Thursday, April 30, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 8: California Company Town

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is at the halfway mark; it runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

California Company Town (USA: Lee Anne Schmitt, 2008)

playing: 8:35 PM tonight at the Pacific Film Archive, with two more public showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: Vancouver 2008
distributor: none that I'm aware of.

At the intersection of historical, geographical, political, environmental, and aesthetic upheaval lies California Company Town, made by CalArts faculty member Lee Anne Schmitt. It explores the communities and ex-communities built up around this state's extraction industries: mining, lumbering, large-scale agriculture etc. Schmitt's matter-of-fact narration tells story after story from our unheard labor history along with personal recounts of her experiences speaking with people and shooting footage in these forgotten pockets of California. Other times we hear the voices of political figures reciting relevant speeches, or else paid promoters selling faith in the American Dream. Often the soundtrack is wordless however, emphasizing an auditory windswept emptiness that aligns with the images we're shown. Schmitt interpolates archival film footage and close-up shots of the detritus of these commerce-ravaged communities with the bulk of her visual palette: landscape shots of the ghost towns, lunar landscapes, and even impromptu skate parks that exist in and around places like Boron, Darwin, Eagle Mountain, etc.

This essay film is possibly the most formally unconventional of the documentary features at the SFIFF this year, though its outwardly calm yet furiously pointed approach may identify it as a younger cousin of recent festival selections such as Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind and the Joy of Life. What a typical documentary viewer is likely to miss most, at least at first, in California Company Town is images of people. There are some, but they're almost exclusively shown in extreme long shot and remain strangers. However, this absence of human visual connection should strike a thoughtful viewer as entirely appropriate to the subject matter of locations where capital has starkly displaced human labor.

Perhaps most interesting are Schmitt's images of the remnants of workers' co-operatives such as Kaweah and Llano del Rio. Not company towns at all, but utopian alternatives, these former communities leave fewer traces than the emptied-out factory towns and mines. And she touches on the fact that some of these dying or dead towns are making unlikely comebacks as bedroom communities for labor pools for modern, capital-infused cities. I'm not quite sure how Manzanar fits in with the rest of the places she exhibits, but like her aesthetic decisions its inclusion in the film provides fodder for thought and discussion. The filmmaker is expected to be in attendance at tonight's screening.

SFIFF52 Day 8
Another option: Proving Ground (USA: Travis Wilkerson, 2007) Actually a multimedia performance piece originally entitled Soapbox Agitation #1: Proving Ground is the most notable vestige of the Kinotek programs of recent SFIFF editions. I wish I had taken advantage of more of them; this one sounds interesting.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Road House (USA: Jean Negulesco, 1948) at the Vortex Room in 16mm; a noir starring Ida Lupino. Need I say more? If so, I'll let Noir of the Week do the talking.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 7: The Lake

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is approaching its halfway mark; it runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

The Lake (ISRAEL: Boaz Lavie, 2009)

playing: 12:15 PM this afternoon at the Kabuki, with no more showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: Ljubljana International Short Film Festival 2009 is the earliest I'm picking up.
distributor: none that I am aware of.

Some of the SFIFF's shorts programs are collected under a clear theme. Youth Bring the Truth showcases work by teenage filmmakers. No Voice Too Small compiles films made for children. A Thousand Pictures is animation not intended for kiddies. Parting Shots and Handle With Care are devoted to avant-garde films. Foreign Territories and Voices Carry are more curatorially amorphous.

I used the festival's press preview stations to take a look at films in the latter program and was unable to discern a unifying principle behind it. Voices that carry, I guess. No matter, it's an opportunity to watch a grab bag of short-form video work along with, according to the Film on Film calendar, one 35mm production entitled Next Floor, a dark, satirical, somewhat gruesome narrative piece from Canada. Other shorts in the program include the Conscience of Nhem En, an Oscar-nominated documentary short about the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, and 575 Castro St., which might find itself at home in one of the avant-garde programs, but has an emotional heft that deserves to be appreciated by viewers nervous about seeing a full program of experimental work.

