The vagaries of film distribution should
disturb anyone remotely interested in good movies.
Of course, only foreign films and independent American features fall under this curse; Hollywood continues releasing junk week after week, an easy-to-please public lapping it all up.
In the specialized world of foreign and independent film distribution, however, it’s puzzling why certain pictures cannot compete for a share of an admittedly small art-house audience.
To make partial amends, the Village Voice has conducted a poll the past few years listing what several critics think are the "Best Undistributed Films"; critics taking part in the poll - I don’t - have seen dozens of features at the Cannes, Sundance, Toronto or the New York film festivals, and each has pet favorites, usually knowing full well that what critics loved in a small, darkened screening room in the south of France will be seen by precious few others.
This year’s edition of "Village Voice: Best Undistributed Films," at the BAMCinematek May 31-July 7, rounds up six films from possible obscurity for short runs that allow those who want to see them the opportunity. The question is: are they worth seeing?
I’ve seen five of the films, and I must say that only one deserves wider distribution; unfortunately, Peter Watkins’ "La Commune," a typically uncompromising, demanding six-hour study of the 1871 Paris Commune, which led to a brief uprising against and brutal, bloody putdown by the government, has little chance of gaining distribution.
"La Commune" will only have one showing, on June 30, partly because of its inordinate - yet absolutely justified - length, but partly because there isn’t really an audience for such an intelligent exploration of the interrelationship of history, politics and the media. Even at his most wrongheaded, Watkins makes movies jam-packed with ideas, which is anathema to viewers and distributors.
The other Voice selections are disappointing. (I have not yet seen John Gianvito’s "The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein," a hybrid of narrative and documentary filmmaking on American behavior during the Gulf War, which opens the series with a one-week run May 31-June 6.) With "The Sleepy-Time Gal" (June 8-9), director Christopher Munch shows none of the talent of his first two films, "The Hours and Times" and "The Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day"; neither had much depth, but at least had authentic atmosphere. The dully unoriginal "Sleepy-Time Gal" doesn’t even have atmosphere as an asset.
"Silence, We’re Rolling" (June 22-23) is yet another splashy musical by Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, whose attractiveness to the New York Film Festival programmers the past few years is mystifying.
With the sloppy, ugly "R-Xmas" (July 6-7), Abel Ferrara has truly reached bottom, lower even than his previous nadirs "The Funeral," "The Addiction" and "The Blackout." What an embarrassing comedown for the man who once made gritty street films like "Bad Lieutenant" and "King of New York."
Finally, "Millennium Mambo" (June 29) is the latest unreleased Hou Hsaio-Hsien opus. None of Hou’s films have ever gotten distribution, including his two masterpieces, "A City of Sadness" and "The Puppetmaster." Those richly detailed Taiwanese historical portraits - and, to a lesser extent, "The Flowers of Shanghai" - show Hou as a master of epic histories, yet he continues wasting his talent on uninteresting slices of contemporary Taiwanese life.
Like his other modern-day messes "Good Men Good Women" and "Goodbye South Goodbye," "Millennium Mambo" never humanizes the aimless 20-somethings who populate its desperately empty 105 minutes. Even the stunning Shu Qi, whose beauty overwhelms her natural acting ability, cannot save this mumbo-jumbo.
What would I choose instead?
I’m glad you asked.
At the recent Rotterdam Film Festival, I saw several interesting, and a few quite good movies. Among the latter was Anne Fontaine’s "The Way I Killed My Father," a mature psychological drama worth seeing for the subtle nuances of its top-flight cast (including Michel Bouquet, Charles Berling and Natacha Regnier). But it has much more: depth, penetrating insights, well-rounded characterizations.
Also at Rotterdam were several features by Serbian director Goran Markovic - whose charmingly nostalgic "Tito and Me" was released after showing at the 1993 New Directors/New Films series - in the "Filmmakers in Focus" section. His latest, a superb documentary indictment of his homeland titled "Serbia Year Zero," tries coming to terms with the horrific charade of Milosevic’s government. It’s required viewing for anyone of any political inclination.
The best film I saw at Rotterdam was "The Profession of Arms," Ermanno Olmi’s latest. This chilling examination of the difficulty in reconciling war with religion is rooted in its director’s own devout Catholicism; his view of the short life of the great 16th-century soldier Giovanni de Medici is as dark and troubling yet life-affirming as all of this master filmmaker’s work. Superbly photographed by Olmi’s son Fabio and with a brazenly modernist musical score by Fabio Vacchi, "The Profession of Arms" is probably too good for a distributor.
But at least it’s being shown locally, albeit not in the Voice series at BAM. Instead, it will be shown at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, as part of its New Italian Cinema series June 6 and 7. Olmi - who rarely leaves Italy - may appear with his film in Manhattan, a rare chance to see one of the great directors in the flesh. Too bad the Voice series hasn’t included it, but maybe next year films as good as Olmi’s and Watkins’ will be picked up for distribution, rendering moot the need for such a series.
"Third Annual Village Voice Film Critics Poll’s Best Undistributed Films" series runs May 31-July 7 at BAMcinematek (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in the Fort Greene). Tickets are $9, $6 for students (with valid I.D. Mondays-Thursdays, except holidays), seniors, BAM Cinema Club members, and children under 12. For more information, call the BAMcinematek hotline at (718) 636.4100 or visit www.bam.org.