Wednesday, August 10, 2011

That was the 60th MIFF that was – Part I: Autoluminescent through to Closing Night

It had been amongst my best intentions to post several dispatches from the frontlines of the 60th Melbourne International Film Festival but, too soon!, the end of the festival was upon me and I find that my blog post tally for MIFF 2001, including this post (but not, of course, including its implicit sequels), runs to but five instalments.

Still, I have no regrets, especially as one of my other outlets for waxing cinephilic, 3RRR's “SmartArts” program afforded me, in the absence last Thursday of its ailing host Richard Watts, but in the presence of kindly Triple R legend Tim Thorpe, an unprecedented 45 minutes of airtime to talk about all things MIFF. (I'll be on again tomorrow morning, too, at 11.30, with Richard back in the fold, to prattle on a little more about the 60th MIFF.)

Meanwhile though, here's Part I of an A-Z of my 2011 MIFF. More will follow in coming days.


Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard
Dirs: Lynn-Maree Milburn & Richard Lowenstein
Present for a post-screening Q&A: Richard Lowenstein; Genevieve McGuckin, and Mick Harvey

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard
Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

And so I begin with, in fact, the final film I saw at MIFF2011, and a very satisfying way it was indeed to close the festival (bar the shouting... of some last drinks).

One surefire testimony to an effective rockumentary is whether it inspires the viewer to want to further investigate the recording career of the documentees. I'm only really familiar with the late Howard's (no relation) early work with The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party, but I'm now very keen to get better acquainted with his latter day projects, and you can call me a Jenny-come-lately all you like!

Instigated by Howard himself, who was aware at the time that he mightn't have terribly long left to live owing to a liver disease likely linked (if not by this film, directly) to a many years-long heroin habit, this heartfelt documentary's many pleasures include a wide-ranging selection of talking heads paying tribute to his influence upon the art of rock guitar, an influence which has clearly hitherto gone under-acknowledged. Additionally, I really appreciated Wim Wenders' appearance, which shed some light on how post-Birthday Party bands of both Nick Cave's and Rowland S. Howard's wound up featuring prominently in his 1987 classic Wings of Desire, something I'd long been curious about.

I saw Autoluminescent with a dear old friend in Matt Boyle, a most apt person to see this film with indeed as, way back in the mid-'90s, he and I performed some volunteer work at the then Performing Arts Museum, auditing its unruly film and video collection ahead of handing it over to the then Cinemedia. Now, come 2011 and lo!, and behold, if that isn't in the early moments of Autoluminescent some of the very footage Matt and I excavated during our PAM audit, in which a very young Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard, and friend ham it up hilariously in a thoroughly ramshackle (presumed mock-)interview.

Volunteer work – the gift to others that often, and at the most surprising moments, keeps on giving back!

A Useful Life
Dir: Federico Veiroj

A Useful Life
A Useful Life

An enjoyable featurette in which filmmaker and Senses of Cinema founder Bill Mousoulis' doppelgänger Jorge (Jorge Jellinek) learns that, yes, while Cinema is Life (he has toiled away for 25 years at the (fictionalised) Uruguayan Cinematheque in Montevideo ahead of its (equally fictionalised) close, due to its having become financially unsustainable), when Life becomes Cinema – as, for example, upon the now jobless Jorge's being let loose into the real world, with his every action newly being given a rousing, big band soundtrack (and who hasn't fantasised about that?), and with those actions now even extending to indulging in a little carefree stairway hoofing – things can take a turn for the even better. Because, you never know – you might just get a root.

Flip crassness aside, A Useful Life is a really charming film about cinephilia. It was paired with The Little Tailor (d. Louis Garrel), another film steeped in a love of the seventh art but about which I have much less kind things to say. The Little Tailor is not bad, per se, but to anybody wanting to re-live the joys of the French New Wave, they're still to be found fresher in the readily accessible early films of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol, etc (though it's early Godard and Truffaut in particular that The Little Tailor is channelling). Disappointing.

Animation Shorts

Kubla Khan
Kubla Khan

In a mostly underwhelming compilation of recent animated work, Joan C. Gratz's Kubla Khan stood out, with Gratz's psychedelically fluid claymation, rendered in her patentedly painterly style, a fine match for an accompanying recitation of William Taylor Coleridge's opium-sozzled poem. Hooray! – you can watch it here.

The one Australian short in this package was Aww Jeez (d. Michael Greaney), also a claymation and which got some easy laughs from riffing on a scenario in which an adolescent Jesus Christ is babysat by a rehabilitated Satan, with their stickybeak neighbour, Richard Dawkins, getting a droll word or two in edgeways.

Artavazd Pelechian Shorts

This program of three films was unreservedly one of the clear highlights of this year's MIFF, and you can read more about my thoughts on it two Little Lies Down ago.


I feel a little bad about rubbishing a film which, it has been made well known, is a project very dear and personal to its maker, festival guest Mike Mills. But there's no dodging it: well made as it might be, Beginners lays on thick a self-conscious, greeting cards level of earnest quirkiness that, for mine, sabotages all hope it has of ingratiating itself on any sort of emotionally resonant level, notwithstanding good performances from a twinkle-eyed Christopher Plummer, a Mona Lisa-lite Mélanie Laurent and a mopey Ewan McGregor. Poor McGregor really doesn't have it easy as the film's lead; he's saddled with occasionally having to converse with a dog, to name but one of several ghastly, trite conceits and cloying narrative devices Mills imposes upon him and this film, to its considerable detriment.

Rabid dogs – talking or otherwise – couldn't have dragged me to the “Talking Pictures” conversation with Mills after seeing this film. Thing is, though, that I know other people will like Beginners for the very same reasons I didn't. I'll try not to begrudge them that.

