(A Few) Notes on SIFF 30, volume one

siff04posterThis year, I told myself, “I will see it all.” Nothing halfway, no coming in at the midpoint as I did last year, no mere double-digit list of movies seen and conquered. I would settle for nothing less than a triple-digit merit badge this festival, and furthermore, I would accomplish the feat without resorting to screener tapes. I said all of this three weeks ago, before the press screenings began on April 27. It’s now the night of May 19, the eve of SIFF’s official beginning, and you know what? I am fatigued. Bushed. Worn out.

Of course I haven’t just fashionably sat around at the movies all day long. I moved from Ravenna to Phinney, built and rebuilt this website, battled an awfully persistent Blaster Worm on my PC and other such in-the-bloody-way activities. Enough about that. On to the cinema, and what I found there.

siff4mariagraceWithout a doubt, by a considerable margin, the honor of being the best film so far belongs to Maria Full of Grace, a superb debut by the writer-director Joshua Marston and leading actress Catalina Sandino Moreno. Let me start off with a wild comparison: Maria Full of Grace recalls John Schlesinger’s kinetic masterpiece Midnight Cowboy in its odyssey of an “innocent” who struggles for a place within a corrupt new world. In temperament and rhythm, however, they are nothing alike. Marston has made a drug-smuggling film of amazing restraint, a character study more than a catalog of horrors. A young woman in Colombia discovers she’s pregnant. She neither loves nor desires to marry her boyfriend, and in a refreshingly grown-up scene she tells him so. The career pickings are slim for Maria, who removes thorns from roses in a flower factory, and when a “nice” boy whom she meets at a dance ushers her gently into trafficking heroin, she doesn’t have the luxury to say no. Disturbing yet not graphic, the movie puts us inside the skins of “drug mules,” the luckless South American peasants who swallow horse-sized pellets of dope and excrete them in a bathtub to the benefit of pushers and junkies, but not necessarily to the mules themselves. Moreno never appears to be acting; her Maria is at once naïve and strangely savvy — the survivor’s instinct. As Carla, a Colombian immigrant in Jackson Heights, Queens who opens her apartment to Maria, the unheralded Patricia Rae astonished me with her pitch perfect emotional range.


My runner-up favorite The Best of Youth you may read about at length under separate file. Two enthralling yet problematic documentaries, The Corporation and Paper Clips, provide intense viewing and the promise of heated discussions afterward. Here’s my main issue with The Corporation: as gripping and essential as the movie is, shouldn’t co-directors Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar have directly pursued our nation’s judiciary? The courts are, after all, where corporate entities obtained their insidious, vine-like spiral around every aspect of government, media, and the lives we live. The filmmakers cite the U.S. Supreme Court’s misuse of the 14th amendment, designed originally to protect freed slaves, transforming it to bestow “person” status on big business. I expected more probing into judicial corruption. It never comes, although the film acknowledges still another nightmare decision by our Supreme Court: the ruling that life forms can be patented as “inventions.” In this sequence, there’s a terrifyingly sustained reverse tracking shot down the corridor of a patent office—eerier than any science-fiction horror film you’ll ever see. Abbott, Achbar, and their collaborator Joel Bakan gather interviews across the spectrum. Two standouts are the genteel Ray Anderson, the CEO of a carpet company, a self-described “reformed plunderer,” and the repulsive Lucy Hughes, vice president of Initiative Media and very much an unreformed plunderer. The spectacle of Ms. Hughes—with her stiff ironed hair, her rabbit teeth, her squeaky voice, unctuous manner, and her “power dressing” red blazer (padded, of course), as she prattles about exploiting the vulnerabilities of very young children with her company’s aerial bombardment style ad campaigns—makes a powerful case for Total Anarchy.

