Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Understanding the Competition

Mark, Israel and I spent much of this past week-end taking in films and networking at the Maryland Film Festival. Mark, who recently launched the Mark Jaffee Film Fund, formally began his search for his next producing adventure at the fest.

Although we were all there for the same general reasons, my personal goal was to get a sense of the competition. What sorts of films made it in to the festival? What were their strengths? What were their weaknesses? Of course, at the back of my mind was the festival's surprising rejection of "A Modest Suggestion".

At the forefront of many critiques of "AMS" is the film's pace. It certainly isn't a racehorse, as far as films go, but is that really it? If there's one lesson I learned at the festival this year, it's that pace is not a factor, at least, not in this selection committee's eyes.

The festival included some particularly slow films, some of which had won high praise at other festivals around the world. These were narrative films, stories, and they were much longer than "AMS". One film, in particular, seemed to be cut exclusively of minute-long takes. In my most recent "Musing Pictures" blog post, I spent some time pondering some of my favorite long takes, using the del Toro film, "Chronos", as a springboard to thoughts on "Touch of Evil", "Rope" and other films. I love long takes when they're done well. At times, they can do more than a series of cuts to engage and energize an audience. Unfortunately, some of the slower films we saw didn't use long takes in that way. They seemed to invite contemplation, meditation and introspection. Unfortunately, they also inspired sleep. I don't think I've ever seen quite so many snoozing people in a movie theater.

So, why are films like that accepted to a film festival? (and yes, the back of my mind still nags, "why wasn't 'A Modest Suggestion' accepted?)

The conclusion I reached is a somewhat more nuanced version of "it's just dumb luck, kid. Get over it".

Every film that I saw at the festival had something - breathtaking cinematography, a unique viewpoint, unusual characters - that stood out in some way. Although some of the films did not speak to me at all, those stand-out elements must have spoken out to the festival's selection committee in some way. We all have our unusual interests. Long takes, for example. If I were a festival judge, I might vote to include a film with a particularly complex long take, whereas others might find fault in its narrative. The element of luck that plays in to the festival game is in how the selection jury's interests align with the film's particular quirks.

Some film festivals are known for having a certain 'character'. Other fests seem to have a different 'character' every year, depending on who's selecting the films. One year, a festival's lineup may include lots of gay/lesbian themed films. Another year, and the lineup features strong female leads. It's not necessarily a conscious decision, but a reflection of the selection committee's preferences, biases, and interests.

From the films I saw at MFF, I'd say the selection committee leaned towards films with great pictures, with characters whose moral center was blurry. Audio quality seemed less of an issue than the clarity or uniqueness of the picture. Narrative resolution seemed less important than the complexity of the journey.

Since most film festivals don't provide any feedback on the film when they reject it, this is really the first obscure insight I have in to the reception "A Modest Suggestion" has been receiving, and it gives me much hope.

"AMS" is a snarky, cynical satire, with characters that are not characters, but a group that caricatures the anti-Semitic mindset. It's wordy, intellectual, silly, and very dark. Getting it in to film festivals will require that enough people on the juries or selection committees be interested in this unusual sort of film.

Although it's disheartening to think that luck plays such a major role (rather than quality or significance), it leaves me with some hope for the film. Sure, it has its problems, but films with similar problems (or worse problems) have been accepted to some of the biggest festivals in the world. Here's to hoping the film falls in to the hands of a snarky, cynical festival judge who likes intellectual, wordy satires.

-Arnon Shorr