Intimate Tales from the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival
The fourteenth annual Wisconsin Film Festival began rather quietly in Madison on Wednesday evening, April 18, at least at my choice of theatre, The Marquee in University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Union South building. An attentive, academically inclined bunch of about 150 came out for Grant Gee’s new documentary/essay film Patience (After Sebald), a literal and figurative walking tour of W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn novel. Considering the literary subject matter and recognizing Gee as the man who operated the camera in one of my favorite documentaries of all-time, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2007), this seemed like a fine choice.
Julie Underwood, Dean of UW-Madison School of Education, prefaced the film with an impressive statistic about the festival itself – it’s now the largest campus-based in the United States with over 150 films on nine screens in eight theatres. (We can all thank newly appointed UW-Cinematheque Director of Programming Jim Healy in addition to returning Festival Director Meg Hamel). Underwood then introduced guest speaker David Krakauer, Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, who talked briefly in a pleasing British accent about W.G. Sebald’s unclassifiable style – part travelogue, part lyrical prose, and part biography – and his aspiration to catalogued under all genres in bookstores (but unfortunately having to settle upon three). He concluded with personally insightful allusions to fellow German writer Franz Kafka, experimental documentarian Chris Marker, and French New Wave pioneer Alain Resnais. My appreciation for Gee’s work seemed guaranteed at this point.
Chris Marker’s presence immediately materialized, as I likened the film’s didactic, meditative approach to Sans Soleil. (There’s even a reference to everyone’s favorite Tarkovsky 1979 film, Stalker, in the context of landscape here. Sans Soleil does something quite similar by discussing electronic texture’s relationship with sentiment, memory, and imagination, eliciting the physicality of The Zone in Stalker). Patience’s images are more ghostly than Sans Soleil’s due to the black and white photography, but the multifaceted intentions intellectually stimulate and arouse emotional curiosity. Like “An English Pilgrimage” that was originally designated as part of the novel’s title, the film’s hidden subtitle is “A walk through The Rings of Saturn,” which provides the audience with first-person perspectives of the novel’s locations. Shots of Suffolk are often introduced by page numbers and direct reading of text, which expands upon Sebald’s own meandering poetics. The film also bombards its audience with many voices, who often just suddenly appear superimposed over tranquil landscapes, to offer their distinct experiences with the man’s writing. However, the superimposition extends to the audio as well. The Caretaker’s score complements those ethereal images with a subtle popping dark ambient piano (like a vinyl record) over recitation and commentary – it seems like Gee’s intention was to thread everything together cohesively, evoking Sebald’s own approach.
The commentary in Patience simultaneously presents other writers trying to literally, spiritually, or philosophically retrace Sebald’s footsteps. Software developer Barbara Hui has created a notable Google Litmap of every point mentioned in Rings of Saturn. Fellow writer Rick Moody also presents a massive color-coordinated flow chart/map, but little attention is paid to it – it simply exists in the film as a form of intrigue. Patience ambitiously tries to marry various naturalistic and computer-generated images (again, Sans Soleil) to create its own unique landscape and journey to complement Sebald’s own, and it does so successfully despite the obvious density of the material. (To break the intense focus and eeriness of the film, I noticed portions of the audience occasionally gave in to short fits of laugher to release tension). The film closes with direct appraisals of Sebald himself who had the ability to uncover new ways of connecting ideas, tipping us into another reality. The man is noted to have possessed a “wandering otherness,” a quality inherent to this film.
In the sporadic downpour of my birthday, April 19, a significant crowd of well over 500 turned out for a French/Belgian comedy The Fairy [La Fée] at the festival’s hub, the large, most spacious, and newly renovated Orpheum on Madison’s most-happening State Street. As it’s no longer a primary film venue, several rows closet to the stage have been removed to accommodate concerts and social events, so the audience on the main floor now sits a significant distance from the screen. In fact, as my friend Oliver and I luckily spotted two empty seats in the first row on the balcony, I realized we were at the closest point. Therefore, there was something discomforting about the whole experience – the atmosphere resembled an old drive-in, like I was being set up for distraction and interruption. Surprisingly, though, that wasn’t the case. A generally older crowd turned out, who may have been enticed by projectionist and curator Mike King’s glorifying blurb in the program with references to physical comedy legends like Tati, Keaton, and Chaplin. Within the film’s first five minutes, this was certainly a worthy credit, as the film jumps headfirst into utterly whimsical, droll, absurdist comedy (to contrast all those initial impersonal impressions of the theatre itself).
