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San Francisco International Film Festival 55: ‘Abramovic,’ ‘Neighboring Sounds,’ and Kenneth Branagh

San Francisco International Film Festival 55: 'Abramovic,' 'Neighboring Sounds,' and Kenneth Branagh

Kind of a light Festival day: viewed a DVD that I loved, saw a new movie onscreen that was a first feature and reminded me why we go to film festivals, went to a cocktail party that didn’t feel like one, and attended Kenneth Branagh’s tribute for the Founder’s Directing Award.

First up, the DVD: “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.” For years I’ve been on the fence about Abramovic: sometimes I thought she was a terrific self-promoter and narcissist who relied on cheap and obvious stunts, often involving violence and/or nudity. Other times I was able to acknowledge that “terrific self-promoter and narcissist” was part of the job description of a performance artist (or even artist, tout court ), and that the work could actually be compelling. I wasn’t able to see the retrospective show at MOMA from which the title of the documentary is drawn. For the duration of the show the artist was present literally: all day she sat across from a changing array of people who stayed as long as they chose, wordlessly.

During the show I became addicted to a portion of its website that showed portraits of each of the people who sat across from her, plus one new photo of Marina taken each day, for the performance piece that she created for the show. The information included how long they sat (times ranged from one minute to the entire seven-hour day, probably enraging the people patiently lined up for their turn), and the comments section sometimes identified who the sitters were. I was drawn to both the faces and the cult quality that the piece engendered, revealed in the comments.

The reverent, engaging documentary showed me more than I knew about her, and afterwards I felt more generous and open to both the artist and her body of work. The last section, covering the performance piece, gave me more of a “you are there” feeling than I’d had obsessively tracking the sitters online.

Then I went to see “Neighboring Sounds,” a 2-hour-and-ten-minute Brazilian debut feature that arrived with the imprimatur of the Rotterdam Film Festival and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s influential New Directors/New Films series.  Director Kleber Mendonça Filho has previously made shorts and documentaries (some of which can be viewed online).  “Neighboring Sounds” follows the assorted inhabitants (some middle class, some wealthy, and their staff) of a few blocks in the Brazilian coastal city Recife, after they hire a nighttime security patrol. Work, parties, visits to country houses: the episodic structure meanders its way to a surprising conclusion that seems to come from another genre entirely. Filho has an interesting eye, his actors gave naturalistic performances that felt of a piece, and as the tone varied, the rhythm of the film stayed constant. One of the better films I’ve seen at SFIFF, and from a young director to watch.

I stop at the pre-screening reception before the 7:30 Branagh tribute at the Castro, at a restaurant on Market previously named after its address, 2223, but since February of this year, under new owners, known as Jake’s on Market. It’s a nice airy space (especially with its tables removed for the party), with a long bar visible alongside the main room. When I get there the bar is full and there’s a cluster of people right around the entrance, in the midst of which I can espy K. Branagh, but most of the room is empty. I don’t see anyone I know, there’s no food in evidence, and from long experience I know imbibing alcohol just before a movie is not the best idea, so I’m adrift. Menus specially printed for the party are placed here and there, and they look very promising (rock shrimp and crab ceviche, two kinds of crab cakes, buffalo chicken, bacon-wrapped meat loaf, mozzarella and tomato skewers, assorted pizzas), plus I haven’t eaten all day, so I figure I’ll stick around.

I exchange film festival banalities with a few other guests. Food emerges from the kitchen at a glacial pace, and on less-than-full plates, an old catering trick. I manage to snag a tiny crab cake (and am unable to tell whether it’s the East Coast Maryland blue crab version or the West Coast Dungeness variety), a skewer with a cherry tomato, basil leaf, and tiny ball of mozzarella, and a hard ball of something that alarmingly and almost disastrously squirts hot melted cheese when I bite into it – that must be the Buffalo chicken.

I feel like a creepy and ungracious party crasher, plus I remember that one of SF’s best BLTs (and only $5.50!) is available right across from the Castro at Rossi’s Deli, so I’m out the door.

The Irish-born, British-raised Branagh, hot off the unexpected success of “Thor,” is interviewed by a nervous and overprepared Jonathan Moscone, Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater. Branagh is predictably charming, modest, and amusing, though there are no surprising revelations, as there were at the less-attended but more candid Judy Davis tribute.

The conversation is heavy on Shakespeare, so one wonders exactly why the 1991 neo-noir curiosity “Dead Again” was chosen. It’s a rare chance to see it projected on the big screen, and actually a film print, at that. It’s fun to glimpse 20-year-old LA locations (including the Shakespeare bridge in Los Feliz, as well as the tower apartment building also used in Altman’s “the Long Goodbye”) and period fashions – not just the 40s ones, as now the late-80s clothes and hairstyles.

There’s still half-an-hour of film to go when there’s a disturbance to my left: one VIP guest in my row has decided, abruptly, that he’s had enough, and is pulling what’s left of his party — two departed after the interview and before the movie — away, despite my neighbor’s feeble remonstrance that she’d like to see the end. “I hope it’s on DVD,” I say to her.  I am reminded that sometimes it’s safer to stay at home.


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