First, the good news: In its 20th year, the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest film festival has taken a turn for the better.
Gone from the screening schedule is the egregious Made in Germany sidebar, which had persisted in showcasing a half dozen or so new Teutonic films each year, even though it’s been decades since Germany produced a half dozen new films of any significance. Meanwhile, in their tireless efforts to land the world premieres of major international films, the festival organizers have reeled in a big one — Hero and House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou’s star-studded (Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li) 10th-century costume epic Curse of the Golden Flower, which closes the festival on November 12. And there will be an extraordinary evening Thursday, November 9, when filmmaker and consummate raconteur Peter Bogdanovich performs “Sacred Monsters,” a series of monologues about the legendary actors and directors (Cary Grant, John Wayne, John Ford, Howard Hawks) he knew in his early days as a movie journalist. I’ve seen Bogdanovich do this show twice before and can attest that it’s a kind of alchemic happening in which, for 90-odd minutes, the “golden age” of Hollywood shines as brightly as if it had ended only yesterday. Like any great performer, Bogdanovich is prone to changing the set list from time to time, but if you’re lucky, you’ll hear the tale of a macabre elevator ride he once shared with Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a killer.
Bogdanovich’s appearance coincides with AFI Fest’s effort to mark a historic anniversary — not its own, but that of its predecessor, Filmex, a.k.a. the Los Angeles International Film Exposition, which would have turned 35 this year had it not succumbed to financial problems and other managerial crises in the mid-1980s (after which AFI Fest arose from its ashes). Bogdanovich’s classic adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show opened the inaugural Filmex back in 1971, and this year, the film returns along with its maker, kicking off an all-night marathon of notable titles, including Eraserhead, Eating Raoul and Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, culled from the Filmex back catalog.
Founded by a movie-mad UCLA graduate named Gary Essert, Filmex was born of the simple goal of endowing Los Angeles with a world-class film festival, and for 15 storied seasons it succeeded brilliantly. Glance back over those early lineups now — easy to do thanks to an exhaustive online Filmex database recently launched by the AFI — and you’ll find a heady mix of the Hollywood and the highbrow, of older films recovered from obscurity and new discoveries unearthed in the farthest corners of the globe. Here was a single event where, throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, Los Angeles moviegoers could reliably see new films by the then-reigning titans of world cinema (Bresson, Godard, Fellini, Pasolini); progressive work by upstart enfants terribles like Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Chantal Akerman; flickerings of cinematic life from such underrepresented countries as Cuba, Iran and the Philippines; and the revival of well-known and forgotten classics by the likes of Preston Sturges, Jean Renoir, John Huston, Billy Wilder and Charlie Chaplin. As Variety film critic Todd McCarthy wrote on the occasion of Essert’s death from AIDS in 1992, “During the years Essert ran Filmex, Los Angeles became a different kind of film town than it had ever been before — more mature, varied, adventurous and open to anything the world had to offer.”
Which brings me to the bad news. If it was the achievement of Essert and Filmex to expand Los Angeles moviegoers’ horizons, the AFI Fest of recent years has seemed intent on narrowing them, and this year’s program is no exception. For starters, the omissions are staggering: Nowhere to be found are the two top prizewinners from this year’s Cannes Film Festival — Ken Loach’s masterful The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about the early days of the Irish Republican Army, and Bruno Dumont’s Flanders, about rural Belgian youth sent off to fight in an Iraq-like war — neither of which has yet had a local premiere. Despite a new sidebar devoted to African cinema, the year’s two best African films, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Darrat and Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, are both MIA, no matter that the latter — a scabrous mock trial of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that counts Danny Glover among its producers — has been invited to just about every prestigious fall festival on the map (including Toronto, New York, Pusan and Vienna).
Likewise absent from AFI Fest’s Asian New Classics section are Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s enormously beautiful Still Life (winner of the Golden Lion for best film at this year’s Venice Film Festival) and Korean director Hong Sang-Soo’s excellent Woman on the Beach. (Apparently, they weren’t as “classic” ?as The Road and Memories of Tomorrow, two films widely known to have been rejected by several major festivals. The latter, a popular Japanese tearjerker starring Ken Watanabe as an Alzheimer’s patient, was described by one well-known festival director as “a perfectly acceptable TV movie.”) And I suppose it was downright quixotic to hope that the best Spanish film I’ve seen in ages, Albert Serra’s revisionist Don Quixote adaptation Honor de Cavalleria, might somehow make it into the festival’s Latin cinema program.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes