Chicago Film Fest Chat Part 3: On Artists, Kids with Bikes and other Festival Gorillas

This is the third installment of a weeklong conversation on the 47th Chicago International Film Festival, which takes place now through October 20, 2011. Read Part One and Part Two.

Timothy Brayton: I more or less adored The Artist with only a hint of reservation, though I don’t know if I can really “defend” it as such. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I see it doing exactly the same thing as you; we only disagree on whether or not it’s a bad thing. I would maybe replace the phrase “uninspired, self-pitying melodrama” with “overt sentimentality”, but either way, the brazen creativity of the first part does absolutely give way to mawkish, not so funny emotional manipulation. Perhaps I’m giving director Michel Hazanavicius too much benefit of the doubt, but I simply saw that to be his commitment to the forms he was imitating and honoring: silent comedies that move from brilliant comic invention to sticky-sweet melodrama is another way of describing virtually the entire ’20s and ’30s filmography of Charles Chaplin. Lord knows I’m not going out on that limb and saying The Artist is the equal to Chaplin, but there are quite a few affinities (the sassy heroine is another), and though I suppose I would have preferred if Hazanavicius hadn’t gone there, I can’t say it really bothered me.

But even if we disagree on that, I’m delighted to say that I’m 100% in your camp on Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which is distinctly the best film I’ve seen at CIFF this year. The long night that opens the movie is absolutely brilliant filmmaking, and that darkness that soaks into everything is almost physically suffocating – I mean that in a good way! – but what impresses me the most is that after the technical bravura of the first half, the film manages to get even better when it moves from the country to the city and from night to day: Nuri Bilge Ceylan displays a Kieslowski-like ability to dramatize emotions and abstract concepts without having to reduce his characters to talking heads. It’s all stunningly good work, though, and though I surely can’t speak for 30 years of Turkish cinema, I have no doubt that it’s going to land on plenty of international best of the decade lists in 2020.

I’ll admit that I’ve had success with the 800-lb gorillas so far: Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, which premiered in contention at Cannes, is as nervy as any directorial debut could want to be: I don’t know if her dissection of sexual mores is uniformly successful, but it’s certainly not short of audacious ideas and it’s unsettling in the best way – definitely a must-see, if only for the conversations afterward. Wim Wenders’s Pina lives up to the only hype that mattered to me, which is that it presents gorgeous modern dance pieces in the most intelligently applied 3D that I have yet encountered. If there’s been any A-list film that I haven’t really responded to on any level, it’s the pleasant and dull Habemus Papam, but even though it was an audience hit at Cannes, I think enough people have already identified its middlebrow pretensions (“The Pope’s Speech” is already an old joke) that it hardly counts as being a contrarian to dislike it.

As far as somewhat more obscure must-sees: there’s one more chance to see Kinyarwanda, on Thursday, and it’s a fascinating attempt at a different kind of movie about the Rwandan genocide, using a number of different character-driven stories to contextualize the violence in unique ways. It’s not at all perfect, but I’m tremendously glad that I saw it.

Nick Davis: I have two can’t-budge conflicts during the whole run of CIFF, both perfectly timed to the two Anatolia screenings. After your responses, I’m electing to feel all the more excited for when I do eventually seen the film, rather than letting myself go jaundiced with envy, weeping into my baklava.  Sounds from everything I’ve read since Cannes that even if, like me, you’ve had trouble fully connecting with Ceylan’s other movies (though Three Monkeys, recently added to Fandor, suggested some promising new tones), this one’s a showstopper.

Since we’ve all seen The Artist, and since it’s a movie no one will be able to walk ten steps this holiday season without bumping into, I’ll chime in with a position somewhere between yours.  The film definitely dwindles in creativity and ambition from the first half to the second.  Jean Dujardin experiences at least one Dark Night Of The Soul too many, and no one seems sure how to stage these, particularly compared to the ingenious choreographies of earlier sequences.

Still, the current of affection the film generates early is so strong I was glad to be pulled along. Hazanavicius can get a whole scene, with several flavors of charm and emotional wallop, out of one coat sleeve, a glass set down on a table, a dog set down at another table, a gargantuan staircase, or the words “Beauty Spot” on a giant billboard (my favorite fake-movie title since Sack Lunch).  It’s odd how the movie implies that the paradigm shift brought on by The Jazz Singer wasn’t fully clear till 1929, partly so as to tell its 2011 audience a sympathetic, comforting fable about bearing up under an economic collapse.  More than that, I liked how the movie became as much an homage to the kitschy but crystal-clear emotions of many late-20s talkies as to the earlier silents–the kind where Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery go from playing polo to secret canoodling to being stranded on a rainswept island, for no good reason except they’ve sold us on their personalities.

While we’re talking up Cannes hits (and before we return to some below-the-radar gems), can I poll you two for your thoughts on the DardennesKid with a Bike?  I had to miss that one, too, and I think you guys reacted differently – and not in the same ways you’ve reacted to the Dardennes in the past, at least from what I gather.

