Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reversal Of Fortune (1990)

Screen capture from Warner Home Video DVD edition of REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, published 2001.
WHO: Jeremy Irons won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in this.

WHAT: I have not seen this film, directed by Barbet Schroeder, who started his career in in the trenches of the French New Wave, producing some of Eric Rohmer's and Jacques Rivette's greatest films before building a very unusual career as a director in his own right. It was shot by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who in addition to frequently working with Schroeder, had shot films for Michaelangelo Antonioni (including The Passenger) and Dario Argento (including Suspiria). But it's Irons who is most associated with Reversal of Fortune, turning the notorious Danish defendant in a tabloid-ready attempted murder trial Claus von Bülow into one of his career-defining roles.  Edward Copeland writes: "Irons' perfect mimicry of the Danish aristocrat is but a small portion of his outstanding performance that infuses Claus with a jet-black sense of humor about his plight."

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7:30 tonight at the Kabuki's House 1, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: Only last week, the San Francisco International Film Festival announced it was giving its Peter J. Owens Award for screen acting to Jeremy Irons. It's becoming something of a tradition for SFIFF to lock up this particular award well after the rest of the festival is announced. Last year's Harrison Ford selection and 2011's Terence Stamp tribute were both late announcements. I don't know if this tradition is because actors are increasingly wary of committing to attend events like this weeks in advance of them, or because the festival likes the publicity bump a celebrity can bring to be timed apart from the full program announcement. At any rate, the events themselves are said not to suffer. I heard the Stamp interview in particular was one of the best in recent memory, and if I only hadn't locked my schedule in place to make sure I could see Georgian filmmaker Otar Iosseliani in person, I'd have surely been there that year.

Tonight I'm tempted to go as well, though I'd probably be more tempted if the festival were showing Dead Ringers, an Irons-showcase masterpiece I sometimes cite as the best film I never want to see again, simply because it's so overpoweringly dark. But if it played in 35mm with Irons (or its director David Cronenberg, or perhaps other players involved) in person near me, I couldn't resist. I hear Reversal of Fortune is excellent as well, though; it's pedigree is certainly strong enough as you can see from my "WHAT" paragraph (which didn't even mention Glenn Close, who is also supposed to be great in it).

Though it was mentioned, along with this award, as a "To Be Announced" festival event during the April 1st press conference, the SFIFF's annual State of the Cinema address is nowhere to be seen, which is a disappointment. These events have been frequently wonderful food for thought; I'm particularly remembering Walter Murch's and Tilda Swinton's fondly. Last year's by Steven Soderbergh is a hard act to follow, but I would love to see the festival choose an archivist to present her or his thoughts on the current state of movies someday soon. Perhaps it will have to be next year.

HOW: Reversal of Fortune screens from a 35mm print, proving it's still possible to run reels onto one of the Kabuki's eight screens, even if it's now a rare occasion. The last time I attended such a screening was at last year's festival when The Insider was shown as part of a tribute to screenwriter Eric Roth, to an embarrassingly sparse crowd. It was beautiful.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 7 at the festival is your last chance to catch two films I wrote a bit about earlier this week: Stray Dogs and Bright Mirror, the latter being part of a shorts program that's been getting a lot of acclaim from experimental film scenesters.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Tonight and tomorrow a Fred MacMurray/Barbara Stanwyck double-bill of Remember the Night and There's Always Tomorrow screens as part of the Stanford Theatre's all-35mm Stanwyck series, which has only three more weeks in it and is worth heading down to Palo Alto for. The lobby's display of original documents concerning the most famous MacMurray/Stanwyck pairing Double Indemnity is an absolute must for anyone who appreciates that seminal film.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Stray Dogs (2013)

A scene from Tsai Ming-liang's STRAY DOGS, playing at the 57th San Franicsco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8, 2014. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based auteur Tsai Ming-Liang directed and co-wrote this.

WHAT: Tsai's films have long developed recurrent themes of home and rootlessness, but with Stray Dogs he uses these to create his rawest, bitterest attack on Taiwan's inequalities thus far. His first digital feature employs surveillance-style footage of his actor fetiche Lee Kang-sheng and two youngsters tramping through and setting camp in locations "stolen" whether by crew or characters. It culminates in a fourteen-minute take that's simultaneously unforgiving and about forgiveness.

