local and international filmmakers. The crowd is cosmopolitan, and you will as likely share your theatre row with suits as bums, with people on one hand arriving from a wine tasting party while the next cinephile will be spilling liquor from his brown bag all over his beard before passing out on your lap. Above all the people are almost disconcertingly friendly, and you will have your ears chatted off by what amounts to a mobile city made of amateur critics. At least there is little apathy, as people really put some effort into this increasingly popular event – this year attendance reached 32,000, and nearly every showing was close to sold out. There are some significant gripes, namely that the feather in the festival cap this year was the world premiere of 500 Days of Summer, described as an “avalanche of whimsy” and starring Zooey Deschanel. The audience award went to Being Bucky, the inspiring story of what it is like to be the Wisconsin Badger mascot, and how it, and I quote, “changes you forever”. So yeah, there is a lot to be desired. Still, the selection was wide, and was filled with a fuckton of foreign language films that would never make it this far from either coast otherwise. Also reviewed from the festival were Goodbye Solo, Tokyo Sonata, and the fiery, fucked-up Food, Inc.

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24 City

Massive munitions plant 420 is being demolished to make room for the luxury apartment complex of 24 City, to the detriment of the thousands of Chinese workers who were displaced to work on the original project. 24 City is an attempt to weave documentary and narrative styles in order to tell this story, using some of the individuals from plant 420 and actors telling their stories. Though the mutation from communism to capitalism can make for an engaging story, this is such a dull and lifeless film that I cannot believe there was a director on set during the entire enterprise. Use of fact and fiction can be a dangerous mélange, as a potentially tragic or moving tale can be easily jettisoned by the viewer if shenanigans are called.

In 24 City, just such a moment happens when one woman tearfully recalls being forced to leave one of her daughters behind when a day of work finished and the entire work force was to board a ferry and depart; the following scene has Joan Chen discussing her days working in the factory, and that she was called ‘Flower Girl’ for her striking resemblance to Joan Chen. Oh how very very and too too. Even if the majority of the stories were not meandering, tangential, and deadly dull, I have a severe allergy to this sort of bullshit.

To say the pace is glacial is an insult to glaciers, which in comparison tear across the landscape like majestic wildebeest. Which are running from cheetahs. That are on fire. There is a poem written by an author from plant 420 that goes thusly:

“If the aeronautics factory is like a huge eyeball, then the labor is its pupil.”

Either this is from an actual poet, which is pathetic, or was carefully written expressly for this feature, which is hilarious. What a worthless experience, ameliorated only by a 15 minute nap and the sight of at least thirty people walking out mid-film. Shortlist it for whatever ‘worst of the year’ list you have in progress.

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Beaches of Agnes

The French New Wave directors created a wildly diverse body of work, but they had in common a fierce intellect and a desire to reinvent cinema as consummate artists and auteurs. Of these, Agnes Varda was probably the least predictable and most esoteric, creating works as disparate as Vagabond, Cleo from 5 to 7, and The Gleaners and I. As a relentlessly fascinating figure, she makes an equally fascinating subject for a documentary, in the autobiographical Beaches of Agnes. Though she would loathe the comparison, I found myself thinking of the insufferably obnoxious pixie known as Miranda July. As Agnes Varda creates various forms of art including beautifully composed photography (she originally trained as a photographer), mirror arrangements on the beach, and a thoughtful shed made of clipped celluloid from a unremembered cinematic flop, I thought to myself, “This is what artists are capable of when there is a true vision at work.” As opposed to the forced whimsy shit slurry that was Me and You and Everyone We Know. Watching that film, painful though it was, was useful for witnessing how attempting art without having any sort of talent can go horribly wrong.

Varda is first seen walking along the beach, aged 80 going on 25, narrating “If we opened me up, there would be beaches”, as she carefully arranges mirrors on the edge of the surf, creating images whereby the ocean approaches from many different directions. Somehow, this is all you really need to know about her as a visionary director as well as a prescient human being. You can intuit the rest. She had no formal training in filmmaking, noting “I thought if I added sound to photographs, that would be cinema.” And so she just made it up as she went.

