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At last, the final day of films at the festival. Each year, this last day is reserved for the festival favorites, which are determined by audience votes. So today the highest rated films in the poll were re-screened, and I got a chance to see a movie I hadn't been able to fit into my schedule, as well as a few more movies I hadn't planned to see at all.
I've been talking to a lot of people throughout the festival about how many movies I'm seeing this year, and one person I mentioned it to pointed out that it seemed a shame to stop at 38 or 39 when I was so close to 40 (and here I'm really talking about number of screenings; if you count actual separate films, including all the short films I've seen in various collections, I've seen well over 40). I think this person was probably kidding, but I kept thinking about it, and I realized that it would be easy enough to add one or two more screenings to my schedule on this last day and bring the total up to a nice round number. So I did!
And thus I found myself leaving work early again today to make my way to the Bridge and my first screening of the night--You Can't Stop the Murders, a film that I had only the most marginal interest in seeing. Upon entering the building, I found complete confusion reigning. No one seemed sure which line was for which film, and there didn't appear to be separate lines for the all access pass holders. At first I was also annoyed that no one was handing out ballots, until I realized that of course the voting was now over. Once I got inside the right theater, got myself a good seat, and the movie started rolling, I realized there would also be no more intros by festival programmers. So I suppose it's just as well I finally got around to introducing myself to Travis last night...
Films I saw today: You Can't Stop the Murders, Lightning Bug, and Wheel of Time
Like Cops, this is a film about a bunch of rather eccentric policemen in a small town (in this case, a place called West Village) who have little to do, and who tend to bungle the stuff they do have to do. However, these cops, unlike those in Cops, are a bit less likable, being as they are so incredibly dense and incompetent and even pathetic, and the movie suffers from this difference.
You Can't Stop the Murders (an Australian film, directed by and starring newcomer Anthony Mir) starts with a wonderful '70s disco-themed title sequence, which is quite appropriate, given that the premise of the film is that this small town's peaceful existence is about to be broken by a series of murders based around the famous '70s disco band The Village People and their song "YMCA." I knew this already, since I'd read the description of the film in the festival booklet, and perhaps this made the cops' inability to figure out what was going on even more incredible, to the point of being faintly irritating.
The dull cops I'm talking about, our heroes and main characters, are partners Gary and Akmal. These two sit around pretty much all day at a speed trap that never traps anyone. Akmal passes the time by describing his ideas for movies, which are inevitably ridiculous and unfilmable. We see a good example of their incompetence when, in their great haste to answer a call about a domestic dispute, they run over the dog that the dispute is all about. The rest of the local police force isn't much better--their chief, for example, is an insane religious zealot, obsessed with killing and death. And another one of the cops keeps forgetting his gun and leaving it places.
Gary's life, as we see it at the beginning of the film, seems pretty dull. He's obsessed with Julia, the local TV news reporter, and watches her news show, "Hard Hitting," every day (the episode we see, by the way, is an excellent and hilarious parody of such shows--Julia confronts the guy at the local deli with the question, "How do you respond to allegations that your meat isn't really premium?"). But he doesn't seem to have gotten up the guts to actually make a move of any kind with her.
But a change is about to come: a series of horrible murders, introduced to us by a section title--The Biker--and a picture of the first victim, whose body will be found contorted into the shape of the letter "Y." Each murder will be introduced this way, making painfully clear to the audience just what's going on, even while the cops blunder along totally clueless. Each victim is chosen for his resemblance to the character he's standing in for--thus the Biker is actually a member of a motorcycle gang; the Construction Worker is indeed a construction worker; the Sailor is a member of a troupe of strippers called Le Sailors; and so forth.
Things get more tense and dramatic as the local yearly celebration, Fun Fest, approaches, as the festivities will include a line dancing competition, which Gary hopes to win, thus defeating the current champion and Gary's personal nemesis, the hated Sebastian. Meanwhile, a big city cop named Tony Charles (who's played with sleazy arrogance by the film's director) has arrived from Sydney and has decided to help with the murder investigation. Tony is a parody of the typical action movie cop hero--his partner, Kowalski, was killed by a drug dealer because Tony froze and didn't fire his gun fast enough. Now Tony is haunted by his partner's death, and so trigger-happy that his angry chief finally sent him to West Village just to get him out of the way, and hopefully to keep him from shooting more people. Everyone in the town except Gary--including Gary's partner, Akmal, and his secret crush, Julia--is totally beguiled by the big-city cop. Akmal starts following him around like a puppy dog, copying his Miami Vice-type style, and Julia quickly jumps into bed with him--in fact, in a totally humiliating sequence, Tony borrows the change from Gary to buy the condom he's going to use before going home with Julia (who actually turns out to be really kind of violent and crazy in bed, and a loud snorer, so maybe Gary is better off without her!). The tension, hilarity, and mystery mount until everything explodes and all questions are answered in the dance-filled, blood-soaked finale.
