Cinedelphia Film Festival – Aaron’s highlights

Here’s frequent contributor Aaron Mannino on some of what he considers to be the highlights of the recently wrapped Cinedelphia Film Festival.  I’m currently working on a first-hand account/re-cap of the entire CFF so check back for that in the coming weeks.


Honesty is a sensibility, a feeling, something that can be perceived in the air and in the energy of someone or some thing.  Honesty is what I sense through and through from the Cinedelphia Film Festival and from its modest yet maniacal brainchild Eric Bresler.  Never have I seen a festival pieced together with such a compulsion of love and creativity.  The Cinedelphia Film Festival is one of a kind in its celebratory intent and scope of content.  Though I was only able to attend six of the events, each was enriching, openhearted, unpretentious, and downright fun.  And with PhilaMOCA’s new projection screen and curtains, Eric has brought the Fest a little touch of class.

DHE21st Century Classical Music is a scrappy documentary about the Philly-based theremin-led group The Divine Hand Ensemble.  Something of an ensemble of misfit musicians, this wildly talented, diverse, and quirky assemblage.  The oddity of the theremin recalls science fiction scores of the ’40s and ’50s, but is used by Mano Divina – a professional concert thereminist – performing classical compositions, chamber music, opera arias and sacred choral music.  Its wavering voice-like quality is literally the sound of electricity singing, manipulated by the subtle movements of Divina’s hand within the instrument’s electrical field.  The group composes new material, adapts classical repertoire as well as contemporary sources like Queen, and Rush.  The film itself is quaint as it presents the ensemble’s first year together and does a great job of expressing just why the Divine Hand Ensemble is so unique and just how much fun the musicians have breaking this new ground.  My big take-away is learning about Funerary Music, music written and performed for the dead!

massacre-gunMassacre Gun (1967) as presented by the vastly knowledgeable Marc Walkow was a wonderful treat. Walkow’s preface built a context around the film…even if I can’t remember all those names….which was comforting, if not empowering when the frames started to roll.  His knowledge is based in a pure and honest enthusiasm for Japanese cinema that almost makes you jealous.  Massacre Gun was great fun.  A well-studied noir exercise from Nikkatsu Studios, it would be hard to believe director Hasebe had never seen Casablanca.  The cinematography is cool, the mood is tense.  “Three brothers take on the mob in a hard-boiled, doom-laden, little-seen gangster film from the height of Nikkatsu’s period of ‘Borderless Action’ productivity. Eldest brother Ryuichi Kuroda (Jo Shishido) is a hitman for the Akazawa gang who, at the whim of his stern boss, is forced to eliminate a woman he loves.”  This sets Ryuichi’s younger brother Saburo off, and leads to an all out war between gang factions.  Jo Shishido as a contract killer is a picture of perfect restraint.  He strikes only when he is ready, and when he knows it will have an effect.  His violence and emotional center is focused even as his former boss turns on him and his aspiring boxer brother.  A rare gem that probably has never been shown in the US before.

The For the Love of Movies: The History of TLA Entertainment event with Ray Murray, President of TLA Entertainment Group, was a true highlight and epitomizes the honesty that emanates from Eric’s programming.  The three speakers opened up for a candid, humorous and unprepared-for discussion/Q&A about the TLA’s many evolutions from a theater, to a video rental house, to the early days of the internet, to the largest festival Philly has ever seen, to the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Fest, to the realm of film distribution.  My particular fondness for the evening was about the “good ol’ days” when the TLA was a functioning hub of world cinema with a repertory program that would make the Film Forum blush.  They were careful not to veer into nostalgia…though I did effectively transpose myself to those days when cinephilia was a title that had to be earned with some real effort.  The conversation even touched on the digital sea-change in entertainment media, and the shift in value of cinematic experience from theaters to the palms of our hands.  There was something warm about the whole conversation.

