The Wisconsin Film Festival represents the Badger State's belated but nimble leap onto the festival bandwagon.
Wisconsin Field Trip
As soon as I crossed the city limits into Madison, site of the fourth annual Wisconsin Film Festival, it felt just like old times. The weather, befitting early April in the Midwest, was overcast and miserable. On my car radio were the familiar voices of old friends promoting this year's installment of the Festival. And the kiosks dotting the University of Wisconsin landscape were awash with full-color posters marked by staccato, enigmatic couplets: "Buttons. Pushed." "Eyes. Opened." "Films. Farther."
I left Madison last summer after a seven-year hitch at the University, so this year was the first I hadn't been around to observe the week-by-week unfolding of the pre-Festival hype machine. But the familiar buzz had resurfaced; Madison movie aficionados were pumped (albeit in their unassuming, Midwest sort of way) for their big movie weekend. Since the Festival's low-key debut in 1999, awareness has zoomed, thanks to a carefully coordinated marketing campaign (by PR firm Planet Propaganda), comprised of the aforementioned posters, print ads, and a terrific web site. While the slogans were a bit precious, the promotional onslaught served its purpose: to announce to the world that Wisconsin's Festival is a sophisticated, high-tech enterprise. For Midwesterners, always defensive about how their high cultural endeavors play to those from the coasts, the importance of this objective can't be underestimated.
The Film Festival represents the Badger State's belated but nimble leap onto the festival bandwagon -- in just a few years, the WFF has already established itself as a first-rate Midwestern cultural expo. As a showcase for quirky American independents and top-rank world cinema, it's a terrific complement to nearby Chicago's autumn film fete. And, unlike in Chicago, once you're in the heart of the city (meaning State Street, a funky pedestrian thoroughfare that connects downtown with the campus area), you can easily reach all the Festival venues by foot -- if you don't mind the windchill.
Still, considering the complications accompanying its birth, the WFF is lucky to be so successful. The brainchild of the Wisconsin Film Office, a branch of the state's Department of Tourism, the Festival was originally conceived as a self-advertisement targeted at Hollywood's movers and shakers. "Make your movies in Wisconsin" was the message relayed by a Department of Tourism spokesperson who introduced the initial fundraising event in late 1998. Touting the (non-union) benefits of his home state, the DOT lackey concluded by observing that, with a star-studded film fest, Wisconsin would henceforth be known as the place where big-budget Hollywood films with wholesome, Midwestern values got made. The crowd then sat back and enjoyed a screening of Woody Allen's bilious Celebrity -- yes, the one in which Bebe Neuwirth fellates a banana.
More mishaps followed. For one, the Wisconsin Film Office -- already billing their inaugural showcase as the "Great Wisconsin Film Festival" -- was promising a guest appearance by Robert Redford, who was to accept something called the "Golden Cheesehead" award. When Redford turned out to be (surprise) unavailable, and when the hot-ticket studio premieres could not (surprise) be delivered, the WFO threw in the towel. It was left to UW-Madison students, led by programmers Wendi Weger and James Kreul, to pick up the pieces in Spring 1999 and assemble a refreshingly eclectic lineup of special restorations, independents and experimental films. The next year, Mary Carbine was hired as full-time Festival Director; thankfully, she preserved the original's emphasis on the hard-to-see while overseeing an ambitious expansion in programs and venues. The Wisconsin Film Festival, no longer "Great," but better than initially advertised, hasn't looked back since.
The trajectory in the conception of the WFF -- from glitzy insider schmooze-fest to celebration of the marginal and the offbeat -- was inevitable: no amount of sucking up was going to transform Madison into Hollywood North (besides, Vancouver's already claimed that title). Existing festivals provided more appropriate models, as playing host to a series of foreign, arthouse-bound, and/or avant-garde films have in recent years bestowed a measure of cultural respectability upon dozens of large and medium-sized communities all over the U.S.
