It was the second night of the film festival, and I was already behind schedule.
I blame life, or rather I blame the schedule that is my life. Okay, I blame myself. I could have taken Friday off from work. I could have blocked off the whole weekend as soon as the festival dates were announced. But I didn’t, so there I was, waiting in line for my first film more than 24 hours after this whole party started. I was certain that other people in line with me were on their fifth or sixth movie, and had already hung out with filmmakers at some late-night, underground screening that only the truly initiated knew about.
This feeling that I’m behind in my film watching is a common one for me. If you obsess over something, the desire rarely can be satiated: take the readers who want to read every great book, golfers who want to play every great course, travelers who want a passport stamp from every country. The problem is that new golf courses get built, old books are discovered, and countries get Balkanized, fracturing one big nation into half a dozen tiny ones. Films are no different. No matter how many you see, there are always more movies out there to discover.
A film festival is both a solution to this problem (you get to watch a bunch of movies in a short period) and a reminder of the challenge, because you can’t see them all. The key, I always tell myself, is to choose wisely. If satisfied, you will forget that there are other options.
That’s happiness, isn’t it? Being satisfied with where you are?
I have to say I am pretty satisfied. Though I only saw seven movies in three days, I chose well. All of them were worth it, and some were great.
I began at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art with Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead, a documentary about the National Lampoon media empire. Much of American comedy in the last 40-some years has been influenced by the naughty-boy satire of Lampoon’s magazine/radio show/stage show/movies. The movie is a joy ride — fast, hilarious and gasp-inducing. Later, the regret sets in, with the realization that the documentarian, like most of the original audience back in the ’70s, glorified the boob jokes more than the satire.
My futile drive to see as many new things as possible almost steered me away from seeing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater. I crossed this silent film classic off my to-do list back in the ’90s. Then I remembered that I live in Madison, a city with a pathetic lack of revival theaters. The film festival might be my only chance ever to see the mad doctor wobbling across a big screen. This is another great thing about film fests: They make movies live again as they were meant to be, big as a house with organ accompaniment (expertly provided by David Drasin). The tinier the screen the more details are lost in this geometrically nightmarish film.
The same also goes for Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’s take on Shakespeare’s Henriad, starring the director himself as the drunken Falstaff. Welles expertly alternates between the cool sanity of court life and the lusty anarchy of squalid London taverns. And in the midst of it all, the director stages one of the most brutal and least romanticized battle scenes ever put to film. The sound quality was lacking — a fault of the movie, not the Capitol Theater’s sound system — but it is hard to complain when a screening of the movie is so rare.
I saw another rarity at the Chazen on Sunday, Richard Fleischer’s Crack in the Mirror, again starring Orson Welles. This courtroom melodrama is far from being a masterpiece, but it is singular in that the three leads, including Welles, played dual roles. For a movie made in 1961, it is quite daring in subject and tone, and some implied nudity happens just off-frame.
To describe Free Fall, the Hungarian short-story anthology, would give too much away. Instead, I will tell you a story from the film festival. I ran into a few friends outside of Dr. Caligari, one of whom had seen the first screening of Free Fall. I knew this movie was supposed to be surreal, so I said, “It couldn’t be weirder than Dr. Caligari,” a movie which is still 100% strange 96 years after its release.
She looked at me as if I were a child. “Much weirder.”
I have to agree. Free Fall is weird in all the right ways. Directors Gyorgy Palfi and Zsofia Ruttkay may have usurped David Lynch in becoming the heir to surrealist king Luis Buñuel, the great eye-slicer. Endlessly creative, creepy, beautiful, funny, sad and gory, I felt this movie down to my nerve endings. It has something for everyone, except, I guess, for the people who fled midway through the showing.
Free Fall is tough act to follow, and Young Bodies Heal Quickly was not tough enough. It’s a very pretty movie about a family of men and the dangerous games they play. The film opens strong with 20 almost entirely dialogue-free minutes, but this brothers-on-the-run tale does not have enough style to balance out the lack of substance. It is the only film that occasionally bored me.
I closed my weekend at Union South (where the most comfortable theater seats can be found) with Zouzou, a perfect counterbalance to the National Lampoon documentary that started off my weekend. It is a frank, feminist and French comedy about sex that is not a sophomoric giggle, but rather a delighted squeal celebrating that humans can find such joy in life. I cannot remember the last time I have heard so much laughter in a movie theater. The Wisconsin Film Festival was Zouzou’s North American premiere, but I am sure this one will come back to town sometime soon. When it does, check it out.
Seven movies in three days. I’m sure dozens of festival goers have outdone me, but I am satisfied, for I have seen such great sights. I saw a woman imitate a clitoris, and I saw a Vietnam War reenactment in Northern California. I saw every twitch of the great Conrad Veidt’s face as he opens his eyes in his endless sleep. John Gielgud was alive! There! On screen! Sighing out Shakespeare’s verses as only he can. Orson Welles, that defiant tank of a man, was there, too — and I saw his heart broken by two different foster sons in two different movies. I saw the famously cold-hearted Chevy Chase choking up while talking about a dead friend, proving that comedy’s greatest jerk just may indeed have a soul.
I also saw a short film called Squirts, the Walking Pink Eye, which straddled the line between Maxim Gorky and Maxim magazine. It just might be the greatest omni-erotic stop-motion puppet cartoon ever to come out of Racine, Wis.
I have seen all this, and now is the time to rest...although that Norwegian crime film In Order of Disappearance is supposed to be fun, and it’s showing on Tuesday. Magician, a documentary on Welles, shows Wednesday afternoon, and John Waters’s Polyester, in the original Odorama, screens Thursday. Life is short, and film festivals shorter. I might as well make time for one more.