Tuesday, May 27, 2008

SIFF 2008

The Seattle International Film Festival is the largest in North America. This year they screened over 400 films from all over the world. I’ve attended one or two films during the festival in years past, but generally, I have not participated much. It’s easier to attend a film festival in another city when I’m on vacation. I am too busy and too tired after work to be racing around Seattle in the evenings and on weekends. Also, I just don’t enjoy going to movies. Theaters are expensive, hot, oxygen-deprived, smelly, sneezy, and too loud. Nevertheless, this year I grabbed my earplugs and made an effort to see more of the festival.

My first experience did not auger well. After standing in a quarter-mile line circling the block, I found myself sitting in the balcony of the lovely old Egyptian Theater in Seattle, right under the projection booth. An hour into the film there was a loud thud from inside the booth behind me. I looked up and there was bright white light in the booth window, then the projection room and the screen went dark. Staff swarmed quickly but the booth was locked and nobody seemed to have a key. I assessed that this film was not going to resume any time soon, so I headed for the exit and walked home.

The film I saw an hour of was Mermaid, a Russian Film, starring Anastasiya Dontsova as a girl of 8 living in a shack by the sea, presumably the Black Sea, with her mother and grandmother. She tells herself that her mother was a mermaid, her father a sea captain. She awaits her father’s return, but it is clear to the audience that the father is long gone and this family is abandoned to abject poverty. The girl dreams of becoming a ballerina. We see her again (Mariya Shalayeva ) at 17 in Moscow, trying to make a living at odd jobs in the gritty city. She shows signs of clinical depression (in my humble opinion). She is still slow-moving, uncurious and glassy eyed, and continues to fantasize the ballerina life. She copes with her harsh reality without ambition or hope. She had found a job as a housecleaner when the projector fell over.

Throughout the film there are brief dreamlike episodes of fantasy, sometimes surreal, to demonstrate that her spirit is not crushed by her difficult life. Slick advertisements ironically remind her that all her dreams can be fulfilled. The second revolution in Russia paid off for the gangsters and cronies, but left no place for a young girl's dreams. I don’t know how the story turned out, but I would guess there was no revelation. Perhaps she returns to the sea (her childhood) as an underwater ballerina. The yellow subtitles were often completely lost, against a yellow sand beach, for example. But that hardly mattered since nothing was said of importance. It is a highly visual film, lovely to look at, but aggressively banal in detail. It was interesting to see modern Russia and hear the language, but without narrative drive or character development, it is a slice of life for its own sake. The director was Anna Melikyan.

The next film was screened at the comfortable, airy, SIFF Cinema hall at the Seattle center. Love and Honor is a beautiful Japanese-made film (director Yoji Yamada) set in the Samurai (“Edo”) period prior to 1868. It’s hard to tell just when, but the doctor washed his hands before and after tending a patient, and sanitation was introduced into medicine around 1847, in the West, at least. In any case, this is not your usual swashbuckling samurai movie. The protagonist, (Takuya Kimura) is a food-taster for the local lord, and he goes blind from shellfish neurotoxin and falls into despair. When he suspects his wife (Rei Dan) of infidelity, honor compels him to a swordfight to the death with the other man, even though he is blind! It is a fine, classical story, well told, in beautiful settings and with beautiful costumes. The acting and directing seemed stagey, wooden, and somewhat repetitive, but that may have been on purpose, to convey the classical nature of the story, the well-defined roles participants would have lived back then, especially in courtly life, and to give a sense of distant time and place, much as we get from watching an original Shakespeare. Yet the dialog was colloquial and the characters were humanized, not archetypal forms, and the story was personal. All that familiarity grated with the formality of the acting and directing. Despite that dissonance, it is a satisfying story, well-told, beautiful to look at, with good actors and enjoyable music. I felt that I had been delivered to another era for a couple of hours.

