Film festivals are a great way to travel: either to travel to a city where a film festival is happening, or to "travel" through the wonders of the cinema.
Some film festivals have become so famous that the cities they are in have become destinations: Cannes, San Sebastian, Park City (Sundance), Telluride. Other festivals are in famous cities such as New York or Toronto. The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) is now in its 27th year (they skipped 13, so this one was dubbed the "28th annual") and provides a great way to get to know Seattle. Since the venues are spread out over downtown and Capitol Hill, I spent a great deal of time walking between theaters, finding restaurants along the way, and just admiring the views of Puget Sound, Elliott Bay, and the majestic Olympic Mountains.
As far as travel through film goes, I spent three hours in the far north with the Inuktituts of northern Canada (The Fast Runner), some time in a cab in Santiago, Chile (A Cab for Three), bopped along to musicals from Thailand and Japan (Mon-rak Transistor and The Happiness of the Katikuris, respectively), and learned a sobering lesson about AIDS orphans in Uganda (ABC Africa).
Film festivals also challenge your perceptions about other countries. For example, who knew that the usually bleak Finns could produce a comedy similar to a "Kids in the Hall" sketch (On the Road to Emmaus) or that Swedish actresses had a sense of humor (Gossip)? Or for instance, that a Japanese vampire/samurai/gangster/zombie movie (Versus) could have a higher mousse::actor ratio than a John Waters film? If you want to see the truest movie about gay lovers that I've ever seen, mainland China would not be first place I would think of, but Lan Yu floored me with its brutally honest portrayal. No Will or Grace here.
As with any festival, you start learning what's good from other ticket holders as the festival goes on. Films get to be known by a sort of shorthand. For instance, there was the "gay Rashomon" movie from the U.K. (Lawless Heart) and the "curling comedy" about the Olympic sport of Curling (Men With Brooms); or, you overhear people talking about a film "that movie freaked me out" and piece it together with what day it is and who's talking to come up with this: a piece of crap Japanese movie about evil screensavers chasing high school students and convincing parents to kill themselves in their washing machines (Uzumaki) coming soon to a late night theater near you. Not that I'm advocating this, but if you really insist on seeing this stupid, stupid movie, then take a great deal of pharmaceutical substances first. I don't know about you, but computer screensavers just don't seem all that threatening to me.
Of course, a film festival isn't only about films that you can see. SIFF is also full of filmmaker's forums, where you can go to learn about various aspects of the filmmaking industry, network with directors, screenwriters, or producers, and listen in on panel discussions about various states of the industry. Even if you don't take the time to attend a forum, you can get a taste of how a film came together, simply by hanging out at most films after the closing credits and listening to the director or star of a film take questions from the audience. If this is your focus, however, be sure to pay special attention to the program guide and see which films advertise that a guest will accompany the screening.
Seattle doesn't have the festival party scene that you read about with Sundance or Cannes, but there are some parties. The opening night and closing night galas are part of your ticket for those events and can be exceptional fun. We went to the closing night film/gala this year and had a great time. The film was Passionada, directed by the cofounder of the festival, Dan Ireland and the party was at the new Elliott Hotel (Hyatt) at 7th and Pine Streets. The working class world of a Portuguese community in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and the grand lobby of the Elliott didn't exactly complement each other, but they were both worth it. And how can you pass up a party where the drinks are free, the food is good, and you get to bump into the stars of the film or sit next to the guy who inspired the story of The Big Lebowski?
Now about those films: I saw 56 films in 25 days. Because of the way films are scheduled against each other, it isn't actually possible to see all the films in the festival. Most of the films were new, but the festival was also doing a retrospective of the last golden age in American cinema (the 70s -- a local theater was also showing 70s films as a festival sidebar), a tribute to cinematographer James Wong Howe, and its regular programming of archival films.
My 56 films were quite enough for me, but I heard rumors that some of the full series pass holders passed the 150 film mark. There was even a documentary specifically about this particular type of obsession called, fittingly enough, Cinemania. A local newspaper came out with a controversial article about the pass holders and their typical behavior. The new word for pass holders this year became passholes. While I didn't see much behavior to back this up, you may run into an obsessive type with bleary eyes and popcorn breath as you negotiate the byways of a film festival. Don't be alarmed. Just don't get between them and their seat (akin to coming between a mother bear and her cub) and don't talk during the movie. And for god's sake, turn your cell phone off before the film starts. Woe to you if your phone goes off in the middle of that once in a lifetime screening of Days of Heaven on the screen at the Egyptian Theater. Even the less obsessive types might shun you after that.
My favorites this year ranged from the previously mentioned The Fast Runner also known as Atanarjuat to a documentary called Last Dance - about the collaboration between the dance group, Pilobolus, and Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are.
