Five writers detail their experiences of returning to the first in-person festival in Madison since April 2019.
While it’s almost been two weeks since the 2022 Wisconsin Film Festival concluded, we’re all still processing not only what we saw, but the collective experience of movie-marathoning. After a sudden cancellation in 2020 and a virtual-only option last year, the festival’s familiar return to usual spots on the UW-Madison campus and AMC Madison 6 (formerly Sundance) provided more than a few reasons to venture out and partake in the atmosphere and camaraderie that only a curated festival can conjure.
The Wisconsin Film Festival’s creative crew welcomed us back with an intro trailer that recalled a few others of the past decade, with a cosmically expanded visual theme sort of lifted from 2015’s trailer and a revamped New Wave rendition of the beloved “Turn The Lights Down Low” with unflappably deadpan lead vocals by Sarah Streich. Its wide-eyed, slightly ironic take on heading out to the movies in 2022 condensed an appeal for moviegoers of all ages, from Gen X who grew up with those sounds to Gen Z who has adopted them, accurately reflecting what we’ve all shared in the present moment.
With another festival on the books, five of our writers—Grant Phipps, Lewis Peterson, Edwanike Harbour, Scott Gordon, and Jason Fuhrman—detailed their time at Madison movies from April 7 through 14. We hope their words provide certain glimpses into their preferences and planning beyond typical recaps that are all about the movies themselves. Call this an informal check-in about where we all are with cinema and how the occasion of a film festival nourishes a love of the art form and related dialogue.
Grant Phipps: Returning to an in-person film festival after a few years was actually more fulfilling than I had envisioned. I’m one who gets a lot of enjoyment out of meticulous planning, leafing through the paper guide on the day it drops with a fine-point pen to circle and underline anything I know I want to see. I’ve folded over that initial copy of the film guide so many times now that the ink has smudged, and the middle “at a glance” section is even more tarnished than usual with notes, indicating my torn feelings about how and where I wanted to venue-hop during the three busiest days. I ended up scribbling out some screening times and anxiously passed over some Wisconsin premieres to attend screenings with guest speakers. My route on Sunday, April 10, kept me on campus rather than at AMC Madison 6.
Beyond the scope of the festival’s time frame, acknowledging this most packed season of moviegoing really permitted me to directly connect with filmmakers again, as my last few Tone Madison-related interviews have been focused on musicians. It was genuinely heartening to speak with Adrian Murray to express my appreciation for his Slamdance hit, Retrograde (2022), and then watch it for a third time with a nearly packed house at the Chazen Museum Of Art for my first film of the festival. Murray and I talked about the intriguing element of audience response in his “cringe comedy,” and the viewers here were totally on board and perceptive to the shrewd situational writing that indeed owes a lot to the neuroticism of a Larry David-type lead character.
On Friday and Saturday nights I found myself gravitating towards the 35mm presentations of two Stuart Gordon films (for the first time, even) at the Chazen Museum Of Art—Re-Animator (1985) and Dolls (1987)—with special guests Suzanna, Jillian, and Margaret Gordon as well as Re-Animator co-writer Dennis Paoli. While there wasn’t a Q&A after Dolls on Saturday, their introductions for both films were especially charming and moving, as Paoli paused mid-speech before Re-Animator to let all his memories, spoken and unspoken, come flooding back in his decades working with the late Gordon. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch Dolls again without hearing, in the back of my mind, Jillian Gordon’s self-assured voice imparting of the movie’s semi-droll wisdom that “toys are very loyal, and that is a fact.” The production notes shared by Gordon’s daughters, about insert shots or the period of their youth overseas in Italy, just added something inexplicably precious to the film. It’s now all tethered to this event at a time and place; it’s not just an entry in a streaming library.
