Taste, Disguised as Fear: Observations on movies seen at SIFF 33

The 33rd Seattle International Film Festival ended two weeks ago; it’s taken me this long to gain enough distance to sort and sift through all I might conceivably have to say on the subject. Even so, the movies under discussion here represent only a small fraction of what I took in. There were several screenings I walked out on, a few more I considered walking out on, and perhaps a baker’s dozen of screener discs I couldn’t eject quickly enough. This year, as in other years, festival officials emphasized the sheer quantity of it all: 25 days, 600 screenings, X-number of North American premieres. They take this approach, because qualitatively, especially this time, there was almost nothing to point to. Which isn’t to say that weren’t some good films, but that they were in short supply. By a wide margin, the best film to surface at SIFF 2007 was Stephen Kijak’s documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, and I write that not as a Walker fan, because – to my loss, I now know – I had never before heard his stunning baritone voice and his orchestral arrangements that, as one of Walker’s collaborators speaks of, show the influence of Delius and Sibelius, but that to my ear also owe something, in the bristling intensity of the writing for strings, to Koechlin’s great travelogue-in-sound Les Heures Persanes. While I don’t want to claim that Kijak has reinvented the music documentary, he’s certainly sidestepped the pitfalls of the genre and devised, quite ingeniously, abstract visualizations of Walker’s songs from the early 1970s that seem all of a piece with the music and the music’s era, soft-focused, delicately hallucinatory mosaics.

There were other good or mostly good films, including Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts, Tom DiCillo’s Delirious, Anthony Hopkins’s directorial debut, the handsomely produced Slipstream, Jessica Yu’s Protagonist, and a pair of animated films: from Japan, the ambitious Tekkonkinkreet, and from France, a sweetly watercolor-like fable of a unicorn and a tall dog of a princess called U. But this piece isn’t about them. All of these movies I’d like to address, at some point, but for now, I’ll quote something that Hopkins said at the post-Slipstream Q&A. Like Goya’s Ghosts, Slipstream could only be the work of an angry old man, angry that younger generations don’t know the history of their own nations (Germans who don’t know about the concentration camps; Americans oblivious to the Cuban missile crisis), and angry at the ways in which our culture-at large shapes that ignorance and feeds from it. Hopkins, who as a child lived through “the nightmare in Europe,” cannot abide “gobbledegook” about “issues” or the reduction of everything to “karma,” and he had this to say on May 29: “News today is all commercials. It’s all about Katie Couric’s new hairstyle and Larry King. It’s insanity, and it’s putting this country away… Our minds are anesthetized by mainstream consumer culture. I look at Couric, and I’m mesmerized by her inanity. This is why the U.S. and Britain are a mess – we’re hypnotized by luxury and opulence.”

“Hypnotized by luxury and opulence” could go a long way in accounting for why the festival selection was so much worse than in seasons past. If you attend these things with any frequency, you see the same people at screenings year after year and overhear what may well be the same conversations or points-of-view expressed again and again. This was my fourth SIFF, beginning from 2003 and skipping 2006, and I knew from the self-congratulatory beams emanating from pass-holders and members of the press alike over the turgid period piece Golden Door that it was going to be a long festival. When people love crap, why offer them anything better, unless it’s only by mistake. Conversely, some of the small films from abroad that took the greatest number of risks were the same ones that I could hear the white, affluent, mostly elderly, and mostly overweight pass-holders vilifying. Made on small budgets, yet with generous insight into humanity, Malaysia’s Elephant and the Sea and South Korea’s Woman on the Beach met with an unwarranted amount of pass-holder grumbling; it rapidly became a truism that if the pass-holders were upset by it, then you have a movie worth making every possible effort to see or get seen. You could hear idiotic remarks made about almost anything outside a pass-holder’s comfort zone. In the opening moments of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, during that dazzling leap from circus trapeze to Tarzan vine, a retiree seated directly behind me bellowed, “Bring back Lassie!” And after Goya’s Ghosts, a white-haired apparition, riding the same bus into downtown that I was on, complained, “I wish there had been more art and fewer prison scenes.” Well, when did Francisco Goya live? Why, during the Spanish Inquisition! His art was a reflection of the time and place in which he lived, and Forman’s film, which among other things depicts a woman in jail being raped by a priest as they pray together, doesn’t gloss over the violence. (The Seattle critics hated Goya’s Ghosts, too – who could ask for anything more in terms of an endorsement?) So, Mr. Hopkins, then, was quite right, though it isn’t only the young who are willfully in the dark.

womanonthebeachSo that the universe won’t be lonely: Ko Hyeon-gang and Kim Seung-woo in Hong Sang-soo’s Woman on the Beach