That 75-word capsule is all I'm allowed to write while we await a potential commercial distribution of this film, but there are plenty of more untethered critics who have written very thoughtfully and substantially on Stray Dogs and most (though surprisingly not Martin Tsai's useful reading) are linked on the addictive Critics Round Up website.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 3:15 PM today at New People and 6:30 PM tomorrow at the Pacific Film Archive, both thanks to the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: It's been just over seven years since a new Tsai Ming-Liang feature film has appeared in Frisco Bay cinemas. The last was I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, which debuted here in April 2007 at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts. In the meantime, Tsai's 2009 film Face received mixed-at-best reviews at other film festivals around the world, bypassed local cinema screens, and has not even been officially released on DVD (though I've been told it's on Netflix Instant, I've never subscribed and have still yet to catch up with this work; I suppose I still hold out hope it may arrive through another means). And a new featurette called Journey To The West has just started making festival rounds, though it has yet to land here yet.

Watching Stray Dogs made me realize how rusty I've gotten at watching Tsai's films in cinemas, and made me want to have that experience again with one of his prior films. Not a moment too soon, I received an advance look at a program YBCA's Joel Shepard put together for this summer. One of the selections in this screening series is my own (a real honor and my first stab at programming 35mm, I picked a Robert Altman film that means an awful lot to me) but I think I'm equally excited to see the other nine films in the series. Eight of them I've never seen at all and in most cases have longed to for years, and the ninth (or should I say the first), screening July 20th, is a Tsai film I've only seen on home video before: The Hole. It was my introduction to his work way back when, and I'm thrilled to be able to get a chance to watch it in 35mm in just a few short months. Here's the full line-up for the YBCA series:

Invasion of the Cinemaniacs!
July 20 - Sept 25
Sun, Jul 20, 2pm Karen Larsen presents
The Hole By Tsai Ming-liang
Thu, Jul 24, 7:30pm Brian Darr presents
The Company By Robert Altman
Sun, Jul 27, 2pm Jonathan L. Knapp presents
Colorado Territory By Raoul Walsh
Sat, Aug 9, 7:30pm Cheryl Eddy presents
Death Wish 3 By Michael Winner
Sun, Aug 10, 2pm Adam Hartzell presents
Madame Freedom By Han Hyeong-mo
Sat, Aug 23, 7:30pm Michael Guillén presents
Hell Without Limits (El Lugar Sin Límites) By Arturo Ripstein
Sun, Aug 24, 2pm David Wong presents 
The Exile By Max Ophüls
Thurs, Sept 18, 7:30pm Alby Lim presents Pietà By Kim Ki-duk
Sun, Sept 21, 2pm Lynn Cursaro presents
Little Fugitive By Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin & Ray Ashley
Thurs, Sept 25, 7:30pm David Robson presents
The Brides Of Dracula By Terence Fisher

HOW: Stray Dogs screens digitally, as it was shot.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 6 allows festgoers a final chance to see Manuscripts Don't Burn, Blind Dates and All About the Feathers, and features the first of two silent film/indie rock pairings of SFIFF57: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down playing new music for Charlie Chaplin's The Pawn Shop, Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra, and more.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub's Too Soon, Too Late screens digitally at Black Hole Cinematheque in Oakland.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Club Sandwich (2013)

A scene from Fernando Eimbcke's CLUB SANDWICH, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8, 2014. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society..
WHO: Mexican auteur Fernando Eimbcke wrote and directed this, his third feature film, following Duck Season and Lake Tahoe.

WHAT: One of my favorite scenes from Club Sandwich comes toward the end of the film. (You may want to skip ahead if you're a spoiler-averse hardliner, although I don't think this film or this scene depend on narrative surprise for their success.) Four people are in a car driving on an unpopulated road, and the camera is placed on the hood so we can see all four through the windshield. The driver is Enrique Arreola, who played the pizza deliveryman in Duck Season. Here his role is much smaller; just this scene and another, and no words of dialogue (although his voice is heard on a radio in a third scene, presumably not playing the same character). In the passenger seat is Danae Reynaud, who's playing Paloma, a thirty-something mother of a teenage boy named Hector, played by  Lucio Giménez Cacho (son of Spanish film star Daniel Giménez Cacho, making his film debut). Hector and 16-year-old Jazimn (played by María Renée Prudencio, another screen newcomer) are making out in the back seat while Paloma hunches asleep in her seat. Eventually she wakes up, starts looking around at her surroundings, and finally glances in the rear-view mirror the smooching the audience has been able to watch all along. Though visibly perturbed she plays it cool, yelping as she pretends to swat a mosquito as a way to alert the ineptly-furtive youngsters that their romance just might be discovered.

