The Sydney Film Festival Dispatch

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
Cinematic discoveries and dead ends from across the Tasman.

The Sydney Film Festival’s emblem, a brain shaped out of popcorn, perfectly encapsulates the mission statement of its programmers: “intelligent fun.” Doubling as the festival’s slogan, it also suggests an attempt to carve back the stereotype of Sydney as a city of beauty (versus Melbourne, a city of brains). As to which city deserves the title of film capital, it’s hard to go past Melbourne, and its festival certainly eclipses its natural rival in terms of size and diversity. In contrast, Sydney’s programme this year is studded with routine crowd-pleasers, hotspot premieres (especially those with an Australian connection, i.e. Stoker), and winning documentaries, and at a glance is less adventurous in its selections than you’d expect of a festival of its scale. The rub for organisers, of course, is that Sydney is a great event city, and their festival is far from the only game in town. For the brief period I was there, the stench of NSW’s State of Origin victory over Queensland lingered; the invasion of British Lions supporters was unavoidable; the city’s spectacular Vivid light festival was in full swing; Brad Pitt jerked himself off on the red carpet for the premiere of World War Z; while the Sydney Theatre Company launched its own star power offensive with the opening of its Cate Blanchett/Isabelle Huppert-headlined production of The Maids.

As part of its shrewd positioning within an overcrowded market, the Sydney Film Festival places strong emphasis on free side events around the actual films, and much to my surprise, I ended up attending almost as many of these engaging panel discussions and multimedia performances as the screenings that were on offer. The liveliest of the talks, a recording of Radio National’s “Download This Show” hosted by Marc Fennell, posited the question of what cinema will look like sixty years from now. As is tradition with panel discussions, a dissenting voice is thrown into the mix to agitate the conversation, and with dry reluctance, that role was accepted by Austrian filmmaker Daniel Hoesl, in Sydney to accompany his debut feature Soldate Jeannette. Hoesl’s film shared the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s top prize, the Tiger Award, earlier this year, which says a lot about both his sensibility as an artist and minority status in fun-loving Sydney. Soldate Jeannette is at once firm, unforgiving, and sardonic in its worldview—a double-barreled critique of conspicuous consumption and joyless idealism that’s Euro art cinema to the bone, and the type of filmmaking that this festival could perhaps accommodate more. When asked what his greatest fear for what film will look like in the future, Hoesl’s concern was a very real one: that cinema will be even more generic, predictable, and removed from a culture of innovation. That fear was only intensified by panelist Wendy Zukerman’s staggering riposte: “My greatest fear is that all films will end up like Daniel’s.”

A science journalist of all things, Zukerman’s luddite response nonetheless mirrors the awkward relationship between commerce and art that is only exaggerated in the microcosm of a major film festival, whose principal goal is to surely advocate the appreciation of film as art. Somehow though, the very films that demand this special attention more often than not end up marginalised, with the narrative feature and classic three-act structure given precedence in the battle for admissions. The trick, especially for a film festival whose survival hinges on box office takings, is to find that sweet spot between commercial viability and artistic license. Closer to home, the challenge of striking the right balance is evident in the makeup of our own New Zealand International Film Festival, which year in, year out, has proven to be more daring in its programming choices despite the fact it attracts nowhere near the same level of corporate and government sponsorship that its Australian counterpart enjoys. Sydney delivers on its promise of fun, although as far as its intelligence quotient goes, the jury is still out. Case in point: its Official Competition committee voted in Nicolas Winding Refn’s critically reviled Only God Forgives as the festival’s main prizewinner. (How Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing didn’t qualify under the judges’ criteria that the winning film should demonstrate “emotional power and resonance; [be] audacious, cutting-edge, courageous; and go beyond the usual treatment of the subject matter,” is confounding to say the least.)

