Seattle Seamlessly Shifts Into Its Third Decade, With New Leadership
by Brandon Judell
After 25 days and the unspooling of over 200 features, plus a daytime fire on the Monorail, the 30th Annual Seattle International Film Festival has come to a close under new leadership. Yes, Darryl Macdonald, who was the exalted executive director of the fest since its inception in 1975, has left for the richer pockets of the Palm Springs Film Festival. He did show up June 2 in Seattle, though, to receive the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et des Lettres in recognition of his services to the French film industry. Under his stewardship, Seattle had screened more than 340 Gallic offerings. Stick that in your foie gras.
Macdonald should also be praised for his building of a solid structure that could easily continue without him. With festival director Helen Loveridge and director of programming Carl Spence in charge here, the change of command was seamless. In fact, this year the festival achieved a record box-office -- up 20 percent over last year's ticket sales -- and the highly opinionated Seattle audiences were as chipper as ever.
The dapper Spence noted, however, that keeping that Seattle glow in tact was not as easy as it looked. Raising money after 9/11 is still not an effortless task: "We've had to work very hard to maintain our old sponsors and then also bring on new ones. It was maybe a year or two ago when we really had to cut back and tighten our belts in ways that you won't see in the final product of the film festival. But we're definitely very lean as far as how we operate.
"We have about 2 1/2 million dollars worth of goods and services that are actually donated or bartered, goods that we don't pay for in cash," Spence continued. "This festival has always been very fortunate to have strong support from corporations. And since it is the largest audience-based festival, our biggest support comes from admissions. So a large percentage comes from that to help pay for the staffing and the theaters and every thing else. So it hasn't gotten easier. Times are still tough. We've had to work even harder to meet our needs. We even opened the galas up to the public. The parties outside of the opening and closing. That's been quite popular."
As for the films, Spence insisted that "a testament to the strength of the festival was that we were able to get "Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut" here. Along with the film came the director, Richard Kelly, plus the stars Mary McDonnell, Drew Barrymore, and Jena Malone, who was also represented at the fest with "Saved!"
Barrymore, who's also one of Darko's producers, shared that the re-release has to do with the success of the film on DVD and its devoted following on the Internet.
Malone: "This film really wasn't ever about the box office."
Kelly: "The rules of independent film financing is like a lot of people they just look at you. But when an actress like Drew Barrymore commits to appearing also in front of the camera, it's a security. That someone with that level of [stardom] to be the first one to RSVP to the party for a first-time director, it's a risk that actress is taking."
As for the added 20 minutes, the audiences, some dressed as characters in the pic, responded with a standing ovation. One guy even insisted that he's watched "Darko" once a day every day since it came out on DVD. Although viewing the film again was a satisfactory experience for me, the clamor did seem a bit excessive.
More stimulating and without bunny outfits was the North American premiere of Patrice Leconte's superb "Intimate Strangers." A woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) with extreme marital problems decides to see a shrink. She gets off on the right floor but accidentally enters the office of a tax counselor (Fabrice Luchini) who mistakes her for a client. But after this wife opens up on sexual matters, the accountant is too embarrassed to reveal he's not a shrink, and the sessions continue -- and a love between the two grows, but not without danger.
A different type of French coupling occurs in Catherine Breillat's controversial "Anatomy of Hell." Here a rich, dysfunctional woman (Amira Casar) goes to a gay bar to hire a disinterested man (Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi) to watch her play with herself over several nights. There's chatter, actual sex (with a body double standing in for the female lead), and loads of philosophical chatter. The high point or low point depending on your values is when the heroine pulls out a used tampon from her privates, dunks it in a glass of water, and the two leads drink it up. This effort, like Godard's later offerings, is more interesting in the issues it raises than in its entertainment value.
Moving on, Ferzan Ozpetek was included in the "Emerging Masters" series along with Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Cedric Kahn, and Annette K. Olesen. His popular "Steam: The Turkish Bath" (1997) was screened along with his latest release "Facing Windows." Here a wealthy, gay, old Jewish chef with Alzheimer's disease gets lost in the memories of his 1940's love affair that never really had a chance. What with the Nazis and homophobia and all that, whose love affair did? Forgetting his identity one day, he's taken home by a poor family headed by a hunky loser and his wife, a poultry inspector. Before you can pluck a pheasant, this pleasing comic drama proves a "Queer Eye on a Straight Life" will solve all one's problems.
