Meredith Brody wraps up SFIFF 54 and the many films of days thirteen, fourteen and fifteen:
After the San Francisco International Film Festival’s second weekend, I feel like the toboggan is slowing down before it crosses the finish line. Day Thirteen, for example: joining Creative Director Miguel Pendas’ SF Film Noir locations tour, which he puts on (along with a tour devoted exclusively to locations for Vertigo) for guests and press, is irresistible to me, but effectively knocks out most of the day. Miguel totes ten companions around SF’s hills and valleys in a van (with an indefatigable driver who manages to pull over where there’s no place to pull over). We see sites for The Maltese Falcon, Sudden Fear, The Sniper, The Lady from Shanghai,Dark Passage, The House on Telegraph Hill, The Midnight Story (the only one I’ve never seen), The Line-Up, and more.
It’s a truly glorious San Francisco spring day, and the polyglot tour members (four Parisians – Serge Bromberg and his wife, and FIPRESCI critic’s jury member Barbara Lorey de Lacharrière and her husband; a Taiwanese director, Kwan Pun-Leung; and all three members of the New Directors jury, Englishman Nick Adams, Daniela Michel from Mexico, and Marie Therese Guirgis, based in New York) couldn’t be happier. Pendas shows us carefully selected – the chic word now is “curated” – film clips on a laptop, and his commentary is a nice combination of the scholar and the fan.
We get back to the fest site later than expected. I’m wavering: I could see one movie, around six, and then at 9:30 there’s an event called Porchlight, in which local literati Arline Klatte and Beth Lisick, well, curate an assortment of storytellers drawn from both other local literati and festival guests, who have ten minutes to tell a film-industry-themed story (complete, we are told, with video clips).
But one of my favorite writers, Geoff Dyer, is reading across the bay in Oakland. I’m wavering, especially because last year’s Porchlight event was something of a disaster, occasioning heckling and bad feelings, and engendering uncomfortable memories in me even after a year.
I overhear Serge Bromberg telling someone he won’t be at a party tonight because he’s celebrating his birthday in Oakland. “How are you getting there?,” I ask. “BART,” he replies. That tips me in the East Bay direction: I can be of service, spend some time with Serge, and still get to the reading, so I offer to chauffeur.
Serge’s birthday dinner turns out to be given by film scholar and educator Russell Merritt. I just have time to say hello to Merritt and famed film preservationist David Shepard before I dash off to Diesel Books, where Dyer is characteristically wry, witting, charming, and erudite. (The overflow crowd includes a number of students that are there on assignment from their college class, including one young lady behind me who is dreading the whole experience and seems to think she’s in a library. When she utters one whine too many – she’s hungry, she’s bored — I turn around and, under the guise of reassuring her, tell her with perhaps just a touch of asperity that Dyer is not only a great writer but amusing, and she should relax and enjoy herself. Making friends everywhere I go!)
When I get home, I watch Christopher Munch’s Letter to the Big Man on DVD, which is what I would have seen at 6 at the festival. I’m a huge fan of Munch’s previous work, and I know that the gorgeously-shot Pacific Northwest forests would have looked even more amazing on the big screen, but this mystical story about communication between man (woman, really, Lily Rabe in a dogged but unsympathetic performance) and beast doesn’t fully convince me – much less entrance.
On the morrow I return the DVD to the Press Office, and recklessly take out two more, in a kind of last gasp, as the DVDs must all be returned tomorrow: The Journals of Musan and The Dish and the Spoon.
Let the Wind Carry Me, by directors Kwan Pun-Leung and Chiand Hsiu-chiung, is exactly the kind of movie that festivals are the perfect venue for: a loving examination of the work and philosophy of prolific Chinese cinematographer Mark Lee, weaving interviews with Lee and his collaborators around footage taken from his many films and shots from him at work. It’s an emotional experience, as well, because one of its main themes is how his work takes him away from his family, who live in LA, as well as his mother, a resident of Taipei. My favorite moment is when Wong Kar-Wai says “If Christopher Doyle is a sailor [I think “drunken” is implied], then Mark is a soldier.”
Even though I’m loving the movie (badly projected in notorious Kabuki theater five), I nod off, helplessly, in the middle. It’s the first time that I’ve done so in two weeks, thanks to judicious infusions of caffeine (well, injudicious – dark thoughts of Balzac’s end have entered my mind as my heart beats increased).
Afterwards I walk right back to the Press Office and tell Bill Proctor, tireless Publicity Coordinator, that this is a Festival walk of shame – I’m taking out a DVD of Let the Wind Carry Me, to see what I’ve missed. And as long as I’m there I pick up a DVD of Position Among the Stars, too. The next and last day is an exceedingly light one: I might as well stage a film “horgy,” as Fellini would put it, at home.
Next is The Arbor (pictured above), from an English director, Clio Barnard, who’s an unknown quantity to me. But I like documentaries about self-destructive artists, in this case British playwright Andrea Dunbar, who wrote the screenplay for Alan Clarke’s wonderful Rita Sue and Bob Too. Somehow I’ve missed in the miniguide blurb the word “lyp-synching”. It turns out that Barnard spent a couple of years interviewing Dunbar’s family and associates, and then cast actors who, miraculously, lyp-synch the actual audiotapes. It’s done so skillfully that I fear latecomers who walk in won’t get the trick.
