Reflections on the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival

Three writers share personal journals of their experiences during this year’s eight-day extravaganza.

Three writers share personal journals of their experiences during this year’s eight-day extravaganza. | By Jason Fuhrman, Edwanike Harbour, and Grant Phipps

The 21st annual Wisconsin Film Festival, which ran April 4 through 11, not only hosted a collection of burgeoning local and Midwestern directorial talents but also narrative and documentary selections fresh off their premieres at the larger North American film festivals like Toronto International and Sundance. To dive into the films themselves and the overall rhythm and experience of festival-going itself, three of Tone Madison‘s resident film writers—Grant Phipps, Jason Fuhrman, and Edwanike Harbour—have gathered their thoughts on this year’s festival, from the Icelandic thriller-comedy Woman At War on opening night at the Union Theater to the closing night selections of Alex Ross Perry’s grunge-music portrait Her Smell and Jackie Chan’s over-the-top Police Story at AMC 6. Each address their most euphoric and frustrating responses alike, interactions with other festival-goers, and offer a bit of commentary on the logistics of attending this year’s fest as members of the press.

Grant Phipps

Hail Satan?

Hail Satan?

Having missed the opening night reception and Golden Badger awards, my first official day of the festival was Friday, April 5, also serendipitously the release date of the new Weyes Blood album, Titanic Rising. Perhaps a fortuitous sign and forecast of my experiences, lead singer-songwriter Natalie Mering includes an unabashed ode to cinema on “Movies” (the album’s third single), which concludes with lyrics about the ultimate power of movies in elevating or changing one’s sense of self. It correlates to my reaction to my very first selection, but even more directly applies to the cumulative impression established through diverse marathon-viewing.

Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night was one of my most anticipated films of the year—not just for its technical feats of 3D compounded in an extended tracking shot, but more for my prior awareness of the director’s complex debut feature, Kaili Blues. Bi promised to take the romantic meditations on memory of Kaili Blues into the shadowy alleys of neo-noir in Long Day’s Journey. After my ecstatic response to its dizzying narrative threads in the lone venue with 3D projection (4070 Vilas), I found it impossible not to unravel the tapestry of cinematic references within—from the Taiwanese New Wave, to Tarkovsky’s Stalker, to Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas. It’s the kind of film that leaves one exhausted and awestruck in equal measure, perfectly suited to my taste, which heavily favors elegantly enveloping poetry and visual and linguistic associations. Upon hearing my reaction an hour afterward, a couple friends joked that my festival itinerary “would be all downhill from here,” which was not necessarily true! Experiencing a film like that once a year, even amidst ones that can’t quite touch it, is to be cherished.

A married couple was so kind as to offer me a spare ticket immediately after I arrived to wait in the rush line at the Chazen for Five Down and Inquiring Nuns later in the evening, so I thanked them and asked about their own interest in films, which leaned more toward the repertory picks and documentaries—not unexpected given the screening. As I sat down, someone else who seemed to have been in the rush line asked me why I settled on Inquiring Nuns, and we seemed to share a high opinion of Chronicle Of A Summer (1961), an influential companion piece of cinéma vérité by anthropologist Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin, which Inquiring Nuns directly references and imitates with candid street interviews on the simple prompt “Are you happy?” Originally a two-part TV special, Inquiring Nuns is less investigative and cinematic than Chronicle but retains a persistent and sympathetic interest in the human condition. It’s just a pleasure to hear how forthcoming people are about their lives in mid-late 1960s Chicago. A common stressor back then was the Vietnam War, yet, curiously, no one cites a direct worry about a friend or family member serving in the armed forces. Their concerns for peace are a bit more abstract.

On Saturday, I shuffled between the Chazen and Cinematheque again for three features. The most notable among them was a 35mm presentation of Orson Welles’ final film that was just completed last year, Other Side Of The Wind, which editor Bob Murawski attended in-person for a Q&A. For a film that’s available on Netflix, the theater was completely full—certainly encouraging news for the festival programmers. I was less thrilled with the film’s insidiously racist colloquialisms (including Welles’ stand-in J.J. Hannaford [John Huston]’s use of “Pocahontas,” which recalls the current President’s reference to Elizabeth Warren) and leering, objectifying representations of women than with the idea of it or the craft involved in extending the artistic hand of someone no longer living. In the sense that Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (2017, not at this year’s fest) is a free-jazz action farce, Other Side Of The Wind is free jazz metacinema, a montage comedy of errors… an Antonioni spoof within an emerging form (the fictionalized version of a documentary). Despite Welles’ shortcomings, the production itself is commendable and stands as a demonstration of the native Wisconsin prodigy’s forward-thinking visions for the possibilities of cinema.