Saturday was also just my most intensive viewing day, marking the first time that I’ve watched four feature-length films in less than 12 hours during a festival. Despite my general night-owl schedule these days, I made the trek over to AMC Madison 6 starting at 10:20 a.m. to watch Laura Samani’s Small Body (2021), an Italian film that grabbed my attention after I glanced at the iconography and description of Samani’s prior short film, The Sleeping Saint (2016), which I now want to see more than ever. Her debut narrative feature film is grounded in exquisite, earthly period detail and the raw emotions of its main character Agata (Celeste Cescutti), who seeks a mystical sanctuary in a mountainous region of the Dolais Valley to revive her stillborn child. But the film increasingly wades into visual grandeur and fantasy, as Agata encounters an androgynous nomad only known as Lynx (Ondina Quadri). Call the quest a feminine counterpoint to David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021), which is to say that Samani and her collaborators have rendered a folktale that’s indelibly original and majestic, embracing and subverting religiosity in favor of something of the enigmatic variety rather than an (im)pious message.
Sunday afternoon paired a screening of the esoteric Indian foto film Duvidha (1973) with a new documentary on it, The Nine Lakh Stars (2022), and an in-person appearance by the latter’s director and film preservationist, Loubna Régragui. It was possibly the most low-key of my festival experience (especially for an in-person world premiere of sorts), but it was as collectively relaxing as it was edifying. In just over 60 minutes, Régragui’s film finds a balance in chronicling the flawed restoration of Duvidha in 2011 with interviews with the cast and others involved in its production in some capacity. There are many revealing details, in discerning who director Mani Kaul was, and the origins of the concise Rajasthani folktale as adapted for the screen by Vijaydan Detha (who amusingly disparages the final cut as a soporific something that “conveys nothing”). Despite some of the rudimentary technical aspects of the documentary, it’s an altogether intriguing and endearing work of preservation in itself that sheds multifarious light on a dimmer area of world cinema.
Although I was not enamored with the structurally messy screenwriting and overlong Private Desert (2021) and Petrov’s Flu (2021) on Monday and Tuesday, my final festival day on Wednesday felt like a buoying series of artistic triumphs and fortuitously timed scheduling that started in a dentist’s office of all places (for nothing more than a routine cleaning). At 2:10 p.m., I hopped a bus over to the Hilldale Mall (sorry, Shopping Center) to make the 2:45 p.m. screening of one of my most anticipated films that I was afraid I’d miss—Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s The Girl And The Spider (2021). My favorite films of recent decades often resist concise synopses, and this one is an accidental quarantine play, an avant-garde reading of human relationships in a close-quarters apartment building under extreme restraints. The Zürchers’ last film, The Strange Little Cat (2013) is a sort of template for this one, with its cacophony of sounds coupled with an incessant waltz (Eugen Doga’s “Gramofon“) here. It’s all about disjunctives in communication, the separations within connections, and morbidly funny sexual tension. Surrealism and naturalism playfully wrestle one another. It’s an oxymoron of a film, somehow a ghost story and a meditation on love and loss of the moment, arranged architecturally. Among the best in international art cinema right now.
If I have any advice or hopes for forthcoming years, it would be to return to a venue on the east side of Madison and avoid the abundance of one-time screening conflicts of this festival’s Friday night. Retrograde, Anonymous Club (2022), No Looking Back (2021), Re-Animator, the “Avant Landscapes” and “Marquee Madness” short programs, and finally Vortex (2021) all ran into each other between the hours of 6:15 and 8:30 p.m. But having too many options is always better than having none, and the curation this year met the high bar of prior years, in the Before Times. It was nice to sink into an idea of normal for a while, for my six moviegoing days, even if I was usually masked up. And, if nothing else whatsoever, the Wisconsin Film Festival provided an excuse to break away from my five-week, 100-hour embrace of Elden Ring (2022).
For expanded thoughts (eventually), readers are more than welcome to follow me on Letterboxd, and I’ll gladly return the favor.
