If cinephilia has a distinctive virtue, it might be patience. A taste, or at least tolerance, for long silences is essential; the frustration of white subtitles on white background simply a cross to bear. In ‘real cinema’, audience gratification is seldom a priority, while music is rarely supplied as an emotional cue. The cogs of the commercial industry — convention, formula, familiarity — are reconfigured or set aside; if you wanted to be really insufferable, you might describe it as film without training wheels. It is for this kind of cinema that the Melbourne International Film Festival exists.
In the first pages of the 2012 programme, the establishment waxes lyrical —local, state and federal politicians penning odes to tourism profits and cultural capital. And yet, what of their constituents? ‘Arthouse film’, when not treated with indifference, still has a significant capacity to arouse hostility. For non-enthusiasts, events such as these can be perceived as pastimes for snobs and elitists incapable of appreciating the simple joy of popcorn and Johnny Depp in a pirate costume. The contempt, it must be said, is mutual.
There is no class war, at least, in Donaldson Lane. The queue from the Russell Street entrance to Greater Union winds into the nearby alleyway, right to the end and back up the wall of the opposing building. Here, again, patience is essential: thirty minutes or more in the frigid air is to be expected for a fully booked session, and there are plenty of those. Amour, the reigning French gold leaf recipient, is sold out weeks in advance; even some of the more obscure titles easily fill the smaller theatres.
In one such setting, a crowd files in for the screening of Bestiaire, a Québécois film about animals in captivity. It’s the sort of thing that could never screen outside a festival — good luck trying to market long, static shots of antelopes in pens — but it possesses a quiet beauty nonetheless. As much as its sequences arouse sympathy for the captive tetrapods, it’s difficult not to feel a twinge of irony — the viewers, of course, themselves stuck in a box in the dark, soon to be transported in a box on wheels to a box in the suburbs. Perhaps the distinction between voluntary and involuntary imprisonment is not all that significant; or perhaps the yaks would be happier if they had a lounge suite.
The concept of captivity seems a common theme in this year’s festival. Exploitation, in particular, is central. Who exploits who in the prostitution industry?, girl hooker doco Whores’ Glory and boy hooker feature Paradise: Love query in confronting fashion; in Girl Model, on the other hand, the only question is who’s exploiting the models (the answer seems to be everybody).
Almayer’s Folly, Chantal Akerman’s beautiful adaptation of the 19th century Joseph Conrad novel, addresses an older dynamic: that of the damage wrought by colonialism. Here, rather than adhere to the easy rhetoric of Oppressed and Oppressor, Akerman portrays the tragedy as a double-edged sword: a ravaging not just of enslaved natives and unwanted half-breeds, but the European overlords as well; pitiful figures trapped in a landscape they are incapable of comprehending. The final sequence, in particular, is magnificent: the protagonist, ruined and abandoned, recounts his erroneous patriarchal maxims. Thus, instead of reassuring us with a slogan, the film offers a more disturbing thesis: a path to hell paved with good intentions.
It seems unlikely that Almayer’s Folly will receive any kind of local distribution. Quite simply, it’s too obscure; doesn’t have any well-known actors; and, most importantly, it’s kind of slow. It seems tiresome to bemoan supposed characteristics of generation whatever, but let’s concede this much: a culture of immediate gratification is not fertile breeding ground for a more patient film consumer. Technology, as any Luddite would tell you, has much to answer for.
The festival doesn’t shirk these developments. Its iPhone app — when it works — is nigh on indispensable. The event even provides a full pass, which enables the holder to slip in and out of sessions at their leisure without fear of financial consequences. Sacrilege? You decide! Pity any patron, though, who exercises their right to escape Holy Motors before its concluding scenes, which feature Kylie Minogue, a song, apes and talking cars. If this summation makes the film sound strange… well, it does, and it is.
Cinema, of course, carries on after the conclusion of the festival. A certain proportion of films will be screened again over the next 12 months; some will go straight to DVD; the rest may turn up online. Good new films will continue to compete for space with expensive, 90 minute long product endorsements, saturation advertising ensuring the dominance of the latter. And yet, perhaps we cinephiles enjoy the obscurity of our passion; appreciate the opportunity to bask outside the flash-bulb glare of the American studio system. Perhaps it is the absence of mass corporate involvement that enables ‘real cinema’ to maintain its authenticity. Whatever the case, the following seems evident: these two-and-a-half winter weeks shall never lose their allure; neither, the solace of patient anticipation.