American Cinemateque Screens International Directors
by Ryan Mottesheard
Otar Iosseliani introduced his film, “Farewell Home Sweet Home,” with a plea that viewers not read the subtitles, focusing instead on the projected image. While I must admit that I disobeyed Mr. Iosseliani’s request, the subtitled dialogue did not make up the bulk of pleasure derived from watching “Farewell.” His statement was only half-serious, but it alluded to a larger truth about International Film vs. Hollywood Film. It has been argued that in America, our ear takes precedence over our eye, whereas foreign filmmakers work conversely. While every Almodovar or Rohmer proves a major exception to this rule, the lyrical, visual quality of the films in the 2nd Annual Universal Hitchcock Directors Series (held June 23-27 at The American Cinematheque) helps solidify this argument.
Four features and their directors were showcased: Gianni Amelio‘s “Lamerica,” Miguel Littin‘s “Tierra del Fuego,” Ann Hui‘s “Summer Snow” (which I was unable to see); and the above-mentioned “Farewell Home Sweet Home” along with a shorts program and a panel discussion. While only two years old, the Series has already shown a penchant for the old axiom, “action speaks louder than words,” as last year’s program included both Claire Denis‘ “Beau Travail” and Lynne Ramsey‘s gem “Ratcatcher,” two more films whose power is enhanced not by what is said, but rather what is experienced.
Another integral part of the Cinematheque’s plan is bringing the filmmakers along with their films, not placing them upon a pedestal but rather integrating them into the audience. (This succeeds in dissipating the sometimes pompous posturing of film festival Q&A’s and creating an atmosphere that is similar at least in theory to Henri Langlois and his most famous of famous cinematheques back in Paris.)
While most discriminating filmgoers generally select a nice potpourri of film selections (Hollywood, indie, international, repertory), the international film community often feels that they must exalt themselves at the expense of Hollywood. For that, the International Directors Series contained somewhat of an anti-Hollywood feel. This attitude, even amongst some world-class filmmakers, ultimately leaves me cold. From one side of his mouth, Mr. Iosseliani would decry capitalism and American films taking over the European marketplace, while the other would nostalgically hearken back to the days of John Ford, Orson Welles and DW Griffith.
Miguel Littin’s film, “Tierra Del Fuego” also finds deep roots in the American Cinema, particularly the American Western and its Italian reincarnation — after the screening Littin acknowledged a huge debt to Sergio Leone. The first half-hour sets up a mean tale of greed and passion in the most desolate part of late 1800’s Chile, not only recalling Leone, but also the gaucho short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. The Western genre is left behind however, as “Tierra” changes shape as it feels necessary — with our hero transforming from roguish gold-seeker into a complex totalitarian leader. Before skirting the question entirely whether “Tierra” was a statement on Chile’s Augusto Pinochet (whose regime exiled Littin for many years), Littin smiled deviously.
The irrefutable star of the show had to be Mr. Iosseliani, a Georgian emigre to Paris. Bored at times, incessantly irritable and, true to his European aesthete roots, he was quite the pessimist. However, there was a certain joy to his playing the part of the crotchety old man and the Q&A following his film was both interesting and entertaining; he even scolded one viewer for asking too long a question. Iosseliani was funny, poignant, and spoke as though his thoughts were not opinions but absolutes: “The introduction of capitalism into any art form has never created anything of merit.” This is definitely a guy you’d want to spend an afternoon in a bar with.
It’s no surprise then that bars (and port wine) played a large part in his delightful “Farewell Home Sweet Home.” It is impossible not to think of Bunuel while watching this gentle, meandering film about a smattering of Parisians (from a upper-class young man and his street-dwelling cronies to an African laborer and his womanizing employer). Additionally, there is also something of Jacques Tati (long stretches of comedy played out without dialogue), though Iosseliani imbues it all with his personality, preoccupations (money, social order, etc) and deceptively simple mise-en-scene.
While the features were the centerpiece of Universal’s showcase, a strong Shorts Program (sponsored by ReelShorts.com) and an unsatisfying panel discussion on “New Technology vs. Traditional Filmmaking,” were also proffered. The Shorts Program was especially strong, featuring four international shorts, as well as two US shorts included by way of winning a contest at Reelshorts.com (US winners were Riad Galayani‘s “Nude Descending” and Carmella Cardina‘s…”The Fan!“). Standouts included “In Loving Memory,” a sweet Irish fable about death and old age and Ben van Lieshout‘s haunting, studied short, “The Zone.” This last short from Amsterdam is in a different class entirely — not quite documentary, but far too realistic for comfort — it absolutely must be seen to be believed. (Hint: “The Zone” is a government-organized locale for prostitutes and their clientele.)
The “New vs. Old” panel discussion that followed the shorts program is by now, old hat, even if it’s always interesting to hear veteran journeyman filmmakers’ views on it. The problem was that the younger, self-serving short filmmakers controlled the floor (without having to depend on translators), while the seasoned pros sat idly by.
Yet this was but a minor bump in the road for an ambitious program, something the Cinematheque has shown quite a knack for. The Cinematheque re-opened its doors in December of 1998 after a $15 million renovation, and the results are a state-of-the art movie house with a glorious old-time charm. Since then, it has programmed esoteric fare (massive Film Noir programs as well as tributes to Mike Hodges & Edgar Ulmer) and brought in an equally eclectic number of guests (Pedro Almodovar, Andre de Toth, etc.). Universal Studios should also be applauded for their commitment (and monetary support) of something that, at least externally, seems the cinematic antagonist to “The Mummy” or “American Pie.”
The Cinematheque is currently in the midst of its “Mods and Rockers 2000 Program,” and upcoming programs include “Japanese Sci-Fi and Monster Weekend,” the ongoing “Alternative Screen” (showcasing American Independents) and a one-week run of Alain Resnais’ “Smoking/No Smoking.” Check them out on the web at
[Ryan Mottesheard is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.]