Club Sandwich, like Eimbcke's prior features, has a title that appears almost random and tossed-off upon first glance. Early in the film, we think we understand its connection to the film when that food is ordered by Paloma and Hector, a single mom and her 15-year-old on a cheap vacation in Oaxaca during the too-hot-for-tourists season. With the hotel pool to themselves, they lounge determinedly, their comments about each others' swimsuits and body shapes revealing a habitual closeness between the pair almost as much as does their frequent nagging of each other about stray fluids in the bathroom (the shower floor; the toilet seat) or the apparent awkwardness Hector exhibits when his hot mom rubs sunscreen over his broad back. He's at the age when he's longing for a less motherly form of female touching, but of course Paloma is the last person on earth he wants to know that.

But there's not really such thing as a sandwich with only two elements to it. Another family arrives at the hotel, and the way lovely Jazmin and Hector at first avoid each other makes quite clear that each has got at least one eye on the only other member of their peer group in sight. Eimbcke is after three films proving himself to be a master of presenting unspoken communication. He guides his three lead actors to tell us just about all we need to know about their characters through their glances, their gestures, and their body language. Inevitably, Jazmin introduces herself to Hector, and soon enough she's the one rubbing lotions on his back as they have deeply laconic conversations about air conditioning, which lead to more lustful interactions. Only when out of their parents' eyesight of course.

So can these three form a club? Once she realizes what's going on with her son (or some of it, anyway; I haven't mentioned his fascination with her bikini top or his late-night masturbation sessions), Paloma makes an effort to draw Jazmin into the kind of conversation Hector had no need to stoop to: what's her family like, what are her interests, etc. By now knows she won't get anywhere talking with Hector about her; there's nothing more mortifying for a teenage boy than admitting to your mother that you're a sexual being. But she finally lets her guard down and reveals just how jealous she is of her son's emergence from family cocooning, in a hilariously and poignantly awkward late night variation on truth-or-dare. It's a perfect climax to a charming, funny little gem of a film.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight at 9:15 at New People Cinema, and 1:30 PM on Sunday, May 4, both screenings presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: If you click on the "guests expected" box for any SFIFF program you can find out if a director, producer, actor or other filmmaker plans to be on hand in support of his or her film. However, this method doesn't reveal whether a filmmaker is actually going to attend a given screening if there are multiple showings. For that information it's best to visit the big calendar board in the Kabuki lobby, where each screening is individually marked (or not) with a star indicating whether a guest plans to be there. In the case of Club Sandwich for example, writer-director Eimbcke gave a delightful q&a session to the audience for an afternoon screening April 26th, and is expected to still be around for tonight's showing, but at this point he's not expected for the May 4th showing.

HOW: Digital.
OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 5 of SFIFF includes the final screenings of the acclaimed Romainian film When Evening Falls on Bucharest and of Julie Bertucelli's documentary School of Babel. It also marks the first festival screenings of Tsai Ming-Liang's Stray Dogs and François Ozon's Young & Beautiful.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: If you missed Bruce Baillie's appearance at the festival yesterday, he's still in town for another day, and will be screening recent works including the in-progress Memoirs of an Angel tonight at Oakland's always-free Black Hole Cinematheque.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Bright Mirror (2013)

A scene from Paul Clipson's BRIGHT MIRROR, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8, 2014 
WHO: Paul Clipson made this.

WHAT: Though I mentioned it as one of my favorite undistributed new films seen in 2013, I never wrote anything about Bright Mirror last year during my post-a-day chronicling of the Frisco Bay film screening scene. I actually saw it on a DVD I borrowed during the Canyon Cinema pop-up last December, so I'm excited to finally see it projected in a cinema thanks to the San Francisco International Film Festival. 

I usually get a lot of pleasure from watching local filmmaker & film projectionist Clipson's work in a public setting. His unique eye for capturing beautiful light & color patterns and arranging them, often through in-camera editing and/or multiple-exposures has provided him with a robust body of work that frequently gets showcased in cinemas, galleries and live music spaces across Frisco Bay and beyond. But Bright Mirror feels like a step into new territory for him; though it contains visual trademarks that are unmistakably his, it feels like it hearkens back to a tradition of metaphor and body movement reconnecting him to the psychodramas of Maya Deren, Sidney Peterson and early Stan Brakhage, that dominated the mid-century explosion of avant-garde filmmaking in California. If these sorts of images make a resurgence among up-and-coming experimenters in the coming years, I wonder if we'll be able to trace it back to Bright Mirror and Paul.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens on a SFIFF program playing today at the Pacific Film Archive at 5:45, and at the Kabuki on April 30th at 9:30.

