If no one talks about it, does a movie exist? Perhaps the real meaning of a film festival lies in its sidewalk chatter. Even though the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival closed Oct. 8, Critic Speak contributor Eric Beltmann and The Cinemaphile blogger Shelly Sampon lengthened the festival through one more conversation.
Eric Beltmann: I think this is the first year that our paths didn’t cross, Shelly, and I suppose that’s the inevitable result of the festival expanding to six screens at five theaters. Included this year was the newly restored Avalon Theater on South Kinnickinnic Avenue, and one of my main regrets is that I never made it there. I’m genuinely curious: What are your thoughts about the Avalon being added to the roster of venues?
Shelly Sampon: One thing that I’ve always been able to count on at the film festival every year is being able to discuss films face to face with you, and this year I couldn’t believe our paths didn’t cross! We did make it to the same theater at the same time, but I didn’t realize you were there until too late — I would have loved to have discussed that film (“Call Me Lucky”) with you. I think one of the reasons we didn’t meet up is because of the issue you brought up about the venues. I jumped around a lot more this year than in recent years, and the Avalon definitely played a part in that. I absolutely love that they added this beautiful, historic theater to the list of venues because, like how the inclusion of the Times Cinema brings the festival to the near west side of the city, the Avalon covers the near south side of the city, right in the middle of the vibrant and growing Bay View area.
On a personal note, I was thrilled to go back to the beautifully restored theater because I went there all the time years ago when it was managed by Eric Levin (now the manager of the Oriental Theater) and though it was shabby it was sublime. The Neighborhood Theater Group, which owns both the Times Cinema and the Avalon Theater (and the Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse in Wauwatosa) really brought the theater back to breathtaking and I felt like a little kid again. I’m also pleased to say that regardless of the day, time or movie, every screening I attended at the Avalon had great attendance numbers. Despite not being able to get there this year, what do you think of the expanded venue roster and did you have any highlights, lowlights or comments about the venues you did visit? Any dream venues you’d like to see included?
Eric: By all accounts the addition of the Avalon was brilliant, but for me—a guy who lives 50 minutes north of the Oriental—it’s now the festival’s outermost venue. Most of my screenings were instead at the Times or the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay. One great thing about having so many venues (and so many films) is that, to paraphrase Edmund Wilson, no two persons ever see the same festival. I’m in favor of even more options, but I’m not sure how the festival expands from here; beyond the Rosebud and the UWM Union Theatre, which aren’t promising venues—remember when the Union was part of the old Milwaukee International Film Festival?—there aren’t many serviceable sites, unless the festival wants to bring Marcus Theatres back into the fold. The Marcus North Shore is my dream venue—roomy, large menu, easy parking, so much closer to home—but, as we discussed last year, the chain theaters no longer seem suited for the festival’s current brand.
Each of my screenings were well-oiled machines, partially due to the festival’s wise decision to hire professional theater managers—most of them are travelers who work numerous festivals throughout the year—to supervise each site. One personal highlight was seeing the Attanasio family at the Fox-Bay for a screening of “Just Eat It,” because the pre-show short film was directed by Annabelle Attanasio, daughter of Paul Attanasio, screenwriter of “Quiz Show” (one of my favorite American films), and niece of Mark Attanasio, principal owner of the Milwaukee Brewers (the baseball team that has been breaking my heart since 1982).
Originally my plans included a trip to the Avalon during the fest’s second week to see “The Look of Silence,” but I decided at the last minute to catch it on Day Three, mostly because I was too impatient. The film, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to “The Act of Killing,” surpassed expectations; as an eye doctor tries to confront Indonesia’s violent past, he ends up channeling Walt Whitman, who once confessed, “All the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon, / See, hear, and am silent.” To these eyes, it was the best movie in the festival. What was your top choice?
Shelly: Well, I knew we were eventually going to get to the movies so I’ve been thinking about it. I actually have two answers to that. My favorite film was “Call Me Lucky,” which surprised me since I walked into it thinking, “I don’t know who the subject is and I can’t stand the director, so why the heck am I here?” But Bobcat Goldthwait’s profile of the acerbic comedian and human rights activist Barry Crimmins was just spot-on from start to finish, and it turned me into a complete fangirl immediately. One of the reasons I didn’t see you after the movie is because I jumped in my car, drove the two minutes home and proceeded to bore my boyfriend to tears while talking his ear off about it. “And then he said this… and then he went to Nicaragua and addressed the Contras… and then and then…” I’m really excited because it was just released on Netflix so now Chris can actually hear the funny stuff Crimmins says the way it was actually delivered and not second-hand by me (and decidedly UNfunny).
The other film I loved was “Iris,” a documentary by Albert Maysles about style icon Iris Apfel. I knew she was going to be a fascinating subject, and I knew the film was going to be really good based on Maysles’ track record so it was a no-brainer that I would enjoy it. What was amazing was the experience of seeing it in a theater so packed to the rafters that there was not a single seat available. While this is not normally my preferred setting, the reaction of the audience to Apfel and her outrageous style and droll and clever words of wisdom was absolutely electric. I almost didn’t see it in the theater because it was on Netflix at the time and I didn’t want to take someone’s seat away from them, but when I learned that they wouldn’t be turning anyone away for the screening I slipped in to watch with the audience and am so glad I did because it made the film even better. I truly love Milwaukee Film Festival audiences for so many reasons, and that night was amazing.
I did have a guilty pleasure favorite: Karin Fahlén’s “Stockholm Stories.” Yes, it had its share of issues (mild pretentiousness being one of them) but this is my idea of a “popcorn flick” where I can just eat up the melodrama. Meanwhile, I hated “A Girl Like Grace” and “Love and Lemons,” which were both audience favorites from the reactions I heard around me. Tell me, Eric, did you have any guilty pleasure moments at this year’s festival? And were there any films that either didn’t live up to your expectations or were just downright awful?
Eric: Perhaps the worst films I saw were “Hotell,” an unconvincing Swedish comedy-drama about a therapy group that grows increasingly hysterical and finally collapses under an avalanche of sitcom conventions, and Jessica Hausner’s “Amour Fou,” an overly mannered drama about a suicide pact between unlikely lovers. The latter was particularly disappointing, since I’ve admired Hausner’s previous work. There’s no doubt that “Amour Fou” is a thematically ruthless picture—it’s about confinement and liberty during the Romantic Era—but Hausner has opted for a harsh, inhospitable style marked by flat line readings, horizontal compositions, bleached pastels, and a static camera. Watching it feels like being choked by a corset. The main trouble with “Amour Fou” is that it’s impossible to imagine any life beyond the frame; the characters feel like mannequins from the European Village at the Milwaukee Public Museum, frozen on the other side of glass. You need look no further than Bresson to comprehend how Hausner has failed to make her austere style central to her characters’ emotional spirit.
In its way, “Amour Fou” is no less prefabricated than the sci-fi comedy “Turbo Kid,” a cynical revival of ‘80s straight-to-VHS tropes that at least contains a few exaggerated gross-out jokes that the Peter Jackson of “Dead Alive” might have envied. That parallel is instructive: While Jackson’s 1992 low-budget gore comedy feels handmade by an original voice, “Turbo Kid” feels assembled by machines. A much better work of retro parody found in the Cinema Hooligante strand was the uneven yet lively “Bang Bang Baby,” which simultaneously pokes fun at ‘50s musicals and Cold War horror shows. With its bursts of color, playful sets, and tributes to rear projection, the movie is just as stylized as “Amour Fou,” but that doesn’t prevent it from being surprisingly earnest in its treatment of its small town characters—and Jane Levy’s lead performance, as a young woman with big dreams, has some of the same sparkle that made Emma Stone a star. “Bang Bang Baby” doesn’t matter very much, but it kept me smiling for days, and there’s no reason to feel any guilt over that kind of pleasure.
There’s something bonkers about talking about the disreputable “Bang Bang Baby” and the high-art “Amour Fou” in the same sentence, but the self-contained universe of a film festival invites such peculiar comparisons. After all, attending a festival is a little like being trapped inside a pinball machine with a hundred movies, all constantly spinning and colliding and setting off light bulbs. The uncanny juxtapositions can sometimes confer overarching themes upon a festival—if we put a little English on it, 2015 was the year of movies about police brutality and the elderly—but also help lay bare the virtues and limitations of individual works.
To illustrate, let me steer back to “Call Me Lucky,” which I enjoyed almost as much as you did but still feel that it might be director Bobcat Goldthwait’s least audacious movie. In caustic satires like “God Bless America” and “World’s Greatest Dad,” Goldthwait showed a remarkable willingness to take a scalpel to his main characters, but he balks in his nonfiction portrait of his friend Barry Crimmins, a comedian notorious for his thunderous sets about politics and religion. We are treated to many well-known comics, including Goldthwait himself, declaring Crimmins as always the smartest guy in the room, but there’s scant evidence for that assertion in the movie. In fact, most of Crimmins’ reactionary political screeds sound not like Noam Chomsky but like the comments section of Daily Kos.
“Call Me Lucky” is more successful when charting Crimmins’ secondary career as an activist, and especially after Goldthwait identifies the source of the comedian’s rage and provides him with a forum to publicly exorcise the demons inflicted upon him in childhood by—spoiler alert!—the Catholic Church. Those passages carry a raw psychological power, and a concluding shot of Crimmins walking up a basement staircase, away from wounded memories, was, for me, one of the most moving fragments of the entire festival. But I saw the movie while still inside the pinball machine of the festival, and three days later I caught Pablo Larrain’s “The Club,” another movie brimming with anger about the Church’s cover-up of child sexual abuse. To my eyes, Crimmins’ livid verbal jabs at the Church were blunt instruments compared to the sophisticated carving knives used by Larrain to cut down the Church’s rationalizations and corruptions—when placed next to “The Club,” “Call Me Lucky” seemed diminished.
Did you experience any strange juxtapositions, where one festival film seemed to crash, easily or uneasily, against another? Also, now that the festival is several weeks behind us, have you reconsidered your opinion of any movies?
Shelly: I must have seen some fairly different kinds of films this year because I didn’t experience what you did in the case of “Amour Fou” and “Bang Bang Baby.” (Though after reading your thoughts on “Fou” I’m feeling a lot less badly about missing it!) Speaking of “Bang Bang Baby,” I feel like that film is one where I felt one way about it at first but later reconsidered my opinion. When I first saw it, I expected it would be a little more insane considering it was part of the Cinema Hooligante program and I was definitely looking for more genetic mutations—as gross as that sounds—than musical. I did give the film a fairly decent review, but upon further reflection since then I’ve decided that I liked it more than I initially thought. You’re spot on about Jane Levy’s magnetism; in fact I made the Emma Stone connection in my review of the film, as well.
There were a couple of films that I think I gave slightly better reviews for than I maybe would have if I had more time to reflect on them. “Hip Hop-eration,” a documentary about a group of elderly people who dance in hip-hop competitions drew a three-star review from me, and I still would probably give it that, but maybe would not have been so complimentary had I not been so relieved the film wasn’t as corny as I thought it would be. And while I agree with my three-star review of “Off the Menu: Asian American,” I’m now realizing I took almost nothing away from it. Conversely, thinking back to movies like “Beatles,” a coming-of-age story about a year in the life of teenage boys who idolize the Beatles, and “King Georges,” the documentary about famed restaurateur Georges Perrier, which I initially was pretty ambivalent about, they actually stuck with me a lot more than I thought they would. However, no one can ever change my mind about the atrocious “Tale of the Spotted Cow,” the 39-minute jingoistic and absurd infomercial about the New Glarus Brewing Company. Oh my God… it was the worst.
I mentioned that “Bang Bang Baby” wasn’t as “Hooligante” as I expected it to be, and that made me think back to a couple of really crazy films I’d seen (both under the Cinema Hooligante banner and not) like the zombie horror-comedy film “The Revenant” and probably one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, Ti West’s retro “The House of the Devil.” Maybe I saw the two mildest films in the Hooligante slate this year, but I think I was expecting more. Did you encounter that as well (with that slate or any other) and do you think that branching out into so many different genres is a positive step, as opposed to the old Spotlight – Documentaries – Shorts – Features uniform slates?
Eric: I ended up seeing half of the eight Cinema Hooligante offerings, and three of the others I had seen recently at other events. While it’s true that much of the Hooligante strand could have easily been slotted elsewhere, I’d say several earned their spots, including the British “Nina Forever,” about a former girlfriend returning from the grave to haunt a man’s current relationship. It’s erratic yet metaphorically rich; sure, it’s about how emotional baggage is both omnipresent and everlasting, but it’s also about venereal disease, as the new girlfriend ends up contracting Nina, too. (Someday an enterprising programmer will pair “Nina Forever” with “It Follows.”) Best of all is the novel imagery, which combines kitchen-sink naturalism with Grand Guignol revulsion. Nina, eternally covered in bruises and gashes, arches her body and, with bone-defying precision, snakes seductively around the bedroom—she’s like Grendel’s mother, leaking contempt, vengeance, and blood all over the linens.
Other than “Hip Hop-eration”—a novelty act that probably would have worked better as a 10-minute viral video—I didn’t see any of your choices for re-assessment, which again speaks to the sprawling and fragmented nature of the festival. Few films emerged this year as unambiguous champions of festival buzz (“The Look of Silence” and “Turbo Kid” were contenders, I suppose), perhaps because it was so easy for individual filmgoers to disappear into their preferred corners of the festival. That’s probably inevitable given MFF’s something-for-everyone ethos; there’s little to coalesce audiences in the way, say, the new Nitrate Picture Show in Rochester asks patrons to have a single-minded focus on the virtues and risks of nitrocellulose prints.
By separating the festival into 13 well-defined divisions, the program book probably encourages balkanized experiences, but let’s call it necessary collateral damage. After all, what’s the alternative? The slate is so large that it has to be harnessed somehow. I admire the current format, which is simple to navigate—let me confess that I usually only skim the Cream City and Film Feast sections—and somehow re-assures filmgoers that making choices from over 300 films is a manageable endeavor. Ultimately, though, I think your two questions are really the same question, because if some of the programs fall short of expectations, it’s perhaps the result of the festival sticking too rigidly to its preconceived partitions. I could be wrong, but it felt like this year, rather than seeking out the strongest overall selections, the festival programmers went searching for filler to round out its unbending categories of eight films each—how else to explain the feeble Film Feast slate? I don’t think the festival necessarily needs fewer categories; instead, the categories should be stretchy, determined by whatever happens to be strong groupings for a given year. The categories ought to accommodate the films, not the other way around. If next year is a poor year for, say, movies about musicians, why not ditch Sound Vision and replace it with something sturdier?
Also, how did you feel about the Spotlight presentations and archival choices this year?
Shelly: I agree with you to some extent about the current, simple to navigate format and it probably works really well for the majority of the attendees, but I remember back when there were fewer categories, there was more of an element of surprise when you were seeing a particular film. It seems that films are stringently pigeonholed into categories that may exclude some less-adventurous viewers. You mention that you normally stay away from the Film Feast and Cream City Cinema slates. I actually ended up seeing a lot more films in both of those categories and ended up liking almost everything I saw. I almost always avoid Cream City Cinema because the films tend to be kind of terrible, to be honest, and I don’t like being put in the position of having to like something just because it was filmed locally or by a Milwaukee filmmaker. But this year, I actually saw two strong films, including “30 Seconds Away: Breaking the Cycle,” about Milwaukee’s ongoing homeless problem, that took years to film and has remained with me since seeing it. I was also pleasantly surprised at how much I was drawn into “Clarence,” a documentary about an octogenarian man who goes back to school to finish his college degree, despite numerous health issues. Will I see some stinkers in the Cream City slate next year? Undoubtedly. But I feel like if I skipped them based on the program heading they were in, which I very possibly could have, I would have really missed out on something special. Whereas if either of those films were simply in the documentary category there isn’t a doubt in my mind I wouldn’t have let either get away from me.
Going back to your initial question, I actually enjoyed the Spotlight presentations I saw this year (I rarely am able to see many somehow) and wish I could have seen more. I was able to catch the aforementioned “Beatles” as well as the Italian comedy “I Can Quit Whenever I Want,” which definitely had its faults but was really entertaining and fast-paced. I saw that one at a 9:45 show (about 45 minutes after I’m normally in bed reading when I’m not at the film festival) after having watched three other films before it, so the fact that it was so engaging really says a lot. Plus, it features a ridiculous heist that had me laughing so hard I started to give myself a headache (though it could have been the fatigue talking…).
I also watched the closing night film, “Raiders!,” the documentary about the storied 30-plus year efforts by two men (who started as 11-year-old boys) to film their favorite film, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” shot for shot. No, this film was not high art nor particularly profound, but it really embodied spirit and passion and ultimately, a love of movies, making it a good choice for the final film of the fest, in my opinion. I did miss not having a “guest of honor” this year—in the past I’ve really enjoyed sitting in the theater with director John Landis while screening “Animal House” (he was one of the loudest laughers in the room) and actor Martin Landau after screening the incredible “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Because I’m a film nerd, and also am lucky enough to have some close connections with a couple of small theaters where we can watch movies after hours on the big screen, I didn’t attend any of the archival choices this year, but only because I had seen all of them either recently on the big screen or semi-recently on the small screen. I love that there was another Kubrick offering this year with “The Shining” and really love that they have continued their tradition of showing a silent film. (Will Buster Keaton be next?) I am kind of bummed I didn’t go see “The Seventh Seal” since that’s one of my favorite films ever, and it would be really neat with an audience. For all of its great emerging culture, Milwaukee is so sorely missing a classic film venue like it had in the Times Cinema less than 10 years ago. But I suppose we always need another screen to show the latest kiddie film in 3-D or blockbuster that will take a box-office dive after two weeks. (Soapbox semi-rant over, but seriously, don’t get me started!)
I know we have to wrap this up, but what do you think about the festival not featuring a celebrity guest of honor this year? And are there any films that got away from you this year that are going on your Netflix “save” list?
Eric: Fifteen years ago local filmgoers could count on the Times, the UWM Union, and the two Landmarks to provide a steady supply of classic fare—I still have the T-shirt from when I caught Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman” in 2004 as part of the Oriental Theatre’s Silent Saturdays, complete with live organ accompaniment—but now all four venues have veered away from such events. What’s ironic about the lack of classic films on Milwaukee screens is that while digital technology has made it easier and cheaper than ever to program special revivals, digital technology has also caused the audience for them to evaporate. The convenience of online access has rendered the whole notion of revivals—always rooted in the promise of rarified access—obsolete. Young cinephiles, especially, are much more likely to learn about Murnau or Lubitsch from YouTube—oh, the humanity—than at a college film club.
This year the Marcus Theatres chain has tried to renew interest in older pictures, and in fact even stole some of MFF’s thunder: The main reason I didn’t catch “Jaws” at the festival is because I took my son to see it at a Marcus in June. (Worth noting is how Marcus also showed “The Shining” one week after the festival, for half the price.) But so far the noble experiment has produced middling results; there were just a handful of us at a September screening of “The Godfather Part II,” and even fewer at “Jaws.” Given how interest in theatrical revivals has shriveled in recent years—which is hardly a Milwaukee problem exclusively—one of the festival’s greatest magic tricks is how it’s able to annually conjure large, appreciative audiences for films like “Safety Last!” and “The Seventh Seal.” For two weeks every fall, Milwaukee feels like a throwback to the heyday of repertory theaters and film societies, the twin bulwarks that once safeguarded film history in the pre-VHS era.
I suppose that’s a nice segue into which films I missed and don’t want to let slip through the cracks. I definitely plan to catch up with “I Can Quit Whenever I Want,” especially after your endorsement; “Peace Officer,” a documentary about a former sheriff investigating police violence; “A Hard Day,” a South Korean thriller; “Viktoria,” a reportedly epic and surreal Bulgarian film about the collapse of Communism; and “Eden,” mostly because I have deeply enjoyed all of Mia Hansen-Løve’s earlier work. I’m glad to hear that you had a good experience with the Cream City fare; I’m kicking myself now for switching plans at the last minute and skipping “Clarence” for “Breaking a Monster,” which never finds a unique angle on its subject—kids in a metal band being courted by a record label—and offers no more insight than what could have been gleaned by simply reading the synopsis in the program guide. I also tried and failed to squeeze in “Neptune,” another Cream City title. The one film, though, that I most wanted to see and couldn’t fit into my schedule was “Finders Keepers,” a documentary about a man who buys a used grill and finds an amputated leg inside. The festival kept showing the trailer for that one, and it cracked me up every time.
To answer your question about celebrity guests, let me say that I’m rarely star-struck (except for the time I met Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, my Bob Dylan) and usually find Q&A sessions, even with major figures, less than illuminating. I can’t say I gave much thought to this year’s lack of high-powered visitors. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to use this opportunity to reminisce about my favorite encounter with a movie star.
Harold Ramis once asked for my thoughts about Jay Gatsby. It was 2006, and Ramis was at the Oriental Theatre as a guest of the now-defunct Milwaukee International Film Festival. I was there on assignment, and happened to have the theater lobby all to myself in between screenings when I saw Ramis escorted into the room. He was instructed to stay put while festival staff readied the auditorium for his presentation. This meant that he and I were alone in the lobby. Neither of us had anything to do, so we started talking, mostly about movies and careers. When he learned that my full-time gig was teaching high school literature, he started peppering me with questions. His son was a sophomore reading all the same books, he explained.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. After all, Ramis was, perhaps more than anyone, responsible for shaping my understanding of comedy and fostering movie love in the 10-year-old me. Here was one of my childhood heroes, and all he wanted to talk about was Henry Fleming, Hester Prynne, and the Old Man on the sea. For 20 minutes we talked like old friends. And then, as Ramis was finally whisked away up the lobby stairs, I, like a moron, blurted out, “Can I just say, thank you for ‘Ghostbusters’!”
When I heard of Ramis’ death eight years later, my first thought was of his son, who at the time must have been 23 or 24. I suppose it’s a testament to his effortless warmth and sincerity that my first thought was not of Harold the filmmaker, but of Harold the father who would be missed.
It’s time to close the book on the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival, so let me ask just one more question. On Oct. 7, Day 14 of the festival, a bomb was dropped on Milwaukee Film, and no one seemed to even notice. It was announced that Gannett Co. Inc. was going to purchase the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for $280 million. Since the Journal Sentinel is MFF’s presenting sponsor and main benefactor, to the tune of more than $200,000, the announcement must have sent shockwaves through the festival offices. It’s perhaps too early to know the potential impact of the deal on the newspaper’s generosity, but are you worried? Should the festival—and by extension, Milwaukee film lovers—be concerned about the future?
Shelly: Okay, first of all, I love that story about Harold Ramis, and I can totally picture that scenario. What I can’t picture is an empty Oriental lobby… holy cow! This was definitely years ago!
I love your question about funding, and it’s one that I really don’t know the answer to. My “real job” is as a campaign manager and development officer for a local non-profit organization, so this actually falls into my normal area of expertise. $200K is a lot of money to raise, but it also buys a lot of exposure at the festival. For those of us who sat through a few dozen films, we had the pleasure of watching commercials before each film advertising large sponsors, and those messages are reaching a ton of people. It would behoove Gannett Co. Inc. to maintain a lead sponsorship role, particularly with the precarious state of print news but if they don’t, hopefully there will be one or more businesses willing to nab that publicity for a relatively low fee. For the number of screens and number of screenings the Journal Sentinel commercial played alone, and let’s not even talk about all of the exposure in the bazillion program books that circulate for a month in Milwaukee, $200K is an absolute steal.
If that doesn’t happen (and I can’t imagine it wouldn’t; we have a lot of area businesses that I can think of off the top of my head that I would approach), then the development team at Milwaukee Film will need to start looking for more lead sponsors like the Seligs, Lubars and Baumgartners, while making sure there aren’t so many lead sponsors that their significance becomes marginalized. Offering greater incentives to donors in the $10-$20K range is another option. And what just may have to happen is an increase in membership fees—a Milwaukee Film membership is one of the cheapest tickets in town. With a base price of $65 that includes 12 free films among other incentives, raising the cost even by $10 per membership level would likely not sway its members from renewing.
The Milwaukee Film Festival has become too much of an “event” for it to just go away, so even if it does run into financial difficulty with the impending sale of the Journal Sentinel, I’m confident they will find a way to survive in some form that will maintain its impact and integrity.
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