The Fast Runner is based on Inuktitut oral history from the time just before Christian missionaries came to northern Canada. Atanarjuat is a fisherman in a tribe where Evil has come to visit. While this may sound like the beginnings of a horror story, it isn't really. It's more about the way the tribe lives and what happens when one man is jealous of another man's wife. The film's title comes about when the first man tries to kill Atanarjuat and Atanarjuat ends up running barefoot and naked across the fields of ice and snow. Instead of dying from exposure, he manages to live through the experience and the story deals with the fine line between retribution and vengeance.
Last Dance is about a dance piece called "Selection" that dance troupe Pilobolus and Maurice Sendak workshop together. The documentary starts with a conception of the idea, works through the somewhat experimental rehearsal process, and then ends with highlights of the dance piece from its premiere. The selection itself has to do with how the Nazis would sort Jews as they came off the trains. Some would go directly to the gas chambers and some would go to work in the camps. If this sounds like an unlikely subject for a dance piece, you're probably right. But I was in tears by the ultimate dance. The grace of the dancers combined with the horrific subject matter spoke worlds of anguish that a fictional movie could not have conveyed.
Another favorite for me was Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love. For the past several years, Godard has been experimenting with soundscapes or aural collage. He is no longer interested in telling a straightforward story; rather, he paints pictures with soundscapes and lets the audience fill in the gaps. This may sound like work from an audience perspective, but the images are gorgeously composed, the sounds themselves tell the entire story, and the whole thing has a wondrous effect. For me, the main point was an oft-repeated line of dialogue that says you can't think a thought unless you are first thinking of something else. The illustration of this point was that if you admire a particular landscape, you can't know that the landscape is admirable unless you have seen other landscapes to compare. In the same way, you can't really understand something or think something new unless you are already thinking of something else first. As the film washed over me and for several days after, I had epiphany after epiphany about various ideas about love, relationship, and my life. If you're expecting traditional narrative and characters with things like "names or motivations come to mind" then you'll probably be disappointed. But if you go in prepared for art, this is a great film and Godard attempts to take you with him as he experiments with the form.
For a more traditional film, but no less breathtaking (clumsy Godard pun intended), a ghost story from Japan was a big standout for me. Dark Water is probably the scariest film I've seen since Aliens. A recently divorced woman and her kindergarten aged daughter move into an apartment building where a girl of the same age had disappeared two years back. You know you're watching a ghost story, and the fact that you see the ghost more times than the mother or the daughter only serves to make it creepier. You don't really know whether the ghost has any power or what it plans to do, but as the movie progresses, you feel more and more sure that it won't be a good thing. As a testament to the filmmaker's skill, I had to search the back seat of my car for the ghost before I could drive home. Shudder.
A Song for Martin was a moving tale of Alzheimer's Disease set in the west coast of Sweden and directed by Bille August. It's a wonderful movie about adults in love and the consequences of disease on devotion.
Finally, a pair of gay films round out my list of favorites: First there is Lan Yu, the most honest portrayal of a gay relationship that I think has ever been committed to film. Set in Beijing just before and after the events at Tiananmen Square, the story starts as a closeted businessman meets a student who needs some easy money. They eventually become lovers, break up, and find each other only after it is really too late for true happiness. But this isn't about the tired old cliché of gay love = doom. It's really more about coming to terms with your homosexuality and your love for another person in a society that doesn't approve or understand. The sex scenes are honest and the characters are fully realized three dimensional human beings.
Lawless Heart is also about the relationship between an older man and a younger man, but this time the older man has died before the story begins and we get treated to an increasingly complex understanding of life as the story is told and retold from different perspectives. This is the "gay Rashomon" that the film goers talked about while standing in line. Was the young man taking advantage of the older? Is he heartless and dating a woman? Will the executor of the older man's estate realize soon enough what the true story is? Each telling of this story answers these questions and more. The joys of watching come from seeing how each perspective is true in its own way and how we rationalize bits of our lives based on what information we have.
Moulin Rouge is said to have reinvented the musical, but maybe it's just Hollywood that has forgotten how this all works. At the fest this year were three equally inventive (if not equally successful) musicals from Bollywood (India), Thailand, and Japan. Asoka the Great is a glittering musical about a legendary warrior/Buddhist missionary who lived in India 200 years before Christ. The MTV style line dances and fast edits keep the story current and the audience humming. Mon-rak Transistor from Thailand is a bit more traditional as characters break into song to tell you how they feel and to keep the story moving, but it's all done with a sly sense of humor. As the simpleton Pan has abandoned his wife, she is being wooed by a voiceover artist (outdoor theaters in rural Thailand often have no speaker systems, so a voiceover artist does all the voices and tells the story). The movie they're watching: Tears of the Black Tiger, where the actor who plays Pan is playing the bad guy. Subtle in its way, but still very clever. Finally, perhaps the most subversive musical in years was The Happiness of the Katikuris. This film is sort of a Sound of Music meets the Bates Hotel type of story where the Katikuri family seems a bit oblivious to the horrific events that happen in their guesthouse in the mountains as they sing happy-go-lucky songs. Japanese variety shows get a bit skewered and the film is as apt to break into a bit of Claymation as it is to take itself too seriously.