WHY: While announcing the SFIFF line-up at a press conference earlier this month, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen noted that "16mm is going to outlast 35mm in the festival setting", and for new films this appears to have already been proven true. Barring some kind of unexpected last-minute change, there will be no recently-made films screened on the once-dominant theatrical exhibition format at the 57th edition of the longest-running film festival in North America. (This would make last year's second screening of Kerry Laitala's Conjuor's Box the final new 35mm film to play during the SFIFF'a fifty-six years in the 35mm era). There are several a few 16mm shorts screening in the Shirts 5 program, including Lawrence Jordan's Entr'Acte and Charlotte Pryce's A Study In Natural Magic, as well as Bright Mirror, which screens on its native Super-8 film format, but the rest are either revived titles (Bruce Baillie's Little Girl from 1966; Jim Jennings's Lost And Found from 1988) or digital projections. Just like the rest of the SFIFF program this year. And apart from this shorts program, even the revivals are mostly being presented digitally; All That Jazz, Queen Margot and Manila in the Claws of Neon are all newly-made DCPs for example. The counter-examples come mostly in the live music programs at the Castro Theatre; Eastman House has provided 35mm prints of both Charlie Chaplin's brilliant short The Pawnshop for its Tuesday April 29th screening (along with other works) accompanied by live music from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, and of Tod Browning's depraved 1927 masterpiece The Unknown, which Stephin Merritt (of Magnetic Fields) will accompany May 6th. The only other 35mm screening we can expect at SFIFF is of Barbet Schoeder's Reversal of Fortune, for which Jeremy Irons received the 1990 Best Actor Academy Award, and which therefore seems to be the obvious choice for his Wednesday, April 30 evening in-person tribute at the Kabuki.

Note that experimental film legend Bruce Baillie is expected to be among the guests at today's PFA screening of Little Girl, but that he won't be at the Kabuki screening of the film. Clipson will be doing double-duty as filmmaker and by helping out on the 16mm and Super-8 projection of the films at the Kabuki, in order to help make the San Francisco screening as technically smooth as it's likely to be at the PFA.

HOW: As noted above, Bright Mirror will screen in Super-8, on a program with 16mm and digital video work.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's your last day to see the wonderfully strange and funny Serge Bozon film Tip Top at the festival. Definitely a polarizing film that despite nominal distribution seems highly unlikely to appear on a Frisco Bay screen again in the near future. It's also the day of "New Queer Cinema" icon Isaac Julien's on-stage conversation with B. Ruby Rich with a single-channel screening of his installation piece Ten Thousand Waves.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Castro Theatre is counter-programming SFIFF (on the days when it's not being rented by them) with a healthy dose of older films shown on 35mm prints, and tonight's double-bill of Robert Aldrich's Emperor of the North and Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin is one of the most cinephile-enticing on their schedule in the coming weeks.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Santa Cruz Del Islote (2014)

A scene from Luke Lorentzen's SANTA CRUZ DEL ISLOTE, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8, 2014Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society. 
WHO: Luke Lorentzen is the Stanford-based filmmaker who directed this, and many other familiar Frisco Bay filmmaking names (consulting producer Jamie Meltzer, sound mixer Dan Olmstead, etc.) are found in the credits.

WHAT: I haven't seen any of the San Francisco International Film Festival's documentary features yet, but I'd be very surprised if many of them are more able to probe an otherwise-invisible corner of the globe with more artistic and documentary integirty than Santa Cruz Del Islote, a 20-minute short about the most densely-populated island in the world. Even Manhattan and Hong Kong have more open space per capita than this 1200-person, 2.4-acre speck off the coast of Columbia, made up of wall-to-wall fisherman's shacks. Eschewing talking heads and infographics for a visually sumptuous approach (every shot is simply gorgeous), Lorentzen allows the island's residents to provide a sparse narration to contextualize what we're seeing and hearing, but for the most part this is not a verbal but a sensory experience of what life is like in the built-up little town and out in the fishing boats. For the residents of Santa Cruz Del Islote, the sky above and the Caribbean around them is their only wilderness, and Lorentzen often frames the horizon low to emphasize the vastness of the island's blue surroundings.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens on a program beginning tonight at 7PM and on Sunday, May 4th at 3:45., both at the Kabuki Theatre.

WHY: Santa Cruz Del Islote screens on the (numerically, not chronologically) first of the San Francisco International Film Festival's seven shorts programs (though one might call this Tuesday's Castro Theatre program an unofficial eighth). This program is nominally half-documentary and half-narrative, but there's definitely some bleedover. There's a documentary element to Jim Granato's comedic narrative Angels, for example, and though up for a documentary award, John Haptas, Kris Samuelson, and Seiwert's Barn Dance is really a performance staged for the camera. Throw in Bill Morrison's archival-footage-based Re:Awakenings, and it makes for a very diverse and surprising program, as SFIFF shorts programs so often are.

HOW: Digital

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 3 at the festival includes other shorts programs such as the also-excellent animation showcase. It's also the night of the first screenings of anticipated-by-me films like Tamako In Moratorium and Our Sunhi.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Other Cinema's weekly screening tonight features the local single-channel premiere of Sam Green's Study of Fog as well as other Frisco-centric offerings.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Manakamana (2013)

A scene from Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's MANAKAMANA, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8, 2014. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society
WHO: Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez are the co-directors of this experimental documentary.

WHAT: I have not yet seen Manakamana, but I've been anticipating it since I first heard about it last summer, when I was primed to see more work by directors associated with the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, beyond Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, who teamed up to make my favorite feature film of 2013, Leviathan. This one is frequently described as an aesthetic opposite of that camera-chaotic work. Featuring eleven static long takes by a 16mm camera planted in a moving cable car ascending a mountain toward a Nepalese temple, it sounds like it may formally resemble a cross between James Benning's 13 Lakes and Ernie Gehr's Side/Walk/Shuttle. But Spray and Velez also come out of an anthropological tradition of filmmaking influenced by Robert Gardner (as discussed a bit in this interview), so I expect much of the film's interest to come from the human element visually absent from Gehr's and Benning's pieces. Indeed, I was recently fortunate to be able to see an untitled 2010 single-take short made in Nepal by Spray, and it begged the viewer to seriously con.sider the complexity of his or her relationship to the people being depicted on screen, and to the filmmaking apparatus itself, as well as the dynamics between Spray and her subjects.

Manakamana was released in New York City last week and has been reviewed extensively. A relatively new website called Critics Round Up has links to many of the most significant voices on the film. Don't expect San Francisco International Film Festival-credentialed critics to be added to the list however, as until Spray's & Velez's film secures commercial distribution here, it will remain in the strange limbo of the "hold review", in which local writers aren't allowed to review the film in more than 75 words.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens at New People Cinema tonight at 6PM and this Sunday afternoon at 1PM, and at the Kabuki on Monday, May 5th at 2PM.

WHY: Manakamana seems like the kind of moviegoing experience that can't really be replicated on small screens at home, and therefore begs to be seen in a cinema. And it's not one of the several SFIFF selections screening tonight that has already gone to "Rush Status", meaning a wait in line for a chance to get a ticket. If you haven't yet mapped out your whole festival, then there's no better place to start figuring it out than by looking at David Hudson's round-up of capsule previews and other press the festival has received up to this point. As he notes, the SF Bay Guardian has more extensive coverage than the SF Weekly, but that's been the norm for a while now. I imagine SFIFF staff and fans feel some mixed emotions about even the SFBG's coverage though, as for the past couple years now the fact that it gives SFIFF its cover story is blunted by the fact that they wrap this issue (unlike almost any others they publish each year) with an advertisement, thus depriving the city of the sense that the festival is the place to be this week, staring out at them from newsstands and coffee shops across town. Oh well; at least they haven't, like SF Weekly has, given more column inches to that Silicon Valley tv show than to SFIFF.