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's "It's Easier for a Camel..." is a slight, enjoyable French comedy about the problems of being filthy rich. The lead, gleefully played by the director, dates a communist and wants to give all her money away to find happiness. Her family thinks she's crazy as do her priest and accountant.
If she is, she's not as wacky as the folks who invested in Jacques Rivette's tedious, 150-minute exercise in self-indulgence, "The Story of Marie and Julien." Here a 40-year-old watchmaker and blackmailer falls in love with a young woman who is actually dead. The antique fabric dealer he's hustling understands what he's going through. She has a dead sister wandering about, too. The highlight here is a cat that constantly watches the cameras and the mikes on the set.
Short on felines is Andre Téchine's "Strayed," a sexy, moving World War II drama about a young mother (Emanuelle Beart) and her two kids who shack up in an abandoned country estate with a sexy, not very bright, teen who's in love with her. This one has a chance in the art houses; it is already playing in selected cities from Wellspring.
Chris Kentis' unnerving "Open Water" might just have a chance within the malls. A yuppie couple go scuba diving on their vacation, and their tour boat leaves without them. When the underwater couple resurfaces, they discover their predicament, which includes no land in sight and only sharks for company. Consider this one a "Jaws" without harpoons, or the "Fish's Revenge."
The ending, which would have been nixed by Disney, is so unsettling, I asked if the West Coast powers-that-be wanted any changes? Kentis replied, "Actually distributor-wise, not at all. Being based on a true story, that kind of dictated exactly how it was going to end. What was interesting to us is to try to always kind of present questions within the course of the film. We knew that the audience was going to count on ending (A) they get rescued or (B) they're eaten. We kind of wanted to come up with a (C) that maybe would kind of provoke questions in conversation. But as far as the distributors go, no. Everyone's been very supportive. Lion's Gate has really been behind the movie. Didn't ask for any changes at all."
In a much lighter vein, Richard Day's "Straight-Jacket" is a campy, fictional take on Rock Hudson's closeted life in '50s Hollywood. Bad haircuts and John Waters-esque acting, along with musical numbers, make this one a queer midnight necessity.
Gabriel Hardman's 10-minute "Wrong Way Up" is a comic thriller about two pals who are smuggling tarantulas from Mexico when their car turns over. This one is a definite calling card with a bright, buggy future.
Bruce Weber's "A Letter to True," a beautifully shot black-and-whiter, is a total mess of a doc. It about dogs; it's about war; and it's about Dirk Bogarde and Elizabeth Taylor. Weber even throws in poetry and bare-chested rednecks without achieving any depth. The man needs a screenwriter and a liposuction of the ego.
Stacy Peralta's doc, "Riding Giants," includes everything you might ever want to know about surfing. But if you don't want to know that much, you're in trouble, especially because no one interviewed or profiled here comes across as a three-dimensional human. Sadly, that doesn't shut them up. These cardboard gents in swim trunks all act like they are rocket scientists who've changed society for the better. Guys, you were standing on a piece of wood in the water. Get real. I for one was truly bored with the boards.
Other films of note: Roger Michell's stirring "The Mother," a moving look at cross-generational sex; Stephen Fry's "Bright Young Things," a witty adaptation of Evelyn Waugh; Joel Cano's "Seven Days, Seven Nights," a hard-hitting look at modern Cuban women and their dashed dreams; Ian Iqbal Rashid's "Touch of Pink," a slight, crowd-pleasing comedy about a gay man whose guru is the ghost of Cary Grant; and Guy Maddin's terrific silent movie, "Cowards Bend the Knee." A scientist places a slide filled with sperm on a microscope and what he views are hockey teams with love problems that take place in a beauty salon/bordello. Hands get cut off, statues come alive, and hair gets curled. This one's much more fun and less forced than Maddin's "The Saddest Music in the World," which also screened in Seattle.