Some context for this post: the 20th Los Angeles Film Festival is taking place right now in Downtown Los Angeles at the Regal Cinema in LA Live. I, being the budding cinephile, am attending, and seeing as many different films as I can manage. This is my account of Day Four of the fest – the first of the two weekend days, and a very busy one at that. There, doesn’t a little background knowledge make everything a little easier to understand? You’re welcome.
For those of you who have been following my posts on the fest, I apologize, but we have to catch the rookies up, you know what I’m saying? Because context can make or break a piece of art (I’m not calling these blog posts art; I’m trying to segue into my actual purpose here tonight). In film especially, there is a tightrope that must be tread upon by the filmmakers. How much do they give to the audience? Actually the more important question may be, “How much do we withhold?”
The day started with Martin Provost’s Violette, which is in the festival as part of the “International Showcase” – a slate of films that have most likely already procured distribution, but are selected by the programmers as good non-competition fare. The film, co-written and directed by Provost, stars Emamnuelle Devos as Violette Leduc, a mid-20th century author, whose works ultimately became an influential and revolutionary beacon for women and proto-feminism in the country at that time. Behind the page, however, Provost’s film posits that Leduc’s eccentricities and obsessions kept her from finding her place in literary society.
Throughout the film Violette keeps her head above water solely through the encouragement of her friend and unrequited love Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain). Simone recognizes how meaningful Violette’a writing is, even if Violette herself does not see it. And does not see it. And continues not to see it.
The script by Provost, Marc Abdelnour, and René de Ceccatty really does Violette a disservice in this sense. There are at least four scenes in the film where Violette bemoans her bad luck and whines about her loneliness. Simone’s response in each instance is to encourage Violette to write it all down. This repetition does nothing for the film, and is indicative of a larger script issue. Devos manages to overcome the problems written into the character and deliver a dynamic performance. In fact, Violette on the whole overcomes its issues, including a long running time (132 minutes) and my ignorance of French literary history (okay, that one might be my issue) to deliver a surprisingly engaging finished product.
As I walked around Downtown, awaiting my next screening, I thought about how my lack of context for the events and people surrounding the characters in Violette affected my enjoyment of the film. Had I known more about the French black market during World War II, or de Beauvoir, or Jean Genet – would the movie have grabbed me harder, or would I have felt patronized? It’s hard to say.
My Name is Salt is an example of a film that definitely could have benefited from context. Of any kind. This documentary from Farida Pacha follows an Indian family – one of many – that relocates to the desert to mine salt from the sun-shocked earth every year in the wake of the annual monsoon season. There is no narration. There are no interviews. There aren’t even any title cards until the end. Pacha throws the viewer into the experience of her central family, and trusts you to catch on to what’s happening.
I appreciate that level of trust, I really do, and by the film’s end I was able to answer all of the questions I had asked myself (except about the actual salt-harvesting process – still not sure on that), but the confusion up top prevented me from fully connecting with the situation and the characters until about halfway through the feature. Unfortunately this also means I was nodding off for a period of time in the early goings of this one – I was tired!
The rawness of the film – which is impeccably shot by Lutz Konermann and edited by Katharina Fiedler – makes it a more convincing document, but it definitely runs the risk of being perceived as distant and cold, due to the steep learning curve. Keeping the viewer in the dark doesn’t help the film’s purpose, so even a little background information could have helped immensely.
Context is everything to 22 Jump Street, which I watched out-of-fest between films. The sequel to 2012’s 21 Jump Street is the most self-aware narrative I have seen on the silver screen. A good half of the humor requires that you understand the way the studio system makes sequels nowadays. These jokes are funny, and there is a lot of smart writing in the script by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman, but I wonder how accessible the nuances will be to those who don’t have all of that prior knowledge regarding Hollywood politics.
Undercover police officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) return to the Jump Street program to do “the exact same thing as last time,” only this time in college. It is a classic of example of The Hangover Part II Syndrome, only in this case directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) are aware of it, and use that fact to great effect throughout the movie. What they make is one of the funnier movies of the year, which falters only in a couple of moments of homophobia that obviously come from a well-intentioned place.
While 22 Jump Street takes advantage of the context it expects you to bring into the theater, Giuseppe Makes a Movie is all about putting a movie into context for you. The documentary from director Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City) follows former child actor Giuseppe Andrews (Independence Day), now an amateur filmmaker in Ventura, California. At first glance Guiseppe’s movies are quite terrible, but as Rifkin’s camera takes us through the production of Giuseppe’s latest, Garbanzo Gas, we learn they are anything but.
Sure they are low-budget and very low-fi, but Giuseppe isn’t out to make cinematic masterpieces. The initial impulse might be to compare Giuseppe to Mark Borchardt, the somewhat delusional protagonist of another indie-film-making documentary, American Movie. But where Borchardt is an under-educated artist who with almost no self-awareness, Giuseppe is an intelligent and assured young man who is fully conscious of the quality of his product. Giuseppe knows he isn’t making high art, but he is making art nonetheless. And he’s making something else at the same time.
As Rifkin introduces us to the stable of actors that Giuseppe regularly uses in his movies, we start to see how important these movies are to them. These men and women are homeless, sick, addicted, or any combination of the above. Making these moving pictures with Giuseppe gives his actors an opportunity to be a part of something. Without these touching and emotional moments of honesty it would seem like Giuseppe (and Rifkin himself) is exploiting these real-life characters. Instead the context shows us that the young auteur is actually giving them a type of support they cannot get from panhandling on the street.
Day Four of the LA Film Fest was the best one so far. Giuseppe Makes a Movie is the first really great movie I’ve seen here, and it may find itself in the running for my end-of-year list. For now, I’ll just bask in its glory. Until something else impresses me even more. Hey, maybe tomorrow.
For more on the Los Angeles Film Festival read Steven’s assessment of strength in How to Train Your Dragon 2, Recommended By Enrique, and The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest from Day Three, as well as his coverage of Day Two, and a bit of nonsense about Day One – which he didn’t attend.