Sunday was my most immersive day of movie-going, beginning with the Union South Marquee screening of Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut’s documentary Los Reyes, which got off to a late start due to projection issues. The film was ultimately presented without subtitles and proved to be an interesting experiment for this particular brand of studied documentary—about two stray dogs who hang around Los Reyes skate park in Chile. While I definitely missed the translation of off-screen conversation of the skaters who frequent the park, the film places greater emphasis on the personalities of the dogs, named Fútbol (Football) and Chola. The film sustains its invariably lively rhythm with versatile shooting—from panoramic long shots of the park and towering apartment complexes to extreme close-ups of the dogs’ mouths and ears. Perhaps my favorite juxtaposition was a scene of one of the dogs’ panting rhythmically syncing up with that of the sprinklers in the surrounding park area.

While I couldn’t quite get past the zany Wes Anderson worship in Lake Michigan Monster, making its Madison premiere at the festival, it’s hard not to admire the efforts that went into its editing, post-production, and inventive visual comedy. The film seems indebted to anime like Dragon Ball Z, especially in the finale duel between Captain Seafield (director Ryland Tews himself) and the titular Kabuki-inspired creature (also Tews, I believe). While moderating a Q&A with the director, Wisconsin Public Television’s Pete Schwaba also compared Lake Michigan Monster‘s tone and story to SpongeBob SquarePants, which is both amusing and on the mark.

For my final film of the night, I finally made it over to AMC, where I would be spending the next several days of the fest, for the second of my most anticipated selections, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric. The UK writer-director has forever proved himself to me with three earlier features that intelligently utilize genre film and exploitation templates, including 2015’s absolutely lovely and progressive Duke Of Burgundy; and so I was anxious about his take on giallo, consumerist culture, and fashion here. Once again, Strickland’s attention to sound design borders on ASMR, and In Fabric‘s deadpan villains—a cult-like cabal of department-store employees—lure their victims with hilariously verbose expressions. These elements of both style and narrative create a sensually, subversively weird atmosphere—one that I hope to revisit ASAP.

I took a bit of a break on Monday afternoon to enjoy the gorgeous weather, but rejoined the fest in the evening for Penny Lane’s documentary, Hail Satan?, about the modern Satanic Temple. I thought this might prove to be an unusually comical counterpoint to Inquiring Nuns, but this superb new doc exists on its own terms and wowed me with its expansive, salient scope. Who knew how vital the Satanists were in America? But let’s redefine “Satanists” as outcasts and iconoclasts who don’t identify with oppressive Christian doctrine, rather than those who have been known to worship a “false god.” What’s ultimately great is that the spokespeople of the church, including leader Lucien Greaves, are constantly aiming to expose the hypocrisy of elected officials and supposed moralists who claim to be against the proliferation of hatred. Honestly, at worst, the Satanists are being critical contrarians, and the Christians are more realistically spreading messages of bigotry and fear through divisive language and symbolic monuments on government property (particularly in Little Rock, Arkansas). If I had to nag the Satanists about anything, it would be their supposed adherence to non-violent philosophy, as we witness a public pro-choice demonstration about “ending forced motherhood” with gallons of cow’s milk, which, I, as a vegan, would argue is itself a dairy industry product of forced motherhood.

After we were all spoiled throughout the weekend with the temperate and unseasonably warm weather, the last stretch of the fest turned chilly and even a bit snowy in a surreal turn on Wednesday. That’s when I caught French New Wave living legend Jean-Luc Godard’s latest experimental essay, The Image Book. It’s difficult to formulate a cogent argument either in defense or against the film itself on initial viewing, which is why it was quite a treat to hear some remarks from UW-Madison professors Kelley Conway and Vlad Dima, who led a discussion after the screening. Godard’s critiques of capitalism remain, as do his obsessive cinematic and literary citations, including his own work after nearly 60 years in cinema. With assistance from Fabrice Aragno, Godard manipulates footage in every context and form imaginable—through saturation and editing—as a comment on the impermanence or mutability of art that we think of as enduring and unchanging. The crazy dynamic audio range of the film—shifting from utter silence to startling gunshots—reminded me of the second movement of Haydn’s  “Symphony No. 94” and surely jostled awake any potentially sleeping audience members.