You Can't Stop the Murders is a silly, violent film, and quite entertaining in its own way. And because it's a comedy, there's a wonderful happy ending, wherein everyone lives happily after--except for the many victims, of course. I don't always like its sense of humor, and its characters are sometimes a little too ridiculous, pathetic, and stupid to be likable, but it is often imaginative and funny, and it's a fun way to kill a few hours.
As I said, there was no more voting to be done at this point in the festival, but if I had been grading this film, I probably would have given it a Good or a Very Good.
A quick walk over to the International House got me to my next screening, which started quite late, so I had plenty of time to enjoy the excellent music they were playing in the theater (The Talking Heads, among others), and to think over my whole festival experience. Looking over my schedule and flipping back through my notebook, I really just couldn't believe I'd actually seen so many movies, and in just a little over a week and a half! And the movie I was about to see was one that ended up on my schedule due to a crazed desire to see even more movies.
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Lightning Bug is a mostly autobiographical film from special effects/make-up artist Robert Hall, who makes his first foray into writing and directing with this drama about a young boy's life in small town America, and his fight to make it to the big-time in Hollywood as (you guessed it) a special effects/make-up artist. The boy's name is, rather appropriately, Green Graves and he lives with his little brother Jay in a small house with their single mother Jenny, who unfortunately starts dating and even eventually marries a big, dumb, vicious alcoholic named Earl. Earl offers a steady income, which the family needs, but he also beats Jenny and lords it over the kids. He demands that Green get a real job and stop messing around with his little girly toys. But Green is looking forward to making a really impressive haunted house in a local barn for Halloween, and refuses to stop. Meanwhile, he gets involved in a relationship with Angeline, the Goth girl who works at the video store (whom you'll recognize as Laura Prepon from "That '70s Show"). They discover that they have the same weird, outsider sensibility, rare in this close-minded little town, and they both like movies--specifically, gory movies. Angeline even used to be an actress; or at least, that's what she says. But Angeline has a dark and secret past, and her mother is a religious fanatic who doesn't at all approve of Green and his haunted house. The stage is set for some serious conflicts.
Lightning Bug is a smart, funny, moving coming-of-age drama. The title comes from a pastime that Green and his friends enjoy: catching lightning bugs in the field at night and keeping them in a jar outside the house. It's a symbol of childhood, and of the eerie in everyday life--a symbol which Earl ends up smashing in a drunken rage. Lightning Bug takes many a swipe at authority figures, hypocrisy, and close-mindedness, and it does so with wit and humor. It's a great movie, and well worth watching. Look out for cameos by Don Gibb (big, hairy star of innumerable TV shows and over 30 movies, including the Bloodsport films) as Green's lovable, paint-sniffing Uncle Marvin, and Hal Sparks (another TV star, most lately and famously of "Queer as Folk" and those VH1 "I Love the.." shows) as the local cop, TV host, and all-around prick, Deputy Dale.
If we'd still been rating films at this point, I probably would have given this one an Excellent.
I had plenty of time between this movie and my next one, so I took my time walking back to the Bridge. As I settled into my seat in the theater and waited for the movie to begin, I realized once again how incredibly tired and wiped out and emotionally drained I was. I looked up the running time for my final film and was relieved to find that it was quite short. I was ready for this to be over.
Even so, I was still excited to see Wheel of Time. It's a film by one of my favorite filmmakers, but I'd been forced to take it off of my list of regularly programmed films to fit in another screening. Of course, I did this with the knowledge that it would most likely be chosen as a favorite, and even if it wasn't, it was far more likely than most of the other films in the festival to be easy to track down later on tape or DVD if I really wanted to see it. Luckily, the film did indeed appear on the schedule of favorites, and I fit it in as my final and fortieth screening.
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Wheel of Time is the latest documentary from German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Herzog started his career making fiction films, and created such classics as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser and Nosferatu the Vampyre. His films often starred non-actors, and always made use of very naturalistic acting and very little special effects or trickery (in Fitzcarraldo, for instance, he and his crew famously actually performed the incredible feat shown in the film--carrying a huge boat over a mountain), so his movement into documentaries, which are what he makes now almost exclusively, was a natural transition.
