SIFF 30—the post-mortem

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“I’m so broke, I can’t even afford to rent porn,” announces an indigent streetwalker at the beginning of Madeleine Farley’s Trollywood, a documentary that weaves in and out with the shopping carts hauled around by L.A.’s homeless: the cinematic equivalent of a 3-day drunk.

To her credit, Farley acknowledges the “Bumfights” scandal and her best interview is with one of the victims, a vagrant lured by promises of money and booze into injuring himself deliberately. Farley also films attorneys on both sides of the case. This sequence actually seems to be about something, and it’s somewhat better edited than the rest of Trollywood. And unlike Michael Moore, Farley has the taste to portray Charlton Heston, glimpsed at a homelessness fundraiser, in a positive light. Yet her movie is a loud, indulgent, self-serving mess, chock full of deafening songs and incomprehensible footage.

Trollywood was just another bad film that ran during the final weekend of the now fini 30th Annual Seattle International Film Festival. Quality was down this year; in 2003, I covered only half, perhaps less than half, of the festival, and in that time—missing most of the press screenings and viewing no screener tapes—I saw a greater number of movies that I’d describe as very good to excellent. This season, I watched SIFF programming from April 27 to June 13, and am emerging with a handful of worthwhile works. So be it. When the 29th festival ended, I felt euphoric and maybe a little bit sad; I definitely went through movie withdrawal that summer. With the 30th’s end, I feel nothing.

sifffinal4catalinabestactressThe best news to come from the Golden Space Needle Awards was the selection of Marco Tullio Giordana as Best Director for The Best of Youth. Almost everyone I know who saw this movie felt as if he or she had “lived it.” Best Picture went to another Italian film, the harmless fluff Facing Windows, a movie that likely would have been better if its director Ferzan Ozpetek had explored the gay love story set during WWII—the film he obviously wanted to make—instead of settling for brief flashbacks that play second banana to a glossy, contemporary (and heterosexual) romance. Still, Facing Windows marks a tremendous improvement over last year’s winner, the vulgar, trite Whale Rider, a film (as I wrote in the July 2003 Vigilance) taken to heart by audiences weaned on sitcoms and canned twittering.

Because moviegoers have been conditioned to expect bad television on the big screen, perhaps the popularity of the worthless Garden State shouldn’t be surprising. Zach Braff, whose primary talent consists of being strung out, placed as first runner-up for Best Actor and third runner-up for Best Director. Go figure. By contrast, it was good to see the deserving Catalina Sandino Moreno awarded Best Actress for Maria Full of Grace. But where were the votes for Carmen Maura’s brilliant work in 25 Degrees in Winter? Or for Anne Reid or Julie Delpy or Maya Sansa?

The results in the juried categories were even more dismal. Two of the festival’s worst films won high accolades: Incident at Loch Ness, a one-joke meta-fiction, was accorded the New American Cinema Award; and in a major travesty, jurors awarded the New Director’s Showcase to the supremely ungifted Sébastien Lifshitz, whose surname tells you more about his filmmaking than this quote from the prize-givers, “A film that redefines family with compassion, honesty and exquisite sensitivity, while demonstrating a rare cinematic talent.”

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That redefining, compassionate, honest, exquisite, rare film happens to be Wild Side, a cumbersome piece of self-indulgent, queer cinema trash. Infinitely worse than Lifshitz’ Presque Rien, which at least had sex scenes that weren’t painful to watch, Wild Side shoves the violent humping of transgender prostitutes at us almost right away, but not before we’ve been subjected to a bleached blond tenor tremulously wailing “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” to a rapt audience of transsexuals and drag queens, all of whom sport expressions that testify to mistaking torture for High Art.

“I’m glad your father never saw you like this,” gently coos the dying mother of Pierre-turned-Stephanie, a hideous gorgon with a mannish, severe face, large hoop earrings, and two butch boyfriends who crash at his/her mother’s house while Pierre nurses the invalid with spoonfuls of carrot soup. Lifshitz strews about green field flashbacks to Pierre’s childhood, and crosscuts to montages of his/her future beau honing his craft inside train station washrooms. When the young hustler catches up to the other two-thirds of this ménage a trois, he announces, “I didn’t come 200 kilometers to sleep alone.” The lovers have nothing in common, except rampant humorlessness and an apparent shared predilection for brutal, uncomfortable sex. Lifshitz periodically splices in close-ups of genitalia. These inserts mean absolutely nada: we don’t even know whose balls we’re looking at, and the view isn’t exactly stimulating. Suffering through Wild Side, I recalled Pauline Kael’s notorious jibe at Paul Schrader, circa the 1979 release of Hardcore, and thought it applicable here. Shall I just go on and paraphrase? For Lifshitz to call himself a whore would be vanity—he doesn’t know how to turn a trick.

The next-to-last day of the festival brought a nearly sold-out screening of Emerging Master Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, a film with discreet whispers of wry satire, lush romanticism, and regrettably, a maximum of minimal longueurs, each one more deadpan than the last.

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Ratanaruang uses sound design to some fairly heady effects, such as the ambient solo piano as delicate as pearl, and the drone of a Japanese language instruction tape as background noise. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle lenses vivid underwater photography in a sequence where the suicidal librarian anti-hero fantasizes about drowning; additionally, Doyle creates a housecleaning magic carpet ride in which the debris and clutter of the anti-heroine’s chamber simply take flight, objects whirling back into place of their own inanimate volition. The repressed male librarian, who possesses an extensive wardrobe of gray clothing, finds great solace in washing the dirty dishes of his untidy hostess. Later, Doyle and Ratanaruang pan suggestively across trash washed up on shore: beaches littered to blackness. We live in a dirty world that can never truly be cleansed, Last Life in the Universe tell us. “This is beautiful,” one character remarks, and then the man asks the woman, “Are you sad?” and she replies, “Everybody’s sad.”

I wanted to like this movie. I admire it technically. The fantasies of death and non-death offer sufficient intrigue visually, thematically. I’m not convinced, however, that Ratanaruang and his co-scenarist Prabda Yoon knew where to take the material. When the filmmakers introduce yakuza assassins in the final ten minutes, I knew that Last Life was only a movie about movies, surface clever in the style of Godard, and nothing more. – NPT

June 15, 2004

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