Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
October 2006

Jonathan Rosenbaum concludes his preview of the (now completed) Chicago International Film Festival like this:

It won’t be easy to navigate the 110 separate programs — many more than in Venice, though many less than in Toronto. We’ve reviewed around half the features; the rest are described briefly. It would be absurd to generalize about what we haven’t seen, dispensing the kind of reassurance many critics like to offer and attempting to alleviate any guilt over missing most of what gets shown (as we all do, critics included).

Hear hear.

The publicity machine wants to see its chosen dishes smeared on the faces of taste makers as they go out into the wide world to spread their wisdom. Hence the hurling of product. Trust me, I've seen hurling.

But when film critics tell you that "the best film at the festival was ..." don't be shy about asking them how many films they saw and comparing the answer to the number available. Pick three films at random from the schedule and ask them to compare the anointed "best film" with these three. The odds are in your favor. Many a taste maker will pat his or her belly and say too full but then turn 'round to belch unqualified remarks into the faces of eager movie lovers who have limited time, funds, and access for film and rely on filters like Mr. and Ms. Professional Critic.

Thus they, the critics, not all of them but let's say heaps of them, contribute to the sorry state of cinema they decry. Rosenbaum is right. It's absurd. Or maybe I'm just cranky.

Harry Tuttle has begun a series on critical fallacies. Reducing the world of cinema to the neatly enclosed bundles demanded by commerce is a fallacy that sticks in my craw, but Harry is systematically examining others.

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The new PFA schedule is up, and I'm thrilled to see that a Jacques Rivette series begins in November. But wait there's more. I scanned the Rivette schedule looking for one item in particular, and found it right up near the front:

Jacques Rivette, The Night Watchman (Claire Denis, 1990)

Early in her career, director Claire Denis worked as an assistant to Rivette. In this documentary for the television series Cinéma, de notre temps, she pays tribute to her mentor and longtime friend, and also to the great critic and former editor of Cahiers du cinéma Serge Daney, who interviews Rivette while accompanying him on his peregrinations across his favorite set: the city of Paris. The critic and the critic-turned-director visit the city's cafes and ride on the Métro as their conversation touches on questions of art and ethics and the history of the French New Wave; sometimes the answers to Daney's probing questions come not in words but in the fleeting expressions on Rivette's face. “Between the director and her two brilliant, loquacious subjects, there are three very fine minds on display in this film” (Film Society of Lincoln Center).
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The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez

The Mill Valley Film Festival is half over, but you still have an opportunity to catch several good movies. I'm waking from my slumber, somewhat tardy since the festival started Thursday, because there's one film in particular that I want to recommend, and there are still two chances to see it if you live in the Bay Area. Even if the tickets sell out, you can show up at the theater an hour or so before the movie and stand in the rush line. In most cases, your chances of getting in are pretty good.

But first some overall flavor. My favorite thing about the Mill Valley Film Festival is the small-town feeling you get from the employees, volunteers, and attendees. After the push and shove of larger festivals, the easier pace of a festival nestled in redwoods is a nice change of pace. And the programmers usually manage to program more than a handful of gems. The trick is to find them.

On the other hand, for such a small festival, MVFF always feels a little too propped up by middlebrow Hollywood fare. This year alone sees at least seven major studio films in the lineup, each one scheduled to receive a wide national release in just a few weeks: The Queen, Catch a Fire, A Good Year, Breaking and Entering, The Last King of Scotland, Babel, and Little Children.

Forest Whitaker of The Last King of Scotland and Juliette Binoche of Breaking and Entering appeared together last year in Abel Ferrara's Mary, although I'm not sure they actually shared any scenes.
Quick impressions: The Queen is thoroughly absorbing, and I'd never given the British royalty five minutes of thought before this film. (I'm often asked for my impression of the queen.) Babel is the first of Alejandro González Iñárritu's films in which the characters outweigh the structural ingenuity. (I'm often asked about the weight of structural ingenuity. Answer: heavy.) And Catch a Fire is a well-intentioned but somewhat simplistic examination of terrorism and activism and the circumstances that can lead to either. (Discuss?) Breaking and Entering and The Last King of Scotland both feature some great performances, which is probably faint praise relative to the films' ambitions; the first is a bland, silly, and inconsequential soap opera and the second is a tense spectacle whose grainy, caught-on-film appearance, energetic pace, and riveting performance by Forest Whitaker make it highly watchable, even when things get grizzly, but the movie as a whole is not particularly revealing. All five of these films are better than Ridley Scott's Russell Crowe vehicle A Good Year which is terrible for so many reasons I won't go into them here. I haven't yet seen Little Children, but I thought Todd Field's previous movie, In the Bedroom, was pretty good, so I'm looking forward to this one.


