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.
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.
“My films are a little weird,” says Taylor Guterson. It’s a weird statement to make about his two easygoing features. His debut Old Goats (SIFF ’11) and his new Burkholder both concern a group of of elderly, sometimes cantankerous codgers facing their retirement years on Bainbridge Island, where the director grew up. The films gently meander through their doings and conversations, which have a habit of detouring into blind alleys. Those detours are intentional, says Guterson, the son of bestselling novelist David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars): “There are people out there who think that that’s not how you tell a story, that you never bring up something that . . . doesn’t have a point. And to me it has a point. They go off on these tangents because that’s what they do.”
Today based on the Eastside, Guterson is a self-made filmmaker with his own video production company. Chatting in a Mercer Island coffee shop, he’s like an earnest, relaxed grad student. So why, I ask, has he created a stock company of senior citizens? Reflecting on Old Goats, he says, “I was 27 and thinking, ‘If I don’t just figure out a way to do it now, I’ll never make a feature.’ ”
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.
Centurion (UK, dir/scr: Neil Marshall) – “My name is Quintus Dias and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.” With Michael Fassbender (crisply stalwart in Inglorious Basterds and hauntingly resolute in Hunger) as a loyal and valiant Roman Centurion and Neil Marshall (the once and future hope of savagely smart British genre cinema, thanks to Dog Soldiers and The Descent) writing and directing, I had great expectations for this Romans versus Barbarians warrior epic turned survival thriller. Set on 117 A.D., twenty years into the Roman invasion of Britain, as the guerrilla tactics of the Picts have stymied the Roman incursion into the northern highlands, it’s basically a lost platoon adventure with Fessbender as a bloodied but unbowed soldier trying to lead a small group of survivors from a brutally effective ambush back to safety. In other words, a classic Marshall set-up: a handful of professionals fighting off an attack from greater numbers or overwhelming power. Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko glowers and slinks as a mute Pict scout and tracker who relentlessly hunts them through the dramatic landscape, looking less like a warrior queen than a 1st century cover girl, and Dominic West is the macho General Virilus (Marshall’s tribute to Life of Brian‘s Biggus Dickus?) who gets to be all tortured martyr as he passes the torch to Quintus: “Get them home!”
Based on a 2,000-year-old legend (according the disclaimer at the end of the film), it’s brawny stuff, part The Naked Prey and part ancient The Lost Patrol, with great use of fog and dramatic landscapes and lots of bloody, brutal combat. Would that it had characters to match, or a story as interesting as its inspiration. Fessbender is all soldier and stalwart dignity—he even says “Fuck” with class (and he does so a lot)—but doesn’t have a personality to speak of, and while the obligatory scene when the men all swap names and backstories may have been Marshall’s tribute to the scores of platoon movies before it, it simply plays as lazy exposition. The men get lost in the muddy palette of earth tones (which in this case are brown, green and fog… lots of fog) and the staccato strobe-vision of battle scenes that simply confuses the action, and the story along with it.
Is Amer (Belgium, dirs: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani) a giallo—that deliriously stylish brand of Italian horror that (at its best) swirled overripe color and perverse violence with visceral imagery, voyeuristic tendencies and flamboyant camerawork—or a portrait of life imagined as a giallo? The story (such as it is) of Amer comes down to three apparently defining moments in the life of a highly imaginative (perhaps borderline mad) heroine: as a young girl trying to take in the charged emotional atmosphere surrounding her grandfather’s death (including incantations cast by a superstitious old servant and the acid-flashback imagery triggered when she spies her parents having sex), as a teenager whose shopping trip with mom explodes in sexual awareness when she comes across a motorcycle gang (are the objectifying shots of the wind wrapping her skirt around her legs, her breasts, her pouty, overripe lips their POV or her fantasy of their desire?), as a grown woman revisiting the family estate, a neglected place filled with overgrown vegetation, unresolved issues and a knife-wielding stalker (whose “reality” is as questionable as anything else seen through the mind’s eye of this woman). It’s a film seen through keyholes and ajar doors, down hallways and staircases, through windows and under doors, but mostly through the overheated mind’s eye of Ana as she transforms family drama and every day encounters into hothouse moments of sexual desire and repression, voyeurism, conspiracy, witchcraft, stalking and murder (or sees the lurid and dangerous reality under the surface that no one else notices).