I gravitate toward the documentaries, the avant-garde, and the animated shorts, but tend to be disappointed by the live-action narrative short video works, no matter what festival I see them at. It's nice to find an exception, though. I found one in The Lake, a comedy from a young Israeli writer-director named Boaz Lavie. It's a completely absurd piece about two brothers trying to make a living in Tel Aviv. A bizarre scenario is played with such straightforward deadpan earnestness that I could not help but laugh out loud in the oh-so-quiet viewing room. I suspect the Lake will appeal most to the sorts of people who have Fishing With John in their personal DVD collections, not because they're being Criterion-Collection-completist, but because they appreciate its off-beat humor. I also bet it's the only film ever made with songs recorded by Stevie Wonder, Vincent Gallo and Raffi all on the same soundtrack.

SFIFF52 Day 7
Another option: Khamsa (FRANCE: Karim Dridi, 2008) has been recommended by Carl Martin as well as other festgoers I've spoken with. Here is another review if you still need convincing to attend the film's last SFIFF screening today.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: the Clown and the Führer (SPAIN: Eduard Cortés, 2007) at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I haven't seen it, but here is a review.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 6: Le Amiche

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is going strong; it runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

Le Amiche (ITALY: Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1955)

playing: 8:15 PM tonight at the Pacific Film Archive, with no more showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: Venice 1955
distributor: Image Entertainment released a DVD back in 2001, but this restoration may be lead to a new home video transfer. More theatrical showings might be unlikely in the near future, however.

Michaelangelo Antonioni has the reputation of being one of the severest of the great international auteurs of the 1960s arthouse. But his work in the 1950s was very different in formal seriousness and tone, as evidenced by this relatively rare screening of a recently-restored 1955, Le Amiche. Translated as the Girlfriends, it begins in the aftermath of a suicide attempt and follows a group of women, some married and some unmarried but in direct competition for the attention of the husbands. Its theme of the dissolution of the traditional family structure in post-war Italy certainly prefigures the so-called "trilogy of alienation", but it's positively breezy when compared to the director's canonized works like L'Avventura and L'Eclisse.

That's because Antonioni hadn't yet pushed his formal experimentation into the ground-breaking realm of those masterpieces. Le Amiche provides a fine example of that maxim for artists: that one must Know The Rules before successfully Breaking Them. For Le Amiche has a structure that, while by no means predictable or conforming to a rigid genre floorplan (not one that I'm aware of at any rate), is also no assault upon the very tenets of narrative as some later films reportedly felt like to audiences of the time. And on a shot-by-shot basis, this is not the Antonioni that Orson Welles complains about to Peter Bogdanovich in This is Orson Welles:

I'm so bored with Antonioni--that belief that, because a shot is good, it's going to get better if you keep looking at it. He gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, "Well, he's not going to carry that woman all the way up that road." But he does. And then she leaves and you go on looking at the road after she's gone.
No, in 1955 the Italian master was still using relatively conventional pacing. There is a crucial shot of a woman disappearing down a street, but she disappears into the darkness and it's quite clear what emotion the audience is expected to feel as the camera is being held there. For some, an Antonioni film without the long-take, long-shot ennui may be hard to fathom; why see a film by an auteur that doesn't highlight his most essential strength? But Charlie Chaplin made a masterpiece out of a Woman of Paris without employing his knack for comedy, and David Cronenberg's Fast Company is as good as any of his other early films, without the employment of overt "body horror".

The truth is these filmmakers are men of prodigial talent, and display it even when not plucking the same string they're best known for. In Antonioni's case, his eye for framing a composition and skill at delineating character shine through in a film like Le Amiche, and it should be sought out by anyone interested in the work of this great master. Conversely, it might even turn around the opinion of an Antonioni non-fan put off by the likes of Red Desert and Zabriskie Point.

SFIFF52 Day 6
Another option: Rembrandt's J'Accuse (UK/NETHERLANDS: Peter Greenaway, 2008), with the director expected to be in attendance. UPDATE: As it turns out, Greenaway is not in town after all. Michael Hawley points out that a new Greenaway film hasn't screened in Frisco since 1999. What's up with that?
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Wendy and Lucy (USA: Kelly Reihardt, 2008) at the Red Vic, a truly heartbreaking, beautiful film I recommend very highly. Check out this interview with the film's director by SFIFF shorts juror Jesse Hawthorne Ficks.

