The 18th Annual Washington, DC International Film Festival

Julieta Cardinali and Rodrigo Noya in Valentín

Photo © Copyright Miramax

Curb Your Enthusiasm

This year’s Filmfest DC, the 18th, was mild cause for excitement among locals and hardly at all for international cinephiles. Thus, it seems, it will always be for a film festival located in the capital, where the national soap opera invariably drowns out everything in its radius. The event offered modest pleasures, the best selections often sloppy seconds from glitzier fests. That a few of the movies have already opened or are slated for imminent release further diluted the sense of discovery that festivals ideally bring. Thankfully, Filmfest DC casts a wide net, bringing in some prize catches amid the unremarkable haul.

The Festival’s tendency toward safe cosmopolitanism over artistic daring was apparent in the opening night selection. Valentín, a soggy autobiographical piece about director Alejandro Agresti’s lonely childhood, is the newest entry in the Miramax mezzobrow canon. The eponymous hero is a precocious eight-year-old boy (Rodrigo Noya) who dreams of becoming an astronaut. Abandoned by his mother, barely seen by his father (Agresti himself), and living with his grandma (Carmen Maura), Valentín ladles on the bathos with cloying, wall-to-wall voiceover, going so far as to ask, “Sad, right?” after an ostensibly tear-jerking moment. Set in the late 1960s, the movie hawks cheap nostalgia and disposable emotion. It’s all barely redeemed by Noya, whose inquisitive squint almost broke through this cold, dead heart.

Agresti’s innocuous weepie may have been the main attraction in this year’s Argentine Cinema Now! sidebar — further evidence of that national cinema’s growing stature — but Celina Murga’s Ana and the Others (Ana y los otros) was the more worthy exponent. Deceptively slight with its plotless 80-minute running time, the movie follows a young woman (Camila Toker) who visits her provincial hometown after a few years in Buenos Aires. Ana runs into old classmates and goes to summer parties, but on her mind throughout is her old boyfriend, Mariano, whose absence animates the film. Some critics have rightly compared Murga to Eric Rohmer; the affectless naturalism and unhurried rhythm evince her respect for human experience. That it’s her debut feature makes her modesty and gossamer touch even more impressive.

Screened right afterward, Martin Rejtman’s The Magic Gloves could only seem leaden and inept. Inaugurated by a chance encounter between a cab driver and a rock producer, Rejtman’s roundelay featuring a gallery of neurotics is quickly stretched thin by its strained eccentricity. The result is a failed absurdist farce bereft of its titular quality.

Jae-Kyeong Seo and Yeo-Jin Ha in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Photo © Copyright Sony Pictures Classics

Another national cinema that has come into its own in recent years is that of South Korea. The lone Korean entry in the festival, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a change of pace for bad-boy director Kim Ki-duk. A placid lake in a valley is the idyllic setting for this Buddhist fable, in which a monk (Oh Yeong-su) presides over the spiritual education of a young charge. Each season marks a new phase of life for the student: summer brings teenage romance, fall ushers in corrupted manhood, and winter welcomes death. Taking as his subject the infinite struggle between earthly desires and inner peace, Kim (who, incidentally, is a Christian) conjures up a diaphanous vision of surpassing loveliness. Brimming with images freighted with metaphoric import — a frog tied to a rock, a door separating a wall-less room — the movie communicates a poignant acceptance of mortal frailty. The final shot, a serene gaze downward from a mountaintop, imparts a frisson of transcendent bliss.

Spirituality, or more accurately, its absence, also figures heavily in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant, the Grand Prize winner at last year’s Cannes Festival. This Turkish film is a variation on the country mouse-city mouse tale, limned here in majestic strokes. Industrial photographer Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir) plays host to Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak, who died in a car crash before the movie’s Cannes premiere in 2003), a cousin seeking to make his way in Istanbul. Less than welcoming to the bumpkin, Mahmut flaunts his shallow erudition even as he conceals his life’s fundamental emptiness.

Distant occasionally threatens to turn into an arthouse Odd Couple, but Ceylan has loftier goals in mind. A lugubrious meditation on disconnection and paralysis, Ceylan presents himself as a Tarkovsky acolyte, without the mysticism. While the painstaking compositions and long passages of stillness bring out Ceylan’s gift for understated comedy (a scene involving a car alarm is right out of Tati), they also feel less deeply felt than fashionably adopted. Distant is in many ways a masterful accomplishment, but the suspicion that Ceylan resembles the affected Mahmut more than he thinks qualifies my enthusiasm.

