Since the first great film festival, in Venice, started in the 1930s (and most others, including our own nation’s, kicked off post World War II), these marathon screenings have provided an open marketplace for more challenging movies to come before select audiences that inevitably end up selecting those considered palatable enough for even the slightest bit more marketing via (now defunct) art houses, (almost gone) video stores, libraries and the Netflix-like swarm of fast-fading rental entities.
What treasures can we expect to find at the 12th Annual Woodstock Film Festival, running September 21 through 25, that won’t likely be found elsewhere, or need a mention so they can be later traced down online?
First off, there are the many short films on view…examples of a grand form that, like the short story, gets short shrift from distributors these days, especially when they’re narrative based, and not able to fit into the few remaining PBS documentary venues still around.
Consider three fine, very different examples of what can be done in a 20-minute format:
The Recorder Exam, the Columbia University MFA thesis by South Korean filmmaker Bora Kim, is a little under half-hour glimpse into a nine-year old’s world as she worries about an upcoming musical threshold while observing her parents’ marital difficulties, and her own strained relationships with siblings. Shot with a beautifully observant sense of child-like calm and wonder, it makes its subtle points quietly, allowing each minor epiphany to build without explication…like a classic Chekhov or de Maupassant story. The rewards — from recognition of one’s own memories to instant memorability — suggest a strong career ahead for the filmmaker, as well as a wish that more such shorter works could play in our entertainment lives more often.
Crazy Beats Strong Every Time, by an award-winning student writer/director currently expanding this offering into a feature, riffs on a young adult’s attempt to balance his distaste for his mother’s new African lover with his peers’ world of violent talk over empathy in any form. The piece twists and turns in rich black and white, harking back to the influential art house films of the legendary Charlie Burnett (Killer of Sheep) instead of all that’s come since. The moral dilemmas arise naturally, as do the performances and use of New Jersey’s failed suburban settings as background. Sure, it will likely expand beautifully…but is also a gem in this short, succinct form where a single moment of inner growth is enough to sustain new lives.
Finally, on the shorts front, there’s the singing/dancing bittersweet Manhattan Melody, by former concert pianist and composer, and current NYU film graduate Sasha Gordon. Made up of entertaining twists and turns tied around the story of a dreamy manicurist who falls for a bumbling diner thief, the film mixes spot-on cinematography with the same sort of old musical revivalism that made Damien Chazelle’s Harvard thesis, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, such a critical hit two years ago. There’s talent here on all levels, as well as promise…and the sort of perfectly contained narrative that would lose impact writ larger.
As for some similar longer works, with treasures not likely to be seen in the nearest triplex (or even at Upstate Films), we suggest the hauntingly dark Silver Tongues, which won the Audience Award at last winter’s Slamdance Festival; Bulgaria’s great coming-of-age work Tilt, which somehow references both its characters’ and national maturation process; and Bombay Beach, another one of those new documentaries that pushes the entirety of film culture forward a few steps.
Silver Tongues, the first feature by Scottish filmmaker Simon Arthur, is a dark mindbender of a work that plays off acting methods, cinematic expectations, and personal manipulation in the same timely ways that made Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape such a breakthrough. At first, one thinks the success of the film is all script-based, until one starts to realize how effective Arthur is using camera movement and music to set up and thwart expectations.
Tilt, written and directed by Viktor Chouchkov Jr., has an epic quality to its story of four friends split by the terrors of their end-of-Soviet-rule times and greed. There’s a classic love story here, a beautifully rendered sidetrack into Germany, and strong acting, cinematography, and use of soundtrack throughout. Starting slow, it builds beautifully and opens up glimpses into lives unseen before this work. Moreover, its two lead actors have the looks and talent to go much further…if anyone takes proper notice.
Finally, speaking of new glimpses into lives unseen, there’s Bombay Beach, which starts off as yet another example of the profound influence Werner Herzog has had with his documentary work in recent years, but ends up opening new territory via its radical use of narrative elements, and the director’s manipulation, in getting at documenting the world it covers.
What is that world? Ahh… ever heard of the Salton Sea, that salty man-made Californian disaster whose shores are now littered with shrinking communities of misfits and outlaws? While seeming, at times, to be a real-life version of Harmony Korine’s still-controversial Gummo, what emerges has more pathos and oddly invigorating hope-beyond-reality elements than one would ever expect. Moreover, the response the film is getting in festivals like Woodstock’s has given rise to thoughts that it may someday get wider distribution…
Which means it might be something one can eventually share with others unable to get to such works’ screenings at this festival. Like cult or, as the more intellectual among viewers once called them, ‘art films.’
All these works still have tickets available, and are among the WFF staff’s off-the-record recommendations of highlights for the festival.++
For further information, and reservations, visit the Woodstock Film Festival box office at 13 Rock City Road daily through 7 p.m., call 845-810-0131 or visit www.woodstockfilmfestival.com.