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Viennale Dispatch 4: Christmas in October

Can 94,800 Viennale-goers be wrong? In theory, yes. But it's heartening news that, according to the festival's press office, this year's event "has again scored a considerable increase in the number of visitors. The festival's attendance figures tose from 76.8% in 2008 to 79.6% at the Viennale 2009. While the number of film showings more or less remained the same with a total of 345 screenings, the number of sold-out screenings rose to 124."

Because of the need to maintain relationships with sponsors and other funding-bodies, film-festivals in continental Europe invariably emphasise the box-office numbers in their roundups (in Britain we often call them "post-mortems.") And while it may seem slightly odd for a festival as relatively august—even highbrow—as the Viennale to make such a big deal of such figures, it does make sense so long as the standard of programming remains at a reasonably constant level. It's quite an achievement for a festival whose regular totems include Straub/Huillet, Pedro Costa and Lav Diaz to be able to proclaim itself "a great public success" (2009) or "a festival for the public" (2008).

I didn't hear many, if any, grumblings of dipping standards (in the favoured phrase of UK cultural observers, "dumbing down") from this year's attendees, and the festival continues to pull off a balancing-act that can appears straightforward but which turns out, in most cases, to be nightmarishly difficult. Namely, to appeal to Josef (und Jozefa) Publik and to what may be called the more "chin-stroking" sections of the local, national and international cinephile/cineaste community.

Among the latter—of which I would count myself a member—the "buzz" was definitely present and correct. As a pal put it in an e-mail sent the day after she got home, "Vienna was an intense and inspiring venue this year—I guess a lot of us are feeling a bit empty and melancholic after having all these wonderful meetings and talks with all the [hardcore cinephiles] that gathered there."

This year saw 643 media and industry accreditees (a negligible dip from 2008's 645), while the number of "international media" present boomed from 40 last year to 60—and from the discussions to which I was privy, those present won't only be back for next year's event, they will be spreading positive word-of-mouth which will entice more than a few 'Viennale virgins.'

If so, they'll have to ensure they efficiently organise their schedules, Viennese-style, and work out the ticketing system in advance if they aren't to miss out on the films they want to catch (a recurrent gripe among those attending on behalf of foreign festivals via 'Branche' [Industry] passes.) This year's statistics translate to an average of 275 attendees per screening—almost identical to the 277 last year, an infinitesimal dip which could be ascribed to numerous factors including the ongoing finanzkrise or the distractions of student protests which were visible and audible around the city during the course of the fest.

Sell-outs were noticeably frequent, and the general appetite for non-mainstream fare can be gauged - as I've previously noted on these pages—by the fact that there were more than 60 in the returns queue for a Stadtkino screening of Vadim Jendreyko's excellent documentary on translator Swetlana Geier, The Woman with the 5 Elephants. The general tone of the festival was such that the presence of Jacques Audiard's Cannes-garlanded A Prophet, a 150-minute prison drama from France, was tut-tutted in certain quarters as a concession to "the mainstream"—in the UK, it's still an effort to drag even educated folk to subtitled fare of "unorthodox length."

Back to that average-attendance figure of 277: at first glance, I was sceptical, but then realised it makes sense in the light of the capacities of the 'big five' main Viennale venues (all of which are single-screen picturehouses): the colossal Gartenbaukino holds 736, Metro 417, Urania 374, Kunstlerhaus 277 and Stadtkino 218—while the Austrian Filmmuseum, dedicated to the parallel-programme Retrospective, is a more "bijou" space with room for 165.

It's a little surprising that the press release doesn't make more of the fact that this year's Retrospective—Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., curated by Jonathan Rosenbaum—attracted 6,000 patrons, compared to the 4,500 tally for Los Angeles: A City in Film (put together by Thom Andersen). The Viennale's strong suit has long been its combination of newer and older material, and the fact that so many patrons were attracted by "ancient", critically-neglected fare such as Victor Fleming's When the Clouds Roll By (1919) and Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast's Laughter (1930) is an encouraging one.