Monday, April 27, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 5: Empress Hotel

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival has completed its first weekend; it runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

Empress Hotel (USA: Allie Light & Irving Saraf, 2009)

playing: 6:00 PM tonight at the Kabuki, with two more showtimes including an added screening on the last day of the festival.
festival premiere: Nashville Film Festival 2009
distributor: none that I'm aware of.

Forty years ago, a former lawyer named Frederick Wiseman made a film called Titicut Follies, out of footage he shot inside the Bridgewater (Massachusetts) State Hospital for the criminally insane. Though he had the permission of the hospital and its staff to film inside, after the film's completion a legal decision blocked its screening on the basis that the patients' privacy would be infringed upon. This despite the fact that Wiseman's camera was attempting to benefit the patients by improving their conditions; it showed those few who were able to see the film (before the ban was lifted in 1991) how Bridgewater was maltreating its inmates: housing them naked, force-feeding them in an improper manner, etc.

Empress Hotel is a quite different documentary in almost every regard. It shows life inside a Tenderloin residential hotel intended to provide shelter for people who might otherwise be sleeping on Frisco's sidewalks or in its parks. Though a number of these residents have mental health or addiction issues, they are not "criminally insane" (though it's questionable whether the men in Titicut Follies were, either). They are not being held at the Empress against their will. The film was made in full co-operation from the staff of the hotel, and building manager Roberta Goodman even served as co-producer. More importantly, as suggested by the documentary's subtitle "Stories of the Residents," Empress Hotel was made with the active participation of its subjects. This interview indicates that material the residents wanted omitted from the film indeed was. It's their perspectives and the depiction of their joys and frequent sorrows of living in the center of Frisco's Tenderloin that forms the heart of the film. Like any documentary made by outsiders (in this case Oscar-winning non-fiction filmmaking team Allie Light & Irving Saraf) huge ethical issues of representation are wrangled with, but following in the true cinéma vérité tradition of Jean Rouch (as opposed to the Direct Cinema strand Wiseman stems out of) the presence of the camera is acknowledged and the ethical wrangling becomes a clear part of the finished film.

Light and Saraf make a few choices that I'm not sure work so well; notably during some of the residents testimonials of their life experiences they intercut heavy-handed images of liquor, drugs, and other personal demons the storytellers are describing in the audio track. And the film doesn't seem to know quite how to conclude. Perhaps this is because of the messiness of human existence and our inconclusive narratives. Personally, I would also have liked to see more paralleling of the lives of the "cared for" with those of their "providers" in order to break down the separations that we tend to feel when confronted with people in a so-called "worse off" situation than our own. But ultimately Empress Hotel is a important and eye-opening document. If Titicut Follies led its viewers to understand the tragic indignities of the institution it portrayed, this film is liable to bring a sensitive viewer to a better understanding of the tragic indignities of a society that shunts aside a portion of its population into near-invisibility. A film like Empress Hotel can only be part of the corrective to this sad situation.

SFIFF52 Day 5
Another option: Al Más Allá (MEXICO: Lourdes Portillo, 2008), screening as part of Lourdes Portillo's Persistence of Vision award tribute. I've only seen one of this documentarian's films, Missing Young Woman, but on the basis of that film alone I think she's a worthy choice for the award. Michael Fox seems to be the only critic around who has seen her latest film, but he makes it sound quite interesting.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Milk (USA: Gus Van Sant, 2008) at the Castro. If you're in town just for the festival and have never seen this award-winning biopic inside the movie theatre much of it was filmed in front of, this is your chance to do so. If you're a resident and haven't seen it there, you'll get another chance May 22-28, when it plays on a double-bill with the documentary the Times of Harvey Milk.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 4: a Woman Under the Influence

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival has begun and runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

A Woman Under the Influence (USA: John Cassavetes, 1974)

playing: 5:45 PM tonight at the Castro, with no more showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: New York Film Festival, 1974
distributor: Criterion has a DVD out of course, but Cassavetes films should be seen in theatres when the opportunity arises. Brecht Andersch expects the newly-restored print to receive "something of a commercial run" but I wonder if he's being overly optimistic.

