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SFIFF 55 Update: From Jonathan Lethem to ‘Oslo, August 21st,’ ‘Queen of Versailles,’ ‘The Sheik and I’

SFIFF 55 Update: From Jonathan Lethem to 'Oslo, August 21st,' 'Queen of Versailles,' 'The Sheik and I'

I’ve seen quite a few of SFIFF’s State of the Cinema lectures, the tenth in fest’s series of inviting a “prominent thinker to discuss the intersecting worlds of contemporary cinema, culture, and society.” Highlights that spring to mind include the erudite sound designer and film editor Walter Murch, complete with Power Point presentation; the irrepressible and charming director/animator/voice actor Brad Bird; and Tilda Swinton, easily the most stylishly attired and poetically, delightfully incoherent.

Last year’s invitee, however, the respected and prolific indie producer Christine Vachon, came woefully underprepared – I was sitting close enough to see the meager collection of post-its on which she’d scrawled her thoughts, the sum of which seemed to be that since she’d just produced a successful miniseries for TV (Todd Haynes’ “Mildred Pierce”), it was now OK for movie producers to create content for other providers.

I shouldn’t have worried. Programmer Sean Uyehara, who introduces this year’s speaker, the prolific novelist Jonathan Lethem, mentions that Lethem was first invited to deliver the address a couple of years ago, so presumably he’s been thinking about what he’s going to say for quite some time.  Also, he’s now Disney Chair of Creative Writing at Pomona College (I was surprised to learn he’s left his iconic Brooklyn for sunny Southern Cal), so he knows his way around a lecture. Which he reads (more accurately, performs) from a densely-printed text.

He describes his talk as a plate-spinning act straight out of vaudeville, with each “plate” one of a few things he’s been thinking about in relation to the state of media. He celebrates the mumblecore films as an inadvertent documentary of our time, in which “late techno-capitalism has made infants of us all.” The Occupy movement is interesting precisely because it doesn’t make demands – its power as a movement is as a mirror, or a Rorschach blot – and has given capitalism back its name as a system, in that one can again be anti-capitalist.

Neoteny, wherein new species demonstrate traits of the infants of earlier species, reminds him of rock-and-roll coming from early jazz novelty numbers, and therefore he sees certain current film and media movements as preferring the demo track over the finished one, the rehearsal over the polished performance.  He points out that the threat of death from new media to old media is greatly exaggerated: radio wasn’t destroyed by movies, nor movies by television. (Stop the presses!)

He loses me with the idea of “true vs. the real,” including the difference between sponge listening versus obedient listening. (Sponge listening occurs when he overhears his 4 year old saying “that’s balderdash!” after hearing dad use the phrase.) On the whole, he wants to reassure us that the kids are all right, that his students (and his 2 and 4-year-old children) are still watching movies and reading novels, even if on all these wacky new-fangled devices.

It all sounds a trifle daunting, not to mention way academic, but in practice his thoughts are clearly expressed and only result in a few moments of head-scratching on my part.  It’s not quite a bravura performance – he’s a little shy when he mimes the act of plate-spinning – but when SFIFF posts the address on its uversetv channel, I commend it to your attention.

Afterwards I accompany Fandor’s Jonathan Marlow, LinkTV’s Hannah Eaves, and their irresistible tot Zazie to a party for Lethem being given across town at the offices of The Thing, a literary quarterly. I manage to tell Lethem that my mother was born and raised on the same street in Brooklyn as he was. But it doesn’t seem the time or the place to raise a question that occurred to me during his address, that is, the difference between watching movies on movie screens vs. computers and smartphones. The difference seems important to me. And I also have a friend, like Lethem a novelist and essayist who teaches at a prestigious college, who tells me that he’s astounded at what his students haven’t seen.

