Reverend Albert Wagner was an African-American folk artist in Cleveland who heard the call at age 50. God, he explained, was telling him to turn away from a life of drinking, drifting, and serial womanizing – producing a large, multi-family brood – and devote himself to painting. “God and art saved Reverend Albert,” says Wagner in third person. Wagner passed away in 2006 and has been taking his place in the ranks of important American “outsider” artists ever since.
One of many strong documentaries in this year’s SBIFF, One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story is filmmaker Thomas Miller’s account of the story, deftly conveyed through personal anecdotes and footage from the last stretch of Wagner’s life. But mostly, and wisely, the film tells Wagner’s story through the artist’s overflowing bounty of art, full of sex, youthful nostalgia, racial tensions, and religious messages. Apart from an irritatingly bland and synthetic musical score (qualities antithetical to the rough, elemental expressiveness of Wagner’s art), the film is an engaging portrait in the tricky genre of films about artists. It effectively pulls us into the experience of the artist and the African-American male, behind the mountain of intuitive imagery created during Wagner’s 30-year outpouring.
Generation Cyber: Virtual reality meets Asperger’s Syndrome in the mostly gripping Belgian film, Ben X; a story about the edgy paradox between cold, hard realities and the mutable “endgames” of computer gaming. But director-writer Nic Balthazar‘s study of an afflicted and super-sensitive Belgian high schooler (easy prey for predatory bullies), also taps into present-day techno-psychology, dealing with the elusive nature of reality in an age of Internet connectivity and all its invasive and prankster aspects. (As it goes with movies about technology, the cutting edges seen here will look quaintly obsolete ten years from now). While the film eventually steers into emo overkill, it has enough substantial commentary beneath its hurtling surface energy to make it much more than just another teen flick from Belgium.
Vignettes of Different Colors: Two of the strongest films in this year’s festival line-up take separate routes on the road to film as narrative mosaic. Slovenian director Janez Lapajne’s Short Circuits leans towards the tragic, with glints of the comic, while the dryly hilarious Swedish film, You, the Living, is a comedy liberally lined with Swedish angst. Both films wear their structural and stylistic concepts well, and their form richly supports the content. Here, basically, is what a film festival is all about; discovering gems from far shores which play by their own artistic rules, and work.
Slipping back and forth in time and between various characters’ stories, Short Circuits appears more non-linear than it is. Key dramatic points involving lost mobility and innocence, on various levels, are connected by an ingenious and slow-brewing logic. With an atmosphere of moral second-guessing and looping, cruel fate, Short Circuits has the feel of a film by the late, great Krzsystof Kieslowski, but with its own creative voice at work in a maze-like human tragicomedy (emphasis on the tragi).
Director Roy Andersson’s You, the Living – it’s title taken from a Goethe quote – is a captivating quirk of a film, whose typically Scandinavian deadpan sensibility blends in with a deceptively cool and rational, but ultimately dream-like succession of fifty long-take vignettes, including some vivid and bizarre dream sequences. Some of the vignettes are connected to others, others aren’t, keeping us guessing about the sneaky narrative grid. These formalist follies drop us in on characters who brood for a living. And if you have a taste for this kind of cinematic drollery, convulsive laughter will spill forth, possibly causing the less sympathetic people next to you question your sanity.
By this point, lost deep in the celluloid opium den just past the mid-point of the festival, the obsessive festivaler starts to get a sense of the forest past the trees. S/he starts to name names, gauge the overall landscape, and assign brownie points. This viewer hereby anoints Short Circuits and You, the Living as strong Top Ten candidates, and the Swedish film contains the funniest sex and execution scenes of the festival. Of course, the jury isn’t completely out yet.