I’ve already written twice about Woman on the Beach, albeit briefly both times, and I mention it here primarily out of amazement over the hostility the picture encountered not only at SIFF, but in Portland as well, at the film festival there in February. Last winter, a white yuppie foamed at the mouth, “People hate Woman on the Beach, they hate it,” then in the same breath she rhapsodized over the tepid Away From Her. In Seattle, a pass-holder went on at length about a couple getting up and walking out on Hong Sang-soo’s movie, and how a few yahoos in the audience applauded their departure! This same person then shared his (mis-) perceptions of the movie’s main character, a highly sexed filmmaker named Kim Joong-rae, whom he regarded as a villain and – the ultimate Seattle finger-wagging putdown – not a nice guy. While Joong-rae’s behavior is less than admirable, isn’t it Hong’s point that he’s a heel? (And do we go to the movies to cheer on admirable behavior?) I thought that Hong’s conception of Joong-rae was the most brilliant aspect of Woman on the Beach, because in both the writing and in the delightfully unselfish leading man performance by Kim Seung-woo, we get artists (or “creative types”) as they truly are in life. Not as noble “our betters,” but as conniving neurotic prigs, and what’s more, Hong dares to make this entertaining and light. The film has several spot-on exchanges, yet I keep remembering the hotel room dinner wherein Joong-rae rails against a decision by Moon-sook (the lovely Ko Hyeon-gang) to live in Europe for a while. Appalled by the prospect of white males finding her “exotic,” simply by virtue of her being Asian, he gruffly informs her: ”You have to live where you were born, whether you’re ugly or not.” She retorts: “You’re different from your films. Sorry, but you’re actually just another Korean man.” Throughout this, palpable sexual energy builds between them. He might be a jerk, yet he’s a slinky, alluring jerk, and she sleeps with him anyway.

There’s another thread worth commenting on: In a few scenes, we observe a couple on the beach, walking a beautiful white Jindo. The owners seem proud to show off their dog to Moon-sook, who takes quite a liking to the sweet-natured canine, but when the weekend ends, the male half of the couple abandons the dog on the highway. The Jindo barks in the direction of the sped-off car, to no avail. I’m sure that even Seattleites (to say nothing of Portlanders) have mistreated or abandoned their trusting pets at one time or another, just as these same “enlightened” citizens have betrayed, humiliated, or stranded their friends and lovers, as if, like the Jindo, they ceased to matter, thus making Woman on the Beach too honest for comfort. Seattle, after all, is a sort of never-neverland in which a 50-year-old, flute-playing, “poetry”-reading, high-school tennis instructor can, without a scrap of irony, bill himself as a “Buddhist life coach,” yet think nothing of reciting sexually suggestive verse (of his own devising) to under-age girls. And that reminds me – a lie that’s often trotted out during SIFF has to do with how “sophisticated” movie audiences are here, but based on the caliber of the films derided and the ones championed, I’ve yet to encounter evidence of that.

Before delving into a sampler of crowd-pleasing bombs, let me sing a few choruses of praise for How is Your Fish Today? With a dry sense of humor not often visited upon movie screens, Xiaolu Guo’s 83-minute meta-fiction could serve as an object lesson for how to present a character satirically and affectionately at once, without either condemning or condescending. Guo reveals her mastery of a technique Alexander Payne often tries yet never quite nails, and she does so with such skillfulness and precision that ham-fisted moviegoers didn’t get it. The film’s 33-year-old hipster protagonist is a failed screenwriter (all his scripts have been banned by the government) who subjects his beginning screenwriting students to Fassbinder, Pasolini, and Rohmer as potential models of inspiration, then cannot deduce why the students split prior to the post-screening discussions. “Where do they all want to go?” he muses, as the camera treats us to nice, high-angle shots of the tops of telephone poles and wires stretching in every direction, an image accompanied by the superb violin playing of Ensemble Chi 2, which extends the mood of wondering and wandering. Afterwards, when I was standing in line before The Missing Star, I could hear an exceptionally loud pass-holder and her companion complain mightily about How is Your Fish Today? “I can tell you why they all left!” she blustered in regard to the scene just described. She seemed awfully serious, impervious to the sublime leg-pulling of the filmmakers’ little jokes.

nighttrainRao Hui rides the night train in How is Your Fish Today? (Photo courtesy of Xiaolu Guo productions)

Part of the joy of this film stems from the accuracy with which it captures a writer’s life, the life of a certain kind of writer, in all its unflattering glory. Rao Hui deserves a medal for lending his name and face to the voice-over he recorded to go along with the tracking shots of his modest, high-rise Beijing apartment, a place where a pet fish can be christened “Belle de Jour,” and where a trip to the bathroom provides an occasion for our writer to tell us that after immersion in Harrison Ford genre movies, he’s penned what he regards as a commercially savvy screenplay, only to have his producer inform him that it’s the worst script he’s ever read. “Deadpan” doesn’t quite approximate the slyness of Hui’s line readings. He sports a terrifically glum facial expression, and the movie fetishes his cigarette habit to the nth degree, in some cases granting us entire frames of mouth-dangled smokes, making it all the more fitfully amusing when he starts frequenting a gym: “I found myself a personal trainer. He is a very happy man.”

Perhaps the most inventive moment arrives, after we’ve been watching Hui putter around his apartment for a while, when the movie discloses his job as a TV presenter of American movies that made it past the Chinese censors, i.e., such predictably tame fare as The Interpreter, Lord of the Rings, and so on. Admitting that he’s “glad the show comes on after midnight,” Hui watches himself making the taped introductions from the sofa of a studio set that’s much brighter and cheerier than his own flat; indeed, the visual contrast between his perky, upbeat, nattily attired TV persona, seen in a box, side by side in the larger frame with the drab, moping, chain-smoking introvert we’ve come to know Hui as, is one of this movie’s most astutely observed details. There’s a reviewer I often see at screenings and festivals – no, it won’t be necessary to identify him by name – who has a similar split: dead and cold in private, but when he’s “on” at some public function, becomes frighteningly akin to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I’m always a little uneasy when exposed to this transformation – am I the only person in the room who knows the extent to which he’s faking it? So, bravo, then, to Guo and Hui for bringing such a rarely acknowledged schism into the light.

How is Your Fish Today? has other virtues, notably composer Matt Scott’s evocative string score, which ranges from contemplative to frenzied as the director herself shifts tones, and there’s a great, guttural passage on board a night train wherein the basses play in their lower registers, the arcing of the bows arranged to sound like the thrusting of daggers. Guo combines this with shots of Hui, as he heads north to the China-Russia border, scratching through the ice on a frozen-over window of the moving train; the textures appealed to my senses so strongly that I could feel the coldness, almost touch the iciness as bits of frost left the portal, revealing only the dark underneath. The film’s parallel story, that of a character Hui creates and ultimately follows, isn’t nearly as compelling or witty as the writer’s own minimal existence, but it affords nonetheless Rui’s observation of the itinerant young man who dwells in his imagination: “He is somehow lost, and he can only find himself through the people he meets on his journey.”

How is Your Fish Today? doesn’t have an American distributor, and neither does another festival film shot in China, Gianni Amelio’s The Missing Star. Both merit wider attention in the States, if only to irritate and befuddle the middle-class whites who subsist on fluff and such cinematic equivalents of flat champagne as Golden Door and La Vie en Rose, two of this summer’s ghastliest specimens of mainstream swill in art-house accoutrements. More on those anon, but to The Missing Star, briefly.

The best reason to see it, if you can, is to hear Franco Piersanti’s sinuous original score, one of the most hypnotically perfect accompaniments to film imagery I can recall being deluged by since the music Ry Cooder composed for Paris, Texas. My ear couldn’t discern exactly what Piersanti has done; it sounds as if he’s using a traditional Chinese instrument, the erhu, weaving the solos around low orchestral strings, but then it could be a Western violin tuned to the scale of an erhu. Either way, Lisa Green plays the solo role with spare, mournful restraint, and I savored every note. Even the most innocuous scene, such as one in which the two main characters eat breakfast with chopsticks, acquires richer meaning when set against the Piersanti/Green. The movie itself is a mixed bag, but I enjoyed cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s mist-gray-green palette in footage of a steamer traversing the Yangtze. The fine actor Sergio Castellitto plays a role not unlike what Jack Lemmon once specialized in – the decent, honest, working man caught up in an industry that gives not an iota for decency or honesty. Amelio’s scenario never becomes as overwrought as the perils Lemmon faced, yet his movie, a bitter pill to swallow, stands out in bas-relief to all the false optimism (The Lives of Others) and cop-out ambiguity (again, Golden Door) clogging art cinema screens right now.

If some of the most un- and under-appreciated works at the 33rd Seattle International Film Festival were Asian, well, then, so was one of the worst. In the last year or so, I’ve begun to see in a new light certain Asian directors whose earlier, robotically acclaimed films had bored me. Catching up with Café Lumiere on DVD last summer, it became the first Hou Hsiao-hsien movie I’ve been able to watch from start to finish (and be captivated by), something I cannot say for the primitive Puppetmaster or the deadly Flowers of Shanghai. With The World, the doors opened for me to love Jia Zhang-ke, whereas I had walked out on Platform. I also took a second and third look at 2046 and found that it wasn’t an indiscriminate mess, as I’d thought on first viewing, but that it succeeds at least for the first two-thirds. (I’ll still think of Wong Kar-wai as more of a sculptor than a storyteller.) And even as the festival began, one of the most gratifying discoveries was Syndromes and a Century, easily, except for a dud scene in the second half, one of the best films of the year, and this emerging from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Tropical Malady, from two years ago, I found deplorable. Given these sea changes in my consciousness (or in the filmmakers’ respective growth as artists), I suspected that I might be more attuned to the latest endeavor from Tsai Ming-Liang, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. At SIFF 30, I found Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn to be “a self-consciously static bore that has pleased a lot of people who prefer theories to movies.” Alas, with Sleep Alone, Tsai proceeds on his trajectory as the most unclothed charlatan in world cinema today.

