Finding "Respect and Affection" at the 29th Seattle International Film Fest
by Brandon Judell
One of the United States's longest, most inclusive, and to quite a few folks, most fun film festivals ended this past Sunday. Yes, the 29th Seattle International Film Festival had been at it again from May 22 until June 15 under the masterful guidance of its perennial director, Darryl Macdonald. This year's event presented more than 200 films and more than 75 shorts from nearly 50 countries.
This year a bit grayer and thinner, from a distance, Macdonald appeared like a compact Sean Connery without a speech impediment. By the final day, although his voice was a bit gruffer, his energy was still apparent. At the morning's awards ceremony where Niki Caro's "Whale Rider" was awarded a Golden Space Needle for best film and one for best director, Macdonald noted, "The festival isn't over yet. It ain't over until the fat lady sings, and she doesn't sing until at least midnight tonight. And when she sings, I'll be singing, too."
Awaiting that song was Hollywood columnist George Christy who noted, just before Lee Chang-dong's "Oasis" won top acting awards for its two leads, that "attendance has gone through the roof, which is always encouraging. Darryl, you have brought together an erotic paradise. Seattle's fanatic filmgoers are lovers of film... who frankly get off on them."
Donna James, director of the mayor's office and film and music, agreed, adding: "Program-wise it's one of the best festivals we've done in years. In terms of films, it has been great. The audiences have been great. You think every year, it can't get any better. Then it does." As for the rumor that next year's fest will be shorter, James did not rule it out: "Three weeks is a long time for this festival, and it's hard for these staff people to keep up their energy. That would be the reason I would recommend shortening it."
Seated nearby, Troy Garity, Jane Fonda's son, who was voted third-favorite actor by the audiences for his fine performances in both the prize-winning "Milwaukee, Minnesota" and "Soldier's Girl," had a mixed view of the festival goings-on: "Seattle is a great place but I miss the tear gas."
Allan Mindel's "Milwaukee, Minnesota", by the way, is a warm-hearted comedy about Albert, a mentally disabled, champion ice-fisherman (Garity), whose nasty, over-protective mother (Debra Monk) is murdered so a bunch of folks can steal his prize money. Holly Woodlawn makes a priceless cameo appearance as a transvestite who administers testicular-cancer home-check-ups to underage boys. The film, besides garnering the New American Cinema award, also stalked off with the 2003 Modern Digital award, which comes with $100,000 of postproduction services. Mindel, who forgot to comb his hair that day, accepted his awards with a "God, I wish I could kiss everybody here. I'm sort of shaking."
Besides the awards ceremony, there were several parties every night at local eateries, free hot food every day at 5 p.m. for festival guests, and an equally pleasant breakfast every morning. Thanks to Bill Kapfer, Ph.D., director of marketing & corporate relations, even though the sponsors were tighter with money these past two years, enough cash was still flowing in for tasty danishes, strong coffee, and exotic cheeses.
There was also the annual boat ride on which director Thom Fitzgerald should have been very excited since he had two films screening at SIFF: "The Event" and "Wild Dogs". Additionally, he was one of four film directors being honored with the Emerging Masters award, the others being Cedric Klapisch ("L'auberge Espagnole"), Hans-Christian Schmid ("23"), and Hong Sang-soo ("The Day a Pig Fell into the Well"). Well, he was indeed excited: "I've always really had an affection for SIFF since coming here with 'The Hanging Garden.' It's certainly one of the most hospitable and thoughtful festivals in North America. They treat the filmmakers with a lot of respect and affection."
As for his being attired totally in blue, not unlike the late Fassbinder being always attired totally in black: "I'm much healthier than Mr. Fassbinder. I was just shooting a film in Africa and like 15 people came down with tick bite fever. So directing's a very hazardous occupation. I escaped from the ticks because I had the fashion sense to wear socks and sandals."
