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.
As for the films that are screening, the majority (including a smattering of world-premiere American indies) arrive with little or no advance buzz and, judging from the 50 that are reviewed by me and 11 other L.A. Weekly critics in the pages that follow, there’s good reason for that. Others are familiar art-house bait soon to be commercially released, like Germany’s official foreign-language Oscar entry The Lives of Others — a movie so impeccably acted and well made that few viewers have noted how politically objectionable it is. Of course, there are also some diamonds in AFI Fest’s rough (see Critics’ Picks), but they are so much the exception that their inclusion seems almost accidental, as if they had somehow managed to sneak into the program when nobody was looking.
This isn’t the first time I’ve expressed such concerns, and by now I expect there are those in the festival administration who figure I hold some sort of personal grudge against them — for rather like their neighbors down the road on Franklin Avenue at the Church of Scientology, these are very conspiracy-minded people. When I wrote an article critical of AFI Fest’s 2005 edition, one senior festival employee publicly threatened to take up arms against me, while a colleague reported overhearing another staffer asking for the removal of all copies of the Weekly from the festival premises. In truth, the only bias I harbor is my deep concern about the future of film culture in this city, which prevents me from fully championing an event that so pervasively exalts the middlebrow and mediocre at the expense of the innovative and adventurous.
While it is often remarked by local cinephiles that L.A. hasn’t been home to a truly world-class film festival since the demise of Filmex, it’s worth noting that as recently as the 1990s, AFI Fest was doing exemplary work that included the first local showings of Krzysztof Kieslowki’s Dekalog; L.A. experimental filmmaker Pat O’Neill’s magnum opus Water and Power; key films by Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and other exponents of the Taiwanese new wave; and a retrospective of the master Greek director Theo Angelopoulos — films and filmmakers you could scarcely imagine making an appearance at the AFI Fest of today. (To wit, neither of Hou’s last two films screened at AFI, Angelopoulos’ 2004 The Weeping Meadow still awaits a Los Angeles premiere, and there is not one experimental feature to be found in this year’s festival program.)
So, the true decline of AFI Fest is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating more or less from 2000, when internal reshuffling saw former Hawaii International Film Festival director Christian Gaines installed as festival director and former AFI Fest program coordinator Nancy Collet promoted to director of programming. I do not mean to place all of the blame on them, for film festivals are nothing if not exercises in compromise between the personal desires of programmers, the demands of the audience, and the whims of the distributors and sales companies who control the rights to certain films. But every festival is also, to some extent, a reflection of its principal architects (witness the revitalization of AFI Fest’s crosstown rival, the Los Angeles Film Festival, under its new leadership). And much as I have tried to convince myself otherwise — to look for ways to praise rather than fault — I am finally left with the impression that Gaines and Collet do not love movies in the same feverish, obsessive way as Gary Essert and those who have sought to uphold his legacy. I do not say these words lightly, for Gaines in particular is someone I have enjoyed meeting on several occasions and who has impressed me with his desire to make the festival as good as it can be. But there is scant evidence of that desire to date, and the exhuming of Filmex’s corpse has only made AFI Fest’s shortcomings the more glaringly obvious.
Who loses out in this equation is the audience, the sort of intelligent Los Angeles filmgoers AFI Fest purportedly seeks to attract. I am admittedly writing from a position of privilege, having the good fortune, as part of my job, to spend a fair part of the year attending and reporting from film festivals great and small all around the world. In other words, I know what’s out there, and I know what you’re missing out on. I also know that these are crisis times for the exhibition of foreign and independent films in America, and thus festivals like AFI Fest have grown in their importance, in many cases providing the only opportunity for theatrical showings that many films will ever have.
Doubtless, Gaines and Collet would respond that they are, in fact, doing a fine job, and that if you don’t believe them, just look at the numbers: Festival attendance has been steadily on the rise over the last few years, and the screenings are reliably full. But are those viewers being forced to think about cinema and the possibilities of cinema in any different terms than when they came in the door? If you build a festival, they will come, yes. But as has been proved time and again, from Sundance to Cannes, if you build a festival and challenge the audience, they will still come, and they will stand out in the lobby afterward arguing with themselves or their neighbors, perhaps thinking they’ve just seen something transcendent, perhaps pondering What the fuck was that? And a few of them will return home with the thought that movies can still be something more than just two hours alone in the dark.