2005 Wisconsin Film Festival
The seventh installment of the Wisconsin Film Festival concluded yesterday, and for the third time in seven years, I was sick during the entire festival (damn those early Spring film festivals!), but I was a trooper and managed to see all 15 programs that I had tickets for. I’m still sick, and exhausted, so my comments concerning the films will be somewhat briefer than usual. I’m pleased to state that the Wisconsin Film Festival continues to live up to its continual high standards as one of the best regional film festivals in the Midwest, offering up a strong mixture of film and videos which exemplified the values that are the strength of the festival: left-wing humanism, multiculturalism, and auteurism.
My festival began Thursday evening with a screening of the recently reconstructed 1980 Sam Fuller film The Big Red One
; spread headed by UW-Madison alum and Time
film critic Richard Schickel (who held a Q&A session after the screening), the reconstruction added about 50 minutes to the original truncated version. The newer version, the closest approximation to Fuller’s original 4 hour version, not surprisingly fleshes out the original, changing the tenor of many scenes (the original black comedy of the scene where the replacement gets his testicle blown off by a Bouncin’ Betty mine changes completely with the addition of an extra minute, becoming much more brutal when not played completely for laughs); emphasizes the role of children in the narrative; and more importantly, the role of Schroeder, which was all but cut out of the original version, is restored, creating an evil doppleganger to Lee Marvin’s taciturn Sarge, but who, nonetheless, is forever linked to Sarge and his Four Horseman.
The festival continued on Friday with a late afternoon screening of the documentary The Take
by Canadian TV producer Avi Lewis and No Logo
author Naomi Klein; The Take
has the two anti-globalization activists training their cameras on the Argentinean Occupied Factory Movement, where former workers expropriate the abandoned factories of their employers, forming successful, community based worker cooperatives during the backdrop of a crushing economic depression and a contentious presidential race. Cinematically, nothing special, the documentaries strengths are in its depiction of the workers, their community, and an alternative to the misguided capitalist policies of globalization. This of course, played well in Madison, and we, the audience, erupted into spontaneous applause when evicted workers won the right to reopen their seized garment factory. Following The Take
was the first of two short film programs that I attended during the festival, all by Wisconsin born or educated filmmakers. I wasn’t blown away by an of the short films this year (and I didn’t pick any of the jury or Kodak award winners this year, which is a first since the awards began a couple of years ago), but there were several interesting films: Death Is My Co-Pilot
, a film remake of a previous WFF award winner (the video version won one of the Kodak awards last year), was a hilarious comic gem, about a twenty something man whose constant companion is Death (getting a scythe into a hatchback is particularly funny). Actually, all of the shorts I liked were in a comic vein, from The Varieties of Romantic Experiences
, a play on William James’ famous essay, where an obsessed and broken-down college professor lectures his increasingly horrified students, in a hilariously pretentious fashion, about his failed affair with a former TA, to There’s Something About Meryl
, a sweet-natured romantic comedy about two obsessed Meryl Streep fans. The first program of shorts was followed by another documentary, The Writer of O
, which concerns the eventful life of Dominique Aury, the author of the classic French erotic novel The Story of O
(under the pseudonym Pauline Reage); interspersed among all of the interviews (with Aury, journalists, academics, and her contemporaries) and still photos are ravishing (quite literally) recreations of scenes from the novel (Ooh-la-la). I think the best thing you can say about a film about another work of art, is that if it leaves you with a desire to experience the original for yourself, it too has succeeded, and by that criteria, the film succeeded (I’m currently waiting for it to arrive at the library). Also, the filmmaker, Pola Rappaport, led one of the more engaging post-film Q&A discussions. Unfortunately, Friday night ended with my biggest disappointment of the entire film festival, though it was far from the worst film; that film being the 2004 Cannes Grand Prix winner Old Boy
, which was interestingly shot and well-acted, but not very emotionally or intellectually engaging, so when the film turned to its turgid and contrived conclusion, it almost lost me completely (plus I guessed the dark twist fairly early on).
Saturday began with the other shorts program (actually the weaker of the two), before moving back to the Orpheum Stage Door theater for pretty much the remainder of the evening. The Danish film Brothers
screened first, and it was one of the best films of the festival (it won the Narrative Audience Award), but I’m a sucker for family tragedy and unrequited love. I thought Brothers
was a great film about the effects of war and loss upon a middle-class Danish family; writer-director Susanne Bier’s film follows several relationships in a family after a husband, Michael, is presumed dead serving in Afghanistan, prompting his ne’er-do-well brother Jannik to take responsibility for both his life and that of his brother’s family, in the process, falling in love with his “widowed” sister-in-law Sarah (played by a radiant Connie Nielsen). When Michael returns from captivity, having to do terrible things to survive, conflict, of course, arises, as he is unable to adapt to the changed circumstances or his own guilt. For such a melodramatic set-up, Bier handles the subject matter with tact and realism, and the film never felt forced or unreal. One of my WFF favorites. Saturday had a slew of great films, such as Gettin’ Grown
, the first feature film by WFF favorite and Milwaukee-native son, Aaron Greer (several of his short films that had played the WFF were among my favorites); Gettin’ Grown
is obviously indebted to such Iranian quasi-documentary, children-quest films as Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House?
