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Alex Grant reports on the Festival now in full swing - Update October 8th

In last Friday’s Globe & Mail Review Section, journalist Alexandra Gill made the reader submit to the arrogant posturing and hypersensitivity to criticism that has always characterized the program-directors of the annual Vancouver film orgy, henceforth to be referred to as VIFF 21.

This 21st stanza of the allegedly maverick VIFF event, as it has been wrongly characterized by the CBC (if it is a maverick event, I’m the proverbial bull in the china shop), is predictably anodyne.

It is a case, yet again, of same-old-same-old and been-there-done-that. That is the customary stress upon obscure films from the emerging South-East Asian cinemas and simple-minded, totally opaque documentaries from everywhere on God’s green earth.

The VIFF programmers do always throw a very wide net, but their catch is as puny as ever this year.
With regard to the word ‘documentary’, let me remind you that every film is a documentary, even if it records Hollywood actors Jeff Bridges or Harrison Ford dressed up as and impersonating the imaginary American presidents.

The collusion between a cravenly obsequious print and broadcast media in Vancouver and the VIFF event let alone the lowest common denominator attitude of many local utterly naïve film goers has brought about this dire state of affairs. Most crucially, such excruciating brown-nosing and boot-licking by the media has created a situation where a film is judged as worthwhile simply because it is about some burning socio-cultural or socio-political issue. In other words, politically correct horse-puckey rules, okay?
To put not too fine a point on it, for me, a good film is one which treats its theme seriously without being about some portentous serious theme.

By a random, scattergun process of sifting through the evidence of the VIFF 21 handbook, which is notorious for its vulgar, self-congratulatory capsule reviews, a knowledgeable woman friend and I (both of us well-versed in the vagaries of the film fests’ publicity machine) chose two films to see on the third day of the event, Saturday September 28th 2002.

Out of the usual roster of films devoted to the depiction of dysfunctional families, yet another hoary indulgence of the festival, we selected Tony Ayre’s gloom-and-doom tear-jerker Walking on Water and the British wannabe screwball comedy drama by directors Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger The Lawless Heart.
Curiously, but not so curiously, given the traditional queer bent of the annual VIFF event, both films center upon the aftermath of a gay male’s demise. They portray the ripples set off among a coterie of friends and family punished by the untimely departure of their friend(s).

The Aussie item, set in today’s blue-collar suburbs of Sydney, begins with a bungled physician-assisted suicide of gay Gary, wasting away from terminal AIDS. His death almost destroys the friendship of Gary’s surviving closest pals: gay Charlie (Vince Colosimo) and straight Anna (Maria Theodorakis).
Walking on Water is one of countless aspiring tragic comedies devoted to burning social issues that utterly confuse bathos - totally misplaced empathy - and pathos, which is honestly earned sentiment rooted in human emotional realities.
Admittedly, Tony Ayre’s film approximates the shadow of genuine pathos when compared with so very many utterly wimpy wet-behind-the-ears contenders in this odiously transparent genre. His film is a self-important melodrama subsisting merely on contemporary issues: AIDS, euthanasia, sexual identity confusion, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Such weak-kneed melodramas seldom transcend their profound immersion in neo-realist kitchen-sink minutiae, and (let’s not forget) politically correct bullshit spewed over all comers like projectile diarrhea.
In a nutshell, Walking on Water offers us the unbecoming sight of a gaggle of unrepentant substance abusers (chain-smoking, pot-headed, coke-snorting, ecstasy gobblers) who behave even more selfishly than usual when they prove unable to cope with loss and grief. Woefully inadequate wankers from Down-Under. Why should I spend five minutes in their company, even vicariously?

The Lawless Heart by gay filmmakers Hunter and Hunsinger from Britain is a tad more wise, a smidgen more witty, and tons warmer. It is initially the beneficiary of an appealingly droll role for by U.K. veteran iconoclast actor Bill Nighy. He is a total delight playing a dithering, indecisive, introspective British nerd of the first rank.
Unfortunately, Nighy is made prominent by his near total absence after the first half-hour of The Lawless Heart.
Far too peremptorily, the co-directors opt for a ‘meeting cute screwball’ comedy format relying much too heavily upon the tiresome recapitulation of initially charming moments from the film’s opening. These re-enactments from the different characters’ points of view suggest a lack of sufficient material for a full-length feature film.
Gay middle-aged, small town bistro-owner ‘Stuart’ has been drowned either by accident, or at his own impulse. After his funeral, the survivors cope by indulging in innocent games of sexual musical chairs. The late Stuart’s bed-and business-partner ‘Nick’ (Tom Hollander) who strives manfully to get it on with a kooky misfit woman whom he hires as waitress.
Everything within The Lawless Heart dovetails neatly like tongue-and-groove carpentry.
Neatness is all for these obsessive compulsive filmmakers to the detriment of real emotional frankness. The film clings too timidly to politically correct principles and is far from being un-law-abiding.