I slip into “Oslo, August 31,” shown concurrently in the two smallest theaters at the Kabuki, #s 7 and 8. The 57-seat theater, with its unimpressive screen, makes me feel like I’m in one of those media rooms seen on HGTV’s endless roundelay of McMansions. I forget my disappointment while watching the well-acted, compelling Norwegian drama, based on the same French novel, “Le feu follet,” that Louis Malle adapted in 1963. Even knowing the inevitable ending didn’t prevent my investment in the fate of its central character. I’m impressed by its economy of storytelling, and by the uniformly high level of acting – even one-scene actors create believable characters and convey a sense of life lived outside the frame.

Afterwards I find myself in the same room, the same seat, even, to see Caveh Zahedi’s “The Sheik and I.” Zahedi was something of a local hero when he lived in the Bay Area, but I remained a little skeptical of his endless confessional navel-gazing, finding it verging on cutesy even when self-consciously transgressive, as in “I Am a Sex Addict.”

“The Sheik and I” outlines the process of Zahedi traveling to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates to make a movie financed by the Arts Commission for the Sharjah Biennial. Predictably, chaos and rule-challenging ensues, as Zahedi tries to approach the Sheik of Sharjah to either appear in the film or approve of his portrayal by a street mystic, resulting in Zahedi’s film being banned for blasphemy. Although, since the theme for the Biennial is “art as a subversive act,” one wonders just what the commissioning curators expected. In the real world, heads (metaphorically) roll, and nearly everyone involved in running the Biennial or commissioning the film finds themselves fired or leaving Sharjah. I was especially charmed by Zahedi’s adorable toddler, Beckett, pressed into action in the film-within-the-film as well as the documentary. I think he has real star quality and could be the Shirley Temple of his generation. I would be first in line for any future appearances.

I am part of the somewhat sparse audience for the 11 p.m. show billed as “Acid Queens: Peaches and Tommy.” It features a brief stage appearance by popular SF drag queen Peaches Christ, backed by a band of fellow film theater employees, Citizen Midnight; a clip show of Ken Russell movies (reminding one that he was truly hors concours and much missed; and the screening of a restored print of Russell’s “Tommy,” which looked wonderfully delirious on the big screen. The hoped-for bacchanalian manic singalong never happened; it’s just another night in a repertory cinema, albeit one with terrific projection, as far as I’m concerned. Later I’m told that the upstairs balcony lounge (where one can drink during the movie) was more Dionysian in tone.

I stagger home at 2 a.m.  Sunday I’m mostly playing hooky from SFIFF. My two nephews and I formed a James Bond club when the 24-year-old discovered the 10-year-old had never seen a Bond movie, with the intention of working our way through the entire canon before “Skyfall” opens in November. We have a long-standing date to see a James Bond triple bill (“Thunderball,” “Live and Let Die,” and “For Your Eyes Only,”) at the Castro Theatre. It’s Ben’s first-ever triple bill (gotta get him in training for future film festivals), and Michael’s first visit to the 1927-vintage Castro, which he finds extraordinary.

Afterwards I drive back to the Kabuki to see a screening of Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles.” What began as the documenting of the building of the largest private house in America (90,000 square feet) turns into something else entirely when the vacation time-share business of the couple building the house finds itself melting away when the American economy faces its own meltdown in 2008. The blurb in the catalogue says “Forced to rein in their habits in the face of financial distress, they begin to discover their true goals and aspirations,” but I don’t think so: they seem as clueless and cheerfully vulgar as they were when celebrating the height of consumerism.

I’m amazed not only that they permitted Greenfield to continue filming, but that, according to her, they’ve seen and enjoyed their portrayal in the completed film. A fiction filmmaker would be accused of creating garish and unbelievable caricatures. Here the documentary eye trumps the unreality of reality TV. The bulging-at-the-seams 26,000-square-feet house loses 15 of its 19 employees and unpicked-up dog shit starts to dot pale carpets. As Greenfield interviews the immigrant employees and others affected by the recession, the laughter turns increasingly uneasy, and you begin to question your own values as well. The perfect film to see in a festival setting (especially interesting in light of having seen “Farewell, My Queen” a couple of nights earlier), enriched by the Q-and-A afterwards and the discussions that sprang up as we exited the theater.  And soon to open in a theater near you!

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