Man, Hungarians can make a dark movie! Opium: Diary of a Madwoman, directed by János Szász, is set in a mental institution around 1900 in Hungary. A doctor (Ulrich Thomsen, who reminded me of a young Kenneth Branaugh) joins the staff at an insane asylum for women run by Catholic nuns. The scenes there are beautifully photographed but it is a dank, dismal, horribly depressing place. This would have been a hundred years after Pinel’s reforms, so the insane were seen as ill and suffering, not possessed, but since psychoactive drugs were still a half-century in the future, there was really nothing that could be done except warehouse these unfortunates. Still, this hospital is progressive for its time, and the very latest techniques in treatment are shown, such as immersion in ice water baths, spinning in a centrifuge, electroshock, and of course, pre-frontal lobotomy. When the camera closes in on the brass rod being inserted beside a patient’s eye, I couldn’t watch, and even though my eyes were closed the “clink, clink” of the director’s hammer on the brass stylus as it penetrated the skull, made me cringe in my seat. Thomsen is assigned to a 25 year old schizophrenic woman (Kirsti Stubø) who writes typical “word salad” madness into volume upon volume of diaries as the only way she knows to deal with her demon. The doctor, we learn, is a morphine addict, and the reason he took the job was have access to his poison. Acting by the two principals, especially Stubo, is utterly gripping. They try to understand each other, and maybe they do, a little.

The best part of the script is having each character talk unwittingly and metaphorically about the other’s demon. She says, “Each day the Devil makes you an offer and each day he takes a little bit of your body until you are his whore.” The doctor nods knowingly yet unknowingly then a little later he shoots up. He writes in his diary that his habit is going out of control and he can’t stop. The woman begs the doctor to “cut out her brain” to relieve her of her torment. Even though the film is extremely bleak, the cinematography is beautiful and haunting, as is the music. The story would be greatly improved by some easy editing, especially some gratuitous nudity and at the end, where it continues unnecessarily beyond the climax. The story of the characters’ developing relationship is compelling. I walked out of this movie deeply shaken.

Transsiberian (director Brad Anderson) has a lot of good talent: Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, Ben Kingsley, and Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega. An American couple on vacation (Harrelson and Mortimer) take the Transsiberian train from Beijing to Moscow. They are befriended by an American woman (Mara) and her companion, the unpredictable Carlos (Noriega), pseudo-mysterious drifters, possibly drug smugglers. Police detective Kingsley joins the train to add to the suspense, such as it is. But the editing and directing are so overtly manipulative that it ruins the story. We see Carlos with a crowbar in his hand sneaking up behind Harrelson at a stop in Irkutsk, then cut! In the next scene we are back on the train but Harrelson is missing! Meaningful glances are passed around. But wait, it turns out he only missed the train in Irkutsk and he is fine, rejoining the party a day later. That kind of manufactured pseudo-suspense is disrespectful of the audience, actually offensive, and a clumsy attempt to cover up a weak, predictable story.

The first 45 minutes of the movie were obviously added after the main shoot in an unsuccessful attempt to add dimension to the cardboard characters by having them reminisce unconvincingly about previous experiences. If those were important, they should have been shown, not recited. Dramatic helicopter shots of the train moving through Siberia are inserted often to counter the claustrophobia of the train set. Arbitrary blasts of orchestral music attempt to punctuate the waning story line. Lots of “local color” scenes are thrown in to spice up endless shots of people eating, drinking, smoking, and eating some more. An old guy with a gulag tattoo. Wow. Therefore what? Therefore nothing. This movie is a lost opportunity. Mortimer and Kingsley are terrific actors but they can’t save it. The movie will probably enjoy eventual success on cable television.

A film festival is not complete without a documentary feature so I chose Up the Yangtze, by Yung Chang, the Canadian director, who introduced the film in person. His humorous description of the movie (Love Boat meets Apocalypse Now) suggests a documentary better than this disappointment. He took his crew on a luxury river boat up the Yangtze to the Three Gorges dam, and along the way documented some of the millions of people and their cities, environments, and ways of life that will be submerged when the dam is completed. Flooding had already begun in 2003-2004 when he made the film. Poor farmers living on the banks of the river, living in mud-floor shacks, speak of their desperation and hopelessness. They have no plans, no prospects. They reminisce on their ancient way of life, soon to be obliterated by progress. This is important stuff, but it is also old stuff. We should note that these farmers are holdouts who declined to be relocated by the government to safe, high ground. Why? No clue is offered.

