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SFIFF 55: Judy Davis, ‘Women with Cows,’ “The Giants,’ Rissient on Hawks

SFIFF 55: Judy Davis, 'Women with Cows,' "The Giants,' Rissient on Hawks

I have viewed myself into a corner; there’s practically nothing playing this afternoon that I haven’t already seen. I have prepared for this by checking out some press screeners, despite my insistent internal script that runs: “you don’t go to film festivals to watch movies on DVD.” So I try to choose either talking heads documentaries or movies with less than epic sweep.

So I begin with “The Anabasis of May and Fusaku Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images,” a long title for a film with a 66-minute running time. It’s exactly the kind of project that one would never see outside of a film festival or an archive, combining period and contemporary footage and film clips over voiceovers from one-time Japanese New Wave screenwriter and director Masao Adachi, who abandoned filmmaking to join the revolutionary Japanese Red Army in exile in Beirut, and May Shigenobu, daughter of the group’s founder Fusaku Shigenobu. I don’t always find the Super 8mm images compelling, although the story is; I do enjoy the film clips from Adachi’s career, which as usual make me want to see the movies they’re from.

Occasionally, I admit, I pause the film to check the internet for more information on Adachi’s career and the filmographies of his collaborators (including Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu), and background info on the political actions described. (If I’d seen the movie on the big screen, I would have headed to the Internet as soon as I got home, as I did for example – really! – after I saw both the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s amazing presentation of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” and the SFIFF’s opening night film “Farewell, My Queen.” I’m old enough, kiddies, to still find it marvelous that so much information is to be found at our fingertips within seconds.)

Next up is a Swedish documentary with the oddly pleasing title “Women with Cows,”  which has intrigued me with a sentence in the catalogue entry: “ ‘Grey Gardens’ with cows.” Although the two sisters of the title are locked in a folie à deux, neither of them demonstrate the mad facility with language that helps make “Grey Gardens” so unforgettable nearly 40 years after the fact (not to mention the glamorous Jackie Kennedy connection). The crux of the madness is that one sister, painfully bent double by age and injuries, insists on keeping and milking many cows, despite the inherent difficulties and financial folly, while the other seems unable to dissuade her. The bucolic Swedish countryside, beautiful in spring and summer and forbidding in winter, is a seductive backdrop to a story that seems padded at 93 minutes. Its ending contains a mild surprise (hint: that’s why they call them enablers).

The last entry in my homemade triple bill is a Belgian/France/Luxembourg co-production, “The Giants.” Young brothers (15 and 13, though they seem even younger), left to their own devices without family or resources in the home of their dead grandparents in the countryside while their mother works elsewhere, get into increasing trouble when a pal introduces them to predatory drug dealers. Things briskly go from bad to worse.  This modern-day fairy tale straight out of the Brothers (very) Grimm features an unexpected cameo star turn of a not-quite-fairy-godmother, who unexpectedly does not save the day. The indeterminate ending, very Huck Finn, begs a sequel: “The Giants Part Deux.”

My homemade triple bill leaves me just enough time to get over to a restaurant in the Castro, Canela Bistro Bar, where the Festival is hosting a reception for Judy Davis. I arrive to find Festival Mel Novikoff honoree Pierre Rissient holding court at a corner table, and I join him. As a satellite, I thereby become the unexpected beneficiary of not only plates of hors d’oeuvres (delicious flatbreads, sausage, and Spanish tortilla omelets, which are good enough to prompt a possible return visit to the place), brought to the table rather than snatched on the fly, and, even more delightful, when Davis arrives, she joins Pierre, who has known her since “My Beautiful Career” premiered at Cannes.

This enables me to tell her, with complete honesty, that she’s one of the film artists whose presence alone is enough to make me go see a movie. She demurs, gracefully, and says “That’s quite a responsibility,” but I tell her she’s never let me down. Close up, she looks considerably younger than her 57 years (it’s two days after her birthday), as well as untouched by the surgeon’s hand. She’s wearing a tricky sleeveless black dress that suggests an avant-garde Japanese designer, and a similarly arty twisted silver necklace; they’re her clothes, one feels, not some stylist’s idea of Festival glam. She’s brought her tall, long-haired, fourteen-year-old daughter, Charlotte, to San Francisco, who cheerfully admits that she intends to go into acting.

