April 19, 2018

Jimbo’s Wisconsin Film Festival Dispatch: Halftime Report

Dispatch: Wisconsin Film Festival

James Kreul shares observations on his first four days at the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival

Four days into the Wisconsin Film Festival I’ve seen thirteen films at four venues; add that to the eleven films I previewed before the Festival started, and I’d like to think that I’m starting to get a good feel for this year’s Festival experience. Here are a few takeaways so far.

capitol-theaterThere’s nothing more exciting than a packed Capitol Theater; there’s nothing more energy draining than an under attended Capitol Theater.

Despite a forgivable technical glitch half way through, my best viewing experience so far was Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck at the Capitol Theater. I have a few reservations about the film itself (which I will address in a future post), but programmer Mike King correctly stated in his introduction that the film needs to be played loud, and they certainly played it loud at the Capitol. I couldn’t get a sense of the crowd on the ground floor because I chose to sit in the balcony, but the energy in the room was quite contagious. The screening came close to recapturing the kind of vibe people say that they miss when they describe the lines around the block across the street at the Orpheum in the good old days.

But I have to admit, I just felt kind of bad at some of my other screenings at the Capitol. The crowd at The End of the Tour wasn’t horrible, but it should have been larger given the mainstream buzz and the marquee names involved. But the biggest bummer was going from the energy of Montage of Heck to the near flatline of The Keeping Room. The balcony was not even an option, nor did it need to be open.

The Festival seems to be caught in a dilemma regarding its former downtown identity and legacy as it moves into the future. Some people want the good old days of the Orpheum, and here I mean the really old days—the last year with the front seats removed and the projector on the floor was horrible. But those good old days were not just about having a screen on State Street. The good old days were about parking just once a day, walking (or running) all day from venue to venue, and crossing paths with everyone else doing the same thing.

The Capitol is not a such a hub; along with the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art it feels like an eastern periphery of the Festival.

As much as people say they want more of the Festival downtown, clearly that hasn’t translated into those same people going to everything offered downtown. Some of this might be related to film selection, of course.

Part of the solution, I believe, is related to the suggestion I made last year for the Festival to update its mission statement, and clarify the role of the downtown venues. That doesn’t mean trying to go back to the good old days; that means simply stating whether or not the downtown relationship is a significant part of the Festival’s mission anymore. Right now, the Capitol and MMoCA are simply two screens that happen to be downtown. Perhaps that is all they need to be within the Festival’s current mission moving forward. But I expect that more than a few people would be disappointed if that were the case.

Were Audiences Already Done By Sunday Night?

We’re only half way through in terms of days, but there are some signs that audiences might have already run out of gas. In years past, the Festival has often publicized which screenings still had tickets available, but I’ve been curious about the length of those lists this year on several of the first four days.

As I waited in line for White God at the Capitol early Sunday evening, one Festival official commented on how short the line was just before the doors opened. Okay, I mention that to give my own similar observation some legitimacy. By the time the screening started many seats had filled in, but the energy level was pretty low. My last two films of the weekend were at 4070 Vilas Hall, and both screenings had an attendance of about 35 people. Again, that might only be due to the specific films involved, the deep cut Gunman’s Walk and the tedious Felt.

We’ll wait for the official numbers to come out after the Festival before reaching any conclusions. But I have to admit I’m a little concerned.

Sundance Was Smooth

I’ve been critical of the logistics at Sundance in the past, but I need to give credit when it is due and point out that things got on track pretty quickly at Sundance this year.

Everyone seemed to know where people should go, and people seemed to know where they needed to be. The only miscommunication within the Sundance staff that I came across was when I got a soda for free because they confused my press pass with whatever kind of pass that got free sodas. (I suspected something was wrong, and I paid for my next soda.)

Bathrooms and Motifs

There are a lot of bathrooms in this year’s films. I mean a lot. They really stand out when they keep coming up in consecutive films.

Other recurring motifs: Brothers (biological or bromantics) going on a road trip (Young Bodies Heal Quickly, Güeros; The End of the Tour); children whose parents can’t handle them (Güeros, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, White God); Rocky-style scrolling opening titles (Results; Speculation Nation); kettle bell weights (Results, Uncle John).

A Ranking of the Films I’ve Seen So Far

There are two films that I attended that I can’t place on the list because a developing illness hindered my ability to watch and evaluate them: Güeros and Speculation Nation. Of the two, I’m likely to go back and give Speculation Nation another try. Interestingly, after failing to keep my eyes open for long stretches of Güeros, I was able to take a power nap before the screening of Free Fall, which I made it through just fine. Some films are compelling even when you are battling a fever.

The red font indicates a negative response. I was on the fence about putting White God in red, because it is easily the most disappointing and overrated film of the Festival. But it is also better than the last four films, which seem to me to be in their own distinct category.

Tired Moonlight*
Free Fall
La Sapienza*
Crime Wave*
Tu Dors Nicole*
En Plein Air (short)*
World of Tomorrow (short)*
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
The End of the Tour
Bloomin Mud Shuffle
Young Bodies Heal Quickly*
Blood Below the Skin: Films by Jennifer Reeder*
Tomorrow We Disappear*
Stinking Heaven*
The Boy and the World*
Bad at Dancing (short)*
Ride the Pink Horse*
Gunman’s Walk
Uncle John
White God
The Keeping Room
Roar* (yes a dud, but really a critic-proof film experience)

There are several films I’m still looking forward to this week, and I will provide a revised ranking with a bit more commentary in the coming days.


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