Unknown Pleasures 

Thanks to a new film festival, Nashvillians needn’t rely on received opinion

Thanks to a new film festival, Nashvillians needn’t rely on received opinion

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. An acclaimed director risks his career on an intensely personal film about the suffering of Jesus Christ. The movie makes headlines from coast to coast. In the process, it provokes a firestorm of controversy. Sound familiar? Not as much as you might think. In this story, not a single commercial movie theater in Nashville dares to show it. Having heard the ruckus, local moviegoers want to decide for themselves whether the movie is brilliant or blasphemous. But they don’t get the chance. During the movie’s (short) theatrical run, the closest it gets to Nashville is Chattanooga.

In the end, only one Nashville theater had the guts to defy the city’s de facto censors. When Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ made its belated local premiere 15 years ago, it was at a noncommercial venue: Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Cinema. In those days, Sarratt often gave local movie lovers their first look at offbeat, independent or controversial films the chains wouldn’t touch. Without its intervention, we wouldn’t have been allowed to make up our own minds. Any opinion we’d have had on Scorsese’s movie, a topic of nationwide debate, would have been at best secondhand.

I’d love to say that kind of cultural disconnection is a thing of the past. Nashville has more than 100 movie screens now, and a fraction of those play “art movies” pretty much every week (except, paradoxically, in Oscar season). And yet people who follow movies closely—either by watching the festival circuit throughout the year, or reading magazines such as Film Comment—are keenly aware how many never make it to town. They know because they only have access to someone else’s opinion, not to the films themselves. The movie Unknown Pleasures, a pop-sotted study of teen alienation by the Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, landed high on critics’ year-end polls two months ago. The polls were easy to find. The movie, however, was not. Nashvillians could only respond to the hype.

That changes Friday, when Unknown Pleasures kicks off an entire festival devoted to recent movies that haven’t played in local theaters. I haven’t seen the film. It could be amazing, or it could be the Emperor’s New Arthouse Sensation—but I can’t wait to experience it for myself to find out. The same goes for the other movies in the Nashville Premieres Spring Film Festival, running Friday through next Thursday at the Belcourt. All drew a lot of attention last year, either in limited release or touring retrospectives. None has played here before, or is expected to again.

The rarest of the four movies, and the one ideally suited to such a festival, is La Commune (Paris 1871) (showing Saturday and Sunday), an experimental hybrid of fiction and documentary by British filmmaker Peter Watkins. Taking as his subject the commune that flourished briefly in 1871 Paris after the French government fled the Prussian army to Versailles, the director hired a cast of 220 people and had them diligently research figures of the period. He then divided them into groups—soldiers, intellectuals, opposition—and had them reenact the tumult of communal life, devising an on-the-spot news crew to navigate the many factions. Because of its length (the movie runs just short of six hours, in two three-hour blocks), not to mention its revolutionary political content, it hasn’t been shown widely in this country. To have it here is—forgive the unintended pun—a coup.

The remaining films are by directors whose work has screened infrequently in Nashville over the past few years. Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (showing throughout the week) continues the Iranian director’s fascination with digital camerawork. His hand is almost invisible, as the movie consists of 10 conversations shot from cameras mounted on the dashboard of a car cruising through Tehran. The women inside the car speak with fierce, funny candor—about their faith, about their bodies, about their lives as mothers and divorcées and prostitutes. I miss the celluloid beauty of Kiarostami’s earlier films, but by restricting our vision here, he opens a window onto an entire world.

For some viewers, the surprise of the festival may be the restored print of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (screening throughout the week), his 1974 nod to the Douglas Sirk melodrama All That Heaven Allows. It toured the country last year as part of a mammoth tribute to the German director, who made more than 40 major works in the 16 years before his death in 1982. The standard yap against Fassbinder, who influenced everyone from John Waters to Todd Haynes, is that his movies can be cold, inaccessible and inhumanly formal.

What a pleasant shock, then, to encounter the warmth, brilliance and unsentimental humanity of this piercingly simple film, in which an aging German woman (Brigitte Mira) finds love with a much younger Moroccan man (El Hedi ben Salem), to the consternation of her racist family and neighbors. There’s not an ounce of fat or pretension in Fassbinder’s staging. It’s as emotionally direct as live theater, heightened by bold, cutting camera moves and an unerring expressive command of screen depth and distance.

Why bother showing these films, and why bother seeing them? To Nashville Premieres, the close-knit group of local cinephiles sponsoring the festival, it gives the city a stake, and a voice, in a movie culture that tends to exclude “flyover country” from any discussion. A fervent arthouse audience waits here to be recognized, but until we can see the movies for ourselves, we’re stuck reacting to the hand-me-down opinions of far-off tastemakers. And that only makes it harder to respond to the films when we finally get the chance.

But please, don’t take my word for any of this. Because of Nashville Premieres, you don’t have to.

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