ESSAY: To View or Not to View: A Preview of Promising Films

by John O’Brien

As shoppers, why do we pick one product over another? If we know the product and like it, that’s one thing, but what makes us select, when given the choice, unknown A instead of unknown B?

Looking through the 16th Annual Green Mountain Film Festival’s catalog of coming attractions, I circled the films that looked promising and I crossed out the red flags. Going over my picks, I attempted to analyze why I was sold on one film and turned off by another.

What compels or repels me? The first thing that hits me is the title. Then the thumbnail photo accompanying each listing. Next, the synopsis. Finally, I look at the credits: Who is the director? What country was this made in? What’s the running time? What’s the genre?

I narrowed my list to seven films I would like to see, and seven films my instincts tell me to avoid. Remember, this is a preview, not a review. This is not meant to be a thumbs up or a thumbs down on any of these films; it’s just a confession of what pulls me in or pushes me away.

Yes, please:

1. 5 Broken Cameras—A Palestinian farmer/photographer, an Israeli codirector/
editor, and olive trees getting bulldozed. This documentary sounds more heartbreaking than polemical, more humanist than righteous.

2. Breakfast with Curtis—The director, Laura Colella, has just been hired to head the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ film program. Her film, shot at her house in Providence, Rhode Island, was cast with nonprofessional actors. Right up my alley.

3. Caesar Must Die—Maybe it’s because I liked the Taviani brother’s Kaos, or maybe it’s because I was browsing through this catalog on the ides of March, but I’d take a chance on this.

4. Neighboring Sounds—The description sold me: This Brazil is neither “The Girl From Ipanema” nor City of God. Also, one of the joys of movie-going is being an armchair traveler, and being transported, in late March, from Vermont to Recife is a trip worth taking.

5. Pierre Etaix Retrospective—Evidently, Etaix was a French clown who wrote gags for Jacques Tati and made a string of comedies in the ’60s. Whenever I begin to think I know everything there is to know about film history, my ignorance is exposed. I’d never heard of Pierre Etaix before now. This could be a revelation.

6. The Savoy King—Found footage of Harlem in the ’30s; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the voice of Dizzy Gillespie; jazz critic Gary Giddins blurb: “One of the great musical documentaries of our time.” Sold.

7. Sister—This Swiss-French film sounds like it could have been made in the Mad River Valley. It also reminds me that the French films I’ve seen at previous GMFFs—The Girl from Paris and Conversations with My Gardener, to name two—were rewarding.

No, thank you:

1. Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives—This sounds like a hippy hagiography with recipes for placenta. The New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis declares it, “A granola ode to natural childbirth that makes you want to hop in a tub of warm water and start pushing.” Which reminds me to ask around: Are there any male midwives out there?

2. A Fierce Green Fire—A shining example of circular hype: Robert Redford narrates the doc, which his own Sundance Institute proclaims is “shaping up to be the documentary of record on the environmental movement.” And why “fierce”? Resplendent adjectives are an invasive species and should be destroyed. Is Senseless Crime and Robust Punishment a better title for Dostoyevsky?

3. Like Someone in Love—Director Abbas Kiarostami may be a genius, but I’m tired of movies about call girls. Or hitmen. I don’t know any prostitutes or assassins. Why not make movies about people who have real jobs (like the ones in wedding notices)— a revenue management division specialist at Fletcher Allen or a geographical information systems planning analyst for the state of New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services?

4. On the Road—Kerouac’s dog-eared novel gets the Walter Salles’s Motorcycle Diaries facial. It will be beautiful, tasteful, dreadful. To get at the heart of the book, the movie would have to be experimental—maybe animated or made on a shoestring in another country. I’ll wait for the Kyrgyzstan On the Road.

5. Orpheus—Has anybody noticed that Peter Shumlin is a dead ringer for Jean Cocteau? Could our governor be Cocteau’s accidental spawn? Contemplating such paternity, I don’t think I could concentrate on this masterpiece of French cinema.

6. The Thieves—A Korean Ocean’s Eleven. I’ll wait for the Kyrgyzstan Ocean’s Eleven.

7. Unfinished Song—Another enduring male fantasy—grumpy, old man de-grumped by lovely, young woman. Which reminds me of the time that Fred Tuttle confided to me, after receiving a full-body hug from a voluptuous fan, “John, John—I felt a tingle where I haven’t felt a tingle in years!”

 

Those are my yeas and nays. Truth be told, I’d be quite happy watching any of the nays. It’s often the unexpected choice, the plan B after plan A was sold out, that takes your breath away, that worms its way into your memory. And it’s not the pitch that makes the movie, it’s the execution. I may grouse about all the movies about call girls, but that doesn’t mean the story can’t be told anew and well: When the GMFF is over, go watch Shanghai Express, or almost anything by Mizoguchi, or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or Klute.

John O’Brien, a Vermont filmmaker and sheep farmer, directed Tunbridge Trilogy.

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