The name “Lars von Trier” evokes as much dread in me as the words “H1N1″, “chicken feet”, and “I’m staying over tonight.” After suffering through The Idiots, Dancer In the Dark (and who, other than this oft-accused misogynistic director would make ethereal, eternal cinematic icon Catherine Deneuve carry a plate of spaghetti while singing “My Favorite Things”? Please, some things are sacred cows!) and parts of The Kingdom, I said I’d rather have my eyes poked out than sit through another one of his films. So no Breaking the Waves, Dogville, or Manderlay for me. However, after hearing and reading all the buzz, both heated denouncement and rapturous praise, I wouldn’t be true to my self-proclaimed cineaste status if I didn’t go to see his latest opus, Antichrist, the notorious sensation of the global film festival circuit this year (actually I was just more curious than anything else). Now on a commercial run after its sold-out screening at the recently concluded Chicago International Film Festival, I must say the film is ridiculous, overblown, and a whole lot of sheep dung for significant parts of it, but it is also undeniably hypnotic, impressively infuriating, and ultimately, for better or for worse, memorable. And it’s probably the funniest film I’ve seen all year (yes, it’s funnier than Bruno!), hilarious in its self-absorption and pretension, like an eccentric, middling artist at a pseudo-hipster gallery opening.
As avid readers of this blog know, I have pretty definitive ideas on what I like when it comes to theater (challenging material, creative re-envisionings) and on what I don’t (inanity, inauthenticity, audience pandering). Sean Graney and The Hypocrites are definitely often in the “like” column, and sometimes even in the “very much liked” one; I strongly feel that they have an abundance of collective creative genius which is not often surpassed in the city’s storefront theater scene. Although I admired elements of Graney’s new adaptation of Frankenstein, the first time the Hypocrites, a truly edgy storefront theater group was performing at MCA Stage, a truly edgy performance space and presenting entity (why did it take so long?), I left the show discombobulated, the second straight Hypocrites production (after Oedipus) that I didn’t really buy into.
Since I started going to the Film Festival in 1999, I always feel a little “festivaled”-out by the second weekend. It is sometimes a struggle to haul my bleary-eyed, stiff-backed, sensation-weary self back for another go-round of films about Kazakh magic healers or Argentine illegal loggers. But my second week schedule for this year contained some of the most surprising, most overwhelming, most provocative films I’ve seen recently. They weren’t all successful, but their daring, original, thoughtful topics made for some interesting, sometimes difficult and emotionally-draining, viewing. Here, then, are my thoughts on the final four films of my viewing schedule for the 2009 Chicago International Film Festival:
I’m not a big fan of wrestling, unless it’s used in a sentence with the words “college”, “male”, and “singlet”. Other than their brilliant production of Blackbird this summer, I’ve also not been particularly interested in many of the productions that Victory Gardens has put up over the years, with many of these plays’ appeal skewering towards a, shall we say, more mature demographic. And then there was that title: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity – quite a mouthful, and frankly, possible turn-off, for us living in the 21st century digital age marked by soundbytes, tweets, quick finishes, and cut-to-the-chases. But, man, does Kristoffer Diaz’s world premiere play beat all expectations and smash all pre-conceptions. It’s the equivalent of a theatrical bungee-jump: dizzying, exhilarating, frightening, adventuresome, immensely satisfying. It shoves the audience into a rambunctious ride through racial and global-socio-political provocations, presented within the world of professional wrestling portrayed as a reflection of an America wracked with biases, division, vague xenophobia, lowbrowness, and a need for even bigger refrigerator crispers. Oh, and brilliantly written with the unmistakable, hypnotic rhythms of hip-hop. And with its wacky, crowd-pleasing, fourth-wall-breaking “elaborate entrances” for the wrestlers, it’s more fun and rockin’ than drunken people-watching at the Metro on a Friday night. It’s a take-no-prisoners theatrical production that is so unlike the rest of Chicago theater this year, it’s already deservedly earned a spot in my top ten list for 2009 (and yes, the year isn’t even done yet!). It’s that great, and you’ll be bodyslamming your apartment wall silly if you miss it.
Even for a film festival junkie like me, the whole thing could sometimes be a little too much. After the tenth time of lining up for a film, or after suffering through another concentration-requiring scene while the person beside you loudly chows down on his nachos like a Siberian tiger gnoshing on a piece of deer leg (thank goodness for subtitles!), or after the fifth Q and A session with a film’s director full of inane questions (such as “what’s your advice for an aspiring filmmaker?” to which my response would have been “It’s to get the hell out of a film festival Q and A session and make a film! Geez!”), I sometimes wonder why my DNA wasn’t rigged to be a Cubs fan instead. Drunk on their ass wearing sweat-stained shirts in a Wrigleyville bar, they look like they live much simpler lives. Then the lights go down on a film which turns out to be exhilaratingly stimulating and transcendent, and I wouldn’t want to trade my film festival life for a Cubbie fan’s life- ever (plus, where would I get such heinous outfits?). Several years ago, that film was Michael Haneke’s Cache, which was followed the next year by Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, both of which went on to much deserved universal acclaim. This year, that wonderful film that defines my film festival experience for the year is another one from Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, a prime example of envelope-pushing filmmaking, which had already won this year’s Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. My comments on Police, Adjective and two other films I saw in the past couple of days are below:
So this year’s Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) is in full swing – well, as full a swing as a lesser number of films and smaller theaters will allow. I think it’s somewhat misleading to see all those “Sold Out” signs on the Festival’s big schedule board by the ticket tables at AMC River East, because I think most of those films were being shown in the smaller theaters in this cineplex (three of the first four films I saw were in these theaters). In previous years, when the venues were the much larger Music Box Theater (where I had various body parts shoved in my face during the scramble for seats for Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy, for example) or the Landmark Century, “sold out” signs meant there were herds of film aficionados in the house. I’m not sure that’s the case this year. I’ll be eagerly anticipating the Festival’s attendance figures, but I hope there aren’t less people attending – that’s going to be a shame, because the Film Festival is a pretty critical element of this city’s cultural fabric. In the meantime, here are my reactions to the first set of films I saw since last week’s opening: