Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Film Fest 2017 -the First Weekend

You try to resist it. (Yet you drive down to St. Anthony Main to get a program several weeks before the fest.)

You thumb through the catalog muttering to yourself: Afghanistan, Serbia, India, Azerbaijan—they all sound alike. (Yet you find yourself circling things for future reference.)

You say, "No point in going on the first weekend; everything will be so crowded." Then you read a review that sounds good in the Tribune or ArtScape and start to worry that the film will sell out. (Some of them probably already have.)

So you buy a six-pack pass online and secure a few  tickets. Just four films during the weekend, three more trickling on during the week, and that final, hard-to-get ticket to the bio-pic about Emily Dickinson way off in week two. That ends up exhausting  two six-packs but what the heck. It's fascinating stuff, and most of it will never be showing in the vicinity on the big screen again.

There tend to be long lines stacked up to get into each show, due largely to the fact that the scheduling is tight and the five theaters seldom clear out swiftly. That's often because the directors are often present to answer questions after the screening.

But film fest crowds are perhaps the most interesting, lively, and diverse of any you'll come across in the Twin Cities, and eavesdropping is often part of the fun.

J: Beyond Flamenco (Spain) The latest installment of director Carlos Saura's long string of films devoted to Iberian folk culture, J: Beyond Flamenco focuses on a form called the jota. Few people have heard of the jota, which may explain why that word doesn't appear in the film's title, though "flamenco," which everyone has heard of, does. The jota isn't "beyond" flamenco, however. It's a far less exotic form from the northern region of Aragon, and it occasionally seems related to Portuguese and even Alpine dance and song forms. Stringing together a long series of staged set pieces shot in the studio, Saura convinces us that the leaping jota is just as interesting as fado or flamenco, with numerous sub-regional variations and urban modifications. A total delight.

El Classico (Iraq/Norway) This simple love story about a "little person" (AKA dwarf) who is rejected as a candidate for marriage by the father of the woman he loves becomes a road movie stretching from the deserts of rural Iraq to the Green Zone of Bagdad and eventually all the way to Madrid. No, the protagonist doesn't kidnap his bride to be. Rather, he steals a pair of shoes from his prospective father-in-law and heads off with his brother on his four-wheeler across the barren countryside, with the idea in mind of delivering the shoes to the soccer superstar Ronaldo. Mostly charming, though occasionally horrific.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Finland) This lush black-and-white film tells the true story of Finnish boxer Olli Mäki and his efforts to win the world featherweight boxing title in 1962. Mäki was a baker by trade, and from the first he seems a bit out of his league as the American champion and his entourage appear on the scene. In fact, it appears that his promoter and his big-spending sponsors are far more eager to win the title for Finland than Olli is. He has to lose a good deal of weight to qualify for the bout, and all the media attention surrounding the build-up doesn't make things any easier for him. Nor does his good-natured girlfriend, whose radiant presence lights up the screen whenever she appears. Less of a sports film than a nostalgic look back to a bucolic landscape and a simpler era, you leave the theater with the urge to head to the Iron Range, take a sauna, and then jump shrieking into a lake.

La Danse (U.S.A.) Frederick Wiseman had documented the inner workings of prisons, strip clubs, art galleries, and many other institutions. In this film, which dates from 2009, he takes an extended look at the Paris Opera Ballet. I'm not a big fan of ballet, but I thoroughly enjoyed these sequences, during which the dancers are wearing T-shirts, the studio spaces have the worn-out look of nineteenth-century buildings, and the choreographers running the sessions are calling out points of criticism every two or three seconds."Elbow down." "Don't move your hip; sweep the hand and the hip will follow." "You're frowning all the time."  To my unpracticed eye, all dance moves look not only difficult but exquisite, and often a little bit silly, too. Little did I know how much is required to get things right--or what "right" looks like. And the episodes get even more entertaining when the choreographers start bickering among themselves.

Wiseman also takes us onto the performance stage from time to, and into the cafeteria, and the offices where the group's artistic director discusses dancer selection with a guest choreographer or encourages a very young member of the troupe not to become too self-critical. But unlike most ballet movies, which fuel themselves on melodramatic conflict between high-strung and competitive dancers, Wiseman's portrait is devoid of personal interactions between individual dancers aside from the ones they engage in physically as part of their routines. None of the dancers are interviewed. It's as if we wandered into the building, stood in a corner, and no one seemed to mind, or even notice.

Watching La Danse is a lot like spending a few hours in Paris, but with no croissants or espresso in sight. It's a pleasant experience, and after the three-hour film the presenters dialed up Wiseman himself in Paris via Skype, projecting the image of his face onto the big screen.

He turned out to be a very sharp and good-humored guy. Someone in the audience asked him how he arranged to get such intimate access to a vaunted, three-hundred-year-old institution.

"I'll tell you a secret," he replied. "I've never told this to anyone before...I asked them."    

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