And so another year’s Melbourne International Film Festival draws to a close. The rubbish is strewn across the turf, the drunken young women have collapsed on the trams, and the vomit is being hosed down from the VIP tent – no, wait. That’s the Melbourne Cup. Let’s start again.
Ah, MIFF. You come, toy with our affections, then leave in the night. Yet every year we come back. You mock us, yet we want you so. You temptress. You seductress. Both dominatrix and mother to us all.
Like all art, film is subjective. Our response to film is not only based our our preferences and tastes but can be altered by our surroundings – would I have enjoyed Let The Right One In more if the gentleman next to me hadn’t spent the whole film munching through a box of popcorn larger than his head? Probably. Would I have enjoyed My Winnipeg less if I hadn’t been so exhausted from chasing horses all day that I was more than willing to fall under it’s hypnotic spell, like the sleep-walking residents Guy Madden describes? Maybe. Am I now aware that even the most deserved criticism of the festival is likely to bring on the fury of The League Of Festival Directors, like a Marketing Team descending in the night? Oh yeah.
So here is my completely subjective take on the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival (after all, if you didn’t want my opinion you wouldn’t be here, would you?)
This years program was the most polarising I can remember. Some long term MIFF attendees said they found little of interest when going through the guide, while others (including myself) were quite excited by what was to come. It seemed this year you either wanted to see everything in an entire strand – the George A Romero, perhaps, or the Ozploitation focus – or none of it. The program was very heavy on the horror and the grim, so if that wasn’t your bag you weren’t in luck. (It also wasn’t a year for fans of Korean cinema – why is nobody holding a dedicated Korean film festival in Melbourne?).
The word “bleak” often turned up. A long-term cinephile I know even decided to skip the festival and hold a non-MIFF festival in her lounge room. I’d like to quote from the email she sent her friends as it’s a good summary of what I was hearing from many:
“Have you looked in your Melbourne International Film Festival program and found it full of misery, dreariness, self-abuse, drug-abuse, child-abuse, immigrant-abuse and new Romanian cinema? I certainly have, and found it far too grim for my tastes. I’ve come to the conclusion that what I really need this winter is a bit more cheer and fun, and if you’re going anywhere near MIFF, you probably do too. Hence, I’m pleased to announce the first, and very possibly the last, anti-MIFF film festival. There won’t be queues of shivering patrons in hand-knitted beanies. There won’t be large Simon Callow look-alikes holding forth loudly on the rebirth of Hungarian melodrama. There won’t be the lingering musky smell of the Forum filled with Gold Pass holders who haven’t been near a bath in two weeks. However, there will be films that way too much fun to be allowed near the program of this year’s MIFF.”
She wasn’t alone in her assessment, although most didn’t feel the need to set up their own parallel screenings. Perhaps the prevalent themes of current film-making are so strong that a certain sameness permeated the program blurbs, making it hard for individual films to stand out? Perhaps we’re living in a depressed age and cinema is reflecting that? Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne shared many films, so it’s hardly a Melbourne-centric problem. Time and again I found myself reminded of this Pet Shop Boys lyric from “Miserabilism” – “make sure you’re always frowning, it shows the world that you’ve got substance and depth”.
On the whole I found many of the films to be solid, but not exciting. I didn’t see any absolute stinkers, but there were few that amazed, either. It would seem that 2008 isn’t a champagne year for cinema – more a cheap table wine.
Speaking of table wine, is there anyone left who doesn’t want to punch that guy from the Yalumba ad? Audiences were brought together by their hatred of the ads, with maximum scorn for the try-hard Yalumba (which revealed more to mock with every viewing) and the Channel 10 drama which inspired a sing-along chorus at one screening (in zombie tones the audience cried out in unison “I like faaaaaast caaaaaars….”).
There were successes – as mentioned, the Romero strand was fantastic, with George A Romero a perfect festival guest – read more about his live appearance here. The Ozploitation strand was also a triumph, delivering my absolute favourite movie of the festival, Dead End Drive-In, a film so prescient it appeared to be a satire on the John Howard years.
The new MIFF Premiere Film Fund was a great success, and hats off to everyone involved in its creation. Bastardy, Not Quite Hollywood and Rock N Roll Nerd were among the festival’s best.
On the downside, you may well have assumed this year’s festival was built on an ancient Indian burial ground considering the astonishing number of technical problems – delays, cancelled films, a seized projector, prints delivered in the wrong ratio or format, a film played in the wrong order, digital drop-outs, colour bars appearing over the top of screen during the film, seemingly endless change-overs from film to digital in shorts programs, a print without subtitles, dodgy sound equipment – if you listen carefully you can still hear a projectionist weeping. You expect some of these events at a festival, but the sheer number this year felt like a message from God. (And I’m not going to mention the front-of-house mistiming at the end of Katyn that was both grossly insensitive and also quite funny).
Highlights: I Think We’re Alone Now, Waltz WIth Bashir, Young@Heart, Ozploitation (especially Not Quite Hollywood and Dead End Drive-In), Derek, My Winnipeg, George A Romero live!
Lowlights: With Gilbert & George, The Crazies, those damned ads…
So MIFF 2008 – I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. Just think, you could’ve skipped straight to this line and saved reading a thousand words.
