San Francisco International Film Festival’s Bloody Coup
by Carl Russo
The 46th San Francisco International Film Festival felt like a safety zone, comfortably distant from the frightening ground-zeroes depicted in many of its offerings. The global mix of issue films, however artful, made dust of CNN and Fox News fictions, and stimulated discussions that continued out into the streets.
The country’s oldest film festival is not the American indie launching pad it was when it broke Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” so many years ago. In fact, the programmers dutifully selected two loopy romances straight from Sundance to bookend the April 17-May 1 event: Alan Rudolph’s “The Secret Lives of Dentists” and Mark Decena’s “Dopamine.”
The lone domestic narrative premiere, Clark Brigham’s “Save it for Later,” shares with “Dopamine” the heady milieu of San Francisco in the 1990s, but its boho-yuppie protagonist — an extinct species in these parts — is as ill-defined as the women relegated to fawning over him.
Meanwhile, maverick deities Robert Altman and Dustin Hoffman tolerated mediocre Q&A sessions at the Castro Theatre before respective screenings of “Nashville” and “Lenny.” (In a you-hadda-be-there moment, Hoffman slew the crowd with his impersonation of Buddy Hackett describing Lenny Bruce humping a dead shark.)
The strength of the fest remains its showcase of new foreign films, dramatic and documentary alike. Much of the program had the urgency of a human rights festival, with Palestinian activists leafleting inside the Kabuki Theatre before the world premiere of “The Olive Harvest.” Hanna Elias’ DV-shot debut sets up a melodramatic love triangle that threatens to uproot village traditions faster than the Israeli settlements closing in on its olive groves.
Also premiering was John Shenk and Megan Mylan’s “Lost Boys of Sudan,” which tails several war orphans placed in Midwestern states by a Christian organization. Delicious cheeseburgers aside, they are shocked to find themselves the objects of racial hatred, and feel scammed as their assembly-line jobs take precedence over their receiving an education. The film took the Golden Gate Award for best Bay Area documentary feature.
Seemingly ripped from the headlines during a week which saw U.S. commandos capture the Palestinian mastermind of the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking, “The Death of Klinghoffer” stunned Castro audiences. Penny Woolcock’s ingenious filmic transposition of the controversial John Adams opera infuses the beautiful choral work with the immediacy of realistic locations, shifting focus between terrorists and captives as they perform their arias.
The title of Manijeh Hekmat’s “Women’s Prison,” winner of the Amnesty International Prize at Rotterdam, threatens grisly exposé. The power struggle between a murderess and her severely shrouded jailer turns out to be a gloriously entertaining story of community. As in Kiarostami’s “Ten,” a shaved head (not a fashion choice here) marks a woman as both pariah and individual.
The id has been surfacing on a regular basis ever since Lars von Trier and his Dogmatics gave screen characters permission to “spazz.” Witness Michael Mackenzie’s curiously engaging Toronto Film Festival breakout “The Baroness and the Pig,” whose sub-Eliza Doolittle was raised by farm animals, sending up 19th-century Yankee and European bourgeoisie. More credible is the teen wild-child of Christophe Ruggia’s “The Devils” — deemed best picture at the Avignon/NY Fest last month — dubiously raised by her brother as they flee the adult world.
“The Devils” was part of a showcase of new French works curated by critic Michel Ciment, director of the 50-year-old film journal/anarchist collective “Positif.”
“More than ever it is the film and not the credits that deserve attention,” declared Ciment in a bravura address that referenced nearly every film auteur living and dead. While cautioning against “fetishizing” the easy technology of digital video, the longtime champion of the cutting edge added a conservative note: “May the choice of DVD be varied enough to allow us to go back to the classics. The state of cinema will be better if in the future filmmakers realize that in order to make a stylistic revolution, you need to know the tradition.”
Ciment’s picks were the cream of the French crop, diminished only by Catherine Breillat’s “Sex is Comedy.” Lightening her touch from past shockers like “Fat Girl,” she probes the sexual politics waged by an abusive female director and her temperamental male lead on a film shoot, which is about as exciting and comic as watching a film shoot.
