Cinema Paradiso

The St. Louis International Film Festival gets its act together

Less isn't more, but it's sometimes better. The St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), which concluded last weekend, chose the route of judicious editing rather than moving toward a grander scale for its ninth season. Film venues were trimmed to concentrate the festival in the city's central corridor, with the bulk of the movies screening at the Tivoli -- on all three screens -- and the Hi-Pointe. Plaza Frontenac, the popular West County destination of previous festivals, was the notable exclusion this year, but SLIFF profited from the omission. The Loop was abustle with cineastes, the Hi-Pointe had its best attendance in months and program director Chris Clark says he didn't hear any complaints from the West County crowd, who probably shouldn't even be allowed culture once they've crossed I-170, but that's another issue altogether.

In gaining access to all three screens at the Tivoli, SLIFF attained a festival central. This was apparent on the opening weekend, with crowds waiting impatiently for the first feature to exit so they could get their popcorn and their seats for John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe camping it up in Shadow of the Vampire, or the smart Japanese suspense film The Frame, or a film-shorts program. In this little pocket of St. Louis, there was the cosmopolitan air for which many city-dwellers yearn: Up the street, music; down the street, music; and, in the cinema, films from Japan and Canada and the U.S., with the opportunity of seeing John Malkovich being John Malkovich, only more so.

Not only did SLIFF reduce the number of venues -- and the mileage -- the number of films was scaled down to about 100, with many films getting more than one screening. In this way, the festival became manageable rather than daunting, and festivalgoers had more than one chance to see unique features, such as the painfully exquisite A Time for Drunken Horses from Iran or the melancholic fable of lost chances, Dribbling Fate, from Portugal. An adventuresome sensibility is at work that delivers films in Kurdish, Farsi and Portuguese, films that receive critical acclaim without the box-office receipts -- and offers them not once but twice.

Acknowledging that SLIFF follows a selection-by-committee approach, the adventuresome sensibility most in evidence was new program director Clark. Clark became programmer last summer after the abrupt firing of his predecessor, Audrey Hutti. With only a few months before the festival's opening, and without Hutti's experience or Rolodex, Clark took some bruising in these pages, appearing to be yet another safe, in-house hire. His references to his experience in the restaurant business failed to instill confidence in his ability to deal with the byzantine film industry.

But it was Clark who advocated the festival's trimming and who -- as they say in the biz -- obtained the product. Nobody goes to a film festival to watch the programmer, but Clark was fun to observe as the week rolled along. Each screening began with a festival representative performing the obligatory hail to the sponsors, an explanation of the balloting process for audience favorite and a brief comment on the film. In the opening days, Clark made these introductions stiffly, nervously, but as it became apparent that the choices he had argued for were proving successful, an entertaining deadpan camp entered his routine. He even gave some intriguing insight into the selection process, acknowledging that the explicit documentary about swingers, The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs, was one that some committee members would have preferred to shy away from. Lifestyle proved to be a risk worth taking -- if it even was a risk. Screenings were sold out, attracting a young audience, who perhaps thought this would be a good date movie, then found themselves watching people the age of their parents, or grandparents, doing things many of them have never done. Rather than stimulating, The Lifestyle was exhausting -- but illuminating, too.

The documentary American Pimp also induced some queasiness around the selection table, according to Clark, but it, too, was sold out. Clark even dared to present an evening of sex in cinema with Lifestyle and Pimp double-billed. St. Louis doesn't get too many opportunities such as this one, nor do we often hear the kind of disclaimer Clark offered before Pimp: "If anyone is offended by the words "ho,' "bitch' or "motherfucker' -- there's the door."

A film festival, though, is about the films, stupid, and this year's SLIFF consisted of the sorts of films that give festivals a reason to be. SLIFF suffers from critical kibitzing every year -- not enough foreign, too many American independents, too many films slated for broader release. Underlying these complaints is the basic St. Louis inferiority complex -- St. Louis isn't Chicago, isn't Toronto. This attitude makes for perpetual fodder for "Imagine St. Louis" but is little more than debilitating otherwise. In the 10 days of SLIFF, there were, for example, these foreign films to see: New Waterford Girl (Canada), The Frame (Japan), Passion (Australia), The Widow of St. Pierre, Harry: He's Here to Help and Beau Travail (France), Dribbling Fate (Portugal), Journey to the Sun (Turkey), A Time for Drunken Horses (Iran). Add to this a selection of films from Eastern Europe and American documentaries about the Holocaust and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and one could easily go to this festival and completely scorn the American filmmaker. There were enough subtitles to award this SLIFF a literary prize. (The print for Harry: He's Here to Help, a favorite at Cannes this year, arrived sans subtitles for its initial screening, yet more than a dozen Francophiles remained as others filtered over into the other Tivoli theaters: "Les Americaines stupides -- they expect everything to be in English!")

For those who could resist their anti-American leanings, there was the extraordinary George Washington. First-time writer/director David Gordon Green takes a setting of small-town Southern poverty and makes it as strange and unfamiliar as a Kafka dreamscape: A man spends his time amid misshapen fallen trees, perpetually chopping wood; a boy directs traffic dressed in a superhero costume of his own creation; a group of railroad workers hang out by the tracks discussing philosophy and diet. George Washington is the kind of movie that film festivals were made for.

Another criterion for a film festival's success is the surprises it offers. In this case, on the very first evening, Swimming failed to arrive, and in its stead Clark inserted Allan (Pump Up the Volume) Moyle's New Waterford Girl, a wonderfully quirky little film with the sorts of ingredients Bill (Local Hero) Forsyth used to make movies out of: strange, isolated community; bizarre characters; and a central figure -- the actress Liane Balaban -- who draws an audience to her. Seeing Balaban onscreen was reminiscent of encountering the film presence of Samantha Morton for the first time.

Other highlights included the Turkey-set Journey to the Sun, which could have been subtitled Portrait of a Police State, and singular, riveting performances by Hitomi Kuroki (The Frame) and Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche (The Widow of St. Pierre). Binoche has grown into a film actress without peer and now fits into a noble lineage of French stars: Moreau, Deneuve, Huppert, Binoche.

Yet, for all this, the most uncompromising films to be found in St. Louis last week were at the other film festival, the contemporary French films shown at Webster University. Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité and Erick Zonca's Le Petit Voleur (The Little Thief) and "Seule (Alone)" are the kind of movies that linger on the skin like cigarette smoke the morning after. These are filmmakers who are taking a course divergent from accepted modes of form and content, risking being called both pretentious and ridiculous, responding with sullen convictions in the tradition of their auteur forebears.

The dual festivals made for a cinephile's paradise. It's not too greedy to ask for more.

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