sleepaloneFar worse than Goodbye Dragon Inn, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone plays like a porno film that’s had the sex scenes excised, leaving only dopey foreplay. I don’t know whom Tsai is kidding – he should just go ahead and shoot soft-core. The movie consists of guys with moderately nice bodies, either shirtless or in skimpy tank-tops, and yes, I know the weather’s hot in Malaysia, chain-smoking and giving extended sponge baths to other semi-nude men, for no particular reason, when we could all be watching them enjoy a good fuck instead. The most fun thing about the festival screening I attended was sitting back and counting the number of walkouts. It’s a picture that could only be revered by severely mentally ill, deeply closeted whack jobs, which, I’m afraid, describes the film’s apologists to a T. In one of the sponge bath scenes, Tsai’s focal point is the prostrate recipient’s engorged package, which remains erect through his white bikini panties during the entire sequence. Another lengthy cleaning involves a comatose man in a diaper having the areas around his privates scrubbed vigorously, albeit by a woman. (Was there an outbreak of heterosexuality when no one was looking?) This scene, I decided, serves as a metaphor for the vegetative idiots who pretend to find value in this sort of thing, say with the hospital nurse as a stand-in for Tsai, proffering his mindless zealots the hand-job they crave. There is a bravura image in the final scene – the mattress that descends slowly from the top center of the frame, carrying three sleeping passengers, a regular Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, as it floats down the “river” of a flooded basement, but by that point, who cares?

One thing I noticed about the festival pass-holders: They will grant inordinate amounts of slack to bad, poorly-paced films from Italy and France, whereas they are not as forgiving to other countries, especially not to Asian countries. I cannot fathom the appeal of the somniferous Golden Door, which I denounced in the June 20 issue of Willamette Week. To that capsule, I have two items to add. One, even though writer-director Emanuele Crialese, maker of the awful Respiro, put much research into the passage of Sicilian immigrants to America in the early twentieth-century, his most fascinating findings are in the press notes, not on screen. In the official Miramax kit, which is what I think most critics are reviewing and responding to, Crialese quotes from letters he discovered at the Ellis Island archives, missives from the newly arrived to their friends and relations who remained in Europe, and those materials, even relayed in fragments, have a gravity to them that Crialese couldn’t or didn’t convey. “These were people who were now working 20-hour days in factories,” Crialese says in the production notes, “yet they always wrote to their loved ones back home that the streets were paved with gold. No matter what they were experiencing, they kept alive the idea that America was beautiful.” The impulse behind that perpetuation of lies goes totally unexplored in Golden Door. Two, there’s the anachronistic use of Nina Simone on the soundtrack, in what is supposed to be the year 1910. Ms. Simone’s songs have been used to bewitching effect in at least a couple of films – for instance, “Just in Time” plays a role as pivotal as it is beguiling in the final moments of Before Sunset, and for the lucky few who caught Rebecca Miller’s unheralded masterpiece The Ballad of Jack and Rose, can you forget the erotically charged haircutting scene scored to Simone’s version of “I Put a Spell on You”? In Golden Door, however, when Crialese cranks up the sound of Simone singing, “It’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new life for me,” as images of immigrant women march in single file around the rectangular hollow of Ellis Island stairwells, one level mirroring another in their precisely symmetrical procession, I was grateful because the music woke me up, but I was also peeved at another of Crialese’s ironical displays of pseudo-cleverness. He’s showing us his soulfulness, so he imagines, in his choice of her. But why is it always Nina Simone? Why, for once, can’t we hear Abbey Lincoln or Jeanne Lee or Betty Carter as the voice of liberation?