The power trips of Alain Corneau’s “Fear and Trembling” are laugh-out-loud, based on the true story of a young Belgian woman who returns to the Tokyo of her childhood for a corporate gig. The squirm factor is high, seeing waifish Sylvie Testud supremely offend the business hierarchy at every step, earning ever more humiliation and punishment.
Two French entries use a documentary verité style to sublime effect: Raymond Depardon’s “Untouched by the West” recreates the tribal life of Saharan nomads of ninety years ago as they meet their first colonial Christians (and their firepower) in shimmering black and white. In the disease drama “His Brother” — which bagged a Silver Bear for Patrice Chereau’s direction — the complicated love-hate relationship of two brothers is dissected with measured, handheld-cam intimacy.
Dissection is too polite a term for the travesties that occur in Marina de Van’s “In My Skin,” wherein the director/writer/star proposes a new SCUM Manifesto: the Society for Cutting Up Myself. Playing a young businesswoman who lapses into long sessions of limb evisceration — made unbearable with the sounds of blade ripping flesh and striking bone — she severs the line between art and exploitation. Post-credits, the ghoulishly beautiful Van appeared but offered no comfort to the sickened audience: while not a self-mutilator, she admitted to obsessing over the unknowable self that lies beneath the skin.
“Mango Yellow” makes the most of the mutilation motif, from the slicing of the fruit’s flesh to the explicit slaughtering of a cow, all at the service of an audacious comedy. Filmmaker Claudio Assis’ colorful universe of impulsive lowlifes in a fleabag hotel capped a series of new, frequently violent, Brazilian films.
Gratuitous violence for laughs went out with Tarantino, but Brazilian director Jose Fonseca’s comically savage debut, “The Man of the Year,” metes out the perfect balance of gore and guffaws with only a hint of social context. The rise and fall of a reluctant hit man, controlled by everyone from his wife to his dentist, won Fonseca the $10,000 Skyy Prize for best first feature.
The sleazy dentist, leaning on his patient to snuff out street riff-raff (thus reversing the plot of Alan Rudolph’s film) makes mention of the infamous bus hijacker, Sandro do Nascimento. Gripping footage of the violent standoff between the gunman and Rio de Janeiro police on live television in 2000 has made Jose Padilha’s “Bus 174” a must-see doc at festivals. The film is also fitting touchstone for this year’s program, too, with its backstory of two-million homeless kids on Rio’s mean streets — the wild-child myth come to life.
Guy Maddin’s latest feature, “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary,” reduces stabbing and gouging to pure visual style. A master of his own genre, he transforms the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s adaptation of the vampire legend into a swirl of silent-era visual pastiches and ironically absurd inter-titles. Despite his obvious cinephilic reverence, Maddin considers everything a joke, but at least we’re in on it.
As the ghost of F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” haunts this “Dracula,” it was fitting to see the German emigré’s first American film “Sunrise” revived. Besides marking the return of the (celluloid) Janet Gaynor to the Castro Theatre — reputedly she was an usherette here before her Hollywood break — the 1922 story of amour fou under a silvery moon got a live pomo soundtrack courtesy of Lambchop. The Nashville combo’s plaintive country-rock tunes and Murnau’s dreamy images were a mixed marriage, giving the effect of an extended music video. While singer/songwriter Kurt Wagner’s baritone lyrics added a nostalgic moodiness to the antique images, the experiment worked best during the piano solos.
Fleeting images, glamorous ghosts, disembodied tough talk, holographic mises-en-scene, time-lapse tableaux: these are the tools used by experimental filmmaker Pat O’Neill in “The Decay of Fiction.” His feature-length treatise of L.A.’s crumbling Ambassador Hotel, as if David Lynch did a “Russian Ark” number on Kubrick’s Overlook, screened as the part-time special-effects man received the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award.
Squeezing in a prize for pioneer film scribe Manny Farber, a beer-sloshed sidebar of midnight cult fare, and a tribute to Cuban film editor Nelson Rodriguez, SFIFF is high on cultural relevancy. Leave the competitions and bidding wars to the big festivals, San Francisco just wants to watch good movies.