Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Day 9 recap at the Cleveland Film Festival

A view from the aisle seat before DISAPPEARANCES (Mark Pfeiffer/March 24, 2006)

(Writer's note: most of this was written between films at day 9 of the festival. Time constraints have kept me from finishing it until now, but I've retained the writing on location tone to it. Still to come is my overall recap.)

Today I set a new personal high for most films seen in a day: seven. (Technically, I suppose it's only six since the last began at midnight, but they're all part of the ninth day of the Cleveland International Film Festival and have been seen in one trip to the cinema.) Fortunately, it's also been the single best day of the fest for me.

The Polish omnibus film SOLIDARITY, SOLIDARITY features short films from thirteen directors reflecting upon the trade union's twenty-fifth anniversary. I'll be the first to admit not being well versed on the workers' movement. Although some of the cultural history is lost on me, the film is organized well and uses a variety of approaches to convey everything that the uninformed might need. Director Andrzej Wajda, the most recognizable of those involved with the project, generated the idea for the film and contributes the next to last short.

A general theme among the shorts are fighting against complacency that may be settling in. The filmmakers push to remember what existed under Communist apparatchiks even if reform has not created a perfect society. It's interesting to see how the Polish are struggling with freedom and how in even a short time people take it for granted.

The third short is one of the simplest and one of the best. We see the Gdansk shipyard workers working on their demands and how they decide to present them. The film then transitions to some of the participants talking about the experience. Schoolchildren then walk through the historic place and learn what these men did. The short effectively ties together the past and the present.

Kim Ki-duk's THE BOW is set on a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean. An old man and a beautiful girl live on the boat. He found her when she was six, and she has lived on the boat, never going to land, for ten years. He intends to marry her when she reaches her seventeenth birthday. The only people they encounter are the customers the old man brings to the boat. These men ogle and fondle the girl but only until the old man gets his bow and fires arrows at them.

One of the young fishermen takes a shine to the girl and she to him. He wants to free her from the confinement of the boat, but the question becomes whether she would want to leave and if the old man would permit her to do so.

THE BOW'S two main characters speak no words in the film. Their relationship is told entirely through body language, and it's a triumph of directing and acting that their feelings are so clear.

The ending raises questions that are better answered after reflection, something which there isn't much time of at a film festival. This tale about strength and beauty was the best film I'd seen at Cleveland to this point.

FACTOTUM is a strong contender for the best of fest (so far) title. This Bukowski adaptation is fused with the filmic sensibility of Jim Jarmusch. It's directed by Bent Hamer, whose deadpan KITCHEN STORIES was similar in comic construction to guys like Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki. The story of beautiful losers played by Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor is quite funny. The humor is as dry as the chronic boozers are soused.

ADAM'S APPLES finds a neo-Nazi landing in a country church for community service. Director Anders Thomas Jensen's marvelous dark comedy about evil and faith tops the two very good films I'd seen before it. Faith, in the form of a pathologically forgiving minister, is pitted against reason and the ex-cons helping him at the parish. This Biblical allegory shot through with pitch black humor asks how far one must go to see the good in people and the potential they have rather than their sin. ADAM'S APPLES is an often surprising film that wrestles with religious conviction in a way not usually seen.

The first miss of the day came in the form of the documentary HOW TO EAT YOUR WATERMELON IN WHITE COMPANY (AND ENJOY IT). The film profiles Melvin Van Peebles and his many accomplishments. Perhaps best known as the writer, director, and star of SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG, Van Peebles has also worked as a novelist, playwright, recording artist, and Wall Street trader. It's evident that he's a smart guy with diverse talents, but the film is a little too enamored of its subject to get under his skin.

To the detriment of the documentarians is BAADASSSSS!, the narrative feature Melvin's son Mario brought to the screen about the making of SWEETBACK. BAADASSSS! laid Melvin bare as he worked to bring his vision alive. HOW TO EAT YOUR WATERMELON has nary a critical word about him. It's not that the documentary needed to be judgmental; it just needed to go deeper. HOW TO EAT YOUR WATERMELON is more comprehensive in naming Melvin's achievements, but it's a one-dimensional view of a multi-faceted man.

Set in 1932 Kingdom County Vermont, DISAPPEARANCES puts more effort into getting the right period details and appropriate locations than in crafting a compelling narrative. Kris Kristofferson stars as Quebec Bill, the head of a farming family in desperate need of hay. To save the farm he returns to his old ways of whiskey running and takes his son along for the first time. DISAPPERANCES dabbles in magic naturalism, and the story often doesn't make a lot of sense. Even though it isn't that complicated, this tedious film is pretty muddled.

Capping things off at midnight was FUCK, a documentary about the strongest swear word. This tiresome film in praise of crudity is built around interviews with a predictable mix of bluenose conservatives and liberal comedians and commentators. It amounts to little more than a series of cheap shots directed at those who would dare be offended by public vulgarity. The filmmakers argue against censoring one's self-expression no matter what, as if being offensive is an inalienable right. FUCK, which claims to have 629 usages of the word and its innumerable variations, is like a little kid who realizes he can get a rise out of adults by saying something dirty. Yeah, yeah, how edgy. At best there's a half hour's worth of content padded out to three times that. Unlike the completely filthy (and frequently funny) THE ARISTOCRATS, there's little to no artistry and creativity on display here.

For what it's worth, I debated whether or not to list the title as it was in the festival program--F*CK--because I've made a conscious choice not to use such language on this site. (The sign outside the auditorium listed it as F DOC.) I won't be making a habit of it, but the title is what the title is. Obviously it's intended to provoke. I wasn't offended by the film. I was bored by it. And I imagine that using the uncensored title will turn up all sorts of fun results in the search engines.

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