Any one of those four great singers would be improvement over what we’re subjected to in the vile La Vie en Rose, the most appallingly overrated movie of 2007 to date, and a terrifying reminder that our cultural gatekeepers either cannot separate the wheat from the chaff or are deliberately selling us bullshit. (In Stephen Holden’s case – both.) La Vie en Rose begins with Edith Piaf collapsing on-stage in NYC, 1959. Immediately, doubts about the film’s authenticity arise: Why is the orchestra louder than her voice? Would a full orchestra even play in a nightclub, and if so, why do the nightclub’s acoustics reverberate with bombast identical to a symphony hall? Why does Piaf’s act crash under the weight of fortissimo percussion more suited to a performance of the Verdi Requiem? These mistakes exemplify director Olivier Dahan’s penchant for the wrong kind of intensity (i.e., if the volume’s loud and the editing frenetic, perhaps viewers will be too bombarded to notice how terrible the movie is), and although Marion Cotillard, as Piaf, lip-synchs well enough, she’s the most offensively ugly French actress to hobble in front of a zoom lens since Audrey Tautou. Actually, not every critic agrees about the quality of the vocal pantomiming. Thus Bill White, of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, remarks, “Had we only Cotillard’s lip-synching to go by, one might get the impression that Piaf sang the way a whore makes love.” At any rate, when it was announced on the last day of the festival that Cotillard had been voted Best Actress, I booed loudly, though not loudly enough. The movie has two or three good moments out of 140, but they’re buried amidst the stupefying garishness of the production. Dahan’s lighting often has the glare of a dive bar whether the setting is one or not. Piaf’s late 1940s romance with the Algerian boxer Marcel Cerdan emerges as one of the few sections handled with an easy-going touch. The actor playing Marcel (Jean-Pierre Martins) is handsome. The period recreation in the hotels and in some of the street life convinces. Cotillard manages to look somewhat pretty when she’s around Martins, as if his virile beauty inspires an endorphin surge that temporarily heightens her own physiognomy. Dahan intercuts this with a flash-forward repetition of her bent and stooped in 1959, past her prime, a catastrophic mess who collapses…again. When the film returns to the 1940s, the director, having lost what little momentum he had, stages a boxing match scored to Piaf songs. We see the men punching each other, round after round, and Dahan mixes the roar of the crowd under her tunes and her ringside exhortations – a sequence as overbearing as it is misbegotten, much like Cotillard’s thesping. For a few more reasons why I hate La Vie en Rose, see here.

Much was made of the fact that Gérard Depardieu does his own crooning in The Singer: But the songs assembled in this antiseptic mess are designed for someone who can’t sing. They are unmelodic, they have no chord changes, and they have an abundance of inane lyrics. I knew that neither Depardieu nor the movie had a prayer when he sang-talked, as part of his lounge act, “This strange story… of your one-way love transitory.” When the hawk-nosed Depardieu, to whom the years have not been kind, beds the lovely young Cecile de France, so fresh and radiant in Avenue Montaigne, and so stale here, I left.

once

After the over-the-top, screechy theatrics of La Vie en Rose, how refreshing it would be for a musical to take the polar opposite approach. John Carney’s Once pares everything to barebones essentials, yet the movie at best only rises to the level of fair. The advance publicity promised a hydra-headed monster on the disorder of Mutual Appreciation and Garden State, so it was a breather, at least, to discover that nothing could be further from the truth. It’s hard to hate Once, although I couldn’t buy into it. Here’s the insurmountable obstacle: Glen Hansard is too accomplished a performer to be believable as a busker, or as someone who’s only a busker. He has the ease and craft that only come with years of performing in front of live audiences, and there isn’t so much as an attempt to counter that poise with some rough edges. It doesn’t make sense that he would only just now get around to making a demo tape. (And while I recognize skill, I found Hansard’s sinus-shattering falsetto nigh impossible to take.) The movie stops short of the old cliché of the guy going to the airport, then turning around at the last minute to go back to the girl he can’t bear to leave. Once, to its credit, keeps Hansard at the airport, and the fact that Carney doesn’t cave in to the expected surely accounts for the praise lavished on such small potatoes. I did like the nature walk wherein the Girl speaks to the Guy in her native Czech and refuses to translate. For even if you don’t know the language, her meaning cannot help but be unmistakable – the one instance I was moved by Once.

