Friday 12 May 2017

On Film Festivals - Sydney Supercinephile Barrie Pattison puts a personal slant on the current offering after this year's Spanish Film Festival

Editor's Note: Notwithstanding some derision, Sydney supercinephile Barrie Pattison relentlessly reported on more than a dozen or so of the films presented in the recent/current Spanish Film Festival presented round Australia via the Palace Cinemas chain. Click here  to read how the argument developed. Then read on.....

Let’s look at this festival thing.

Benito Mussolini (see text and see Editor's Note below)
Film Festivals got going in 1932 with the Venice event, the idea being to push local product and claw back some of the money that America was sucking out of the European film business. Benito Mussolini was a major supporter.*

The pitch however was that this was a platform for art and seriousness of purpose. Clearly European product (forget about the rest) was superior to Hollywood where B westerns thrived. Let me add that I consider any movie enthusiast who is not an admirer of Buck Jones as suspect.

What developed was a machine where films premiered at a few major festivals, were documented by critics and bought by distributors. Some producers wouldn’t put their films into festivals because it tainted them as narrow interest product. 

The dodgy division has persisted down the years with variations. Look at the Criterion Collection or Mark Cousins’ awful documentary series. Most people are happy with the split between art films (which often have minimal contact with artistry) and commercial product (which often has as little connection to profit). When do you see Adam Sandler in a film festival? About as often as Bela Tarr makes it into the multiplexes. This means that admirers of one can cheerfully dismiss the other - less confusion, less work. Tell either group that they are missing something and it’s nose in the air time.

Post WW2 you could spot the art films because they had writing on the bottom of the picture. Things got confused in the fifties when Louis de Funés and Toto showed up with sub-titles. Probably the key moment was the 1950 appearance of Orphée made by certified multi-tasking artist Jean Cocteau who had a foot in both camps with his avant-garde Sang d’un poét in the twenties and a number of superior popular entertainment film scripts on his resumé - La belle et la bête (Jean Marais fur faced, 1946), Le baron fantôme (Cocteau as a ghost 1943). Then there was Marcel L’Herbier’s  La comédie du bonheur (edible phonograph records, 1940).

Orphée was a film that could never play to mass audiences but, propped up by the festivals and critics, would do business round the world in art cinemas. People like John Houseman suggested that America could produce cheaper small-distribution movies on this model. Largely under the influence of the French critics and the Paris Cinematheque, the Festival Film boomed - the Nouvelle Vague, Fellini, Bergman, Cassavetes. It didn’t take long for it all to go sour. Think Fellini’s City of Women, Bergman’s The Silence or any later Fassbinder. How long is it since any of their admirers actually watched those?

What had been the admirable business of showing popular foreign language films abroad shifted into product featuring Marxist politics, high art references or perverse sex and this got mixed in with the cult of the director to become the auteur theory.

Alain Resnais figured he could crack that market and made l‘Année dernière à Marienbad in 1961 opening the door to even more intractable work from people like Marguerite Duras, Hugo Santiago or Raoul Ruiz, aimed at the smaller auditorium in Left Bank Paris twins and classes by academics who wanted their students to think they were challenging.

Franco’s Spain was a special case. A cultural pariah, it’s films rarely made it outside its borders. The work of Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga (both clearly belonging to a popular tradition) got a bit of action. Weightier film makers, like Edgar Neville (who I don’t much like) or Fernan Fernan Gomez, never surfaced along with who can say what else, leaving Carlos Saura to carry the load - or maybe Spirit of the Beehive.

This apathy seemed to have sucked all Hispanic cinema down with it, including Argentina’s impressive backlog and Mexico’s huge one. It is only now that even exceptional historical pieces like Florián Rey’s 1930 La aldea maldita have become accessible - not that you find critics accessing them. Only isolated works (think the admirable films of Federico Lupi and Adolfo Aristarain) swam through the festival net. (SBS was useful there but they appear to have stopped) Commercial cinema did better with the films of Paul Naschy and Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi getting dubbed action in the drive-ins - with virtually no attention from commentators.

Latino film remains one of the great neglected areas in English speaking film discussion. That’s one reason why the 2017 Spanish Film Festival was particularly welcome - that and their remarkable strike rate. Also I learned the phrase “Puta madre” which I suspect will be useful if this discussion continues. The event was full of superior popular films. Popular, some people seem to have forgotten, means that audiences enjoy watching them. Palace staff noted the positive feedback from customers. The program also ran to more thoughtful product like El Destierro.

Whether the excellence of the films on show is due to luck, discerning selection or a high standard of product is impossible to say from this distance.  In particular, the Cohn-Duprat El ciudano ilustre/The Distinguished Citizen and Inaki Dorronsora’s Plan de Fuga/Escape Plan deserve to go into movie repertory. But don’t hold your breath for that.

If this lot elbowed some of the traditional, festival sanctioned twaddle out of the way, it’s a cause for celebration not gloom. C’mon now. This is Australia where we haven’t had a National Film Theatre since 1979 and don’t look like getting one. It’s small mercies time.

That said, whether confining these to one brief, expensive season is the right way to go is another matter. The Asian films showing in the multiplexes year round at normal prices seem to be a better business model.

* Editor's note (2): To digress a little....A website titled Film Reference has this interesting bit of information about Mussolini and Venice The first true film festival came into being as a direct result of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's (1883–1945) enthusiasm for motion pictures as a tool for political public relations and propaganda. Eager to spur the development of state-run Italian cinema in the face of competition from Hollywood and elsewhere, he spent lavishly to build up the native film industry while imposing heavy taxation on the dubbing of foreign-language movies, thus hampering their distribution and exhibition. Among the cultural projects he chose to support through his Ministry of Information was the already existing Venice Biennial Exhibition of Italian Art, which gave birth to the International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art in August 1932 as part of an effort to make the Biennial more varied and multidisciplinary in content. The first cinema program commenced with the premiere of the horror classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(Rouben Mamoulian, 1931) and included twenty-four other entries from seven countries. The declared purpose of the exhibition was to allow "the light of art to shine over the world of commerce," but it soon became clear that power politics were a major subtext of the event. In 1935, its first year as an annually scheduled festival, it marked the ongoing rise of European fascismby instituting official prizes in place of the popularity poll and "participation diploma" of the 1932 program. This paved the way not only for a yearly Best Italian Film award but also for productions of Nazi Germany, an Italian ally at that time, to win the Best Foreign Film laurel four times between 1936 and 1942. The arrangement also allowed Leni Riefenstahl's (1902–2003) two-part Olympia(1938), a paean to Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Olympic Games, to share the highest prize (the Mussolini Cup) in 1938 with an Italian drama about a fascist soldier in the Ethiopian campaign. It seemed hardly coincidental that Mussolini's oldest son, Vittorio, appeared in the credits as "supervisor" of the latter film. American and British members of the festival jury resigned as soon as these awards were made public.

Read more: by clicking the link.

Scholar and critic Gideon Bachman once advised me that baser motives were involved. The Pasinetti family which owned the Hotel Excelsior, the finest on the Lido, convinced Mussolini to put in a pile of money for the presentation of a film festival on the hotel terrace. This would enable the hotel to stay open a week longer before it closed for winter, as I think it still does. Il Duce agreed.

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