To my mind, neither film deserves inclusion in a major film festival. Both belong on television. Not that VIFF has ever in twenty one years come within a stone’s throw of the major film festivals, such as New York’s, which began the same day this year.

Many moons ago, the VIFF program crew chose deliberately to devalue the currency of genuine festival worthy films by going for quantity over quality. They relentlessly prefer second-rate politically correct films over the eternal verities of real art.
In doing so, they have been assiduously aided and abetted by an ill-informed media culture in Vancouver that fails to ever tell its ass from its elbow and never can separate the sheep from the goats. To these individuals, everything is fool’s gold.


My seemingly destructive comments upon The 21st Annual Vancouver International Film Festival are essentially constructive ones based upon first-hand knowledge of the politics and the rationale of this annual film orgy, knowledge accumulated by me since 1982.
I have extensive experience organizing serious film festivals since 1972 in Ottawa and London,England. I have also been closely involved with the British and Canadian "Film Society" movement, since 1960.The proliferation of film festivals emerged from the Film Society movement in the early ‘60s, in point of fact, certainly in Britain and Canada. There was a commercial brand of modest ‘film-fest,’ at the West Point Grey Varsity Theatre from 1962 through 1982. That same year the Ridge Theatre launched a ‘commercial’ [ no civic,provincial or federal funding ] film festival up on 16th and Arbutus. I have also frequently attended both the Cannes and London film-fests. As a programming expert from 1972 thoughout the ‘70s.

Seldom have I witnessed the slow death by complacency and an arrogant sense of entitlement – to spend our tax money incompetently and willfully – as is apparent to any knowledgeable expert examining the dwindling into apathy and dead-end fate of VIFF, since they began to accumulate a plethora of mediocre films each Fall, preening constantly about the dull Dragons and Tigers sidebar event ,which has subsumed almost everything elsse in sight despite the deplorable taste of its programmer,and the lavish cornucopia of even duller documentary films.

The annual Toronto film festival which I attended in its initial years is of course devoutly at the feet of Hollywood, yet does display better taste and a far higher level of discrimination each Fall when compared with VIFF. The local organizers’ preference for a low profile and no ballyhoo is often counterproductive. Far fewer films and far more sense of what is worthy and au courant would do wonders for this lame, limpand horribly self-satisfied and complacent event. So very many of the entries at VIFF within months go straight to video-DVD and rightly so.

Yet until the print and broadcast media get off their haunches and complain about the wretched excess of VIFF 21 an excess of mediocre films and an excess of self-congratulation nothing will change, After all The Vancouvers Sun SPONSORS this event yet pretends to provide objective assessment of its caliber. So very small-town and far from world-class, just coasting in neutral all the way downhill. That’s the ticket!!


October 5th Update:
A very good friend of mine, very well-versed in a decade or more of plunging VIFF credibility, once its powers-that-be opted for quantity over quality in the late ‘80s, has seen a dozen films at VIFF21 and has enjoyed only a single film 'Me Without You' thoroughly out of this dozen selections.

Just who is doing this alleged selection process? And what the hell do they think they’re up to these days ? Word on the street all hearsay of course is that this HAS to be the dullest least worthy film orgy in the entire 21 years of VIFF.

Of course the cringing media mavens have yet again this Fall failed to ask the critical question, which is “Why do the VIFF organizers think they are doing us a favour with our tax monies ?”
I do believe that these programmers and their minions pride themselves on adding luster to the cultural scene, spending many hundreds of thousands of OUR dollars to host this truly pathetic horde of often insipid and worthless films, foisted upon a public that should know a lot better than to kowtow to such ignorami.

