Losing Focus 

The Chicago International Film Festival is back for the 31st time, slipping a notch thanks to some questionable programming and the loss of a prime theater.

Last year's Chicago International Film Festival was the best in my eight years of living here. But now in its 31st year the festival seems to be sliding back toward some of its past problems. I don't want to sound too alarmist about an event that's showing several indispensable works, most of which would be impossible to see without the festival's initiative. At least half are U.S. premieres, and we all should be properly grateful for this bounty.

But it's also clear that the recent resignation of festival coprogrammer Marc Evans-- over creative differences with director and founder Michael Kutza--has had consequences that are already visible in the program. Though Evans estimates that he was responsible for roughly a third of this year's selections, his long-term efforts to cut down on the festival's excesses and lack of selectivity have been undermined. The bane of last-minute schedule changes--always a problem with the Chicago festival, though one that Evans helped to minimize--is already back with a vengeance: as we go to press, a new festival schedule has just been printed to replace the original handout, and readers are advised to call and check whenever possible. Another problem, for which apparently neither Kutza nor Evans can be blamed, is the loss of Pipers Alley as a central festival screening facility. I'm told Pipers Alley took a pass on the fest because of its steadily rising success as an ordinary commercial venue. This year films will be shown at the Fine Arts (four screens) and the Music Box (one screen).

While the festival has plenty of fat and filler, it ignores films recognized on the international festival circuit. I've attended this year's festivals in Berlin, Cannes, and Toronto, and spent the better part of two weeks sifting through almost 100 more movies as a member of the New York film festival's selection committee, but I've only seen about a fifth of the more than 120 films showing at this year's Chicago festival, revivals included. By contrast, last year I'd seen half of the festival's 118 selections (even without attending Berlin). I suspect a major part of the difference can be attributed to the degree of informed input from Marc Evans last year and this year.

Another difference is the focus of the festival retrospective, selected this year and last by Kutza. Last year's featured the work of Luchino Visconti, one of the four or five major figures in all of Italian cinema. This year it's Lina Wertmuller, another Italian filmmaker, though surely not a major one. Wertmuller has seldom been taken seriously in Europe, and her critical reputation in the U.S. back in the early 70s chiefly rested on her having been championed by John Simon, a misanthropic (and far from feminist) conservative critic. I only made it to two of her films, though these were among her best known: Love and Anarchy and Seven Beauties--movies whose sub-Fellini vulgarity and simpleminded cynicism has kept me away from all her others. (Much as Americans are fond of trashing the French for liking Jerry Lewis--quite unfairly, in my view--European friends used to rib me about the Yankee vogue for Wertmuller, proof positive in their view that Americans were cultural barbarians.)

Of course, all this might have been interesting and perhaps even lively if Kutza had chosen to resurrect Wertmuller as a polemical-critical gesture and disclosed his reasons for doing so, accompanying the retrospective with a monograph explaining, say, why her characteristic attributes as a filmmaker are still worth defending or have some special relevance to the 90s. But the most the festival's handout can come up with is to label her "a hot item on the cult market" 22 years ago and to note that her movies of the 80s and 90s "touch on such themes as terrorism and unrequited and forbidden love." I don't want to question the sincerity of Kutza's selection, especially considering his previous spotlighting of Claude Lelouch and Alan Parker. But this 15-feature retrospective --the largest ever held in this country according to the handout--seems motivated more by a desire to fill up space than by any interest in making a coherent cultural statement.

Among the films I would have liked to have seen in this year's festival--assuming it would have been possible to acquire them, and sticking to just a short list of two dozen features--are Terence Davies's The Neon Bible, Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon, Gianni Amelio's L'America, Manoel de Oliveira's The Convent, the color restoration of Jacques Tati's Jour de fete, Mark Rappaport's From the Journals of Jean Seberg, Pascal Aubier's The Son of Gascogne, Joseph P. Vasquez's Manhattan Meringue, Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, Krzysztof Janetzko's River Colors, Cheick Oumar Sissoko's Guimba, Edgardo Cozarinsky's Citizen Langlois, Natalja Motuzko's The Voice of Herbs, Raymond Depardon's Caught in the Act, Jun Ichikawa's The Tokyo Twins, Agnes Varda's The 1001 Nights of Simon Cinema, Wim Wenders's Lisbon Story, Ken Loach's Land and Freedom, Ning Ying's On the Beat, Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels, Claude Chabrol's The Ceremony, and the last three features of Alain Resnais (I Want to Go Home, Smoking, and No Smoking). I can happily report that the first five of these have acquired U.S. distributors and the sixth is scheduled to show at the Film Center early next year. The others, if they aren't picked up (which seems unlikely), will either surface here at the Film Center or Facets Multimedia or not at all. It's a pity that the Chicago festival couldn't have found room for more of them; I'd probably object less to the Wertmuller retrospective if they had.

My recommendations for this week--in order of their first showings--are Michael Winterbottom's Butterfly Kiss (not for everyone, and with certain reservations) and He Jianjun's Postman on Friday, Li Shaohong's Blush on Saturday, Jacques Rivette's Up Down Fragile on Sunday, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard on Monday, Bertrand Tavernier's Fresh Bait (if you can stand the iciness) and Wilder's Stalag 17 on Tuesday, and Wilder's Some Like It Hot, Stanley Kwan's Red Rose White Rose (even if it isn't a patch on Actress, it's another notable period effort from Kwan with a complex critique of Chinese machismo), and Michael Verhoeven's My Mother's Courage on Thursday. Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's Blue in the Face, which plays on Friday, is diverting but inessential. I'm sorely tempted to warn you away from The Young Poisoner's Handbook, first playing on Tuesday--an English black comedy that I've actually tried twice to sit through. But it's playing at so many festivals that somebody must like it. It suggests something like a Wertmuller comedy for the 90s--if you like it, call me a Philistine and make a beeline to the remainder of the Wertmuller retrospective.

Other films worth seeing this week include Peter Gothar's The Outpost (Friday) and Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi (Tuesday). Next week promises Hou Hsiao-hsien's Good Men, Good Women (my favorite of this year's selections), Vassili Silovic and Oja Kodar's Orson Welles: The One Man Band (a documentary-cum-sampler of lost Wellesian treasures), Helena Solberg's personal documentary Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business, Jorge Fons's Midaq Alley, and Mario Martone's L'amore molesto, not to mention the continuation of the Wilder screenings.

For more advice, turn to the reviews and descriptions included here, and lots of luck. A checkmark next to a movie title means that the reviewer thinks it's exceptional.

The festival runs from Friday, October 13, through Sunday, October 29. Screenings are at the Fine Arts, 418 S. Michigan, and the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport. Tickets can be purchased by phone (644-3456), by fax (644-0784), by mail (Chicago Film Festival, 415 N. Dearborn, Chicago 60610-4697), or through the World Wide Web (http://www.ticketmaster.com), all of which entail service charges, or at theater box offices an hour before show time. General admission to most programs is $7.50; $6.50 for students and seniors; $5.50 for Cinema/Chicago members. Shows before 6 PM are $5. Discount passes to multiple screenings are also available. For more information, call 644-3456 (644-FILM).

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