Deep southern accents are the stars of Paper Clips, and I loved listening to the Tennessee voices here as they speak their own honeyed truths. Linda Hooper, a middle school principal whose eyes brighten when she says, “Let me tell you about our children,” initiates a program for 8th-graders to study the Holocaust. The results became international news. The students of Whitwell (pop. 2,000) set out to collect six million paper clips, one for each murdered Jew. They eventually acquire paper clips in the neighborhood of 29 million, as well as an old railway car once used as death camp transport to display their amassment. It’s nigh impossible not to be moved, especially during one man’s account of how racism passes from fathers to sons, and his determination that his two boys won’t inherit it from their daddy. The Washington Post reporter Dita Smith unearths the origins of the KKK nearby this little community just north of Chattanooga, and that’s the first and last we hear of that. The documentary coasts heavily on sentiment, so much so that I became suspicious. I wondered after a while why there was no mention of slavery. What about the Middle East? As long as intolerance is the topic on everyone’s mind, must the school’s remembrance begin and end with European Jewry? Nonetheless, Paper Clips should be mandatory viewing for the professional Holocaust-denier Hutton Gibson and his darling Mel.

giovannaLet me say this about the Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno in Facing Windows. She’s the first onscreen smoker I’ve seen in a long time who looks, moves, and breathes as if she really, truly, genuinely needed a cigarette—that it isn’t just the director’s in absentia fashion statement. Directed by Turkish-born Ferzan Ozpetek, one of this year’s Emerging Masters at SIFF, the movie isn’t much beyond beautiful surfaces. Yet the sheen of the images and the absolute rightness of the actors compensate for what a lot of nonsense it is. Influenced by Hitchcock but not oppressively so, Ozpetek and his cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli pay homage to Vertigo in a hypnotically layered meeting between Lorenzo and Giovanna, a pair of frustrated voyeurs, and an elderly man whom they believe to be called Simone. The camera voluptuously circles their café table in a style that suggests Scottie’s embrace of Judy, once he’d completely remade her in Madeleine’s image.

siff12lisachessFrom here on, the quality of the films drops precipitously. Michael Pressman’s intermittently OK yet ultimately godawful Frankie and Johnny Are Married plays like Adaptation on Geritol. Directing within the film a production of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Pressman criticizes his lead actor Alan Rosenberg: “If he’s too aggressive, it works against the comedy.” What kind of director would fail to recognize that humor is aggression? The softhearted, sentimental schlub Pressman has zero sense of tone or pace. He turns Rosenberg into a cartoon self-parody, yet Pressman never confronts his own oozing egomania. He’s quieter, less flashy than Rosenberg, and utterly blind to the me-me-me arrogance of making a film about his own virtue. If Rosenberg weren’t crucified on the altar of convenient villainy, there would be no movie. In this case, perhaps there shouldn’t be.

If it’s true, as David Denby states in the New Yorker that Von Trier’s Dogville is “avant-gardism for idiots,” then where does that leave Annette Oleson’s In Your Hands? This ascetically produced Danish film adheres to certified Dogme principles, such as that every character must be punished—Thou Shalt Not Have Fun—flattened, crushed by the anvil of contrivance. In its borrowed Bergman theme, the faithlessness of the faithful, rendered in artless visual terms, In Your Hands represents the absolute worst of poseur cinema, the same dubious chic of Young Adam and Morvern Callar. Oleson contrasts a taciturn, chain-smoking faith healer (serving time in a women’s prison) with an inexperienced and altogether jealous young female priest. The prisoner has killed her infant daughter; the pregnant priest considers having an abortion. The obvious dolled-up in cleverness always produces a certain cinematic sense of dislocation, wouldn’t you agree?

The Iranian Deep Breath, though gorgeously photographed by Ali Loghmani with stunningly androgynous underwater shots and wide compositions of gray steps in the rain, won’t do much to advance this emerging national cinema. We watch a handsome young drifter named Kamran slowly kill himself on a diet of many cigarettes and no food. The movie never once addresses how he came to be so passionately disaffected.

