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NewCityNet Fest Age

No matter how young a face we put to the world, signs of gray eventually show.

By Ray Pride

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  It's been more than a decade since I've had to line up and buy a ticket at a film festival. I'm not trying to brag or put myself above anyone who loves movies but happens not to write about them for a living. Instead, I'm trying to figure out how to recommend movies, how to describe the Chicago International Film Festival to, say, the 23-year-old man or woman just out of college, maybe in a new city, loves the movies, sees the show's coming to town, wants to figure out what to see and how to see it.

For me, festivals in other cities are total immersion experiences. Eating, drinking, watching, sleeping, talking, dreaming nothing but movies. Meeting people who can sit through seven movies in a day and still sound sane in prose. Meeting people whose life revolves around the love of movies, or, as we should grandly, but properly put it, the cinema.

Movies arrive in droves on Friday every week, usually to be forgotten or maligned, occasionally treasured by a stripe of the mass moviegoing audience. But festivals, like the arthouse theaters that do such good work year-round in Chicago, are meant to draw out something more rarefied‹estimable reflections of the past, formidable indicators of what the future may hold.

I'm lucky. Trudging from movie to interview to conversation to movie to movie in the past year at festivals in Thessaloniki, Greece; Park City, Utah; Toronto and New York, I've been able to seek out what I think is important, films from filmmakers I treasure, new work from those who might provide a more lyrical, poetic, even visionary strain of cinema in the second century of the art. It's not the same as having to draw from the pickings of six or ten films showing at a twenty-four plex. It's an ideal, idealized world far from the reality of what most moviegoers can take in, even when a long-running festival like Chicago's brings a hundred or so titles into town.

"See for yourself" is this year's slogan, and the brochure is better written and edited than in recent years, the design clean and easy to use. But what does film mean to the Chicago International Film Festival? The mission of most every festival I'm conversant with is clear in their programming. The interests and tastes of the programmers are eclectic and diverse, yet it's never hard to understand why the festival's directors do their jobs and what they care about.

As it has been for many of the years of the past decade, I've looked over the schedule of the Chicago festival and found myself wondering how much is genuinely anyone's idea of the best movies to bring to this city, or merely the result of past dealings, good fortune or the agendas of others. For instance, Fox Searchlight Pictures is using festivals this fall as a prestige platform to launch the brilliant "Boys Don't Cry," preparing a difficult sell for the market through what can only be enthusiastic word of mouth. (It's also played Venice, Toronto and New York.) The same applies with most films from the major arthouse distributors, such as Miramax or Sony Classics. It's not a charity game, and it's not for the love of any specific festival. It's just a cost efficient way to get movies in front of a crowd. One programmer described this process to me as a preview audience that "selects itself," saving him the trouble of deciphering the target audience. So we have Miramax's "The Cider House Rules," "That's The Way I Like It," "The Grandfather" and "Mansfield Park"; Sony Classics' "American Movie" and Universal's "Snow Falling on Cedars" on the list. Special presentations, indeed, if you like paying extra for a movie you can see around the corner a few weeks from now.

But what's distinctive, what makes the culture of movies live or die according to the programming laid out in front of us? There are festival veterans whose work is inevitably programmed, such as France's Michel Deville and Bertrand Tavernier, Finland's Aki Kaurismaki and Portugal's nonagenarian Manoel de Oliveira. Tavernier, who is represented by "Ca commence aujourd'hui" (It All Starts Today), has had terrible luck with U.S. distribution, with a superb film like "L'Appat" (which did show at CIFF) not getting released, and a movie like "D'Artagnan's Daughter" sitting on a Miramax shelf for a couple of years before being released directly to video under a "sexier" title.

When the festival began, many of the veterans of the silents and early days of the talkies were alive, and their contemporaries were still around to attend and fund the festival. Into the seventies, state-supported Eastern European cinemas, such as those of Poland, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia and former USSR were CIFF favorites, as were Asian titles and gay-themed feature films from around the world. In the intervening years, not only have video, cable and satellite distribution made a more diverse range of movies available for the compulsive cinephile, even the average moviegoer's attention can be sated by niche festivals year-round. The Polish Film Festival monopolizes several weeks of work throughout the year; the Latino Film Festival draws from cultures around the globe in the spring; the Film Center has a lock on the mutating commercial and art cinemas of Hong Kong; and in a few weeks, we'll have the latest edition of Reeling, the long-running lesbian and gay film festival organized by Chicago Filmmakers. Facets and the Film Center present comprehensive retrospectives throughout the year, and many individual titles are shown there, as well as the Music Box, DOC Films and other screens around the city. Hundreds of films are made around the world each year, but with all these outlets seeking titles, the likelihood of being able to program a general festival that represents the best of a given year's world output is minimal.

But this is my job. I see movies all the time, and if you only see five or ten or twenty in a given year, I'm not sure what the quality of the festival will seem like to you if you see three or four good films and only a couple of stinkers. It may seem like the greatest show on earth. But for someone who's attended the festival for more than twenty years, and intermittently reviewed it for at least seventeen, it seems more like an institution than a cultural necessity. The handful of good movies that come to CIFF that are not shown by the many other programs in Chicago would likely be dispersed among those venues if the festival, in its current, blurry incarnation, were to end.

Among the programs unique to Chicago are a sidebar of nine films from the Philippines; three from Mexico and four from Germany. Among the films I'd especially recommend are Lynne Ramsay's bleak yet euphorically visualized "Ratcatcher"; Yu Lik-wai's "Love Will Tear Us Apart"; Léa Pool's gentle, lyrical, tactile "Set Me Free"; Bruno Dumont's dour, lugubrious, shimmering Cannes prize-winner, "Humanity"; Werner Herzog's hilarious portrait of his work with madman Klaus Kinski, "My Best Fiend"; Chris Smith's "American Movie"; Fruit Chan's "The Loneliest Summer," set during the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China; and although I haven't seen it, I'm looking forward to Tavernier's "Ca commence aujourd'hui," about a principled schoolteacher's frustrations in a small town.

I haven't seen "The Big Tease," about a Scots hairdresser let loose in L.A., but its script, originally titled "Je M'Appelle Crawford!" is one of the funniest things I've read in ages. Among revivals, "Donald Cammell's Wild Side," a director's cut of the film which had been savaged by its distributor just prior to Cammell's suicide and John Frankenheimer's "Seconds," a stunningly shot film that one hopes is being shown in a new print.


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