Final viewing notes on the 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival
Three writers reflect on the screenings and filmmaker visits that stood out at the 20th annual festival. | By Edwanike Harbour, Chris Lay, and Grant Phipps
We took a week and change to do some processing after the 20th annual Wisconsin Film Festival wrapped up with a trio of screenings at the AMC Dine-In Madison 6, aka "old Sundance." To close out our coverage of the 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival, we wrangled a few of our writers to spitball some final thoughts on what they thought about the whole experience.
At the risk of forcing a narrative, the three closing-night films that screened concurrently on April 12 do a decent job of capturing the general vibe of the festival's fare: There's the charming indie, Hearts Beat Loud (starring Nick Offerman, natch), the warmly humanist documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor, and the foreign thriller, Revenge.
Of the three, I opted for Revenge's promise of a gnarly French gore-fest—despite a scant four main characters the amount of blood spilled could have easily filled three times that many human bodies. Director Coralie Fargeat's long female-gazing death-stare at the rape-horror niche (yes...ew) was a revelation that I was able to wrap my head around only once I was able to shake off the unsettling scene where a guy shoves a finger into a wound on his foot rummaging around for a comically long time fishing out a silver dollar-sized chunk of glass.
Having been a fan of Don Hertzfeldt's animation for going on two decades now, it was a real treat to see his latest film on the big screen. But as incredible as World Of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden Of Other People's Thoughts was, the opener for that collection of shorts, Niki Lindroth von Bahr's The Burden, a stop motion musical theater ode to post-globalist malaise starring cute animals that sing and dance, stole the damn show. One short in that collection, Obscurer, unceremoniously restarted about a third of the way in and I must say the fact that no one jumped up to explain the problem did the film and the filmmaker a disservice.
Films screened at the Wisconsin Union Theater, a returning venue for the fest this year, seemed to either live up to the big room, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG and profoundly black bordering on outright bleak Icelandic "comedy" Under The Tree packing them in like sardines, or, as we saw with mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski's restaurant comedy Support The Girls and the frothy beer documentary Brewmaster, hover at around half-capacity, the latter (which screened on National Beer Day) inexplicably so.
Having run the Wisconsin Film Fest gauntlet a few times now, I think that this year was damn fine... not unlike the free cups of coffee provided by Steep & Brew in a comfy lounge across the parking lot from AMC—easily the most advantageous new feature of the fest and one that I'm hoping sticks around for 2019.
I have not missed a single Wisconsin Film Festival thus far, so I can happily report firsthand that the programming has remained strong all the way through to this year, which included some surprisingly good films. I took a much less structured approach to tackling the festival this year than I have in past years, and ended up seeing several films on the fly.
Tim Wardle's documentary Three Identical Strangers (2018), which follows three complete strangers who accidentally discover that they're identical triplets separated at birth, ended up being one of the unexpected standouts for me—I typically lean more toward the narrative features than non-fiction. It's scheduled to hit theaters on June 29, so keep an eye out for a Madison screening or wait for it to inevitably hit the streaming service of your choice.
I was mildly disappointed in Atsuko Hirayanagi's Oh Lucy! (2017). It was billed as a cringe comedy, but I found myself just cringing. In terms of emotional gravity, highlights for me were Xavier Legrand's Custody (2018), Bing Liu's rust-belt skateboard documentary Minding The Gap (2018), and a 35mm screening of Hal Ashby's The Landlord (1970). The festival's tribute to Ashby provided strong evidence for the argument that they don't make them like they used to and they definitely should. The Landlord (1970), which screened as part of a small sun-retrospective within the festival along with a newly restored digital print of The Last Detail and Amy Scott's new documentary on the filmmaker, Hal, was a masterpiece of American cinema the likes of which go unmatched today. I look forward to more of these gems to come in the next several film festivals.
Having more freedom in my schedule permitted me to take a chance on more films than I had ever previously considered at the Wisconsin Film Festival in the eight years I have attended. The length of the ticket holders line was a constant variable even for "rush only" screenings; and while it was initially frustrating to consider the difference in the number of people waiting 30 minutes prior to the scheduled screenings of Oh Lucy! and You Were Never Really Here at AMC 6 on Tuesday night, it ultimately added to the urgency and distinction of the experience.
Many might end up remembering the 2018 fest for the varied arrangements and interpretations of the popular "Campfire Song (Turn The Lights Down Low)" by local musicians filmed in 4070 Vilas Hall which ran in front of every screening (my personal favorite being the harmonious loop-based take from Asumaya), but I'll most likely recall the clutch of winter-like weather, which not only turned the opening lyrics of the bumper song into a slice of irony, but made the wait in-between films inside (as opposed to outside) feel all the more privileged.
