What Matters at the Los Angeles Film Festival

Drive and The Tiniest Place

By Robert Koehler

A running conversation at film festivals in the US and abroad (mostly abroad): The urgency of film criticism to advocate for certain cinema, and ignore the other cinemas. The best reason? Life is too short to deal very much or very long with crap, and is much better spent considering the good work, and why it is good. Most American criticism is not founded on this principle; rather, it tends to be dominated by a consumerist mentality that says that all films which can be seen commercially should be written about, and those that can’t should be ignored.

The difference between these two approaches–both quite simple on their face, yet quite complex beneath the skin–produces an entirely different cultural effect. For one, the latter requires critics to expend inordinate amounts of energy lambasting bad films that the culture hardly needs reminding are bad. (Green Lantern, for the latest example, despite the noble efforts of Ryan Reynolds to inject it with humanity. Green Lantern is somehow screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival.) “Bad” can also mean “worthless,” therefore, not worth my time to write about it, and not worth your time to read about it. The latter exchanges in an endless grind of pointless negativity, filling web pages and column inches attacking the obvious, like dropping more NATO bombs that only make the rubble vibrate in Libya. Much American criticism does little more than watch the rubble move. The former approach actively supports directions in cinema, represented by the film at hand, that call for our attention, and care. This approach implicitly condemns other cinemas; by ignoring them, passing them over, the silence accorded them directly equates with their value.

This is where criticism and programming intersect, which is also perhaps why I’ve noticed that many of the writers who favor a criticism of advocacy are or have been programmers. Critics do have greater latitude than programmers, to be sure; as all programmers painfully know, not all films desired for a program are obtained, not every film in a program is equally desirable, and just because a film happens to be absent from a given program doesn’t necessarily mean that the programmer considered it unworthy (and indeed, may have wanted it, but couldn’t get it, and this due to innumerable factors too long to get into here). Critics can, if they have the editorial freedom, exactly situate their cinephilia, and by advocating for certain films over others (implicitly or explicitly), precisely define their ideological position on the cinema field.

This is also the other problem with that other brand of critic (my Cinema Scope colleague and editor Mark Peranson, in his wrap-up of Cannes 2010, quite accurately referred to this group–which included more than just critics– as “them.” “They,” for example, were scandalized by Tim Burton’s jury choice of Uncle Boonmee for the Palme d’Or.) They don’t consider their practice or their view of cinema–say, that the films that matter are the ones that are the most heavily marketed, or the ones that the largest number of readers would be discussing right now or next week–as ideological in the least. It never occurs to them that their position is even a position; rather, as some have said to me, it’s (1), their job, and (2), the condition of things as they are. I’m not going to argue with their job–a job’s a job. (We all have one, or two, or three.) As for (2), this is the great illusion of their brand of film criticism, one shared by probably every newspaper entertainment section editor in the world: The “big” movies (this week, Green Lantern, or the ones promoted in the Los Angeles Times trailer as the Los Angeles Film Festival, including X-Men: First Class, Captain America, The Zookeeper, Cowboys vs. Aliens) deserve the big treatment, the “small” films less, and the “unknown” films none at all. This is ideology, all right: The Ideology of advertisers, the force that most fundamentally drives “their” criticism. It informs movie websites and blogs as much as the papers, by the way, as more and more websites are propelled forward by the hits metric that advertisers gauge in order to determine whether or not they want to invest in a given site. The very fact that I’m able to freely discuss this at this site should tell you everything you want to know about where Film Journey stands in terms of “their” advertisers and “their” movies. “We” acknowledge and identify the ideological stance on cinema; “they” don’t.

The criticism of advocacy then means, when it comes to commenting on the latest edition of the Los Angeles Film Festival, that the only films worth mentioning are the films worth watching. I’ve seen about 65% of the program thus far, with six days and twelve films left to see: these are The Dynamiter, Renee, Senna, The Innkeepers, Self Made, Operation Peter Pan, The Yellow Sea, Love Crime, The Guard, Another Earth, Project Nim and Guy Maddin’s live performance/film, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.

The films I’ve wanted to see and will miss are: Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Position Among the Stars, The Salesman, Tomboy, Karate-Robo Zaborgar and On the Ice.

Then, there’s a short list of films here that needn’t be seen at the festival (or can’t be seen at this point), that don’t succeed for any number of reasons, but should nevertheless be seen eventually: Asa Jacobs’ Terri, James Franco’s The Broken Tower, Richard Linklater’s Bernie, Paddy Consadine’s Tyrannosaur. Oh, and yes, there’s a couple of OK films that can’t be deemed essential: Fernando Perez’ Suite Habana and Gerard Roxburgh’s Once I Was a Champion.

