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SFIFF 54 Day Six: The Mill on the Cross, Hot Coffee, Hahaha, The Sleeping Beauty, Leonard Cohen

SFIFF 54 Day Six: The Mill on the Cross, Hot Coffee, Hahaha, The Sleeping Beauty, Leonard Cohen

Meredith Brody reports on the latest festival screenings from San Francisco:

Nobody should be shocked (shocked!) that there are DVD copies of many of the festival’s films available for loan in the press office.

But I try to avoid their siren call. I’m not here to watch movies on the little screen, damn it! I’m already conflicted about how many BIG movies I watch on the SMALL screen. (Not as small as some, however. Despite Paul Schrader’s enthusiastic endorsement of watching Mad Men episodes on his iPhone while emplaned, I don’t download. YouTube is a different matter – in the privacy of one’s own home. I shudder when I remember the chilling sight of critics joylessly watching movie after movie on computer in a noisy, too-well-lit room at the Toronto film festival, trying to maximize viewing time, while beautiful projection in comfortable dark rooms surrounded by enthusiastic audiences awaited them just steps away).

But at some point in the schedule, reality sets in. For me, it’s on Day Four, when Mill Valley Festival film programmer Janis Plotkin sits down next to me at the State of Cinema address and enthuses, convincingly, about The Mill and the Cross (pictured above), a Polish/Swedish co-production inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s painting of Christ on the cross, The Way to Calvary.

I’d already considered seeing it. It sounded lusty and interesting, with the added attraction of three marquee names: Rutger Hauer, Michael York, and the always-interesting Charlotte Rampling. But try as I might, I couldn’t fit either of its two screenings – one, appropriately enough, at SFMOMA – into my schedule. I try to rationalize missing it in a variety of ways – hey, I don’t even like Bruegel that much! I’m not big on religious epics, unless they’re by Bresson! It’s only a movie! You can’t see everything! – but the flesh is weak. Day Five I take out the DVD, on 24-hour loan.

And Day Six starts with me watching it. I’m immediately both taken with its painterly images, carefully calibrated as to composition and color – and sad that I’m watching it on TV.
There are vast panoramas, both actual and CGI-assisted, that are better suited to the big screen. I find it ironic that in the past few days I’ve managed to see several talking-head documentaries and modest narratives with tiny casts that would work almost as well on small screens, and here I am squinting at this gorgeous re-creation of 16th century daily Flemish life. (The star cameos feel kind of beside the point.) Eventually I relax and just enjoy myself. The first movie at the Festival isn’t until 2 p.m., anyway.

And I’m seated there for it: Hot Coffee, another one of those powerful talking-heads docs that have left their festival audiences charged-up and engaged.

There’s a new discussion series at the festival, called Salons, that devoted an evening last night to discussing three of them: Better This World, about entrapment by a charismatic FBI informant; Crime after Crime, a pro bono struggle to get a battered woman released from a life sentence; and Hot Coffee, about the successful conservative push to weaken public redress to the courts. I imagine Miss Representation, about female exploitation in media resulting in less power in leadership positions, might also have entered the discussion. I wasn’t able to attend, but hear that a link to the discussion is posted online. Which I can then eventually enjoy in the privacy of my own dark and quiet computer room!

Hot Coffee is titled in honor of the entirely-legitimate lawsuit brought by an elderly women after being horrifically injured by scalding-hot coffee from McDonald’s, which became the poster child for “frivolous lawsuits.” This catchphrase helped conservative business interests push through (often unconstitutional) caps on damages in many states. Other examples of corruption and self-interest (many spearheaded by Karl Rove and his toady George Bush) are illustrated by cases including a young woman raped by co-workers during her employment by Halliburton in Iraq who refuses to comply with their secret-arbitration contract clause, and another truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale about the targeting by business interests of a liberal judge in Mississippi, which actually inspired a novel by John Grisham, The Appeal.

I assume, cynically, that the reason the screening is sold out is because it’s the only movie playing at 2 p.m. (After all, it’ll be showing June 27 on HBO as part of the channel’s Summer Documentary series.) But no: all three of Hot Coffee’s screenings have been sold out, and the festival has just added a fourth, Tuesday May 3 at 4 p.m. at the Kabuki. Outrage is more fun in a group.