Chang has a photographic eye, and we see ooh-aah shots of neon lights reflected on water, plenty of cute kittens, puppies and roosters, charming tableaux of rustic village life. There is some beautiful, layered Chinese scenery, but not much of it. Chang likes shots that draw attention to themselves such as extreme closeups, long flat shots, blurred fast pans. Other shots are offered ostensibly as candids, but are clearly staged. More political, economic, environmental, and sociological detail is needed to justify this documentary. Pretty pictures and fancy camera work are not enough.

The onboard ship scenes are perhaps unintentionally satirical. It looks like an especially tawdry Carnival Cruise, as old people in ill-fitting clothes dance to sappy music. If Chang could have somehow juxtaposed those images more directly to mud squeezing between villagers’ toes, he might have had something. If he could have juxtaposed cruise goers gorging on buffet food against children eating insects… perhaps that would be too obvious. Yet Chang does not shy away from the obvious. City teenagers are shown dancing mindlessly, drinking vodka at a night club, declaring their desire to become rich. With signs overhead showing the future waterline at 175 meters, well above all life going on, there would seem to be ample opportunity for visual metaphor. The film is good-looking and sentimental and was well-received by the SRO audience at Pacific Place Cinema, but I think it has only the most superficial intellectual basis and will have little lasting impact.

Andrzej Wajda is an internationally known director, and Katyn is supposed to be one of his best, the first of his I’ve seen. It is a historical drama with careful, documentary detail about the Soviet Union’s slaughter of 20,000 Polish army officers at the end of World War II, and the subsequent cover-up as Stalin’s army occupied Poland, blaming the massacre on the Nazis. My understanding is that this lie was not exposed until the late 1990s when archival files were released in Russia. So this would be a very emotional topic for a Polish audience.

The film follows a group of Polish officers as they are captured by the Soviets in 1940 and shipped by train to the interior of the Soviet Union, where they were imprisoned for a number of months then systematically executed. The women and children they left behind wait for letters from them or announcements in the papers, hoping to learn of their eventual release, or at least of their survival. The audience knows, because of an English-language announcement at the beginning of the film, that they are never coming back. A sole survivor returns after the war and becomes a member of the reviled, Soviet-run, new Polish army. He argues in favor of collaboration, survival, and life, and against revealing the truth about the massacre, which can only lead to imprisonment or death. It is a compelling argument. The only counter-argument offered is “I choose the murdered, not the murderers.” Is that a good argument or is it stupid, self-destructive self-indulgence?

It is a beautifully photographed story and a fine way to learn about an important historical episode. Wajda’s reputation is well-deserved.

I hadn’t been to the Harvard Exit theater in thirty years and that delightfully funky place on Capitol Hill hasn’t changed much. There I saw a feature-length animation, a staple of any film festival. Idiots and Angels is writer-director Bill Plimpton’s surreal comedy. Plimpton introduced the film himself, explaining that no cameras were used. He scanned his 25,000 drawings into a computer database and assembled the film. Quite a technical feat!

The wordless story is of a lout who goes to a tavern each day where he drinks, smokes and fantasizes about the barman’s wife. He is a violent, self-centered lowbrow. The pencil-drawings are beautifully realized, with minimum but telling detail. Changing points of view are especially interesting and amusing. When Mr. Lout swigs his drink, we are suddenly deep in his throat, looking at the flash flood cascading toward us. Lots of fun.

Without explanation, he one morning sprouts small wings on his back. He is surprised, but sees them as aberrant growths and cuts them off. There is a Groundhog Day theme to this story, so the next day, the wings have grown back, a little larger. He tapes them down. The following day, they are even larger, and so on. He eventually discovers they are wings, and that he can fly, so he swoops around. He tries some purse-snatching from the air, but inexplicably, he is compelled to return the purse. Are the wings turning him into a “good person?”

