By Robert Koehler

Two cool dudes in Buenos Aires….

Reg Harkema, the towering (six-foot-six) Canadian Godardian, has been here with his complete works (A Girl is a Girl, Better Off in Bed, Monkey Warfare), and sounding rather amazed that BAFICI would even consider being the first festival anywhere to screen his complete works. A good thing it has, since it’s given me a chance to catch up with the 1999 A Girl, which starts with a sweet, good-natured tip of the cap to Godard–large, bold title and text graphics and an “interview” with actors that busts through the fourth wall–then dives into a smart, incisive saga of a young man’s adventures with a series of women, each one a bit more suitable than the last, thus lending the film an unexpected aura of optimism about love. And even though it’s told from the perspective of Andrew McIntyre’s Trevor, it doesn’t exactly favor him: He’s forever learning from the women he’s with, more than a little hapless but at least listening to them, lending the film a male ear but not a male gaze. Because Harkema is an editor (he works, among others, with Don McKellar), his films contain montage, plus the kind of awareness of film history so a wonderful group encounter during an art gallery opening sometimes looks and pulses like a scene out of an early film by Jerzy Skolimowski (whose work Harkema knows well–I was especially thinking of Skolimowski’s early masterpiece, Barrier). I know that it’s sacrilege in some circles to put down Andrew Bujalski–whose films are easily among the best (only?) genuine contemporary American comedies–but Harkema completely schools Bujalski when it comes to marrying observant comedy about young men and women today with real cinema. In Harkema, there’s editing, and the music that comes with this; it’s simply not found–not yet anyway–in Bujalski’s funny but comparatively static films.

Harkema was nice enough to give me a DVD of his second (2004) film with a genius title–Better Off in Bed–and expressed over breakfast across a few days all of the disagreeable decisions and choices a filmmaker has to make on the festival road. “South by Southwest kinda turned out to be a debacle,” he said, adding with characteristic humility, “but that might’ve been our fault. (For a number of reasons), we submitted late and ended up like in the absolute dead zone of being the second screening of the first day, and being screened away from the main central area of the festival, and all sorts of stuff. I really felt like this Canadian outsider there, with all of these cliques going on.” SXSW has developed its own cult, but that contains the price of making worthy non-American filmmakers like Harkema feel very much on the outside, looking in.

Which raises the culturally intriguing question: How is it that a festival several thousands of miles away from Harkema’s home in Toronto is capable of assembling his films in a simple but comprehensive way–and even going a step further, and matching Monkey Warfare with Godard’s La Chinoise in the festival’s ingenious “Dialogues” section (devised by programmer-critic Diego Lerer, who was inspired by Rotterdam’s slightly different model), and yet a major North American festival (ie. SXSW) pushes him to the margins, and beyond?

Besides, you have to love a guy who lugs around a copy of Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art, and asks you: “Say, I’ve got a plane to catch tonight–what are the good films on today’s schedule that I can catch before I take off?”

Another young guy who completely puts the lie to the lazy notion that anyone under 30 today doesn’t really care or know about film–Michel Lipkes. Now, BAFICI is teeming with young people: The festival screenings often feel like college cinÈ-club affairs, packed with kids and folks well under 30. (And I mean PACKED. Screenings routinely sell out, regardless of the film, whether it’s a Straub-Huillet or a Miike.) But Lipkes, one of the head programmers of FICCO (the Mexico City international film festival), is a wildy enthusiastic cinephile, insatiably curious about the entire range of cinema, and polemically militant when it comes to cinema’s radical edge, where most programmers tend to shy away from for fear of pushing their audience out the door. The FICCO folks are here in a big way, and it’s not surprising since BAFICI and FICCO consider each other sister festivals under the skin (I like to lump them together with Vancouver and Vienna): These are the kind of festivals where one can catch up with Peter Whitehead and Pedro Costa without blinking an eye. What Lipkes is helping promote, though (with the crucial support of FICCO’s director, Paula Astorga) is a daring film culture where one is just getting started. Like nowhere else I know, Mexico City’s nascent filmgoing base, too long dominated by commercial movies, is being prompted to consider alternatives. FICCO’s programming is sometimes almost absurdly ahead of its potential audience (I was in an audience of roughly twelve for a screening of the remarkable Rome Rather than You), but this is what it takes to build an audience, and Lipkes shows uncommon bravery in this regard. When I hear those mumblings that FICCO isn’t long for this Earth, I understand, because the programming risks are high. But if Mexico City is ever to remotely approach Buenos Aires’ considerably developed film culture (on display here daily), it will require programmers with foresight like Lipkes. I wish he could be cloned for more than a few U.S. festivals I can think of….

Lipkes’ t-shirt today (direct from Cinema Scope magazine): “Vote for Pedro….Pedro Costa, that is.”

* * * *

For Los Angeles readers of this blog, I should have noted before that Claire Simon’s «a Br˚le is one film screening here in BAFICI that will be on view in our fair city as soon as next week. It’s part of the final weekend programming at COLCOA, where it will screen once on Sat. April 21 at 5:30 pm, in DGA 2. While I’m on the topic, I can also strongly recommend another film in an otherwise tepid COLCOA lineup: Bruno Dumont’s Flanders, which greatly impressed me at Cannes last year (where it was in the main competition, the only other Cannes competition film in COLCOA being the exceptionally mediocre The Singer, starring a charming Gerard Depardieu). Dumont plumbs a human connection this time that he has either avoided or has eluded him previously; still, it remains as formally daring as any of his past work…..

It’s also worth noting, regarding John Parker’s beyond-strange one-off film, Dementia, which I wrote about here earlier, that it actually isn’t quite as obscure as I had assumed. Kino actually released it on DVD in 2000, and the package includes such items as material on its single screen U.S. release, at the 55th St. Playhouse in NYC; a photo of the marquee is viewable at an interesting web page on the film.

What this apparently infers is that, despite Dementia‘s explicit Los Angeles location (a page out of a Hollywood newspaper with a headline about a murder clings like an annoying tumbleweed to the heroine’s ankles, and the downtown Los Angeles locations are enough to make Thom Andersen salivate), it never opened in what was effectively the film’s hometown.

This Flickhead web page also includes such fascinating and arguable details as noting the credit for then-ubiquitous voice of Marni Nixon as the soundtrack’s comically eerie singer; writer Herman G. Weinberg declaring with no evidence that Dementia is “the first American Freudian film” (which would take Lang and Hitchcock out of the equation, apparently); the fact that the film’s alternatively titled Daughter of Horror actually represents a slightly trimmed–censored, to be sure–version; that the film is immortalized in The Blob, in which Steve McQueen is watching it in a cinema balcony; Preston Sturges praised it as “a work of art” upon its two-year-delayed release; and that Bruno VeSota, who adopts an Orson Welles guise throughout the film, subsequently claimed that he directed most of the film, not Parker.

This latter, if true, could be one of those intriguing back-alley details regarding Welles’ massive though usually unacknowledged influence at the time. If VeSota not only adopted a mimicry of Welles on screen as an actor, then extended it behind the camera as well, this could mark Dementia as one of the most thoroughly worked-out Welles tribute films ever made. To be sure, the film’s mise-en-scËne is often as blatantly Wellesian as any 1950s film I’ve seen. On the other hand, this could be a case of sour grapes going public; web writer Ray Young himself observes that none of VeSota’s films in which he’s credited as director approach the sophisticated aesthetic that’s applied in Dementia. To be sure, a check of VeSota’s Female Jungle, The Brain Eaters and/or Invasion of the Star Creatures might be in order. Hell, with titles like that, I’m there already…..

(Day 6 entry.)

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