This film strains the definition of documentary, as facts and emotions blur past the camera – Varda is no stranger to artifice, and uses it joyfully as another actress plays her, speaking to the camera. A close friend refused to appear in this film, and so she uses a cardboard cat, his voice altered to hilarious effect. She shows her work space, in an alley between the houses owned by her and Jacques Demy, demonstrating with a prop car how many times she must back up and go forward to pull into her garage. Frequently she walks backwards, as do other actors, signifying reflection without nostalgia. Sets depicting times past are recreated in the most artificial fashion possible, including a flasher who prowled near her school (sporting a foot long pink dildo under his coat). She is a compulsive artist that lacks pretension, creating a giant fabric whale with a colorful tea room in the belly, or opening a photographic exposition of potatoes and advertising the showing by traipsing down the sidewalk in a potato outfit. At no time does she appear to be concerned about whether she is being, like, totally deep. She just expresses in ways that feel right and unforced. The film as a result is not only effortlessly charming, but genuinely funny.

She reviews some of her films, including La Pointe Courte, her first film, and arguably the antecedent salvo of the New Wave. Combining two unrelated narratives, she used the people who lived in the neighborhood as actors. In Beaches of Agnes, she returns to the quay where much of the filming occurred, and those actors were still there, carrying out their daily rhythms. Much of the film is absorbed in these rhythms, and this energetic director appears to have both hands firmly on the pulse. Study at the Louvre, running away to Marseille to mend fishing nets and figure out what life is all about. Varda finds work touching up paintings, though she prefers them in disrepair, referring to the ‘tyranny of the sharp image’. Meeting Jacques Demy just before they embark on a career of filmmaking, and trying to understand the love of her life. Photographic journeys to China and Cuba, including a brilliant image where she has captured Fidel Castro in front of a religious statue: “A tall utopist with stone wings.”

The film is a free flowing essay about the life of Agnes Varda, a poem without rhyme or meter, nor underlying purpose, other than an expression of life. At least the way she sees life. As she gets older, she expresses the regret that memory begins to fade, and our recollections fall to dust as do our bodies. “Our memory ultimately fails. But it is still ours, and nobody knows us.” She recalls shooting a documentary about Demy, as he lay dying, collecting his thoughts and memories. Varda is always collecting, with the admission that she cannot understand the people in her life, but true understanding is overrated.

And so she walks backwards towards the waves on the beach, looking back upon a life resplendent with friends, family, and artistic accomplishments that have a great deal to say about life and humanity, and the difficult terms by which we understand them. In a way, walking backward is the only sensible way to view one’s life, as anything forward is but a blind step into the darkness. Looking back is all we really have, our own experiences in this limited time on earth. “While I live… I remember.”

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Betrayal

A film 23 years in the making, Betrayal is an exhaustive, yet cold and distant, documentary about one family’s struggles from war-torn Laos to a crack house in New York City. The patriarch is trained with the Royal Laotian Guards as a ground coordinator for airborne assaults, and fought on behalf of the King, who was allied with the United States during the Vietnam War. Though they fought bravely in what was essentially an undeclared war, the United States disavowed any involvement when they withdrew their military support from Vietnam and paramilitary support from Laos and Cambodia. As expected, the Pathet Lao began arresting members of the Royal Lao Army and interning them into ‘reeducation camps’, while steadily harassing and occasionally executing their family members in the new Lao Peoples Democratic Republic. They accused the soldiers of fighting with colonialists, and since the French set up the Royal Lao Army in the first place, they do have a point. Still, they really never knew what hit them, and saw the American withdrawal as a betrayal, and this would be the first of many.

The family is left with little choice but escape, as they were regarded with suspicion by their neighbors, contempt by the government, and as target practice by the People’s Army. They escape in the night via Thailand into refugee camps, and from there make their way to the United States, and to the quaint hamlet of the south Bronx. The family goes from constant harassment by armed soldiers to constant harassment by armed gangs and drug dealers. Their cultural isolation compounds their fears, and the family falls to pieces as traditions give way to integration in the worst possible way. Namely, the children of the family find gangs or drugs and become lost in the urban jungle. In this way, the family betrays itself and its history. There are other betrayals, one notably by a family member who loses his way.

The storytelling and cinematography is dry and matter-of-fact, and you may find the film interesting in how a family fundamentally changes over time and in response to tragedy. The mother’s attempts and ultimate failure to keep her family intact as they survive in a hostile environment are moving, and their final move to rediscover their roots says a great deal about the potential advantages that tradition and culture can offer. Their story is not necessarily a unique one, as there have been numerous tales of immigrants who disembarked to find a war waiting for them in the streets of America. Still, it is engaging enough to watch a family do their best under difficult circumstances without really knowing if there was any point to sticking together, or what future there was to struggle for.

