Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rendezvous With Madness 2013: Festival Preview + Advance Reviews

Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival

November 11–16, 2013

The Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival has been investigating the facts and mythologies surrounding mental illness in the media of moving pictures since 1993. Presenting films cutting across genre lines, the festival creates spaces for dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Many of the films are presented with panel discussions to further the conversations that the screenings provoke. And it helps that there's a strong selection of films that are worth seeing on their own merits.

This year's movies move from present-day India to Iran to 19th century Bavaria and range stylistically from shorts to documentaries to dramas.

Some of the films feel ripped from the headlines (such as Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse, about "a shy and gentle artist's struggle with schizophrenia... [which] examines the actions of the police officers responsible for his death" — a topic which resonates all too strongly in this city) while others explore nearly unimaginable ideas (like Sole Survivor's look at four of the people who lived through the commercial plane crashes in which only one person survived). There's also a couple classic films of note, including Warrendale by the late Canadian documentary master Allan King (presented as part of a Youth Mental Health Symposium) and a free screening of Chester Withey's 1916 silent film The Devil's Needle, presented with a live piano score performed by Justin Haynes.

Screenings take place at Workman Arts and the TIFF Lightbox. Regular screenings are $12 (galas and symposia vary), and you can get all the box office you need here. And don't forget, I also have some free passes I'm giving away to Valeria Golino's Honey (Miele). Oh, and I've also manages to catch a couple films from the festival already, so here's the early reviews...

Running From Crazy (Dir: Barbara Kopple, 100 minutes, USA, 2013)

What does it mean to come from a family with a history of mental illness? How do family members accept and comprehend the burden of their parents' strife, and how do they overcome damage done to them while raising the next generation? This film examines all these issues, but it wraps it up in the "hook" of investigating them in the context of a family of celebrities.

Mariel Hemingway (the main subject here) rose to fame in the 70's and 80's alongside her older sister Margaux, but there were always dark clouds looming. Including their grandfather (famed novelist Ernest Hemingway), there were numerous suicides in their family and a history of mental illness. The film gives us the outlines of the burdens passed down the generations — Ernest lost his own father to suicide and had a distant mother, and his eldest son Jack (father to Margaux and Mariel) was an alcoholic, struggling with the corrosive effects of being the son of a legend.

"There's a bunch of funky shit in my family," Mariel tells us, as we learn about the environment she grew up in, with domestic discord, allegations of sexual abuse and her mother's illnesses being her "normal" before she droped out of school to pursue her Hollywood career. Now, she's in a reflective mood, looking back at her conflicts with Margaux (who would take her own life at age 42) and the institutionalization of her eldest sister Joan.

We watch Mariel in the celeb milieu, shilling lifestyle advice, but also but also in support groups and working as a suicide prevention activist. She's pretty open here, raw and self-critical — trying to look back and see the lessons learned and trying to apply them in the lives of her own daughters.

Produced for Oprah Winfrey's television network, there's a couple draggy spots in the endgame with (including a too-forced climb-that-mountain metaphor on a rock-climbing expedition) but on the whole, this is engaging stuff. It helps that the project is helmed by veteran director Barbara Kopple (who made one of the all-time great documentary films). Here she's working closer to the celeb profile template, but it never settles for infomercial glibness. There's also strikingly seamless use of archival material, including footage from a documentary on Ernest Hemingway that Margaux began in 1983. (In fact, the 80's material is some of the most compelling stuff here.) This will be of interest to those interested in the Hemingways as well as fans of Kopple's work, but ultimately it's a compelling story about how a family's struggles are passed along with their name. [Warning: contains some footage of the ritualized animal abuse that is bull-fighting.]

Screens: Thursday, November 14th, 6:45 p.m @ TIFF Lightbox.

Ludwig II (Dir: Marie Noëlle & Peter Sehr, 140 minutes, Germany, 2012)

A rare regent who cared more for kunst than krieg, King Ludwig II of Bavaria is remembered for his love of opera, his architectural legacy... and for going mad. His oft-told story gets a re-examination here from Noëlle and Sehr, who treat this as more-or-less a straight-up biopic.

We meet young Ludwig in his student days, happier to sneak off to listen to the latest opera than to deal with his militaristic royal duties. Despite his father's efforts to teach him the ways of realpolitik his sudden death leaves Ludwig a most reluctant king, thrust too quickly to the throne. Swanning around with his beloved cousin Elisabeth, he employs his political capital to prove that opera could be more powerful than guns — never a popular opinion with the established order, who approve even less of his almost filial devotion to the composer Richard Wagner, who quickly comes to realize he can manipulate the young king.

Defeat in the Seven Weeks' War and Wagner's forced expulsion were psychological blows to the king, and soon he is hiding on his private island. The cancellation of his wedding, his brothers' struggle with mental illness and further political setbacks led to his increased isolation, and soon he preferred to remain far from the capital, building a series of more elaborate castles and existing at a far remove from the masses (and though the locations are sumptuous, sometimes the screen feels weirdly underpopulated). Eventually, he would be deposed and reduced to a "poor madman" before his mysterious death.

The film's main concern seems to be to get us through this huge amount of plot, and big questions like "what is madness?" and whether art can be as powerful as politics aren't tackled head on. Nor does the film really get to the heart of the man and the king — although that's admittedly no easy task for someone who pronounced, "I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others."

In covering three decades of Ludwig's life, the film chooses to represent him with two actors, which is handled fairly seamlessly. Sabin Tambrea excels, giving us the young king as a twitchy dandy with shades of Crispin Glover filled with airy romanticism and confused sexuality. Sebastian Schipper fares less well, although perhaps there's less to be done with the withdrawn older Ludwig, a sullen mystic holding imaginary dinner parties with Wagner and Louis XIV.

This story has had several big screen treatments — cineastes may be most familiar with Visconti's Ludwig from 1972, and it's probably hard for any actor to match Helmut Berger's intensity there. But this version moves at a quick enough clip that the lengthy running time never feels like a strain, and though there are some underdeveloped elements, it never feels too slight. That makes this film worth seeing for those who are interested in the legend and the man — but it probably shouldn't be the only one they see.

Screens: Tuesday, November 12, 8:30p.m. @ TIFF Lightbox

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