Friends: It's not often one has the opportunity of seeing a pair of freshly-minted, black-and-white, essentially silent films at a film festival, but film fest goers over the next year will have that chance as any film festival worth its salt will be scrambling to add "The Artist" and "The Turin Horse," which both played today, to their line-ups.
"The Artist" by French director Michel Hazanavicius was this morning's 8:30 a.m. Competition entry. It is a superbly crafted recreation of a silent film taking place just as the silent era is drawing to a close. The career of a star of the era is about to see his life come crashing down with the advent of sound, while a young starlet's career is about to be launched. This was the first film in Competition to receive any four star reviews from Screen magazine's panel of ten critics, and the first film to break the three star barrier for its average score.
Though the film has its dark elements, it is generally a crowd-pleaser with dancing and a cute dog. There is only an uttered word or two of dialogue and essentially no sound other than music, though a feather hits the ground with a resounding crash when the old silent star realizes sound has arrived. It may not gain entry to the multiplexes, but it will be a hit at film fests and on the art house circuit.
The day's other black-and-white, mostly silent film was an award-winner at Berlin earlier this year, playing in the market here, the latest from Hungarian master Bela Tarr. It was vintage Bela Tarr with prolonged scenes with a minimum of dialogue set against bleak and desolate rural backgrounds. This two-and-a-half hour film could have easily been half its length, but then it wouldn't have been a Bela Tarr film. There was a mob waiting to see it at the 63-seat Riviera three screening room. I was in line with Patrick McGavin, critic for Screen magazine and free-lance Chicago sports reporter. We were talking Bulls as much as cinema while we sweated out getting in. This was a film where my market pass gave me precedence over Patrick's press pass. I was let in before he was, but he managed to get in as well. Every seat was filled, largely by Bela Tarr fans. If this film had been playing in Competition here, it would have easily been the most walked out upon film of the festival. In our screening only two or three people left early, though I did notice a few people nodding off, including me.
A documentary on Bollywood cinema, "Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told," clocked in at barely 90 minutes, half as long as it could have been. With literally thousands of dance scenes to choose from this film could have gone on and on indefinitely. It had to be a monstrously impossible task to edit and to choose selections. It was a film that couldn't go wrong, other than leaving viewers wanting more, much, much more. There were only a handful of short snippets from directors and singers talking about their craft. I was hoping for choreographers explaining their craft, and critics commenting on the evolution of the grandiosity of the dance numbers, but the numbers were just left to speak for themselves. This was all entertainment with little enlightenment, just a few historical inserts of Gandhi, Mahatma as well as the assassinated premier, and other historical figures.
I finally managed two see two Competition films in one day. I'm averaging barely one a day this year, leaving me a lot to catch up on he last day of the Festival when they're all replayed, though the ones I've missed so far have all been sub-par. "Footnote" was my second for the day, and as enjoyable as "The Artist," though in an entirely different sense. While the silent film was whimsical and light, this was quite serious fare, the study of the rivalry of father and son Talmudic scholars in Israel. The father is a bitter, unappreciated, friendless old man whose studies have gone largely unacknowledged, while his son is much celebrated. The film opens with the son giving an acceptance speech for an award. His speech is dedicated to his father, who sits in the audience pretty much in anguish, the camera focusing on his face during the entire telling speech. This was a highly intelligent film with an original premise and an unflinching, brutally honest study of academic rivalries. The moral dilemmas raised provide some of the festival's best fodder for post-film discussion.
Any Dead Head attending the festival would have had "The Music Never Stopped" at the top of their list of films to see. This American feature is based on the essay "The Last Hippie" by Oliver Sacks. It is the true story of a 35 year old who had a brain tumor removed in 1986 leaving him largely an amnesiac. The only memories he can recover are those associated with his favorite music, mostly rock and roll songs from his teens when he was an aspiring musician.
The film abounds with music by the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan and The Grateful Dead. The film concludes with the amnesiac and his 65 year old father, who is a cardiac patient, attending a Grateful Dead concert. The father, played by J.K. Simmons, kicked his son out of his house when he was 17 for burning an American flag on stage at a rock concert and hadn't seen him for nearly twenty years until he returned home needing the operation. It wasn't so easy for Simmons to break from the warmth of his "Juno" father to play the role of a hard-ass. Only the music made this largely inept effort tolerable. It was nearly impossible to look at the son's ghastly beard.
Ralph and I made another attempt at the end of the day for the ten p.m. press screening of one of the next day's Competition films but this time the ushers wouldn't let us in even though there were empty seats, typical French arbitrariness, such as the occasional overly-officious rookie usher who denies me entry into the Debussy for wearing sandals, until he is overruled by a superior.
I rushed over to the Debussy for "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and got in just as the lights were turned off. A usher guided me down an aisle and folded down an auxiliary aisle seat for me, not the most comfortable of seats. The movie didn't help me forget my discomfort. Martha is a young woman who has just escaped a cult in upstate New York. Her older, quite affluent sister comes to her rescue and puts her up at her luxurious lakeside vacation home with her husband. Martha is quite traumatized. The sisters haven't seen each other in two years and never seemed to be very close to begin with. Martha only tells her sister that she's broken up with a boy friend. She suffers nightmares and flashbacks and becomes a nightmare for her sister. Everyone in this woefully unrealized movie is creepy and unsettling, the straights as well as those in the counter-culture. They're all testy, insensitive, insistent on having their own way and most unlikeable, just like the movie itself.
It will be an early rise tomorrow to bike in plenty early for the 8:30 screening of the long-awaited Terrence Malick film, "Tree of Life," with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, a film that was scheduled to play at last year's festival. Patrick even with his press credentials giving him priority to the screening intends to get in line before 7:30. I will go directly to the auxiliary nine a.m. line, though even if I am first in line will have to stand aside until all the press overflow from the 2,000 seat Palais are let in. I'm not all that confident of being able to see it until Sunday when all the Competition films are replayed for those still lingering.