Critical Confessions: Part 23 – Venice Envy

It’s that time of year again, film festival season, and as usual, I am the proverbial bride’s maid lacking an invitation to my own perceived ceremony. As Telluride and Toronto, Venice and Tribeca gear up, each one prepared to let the traveler and the film tourist in on what’s hot (and what’s hard-up for a distributor) at the end of 2010, I am, once again, a wall flower. You see, as a lowly web writer, someone who Harlan Ellison would shun like a billion other blog writing content whores, I am fiscally incapable of such celluloid star cruises. No outlet is paying — or prepared to pay — my way, and what little cash I do collect goes to much more meaningful endeavors, like shelter and sweet meats.

So I sit in Se7en like jealousy at all the updates and mini-reviews streaming out of these critical gatherings, my fellow freelancers ramping up my aesthetic appetite for the celebrated shape of award winners to come. Beginning with South by Southwest, which usually offers a Spring full of surprises, to Comic-Con and its carnival barking belief in all it surveys, my Facebook page and Messageboard memberships have been blowing up with promises and potential. Of course, living in the rear end of America — otherwise known as the wanna-burn-a-Koran state of Florida — many of these movies will never darken my theater doors. Instead, I will have to catch them as part of a studio screener package sent out in anticipation of my Year End list… if then.

It’s one of the pitfalls of my profession. While others schmooze and lose precious hours of sleep hanging out in Canadian (or Italian, or New York) hot spots, mixing it up with this year’s crop of Oscar contend/pretenders, as the members of the Midnight brigade see every happening horror film that has yet to find proper theatrical distribution, as the stars speak their minds — or at the very least, their carefully prepared PR driven propensities — I sit back and stew. Granted, I probably wouldn’t bring much more that is new or novel to the experience and at this slightly past middle-aged mark in my life, I fear a real lack of endurance and physical/cinematic stamina. But I think that, just once, I would like to see how the other half of my cynical career choice lives. As they say, the 3D grass is always greener.

It’s all part of this have/have not ideal that plagues “professional” film criticism. In the stunted Sunshine State, for example, Orlando and Miami get everything, every major release, every indie offering, every outsider title that’s yet to make a major splash. Look over at IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes, pick something listed as “limited” and you can bet Uncle Walt’s world and South Beach aren’t part of that restricted dynamic. Take the upcoming I Spit on Your Grave remake. Right now, the unrated horror flick is schedule to play big ol’ FLA in, you guessed it, Lebron James’ new backyard. Similarly, screenings for titles like Secretariat, The Social Network, and festival faves like Never Let Me Go have already unspooled everywhere except the Big Guava (otherwise known as Tampa).

But here in the home of Busch Gardens and the occasional Super Bowl, we don’t warrant the same treatment. Oh sure, our resident print critic will get his own private showing of the Joaquin Phoenix catastrophe I’m Still Here, but unless you are a perky TV personality or a name with a newspaper byline, you’re left out of the exclusive mix. At the very least, something like Telluride or Toronto levels that playing field. While still elite and readily restrictive (how many people saw Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life again???) it’s the person and his or her own particular timetable, not the publicist, who is generally in charge.

When you consider how crappy 2010 has been so far — I had to drag two just released in the US foreign films from last year to complete my list of the summer’s five best… FIVE! — the chance to get a jump on the “legitimate” part of the movie season is even more enticing. Buzz building around things like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan or Ji-woon Kim’s gory I Saw the Devil seem far more intriguing than the CG drek of Alpha and Omega or the recycled Greed screeds in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps… and the studios know this. Last week the actually had the audacity to release Resident Evil: Afterlife and some slop called The Virginity Hit without the benefit of advance press screenings. Instead, they played the percentages, figured the pre-production bottom line, and made their cash by conning the people. The best part is they knew that most of the “real” critics were off chewing the choices in Colorado or the Great White North.

These lulls are built into the process, weeks where junkets and the chance at a padded expense account mean more than mainstream motion picture quality. Of the 11 major releases to come out between 3 September and the 24th of the month, only one is remotely unusual (Clooney’s anti-thriller The American). The rest are kid vid crap, faux exploitation, dreary RomComs, and a pair of dramas from two diametrically opposed directors (Oliver Stone and…Ben Affleck?). Sure, if you factor in all the NY to LA releases, as well as those things planned by just not panning out, the odds of seeing something good definitely increase. But when zombies, wolves, and owls are your big beginning-of-Fall selling points, the prospects are rather grim.

That’s why I have ‘Venice Envy’ or ‘Telluriditis’, or ‘Toronto Antipathy’, whatever you want to call it. I feel locked off and left out, reduced to scouring the fringes for anything remotely unique or interesting… and even then, it’s a losing battle. I could tell you about how amazing some singular DVD or Blu-ray experience is, or how angry I am at the casting of a recent project, but the minute one of my colleagues posts their review of the Let the Right One In remake, Let Me In, you instantly tune out and head to the scoop. It’s only natural. I’m a supposed insider and I run to my favorite outlets when I hear that they are privy to the inside poop. Just once, I would like to be the belle of this particular ball. Instead, I appear destined to be a disenfranchised gentleman caller, appreciated, but never approached. Sigh.