Lewis Peterson: My film festival experience actually started off with car trouble. On Friday afternoon, I headed out to AMC Madison 6 for a screening of Il Buco (2021), and I had some mechanical issues that I’ve never experienced before. The speedometer wasn’t showing any activity, but the car was moving, albeit with a lot of shaking and sputtering sounds, and going roughly 20 miles per hour (if I could estimate by how fast people usually go on University Ave heading out to Hilldale). But the car was moving, so I was determined to either keep going until I got to the theater or the car wouldn’t move forward. (I’d later find out that an animal chewed through some wiring.) While I pulled over briefly on Campus Drive when it was sounding especially bad, thankfully I made it to the screening, and resolved to worry about the car after Il Buco and my second screening of the day, Vortex (2021).
In-between screenings, I took the time to call a mechanic and let them know I would be dropping it off soon, then called a tow truck to try to pre-arrange a tow for about 10 p.m. when Vortex let out—only to be told they don’t do that. So, I had to call back when I was ready to actually have it towed. The misery of mental deterioration between an elderly couple in Vortex made my problem seem small by comparison. After I grabbed some Shake Shack and watched the full 148-minute film, the tow truck arrived shortly before the regular AMC staff were ready to close up shop. They were gracious to let me wait inside after I explained the situation.
Being unexpectedly car-less forced me to strategize transportation out to Hilldale and then downtown for the other days of the festival. My only Saturday film was The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent (2022) at Wisconsin Union Theater, and I was able to walk downtown and even get there early enough to secure the first spot in line, officially certified via a laminated line card—the only time during the whole festival I managed to get anywhere close to the front.
Sunday was my busiest day, and I got a Lyft out to Hilldale to catch Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral (2021), which was one of my personal highlights of the festival—an artfully rendered chronicle of growing up in the ’90s and feeling ambivalent about continuing social conventions every adult has invested their whole beings in. Then I met a friend at the Dumpling Haus for some dumplings, and headed downtown for back-to-back screenings of Vampire’s Kiss (1988) and Mad God (2021), two different takes on the dark side of humanity, whether regarding an abuse of power coupled with a mental breakdown or a literal lack of lighting while digging through internal organs.
After the weekend, I could really only attend after-work screenings in the evenings. On Monday, I talked to the mechanic, and they were able to repair the wiring the same day, so I was able to pick up my car on an extended lunch break. I drove myself out to Hilldale for the second time since the start of the festival to see Întregalde (2021), a movie about charity workers getting their car stuck in the mud in the middle of the woods. A small cosmic wink there.
Over the next few days, I saw Petrov’s Flu (2021) and Vive L’Amour (1994). At some point during the week, I began to hear the collective murmur that the AMC Madison 6 was going to be torn down soon and wouldn’t be available to host next year’s festival, which prompts questions about the most appropriate venue to pick up the slack. Will Marcus Point or Marcus Palace take over AMC Madison 6’s role? Or AMC Fitchburg 18? Or maybe the festival will return to some of the venues that haven’t been used in recent years like the Majestic, the Barrymore, and Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art? The Mallards Stadium? Somehow it feels appropriate to know that the local screening venue for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (2021) from May 20 to 25 may cease to exist shortly afterwards, in some kind of reversal of the original one-venue-at-a-time release strategy that NEON abandoned when Omicron started to surge in the US.
My final day of the festival included a double feature of this year’s Fire (or Both Sides Of The Blade, as it’s apparently being retitled for wide release) and Emily The Criminal (2022). I did have a twinge of regret for missing Inland Empire (2006) on the big screen because the matinee screening of Fire wasn’t an option due to work commitments. But overall, it was great to get back to the festival, which was the most sustained social engagement I’ve participated in since 2020. Looking forward to it all next year, wherever it is!
Edwanike Harbour: I was a bit torn as to whether or not I’d go to the big opening night premiere of the festival this year. While I was excited to be in front of the big screen again, I still have a bit of ambivalence about being in a large crowd who may or may not be masked and vaccinated. And so I opted out of Anaïs In Love (2021) this time.
And maybe on that note, the extreme disparity in crowds this year definitely struck me. Some screenings like The Mole (2020), KIMI (2022), and Mad God (2021) appeared to be packed while others in the Wisconsin Union Theater like Immersion (2021) and Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (2021) were sparsely attended, even though the choice of the larger theater seemed to indicate the expectation of a bigger-than-normal turnout.
