Friday, June 2


49th SFIFF Final Wrap-Up

I can't express how heartening it is to see a new glossy Roxie Film Center calendar on the streets. It's been two years since they printed the last one, and since July of 2004 the only reliable ways to keep up with the theatre's upcoming films have been through the website, newspaper listings, and the occasional Xeroxed flyers. This calendar doesn't tantalize at quite the level I remember from the theatre's repertory glory days in the 1990s, when the theatre seemed to play different pre-code films, foreign masterworks and obscurities, and oddball cult films almost every day. But there are film festivals like Another Hole in the Head (June 9-15) and Frameline (June 16-24). The 48 Hour Film Project happens June 27-29, just in time to prepare for the perhaps-similar Cinemasports 10-hour filmmaking contest that's happening July 23rd as part of the Jewish Film Festival at the Castro. There are also week-long engagements of a diverse array of independent documentaries like Songbirds (today through June 8) and Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (June 8-15) and features like 4 (playing through June 4) and a trio fresh from the big tent International Film Festival: Iron Island (June 30-July 6), Three Times (July 7-13) and Look Both Ways (July 14-20). Two of these were among the many I was disappointed to miss at the festival, and Three Times was perhaps the title I felt I gave the shortest shrift to by jamming it into my packed festival schedule. I admired it, especially the nostalgic first segment in which a soldier uses his brief period of home leave to track down a pool hall girl he had an unconsummated connection with. But I was simply too exhausted to really appreciate the second silent-film tribute segment or the final segment set in modern Taipei.

Sometimes, especially during the over-stimulation of a large, diversely programmed film festival like the SFIFF, I feel like I'm not enjoying the films I see as much as storing them up for later comprehension. It's a frustrating game because often the most intriguing films are the ones that I never find myself with a chance to view again. It's some kind of paradox that the most easily-digestible films are usually the ones I'm least glad I fit into my schedule. In the past couple of years when I've been charged with wrapping up the festival it has required me to create a large block of space between the last screening and my writing process. I'm extremely impressed with folks like Fernando Croce of Slant, who busted out a cogent and comprehensive wrap-up mere days after the festival finished. Perhaps I should try to sequester myself off from reading such material until after I've completed my own process, but I can't help myself. Reading reports from Cannes has been an irresistible distraction each time as well. I thought that since this year I had the outlet of blogging before and during the fest, perhaps I would be able to somehow circumvent that feeling of blockage. But no, there are still too many films I want to write at least a few words on, that I've been carrying with me for the past few weeks, same as ever. But now I'm about to take an out-of-town trip and I must unburden my load, coherent or not. Hopefully at least a few of the words will be ones you haven't seen before.

I'll start with the hardest one: The Wayward Cloud, which so much has been written on already that it seems almost ludicrous for me to add my two cents, but let me try anyway. Tsai Ming-Liang's latest film left me alternately enraptured, confounded, delighted, and on the verge of offended. I know I wasn't alone on any of these responses (some were over the verge of the latter). Which is why I wasn't surprised that, though festival director Graham Leggat in his Castro Theatre introduction enthusiastically called it the best film in the program and proudly recalled that he had to "fight like Hell" to get the sales agent to let him include it, he restrained his praise in his introduction of its second screening, at the Kabuki. Well, at least nobody either night got up and yelled "fuck you" at the screen like a Brisbane festgoer did (see this outstanding but definitely Not Safe For Work link). The Wayward Cloud has been described as Tsai's "summary" film as it encapsulates themes from all his previous features, but it should be noted that his introduction of pornographic images to his palette charges the film with an acidity very much beyond what he's shown us before. Some have seen it as something of an anti-porn manifesto, and the way the film's final sequence assaults the audience, pointing up the width of the chasm between our reactions to "fun, enjoyable" porn and truly disturbing images makes me inclined to agree. But I remember how I felt his 1997 film The River was also a critique of the way filmmaking wrecks actors' bodies and souls and have to consider that the Wayward Cloud is in part using porn as a blunter, more apparent hammer to drive the same nail. Does Tsai hate his profession?