The onstage interview at the Castro is conducted by Elvis Mitchell, critic and curator of the Film Independent program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Davis surprises by diverging from the well-trodden path of interviewees professing great affection for every director and actor they’ve ever worked with. David Lean was intimidating and less than totally helpful on “A Passage to India.”  Why did she undertake Lillian in Hellman in “Dash and Lilly?”  “I think it was the money – and Sam Shepherd.” David Cronenberg is courageous and perverse, and re-wrote “Naked Lunch” in a matter of days when filming remained in Toronto instead of going on location in Morocco. Woody Allen is “unusual” – “We never really talked.”  On “The New Age,” Michael Tolkin was “another weird one…he wasn’t sure what he was making.”

A question from the audience about River Phoenix, who died at the age of 23 while they were making the unfinished “Dark Blood,” elicits “It was a fraught film. I didn’t like [director] George Sluizer, to be frank.”  She ends with a rousing paean to the movie that’s about to be screened, Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of Nobel prizewinner Patrick White’s Australian family saga “The Eye of the Storm,” saying it’s the first time she’s worked with a script that she feels is saying something true about Australia, about its alienation and dislocation, “a need to sort of justify one’s presence in an alien landscape…[that’s] beautiful, harsh, and difficult to understand.”

I’ve already seen “The Eye of the Storm,” which co-stars Charlotte Rampling as the dying mother of Geoffrey Rush and Davis, and Davis’s few words explain much about what I’ve seen.

The following day I play hooky from the Festival again. I’ve been tapped to drive Pierre Rissient to Stanford, where he’s going to contribute reminiscences of his friend Howard Hawks to critic/historian David Thomson’s class on the director. I pick Pierre up at the Fairmount, where he’s breakfasted with Fred Schepisi, and we talk nonstop about movies and books en route to Palo Alto.

It’s a gorgeous day, and I’m surprised by the bustling, prosperous atmosphere of University Avenue.  We find our way to Thomson’s class on the massive, rather intimidating campus, built to my eyes on an inhuman scale. It’s held in a windowless auditorium in an impressive hall fronting the parklike oval quad, where parking costs a quarter for ten minutes, no credit cards are accepted, and I have nowhere near the twenty or so quarters needed to cover the more than three hours we’re to be there. The future of modern living, to quote the prescient Edward D. Wood Jr.

The class is on its fourth session, which begins with a clip from Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima, mon Amour.” To which I say “huh?!” But over the course of three hours Thomson weaves a fascinating and challenging criticial narrative that encompasses not only that film but a previously assigned novel by James Salter, “A Sport and a Pastime,” a long and mesmerizing clip featuring Nicole Kidman from Jonathan Glatzer’s film maudit, “Birth,” and, finally, Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from Hawks’ musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” 

Entrepreneur/philanthropist David Packard’s exquisitely restored Stanford Theatre repertory house is concurrently presenting a nearly complete Hawks retrospective, to which the Thomson class is invited gratis. Pierre contributes a glimpse of Hawks as host and companion as well as filmmaker. I once spent the day in Palm Springs with Rissient and Hawks, so I chime in with my bit.

As I drive Thomson and Rissient out of town, I see people already lining up for that evening’s double bill of “Ceiling Zero” and “The Dawn Patrol.” The rush hour traffic doubles our driving time to two hours, but again there’s nonstop distracting chatter about books and movies, including anecdotes about everyone from Abraham Polonsky to George Worthing Yates, one of Pierre’s favorite genre writers, heretofore unknown to me, who, it turns out, was related to Herbert Yates, owner of Republic Pictures. The dreadful traffic causes me to re-assess my fantasy of auditing what remains of Thomson’s class. Maybe on a night when I can catch a Hawks double bill at the Stanford, I think.

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