After the official fall film launch of the Venice/Telluride/Toronto triumvirate, the first significant American fest is the New York Film Festival. But due to the quirks of international film festival branding, another event that plays out during roughly the same period offers many of the films showcased in New York as well as a great variety of additional international films. While New York provides the American launches of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (among many others) to great media attention, Vancouver quietly screens them across the country almost simultaneously, hot off their respective World or North American debuts at Toronto. For folks on the West Coast, the Vancouver International Film Festival is not just a great alternative to see these and other films, it’s an easier festival to navigate and an affordable festival to play in. Plus, if you have a particular interest in Asian cinema, it’s the place to find films from those directors yet to be anointed and celebrated in the anchor festivals around the world.
Opening night was set aside for a Canadian filmmaker continuing his Hollywood success story. Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by novelist Nick Hornby (who also scripted An Education), is more than a vehicle for its star/producer Reese Witherspoon. It’s an odyssey on a human scale: a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1700 mile journey undertaken without any preparation or training. For Sheryl, pulling herself out of depression and a self-destructive detour into drugs, it’s an American walkabout cleansing by way of a dare, though the only person she has to prove anything to is herself.
It’s #SIFForty! The 2014 Seattle International Film Festival is the 40th edition, at least by the numerical count (SIFF jumped from the “Twelfth Annual” in 1987 to the “Fourteenth Annual” in 1988, skipping Lucky Thirteen just like a high rise, but when you survive this long, who really sweats the details?). It holds the claim to the biggest film festival in America, by both length (a marathon twenty-four days) and number of films. This year’s presented 270 fiction and non-fiction features—including twenty feature film world premieres, twenty-one feature film North American premieres and eight feature film American premieres—and 168 shorts.
'Jimi: All Is By My Side'
SIFF has grown a lot in its forty years, expanding into education, special screenings and, in the last decade, year-round programming films throughout the year—and they celebrated by announcing two major events for the organization. SIFF just purchased the Uptown Theater, the three-screen complex just west of Seattle Center that they leased a couple of years ago, and along with that new mortgage they’ve taken on the lease of the Egyptian Theater, giving the Capitol Hill landmark and festival anchor that closed in 2013 a new lease on life. SIFF reopened the shuttered theater for the festival and then will close it again (temporarily) while it raises money for renovations and a planned fall opening as a year-round venue. Without SIFF’s commitment, that space would surely have been gutted or torn down and turned into apartments or condos.
All of that was announced at the opening night festivities before the screening Jimi: All is By My Side, John Ridley’s portrait of Seattle-born rock legend Jimi Hendrix in London the year before he broke in America at the Monterey Pop music festival. Once again, opening night took place in McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, a great place to experience dance or opera or theater but a lousy venue for movies, thanks to acoustics that send movie soundtracks reverberating through the hall. That might seem like a death knell for a music biopic but due to resistance from the Hendrix estate, Ridley was unable to use any of Hendrix’s original music or compositions.
Quadrophenia (Criterion), the 1979 film of Pete Townsend’s landmark rock opera (originally performed by The Who) about teen rebellion and alienation in 1965 London hit the screen under the direction of Franc Roddam with Phil Daniels as the restless, Vespa-riding Jimmy, a Mod in the rock and roll culture wars. The portrait of early sixties Britain, of young adults looking to carve out their own identity distinct from the glum middle class dullness of their parents, and of a music explosion that becomes part of their lives, is astounding, and the desperation of Jimmy’s dive into this vivid but undefined culture reverberates to this day. “I don’t wanna be like everybody else. That’s why I’m a mod, see?” Sting is memorable as the charismatic Mod leader with a working class secret, future Brit star Ray Winstone is a former mate turned rival rocker, and Timothy Spall has a small role as a fellow working stiff.
It’s not really a musical as much as a rough and ready drama inspired by the story suggested in the rock opera (though the Who’s music underscores the film quite nicely), and it has aged very well over the years. This entire last act is set to the final side of the Who’s album, a brilliant work of rock scoring that suggests the restless, frustrated impulses of confused youth, shouted out in Roger Daltry’s singing and pounded into urgency by Keith Moon’s drumming, as Townsend’s music and lyrics merge into a transcendent convergence of themes and strangled cries of identity. Roddam finds an evocative dramatic translation of the suggestions in Townsend’s lyrics and sends the film off with images as resonant as the music. Can you see the real me? Well, can you?
Screenings will continue late into the evening of Sunday, June 12, the 25th and final day of the 2011 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival (see below for the films scheduled in the numerous TBA slots of the program). But the festival marks the conclusion with its closing night gala film – the lovely Life in a Day (USA), which is being screened at the magnificent Cinerama (still the finest theater in town and sadly absent from the rest of SIFF this year) – and the traditional closing night party. I hope to rouse myself for the latter.
As for the Closing Night film itself, Life in a Day is a feel-good film (with some moments of sadness and emotional trials) about the global village that doesn’t sell out its integrity to go for the emotional tug. A mix of high concept ambition, low-fidelity tools and the networking possibilities of the web’s global community, the production is a collaboration between National Geographic and YouTube, which is also as accurate a description you can offer for its sensibility. Officially directed by Kevin Macdonald, who plays ringmaster to a circus of contributors, it is in fact shot and performed by you, or us, or the folks out there, using everything from high-end video equipment to flip cameras to smart phones. What unifies the footage is that it was all shot on July 24, 2010, and each piece used in the film relates to the way we live our lives.
SIFF’s program notes states that The Night of Counting the Years (1969, Egypt), directed by Chadi Abdel Salam, is “universally recognized as one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made,” a statement that isn’t quite accurate. I’m not refering to the “greatest” part of that statement, just that it is “universally recognized” for anything.
While it is indeed considered an Egyptian cinema masterwork by those with some expertise in the field, this is not a film that has been close to universally seen, which makes its appearance here all the more notable. All but unavailable for years (I had the good fortune to see a 16mm print at the Seattle Arab Film Festival in 2000, which even faded and worn communicated the great power of the film), a new restoration was undertaken in conjunction with the international offshoot of The Film Foundation founded by Martin Scorsese and a high-quality DCP digital print was shown at SIFF. (Given some of the issues with digital presentation at the festival this year, I am pleased to report that this was a stellar screening; any weaknesses in the image quality were clearly those of the original film materials.)
The story is inspired by a real-life incident of an isolated mountain tribe in the late 19th century that was secretly selling off ancient artifacts from the tombs of the Pharaohs, specifically a cache of mummies hidden in the mountain caves to hide them from looters, which the government discovers after the recovery of one of the treasures. The drama ostensibly sets the government against the insular tribe, where the elders justify the looting of its own culture to sustain the people (as well as enrich themselves), but it’s the reaction of the young men to this tribal secret that fires the film. They are appalled at the desecration of their ancestors and their refusal to be a part of it marks them as enemies of the tribe. Not an ideal situation in such an insular culture.
Seattle International Film Festival audiences bestowed top Golden Space Needle Awards on Paper Birds, To Be Heard and The Whistleblower (among others) while juried awards singled out Gandu and the documentary Hot Coffee at the awards brunch of the Seattle International Film Festival this morning.
Over 450 features, documentaries and short films from more than 70 countries were screened over the 25 days (and the last day is not over as of this writing, mind you) and 600 screening event. According to SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence, it was a record setting year in terms of attendance.
Emilia Aragon’s Paper Birds (Spain) took the audience award for Best Film, Larysa Kondracki won the Best Director award for The Whistleblower (Canada/Germany), Best Actor went to Bill Skarsgård for Simple Simon (Sweden) and Best Actress to Natasha Petrovic for As If I Am Not There (Ireland/Macedonia/Sweden). Best Documentary was awarded to To Be Heard, directed by Roland Legiardi-Laura, Amy Sultan, Deborah Shaffer and Edwin Martinez (USA) and The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore, directed by William Joyce (USA), took the Best Short Film award.
