Monday, April 23, 2012

Lessons from Wisconsin: bus safety and film festival edition

Posted By on 04.23.12 at 05:21 PM

From Johnie Tos Life Without Principle
  • From Johnie To's Life Without Principle
I’m writing this on a southbound bus, on my way home to Chicago from the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison. The ride’s so bumpy that most words I type come out misspelled, and our extremely Wisconsinite driver—who looks exactly like an overgrown Campbell’s Soup Kid—devoted such unnecessary piety (to say nothing of time) to his bus safety spiel that it felt as if he were leading us in prayer. But considering I paid just $9 for my ticket, I really have no right to complain.

Also, I had a lovely weekend. In three and a half days I attended 15 screenings (two of which were of Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle, a work of film art of the highest order; I hope Chicagoans have a chance to see it soon), enjoyed several pleasant lakeside strolls, and ate my fill of good meals. Most of Madison’s main streets are paved with cement, making them the same color as many of the university buildings: the campus has a uniform look, as if it were coming into being from a graphite sketch. It’s a good backdrop on which to set the new impressions gained from films.

I ought to cover my bases and write movies rather than films. About half of the screenings I attended were projected digitally, and the festival programmers did their best to note—in both their program catalog and introductions to individual screenings—the differences between celluloid and digital presentation (such thorough attention to form ought to be expected in the hometown of David Bordwell). The festival illustrated just how galvanic is the transition that movies are undergoing, and it’s admirable that the programmers sought to make this clear for a general audience. I wish that Chicago’s international film festival conveyed such interest in how movies work, as such a pronounced philosophy can make a varied slate of selections feel like part of a unified whole.

Indeed, the Chicago International Film Festival could learn several lessons from Wisconsin’s. Here are some of the most significant:

1. Encourage different ways of understanding movies. Because the Wisconsin Film Festival is organized by the state university, there was a noted academic bent to some of the programming. On Friday, professor J.J. Murphy, who recently published a book on Andy Warhol’s films, introduced Face, explaining its production history and the meanings conveyed by its radical form. And all weekend, experimental filmmaker Phil Solomon (who’s also a professor himself) introduced programs of his work, elucidating the working methods and thematic intentions behind each short. These presentations encouraged analysis where others celebrated discovery, and the two approaches complemented each other nicely.

2. Showcase experimental cinema. In addition to the Solomon and Warhol programs, the festival also presented Stephanie Sabine Gruffat’s experimental documentary I Have Always Been a Dreamer and a collection of shorts by Luther Price. Any festival that strives for a multifaceted portrait of contemporary movies shouldn’t forget about the avant-garde. For one thing, this field of cinema contains images that simply don’t exist in narrative movies. Also, showcasing experimental work within a festival setting can introduce it audiences that might not see it otherwise.

3. Screen older movies. While there’s nothing like spending an entire day at a film festival, sometimes it’s nice to get a break from brand-new images. Of course, there’s no shortage of great revival screenings in Chicago (some of the classics at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival—Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, the W.C. Fields comedy So’s Your Old Man, Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair—recently played at the Film Center or at Doc Films), but older movies can take on new meanings when presented as part of a festival. One of the highlights of my weekend was seeing John Hansen introduce a new print of his nearly forgotten Northern Lights, an early piece of regional independent filmmaking that won the Camera d’Or at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival.

4. Screen movies at multiple locations. For the past few years, the Chicago International Film Festival has taken place almost entirely at the River East 21. If an attendee wanted to see movies all day (and if a festival’s good enough, why shouldn’t s/he?), it’s possible that s/he never went outside. The Wisconsin festival took place at over a half-dozen venues, ranging from the cozy UW Cinematheque to 1,200-seat Orpheum Theater next to the State Capitol, and it was great to have an excuse to get some fresh air between screenings. I have nothing against the River East, but there are several other screening rooms within walking distance of it: at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 600 North Michigan, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Wit Hotel, and Columbia College. Why not take advantage of that variety?

5. Don’t hold the festival in Madison on 4/20. The Chicago International Film Festival already has this one covered, but I can't state this enough: few things ruin the thrill of a great screening like exiting onto a Phish-wannabe student band subjecting helpless passersby to a white-funk anthem called "Time to Smoke."

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