The plot for this one is fairy (ahem, fairly) simple – a lonely, unlucky, middle-aged night watchman/hotel clerk in Le Havre, Dom (Dominique Abel, who resembles a cross between Steve Buscemi and Roberto Benigni), is visited by a lanky, eccentric, self-proclaimed fairy named Fiona (Fiona Gordon) during his shift one night. She’s bears no wings or wand, appearing barefoot in pajamas and as woman of his age. She immediately offers to grant him three wishes, and after humorously rescuing him from choking on a ketchup bottle cap, Dom selects his immediate wants: a new moped and free gasoline for life. She delivers, he falls in love with her, and a courtship ensues. The other cast members in this pleasing romp include a cripplingly far-sighted bartender (Bruno Romy, the third member of the Abel-Gordon-Romy comedy team who wrote, starred, and directed the film), three quiet men who hang out by the sea in an abandoned car frame hoping to go to England someday, and a sly vacationer with a mischievous terrier.
There are two memorable dance sequences (one underwater and one on hotel rooftop) that serve as delightful punctuation to the frolicking narrative, highlighting a certain gleeful imagination. While these scenes don’t really facilitate the plot, I feel like they are, nonetheless, defining moments in casual discussion. There isn’t anything particularly radical about The Fairy as a love story, but its sensibility as a modern comedy and attitudes against conformity or dismantling of personality are far from today’s raunchy norm. For that reason the film will likely be over-praised, but it is certainly deserving for its universal, mostly all-age appropriate wacky humor. The score is also playful, as the filmmakers find odd but appropriate contexts for diagetic music (a recurring musical gag seems to strongly recall Tati’s M. Hulot's Holiday); the predominance of jazz from 1930s-50s also gives it a slight Woody Allen feel, and the performance of twentieth century composer Kurt Weill’s “Youkali” in the bar adds a bizarre, almost surrealist touch that facilitates the Looney Toons-like chase at the end. Though no traditional animation is involved, the whole thing possesses the near-charm of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).
The weather didn’t exactly cooperate for festival-goers on Thursday; while it may have been pouring outside, the Orpheum was lit up in a jovial paradise by The Fairy, which met my high expectations. So, happy birthday to me.
Though knowing little about independent animator Don Hertzfeldt prior to Friday’s program at 7:30 back at the Marquee, it was my most-anticipated. Based on the lengthy rush ticket line outside the theatre forty-five minutes before the scheduled show time, it was one of the more popular events of the entire festival, as tickets sold out in a couple days after sales began. So, it’s easy to believe that all 330 seats were eventually filled. Don put together six shorts for this event in Madison, beginning with “Wisdom Teeth” (2010), then the first in his ‘Bill trilogy,’ “Everything Will Be OK” (2006), an intermission segment (in the third dimension!) that skewers 3-D glasses and toys with depth perception, early gem “Billy’s Balloon” (1998), ‘Bill, part 2’ “I Am So Proud of You” (2008), and the most recent conclusion to the ‘Bill’ series, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” (2011).
