Choices, choices, choices, choices. My first of the day is “The Daughter,” a Russian movie about a village serial killer from an unknown-to-me directing duo. The San Francisco International Film Festival catalogue warns that its English subtitles are “imperfect” (at least, unlike the screening of “The Artist and The Model, they do appear on screen) — one brief example: “She behaved her unworthily” — but the film doesn’t really suffer. It’s a moving, well-acted story which continues, satisfyingly, after the murder “mystery” itself is solved.
In the second slot of the day, my choice is made for me: I’ve already seen the thin and predictable “Unfinished Song,” which still boasts interesting performances from Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp, the crowd-pleasing “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” the boundary-pushing, verging-on-abstract “Leviathan,” which sounded so much like an action-adventure a la “The Deadliest Catch” in its festival blurb that at first I didn’t recognize it as the experimental film I’d seen last September; and the repeat of “Big Blue Lake,” seen day-before-yesterday and already fading from my memory. So it’s Michael Polish’s “Big Sur,” based on the Kerouac novel.
Polish introduces the film, along with his star and fiancee Kate Bosworth, the two arrow-slender and in complementary dark outfits (black slacks and tight sweater relieved by a prim white collar for him, and a sleek black short dress with a slightly transparent yoke and short sleeves for her). Polish thanks their moms for showing up here — “a whole lot of Polishes and Bosworths,” and by the luck of the draw they all happen to be sitting in the row behind me. Kate says “I want to thank the city for giving me my future husband,” eliciting a whole lot of “aww”s from the audience (and especially the row behind me).
The movie is noticeably better-cast than Walter Salles’ recent well-intentioned but misfired “On the Road” — Polish realizes that Jack Kerouac was of French-Canadian descent, hence Jean-Marc Barr, rarely seen in American moves, and his Neal Cassady, Josh Lucas, may not be as magically charismatic as my imagined (and Kerouac’s idolized) Neal Cassady, but he can talk fast and is charming. And it’s kinda fun to watch the actresses and actors pop up: Anthony Edwards as Lawrence Ferlinghetti! Radha Mitchell as Carolyn Cassady! Balthazar Getty as Michael McClure?!?
Polish’s images are seductive, but I’m distracted by the constant voice-over drawn from the novel, in Kerouac’s heightened language that, Polish tells us, he couldn’t use in dialogues for the screenplay — “I couldn’t have actors speak like that.” And I guess it would have been difficult indeed to re-dress the actual City Lights Bookstore with period-appropriate books, but it’s still jarring to see “The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady” prominently displayed in several shots when it came out 8 years after Kerouac died — and twenty years after the movie is set. (They did make sure than the Vintage paperback edition of Gertrude Stein’s “3 Lives” is the 1958 edition.)
Programmer Sean Uyehara, who’s been hanging out with Polish in the bar upstairs, dares to ask “What was it like to fall in love on the set?” Polish replies “It took me ten films to fall in love on the set!,” whereupon Kate Bosworth says “I wish I had gone to the bar!” But Polish continues, saying that he said to his first AD, “I’m going to marry this girl!” during her first scene.
Bosworth confesses that she was just hoping she wasn’t screwing up the scene, because she wanted to work with him again. But then she realized “Not only do I want to work with him again — I don’t want to let him out of my sight! Which is different than most directors I’ve known.”
Susannah Robbins, the head of the SF Film Commission, sitting in the audience, asks if Polish wouldn’t like to come to SF to shoot a movie again. “I asked for the key to the city already!,” he replies.
Afterwards I attend the program of Persistence of Vision Award, which honors “the achievement of a filmmaker whose main body of work is outside the ream of narrative feature filmmaking.” Jem Cohen, the award-winner, has made sometimes “unclassifiable” films in many formats (including Super 8 and 16mm) since 1983: city films, essay films, music films about bands he liked (Including REM, Butthole Surfers, Elliot Smith, collaborations with Patti Smith), films that blended several genres.
Oddly, then, the film being shown today is, well, a narrative feature, “Museum Hours,” which I saw last September at the Toronto International Film Festival — it was the last film I saw at the festival, I adored it, and it sent me into the night excited and nostalgic and in the perfect mood to go see Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” but that’s another story.
I’m entirely happy to see it again, especially on the biggest screen at the Kabuki, and happy to listen to the conversation between the soft-spoken Cohen (he has me at “I’ve always loved looking out the windows of trains or buses”) and even-more-soft-spoken Pacific Film Archive programmer Steve Seid, but I wish the festival could have also mounted an additional program of some of his hard-to-see films that are “outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking.”
OK, much of “Museum Hours,” superficially the story of a Canadian woman who makes friends with an Austrian museum guard while she stays in Vienna to visit her cousin, lying in a coma in a hospital, is “outside the realm” itself: there are many lovely digressions, often about the collection of the Kunsthistoriches Museum where they meet. But I want more!
From the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous: the day ends with “The Kings of Summer,” a coming-of-teenage movie in which three high school kids build a house in the woods to escape their family situations, with some surprising grace notes — a reverence for nature prompting lush landscape photography, charming improvised sequences featuring a particularly quirky but somehow not-annoying sidekick character, and unsaccharine family interactions with familiar actors including Nick Offernan, Megan Mullaly, and Alison Brie. The film is supported at SFIFF by its three young leads, Nick “Melissa and Joey” Robinson, Gabriel “The Big C” Basso (both of whom were 17 during filming), and the quirky Moises “Hannah Montana” Arias, who are delighted to be onstage. And I am not unhappy, either.56 San Francisco International Film Festival
The day before, I checked out a new Hong Kong police action film, “Cold War,” and “After Lucia,” a new Mexican film which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes last year, and was the official Mexican entry for the Academy Awards (though not one of the five final nominated films).
One of the first “Cold War” titles– “This story is not based on any real life cases”– elicits laughter, but I soon remember it, as the story (or stories, it seems) of kidnapping, murder, theft, and corruption influencing political moves within an unbelievably complicated bureaucratic police hierarchy becomes as entangled and incomprehensible as this sentence. I laugh grimly when one charter says “I totally don’t know what you mean.” Neither do I.
The action sequences are muddled and disappointing, too. I grasp at straws: some of the actors are cute. The woman playing the PR guru has a swell haircut — a strict straight bob, Louise-Brooks-iconic — and a couple of nice outfits. There are occasional striking shots. But on the whole “Cold War” is no “Infernal Affairs.” (Understatement of the year. I love “Infernal Affairs.” Ou sont les Hong Kong action movies d’antan? Tsui Hark, come home, all is forgiven.)
“After Lucia,” in which an accident that leaves a father and adolescent daughter without their wife and mother sets in motion simple actions that snowball and turn inexorably ugly, ending in a shocking sequence that seems like Greek tragedy, is spare and elegantly shot. I am indeed glad to have seen it. Especially because it seems unlikely to get even an arthouse release.