KVIFF Ruminations: A World of Choices in Making & Watching Films
by Alex Billington
July 11, 2018
"We are our choices." -Jean-Paul Sartre. Life is all about choices. The choices we make, or that we don't make, in small decisions, in big decisions. Everything is about these choices and every choice we make, even subconsciously, leads us down one path or another. We can't go back, but we can continue to be aware and learn what influences us to make decisions. This is an endless philosophical discussion with no conclusion, but the concept of "choices" has been on my mind a lot at film festivals - ever since a discussion I had with my friend & fellow critic Pamela Jahn at the Cannes Film Festival. Then it continued while I was at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic. I chose to go to this festival because I enjoy it, and I really want to catch up with and see more films. I'm very happy I went to this festival, and strangely enough even though a number of my friends were also there we never ended up at the same screenings. This isn't uncommon at film festivals, but it did make me think more about the choices we make - especially at fests.
The Karlovy Vary Film Festival is the biggest festival in the Czech Republic, and they just wrapped up their 53rd year. They bring an outstanding selection of films from all over the world to this tiny spa town, and it's wonderful to go there and watch them. This year they programmed a total of 181 films. One of my colleagues & good friends – Rory O'Connor, a freelance writer (for The Film Stage) who also lives in Berlin – came to the festival and watched films for a week as well. But we never went to the same film, we were never at the same screening, not even once. It's fascinating that we can both be at the same festival, at the same time, yet make entirely different choices and never once cross paths, but still be equally as satisfied and entertained and intrigued by the films we did choose to see. KVIFF noted that there were a total of 501 screenings over the nine days the festival takes place, so it all makes sense, but it's still a thought that lingers on my mind.
What intrigues me is not that this is possible, but what inspires us to make these choices. Why did he choose this film? Why did he choose that screening? What was it about this screening or this film that made him want to go see that? It could be anything… Maybe he liked the image they chose, maybe the synopsis sounds interesting, maybe there's something about it that connected with him, or it seems like he might be moved by it. Maybe he's curious about the filmmaker, or maybe he's already a big fan of the filmmaker. Maybe he just wants to see what this filmmaker is up to, and if their latest work is any good or not. Maybe he saw good reviews? Maybe he read bad reviews. Maybe he read a good review that made him choose not to go see one film. Maybe he read a bad review that made him choose to go see this film anyway. Maybe he just wants to see something different? Maybe he wants to try something new. There's so many reasons and possibilities, and it's not something anyone can even explain. It's something deep inside of us, and these choices make us.
This isn't the only discussion about choices I had during a film festival recently. At Cannes this year, I began a thought-provoking discussion with my friend Pamela about choices made in films. She had recently read an interview with Paul Schrader, director of this year's highly acclaimed First Reformed, and Schrader talked about the difference between making a choice, as a filmmaker, and a mistake. Our conversation then continued into a discussion about how even though we may see "bad" films (subjectively speaking), there's still something worth analyzing about the choices that were made. Was it bad because of this choice, or that choice? Maybe there's a choice the filmmaker made that is still inspiring, or worthy of praise, even if the rest of the film is not so good. Here's a key excerpt from Schrader's interview with the Rotterdam Film Festival:
At the same time, Schrader came to the realisation that the nature of movies had changed: no longer a need for a unifying style, much more freedom in what images you use. "You can have a guy in a red shirt in one shot and in the following shot it’s a green shirt. In the old days you would call that a mistake. Nowadays you call it a choice."
The rest of the interview with Schrader is just as good, he's an incredibly experienced filmmaker who knows what he is talking about and has experience making films for decades. For filmmakers, everything they do is about choice - they get to choose what the scene looks like, which camera angle they want, how the actors should read their lines. Later on they get to choose which take they want to use, which composer they prefer the most, which shot works the best, how it should sound (or not sound) in every scene. All of these choices can make or break a film. And even as Schrader points out, something as simple as the color of a shirt can be (over-)analyzed. And nowadays, instead of instantly labeling everything as a mistake, it can be analyzed as a choice. That's a good thing. It brings some optimism to the world of film criticism/discussion these days. Which is great because it's so easy to bash a film, yet there's still so much to think about even if a film is bad.
My friend went on to state that she would "rather see a film that aims high and fails," than one that goes safe and doesn't take any big risks. It's so true. If only more moviegoers and cinephiles would prefer to take this risk, to challenge themselves, and to keep an open mind even if they don't like a film. There are so many safe movies made every year -- especially coming from Hollywood just because they want to make as much money as possible and please as many people as they can. But it's always better to see something bold and unique. And even if they make a risky choice, and it ends up being a bad choice, it's still a choice that we can analyze and praise as an intriguing, thoughtful choice. Quentin Tarantino famously said a few years ago that he can always learn something from watching bad movies, so no matter what it is, there's something to gain and something to appreciate. This is hard to accept and hard to deal with, but with time you can grow to discover more in each and every film you see. Which is exactly why I go to see so many films at festivals.
This is what it all comes down to in the end. Film festivals allow us the choice to see whatever we want from a wide range of films they're showing. This includes all the classics and retrospective screenings, which at Karlovy Vary this year consisted of Big Trouble in Little China, Predator, Bloodsport, and The Deer Hunter. I usually don't want to choose to watch a film just because it's the same screening that a friend has decided upon already. This can coincidentally work out, and it's nice when it does. But I'm also just as happy talking with these friends and colleagues after they've made up their own mind and watched everything from their own selection. Why did they choose this film, and was it any good? What did they like and not like about? Which of the films that they did choose to see were worth their time? I'm more curious to learn about what inspired them to make these choices and what they have to say about each and every film. I want to listen to them explain what they love about a filmmaker or what they enjoy about his/her films. This is fascinating.
For me, the most I can do is try to help guide and to point people in the right direction. I can tell you what I loved and why I loved it - in my reviews and on Twitter. I can't change your mind, but I do hope to inspire you to make a choice by expressing what I've seen and learned already. At the end of it all, the choices we do make define us, and it's better to make these choices individually in a way that truly represent ourselves. We can watch films then discuss and analyze the choices made in them - by the filmmaker, by the screenwriter, by the actors, and so on. We can go to film festivals and choose films to see based on our past experiences and personal knowledge. Or we can choose to find something new, to experiment with something we may not enjoy. Nonetheless, these choices are part of who we are. We have to learn to respect that everyone has a right to choose whatever they want. So choose wisely. Go with your gut, listen to your heart, always be bold.