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San Francisco International Film Festival 2008

You can tell a lot about a film festival from its opening-night selection.

San Francisco International Film Festival 2008

You can tell a lot about a film festival from its opening-night selection. Things got underway at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival with a gala screening of The Last Mistress, and it’s tempting to see the choice of Catherine Breillat’s visually lush, sexually pungent period piece as reflective of the fest’s aesthetics—classy yet raw, comfortably sturdy yet still invigoratingly hard to pin down. When Asia Argento’s ferocious Spanish enchantress tears through the film’s lavish surfaces, it’s in perfect synch with the timbre of a festival that, celebrating its 51st year, remains heady with surprise. Indeed, La Argento’s three movies in the running (in addition to Breillat’s caustic bodice-ripper, she also stormed through Abel Ferrara’s splendidly sordid Go Go Tales and papa Argento’s loony Mother of Tears) gave some idea of the variety of the cinematic offerings screened over the course of two weeks, during which the dedicated filmgoer could swim in the impressionist waves of Sokurov’s Alexandra or pick a fight with someone who thought Leave Her to Heaven was “trashy.”

Of the West Coast premieres, few were as anticipated as Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’s searching and troubling examination of the infamous photographs taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. The “bad apples” are given the floor, facing Morris’s Interrotron camera with their side of the scandal while the filmmaker deliberately unsettles the notion of objectivity with heavily aestheticized interludes (a looming guard dog snapping at the lens in slow motion, a prison corridor suddenly filled with swirling shredded paper). Lynndie England speaks of getting a prisoner to masturbate as a “present” for her birthday, a burst of computer data is made to suggest a cosmic explosion: What’s happened to the universe? Without mounting apologias, Morris surveys the human faces of a system in which darker things have become “acceptable.” The film guarantees no clear-cut, comforting j’accuse, just the unending search for the truth in the most ominous aspects of American power.

Murkiness is also the goal in Béla Tarr’s The Man from London, an epic of subterranean splendor and magisterial moral heft. There was palpable awe in the audience during the Mr. Arkadin-flavored opening as the Hungarian auteur’s prowling camera languidly pans up the hull of a ship and then composes a doleful view of a seaside railway station, full of arguments half-heard in the dark, men in heavy coats, and deep blacks that look like engine grease. The basis is a mystery novel by Georges Simenon, but Tarr’s film is noir intrigue distilled to desolation and chill; a film of camera movements that is nevertheless fascinated with faces (most notably Tilda Swinton’s), it feels closer to Tarkovsky’s Stalker than The Third Man. The gaze of the camera is similarly (but far less heavily) central in José-Luis Guerín’s marvelous In the City of Sylvia, where sensuous poetry is made from such fleeting grace notes as the play of light on a wall, the streets of a French city, a sketch, a couple riding the train. Presenting it, J. Hoberman called it “cinephilic in the best sense of the word,” and it’s easy to see what he means: Guerín seems to reach back to cinema’s very origins to rediscover the prodigious joy of looking at (and feeling) the world.

In the City of Sylvia’s freshness was the kind amply evident in Ermanno Olmi’s justly beloved early works (Il Posto, I Fidanzati), though One Hundred Nails, his new (and, according to the veteran Italian director, final) film, offers no such pleasures. Ponderously allegorical, it forges a Jesus figure out of a philosophy professor who, feeling the weight of society’s disconnect from everyday life, follows his “moral duty” and nails a library’s supply of theological texts to the floor, throws the keys to his BMW off a bridge, and settles down in an abandoned house by the Po River. Is this back-to-basics parable Olmi’s critique of postmodernism? Despite a few moments of limpid emotional insight, it’s best to just call it Into the Mild.

Another ‘60s art-house staple, Czech New Waver Jirí Menzel presented I Served the King of England, a characteristically bittersweet bit of Eastern European whimsy. Taken from a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, whose works were first adapted by Menzel in his 1966 Oscar-winner Closely Watched Trains, the film follows the trajectory of a Chaplinesque waiter through a series of hotels that grows more luxurious as Czechoslovakia’s situation during the German invasion grows more distressing. Menzel’s placid melancholy and deftness with physical comedy keep this slender fairy tale from slipping into unctuous Benigni territory.

