For this reporter, Day Four of the 2010 Wisconsin Film Festival began with a special seminar given by director Bob Byington, whose comedy Harmony and Me delighted nearly a thousand attendees at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Friday night. The event was arranged by UW-Madison film professor J.J. Murphy for his film production and screenwriting classes.
Byington amused the Union Theater audience with his droll responses during the post-screening Q&A, but in the classroom he seemed much more interested in picking and stimulating the brains of Murphy's students. He advocated a writing exercise that seeks to harness the creative power of the human unconscious, discussed his friendship with fellow Austin filmmaker (and mumblecore pioneer) Andrew Bujalski, and mentioned several times that he regards Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 as the most important movie for aspiring filmmakers to see. Byington, who acts as well (he had a memorable role in Bujalski's last film, 2009's Beeswax), kept the students laughing and engaged.
Next up was a Madison Museum of Contemporary Art screening of Benny and Josh Safdie's Daddy Longlegs, my favorite narrative feature of the festival thus far. Daddy Longlegs stars filmmaker Ronald Bronstein (2007's Frownland) as a generally likable though utterly childlike father to two young boys, played by Sage and Frey Ranaldo. The audience took longer to warm to the film's idiosyncratic blend of charm and candor than the group at the Thursday night screening I saw; even so, Bronstein's antics succeeded in evoking laughter, and the Ranaldo brothers' cutesy anarchist flourishes won the crowd over. Of interest to film dorks was the presence of retired UW-Madison film professor David Bordwell, sitting all by his lonesome in the front row with his signature clipboard in hand for note-taking.
Meanwhile, Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, a 2003 detective story with a sick sense of humor, electrified a small audience at the Orpheum's Stage Door Theater with its unique blend of drunken goofiness and grizzly morbidity. Going into this year's WFF, many Madison cinephiles were likely familiar with Bong's 2006 breakthrough The Host, but the opportunity to see the rest of his oeuvre was clearly appreciated by the folks in attendance.
Connoisseurs of old-school cinema took in a screening at the Cinematheque of Elia Kazan's 1960 New Deal-era period drama Wild River, starring post-accident Montgomery Clift as a TVA agent doing his damnedest to convince stubborn Tennesseans to consent to a dam-building project. Though the film's Cinemascope print was visibly rustic, the audience nevertheless marveled at Kazan's rugged depictions of nature and the often mud-coated Clift getting knocked around by hostile natives. While Kazan's portrayal of black laborers verged on condescension, the quality of Wild River's writing and the strength of its images scored big with the surprisingly packed house.
The next screening at the Cinematheque was radically different though no less beautiful: Still Raining, Still Dreaming, a program of five shorts by the avant-garde filmmakers Phil Solomon and the late Mark LaPore. The first four films, one of which was made by Solomon and LaPore in collaboration and the others by Solomon in tribute to LaPore (who tragically committed suicide in 2005), were all created using the videogame Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The results were incredibly moving and disarmingly poetic. These astonishing works evoked the golden age of film noir and melodrama through quotations of dialogue from films by Nicholas Ray, as well as the greater tradition of avant-garde filmmaking through a lyricism overloaded with symbolism and ambience.
The curator of Still Raining, Still Dreaming, UW-Madison Ph.D. candidate John Powers, told me he was pleased with both the quality of the projection and the sizable turnout. Solomon, a disciple of the legendary experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, has taken his former teacher's technique of composing gorgeous films without a camera in a singular and powerful new direction. Everybody was sucked into the program's nocturnal imagery and funereal vibes. The audience was largely comprised of professors and graduate students, which unfortunately speaks to avant-garde cinema's limited demographic. The last of the five films was The Glass System, an ethnographic work by LaPore that paired footage of Calcuttan street performers with audio of children reading a simple yet enigmatic text.
Then it was on to the Chazen to catch the post-screening Q&A for The Things We Carry, with star/writer Alyssa Lobit and producer Athena Lobit. I caught up with the Lobit sisters immediately afterward; they were thrilled with the screening's rousing response -- I waited as they were mobbed by audience members who thanked them for sharing their semi-autobiographical story of two sisters' difficult relationship with their junkie mother. Though the Lobits were only in town for today's festivities, they gave the WFF experience a rave review. They also expressed their positive opinions of the Red One camera, an HD digital camcorder used most notably in Steven Soderbergh's 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience. (The Lobit sisters, who began making The Things We Carry in 2007, seem to have Soderbergh beat by at least a year.)
All in all, another exhilarating and exhausting day at the Wisconsin Film Festival.