BLOG: ROSS MCDONNELL AT VENICE DAYS

As part of 28 Times Cinema, Ross McDonnell was chosen to represent the IFI at this year’s Venice Days/Giornate Degli Autori. Here’s an update on his adventures…

Waterways which rivulet ‘round the floating city give Venice a paradoxical impression (or illusion) of permanence. Its unique design is such that it might have and might always exist, or contrarily – that it may be plunged and lost, so easily swallowed and slipped under forever. The steady stream and tide of films of films at this year’s 72nd Venice Film Festival – almost fifty of which I mainlined in eleven days – shored up a number of remarkable features, and at a much more regular velocity, diluvian debate that wrought something like a sea-change in this filmgoer’s fraudulent, temporary tenure as Jury Member.

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Europa Cinemas and the IFI plucked me seemingly (and generously!) at random to participate in the judging of the 11 films of the Venice Days programme, to set me off on a trajectory that began at traumatised and terrified and ended at some sort of focused, zen ruthlessness. In brief, as a group of 28 young Europeans – a gang rounded out by affable writer-director-frenchman and Jury President Laurent Cantet and our moderator, Artistic Director of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and arthouse G.I. Joe: Karel Och – we would watch films, discuss films, try and get in a word edgeways with the Palme D’Or winner we were eager to impress, and together decide, by popular vote, a winner. Sometimes we would convene at Venice Days headquarters, or sometimes in more atmospheric and productive settings, like gardens where we were free to wear sunglasses and smoke cigarettes and defend the subversive emphasis on the female orgasm in Julie Delpy’s Lolo. It’s a would-be premise for a prohibitively-niche reality-TV show, with nonetheless considerable stakes: a 20,000 cash prize, a pair of covetable festival laurels, and in a crowded field of films (all with their own unsure, unsteady futures), an ideal shot at overseas distribution – a launch to surpass the others which, to exploit a hackneyed phrase, will never leave the island.

There comes a slow and perhaps painful realisation in jury-meeting #2, or #3, that you probably do not, after all, share the telepathic connection with Laurent Cantet you thought you did in jury-meeting #1. A diverse (by-design) body of individuals can uniformly admire a film’s politics, and appreciate its craft, but will not so easily collectively experience the personal, and almost divine way in which a film takes hold, twists and pulls at our individual heartstrings. In July, writer-director-frenchwoman Mia Hansen-Løve told magazine Little White Lies that what she loves about film “is the feeling that somebody made them,” conveying with great economy that the flickering light and pitch-black surroundings of a screening room extend the bounds of the meet-cute to create something else, something like a blind date. This always-unique interpersonal phenomenon inevitably fragments and divides opinion.

Taste can be both cerebral and emotional – too much of the former can be calculated, too much of the latter can leave you living dangerously islanded – and often our responses are as irrational and inexplicable as who we choose to spend our time with outside the cinema. Discovering that someone else likes Eric Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert can be a lot like the ending of Eric Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert, and it’s of course important, and powerful, for art to bring people together, but doubt and dread descend when, after the consensus favourites surface, prospective votes begin being counted and debate spills over into the after-hours. A third-party between you and the film is introduced and you are forced to drum up justification for, quite simply, liking what you like. Discussing a film becomes a way of talking about yourself (not in a selfish way, but in an essential way) through shared abstractions. When we agonise (and compromise) over what can call ‘honest,’ what constitutes a triumph for a character and, for some reason, awfully frequently, with which devices a film can appropriately finish, we are vulnerable and revealing of our world-view, of the philosophies we live by. Self-consciousness galvanises into self-preservation, and it becomes exhilarating fighting for and asserting your relevance, your presence, your existence. Developing ideas in debate can be dynamic and truly reinvigorating, as stirring and stimulating than the films themselves – being protective of what you uniquely respond to can be life-affirming. Video-artist Robert Filliou apparently said that “art is what makes life more interesting than art,” and sitting uncertain and sublimating on a jury is a heightened, exaggerated, life-or-death version of what it is to carry films (or to tunnel further, any myths or stories – theistic or atheistic) with you in everyday life.

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As expected, there were definite, absolute standouts, films where we discovered moments that elucidated an until-then concealed truth, and films where we found new characters to whom we feel kindred – Leyla Bouzid’s debut, Tunisian Arab Spring Kunstlerroman As I Open My Eyes; Pengfei’s sparse Underground Fragrance; Julie Delpy’s Lolo – which may at last confirm or qualify her as being our generation’s Chaplin or Keaton; and very many more, including those we did not have to tiptoe around, embargoed, and those we sometimes wished we were deliberating – free to shout, loosed but revived below, into the #Venezia72 void:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most memorable moments work best within the neat and tidy frame of montage: spotting, and then spontaneously military-saluting Alfonso Cuarón when down-and-out and drinking beer on the edge of a kerb; a cycling and waving Laurent Cantet appearing, as if an apparition, on my penultimate morning on the Lido; earnestly enjoying the Euro-trashiest party at (of all places) a still-in-use Aerodrome; some novel run-ins with film legends — wearing live translation headphones at a surprisingly intimate panel discussion with New Wave director Agnès Varda and accidentally sitting so near Frederick Wiseman at the premiere of his latest documentary that there’s no way you’re not there, grinning, in the press photos; some puddle-eyed island-hopping, dragging my body around the adjacent art Biennale while the others, unbeknownst to me, were hanging out at the airport with Charlie Kaufmann – after our eventful night before, dancing to the exuberantly melancholy and melancholically exuberant soundtrack to Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, 28-strong in a tiny Venecian kitchen, which, as the fleeting hours flew by, fittingly, gradually emptied-out as we returned to our gondolier-quiet lives.

 


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