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The Good, the Bad, and the Future

Our Critic's Comments on the Chicago Film Festival

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I. Good Things About the Chicago Film Festival

1. Quite apart from aesthetic considerations, any film festival that can boast films from 35 countries and encompass 70 years of filmmaking is performing an invaluable cultural service. The xenophobic and antihistorical cast of most pop culture in this country is such that the more the media expand, the narrower our sense of reality generally becomes, and any institution that can allow us glimpses of cultures and eras other than our own is bound to teach us something more than the average TV news broadcast. (The sharp moral distinction that we usually make between news and fiction--designating the first as "serious" and the second as "entertainment"--overlooks the fact that both are usually designed as narrative entertainment, offering consumable, hence disposable, stories with larger-than-life characters.)

2. Out of the 20 films in the festival that I've so far managed to see, more than half are eminently worth seeing, and roughly a third qualify as first-rate. If that's a somewhat lower batting average than either Facets or the Film Center, it's still a much higher one than what is achieved by the usual run of commercial mainstream releases.

3. Show a foreign film with no recognizable names attached to it and no obvious box-office value as an ordinary release, and few spectators are likely to go to see it. Show the same movie in a film festival, and the attendance rate is likely to go up appreciably. This suggests that film festivals stimulate moviegoing in and of themselves and attract spectators who otherwise might not be as interested--in large measure because of all the publicity and ballyhoo that festivals tend to get, but also because of the festive atmosphere that comes with the package. Unlike the regular and periodic film attendance that existed in this country from the 20s through the 50s, moviegoing today tends to be mainly restricted to special events--and festivals tend to turn otherwise ordinary movies into special events.

4. The Chicago Film Festival claims in its program index to be offering 74 U.S. premieres. Even though this is obviously an exaggerated figure--Melo, for instance, which is included on the list, was shown in Los Angeles several months ago, and was subsequently screened in New York even before the New York Film Festival, which preceded Chicago's--it still seems plausible that at least half of the films being shown here are receiving their first public screenings in this country. (One film, Bill Forsyth's Housekeeping, is billed as a world premiere.)

II. Bad Things About the Chicago Film Festival

1. No film festival that I have attended anywhere--including Cannes, Denver, Edinburgh, London, Los Angeles's Filmex, New York, Paris's Musidora, Rotterdam, San Francisco, San Sebastian, Santa Barbara, or Venice--seems more chaotic and arbitrary in its overall selections than Chicago (although it must be admitted that Santa Barbara comes close). The sheer awfulness and/or lack of distinction of some of the movies that find their way here seems less a critical aberration than the consequence of an absence of overall critical standards of any kind.

2. Many of the most exciting, interesting, and important things going on in world cinema today aren't even hinted at in the festival program. Broadly speaking, it seems that festival director Michael Kutza's main area of expertise is the new German cinema; the two areas in which he seems more deficient--to judge from the offerings of previous years as well as this one--are film history in general and intellectual filmmakers in particular. While the Paramount series this year shows a very promising beginning at broaching cinema's past, the conspicuous absence of restorations and serious retrospectives--crucial aspects of all the best festivals that I know helps to keep the Chicago festival relatively provincial. And no less disappointing is the continuing neglect of filmmakers as important as Jean-Luc Godard, Jon Jost, Yvonne Rainer, Jacques Rivette, and Raul Ruiz, among many others. A key omission in this year's lineup is Godard's King Lear, a film in English that I caught in Toronto which is not only Godard's most inventive film in years, but also features the best use of Dolby sound I've ever heard in a movie. If and when the film ever opens in the U.S., one can safely bet that it will show only in theaters unequipped with Dolby (as was the fate of Godard's Detective), so the festival could have performed an invaluable service by running it properly--a courtesy that it apparently didn't receive in either Cannes or Montreal. Similarly, the fact that Raul Ruiz remains the most important and prolific innovative filmmaker currently working in Europe--even though none of his several dozen films has yet received commercial distribution in the U.S.--makes it only more frustrating that the Chicago festival still refuses to acknowledge his existence, even in the most token way.

3. It seems inevitable that in a sports town like Chicago, the local film festival would also be competitive. But the fact remains that the most serious festivals don't generally bother with judging and awards--even though the feature film jury this year is an unusually distinguished one.

4. One appreciates the sheer logistical difficulties in showing over 130 films at a festival that remains conspicuously underfinanced and understaffed. But the soul of a film festival, rich or poor, is often most evident in the small ways that films and filmmakers are handled, and it is here that the Chicago festival frequently shows signs of negligence. Apart from the many stories one hears about directors and other guests who are flown here only to find themselves stranded, there are problems with prints arriving on time and receiving proper projection when they do, problems with delays, problems with ticket sales (such as patrons turned away when there are still empty seats), problems with information (Blood and Sand is correctly listed as a 1922 film on one side of the schedule, dated 1927 on the other), and a lot of problems regarding titles. And considering the festival's claim that it shows new films that have not previously made it to Chicago, it is not always scrupulous about doing its homework: the Taiwanese film The Outsiders, included among this year's selections, already premiered here on the opening night of the recent Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and had a subsequent run at Facets.

III. Hopes and Best Wishes for the Chicago Film Festival.

Most film festivals purport to represent the whole of cinema in some way, but virtually none of them actually do. (The absence of experimental films at most of them, including Chicago's, is one striking case in point.) The size and pluralism of the Chicago festival continues to be preferable to the absurd limitations of the one in New York, where in recent years all but a few selections already have commercial distributors before they're even shown. (Part of this situation, to be sure, stems from the New York festival's prestige and power, and the careful selection process of that festival can't be overlooked; but the decline in its capacity to show a lot of otherwise unseeable works has deprived it of most of its original function. The recent forced departure of festival director Richard Roud, who spearheaded most of that festival's most important discoveries, can only be regarded with dismay.) What remains to be done is to invest this pluralism with some critical shape and purpose. As suggested earlier, the adventurous filmgoer looking for something new and different from the usual commercial releases would usually be better off going to either the Film Center or Facets than trying his or her luck at the Chicago Film Festival. But there's no reason why the latter couldn't give both of the former a healthy run for their money.

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