The second installment of Infinite Fest, a monthly column by festival programmer and film critic Eric Allen Hatch, author of the recent “Why I Am Hopeful” article for Filmmaker Magazine, tackling the state of cinema as expressed by North American film festivals.
As I prepare for my annual pilgrimage to Toronto, I’m thinking about all the great films I’ve seen at TIFF that have vanished.
No, I’m not talking about Vincent Gallo’s Promises Written in Water
, although we can go there for a minute. Thanks to TIFF 2010, I can count myself among the small number of folks who’ve actually seen it, and will happily verify that it not only exists but also happens to be a stark, deranged, and diabolically solipsistic masterpiece… as, in a way, was the derisive email Gallo wrote in response to my festival invite for the film in the spring of 2011, before he’d officially announced
he was no longer going to screen his third feature, which would instead be forever “stored [...] without being exposed to the dark energies from the public." This film’s situation is an intriguing outlier: Gallo occupies a seat next to Jerry Lewis at the tiny table of privileged creators who can choose to keep a film unavailable, presumably without courting financial ruin (while amplifying the prickly myth-making integral to these gents’ very specific personal brands in the process).
But today I want to shine some light on a larger crop of disappearing films that have kept me coming back to TIFF each year since 1998—typically intimate world cinema offerings that played one or two major festivals before TIFF and a smattering after, and then rarely, if ever, played on screens big or small in the U.S. In each iteration of 2 Film 2 Festival
, a weekly column on my Patreon, I highlight one such deep cut of world cinema that deserves more eyeballs and engagement. I make every effort to identify any legal means by which that week’s title can be accessed online. But sometimes I can’t locate such a means, so I turn the hunt over to my readers (most of whom are more stream-savvy than this physical-media guy)—sometimes resulting in a legit method for viewing the film, sometimes not. Either way, as the columns start to stack, hopefully the films I champion begin to coalesce into an alternative canon of sorts; vital films that, were they more widely seen, would tell a much more hopeful story about the state of film as an art form than do the hits of the corporately curated arthouse.
That some of these films cannot be seen by people who are actively seeking them out rings an adjacent alarm. In terms of theatrical exhibition for truly independent cinema, things may actually be looking up. There does seem to be a nascent network of microcinema alternative venues developing that can offer screenings, whether one-offs or full runs, of titles like The Human Surge
—a film which, given how abrasive and challenging it is… well, really got out there, man. But even if this trend accelerates, most of these venues will always be in cities of a certain size. What’s more, in this (mostly
) post-video-store epoch, how are cinephiles anywhere going to access a specific film of an even quieter profile a year later? How is there not an imperative, whether economic or cultural, to maintain the level of access to film history that arthouse video stores delivered—and the Internet promised? Some fine work is being done (this column, of course, being hosted by one excellent streaming resource), but many films are nonetheless slipping through the cracks.
In last month’s debut edition of Infinite Fest, I name-checked some of the little miracles I’ve seen at TIFF that I’d number among the vanished (or nearly so). One of the most potent: Ivan Ostrochovský’s Koza (2015) a.k.a. Goat, a bleak yet thrillingly cinematic crawl across foggy and frigid European shitholes in which a shady coach arranges even shadier boxing matches for an aging, downtrodden former Olympian. Another big one for me is Alejandro Landes’ Porfirio (2011), which follows a Colombian man paralyzed years ago by a policeman’s bullet who hatches an outlandish plan to demand withheld government benefits. Based on a true story, played by the real-life protagonist himself, and shot by Thimios “Dogtooth” Bakatakis, it’s a slow-simmer winner.
Not all disappearing films are this deep of a cut, either. Take Fernando Eimbcke’s warm, sly, and quietly hilarious Club Sandwich (2013), the apotheosis of his career-long focus on modern Mexican coming-of-age stories. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, were it to encounter crowds, but when I programmed it as part of a slate of contemporary Latin American films in late 2017, it was still without a U.S. distributor; his prior two features, Duck Season and Lake Tahoe, both fared better. There’s also Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom, which struck me as one of this master’s essential works when I saw it at TIFF 2014, but was not available to me at any price when I tried to book it six months later within Maryland Film Festival 2015 (I’m looking at you, Finecut), and still does not seem to have U.S. distro (I will be very happy if I’m wrong about this).
But the TIFF gem that’s most on my mind right now is The Patron Saints, a 2011 documentary by Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy taking place in a home for senior citizens. It’ll immediately remind you of the best 1970s and ‘80s work of Frederick Wiseman, and comparisons to Titicut Follies specifically are perhaps inevitable given the setting. But it unspools more like Titicut had Wiseman not documented barbaric abuse and backwards attitudes during that shoot, and instead, like nearly every Wiseman films to follow, settles into a mostly sympathetic view of an institution at work—one that’s reasonably caring, diligent, and functional—with a compelling emphasis on the most idiosyncratic characters encountered.
As many of The Patron Saints’ subjects are experiencing mental decline, the film delivers an unflinching—and sometimes uncomfortably hilarious—look at how language and behavior change as both body and mind regress. Raw, dreary, unnerving, insightful, dark, gentle, and poignant all at once, it can be a challenging watch, but one well worth seeking out if intrigued and prepared—not to mention a must for anyone who counts Wiseman, Claire Simon, or Allan King among their favorite filmmakers.