Two shorts under the ten-minute mark, “Wisdom Teeth” and “Billy’s Balloon,” perfectly execute black comedy derived from a sort of absurdist violence to near-stick figure characters. What’s odd, then, is how much expression, particularly the sense of dread, is elicited from simplistically penned designs. “Wisdom Teeth” involves two friends, one who just recovered from a wisdom teeth operation, as the other asks to pull a stitch out as a half-joke. Things obviously go horribly wrong immediately. “Billy’s Balloon” is a bleak take on Albert Lamorisse’s famous French short, “The Red Balloon,” it would seem, but with more balloon-on-child violence. The longer segments of the ‘Bill’ trilogy, on the other hand, aren’t concerned about physical violence, but psychological malady and inner pain, gently and gradually squeezing away the humor as they progress toward the third and final part. The first, “Everything Will Be OK” balances the comedy of analyzing minutia in a man’s life with escalating surreal, existential crises. An acquaintance of mine, Shawn, who I encountered while later volunteering at the festival, suggested that Bill’s crises reach a nearly unbearable level. In fact, Hertzfeldt utilizes a complete invasion of noise or saturation of sound in this first part to articulate that anguished instability. The three parts themselves are narrated entirely by an unknown, studious-sounding narrator (who happens to be Hertzfeldt himself) that give the impression that Bill is narrating his own life in the third person. The increasingly philosophical analyses instill a heavy purpose into the apparently random, stream-of-consciousness events catalogued on-screen.
Since Hertzfeldt himself delivers all the narration, inner thoughts, and brief speaking parts, I likened this element to an indie game I finished a short time ago called Bastion. The game features a raspy Western-style narration of a character in the game, Rucks, who is the sole omniscient voice. Both narrators fixate on the thoughts and emotions of a primary, lone individual – in the game a nameless teen simply named “The Kid” and “Bill” in Hertzfeldt’s works. Of course, the two are tonally different, but they share this artistic approach. As someone who generally doesn’t prefer voiceover narration expounding detail in visual mediums, both admirably succeed in creating original universes. The only incongruence in Hertzfeldt’s trilogy is the increasing skill and frequency of visual effects withdrawing some of the potency of the narration in “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.”
After the series, Jim Healy led the Q&A, and fans asked several excellent questions about influences and subject matter. The 35-year-old Hertzfeldt’s most notable and journalistically worthy answer, “There are so many terrible things in life that you have to laugh at them,” came out when talking about his sense of humor and existential characteristics of his work. By combining elements from his heroes in Monty Python with pioneering experimentalist filmmaker Stan Brakhage, Hertzfeldt achieves something singular. The final ‘Bill’ short shifts away from the humor almost entirely to showcase an array of experimental optical effects filtered through glass that become cosmic in scope. In addition to the Bastion reminder, I somehow felt like when all was said and done, this program offered the combined experience of Patience (After Sebald) and The Fairy. The philosophy and ghostly intensity of Patience at times flirts with the fantastical and comedic examinations of The Fairy in these shorts. Hertzfeldt made a further impression on me by concluding how his character Bill is a man “quietly suffering.” Even though his design is so basic, a profound relationship is created through a persistent literary insight, and his mental condition doesn’t leave him as an axe murderer or a super genius, tropes excessively utilized in cinema.
In addition to all the other festivities and movie-going, I chose to volunteer at this year’s festival, which I hoped would enhance my cinema-going experience and provide the opportunity for genuine satisfaction of helping others. Upon arriving at the Union South’s Marquee theatre on Saturday afternoon, I was given some recapitulation about the day’s events by two of the theatre captains, Ben and Steven, and stationed at the top of the steps behind the theatre prior to the 3:30 showing of Filthy Theater: A Film About Joel Gersmann, a local arts hero and founder of Broom Street Theater in Madison. It might be easy to guess my responsibilities – pointing to the ticket holders’ line and answering questions about expected attendance and theatre size (an accommodating 330 seats).
Shortly after that film began, a line for The Intouchables began to form, one of the most hyped and altogether favorite films of the festival, a high-grossing French buddy comedy (and therefore sold-out). So, I managed the rush ticket line for hopefuls, which extended to close to sixty people prior to show time. For those unsure about admittance, I fetched the occasional program to report on available films in adjacent time slots in nearby theatres. I wasn’t sure if other volunteers were overly concerned about easing the sense of uncertainty between those in line who might not be able to attend, but I tried. After seating people and spotting empty pairs for the subsequent sold-out and controversial show, Compliance, at 8:30, I took my leave to go head over to another campus building, Vilas Hall, about six blocks away for the last of avant-garde filmmaker Phil Solomon’s three programs, American Falls at 9:30.
