A rainy morning cleared the way for a bright, warm closing afternoon of the 28th Philadelphia Film Festival. What a wonderful 10 days it has been (skipping opening night because I don't bother with that anymore) of exploring such a wide variety of stories and talents. Looking over all of the films I saw in that time I'm pleasantly surprised by everything I managed to see and enjoy, including an unprecedented eight documentaries that were all enjoyable.
Even though I knock the festival for trying to be bigger and better than what it is, I wouldn't trade the 10-day commitment I make for anything. It provides a gateway to see great films that wouldn't be so easily accessible either by a lack of theatrical distribution or not having the right streaming platform (with another prominent channel coming out yearly it seems hard to juggle all of the options). And it's fun, even when you have to coordinate the Prince Theater dash.
By the numbers I saw 31 films and completed 24.5 dishcloths. It would have been 25.5 but one was totally destroyed in the last few rows so that was thrown out, and for the .5, I ran out of yarn during the very last film so it could not be completed. A large cone of yarn I bought on Monday managed to make 15 dishcloths (including the destroyed one). It was as productive for my knitting as it was for the mental stimulation: I thought of a lot of issues in evaluating these films.
So for my last trip in the city Sunday I had just two films to finish off my roster: the Sundance-winning "Clemency" and the documentary "Plucked".
"Clemency" stars Alfred Woodard as a prison warden whose life starts to crumble under the weight of her job. A botched execution and an upcoming execution might be killing her more than the convicts. I couldn't tell if this was a story about the morality of the death penalty, a human interest piece about working in the corrections field, or an attempt to create social justice reform with sympathetic characters. No matter what path the film was trying to take, it wasn't coming through effectively. Alas, in the background was a whisper of the "final day of the job" theme that usually plagues a police officer when they get that defining case right before retirement.
The hardest thing I could comfortably sit with is the fragility of the warden. She has been in that position for seven years and overseen 12 executions and demonstrated to be strict with the rules for her staff, the prisoners and potential visitors. However, she appears to have a glisten in her eye signifying that she is so caught up in the emotion of every single conversation she has. She wants to be empathetic with everyone she talks to while following the rules at the same time. The hesitation for another execution toward an inmate named Anthony Woods is depleted by the fact that outside of work she refers to him as Woods. For as personally affected she is toward the situation, the warden will never be able to see the humanity of someone being sent to the death chamber: she only acknowledges a name. She can't have it both ways to feel for someone that is only a subject to her and expect to have a comfortable job.
No matter, Woodard was really good in the film. She carries it even though I didn't comprehend what it was attempting to say.
Finally, the last film of the festival was a delve into the classical music scene and art history.
In early 2014 a $6 million Stradivarius violin was forcibly stolen from a Milwaukee musician. It turns out some lower-level criminals concocted the plan to sell the very valuable 300-year-old instrument. This is the story of "Plucked".
There are few stories of theft that can grab more attention than that of a piece from an art museum or the stealing of a violin made by its greatest creator, Antonio Stradivari. These most sacred instruments are centuries old and are the most valuable, handcrafted musical instruments in the world.
When Frank Almond was tazed and robbed of his instrument outside a performance hall at a Milwaukee college, something didn't add up. How would someone know to rob him and know the value of his instrument? Police were called in and treated the case with the highest attention. After three days, two arrests were made, including one of an unusual historian for handmade objects. The instrument was found safe and sound within the city.
This was an interesting caper tale made more peculiar by the fact that it was a violin at the center of the attention. Too late in the film it touched on the social inequities for persons of color to resorting to crime. Perhaps it didn't play a factor at all?
What bridges "Clemency" to "Plucked" is the complete disregard for the actions its main subjects were involved with. In "Clemency", Woods said he didn't shoot and kill a cop, but being involved as an associate for the act that preceded it was the likely reason he was convicted for murder. It's not different then a getaway driver being accused of murder when his partners shoot and kill a bank teller. The art historian of "Plucked" says he would not change a thing about scoring the stolen instrument if it meant it had a comfortable existence elsewhere.
Trying to downplay your involvement doesn't make you any less culpable.
With that said, I strolled on back to the subway to catch my ride home. That grim feeling of walking away from the last screening gets me every year. It's a once-a-year experience that I'm sure hits everyone, even for the festival circuit riders who hop from fest to fest for a job. Each place is unique and you get immersed in its aesthetic for days at a time. Philadelphia is my hometown (I'm from the burbs, shut up, you know what I mean) and to experience film in this way is special to me, to everyone.
For 31 films, probably 60+ hours, I escaped a world of chaos, stress and divisiveness. I was cruelly brought back to reality when I saw a big rat scurrying around on the subway platform. My sentiments of joyful sorrow were quickly dashed at that point. Touché, world.
Until the next reel...
The Whistlers: Very Good
The Lodge: Poor
A Hidden Life: Fair/Good
Deerskin: Very Good
Varda By Agnes: Good
Les Misérables: Excellent
It Must Be Heaven: Excellent
The Truth: Good
Paradise Hills: Good
Porno: Very Good
Oh Mercy!: Good
Young Ahmed: Very Good
The Report: Good
I Lost My Body: Excellent
A White, White Day: Fair
By The Grace of God: Fair
The Human Factor: Very Good
Defending Your Life: (not rated)
Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy: Excellent
Citizen K: Very Good
Colewell: Very Good
Red Penguins: Very Good
Maybe Next Year: Very Good