Issue 13 | Fall 2015 (Cambridge, MA)

Viaje (Paz Fabrega, 2015)

Fighting festival fatigue and “festival-itis”

There are less fanciful reasons for the belatedness of this blog post, having to do with the frantic life of an untenured academic, but I would attribute the delay in part to a lingering feeling of festival fatigue. It’s a condition I diagnosed after having seen an unusual number (even for me) films in the course of my summer travels, and noticing how, in the attempt to stand out from the considerable crowd of festival and art house contenders, such films try to do too much and fall short in the process – an affliction that I’m calling “festival-itis.” Given the frequency with which a much-anticipated film would start off promisingly only to veer off the rails with a self-indulgent, wholly unnecessary dose of whimsy (Yi’nan Diao’s Black Coal, Thin Ice; Bruno Dumont’s Lil Quin’quin), an ill-conceived turn into magical realism (Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja; Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights), or a lamentable stroke of third act self-sabotage (Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster; Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart), the festival-itis took hold mid-trip and is only starting to subside.

One result proved to be that I found myself favoring those films that didn’t try too hard or attempt to do too much. Ones that scaled small, stayed consistent in tone and genre, and though emotionally muted still spoke volumes – films like Adrián Biniez’s El Cinco, Micah Magee’s Petting Zoo, Ognjen Svilicic’s These Are the Rules, and Paz Fabrega’s Viaje. These were the works – personal, observational, modest, and moving – that proved the most satisfying and memorable. My preference for the small but only superficially simple seems to have informed my list of Favorite Films of 2015 as well, certainly in comparison to a lot of other “best of” lists such as those included in Senses of Cinema’s 2015 World Poll in which I again took part.

In offering up my reflections on my festival attendance in a report published in NECSUS, I voiced some dissatisfaction with how aspects of the Midnight Sun and Karlovy Vary festivals were run. Weighing their respective bungling against their respective charm, ultimately I’m still glad to have attended the former but very much regret having bothered with the latter. But the year’s prize for poorest run festival goes to one closer to home: the Philadelphia Film Festival. Whereas Midnight Sun had the excuse of being dinky-sized and Karlovy Vary of being monstrous-sized, as a moderate-sized and long-running festival the PFF has no good reason I can see for being as unprofessionally run as it proved to be.

I’d had a good experience at the previous year’s fest; the highlight was being treated to the resplendent Clouds of Sils Maria months before most were able to see it (hence its first place entry on my list of favorite films of 2014). And this fall was gearing up to be as promising; the programmers manage to attract prominent films and the palatial Prince Theatre venue was up and running. But from the first event, a post-Carol Q&A with Todd Haynes undermined by a microphone glitch and clumsy moderator, I was dispirited by the wasted opportunity; by the last event, a screening of Gaspar Noe’s Love that I missed due to having left the queue after waiting outside in cold, wet weather an hour and a half past the supposed start time due to 3-D projector problems, I was downright exasperated. Luckily I don’t appear to have missed much; Film Comment’s Laura Kern called it the biggest disappointment at Cannes and an “idiotic porn snoozefest.” Nonetheless, I’d have appreciated the opportunity to make that determination myself. Perhaps the problem was with the Prince and not the festival crew; screenings at the other (albeit less ambient) venues seemed to run on time and more or less competently. But the Q&A’s were mostly non-existent and never well executed, which can only be the festival runners’ fault.

Sorry not to be able to be more of a booster for my current hometown’s festival, December and traveling back to Boston didn’t bring much improvement. The Coolidge Corner Theatre’s 70mm roadshow of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight was enlivening for proving that film-going is thriving (and film projection still kicking), but for me the film itself left much to be desired. As charming as it was to receive a glossy program and hear an overture, it fell flat in comparison to my still vivid memory of the rousing audience reaction to Pulp Fiction’s opening credits scrolling onto the screen (and everything that followed) of the Harvard Square AMC on its opening night, two decades ago now.

Cast and crew of Bob and the Trees at MoMA
Cast and crew of Bob and the Trees at MoMA

The more satisfying screening was Bob and the Trees – not, as the title might suggest, a Twin Peaks reboot, but rather a Massachusetts-shot fiction/doc hybrid shown at MoMA as part of the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You series, followed by a worth-staying-for Q&A with the cast and crew. But the crowning performance event of the holiday season wasn’t even cinematic, though it was transcendent: Joanna Newsom’s show at the legendary Apollo.

Though it didn’t stem from festival fatigue or festival-itis, I experienced some considerable cinephile-related melancholy upon October’s news of the unexpected death of Chantal Akerman, one of my foundational and still favorite filmmakers (I found this commemoration in Keyframe particularly befitting.) It was all the more disheartening, if also more understandable, that Akerman canceled her planned appearance at Bologna’s screening of her restored Jeanne Dielman. It’s a small consolation that Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, has received many rapturous reviews and has upcoming screenings at the Harvard Film Archive and elsewhere.

Despite my festival overload, I am sorry not to be attending Sundance this year – especially as, during the all too frequent frustrations of the aforementioned festivals, I found myself continually struck by how smoothly the Park City folks run things. Price gouging by ticket re-sellers aside, Sundance offers a model on how to keep a festival feeling manageably sized and navigated. Even if Sundance can’t prove an antidote at present, I interpret my profound disappointment at skipping this year a promising sign that my case of festival fatigue is curable. As I do my excitement about the year’s coming attractions – as evidenced by this list, with which I’ll leave you, of my ten most anticipated films of 2016. Here’s hoping they avoid succumbing to the dreaded festival-itis.

Joanna Newsom at the Apollo, December 2015
Joanna Newsom at the Apollo, December 2015

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey

Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’avenir (Things to Come)

Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women

Athena Rachael Tsangari’s Chevalier

Clea DuVall’s The Intervention

Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea

Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann

Lucrecia Martel’s Zama

Coming attractions: My Favorite 15 of the First 15 (2000-2015), hometown movie-going, the Oscars…