Black Venus

Black Venus
Black Venus

Post-colonial feminist film theory has a new standard-bearer. Abdellatif Kechiche's follow-up to his superb The Secret of the Grain was my feel-bad hit of the festival, an unrelenting, unrepentingly harrowing and very long (159 minutes) depiction of one South African woman's suffering at the hands of two men who enchained her to a hateful, grotesquely exploitative and alcoholic life as the “Hottentot Venus”, an early 19th century freakshow attraction, with first one of them manipulatively parading her before London's incredulous lower classes and then the other, even more forcibly, mock-setting her upon the Parisienne aristocracy. Alas, even worse indignities were to follow.

I generally bristle at talk of “brave” performances, as such is used all too often to describe when some Hollywood lovely is merely cast against type in some sort of halfway unflattering role (perhaps appearing without make-up (the horror!) or as a dreadful homosexual (further horror!)) But Yahima Torres is simply extraordinary as Saartjie Baartman, a role which calls for her to exhibit exactly the sort of behaviours – and to a similarly uncomfortable extent, the anatomy – which so tawdrily fascinated audiences rich and poor in the early 1810s, just as they did even more so those French anatomists who were keen to announce the “Hottentot Venus”, with her very pronounced buttocks and elongated labia minora, as the “missing link” between the animal kingdom and mankind.

Really strong stuff, I doubt I could ever bring myself to watch Black Venus again, but power to Abdellatif Kechiche for making it in the first place.

Class Relations

You can read my thoughts on Straub-Huillet's take on Kafka's Amerika as few as two Little Lies Down ago.

Closing Night – Drive

I should perhaps consider myself a little fortunate, but, unlike on Opening Night, this time I was where the action was, in cavernous old Cinema 6 in the Greater Union complex. Having missed her Opening Night address, I was happy to catch Michelle Carey's close-of-festival address to the freeloading and faithful, which inevitably riffed a little on the 60th anniversary of the august festival she is newly Artistic Director of.

Her speech considered the manifold ways in which the business of running a film festival has changed over the 60 years since MIFF emerged out in the Dandenongs. Certainly, it's changed terrifically even in just the last few with, for example, almost half of the 'films' being projected at this year's MIFF being done so digitally – just as more and more of them are being produced using digital technologies in the first place.

The media landscape has changed very dramatically in even more recent times, too, and the one bum note of Carey's gracious wrap-up speech – little understood then as such by most of the crowd there, I suspect – relates to these very developments. It came when Carey acknowledged the sterling efforts of MIFF's blogathon heroes, leading to a well deserved round of applause for the six intrepid (foolhardy?) new media exemplars who'd each of them committed at the festival's outset, for no recompense, to endeavour to see, and regularly write upon, at least 60 films (or rather, “sessions”) during the festival. Sadly, however, none of those six were in Cinema 6 to receive their thank-you but rather had been, as had I on Opening Night, shunted off to one of the smaller cinemas at Greater Union, where once again no transmission was made of the events taking place in Cinema 6 and folks were left waiting in the dark, so to speak, for the film to begin.

One of the blogathonners, Luke Buckmaster, has already been vocal in his understandable disgruntlement at this careless slighting of the time and energies he and his fellow bloggers had devoted to the festival and, by extension, of an all-too-conceivable concomitant first principle undervaluing on the festival's part of press operating for non-traditional media outlets.

Myself, I think any arts organisation which still presumes traditional media to somehow be inherently superior to new media should be disabused of this notion pronto and not just because it's not, ipso facto, correct, but also because it's surely in these organisations' best interests to be mindful that coverage of their events in the new media world doesn't have limited currency the way print media can. Bad press nowadays can stay bad press for a very, very long time. Add to that the immediacy with which news and opinion can now be widely (and unpredictably) dispersed, wholly removed from the hidebound publication schedules of traditional media, and I think MIFF would be very wise to give a good deal of consideration to how it strategises its new media initiatives for next year's edition, with especial consideration necessary as to how it looks after those it engages with who work within that realm.

But let's put that behind us now and move onto the Closing Night film, Drive.

Nicolas Winding Refn's latest, Drive has an impassive protagonist in Ryan Gosling's Driver not a million miles – if several hundred years – removed from that of his previous film, Valhalla Rising.

Quite a few parts Jef Costello (Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967)), the taciturn Driver works in Hollywood as... a driver, making a few extra quid on the side doing the odd getaway.

He'd probably get away with it, too, if it weren't for his fancying the woman (Carey Mulligan) at the end of the corridor on the floor of the apartment block where he lives. It transpires that her husband, immediately upon his release from jail, is being set up to take a fall by local mobsters, a fall which will threaten to take the Driver down as well.

There's a little bit more to the plot than that, but some of it's just the stuff of loose ends at any rate, and whether or not those ends get tied up is less interesting to contemplate than the film's aesthetics, which, with more than a gentle tip of a Trilby, harken brightly back to 1980s Michael Mann equally as to the heyday of film noir; one scene especially is very highly reminiscent of Robert Aldrich's classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). But then, as the beardy grand old doyen of Australian film crit, David Stratton told Cinema 6 in an anecdote introducing the screening, this should come as no surprise. For Refn is a cinema brat, regularly taken along to Cannes from an early age by an uncle in the business.

A lot of fun, Drive isn't, however, for the squeamish; the violence in it, certainly played to some extent for laughs, is sudden, bloody and unapologetically brutal.

But those who like their films cine-literate, along Tarantino-esque lines, and who missed it at MIFF will still have an opportunity to get a real kick out of Drive when it hits cinemas in Melbourne mid-October.

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