Tuesday, May 5, 2009

27th Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival: A Reflection

I have lived in the Twin Cities long enough to remember The Rivertown International Film Festival and the barrage of strange films that had no context in the pre-internet world. Tossed between the Bell, Nicholson Hall, and the awesome Film in the Cities theater in the bank, The Rivertown was impressive even in retrospect if for no other reason than 'where did these films come from.' (The 9th, pictured at left, opened with Ju Dou, that has survived the test of time, and closed with A Thousand Pieces of Gold. Remember that one? Me either.) Things have changed since then: the internet has made everyone an expert (yours truly not excluded) and the film festival has morphed into what is now known as the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival.

The Festival, in its various forms, has been screening 100 plus films for a while. There where too many years that I was either absent (physically or mentally) or working the dreaded second shift to be able to give a true assessment of the last 18 years of International Film Festivals in the Twin Cities, but it has obviously gone through its gowning pains. Most recently and notably four years ago when the Fest gained a new director and some new life. Ballooning at 163 films, the 23th MSPIFF was the programming best this town had seen and the crowds were bursting out the seams of the five various venues. But of course, not long after that golden boy, Jamie Hook, broke the bank and left Minnesota Film Arts, the entity behind the Film Fest, in a shambles. Also buried in this saga is the sorted history of Minnesota Film Arts that will be retold in five different versions by five different people. (Want an introduction? Browse the comments and the article linked here.)

Since then, MSPIFF has rebuilt almost in spite of MFA's efforts, or lack there of. Although I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to the ability to overdose on films, I will never become a member of an organization that is so unwilling to share its plans for the future. After a public effort to save the Oak (and MFA) was thwarted, the board of MFA went silent. Everyone, including long standing members, were left in the dark. It's no wonder that people are prone to conspiracy theories about what the board is trying to hide. At this point, Minnesota Film Arts seems committed to popping its head out of the sand in the Spring for a film festival, but little else. (Of course, I would always love to hear otherwise, and if it sounds good, you've got my cash.)

It is from this dysfunctional nonprofit that the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival is expected to succeed. Al Milgrom continues to be the torch carrier and the face of the Festival, probably providing much of his legwork gratis. And behind him is a league of hardworking (and probably equally underpaid) staff. Their efforts at this year's film festival can not be understated.

Out of the 147 films, I saw 28 theater-side and screened eight from DVD for the Star Tribune for a grand total of 36; not even a quarter of what was offered. Kinda crazy. Within those 36 were some huge highs (Munyurangabo, Lion's Den, Three Monkeys, Tokyo Sonata, and Oblivion), a handful of random lows (The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, Taarka, My Time Will Come, Getting Home, and Land of the Dark Butterflies) with the rest falling somewhere in the middle. Save for Mondays, I was at St Anthony Main every day. I dug hanging out with my peeps (will you be my peeps?) under the ruse of Film Goat Gatherings, and hope to do so again soon at another randomly chosen film event. And if you missed any of that, I narcissistically chronicled it all on this blog.

Because this is a fly-over-land festival, it really serves a purpose of bringing films to the the big screen that would otherwise not make an appearance in the Twin Cities. If you cracked open the New York Times last Friday, you would have seen at least a half dozen films reviewed or advertised that played at the festival: Eldorado, The Merry Gentleman, Three Monkeys, Il Divo, Shall We Kiss, Tyson, Lemon Tree. While some of these are scheduled to make a return appearance either at Landmark or the proposed schedule for the Oak for May, the vast majority of the films at MSPIFF will never return to the big screen and some may even vanish without a DVD trace. Regarding those films that will vanish and never be heard from again, the question I would ask programmers is do they deserve to vanish? I like an obscure film as much as the next person, but I don't obscurity alone is a merit. The other question I would have is regarding films that have a scheduled return (Tokyo Sonata and Lemon Tree being examples): would it be worth filling that slot with a film that may not make a theatrical appearance in the Twin Cities?

These are merely questions, knowing full well that programing a film festival is not like filling your Netflix queue. Distribution deals are probably still be negotiated when films are chosen or screened, so much of this is probably a mute point. However, here are two examples that I can cull simply from reading magazines: Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astree and Celadon and the omnibus film The State of the World which included shorts from Pedro Costa, Chantal Akerman, Wang Bing, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Vicente Ferraz and Ayisha Abraham—both have directorial anchors and, dare I say it, are important films because of it and neither one seems to be coming to a theater near us anytime soon. The Film Fest has some chaff, and I guess I would like to see a little more selective if not visionary programing.

