A big year for the newly branded SFFILM (formerly the San Francisco International Film Festival), which just celebrated its 60th anniversary. Here are some thoughts and impressions of the terrific cross-section of their programs (20 features, 49 shorts) I was lucky to catch this year.
There were more archival films and live music performances than usual, including an unlikely merging of the two with a screening of George Lucas’s first film THX-1138 (the revised 2004 “Special Edition” re-release version, not the original 1971 version) accompanied by a hard-driving rock score from Asian Dub Foundation. This meant that Walter Murch’s sophisticated sound design was inaudible (the entire film played with subtitles), but it helped play up the dystopic visuals, which still pack a wallop 40+ years later. It’s still my former boss’s most mature movie and a fun one to revisit in the glories of the Castro Theater. The Castro was also where a rare screening of Jerome Hiler’s experimental shorts (both old and new) occurred, also to live music from Will Oldham.
The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) was Melvin Van Peebles’s first film and that also enjoyed a rare archival screening. Shot in France, it’s clearly a child of the Nouvelle Vague with its free-wheeling pacing and visual imagination, but also with what would be MVP’s familiar exploration of racial identity, brimming with wit and clear-eyed cynicism. His next film would be his legendary Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and it was great fun seeing where that ballsy attitude originated. Another standout retrospective screening was the Russian film A Long Happy Life (Shpalikov, 1967), also infused with a warm French sensibility, but in the classic tradition of Vigo or Pagnol and a lovely and poignant film I saw for the first time.
Since this was my first year visiting the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose the month before (5 features, 58 shorts), I’ll also discuss some of my discoveries there, particularly since the new British drama Wilderness was a fitting companion to the Van Peebles film. Both are about whirlwind interracial romances that take place in Europe around the same time (the late 60s). And while it can’t completely avoid some narrative contrivances, the acting by the two leads (Katharine Davenport, James Barnes) is excellent and the eroticism is potent and very natural. It’s sometimes hard to tell which festival features are destined for wider distribution but this one certainly deserves it.
Another one that does is the terrific Iranian thriller A Dragon Arrives!, part true-life mystery, part stylish 60s noir with some supernatural tensions, and part meta-examination of the melding of history and storytelling. For those of us who love what the last couple of decades have brought us from that country via Kiarostami, Farhadi, and Makhmalbaf, this is a very, very different animal, but an exciting demonstration of western tropes taking root with Iranian themes and issues.
Festivals have often proven themselves a showcase for talented female filmmakers in ways that the studio and distribution worlds continue to fall short, and some of my favorite narrative films were directed by women (also not surprisingly, all international). The best to these eyes was the Cinequest title Past Imperfect, grounded by a phenomenal performance by Evelyne Brochu about a woman who has her life turned upside down by having her son (formerly raised by family) thrust back into her life. It’s a familiar premise, but handled with soulfulness and compassion, with an immense amount of gorgeous nighttime photography.
More wonderful female-helmed films included The Wedding Ring from Niger and The Wedding Plan (Burshtein) from Israel. The latter is a very funny wry comedy in the spirit of Rohmer (one of my favorite directors) about a woman committed to a scheduled wedding for herself even though the groom is a complete mystery. And the former is a beautiful, vivid tale of a woman living in Europe returning to her African homeland and navigating the tricky landscape of traditions around matrimony. Both are warm, generous, and clear-eyed about making a stand in the face of cultural expectations—unapologetically feminist, with complex characters and conflicts.
There were also two quite lovely Latin American films that stood out. The Winter is about a laborer in the Patagonian highlands who must take over managing a ranch from a seasoned veteran. Family Life is about a Chilean drifter who tries on a new identity during a housesitting gig. While one has epic sweep with an eye for the isolation in landscape and the other is an urban drama with an immersive sexual immediacy, both are intimate meditations on the challenges of finding your place in the world. And while it may have a few too many echoes with Brokeback Mountain, the English farm drama God’s Own Country, about a burgeoning rural, cross-cultural gay relationship, manages to meld sensibilities from both these films quite effectively, too.
When it comes to documentaries, the high-profile standouts I saw were the two on filmmaking, 78/52 (Philippe), about the shower sequence in Psycho, and Score: A Film Music Documentary (Schrader). And while both are ambitious, on a micro- and macro-level respectively, they’re also both incredibly frustrating works. 78/52 does an interesting job of deconstructing the sequence (cue Walter Murch again for analysis) and provides some helpful connective tissue between this legendary scene and both Hitchcock’s work and film history in general. But it revels too much in Hitchcock’s reputation as an auteur and provocateur; it’s all adulation when deconstructing the mythology of the man 50+ years later would’ve been more incisive (I discussed Psycho previously on my blog here).
Even more troubling is the film music doc, which tries to be both an historical overview and a broad examination of the creative process. The latter is certainly much more effective than the former (where significant talents get short shrift), but as interesting as it is to see composers collaborate with film directors or conduct orchestras recording sessions, the film is blind to the conspicuous lack of women and people of color in this role. This is particularly noticeable because so many contemporary composers are interviewed or filmed working on projects, virtually all of them white dudes. It makes the craft feel like a big boy’s club, and while there might be an element of truth to this in an industry which still has a serious gender and racial imbalance in certain disciplines, it goes completely without comment throughout the film. Amidst the air of simplified celebration, it’s the elephant in the room, and a token Rachel Portman or Quincy Jones can’t change that.
Some more effective documentaries included the remarkable The Force, about the Police Department in Oakland (my home) and the history of controversies it’s instigated through violence and scandal. It’s a very clever film, giving the impression that access means the OPD embraces a new sense of transparency, only to discover that ugly cultural traditions behind the blue wall still run deep. Talking the talk and walking the walk are very different things, and it’s a great lesson on why mistrust in a community can be pervasive when abuse of power goes ignore or unchecked. Even better is In Loco Parentis, a thoroughly charming doc about a British boarding school and the loving, committed teachers on the staff. Both films take a Frederick Wiseman-like view of their subjects (no interviews, voiceover, or score), which works incredibly well in both cases.
Also worth noting were two docs from Cinequest about a very different group of doctors. Memento Mori (Thompson) is about the incredible logistical challenges and devastating emotion one encounters in the field of organ donation. With The Twinning Reaction (Shinseki), sets of identical twins separated in infancy through a shady adoption agency under the guise of “scientific research” are interviewed--some reunited with their sibling and some not, but all dealing with the heart-breaking repercussions of a needlessly cruel policy that persisted for decades. Not without their flaws, both are still well worth checking out.
10 Favorite new feature films
1. Past Imperfect (Teirlinck; Belgium)+
2. The Winter (Torres; Argentina)*
3. In Loco Parentis (Chianain/Rane; Ireland)*
4. A Dragon Arrives! (Haghighi; Iran)*
5. The Wedding Ring (Keita; Niger)*
6. The Force (Nicks; US)*
7. Wilderness (Doherty; UK)+
8. God’s Own Country (Lee; UK)*
9. Family Life (Jimenez/Scherson; Chile)*
10. That Trip We Took with Dad (Lazarescu; Romania)+
10 Favorite new short films
1. Bagatelle II (Hiler)*
2. Pearl (Osborne; Virtual Reality version)+
3. Modern Houses (Dixon)+
4. A Brief History of Princess X (Abrantes)*
5. The Rabbit Hunt (Bresnan)*
6. Russian Roulette (Aston)+
7. The John Show (Sokolow)+
8. Real Artists (Wood)+*
9. Summer Camp Island (Pott)*
10. No Other Way to Say It (Mason)+
* = SFFILM; + = Cinequest
The Alfred Hitchcock stamp is Scott #3226, Bernard Hermann (who is featured in both films docs I mentioned) is #3341 and Editing, part of the American Filmmaking issue, is #3772h. The Star Wars stormtroopers are #4143o and the stamp for the Sport of the Gods one-sheet (part of the Black Cinema release) is #4337. The Jack O’Lanterns from last year’s Halloween issue are #5138 & 5139 . The Iranian Film Festival is a cache I picked up at Westpex, which has its annual convention in San Francisco this coming weekend. Hope to see you there!