This Saturday night program included “The Secret Garden” (1988), “American Falls” (2010), and the bonus selection “The Five Bad Elements” (1997) (a holdover from Thursday when a projector malfunctioned, as Cinematheque Project Assistant John Powers, informed me while sitting outside the festival’s most intimate theatre). I also ran into a friend of mine, Jess, who I frequently encounter during free jazz performances and more off-the-wall Madison events. Even before seeing Phil Solomon, he remarked about his remarkable presence and absorbing presentations in the prior programs. There was truth to that. A slightly hunched stocky man in thin circular frames revealed himself to the audience and unhesitatingly began describing his work with incredible perspicacity. As this program was the final part of a three-part retrospective of sorts, his tone seemed somewhat casual, addressing those who he assumed had attended the other two programs on Thursday and Friday (Phil Solomon Selects and Phil Solomon: A Retrospective).
Prior to the 16mm short “Secret Garden,” he talked about using an optical printer, re-photographing one frame at-a-time, and sandwiching films together (or bipacking them), which is the opposite of double exposure. His techniques attempt to mask imagery and create hidden truths, as he briefly added a comment about Freud and dreams. Perhaps typical of the avant-garde artist, Solomon then said, “For me, film is too clear…. I liked it when films were over my head,” before concluding with his interest in what he calls “muscular ecstatic cinema.”
For me, “The Secret Garden” was almost less about the technique than the experience in the theatre. There is no musical accompaniment through its twenty-minute running time, and no one spoke or whispered around me. For a theatre that seats 155 people, there were eighty to ninety completely absorbed in the screen spectacle without cell phone interruptions. This was a moving experience. The film itself contains shimmering effects created by amalgamating colors and layering gently swaying shots of trees, at times resembling street lights spilling onto wet panes of glass. The effects create the illusion of constant movement. This kind of naturalistic imagery is paired with spliced-up home movie footage and other film footage (including The Wizard of Oz), each subtitled. Toward the end, the shimmering turns into intense strobe effects, and the former flickering mutates into a burning or melting as the black film tint turns to a blue.
“American Falls” followed, the strongest work shown in the program, at 56 minutes, and it features an elongated widescreen that appears to be 2:40:1 with three interactive panels. Solomon takes us through a unique vision of American history (that I dubbed “hell and high water”) that intertwines historical events, disasters, founding fathers, classic films, literature, industry, etc. The sepia tone of the film paired with the flaking and distortion of footage gives it the look of a copper penny or old plaque – Solomon achieves his manipulation (or “image alchemy”) by taking a fully developed film, losing the emulsion and letting it cake back on itself. Like that process, the film appears to be decaying forward, which is a metaphor for the perception of progress. Some notable inclusions from American history in the film – Chaplin as the Tramp in Modern Times (1936) and as Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator (1940), Keaton facing the wind storm in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights radio broadcast during State of the Union, shots of the Titanic, Pearl Harbor audio, King Kong falling from the Empire State Building, and gushing sounds of Niagara Falls. A hand writing “I hear America” is the final image. With so many relationships and events to consider, afterwards Solomon took a daring route and firstly addressed criticism of the film, in that he excluded significant portions of Native American history. The director basically explained the personal nature of his art and the impossibility of incorporating everything, so at this point I chose to ask about his relationship with Chaplin and his inclusion. Solomon regaled me with one of the most profound answers I’ve ever been given, much of which I couldn’t even annotate, because I was too in awe of the depth of film history coordinating thematic association. Essentially, he touched upon the interactivity of the two comics Chaplin and Keaton. Specifically, he chose Chaplin as a stand-in Hitler, because he wasn’t going to make the fascist dictator into art.