But really, I wouldn't waste a festival slot on any of the big movies if I were you. Here's what I'd see instead:

The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez

One of my favorite documentaries of the year is so timely that I'm saddened to learn that it still hasn't been widely distributed in the States since I saw it in January, even though it seems to fill a void in the public debate. Did you know that the first US soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom was not an American citizen at all but an immigrant from Guatemala? Heidi Specogna's wonderful film tells the story of that soldier and how he found his way from the streets of Guatemala to a battlefield in the Middle East, and while it's a conventional documentary in many ways, the film's brilliance is in the way it artfully blends the particular and the general. Gutierrez is one of many people who've followed a similar but less celebrated arc, so telling his story sheds light on countless others that remain untold, and yet at no time does Specogna coerce the details of his life into symbolism. And notice what she does with the parts of his journey that weren't captured on video: she shows us other people who are in similar straits, people planning to slip across the southern border of the United States as the last best hope for helping their families. So: the general story fills out the particular story as much as the particular fills out the general.

This movie is not about the Iraq war. This movie is to some degree about immigration, and homelessness, and determination. But mostly this film is about a young man named José Antonio Gutierrez who was ambitious and loved, who was brought down before his potential was realized, and who lived his short life in the blind spot of a socioeconomic system that functions — if we can say that it functions — because of his sacrifice. No shallow tribute, Specogna's film explores a politically charged topic with honesty and respect for the life at the center. It's a great film, and if you're in the Bay Area you have a chance to see it. As of this writing, tickets are still available for both screenings. Even if they sell out, you can arrive early and wait in the rush line.

Update: 12 October 2006

If you don't want to take my word for it, here's David D'Arcy writing a Park City Dispatch for GreenCine back in January:

Another look at a life taken away from a young man is The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez, a documentary by the Swiss filmmaker Heidi Specogna. José Antonio Gutierrez was a Guatemalan immigrant and a marine who became the first American to die in the war in Iraq in March 2003. When his body came back, the motivational official story came out from the Bush administration that Gutierrez fought adversity to be an American, and that he died giving something to his country.

From this film we get the real story from those who knew Gutierrez.
Several people have told me that they think The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez is the best film of the festival [Sundance 2006]. It's surely one of the best. Heidi Specogna has reconstructed an inconspicuous life, the kind of life that used to be called "minor," without a single interview with Gutierrez, few records, and the recollections of those who knew him.

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2005, U.S.
director: Abel Ferrara

Louder and more chaotic than its material seems to warrant, Abel Ferrara’s Mary feels like the condensed version of a much larger movie. It includes scenes from a religious epic, TV interviews, street fights, limo rides, infidelity, hypocrisy, apostasy, and conversion, but at a mere 83 minutes the whole thing's over before it has even begun.

Forest Whitaker plays a TV host examining the historical Jesus on a nightly broadcast, and Matthew Modine is the director and star of a controversial Biblical film. Modine agrees to appear on Whitaker’s show, boosting both of their careers, but one person they can't yoke to their PR efforts is Juliette Binoche who plays Mary Magdalene in Modine’s movie. She’s been so transformed by the experience that at the end of the shoot she drops everything and heads to Jerusalem.

Very little of this mess works in any conventional sense, but as the performances begin to redline — as Whitaker bottoms out and begs God to save his child and Binoche takes to the water like a fisher of men — the movie seems to examine the relationship between performance and contrition. All of these characters are actors; some of them are trying to open a channel to God while others are putting on a show intended to earn some grace. It’s a fitting topic for Ferrara, whose movies frequently embrace the same contradictions, and they’re all here in Mary. The excess, the guilt, and the search for truth are intriguingly jumbled with some assembly required.

This review also appears in print in Paste Magazine #22, June/July 2006.
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Fifteen Months Ago
We were told that a blog should be updated every day or readers would drift. Freshness is critical, our advisors said, and since we do aim to be critical we heeded their advice, even though they commanded fees in excess of what might be deemed reasonable. At their urging, we instituted a new plan whereby one item would be deleted from this site each day. The message to the reader was clear: check back regularly to see which item was removed.
Or So We Thought
At first we dismissed the emails that asked us about the very freshness we had so recently embraced. Where are the updates? readers would ask. Look. The post about the McSweeney's mural: gone. But the emails persisted long after the scheme went into effect, like the spitefully-trained talking bird who will not pipe down about the cracker and who could easily be hushed with a maneuver similar to the one used to bring a ketchup bottle to bear against an intruder's noggin: a grasp 'round the neck and a whip overhead, blackjack-style. Will you please be quiet please?
We have come to suspect that the problem is not with the ketchup-bottle-blackjack-bird but with the intruder's noggin, or more specifically with the advice that spills so easily out of it. Also his lack of crackers. Rather than waste hard-won money on a sixteenth month of service from our as yet unproven advisors, we are terminating their retainer very soon — ok, yes, immediately — and reversing the freshness agenda forthwith. No more daily deletions. Damn their oily hides.
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