Film festivals have become an integral part of film-going life. They are no longer the preserve of industry professionals, now attended by a variety of cinephiles and even casual viewers, who may have read a title or a preview that struck their fancy. Not a few worthy films will never make it into general distribution. We take that for granted, and a festival award may be the best many filmmakers can hope for. A screening at a festival before a roomful of living humans in itself seems more tangible than a showing on cable or one of the streaming networks.
Among the rich offerings of the 2017 Berkshire International Film Festival, one of the most fascinating and important films will be Owsley Brown’s documentary, Serenade for Haiti. The film could be described as an extended visit to the École de Musique Sainte Trinité in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Mr. Brown, who had made other films about music and its role in human society and spirituality, first visited the school in 2006, and was, as he has said, “greatly affected by what [he] found there.”
True Romance. The essence of Carol, a film much lauded but low grossing (which has become the norm for prestige films at Oscar season) is that it is a lesbian love story as Eric Rohmer might have conceived it and Alfred Hitchcock might have photographed it. The plot is slender. At Christmas around 1950 Carol Aird, an unhappy housewife on the verge of divorce (Cate Blanchett), feels an immediate attraction to Therese Belivet, a much younger sales girl in a New York department store (Rooney Mara). Poised between upper-middle-class privilege of the period, swathed in mink, and her sexual loneliness, Carol initiates a love affair that quickly takes us into literary territory, with the visuals doing much of the poetic writing, in the “camera-pen“ tradition that French critics admired in great American movies.
As an act of recollection, The Master captures the Fifties with perfect pitch, all the more remarkable because the film’s creator wasn’t there. Two stories collide from opposite directions. One is the story of an invisible man, a World War II veteran who never recovers from combat. The other is a charlatan savant skimming the gullible and rising to become a cult leader, the Master of the title. One life has slipped through the cracks, as adrift as Okies in the Dust Bowl but desolately lonely. The other life is a round-the-clock power play to grab the golden ring.
The rise of digital technology in cinema has been a decidedly mixed blessing, and not only due to the concurrent impending demise of celluloid film which it has ushered in. On one hand, it’s become much cheaper and easier to make a film. And on the other…it’s become much cheaper and easier to make a film. Which, when it means that you consequently don’t put much effort into realising the visual element of your chosen visual artform (and that often is the case), is a problem for me.
First disobedience. Sticklers are fond of pointing out that Proust was not remembering things past but in search of lost time, as the original French title says. So is Terrence Malick. His most Proustian film to date is The Tree of Life, which is now awing and stumping audiences, trailing a Palme d’Or from Cannes in its processional through movie houses where most of the audience, children of Star Wars and Scooby Doo, stand as amazed as Nebudchadnezzar reading God’s message in fiery letters. The film is autobiographical and philosophical, like Proust’s A la recherche, and just as maannered in its stylized language, although in this case the invented diction is visual.
The photographed world is topsy turvy, perhaps never more so than when the background falls out of focus, leaving you or just your eyes the only delineated point in a world become theatre. If the history of cinema is a history of characters in their surroundings, then it is necessarily also a history of depth of field. Always subject to changing fashions and technological innovations, the digital era now threatens to suck the art right out of the question. Who are all those winsome people lurking against blurry urban landscapes? Why does the world defer to them? Could they cope in a deep-focus world?
Though the weather has hardly been Cannes-like in Edinburgh for the past month, the Edinburgh International Film Festival has been screening films which show that it can be just as cutting-edge as Cannes.