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May 8, 2008 6:21 AM
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DISPATCH FROM SAN FRANCISCO | America's Oldest Fest Takes on the Future

Talia Balsam, Josh Peck and Luke Shapiro in a scene from Jonathan Levine's "The Wackness." Photo by JoJo Whilden, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

"Last year we celebrated our past, but tonight we begin our future," commented San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat in his opening night remarks of the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival. Leggat was referring to the Film Society's plans to expand its identity into a more far-reaching and consistently present local force in terms of education outreach and year-round exhibition. But the promises, and more pointedly, the potential perils of what lies ahead in the larger scheme of things, seemed to be on many filmmakers' minds as well.

That you can never catch everything at a film festival is a given, though at SFIFF51 it became almost punitive (I traded Dario Argento over Frank Black's live score to silent classic "The Golem," and a newly restored "Leave Her to Heaven" at the Castro over the world premier of "Touching Home." Such are the breaks). America's oldest film festival is also one of its longest, and despite many repeat screenings of some of the 177 films from over 49 countries, there never seemed to be a halfway empty house past 9pm.

The rush lines weren't the only source of anxiety, though. Despite the reassuringly cushy day spa-like ambiance of the newly renovated Sundance Kabuki Cinemas -- SFIFF's main venue -- it would take more than a few rounds of festival-sponsored liquor (or, perhaps more appropriately, bottles of Fiji water) to allay one's conscience after taking in the cumulative portrait of environmental devastation and its resonances offered by many of the festival's strongest entries.

As Irena Salina's grim documentary "Flow: For the Love of Water" pointed out, the world's water supplies are drying up, being monopolized, and causing the displacement of the very industries and people which harnessed and exploited them. Thus, it seemed especially ironic that the Antarctic scientists Anne Aghion focuses on in her dry world premier doc "Ice People" remain so fixated on unearthing fossil evidence of millennia-old water levels as their very surroundings slowly dissolve around them.

China's massive Three Gorges Damn Project along the Yangtze River provided a case study for tracking the intermixed flows of water and industrial capital in two different films. In Jia Zhang-ke's feature "Still Life" and Yung Chang's documentary corollary "Up the Yangtze" (which won the Golden Gate Award for Documentary Feature) images speak louder than the few words their dwarfed human actors exchange. The natural poetic grandeur of the Yangtze's valleys and the ultimate minuteness of the communities the river has sustained are underscored by the impending mutually constituted erasure of both. And though the signs of the disappearance to come have never been more beautifully photographed as in Zhang-ke's Gerhard Richtar-esque palette of grays, both filmmakers -- along with fellow sixth generation documentary filmmaker Du Haibin's "Umbrella" -- clearly delivered damning cost benefit analysis of China's great leap forward into full-bore capitalism.

Lance Hammer's quietly powerful debut "Ballast," which took the FIPRESCI International Critic's prize, is also set amidst troubled waters, played here by the Mississippi Delta. Though domestic in scope, it's hard not to see ghosts of Hurricane Katrina in this raw portrait of an African American family undone by sudden violence -- especially when recently fired mother Marlee protests: "Like the motherfuckers even know that I'm there! I'm invisible to them."

Local filmmaker Barry Jenkins' "Medicine for Melancholy," another feature debut making its West Coast premier as part of the Cinema by the Bay showcase, touched on the growing invisibility of African Americans in the context of a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. Bittersweet in tone, this truly independently production made by a crew of five, elegantly comments on issues of race, class, taste and assimilation as it follows a tentative romantic connection fostered by two twenty something, African Americans the day after a one night stand.

The personal and political were clearly painfully twined together for many of the Chilean expats in the audience at the palpably emotional screening of "The Judge in the General," which follows now-retired Judge Juan Guzman's tireless efforts to indict then-ailing dictator Augusto Pinochet. Judge Guzman was signing autographs before the second night of the doc's world premier, and during the panel discussion afterward many in the audience asked Guzman for advice on how the U.S. could reach some form of legal recompense for the crimes committed by the Bush administration.