This Herzog documentary is about the Kalachakra (or "wheel of time") Initiation ceremony, a very special and important ceremony that the Dalai Lama calls faithful Buddhists together to celebrate very infrequently. Herzog and his crew were there in Bodh Gaya, India in 2003 to film the beginning of the most recent celebration. The rite centers around the painstaking creation of an enormous sand mandala. In fact, everything about the rite seems to be painstaking. Herzog records so many acts of incredible devotion. Thousands of pilgrims came to Bodh Gaya at the Dalai Lama's call, by truck, by foot. Some made the journey via prostrations--a constant process of kneeling, laying flat out on the ground, then standing up and taking one step forward, and then repeating the process, over and over again, over rocks, stones, streams. One lama traveled this way for over 3000 miles. It took him three and a half years. He's from such a remote area that it takes two separate interpreters working in tandem to translate what he's saying to Herzog. The lama has a wound on his forehead from his journey that still hasn't healed. But he doesn't want to make a big fuss about any of it. Herzog says of this man, "He knows how big the world is--he has measured it himself with his body, head to toe."
Like most of Herzog's films, this one is about the extremities of human emotion and experience; it is about the incredible single-minded devotion certain people have toward one purpose. Herzog understands this well, as he is such a person, but despite that, or perhaps because of it, it still fascinates him.
And there are so many stories like this here. For instance, many of the pilgrims, now that they've arrived, are making 100,000 prostrations to the tree of enlightenment. For the fittest of them, this will take six weeks. Meanwhile, the monks work around the clock, slowly and with incredible care and precision, building the sand mandala--a kind of complex map of an inner landscape. It is kept behind glass, as it is so fragile that it could be destroyed by a breath or a touch. Others of the faithful make a further pilgrimage to Mount Kylosh, a holy mountain thought to be the center of the spiritual and physical universe. They lack facilities and food, and tents are a luxury. Most must lie under the open sky in the freezing air. And once they arrive, they walk around the entire mountain, at extreme elevations--each year a few people from the lowlands die.
Soon enough, we meet the man at the center of all of this--the Dalai Lama. He is a surprisingly jolly, human, and down-to-earth person, while at the same time a man of deep wisdom. Of Mount Kylosh he says, everyone thinks their place is the center of the universe, but each person is the center of the universe. He speaks of the need for more equality, for a clean environment, and for all of us to live as brothers and sisters. All religions ask for the same things, he says, the things we all need, that are the source of a happy life: love, compassion, and devotion. He believes the only way to lasting peace on Earth is to study other religions.
Throughout the film we will see acts of incredible godly devotion beside moments of simple, earthy humanity. At the site of the ceremony, one man is selling birds--they are all crowded into one cage. Another man buys some of the birds from him, blesses them, and releases them. All living things are equal and deserve the right to become Buddha, he says, but to become Buddha you must be free. Of course, it's not all peace and love here. At the ceremony, consecrated food and gifts are given out, and a bit of a fight breaks out over them--some people just grab armloads of them and run off.
Documentaries, of course, are rarely without some unexpected drama. The Dalai Lama, who has been ill, finally announces that he will make a public appearance. Lines of people miles long begin to form. But he has come out to say that he is too ill to preside over the main ceremonies this year, and they will be cancelled. They will have to take place next year. The pilgrims are shocked. The Dalai Lama is so anguished, he cannot speak.
But Herzog follows the Dalai Lama to Graz, Austria the next year, and this time he is well enough to complete the main rite. Here we meet more stories of incredible devotion--a political prisoner jailed for 37 years for the crime of demanding twice that Tibet be freed. He has been in the jail with its perfectly level floors for so long that he is not used to differences in elevation, and needs a cane to walk. He is stunned by mobile phones and cannot understand how they work. When he meets the Dalai Lama, he asks permission to put on his glasses to see him (an act which is apparently considered rude in some cultures).
Finally the ceremony is performed, the mandala created and destroyed. Herzog's cameras stay behind and find a bodyguard still standing in the hall afterward. But the Dalai Lama is gone. Why is this guard still here? He seems a symbol of emptiness, protecting no one from nothing. Herzog then takes us back in time to compare this to a similar image. One year ago, at the end of the ceremony in India, among hundreds of thousands of empty seating pillows, his camera found one lone priest still sitting there. Is this man the center of the universe? Is he enlightened? The final shot of the film is of the holy mountain and the nearby lake: calm, beautiful, and inscrutable.
This film is indescribably moving. It left me with a feeling of serenity, of quiet contemplation, and peace. My description above cannot in any way do it justice. Herzog's narration is beautiful, thoughtful, well-written, and well-spoken. His voice and words lead us down a path of deep thought, discovery, and understanding, to a place of silence beyond meaning.
Obviously I would have rated this film as Excellent had there been ballots with which to vote.
I was very glad that I ended the festival with a film like Wheel of Time. And I was very glad to see the festival end. It was an amazing experience that I really enjoyed, but it was also completely exhausting. And now it's over, and my diary is finally finished, and it's time to think about next year!
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