Prior to The Turkey (2021) screening, a friend and I mourned the loss of big screens at Market Square (Silver Cinemas) discount theater, Eastgate, Westgate, the Majestic, the Orpheum, and even the University Square theater that was conveniently located near campus. And there’s no word on how much longer AMC will be at Hilldale at this rate. The death of exhibition cinema is not something I would like to see, culturally speaking, although I see the strong impact of streaming services as of late. It also makes me wonder where many of the festival showings will be in the future if the remaining options do not stay open?
I would also like to see more students attending the festival, given the origins of the festival were more student-centered two decades ago. I do appreciate the fact that Ben Reiser, Director Of Operations, is mindful of March Madness, so the dates of the festival never seem to interfere with the Badgers’ trophy hopes in the event that they go on a deep run in the tournament. Sometimes I wonder: If it were held closer to May, would it lure more people out? Would they be willing to stand in line outside for the screenings? Year after year, early April finds a way to extend winter just a bit longer so attendees can get battered in the wind, rain, and even snow.
For me, this year’s standout was John Patton Ford’s Emily The Criminal (2022). Itstars Aubrey Plaza as the titular Emily, who gets caught in a credit card scam ring in order to pay off $70,000 in student loan debt. Plaza is brilliantly cast in this role, as it allows her acerbic wit to shine through. Theo Rossi (from Sons Of Anarchy) plays Youcef, one of the founders of this operation who tries to make enough money to buy rental property in order to get ahead. Emily quickly finds out about the pitfalls of what seems like an easy money scheme; every turn she makes leads down a dangerous path. Armed with a taser and a righteous sense of indignation, Emily is determined to not let anyone get in her way. Not even Gina Gershon, who has a scene-stealing bit as a demonic, bitch-goddess boss.
I loved everything about Ford’s movie. The message is so timely, given the ever-increasing amount of student debt and calls for forgiveness of said debt. Today’s students arguably have more education than their predecessors but are graduating with more debt than generations before them. It has increased more than 100% since 2010, and some 42% of borrowers are still in debt 20 years after leaving school. Even when looking at the myriad of factors that lead to these statistics, it is going to be nigh impossible for many of these current students to get out from under these soul-crushing loans.
In closing, the festival ran smoothly, and the selections were top-notch as usual. There are going to be some developments and changes to moviegoing beyond any of our control, and we’ll just have to see how they shake out in the future. Even if the festival has to shrink in scope in order to be viable, I would rather see that happen than for it to not happen at all.
Scott Gordon: The three screenings I caught this year reminded me of the thing I’ve missed most about the Wisconsin Film Festival and UW Cinematheque—the programmers have a deep love for the role of sound in film, and will play things LOUD when appropriate. If you caught Cinematheque’s premiere of Mandy at 4070 Vilas Hall in 2018, or the screening of Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck at the Capitol Theater as part of the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival, you know what I’m talking about. It’s not overpowering blockbuster rumbling-butts-through-the-Dreamloungers loud, but a loud that honors the textures and quirks of an individual film’s sound mix and music.
My very limited festival experience started off on Friday morning, April 11, with a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation (1974), in a new 35mm print complete with a new sound mix from original editor and sound designer Walter Murch. Sound is not just central to the film’s plot, but also a big part of what protagonist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) uses to try and exert control in a universe where he feels increasingly powerless. Caul tells himself he’s just a technician, that the real-world consequences of his audio surveillance work have nothing to do with him.
Caul immerses himself in the exacting details of audio filtering and jazz records, clearly hoping to keep other people, his doubts, and perhaps his conscience at bay. But the better he is at his job, the harder it gets. The sound wasn’t aggressively loud for this screening, just presented in a way that did justice to the nuances of the new mix. Murch and Coppola use bugging not as a mere novelty—which was tempting, at a time when the United States was getting ready to oust a President known for his taping habits. Instead, they used scrambled (then unscrambled) audio, tight repetition, and minute technical adjustments to immerse you in Harry’s escalating paranoia.