After suggesting impeachment, the erudite Guzman became visibly dismayed when the film's co-director Elizabeth Farnsworth informed him that that couldn't happen after the president had finished his term.

Persistence of Vision Award recipient Errol Morris fielded questions from a similarly justice-hungry crowd, fresh off a screening of his much-debated Abu Ghraib doc "Standard Operating Procedure." "What I find outrageous," Morris commented, perhaps in defense of the criticism that "S.O.P" gets too mired in its fascination with technical minutia, "is that people are not outraged." He was largely preaching to the choir.

The same could be said of those directors who form the surviving regiment of international cinema's old guard. Though Claude Chabrol's "A Girl Cut in Two" still proves the French master knows how to do menace, Jiri Menzel's "I Served the King of England" lost much of its comedic steam halfway through. "The Man from London" beautifully underscored Bela Taar's mastery of glacially moving through time. But the buzz around Eric Rohmer's "The Romance of Astrea and Celadon" whispered, "Limp period meringue."

Besides, I was still smarting from the stinging tartness of Catherine Breillat's 18th century folie a deux "The Last Mistress," which was the festival's opening night selection. Asia Argento gives so much of herself to the voracious Spanish seductress she inhabits, that to describe what she does as a "performance" feels almost pejorative.

As had happened at Cannes and Vancouver, SFIFF51 cemented Argento's "It" girl status by screening the other two entries in her festival circuit troika. "The Mother of Tears," directed by her father Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, which made its U.S. premiere to many gore-hungry Argento-philes. And Abel Ferara's endearingly silly strip club soap "Go Go Tales" (though Argento's much hyped tongue hockey scene with a Rottweiler is but a stupid pet trick compared to Sylvia Miles' tour-de-force turn as the club's sailor-mouthed landlady).

Ariane Ascaride takes the opposite tack from Argento in Robert Guediguian's contemporary noir "Lady Jane," which also made its North American premier, but the results are no less intense. Her performance as the titular character is a powder keg of compressed anxiety and long-simmering rage wrapped up in a black vinyl trench coat.

All was not completely submerged in brackish water and night and fog. Jose Luis Guerin's sun-dappled study of light, shadow and desire deferred "In the City of Sylvia," which Mel Novikoff Award honoree and critical institution J. "Jim" Hoberman described beforehand as "a movie about the love of movies," was a reverie in the truest sense. It was also difficult to suppress a smile when local culture-jammer Craig Baldwin premiered "Mock Up on Mu," his most ambitious found footage opus to date, to a pumped late night crowd.

Even the easy nostalgia of the blunted centerpiece film "The Wackness" had its charms, as did Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou's cheesy "Somewhere in Time" -- indebted supernatural teen romance "Secret." The raucous world premier of local sketch comedy duo Illbilly Production's Darwinst-v.s.-creationist musical "Evolution: The Musical!" earned every belly laugh it recieved. And the simple pleasures of Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman's lovely "Cochochi" -- the first film to ever be shot in Raramuri, the indigenous language of Mexico's Tarahumara Indians -- let me put out of mind, at least for a brief while, much of the sadness, destruction and loss I'd witnessed on screen.

As we move towards the meta-mediated future of hyper-compressed, user-determined content and a vast network of surface-screens as envisioned by Wired founder Kevin Kelly in his State of Cinema Address, what will survive? There was a strange acknowledgement of the medium's obsolescence when Leggat noted on opening night that as part of the Film Society's efforts to make SFIFF greener all the prints screened would be recycled at the end of the festival.

But as we are reminded in the opening minute of Hartmut Bitomsky's wonderfully melancholy doc "Dust" -- surely one of the festival's highlights -- the very substance of film itself is dust: that particulate state to which everything eventually returns. What we watch, then, in the womb-crypt of the movie theater are the shadows of dust, shot through with light. And across the film festival's multiple screens, we witness the concentrated imprint of film's future-past.

[Matt Sussman is Managing Editor of Flavopill San Francisco and a regular contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian.]

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