Kevin B. Lee: You had to push the D button, Nick!

If we must talk about the Dardenne brothers, first I’d like to acknowledge a piece on The Kid with a Bike by Jaime N. Christley, one of the writers covering New York Film Fest for Keyframe. Despite my misgivings over the film, I was glad to see his solid defense on Fandor; if anything it shows that the site can harness contending views in ways that still elude the Obama Administration. Jaime astutely pointed out new variations to the imperiled lumpenprole narrative that the Dardennes have milked for prizes all five times they’ve been at Cannes. Other critics I admire have been similarly laudatory, like Daniel KasmanJonathan Rosenbaum and Fernando Croce (though Croce’s titling them “Modern cinema’s poets laureate of working-class marginalization and spiritual crises” makes them sound like Bruce fucking Springsteen), as have many, many others.

In fact what baffles me is that my sparse missive from Toronto is the only instance of criticism in the connotative sense that I can find.  I’m less inclined to interpret this fact as a sign of the film’s bulletproof merits than of how the film’s much-remarked velocity virtually sucker-punches viewers into submission. It’s a fast film (especially as art films go) with plot maneuverings to give you whiplash: the dumb kid forgetting to lock his bike twice; the gang recruiter who takes him from video games to street crime in the space of three scenes; the too-good-to-be-true foster mom kicking his unsympathetic boyfriend to the curb in an instant; how the kid goes from really hating to really loving his foster mom in the space of a bike ride.

It is remarkable that so many of these lightning developments are fulfilled in long, one-shot takes, masterfully choreographed, another sign of the brothers’ efficiency. Though in other moments the camera switches to perpetual panning mode in order to keep up with feral child lead Thomas Doret running all over the screen and right into our hearts (“The poor child has so much energy! if only he could be saved from delinquency, he’d lead Belgium to the UEFA Championship in 5 years!”). As if this Olympic display of exertion is not enough to convey his fiery spirit, the kid has flaming red hair and wears nothing but red clothing. Maybe it’s the bros giving a formalist wink, that they’re having fun with their newfound summer color palette (it’s their first film shot in a bright Belgian summer, breaking from their standard kitchen-sink grays), but it belies a larger button-pushing agenda (a leaner, meaner slumdog melodrama?) that not enough critics have tried to pull out from behind the curtain.

Maybe chalk it up to “only in the movies” but the fact that so many people are willing to eat this up with nary a hiccup irks me – especially when they’ll turn around and dump on a film like My Week with Marilyn for being formulaic baloney. Not that it isn’t; the film is as obsessed with resurrecting the mystique of old Hollywood as The Artist (no surprise that these two are the Centerpiece and Closing Night Films) and yet the fun it seems to have in reanimating those skeletons I found disarming. I actually found Kenneth Branagh’s scenery chewing as a pretentious Sir Laurence Olivier a kind of touching elbow poke at the man to whom he was so often compared in his early career, for both better and worse; there’s something almost Oedipal about it that’s way more interesting than Michelle Williams‘ near robotic mimicry of Marilynisms.

Since I’ve previously touched on Wednesday’s Centerpiece Marilyn and Thursday’s Closing Night film The Artist, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the film that opened the festival last week and that no one I know seems to have seen or remarked on: the Chicago-filmed The Last Rites of Joe May. It’s the kind of film the Dardennes could have made, and perhaps if they did it would be better. The story lurches along with Dennis Farina’s sad sack ex-con as he’s let out of the hospital to find himself homeless and unwanted by his old associates in the syndicate, only to seek salvation by protecting a woman being battered by her cop husband. No doubt the Dardennes would have told the story with the tautness and discipline of a Navy SEAL unit. On the other hand, the sluggishness of the endeavor is rather appropriate: as we walk long stretches of cold streets with Farina, one might initially suspect it’s to pad the runtime, but it really does put us in this guy’s derelict shoes.

And then there’s Farina, who I wager is miscast playing a character possessing half his intelligence. Farina is 67 but you can tell he’s brimming with sharpness and energy as he always has whether playing a hood or a cop. Here he has to dial it down considerably. Playing a dumb character who says dumb things, he’s robbed of his verbal skills,especially having to work with dialogue that’s not quite Crime Story caliber, much less Law and Order. You can tell it makes him uncomfortable, having to invest fully in a strategy of physical mannerism and really feeling his way through his character rather than talking through it like he’s long been used to. And this kind of disruption and adaptation to an artist’s craft is thrilling to watch; it brings a genuine tension to the film that extends beyond nominal drama and into the very act of creation. I would love nothing more than to see it happen to the Dardennes, however many Palme d’Ors it costs them.

Continue to Part Four, or read Part One and Part Two

Nick Davis writes essay-length film reviews at his website NicksFlickPicks. He is
also a professor of film, English, and gender studies at Northwestern University.

Timothy Brayton writes about film at his blog Antagony & Ecstasy.

Kevin B. Lee is editor of Keyframe at Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.

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