"See for yourself" is the slogan of the 34th Chicago International Film Festival--which, as one of my colleagues has noted, could probably be translated as "Don't listen to the critics." Such an admonition would be understandable given what many in my profession do in relation to world cinema. As Stuart Klawans remarks in the October 12 issue of the Nation, reporting on the Toronto film festival last month, only a few dozen members of the international press and industry went to see the sole Congolese feature made in the last 12 years--an opportunity they weren't likely to have again--but several hundred made tracks to the Robert Towne movie that Warner Brothers was releasing the following day. Since I made it to neither movie, I'd rather recall the time a few years back when a colleague I otherwise admire admitted to me that he'd rather see four bad movies than Bela Tarr's seven-hour Satantango, which attracted fewer press people in Toronto than the Congolese film--though it nearly packed the house at the Chicago Film Festival a month later, and most of the audience stayed to the end.
My colleague didn't give me his reasons for avoiding this Hungarian film, but they're easy enough to guess: a long foreign-language masterpiece from an unfashionable country is precisely what his fashion-magazine editors didn't want to hear about. For similar reasons, Artforum didn't want to consider the possibility that Dead Man might have been more interesting artistically than I Shot Andy Warhol, and the New York Review of Books refused to imagine that Taste of Cherry could have been more important--even from a literary standpoint--than Miramax's soft-core version of The Wings of the Dove.
Why does this repeatedly happen in the mainstream American press? Why can't the first-string critic of the New York Times tell the difference between Olivier Assayas and Andre Techine--attributing the latter's The Wild Reeds to the former on October 5? For the same reason, I suspect, that Monica Lewinsky gets more attention in the same paper than China (which contains a quarter of the world's population)--a reflection less of the taste of the American public than of the fear of editors that they might get left behind by their rivals in the yellow-journalism sweepstakes. Or perhaps their gauging of our taste is so pessimistic that they resent the very idea of artists, countries, or issues that might distract us from the policing of a hack politician's sperm flow. Their priorities when it comes to movies reflect this attitude. I suspect that if the Times's Janet Maslin or the New Yorker's Anthony Lane or any of the TV film reviewers have their way, we'll have Antz in our pants for the rest of the year--while the best of world cinema is either ignored or recommended only rarely as an exotic sideshow.
So "See for yourself" isn't a bad slogan for a film festival, especially at a time when our news services have less to tell us about the world than ever. In fact, if you consider yourself a citizen of the world, a film festival is a much cheaper means of checking out your home than a plane ticket. And if your overall aim is pluralism rather than selectivity, this year's Chicago Film Festival has pluralism in spades. Many possible viewing scenarios can be written using the offerings, though I'm disappointed the festival booklet isn't more user-friendly this year--for instance, I could have used an alphabetical listing of titles; thinking for yourself is a necessary corollary to seeing for yourself.
Ever since it settled down to being an intelligent trend follower among American film festivals, the Chicago event has become far more reliable as a rough index to world cinema than when its selections were more eclectic, scattershot, and random. Even so, I have to admit that while some of its choices seem impeccable, others strike me as bewildering. I'm delighted to report that all four of the best Taiwanese features I've seen or heard about this year are included, but I'm sorry to say that none of the best French features I've seen or heard about--including works by Olivier Assayas, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and Erick Zonca--is present. However, I haven't seen any of the French entries--films by Patrice Chereau, Denis Dercourt, James Huth, Benoit Jacquot, Mama Keita, Claude Lelouch, Claude Miller, and Jean-Jacques Zilbermann. So all I can suggest is, see for yourself. And if you want further guidance, check out the reviews by me and some of my colleagues below.
I've seen 22 of the features, a fifth of the 111 being shown. Last year I'd seen or sampled a larger percentage--36 out of 88 programs--because I was concluding a four-year stint on the New York film festival's selection committee and therefore got sent to Cannes and to a two-week viewing marathon in New York to sample most of the candidates. For those who'd like a rundown of my current ranking of the 22, old as well as new, with glib (and therefore unreliable) letter grades in the manner of Entertainment Weekly, here goes:
A: Manoel de Oliveira's Anxiety.
A-: Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai, and Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole.
B+: Ingmar Bergman's In the Presence of a Clown, Hellman's China 9, Liberty 37, Ko I-cheng's Blue Moon, Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, Darezhan Omirbaev's Killer, Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Inheritors, and Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration.
B: John Boorman's Leo the Last, Boorman's Deliverance, and Nanni Moretti's April.
B-: Terence Fisher's Horror of Dracula and Kevin McDonald and Chris Rodley's Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance.
C+: Boorman's The General, Peter Chelsom's The Mighty, Walter Salles's Central Station, and Paul Verhoeven's The Fourth Man.
C: Marleen Gorris's Antonia's Line.
C-: Todd Solondz's Happiness.
I'm a little ashamed of carrying out this exercise, since I had to cut a few corners. For instance, I haven't seen Horror of Dracula since it came out 40 years ago or The Inheritors since last January; I saw the Bergman on French TV in May, though I answered the phone during the last third; I saw Anxiety twice in Toronto, and might have upgraded or downgraded some of the other new features after a second viewing; I might have liked Happiness--a critical and popular favorite in Toronto--more if I hadn't seen it with a gleefully self-loathing audience and if it hadn't reminded me of the press coverage of the Starr report.
That said, I can't expect anyone, much less everyone, to agree with all of my opinions; I'm listing mine simply as another tool for you to use in coming up with your own choices. The same goes for the reviews that follow; those preceded by a check mark are films the reviewers regard as exceptional. Relying simply on buzz, I've heard good things about Chances or Coincidences, Passion, The Cruise, and Unlucky Monkey, and bad things about Apt Pupil, The Theory of Flight, and Gods and Monsters. (The latter three are all set to open commercially, so if you miss them at the festival you'll have other chances to see them.)
Screenings this year are being held at three scattered venues: 600 N. Michigan; the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport; and the Chatham 14, 210 W. 87th Street. Single-ticket prices are $3 for weekday matinees (Monday-Friday before 5 PM); $4 for weekend matinees (Saturday and Sunday before 2 PM); $8.50 for weeknights (Monday-Thursday 5 PM or later), $7 for Cinema/Chicago members; $9.50 on Friday nights (5 PM or later), $8 for Cinema/Chicago members; and $9.50 for Saturdays and Sundays 2 PM or later, $8 for Cinema/Chicago members. Passes--good for everything but closing-night and special presentations, and good for up to two tickets per screening--are available for $45 (six tickets, seven for Cinema/Chicago members) and $90 (16 tickets, 18 for Cinema/Chicago members), and you can spend even more for 50 tickets ($275 or $250, depending on whether you're a Cinema/Chicago member). Tickets can be purchased at the festival store at 600 N. Michigan or at the theater box office at the time of the screening; they can also be ordered by mail (32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601), by fax (312-425-0944), by phone (312-332-3456 or 312-977-1755), or at Ticketmaster (806 N. Michigan). For further information call 312-332-3456.