The actors are wonderfully cast and the filming is elegant and spare. It’s the first time during the festival that I get the feeling that one does in the unexpected presence of a masterpiece — inelegantly put, like the back of my head is coming off. I’m only sorry that the Festival is all but over, because now I have the answer to the question so frequently asked by well-meaning acquaintances: not only “What have you seen that you liked?,” but “What’s been your favorite movie?”
Linda Blackaby has earlier in the day told me that The Tiniest Place was her favorite movie of the festival, and she’s so convincing I, well, borrow a DVD of it. A horgy is a horgy.
Afterwards Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage, although billed as a “return to form” (i.e., the hard-boiled Boiling Point or Sonatine, rather than the uneven Brother or incoherent Dolls), proves to be a string of retaliatory murders between two warring Yakuza gangs, orchestrated by an aging chairman of the yakuza council, which continues until nearly all the interchangeable cast is dead, dead, dead. (The “plot” is minimal indeed. At one point I lean towards my seatmate, a beautiful young Asian girl named Annie, and whisper that I think the title should be “Die for Nothing,” taken from a line of dialogue. At another, my mind drifts towards Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, in which he took out all the footage from East of Borneo except that which highlighted the actress. I imagine doing a Rose Hobart on Outrage, cutting out everything except the violence).
Afterwards Annie tells me, cheerfully, that it was the worst movie she’d seen in the festival.
I run across a fellow cinephile and writer, Brian, in the lobby – he’s just seen Position Among the Stars. In my role as festival chauffeur, I drive him home, and we discuss, what else, movies. He’s enjoyed The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausecu and World on a Wire, just to cover seven hours or so of world cinema, and even got Mark Lee to autograph his DVD of In the Mood for Love.
I wake up to Let the Wind Carry Me, which looks better on my TV than it did yesterday. It’s funny to be able to pinpoint exactly where I dropped off, almost exactly at the half-way mark. I watch the whole thing, and could envision seeing it again at some point – as well as trying to track down some of the films Lee has shot that I haven’t yet seen.
I manage to watch The Dish and the Spoon, a slightly twee but fairly engrossing road movie in which Greta Gerwig drives away (in pajamas, sans wallet) from her adulterous spouse and picks up a young British boy (Olly Alexander, slightly familiar from Bright Star) at loose ends with whom she has a whirlwind largely chaste romance. It must be said: quirky. And The Journals of Musan, another first director film which at first I fear is cut from the same bolt of zeitgeist as The Salesman and Ulysses — there’s an awful lot of anomie going around – but turns out to have, you guessed it, cumulative power (no joke, this time). I’m not surprised when I later learn it won the New Director’s prize. (The other major Golden Gate awards are Better This World for Best Documentary and Best Bay Area Documentary, Crime after Crime for Best Investigative Documentary Feature, both worthy, and, less explicably to me, The Salesman for the FIPRESCI critic’s award – but then I don’t know what else was on their list. For once I’ve seen all the feature film prizewinners.)
Not quite an horgy, the three films I’ve watched at home in quick succession, but it’s time to return the DVDs to their home if I’m to get a good seat at the Closing Night film, Mathieu Almaric’s tribute to the New Burlesque, On Tour at the Castro.
Program Director Rachel Rosen happens to be in the Press Office when I drop off the DVDs, and snags a ride to the Castro. I tell her that I was overwhelmed by The Arbor— she agrees — and that it seems that Barnard used the technique before, intriguingly in a short called Random Acts of Intimacy, about chance encounters that led to sex with complete strangers. I promise to pass it on if I track it down! When I tell her I was less than enthralled with the plot-free Outrage, she tells me that Kitano apparently first thought of all the different ways somebody could be killed, and then filled in the connective tissue. So my Rose Hobart idea wasn’t so far-fetched!
Several of the good-hearted, glamorous New Burlesque ladies are on hand to introduce the movie in a blaze of red sequins, maribou, tattoos, and vertiginous skyscraper stilettos. But the movie squanders their charms on a episodic plot featuring a charmless Almaric as an unscrupulous, unpleasant producer. And the performance we’re treated to afterwards is from the troupe’s male, uh, member – not my first choice when it comes to burlesque.
I stop by the closing night party dutifully, since dark rooms vibrating with beat-heavy music are not my favorite environments. After dutifully touring the room twice, grabbing a few forgettable hors-d’ouevres, and congratulating Excutive Director Graham Leggat, who’s been under the weather and not much in evidence, I give my drink tickets to programmer Sean Uyehara and exit into the cool night air. As I leave the nightclub, I cross paths with one of the New Burlesque stars, a vision in white, including her white-blonde bouffant wig, who’s being led to a dressing room to prepare for an onstage turn. But I leave without a backwards glance, there’s must-see TV waiting for me on the TiVo.