FESTIVALS: Addicted in Seattle; Binging on 270 Films in Three Weeks
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 06.26.01) -- It might be the water. Or the Space Needle. Or the fact that this is where Kurt Cobain ended it all, but whatever the cause, the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF, now in its 27th year) is the most addictive film festival I've ever attended.
I first became aware of the insatiable SIFF while stationed at the cozy Paramount Hotel. In the lobby, the busboy kept trying to get me to attend a local Titanic exhibit. I shrugged him off and went up to my room. Even though there was everything I could want, including an ironing board, I found myself eagerly looking forward to getting up each morning and escaping my lodgings. And each night, I dreaded sleep. I just wanted to see films and more films.
In fact, every moment I was conscious, I was either in a cinema or perusing the fest's stately catalogue and schedule to see which of the over 270 films representing 46 countries and screening at five theaters I could take in. Damn it! I arrived too late to catch Allison Anders' "Things Behind the Sun" with music by Sonic Youth. Drat! I also missed Monteith McCollum's documentary "Hybrid," a look at his grandfather who spent his life cross-fertilizing corn stock.
Joyously, I soon learned I was not alone with my SIFF-obsession (which ran a whopping three weeks until June 17). While on line to get into films, I overheard many Seattle-ites brag of how many of the Festival offerings they had already seen. Anything less than 100 made you an amateur in their eyes. One man who had only seen 72 looked down at his feet despondently.
But the film chatter was not just quantitative; it was qualitative, too, startlingly intelligent, in fact. I even heard a group of feisty 60-year-old grandmas discussing Jean-Jacques Beineix in scintillating depth. (Mr. Beineix was, by the way, being honored this year. Four of his features including "Diva" and a three-hour version of "Betty Blue" were showcased along with his newest effort, "Mortal Transfer." In the following, a psychiatrist falls asleep during his a session with a beautiful, masochistic patient. On awakening, he finds her murdered and still on his couch. Yes, this is a free-wheeling comedy with lots of clever slapstick corpse action.)
Catching Sergio Bizzio's woolly "Animal," though, pacified me a bit. This, to my initial chagrin, was not an Argentinean remake of the Rob Schneider alleged fun-fest. Here the hero Alberto (Carlos Roffe), an aristocrat living on a ranch, falls in love with Fanny, a sheep, on his 29th wedding anniversary. Soon the two are copulating like mad. But there are complications. When a horny hired hand rapes Fanny, a jealous Alberto kills him with a pitchfork, grinds him up, and feeds him to his ewe. When Fanny finally defecates the villain, Alberto plants a little cross in the droppings, and this is just the beginning. Imagine a sedated John Waters epic with a Latin twist, and you sort of got it.
After leaving the screening and sheepishly getting turned on by a wool sweater in a GAP window, I bumped into Darryl Macdonald, SIFF's legendary director who has in recent years grown a very stately beard. Before I could ask, the gent, apparently reading my mind, noted, "There's no question. It's a remarkably good year for movies. But I think so much of that has to do with the selection process itself. Because you can go to one festival and think 'Oh, my God! What a crappy year for cinema!'
"I don't know what you've heard,' he continued, "but since Cannes, I've heard nothing but 'what a miserable year for pictures' from people. I'm sorry. You turn to the Seattle Film Festival, and you think 'God! What an incredible year for films.' So a lot of it has to do with the selection process."
"Our job as programmers," continued Macdonald, "is analogous to the job of a director who has to make choices himself about what in this picture is going to make it work. What's going to pull a filmgoer through? For us, as programmers, we challenge ourselves to find enough interesting work and good work that adds up to a really compelling, really wonderful round-up."
Newsweek's David Ansen was forced to sit in the back of me in a shuttle bus. To break an uncomfortable silence, he shared that Macdonald had succeeded. "Seattle is a terrific city." The noted critic was on hand for a panel entitled: "What's a Critic For?" Expecting to be derided, he was pleasantly surprised when during his panel "people said nice things about critics," Ansen said. "What was more shocking was that filmmakers said nice things. I think it was Beineix who said we're more alike nowadays. We're in the same camp against the same enemies, not on opposite sides of the tennis court."
Quentin Tarantino, if you want to overuse a metaphor, was playing tennis with himself intellectually nearby. He was heading a well-attended four-part series called The Tarantino Tutorial: Q.T. Celebrates Unsung American Master William Witney. At the beginning of each session held at the Egyptian Theater, Tarantino would discuss in glowing terms the merits of Witney who directed such fodder as "The Bonnie Parker Story" and "Juvenile Jungle." One could actually hear Bunuel turning pirouettes in his coffin.
At Session Three, the pulped fiction master added about "Paratroop Command" (1959), "I truly believe that this picture, along with the Sam Fuller movies, is the best and most honest World War II low budget movie made during that period. And to tell the truth, if you can come up with a higher budget movie that's better than it, tell me. I'll see if I agree." The audience greeted the last pronouncement with "mad" applause.
Across town, Marc and Marla Halperin were pushing Karen Leigh Hopkins' "A Woman's Helluva Thing," a light-hearted comedy about a male chauvinistic pig who discovers at his mother's funeral that she was having an affair with an old girlfriend of his. The Halperins were also pushing their latest endeavor, a new company called Magic Lantern.
"What we're planning," explained Halperin, "is to find filmmakers that we can work with over a long term basis: ones whose style we like; ones we feel that we can work with to enhance their career and build for the future. We're also trying to level the playing field for them in their dealings with the studios. And if a film can't be sold in the United States to a distributor because they don't want to take a risk on it, we can turn around and service the distribution for the producer, directly. After being General Sales Manager for Fine Line and Miramax, we have the ability to place that picture in the appropriate theaters across the entire country."
One film that won't need their services is the majestic Miramax pick-up, Wisit Sasanatieng's "Tears of the Black Tiger." This lush Thai western, shot in pastel pinks and greens, is hilariously art directed to death. A love story, a man's picture, a cornucopia of delicious kitsch, it works on all levels and should be able to crossover from just art houses into more than a few local malls.
Other films of note include Yongyooth Thongkongtoon's "Iron Ladies" (Thai drag queens play volley ball); Eliane de Latour's "Bronx-Barbes" (On the Ivory Coast, gangsters take on foreign names like Bill Clinton and DeGaulle); Marcelo Piñeyro's "Burnt Money" (A superb recreation of a 1960's robbery in which two of the gang members are hunky gay lovers); Lukas Moodysson's hilarious "Together" (In a hippie commune, a lesbian wears no pants because she has a fungal infection); Marc Lafia's experimental "Exploding Oedipus" (A bisexual heroin user projects his past onto a bed sheet using an 8mm projector); and Marc Fusco's "Rennie's Landing" (In this enjoyable calling card for all involved, a cute guy with a brain tumor talks his friends into committing a bank robbery.)
And did I tell you about Elizabeth Thompson's superb "Blink," the best documentary ever made about the making of a neo-Nazi? And then there was . . . the Seattle addiction is never-ending.