HOW: Digital

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 2 includes the first local screenings of films by Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, Frenchman Serge Bozon and Iranian Mohammad Rasoulof as well as a number of lesser-known directoral quantities.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Mildred Pierce screens in 35mm at Oakland's Paramount Theatre as part of its occasional classic film series that always includes cartoon & newsreel for only $5 admission. The Paramount has announced three more screenings of films with perhaps somewhat more dubious "classic" status (ok, I'm mostly talking about The Goonies) than this Joan Crawford noir between now and mid-July.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Two Faces Of January (2014)

 Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, and Kirsten Dunst star in Hossein Amini's thriller, THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24- May 8, 2014. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
WHO: Hossein Amini has had a long and successful screenwriting career for nearly two decades (longer if you include short-form and television work). There may not be anyone who would call the films he's adapted from Thomas Hardy (1996's Jude), Henry James (1997's The Wings of the Dove) or James Sallis (2011's Drive) better than they were as novels, but they each acquit themselves more nicely than expected, thanks to Amini and the directors he's worked with (Michael Winterbottom, Iain Softley and Nicolas Winding Refn), who tend to get more of the credit. Until now, Amini had never directed one of his own adaptations. This is his first. He is expected to attend the screening tonight.

WHAT: The Two Faces of January is based on a 1964 novel by Patricia Highsmith, best known to cinephiles as the author of novels that turned into films such as Strangers On A Train, Purple Noon, and the Talented Mr. Ripley. It just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, where it was reviewed by Tim Robey for the Telegraph. I'll provide an excerpt:’s tightly engineered and doesn’t waste words. But it’s also a treat to look at and listen to, evoking a lot of old-fashioned movie virtues, and showing us a lush but suspenseful good time. From the start, as holidaying Americans Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst) take a turn around the Parthenon in 1962, we get that tingle that comes with feeling in safe hands.
WHERE/WHEN: 7PM tonight at the Castro Theatre, kicking off the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: As I noted this time last year I've never actually attended the opening night of the San Francisco International Film Festival. I must admit the ticket price has always scared me away, and even those years when the festival's press department has invited me to attend, I've declined, figuring that the seat could be used by someone else and that I'd be able to catch the film another time.

This time I accepted, even though those factors still hold true. (The film is tentatively set to open in the Bay Area in September.) I never thought I'd say this, but I'm excited that the festival was able to book a film that will be receiving its North American premiere. It's played a few European festivals, but so far none of the critics I regularly read have written about it, and I'm interested to get a look at a film with a fairly strong artistic and commercial pedigree (stars include Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst & Oscar Isaac, none of whom are known to make stinkers very often) before the loudest, most confident critical voices have weighed in on it first. This never used to be a concern for me, but I find that in the few years I've been following numerous regular attendees of festivals like Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, etc. on twitter, my enthusiasm for an anticipated film is often accompanied by a feeling that I may not be able to experience it entirely on my own, but that in watching and evaluating it I'm somehow joining forces in a battle where the lines have already been drawn.

Opening night films at SFIFF are usually very solid films, but they only occasionally feel as completely brand-new as the opening film of a big festival somehow ought to be. For one night, if only one night, San Francisco ought to feel a little like the center of the film world, at least to its residents. With The Two Faces of January as opening-night selection and Alex Of Venice for closing night, both the bookending gala films of the festival are brand-new, 2014 films that had not screened at any 2013 festivals. This has happened before at SFIFF; in 2012 Farewell, My Queen and Don't Stop Believin': Everybody's Journey were truly new to that year, but even those had both screened in other parts of the country before their Frisco stop. You have to go back to the 1999 SFIFF (the first I attended) when The Winslow Boy opened and Buena Vista Social Club closed the festival to find another year that might contend in the "gala freshness" department.

Other SFIFF "premiere" titles I'm excited to see include Sara Dosa's The Last Season (a world premiere from local filmmaker Sara Dosa) and Tamako In Moratorium (a North American premiere from the director of Linda Linda Linda). 

HOW: Almost the entire festival this year is screening digitally, and The Two Faces of January is no exception. Theoretically, the proliferation of digital projection in the festival world (not just SFIFF but Cannes, Toronto and most others as well) should make the likelihood of seeing new work quicker higher, though it doesn't always seem to work out that way. 

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Tonight's Oddball Films program looks like a splendid line-up of 16mm ethnographic documentaries made around the world.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ways To Watch Hong Sangsoo

The San Francisco International Film Festival begins Thursday with a Castro Theatre screening of The Two Faces of January, a pan-European thriller based on a Patricia Highsmith story. I'll be covering the festival as press once again, but momentarily turn my blog over to my friend Adam Hartzell, who has already shared his enthusiasm for one particular SFIFF selection (which is near the top of my to-see list as well in the coming weeks) in podcast form and at the, and now here. Thanks, Adam!