One of the principal prejudices of the VIFF folk is their animosity towards U.S. filmmakers, an animosity based upon sheer ignorance. Without Hollywood, warts and all, there would be no emerging national cinemas, period. How any serious film festival could ignore such New York Film Festival entries for 2002 as Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, Paul Schrader’s Auto-Focus,Paul T.Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love and more, all praised to the skies in The New York Times which boasts some of the finest English-language critics in the Western World is beyond my comprehension.
Anti-Americanism is rampant in much of Vancouver - the sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters of Vietnam conchies/draft dodgers have inculcated in their offspring a truly sinister hatred of their forebears’land of birth. A self-defeating blinkered attitude based of course upon undiluted, unthinking prejudice run rampant.

A film festival that seeks world-class status should not indulge some juvenile goonery. We deserve better from those who spend our tax dollars in what amounts this year to a futile pursuit of what the CBC poobahs have dubbed a “maverick” clutch of motion-pictures on the hoof…….give us a break.

At its best VIFF has been merely a last round-up Festival of Festivals conglomeration of the prior 10 months’ best films from earlier 2002 film-fests. Surely an easy task when other film-fest organizers have done the filtering and the fussing over the merits of world cinema’s annual output?
Yet even such a rudimentary task of film selection yet again eludes the VIFF staffers leaving us the patrons high and dry on a motley collection of ba, worse and truly indifferent films.

© Alex Grant - October 2002
Alex Grant will be reviewing other festival films until it's conclusion on October 11th.

October 8th Readers response:
I'm wondering: how does Alex Grant really feel about the Vancouver International Film Festival? I feel that he's holding back. Actually, he speaks the truth, and I'm glad that someone finally has. Everyone I talk to at parties mutter about how lame the festival is, and how they haven't seen much they have liked, but no one has really spoken out until this article.
VIFF was decent as recently as 1992, when I watched Atom Egoyan's "The Adjuster" with a very young M. Night Shyamalan, who attended with his first feature "Praying With Anger". For a while, I was just assuming that the films were getting worse, and it had nothing to do with the festival (this concept would at least account for the past two Egoyan films), but Mr. Grant really hit the nail with his comments about how lame Dragons & Tigers can be. I have seen some truly dreadful and offensive films in that program.

Sure, I got to see some gems by Kar-wai Wong, John Woo, and Hirokazu Koreeda, but a film illiterate could have picked out those as winners.
(My parents - who, as much as I love them, have been known to rent Eric Roberts movies - would even pick out their films as winners.)

What I find annoying is how every single film in Dragons & Tigers is written up as the second coming of something, worth sacrificing your first born to see, and then you get to the cinema all hyped up, only to experience yet another a piece of crap. Plus, the programmer utterly worships the ground that Beat Takeshi walks on, which is not always prudent. This year I decided to be very selective in the films I see, sticking with films made by friends (I think the Canadian programmers are amongst the few at the festival with any clue), ones by directors I really admire, or ones that come with some acclaim from other festivals. And because of this selectivity, I have seen some winners, like "Punch", "Various Positions", "The Burial Society", and the devastatingly amazing "Lilya 4-Ever". I have also been able to devote vaulable time to my work, which in the past got put on hold during the festival. Anyways, I wanted to send feedback to you and Mr. Grant for speaking the truth. I hope the message gets across to the powers that be at VIFF that the festival is fast becoming irrelevant.
In a film savvy city like Vancouver, it is a shame we do not have a more potent and internationally recognized film festival.

from J. a local Vancouver filmmaker

Festival Films
A disappointing Norwegian Chiller
Red Dragon
Miscast disappointment
A structural mess

Accomplished but minimalist film from Cronenberg
Chinese Odyssey
Hilarious spoof of Crouching Tiger genre

More Reviews by Alex Grant and others in our Review section
On a positive note
*in case you desperately need to see something funny, now that summer has finally ended, catch the French movie Eight Women at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in Vancouver and just go away happy and thoroughly bemused. This film kicked off the Festival and just a treat. Go see it!
** Chinese Odyessy I have to say it was wonderful to see this film, laugh with the Ridge crowd, hear the Director speakand just plain enjoy a brilliant spoof of Crouching TIger and Wong Kai - Wai's Chunking Express. The actors and audience had great fun in the making and watching of this film and I really hope it gets picked up by distributors - it will make someone a fortune. Editor

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