It seems almost heretical to write anything negative about John Helde’s documentary Made in China, but this 70-minute home movie, in spite of some extraordinary footage, fails in so many obvious, easily preventable ways that I have to say the following. To begin with, Helde is a Seattle filmmaker, and while that theoretically isn’t a crime, it should send off alarm bells that he’s surrounded by a support system of yes-persons who aren’t going to criticize constructively or otherwise, rather than by tough-minded mentors. Certainly, the finished film supports such a theory. Made in China aims to preserve some of the memories of elderly Americans who were either born in or spent their early childhoods in China, as the offspring of white Christian missionaries. Four years ago, I was lucky enough to see some of Helde’s footage at an event hosted by Warren Etheredge at Seattle Art Museum. It seemed clear to me at the time that Helde had a potentially good film-in-the-making: There were already the interviews with the two elderly American ladies, reluctantly yet charmingly, singing “Jesus Loves Me” in Chinese dialects; the bitter remembrance of a Portland woman who, as a child, left “primitive” China for “the good life” in America, only to experience a rude awakening in racially-segregated Alabama; and best of all, the black-and-white shots of life and play in a rickshaw-driven Shanghai that has long since vanished, of little white kids eating rice with chopsticks like old pros and integrating quite naturally amidst the natives. The idea for completing the movie was to continue gathering interviews with subjects, many of whom are in their seventies or eighties, while these women and men are still around to recall the China of the 1920s and 30s. The way Helde has structured these remembrances, however, comes straight out of the sound-byte approach to editing non-fiction on video, a maddening technique in which everything is chopped up, much in the manner of another SIFF documentary where the rapid cutting was at odds with the tempo of its interviewees, White Light/Black Rain, Steven Okazaki’s HBO film about survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Like them, the witnesses of Made in China need more space in which to tell their stories. Helde just needs to go ahead and trust that we won’t be bored by long takes, by rambling anecdotes – this film, after all, is our one and only chance to hear these voices, to see these wrinkled faces remember being young in a culture that wasn’t theirs, and to tell us how that “colored” the rest of their lives. Most of the interviewees are glimpsed so briefly, and their scenes Cuisinarted so convolutedly, that I seldom had any idea whom I was seeing, or why.

The writer Betty Jean Elder, born in Hunan Province in 1933, does come across as a strong personality. When Helde asks her why she’s made so many repeat excursions there over the decades, she answers, “I can’t not go.” (Elder published an account of her upbringing in The Oriole’s Song: An American Girlhood in Wartime China; it’s clear from the few bits she’s allotted in this movie that she has much more to tell us.) And the filmmaker’s father, Tom Helde, deftly describes the early morning sounds within earshot of the mission – a sonic overlay of German girls singing hymns, Taoist monks chanting, soldiers drilling, and the “discordant note” of pigs squealing from a nearby farm or market. Such vivid reminiscences bring the movie to life, as does a moment on a mountain top near the end, when a young Sichuan coal miner, who has been hacking through the brush with a machete in order to help the director find the remote cabin where his father was born, suddenly with joy and fervor, breaks into a song as he admires the vista from a clearing. Those scenes are magic.

Helde’s biggest error was assuming that the movie should revolve around his own persona. He narrates too much, and it’s bad narration, as in “I sense we have farther to go,” and other lines that go ker-plunk, read in glib, hollow tones that feel much the opposite of genuine. His choice of a monotonously quavering David Byrne song to open and close the film was just about the most inappropriate, certainly the sourest, possible way to open or close, (well, it may be appropriate to Helde’s notion of himself as a hipster), and the thing that raised my hackles more than any other – Helde rhetorically asks in voice-over: “What am I doing on a mountain with a bunch of coal miners?” Well, first of all, those coal miners, who are helping him, are the liveliest persons on screen at that point. Second of all, it’s a deeply offensive question, given the context, but one that speaks volumes about Seattle insularity and provincialism, about the almost trademarked coldness, mistrust, and contempt that Seattleites have for outsiders, although, on that mountain near Chengdu, it’s Helde who’s the outsider.

In a festival filled with bombs, it’s almost impossible to hone in on the worst of the worst, what with any number of films vying for space at the bottom of the trash bin. Let me divvy up dis-honors amongst a foursome of astonishing tastelessness. Steve Buscemi’s decrepit Interview, which he wrote, directed, and stars in, consists of 81-minutes of mind games between Buscemi, as a so-called serious journalist, and Sienna Miller, as a vacuous young starlet. The movie supposedly pays homage to the assassinated surrealist Theo van Gogh, but Buscemi’s grim, literal realism, all nuts and deadbolts, plays more like a two-person Breakfast Club as re-written, then rejected, by Edward Albee. Buscemi and Miller act out the tired old parlor game of “share a tragedy.” After he relates a graphic story concerning his sister-in-law’s rape and dismemberment, as well as his daughter’s over-dose (at least I think she over-dosed – it’s hard to keep straight the movie’s stockpile of atrocities), and after Miller cries crocodile tears over her father’s death, Buscemi takes her in his arms, whirls her into a dance, and says, “You’re my daughter, and I’m your daddy.”