The crime-gone-bad thriller is a staple of the crime genre. Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea, a South Korean box-office hit making its North American debut at SIFF 2011, runs with the concept in a jittery thriller of a desperate taxi driver in Yanji (an autonomous region in Northern China dominated by ethnic Koreans) hired to kill a man in South Korea. Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is Joseonjok, a Chinese citizen of Korean ancestry living in the impoverished region across the border. His wife hasn’t contacted him since she left to work in Korea six months ago, he’s deep in debt to the gangsters who smuggled her across the channel (the Yellow Sea of the title) and he’s losing whatever he makes gambling at Mahjong. So a local crime boss, Myung (Kim Yun-seok), makes him an offer: wipe his debt clean in exchange for a simple murder.
Na takes us through the human smuggling process with a rapid-fire pace, jumping through the steps in the ordeal in a montage that makes its points without stopping to explain and sets the tone that will define the rest of the gangster drama: no sentiment, no hesitation, no warning, just keep moving, react immediately and don’t look back. There’s none of the John Woo bullet ballets here. Na Hong-jin goes for the unpredictability of violence and the chaos created out of panic and shoots Gu-nam’s action scenes—well, more like reaction as he improvises in the face of competition and goes on the run from both the cops and the crooks—with a jittery shakycam aesthetic. It’s an overused and abused technique to be sure, too often appropriated in place of building and sustaining effective action scenes, but here it’s saved specifically to put us in the agitated head of our hero, an amateur in a world of professional thugs running on panic and adrenaline. It drives his desperate flight from a careening mob of overeager cops colliding with each other in their pursuit to a runaway escape that is all desperation and reckless impulse at high speed.
The white meadows of Mohammad Rasoulof’s The White Meadows (Iran), a stunning and startling odyssey through the salt marshes of Iran’s Lake Urmia, are the desert islands where almost medieval cultures exist in isolated pockets on otherwise dead lands. The salt that coats every beach white has left this place bereft of vegetation, giving it an almost alien, otherworldly atmosphere: a visit to a small planet. And just as the salt chokes the life out of the land and water (there are no birds and precious little marine life), so does it starve the respective cultures, cut off from the rest of the world but for a boatman, Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi), the only outsider welcome in these lands. He is the “tear collector,” who comes to hear their woes and take away their sorrows by collecting their tears in a glass vial.
The mythology and cultural practices are more fictional creation than historical reality but they have the resonance of myth playing out in a place that is, practically speaking, out of time, with only stray clues (mostly in the coda) placing it in, more or less, the present. The various islands could be Rasoulof’s answer to Jonathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” relocated to an Iranian sensibility and contemporary political and religious reality. Brutal rituals (human sacrifice, politely referred to as a “marriage” and treated as a holy honor by all but the virgin bride) and punishments abound and a culture of conformity and intolerance rules, maintained by an unquestioned patriarchy that keeps the culture locked in a surreal state of blind obedience bordering on madness. Rebels, be they runaways, heroes or artists with individual visions, don’t survive the smothering culture.
Those of us outside of the Big Apple may not be able to join the crowds for the glory of such classics (both major and minor) projected on the big screen, but Fritz Lang is a filmmaker well represented on DVD so here’s my suggestion for your own festival: the best of Fritz Lang’s American films, designed for maximum small screen pleasure.
Fritz Lang’s American debut is an indictment of lynch mob justice starring Spencer Tracy as an honest man wrongly arrested and left to burn to death in a prison blaze started by a vicious mob of normal American citizens whipped into a frenzy of vengeance while his bride-to-be (Sylvia Sidney) watches, terrified and helpless. He escapes, though he’s believed to have perished in the fire, and from hiding he plots his revenge on the mob by indicting them for murder. It was the first of his loose trilogy of social justice starring Sidney (she returns in the equally searing “You Only Live Once”and the lighter “You and Me”) and it grabbed audiences by the lapels with its frank dramatic confrontations. The Warner features commentary by film historian Peter Bogdanovich, with excerpts of his archival audio interview with Fritz Lang. (Warner)
I love the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for a lot of reasons. This is just one of many, but one that defines the spirit of the festival.
