Melbourne International Film Festival 2012 – first weekend wrap

The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), Australia’s biggest film festival, has begun. It runs from August 2 to 19. I have tickets for 14 films, but unlike previous years I’m confining my viewing to weekend sessions. I could see more (and may pick up a couple of additional tickets along the way) but I have too many other things going on at the moment and honestly don’t have the energy to run around after work from one screening to the next.

I can report that MIFF has put together an excellent program and I had considerable difficulty whittling my long list of 40 films down to a manageable number. Manageable means viewing 2-3 films per weekend day – I could see more but then there wouldn’t be time to eat or visit the toilet.

I’ll be writing brief ruminations on the screenings I’ve attended after each of the three weekends.

This weekend I saw 5 films: Harold and Maude (1971, Hal Ashby), Into the Abyss (2011, Werner Herzog), Love Story (2011, Florian Habicht), Side by Side (2012, Chris Kenneally) and On the Road (2012, Walter Salles).

Harold and Maude is one of the great New Hollywood classics I’ve somehow managed to never see, so when I saw that it was screening as part of the 70s New Hollywood Comedy program I had to be there. I’m not sorry I was. It was darkly funny and deeply moving. I can see why Hal Ashby is one of the most beloved of the 70s raging bulls and easy riders although his legacy has been overshadowed by some of the decade’s bigger guns.

One of many gorgeous moments in Harold and Maude

I’m sure that Into the Abyss would have been another probing, unyielding documentary from Werner Herzog – this one, part of his Death Row project, explores the fate of two young Texan men convicted of a triple murder in 2001 – but unfortunately due to some unforeseen circumstances it didn’t screen. MIFF received the incorrect film and so instead screened two separate episodes from the Death Row project (profiles of death row inmates). Obviously, this was disappointing since it wasn’t what I paid to see and most of us only realized we were watching the wrong thing halfway through. I hope Into the Abyss is given a release at some time in the not too distant future, as I’m sure it’ll be worth a look.

Saturday ended on a high note with New Zealand director, Florian Habicht’s New York documentary Love Story. Habicht constructs a fictional love story with narrative moments and actual interviews in which he seeks advice from New Yorkers about how he should tell his story. This film was a delight from beginning to end – including an introduction and Q&A with Habicht who is a guest of the festival. While the romance between Habicht and the beautiful Masha (who first entrances him when he spies her at a subway station carrying a slice of cake) is an artificial construction, there is nothing fake about the New Yorkers Habicht brushes up against. Strangers on the street provide warmth, humour and insight, and some of the films most moving moments. You’ll laugh. You may even cry. If you get a chance to see this wholly original film, I highly recommend you take it. Find out more here:

Director Florian Habicht with his muse, Masha Yakovenko in his film Love Story

Sunday started with another documentary, produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves, called Side by Side which explores the changes in production and workflow in the moviemaking business in the shift from photochemical film to digital. Sporting a variety of hairdos, Reeves proves he’s an amiable and probing interviewer.

A highlight of any documentary about the film industry are the interviews with insiders and Side by Side had plenty of these, from those in the anti-digital camp such as Christopher Nolan and his regular cinematographer, Wally Pfister, to those for it, including Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, Lars von Trier and Danny Boyle. Interviews with legends of cinematography such as Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz, Raging Bull, The Lost Boys), Michael Balhaus (GoodFellas, The Age of Innocence, Quiz Show, Gangs of New York, The Departed), Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor) and Dion Beebe (Chicago, In the Cut, Collateral,) were a real highlight for me.

Keanu Reeves directs conversation in the documentary Side by Side

You can’t fight progress but you also can’t fight the feeling that something is being lost, especially when you remember that all these rapid changes (as in any industry) are costing people their jobs. The means of production is shifting alongside the means of consumption, with a good portion of Side by Side devoted to discussing how audiences now view film in places other than cinemas, on laptops, smartphones and other mobile devices. Both positives and negatives were offered. I know what side of the fence I sit on. There in a full cinema with other devotees I was incapable of comprehending how the experience of watching Lawrence of Arabia on an iPhone can ever compare to the majesty offered by a cinema screen.

After some ramen and wine the weekend’s viewing came to a close with one of my most anticipated films for this year, Walter Salles’ On the Road. I can’t say my expectations were entirely met. It’s a beautiful road movie that captures the wild wandering spirit living for now in search of the heart of America. Self-discovery and the American road go hand in hand and here Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise (played gently by Brit Sam Riley), is in search of his voice as a writer. He takes to the road on a series of journeys, sometimes alone and often with the handsome rule breaker, Dean Moriarty, played by Garrett Hedlund (Tron, Friday Night Lights, Country Strong). There’s booze, Benzedrine, books, bop and beautiful girls and also the development of an intense male bond, which is always nice to see on screen.

Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) hit the road in On the Road

Is it a good book to film adaptation? Those who read my blog regularly know I don’t claim to know the magic formula for that. It depends on many things.

On the Road is skillfully made and can’t be faulted on faithfulness to its original text. The episodic but nicely constructed script gives Riley the opportunity to voice Kerouac’s gorgeous words, especially the novel’s evocative final paragraph and these early, perfect key lines: 

… I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars …

Sal at his typewriter

I believe that a book to film adaptation should capture the spirit of the book above all things to be successful. And I’ve had 24 hours to think about On the Road now and think maybe that’s where my slight disappointment lies. Kerouac’s novel has a beat of its own, but there was something missing in Salles’ direction, like he’d put a lid on its explosive energy. Some reviews I’ve now read suggest that the narrative has no arc, but really, the same can be said of the novel. Breaking with the conventions of fiction was part of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose rule book. But there’s still a climax towards the end in Mexico City, and a resolution later, when Sal and Dean reunite under different circumstances on a New York city street, and I think the film builds both of these really well; there’s plenty of heartache and this story definitely has a soul.

But in the novel there is a roller coaster feel to Sal and Dean’s travels (it’s there in the jazz scenes when Dean shakes and writhes to the music); there’s something more frenetic about being on the road itself, more of a focus on the journey than the destinations. Lush widescreen photography captures ‘the purity of the open road’ but the spontaneity just isn’t there. The jazz score erupts, there are plenty of jump cuts and some handheld camera work, but I needed something more, something more restless and unrefined. Stylistically it misses the mark, just.

Sal takes a backseat to Marylou (Kristen Stewart)

That said, the novel’s spontaneous, restless spirit beats most strongly through the character of Dean (based on the real life Neal Cassady) and as he’s played here by Hedlund he’s a rhythmic, pulsing force of nature, truly, as Allen Ginsberg described him in Howl, ‘secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver.’ Hedlund was a revelation to me, the absolute soul of the film; its fabulous yellow roman candle. Dean’s hungry for life and lives it with a feverish energy, almost compulsively and insatiably seeking kicks, that even he knows have the potential to destroy him. While the story is Sal’s it’s Hedlund’s Dean you can’t take your eyes off. He’s an actor I’ll be watching carefully from now on.

As Dean, Garrett Hedlund burns, burns, burns all the way through Walter Salles’ film

As I’ve said before, when we read a great book we make pictures in our heads of the scenes, we visualize characters. Sometimes a film matches these, sometimes it doesn’t. I think Salles’ film came pretty close, I just wish it had burned, burned, burned a little brighter.

Now, looking toward the second weekend …


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