The loft-bound Interview begins with a checkerboard on a plain, round table and concludes with a “twist” ending, one of those “I fooled you!” Pyrrhic victories that are meant to rock our worlds, to shake our souls to their very foundations; for that to happen, though, viewers would have to be as oafish as Buscemi presumes. I can imagine the Huffington Post crowd having a good, masochistic night-on-the-town with the hand-held, sudden zooms that sweep onto Buscemi across the length of the oblong set, every time the camera operator motions to ward off atrophy, and I can see yaw-hawing liberals, who like their laughs sledgehammered home with condescension, slugging one another’s shoulders approvingly over such leftie pandering as, “If you fuck the right people in this administration, you could be the head of FEMA in no time.” And that’s it – Buscemi’s concept of political satire.

goldbergdelpyAnother actor-turned-director, Julie Delpy, also comes a cropper, though that’s a fairly polite phrase for what 2 Days in Paris amounts to. Like John Helde, Delpy, who here smothers every last trace of what made her endearing in Richard Linklater’s films, narrates poorly read prattle. Her voice sounds scratchy, her delivery amateurish. She just keeps narrating, explaining, as if her intended audience will be too dumb to figure anything out. Early on, outside a train station, Delpy stages an in-joke over not getting the role in The Da Vinci Code that went to Audrey Tautou. She has a gaggle of American tourists, all women, ask for directions to the Louvre, while, improbably, some of them tote around copies of Dan Brown’s hefty tome; some of these tourists also sport pro-Bush/Cheney insignia; naturally, she and her beau, played by Adam Goldberg, purposely send them off on a roundabout path. Delpy and Goldberg self-consciously ape Woody Allen’s rapid-fire neurotic pitter-patter, only they miss both the rhythm and the humor. Of all the Allen-influenced young directors around today, Delpy has staked out a claim to be the most egregious.

She informs us, in the taxi ride from the rail to her parents’ apartment, that the “character” she’s playing, Marion, has a retina infection. For a few seconds, we see the world passing by through the cab window as she sees it, with spidery black goop spread over the camera lens. Delpy neither mentions nor displays this again – the detail is just out there on its own.

The following typifies the movie’s “humor”: Goldberg wants to visit Jim Morrison’s grave, because, as he states, “I’m a huge Val Kilmer fan.” Delpy also adorns her film with innumerable paintings, sketches, and photographs of debased sexuality that are too graphic and trivial to be funny or erotic. Her smutty idiocy continues in the form of anatomically specific text messages on her BlackBerry; at all of this, we’re expected, somehow, to laugh. Once again, a woman director has made a film that’s degrading to women, raising the question, in Delpy’s instance, of why the vulgarity of the naïve registers as more patently offensive than vulgarity of any other kind.

From Austria, came two of the most unsavory abominations imaginable: Timo Novotny’s Life in Loops (A Megacities RMX) and Barbara Albert’s Falling. Overlong at 80 minutes, Loops revels in visual ugliness, resurrecting decade-old footage of revoltingly fat “erotic” dancers gyrating about in black garters; there are endless scenes of animal slaughter and also a cockfight. An exceptionally mindless sequence traces the rounds of a foul-mouthed, black, gay male heroin addict fleecing straight, sex-starved whites, and when the movie, I thought, couldn’t sink any lower, there’s a segment devoted to pornographic manga, pouncing on new ways to sexually humiliate women, the sadism shoved in our faces. True, Life in Loops displays a modicum of sleazy wit in its opening section of a radio call-in show. There’s some amusement to be had in listening as various lowlifes phone in to contradict one another on matters of pimping, prostitution, and Israeli woman-owned escort services, yet even this dubious charm soon vanishes, not into thin air, but into thick scuzz.

After an early afternoon screening for Falling, I overheard a woman exiting the theatre say: “I never want to go to an Austrian wedding.” She might as well have added, “or to an Austrian funeral,” as writer-director Barbara Albert views both rituals with the same leering contempt. Before wading into the abyss of Falling’s abysmal particulars, let me interject something: I’ve found that in attending the same festival (not just SIFF) for a number of successive years, or mostly successive years, that I come to know the programmers’ taste, or lack of taste. And while the titles of films change from festival to festival, what doesn’t change is a certain kind of underlying awfulness that informs the programming choices being made, that is, the bad films tend to be bad in the same way and predictably so. There’s a recognizable type of inept or coarse or sentimental or bludgeoningly jokey or shallowly pessimistic film that a festival programmer will be unable to resist, as it fits in so snugly with her or his own myopic standards. This wasn’t apparent to me at my first SIFF in 2003, nor the following year, but by 2005, I had come to dread the inevitabilities that crop up when you have the same crew of persons choosing the films year-in and year-out. At the 2007 festival, it became clear to me, as I waded through an over-abundance of torpid films, that the festival should clean out its programming department and start over from scratch. Bring in some outsiders with (one hopes) fresher perspectives, and cease the practice of Seattle insiders handing out jobs to other Seattle insiders. (But then again, outsiders tend to bored by Seattle and leave after a year or two, and since SIFF remains a cash cow from season to season, there’s no incentive for management to tinker with the formula.)