Films like The Patron Saints
won’t appeal to everyone; there’s a ceiling, presumably, to the population size of people clamoring for images of the painful and surreal moments of confusion that await many of us in our final days. TIFF did their job with this film, getting it in front of people like me, who are still moved and challenged by it seven years later. But how do we keep building the audience for films like this months and years after its festival run? When I recently started writing about The Patron Saints for 2 Film 2 Festival and looked for an online means to revisit it, I found that there wasn’t one at the moment. I reached out to co-director Brian M. Cassidy (via a DM to his popular Instagram account
), and within a few days he’d been able to make it available for U.S. viewing via Kinoscope
(thanks again, Brian!). That’s not a common scenario; not every cinephile has a means of contacting the filmmaker of the hard-to-find film they’re trying to access, and not every filmmaker can get the rights holder to switch the film’s availability status in a particular region on a quick turnaround.
This chain of events reinforced for me that the essential experience of film festivals—and their mandate—never end. The name for this column, Infinite Fest, was suggested during a brainstorming sesh by my friend Meredith Moore (thanks, Meredith!)—and as I write this paragraph, I realize it’s even more fitting than I initially realized. The best films, I’ve always felt, are those experienced twice: first during the viewing experience itself, and later as they live on in our minds for months or even years thereafter. And each audience member—especially those of us seeking out films that may never be seen again—carries home a directive to retain their passion above all for these smaller films that do live on inside us, and to keep them alive by transferring them to other cinephiles, one essay or recommendation or viewing party or loaned disc at a time.
The aesthetic distance between films like The Human Surge, Koza, Porfirio, and The Patron Saints and prestige films like Slumdog Millionaire, La La Land, The Imitation Game, or The King’s Speech—all winners of TIFF’s coveted People’s Choice Award—is far wider than that between those People’s Choice winners and, say Avengers or Star Wars. In other words, major film festivals and art houses are trying to, somewhat uneasily, house wildly different animals in the same zoo (sometimes even in the same cage). So given that we don’t have time to see each and every animal, let’s prioritize visiting the zoo’s smallest ones, the most obscure ones, the ones with the shortest life spans, the ones that take the longest hike to get to and too often get ignored.
Ethan Hawke recently divided the peanut gallery with comments in a Film Stage
interview that many framed as a bully-ish takedown of superhero films: “Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is.” As the quote bounced around Film Twitter with increasingly reductive headlines, you can probably imagine how fanboys reacted.
Naturally, very few of those entrenched in the resulting conversation clicked through to read a thoughtful interview that affectionately reflected on Get Out and Gattaca, among many other multiplex-friendly entertainments, and placed the remark about Logan in a very pertinent context—namely, as an argument not just for the necessity of film festivals, but of their curators’ (my words and emphasis) sacred responsibility in an era flooded with content.
“[Film today] might be like other art forms where it might take 50 years to curate what’s happening right now,” Hawke said. “That’s why film festivals have become so important… film festivals are like curators of, like, what does the world need to be paying attention to. What should be seen? If we didn’t have these festivals, big business would crush all these smaller movies.”
I’m admittedly in a highly inclined moment to stan him as I’m still riding that First Reformed high, but: big mood, Ethan Hawke. I’m going to deploy his, like, words as my marching orders during this year’s TIFF.
It’s sort of believable to me that the zoo that is TIFF in 2018 can’t not give shine to studio-backed prestige movies as part of their Oscar run, and I’ll always be okay with that as long as they still find room for the latest works by Bi Gan
and Roberto Minervini
, and as long as I can walk away feeling like I’m taking home with me a Koza, Porfirio, or Patron Saints.
From the lineup, odds look promising. I’ve had a 100% success rate this millenia with films from Uruguay—A Useful Life
, The Militant
, and Gigante
, for instance—so Federico Veiroj’s Belmonte
is a TIFF 2018 given. And for every one High Life
or Our Time
I take in—films that have a high probability of keeping my cinephilic batteries charged to be sure, but films that come from already trusted directors—I hereby pledge on a Blu-ray of First Reformed
to seek out two films by directors I’ve never heard of, prioritizing works without distribution that hail from creators and/or regions that often go under-represented, even at international film fests. Straight from TIFF, I’m headed for the first time to CIFF
in Camden, Maine for the first time, and the same marching orders will apply.
If festival programmers have a mandate to champion the smaller films without superheroic marketing budgets, you and me have a mandate to keep them alive through writing, viewing, discussing, debating. A mandate to patch together a network of people who want to catch up with films worth seeing long after the festival posters are tattered and the porta-potties have moved on—and let each other know in a timely fashion which ones of these precious gems are in theaters, on Kanopy or MUBI or Filmstruck (or Netflix, if such a thing is possible), on a nifty imported Blu-ray, or available on loan from the local video library.
Those of you also in Toronto, please say hello. Those of you who aren’t, please watch The Patron Saints—as well as Koza and Porfirio, if you can access them. I’ll be back in a month with a report on where the balance between red-carpeters and deep cuts landed at TIFF, a report that will hopefully honor the dude from First Reformed’s rallying cry for film festivals as the last line of defense against the caped crusaders pounding at the gates.
I’ll be back in a month, that is, if the irreversible, cataclysmic, and rapidly accelerating consequences of corporate-driven, megachurch-sanctioned, human-made climate change don’t catch up with me first.