One of the great pleasures in attending this year's SIFF was the retrospective of great films from the 70s. Who could pass up the chance to see Chinatown again on the big screen? The print was a little scratchy, but what a great picture. Other films featured were Days of Heaven, The Parallax View, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Hired Hand, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. I saw several of these even though I had seen most of them before. Nothing really compares to seeing these films on a big screen with a festival audience. The print for Days of Heaven was pristine and the big screen just helped suck you into the amazing cinematography of Nestor Almendros and direction by Terrence Malick.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a mostly forgotten film from Billy Wilder late in his career, but the casting of Holmes and Watson is superb and the supposedly "secret" story that couldn't be published is a lot of fun. Apparently, Wilder toyed with the idea of making Holmes and Watson gay, but ultimately discarded the notion. There is still a bit of this subtext left in the film though and it is fun to watch for.
A local theater, The Grand Illusion, also ran a sidebar of 70s films to complement the screenings at SIFF. Of these, we went to Robert Altman's California Split -- perhaps George Segal and Elliott Gould's finest performances; certainly their most charming. The great thing about getting to see this film is that it simply isn't available on video. Where else but at a festival or a calendar theater would you get to see it?
Finally, I can't talk about this festival without mentioning the gorgeous cinematography of James Wong Howe or the many films that were stunningly beautiful. SIFF usually does a tribute to a director and shows one free movie each weekend of that director's films. This year, they chose a cinematographer to honor and what a revelation. James Wong Howe is responsible for the crisp black and white images of Sweet Smell of Success as well as the lush The Prisoner of Zenda. In both films, the camera angles and compositions only enhance the story yet each is quite different in its technique. One is all about lushness and making sets of castles look like the real thing, the other is about making New York City look grittier and somehow more real than it would look again until the neo-realism of the 70s.
A favorite of mine in this category of gorgeous films is The Flats, a film yet to find a distributor. Shot on digital just north of the city, this film is about a self-proclaimed jackass of a 20-something and his would be romance with a Native American woman. The location shots of Mount Vernon and the Puget Sound are stunningly framed and the story is a compelling coming-of-age/waking-up-to-reality story where you don't notice how quickly you've been drawn into these characters lives.
Other gorgeous movies include The Fast Runner, mentioned above, and Whispering Sands set in Indonesia. Perhaps the most popular of the films that fit into this category was Sex and Lucia, the new film from Spain's Julio Medem. In all three of these films, the sun washes out the image and bakes into your subconscious whether it's a desert island in Indonesia, an island off the coast of Spain, or the far north of Canada. Yet it is the clarity of light in Sex and Lucia that plays a crucial role in the eventual outcome of this twisting tale. The characters in Sex and Lucia eventually each end up on a floating island where they come for solace or revelation. One of the characters in the movie is an author who may or may not have made up the other characters in the movie. The story loops back on itself at some point and you realize that the characters each have the chance to reinvent themselves if they want to. It's a pleasant movie filled with memorable moments. To some of the film goers I talked to, it seemed the sex was a little too graphic for their tastes, but I didn't think so. After all, if Sex is in the title, then where do you go from there?
Not all films in the festival were good, or even interesting. Other times, you have to shake your fist at the projectionist or the film festival organizers themselves. Here are some examples: Uzumaki, which means "spiral" in Japanese, is a really bad movie where the evil thing chasing people is literally the Windows 98 screensaver that turns things into spirals that move across your screen. The Piano Teacher is a great film with Isabelle Huppert, but the film broke 5 times and burned twice in the hour or so that I was at the screening before my patience snapped. And the advent of digital is not always a good thing: The Map of Sex and Love is a Hong Kong gay film that might have been interested if the filmmaker hadn't gotten so involved in showing cool things with his digital camera that he forgot the audience might not be as enthralled with his unedited, overly long, pretentious piece of storytelling.
And finally, SIFF hosts a movie poster auction each year. Unfortunately, this year's silent auction seems to have been particularly mismanaged. Posters were on display at a salon that was closed on Sundays and had odd hours. The festival staff seemed to have figured this out in the final weekend and moved those posters to another venue, but forgot to tell potential bidders that they had done this. It also wasn't clear when the poster auction ended; so many posters that should have gone for more money were sold at a fraction of the price of the framing alone. I applaud the festival organizers for most of the fest and I had a great time, but the poster auction was just a bit of a disaster.
Some of these films will be coming to theaters near you over the next several months. The Fast Runner opened in Seattle the week after the festival ended. Other films will eventually find their way to video or to a festival in your city. If you can travel to a festival or your city hosts one, then by all means go. Sometimes you only get the one chance to see a film. Sometimes you get lucky and it's playing just down the street. Whatever the case, happy film viewing!
By Kevin Fansler, Seattle Correspondent.