Melbourne International Film Festival 2012 – second weekend wrap

Another five films over the past two days and all exceptional in their own way. I laughed harder than I have in a long time. And I shed quite a few tears.

Festival patrons were spoilt for choice again this weekend and I had film-envy as I listened to others in the member’s queue regaling friends about the film they had just rushed over from. But choices have to be made so from the seventy or so films on offer this weekend I saw: Bad Blood (1986, Leos Carax), Take the Money and Run (1969, Woody Allen), A Respectable Family (2012, Massoud Bakhshi), Bully (2011, Lee Hirsch) and Only the Young (2012, Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet).

Love is a many-tortured thing in Leos Carax world. MIFF is featuring a program of his films they’ve aptly titled ‘The Last Romantic’, that includes his most recent film Holy Motors, direct from Cannes. I’ve seen Lovers on the Bridge (1991) but have always wanted to see his second feature, Bad Blood. It’s set in Paris (year unspecified) where a strange disease called STBO kills young people who make love without feeling love. Carax regular, Denis Lavant, plays Alex who has quick hands and is recruited by associates of his recently dead father to do a job for them. They want him to liberate a serum that’s locked away in a towering office block, kept away from the people who need it most. One of his recruiters, Marc (Michel Piccoli) has a beautiful much younger girlfriend, Anna (Juliette Binoche), whose face is repeatedly illuminated and caressed by Carax’s camera. And although Alex has a girlfriend – the young and ferociously loyal Lise (Julie Delpy) – he sees Anna like the camera does and can’t help falling for her.

Carax’s camera caresses Juliette Binoche’s beautiful face in Bad Blood

With a dynamic visual style influenced by the nouvelle vague, and Godard in particular, I found it was a good idea not to focus too much on the intricacies of the plot (which is a bit more complex than my rundown suggests), and just give myself over to Bad Blood as a sensory experience. Carax uses colour, light and shade, in a kind of magical way. Music also features in extraordinary ways – from Benjamin Britten to Prokofiev to David Bowie. The extended running shots of Alex dancing down the street to Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ is one of those explosive moments of cinematic magic. I like that Carax extends the possibilities of film language while acknowledging his debt to the past, evident, I think in the film’s final scene, where Anna runs ecstatically, arms open wide, towards the camera. It reminded me of the ending of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, while also appearing wholly original. It’s one of those images that choke you up a bit and you don’t really know why. Comments overheard from other patrons as I exited the film pretty much sum it up – weird and wonderful in equal parts and ‘very French’.

Anna runs toward the camera in Bad Blood’s final scene

Take the Money and Run, written by Woody Allen and Mickey Rose, is Allen’s first film as director. It’s a slapstick mockumentary of sorts, featuring a ‘plot’ that follows Virgil Starkwell (played by Allen) through his haphazard life of crime. Starkwell is a professional criminal but a failed one. As a boy he starts out stealing from gumball machines, in which his hand gets stuck, and then graduates to an attempted robbery of a pet shop and eventually tries his hand at banks. Screening as part of the ‘70s New Hollywood Comedy’ program I left this film thinking they really don’t make them like they used to – riotously funny and bloody clever all at once. Allen really is a genius.

Virgil’s (Woody Allen) mugshot in Take the Money and Run

Stand out scenes, such as Virgil’s attempts to sit down and play the cello in his high school’s marching band, the side effects of the experimental drug he’s given in prison turning him into a Rabbi, his failed escape from prison with a gun he has carved out of a bar of soap and painted with shoe polish (it rains and there are suds) are extraordinarily funny. I haven’t laughed as hard as I did here for a long time. And it’s the film’s most hilarious sequence – when Virgil tries to rob a bank with a poorly written note that announces to the bank’s teller that ‘I have a gub’ instead of a ‘gun’ that always gets the loudest laughs.

Virgil and his cello try to keep up with the band

I always try to see at least one Iranian film at MIFF. Last year it was A Separation and this year it’s A Respectable Family, documentary filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi’s feature film debut. The film opens with a fantastic scene in a taxi shot from the perspective of whoever is seated in the back. At a point in his journey the taxi driver stops to collect two colleagues and the anxiety levels rise when the passenger realizes they are deviating from where he wants to go. The scene ends with the chaos of extreme close ups as the men start to beat the passenger and then drag him from the car.

We later learn that the passenger is Arash (the understated Babak Hamidian), a professor who has returned to Iran after 22 years living and working in Paris. Teaching for a short period of time in Shiraz, his classes are monitored and censored for deviating from the required curriculum, the required version of Iranian history. Bakhshi’s indictment of life in his homeland encompasses both public and private realms. Arash has an estranged father on his deathbed and finds he has to wrap up the patriarch’s business dealings in Tehran at the behest of his half-brother’s son, Hamed (Mehrdad Sedighian) before he leaves Iran again.

