Midnight Sun Film Festival’s note of melancholy, and the enduring spirit of movies

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.

*

Midnight Sun 2018: They say ‘out of darkness cometh light,’ but can times of adversity such as ours really breed great films? Let alone change the world? Well, if it can happen anywhere, it will be here, at Sodankylä’s famous Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF).

I’m back, but a new note of melancholy seems to infuse this year’s festival. In the words of the old song, ‘Things ain’t what they used to be.’ We’re all a little older and wiser and sadder, of course, but it’s more than that. We’re discouraged. The movie industry seems to be experiencing a slow death and now TV, which was long ago expected to kill off movies, is apparently also ailing – but do not despair! The melancholy and even the rancour are perfectly normal. They are the flipside of the exuberance and the joy, which continue to flicker reassuringly through the makeshift darkness of a makeshift ‘movie tent’ somewhere in Lapland.

If all movie festivals are about light and shade, maybe what distinguishes Midnight Sun is just how pronounced the contrasts appear. Here the contradictions are embraced with extraordinary fearlessness. So you can’t expect the usual, bog-standard programming. Experimental films? Check! Politically correct films? Check! Greatness cannot be put in a box and nor can ‘the best film festival in the world,’ as Midnight Sun’s dearly departed architect, Peter von Bagh, once described it. (Read our thoughts on his passing, from 2014.)

The MSFF team may be purists – certainly concerning their beloved 35mm prints – but they are not precious. They will unashamedly show you everything they love, from The Green Fog (2017), the latest Guy Maddin experiment (this time in collaboration with Evan and Galen Johnson) to Single White Female (1992), Barbet Schroeder’s well-travelled Hollywood blockbuster. These films don’t tick the same boxes (or box offices); what they share is the mark of quality. Someone at MSFF trusted their instincts and invited both a Maddin and a Schroeder, along with many other strange bedfellows, to show us their beautifully crafted work.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda in “Single White Female”.

Single White Female is a standard thriller, following genre conventions to the letter. Fidelity to the formula seems to be no barrier to going far beyond it, however. The film works with a familiar – even conventional – scenario, the newcomer who is not what she seems to be, whose appealing persona conceals a deeper and ultimately terrifying psychosis – who turns out to be the proverbial roommate from hell.

What marks Schroeder’s film from the common herd is its visual intensity and depth of psychological field. Who will forget the unnerving, almost chilling sight of Hedra, after she has reinvented her ‘look’ in the image of her roommate? Moreover, the powerful visual effect cleverly prefigures a deeper psychic terrain, as we become aware of Hedra’s background as the only survivor of identical twins.

The Green Fog is a different kettle of fish altogether. Cinematic conventions abound here too, but in a completely different way. Maddin et al take a few bits and pieces scavenged from second-rate but iconic 1970s TV series, like The Streets of San Francisco, and reassemble them, bricolage-style, into a parodic pastiche of the classic movie form. Indeed, the work is a quirky homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

Like a child’s anarchic sketch, The Green Fog reproduces and obscures the narrative of Vertigo. A car-chase, for example, artlessly fuses several into one. The double quality of this representation stimulates us to self-reflection, for we cannot help but see both disjuncture and continuity simultaneously. We are liable, first, to laugh at our own propensity to see connections where there are none, and then to reflect on the seductive, magic-lantern properties of film.

“The Green Fog”

Cinephiles love Guy Maddin because they like texture, ambivalence, antinomie – for their own sake – but also because out of all this swirling, contradictory energy there invariably comes a strange sort of by-product, an unwanted and half-noticed bonus – some kind of idea! It will rise to the surface like foam or scum – the spent issue or surplus of the cauldron of desire. In this instance, it’s an idea about the way film imposes itself upon our consciousness, by, for example, creating the ambiguous impression of an object in continual motion.

Such different films! And such good films! How do we account for these two very different paths to the creation of something so special, we might even be tempted to call it ‘Art’? In the midst of a melancholy start to my festival, I hit upon an idea of my own and, surprisingly enough, ‘some reasons to be cheerful’ – to quote the late great Ian Dury.

It began with a mistake, that Godsend of all creative enterprises. I rolled into Sodankylä, my beloved ‘Peter-von-Bagh town,’ strolled down none other than Peter von Bagh Street, as is my wont, and began reliving the festival – Homer Simpson-style – as in never learning from my mistakes. How else could I show up at a screening of a German TV show – in German obviously – with Finnish subtitles? Well, there’s more than one way to watch a movie, and ‘without meaningful dialogue’ is certainly one of them – if not typically my first choice.

So I sat tight and watched a Dominic Graf-directed episode of Der Fahnder, from 1993, without the help of any intelligible dialogue, beyond the odd ‘es tut mir leid!’ and ‘tschüss!’ A proper account of Der Fahnder will obviously have to wait, but suffice to say it was one intriguing looking episode taken from a whole tongue-in-cheek crime series. The spoof action-hero montage opening whet my appetite for more, so I was a little disappointed by the inscrutability of what followed. On the other hand, it really cleared my head for the much more perspicacious dialogue to follow, a panel discussion – this time in English – with Graf himself, plus two Finnish programme-makers, Tapio Piirainen and Neil Hardwick, on the meaning and possibilities of public television.