As a bonus, “The Five Bad Elements,” a thirty-minute film by Mark LaPore and chosen by Solomon personally, was screened. While I didn’t entirely understand the connection between LaPore and Solomon, I nonetheless documented the jilted movement and somber, confounding mood of the film, which seemed more sound-oriented and thematically abstract than Solomon’s work. After a magnifying glass moves over items on a grocery list, there’s a lengthy static take of an elderly man’s face juxtaposed with a passing train clacking over the tracks. This, then, turns over into a shot of a swaying elephant in Indian garb with an accompanying folk song. It concludes with an oration of a letter about the Korean War over a man’s naked lower extremities. Passing the midnight hour, those who remained in the theatre were hesitant to inquire further about the short film’s associations for one reason or another. (Perhaps detail had been provided on Thursday). It was a weaker and less moving way to conclude the night than “American Falls,” but there was still something special about this bonus film under the care and discretion of Solomon himself.
The final day of the festival was much less hectic than the prior day, but strong attendance at the Marquee removed any doubts about waning audience interest or subpar films reserved for the final hours. I elected much easier tasks – tearing tickets at the door, counting them, and answering a few questions about show times. If I factor in the impatient push into the theatre where people would hand tickets to me than then immediately and unnecessarily try to sneak past me, failing to accept their stubs for reentry, there was some stressful management involved. (Oh, those final weary hours). A Labor of Love was presented during my first hour, which is a documentary on filmmaking that apparently consists of a continuing series of hardcore sex scenes. The content forced a number of people to exit the theatre prematurely; I would have thought the program description to have accurately indicated that. Anywho... None of the screenings were sold out at the Marquee on Sunday, including the last one, which I asked for permission to attend, called Frames by Wisconsin’s own Brandon Colvin (with portions filmed in Madison).
The description John Powers provided in the program seemed to suggest a strong autobiographical element, but the film is a different beast entirely. It concerns an amateur teenage filmmaker (and avid Kubrick fan), Peter, who is attempting to create a personal yet fractured portrait of his suburban hometown, White River, with Vera, a good friend/prospective girlfriend. The film has a sluggish pace one might expect from a low budget indie production, but it attempts to evoke Hitchcockian psychological suspense and Gus Van Sant-like character ambiguity, slightly reminiscent of Elephant (2003) or Paranoid Park (2007) due to the teenage emphasis.
Regrettably, the more intriguing elements are undercut with stilted, emotionless dialogue and lack of character development. This suggests an ulterior motive on the filmmaker’s part, as Colvin described in a short post-film discussion. The absence of inflection in the non-naturalistic performance styles portrays the characters as mere ciphers for larger ideas. In this film’s case, the director intended to capture the ambiguity of human response. Of course, by relegating the characters to a sort of woodenness, it’s initially difficult to invest oneself in the relationships in the film. For example, as the relationship between Vera and Peter isn’t fully explained, it’s difficult to understand Peter’s obsession with her beyond aesthetics. And I feel like this film is merely a lesson in aesthetics anyway, ambitiously offering a unique but somehow hollow suspenseful tale.
There are more interesting turns and commentaries on voyeurism contained within (with a strong tie or parallel to Rear Window) and, as previously mentioned, mystery of human demeanor. The minimalistic dialogue adds to the sense of forthcoming dread, as well as the rumbling, manipulated, field-recorded soundtrack. Surprisingly, due to the labored pace and pregnant pauses, only a few people ducked out of the theatre during the screening. I think the film is successful by offering a visual restraint; there are several suggestive scenes, but Colvin never resolves the most obvious questions, and that is probably a reason for the lingering intrigue beyond the disconnected character/actor performances. This final screening at the Marquee was approximately two-thirds full and gained interest from a student media team who sat to the left of me during the film, took some pictures of the audience, and interviewed a few exiting the theatre (though I declined).
Overall, one might wonder if I still have a stray thought in my head after such elaboration, but this year’s programming was quite excellent. Unfortunately, there were no anime features, but I don’t think angry letter-writing will be necessary. (I believe last year only offered Summer Wars by Mamoru Hosoda, who’s known for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time). If you’re interested in this year’s full schedule, please visit the official festival website. And for further, timely commentary, you’re welcome to visit The Daily Page as part of Madison’s weekly news and arts paper Isthmus. If this representation sounds inviting, and you’d like to visit Madison for future Wisconsin Film Festivals, the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau hosts a wealth of useful information.28 April, 2012 - 03:50 — Grant Phipps