In an age of DVD extras and DYI YouTube critics, something like this year's MIFF Masters & Restorations: Films on Film sidebar provides a welcome and often thoughtful antidote to professional boosters and cranky celebrity cultists.
What's especially good (or at least interesting) is that quite a few of the films selected here break free from TV spawned formats – and the nagging, sentimental and celebratory attitude that goes with it – that many filmmakers and casual punters find so stale in the sub-genre of films on film.
For serious film fans, programs like this have perhaps a predictable edge. One casually expects a nod to past 'masters' and films that attempt to demystify the filmmaking process or celebrate an overlooked genre or national cinema – and this year's MIFF is no exception to these themes and narrative lines.
Still, what's good about MIFF's films on film program this year isn't so much the specific subjects but the diversity in tone, style and approach of the individual films. They are, with a couple of exceptions, a collection of personal films, idiosyncratic, and full of obsession and a love of the medium and its makers.
Side by Side
(Dir. Chris Kenneally, USA, 2012)
Chris Keneally's timely doco about moviemaking's transition from film to digital capture has already achieved a justly esteemed reputation. Unapologetically serious, detailed, funny, fast moving, brilliantly argued and endlessly fascinating, this is quite simply one of the best films about filmmaking in a very long time, mostly because it refuses to trivialise, de-value or qualify its subject – which is, no less than a debate about where cinema might be headed. Still, it's hardly a daring work. Featuring Keanu Reeves as interviewer and narrator, it proves it's possible to inject some energy and spark into the 'talking-heads' style. Especially if, as here, the editing is sharp, the questions probing and salient, and the subjects have something meaningful (even profound) to add to the discussion. It's got a strong cast of important figures: actors, editors and well-known players including David Fincher, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese as well as David Lynch, James Cameron, Richard Linklater and Chris Nolan, and cinematographers Michael Chapman, Vilmos Zsigmond, Dion Bebe, Anthony Dod Mantle and Wally Pfister. And it's got some great one-liners, including this priceless bit from Steven Soderbergh on where he stands on the film vs. digital debate: “I feel like calling 'film' on the phone and telling them I've met someone else and it's serious.”
Correspondence Jonas Mekas - Jl Guerín
(Dir. Mekas/Guerin, Spain/USA, 2011)
Lithuanian-born Jonas Mekas, 89, is a key figure of the American avant-garde. Spanish filmmaker Jose Luis Guerin, born in 1960, is an experimental filmmaker renowned for his mysterious explorations in both documentary and features (see In the City of Sylvia, 2007). In this compelling, hypnotic film, they have quite a bit to say to each other, much of it mutually flattering (and occasionally impenetrable). The 'letters' are actually video exchanges; oblique, and occasionally odd. The subjects and experiences range from a review of their personal history to their hopes for the future.
In the Company of Eric Rohmer
(Dir. Marie Rivière, France, 2010)
This feels like a combination home movie and love poem. And given that it was filmed in the year of Rohmer's passing, it is something of a testimonial, too. Actor Marie Rivière, famous for her role in Rohmer's 1986 Golden Lion winner The Green Ray, borrows a video camera that she does not quite know how to use so she can spend time filming her friend Rohmer. “I don't want to talk about myself, I only agreed to do this if it was fun,” he tells Rivière on camera. Indeed, the mutual affection the pair share shines out of this encounter and it's infectious; it's fun watching them as they read poetry and reminisce. Sweet, deeply personal and revealing, In the Company… is a really splendid variation on the filmed biography.
(Dir. Davy Chou, France/Cambodia, 2011)
This truly moving and revelatory documentary charts a strand of 'forgotten film history' in a refreshingly low key style – eons away from the exaggerated claims that plague this sub-genre. It is the story of the Cambodian film industry, which made 400 pictures between 1960 and 1975. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, Cambodia's stars and filmmakers were condemned to death. Most of the films did not survive. Directed by the grandson of Vann Chan, a key producer of the golden age of Cambodian cinema, the film makes brilliant use of archival material, including songs and music, stills, posters, lobby cards and props. For Chou, these are like relics from a once vibrant and now lost civilisation. He introduces us to a large cast of key players in the Cambodian film scene, circa 1960s, including actor Dy Saveth, a screen siren, and directors Ly You Sreang and Ly Bun Yim.
Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis
(Gregg Barson, USA, 116 min)
This made-for-TV feature-length documentary is a conventional piece in almost every respect; it's a talking heads film offering a generous selection of clips from its subject's long film, TV and stage career and its tone is relentlessly upbeat and reverential. Its large cast of friends and fans including Eddie Murphy, Quentin Tarantino, and Billy Crystal offer no surprises; they come to praise and rave. Still, the film is captivating, and underneath its boring formal quirks lays a project of some ambition and scope. That is, director Barson aims to examine the 'pathology' of comedy. Or, as the title suggests, it's Jerry Lewis' 'method' – as in, what makes a joke work? What's the difference between verbal humour and visual humour made for the screen? All of Lewis' comic tools come in for repeated close scrutiny. Of course, the film's incidental pleasures are bountiful.
Other films featured but unpreviewed by SBS include from the USA Don't Expect Too Much by Susan Ray, widow of the great Nicholas Ray. It explores his life, career and the making of his experimental work We Can't Go Home Again (1976/2011), which is also included in the program.
But if there's one film here that has already acquired a near mystical aura, it's Room 237 (USA, 2012), from filmmaker Rodney Ascher. By all accounts, it eschews the superficial 'great film' attitude of conventional making-of films (and DVD features) and instead advances a drop-dead serious investigation into Stanley Kubrick's still-controversial adaptation of Stephen King's novel, The Shining (1980), uncovering a subculture of fans and their (apparently) bizarre theories concerning the film's 'message'. Unmissable.
Read: Room 237 review