Finally, here are the essentials (including a few which have already screened, so catch them when you can). I will note that this group comprises a small percentage of the overall program, less than 10%. Read into that whatever you want. These are in order, from high masterpieces to excellent:

Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (already screened; in release this September)
Tatiana Huezo’s The Tiniest Place (Fri)
Raul Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon (Sat)
Denis Cote’s Curling (Wed, Fri)
Renate Costa’s 108 (already screened)
Theo Court’s Decline (Thurs)
Sivaroj Kongsakul’s Eternity (Thurs, Sat)
Alexei German, Jr.’s Paper Soldier (Sat)
Chad Friedrichs’ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (already screened)
Stephane Lafleur’s Familiar Ground (Tues, Wed)
Natalia Almada’s The Night Watchmen (already screened)

Boyer Out, 108 and Decline In

By Robert Koehler

The Society of French Directors (SRF), which governs the Quinzaine des Realisiteurs, or Directors Fortnight, has dismissed Quinzaine director Frederic Boyer after his second and stormy year. The 2011 edition was roundly criticized and even lambasted (see Jacques Telemacque’s widely discussed Le Monde attack that ran during the festival), and suffered particularly in comparison to the past editions directed and programmed by Olivier Pere, who left after the 2009 edition to take over Locarno in 2010. It further didn’t help Boyer’s position that Locarno 2010, with its overall superb program, only tended to remind people of what the Quinzaine had been, and was apparently no more. For those of us who had witnessed the disastrous Mexican vampire family movie, Somos lo que Hay, at its premiere in Guadalajara, the shock that it was slotted into the 2010 Quinzaine program felt like a shot across the bow, and signaled a crisis. At this point, we were far from Serra’s Honor de Cavalleria or Alonso’s Los Muertos. Now, who will take over? The international festival community will be watching…. (Read more at the Telerama site.)

Speaking of Locarno, the juries announced today further underline Pere’s solidity at the Swiss event and his taste for highly distinctive independence in the cinema. Portuguese producer Paulo Branco, who produced Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon (screening in the Los Angeles Film Festival this Saturday), is president, and certain to steer his jury toward strong, ambitious films. He’s joined by actor-director Louis Garrel, the brilliant German actor Sandra Huller, Swiss filmmaker Bettina Oberli, and Best of Youth co-star Jasmine Trinca. The jury for the typically adventurous Cinema of the Present section is headed by German filmmaker (and co-director of the great Dreileben, Christoph Hochhausler, with three distinctive fellow directors (Raya Martin, Athina Rachel Tsangari and Michelangelo Frammartino) and Karamay producer Zhu Rikun. In full disclosure, I’m on the jury for best debut film, with fellow critics Kong Rithdee and Anthony Bobeau….

Speaking of the Los Angeles Film Festival, it’s urgent to alert readers to two absolutely essential films to catch tonight Monday. Make this your Monday viewing, no excuses: First, at 7:40, Theo Court’s astonishingly beautiful semi-documentary, Decline aka Okaso. (The original Spanish title is so vastly preferable that I’ll refer to the film under that title, and not the glum Decline.) In my Variety review of Ocaso also ID’d as Decline due to Variety‘s style policy of listing the English-language title), I noted the film as “an excellent example of the crossbreeding of fiction and nonfiction,” its fusing of reality and poetry. Court observes an aging caretaker, attending to a crumbling Chilean rural estate, and maintaining not only a house and its grounds but a certain way of life and rituals–from cooking to clearing brush. But the film frames and preserves this activity in a kind of suspended animation, cast in a colored haze of both atmosphere and memory. It is where the cinemas of Ermanno Olmi and Victor Erice intersect. That’s probably sufficient praise. Then, at 10:30, and there really is no excuse for missing this one, since it’s THE LAST TIME YOU’RE EVER LIKELY TO SEE THIS FILM IN LOS ANGELES, EVER: That would the incredible doc by Renate Costa, 108 (its international title, as opposed to its more eccentric Spanish title, Cuchillo de Palo). Why this small masterpiece has taken so long to get here–18 months since Berlinale 2010–is anyone’s guess, but good on LAFF for selecting it for the International Showcase section, the section with the vast majority of the festival’s best films. In it, Costa considers the life of her gay uncle living in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay under the oppressive military dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner. But her consideration is wrapped in the optics of incomplete memories, uncertain accounts of the past and the disturbing cloak of ghosts. There is no better recent case of first-person, autobiographical documentary filmmaking achieving a state of poetry, and a prime case of the new generation of Latin American filmmakers transcending the polemics, and anger, of their parents for a more honest and reflective perspective. Did we say it was essential?