Less successful is Penny Woolcock’s The Death of Klinghoffer. This British production is a filmed adaptation of John Adams’ opera about the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian militants. The only fatality in the incident was Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American Jew shot and thrown overboard by the terrorists. Adams’ opera caused a stir when it premiered in 1991 for daring to humanize the hijackers. Like the opera, the movie uses the incident as a prism through which to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jumping back and forth in time from the Holocaust to the current intifada, Klinghoffer examines how age-old hatreds and fears are bred. Adams’ music has a haunting, incantatory potency: it carries the movie. Woolcock’s coercive direction, on the other hand, is unequal to the form-busting task, a fault compounded by her irresponsible moral equivalency, as in her juxtaposition of Israeli police with the SS.

“Mike” and “Andy” impersonate members of the World Trade Organization in The Yes Men

Photo © Copyright United Artists

Local Heroes

The American films at this year’s Fest were on the tail end of their festival runs, having won distribution deals after successful Sundance premieres. Two movies, The Yes Men and Super Size Me, offer the prospect that last year’s documentary boom at the multiplexes was not a fluke. The former, directed by Chris Smith, Dan Ollman, and Sarah Price (the team behind American Movie), sets its sights on two anti-globalization activists, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, whose brand of political theater involves impersonating WTO technocrats at conferences around the world. The highlight is a college lecture about a joint WTO-McDonald’s plan to recycle human waste into Third World fast food. Unlike its subjects, the movie is unambitious, content with blandly chronicling the heroes’ hijinks. It hardly matters though, since the uproarious pranks — part Andy Kaufman, part Jackass — sustain this slim feature.

Another spawn of Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me was Filmfest DC’s crowd-pleasing closer. The hazing-ritual premise has Spurlock restricting himself to the McDonald’s menu for 30 days. Super Size Me chronicles his health’s drastic spiral, underlining the point that his diet in fact closely resembles what many Americans eat daily. With the cameras on him, the director willingly serves up his humiliations for public consumption, including his girlfriend’s detailed grousing about his flagging, um, performance.

That anything-for-a-laugh approach is evident elsewhere, notably in the use of crude cartoons (an idea lifted from Bowling for Columbine) and gross-out payoffs. No matter. With its invaluable potential as advocacy, Spurlock’s is a sellout one can root for. The movie may be less thorough and polished than Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, Fast Food Nation, but it’s already had a greater impact on fast food consumption: six weeks after Sundance, McDonald’s announced that it was dropping its Super Size option. A century after the muckrakers, documentaries may now present the best hope of peddling progressivism to broader audiences.

Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite

Photo © Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures

Like those movies, Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess’s debut film, knocked them out at Park City. A contender in the Quirky Amerindie genre, Lovable Misfit division, this trivial comedy plays like a live action Mike Judge cartoon. The title character (Jon Heder) is a clueless high school dork who serves as our docent through comatose Preston, Idaho. Hess’s comedy is predicated on the affectionate ridicule of eccentric mascots — a mustachioed uncle named Rico, an Internet girlfriend named LaFawnduh, a sad-eyed Mexican immigrant. Unfortunately for Hess, he also has a talent for invoking superior forebears (Wes Anderson, Todd Solondz) that only makes his movie seem like a flimsy pastiche. Saving the day though is Heder, who pulls out an unexpected pièce de résistance for the climax, an improvised dance number that by itself qualifies the movie as a cultist’s must-see.

Napoleon may have been a moron, but he’s got nothing on Oliver Stone. In February 2002, our premier paranoiac went to Cuba for 30 hours of conversation with Fidel Castro. The finished product, called Comandante, is a sloppy blowjob of a movie. Wearing a smarmy mustache, the sycophantic Stone serves up tee-ball questions: Has the Comandante ever seen a shrink? What movies has he seen lately? Does he love his translator? When Stone does venture into deeper waters, he lets his subject sail away untouched. “What is a dictator?” muses the suddenly philosophical Castro in response to a question about his strongman rule.