I have a confession to make: I have never seen John Cassavetes' a Woman Under the Influence. Shadows, Faces, Opening Night, Love Streams, yes, and all in cinemas. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie on home video only (probably the main reason why I like it the least of these). But not the film that put him the closest to mainstream respectability thanks to its two major Oscar nominations. Gena Rowlands was nominated for Best Actress for her performance; she's expected to attend the Castro screening. And Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director, losing to Francis Ford Coppola, who the festival is honoring May 1st also at the Castro alongside a screening of his 1969 film the Rain People.

It should be noted that initially many critics were hostile to a Woman Under the Influence, and even the positive Variety review had little more to say than that the film was "technically superior to any of John Cassavetes' previous works." Whatever that means in the context of Cassavetes; I suppose I'll find out this evening. All I know for sure is that each Cassavetes film I've seen is wholly different from every other, yet so distinctively part of a larger (love) stream of work that it's impossible not to recognize the author's presence behind the camera (even when he's also in front of it). It's also impossible not to recognize his influence over imitators, for good or ill. I'm eager for tonight, what I expect to be a real highlight of the festival.

SFIFF52 Day 4
Another option: Le Amiche (ITALY: Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1955), which Carl Martin in his round up of SFIFF revival screenings laments was subject to digital restoration, but that won't deter me from partaking.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Gone With the Wind (USA: Victor Fleming, 1939) at the Stanford, if only to see that crane shot Val Lewton conceived of as a story editor for Selznick, on a big, beautiful screen.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 3: Bluebeard

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival has begun and runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

Bluebeard (FRANCE: Catherine Breillat, 2009)

playing: 9:30 PM tonight at the Kabuki, with 1 more showtime later in the festival.
festival premiere: Berlinale 2009
distributor: none yet in the USA, that I am aware of.

There's really not much I can add to the consummate survey of critical opinion on Catherine Breillat's new film Bluebeard provided by Michael Guillén. Except perhaps a link to this more negative take provided by Arya Ponto. For my part, I liked it quite a bit, and was especially sold by the final moments. True to the director's other films, the last five minutes pack more visceral impact than the other seventy-three combined.

One thing I have to take issue with most of the other commentators, however, is the presentation of the film's scenes of two 1950s-era sisters reading Charles Perrault's fairy story as a framing device for the majority of the film's diegesis, which is given over to the unfolding of the Bluebeard tale. Perhaps it's accurate enough to call it a frame, but if so, I think it's worth noting that this is the first time I can recall seeing a framing device that begins after, and ends before, the narrative it's supposedly framing does. It's as if Breillat is guiding us to feel that the truths behind the Bluebeard myth exist and existed before it was ever put into words by Perrault or any of its retellers.

SFIFF52 Day 3
Another option: Adoration (CANADA: Atom Egoyan, 2008). Dennis Harvey makes it sound really worthwhile, as long as you don't read the last sentence of his capsule.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Conrad in Quest of His Youth (USA: William C. de Mille, 1921) at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, which Jonathan Rosenbaum labeled as "neglected". It screens in 16mm with live piano accompaniment by Bruce Loeb.

Friday, April 24, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 2: Lake Tahoe

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival has begun and runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating. Starting today.

Lake Tahoe (MEXICO: Fernando Eimbcke, 2008)

playing: 9:15 PM tonight at the Kabuki, with two more showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: Berlinale 2008
distributor: Film Movement DVD release scheduled for November 2009.

If you liked Fernando Eimbcke's Duck Season you probably already have this one picked out on your festival menu. I was actually lukewarm to the Mexican director's feature debut, finding its humor sometimes forced and its world just a bit too closed-off to take to heart. The critical references to Jim Jarmusch's early work seemed apt, but even Stranger Than Paradise expanded its arenas for claustrophobic comedy by switching up the locations once or twice.

Anyway, I decided to give Eimbcke another chance while attending the Portland International Film Festival, where I saw Lake Tahoe. I can report that, at least for this viewer, it's better than Duck Season. Perhaps it's the searing-bright color photography, or the wider aspect ratio, or the outdoor location shooting, or the use of more "planimetric" shots, or the more unconventional pacing, but feature #2 feels more like a real "movie" to me than feature #1 did to me. The set-up, a teenager's circuitous quest to repair a car so he can get out of town, provides plenty of opportunity for off-center (sometimes forced, more often not) humor, and even pathos. The use of fade-outs and tricky sound cues make it a film worth analyzing technically in more depth than I'm able to in this capsule.