To its credit, the Fest is hugely diverse, (and maybe a little bit too inclusive) but there are some pretty big gaps. One film from Japan, one film from South Korea, and some very uninspired choices from China. And what about Malaysia? Thailand? I would have loved to have seen Wang Bing's Feng Ming: A Chinese Memoir or Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army or Shinji Aoyama's Sad Vacation or Hong Sang-soo's Day and Night or Liew Seng Tat's Flower in the Pocket or Ying Li's Yasukuni or even Jia Zhangke's poorly review Useless, not to mention Sion Sono's Love Exposure. Or how about filling up a theater with anime fans by showing Mamoro Oshii's Sky Crawlers? Obviously, these are the films that I pine for, but these films represent a viewing demographic that was largely ignored.

Technically, it's always just a few bad apples that taint the whole Fest. The worst, was The Secret of the Grain being projected from a DVD. It was bad enough that the picture looked crappy, but to have it jump to the beginning of the disc right in the middle of the movie? Wow. Really really poor judgement on that one; a film that clearly should have been presented on 35mm. That being said, I thought most of the movies projected from HD in Theater 3 looked pretty good with Helen and Tokyo Sonata being standouts examples. (I'll be interested to see if Tokyo Sonata is on 35mm when it plays at the Lagoon.) The point of most of this is that 'films' are becoming increasingly format diverse, and the Festival does a huge disservice to the audience by not printing format somewhere. If I was on the fence about which movie to see, I would always choose the one on 35mm. But there was no way to make that choice, other than trying to track someone down who might know before you buy your tickets and have half of them look at you like you're an asshole. (Maybe I am an asshole, but that's not the point.) Not only do I think most people would be interested in this information, it simply makes a more savvy audience.

Not to keep pooping on the parade with constructive criticism, but...the ballot thing is annoying. Put this online. Let people vote and write comments online and skip all the needless paper and time sorting through these crazy things. (Not to mention the log-jam outside every film with the ballot twitter...) Speaking of Twitter, set up a MSPIFF Twitter account and a MSPIFF Facebook. They may not be my favorite modes of communication, but people use them, especially the young 'uns. Who wouldn't want to volunteer to Tweet?

Having gleefully spent almost all my spare time at St Anthony in the two weeks of MSPIFF, sometime riding directly from work and staying until 11pm, I would like to think it is obvious that I am thankful for the Festival. Problems and criticisms aside, this is my home and this is my Festival. Film in this city means more to me than I am probably willing to admit. And because of that, I want to see it get better and to excel and be profitable. To take it one step further, I think the Twin Cities has the audience and the resources to hone the International Film Festival into something unique and important. As it is, MSPIFF has become an aside. There is no buzz, there is no hype, and there is no attempt to hook a receptive but ambivalent population. MFA needs a little drive and inspiration. If MSPIFF is the one thing they do all year, they really need to get behind it, and not just for one month out of the year.

Thanks for the memories. Let's do it again next year. XO


joe said...

Great post, Kathie! I really appreciate all of your festival missives. Keep up the excellent work.

Daniel Getahun said...

Way to tie everything together here, Kathie. Very good points. I think it's fair criticism, and MFA should be actively listening to the engaged film fans in the community, whether they are members or not.

I enjoyed a lot of the festival this year, too, but you're right that there doesn't appear to be that much excitement around it. It found a really nice space at St. Anthony, but it needs to be rejuvenated each year to avoid falling into a routine.

The ballots are a good example that I've complained about a lot this year. Not only did they disappear from sight and mind, but the "awards" were a mystery as well. With this many films, including some major releases, it shouldn't be that hard to set up an award system. It doesn't even have to be a "jury", though I know there was one - just let the audience decide.

And the formatting issues were really obvious this year because they caused such problems. Even at the Oak St. the other night as part of the "best of fest", A Walk to Beautiful conked out halfway through and the DVD had to be restarted. I don't know if it was projectionist issues this year or what, but obviously they should be doing whatever they can to show films in 35mm.

I'll be there again next year, and I'll probably be just as excited for it. I guess my desire to see this films overshadows my issues with how or why they're shown. I almost feel guilty, like eating fast food when I know I shouldn't. Well maybe not like that, but you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Was anyone else just creeped out by those drawings on the program of the people with film reels for heads? I can't bear to look at it another minute!

Kathie Smith said...

Thanks Joe! I'm impressed by anyone who makes it to the end of one of my posts.

Daniel, I was wondering how things were going at the Oak. Doesn't look like I am going to get over there this week, but I want to catch Shall We Kiss? this weekend. Also looks like Three Monkeys will be playing over the weekend of May 22-24, which is great. I might actually go see it again.