Not all good news, of course: as the Viennale press release slightly dolefully notes, "despite its great success with international film critics, the tribute to Filipino filmmaker Lino Brocka did not quite meet out expectations." Those "international film critics" including yours truly—see my first dispatch for my joyous reaction to discovering Brocka's Jaguar (1979) and Weighed But Found Wanting (1974) for the first time. I must be a little out of step with the ticket-buying public—I didn't think this year's Retrospective was quite up to the level of the last two years (2008 yielded Jean-Pierre Gorin's survey of essayistic cinema under the heading The Way of the Termite), though this was perhaps partly due to the fact that I'd deliberately devoted rather more time to it than in my three previous Viennale trips.

Preston Sturges' Christmas In July (1940), Joe Dante's Matinee (1993) and Arbuckle & Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (1928) lived up to expectations (I'm shamed to admit I'd never seen any of them before); it's hard to go far wrong with a double-bill of Leo McCarey's Duck Soup (1933) and James Parrott's The Music Box (1932); and Joan Braderman's 30-minute VHS soap-deconstruction Joan Does Dynasty (1986) was a particularly delightful surprise.

Who Killed Who? (1943) and Little Rural Riding Hood (1949), meanwhile, suggested that the Filmmuseum might consider prefacing all of its screenings with a Tex Avery cartoon—and the 67-minute Christmas In July and the 68-minute Duck Soup provided a persuasive case that only in exceptional circumstances should film-makers feel the need to go beyond the 70 minute mark (we can all learn a lot from Japan's soft-core Pinku cinema, one of whose stipulations is an hour-long running-time, and also from Jean-Marie Straub, who famously once trimmed a two-hour play he was staging down to less than 10 minutes.)

I lucked out with one Retrospective triple-bill: Roy Rowland's The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953), Wendell B. Harris Jr's Chameleon Street (1989) and Howard Hawks' Monkey Business (1952) were each of interest more as time-capsule curios than as laughter-inducing comedies, while I laboured through Jerry Lewis's The Ladies Man (1961) and found Owen Land's revered short Wide Angle Saxon (1975) pretty tiresome.

Overall I'd label this year's Retro as solid rather than exceptional, and I'd politely suggest that next year's parallel programme should move away from the USA and American themes - can it really be a coincidence each of the last three Retrospectives has been programmed by a male, US-based academic born in 1943? I'd say we're due a radical change of perspective for 2010: something closer to 2001's From the Heart of the World (on the cinemas of central Asia). Perhaps it could even be curated by a female cinephile—this would go some way to countering the perception held in some quarters (not entirely without justification) that the Viennale, while hardly testosterone-soaked, can sometimes feel like a little bit of a "boys' club."

After last year's event I wrote, in my Tribune roundup: "To paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men, the Viennale may not be the best film festival in the world, but if it ain't, it'll certainly do until the best one comes along." One year on, I can't claim to know all of the world's film festivals, but among those I've attended I'd still put the Viennale at the top of the pile. The best can always get better of course, and indeed it invariably requires considerable effort to maintain one's pre-eminence.

Viennale director Hans Hurch has been in charge since 1997 and just before this year's event was granted a four-year extension on his contract, taking him up to 2013. I have no idea if Mr. Hurch plans to continue any further after that, but the "four more years" thing reminded me of American presidents—who, in the second (and last) of their four year terms, famously start working towards their legacy.

Hurch's legacy would of course be an impressive one even if he went under the Ringstrasse tram tomorrow. But with this year's festival "in the can," preparations will almost immediately begin for the next one. I hope he won't mind if I respectfully offer a couple of practical suggestions.

1) No screenings on video, apart from films which were made to be screened on video. This year a couple of Mizoguchi silent classics were shown on video, accompanied by a "benshi" (live narrator), even though I was assured that screenable celluloid prints are knocking around. The Viennale stands as a beacon of quality, and a zone where the intentions of the artist are held sacrosanct. Any erosion of projection "norms" is therefore to be regretted—and, if at all possible, avoided. This opens up a whole can of worms—covered in the recent Filmmuseum publication Film Curatorship—but it would send an encouraging signal if the Viennale would publish a list of guiding principles regarding projection policy.