On the back of its resources, where the Sydney Film Festival naturally trumps our national film festival is in the retrospective department. Austerity measures in recent years have seen the themed retrospective shelved in favour of standalone retrospective screenings locally, so it was something of a luxury to be able to indulge in the Sydney Film Festival’s 13-strong lineup of British noir. Subtitled “Rainy Sundays, Stormy Mondays”, this smartly curated retrospective is among the best I’ve ever encountered, with each screening generously introduced by guest programmer Quentin Turnour (who also convened an excellent talk during the festival on the history and subtext of the British film noir), and many fittingly preceded by public information films from the post-war era. These shorts ranged from the surprisingly shocking (The People at No. 19 [1949], a domestic drama about the rise in sexually transmitted diseases), to the surprisingly moving (The Elephant Will Never Forgot [1953], a beautiful eulogy for London’s decommissioned tram system that echoed the imminent retirement of Sydney’s controversial monorail), to the surprisingly relevant (What a Life! [1948], a comic rejoinder to the malaise of economic depression). Many can be viewed online (such as via the BFI’s YouTube channel), although the point of their inclusion here is to provide social-history context for the definition of British film noir, a subgenre deeply entrenched in the conditions endured by Britain’s long suffering working class.

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), the best and most representative of this nascent “kitchen sink” realism, is a masterpiece nominally about an escaped convict (played by the late Australian actor, John McCallum) who seeks refuge at the home of an old flame (Googie Withers, whom McCallum later married), but in actuality is an extended portrait of an East End London community. Gloriously ethnographic in the way Jacques Tourneur’s westerns were (namely, Canyon Passage and Stars in My Crown), Robert Hamer’s film regularly pauses its core storyline to walk in the shoes of at least half a dozen substantial characters—petty crooks, a nefarious big shot, a snoopy newspaper man, a philandering musician and his perspicacious wife, not to mention the family who unwittingly harbour a criminal—and for the most part, is radically invested in human interest over the mechanics of a fugitive thriller. Turnour notes that the femme fatale is almost irrelevant in British noir, and that is true of It Always Rains on Sunday, however the women here are still vivid and whip smart, at all times alert to the untrustworthiness and predictability of men, and subversively, are the secret centre of the film. Its bittersweet, life-goes-on ending is fairly typical of the films in this programme; the one exception being Compton Bennett’s devastating Daybreak (1948). About a part-time hangman (Eric Portman) who falls in love with the exquisite Ann Todd, only to have her pried away from him by a seductive Norwegian sailor, it’s one the saddest films about doomed lovers ever made, and to this day, one of the great, unsung variations on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

From the handful of new features I saw at the Sydney Film Festival, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours was undoubtedly the finest (more on this sublime film in a separate article). Meanwhile, if there was a standard bearer for the festival’s motto of “intelligent fun,” Slavoj Žižek’s hugely entertaining film essay-cum-critical studies seminar, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, was surely it. Again under the direction of Sophie Fiennes (this, their second collaboration following The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema), Žižek finds himself lecturing from within the movie scenes he cites—many famous, some less well known—as illustrations for his wide reaching, sometimes discombobulating perspective on consumerism, capitalism, Marxism, fascism, and religion in our ordinary reality; a reality, he argues, is framed by ideology, and upon recognition, does not change our reality, but engenders our suspicion of it. This conceit is cleverly introduced using clips from John Carpenter’s They Live (“We think that ideology is something confusing our straight view. Ideology should be glasses. You take off the glasses so you can finally see the way things really are”), with the logical outcome of this newfound awareness—violence and revolt—epitomised in the film’s hilarious, never-ending fight scene, in which the protagonist brawls with his best friend until he too puts on the glasses and comes to his senses.