Any objective understanding of the narrative is tangled up in the subjective experience of Ana (played by three different actress) and the expressionist delirium served up by Cattet and Forzani. But this isn’t mere tribute to the genre, it’s a celebration of the style, the texture, the psycho-sexual atmosphere of the best films, recreated in a triptych that could be a horror film, a coming-of-age story or a twisted Walter Mitty adventure from a Dario Argento fanatic. It isn’t necessary to know the genre to enjoy the film. While it borrows from more films than I can identify (not simply visually but its choice selection of soundtrack themes as well), it’s not commenting on any individual film so much as appropriating the style and sensibility for its own purposes. It doesn’t merely acknowledge the expressionist possibilities in a genre beloved horror fans but unknown to most people, it condenses it into a concentrated extract: a 90-minute hit of the essence of giallo as a surreal subjective journey, part sexual awakening, part repressed fear, part rarified death dream. And while the cinematic phantasmagoria is more interesting than any psychological reading or narrative understanding, it’s like mainlining decades of giallo highlights in a single screening. Quite a trip indeed.
How to do a rock and roll film is intertwined with why to do a rock and roll film. Two biopics of rock icons (one more iconic than the other) play at SIFF this weekend, but genre aside, there isn’t much in common with the two.
Nowhere Boy (dir: Sam Taylor Wood, UK) is the early life of John Lennon, the man who would put together the Beatles as a teenage boy. As fellow critic Tom Keogh observed in a post-screening conversation, this may be the first film to imagine the meeting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney on the screen (read Tom’s capsule review at the Seattle Times here). What’s so marvelous about the film (including that meeting) is that it isn’t elevated into some mythological status: none of those clichéd lines where someone in the group or some prescient member of their early audience predicting their greatness or prophesying how they will “change the future of music.” These are British boys brought together by a restless, emotionally knotted teenage Lennon, a teenager whose artistic impulses and rebellious tendencies serve him poorly in high school but drive him to create a skiffle band. All they have in common is a love of American rock and roll and the charge of playing in front of an audience. Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass) is utterly convincing as the “Goon Show”-loving John, raised by his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George, whose smoldering issues of abandonment by his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), are fanned into flames when George dies and Julia suddenly reappears (“the one with red hair,” is how John refers to her at the funeral) and becomes a part of his increasingly emotionally turbulent life. Nowhere Boy shines a light on details from a part of Lennon’s life that few beyond the most passionate fans know—John’s reconnection with his mother and the fist shows of his proto-Beatles band, the Quarrymen—but it’s rewarding because the story is not about the formative life of a star, but the emotional life of a boy who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother (it’s not that simple, of course, but to a teenage boy it sure feels that way). It’s also the story of sisters—both mothers to the artistically inclined and reflexively rebellious schoolboy—and the choices of the past that continue to haunt and divide them.
SIFF held its opening night in Benaroya Hall (for the first time) with a typically SIFF opening night film: The Extra Man, with Paul Dano as twentysomething literature teacher Louis Ives, a shy young man mired in sexual confusion, a fantasy life born of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and the eccentrics in his Manhattan apartment building, notably his roommate. Kevin Kline is the life of this rather precious coming of age film as Henry Harrison, a former playwright and full time “extra man” (an escort to the wealthy society widows who like a man on their arm for social events) who rents out a room in his walkup to make ends meet.
Directors and co-screenwriters Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (adapting the novel by Jonathan Ames) fail to capture the lively personalities that made their fiction debut, American Splendor, so splendid. Dano is less a man out of time than simply removed from the life around him (his thin, tentative smile and shrinking violet body language presents repression without suggesting the yearnings beneath it) and the film’s evocation of his inner life plays like bad community theater rather than a richly detailed fantasy of an idealized existence. But then there’s Kline, whose theatrical, judgmental Harrison is a genuine eccentric with a full life behind the flourishes and “a strange power over people,” in Louis’ own words. “It’s my constant disapproval,” explains Harrison, tossed off by Kline as an aside to the matter at hand. “Many people find it paternal.” John C. Reilly has less to work with offers a warmly vulnerable man under glaring eyes and a wild-man beard. This is just the kind of film that SIFF regulars have come to expect from opening night: mainstream moviemaking with indie colors and oddball edges just quirky enough not to offend.