2) Stage "repetition" screenings at one of the city's multiplexes. As my friend who had ticket #54 in the returns queue for The Woman with the 5 Elephants will attest, sometimes two screenings simply aren't enough. In the case of Austrian films like Peter Schreiner's Totò, for me the best new film of the festival (see Dispatch 2), it's the norm for only one screening to be scheduled. In addition, every year there are scheduling flubs—such as the end of Lino Brocka's Weighed But Found Wanting (at the Kunstlerhaus) overlapping by eight minutes with the start of Mother, Sister, Daughter (at the nearby Stadtkino) on Monday 26th October; or his Bona being shown at the same time as Jaguar the following day.

And what if the only screening of Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call New Orleans one could have caught was the 1am showing on the morning of Friday 30th October? I'd have liked to have seen Toby Wilkins' horror movie Splinter—but not at 1am or 11:30pm. And it was frustrating, to say the least, to discover that, despite my being in Vienna for ten nights, I was departing before any of the Timothy Carey Tribute was screening, with the exception of the oft-seen Paths of Glory.

Staging repetitions in a multiplex would at a stroke alleviate nearly all of the pressure on the schedule, and it might also have the benefit of spreading the word about the Viennale to audiences in the city who either don't know about it or don't think that it is "for them." In particular, Hans Hurch and his colleagues might consider making the event more appealing and accessible to working-class audiences, teenagers, representatives of ethnic minorities. Just as Bill Clinton once vowed to "create a Cabinet that looks like America," why not have a Viennale audience that looks like Vienna—a city which, despite its high-falutin', Habsburg-fancy exterior, boasts a massive, largely suburban blue-collar population, and which is at least eight per cent Muslim.

Extending the Viennale's reach to a multiplex would be logistically tricky. But there are several to choose from—there's one just two doors down from the Hilton Hotel, which serves as the organisation's main base during the festival; another not far from the newly-inaugurated official night-spot, the "Badeschiff" ("bathing ship"), anchored in the Danube canal close to the Urania cinema. During V '09 both of these were showing, in addition to the usual commercial fare such as Hollywood comedies and Germany's historical drama Pope Joan (Die Papstin), local hero Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band), so there's evidently already some acceptance of "challenging" fare.

Looking through this year's Viennale schedule, it's no stretch at all to imagine the likes of Adventureland, Splinter, Fish Tank, Antichrist, Moon and A Prophet drawing decent crowds in a city-centre 'plex. With the Viennale's banners, flags and logos prominently displayed around the cinema, on leaflets, on screen, etc, this might tempt patrons into sampling some of the more outre offerings—at one of the regular "big five" cinemas (plus the somewhat forbidding confines of the Filmmuseum). Of course, this would alter the character of the festival a touch—but not that much, and surely worth a go, if only on a trial basis. If any festival can afford the luxury of a minor gamble, from a position of established strength and respect among the public and professionals alike, then surely it's the Viennale.

A small correction: Metro Kino has a capacity of 149 (not 417).
my source: 417 did strike me as a bit high, but then again the Metro is a bit tricky to assess as there’s the upstairs part (circle/balcony), which I’ve never sat in myself, and also those little opera-style boxes (or ‘loges’) up the sides.
oops, and here is the rest : I have been a devoted follower of the Viennale for ten years, attending 30-35 screenings every year; for my own pleasure, without accreditation. I like your idea of bringing the Viennale closer to the public and to multiplexes, or at least to suburban arthouse cinemas like the Breitenseer or Admiral Kino, as some local politicians have suggested. – Mr. Hurchs programming has become predictable in the years: there are the obligatory Straub-Huillet screenings, some James Benning and Pedro Costa, a handful of Iranian Movies to please the local community (who, in turn, ensure full theatres),fortunately no Albert Serra this year, and lots of previews from Austrian arthouse distributors, including films having their regular release within days after their Viennale screening. – I also agree on your request for the best possible way of projection, even if the quality of video projections has improved compared to previous years. Thank You for your great report.

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