This type of slate is a no-brainer for Madison, too, whose reputation as a dynamic film culture center dates back at least to the 1940s. Plus, with no end in sight to the explosion of "independent" filmmaking in all of its variants, an off-Hollywood focus makes economic sense as well.
Of course, the proof of a festival's pudding is in the strength of its programming, and Wisconsin's lineup year after year stands tall even in comparison to that of Chicago, its most notable local competitor. True, this year's Fest included a good deal of conventional Amerindie fare, movies hanging on for one more festival-go-round before an unceremonious dumping in less discriminating art theaters. And the pick of the foreign-made features -- good-to-terrific works like Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang's What Time is it There?, Mexican cause célèbre Y tu mamá también, and a restored version of Jacques Demy's 1961 classic Lola -- had already screened in Chicago and/or were due to hit Madison soon for theatrical runs.
But the WFF also showcases a number of important foreign films that have gotten very little play anywhere in the West. Perhaps the Festival's biggest coup this year was a retrospective of the films of Amos Gitaï, perhaps Israel's most controversial (and acclaimed) filmmaker. Curated by Ray Privett of Facets Multimedia (the Chicago-based video distributor, currently planning a DVD release of Gitaï's career oeuvre, see: www.facets.org/), the Gitaï series foregrounded the director's intensely personal relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as broader questions of human and environmental exploitation. Titles screened included War Memories (1994) and Kippur (2000), non-fictional and fictional meditations, respectively, on the friendships Gitaï formed while fighting in the Yom Kippur War, and the exemplary documentary Pineapple (1984), a critique of the Dole corporation and its exploitation of Hawaiian and Filipino labor, notable for its extremely dense sound mix and majestically long takes/tracking shots that reveal the expanse of nature's servitude to the global economy.
Those hoping to catch even a handful of Gitaï films had some tough prioritizing to do. Throughout the weekend, as many as six films showed at any one time, and these, in turn, competed with multimedia installations at the Madison Art Center, industry panel discussions, and meet-and-greets with filmmakers at a State Street coffee house. Often I found myself choosing shorts programs (generally an hour to 90 minutes in length) over features in order to maximize the number of screenings I could take in. In doing so, I was thankfully exposed to some of the most challenging (if not accomplished) work scheduled that weekend.
Three such programs in particular demonstrated (albeit in varying degrees) the viability of the short format: Kino: Short Films from Québec, September Eleventh: Eyewitness, and Perceptions of Perception: Short Film and Video Works by Scott Stark. Kino is the title given to a loose amalgamation of shirts by about 85 Québec filmmakers; as explained after the screening by default spokesperson Philippe Falardeau (whose 2000 feature, The Left Side of the Fridge, also screened at the Festival), these filmmakers challenge each other into making one movie per month on budgets of around 40 U.S. dollars. If the director doesn't deliver his/her film on time (a not uncommon occurrence), that week's audience assigns a "blame" -- an absurd detail that must be incorporated into the director's subsequent film. (This is Laurence thus features, sans explanation, shots of a Vietnamese man in a Cupid outfit.)
As Fallardeau's description suggests, Kino owes much to Dogme 95 and possibly more to New York's Fluxus band of freewheeling avant-gardists. But while the group's DIY spirit is admirable -- and hopefully, someone in the audience took up Fallardeau on his offer to "sponsor" a Madison Kino outpost -- the execution frequently fell short. Sometimes the premise itself sank the picture, as in Fallardeau's own Jean Liberté, a facile satire of corporate pillage of the environment, a subject handled with much keener wit in Gitaï's Pineapple.
September Eleventh: Eyewitness was a mixed bag as well, though the entries in this program of mostly videos (curated by Pola Rapaport) certainly did not lack for dramatic context. For September Eleventh -- completed for its premiere at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center only two weeks earlier -- Rapaport compiled or commissioned works from women artists and documentarians, many of whom lived within the literal shadow of the World Trade Center, that explore their very personal reactions to last fall's catastrophe. The works ran the political gamut, from patriotic (Monica Sharf's conventionally stirring Tribute 9.11) to progressive (Tami Gold's militant To the Workers of the World). But the general tone was flat neutrality, attributable either to a videographer's detached aesthetic or to the numbed terror experienced by refugees of war.
Accordingly, most of the memorable moments in these works were those that did little more than fulfill the "eyewitness" function advertised in the program title (also the name of Rapaport's own film). Deadpan images of the gray ash coating an entire lower Manhattan apartment (Beverly Peterson's, as captured in her 71 West Broadway), or of angry onlookers scrawling nationalistic messages over anti-war slogans (Kerry Reardon's 9.11), or of Staten Island residents helplessly watching the carnage from across the bay, dumbstruck by their own impotence (Darcy Dennett's The Morning of September Eleventh): all actively resisted contextualization. The pieces that attempted to explain at the expense of merely documenting inevitably had much less to say.
In a seeming paradox, the weekend's most successful commentary on the aftermath of September 11 came in a video shot a year earlier: experimental moviemaker Scott Stark's Posers. The opening entry in the Perceptions of Perception exhibition, Posers records the actions of passersby on San Francisco's waterfront as they pose in front of an aircraft carrier for an (offscreen) photographer. The falsity of their rehearsed grins, juxtaposed with the U.S. flag flying high above the ship's deck, spoke eloquently of the emptiness at nationalism's core.
Stark, present for a Q&A after the program, resisted this reading, and he strikes one as generally uninterested in "social issues." Yet his extraordinary works are united by a preoccupation with perception not just in the physiological sense; they raise provocative (and political) questions about how culture helps us work out our idiosyncratic views of our surroundings. Any kind of pop detritus is fodder for Stark's camera: the highly amusing More Than Meets the Eye (2001) takes as its raw material the soundtrack of the Jane Fonda workout video, while the elegiac I'll Walk with God (1994) infuses a series of airplane emergency information cards with almost holy significance. The recent Whitney Biennial selection, the vaguely sinister Angel Beach (2001), may be Stark's masterpiece, made from a series of vibrant, three-dimensional color photos (snapped by an anonymous photographer during the early 1970s) of the young and scantily-clad soaking up some sun, a tableau transformed by editing into a pulsating danse macabre.
These and other special exhibitions and series provide the novelty that gives each Festival its own distinctive flavor and, accordingly, act as enticements for first-time attendees; the annual events provide more familiar pleasures for the regulars. Many of these standbys display a sort of compromise between warring impulses: the desire to bridge the gap between Hollywood and the Midwest, and the desire to protect Wisconsin-based or -born filmmakers from the taint of commercialism. As in previous years, award competitions for student films and videos and Wisconsin-related works focused attention on the efforts of those currently working on small, artisanal productions. (Unfortunately, the best animated and live-action shorts I saw -- respectively, Tim Granberg's whimsical and endearing Swing and Andreas Burgess' imaginative and surrealistic The Golden Smile -- were shut out of the top prizes.)
Many of the panel discussions and forums, on the other hand, were aimed at a more common breed of "artist": the industry wannabe. This year's screenwriting seminar, featuring up-and-comers like Jill and Karen Sprecher Thirteen Conversations About One Thing) and The Onion founder Scott Dikkers (as is the custom here, the mere mention of The Onion, Madison's most beloved export, drew a rousing ovation), played to an overflow crowd of would-be screenwriters eager for reassurance that agents deal fairly and that Internet pirates won't hijack their ideas.
In this regard, the most useful advice offered all weekend came in a non-WFF-affiliated talk given at the University by Daily Show head writer Ben Karlin, who told his teenaged disciples to do "something substantial before you go out to L.A." With Wisconsinites now able annually to sample the work of the world's most creative image makers, the Wisconsin Film Festival is doing a terrific job of conveying this very message: if you want to be a filmmaker, make a film.