The volume went up later that night for “Avant Landscapes,” a program of three experimental shorts. Ben Rivers’ Look Then Below (2019) takes us deep into real caverns populated with surreal, shimmering life forms, sketching out this alien world beneath with digital effects and poetic narration written by Mark von Schlegell and read by Therese Henningsen. (To the extent there’s a story to follow here, its marriage of geology and mysticism reminded me a bit of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy.) Electronic musician Christina Vantzou‘s score melds with drippy cave sounds and Henningsen’s almost hypnotically paced recitations. It’s wondrous, unsettling, and never sinister. Next in the program, Pablo Mazzolo’s The Newest Olds (2022) uses fragments of imagery and sound to capture the tumult of urban politics. Beyond that, I’ll just refer you to Joshua Minsoo Kim’s review for Tone Glow, because I doubt anyone else has captured the film’s marriage of audio and theme so succinctly. The night closed out with Daïchi Saïto’s earthearthearth (2021), an absolute hulk of multi-layered mountain imagery. The thrum of saxophonist Jason Sharp‘s improvisational score combines with Saïto’s array of analog film manipulation techniques, plunging the viewer thoroughly into another reality.
The King Crimson and Robert Fripp documentary In The Court Of The Crimson King (2022), which screened Monday night, April 11, at AMC Madison 6, is less about the guitarist’s music than it is about, well, another exacting technician and the tightly orchestrated world he tries to maintain around himself. Fripp is a tough nut to crack, but director Toby Amies sticks with it, accompanying King Crimson on tour and penetrating into Fripp’s philosophies despite a great deal of resistance. In one scene, Fripp sardonically blames Amies’ presence for affecting the quality of a performance. And in another moment, Amies’ approach makes a great case for the power of silence in an interview. Fripp isn’t entirely unsympathetic—just A Lot, willing to drive his closest collaborators up the wall in the name of art.
Here and throughout his film, Amies finds a great deal of emotional depth and meaning. He introduces us to a Norwegian nun who finds the divine in King Crimson’s music. We also spend a lot of time with multi-instrumentalist Bill Rieflin, who kept touring as a member of King Crimson while making his peace with terminal cancer. Fripp’s longtime guitar tech, Biff Blumfumgagnge, who is a longtime Madison-based musician (The Gomers, Reptile Palace Orchestra), makes an appearance; and he also attended the screening in-person to introduce the film and host a post-screening Q&A. In the past I’ve seen Blumfumgagnge host movie nights on the Mickey’s Tavern patio, screening silent films that have included The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920), scoring them live on the spot with his array of custom hybrid stringed instruments. I hope the festival invites him back for some of that.
Jason Fuhrman: I’m still reeling from the 2022 Wisconsin Film Festival, which was truly everything I had hoped it would be and more. The eight-day marathon of moviegoing felt like plunging into a collective dream and tapping into a rich wellspring of creativity, knowledge, emotion, and beauty. As always, the festival expanded my mind, nourished my soul, and tested the limits of my body. But this year’s program was particularly multifaceted, immersive, and transcendent. In other words, I had the time of my life! Among the 22 selections I watched during the festival (for the year ’22), I liked every one of them.
The festivities began with a delightful opening night reception, which included cocktails and all kinds of comestibles, such as grilled portobello mushroom sliders with whipped feta butter and tomato relish, crudités, nachos, and lemongrass potstickers with sweet chili sauce. Following the reception, everyone relocated to the Wisconsin Union Theater (a.k.a. Shannon Hall) for the Golden Badger Awards Presentation. I participated in the ceremony as a member of this year’s Golden Badger Jury, which was a great honor. Director Of Operations Ben Reiser asked me to read my statement on Kate Balsley’s short film Ad meliora (2021) when I presented her with the Golden Badger award on stage. Frankly, the prospect of speaking in front of around 500 people was nerve-wracking, but it felt good to play a role in the formal activities this year. The function was cordial and lively, and I was ecstatic about the in-person festival actually happening again.