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Jerichow

Film noir remains a strangely bottomless well, perhaps due to the universality of its themes of weakness and temptation, and the inevitable similarity between the doomed protagonists and the viewer. Since its glorious birth with the likes of Double Indemnity, the same story has been told time and again, and that story just does not tire. In Jerichow, the story has been set in rural Germany, with Thomas, a dangerous and broke ex-military man, Ali, a fat and wealthy Turkish kiosk owner, and his wife Laura. Laura was a waitress with thousands in debt and a prison history until Ali rescued her and made her a kept woman. He drinks too much, is deeply jealous, and almost hopes his wife is cheating on him so as to justify his occasional beatings. Thomas is a thug whose stoic appearance belies a central weakness that feeds into his simplistic sense of justice. The couple hires him as a driver after Ali is caught driving drunk, and he becomes a trusted friend, if indeed trust exists in such films. Ali is a tool, but he is no villain, being the only person capable of a steady income and willing to help others if they require it. He does exact a price, but mostly due to his inability to understand any relationship that does not involve money. For example, after spying on his wife, he ambushes her and accuses her of cheating on him; he does not understand her secretiveness until she reveals that she has been stealing from him in order to pay her debts. Unlike her inexplicable sexuality, this he understands.

Thomas is a fairly simple and straightforward character, and so the viewer can project themselves into his shoes with ease. Laura is more of a cipher, a fountain of knowing looks and nuanced gesture. She tells Thomas of her money issues, how trapped she is in this marriage of convenience and the impossibility of divorce given her prenup. Nina Hoss plays Laura as a bit sharper than her appearance, as if she knows just how much information Thomas needs to make a rash decision.

Thomas provides Laura with a way out of this situation, and so the story evolves its flawed protagonist and femme fatale, the plot having been in motion without self-awareness. The acting is solid, and the story is engaging; above all noir is a study in human behavior, and in this respect Jerichow excels.

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Of Time and the City

Essentially a retrospective using voice over narration and old footage from a bygone era, Terence Davies’ feature considers his home town of Liverpool and the joy of bleak nostalgia. Quoting poetry and displaying sardonic wit, the town of his youth was a source of strength and confusion as he grappled with the muddled teachings of the church and his own homosexuality. Liverpool arose as a manufacturing giant, the narrator’s Ozymandias, before the nation was plunged into poverty by the strain of the Second World War.

The time line is fractured, and historical fact has little value here. This is an emotional recollection, and the tone is bittersweet as the footage displays vast arrays of abandoned apartment blocks and signs of deep urban decay. Though this sounds absorbing, at 85 minutes the film drags and wears out its welcome after its thousandth tangentially-related quote. Normally I give this sort of thing the benefit of the doubt, as natives of Liverpool will be more likely to resonate with this subject. After a while, however, Davies takes up some navel-gazing as he wonders “Where is the Liverpool I knew and loved?” Well, considering that the empty shacks made excellent crack houses, I would imagine that urban renewal was an alluring item on the menu. Change is not an absolute good, as nothing complex can be. Stasis, however, is an absolute evil, as nothing contributes more to irreparable destruction than decay.

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Revanche

Crime dramas tend to romanticize life in the underground by depicting danger as thrilling and individuals as fast living and sexy rather than run down and burned out. Despite immaculate camerawork, the Vienna of Revanche is revealed as a chaotic machine that grinds down its inhabitants, none more so than the workers in a brothel. Tamara is a Ukrainian immigrant who gets by however she can, which usually involves being on her knees. Her boyfriend is Alex, a none-too-clever hired meathead who works at the brothel, and he offers to rescue her and go on the run for a better life. A bank robbery is planned and poorly executed, and disaster befalls a character as the film threatens to become a revenge thriller. This all sounds familiar, but the story is pumping with a new life, as if director Gotz Spielmann believed he invented the concept of revenge. From the loud and dangerous city, Revanche moves to the deceptively quiet countryside where Alex finds himself surrounded by people who – in his mind – destroyed his life. That the spare soundtrack is filled with aching quiet only drives the wonder of just what will explode next.

There is no point in revealing further plot details since any description will sound fairly derivative and dull. There is only blind hatred and the desire for reprisal that becomes sidetracked into uncharted territory. In the meantime, Alex chops wood in seething fashion, each pound of the axe striking an ominous chord.