I asked some of the Outland Institute’s regular “comments” correspondents for their thoughts, and here’s what they said…
Things I’ve learnt from MIFF 08: Cats make good vampire detectors; there may be gay penguins; and never express an admiration for 80s pop stars, in case someone makes a film about you. (And the next time I’m in telepathic communication with Tiffany, I’m going to warn her about the freaks out there.)
26 films later, I don’t seem to remember any of them. Nothing was really bad – except the atrocious Kate Bush doco and the Herzog that was promoted as sci fi yet lacked any element of science fiction – but nothing sent me to Amazon to buy a copy to watch again and again and again. I will remember Inside for taking me somewhere bloodier than I have previously been, and for allowing me to whimper “no, no, no” at the screen; Dead End Drive-In for reminding me how big hair really can be; Man on Wire for uncovering my latent vertigo; and Men’s Group for being an Australian drama with a great Act 3.
This year is my year of feeling elitist. No longer do I have to queue all the way to the street in the cold rain. O, my MIFF membership, how I love you! However it has also been the year where I haven’t been totally blown away by anything, although maybe I am just being too harsh -there have been some exceptional features such as In Search of a Midnight Kiss, I Just Didn’t Do It and a hoorah for the saucy old folk getting their gear off in Cloud 9. Strong docos with Trumbo, amazing animation experiences with Sita Sings the Blues and Persepolis, a special mention to the unrelenting violence of The Horseman and lastly thank you Richard for finishing it all off with the bloodsplattering wild ride of REC.
Hearing George A Romero articulate his experiences and knowledge has been a highlight. On the other side the Rush ad gave me the f***ing s***s (I once thought its loud start was going to give a group of oldies a mass heart attack). The lighting at the end and beginning of movies was shocking – if I’m waiting 30 minutes between sessions give me some damned light so I can read! If I’m leaving a session give me a little so I can actually find my way out. Also where were the bloody ushers during the first few minutes of Three Monkeys when I couldn’t see a damned thing?
To end, many thanks to Richard Moore for a well thought-out and engaging program and bring on next year.
Having missed last year’s festival, I was keen to see as much as time permitted with this one. Some choices were obvious, and none of them disappointed. Let the Right One In, the Swedish film based on John Lindqvist’s novel was an atypical vampire film, more about the relationships amongst the characters in a housing commission than the horror elements (which actually seemed a bit clumsy in the film, less so in the novel); Otto (or Up With Dead People) which was a lot funnier than I thought it would be, with a film-within-a-film premise of a bunch of ‘auteurs’ documenting the affects of the recent gay zombie plague. A highlight was the zombie doco director’s girlfriend, who was filmed the whole time as though in a b&w silent movie – even though the rest of the film was in colour (being Bruce LaBruce, the zombie lads were a lot sexier than your average undead); and finally, Derek – the documentary about Derek Jarman. I really liked the personal tone of this – where much of the biographical information came from clips of Jarman himself, the commentary from Tilda Swinton was in the form of a personal letter and was more elliptical – and very funny.
The others were that sort of guess-work that comes with perusing the festival guide, with the great, unexpected treat being Everything is Fine. This French-Canadian film was about a high-school kid who discovers four of his friends were in a successful suicide pact, and he has to come to terms with why he’s still alive. There is a very poignant part toward the end where his girlfriend asks if he has deleted them from his phone – and he hasn’t, and can’t. Demonstrating, he dials one of the numbers just to hear the voice-message. It made me wonder about the many traces we leave behind us these days – messages, face-books, youtube, on-line identities that somehow have a life of their own – all these virtual connections.
The MIFF program did seem to balance nicely the idea of retrospectives and new features (if possible in a downloadable age). And I enjoyed the venues with the exception of Greater Union, which I don’t think has been upgraded since the 80s… can’t MIFF avoid it or perhaps give them money to upgrade it… perhaps some donation boxes at the door?
Highlights: There are very few film directors capable of making a four hour film that doesn’t have you writhing in your seat after two hours, but the late Edward Yang was one of them. A Brighter Summer’s Day was so absorbing that I barely noticed the time go by. The others that probably won’t leave my head for some time are The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Hunger, Bastardy, Derek and Of Time and City.
Lowlights: Not that many. Queue jumpers. Standing in a queue outside the Greater Union waiting for Mr Spurlock’s Q&A to finish so that I could see Bastardy. Almost fell asleep during the William Burroughs doco (considering he was a cantankerous old prick the tone was far too reverential).
Summation: I have to say that the films I’ve seen this year have been excellent (maybe I was just lucky with my choices, who knows?) and the inconveniences few and far between. A few thanks are in order, however. Firstly, to the gentleman who went up and down the queue for A Brighter Summer’s Day at the Forum to let everyone know it was four hours long without an interval, you saved many an innocent bladder. For showing films at the Greater Union so that I could visit my favourite Asian DVD shop, Rong Bao Tang, around the corner in Bourke Street. To Fred Schepisi and Geoffrey Rush for the Q&A session after Jimmie Blacksmith. To Eric Bana for his amusing (and enlightening) answers to the questionable questions at his Q&A after Mad Max 2. To Not Quite Hollywood for reminding me of all those films I used to love, and of a Melbourne where cinema could be grown up and silly at the same time. So congratulations!
Thanks to all those who contributed to our MIFF coverage. The erudite Syms Covington will also be adding his thoughts later, and you can see what Paul Martin thought at his site, as well as reading an excellent list of the MIFF films which have release dates.
As the festival itself said, everyone’s a critic – so what did you think?