50th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, kino-going in Prague, last stop: Paris
So as not to hold you in suspense a moment longer, the 2001: A Space Odyssey screening in Bologna was the best-of-trip, narrowly edging out the Purple Rain screening at Midnight Sun and the Casablanca screening also in the Piazza Maggiore. Surely this is in part a result of the dearth of any mind-blowing discoveries of new films I made on the trip, but it’s hard to beat the combination of a much-loved (and spectacular, in the true sense of the term) film screened in a beautiful location on a lovely summer evening. Having found the audience at the Casablanca screening (see Issue 11 below) strangely reticent, I didn’t anticipate (and so regrettably didn’t record) the swell of applause that erupted after the chills-inducing opening credits scored to the unforgettable strains of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (anyone needing a reminder can view this (inferior) version, sans applause). It was an electrifying start to the screening of what remains an awe-inspiring film, and a rousing reminder of how much communal spectatorship matters.
My next stop, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, was not nearly so astounding and romantic a cinematic destination despite their attempts to sell it as such. The spa town that houses it features some grandly old-world hotels including the Bristol Palace, supposedly the inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel (though I’d presume some Hungary hotelier might dispute that). These along with the surrounding green hills and cool breezes made for an enticing enough setting, even if the local custom of “taking the waters” seems a fairly ludicrous scam on which to build a tourist destination. But what I imagine is typically a quietly quaint town is transformed, during the festival, into what I would describe as Euro Spring Break. Without going so far as foam parties, there were definitely throngs of partiers seemingly there for reasons beyond cinephilia, to which the techno music blaring from the Finlandia pop-up bar at 3am is testament enough.
Adding to the fray, this festival set a new high in terms of overall incompetence, though interestingly in the opposite way from Midnight Sun (despite my gradual coming to appreciate the latter, I don’t plan to return to either and thus am unworried about badmouthing them). Rather than having next to nothing constituting a system, as had been the case in Lapland, here there was a system so needlessly overcomplicated that it made my head spin. The first opportunity to reserve (not purchase) tickets came a week before festival’s start, when at the appointed morning hour one could go online (this was challenging enough given that the internet connection in my Glasgow flat was sorely unreliable) and delve into a free-for-all upon release of only 10% of the available tickets. Having planned our wish list and working furiously as soon as the system opened, we still managed to secure reservations for only three films. Once the festival started, additional tickets were released but still only a percentage, and only a day in advance, and only available for purchase in person or via a complicated SMS messaging system that carried an additional charge and was clearly weighted in favor of those with local calling plans. If you’re feeling confused, just wait: then, there was an additional percentage of remaining tickets released an hour before any given screening, obtainable only in person at a particular ticket desk where any individual ticket-seller had only so many tickets s/he was allotted to sell. Is your head spinning yet? Then, five minutes before the screening begins, all remaining seats are released to anyone in the standby line – but because tickets at most theatres came with designated seat assignments, unless you were willing to risk losing your crappy seat, you would find yourself sitting rows behind people who had only just walked in. Not that standby was even a surefire venture; only at the smaller, out of the way venues did it work, and while those were mostly staffed by friendly young volunteers, the big venues were watched over menacingly by thuggish bouncers who seemingly possessed no information yet were still empowered to dictate access.
Adding to this insanity, the headquarters hotel housed not one but 19 individual ticket desks, each of which seemed to be equipped to handle only a single task, so one was forced to make the rounds to multiple desks each day to buy passes, pick up reserved tickets (which one could do also only the day in advance), and buy last-minute tickets. I realize that putting on a film festival is an arduous process with myriad moving parts, and what initially seemed confounding was by Day 2 navigable, yet there’s no excuse for making things so overly complicated and lacking in transparency. Needless to say, though it reveals my Anglo-centrism to say it, for an “international” film festival the staff was far from reliably English-speaking.
