There's a surprising amount to be learned about the state of the world from most international film festivals, and the Chicago International Film Festival, now in its 27th year, is no exception. A film festival can impart information that's seldom available in the kind of print and TV journalism we've been getting in this country in recent years: the texture of everyday life in other countries and the fantasies of other cultures; the kinds of thought, emotion, and reflection that can't necessarily be captured in sound bites, ancillary markets, and weekend grosses; aesthetic, political, intellectual, and erotic alternatives to the overhyped fare that Entertainment Tonight, At the Movies, Entertainment Weekly, et al are force-feeding us the rest of the year.
If art offers us a prism to illuminate such matters, what are the signs in European cinema of the recent collapse of communism? It's probably too soon to compile a comprehensive list, but foremost among the immediate signs is the international coproduction. With the virtual collapse of state financing in some countries, and a substantial rethinking of what should get state financing in others--as well as a growing desire to reach international markets the way Hollywood movies do--a curious genre of polyglot production has been developing in Europe in which two or more nationalities get jammed together into a film's cast, its production staff, sometimes even its language.
I happened to see two major examples of this genre back-to-back at the Toronto Festival of Festivals last month. The first of these, Lars von Trier's Europa, a Danish-French-German-Swedish coproduction with English and German dialogue, is a sort of rough European counterpart to Barton Fink, with a postmodernist mix of period nostalgia, technical wizardry, stylistic pizzazz, and shallow content; it will be opening commercially in the U.S. later this year (under a new title, Zentropa, so it won't be confused with still another recent polyglot coproduction, Agnieszka Holland's Europa Europa). The second, Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique, a Polish-French coproduction, will be showing twice next weekend at the Chicago festival.
One of the more curious aspects of the Kieslowski film is that its coproduction status is central to its doppelganger fairy-tale subject matter as well as its two-part form, both of which are indicated in its title. Kieslowski's remarkable Decalogue marked the end of a particularly localized and indigenous kind of Polish cinema about the human condition, and it's almost as if his beautiful and accomplished but thematically opaque Veronique marks the beginning of a new kind of polyglot, formalist cipher cinema that, if it's about anything at all, is about the very fact of international coproduction itself. It seems highly likely that the forthcoming features by Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, both set in several countries, will be variants of this same genre, and a good many at this year's Chicago festival will fall into the coproduction category as well: Jiri Menzel and Vaclav Havel's Czech version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera; Raul Ruiz's multinational (if mainly French) Treasure Island; a Jerzy Skolimowski feature in English starring Crispin Glover but set in 1939 Warsaw (30 Door Key--Ferdydurke); German films by Werner Herzog and Percy Adlon in English (Scream of Stone and Salmonberries, respectively); a Krzysztof Zanussi film in German (Life for Life, Maximilian Kolbe); and two English-Soviet coproductions (Assassin of the Tsar and Lost in Siberia), both in English.
I suppose that one oversimplified reading of the coproduction phenomenon might be that every place in the world is slowly but surely turning into America, culturally if not economically. But such a conclusion doesn't apply to several other films at this year's festival: two films from India by Satyajit Ray (Branches of the Tree and The Stranger), one from Japan by Kon Ichikawa (Noh Mask Murderers), one from Italy by Marco Bellocchio (The Conviction), a French film by Jacques Doillon (The Little Criminal), and a Belgian-French coproduction by Chantal Akerman (Night and Day)--none of which, I strongly suspect, qualifies as a polyglot production or as an imitation American movie. While I haven't at this point seen any of the movies in the last group--for all I know, they could all be disappointments--I firmly believe that any festival that chooses to show the latest work by these directors has to be right on track; most or all of these movies will never open here commercially. The same goes for presenting the Cinematheque Francaise's restoration of Alexander Volkoff's silent Casanova, and for the three films I've seen of the ten devoted to Spanish producer Elias Querejeta--Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive and The South, Carlos Saura's Cria, playing here under the title Raise Ravens.
If, on the other hand, you think English-language movies are the only ones worth seeing, you could do a lot worse than head for some of the 42 American, Australian, non-French Canadian, and British features in the festival, including most of those in the CinemaScope retrospective. On the basis of past Chicago festivals, I have few doubts that some of these will be awful. But the list also includes three highly original American road movies (My Own Private Idaho, The Arc, and Motorama, only the first of which is scheduled to open commercially); two powerful, albeit very different, American documentaries by women (Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning American Dream and Jan Oxenberg's Thank You and Goodnight); one highly impressive Australian first feature (Jocelyn Moorhouse's Proof); one brilliant if somewhat uneven English feature (Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet); and at least eight CinemaScope films that qualify as essential viewing (An Affair to Remember, Bigger Than Life, Forty Guns, The Hustler, Let's Make Love, River of No Return, The Seven Year Itch, and the supreme movie satire of the 50s, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?). While I can't recommend the opening night's 29th Street as highly as the titles listed above, it's reasonably entertaining, soon to open commercially, and it won't let you down if reasonably entertaining is all you're looking for.
Although it's too early to say so with much conviction, there are some agreeable signs, as I've already indicated, that the Chicago International Film Festival is beginning to clean up its act. While there are still too many movies, many of which appear to be not so much selected as simply grabbed up in untidy bundles--a characteristic so well entrenched at the festival by now that it seems unlikely to disappear soon--a fair number of good and/or reasonable ones have made it onto the schedule. Admittedly, at this point I've seen only 25 out of the 120 offerings. But it's a pleasure to report that there's hardly any gap this year between the festival's early list of titles and the final printed schedule. To all appearances, a new level of efficiency seems to have crept into the festival's operations.
I make that last statement, of course, with only guarded assurance.The festival habitually suffers from an underpaid and overworked staff, which has often meant that many films wind up getting projected at the wrong aspect ratios, certain visiting filmmakers get stranded, and a few titles, for whatever reason, never show up at all. Also, the geographical spread of the three theaters being used this year--the Fine Arts, the Esquire, and the Music Box--will undoubtedly force some viewers to be even more selective than they might otherwise have been, and to feel somewhat estranged as well.
While it's regrettable that some of the best new features shown last month in Toronto won't be here--Jacques Rivette's magnificent four-hour La belle noiseuse from France, Edward Yang's three-hour A Brighter Summer Day from Taiwan, and Derek Jarman's Edward II are the first three that come to mind--the first of these will eventually be turning up at the Music Box in a regular commercial run, and the second will show (in a still longer version) at the Film Center.
For additional recommendations and information about films that are showing at the festival, check the reviews and descriptions below. Following my own instincts, I've placed check marks next to some of the most promising titles.*
Screenings are at the Fine Arts, 418 S. Michigan, the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, and the Esquire, 58 E. Oak. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office the day of the screening starting one hour prior to the show time or at the Film Festival store at 828 N. State. They are also available by phone at 644-3456 or 902-1500. General admission to each program, with some exceptions, is $7, $6 for Cinema/Chicago members; the first shows of the day before 6 PM are two dollars cheaper. Attending the Piper-Heidsieck Award ceremony honoring John Cusack, which includes a screening of The Grifters, costs $12 and $10, $25 if you want to attend the reception following; opening night, Best of the Festival, and the Cinematheque restoration of Casanova each cost $10 and $9. If you want to attend the opening night gala at the Field Museum of Natural History, be prepared to pay $175 for dinner and the movie. For further information, call 644-3456. Hope you find yourself at a good movie or two.
* The check mark has been replaced by an asterisk for the archive version of the festival listings.