Robot and Rotwang
Fernando Martín Peña spent twenty years trying to track down the holy grail that was the complete, long though lost Metropolis. In collaboration with Paula Felix Didier, director of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, they found it, confirmed its authenticity and contacted the Murnau Foundation, which had undertaken the task to reconstructing the original version. It was only one of many elements that went into the definitive version now making the rounds in festivals and cinemateques around the world (lost footage was also recently discovered in a New Zealand archive, and better condition than the Argentinean print), but it was the essential missing link that provided not just footage unavailable in any form elsewhere, but an invaluable guide to the artists, historians and technicians doing the physical work of restoring and reconstructing the definitive version.
And yet he had not seen the finished restoration until its screening at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and most well-curated silent film festival in the United States, celebrates its 15th edition by adding a day of screenings, opening Thursday, July 15 with a screening of John Ford’s The Iron Horse (from Dennis James’ personal 35mm print) and then launching into the weekend with the Friday evening screenings of Rotaie (1929), a late silent from Italy, and the newly restored Metropolis (1927), in a digital presentation with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, all at the historic Castro Theatre (in this case, historic also mean no air conditioning, so attendees are dressing in layers and watching the weather).
Hipsters (Russia, dir: Valery Todorovsky) – In 1955 Moscow, where the Soviet citizenry fills the streets in a palette of industrial blue, black and gray, a group of culture rebels parade about in rainbow colors that in America would be crimes against fashion—a cacophony of plaids and checks, greens and yellows and purples and other garishly clashing colors—and commit something much more daring: crimes against conformity. They are the self-defined “hipsters,” dancing to swing and small combo dance bands in fashions that defies the uniformity of the Soviet ideal. “I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to live like everyone else,” smiles the youth commissar of conformity, who proclaims that “Every hipster is a potential criminal.” Mels (Anton Shagin, who comes off as a wide-eyed Neil Patrick Harris) is part of the conformist army until he switches allegiances for the best of possible reasons: a girl, Polly (Oksana Akinshina). Mels dons the Soviet answer to a zoot suit, hits the Broadway scene and is rechristened Mel (in the Yankee-ization that all hipsters undergo), the newest member of the swing cat underground.
A musical (where they do indeed break into song and dance, evoking the mechanization of the industrial revolution when it’s the plebian citizens doing the honors but exploding in the plumage of mating birds when the dances erupt in the club setttings), a coming-of-age tale and an adventure in youthful rebellion, Hipsters (from Emerging Master Valery Todorovksy) is a bright blast of underground culture and expressions of individuality in a society where rebels are regularly jailed for much less. The eye-gouging color, flamboyant fashion, pompadours and curls and appropriated style is not just a fashion statement, it’s a cry of individualism and freedom in a country where “kowtowing to western ideology is punishable by up to ten years” and “a saxophone is considered a concealed weapon.” (And what about owning banned music, which here is copied and passed around on pirate discs cut into the remnants of old X-rays sheets?) It’s also a warped mirror reflection of what these soviet youths imagine American culture is like from the snatched glimpses and slivers of artifacts gleaned from between the cracks of the Iron Curtain, a recreation at least ten years out of date and exaggerated to hyperbolic extremes. Which, in a very real way, ultimately makes this a uniquely Soviet rebel culture. The drama itself is much more conventional, with kids forced to choose between their rebel identities and donning the costume of conformity for advancement, marriage, parenthood and responsibility, all of it essentially hurdled in a song to embrace the happy ending. But the story of Hipsters is less in the narrative than the evocation of this underground culture, in both the texture of realistic detail and expressionist song and dance sequences. And if you think you recognize Polly (“Good Time Polly to those who know”), it’s not just the American affection; she starred as Lilya in Lukas Moodyson’s Lilya 4-Ever.