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