What Matters at the Los Angeles Film Festival

Drive and The Tiniest Place

By Robert Koehler

A running conversation at film festivals in the US and abroad (mostly abroad): The urgency of film criticism to advocate for certain cinema, and ignore the other cinemas. The best reason? Life is too short to deal very much or very long with crap, and is much better spent considering the good work, and why it is good. Most American criticism is not founded on this principle; rather, it tends to be dominated by a consumerist mentality that says that all films which can be seen commercially should be written about, and those that can’t should be ignored.

The difference between these two approaches–both quite simple on their face, yet quite complex beneath the skin–produces an entirely different cultural effect. For one, the latter requires critics to expend inordinate amounts of energy lambasting bad films that the culture hardly needs reminding are bad. (Green Lantern, for the latest example, despite the noble efforts of Ryan Reynolds to inject it with humanity. Green Lantern is somehow screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival.) “Bad” can also mean “worthless,” therefore, not worth my time to write about it, and not worth your time to read about it. The latter exchanges in an endless grind of pointless negativity, filling web pages and column inches attacking the obvious, like dropping more NATO bombs that only make the rubble vibrate in Libya. Much American criticism does little more than watch the rubble move. The former approach actively supports directions in cinema, represented by the film at hand, that call for our attention, and care. This approach implicitly condemns other cinemas; by ignoring them, passing them over, the silence accorded them directly equates with their value.

This is where criticism and programming intersect, which is also perhaps why I’ve noticed that many of the writers who favor a criticism of advocacy are or have been programmers. Critics do have greater latitude than programmers, to be sure; as all programmers painfully know, not all films desired for a program are obtained, not every film in a program is equally desirable, and just because a film happens to be absent from a given program doesn’t necessarily mean that the programmer considered it unworthy (and indeed, may have wanted it, but couldn’t get it, and this due to innumerable factors too long to get into here). Critics can, if they have the editorial freedom, exactly situate their cinephilia, and by advocating for certain films over others (implicitly or explicitly), precisely define their ideological position on the cinema field.

This is also the other problem with that other brand of critic (my Cinema Scope colleague and editor Mark Peranson, in his wrap-up of Cannes 2010, quite accurately referred to this group–which included more than just critics– as “them.” “They,” for example, were scandalized by Tim Burton’s jury choice of Uncle Boonmee for the Palme d’Or.) They don’t consider their practice or their view of cinema–say, that the films that matter are the ones that are the most heavily marketed, or the ones that the largest number of readers would be discussing right now or next week–as ideological in the least. It never occurs to them that their position is even a position; rather, as some have said to me, it’s (1), their job, and (2), the condition of things as they are. I’m not going to argue with their job–a job’s a job. (We all have one, or two, or three.) As for (2), this is the great illusion of their brand of film criticism, one shared by probably every newspaper entertainment section editor in the world: The “big” movies (this week, Green Lantern, or the ones promoted in the Los Angeles Times trailer as the Los Angeles Film Festival, including X-Men: First Class, Captain America, The Zookeeper, Cowboys vs. Aliens) deserve the big treatment, the “small” films less, and the “unknown” films none at all. This is ideology, all right: The Ideology of advertisers, the force that most fundamentally drives “their” criticism. It informs movie websites and blogs as much as the papers, by the way, as more and more websites are propelled forward by the hits metric that advertisers gauge in order to determine whether or not they want to invest in a given site. The very fact that I’m able to freely discuss this at this site should tell you everything you want to know about where Film Journey stands in terms of “their” advertisers and “their” movies. “We” acknowledge and identify the ideological stance on cinema; “they” don’t.

The criticism of advocacy then means, when it comes to commenting on the latest edition of the Los Angeles Film Festival, that the only films worth mentioning are the films worth watching. I’ve seen about 65% of the program thus far, with six days and twelve films left to see: these are The Dynamiter, Renee, Senna, The Innkeepers, Self Made, Operation Peter Pan, The Yellow Sea, Love Crime, The Guard, Another Earth, Project Nim and Guy Maddin’s live performance/film, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.

The films I’ve wanted to see and will miss are: Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Position Among the Stars, The Salesman, Tomboy, Karate-Robo Zaborgar and On the Ice.

Then, there’s a short list of films here that needn’t be seen at the festival (or can’t be seen at this point), that don’t succeed for any number of reasons, but should nevertheless be seen eventually: Asa Jacobs’ Terri, James Franco’s The Broken Tower, Richard Linklater’s Bernie, Paddy Consadine’s Tyrannosaur. Oh, and yes, there’s a couple of OK films that can’t be deemed essential: Fernando Perez’ Suite Habana and Gerard Roxburgh’s Once I Was a Champion.