A loose ranking (from best to worst): Minding The Gap, You Were Never Really Here, Western, Let's Scare Jessica To Death, Apostasy, Let The Sunshine In, The Green Fog, Just Before Losing Everything/Custody, They, Winter Brothers, Clara's Ghost, ★, Oh Lucy!
Best Q&A: They.
Led by senior WFF programmer Mike King, Friday evening's Q&A with Chicago-based director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh at 4070 Vilas, the regular UW Cinematheque venue, for the Wisconsin premiere of They, was particularly illuminating not only regarding the native Iranian's drive for authenticity in the artistic process but also in revealing her adoration for teachers and idols (Abbas Kiarostami, Lucrecia Martel, and Yasujirō Ozu). Independent of those remarks, her debut feature was received warmly by an unusually engaged younger-seeming crowd, and stands as an admirable, tender marriage of poetic art house cinema in its radiant, punctuating greenhouse-floral imagery with a loose and loquacious micro-budget approach to character-driven scenes. Thus, the film remains at once curious and candid, perfectly summating Ghazvinizadeh's instinct to "create distance and intimacy at the same time" through decentralizing audio and visual elements.
This is most strongly evidenced in the fragmentation of stanzas of Elizabeth Bishop poem, "The Mountain," intermittently heard via voiceover in hushed whispers that repeat with progressive confidence like a musical refrain. The application is reminiscent of the method Kendrick Lamar uses on To Pimp A Butterfly, elevating the narrative of each song with beat-free codas that accumulate to more than the sum of their parts by the finale, "Mortal Man." They could be described similarly, navigating the complications of adolescence with care and distinction, as in the lovingly requitive talk about fluctuating feelings of gender identity between siblings Lauren (Nicole Coffineau) and J. (Rhys Fehrenbacher). —GP
Best Soundtrack: You Were Never Really Here
Was there any question that Jonny Greenwood's pulse-pounding electro-dystopian, chamber-ambient crescendos, and slick microtonal guitar score to Lynne Ramsay's latest triumph wouldn't be indelible? Working in tandem with its incredible dynamic range in sound design- from the roar and rush of New York City traffic to muted instances of violence- this art house noir-ish thriller screened just once on Tuesday night to an excited, riveted, and stunned crowd (in that order).
While You Were Never Really Here is an adaptation of the Jonathan Ames novel of the same name, Ramsay's imprint is unmistakable, as if triumphantly riffing on Refn's Drive and the kineticism and dichotomous ugliness and beauty of Scorsese's Taxi Driver and the Safdie brothers' Good Time (also set in NYC). Yet, there is a calculated restraint to the framing and sequencing; rather than purely committing to a visceral linearity, Ramsay wordlessly and elliptically explores the psychology and PTSD of ex-military and central figure, brutal hitman Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), through clipped flashbacks. Even beyond that, You Were Never Really Here succeeds in one of my personal favorite tenets of cinematic storytelling- showing without revealing. The film is consistently piquing our curiosity through shifting points of view and unlikely catalysts of suggestion. —GP
Experiments in the art and chronology of collage: The Green Fog and ★
Both Guy Maddin/Evan and Galen Johnson's The Green Fog and Johann Lurf's ★ could ultimately be labeled as a reprieve from the heavy narrative and documentary fare of the festival. The two meta-films refashion and contextualize pre-existing footage throughout the history of a cinema as actively running pieces of film trivia. In the case of The Green Fog, it's a more clearly delineated premise in taking all movies and television shows shot in San Francisco to reconstruct the narrative of Hitchcock's Vertigo, most legendarily shot in The City by the Bay. With the open-ended ★, it's a loosely chronological appraisal of any/all shots of starry skies, both stationary and panning, of practical effects and CGI, from the 1890s through 2017. Both films possess a surprising entertainment value; but despite their initial similarities, Maddin and the Johnsons preference for minimalism outlasts Lurf's maximalism.
