Buenos Aires Independent 2004
More than any major fest on earth, the Rotterdam International Film Festival has been the spot where avant-garde cinema flourishes, where subterranean filmmakers are regularly screened, including talented Americans little recognized at home. Understandably, the international film community was shaken when Simon Field, the much-respected Rotterdam director, was let go after January 2004, his contract not renewed. The worry is that those pulling strings at Rotterdam are itching for an "A"-level glamorous event. Hollandwood.
There's hope: the Rotterdam aesthetic continues, though with a change of geography, from Europe to South America. I look to the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival, tiptoeing through Argentina's economic collapse. This April marked the fourth year the festival has been run by Eduardo Antin, a brilliant, combatative Argentinian film critic known to all as "Quintin."
Before he took charge, Quintin told me, Francis Ford Coppola, "a mythical figure," had been a guest of the fest, setting a precedent for Buenos Aires to import the glitzy and world-famous. In his four years, Quintin has managed, he believes, to transform his audience's desires. "Now they say, 'What unknown people are coming this year whom we can discover?'" Attending Rotterdam annually, Quintin became a close protege of Simon Field. For 2004, Field was brought to Buenos Aires as a guest programmer, and he arrived with typical Rotterdam fare: an extraordinary "Jonas Mekas: Film Poet" series, honoring the Lithuanian immigrant who became the guru of 60s American underground cinema.
The program included not only Mekas's joyful diary films but his tongue-in-cheek short, "Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol" (1966-1982), done Warhol-style, in which Andy and sundry Factory superstars catnap for Mekas's camera while slo-mo eating cucumbers and other phallic legumes. "I feel touched if there is a connection, if Buenos Aires is inspired by Rotterdam in any way," Field said, over coffee between movies. "Quintin is very bold, willing to go the limits with his programming and choice of filmmakers, and with his keeping on the agenda the history of independent cinema. Also, he has a commitment to young Argentinian cinema. Quintin has picked up the Rotterdam baton and is running with it."
In 2004, Buenos Aires offered retrospectives of Japan's Kiyoshi Kurosawa, France's Eduardo de Gregorio, Chile's Raul Ruiz, Argentina's Martin Rejtman, four serious filmmakers who are not exactly paparazzi favorites. The American choices were equally enlightened and off-beat: New York filmmaker, Sara Driver, whose subtle, magical narrative features (Sleepwalk, When Pigs Fly) have been seen a thousand times less than the movies of her 25-year-companion, Jim Jarmusch; James Benning, a grizzled maverick who teaches at Cal Arts and whose non-narrative features (El Valley Centro, Los) are constructed by linking mesmerizing long-takes. For the fist time at the 2003 Vancouver Film Festival, Quentin saw Benning's work, and he described the films in his Buenos Aires catalogue essay as "an aesthetic shock." For Quentin, that's a positive, as well as was Benning's non-film background, the same as Quentin's, as a math instructor. Quintin: "Benning is obsessed with mathematics...applied to cinema, the idea that a shot resolves an abstract problem..."
Another guest at Buenos Aires 2004 was Benning's Cal Arts colleague, documentarian Thom Anderson, who brought for Argentina screening several truly buried treasures. The first was Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles (1962), a low-budget indie feature made in LA starring a cast of non-actor Native Americans, and which is a West Coast equivalent of John Cassavetes's Shadows. Amazing! The second: Once a Thief (1950), a tiny, unheralded "film noir" directed by W. Lee Wilder (1904-1982). Billy Wilder's unknown older brother! For Anderson, this movie is a corrective to the "male-as-female victim" sexism of most noirs, including Billy's Double Indemnity. But Billy was unimpressed with W. Lee, a handbag merchant in New York who followed in Billy's Hollywood footsteps: "[W. Lee]... was a fool...He sold his business, he bought a house here, and started making pictures, one worse than the next, and then he died." (Cameron Crowe, Conversations with Wilder)
Anderson doesn't agree with this negative read on W. Lee, who quietly managed 16 Hollywood films. "Early in his life, Billy Wilder was a gigolo. In the gigolo character played by Caesar Romero in Once a Thief, W. Lee made a portrait of his brother. W. Lee's films are a reproach to those of Billy."