Not too long ago, a colleague chastised me, blind-item style, for writing about a film festival based on the use of screeners instead of going to the festival and attending the event in person. (In current parlance, I was “subtweeted,” although not on Twitter.) The argument was that by conducting my film criticism in “armchair mode,” I was missing out on lively discussion, camaraderie, and a good deal of atmospheric context that makes a festival more than just a collection of individual films. (Whether or not any given film is necessarily improved by having a discussion with its maker, particularly if critics are supposed to remain relatively objective in our evaluations, is an open question.)
However, it occurred to me that, before any given film exhibition or festival, the works contained therein exist as precisely that: just a collection of individual films. It’s only through selection and programming choices that they are expected to stand for anything other than themselves. And I also began to think about the incredible faith we place in programmers, to sift through hundreds upon hundred of films made every year. We trust them (and a host of unsung pre-screeners) to separate the wheat from the chaff, to set the agenda for the year in cinema by their inclusions and exclusions. For the most part, we go along with their decisions, and as critics we make our own judgments as a subset of theirs.
But we know full well that taste is nebulous and fallible, prone to the vagaries of history and fashion. How many worthy films slip through the cracks each year, each decade? This question prompted me to embark on an experiment.
The online screener service Festival Scope is filled with thousands of films, from the well-known and –travelled to the utterly obscure. Mostly I have used the service to catch up with festival films I’ve missed along the way. But I got an idea. What about all those films I’d never even heard of? Could there be major discoveries right there for the taking? So I devised a system whereby I could sample some of those films by random selection. I chose twelve films by this method, which had to do with randomizing the number of pages in Festival Scope’s 2017 features listing, and the number of films per page. I decided to call it the 2018 Random Film Festival.
Granted, this was not a “film festival” as such. I was watching a collection of screeners from home, so a lot of the pleasures of attending an actual festival—meeting up with friends, post-film discussions, hustling from venue to venue, last-minute schedule changes, and of course, the big screen experience—were all missing here. Then of course, so were the random diet, sleep deprivation, and the exorbitant cost of attendance. But it’s often said the certain films look better (or worse) in a festival context, and that element was not in play here. I was watching about two films a day, not four or five, so I had the chance to let things percolate in my mind a bit more than usual. As you’ll see, that didn’t necessarily help.
That’s because what I found is that most films are simply average, regardless of where they come from. Take a film like Nobody Sleep by Spanish documentarian Mateo Cabeza. It starts out promisingly enough, showing us in meticulous detail how four men set about building a dance piece from extended rehearsals, movement by movement and gesture by gesture. The fact that two of the dancers are men with Down syndrome is an interesting element, but one that is pointedly not remarked upon. But then, Cabeza stops his observational mode to “widen the frame,” telling us that the work is part of an arts initiative for individuals with Downs and emphasizing that, yes, these are people who should be treated like everyone else. This is of course a worthy message. However, prior to the film making that message so explicit, Nobody Sleep was embodying it by simply showing the four men dancing. Cabeza chooses to deliver a moral when an object lesson is what’s called for. Likewise, Pedro Neves’ documentary Tarrafal is essentially a Pedro Costa film without any of the mastery or aesthetic value, choosing instead to provide endless, redundant interviews with former residents of the bulldozed low-income neighborhood in Porto, Portugal. In the interest of “giving voice,” Neves makes a film that is lifeless and near-impossible to listen to.
Somewhat more compelling, and likely to pop up on the festival circuit, were two slightly flawed entries that nevertheless fit squarely into the usual mode of festival filmmaking. February, by South Korea’s Kim Joonghyun, is a kind of existentialist mood piece, vaguely in the mold of Agnès Varda’s Vagabond. It focuses on Minkyung (Minkyung Jo), an attractive but affectless young woman in desperate straits. Her father is in prison and has bankrupted her with legal liability claims. She wants to take a social service exam but cannot afford the review classes. And, now four months behind on her rent, she has been forced to take up residence in a metal shipping container. Minkyung goes out of her way to destroy every situation in which someone shows her any goodwill, determined to self-destruct in grand style. Despite its comically hateful protagonist, February seems a bit rote, especially in the context of recent Korean cinema. Similarly, even though Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Black Level is highly original on its face—a portrait of a depressive wedding photographer in Kiev, a film in which no one ever utters a word—there’s something eerily familiar in its dark humor and meticulous staging—a little Ulrich Seidl here, a little Roy Andersson there.