SFIFF52 Day 2
Another option: Sacred Places (CAMEROON/FRANCE: Jean-Marie Teno, 2009), which Max Goldberg makes sound good.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: the Life and Death of Col. Blimp (UK: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1943) at the Stanford, described by Brecht Andersch as "exquisite fun." I concur.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Adam Hartzell: Sugar Ball

Brian here. By now, Adam Harztell is a familiar enough contributor to Hell on Frisco Bay regular readers that he really needs no introduction. But since I haven't bothered figuring out how to turn this into a functioning "team blog" he's getting one anyway. He recently wrote pieces on the Mosque in Morgantown and the cricket angle in Slumdog Millionaire. Now I'm excited to present his latest piece on Sugar, the newest film by the writing/directing team responsible for Have You Seen This Man? and Half Nelson. It's currently playing exclusively at the Embarcadero Cinema and the Camera 12 here on Frisco Bay. Here's Adam, after the image (supplied by Sony Pictures Classics, along with others in this piece):

Like a good wine at dinner, I like to compliment my films with a good book. Just as I read books from the countries where I travel while I’m traveling there, I seek out films and books of related topics to experience those mediums in tandem. I want these texts to talk to each other within me. If some scholar hasn’t already named what I’m talking about, let’s call it "Intentional Intertextuality".

So when I found out there was a pre-screening of Sugar (directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) that I could actually attend, I immediately sought out Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line by Adrian Burgos, Jr. An assistant professor of History at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, I had heard a fascinating interview with Burgos Jr. on Dave Zirin's Edge of Sports Radio show about the baseball academies in Latin America. After hearing the interview, I added his book to my checklist of books to check out one day. And now that Sugar, like Major League Baseball, is upon us, this was the book I needed to provide the proper context for the film.

Although I acquired the book within two days of searching, the search included failed efforts to find it at Bird and Beckett in Glen Park, Green Apple in the Richmond District, and Books Inc. in Laurel Village. The latter was particularly ironic since they had a major display of baseball books to celebrate opening 2009, just not the one I was looking for. My commitment to independent bookstores over Amazon was rewarded when after my wife and I caught a matinee of Tokyo Sonata at the Clay on Fillmore we found Playing America’s Game waiting for me in the shelves of Browser Books.

Sugar the film follows the baseball dreams of an eponymously nicknamed "Sugar", real character name Miguel Santos (debut performance by Algenis Pérez Soto). We meet Sugar at a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. Although the film provides various theories for why Miguel is named "Sugar", it seems equally plausible that his name came from Alan Klein’s book Sugarball, where Klein has this to say about these academies – "The academy is the baseball counterpart of the colonial outposts, the physical embodiment overseas of the parent franchise. It the subsidiary of any other foreign country: it finds raw materials (talented athletes), refines them (trains the athletes), and ships abroad finished products (baseball players)" (quoted in page 227 of Burgos Jr.’s book). This isn’t a metaphor. That is how some scholars literally see these baseball academies. It is Sugar's carpentry that is the metaphor for the reality of the human bodies as raw material refined into product that the baseball academies enable under the guise of 'opportunity' for the aspiring ballplayers, 'opportunity' being a code word for your employer wanting access to your labor at a reduced rate.

Wow! That sure sounds dehumanizing, doesn't it? The quote and my extension of the argument seem to strip all agency away from the ballplayers at these academies. It’s the pull-quoting that's the problem. There's a lot more context provided in Burgos Jr.'s book, (and I’m sure Klein's) since "it illuminates Latinos as actors, not just people acted upon" (p 268). He focuses in on the agency of the players, how they negotiated the racial and economic impositions of their particular time in history through each man's attempts to play organized baseball. And that's what Sugar seeks to do too: humanize a composite of the experience of ballplayers from the Spanish-speaking Americas. It seeks to humanize by seeking to sympathize. It shows the players as actors through actors. And it’s Sugar's actions later in the film that lead some reviewers to point out how the film steps away from the clichés of the genre of the sports film.