Arash (Babak Hamidian) and his nephew Hammad (Merhdad Sedighian) discuss family business in A Respectable Family

Why is Iran the way it is today? Bakhshi tries to find answers to this question. His powerful film filters its contemporary story through recent Iranian history – life under the Khomeini and the effects of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), revealed to us through a series of artfully integrated flashbacks to traumatic events in Arash’s childhood. The political corruption of the nation is contracted to a personal level through the story Arash finds himself swept up in – the decay of his once respectable family. It’s a meticulously structured film that builds to suggest the difficulties of escaping one’s past. The film’s final scene shows one possible way Arash might do this.

MIFF’s Next Gen program screens films that are suitable for viewing by patrons 15 and under (the rest of the festival is restricted to those 18 and over). Most of these have subject matter of particular interest to a youth audience. My final two films for the weekend were from this program.

Character driven documentaries can be among the most powerful of all cinematic encounters. Lee Hirsch’s important film, Bully, effected me like few films have before.

I’m not surprised to learn that in the US alone 13 millions kids will be bullied in the next year, but I am horrified by this statistic nonetheless. Hirsch doesn’t ease you in to the suffering that bullying causes – to the victim and their families and friends. He opens the film with the story of Tyler Long who took his own life when he was seventeen after years of bullying at school that went unchecked and unpunished. When the 2000 hit ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ by Wheatus plays at the end of this segment, its lyrics take on a whole new meaning for me.

Hirsch then follows the stories of three other kids – 12-year-old Alex from Iowa, who endures violence every day on his bus ride home, Kelby from Oklahoma, who has recently come out and now experiences the most extreme isolation, and Ja’Maya from Mississippi who is waiting to discover her fate after snapping and pulling her mother’s gun out on the school bus one day. Their stories are bookended by another suicide – eleven-year-old Ty Smalley, and the grief of parents who lose a child so young is palpable.

Alex Libby, one of the central subjects of Lee Hirsch’s powerful documentary Bully

So much of what I saw angered and saddened me (the small-town, Bible belt ignorance and cruelty directed at Kelby’s entire family is very difficult to listen to), but probably nothing more so than the repeated cries from teachers and others in school administration positions that ‘kids will be kids’ and from those in law enforcement who say that if they don’t see evidence of violence they don’t think it’s bullying. The desperation of Tyler’s parents at a town hall meeting to find someone to take responsibility for the actions that led to their sons’ own desperate act, was very difficult to watch. Principals who refuse to punish bullies but ask victims instead to shake hands (otherwise ‘you’re just the same as he is’) display a ludicrous disconnect with the gravity of the situation in their schools.

Hirsch’s camera simply rolls and lets the kids tell their stories. Alex, in particular, is very easy to care about. And Hirsch doesn’t take his position as filmmaker lightly. When his camera captures an increase in violence and threats towards Alex he actually turns the camera off and calls in his parents and the school.

MIFF is holding special screenings for schools. I agree that this film should be mandatory viewing for teenagers (maybe even younger), but I’d also encourage adults to take the time to watch. It may force you to relive some of the horrors of your own high school experience, but it should also remind you that life would be better for everyone if we try to treat each other with a bit more respect, decency and kindness on a daily basis.

That’s the ugly side of being young. But Only the Young captures the other side of it – the dreamy glow of pure friendship and first love. Only the Young is an observational documentary that portrays that moment in adolescence when everything starts to change and the adult world we can’t escape starts calling.

Garrison and Kevin are best friends living in a small Californian desert town, Santa Clarita, where homes have been foreclosed and there’s nothing much to do. Skye is Garrison’s girlfriend, until he decides she isn’t, and then she kisses Kevin, gets a new boyfriend called Robin, Garrison gets a new girlfriend called Kristen, and Kevin just keeps on skating, looking towards his high school graduation and his family’s move to Tennessee.

Garrison and Kevin skate in one of the empty underpasses in Only the Young

Shot over several months, Only the Young traces the halcyon days of summer as Garrison and Kevin skate their way through the deserted wasteland of their town and try to find Gandalf costumes for Halloween. There’s some tension after Kevin kisses Skye, but not enough to permanently damage their bond. Only the Young is a really intimate and candid film and I loved it – there wasn’t one false note. The bond between Kevin and Garrison, in particular, is really beautiful to watch, especially how each wonders whether their friendship can survive the vicissitudes of life.

Garrison and Skye contemplate the future

The cynic in me knows this won’t be as easy as they both hope, but what makes Only the Young one of the finest coming-of-age films I’ve ever seen is that in its 68 minutes it manages to capture perfectly how the relationships we have when we are teenagers can be the most intense and special we ever experience. Only the Young gets that.

Looking forward to the final weekend now. I can report that MIFF has obtained a copy of Werner Herzog’s film, Into the Abyss, and will be screening it in the morning on the final day of the festival. I’ve been given a replacement ticket. So I’ll be able to report on that this time next week.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s