Other films are just average examples of their type, and it’s easy to see why festival programmers might pass on them for better examples, since they’re plentiful. The Albanian film Daybreak is about a domestic worker with a young child who has to make questionably ethical choices to survive. The Dardennes influence is obvious. The grandiloquently titled Denmark is a kind of troubled-youth film that gradually morphs into unlikely humanism, starting out in scuzzy Larry Clark partyville and ending up like a Lukas Moodysson cuddle. And Law of the Land, starring veteran Finnish actor Ville Vertanen, is a snowmobile-Western, not exactly festival fare to begin with. It could easily be remade by Liam Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra for release during next year’s January doldrums.
Since most films fall somewhere in that soft middle-zone of “nothing special, but not a complete waste of time,” it seems only fitting that the major discoveries from the Random Film Festival were films on either side of the equation: something very special, and an utter, utter waste of time. From the Good Place: Annika Berg’s Team Hurricane, from Denmark (which played Critics’ Week at Venice). A film with so much color and energy that the screen can barely contain it, Team Hurricane is a blast of direct address filtered through a searing high-key video aesthetic that achieves a stark, unexpected beauty and juices the nerve centers like a sunlamp.
Berg somehow remains true to the lifeworld of the eight teen girls who are the focus of Team Hurricane, partly by allowing them to shoot a lot of the footage themselves on their phones. But it’s also in the jumpy, anything-goes editing style, which partakes easily of the dominant modes of YouTube vlogs and teen video diaries without the slightest hint of condescension. But mostly this is a hanging-out movie, with cutaways zeroing in on the inner lives on individual girls, spoken to the camera in Sadie Benning-like autobiographical art-video interludes. These are girls who are bright, funny, imperfect, sad, and vital. This is a film for now.
From the Bad Place: Ideka Akira’s Ambiguous Places. Sometimes Random hurts. I thought that the Fickle Finger of Fate had picked me a winner once I discovered that Ambiguous Places had been selected for the Bright Future section of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam. Had a randomly stumbled upon a significant new voice in cinema? Well, I will say this for Akira—he is doggedly pursuing his own vision. Ambiguous Places is his second feature, and it bears all the excruciating hallmarks of a film convinced of its own future cult status. It makes no sense from scene to scene, even though particular “characters” carry through the entire thing like semi-human running gags.
The closest parallel I can draw is to the leaden pseudo-Surrealism of Quentin Dupieux’s post-Rubber output. Someone has a sea bug stuck in her head. She has to go to a barber to get it removed. But the barber is an udon shop. Meanwhile, the pharmacist and his wife are expecting, so as per custom, they need to make celebratory gloves. Akira seems to think that just throwing any silly idea into the film, and then calling it back every ten minutes or so, equals comedy gold. He also deploys an equally grating verbal style. Every other interaction devolves into two deadpan performers monotone-arguing the same lines of dialogue back and forth to each other. “You’re troublesome.” “I’m sorry.” “You’re troublesome.” “I’m sorry.” Five more times. (I have to wonder whether this kind of broken-record nonsense has a particular comic valence in the Japanese language, the nuance of which is nails-on-the-chalkboard lost in English.)
It’s a given that something this aggressively weird will have its fans. But I venture to say that for most people, watching Ambiguous Places will feel like being the only guy at the party who didn’t take the mushrooms. You’re all ostensibly in the same place, but clearly the others are somewhere else.
So in the end, the Random Film Festival is a success, depending on how you look at it. I saw one great film for my trouble, and two fairly interesting ones—three if you count Ambiguous Spaces, which is certainly “interesting.” This batting average doesn’t seem that far off from a festival like Toronto, with its sprawling collection of unknown quantities. (And I didn’t have to fly anywhere or pay for lodging.) By the same token, I have a new appreciation for the job of pre-screeners, who have to sift through the dross only to find one or two fairly decent entries. (With my innate curiosity and sense that “everything is kind of worthwhile,” I think that’s a job I’d be good at.)
The verdict: festivals generally work, but critics need to supplement our viewing with spadework of our own. Why just be passengers when we can drive?