The 25th Chicago International Film Festival celebrates its longevity by offering more films this year than ever before. Not counting several special programs, about 130 films are being offered--and once again, quantity rather than quality is the festival's principal calling card.
With the public tolerance for subtitles shrinking every year, and the number of foreign-language films distributed in this country decreasing correspondingly, any event that offers cinematic evidence of what is happening in other countries has to be valuable. Despite this built-in advantage, however, the Chicago festival unfailingly goes about its task with distressing unevenness. The number of insignificant-to-awful items set to be screened--along with some undeniably good and important films--continues to rankle, if only because festival director Michael Kutza doesn't seem to have assembled this hodgepodge with any consistent aesthetic, historical, or political position in mind. If you entered a well-stocked bookstore and grabbed the first 130 titles in sight, you'd come up with a collection something like the films in this festival.
Thanks to this year's large amount of retrospective items, and (one suspects) the critical input of Kutza's assistant John Porter, who made some of the selections, the number of good films at the festival does seem higher than usual. Even though the films in the Chaplin retrospective are all available on video, the opportunity to see most of his masterpieces on the big screen at the Music Box is especially welcome. (I'm less happy about the special presentation of City Lights accompanied by a symphony orchestra at the Chicago Theatre, because this entails suppressing Chaplin's own original sound track--something I'll discuss in greater detail toward the end of the month.) But the overall seriousness that informs the better festivals--the kind of seriousness that comes with taking a comprehensive, informed, and discernible position on what's happening in world cinema is still lacking.
Unlike such other festivals as Berlin, Cannes, New York, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Toronto, and Venice, the one here has an unusually low tolerance for intellectual or experimental work of any kind, and a correspondingly high cultivation of the kind of slick sentimentality and familiar mainstream fare offered by such recent favorites as Alan Parker and Claude Lelouch. Even if you accept the festival's seemingly automatic lack of interest in figures as vital and seminal as Jane Campion, Marguerite Duras, Hanoun Faroki, Jon Jost, Alexander Kluge, Luc Moullet, Manoel de Oliveira, Jacques Rivette, Raul Ruiz, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, Leslie Thornton, and Gus Van Sant--among others--it doesn't make up for such exclusions with a vision of its own.
In a couple of brief conversations I've had with Kutza over the past year, I've learned (a) that he's had no interest in seeing much less considering the most exciting and important new film that I've seen this year, Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan's A Story of the Wind, and (b) that at least one film in last year's festival, Flesheating Mothers, was included as camp, because Kutza thought it was so bad. Either of these positions viewed separately might be defensible, but taken together they give rise to some gloomy reflections. For some people, choosing a film simply because it's bad makes perfect sense, although I might add that I can't imagine the directors of the festivals in New York, Rotterdam, Toronto, or Venice ever doing such a thing. The problem is that the sheer range of awful films is huge, while one-of-a-kind masterpieces like A Story of the Wind, which have much less chance of becoming available other than at festivals (this film was screened at New York, Rotterdam, Toronto, and Venice), are few and far between. If a low-budget gorefest is more worthy of our attention than the visionary last testament of 90-year-old Joris Ivens, one of the century's greatest filmmakers--and there are plenty of people besides Kutza who believe that it is--then the Chicago festival at least has to be credited with honoring that taste.
Despite these pitfalls, there are certain films included this year that the festival should be applauded for showing. Neither Maurizio Nichetti's The Icicle Thief nor Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue qualify as discoveries, having made the rounds of many other festivals, but both were conspicuously absent from this year's New York festival (apart from "A Short Film About Killing," one part of the Decalogue), and both deserve to be seen as widely as possible. The chances of either one of them getting U.S. distribution in the near future, in spite of their extreme popularity at festivals, are practically nil, so the Chicago festival is performing an invaluable service by showing them.
Among some other movies you might not get to see otherwise, I would cite Chantal Akerman's American Stories, Herbert Curiel's Rituals, Jacques Demy's Three Seats for the 26th, Atom Egoyan's Speaking Parts, and, among the retrospectives, Vera Chytilova's rarely screened The Fruit of Paradise; all have their limitations, but all are interesting and worth seeing. I haven't seen Satyajit Ray's An Enemy of the People, but any Ray film is automatically worth showing; I also haven't seen Christian Blackwood's Motel, Idrissa Ouedraogo's Yaaba, or Kieslowski's Camera Buff, but numerous colleagues have spoken very highly of them. (Among the more familiar retrospective choices, I can also recommend Victor Erice's El sur, Victor Nunez's Gal Young Un, and Wim Wenders's Kings of the Road.) If you miss Michael Moore's Roger and Me, already a certified hit at the recent festivals in Telluride, Toronto, and New York, you'll have ample opportunity to catch it when it opens commercially.
As in previous years, we've done our best to review as many of the films as possible and offer brief descriptions of the others, drawn from whatever sources we have. To help out the more occasional and selective festivalgoers, we've asked our reviewers to indicate which films are recommended, and these titles are preceded by an asterisk (*).
Now for specifics: Screenings are at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport; the Village, 1548 N. Clark; Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th, on the University of Chicago campus; and the Three Penny, 2424 N. Lincoln. Opening night (Sunday, October 15) is at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State. Tickets can be purchased in person at the theater box office the day of the screening starting one hour prior to the first screening or at the film festival store at 1538 N. Clark. They are also available by phone at 644-3456 or at Ticketmaster: 559-1212 or 902-1500 (credit cards only). General admission to each program, with some exceptions, is $6, $5 for Cinema/Chicago members. The "Best of the Festivals" retrospective selections and the Chaplin programs (except for the City Lights presentations) are $5 general admission, $4 for Cinema/Chicago members. Opening night costs $10-$15 for the film, and $150 for both the film and the party.
For further information, call 644-3456 or listen to radio stations WNUA (95.5 FM) or WBEZ (91.5 FM) for updates and coverage. Good luck, happy viewing, and try to be selective; you're less likely to get burned.