Dominik Graf

Now, in time-honoured and treacherous fashion, when the panel is long gone, I will have my two-penny-worth. I will interrogate them in absentia and hence suitably defenceless. I’m sorry, but you had your panel, now here’s the backchat! On stage, German and Finn alike regretted their freedom lost, as their creative control has been progressively (or rather regressively) squeezed by the dictates of money and bureaucracy. This was a lament for the creative vitality of a medium once shaped by its most gifted exponents, now at the mercy of the mighty dollar.

Let me say from the outset that I totally sympathise! These are clearly talented, creative people and, step by step, modern institutions are encroaching on their autonomy and sense of personal agency. Dominik Graf, for example, cited the way the increasing dominance of the episodic format demands increasingly formulaic writing, not least the obligatory cliff-hanger at the end of each programme.

We can all sympathise because this is so much bigger than TV or even visual media per se. It’s the modern disease. It’s in our schools, our hospitals, our universities. It’s everywhere! Its name is new public management. Its soul is neoliberalism. Its ethos, its ‘best practice’ model of ‘good governance’, is to centralise control by imposing layer upon layer of measurable goals into every nook and cranny of our public lives.

Then your clinic, or library, or film production-company, will resemble a sort of corporation and all autonomy will be removed from anyone who does the actual work, anyone who might once have been thought to have mastered their craft – as far as it survives in recognisable form. This is a profoundly industrial model. Indeed, it represents the latest, perhaps the final stage of a thoroughgoing commodification of human life.

Historically speaking, it is the latest episode in the continuing story of modernity, where more is always more and everything must be continually remade, revised and remarketed, and where human existence itself is placed in a condition of permanent flux. As Marx put it, ‘All that is solid melts into air’, or, if you prefer, as Chrissie Hynde put it, ‘I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone, A-OK, way to go, Ohio!’ Let’s face it, we’re all coping with a dynamic economy, with change for change’s sake and all the grief that entails, but I repeat, do not despair! All is not lost!

Festival atmosphere at Midnight Sun 2018.

Okay, it’s bad, I’ll grant you, but it’s not all bad. However dysfunctional our social order may become, you really cannot keep a good man or woman down. The human spirit is actually irrepressible. Graf may rightly lament his loss of freedom but that loss is far from fatal because – artistically speaking – freedom is a mixed blessing anyway. Art may well become a struggle but that struggle may also engender some of our greatest achievements.

A case in point is the conundrum with which we began, Barbet Schroeder and Guy Maddin. Both of these directors operates in a hostile environment and each one finds a distinctive way to produce good work against its grain. Schroeder works within its forms, and stretches them to the limit, using the restrictions as a challenge. The results can seem as miraculous as the effect of turning water into wine or, in the case of what is arguably Schroeder’s masterpiece, Barfly, from 1987 (also shown at this year’s Midnight Sun), turning a drunken loser into a shining paragon of human integrity.

Maddin, on the other hand, steps outside – or never really ventures in – and finds a path of his own, out there in the cinematic wilderness. With little infrastructure or institutional support, he just keeps making movies anyway. The results are equally miraculous. His pragmatic and idealistic creations, fashioned from pretty much whatever comes to hand, shine with all the lustre of any conventional blockbuster.

The clouds may clear and the sun begin to shine, just as it so often does in Sodankylä in mid-June. This is my kind of place, and coming here always feels a bit like coming home. It’s my Brigadoon, well, Brigadoon light! In Vincente Minnelli’s 1954 romantic musical, the mystical town of the same name appears but once a century. Mercifully, ‘Filmworld Sodankylä’ reappears every year.

“Barfly”

The motif is nevertheless essentially the same, that in between we’re a little bit lost, forever struggling to find our way home, like proverbial ‘movie Dorothys.’ The genius of movies like Brigadoon and The Wizard of Oz (1939) is that by taking us to another world they reveal our permanent displacement or alienation from our own. We are creatures in and yet not really of the natural world, ruined – and tortured – by an unyielding self-consciousness.

So a sense of belonging and freedom will continue to elude us, and even if it didn’t we would probably be disappointed with the results – not least artistically. Graf, Piirainen, Hardwick, Maddin and Schroeder have at any rate all managed without. For all their achievements, they remain alienated souls and struggling artists. They struggle to find a way home. From time to time they may even imagine they have arrived, but as long as they draw breath the journey will never end. This is their destiny. When push comes to shove, it is also the seat of their ultimate genius.

So guess what? The world remains a frightful mess and movies continue to shine. Indeed, the gathering darkness only accentuates their lustre. They remain our beacons of hope, a stirring testimony to the unextinguished power of the human spirit. You may think you rule. Movies rule.

*

Read next: