This year, the ever-anarchic and genre-heavy nerd Valhalla known as Fantastic Fest delivered more blood-soaked, supernaturally tinged cinematic offerings from around the globe and advocated a distinct devil-may-care endorsement of debauchery. As the saying goes, “chaos reigns.” This cheeky slogan was eagerly adopted by the film festival’s organizers as an unofficial motto, derived of course from Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, which screened at the festival in 2009. From opening-night premieres of loud, big-budget, guns-a’-blazin fare like Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills to non-cinematic, Texas-style, off-site savagery such as outings to hunt wild hogs from helicopters (seriously!), it’s in many ways difficult to believe that this year’s Fantastic Fest was both real and somehow completely legal.
Whereas last year’s festival predominantly highlighted great new documentaries (among them Room 237) and repertory sidebars (such as Kier-La Janisse’s “House of Psychotic Women” series), this year’s incarnation was mostly a showcase for first-time narrative filmmakers and the welcome return of genre masters. Among the festival’s world premieres, James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence was a highlight. A deceptively simple film made with minimal cast, crew, and budget, it boasts more than enough sheer imagination to tip the scale in its favor. If the initial premise of Byrkit’s high-concept, quantum mechanics-driven narrative is slightly difficult to swallow, that’s only because a comet passing near Earth—and resulting in all sorts of supernatural phenomenon—rings of the deus ex machina that marred even good or great films by master directors, namely von Trier’s Melancholia and Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth.
However, Byrkit plays an altogether different card and the result is far weirder, a perverse realization of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, as the reality of the film’s eight characters overlaps with seemingly infinite other realities. What this premise allows is for eight characters/actors to multiply into infinite others, and Byrkit again uses a simple, but brilliant technique to permit this transformation. When the power first goes out as a result of the comet, his characters locate three boxes of multicolored glow sticks, but only open one. They identify themselves with blue glow sticks, but in other realities, they’ve opened the red box or even the green. The terror that comes from the simultaneously infinite, yet unknown, versions of themselves lurking out in the darkness becomes readily apparent when a search party delegation steps outside their house to investigate a noise. In one of the film’s most resonant and startling scenes, two versions of the main characters halt and watch each other from opposite sides of the street, each group holding different colored glow sticks. This isn’t a perfect film, as it derails in the third act when its main character makes a bold, confusing choice that seems rooted in a lofty, heady idea of choosing one’s destiny, and has merit only insofar as it results in a logical endpoint where once there was no end in sight. However, given Coherence’s ingenuity as a film that spawns an ever-expanding, imaginative universe out of eight actors and a room, any qualms about its ending ultimately seem trifling.
Best-known for his excellent and authoritative documentary films that shine a light on unexplored realms of exploitation cinema’s history, Mark Hartley is a dyed-in-the-wool cinephile who continues to exhibit his particular passion for Ozzie cinema’s past in his narrative debut, Patrick, a remake of the 1978 Ozploitation cult classic of the same name by Richard Franklin. In his documentaries, Hartley expertly captures what was so wild, wonderful, and unpredictable about Australian and Filipino exploitation cinema: their sheer originality. Though his enthusiasm for his documentary subject matter is precisely what made his earlier films flourish, here his allegiance to the past seems to unproductively get in the way of his creating something new and fresh. Patrick mostly imitates the type of film its director thinks it should be (or, was originally), while inadvertently slipping into a kind of tongue-in-cheek understanding of its own outlandish plot. A scene late in the film has Patrick (Jackson Gallagher) texting Kathy (Sharni Vinson) as she leads herself on a torturous game of hide and seek. Patrick’s “hotter” and “colder” texts appear on screen as hovering little frame-breaking bubbles, a directorial decision that turns the movie itself into a survival-horror video game a la the Resident Evil and Clock Tower franchises. The superimposed texts heighten the moment in a way that calls attention to the film’s own artificiality, which is precisely what Hartley flirts with from time to time, but never fully embraces. Had he instead totally embraced this rather cheeky quality, the new Patrick might have been something remarkable and delightfully postmodern. The film is at times deeply, genuinely atmospheric, sometimes forecasting its own jump scares out of a false necessity, and only occasionally very, very funny, and these qualities work against rather than with one another. As it stands, Hartley has too much respect for the genre films that precede him, and in translating this respect he fails to find his own voice as a director.
In the realm of the old masters, there were at least two films in the festival that played as powerful elegies to the disappearing medium of 35mm. Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and Ari Folman’s The Congress. Sono’s film is a gonzo, go-for-broke story about a group of kids desperate to make the best film possible, to devote their lives to cinema, and, if necessary, to die in service of filmmaking. The young amateurs foolishly spend their time praying to a self-proclaimed Movie-God for that rare opportunity rather than working hard to develop their skills as storytellers. In time, their prayers are perversely answered when the film’s sub-story of decades-long yakuza rivalry collides with a need to make a full-on feature on short notice. Nobody said Sono’s plot was believable or even reasonable, but therein lies its unconventional beauty. A minor character at one point buoyantly asks, “What’s 35mm?” Sono’s mission is to create a film that answers this vacant, if innocent, question.
The Congress exists separately in a lightly fictionalized future, where major studios revise the moviemaking model such that actors and most technicians are now considered obsolete. Instead of living, breathing actors, the studios wish to create digital scans of their most famous faces in order to own a personality as property, stripping the individual of their livelihood (and perhaps life). Robin Wright is the case study, the actress faced with the odd decision to put her career in the hands of digital artists, to face head-on disturbing, changing times. Resistance proves futile, she signs on the dotted line, and she becomes a commodity. Twenty years on, Wright’s world has changed in myriad upsetting ways: She, or her likeness, is now an robot action star, while she’s no longer defined by her celebrity and yet finds fame oddly inescapable, if only emotionally and indirectly. The Congress is part live action and part Ralph Bakshi fever dream, but all nightmare. It paints a vision of the future where individuality and anything resembling free will is supplanted by delicious chemical cocktails and a candy-coated reversal of the positive inspirational phrase “Don’t dream it, be it.” In the world of the film, being is sadly overrated or even irrelevant: Dreaming is being. The Congress suggests that what’s lost in this supposed evolution from the world its characters have known from birth to the no-stakes world of their imagination is choice, humanity, warmth, and beauty; what’s lost is the distinction between fantasy and reality. More so, a loss of the definition of reality and a cultural forgetting in favor of anything easier or newer, but not necessarily anything better.
Fantastic Fest ran from September 19—26.