A background watching guide to Wisconsin Film Festival 2017
A few past WFF standouts, and where to stream or rent them.
The nineteenth annual Wisconsin Film Festival features a number of films by directors whose work has appeared in prior festivals. As the 2017 WFF will be my seventh overall, I decided to revisit six entries from the past six festivals that have struck me as artistically, socially, and politically relevant. For instance, if your curiosity was piqued by the promise of "a mega-concert at Brooklyn's Barclays Center that puts a who's who of avant-pop onstage" (as WFF senior programmer Mike King puts it) of Contemporary Color (dirs. Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross), the surely ecstatic theatrical experience may be enhanced by taking a look at the Ross Brothers' more politically charged documentary, Western, from 2015.
These selections are all available through streaming services, and in nearly every case, a physical disc is also available locally through the Madison Public Library system and/or Four Star Video Coop. The MPL has also conveniently catalogued a full list of Wisconsin Film Festival titles on DVD and Blu-ray, not just a short batch of favorites. And while the streaming subscription service of Fandor may host a comparably tiny number of WFF titles, their archive is a little more intelligently skewed and esoteric, containing numerous avant-garde short films that are unavailable anywhere else. These generous options can only build greater anticipation for this year's festival, which kicks off at the Barrymore on March 30 with the Golden Badger Awards ceremony and "Transmissions From The Heartland" program.
The Deep Blue Sea (dir. Terence Davies), Wisconsin Film Festival 2012
One of most renowned English filmmakers and documentarians/essayists, Terence Davies, has received nothing but love from the Wisconsin Film Festival/Cinematheque programmers this decade, and he'll be visiting Madison on April 2 for one WFF screening of his Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion. The endearment all began with The Long Day Closes, a warm, autobiographical ode to the director's experiences in the refuge of movie houses as a youth, which screened as part of a series at the Chazen Museum of Art in early 2012. Just a few months later, The Deep Blue Sea (not to be confused with that, uh, shark movie), a stylishly romantic adaptation of the 1952 Terence Rattigan play, turned up as part of the film festival at the Orpheum, the last year the festival hosted screenings at that venue. In the latter, Davies' affinity for utilizing communal song is on display; while not aiming to craft an extended musical tapestry through the entirety of the production like The Long Day Closes, the music selections are nonetheless still impeccable and instantly affecting, including Jo Stafford's "You Belong to Me" and traditional Irish tune "Molly Malone." Rachel Weisz plays Hester Collyer, the younger wife of High Court judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) in bourgeois British society. The small comforts and stable lifestyle have completely dulled any prospective passion, and so she falls for the promise of adventure with a former war pilot closer to her age, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). Florian Hoffmeister's muted but dreamlike cinematography simultaneously captures a post-war fatigue and sense of personal reflection, often showing Hester through mirrors and gazing into the distance. In creating the film, Davies claims to have been influenced by the 1945 film Brief Encounter, much like Todd Haynes in his imagining of Carol.
It's Such A Beautiful Day (dir. Don Hertzfeldt), Wisconsin Film Festival 2012
Animation is scarce in this year's festival, pared down to just a handful of locally produced shorts in various "Wisconsin's Own" programs and the feature My Life As A Zucchini. Those searching for something that scratches the itch for thought-provoking experimentalism should look no further than Don Hertzfeldt's singular trilogy of short films, It's Such A Beautiful Day. Hertzfeld may be best known for the Oscar-nominated short World Of Tomorrow (Wisconsin Film Festival 2015), which explores the theme of time travel with a sharp, deadpan take on everything from technology to human emotional maturation. This trilogy's shorts—"Everything Will Be OK," "I Am So Proud Of You" and "It's Such A Beautiful Day"—are moodier affairs, but they also adroitly balance the comedy in analyzing minutiae of the stick-figured Bill's life with more fleshed-out animation styles that escalate Bill's personal crises to a surreal fever pitch. At one point in this series, Hertzfeldt utilizes a complete cacophonous invasion of sound to articulate the accumulating burdens, the Kafkaesque, or in Hertzeldt's own words, a "quiet suffering." By the trilogy's end, the emphasis on audible noise in effects and voiceover shifts almost purely to obfuscating visuals, as the animator-director employs an array of cosmic optical effects and multiple exposures filtered through glass. While watching these shorts, looking past the content on the screen, one may see an artist more purely distilling his influences—from the pioneering sketch comedy of Monty Python to the avant-garde films of Stan Brakhage—into a new cinematic language.