or The White Balloon
(the writer-director cites Kiarostami’s film as an influence, thanking him in the credits). Set in a lower, middle-class African-American neighborhood in Milwaukee, Gettin’ Grown
, follows the (mis)adventures of 11-year old Eric, on the eve of his twelfth birthday, as he is sent by his mother to purchase a prescription for his elderly Grandma. The filmmakers described the film as a “community” film as opposed to an “independent” film, which is apt since Greer takes as much time documenting the rhythm and flow of the neighborhood on a Saturday evening. The film is also refreshing in its positive energy, its depiction of loving parents, and their attempts to instill a sense of responsibility in their young son. This would have been my vote for the Best Wisconsin’s Own Narrative Feature, but it sadly lost (I didn’t see the film that did win, so I can’t really comment on that).Gettin’ Grown
was followed by a very enjoyable, raucous documentary, Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling
, a crowd-pleaser about some tough old broads who pioneered female professional wrestling in the 40s, 50s, and 60s (actually up to the present day in many cases). Irascible and profane, the wrestlers were a breath of fresh air after some rather serious films. That didn’t last, since the next film was Fatih Akin’s Head On
(I loved his earlier Short, Sharp, Shock
which mined similar territory and played the Cinematheque several years ago). Again, doomed love...I’m a sucker, and Sibel Kekilli has to be one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. The marriage of convenience between the middle-aged, burned-out punk rocker Cahit and his much younger, vivacious, and sexy wife Sibel is at turns exhilarating and exasperating, sexy and sordid. After the events of the film mid-section, its chilling to watch a despairing Sibel become literally, almost like Cahit was before he met her, even to the point of drunkenly dancing to the same, menacing Depeche Mode song. What I really liked, especially after the cacophonous two-thirds, was the moody and quiet ending set in Istanbul. Another great film. My night ended with a program of music videos and commercials created by the British animation collective Shynola, who are currently handling the visual effects for the new Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
. I only wish I could enjoy a beer as I watched the music videos (I had to settle for juice), which was actually a nice way to wind down after almost 14 hours of standing in lines, scuttling between venues, and watching film. Incidentally, my favorite video was “Go With the Flow” by Queens of the Stone Age, though I enjoyed watching almost all of the animation.
Sunday began with another story of doomed love, doooooomed!!!! Actually the film, Dandelion
, to my surprise, starred Vincent Kartheiser (aka Connor from Angel
), which was a good choice since he perfected his depiction of alienation in his TV gig, as an Idaho teenager named Mason, who goes to juvenile detention for a crime his father committed (his father is played by Arliss Howard). Upon his release, Mason reinitiates a relationship with a teenager girl named Danni. What I liked about the film was its depiction of small-town aimlessness fueled by alcohol and crystal meth, its swooning yet low-key romanticism, and its beautiful widescreen cinematography courtesy of Timothy Orr (during the middle of the film, I remarked how much a landscape shot reminded me of David Gordon Green and Terrence Malick. Go figure). After Dandelion
came Jessica Yu’s In the Realm of the Unreal
, about the mystery that is both the art and life of Chicago recluse Henry Darger. Since Lons has already written extensively about the film, all I want to say about it was how profoundly sad I found the entire thing. I made a bad choice for my penultimate film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique
, as it was too late in the festival, I was exhausted, and sick. I made it through, but it was admittedly a struggle, though there were some ideas that really struck me throughout. Still, I’m not sure how I ultimately felt about it.
Luckily, the festival ended on a personal high note, a nearly packed screening of Ousmane Sembene’s latest masterpiece, Moolade
, a seemingly simple film, almost deceptively so, with a hard polemical edge, but imbued with much warmth, humor, and humanity; Moolade
is a quintessential WFF film, embodying the values that I think define the festival. Sembene’s film certainly responded resounded with the sometimes boisterous crowd, who watched the film attentively. For the second time in the festival, the crowd broke into spontaneous cheers and applause as the village women stood up against the oppressive regime of their village. It was the quite the experience.
This being my seventh consecutive WFF, I again walked home from the theater on a quiet Sunday night and felt that familiar feeling. Exhaustion, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of sadness that it was all over, and lots of good memories even I was hacking up a lung between screenings. Its a feeling I’m looking forward to experiencing again next year, this time without the hacking up a lung part.My Favorite WFF Films
10. Death is My Co-Pilot
d. Erik Gunneson
9. The Writer of O
d. Pola Rappaport
8. In The Realms of the Unreal
d. Jessica Yu
7. The Take
d. Avi Lewis & Naomi Klein
6. Varieties of Romantic Experience
d. Daniel Freed
5. Gettin’ Grown
d. Alan Greer
d. Mark Milgard
3. Head On
d. Fatih Akin
d. Susanne Bier
d. Ousmane Sembene & The Big Red One
d. Sam Fuller
P.S. How did I make it through six film festivals without an iPod?