What is to be done with the Miami Film Festival? The question has plagued critical columns (mine and those of others throughout South Florida) for years, and based on a predictably limited advance peek at this year's festival selections, the answer for me remains as elusive as ever. On one hand, when a fine, world-class film experience has made its presence felt, I've been tempted - briefly - to ignore the morass of poor logistics and feeble-mindedness of so many entries. On the other, films worthy of consideration have been few. There's no getting away from it: the Miami Film Festival is a submediocre, ten-day nuisance. It's more pest than fest.
This year I intend merely to mention the films I found diverting, interesting, or in the rarest cases, inspired and insightful. Before I do, though, I should briefly take note of the numero uno mongrel among the films I was shown (which means that there could conceivably be worse, though I daresay that's almost impossible). As promised last week, the ninth Miami Film Festival's poop-scoop prize goes to Percy Adlon's Salmonberries (which plays tonight, Wednesday), written and directed by Adlon and featuring a perfect cast: Canadian androgyne-singer k.d. lang, Rosel Zech (the German actress who stunned many viewers - me included - ten years ago in Fassbinder's Veronika Voss), and a 70-year-old Chuck Connors, star of the late-Fifties TV show The Rifleman. You'd think such an eclectic trio would offer something amusing, especially as the film is set in the hinterlands of northern Alaska. But Salmonberries doesn't succeed even as a bad, unintentional comedy. It's a maddeningly flat-footed love story which is more often than not plain mad. Lang pursues the middle-age Zech across a wasteland of winter landscapes, and finally they get to Berlin. I left after 45 minutes, didn't see them arrive in Berlin, and thus cannot report on whether the ladies petted heavily by the Brandenburg Gate. If they did, please don't write to tell me about it.
The festival hasn't relied greatly on directorial achievement - even Kurosawa stumbled - and festival regulars such as Pupi Avati (for Bix, a disaster) and Adlon are rarely splendid in any case. And yet I was most impressed by Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern (which played last night), not because it's a great film (it's not), but because the storytelling and acting are so assured and fine. Set in the pre-Mao China of the 1920s, Raise the Red Lantern traces the steps of Songlian, a nineteen-year-old girl who leaves the university to become the fourth wife of wealthy, 50-year-old Chen Zuoquian. The master, as he's referred to throughout the film, already has three wives who battle among one another for his affections. Each wife has her own house, courtyard, and staff, and when the master decides to spend the night with one of the four (who range from ancient to middle-age to very young), red lanterns are lighted and raised inside and outside. In preparation for the formal act of copulation, the chosen mistress must have each foot washed and massaged - according to ancient Chinese custom, it stimulates the lovemaking process. Needless to say, bickering among the four wives is the energizing agent in the drama - there's comedy, intrigue, and ultimate tragedy offered here.
But Red Lantern is more than Sinophile soap opera. Zh Yang Yimou, director of last year's lovely Jou Dou, gets a beautiful performance from the altogether stunning Gong Li, who plays Songlian. Admirable, too, is the detached manner in which Zhang has shot the seduction and lovemaking scenes - you never get a good look at the master, ever. That's the point: the women are prisoners, not partakers.
Deeply moving despite its shortcomings was last week's A Woman's Tale, with the late Australian actress Sheila Florance staring right into the face of death with remarkable poise, warmth, and courage. The film, written especially for Florance and directed by Dutch-born Paul Cox, has its humor, too. (When the old woman is told by her son to stop smoking, she complains that he hasn't been the same since he quit. Then, offering one of hers, says, "Go on. Have one.") Yes, there are some sentimental touches - Florance is a mite too charming in her steady demise, almost going in Auntie-Mame style. But when the camera takes us into her inner world (Florance lying stark naked in a bath as the specters of memory descend on her), the confusion and pain on her wrinkled and diseased face are affecting. Sheila Florance rightly won the Autralian Film Board's Best Actress Award for A Woman's Tale; shortly thereafter, like the character she plays here, she died of cancer.
But experiences such as Raise the Red Lantern and A Woman's Tale are mere drops in Lake Okeechobee. The so-called "emphasis on comedy" promised by the ever-Nixonian Nat Chediak came a cropper. It's a failure. How else would you describe the amateurishness of the French farce La Pagaille, the embarrassing stupidity of the Italian fable Alberto Express, and the buffoonery of the Spanish romantic comedy Bedtime Lullaby? There are alternative words, of course, but why recycle bathroom graffiti to describe a festival whose street value is nil?
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For myself, I'd be happy for the thing to be malign memory; in fact, I more or less wrote that in these pages back in 1989 and 1990. But pity the poor critic who, having stated the obvious - that the festival is a downwardly mobile white elephant - is nonetheless forced by editorial policy to essentially swallow his critical fire and trudge on, as Bill Cosford of the Miami Herald has done. In September 1990, Cosford wrote: "The Miami Film Festival, as we have come to know and love it, is dead." Citing a decline in independent funding and the City of Miami's refusal to renew a $100,000 grant, meaning for all intents and purposes "no theater, no celebrities, no parties," Cosford suggested it was just as well. He came up with a novel idea, though: move the festival to South Beach, where a "young, smart, hoping to be hip" crowd will ensure a vital response.
Well, I don't know how smart these young, hopeful hipsters in South Beach truly are, but Cosford was quite right about providing a better setting for what should be above all a small film festival. Enacting it at Gusman Center (where, admittedly, the opening-night showing of The Mambo Kings was sold-out) is only an extension of the festival director's Wellesian ego. Indeed, Cosford also made the point in his column last Thursday that filling Gusman's 1800 seats is a pipe dream. A bloody expensive pipe dream at that.
Did I forget la divina Sophia? Well, I didn't, but Sophia Loren's participation at the festival, culminating this weekend with her performance in Lina Wertmuller's adaptation of Saturday, Sunday, Monday, plus the party at Williams Island, is strictly public-relations quid pro quo - Sophia using Nat to honor her commitment to Williams Island, Nat hoping Sophia will help raise some money for the festival.
So what is the answer to the original question? I still don't know. But one thing's certain: The Miami Film Festival is to our cinematic aspirations what Ronald Reagan was to our economy. Maybe even less.