Tuesday, April 17, 2007

10 Hours At The 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival

Just before Sunday’s "Fuck you, East Coast" Nor'easter hit, I zipped down to Philly to sample what looked like some interesting flicks as part of the 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival. Even though it's only a 2 hour drive, I don't get down to Philly nearly enough, usually going there just for the film festival, but I've got to say that I like it a lot. It's a bitch of a city to navigate around (thanks to all those old buildings the city doesn't seem fit to tear down), but its treasures are small and plentiful and they usually revolve around really good, greasy food. The cheesesteaks are famous, justifiably so, and usually worth the long wait to get them, although I'll be damned if I ever go to Geno's again after seeing their "This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING `SPEAK ENGLISH."' signs (Pat's Steaks is right across the street and just as good - go there). The city still has a pretty diversified population (although gentrification is popping its ugly head around the city) and an active nightlife, but it's also got a pretty good film culture about it and as I've said before, the annual film festival is one of the best on the East Coast. Even though it would mean late night drives home and a lot in gas and tolls, I was happy to return there once again.

After chomping down on a tasty roast beef w/provolone over at Nick's in South Philly, I jetted over to the Ritz East with friends of mine to check out VIVA, Anna Biller's tribute/spoof to the pre-porn erotic films of the late 60s/early 70s. A friend of mine who programs another festival mentioned seeing the film elsewhere recently a few weeks ago and went into a long list of problems he had with it, but then admitted that he's probably going to program it at his fest because people will se it and because he admired that Biller wore so many hats on the production. I spoke to him before driving down to Philly and mentioned I'd be seeing the film and he said, "Hey, enjoy it, it's good". When I reminded him of his previous tirade and said that the film looked better in retrospect and that it's a unique film out there right now. I have to admit that he was more right the first time out than he was the second time. For all of the film's numerous problems, it does win you over somewhat and you have to admire how much effort Biller puts into it. She's not only the director, but also the writer, producer, editor, star, production designer, costumer designer and worked on some of the songs, but in addition to that, she's also her own worst enemy. VIVA is 2 hours long, about 40 minutes or so longer than the films she's supposedly paying tribute to and since her film is a spoof, she needs to take a lesson from the masters and learn that pacing is everything. If she were to tighten this puppy up she could also increase the laugh quotient by a large degree. I was reminded in the film's opening scenes of the kind of film parodies that SCTV would do so brilliantly in the early 80s and remembered they were only about 10 minutes or so (20 if it were a two-segment bit, like MAUDLIN'S ELEVEN or POLYNESIATOWN). While Biller has the look of her film down right, the tone is off in a lot of ways; sometimes it feels like a loving tribute, at others a gentle spoof and some times it feels like VIVA is "above" these kind of pictures, mocking them as if to say, "Weren't these movies terrible?" Well, no, they weren't, and if you took a real look at the works of Radley Metzger, Joe Sarno, or Russ Meyer, then you'd see that these guys knew how to tell a story, which is part of the reason their films are so memorable. Biller also suffers from the fanboy moviemaking syndrome of trying to remake movies you like without making them your own. VIVA's climatic orgy scene is directly inspired by Metzger's CAMILLE 2000 (down to snippets of the score and lifting a memorable zoom shot), but Metzger's film was at least trying to do something that was new and different while VIVA just wants to play with CAMILLE 2000 like it's a toy playset. Several musical numbers pop up for no reason, characters drop out for long stretches at a time and, worst of all, a rape scene occurs with absolutely no consequences for any of the characters involved. I know that I'm making it sound like VIVA is the worst piece of shit I've ever seen, but in truth there actually are some laughs, some amusing scenes and Biller is to be commended for the look of the film, which feels pretty accurate (especially for a low budget picture). There were a lot of possibilities for it, but like her lead character, Biller wants too much. She's got to learn some self-control or let someone else take the reigns. There's a really fun 80 minute movie somewhere in VIVA, but at 2 hours it's a drag.