Festival Director Kelley Conway then delivered a moving speech on the origins of cinema and declared that when the Lumière brothers created the cinématographe, their invention was yet incomplete because they initially showed it only to other inventors. The cinema was not really born until the Lumières staged a public screening in Paris in 1895 and people gathered to watch a film for the first time. Since then, the word “cinema” has referred not only to movies collectively as an art, but also to the spaces where human beings convene to watch them. At last the lights went down and we proceeded to view the premier selection of the festival, Anaïs In Love (2021), an elegant, sexy, lighthearted romantic comedy from French filmmaker Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet. While it was the only option that night, it felt like an appropriate opener—a cinematic apéritif. All in all, it was an exceedingly pleasant evening and a wonderful start to the epic journey ahead.
The next day, Friday, I dove headfirst into the festival with a triple feature. Il Buco (2021), a last-minute addition to my itinerary, contained some of the most astonishing and sublime imagery I have ever seen. I barely had time to catch my breath before heading straight to 107 Mothers (2021), a singular hybrid of documentary and fiction set in a women’s prison in Odessa, Ukraine. I found sustenance in a passable flatbread pizza from the AMC concession stand and ate during Vortex (2021), my last screening of the day. Argentine provocateur Gaspar Noé’s formally inventive, feel-bad psychological drama about the final days of a deteriorating elderly couple was certainly far from the most entertaining film in the festival, but I cannot stop thinking about it.
On Saturday, I watched two works of contemporary African cinema, which complemented one another perfectly. Chadian auteur Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui, The Sacred Bonds (2021) painted a vibrant, uplifting portrait of feminine resistance to patriarchal violence and oppression.
My favorite selection in the festival by far was Neptune Frost (2021), Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s mind-melting Afrofuturist musical about a group of exploited coltan miners in Burundi who rise up against a ruthlessly repressive regime. The film made my eyes literally protrude from their sockets and will probably take years for me to fully process. I left the screening in a daze and went to Lucille for the Festival Afterglow, where filmgoers were invited to discuss their experiences while enjoying complimentary drinks and food. It was an ideal way to decompress.
Sunday was my first full day at the festival with a strong line-up consisting of The Mole (2020), Hit The Road (2021), Immersion (2021), and Mad God (2021). Other highlights of my cinematic odyssey included Commitment Hasan (2021), Klondike (2021), Unidentified (2020), and Petrov’s Flu (2021). My viewing of that deliriously dreamlike last film on Tuesday evening was made all the more disorienting by the evidently inexperienced AMC crew member who basically served me a full glass of high-end Polish vodka beforehand. On Wednesday morning, I started my day off with Jacques Deray’s Symphony For A Massacre (1963), a stylish, intricately crafted crime thriller that visiting critic and author Keith Phipps dubbed “a perfect Swiss watch of a film.”
Of course I always enjoy the awkward, intermittent interactions with fellow wide-eyed Wisconsin Film Festival fanatics scrambling to their next screening. Nothing quite compares to the frenetic pace, positive energy, and camaraderie that develop at the peak of a superbly curated film fest. After three years without a proper celebration of cinema, the enthusiasm was especially intense.
I crowned my festival week with works by two of my all-time favorite filmmakers. First I saw Fire, a.k.a. Both Sides Of The Blade (2022), a caustic psychosexual melodrama from the inimitable French auteur Claire Denis. While it was an admittedly challenging watch, I’m glad that I saw it. Naturally, the fearless performances by Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon were phenomenal.
And I really cannot imagine a more perfect finale to the festival than a new restoration of David Lynch’s 2006 experimental magnum opus Inland Empire on closing night. The screening was sold out, and an air of excitement and anticipation gripped the theater as showtime approached. At first, the director’s particular brand of American surrealism provoked hearty laughter from the audience. After about an hour, though, the laughter subsided as the film descended deeper into the fractured, nightmarish inner world of the “woman in trouble,” played by Laura Dern. Although it can be a difficult movie to sit through, I love it more every time I see it. Sharing the experience with so many other people was something akin to a spiritual revelation that I will not soon forget.