highschooldvdHigh School (1968) is a verite gem and an outright excellent documentary feature.  It is also the highpoint thus far of an excellent festival. Shot in grainy black and white, Wiseman’s look inside Philly’s Northeast High School in 1968 is utterly direct.  It presents an honest vision of a closed universe.  Though surrounded by controversy – at the time of its completion it was barred from being screened within 60 miles of Philly – for fear of the director’s “negative slant and misrepresentation.”  Frankly, I found High School to be a fantastic portrait of a complex and progressive learning environment.  The faculty seem engaged and passionate, the students unafraid to contradict their teachers, and personas unaffected by the presence of a camera.  In fact, I feel that it puts forward a positive view of the school, not through flattery but with the transparency and openness of the institution towards cultivating sharp questioning minds.  Wiseman’s often closeup framing always feels honed on the right subject at the right time.  The camera does have a slight male gaze; ie: zooming in on a one girls butt during Gym class, framing the girls from the waist down in their skimpy gym outfits, or a closeup of a girl sucking gently on the tip of her pen.  Small moments could be argued as sexualization by the camera or as a mere recording of sexualization as it occurs of its own volition.  It does create a scope though, of the High School age as one of self/sexual awareness. The scene of a sex education seminar conducted by an OBGYN is strikingly candid and almost eclipses what I received even in the 90’s.  Each time I expected a right wing diatribe, the speaker would turn things around and rationalize an idea outside of pure “morality.”  This one should find its way to Criterion.  Seriously.

pointbreak1Point Break with a live surf rock score by The Great White Caps…’nuff said.  A band’s fervent and honest love for what they consider to be “possibly the greatest movie ever made” has yielded an energetic and thoroughly infectious vibe.  Their thankfulness of the audience’s participation was palpable and written all over their faces…when they weren’t wearing the masks of ex-presidents.  I love the film outright, for all the reasons you might expect.  But the film too feels absolutely honest to its subject, tone, and intention. Distilled masculine fervor tinged with existential motives.  The characters are driven by singular motives but are overfull in those respect.  Never moderate, Point Break – as most Keanu Reeves vehicles do – invites wincing and laughter in equal measure, and the crowd (at least two guys) were so enthusiastic as to be shouting out the more ridiculous lines before or as they happened.  Further proof that the live score is resurfacing as an important accentuation to cinema, and serves as a motive to get out of the comfort of our homes and convenience of computer screens to experience something, not just watch it.

The Lost Man, a little known flick staring one Sidney Poitier as the leader of a gang that robs a factory to finance a revolutionary movement…screened on VHS?…Why the hell not!  Considering it is the studio’s only available format!  It was surprising how quickly I re-acclimated to VHS quality.  Just like home.  The Lost Man is about a man trying to buck a system that deserves to be bucked.  Taking place in ’68, the socio-political temperament is strained and about to snap.  Things go bad, and Poitier is on the lam with the money and a bullet wound but no shortage of people that want to help him get to where he needs to be.  With touches of noir, and an effective feeling of quarantine and anxiety The Lost Man is relatively decent, but it certainly drags and is a little clunky about the script.  Not Poitier’s best either.  Still, shot in a bygone Philly, it was nice to spot all the familiar locations.  Its rarity is its own excuse and I’m glad it was part of the fest.

Danger After Dark: A Retrospective This event was the one I anticipated the most.  The Danger After Dark sidebar of the Philadelphia Film Fest is what drew me to the event initially.  It was unprecedented access to extreme cinema and really gave me the taste for Asian film that occupies me still.  Films like Miike’s Izo, or Lady Vengeance, A Tale of Two Sisters, Legend Of The Evil Lake, Johnny To’s Vengeance.  An absolute favorite of mine remains Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life.  Considering what DAD presented throughout the years, my selections seem rather conservative, but what the program did was open my eyes to obscure corners of cinema even if I didn’t get around to seeing them all.  Travis Crawford, DAD’s programmer for the better part of 12 years, opened up for a conversation about his experiences, his thoughts about the state of film festivals in Philadelphia and in general, and about how hard it is to shock people nowadays.  After the frank and engaging conversation, Crawford presented one of his favorite undistributed selections from over the years, and I was all the better for attending because I had regretted missing this film when it was part of the fest years back.

Frankly I can’t wait for next year’s fest, and am eager to see what new dimensions of Philly film culture Eric can access!  So many great things about this fest have to do with the unconventionality of the selections, their rarity, and their local relevance.  But more than that, it was the attitude of the fest, free spirited, innovative, with an approachable DIY sensibility (and $1 candy) that won me over.  I know Eric put his heart and soul into the CFF, and it came through.  I see the CFF growing into an important local cultural institution that puts Philly back into the equation of cinema programming.

Author: Aaron Mannino

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

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