Comandante‘s one-sidedness was so egregious — particularly in light of Castro’s April 2003 crackdown on dissidents — that HBO refused to air it and asked Stone to return to Cuba for a follow-up. Looking for Fidel, the outcome of that second foray, is barely better. Making up for the complete invisibility of dissent in Comandante, Looking for Fidel initially seems promising in its open confrontation of Castro’s repressive policies. Stone parades a group of jailed asylum-seekers in front of the camera, asking them pointed questions about conditions in Cuba. The earnest interrogation would be reassuring were it not for the fact that Castro is in the room with them.

Even more offensive to our intelligence is Stone’s presentation of political dissidents. Taking his cue from Castro, Stone despicably plants seeds of suspicion that they are, in fact, American stooges. Perhaps concerned that the tough questioning ruffled feathers, Stone ends Looking for Fidel with a litany of the Revolution’s triumphs. The two movies may not tell us much about Castro, but they speak volumes about Stone, revealed here as the moral and intellectual fraud that he is — a lap dog in an iconoclast’s clothes.

keshi Kitano and Tadanobu Asano face off in The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

Photo © Copyright Miramax Films

Show Me Your Tears

The inanities of Stone’s movie are only magnified when compared to Adam Curtis’ fascinating The Century of the Self. A welcome display of adventurousness on the part of Fest programmers, the four-part, four-hour BBC documentary examines how corporations and power elites have used Freud’s ideas about man’s unconscious desires to control “the dangerous crowd.” Beginning with the groundbreaking work of Edward Bernays, the father of public relations and, not coincidentally, Freud’s nephew, the movie charts how marketers and politicians have appealed to the evolving notion of the self to encourage consumption and political docility. The breakthrough came in the 1920s with America’s shift from a culture of needs to a culture of desires, and the transformation of consumers into what Herbert Hoover called “constantly moving happiness machines.”

The movie chronicles the evolution of those imperatives through the 20th century, culminating in the small-ball, poll-driven politics of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, which Curtis sees as an elaboration of Bernays’ idea of pandering to the consumer’s selfish impulses. Curtis’s criticism of Third Way governance blithely sweeps aside the difficulty of winning a mandate in a democracy, but his lament is no less powerful for it. Compared to progressive lions like FDR, who mobilized individual desires behind a unifying social agenda, Clinton and Blair seem little more than hucksters. A discursive and engrossing four hours, this rich work deserves a wide audience.

Just as deserving, and more likely to get it, is Takeshi Kitano’s Zatôichi, the Japanese auteur’s take on one of Japan’s most enduring pop icons. The impassive Kitano plays Zatôichi, the blind swordsman who roams the countryside helping the oppressed. The leisurely narrative has no compunction about the occasional digression or unannounced flashback. Burrowing into his characters’ pasts, Kitano assembles a mosaic of tragic legacies and tarnished futures — a fate that only Zatôichi, in all his existential glory, seems to avoid. The poetic high point is a geisha number that gracefully interweaves past and present.

But enough of that: yes, the picture kicks ass. Kinetic sword fights mingle with broad bits of slapstick to make this Kitano’s most promising chance for a U.S. hit yet. Perhaps caught up in the euphoria of it all, Kitano unwisely takes it a step too far, ending with a silly tap-dancing number that’s more gratuitous than glorious.

By contrast, Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World is both gratuitous and glorious. The Canadian director gave last year’s Fest its best entry (Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary), a feat he repeats with this febrile whirligig. Depression-era Winnipeg, the world capital of sorrow, is the setting for a contest to find the world’s saddest music. True to Maddin form, the competition is merely an excuse for an overheated melodrama that follows the affairs and betrayals of a legless beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini), an amnesiac kewpie doll (Maria de Medeiros), a Serbian cellist (Ross McMillan), and a crass American impressario (Mark McKinney). Seemingly pieced together from the remains of a forgotten cinema, the movie continues Maddin’s career-long excavation of dead idioms. His richest feature yet, The Saddest Music in the World shows how public expressions of grief end up demeaning the subjects they memorialize. If Maddin has a weakness, it’s that he knows only one speed: manic. It’s a piddling quibble, however. In a Festival devoted to earthly concerns, Maddin’s rapturous movie gave us an entrancing glimpse into our collective dreams.