I’m sorry that I have to slip out just as public-interest-lawyer-turned-first-time-documentarian Susan Saladoff is starting her Q-and-A. But there’s no alternative if I want to see Hahaha, by prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo. (Unless I resort again to the dreaded DVD.) Of the around a dozen titles of his filmography, I’ve only seen Woman on the Beach, which I quite liked. Rachel Rosen’s introduction alluded to him as the poet of the banal. I must confess this sub-French-farce — involving two men swapping stories about romantic intrigues they were involved with in a picturesque seaside town, never twigging to the fact that they’re discussing intertwined events involving themselves, another man, and two women — seemed more banal than poetic to me. And, at nearly two hours, about twenty or thirty minutes too long.

The next screening is Catherine Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty. I’m amused by the current Hollywood run of rejiggered fairy tales, including Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood with Amanda Seyfried, Beastly with Alex Pettyfer and Vanessa Hudgens, and two competing Snow White films, one with Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, another with Lily Collins and Julia Roberts, among many many others. ‘Twas ever thus, you might argue, and you’re right: I have fond memories of Neil Jordan and Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves, as well as the feisty Reese Witherspoon in Freeway, Little-Red-Riding-Hood gone riot. But Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton as a grown-up sister and brother in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters? Really? (Watch me eat my words – which I’ll ice on gingerbread – when it turns out to be brilliant.)

Breillat is not jumping on any bandwagon: she’s been there and done that with last year’s adaptation of Blue Beard. I had mixed feelings about that one, but I’m instantly taken with her Sleeping Beauty, especially with its young star, Carla Besnaïnou, who so enchants me that I instantly imagine new versions of Eloise (never satisfyingly filmed) and Zazie dans le Metro, starring her. Breillat has always had a great eye (and ear) for actors, and Besnaïnou is surrounded by compelling faces. Her hotly-colored (both in design and tone) sequences are thrilling on the Kabuki’s biggest screen. I’m so ensorcelled by the first 95% of the film – its wit, settings, lush costumes — that I’m carried through its somewhat abrupt modern-day ending.

The last event of the day is a combination of concert and film celebrating Canadian poet/author/singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, entitled New Skin for the Old Ceremony. It’s named after Cohen’s fourth studio album, recorded in 1974, whose songs inspired the 11 new artist videos (commissioned by Cohen’s daughter Lorca and Hammer Museum curator Darin Klein) that form the second half of the program. First we get a version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” sung by local singer-songwriter Kelley Stoltz. And then a screening of the wonderful 45-minute-long 1967 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen, a deadpan hagiography that flirts with unintentioned Monty-Python-hilarity, shot when the artist was a young narcissist who identified as a poet and hadn’t yet discovered his singer-songwriter self. It’s a wonderful black-and-white time capsule.

Back to the present, with rather deadening deadpan versions of two more Cohen songs by local duo Pale Horse. “Dirge number 2,” I find scrawled in my notes under “So Long, Marianne.”

The short films are, well, uneven – no surprise when 11 artists are handed a song list and carte blanche. Sometimes the images enhance or complement the songs, but more often I’m befuddled and unable to make any pleasing connection. My favorite is shown last: “Leaving Green Sleeves,” by Tina Tyrell, in which a ballet dancer twirls around a Greek column topped with a flower-filled turquoise blue vase, with eventual disastrous but amusing results.

Afterwards Kelley Stoltz seems more energized and happier than during his first appearance, and says he’s dedicating his last song to anyone who wants to leave: “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” Seeing Cohen himself (on the tour occasioned by his money manager stealing $9.5 million and thereby dragging Cohen down from his Buddhist retreat) a couple of years ago was as close as I’ve come to a religious experience (well, in a concert hall, anyway). I’m thinking more about that evening than the sweet but rather amateurish one I’ve just left as I walk back to my car. And in my satchel is, oh well, another festival DVD, which I picked up when I returned The Mill and the Cross. Tomorrow is another day.

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