I don't think Robert Altman does. You can tell from his a Prairie Home Companion that he still is enjoying the process of making movies, perhaps as much as ever. A number of critics have stacked the deck against this film by saying it doesn't measure up to treasured classics like Nashville. Let me try to reshuffle a bit by saying I think it's almost up there with the Company. Which, if you think that's faint praise, is on most days my favorite Altman film for its approximation of a cinema verite documentary feel yet adherence to a very satisfying narrative form. Altman's cameras in a Prairie Home Companion take a different approach, gently weaving around the performer subjects, always uncovering a new angle. It makes for a more self-conscious picture, for sure, but then you wouldn't want to be lulled into forgetting you weren't just listening to the radio but watching a movie. I can't wait to watch it all happen again after it opens June 9th, and I hope it's as big a hit as any of the recently-Oscared director's films. Is the nation ready for the "Bad Jokes"?

A Prairie Home Companion is mostly bound to the stage of the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, and it's the strongest of a loose trilogy of Minnesota films I uncovered at the festival. The Bukowski adaptation Factotum and the documentary Al Franken: God Spoke were perfectly serviceable films but they both fit into that easily-digestible category I mentioned above. Factotum a little less so, as it concerns a circle of misfits wallowing in liquor and low-self-esteem, and sometimes veers into unsettling territory. But mostly it's a film built on the wit of its screenplay and likely its original source (which I've not read), though director Bent Hamer does a good job using the unglamorous Minneapolis locations to help capture a mood of languishment for his actors and for Matt Dillon's detached voiceovers to exist in. As for Al Franken: God Spoke, I enjoyed it but nothing about it stuck to my ribs.

I got more out of a pair of political documentaries that showed me things I didn't already know a lot about: Iraq in Fragments and the Dignity of the Nobodies. The latter is my first taste from a venerated filmmaker I've been wanting to discover for myself for years: Argentina's Fernando Solanas. The film is unsurprisingly self-assured. Solanas provides a narration, but sparingly, giving most of his information through images of his country's political turmoil, and through interviews, not with self-proclaimed experts sitting in comfy living rooms, but people on the front lines of poverty and protest: women who organize disruptions of auctions to sell off the land of cash-poor farmers at a pittance, operators of a makeshift soup kitchen in a destitute district outside Buenos Aires, Patagonian workers who formed a collective when a corporation shuttered their ceramics factory, etc. In the end the film sent viewers out the theatre doors infected with optimism for people power.

Perhaps the images in Iraq in Fragments wouldn't have been so astonishing to me if my television was hooked up to anything other than my VHS, LaserDisc and DVD players, but I rather doubt it. Director James Longley took the completely unembedded route in finding subjects to follow among the wreckage of this broken country. The film is split into three segments, the first follows an 11-year-old in Baghdad, the second a political movement in the Shiite South and the third another youngster in the Kurdish North. Fragments, indeed. Though I remember Longley's previous Gaza Strip being an example of pure vérité, Iraq in Fragments is not, as the main subjects of each fragment narrate their personal outlook as a counterpoint to the images of their daily life shown on the screen. As Gregg Rickman of the SF Weekly succinctly noted, it "plays like a Terrence Malick art film".

But my very favorite documentary of the festival was Alan Berliner's self-examination Wide Awake. Berliner traces his struggles with his insomnia, which he recognizes as incompatible with his family life, yet a part of him wants to cling to as a cradle for his creativity. He regularly stays up until just before dawn editing and organizing a vast archive of images, sounds and artifacts (which he takes the viewer on a hilariously manic tour of in one brilliant sequence.) It seems to be a technique he uses to cope with the over-stimulation of his New York lifestyle, but it yields real artistic dividends; the level of accomplishment displayed in this film is sufficient proof. Most remarkable is the way he uses simple editing techniques like image repetition and archival clip montages to simulate sleeplessness, dreams, and other recreations of the mind's eye. Berliner called himself a natural collagist in the post-film q-and-a session, which made one scene with his young son all the more poignant. After spreading hundreds of photographs out on his studio floor in a circular pattern, he places the toddler in the center and films how he reacts to the images surrounding him. Is this a genetic test to see if little Eli Berliner shares his father's proclivity for collecting and juxtaposing? And if he does, is there any extreme Daddy can go to in guarding his son's sleep patterns that won't be counteracted by an inclination to follow in his wakeful footsteps, succumbing to the modern world of constant media barrage?