I think we are on the same page as far as the Fest goes; I'm always excited to see new films. What I worry about is the ability of the Festival to draw new viewership. They don't need to convince me to go to movies, but there was a large section of the potential audience who just was not reached this year. I noticed it through friends and acquaintances who would see me pouring over the catalog and say, "Oh, Is that going on right now?" Unfortunately it is going to take more than just articles and reviews a week before the Fest to build some excitement. I guess they call it marketing.

The format thing is no doubt something we are going to see more and more of. With cineplexes moving away from 35mm and even the Lagoon opting for alternative formats, I know it kind of goes with the territory. But printing format somewhere would at least give a nod to the Festival audience that this isn't the multiplex.

Jeez, I forgot to even mention the cover design and the Fest trailer. The 'reel heads' are creepy, but I kinda like that. I was also pleasantly not annoyed by the trailer. The good physical acting made it a pleasure to watch.

Barry Kryshka said...

My best guess at why MSPIFF doesn't list formats is that the DVD screener is used as a back-up, in case the 35mm print gets held up in Albanian customs or whatever.

I think in those situations they'd be better off to print "35mm" in the program, and announce at the ticket counter when they have to make a last minute format change.

Joseph Larsen said...

Hey Kathie, this is Joe from Switchbladecomb.com. This is only tangentially related, as it should've played at MSPIFF but didn't, but just letting you know that Still Walking's playing at the Lagoon Cinema starting October 16. Hopefully United Red Army or Love Exposure will inexplicably show up sometime soon too, though it's doubtful.

Anyway, keep up the awesome work, it's nice to see someone else in the Cities posting on Asian cinema.

Kathie Smith said...

That totally makes sense, Barry. As a film programmer I would think that format is a big deal, but if it is with the MSPIFF staff, they certainly don't show it. I know I am probably in the minority, but the fact that someone can pop in a DVD and show it to 200 people, and not say, 'sorry we couldn't get this on 35mm' is just crazy.

Joe, you're right Still Walking should have been in there, but I am glad to hear it is coming to the Lagoon. It's a great movie. (Unwilling to wait, I picked up the R2 Jpn DVD that has English subs. I reviewed it here.) As for United Red Army, it has yet to show up on DVD with English subtitles! (It came out in Japan, but sans subs...) Love Exposure, which I am really looking forward to, will show up eventually on DVD. Seeing it in a theater in the Twin Cites is something of a pipe dream!

Anonymous said...

I'm heading out to the Seattle festival and hopefully, I can see a few of the Japanese and South Korean offerings out there. They're in fact screening, "Still Walking", which I'm stoked about seeing along with "Daytime Drinking", "Hansel & Gretel (R-rated)", "My Dear Enemy" and a few others. Along with trying to catch, "The Hurt Locker", "Sexykiller", "The Headless Woman", "Cold Souls" and "Humpday". It is going to be crazy.

All I can say about the projector difficulties is that, they had no business screening "Secret of the Grain" on DVD. The film isn't in major demand now compared to around the fall and they should have made every effort of getting a 35mm print of it. I can say that sometimes it is difficult to get 35mm's of every film, but if you're going to go the DVD route, why not try for a Digi-Beta? At least, you wouldn't get a skipping issue. BTW, "Secret of the Grain" is going to be available to rent at Blockbuster, May 12.

Kathie Smith said...

Seattle sounds awesome. You'll have to let me know how Daytime Drinking, which ironically seems to have US distribution. Don't set your sights too high for Hansel and Gretel: it's interesting, but disappointing. My Dear Enemy is great with Ha Jung-woo playing a much different role than he played in The Chaser! And if you like Kore-eda, you will not be disappointed in Still Walking.

Totally totally excited for The Headless Woman! I love Lucrecia Martel. Hopefully this will make it here in the Fall; I think it is set to open in NYC in August...

Anonymous said...

My over time continuous let-down at the festival is its lack of communication. There are many problems at these screenings each year, and when they happen there is shouting in the theater, and a long wait until acknowledgement that something is wrong. People do not know where to go to tell someone; i myself do not know if there is someone in the projection booth, and i did hear one person come out to complain and be told that "i'm just a worker, i don't know where to go to complain." Once i sat for maybe 20 minutes in a film without subtitles, thinking just maybe it wasn't supposed to have any. i finally went out to ask, and was told, "Oh, yeah, we couldn't get the subtitled print" (not an exact word for word quotation). If people are coming to maybe new types of films (you always need some new people), and pay more than usual, they, we all, better find things that work, and explanations of what is going on when they don't. Along the same line, for a number of years i emailed in concerns, and never received a response. This was the first year i did, thanks to Ryan. Anyways.

Kathie Smith said...

100% agree. As far as film presentations goes, I think a film festival should set the standard. It is really encouraging that you got a response this year. Reminds me that I was going to write a letter (instead of just engaging in this passive-aggressive blogging thing!)

Thanks for sharing!