A scene from Hong Sang-soo's OUR SUNHI, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24- May 8, 2014. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
Although Hong Sangsoo's 14th film Nobody's Daughter Haewon (2013) appears, for now, to have skipped San Francisco, we have three screenings of his 15th film, Our Sunhi (2013), thanks to the programmers of the 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Hong snagged a Silver Leopard for Best Director at the Locarno International Film Festival for Our Sunhi. Hong's films tend to be festival favorites for folks who come to festivals for so-called 'challenging' films.
I don't really like that word 'challenging' because it sounds pretentious. It seems to imply that if you don't like the film or if you don't 'get it', it's because you aren't up to par intellectually. It is perhaps better to say Hong's later films, let's say post-Turning Gate (2002), are films that step outside of the standard film narratives we expect. Even when the narratives appear to be heading in a direction with which we are familiar, such as the art house favorite of two opposing narratives of the same event, à la Rashomon, Hong might even be complicating narratives we think we know. As Marshall Deutelbaum of Purdue University has noted, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) might seem like a he-said/she-said indie narrative, but Deutelbaum argues convincingly that it can also be read as one continuous narrative.
Part of what I enjoy about Hong's films is how he disrupts my genre demands of narrative. This is why I will be watching all three screenings of Hong's film at SFIFF. But if you aren't ready for Hongian narratives, the films can be frustrating. And although sitting with website our frustrations can lead us towards new insights, (I myself no longer own a car because my frustrations with trying to find parking in San Francisco enlightened me to the value of a car-free life), it can also be helpful to come to a Hong film prepared.
I do not want this to be seen as a 'How to Watch Hong Sangsoo's Our Sunhi', because similar to the word 'challenging', that can be pretentious too. These are merely suggestions of 5 ways to watch Our Sunhi that I hope will be helpful. Thankfully, we have a diverse array of films on display at SFIFF. To modify the cliche, if Hong isn't your cup of soju, there are many more visual libations to savor.
1) Don't expect a typical narrative. Let go of your standard reading strategies. This doesn't mean that Aristotle's tragic fall from grace or the reverse can't be applied to a Hong film. Perhaps there are some Campbellian myths in there. But I feel one can benefit by letting those strategies go while watching a Hong film and see where things settle afterwards rather than trying to impose Hong's films into standard story framing devices.
2) Even those who don't enjoy Hong Sangsoo's films enjoy his drunken soju table shot scenes. As Marc Raymond notesOur Sunhi has his longest table shot scene to date. Tense moments often arise at these tables. Hong is not interested in alleviating this tension. He wants you to sit with the awkwardness. Be ready for that.
3) If you can only watch one film before this one, consider Nobody's Daughter Haewon if you can find it. Hong's second feature-length film to focus primarily on a female character, and his first to focus on a Korean woman, it provides an excellent template for how Hong has advanced his roles for Korean women. This is not to imply that South Korean films don't provide quality vehicles for actresses. Many South Korean films do. Hong's films just provide something different. Women who flail and make poor choices amongst calculated ones. Women as insecure and pathetic and obliviously confident at times just like Hong's men.
4) Expect repetition across films and within. Yet if you yourself engage in repetition and watch the film more than once, you will see the nuanced differences in each rinse and  repeat. Seriously, buy a ticket for two screenings at SFIFF if not all three like me. Not only will you catch the significance of what appeared to be insignificant moments in your first screening, or moments you completely missed the first time, but you'll catch the subtle adjustments to what appeared to be completely repeated motifs previously.
5) Read up afterwards. Hong's is a literate cinema. His films are enhanced by reading what folks have written about his films. (For example, if you like to get your Lacan on, check out Kyung Hyun Kim's two books on South Korean cinema, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema and Virtual Hallyu. He tackles Hong's first 3 films in the former and next 3 films in the latter.) You can't really ruin a Hong film by reading about it before, but even if you are anxiously spoiler averse, read the essays inspired by his films afterwards. That said, Hong's cinema is also a salon cinema. They inspire discussion. Whether that discussion happens in print, pixel, or in the ephemeral space of words spoken, it's not that you will find things 'making sense', it will be that the senses of Hong's cinema will be accentuated by the cinephilic syllabi and symposia of writers and conversationalists whom Hong's films inspire. Hong's films aren't finished after the closing credits. In some ways, that's when his films are just getting started.