2014’s Sydney Film Festival was only my second film festival (after last year’s Brisbane International Film Festival) and my first time travelling to attend a festival. All told I caught eleven films over a long weekend, and had an excellent time, thanks to so much more than those films (though I remain jealous of anyone who was able to be involved for the full fortnight).
2013’s Brisbane International Film Festival was great, for sure, with an impressive line-up of films and a welcome reminder that, yeah, people do give a shit about culture in this town. Sydney surpassed it, though, and while perhaps that’s to be expected given I travelled interstate (making it more of a capital-E-Event), I think there’s just something special in the air at the Sydney Film Festival.
It’s watching great films introduced by great directors at the (now 85 year-old) grand State Theatre, a sumptuous venue made specifically for cinema. Or rushing through dense foot traffic, ducking and weaving to get to your next film, trying to span the distance between the State and the Event Cinemas in under ten minutes. The vibe is fantastic – catching up with friends at the Hub, striking up a conversation with a film lecturer when he overhears your conversation about one of David Bordwell’s books, and just generally being the company of enthusiastic cinephiles. Brisbane had some of that, but the central nature of Sydney’s festival really elevates the atmosphere.
My favourite films from the festival – and remember, I only saw eleven films, so this is hardly a definitive rating of the best-of-the-best – were Joe and National Gallery. The former mostly received begrudging “it’s okay I suppose” remarks from the other critics I spoke with over the weekend and, honestly, I can see why. There’s nothing especially new about it – another reflection on masculinity and violence in the maws of poverty – and it’s not without its faults. But David Gordon Green’s film just hit me in a way that few movies have this year, and I’m eager to see it again.
Describing National Gallery makes it sound remarkably dry – a documentary about London’s National Gallery that stretches for about three hours is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, I was spellbound. Wiseman’s camera roves through the halls and offices of the Gallery as an unobtrusive, unacknowledged presence, edited together with a hypnotically transfixing rhythm. Some of the best moments of the film are the simplest; there’s a wondrous kind of beauty found in watching someone careful carve wood into a beautiful frame.
National Gallery is more than a well-executed art lesson, though. An early scene between two gallery executives sees one argue for a more accessible approach to publicity, only to be comprehensively dismissed. We hear a tour guide describe Poussin’s “The Triumph of Pan” as elitist, and much as a gallery curator finds a narrative within the way she selects and displays artworks, Wiseman uses his footage to argue, subtly but effectively, that the Gallery is fundamentally elitist. The only time the “common people” (a wonderfully snide British phrase, immortalised by Pulp – who had a documentary of their own at the festival) are given a voice is during life drawing sequences – when they are both subject and artist – and in a memorably brief protest by Greenpeace. National Gallery is an educational, gorgeous film, yes, but it’s also a demonstration of how “traditional” narrative isn’t necessary to tell a story.
Film festivals are a fantastic opportunity to catch documentaries that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible on the big screen (I saw National Gallery from the front row of the State, which was a spectacularly good decision – thanks Mike!). Alongside Wiseman’s film I caught three portraits of artists – a film about an idol of mine, Roger Ebert, called Life Itself (introduced by another idol of mine: David Stratton), a film about glorious failure called Jodorowsky’s Dune and a day in the life of Nick Cave – an unconventional documentary by the title of 20,000 Days on Earth. There were some interesting similarities and differences between these three films and their approach to analogous subjects – similarities I’m hoping to pick apart in a future essay, so I’ll save that for later.
Another special moment at the festival was a last minute one, switching from The Rover (a film I’m still planning on seeing … hopefully) to the Altman on Altman presentation of McCabe and Mrs Miller. It was my first experience of the film, and what an experience! A 35 mm print (that had seen better days, but that’s part of the charm) played at the Art Gallery of NSW, introduced by Robert Altman’s son, Michael, with one of the actresses from the film in attendance. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting – it wasn’t like any Western I’ve seen before, nor any Altman film – but it was certainly an excellent film, and one I’m glad I got to experience on the big screen.
It wasn’t all documentaries and classics, of course. The film that impelled me to purchase my plane tickets in the first place was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and while it didn’t live up to my precipitously high expectations, it was undeniably a great film. There was also – in rough order of appreciation – Locke, Happy Christmas, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her and Love is Strange. While I didn’t see a bad film at the festival, I admit I was disappointed by the latter two – each were distinguished by excellent performances, but neither really amounted to anything substantial for me (though that’s understandable in the case of Her, as it was literally an incomplete film – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him might’ve resolved my dissatisfaction, if only there’d be a chance to see both halves over the one weekend).
Locke, like many films of the festival, had a gimmick – it was all shot from within or just outside one car, over eight days, with one actor (Tom Hardy as the titular Locke). I liked it a lot – and will probably get off my arse and give it a proper review in the near future, fingers-crossed – but it disappointed a number of people I’ve spoken to. It’s a divisive film in that it’s possible to view it as a feature-length criticism of white male entitlement or a feature length promotion of same; I side with the former interpretation, but I can see why people viewed it as the latter. Happy Christmas was lightweight but a lot of fun – hopefully someday Joe Swanberg’s films will get released here outside of film festivals.
Honestly, my only regret in attending the Sydney Film Festival was that I couldn’t stay for longer – unfortunately, while you get great holidays in full-time teaching, you aren’t afforded much flexibility when it comes to holidays. It’s only a bit over a week since I attended the festival, and already I’m missing it … and contemplating planning a trip to Melbourne in August. Perhaps I’ll see you there.