I can only imagine that this system was designed with the thought that it would benefit day-trippers and last-minute planners, though it hardly seems fair to privilege these casual festival-goers over those attending the festival in its entirety (or close to it). The experience made me reflect on the respective pros-and-cons between this system and that of Sundance, where there are only three official stages of ticket acquisition: an initial date on which those buying festival passes and locals can choose films, a later date when single tickets are released, and the final waitlist that opens two hours before a screening. Of course this privileges pass-buyers and locals, but that seems fair in my estimation insofar as those committing to attending most/all of the festival and so opting for a major outlay of money are rewarded with getting their preferred tickets, but without leaving community members out in the cold. Of course this still results in the price-hiking eBay/Craigslist melee I chronicled back in Issue 7, and yet one isn’t compelled to engage with that, and certainly Karlovy Vary’s rival system didn’t result in my coming any closer to getting my first picks for screenings. Though it’s a much smaller festival than either of these, Bologna lingered even more fondly in my mind for their infinitely simple, first-come first-serve approach to ticket-buying (and one with a considerable student discount), where I got into every screening I attempted, with the only downside being having to wait in crowded, non-air-conditioned theatre lobbies for the previous screenings to let out.
Having still managed to see 9 films in 3 days, I felt accomplished in having persevered in my productivity in spite of the festival’s attempts at clogging the works, and yet on the whole was unsuccessful in my choices (or opportunities) of what to see. Again, my film reviews will be published elsewhere, but among those I saw only one stood out as consistently, memorably excellent – and it was not a discovery but rather a 2014 festival favorite that I’d been eager to see, and which gladly didn’t disappoint: Lucie Borleteau’s Fidelio, Alice’s Journey (check out the trailer here, though without English subtitles). As a part-time resident/full-time booster of Massachusetts, I was excited to learn that Bob and the Trees, a “verité drama” filmed in Western Mass. and featuring a local logger playing himself, won the top prize, the Crystal Globe.
Beyond the techno and ticketing torments, yet another vexing aspect of Karlovy Vary was its throwback sexism, still lingering despite the reported 28% of this year’s competition films being female-directed, and most evident in the closing ceremony’s featuring of bikini-clad young women (this antiquated custom was still going on as of last year, though because I left before festival’s end I can’t verify whether it continues). Even the statuette they award is sexualized: a nude woman with breasts thrust forward rapturously holding up a giant glass ball. In the great majority of cases, this so-called Crystal Globe is awarded to white English-speaking men for their ostensible “Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema,” and if this year’s award-winner (Richard Gere) stretches plausibility on that front, consider that the 2007 award went to Danny DeVito.
As for its more positive attributes, the festival’s daily bi-lingual newspaper featured, among other things, excellent interviews with this year’s special guests Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, and George Romero – all far more special, in my opinion, than the person most lauded this year (see above). As for the festival’s promotional trailers featuring past winners, I have mixed feelings; on the one hand, they showed ingenuity and charm in this one starring Jude Law and another starring (in a rare exception to the white males only rule) Vĕra Chytilová. Yet the one that received grossly disproportionate play and featured the repugnant Mel Gibson (apparently not so reviled in the Czech Republic as he is in the U.S.) grew increasingly noxious with every additional enforced viewing, as did the mystifying applause that greeted it. Though I don’t recommend going, if you ever were to find yourself in Karlovy Vary, the one place I’d recommend is the Bokovka Wine Club, a hidden gem clinging to the hill behind the Husovka Theatre, where they serve up excellent burgers in addition to local wine. And should you want to read more about the festival, from reporters less critical of it than myself, check out this piece from Fandor or this one from Thompson on Hollywood.
On to Prague, where I would strongly urge anyone to steer as clear as possible of the hyper-touristy Staré Město district, which is unbearably tacky and besieged by Segway tours. Unfortunately, because we were using the city as a crashpad en route to/from Karlovy Vary, it wasn’t altogether possible to avoid, but luckily I saw enough of the “real” Prague to want to return when I have the time to explore it properly – especially since Prague appears to have a number of cinemas showing original (not dubbed) versions of English-language films. I was only in town long enough to visit one, so elected to go to the Kino Světozor (for a screening of neo-Western Slow West) and was very glad I did, if not so much for the film but both for the cinema itself and the adjoining café-bar complete with Twin Peaks-styled décor. Of those I left sight unseen (alongside these underground cinemas and these summertime outdoor offerings) I especially regret not getting to visit Bio Oko for its kitschy screening set-ups (featured in this article on Prague’s top cinemas), as well as the century-old palace-styled Lucerna. I was also sorry not to have made it to the “Na film!” exhibition at the Museum Montanelli, mounted by Film Studies students at Charles University as a call for a national film museum.
Finalement, Paris. Poring over my trusty ParisScope, I went looking for the English-language films (virtually no dubbing here, thank goodness) and naturally found plenty from which to choose. I figured I needn’t trek around town in the July heat to visit and photograph those I didn’t have time to fully experience, only to find myself coming upon one after another of the art cinemas I’d read about in my casual perambulations around town. At least one in every neighborhood, and one on every block in some neighborhoods. The most charming one I came across was La Pagode, on the peaceful rue de Babylone, which features a lovely Zen-styled garden. It’s not hard to imagine how the legendary Cahiers critics managed to fill their days slipping in and out of so many films, and were I to live in Paris I would relish doing the same. Though French is the foreign language I know best, I’m still nowhere near good enough to grasp a French film without subtitles, and so I would be (and was) limited in that regard. Still, I need to find a way to get back to Paris for a longer time and more intensive movie-going.
Though greater in number, the cinemas weren’t always as charming or comfortable as some of those I’d visited along my journey, but instead tend towards being old, cramped, and overly warm. I’d been enthused to see Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout on the big screen for the first time, but upon sitting down at La Clef Cinema I realized the screen I’d be watching it on wasn’t much larger than the big-screen TV on which I’d first seen it back in my family’s house. The night before, we were fortunate to get tickets to a sold-out screening of The Lobster, showing as part of a series of 2015 Cannes award winners, at the historic Egyptian-themed Le Luxour. Yet the bigger disappointment than the film itself, sadly, was the theatre – both balcony and floor seats provided poor vantage points, although the rooftop café-bar was (as this article predicted) swell indeed. Sadly I wasn’t able to attend an en plein air screening while in Paris, as here too they don’t start until late July.
Though housed in an unfortunately designed (by Frank Gehry) building, La Cinémathèque Française was a sight to behold for its “Antonioni: the Origins of Pop” exhibition, curated by Dominique Païni. Glad to have caught it during its final week, I felt the show on the whole did Antonioni justice (read this more extensive commentary in Film Comment), though I remain perplexed about its title (the Pop Art movement seems to be only one – and not the primary one – of those influencing, and influenced by, Antonioni), and wish that the exhibition’s culminating focus on those artists influenced by Antonioni had been more developed.
It’s always a bit deflating to come to the end of a trip, and with the pile of work awaiting me back home I know these days of dedicated movie-going will be missed. Hence why I’m posting this August issue early, both because I wanted to reflect on my trip’s last leg while it was still fresh and because of the sizable catching-up on work I must do before the start of fall classes. But it makes leaving Paris a bit easier knowing that I’ll arrive back in Boston in time to catch the last half of the MFA’s 20th annual French Film Festival, where I’ll get to see some of this year’s Cannes favorites (Breathe, Li’l Quinquin, and Party Girl) that eluded me on my travels. And, somewhat surprisingly given that it’s blockbuster season, there are a number of films of interest (Amy, Charlie’s Country, Tangerine) playing at an art house near me…a symptom of oversaturation in recent art film production, but one for which I’m grateful.
Coming attractions: catching up on summer movies, finalizing the 2015 best of list…