Where Sugar the film works for me is in its moments of tenderness, such as those Sugar experiences with a local waitress. It works for me when the camera juxtaposes images of the cityscapes of New York, Sugar's home in the Dominican Republic, and the fields of Iowa. It works for me in the blurring of the background as Sugar enters the collapsing maze and oppressive pings and whoops of a casino.

Sugar is a movie that wears its politics with its sympathy. It name drops Latino heroes such as Roberto Clemente and Vic Power. (I grew up well-versed in Clemente lore since my father grew up outside of Pittsburgh and thus a Pirates fan. The lore was later enhanced with research provided by David Maraniss' excellent biography Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, a book I learned about again from Zirin. Whereas, I had only been familiarized with the controversies surrounding Vic Power through passages from Burgos Jr.'s book I’d finished reading just before heading into the screening.) It is at these political talking point moments the film doesn't have the subtlety I prefer. It's moments like these where Sugar seems forced. Sugar the movie is not Burgos Jr.'s book. Burgos Jr. has the space to lay out a more nuanced argument about the history of peoples from the Spanish-speaking Americas in organized baseball.

And this history is much longer than is often recognized, from Cuban Esteban Bellán in the 1870s to the Venezuelan rookies debuting this year. And Playing America's Game seeks to remedy that by laying out the forgotten or misunderstood histories of the many Latino players. He contextualizes where they came from and how they negotiated their way into organized baseball before and after Jackie Robinson broke through the color line. Transnational links were established from Havana to DC via the Washington Senators cost-cutting efforts in the early years of the 20th century. So when similar links were established from Santo Domingo to San Francisco and our Giants in the later years of the century, this was nothing new, just a modification of previous ventures. Each Latino player had his own way of negotiating the linguistic, political, racial and economic obstacles of their sojourns, whether it be Ted Williams who didn't publicly acknowledge his Mexican ancestry while playing, or Roberto Clemente who confronted racism and poverty head-on, or Reggie Jackson who resisted the press by briefly insisting on only speaking Spanish, or Felipe Alou’s response to the racism of a San Francisco talk-show boast. Sugar does not speak for all of these players. It is a composite of the issues these players face. It works hard, sometimes too hard.

Burgos Jr.'s book offers more to me than Sugar right now, but that's because books in general are offering more to me than film. Just as baseball offers more to some than football, cricket more to some than rugby, basketball more to some than hockey. If you're one of those who value baseball, Sugar just might be the sweet spot on the glove that baseball films have been pounding for so long. For those of you who don't want to be taken out to the ball game, I do wonder if this would be the film for you. You won’t be disappointed, it’s a decent film. But I have much more to say about Burgos Jr.'s book than I do Sugar. But at least I finally got around to reading the book thanks to Sugar.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ten Intriguing Films

Between April 23 and May 7, the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival will be bringing nearly 150 films and videos to Frisco Bay, from over 50 countries. No, I didn't go through the program and count them; I'm just taking the word of festival director Graham Leggat, who supplied those numbers in his program guide welcome message. The same message announces plans to build something called the San Francisco International Film Center as part of the Main Post Redevelopment Plan for the Presidio.

At Tuesday's press conference, Leggat talked a little bit more on this project: a plan to build a three-screen cinema to become the home of the San Francisco Film Society's year-round programming. Can Frisco sustain another three screens? What does this do to the Film Society's relationships with existing venues that host SFIFF and other events?

Questions for later, I suppose. Right now I'm still digging through the program guide to figure out a preliminary viewing schedule. With so many films to choose from, I'm tempted to just pick out the films by auteur directors I'm already familiar with, or those that sounded most interesting when described by the programming team at the press conference. Sticking to either of these two strategies is a sure-fire way to miss out on some under-heralded gems. So to fight against that tendency, here's a list of 10 films left un-mentioned by Leggat and his team at the press conference, with pedigrees I know little or nothing about. All images supplied by the festival publicity office.

1. Artemisia

The only Taiwanese production in this year's SFIFF is the feature-length debut by director Chiang Hsiu-Chiung, who in 1991 played one of the sisters in Edward Yang's great a Brighter Summer Day. She has since assisted both Yang and SFIFF regular Hou Hsiao-hsien behind the camera. It has already been announced as the Golden Gate Award winning film in the television narrative category (one of the few GGA categories where the winner is traditionally announced prior to the festival).

