As I write this, I’m preparing for a vacation in the country. It’s an odd thing, in that the past three weeks have been a kind of vacation in themselves, as thanks to John O’Neill here at Black Gate and to the Fantasia staff, I was able to cover this year’s edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival. Still, watching (by my count) thirty-nine movies and writing about all of them was quite a project. Fun, though. I thought I’d take a quick post to wrap up my coverage by talking about what I’ve learned from the experience.
First, an observation: the other day, Montreal’s venerable Festival des Films du Monde put up a press release on their site which, so far as I can see, states that they’ll be showing 160 features and about 190 shorts in this year’s edition of their festival. The Fantasia festival that I’ve been covering also had 160 features this year, along with 300 shorts. Fantasia, established 1996, is at least for this year larger than the Festival des Films du Monde, making it the largest film festival in Montreal. I have no idea how the audience figures break down between the two festivals, but I know people at Fantasia were pleased to announce that they’d had an attendance of over 128,000 by Tuesday. All of which is just to say that this festival is vigorous and growing, a testament to the strength of genre filmmaking around the world.
And another observation: about a dozen years ago, I taught a college-level film course. I already knew a certain amount about film, but I educated myself a fair bit more, learning about film history and technique. Now, like I said, that was a dozen years ago. And I haven’t made an especial effort to keep up. But here’s the thing about film: it’s a young medium and changes fast. I spend a lot of my time, here and elsewhere, engaged with literature — which, in the West, has over 3000 years behind it. Film has about 120. Which is to say that when I say I studied film a dozen years ago, that’s a tenth of the total time that the medium’s been around. And I suspect there’s a disproportion in the amount of activity in the medium during that dozen years: digital cameras have made filmmaking easier, and more countries have developed film industries of their own. In a way, these past weeks at Fantasia have re-educated me about film, bringing me face-to-face with the reality of where cinema is now.
So what have I learned?
Firstly, there’s a lot out there. Both in terms of film in general, and specifically in terms of genre film. I think Primer, maybe more than any other recent movie, has shown how to do low-budget science-fiction in film (certainly if the number of time-travel stories I saw are any indication). Science fiction fans often seem to bemoan the lack of classic films such as studios seemed to knock out regularly back in the 80s, the Ghostbusters and Last Starfighters and Gremlins and so forth. But there are sf films still being made today, good ones. Predestination’s adaptation of Heinlein was excellent. The Reconstruction of William Zero was a fine story filled with atmosphere.
Beyond science fiction, I saw a number of artistically-ambitious horror films. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, When Animals Dream, The House at the End of Time, and The Midnight Swim all used horror elements to get at some profound truths. Even a film I didn’t like, Cybernatural, at least had a strong concept behind it. Oddly, there seemed to be few outright fantasies; but perhaps this happened to be a down year.
More than movies, there’s a lot of craft out there, especially in terms of actors. I’m hard-pressed to think of a single movie I saw this year where the acting was notably poor. Similarly, I don’t think I saw a movie that was notably lacking in production value or cinematography. Some were better than others, but all were more or less visually interesting. This may speak to the good eye of the Fantasia programmers, but it’s nice to see such an overall level of craft across disciplines.
On the negative side, there really is a disproportion in the number of male filmmakers. There were 160 films at Fantasia this year, but I doubt there were 16 female directors. And I’m not at all sure there was a better proportion of female scriptwriters. I suppose this also could perhaps be laid at the door of the Fantasia programmers, but it’s at least as likely that they’re reflecting the broader global film industry. Which is depressing.
Moving along, being of a certain age I was impressed how the 1980s are now a period, in the sense of period films. I suppose they have been for a while. But as we move on technologically, they become more and more distinctive for reasons beyond fashion and design sense. Specifically, they still read as ‘modern’ (to most people, I think) but without cell phones and an omnipresent internet. So it often may make plot sense to set a story in the 80s, and pick up props and costumes for relatively cheap as well.
In terms of storytelling, what I think I learned from seeing so many screenplays so close together is that plot twists are dangerous. Sure, they can recontextualise a story, and turn it on its head, and make the audience want to see everything again so they can understand how it really fits together. But they can also knock an audience out of a story, when the twist fits less well into the narrative than the situation it upended. Maybe more to the point, they can prime an audience to expect more and bigger plot twists, and while sometimes that kind of uncertainty is valuable, sometimes it just leaves the audience disappointed when the twists don’t come.
On a pragmatic level, I learned once again that I have no idea how the economics of the film industry work. Not that I ever have, but at least I used to think I understood how people expected to make money. Now I really feel adrift. Distributers want to make new movies by noted veteran filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Abel Ferrara available through video-on-demand rather than giving them a theatrical run. I would have thought there’d be people who would turn out to see their movies based on their names alone, never mind the names of the actors. Oh well, at least there’s the relative stability of the book industry to — you know what I’ll just stop right here why don’t I.
But on a happier note, I found it was true that film fans and sci-fi fans are pretty much the same. Not maybe absolutely the same, but pretty close. There’s a similar energy in talking to them. The kind of passion real fans have is expressed in the same way. And there is some structural similarity to attending a film festival as an accredited member of the media and going to a sf convention. It’s not the same thing, but there are parallels.
Finally, I’d say it’s a lot of fun to watch movies in pretty nearly ideal circumstances. The audiences at Fantasia seem to me to be enthusiastic but not too enthusiastic. So you’re able to take part in that magical thing that happens when a crowd gets caught up in a story as a collective. I usually tend to be more moved by prose or poetry speaking directly to me as an individual, but I can’t deny the real power of a group experience. And I can’t deny that it’s better to see a movie on the big screen rather than a TV set.
All in all, my festival experience was wonderful. I met some interesting people, learned a lot, and saw a lot of excellent movies. I hope this series of posts has been interesting or useful to you reading this; and I really hope to be able to do it again next year, as Fantasia has confirmed that they’ll be moving ahead with another festival in their nineteenth year. For now, I’ll be taking a couple of weeks in the country, away from the internet, reading an awful lot of books. Which is the best way of resting my eyes that I know.
(You can find links to all my Fantasia diaries here.)
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.