Finally, here are the essentials (including a few which have already screened, so catch them when you can). I will note that this group comprises a small percentage of the overall program, less than 10%. Read into that whatever you want. These are in order, from high masterpieces to excellent:

Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (already screened; in release this September)
Tatiana Huezo’s The Tiniest Place (Fri)
Raul Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon (Sat)
Denis Cote’s Curling (Wed, Fri)
Renate Costa’s 108 (already screened)
Theo Court’s Decline (Thurs)
Sivaroj Kongsakul’s Eternity (Thurs, Sat)
Alexei German, Jr.’s Paper Soldier (Sat)
Chad Friedrichs’ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (already screened)
Stephane Lafleur’s Familiar Ground (Tues, Wed)
Natalia Almada’s The Night Watchmen (already screened)


  1. This is like a bolt of revelation from the blue. As a programmer and film writer, I have long proclaimed my own interest in “creating a dialogue around the films I love” and a general refusal to write about films I don’t like. I feel like I have just found a kindred spirit and a true explanation of my own feelings about programming (and all of it’s inherent joys and deep limitations) and its relationship to criticism. THANK YOU for placing these feelings and ideas in concrete. It restores my own faith in the need to continue my own thinking and writing about the films I find to be of value.
    — Tom Hall
    Artistic Director, The Sarasota Film Festival
    Programmer, newportFILM

  2. “the ones promoted in the Los Angeles Times trailer as the Los Angeles Film Festival, including X-Men: First Class, Captain America, The Zookeeper, Cowboys vs. Aliens)”

    This is outrageous, by the way–I hadn’t noticed.

  3. Thanks Tom for your comments. I think that a criticism of advocacy also provides a way out of the rut that many thoughtful critics may understandably feel about their own work, especially when they find themselves forced to write weekly about crap. This perspective on criticism is only possible when there are many good films to write about, which there are (and generally ignored by the film criticism of advertising). I should also add that advocating certain films over others isn’t simply to put a happy face on the state of cinema, but to declare an articulate stance, which implicitly OPPOSES other kinds of cinema–and to state that as needed. AND there are exceptions to all of this: Like arguing (as I did at length at this site last month) why THE TREE OF LIFE is a very bad film. There can be films that matter that are also failures, and no self-respecting criticism can ignore this work. But advocating is where programming and criticism intersect, and opens up all sorts of possibilities.

  4. I think the world of you, Bob, but it’s a lot more complicated than you make it seem.

    Ain’t It Cool News has long positioned itself as “film advocates” and neither journalists or critics. (This has changed as they have mainstreamed, but not the point.) Harry Knowles was and is an expert in a wide away of obscure films and filmmakers. He is an aggressive supporter of film preservation.

    And he wets his pants over Transformers movies.

    So where do you put him?

    Where do we put the New York Film Festival, putting The Social Network as their opening night film last year… perhaps because they believed… but mostly because it was their first opportunity to World Premiere an Opening Night movie in over a decade. So then they break the review embargo by weeks and promote the film relentlessly. I respect all of those guys and women… but where is the line?

    All those silly films at LAFF this year… par for the course in the last 5 years or more. But the shock of LAFF this year was that they opened with a movie without distribution. Advocacy or desperation?

    I certainly qualify as one of those idiots who worry about box office and spends far too much time on studio junk. But I am also an active advocate for films without distribution, festivals that don’t get enough attention (like Seattle… oy… a mighty fest with not nearly enough reputation outside of the NW), documentaries that get scant distribution, etc, etc. I kinda know where I fit into your world view… but I’m not 100% sure where I should fit in.

  5. I don’t agree that LAFF has been bad for five years, I think it has been decidedly mediocre the past two since Rachel Rosen left (and SFIFF has been strong), but I’m not sure why; I think David Ansen and Doug Jones have good taste. Three years ago, it was a world cinema powerhouse, with titles by Martin Rejtman, Mariano Llinas, Miguel Gomes, Celina Murga, Claire Denis, Wang Bing, Kore-eda, Pere Portabella, Koji Wakamatsu, etc. Last year, at least they had the Torre Nilsson spotlight. But this year, it’s much less adventurous–LAFF is quickly resembling AFI FEST of the early-2000s, when none of the cinephiles I knew even bothered to attend.

    Opening Night films for all festivals are press events unto themselves, I don’t think Bob begrudges that at all.

  6. There are, in fact, a great many voices in the film blogosphere devoted to what I call on my blog “offroad” films. However, Americans are so conditioned to want the biggest and most popular (remember Willie Loman buying the refrigerator with the “biggest ads,” only to find it a lemon), and daring distributors like the Shooting Gallery so many corpses in a too-full grave, that it’s hard to get anyone to try something new. I made an informal Top Films of 2010 list that ignored the AMPAS rules for “commercial release” that most other sites follow because who cares where it played so long as I saw it and thought it made my year. I got ridiculed for it at one site. I totally believe we have to advocate for quality, and I think this article takes well-deserved aim at the commercial worm that is starting to eat away at film festivals.

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