2. For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism

Fresh from its SXSW world premiere and resultant press attention is this documentary on one of my favorite love-hate topics, the very nature of film criticism. Just after its first festival screening on the afternoon of May 3, there will be a free panel entitled "A Critical Moment", which is expected to draw appearances from John Anderson, David D'Arcy, Jonathan Curiel, Dennis Harvey, Gerald Peary (the doc's director), Mary F. Pols, and Susan Gerhard. And perhaps others.

3. Go Go 70s

Though this review is merely mixed, I'm always interested in seeing what the SFIFF brings from South Korea. Based on a true story, it apparently proves that 1970s soul music could also be Seoul music. (Ooooh- sorry about that.) It also provides the big program guide with its cover image.

4. It's Not Me, I Swear!

Directed by the maker of Congorama, which I sadly missed at the SFIFF two years ago, this film and its protagonist (who sounds a bit like a morbidly precocious Harold) has been making the rounds on the festival circuit, and proves that the Québec Film Week the SFFS organized last December didn't empty that province of all its cinematic product.

5. Mesrine: a Film in Two Parts

Likewise, the Film Society's French Cinema Now series inaugurated last fall certainly didn't come close to exhausting the supply of fest-worthy films from that country. Including shorts and co-productions France is represented by 21 films in this year's SFIFF, nearly as many as last year when a terrific crop including wonderful stuff like the Secret of the Grain and the Romance of Astrea and Celadon played. This year brings films by well-known names like Breillat, Denis, and Assayas, but of the unknown quantities I'm probably most intrigued by Jean-François Richet. Forget that he was involved in that Assault on Precinct 13 remake I didn't see; he just won the César award for Best Director for this two-part crime epic with an all-star cast.

6. Modern Life

The only film on this list made by a director I've seen work by before: Raymond Depardon. In 2005 the SFIFF programmed two of his documentary features: 10th District Court and Profiles Farmers: Daily Life. The latter was the one I was able to fit into my schedule, and though I heard from many that the other one was the better of the two, I was still fascinated enough by Depardon's approach to his rural subject matter, that I'm now excited to view what appears to be a follow-up in a similar milieu.

7. Sacred Places

Now I'm really kicking myself for skipping Chief! at the Pacific Film Archive's Way of the Termite series, still chugging along with entries from Rouch and Resnais this Sunday for example. It was directed by Jean-Marie Teno, as is Sacred Places, a documentary about cinephilia in Burkina Faso that was inspired by a screening of the earlier film at the FESPACO festival. No matter; I hope to see this anyway. Thankfully an early Teno short (Homage from 1987) has been programmed to give us a taste of the Cameroonian filmmaker's early work.

8. Soul Power

If, like me, you're not much of a boxing fan, you might not remember much of the detail of the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. But you might remember the concert footage of the "Zaire '74" festival that preceded Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's rumble in the general vicinity of the African jungle. Soul Power was constructed from outtakes from the earlier, Academy Award-winning doc, focusing on the concerts and not the fighting. Presumably someone else somewhere is making a film based on the outtakes from Norman Mailer's interview.

9. Tulpan

OK, so this one's got a pretty bona fide pedigree, having won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the last Cannes Film Festival. That's the same award won by Blissfully Yours, Moolaade, and the Death of Mr. Lazarescu, in case you're wondering. But I still know next to nothing about Tulpan; only what I've scanned from this page. Made in Kazakhstan, by a Kazakhstan-born director, though with funding from some other countries, it also opens at local Landmark Theatres the day after the festival ends.

10. The Window

Three Argentinian feature films play the SFIFF this year, and none of them were mentioned from the podium at Tuesday's press conference. An unintended oversight, I'm sure. This one is directed by Carlos Sorín, who pleased festgoers with Historias Minimas in 2003 and the Road to San Diego in 2007. Despite all the positive word-of-mouth these titles (particularly the former) received at the time, I still haven't seen any Sorín film. This may be the year to fix that.

Want more SFIFF pre-coverage as you start blocking out your schedule? Try the Evening Class for information about the Late Show (films still running as the witching hour chimes), or Susan Gerhard for a more general overview.