Shifting gears to a more quietly ruminative film, I looked at Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw. I was intrigued by the description in the program guide, but I didn't expect that reading it would leave so few surprises for the film to unveil. The scenes of a young cyclist riding around Japan turned out to be little more than just that: shots of a cyclist riding around Japan, and they comprised the majority of the film. They were punctuated by a few encounters with villagers and flashbacks to things happening (click the above link if you want to know what they all are) but no sense of mystery or mood of the kind that pervades the most deceptively "boring" films that I adore. The film does include some overt political educating that David Walsh was able to appreciate, but all I could think was such high-minded sermonizing could be more effectively assimilated by reading a good book or article, and my uncharitable side wondered if its inclusion was director Koji Wakamatsu attempting some kind of atonement for his career making pornographic "pink films." Still, it's the kind of thing that should be seen at festivals and I in no way begrudge its inclusion, only programming consultant Roger Garcia's overly detailed summary. I wished I'd seen more of Mr. Garcia at screenings this year as his introductions are usually some of the wittiest and most illuminating at the festival, and I really liked what I saw of his selections for the IndieAsia spotlight (Looking For Madonna and especially a Short Film About the Indio Nacional, which I wrote a bit about here), but I wonder if I might have gotten more out of Wakamatsu's film if he'd been a bit more restrained about certain plot points in his write-up.

In trying to evaluate the festival as a whole, I'm trying to resist the temptation to remember the names of films I'd hoped would be programmed but weren't, and all I have to do is recall that I couldn't have fit anything more into my schedule without taking time off of work, and still I missed out on titles I'd hotly anticipated like Bashing and the Lost Domain. As for the new films I did see, the 49th SFIFF acquitted itself nicely for the most part, with only a few real disappointments. Certainly better overall than last year, though hopefully not as good as next year's golden anniversary edition. That's right, I'm expecting continuous improvement, even in the face of reluctant distributors and sales agents, mounting costs, and increased competition (perceived or real) from the growing DVD import market. Show more films that exhibit the unique essences of celluloid, like the Regular Lovers and the Sun did this year. Fly in bold filmmakers who can lucidly talk about their work, like Raya Martin and Alan Berliner did this year. Put a little higher priority on retrospective selections, and keep up the good work with the short film programs and the experimentation in new directions (like the Kinotek spotlight). I'll be checking in again this October when the Film Society tries its hand at putting on an Animation Festival called Supercollider. But right now, I'm on the next plane out of of Frisco. Back soon, I promise.

Thanks for your take on Wayward Cloud. Your interpretation of The River is something I didn't pay attention to, I thought then, it was an in-joke to make Cinema (his admired colleague ) the cause of the neck pain. But in retrospect, you're right, coupled with Wayward Cloud, this could mean a profound critique of the industry. Although I'm sure he loves cinema, but like most cutting-edge auteurs he feels like the mainstream movies really put down the idea of cinema as a whole...
I'm back, and I added a couple links (and even tweaked a word or two, sorry purists) to the above piece, which I finished literally minutes before boarding the plane to San Diego. When I was in S.D. I noticed that the Fallen Idol was playing at a theatre called the Ken, but unfortunately I was unable to squeeze any moviegoing into my schedule. So now I've missed the print twice on its tour. Ah, I had fun with friends anyway.

Harry, glad you stopped by. Given how important water is to Tsai's palette of images and themes, I couldn't help but make the connection. Of course, water can always be polluted, as it is in the River. Interestingly, watermelon is one of the few fruits that I was told to avoid when living in Southeast Asia, as unsafe water is often injected into melons to make them weigh more at the market, where they're sold by the pound. Is it a coincidence that such a corruptable fruit plays the key role in a film about the corruption of his characters?

I'm not sure Tsai is against mainstream cinema. Remember that he loves old kung fu films and Grace Chang musicals, which were certainly mainstream in their day. It may be that he's somehow saddened by a discontinuity between the nostalgic feelings he has for older films and the painful realities of making movies in the modern era. And if so, this discontinuity may be expressed in his usage of lavish musical numbers to represent his characters' fantasies.
You're right, Tsai obviously loves musicals and old movies. I might put too much of my own agenda into this interpretation. But he doesn't make mainstream accessible movies himself. And it's not because he uses porno in his last film that he pays homage to this genre though. ;)
Although I believe he expressed himself at the Berlin press conference his near-contempt for traditional acting or the Star System.

I don't know about this watermelon "urban legend" there, but it's too popular a fruit to become a negative symbol. It is ubiquitous in asian films.
Also characters aren't corrupted really, it's just sexual fantasy... ;)
Asians and their watermelons!! Y'know, the Japanese actually developed a square watermelon for stacking purposes: how efficient!
Yeah I heard about those. I wonder if any Japanese filmmakers have used them in a film?

I guess everything's fantasy in the world of films, Harry.
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