Thankfully, my follow-up film was Kim Ki-Duk's TIME, much more of a real movie from a real filmmaker. Duk is, without question, the finest filmmaker in South Korea today (which is saying something) and a real favorite of mine and I'm pleased to say that TIME is another excellent work. What I thought was interesting was how Phillyfest programmer (and pal) Travis Crawford made a point in his introduction to the film by saying that the person who wrote the notes in the festival guide was wrong to say it had moments of comedy, since Travis himself found it more disturbing and unsettling than anything else. Well, Travis was both half right and half wrong, since TIME is very funny in spots and distrurbing in others, making it both a floor wax and a desert topping. More so than that, I would also add that the film is also one of the most perceptive romantic dramas I've seen in a long while. Duk has ventured into this kind of material before with his 2000 classic THE ISLE and 2002's BAD GUY, but this time out he leaves the queasy violence of those pictures behind and focuses strictly on the characters and the result is still solid. This is Duk's version of a Douglas Sirk-style melodrama (with a touch of Cronenberg thrown in), about an insecure woman who gets plastic surgery to keep the man she loves but can't hide the petty jealousies that we all keep inside. The twist here (and I don't think the film would have succeeded with out this) is that the male lead has exactly the same issues and this is what makes so much of it interesting. Duk has received a lot of gruff in the past for his portrayal of women in his pictures, but like in THE ISLE, neither side of the story is perfect here. All of the anxieties, obsessions and suffering that go into a relationship are all here, but so is that sense of hope, no matter how false or fleeting, that we all feel when we fall in love and I felt that Duk was in complete sympathies with his characters and not judging them by any means. Like his previous pictures things don't quite end cheerfully, but his last scene is a compelling one, making TIME a picture well worth thinking about and discussing long afterwards. Parsippany, NJ-based Lifesize Entertainment has picked it up for June release, so when it plays theaters, see it with a date. If your date hates it then it was never going to last, but if you spend a long time talking about it afterwards, you may have found the one for you. Good luck!

My final Philly film (try saying that five times fast) was DEAD DAUGHTERS, supposedly this year's hot new foreign horror film, but just more proof that since the fall of Communism, Russia wants to do nothing more than become America. And what's odd is that this is Russia's version of America by way of Japan, as DEAD DAUGHTERS is basically RING meets FINAL DESTINATION and nowhere near as inspired as either. It's another "vengful ghosts" story where a trio of ghost sisters go after anyone who is told of their story and when a group of young friends all hear about it at once, well, they're all pretty much screwed, aren't they? The film fails for the same reasons a lot of these types of pictures fail, because the charcaters aren't worth caring about, the film's style isn't very original, and it's all just plot, plot, plot. But I'll add two more strikes to the list: the fucking non-stop shaky camera (I know Russia's economy is in the shitter right now, but can't they afford tripods over there?) and the 2 hour-plus running time. 123 minutes for this shit! I sat through this thing so you don't have to, that's how I feel about this. Ever since NIGHTWATCH made a mint, Russia has seen a big upswing in genre cinema, and there's a long tradition of good Russian genre cinema, but from what I've seen these new films have all pretty much been calling cards to potential shallow U.S. careers. A U.S. remake of DEAD DAUGHTERS is already in the works, but I don't really see the point in it. This film is its own crappy U.S. remake.

Before the heavens opened and the rains came down (no flooding in my area, thank goodness, but driving through it was a bitch and a half) I took in some time with friends at a downtown bar where Carey Means (voice of Auqa Teen Hunger Force's Frylock) was making a personal appearence and met up with pal Simon Rumley, whose film THE LIVING AND THE DEAD was being screened at the festival. I've hung out with Simon many times now, but I never before knew he stuttered like this when he was this drunk. It was something to see.

And that's Phillyfest for ya, all in about 10 hours. Beat that, Tribeca!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I appreciate you giving space to a review of Anna Biller's VIVA, I find the bulk of what you are saying somewhat condescending to its author. Nowhere do you ask why Biller, a woman, might choose to make a sexploitation film - a genre predominated by men, cut to the measure of largely male desire? Having seen the film numerous times at a bunch of fests, I don't find the film overlong or draggy, and take great pleasure in the creative labors that produced such a rich work. And Camille 2000 also clocked in at close to 2 hours, and is a bit draggy itself, as are some of the best films by Meyer & Sarno. As someone very familiar with the codes and conventions of 60s sexploitation - the combination of devotional attentiveness to the terms of the genre as well as their subtle critique makes it a very strong and fascinating film. If seen as a feminist historical project, conversant with other artworks that use an autobiographical register to tell their story - in which the maker is also the object - the film is very smart and sophisticated. I think VIVA, while having elements of camp and humour, takes sexploitation seriously - and uses the artifactual nature of this long-forgotten genre to stage a kind of intervention through film history. To say that Biller needs to "learn from the masters" is really patronizing and insulting, and has tones of sexism attached as well. The musical numbers are Biller's creative liberty, and I genuinely enjoyed them as moments of pure spectacle - set against the awkwardness and ambivalence of the sexual interaction in the film. None of these aesthetic and narrative choices are unmotivated, and I think they create a rich and complex film, that is in fact quite reverent towards sexploitation - I think that what is being "sent up" by VIVA are certain presumptions about sexuality and historical change, rather than any sort of judgment on the "impoverishment" of the sexploitation genre. Why would Biller make the film if she was only interested in belittling the specific generic template in which she spent 4 years working? You are trashing the film in the same manner that many still marginalize and trash 60s/70s sexploitation films, which is sadly ironic - and does a disservice to both VIVA and the history of sexploitation. Based on the enthusiastic responses that I've seen at the fests, I think VIVA will more likely inspire audiences to seek out the films which it derives its aesthetic energies from.