My final day of the fest was the one I went into knowing the least, as I don’t think I had read more than a couple sentences or viewed trailers or clips from either Monos or Jackie Chan’s Police Story. I wanted to see Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos’ Monos mostly to hear the score from Mica Levi, who has crafted some of my favorite film scores this decade. Here, Levi’s mixture of pulsating electronics with thunderous timpani is subtler than I expected, but it picks up dramatically in the film’s final act. And the visuals by Jasper Wolf, even beyond the South American jungle setting, are captivating, as Wolf makes effective and innovative use of perspective shots (including one gorgeous iris). As a narrative itself, however, Monos left me emotionally distant and perplexed, treading this sort of baseline commentary on war that’s persisted for the past several decades. The brutal take is quite obvious and never develops into anything unique or profound—that humans are driven by primal urges (augmented by the primitive names they’ve assigned one another); and, secondly, wartime reduces us to the crazed state of adolescents in the melodramatic duel for recognition and attention. It’s Lord Of The Flies teeming with the influence of Claire Denis and Bertrand Bonello, yet without their depth of insight.

Fortunately, the pure adrenaline-driven entertainment of Police Story was a fine send-off for my festival experience this year. UW-Madison film historian David Bordwell’s introduction provided some brief context for this version of the film and for Chan’s status as an action star in the 1980s. What he failed to mention, though, was the problematic gender attitudes in the film that seem hugely dismissive of legitimately disturbing subject matter. One tonally ridiculous scene literally crosses lines with rape jokes and rotary telephone wires. Sadly, these elements negatively date the film, but the prevailing emphasis is of course on the physicality and acrobatic stunts as Chan chases after crime lord Chu Tao (Chor Yuen). As one of my final notes for the fest, I jotted down, “If there’s a frame or panel of glass on the screen, chances are, it’s going to be broken.” A truer statement could not be made of Police Story.

Regarding the festival’s changes for members of the press this year and the sudden transition to a voucher system without lanyard and badge identification, I hope organizers can find a way to continue what they’ve introduced here for the 2020 fest—that is, permitting press pass-holders to exchange vouchers for tickets in advance—but also offering them a way to more comfortably introduce themselves to fellow writers, other members of the media, and festival staff during their attendance on campus and beyond and at the “Afterglow” events with generously sized name/organization tags.

Jason Fuhrman

Ray & Liz.

Ray & Liz.

The selection I had been most eagerly anticipating at the festival this year was also my first film, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, on Friday night at the Marquee. I saw Strickland’s strange, hallucinogenic horror homage to Italian giallo films, Berberian Sound Studio, on opening night of the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival and had high expectations for the singular British filmmaker’s latest offering. Seamlessly blending an incisive critique of consumerism and high fashion with a nightmarish, baroque erotic fantasy world, In Fabric assigns new meaning to the idea of commodity fetishism as it plunges viewers into the deepest recesses of an alluring, unearthly London department store where a truly one-of-a-kind crimson dress brings calamity to anyone who wears it. Exquisitely stylized with an incredible level of sensory detail, Strickland’s mind-melting, collage-like film weaves a rich tapestry out of lurid, sumptuous images, a suitably disorienting experimental soundscape, delightfully warped humor, and acute social observations. Although In Fabric becomes somewhat tedious and repetitive after the story unpredictably shifts its focus to a new protagonist about halfway through, I certainly relished this cinematic experience and would love to revisit it soon. Scored by Stereolab’s Tim Gane (under the moniker Cavern Of Anti-Matter), In Fabric is worth the price of admission for the cutting-edge sound design alone. It was especially fun to see this movie with an audience, as I frequently found myself looking angrily around the theater to locate the source of some flagrant auditory infraction, only to realize that it was part of the soundtrack.

I then proceeded directly to AMC Madison 6 for Dogman by Italian director Matteo Garrone. At once a slow-burning slice of underworld life and a sensitive, enthralling character study, the film concerns Marcello, a mild-mannered dog groomer in a desolate Italian coastal town. Marcello projects an aura of almost childlike innocence in his unwavering loyalty to Simoncino, a former boxer with a volatile disposition who terrorizes the neighborhood. A simmering, palpable tension pervades Dogman as Marcello repeatedly acquiesces to committing petty crimes for the bully. Marcello is essentially a warm, good-natured person who loves dogs and remains devoted to his daughter, while Simoncino is a ferocious, unruly beast seeking to gratify only his basest and most immediate impulses. Amidst the film’s stark social realism, Dogman demands a certain suspension of disbelief, because Marcello makes one poor decision after another. He seems to think that he can contain Simoncino as easily as he gently soothes his aggressive canine patients into submission. Inevitably, Marcello reaches his breaking point and the film ends in a powerful, shocking crescendo of violence. Marcello Fonte stands out for his credible performance as the titular dog man, and his expressive facial features haunted me long after the film had ended.