If you are looking for a ‘point’, then this film is bound to disappoint you. This is one to become lost within, perhaps considering the course of events as a morality tale where concepts as fragile as human morality and dignity are loose objects quickly thrown from a vehicle lurching perilously off course. It is quite well done, and I enjoyed the hell out of it, though I am unable to describe why. Those are the films that stay with you – those that evade an easy characterization.

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Silent Light

One of the most beautiful opening shots I have ever seen occurs in Silent Light; clouds and stars, slowly, almost subliminally yielding to a otherworldly sunrise. This sets the meditative quality of this quiet and introspective film. This is the first, and likely the last film to capture the Mennonite community of rural Mexico in the obscure language of Plautdietsch. This wholly novel subject grabbed me, and the hypnotic style kept me riveted; the film unspools carefully, taking its time, while wasting no time. Despite these strengths, all does not go well in the telling, and I was left with the question of whether the journey was worth the effort.

The story focuses on a family, and more precisely upon a love triangle. Johan loves his wife Esther, but is uncontrollably drawn to Marianne; in his mind, his marriage was a mistake, as he feels that he belongs with Marianne. The austere ambiance unconsciously allows us to feel how one can come to this conclusion without considering the pitfalls of declaring one’s love for a mistress. Insane though it is, Johan only considers what feels correct, though he does not understand what to do with his wife. A friend advises him, “A brave man makes his destiny with what he’s got”, implying that fate is an illusion, as is the love that burns brightly one moment, only to wink out in the next. These people are deeply religious, and so Johan feels that this obsessive love for Marianne is God’s work – why should he argue? His father gives sober advice, noting that he was in his son’s shoes once, and he found that position worthy of both envy and scorn. Envy for the newness of another love, and the potential and danger inherent in an affair; scorn for that same danger and understanding that newness fades quickly to be replaced by comfortable contempt. He knew the excitement was in him only, and so he remained with his wife. “If you do not act quickly, you will lose them both.” Indeed.

After a time, it becomes clear that Johan is a dreamer, and has very little consideration for anyone who isn’t Johan. He confesses to Esther that he sleeps with Marianne, then continues to see her, justifying it as the will of God. The kids become an annoyance for him, even as Esther demands that the kids accompany him to his trips to see his mistress. The heart wants what it wants, but that is when the head is supposed to exact some control. Johan fails to decide, with disastrous consequences for his family. There is no reason to be surprised that such a quiet individual could be such a narcissist, but anyone who believes that God talks to them personally will probably end up one eventually.

Love triangles are most often told as a love denied, and a desire kept secret. There is good reason for this, as such feelings are most often infatuation, and such emotions pass quickly enough that the practical roadblocks to outright overtures render them prohibitive. Silent Light interestingly bypasses such pragmatism as Johan has already informed his wife that he is stabbing a little something on the side, and that he is very much in love with that something. It is not made clear why this Mennonite community was chosen for a story that could occur anywhere, and filmed in an ancient language. Perhaps the devout nature of these people makes such open and impractical honesty possible. It is an interesting exploration of what happens in such a love triangle when each point is aware of the others.

The film takes a nosedive in the final act with a twist that at first holds Johan accountable for his imprudent failure to take a stand, then appears to exonerate everyone involved. It is difficult to elaborate without giving away the ending, so I will: Esther dies of a heart attack, or rather a broken heart. Whether by God’s will or Johan’s stupidity, she cannot take this farce any further and dies in the rain. Johan is preparing to bury his wife, still one of the loves of his life, when Marianne shows up to the funeral. While she holds Esther’s hand, Esther awakens, and thanks Marianne for her kindness. Now this may be a meditation on destiny, or the moment where the two loves of Johan’s life become one, there are other possible interpretations. I like to think that Johan is dreaming of Esther’s resurrection so he evades culpability, or dreaming that Esther forgave his idiocy. The quiet pallor upon the proceedings was dashed in any case, and the tragic outcome of Johan’s inadequacy at creating his own destiny morphed into his destiny being handed to him. If that was the point, then the conclusion is a mess, and betrays the spartan style of the film. I suspect there was a desire to have a happy ending, as otherwise the somber tone would become overwhelming. If that is the case, then so be it – allow the film to breathe its own life, rather then injecting artifice where it does not belong. Ah, it was a truly breathtaking opening shot, though.

About Alex K.

Alex is an actual medical doctor. Really. At a hospital and everything. We donít know what heís doing here, but he writes good reviews.