The exuberant, self-assured Jamie Hook was also healthy, especially after his debut feature "The Naked Proof" received a warm reception. He shared, "I'm from Seattle so I premiered it here. The world premiere. It was kind of like do I really want to premiere it in Seattle? But socially it was the right thing to do. It's kind of not the best place to premiere your film for commercial reasons just because there's very few press outlets here, and there's not very much industry here... It's a really, really good second festival... Also everybody who worked on the film lives within three blocks of the movie theater where we premiered. The next festival I'm trying for is Toronto, but that's probably a real long shot now that 'The Naked Proof' is not a world premiere, but I know a few of the programming people so maybe they'll smile upon it. Probably [I'll] more likely [be accepted at] the New York Film Festival and the Hamptons."
Mikhail Brashinsky's "Black Ice" was less warmly received, being voted one of the least-liked films of the festival. Even so it won the New Director's Showcase award. The jury's reasoning: "A striking directorial debut that abandons traditional narrative structure in favor of provocative aesthetics and inventive storytelling." Visibly and audibly in your face and ears, "Black Ice" focuses on a beautiful Moscow-based lawyer whom everyone is trying to kill. She finds broken glass in her ice cream and something acidic in her contact lens case. In a hospital emergency room, she runs into a stunning homosexual translator who can't remove his contact lenses. The translator immediately falls in love with her and goes crazy playing Tetris on his computer after having graphic sex with his male lover, a twinkie. The mostly Russian audience, hoping for more traditional Russian-language fare, ran out of the theater -- which is just want Brashinsky wanted. "'Black Ice' has polarized the audiences in Moscow as it has polarized obviously them here," the director said. "That's why I made the film. I wanted half of the audience to walk out."
Other films of note include the closing night offering, Daniele Thompson's "Jet Lag," a very affectionate French take on those Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies.
A big screen version of Uli Edel's "Caesar" was, however, unbearable to sit through. I lasted for one hour of its three-hour length. Try imagining Chris Noth as the Roman emperor Pompey, and you've got the picture. Christopher Walken is also embarrassing. Only the late Richard Harris walks away with any dignity as he drowns in a bathtub.
Stuart Gordon's "King of the Ants" also didn't impress me. I lasted 45 minutes. Gordon, who won over our hearts with his decapitated head performing cunnilingus in the "Re-Animator," hits the bottom of the soft-core barrel here with this vile, humorless exercise in rotten direction, lousy acting, and horrendous dialogue. Sean (Chris McKenna), a house painter, gets hired by some crooks to commit a murder. When he expects to get paid for his dastardly deed, they keep hitting him on the head with a golf club to drive him crazy. They succeed too well, and he winds up killing George Wendt by biting off slabs of his neck flesh. The film does offer one service. It finally answers the question that's been driving us all crazy for years: who's the least talented of all the Baldwin brothers? The answer: Daniel.
On the other hand, a not totally successful film, "Nate Dogg," showcased a major talent. Director/writer/producer Thomas Farone took his film school tuition and made a film instead. And what a film! Both visually and emotionally, it scores. Only the finale falters. This is the biographical tale of Nate, a high school drop-out suffering from severe ADHD. Nathan Hale plays himself here, a young man who winds up with a cheating girlfriend and a cut-up body in his closet.
On the documentary front, hitting home runs were Deborah Dickson's "The Education of Gore Vidal," Andrew Levine's "The Day My God Died" (about Indian girls forced into prostitution); Louise Hogarth's "The Gift" (about idiotic gay men trying to get AIDS), and Brian Knappenberger's "Life After War," a look at reporter Sarah Chayes' experiences in Afghanistan. (The latter was represented by Mark and Marla Halperin's Magic Lamp Distribution Services. If you ever need two folks to make sure your film gets seen by everyone, start rubbing this Lamp.)
But most controversial and a must-see if you're in the film business is Mark Brian Smith's "Overnight." This is an unflinching look at an obnoxious young man, Troy Duffy, a bartender whose world comes apart when Harvey Weinstein decides to make his screenplay, "Boondock Saints," and then not make it. In the current cut, Sundance's Geoff Gilmore is said, due to Harvey's insistence, to reject the film. Then in fear of Harvey's wrath, the rest of the Hollywood studios supposedly refuse to distribute the picture. One wonders who'll be brave enough to distribute this feisty doc, one that might eventually be killed off by a bunch of lawyers.
Thank heavens nothing scares Macdonald and his SIFF.