So far so good. My cinematic odyssey was off to a strong start and the following day, I planned to see what promised to be the most rarefied and technically spectacular selection at the festival, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which of course is noteworthy for its unparalleled use of 3D. I did not know exactly what to expect since I, regrettably, have never seen Kaili Blues, but I was sure this would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Unfortunately, I did not purchase an advance ticket and had to work until 2 p.m. that day, so my prospects looked grim. I raced to Vilas Hall and arrived in the rush line just 10 minutes before the scheduled start time. The fact that I was one of the last people to be admitted into the theater was exhilarating and needless to say, I feel very privileged to have seen this film as it was intended to be seen.

It seems almost impossible to translate into words the experience of watching this transcendent, awe-inspiring masterpiece. I realize this may sound trite, but it truly felt like being in a dream. Long Day’s Journey Into Night was a next-level cinematic experience that offers a glimpse into what may very well be the future of film, where high-art sensibilities coalesce with technological innovation and popular culture. Personally, Bi Gan’s film guided me on a mind-bending inner journey in which cinema, memory, and dreams were powerfully interwoven. After the film ended, I overheard a lot of viewers talking about how they did not understand Long Day’s Journey Into Night and I could not help but think of a famous statement by David Lynch: “You may say that people look for meaning in everything, but they don’t. They’ve got life going on around them, but they don’t look for meaning there. They look for meaning when they go to a movie. I don’t know why people expect art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.”

Despite being offered a free ticket to The Hidden City immediately following Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I decided that I really did not need to see any more movies that day and just wanted to bask in the afterglow of Bi Gan’s film. Furthermore, I felt that the work had exceeded the spatial and temporal boundaries of its material form and that, in fact, the movie was not yet over.

Sunday was also my most immersive day of moviegoing, and I spent it entirely at AMC, where I saw Ulysses & Mona, Meeting Gorbachev, Little Woods, Ray & Liz, and Los Silencios. For the record, Ulysses & Mona was the only selection in the festival that actually moved me to tears, which was surprising, considering the film’s quirky humor and playful approach to grave subject matter. I had not expected to react so viscerally to Ulysses & Mona because the film was an essentially fun and enjoyable experience until the final shot, when I suddenly found myself overcome with emotion. The genius of Sébastien Betbeder’s hard-hitting, deceptively lighthearted road movie consists in furtively lowering the viewer’s psychological defense mechanisms and then bringing home the reality of the situation at the very last moment.    

I’ve always been a huge fan of Werner Herzog, and while I don’t regret seeing his latest documentary at the festival, I feel like streaming it at home would have been no different. Meeting Gorbachev was certainly informative, but rather unexpectedly boring. It was also nearly devoid of the idiosyncratic, borderline surrealist humor that we have come to expect from the provocative, uncompromising filmmaker. However, perhaps it is a testament to the integrity and strong character of the Soviet Union’s last leader that Herzog opted not to portray Gorbachev in the same light as his prior subjects.

Ray & Liz turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2019 WFF for me. A meticulously observed, almost microscopic portrait of the titular couple raising their two sons on the fringes of society, Richard Bellingham’s autobiographical debut feature infuses British kitchen sink realism with a haunting, elusively poetic sensibility. With its painstaking verisimilitude, abandonment of conventional linear storytelling, unexpected moments of absurdist humor, and rigorous, visually striking compositions that come close to abstraction, Ray & Liz certainly deserves its comparisons to the work of Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay. Watching this film feels like looking through a vintage photo album in that Bellingham patiently conveys the subjective experiences of his characters by capturing fleeting impressions of reality and mood.

Monos by Alejandro Landes might actually be my personal favorite film of the festival this year. Lord Of The Flies meets Apocalypse Now, with echoes of Claire Denis’ White Material and Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama (WFF 2017), Monos was exactly the experience I had been looking for. I hope to expand on my impressions of this lush, brutal, otherworldly film in a later piece.  

Edwanike Harbour

Her Smell.

Her Smell.

For this year’s festival, I was fortunate enough to serve as one of the Golden Badger Award jurors. It was quite an honor to be selected as an avid member of the film community here in Madison. I wanted to be much more deliberate about my selections as such this year as I was seeing the festival from a different lens than I normally do. As always, Ben Reiser, Jim Healy, and the amazing staff did a great job of organizing the festival.