There are many promising ways this story could have developed, but the writer had no vision of where he was going. Instead, each scene simply attempts to top the previous one in terms of self-conscious creativity for the sake of creativity. And I admit it was very creative. A loosely structured story flows for a few scenes, then is abandoned to some other theme. The ending is arbitrary because there is just no semblance of a narrative thread remaining. It was a shame he couldn’t have gotten a co-writer to lend him some direction.

One interesting aspect of the whole project is the author’s unconscious illustration of Freud’s theory of infant and child development, from oral, to anal, to oedipal stages. The imagery and symbolism are very much open to psychoanalytic interpretation, which no doubt would be quite embarrassing to the author if he were aware of it. It’s probably just as well that I was not able to stay for the Q&A session after the film, because there would be nothing gained by bringing that up. I enjoyed the creativity, but without a narrative thread, it was just amusing, not important.

A collection of shorts is mandatory viewing, and I chose a well-curated batch called The Art of Memory. The first two these nine films were wonderful; one other was memorable; most of the rest only interesting, but all worth seeing, if only to wonder at the diversity of the human imagination.

Run,” was probably set in a remote coastal town in Australia, judging from the accents. A working class father encourages (commands) his two children to run each day for exercise and health. The preadolescent girl is chubby and struggles to keep up with her younger brother. She also rehearses “Fur Elise” for an upcoming piano recital, but surreptitiously practices a brooding variation she has composed. The children are brown, possibly aboriginal, and on the daily run, white boys delivering milk taunt the girl and throw milk at her. The milk could represent the absent mother, whose picture is displayed on top of the piano, and whose absence might be the source of the girl’s emotional turmoil. She finally expresses herself at the recital when, unable to remember the Beethoven, she plays her own composition to an astonished and mystified audience. It’s a film dense with symbols, emotion, complex family structure, class and race themes, and psychological development, all in less than 10 minutes: a real masterpiece.

Last Day of December was a Romanian production, if I remember rightly. The language sounded more Russian than Romanian to me, but what do I know. A boy of 14 meets his father in deep snow in a birch forest. We gather that the man is on the run. A well-dressed 40-year old watches from the road above. Four pursuers arrive, we assume police, and chase the man through the knee-deep snow, down into a ravine, in kinetic sequence of exhausting energy and dazzling beauty. The pursuers go in the wrong direction, but the young boy finds the man. After a long moment, he yells to the pursuers, who capture the man, beat him, and take him away. Then we discover that this has all been a flashback of the well-dressed man who was not watching, but remembering the action. He goes to his now-dying father’s house, but in a poignant scene, is turned away. Nothing is forgiven. Another masterpiece.

Two of the remaining shorts were animation, one a claymation, proving it still can be done, but not justifying why it should be. One notable short, “PB&J: A Love Story” was a stop-action animation romance between a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jam. They consummate their love in a gooey sandwich. The whole story was no more than 3 minutes long and delighted the audience. The only other short that stayed with me was “Felix,” a German tale about a 14 year old boy who learns sign language so he can have a relationship with a deaf girl he met on the internet. Their budding friendship goes awry when she discovers that he is not really deaf. It is very well acted by the children, but the film only states the theme without exploring it. Could such a relationship work? Maybe for childhood friendship, but not with adults. Now that I think of it, most of these shorts focused on children. That simplifies the ideas and the emotions, but is that really the only way to successfully tell a very short story? Anyway, three hits out of nine is a good ratio so I’d say this package of shorts was a success. [I misidentified “Felix” as a different short in my online review at SIFF.net but it is not possible to edit those posts.]