The Green Fog has the unmistakable iconoclastic humor present in all of Guy Maddin's experiments, with often intentionally awkward removal of dialogue, so the reverse-shots of facial expressions take on a kind of farcical dimension, one well-suited and immediately identifiable in the Internet meme age. The film also is a striking exposé on the dearth of new ideas permeating Hollywood; Maddin and the Johnsons literally recycle and comically juxtapose the prevalence of worn tropes to validate their own idiosyncratic hunches. On the other hand, ★ doesn't discriminate based on the inherent intrigue and dynamics of various night scenes; it simply presents them all for study, leaving one wondering if the entire 90-plus-minute run-time is warranted (as opposed to 60 minutes of The Green Fog). As a result of the ultimate duration, Lurf breaks measured rhythms through digital manipulation, speeding through certain sequences to produce a kind of glitchy time-traveling effect, but the intent seems further obscured behind potential issues of copyright law. If there's one thing that Lurf wants us to ponder, though, it's the ever-present desire to imagine fantastical worlds beyond our own, and the most immediate outlet for that, especially since the late 1970s, has been the cinema. —GP
Cinema as therapy: Minding The Gap
While it was unfortunately the only documentary I selected as part of my WFF itinerary, Minding The Gap may just have been the most enriching, courageous, thought-provoking entry. Filmed over six years in the lives of Bing Liu's skateboarding crew in Rockford, Illinois, the director immediately immerses viewers in the thrills and dangers of street and half-pipe skating, as the GoPro cameras adhere closely to his friends' varying abilities to pull off certain tricks.
The film simultaneously reveals how this immersion is far from superficial, because Liu is so close to the two other young men he's profiling- Zack, the reckless rebel, who, at the film's start, is about to become a father to a boy with his girlfriend Nina; and Keire, who's still wrestling with domestic abuse at the hands of his now-deceased father and realizing social injustices as a black man. At this stage in the documentary, it's easy to root for Zack's mature embrace of fatherhood and intention to subvert expectations of masculinity that he so openly states to Liu behind the camera. But, as a young family may be tested by finances and constancy of other responsibilities, Zack begins drifting further towards self-destruction in alcoholism, spouting the very misogynistic views he once seemed to refute, and ignoring his own child. The most introverted and youngest of their group, Keire, seems to stick more closely to Liu, as the two bond over their traumatic childhoods involving toxic, domineering fathers (or in Liu's case, a step-father). In the persistent face of uncertainty, Keire continues to positively rely upon to skating as a cathartic outlet for his repressed emotions and the unspoken. Meanwhile, Liu presses his own mother, Mengyue, about what was once left unsaid in his youth, in some of the film's most affecting and upsetting revelations.
Where many documentaries strive to be unobtrusive and simply observe (like the works of Frederick Wiseman, for example), Liu recognizes how crucial it is to intervene, console, and affecting positive change in the lives of his friends; and so, Minding The Gap becomes a sterling example of the enduring significance of the cinema medium. —GP
Subtle shades of hope: Western and Let The Sunshine In
The final two international films I saw at the Wisconsin Film Festival were most challenging to initially assess. Valeska Grisebach's Western, about a group of German migrant workers sent to a remote area near the Bulgarian/Greek border to help build a hydroelectric plant, is, as its title may suggest, a contemplative riff on the unique American genre film. Grisebach's central figure Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) appears on screen as an inscrutable, strong, silent type harboring a bounty of secrets, and he alone sustains the film's moody slow burn. He's also a refreshing counterpoint to the toxic masculinity within his group, like foreman Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), who, on one afternoon's lunch break, foolishly attempts to woo a local Bulgarian woman Viara (Viara Borisova) through his idea of playful coquetry, which is really just manipulative incivility. The final act of Western carefully crests in tension as Meinhard finds himself an outcast in his own trade group and within the Bulgarian community of which he initially finds deeper reprieve and comfort as he must rely less upon spoken language and more on the directness of kind gesture; but the film's manner of conveying human dilemmas always seems to permit the possibility of understanding and an inkling of resolution in the face of stoic hostility.
Let The Sunshine In, Claire Denis' latest, may also be defined by its persevering optimism. Ostensibly a vehicle for the illustrious Juliette Binoche, the film is a dance of comedy and tragedy in the affairs of middle-aged Isabelle, who, as the cliché goes, is searching for love in all the wrong places and basing her romanticism on the ill guidance of others (with one scene seemingly acting as a reference to and inversion of the famous opening in Agnès Varda's Cléo From 5 To 7) . What's invigorating about this particular narrative, however, is the range of tones that emerge through Isabelle's complicated escapades and self-interrogating hypersensitivity. Cinematographer Agnès Godard perfectly illuminates the humanity within the source material (Barthes' A Lover's Discourse: Fragments) with silent era-inspired close-ups in soft, glowing natural light. —GP