I initially had not planned on seeing Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman At War (2018) but as I was going to be attending the opening night festivities as a juror, I decided to stay for the screening. This was quite a pleasant surprise for me. The opening night of the festival is always an uplifting crowd pleaser so I didn’t expect anything less, but Woman At War struck just the right chord with the excited audience in addition to keeping alive the festival’s streak of Scandinavian comedies (previous examples include The Green Butchers, WFF 2003, and Adam’s Apples, WFF 2006). Woman At War‘s protagonist, a seemingly mild-mannered choir director, lives a double life as an eco-warrior who takes out transmission towers with a bow and arrow. She loves the earth and will do anything within her power to fight for it. She has a twin sister who has opted to focus her energy within instead of fighting her battles externally through deep breathing and yoga. The film served as a comedic meditation on finding balance within and outside of one’s self in addition to a prophetic take on the dangers of global warming. Erlingsson serves up plenty of laughs in this absurdist comedy and this was a wonderful film to show on opening night.

One of the more anticipated releases for me was In Fabric (2018) from Peter Strickland. I was ready to go in with no preconceived notions about this film, which is often times a requirement for Strickland’s work. In Fabric takes place in England in the early 1980s at Dentley and Soper’s department store. Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sheila, a newly minted divorcee who is trying to find a little bit of happiness in her life. Her ungrateful teenage son lives with her and eventually brings his vamped-up girlfriend into the mix, much to Sheila’s disappointment. She decides to put out a personal ad to move forward and goes out to buy a dress for an upcoming date. The dress is cursed, however, and wreaks havoc on anyone that comes into its path. While Sheila was already struggling in her personal life, Strickland puts her through absolute hell in this film. The sound design and color palette provide a master class for budding filmmakers. You really find yourself rooting for the protagonists, who go through one gruesome injustice after the other. The film takes a somewhat unexpected trajectory in its latter half and I found myself removed from the story, as it cut off my emotional connection with the characters, but this was still a brilliant mix of Italian giallo film and commentary on the horrors of capitalism.

Light From Light.

Light From Light.

On a rare occasion, I have been lucky enough to view a perfect film not just in my personal life, but at the Wisconsin Film Festival as well. These are movies that can engage me emotionally, aesthetically, and are perfectly executed from a technical perspective. The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Whiplash (2014), and 3-Iron (2004) all come to mind. This year, I am happy to add Paul Harrill’s Light From Light (2019) to this list. Starring Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan, this is essentially an anti-ghost story that is so subtle and understated but leaves an emotional impact that will stay with you for days on end. We are used to seeing Jim Gaffigan in comedies like No Sleep Til Madison (WFF 2002), but Harrill indicated during a Q&A after the screening that he actually wrote Light From Light with Gaffigan in mind. He is superbly cast here as a molten ball of sadness grieving the loss of his wife in a plane crash. Marin Ireland plays a paranormal investigator who comes to help him investigate some strange activity that is happening at the house, in which he suspects his wife’s ghost is present. Harrill’s story challenges us to continue taking risks and making human connections, even when we know full well what the end result will be.

Finally, after multiple 120-minutes-plus screenings (there were quite a few long movies this year) I knew I would not miss the new Alex Ross Perry vehicle, Her Smell (2018), clocking in at 135 minutes. This is Perry’s first film of this length, and it’s really more of an epic broken down into five parts. Elisabeth Moss once again gives a stunning performance as Becky Something neé Rebecca Adamczyk, a ’90s Courtney Love type of figure who leaves absolute emotional chaos in her wake. Keegan Dewitt creates a score that was designed to sound like a sonic panic attack. Becky is struggling with addiction but there are underlying personality issues present as well. Perry’s trademark caustic dialogue and brutal takedowns are in no short supply. He takes us on the journey from the pinnacle of Becky Something’s career to rock bottom, before she starts the long road to redemption and sobriety. This is not new territory, but the way in which the material is presented to the audience makes sure they feel the pain and torment that Becky’s friends and family feel as well. Amber Heard and Cara Delevingne play supporting roles in this Shakespearean masterpiece. The Oscars blew a chance to reward Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary (2018) this past year, so hopefully they won’t make the same mistake by overlooking Elisabeth Moss’ dazzling performance this time.

I love to see how the Wisconsin Film Festival has developed over the last several years. I want to see it continue to grow and develop. The Golden Badger Award winners (Bill Brown, Todd McGrain, and James Runde) definitely showcased the talent housed right here within our state, and if that is any indication, the Wisconsin Film Festival has a bright future for years to come.

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