Revolution is painful, Žižek tells us, via the likes of Taxi Driver and Jaws, or suppressed, via The Dark Knight and other grand Hollywood fictions, however he is also ruthless at grounding his thinking in real contemporary trauma—the London riots, Anders Breivik, and so on. If his dissertation has an endpoint (albeit one lacking a concrete solution, a common criticism of his theories), it’s that ideology is a comforting illusion (“the depressing lesson of the last decades is that capitalism has been the true revolutionising force”), that cinema and popular entertainment is threaded into that illusion, and that the time has come to set our possibilities straight, even if it’s easier for us to imagine an asteroid destroying the planet than a modest change in our economic order. As a piece of film criticism, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is unfocused but also rich in stray observations—the section devoted to Titanic and James Cameron’s insipid “Hollywood Marxism” is particularly inspired—and is similarly accessible through Žižek’s various pithy asides, such as those on Coke, Starbucks, and Kinder Surprise. As a philosopher, Žižek was originally introduced to festival audiences via Astra Taylor’s documentaries Žižek! and Examined Life, although the latter, a kind of speed dating session with cultural critics, didn’t do the irrepressible Slovenian (nor his contemporaries) justice. Fiennes’s documentary, alternatively, is more like a one-on-one session with Žižek on speed: full bodied, restless, and endlessly talkative, even the most restrained of circumstances (i.e. Žižek flaked out on Travis Bickle’s bed) displays the exciting side effects of thinking critically about the world.

At the other end of the spectrum, Gyöygy Pálfi’s latest, a montage movie also comprised of famous film clips, landed with a dull thud. Pálfi’s concept, a collage of found footage boiled down to the essence of movie escapism—a man and a woman in love—evolved from the collapse of Hungary’s film funding system (2006’s Taxidermia was the last of his fully funded features to make the festival circuit), although it was by no means a simple undertaking, requiring years of research, collation (in part, via Torrent trackers, as the film’s credits openly acknowledge), and finally, assemblage. The problem for Pálfi is that he began work on Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen roughly around the same time as artist Christian Marclay set about constructing his blockbuster 24-hour video installation, ‘The Clock’—an impossible act to follow, especially in a city that has already had the privilege of hosting Marclay’s addictive artwork. Ultimately though, Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen disappoints on its own terms—its rapid-fire compilation of screen hunks, hussies, danger men, and dames, is uplifting and affectionate on the one hand, simplistic and inconsequential on the other. It’s little more than a polished feature-length supercut; good fun in a theatrical setting, for sure, but not at all dissimilar to the DIY handiwork you’ll find posted all over YouTube.

Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen wasn’t the only film to hinge on a gimmick. Lovelace, a biopic of the one-time pornstar turned anti-porn campaigner, has doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried in the titular role (a part once coveted by Lindsay Lohan), and yet will probably be remembered for its long checklist of self-conscious cameos: the likes of James Franco (playing Hugh Hefner, though not even trying), Chloë Sevigny, Bobby Cannavale, and Adam Brody contriving to turn the film into a bad retro-themed costume party, with Linda Lovelace’s terrible ordeal at times a mere afterthought. (One is better off watching either the documentary Inside Deep Throat, or for a superb biopic on a battered adult star, Bob Fosse’s Star 80.) Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday, a gimmick in the sense that it was filmed over a five-year period to capture the time lapse of a young family’s prolonged separation from their father who’s in prison, fails to capitalise on this commitment to authenticity. Winterbottom’s film (originally cut for television broadcast) is simply too brief and episodic, selling its premise short, although has the right idea in furnishing its underrated character actress, the wise and wistful Shirley Henderson, with a significant, long overdue leading role. Shot on an outdated Sony AVC 3260 tube camera, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess might appear the most gimmicky of all, however the tool absolutely serves a purpose in giving the film its vanished, obsolete quality—a key to its ‘lost weekend’ surrealism and hazy sense of expectancy around the gathering of chess software enthusiasts for an annual tournament. Expect to see this unorthodox, one-of-a-kind film at our own New Zealand International Film Festival this year.

The Sydney Film Festival ran from June 5-16. ‘The Act of Killing’, ‘Museum Hours’, ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’, and ‘Computer Chess’ also screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival this July and August.

A still from artist Jeff Desom’s ‘Rear Window Loop’, a reconstructed view from James Stewart’s apartment in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, which featured daily at the Festival Hub.