When SIFF programmer Maryna Ajaja introduced Falling that day at Pacific Place, I hoped that the movie wouldn’t turn out to be more of the same old Euro-trash that Ajaja favors, a la Sally Potter’s Yes or Ilya Khrjanovsky’s 4. Yet there it was, brash self-aggrandizement in every frame. Brash self-aggrandizement masquerading as honest truth. I ran into a reviewer after the screening who was as outraged by Falling as I was. “I hate Maryna Ajaja’s taste,” she said to me, adding that she had once heard Ajaja justify her programming choices with a defense along the line of, “Sometimes, you just need a real downer.” Well, Falling is a downer, all right, but there’s a critical difference, which I would conjecture eludes Ajaja, between a work that’s depressing because it’s so poorly conceived and a work that affects our emotions without resort to crude manipulation, without a director jumping up and down as if to express a “look at me, I’m so fashionably negative” sensibility. (About the only admirer of Ajaja’s work, who has made his approval a matter of public record, is Internet censorship proponent Jonathan Marlow of GreenCine – or is it GreenSlime? – and when you have him as an advocate, you don’t, as the saying goes, need enemies.)

In Falling, Barbara Albert has created a cinematic equivalent to someone walking up to you and pushing an unwashed armpit into your nose. Five women re-unite at the funeral of one of their high-school teachers, and one of the women breaks into uncontrollable laughter in the midst of the solemnity. If we, as audience members, had any idea of why she was laughing – we certainly never learn why this one teacher was so pivotally important – then the scene might function as something other than a transition for her to go outside and spout back-story with Alex, a mannish, heavily rouged ex-classmate who’s supposed to have become some sort of personnel director. Albert presents these friends as open and obvious in their shallowness; from the writer-director’s tone, she clearly shares in her characters’ blank cynicism, but what makes Falling feel so truly odd is that Albert unwaveringly expects us to care about these unattractive hags, to share in the shallowness, too, to yield to the filmmaker’s presumption of how women live when their youthful ideals are gone. Albert’s vision of their reunion doesn’t include any reverence or grief expressed at either the funeral service or reception afterward, which consists entirely of potshots aimed at various persons from their mutual past. There is no difference in the demeanor of these women, whether they’re at a graveside or in a bar. The scene eventually shifts to a bar, after a lengthy stop at an outdoor festival, where, in Albert’s contrivance, the wedding of someone’s ex-boyfriend has just taken place. Because we’re all so hip to crude, animalistic behavior, Albert sends the bride off to ride a mechanical bull (in her white gown, of course) whilst the blond pony-tailed, 40-ish husband flirts/argues with the clown who couldn’t stop giggling in front of her former teacher’s casket. As night falls, everyone naturally goes to a club, where the bride strips off her wedding dress on the dance floor, and Alex, so buoyed by alcohol, whips off her business suit.

I’ll say this for the stork-like, butch Ursula Strauss, who plays Alex: The hideousness of her face is surpassed only by the hideousness of her breasts. But we’re supposed to feel sorry for her, because she then has sex with the groom in a ladies’ room stall and, yes, she positively hates herself afterward, as her blouse has disappeared in the mêlée, so she’s trapped alone in the stall, alone with her nakedness, tears, and now thoroughly smudged dark make-up. The women ultimately argue about their present disillusionment versus the strong conviction they allegedly once held, but none of them have any specific political beliefs, only a vague collection of gripes.

At the end, we’re shown two contrasts. In the first, Carmen (Kathrin Resetarits, the only good-looking one in the bunch), an actress who has quietly spoken to her old friends of “shooting in Germany,” records a voice-over for a commercial, repeating the line, “I’m 30, and I feel good!”, while it’s another woman’s face on the screen behind her. Again, what impression has Albert tried to leave us with? Are we intended to feel sad for Carmen, who drives a nice car, has beautiful blonde hair and surely deserves a starring role? It’s a short scene, but one that captures the vast chasm between Albert’s intent and content: Most actors love doing voice-over work, they’re well paid for it – why should either Carmen or us be feeling the blues? Albert, however, saves the nastiest trick up her sleeve for last. Another of the former classmates is now a schoolteacher herself – the one who instigated the middle of the night talk on “what became of our ideals” listens as her teenage students passionately debate activism versus capitalism and whether anything can be accomplished to wean human nature away from its appetite for war. Then the movie stops abruptly. I guess it’s a have-it-both-ways for Albert: With this scene, she can dangle a ray of youthful hope after having tortured her audience for the preceding 90 minutes, but in the scheme of Falling, it felt more like a neon sign, a veiled smirk that forecasts nothing but bad times ahead. – NPT

June 24-30, 2007

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