Young People Fucking: What an inspired title this is for a contemporary comedy of manners centered around sexual relationships! Five relationships are explored: friends, roommates, a married couple, a couple on the first date, a divorced couple. All relationships are hetero, although other tendencies and urges are hilariously suggested. The story rotates through the list of couples to comment on introduction, foreplay, sex, orgasm, and afterglow, to create a set of 5 x 5 = 25 scenes of 5 to 10 minutes each. The camera work and directing are respectful and there is little nudity, because this is really not about fucking, but rather on how twenty- and thirty-somethings understand and deal with sexuality. The writing is brilliant, in a sitcom sort of way, and there are many laugh out loud moments. Afterward however, I realized that I had been manipulated. Virtually nothing about the human condition was revealed or even seriously explored. It was a series of gags, some sophisticated, most sophomoric. There were moments of honesty, as when each of the exes considers returning to the closed door after the tryst, but then each, separately, sadly, wordlessly, turns away from their side of the door. That was wonderful, but most of the scenes were easy gag setups from the beginning, from the “old pal” girlfriend who just wants to be “serviced” to the bored wife who convinces her bored husband to submit to a purple strap-on. The casting was just perfect and the acting truly outstanding, and those considerable virtues made the cliché humor acceptable. The way the audience squirmed, laughed, and groaned, I’d say the subject matter was “very hot” and that sketch comedy was the only way audience anxiety could have been dealt with. I think this Canadian production will enjoy wide release (possibly with an edited title) and will perform an important and much-needed socialization function.

One Hundred Nails
This stunningly beautiful Italian film makes you feel the warm sun on your back and smell the spring grass. A professor of religion becomes fed up with academic theology and disappears from the university for a life of natural simplicity beside the river Po, but not before he takes 100 medieval theology books from the library shelves and nails each to the wooden plank floor with a large (crucifix-sized) iron spike. Out in the country, the peasants embrace him and help him rebuild a derelict stone house to live in, while he tells them bible stories. They take to calling him Jesus Christ. Local authorities levy a huge fine on the town for some infraction and the professor gives the mayor his credit card to pay it, but the police trace the card and arrest him for the library vandalism. In his absence the villagers decorate the town in anticipation of his Second Coming. It’s a long, quiet, and slow film and even the subdued religious allegories are only decoration. Nothing much happens and there is no lesson to be learned. The languid pace communicates the fantasy of spiritual peace one hopes to find in an idyllic village and simple way of life. But if you had the gumption to have acquired a BMW, a university professorship, and an open-ended credit card, I’m pretty sure the ignorant, backbiting civilization of small town life would drive you mad quite shortly. The romantic bucolic fantasy endures best as an imaginary utopia. Even knowing that, this sensuous movie lured me there.

Russian writers and artists often complain that creativity has declined since the lifting of most censorship. Alexandra shows what can be done with a politically sensitive and forbidden topic, in this case the Russian war in Chechnya, right under the noses of the authorities. It is a blatant anti-war film. Or is it? A lovably irritable Russian grandmother visits her grandson at a military outpost in Chechnya. He shows her the inside of a tank and soldiers cleaning their guns. She wanders off-base into the village and befriends some local women there, revealing in mundane conversation underlying class and ethnic attitudes. Russian soldiers are universally transformed from killing machines to boys as each of them shows deference and tenderness to the old woman. Finally she goes home, The End. Who could censor such a banal slice of life? Yet just placing a kindly and feeble old grandmother inside a Russian tank says more than any jeremiad. There are a few pointed conversations, as when she asks her grandson, “Do you enjoy killing people?” He doesn’t answer. I think about several anti-war American films I have seen lately from the stridently didactic Lions for Lambs, to the morally blaming Rendition, or the more intellectually subtle Charlie Wilson’s War. Even at their most indirect, none of those films approaches the artistic audacity of simply juxtaposing a tired, frail old grandmother against roaring humvees festooned with troops. The movie seemed vastly too slow and indirect for an American audience, yet the theater was almost full on a Monday night, so who knows?

The SIFF runs for an astonishing two more weeks, until June 15th. But I am out of tickets, money and time. I feel I took a fair sample of what was offered and I was well-pleased.

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