From the desk of a juror: reflecting on past and present moviegoing ethos after this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival.
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Over my lifetime, the act of watching movies has become progressively more personal—for me it’s not exactly “escapism,” but not quite as strenuous “work” as many might define it either. Maybe more of a sheltered or sacred, edifying endeavor. Since I was 20 and enrolled in my first film class (Dr. Louis Schwartz’s decades-spanning “American Genre Film”), I’ve treated the act of watching movies like their own microcosmic courses in and of themselves. This is only magnified by my penchant to take notes about my first impressions of what I experience in crooked lines and lettering in the dark of the theater or my own room. For years, I became accustomed to saying I don’t keep a journal, because all of those thoughts are encapsulated in stacks of college-ruled, dated film notebooks.
This past winter, when Ben Reiser, Director of Operations at the Wisconsin Film Festival, asked me to be a part of the fest’s Golden Badger Jury (following such distinguished Tone Madison voices as Edwanike Harbour in 2019 and Jason Fuhrman in 2022), I saw the opportunity as a chance to more formally put these self-motivated skills to the test. Along with fellow jurors, professor/filmmaker Kate Balsley and choreographer/filmmaker Abigail Kruger, I sat down to watch 36 Wisconsin-affiliated short films on one Saturday in February, and then five features the following day.
Our deliberations afterward may have been tortuous but they were largely uncontentious. We ended up doling out three awards to short films that we all felt exhibited the most dynamic visuals or consistently spirited narrative flair. I didn’t personally win anything myself, and yet the decisive act and subsequent award ceremony in the Great Hall in the Memorial Union on April 13, where I read a short piece about Owen Klatte’s Of Wood as I presented a physical statuette to Klatte, felt uncommonly affecting and directly engaging. (Then again, most who attended that ceremony would probably admit the acoustics of that cavernous ballroom made it impossible to discern every word.)
In the ensuing days, I hopped across town to all the exhibiting venues. And while I may not have been struck with the sort of elation in response to individual viewing experiences of prior years (although The Tuba Thieves, Ever Deadly, and The Runner each came close), there was just something in the air this year that fostered a sociability that I had forgotten. In 2022, the pep that typically accompanies the festival seemed somewhat crushed by Omicron variant concerns, and so 2023 seemed like the first fully-fledged event since 2019. It was also my most complete experience in my 11 years of attending in person. I was there for the opening and closing night films, and made it to a film every day. (Also, I, or rather we, survived the alarming 50-degree temperature swing from that Saturday into Monday, April 15 into 17.)
In an unorthodox turn, the fest’s partnership with Hilldale to temporarily revive the former Sundance/AMC theater for seven final days, ending April 20, meant that it wasn’t tethered to the same corporate chain oversight of the past. The festival even began preceding some of the later-day programming with a distorted trailer that mocked AMC’s inescapable advert starring Nicole Kidman, who, in it, claims that watching clips of digitally-beamed blockbusters makes her “somehow reborn.” Local video artist Alex T. Jacobs, director of the festival entry lake time, and member of experimental video entity Warm Light, truly tapped into a collective unrest and recognition of just how far the AMC theater at 430 N. Midvale Blvd. had fallen from grace in its final months (as we documented in our 2022 year-end reflections), while he also absurdly celebrated just why we were all in attendance.
Every spring when the film festival is on the horizon, a principal staff person tends to appear on local news programs, radio shows, and PBS Wisconsin’s Director’s Cut to answer questions about why local audiences should come out, and espouse the benefits of seeing movies in a particular environment. It feels like a self-evident thing to me, a millennial, who has forged these aforementioned personal connections; but I do understand the necessity of repeating that significance after theatrical exhibition didn’t exist for a good while, just recently. And I also return to the idea of watching movies as an act of edification and illumination that not only facilitates connections to others around us but captures cultural milieu and dynamics that other mediums cannot, at least in the same capacity. My nose has never as often been in books as it has been buried in my own notebooks and folded-over program notes in-between screen-gazing, attempting to transmute impressions in the whir of 24 frames per second.
Maybe I’m getting especially philosophical and earnest, because I’m pondering the movie-adventure essay I wrote last October, and just finished reading Run Towards The Danger: Confrontations With A Body Of Memory, a series of personal essays by actor-turned-writer/director Sarah Polley. In two particular pieces, “Mad Genius” and “Dissolving The Boundaries,” Polley attempts to dispel a certain preconceived glamor of moviemaking and toxic notions of single-minded artistic pursuits while at once recognizing the interior meanings of film and TV to so many people she’s met and even embraced. Polley’s words further solidify the idea of hidden communities beyond the spaces where movies are made, and ones that I have seldom connected with since the 2020 pandemic, when we were all forced to become temporary hermits, shrinking from face-to-face interaction.
As I’m still gathering my bearings after eight jam-packed days of moviegoing last month, I want to thank all the people who engaged with me even briefly or offered a special courtesy during the film festival, to help reinforce the essential meaning of what I spend many weeks on per year, and what I routinely have to timidly self-validate—from Kate Balsley and Abigail Kruger, to Bi Cheng Wu, Ken Betts, Meggen Heuss, Andrea Rosen, Pete Schwaba, Michael Neelsen, James Kreul, Sean Ottosen, James Runde, Jennie Capellaro, Bob Murawski, Chris Innis, Ralph Arlyck, Julian Antos, Krista Ritger, Oliver Eng, fellow Tone contributors Lewis Peterson and C Nelson-Lifson, Erik Kramer, Dan Woodman, Brian Doering, Huan-Hua Chye, Bill Bedford, Jeff Sauer, Larry and Dee Dee, JoAnne Powers, as well as festival staff Jane Schroeder, Kathleen Ricci, Mike King, and Ben Reiser.
They all made the film festival more than just a set of 18 screenings (a few too many for a comfortable itinerary, personally). I can push myself to pursue or simply have the good fortune to happen upon great art by myself, this year finding inspiration in the films of Atom Egoyan (Polley stars in two of his biggest artistic successes), and keep amassing those handwritten film notebooks by date. But without articulate dialogue or even kindly interaction, resonance and motivation are lost. There is something to the moviegoing experience that the festival aims to provide year after year. Beyond that, there’s just something about the act of engaging with a movie and with others that I hope will continue to mean something if we continue to acknowledge the role of cinema spaces.