At the bottom of the trash heap, we find a trio of German films: Jagged Harmonies, Jester Till, and Learning to Lie. If I had known in advance that Learning to Lie was written and directed by one of the scenarists responsible for the witless Good Bye, Lenin, I would have stayed in bed that morning. Less vulgar and stupid than Lenin, Learning to Lie provides more grim evidence that there’s a new generation of German filmmakers predominantly influenced by American sitcoms. LTL follows a homely hero who manages to land several ladies in the sack, even though his fey, bland, rabbit-like non-expression fails to mask his status as a vacuous bore with no thoughts or opinions of his own. His first love is a willowy blond with straight cornsilk hair — the dream girl who exists only in the manuscripts of nerdy screenwriters. Technically, the film isn’t quite as inept as Good Bye, Lenin: the 1968-born director Hendrik Handloegten manages to keep the boom mics out of sight. He borrows from David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey, lifting the same haunting mandolin melody (Morphine’s “In Spite of Me”) for his end credits.

Mirthless, dreadful, flat, offensive, unfunny, and shrill, the animated “family” film Jester Till (dubbed into English for the tykes) impressed me only by the record number of walkouts it prompted at the press screening. The first mass exodus took place about five minutes in; after ten minutes, another wave rolled out, and those of us who stayed until the bitter end felt that life was a bit lesser and cheaper.

siff14jaggedharmJagged Harmonies begins with J.S. Bach tearing off his powdered wig and screaming heavenward. For some reason, the filmmakers felt it necessary to impose a modern, original score amid the baroque sounds of the mid 18th-century. I can think of no worse insult to the memory of a composer, and it shows that the Swiss director Dominique de Rivaz has neither affinity for nor belief in Bach’s music. We’re treated to snippets of solo keyboard works and an abundance of inane dialogue, such as when Frederick II of Prussia plots to trip up the Master: “We’ll make him improvise a fugue in three parts. No, better still, a fugue in six parts!” Which brought to mind Mel Brooks as Moses trying to decide how many commandments there should be. The movie disgracefully portrays Frederick as a pathetic loony, as mincingly effete as a Fassbinder queen. Rivaz’s tastelessness reaches a kind of apotheosis in the scene where Frederick runs around shouting, “I want to live!” after a failed suicide attempt. Rivaz, who hasn’t a clue how to render emotional complexity, just leaves the poor over-actor exposed. The production values are on par with the script and direction—a shoddy mess.

siff16lotuspondI haven’t made it to much Asian cinema yet. I’m hoping another wonderful discovery along the lines of last year’s innovative Taiwanese Love at 7-11 will pop up. The Sri Lankan Scent of the Lotus Pond boasts a courageous and brilliant performance by the lead actress Kaushalya Fernando as Gothami, a garment factory worker who falls for the animalistic charms of a serviceman who brutalizes her. Fernando, an unorthodox beauty, somewhat resembles the young Abbey Lincoln. The two women have a similar jaw structure, a certain plangent quality. If Lincoln had ever had a role this good, she might never have stopped being in movies. In its understated way, Scent of the Lotus Pond portrays sexual attraction with a vitality that’s missing from American films. When Gothami sneaks through the woods to spy on Vipula, the man of her obsession, and his girlfriend Mangala, she watches their attempt at lovemaking by a tree. Mangala feels too self-conscious, and she flees, leaving Vipula (Duminda De Silva) aroused and alone. He masturbates, and Gothami, hiding a few feet away, doesn’t burst through the foliage and jump him; she remains hidden in her loneliness and isolation. She continues to watch Vipula, and drowning in desire, she, too, masturbates in the woods. And it isn’t presented as bizarre or sadistic or gross as it might be in dishonest Hollywood product. At two hours and twenty minutes, however, the film runs vastly long. Scent of the Lotus Pond covers every step of Gothami’s journey: from infatuation to joy to terror to numbness and finally to a kind of peace. The remarkable scenes become fewer, and boredom sets in. The writer-director Satyajit Maitipe has said that he wanted to reflect a “landscape of a different kind…the emotional geography of the men and women, the colors, shapes and moods of their faces.” For all the ways that the film doesn’t succeed, Maitipe yet accomplishes precisely that. – NPT

May 19, 2004