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SFIFF 53 Day Six: Transcending Lynch, Shirley Adams, Gainsbourg, Vengeance

SFIFF 53 Day Six: Transcending Lynch, Shirley Adams, Gainsbourg, Vengeance

Meredith Brody is amused by Transcending Lynch, notices the lack of ‘cheerful’ films at the festival and gives Gainsbourg a second chance:

The first film of the day is Transcending Lynch, a documentary that follows the famed quirky, edgy, prolific filmmaker on a combination book and lecture tour through Brazil, proselytizing about his over-thirty-year practice of Transcendental Meditation. TM, which involves repeating a mantra silently for twenty minutes twice a day (Lynch claims never to have missed a session), was popularized by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who famously introduced the Beatles to the practice in the Sixties (When they learned that the randy little guru had made passes at many of the pretty young girls who flocked to his center in India, the Beatles, disillusioned, abandoned the practice and referenced it amusingly in such songs as “Dear Prudence”). Donovan, it seems, remained faithful, from the same period; he’s an opener for at least one event in Brazil, and looks disturbingly like Richard Simmons.

Andrade is both a fan of Lynch and a TM practitioner, which makes the film something less than hard-hitting, or even questioning. It’s still amusing to watch Lynch, in his trademark buttoned-up white shirt and black suit jacket, exercise his gee-whiz, aw-shucks, goofy charm, that’s often at odds with his dark, sexual, traumatizing films. One montage features Lynch at book signings, where lines wind around and around as the faithful proffer copies of Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, as well as DVDs, assorted body parts, and the crotch of a g-string (not while it’s being worn, thankfully). Lynch, wielding both black and white pens, adorning his elegant signature with graphic dots, seems unflappable, in good humor, and on-message all the time, which in itself is more of a commercial for TM than him endlessly repeating that we all have the capacity to reach bliss.

Another montage sequence, of teary-eyed fans after obtaining their signed memorabilia, photographs, and recent handshakes and hugs, in the throes of near-religious fervor, escalates from charming to disturbing. You go to your church, and I’ll go to mine.When Lynch lists his influences, they’re top-shelf and a little predictable: Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, Magritte, Max Ernst, Lucian Freud, Baselitz, Hitchcock, Fellini, Bergman, Kubrick, Billy Wilder, Jacques Tati, Franz Kafka. I wished for more surprises, somebody whose work I didn’t know, but then I’m greedy.

The wittiest montage: Lynch responding to convoluted or pointed questions, cheerfully, with “No” or “No!” or “NO.” Commenting on directors of today? Disappointingly: “I’m not a film buff…Marty Scorsese, I don’t know where he finds the time to see all those movies.” Here’s where the aspiring artist might get a clue: in order to be so prolific, Lynch (who also paints and now, it seems, is singing “a kind of American blues,” actually has to prioritize his time. And if TM rescued him from “anxiety, anger, tension, and stress, with a little depression swimming in there,” (isn’t that the 21stcentury baseline condition?), good for him.

Speaking of “anxiety, anger, tension, and stress, with a little depression thrown in there,” that pretty much describes the situation of most of the characters portrayed in the next film I see. Shirley Adams is a terse, intense, powerful movie about a force-of-nature woman desperately trying to keep her suicidal only child alive after he’s paralyzed by a stray bullet in a gang shootout. As the title character, South African actress Denise Newman bustles about, indomitable as Mother Courage, dealing with bureaucracy that denies her medical assistance, abandonment by her husband, betrayal by friends. As the camera closes in, frequently inches behind her back or in her expressive face as she does her furious, unending round of chores, I was reminded of the Dardenne brothers’ relentless Rosetta. Surprisingly, the film was guided into production by action-film-maven Roland Emmerich, who mentored Oliver Hermanus, the first-time feature-film director.

Afterwards, I am touched when the woman sitting next to me plaintively asks “Have you seen anything cheerful at the festival?” I laugh, because I know just what she means. When a brief trot through my memory yields no surefire tips, we pause at the big board downstairs in the Kabuki lobby that lists everything in the two-week program. “Well,” I say, cautiously, “Gainsbourg (Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus) is fun…” It turns out that she and her husband already have tickets for that night’s showing. There’s not much else on the list that I know is guaranteed to be, well, cheerful. Though we do discuss the fact that a masterpiece such as Senso or The Music Room (restorations to be shown) will have a happy effect on the viewer, despite less-than-cheerful storylines.

When I tell several people, including festival staffers I know, about this, the only film they come up with consistently is My Dog Tulip, an animated adaptation of the J.R. Ackerley book about his affection for his canine companion. I don’t agree: I saw it before the festival, and was disappointed by its tone. I’ve been recommending the book instead. All of Ackerley’s books, in fact, including My Father and Myself, which Francois Truffaut wanted to make into a movie.

I recommended Gainsboug based on a partial viewing of it I had in Paris a few weeks before. It was one of those illuminated-by-flashes-of-lightning moments, when the exhaustion of travel and tourism takes hold and, despite all efforts to the contrary, including attempts at proper caffeination, the eyelids flutter closed. I awoke numerous times during the movie, each time feeling bright as a new penny and convinced that I wouldn’t fall asleep again. Only to do so with alacrity. Seeing bits and pieces of the more-than-two-hour-long movie like this made it feel endless. And first-time-feature director/well-known comic book author Joann Star’s insertion of grotesquely-costumed puppet-like characters into the otherwise rather conventional narrative didn’t work for me the first time around. (I was glad, at least, that I didn’t remember the circumstances surrounding the death of Lucy Gordon, who incarnated Jane Birkin, more successfully physically than emotionally, the first time I saw the movie. The not-bright penny dropped only afterwards).

Happily, I was much perkier for this second attempt, grogging out only momentarily during the Brigitte Bardot sequences, which I’d caught on first viewing. Oy. I was OK with the humanoid puppets pretty much, too. Eric Elmosnino, also glimpsed in the festival’s The Father of My Children, was, as they say, born to play Gainsbourg (among other things, of course). (He was just about to win the Best Actor award for this performance at the overlapping Tribeca Film Festival). Other festival films echoed in my mind: when Anna Mouglalis reappeared, this time as Juliette Greco instead of Coco Chanel, and Yolande Moreau, seen in Micmacs, turned up as a music-hall artiste. Jane Birkin herself was onscreen in Rivette’s Around a Small Mountain, still séduisant despite obviously avoiding the plastic surgeon’s blandishments, unlike most of her peers.

Afterwards I stuck around in the big room (Kabuki 1, the only great big screen in the multiplex) to see Johnnie To’s Vengeance. I’m a huge fan of To’s elegantly-conceived, kinetic, balletically-violent films. I sit through this one, wherein an increasingly-forgetful (shades of Memento) and rather impassive Johnny Hallyday enlists the aid of Hong Kong gangsters to revenge the death of his daughter’s husband and children, in pretty much a constant state of bliss.

A documentary that follows a favorite director to Brazil; an intense drama uniformly well-acted by heretofore unknown South African performers; a lavish Parisian docudrama about a beloved performer who led an interesting life; and a slick genre piece set in Hong Kong and Macao – pretty much a perfect festival day. I’m cheerful.

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