Editor's Note: Most moviegoers don't get to attend many film festivals, but festivals are important nonetheless. What happens at a festival can influence how, when, and even whether a film will get out to audiences.
Two of our regular critics are at the Virginia Film Festival this weekend, and will be sending us daily updates, capsule reviews, and reflections on what they see. (We also covered the Toronto International Film Festival this year, and you can read those reflections too, beginning with Day 1.)
Running from Crazy (directed by Barbara Kopple)
Computer Chess (directed by Andrew Bujalski)
The two critical movie reviewer clichés that bug me the most might be these: "I can't wait to see it again!" and "Were we even watching the same film?" Usually these are more about critics speaking to other critics than the films themselves. Critics can forget they should be talking primarily to readers.
But like most clichés, they persist in part because they communicate something complex very simply. "I can't wait to see it again" can convey a hunch that our perceptions change and that context matters.
I first saw Barbara Kopple's Running From Crazy at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April, and I've been waiting anxiously to see it again. In April it was my favorite film of the year, but even critics are not immune to favoring that which they have seen most recently. When other critics didn't rate it as highly—the film has been getting mixed reviews—I was tempted to moderate my praise somewhat until I saw it again.
So I tried to check my expectations at the door, look at it fresh, and . . . it really is that good.
Directed by two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple, Running from Crazy is an intimate (at times uncomfortably so) profile of actress Mariel Hemingway. The film begins and ends with snippets of her work as a spokesperson for mental health issues. Seven people in her family tree have committed suicide. Hemingway—granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway—wants the family legacy left to her daughters to be about embracing joy in life, rather than buying into the romanticized myth of hard and fast living. (Her anger at fans who have left empty liquor bottles on her grandfather's grave as a form of tribute is palpable.)
On the surface, the documentary could come across as a well-meaning but pedestrian biography/public service message. But Hemingway's frank honesty and Kopple's supremely confident direction make it more complex and affecting the more you wrestle with it. Few people know what it is like to be a Hemingway or a Kennedy (the other "great" family of the 20th century that, as Mariel notes, appeared to live under a tragic curse). We all have family, though. The sibling resentments, the middle-aged revelations, the resolutions to break cycles of abuse and sickness when dealing with one's own kids—each cut through lines of class, race, and gender.
Kopple is one of my favorite directors because she believes in her audience's intelligence. That doesn't mean she's opaque, but it does mean she lets her subjects speak for themselves. She is a great listener—(I've seen her speak twice at festivals)—and the listening has a knack of helping people who might otherwise be closed or guarded to open up.
Nowhere in Running From Crazy is that more evident than when Mariel speaks of her sister, Margaux. There were at least two places in the film where most directors would have pushed for a "big" moment: once when Mariel breaks a long silence about a particular childhood incident, and again when she struggles with survivor's guilt while recalling her response to Margaux's death.
In the first example, rather than zooming in to accentuate the dramatic nature (or giving music cues to signal that, yep, this is a big revelation), Kopple starts in tight close-up and pans back, conveying visually to viewers that we all, even celebrities, sometimes need space. Besides, the emotions Mariel is dealing with are dramatic, but they are also complicated. By giving Mariel space, she also gives us contemplative space—space not just to have a knee-jerk response, but to actually think about what we actually feel.
Mental illness and our own cultural inabilities to understand it in our public figures have been much in the news of late, due to a high-profile NFL story about hazing in the locker room. We seem to have made strides in trying to destigmatize mental illness, particularly depression, but the film is helpful in reminding us that we can't always see it. Because we know from the beginning scene (maybe even going in, if we know the Hemingway story) how certain people are going to end, we scour the home movies and the photographs looking for some non-hindsight evidence, something that will show the person on the brink of despair looking and sounding different from those who are oppressed, but find the will to soldier on.
In this, Mariel becomes both the audience's object of scrutiny and its surrogate. She, too, is examining her life, trying to understand it, and then trying to understand why it took her so long to understand. (She recalls cleaning glass and blood off the kitchen floor after her parents had a drunken fight and insists, wistfully and incredulously, how she just thought that this was "normal." Aren't all families like this?)
Running From Crazy is powerful without being maudlin, deeply moving, earning empathy without insisting on cheap sympathy. At its core is a woman who told the director (according to a Q&A at Full Frame) that she was ready to be 100% honest and who, in probing some of her biggest scars, faces some of her (and our) deepest fears.
Ultimately, despite its subject matter, it is tne of the most life-affirming and hopeful films you will see this year. Who better than Mariel Hemmingway to walk us through the question of whether curses are real, whether we are all just products of our environment? Who better to answer with a resounding "no"? Why does the truth always sound more reassuring when it comes from the mouths of those whom we know have suffered?
Other films of note at Day 1 included Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, which is actually now streaming on Netflix. Bujalski is sometimes called the godfather of "mumblecore," a subgenre of independent films that rely on low budget, non-professional actors, and a pace that is . . . shall we just be nice and call it "leisurely." Chess is one of those faux-documentary films, set in the mid-80s (but with a distinctively 70s visual look) during a tournament in which various engineers match up their computers to see whose creation will eventually defeat an actual human.
There is something droll, I guess, to how antiquated things are—not just the clothes but the ideas: "Will a computer ever be able to defeat a human?" It's strange how that which seemed unthinkable less than two decades ago now seems like ancient history. And it's mildly funny to contemplate how some things (like the awkwardness of the intellectual male around the females of the species) never change. Even so, the film drags on, and I smiled more to try to shake the movie's lethargic hold on me than from actual amusement.
Maybe I just don't get mumblecore. But when I looked at Rotten Tomatoes and saw Computer Chess rated higher among critics than Running From Crazy, I did understand, finally, the exasperated viewer who looks at reviewers and wonders, "Were we watching the same movie?"
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.