Leviathan (dirs. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel), Wisconsin Film Festival 2013
Speaking of indelible cinematic experiences, one cannot shake the almost kaleidoscopic oceanic life captured by the oscillating, seemingly indestructible GoPro cameras in the experimental ethnographic documentary Leviathan (not to be confused with the more widely seen Russian film of the same name). Anyone who checked off The Challenge or The Colorado in this year's festival guide should seek out Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's dark, puzzling, ravishing, dynamic visual essay on the largest screen possible. It's a disorienting plunge at extreme close-up into the world of commercial fishing and its waste, horrors, and strange beauty. The editing of the film, combined with its immersive, visceral nature, creates a sensory impact that feels almost like virtual reality simulation (and this is before VR was available to consumers). The film may first greet viewers with the sounds of chains being reeled in on pulleys and the muffled voices of fishermen on deck, but seagulls are the film's most immortal symbol, flying in a ghostly slow-motion haze before they come crashing into the surface of the water as cameras are heaved overboard, bobbing like lopsided buoys. After they both emerge from the surface of the water, Casting-Taylor and Paravel further demonstrate the machinations of Man, who's turning Nature into an unnatural process, best observed in a single shot of putrid blood oozing back into the sea around the ship's hull, as if the vessel is a factory of death.
La Sapienza (dir. Eugène Green), Wisconsin Film Festival 2015
While I wasn't initially keen on playwright and filmmaker Eugène Green's approach to this celebration of Baroque Roman architect Francesco Borromini, La Sapienza possesses an illuminating philosophy and vision that pours through every frame (appropriately, considering its theme's formal interior construction that relates to summoning natural light). In staging the film's scenes in the beauty of Stresa, Italy (and, well, the country's landscape as a whole), Green unconventionally instructs his actors to stare directly into the camera, perhaps a decision rooted in a desire for intimacy in a film that is often so rigorous. It's also to bridge the gap between the old and new worlds, articulated carefully in the main character Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione)'s creative crisis as an architect himself, as he strives to revitalize his pursuits through a chance encounter with a younger version of himself in Goffredo (Ludovico Succio), caring for his sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro). With hints of historical fantasy and classical Hollywood melodrama, La Sapienza is a subtle fusion of genres that's elevated by the characters' sincere yearning to forge new relationships and enduring love. It should prove to be particularly enlightening for anyone headed to this year's screening of The Son Of Joseph, Green's latest picturesque morality tale about a teenager's search for the identity of his biological father.
Western (dirs. Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross), Wisconsin Film Festival 2015
While their addition to the festival this year is the exuberant art-pop concert collage Contemporary Color, the Ross Brothers’ film festival debut came two years ago with Western, a gently framed portrait of the Texas-Mexico border conflict along the Rio Grande. Perhaps this documentary bears even greater relevance now that President Trump is attempting to deliver on his ludicrous and astronomically expensive promise to build a border wall. Interestingly, a sign that reads "No Wall Between Amigos" even hangs on the desk of Chad Foster, the bilingual mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas. The Rosses split their time between Foster's delegating and a local cattle broker and single dad, Martin Wall, who both frequently travel across the border to Eagle Pass' sister city Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. Initially, the intermingling of the two cultures explodes in a revelrous street parade. This idealistic unity is soon interrupted by radio reports of infiltrating lawlessness—feuding drug cartels (Gulf and Los Zetas), police corruption, and civilian murder—which all fuel an embargo on traffic and trade. If I'm not altogether on the side of hypocritical Wall, the filmmakers handle the ensuing events with a thoughtful ambiguity that most documentaries entirely avoid, and aim at an underlying, yet hidden-in-plain sight Southwestern mosaic.
The Club (dir. Pablo Larraín), Wisconsin Film Festival 2016
Chilean director Larraín is prolific, and, fortunately for North American audiences, his films have only gained wider distribution over the years, particularly in the wake of his first English-language feature, the daring Jackie, starring Natalie Portman. Working outside the biopic’s boundaries once more, Larraín has fashioned Neruda into an international thriller, which will screen twice at the 2017 festival. Last year, his provocative feature The Club delved into the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal without a biographical drama lens (like Best Picture-winner Spotlight) but rather through the form of a fictitious psychological thriller comparable to the Irish film Calvary (2014). In a hypothetical fallout, four excommunicated priests are sentenced to live together on the edge of La Boca, Chile, a remote coastal village under the watch of housekeeper Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers). As the men bide their time by rigorously training greyhounds for high-stakes races, the film asks its audience to invest in the fates of ill and damaged men responsible for the unspeakable in the name of God. Yet Larraín also goads all of us to advocate for the priests' punishment, as he looks beyond penitence in dramatic demonstrations of the violent consequences of ignorance. It's undoubtedly an unnerving experience, augmented by the voyeuristic inclinations in the high-contrast, almost discolored fisheye cinematography, but I have never seen anything quite like it, which speaks to the ingenuity of its director.
Editor's note: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect the presence of animated films in the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival.