Thursday, April 20


It's here

Yesterday I was browsing the New Book section at A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books and couldn't resist paging through Lonely Planet's latest coffee table ornament the Cities Book, which ranks 200 of the world's cities on some uncertainly scientific criteria that I neglected to notice. Coming in at number seven, just behind Paris, New York, Sydney, Barcelona, London and Rome (with Bangkok, Cape Town, and Istanbul rounding out the top ten) was my beloved Frisco. From my bookstore-browse-mode glance, I found three mistakes on my city's page, though. First, the repetition of the myth that residents never "call it Frisco". Second, Memento was for some reason among the half-dozen or so films listed as set here (and none of these were.) Third, no mention was made in the "strengths" column or anywhere else I noticed of the city's almost constant parade of excellent film festivals, including the first, largest, most broadly-programmed one: the SFIFF, which begins this evening with a Castro screening of Perhaps Love and runs for two weeks.

Being big and broadly-programmed is wonderful, but it's not without it's drawbacks. It may be getting harder to bring film lovers with increasingly stratified tastes together in quantities large enough to fill venues like the Castro and Kabuki's House 1, but the SFIFF somehow manages it (fairly well, as there are already a good dozen films at "Rush Status" including the Castro closer A Prairie Home Companion). It does it in part by making selections that exhibit a diversity of virtues; some films are broadly entertaining, others are politically or otherwise deeply thought-provoking. Some are of a high technical quality, and others display a corner of the planet that's overlooked, inherently fascinating, or both. Some break new aesthetic ground for the motion picture form, and others shed light on the career of an important filmmaker in the context of his or her other works. In fact, the majority of films I've seen at this festival over the years exhibit more than one of these virtues, and a great many exhibit all or nearly all of them.

My theory is that most fest-goers have one or two of these virtues (or others I've not thought of) in mind, consciously or not, as the primary criteria for judging the films they see, and if a particular selection comes up short in that regard they may hold it against the festival. If a ticket buyer fails to do more research on a film selection than reading the short description in the miniguide, the potential for this kind of reaction is exacerbated. Thus, the subtle perception that there's some kind of problem with the festival programming is able to take hold.

Of course, it's not all that easy to do research on a film to know how thought-provoking or how groundbreaking it's going to be before you see it, especially considering that these are rather subjective qualities. Which is probably why my first instinct is to fall back on the much-easier-to-discern "how many films are by a filmmaker I've appreciated before" criterion for evaluating the festival, even before I've seen any of them. There's a small-minded part of me that wishes the SFIFF would become an annual showcase for all the new films released by directors whose past films I've liked. But this sort of daydreaming fails to hold up under any scrutiny, as A) it would lead to a certain calcification, and B) I'd miss out on the experience of going into a film with little to no expectations and being completely won over, as I was last year with Sumiko Haneda's Into the Picture Scroll or with Marie de Laubier's Veloma a few years back. Would I even notice the absence of Hong Sang-soo's a Tale of Cinema from this year's program if not for having almost blindly stumbled into Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, my doozy of an introduction to Korean cinema, in the 2001 edition of the festival?

Ultimately, I just have to trust the programming staff to some degree when I pull together a schedule of films that balances those by favorite auteurs with unknown quantities that lead me down unexpected paths of cinematic exploration. And then there's always the press to help with the narrowing-down process. This year there is a lot of advance coverage available on the web, thanks to a publicity department that doesn't treat the internet as a third-class media form. The last couple years they invited me to press screenings even though the wrap-ups I wrote for Senses of Cinema weren't published until well after the festival. This year my blog provides me a place to express my thoughts on some of the films before they play, and wouldn't you know it I've only been able to attend five, fewer than ever. I was particularly sorry for missing Half Nelson, the Dignity of the Nobodies and Play.

Of those I did see, a favorite was Carlos Saura's Iberia (which plays April 21, 23, 25 and 27 at the festival). If it seems predictable that I would respond to the one by the director with the longest resume (reaching back into the 1950s), perhaps I should clarify that I've only seen one other of his films, the equally color-drenched and stylized Tango. In this case perhaps relative ignorance is an aid to appreciation, as more than one review I've read compares Iberia unfavorably to Saura's 1995 film Flamenco. If accurate, such a comparison makes me especially interested in investigating more of Saura's filmography, though I'm always apprehensive of such visually rich dance films surviving the shrink-down from cinema to even a larger-than-average television. Iberia is extremely visual; made up of seventeen performance pieces staged in combination with imaginative projections and lighting effects expressly for Saura's camera (or should I say for that of cinematographer José Luis López Linares) it contains no narrative beyond that of that found in each dance. What it does contain is a great deal of unbottled sexual tension that one sometimes can sense dancers exude when rhythmically locked to an attractive partner onstage, but that is so much more interesting to watch in the close-ups that only a camera can provide. And music; the film utilizes an assortment of very accomplished musicians playing traditional and contemporized arrangements from the Iberia Suite by Catalan pianist and composer Isaac Albéniz.

Hong Kong's Peter Chan is a director whose past work I've been impressed with (particularly his romantic ghost story Going Home) but his latest Perhaps Love, a musical produced in the wake of the popularity of the likes of Moulin Rouge and the Phantom of the Opera in Asian countries, is an unfocused, lame effort. It has nothing to do with any of the few Hong Kong-made musicals I've seen, whether Mambo Girl or Lady General Hua-Mulan or even the equally weak Dance of a Dream. Instead it tries hard to match the current Hollywood style but can't match the Baz Luhrmann level of opulence and ends up feeling mostly flat, particularly during the song-and-dance numbers, which is a bad sign in this genre. The script about a star director (Jacky Cheung) struggling to find his passion while making a circus movie feels over-calculated in its vaccine-like self-criticism, and quickly gets repetitive. Eventually I spent most of my mental energy trying to guess which scenes were shot by Chris Doyle and which by Peter Pau (the end credits provided my answer). You can take a guess which one of them shot the only scene I really liked in the film, a trapeze showstopper with Cheung and Zhou Xun. I suppose I should also mention that Takeshi Kaneshiro is in the film too, but frankly I'd rather not have to think of him wearing a stovepipe hat any longer. I applaud the SFIFF for picking an Asian film by an interesting auteur to open the festival. It's just too bad it's not a better film.

The other three films I saw at press screenings will have to wait until my next post for now; expect it soon. But in the meantime I should mention that two screenings of Masahiro Kobayashi's kidnap drama Bashing (April 21 & 23) have been cancelled and replaced by an additional one at the Kabuki on April 28th, and that Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 and a teasing first 20 minutes of Richard Linklater's a Scanner Darkly have also been added to the program at the Kabuki, on the evenings of April 26 and May 2, respectively.


Can you use your connections to see if FRISCO is going to get a release of SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE? The corporate website gives nary a hint that it will. It gets it's nationwide release in, of course, NY next weekend, but have you heard a peep if anyone is going to screen it here?

I'll have to pick up that book...browse through it, then quickly set it back down.

Excited about the fest, kinda upset I didn't program Iberia into my schedule ;(
Barry, that's exactly what I did. Looked up a few of the cities I'd lived in or traveled to, made a few mental notes, and moved on to the magazine section.

Adam, the best confirmation I've found is a Mobius thread in which someone better-connected-than-I states that Park's film, as well as the Promise, "will eventually get a release in S.F." I also happen to know that the Promise was supposedly screened for local critics yesterday, which lends credence to the statement.
There were maybe five people at the screening of "The Promise" yesterday. LOTS of red in that movie. Red as in please stop.
Interesting post. The issues you discussed are things I always think about when the lineup for a fest comes out. As I'm looking through the program guide, I'm always a little disappointed that this or that film didn't make it. I sometimes find myself wishing that SFIFF would be a bit more daring in their programming. I do understand the need to fill theaters for screenings and I'll admit that, overall, they do a great job.

In the three years I attended SFIFF before moving to Seattle, I think they put forth a good festival each year. I always saw 2-3 films that really blew me away and 1 or 2 of those were usually ones that didn't get a regular engagement or DVD release later in the year. I'm coming down tomorrow and I have 10-12 films to see. I wonder which ones will stick with me this year.
Thanks for the comment. I've wished for more daring programming, too. But what is "daring" anyway? Is it showing the films that have been underexposed at other festivals around the world and therefore arrive with no reputation? Is it showing the ones that, despite strong critical reputations, are likely to alienate the average non-cinephile punter looking for an evening's entertainment? Is it showing the ones already available on DVD in other markets, knowing that the increasing number of folks with region-free players might use that excuse to skip the screening? I think there's something daring about each, and perhaps the most daring of all is housing all these different programming threads under the umbrella of a single event.

I'm curious to know what some of your favorites from previous years were.
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