MFF 2012 DAY FIFTEEN: The Sessions – Detropia

COMPLETE MILWAUKEE FILM FESTIVAL 2012 COVERAGE

DAY ONE: Starbuck – Opening Night Party
DAY TWO: Ethel – Come As You Are – Bones Brigade: An Autobiography – V/H/S
DAY THREE: Sans Soleil – Dead Weight – Andrew Bird: Fever Year
DAY FOUR: Inland Empire – Bad Brains: A Band in DC
DAY FIVE: Pink Ribbons, Inc. – 11 Flowers – How to Survive a Plague
DAY SIX: Romancing in Thin Air – Elena – The Imposter
DAY SEVEN: 5 Broken Cameras – Goodbye – High Tech, Low Life
DAY EIGHT: Big Boys Gone Bananas!* – Off White Lies – The Milwaukee Show
DAY NINE: Las Acacias – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
DAY TEN: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – Policeman
DAY ELEVEN: Quartet – No God No Master
DAY TWELVE: Mourning – As Goes Janesville – Blackmail – The Ambassador
DAY THIRTEEN: The Invisible War – Klown
DAY FOURTEEN: Old Dog – Little Red – Five Star Existence
DAY FIFTEEN: The Sessions – Detropia

10-11 Th
15/15

The day after the festival ends, we learn two things: 1) audience award goes to Mea Maxima, no surprise there, 2) attendance topped 50k, 40% higher than last year’s MFF attendance. So congratulations MKE Film, and a hearty thank you from this pundit who imbibed 40 films altogether and found himself thoroughly burnt out after spending so many days passively waiting out the big dark spaces. You’re clearly pushing the commercial fare, as all the big boys do, but Milwaukee thanks you nonetheless (or so I imagine).

Closing Night’s film is the irritatingly coined ‘festival hit’ The Sessions about polio victim and iron lung inhabiter Mark O’Brien, and actually features the same plot as the third film I saw at the festival, the Belgian dramedy Hasta la Vista!: a handicapped man endeavors to have his cherry popped. Hasta la Vista! featured considerably more cynicism, no soundtrack or cutesy pandering of any kind, so it was much more welcome to this viewer. The Sessions has its charms and word on the street is that Mr. Hawkes will be honored with a nom from the Academy (you know, The “Crash 2005 Best Picture” Academy) for his now characteristic tops performing – still, I did find myself more interested in watching William H. Macy’s flat-out mastery. Hunt plays a sexual therapist/surrogate named Cheryl who Mr. O’Brien hires to, well, you know, Give Him The Business before he expires from this world. O’Brien is ever optimistic about his predicament and has pretty understandably resigned any control of his fate to the Catholic church and its Big Boss, though it is in the guise of his charmingly earnest confessor priest, Macy, that perspective and relief are found (could any of us be so lucky as to have a Macy priest?). Mark is a man confined to his inner life and it is perhaps (I hope) this dynamic which causes the filmmakers to indulge its characters inner lives via lots of expository confessing, Mark to his priest slash therapist and Cheryl as professional notetaking into her tape recorder. Cheryl clearly and immediately delineates why she is not to be thought of as a prostitute and will cap their affair at six sessions – though I will say it’s a bad idea to have a sex therapist who is that rare and amazing woman who does truly fall in love with inner beauty, and happens to be unsatisfied at home. Oopsie. This contrasts with Mark’s former love, that poor woman we have to watch sob at her own selfishness as she denies him the love he desires because he cannot satisfy her – “I love you but I’m not in love with you” – which is probably so painful because it makes a mockery of the idea that anything about love is magical.

The Sessions is based on the article that the real O’Brien wrote for The Sun in 1990 titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” about events that took place in San Fran in 1988, and was directed by polio survivor Ben Lewin. And wouldn’t you know it, Mark O’Brien already has an Oscar legacy in Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, winner of the award for Best Docu Short (this is the first occasion where I have ever expended a thought on a docu short). And while I have the opportunity I’d like to opine that for a man rendered permanently prostrate, a ceiling mirror should’ve been considered in this equation. It was never brought up. Wtf?

Not with a bang, but with a whimper does the festival close out its run: the final film shown is a bleak high-minded portrait of America’s most ravaged city, 2011’s Detropia. This arty docu gains its perspective from five residents: Crystal Starr the v-blogger; George McGregor, President of the Local 22 United Auto Workers Union; Tommy Stephens who owns the ailing blues lounge Raven; and briefly, two white hipsters who have come to Detroit for its to-be-arted urban landscape and, intriguingly, its phenomenally cheap loft space (I considered that). Now the fastest shrinking city in America, Detroit has led the decline of those bygone midwestern urban centers that may have been so promising in 1950, mostly if you were particularly tickled by the idea of the American Dream and its unsustainable standard of living. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady provide copious footage of the city’s emptiness (it’s population is now half of what it was in 1950), desolation (most blocks are occupied with homes grossly outnumbered by unoccupied homes), and decay (looting and arson have been real problems). And then there’s all the justifiable outrage and despair voiced by the employees of the manufacturing base, now at half its former strength, employees of the featured and now defunct American Axel, and the post-bailout GM and Chrysler employees who would only be hired at half the wage the jobs formerly went for. Tommy Stephens marvels at the electric car competition at Detroit’s 2010 North American International Auto Show, alternate Chinese models retailing for half the price and twice the power of the would-be revolutionary Chevy Volt. Will the Detroit Opera House actually close, being largely underwritten by Detroit’s crippled major auto makers? Across the street at a nice cafe, two Swiss tourists remark that they are here to sightsee such rare levels of urban decay (and are very rudely treated by the barista). But nobody will deny that it is pretty to hear an opera singer strolling through a gargantuan abandoned train station and practicing his tenor. A three-star documentary, Detropia is not quite a sweeping portrait and focuses… like so, so many other documentaries… on the powerless human experience at the bottom, instead of exploring the profound larger issues that created such misery. When Stephens speaks about capitalism in the past tense, prognosticates revolution due to class disparity and warns, “It’s coming to you,” you don’t take him terribly seriously. You just see pain, pain, more pain. But time will remember the images captured here of the American Empire in decline.

written by David Ashley

Seen so far:
Starbuck
Ethel
Come As You Are
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
V/H/S
Sans Soleil
Dead Weight
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Inland Empire
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
11 Flowers
How to Survive a Plague
Romancing in Thin Air
Elena
The Imposter
5 Broken Cameras
Goodbye
High Tech, Low Life
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Off White Lies
The Milwaukee Show
Las Acacias
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Policeman
Quartet
No God No Master
Mourning
As Goes Janesville
Blackmail (w/Alloy Orchestra)
The Ambassador
The Invisible War
Klown
Old Dog
Little Red
Five Star Existence
The Sessions
Detropia

Ranked:
Sans Soleil
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Inland Empire
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Goodbye
Elena
5 Broken Cameras
The Invisible War
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
Mourning
Policeman
Las Acacias
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
11 Flowers
How to Survive a Plague
Ethel
Detropia
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
High Tech, Low Life
Come As You Are
Off White Lies
Five Star Existence
V/H/S
As Goes Janesville
Klown
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
The Imposter
Quartet
The Sessions
Starbuck
Romancing in Thin Air
Little Red
Old Dog
No God No Master
Dead Weight

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