This seems to be a fairly desperate year for the Chicago International Film Festival. What makes me grit my teeth more than lick my lips at the annual prospect, especially ever since the loss of Marc Evans as festival programmer, is the sense of barely contained chaos--chaos in the selections, chaos in the programming, and chaos in determining a coherent vision of why we need this festival in the first place. Operating under an enormous financial deficit, the festival doesn't exactly inspire confidence when it once again cancels programs that have been announced as confirmed, and reveals, several days after distributing to the public a calendar of events, that ten of the programs at the Music Box were scheduled without the theater's knowledge or consent. (a fresh press release cheerfully announced, "the Festival is delighted by the opportunity to expand its screening venues to three locations throughout the city's north side," with the Three Penny taking over the ten Music Box screenings).
I think it's a good sign that the festival has shrunk from 18 days to 10, with 80 selections instead of 120-odd. Much as I'd like to say the more the merrier, the festival has a habit of biting off more than it (or we) could chew. Having already seen 33 of this year's programs, I can vouch that a lot of good films are being offered.
However, it's questionable whether the festival can claim to be truly representative of the best that's going on in film at the moment. On the basis of the 40 or so films I saw in Cannes in May, the close to a hundred more I saw for the New York Film Festival in July and August, and the 40 or so more I then saw in Locarno and Toronto, I can say that a few of the films showing in Chicago represent the cutting edge of what's happening at the moment--most notably, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye South, Goodbye, Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, and Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, the last two of which are scheduled to open soon commercially. But I don't see any recognition in the festival program of the recent remarkable renaissance in French filmmaking, which includes Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep, Andre Techine's Thieves, Raoul Ruiz's Three Lives and Only One Death, Jean-Daniel Pollet's Dieu sait quoi, Maurice Pialat's Le garcu, and Patrick Bonitzer's Encore. And I don't see any recognition, apart from Hou's film, of the comparable upsurge in Taiwanese cinema, which has yielded Edward Yang's Mahjong, Wu Nien-jen's Buddha Bless America, and Lin Cheng-sheng's A Drifting Life.
I also regret the absence of any Middle Eastern films in the festival's lineup--especially at a time when our president knows he can bomb Iraqi citizens for any reason, even when it offends international protocol, without fear of domestic criticism. And at a time when censorship of Iranian cinema has become so fierce that the two most recent films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh and A Moment of Innocence, both among his best) have been banned, though they've been showing to appreciative audiences at many other festivals around the world. I also regret that the festival finds it more important to offer the latest Claude Lelouch film, Men, Women: A User's Manual, than the first Michelangelo Antonioni film made since 1982, Beyond the Clouds (neither is likely to land a U.S. distributor).
I realize that some films simply aren't available to the Chicago festival, even if requested. But let me add the titles of 20 more valuable movies I've seen at other festivals since May and would have liked to have seen included here: Mariano Barosso's Extasis, Alan Berliner's Nobody's Business, Edgardo Cozarinsky's Rothschild's Violin, David Cronenberg's Crash, Claire Denis's Ninette et Boni, Jean-Luc Godard's For Ever Mozart, Flora Gomes's Po di sangui, Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book, Otar Iosseliani's The Brigands, Isaac Julien's Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask, Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon, Richard Linklater's Suburbia, Carlo Lizzani's Celluloide, Bruce McDonald's Hard Core Logo, Ross McElwee's Six O'clock News, Yoshimitsu Morita's Haru, Yvonne Rainer's Murder and Murder, Ira Sachs' The Delta, Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis, and Susan Streetfeld's Female Perversions.
So much for major regrets. I can't muster much enthusiasm for William Wyler, the academic Hollywood craftsman singled out this year for a retrospective (Orson Welles once called him a brilliant producer but a mediocre director). But I can certainly recommend with passion The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to anyone who hasn't seen it, and I hope the 1936 Dodsworth, which I haven't seen, may be the revelation some of its champions claim. And the possibility of seeing or reseeing most of the dozen Wyler films in the retrospective, some of them in new prints, seems a lot more enticing than anything offered in last year's Lina Wertmuller event. As for the long-awaited new version of Hitchcock's Vertigo, which I haven't yet seen (this screening is for Chicago/Cinema members only), I can only voice my doubts about whether a rerecording of the original's sound effects in stereo constitutes a "restoration", even if a transfer of the original 35-millimeter VistaVision to 70-millimeter seems defensible as a means of preserving the full span of the original images.
Of the new selections I've seen I would recommend in roughly descending order of preference: Goodbye South, Goodbye, Breaking the Waves, Secrets and Lies, Sling Blade, In Full Gallop, Fire, Lilies, Shine, The Dress, Trinity and Beyond, Prisoner of the Mountains, Sleeping Man, Ridicule, Helicopter String Quartet, and Forgotten Silver. Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge, yet another film about aimless lives in the New York suburbs, has enough sincerity to make up for its excessive familiarity, and The Second Time is fresh in subject matter if relatively unexciting in execution (it's showing with a delicious Nanni Moretti short). Nick Cassavetes's Unhook the Stars--despite Gena Rowlands, Marisa Tomei, and Gerard Depardieu in the cast--strikes me as fairly lame; Abel Ferrara's The Funeral, which has attracted a lot of praise elsewhere, only proves that Ferrara can't begin to do a period movie.
On the bottom are three movies I categorically detest: Microcosmos, a tricked-up French documentary about insects that Miramax paid top dollar for, uses fascinating footage in ways that are aesthetically and philosophically offensive; The Eighth Day is an egregious piece of Oscar-mongering; and Al Pacino's Looking for Richard is nothing but a documentary about a movie star's sense of his own entitlement, thrown into dizzying relief by his mission to bring Shakespeare's Richard III to the masses. If what emerged was merely a production of the play starring Pacino and his Bronx accent--like the Broadway show I walked out of many years ago--it might be taken as an object lesson about the ill effects of Pauline Kael's review of The Godfather Part II on an actor's ego; but this is a valentine from the actor-director to himself for wanting to pursue such a project, and validated by legions of unidentified Shakespeare scholars.
This list leaves out a good many pictures in the festival that may or may not be worth your time. I've heard very good things about Peter Gothar's Vaska Easoff and would ordinarily expect anything by Andrzej Wajda and Keith Gordon --including Holy Week and Mother Night--to be worth seeing. For other indications, check out the reviews below.
First, a few specifics: The Festival runs from Friday, October 11, through Sunday, October 20. Screenings are at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport; Pipers Alley, 1608 N. Wells; and the Three Penny, 2424 N. Lincoln. Tickets can be purchased at the festival store at Pipers Alley and at the theater box offices an hour before show times; they're also available (with a service charge) by phone at 337-4840 or 644-3456 or fax at 943-6640. General admission to most programs is $9, ?? for students and seniors, and $7.50 for Cinema/Chicago members. Shows on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are a dollar less. Discount passes to multiple screenings are also available. For more information, call 644-3456 (644-FILM).