Continuing with old masters, the festival also saw entries by Claude Chabrol (A Girl Cut in Two), Carlos Saura (Fados) and Eric Rohmer (The Romance of Astreé and Céladon). Girl Cut in Two breaks no new ground in the director’s autopsies of bourgeois façades, though the familiar narrative of privileged rot and familial tensions benefits greatly from Ludivine Sagnier’s charm at the axis of a kinky society triangle, and from Chabrol’s effortless drollness in the face of the ridiculous. Saura in Fados essays another fluid, sinuous celebration of musical performance as cultural heritage, examining Portugal’s fado tradition in a procession of gorgeous tableaux featuring such noted performers as Carlos do Carmo, Lila Downs, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso. History seeps into the numbers via archival clips of Portuguese upheavals, though the film is foremost an inspired studio evocation, in which Saura’s camera collects graceful silhouettes to mingle memory and artifice. Both directors could be fairly accused of receding into rarified polishing of pet themes in their twilight pictures; leave it to 88-year-old Rohmer, then, to offer one of the festival’s most experimental works with Romance of Astreé and Céladon, a radically quaint incarnation of open-air theater circa 1607. The Chinese boxes of self-reflexivity—a 6th-century pastoral drama imagined by 17th-century players and presented by a Nouvelle Vague master in the new millennium—never get in the way of Rohmer’s ravishing examination of the folly of love. Like In the City of Sylvia, it seems to transport you to an earlier, purer century.

Urban alienation was the unofficial motif this year, with lost souls wandering morosely in such disparate locations as Egypt (Yousry Nasrallah’s The Aquarium), France (Mia Hansen-Løve’s All Is Forgiven), and Greece (Constantina Voulgaris’s Valse Sentimentale). The we-are-all-connected routine, direly in need of retirement following the banalities of Crash and Babel, reaches Brazilian shores in Philippe Barcinski’s Not by Chance, in which the capricious turns of fate are examined with sledgehammer dramaturgy. (When a line like “Stay two seconds. Two seconds can’t make a difference” is uttered, what else can wait in the next scene besides a car crash?) Lone Scherfig, whose Italian for Beginners remains the most humane achievement of the Dogme movement, has a lighter touch with misfits in Just Like Home, another gentle crowd-pleaser of eccentric humanism. In her empathetic view of communal vulnerability, Scherfig creates an antic yet delicate Danish burg where a mysterious streaker brings things to a halt and even the non sequiturs (“Happiness is not found in money…or in a dead rhinoceros”) are imbued with radiance.

The Tarahumaran plains in northern Mexico refresh the eye, but after reel after reel of soporific lingering over indigenous nature in Cochochi I was pining for some skyscrapers. This largely underwhelming bucolic tale from Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán has flashes of rough beauty as two young brothers look for their grandfather’s majestic white horse, but its ostentatious artlessness weighs them down. (A detour through rocky formations known as “the Valley of Erect Penises” promises coming-of-age metaphors that go utterly unexplored.) Mania Akbari, the female driver of Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, takes over the directorial wheel in 10 + 4, a semi-sequel that borrows Kiarostami’s digital video format while exploring the actress’s personal issues. Bald from cancer treatment yet serene through both illness and casual male subjugation, Akbari stages a series of intimate Bazinian exercises—a friend applying makeup to fix a tear-streaked face, a song heard during a visit to the hospital—that, while lacking the original’s engrossing rigor, offers a similar feel for emotions laid bare. No serenity for the heroine in Lady Jane though: A hunk of tense French existentialism, Robert Guédiguian’s dour film noir (film gris, really) finds its Lady Vengeance in Ariane Ascaride’s seemingly composed boutique owner, who revives old underworld connections following the murder of her son. “All these tales of revenge…that’s what I hate,” a character moans, anticipating my criticism: Diligently misanthropic as it is, Guédiguian’s film doesn’t bring much new to the party, though the black-hearted force with which it slashes the masks of respectability contrasts intriguingly with Chabrol’s autumnal gentility.

On the documentary front, disasters were prominently featured. Fernando A. Solanas, indefatigable chronicler of South American injustices, came with Latent Argentina, another essential piece of social activism. “The essence of Argentina is still strong,” Solanas argues, but its wealth remains prisoner to the “mental colonialism” of the nation’s media, educational and industrial systems. Impassioned and sanguine, the film continues Solanas’s stirring call for change in the face of national despair. Another South American tragedy is chronicled in Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains, Gonzalo Arijon’s descriptively (if cumbersomely) titled account of the survivors of the 1972 Andes plane crash. “It was like some dark force had decided, instead of using guinea pigs, to put some humans in the snow,” one interviewee remembers, so Arijon decides to alternate the survivors’ descriptions with reenactments before flying everybody to the site of the crash for what some people might consider “closure.” Made from the most questionable elements of United 93, the film at times projects a dogged, haunted quality but for the most part makes for some grueling 126 minutes. On the other hand, Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans engages even as the eponymous city is faced with the devastation of Katrina. In Dawn Longsdon’s picture, New Orleans writer Lolis Eric Elie gives a tour of his neighborhood, with heartfelt appreciation of its multiracial history, arts and human perseverance in the midst of calamity.

Hartmut Bitomsky’s Dust and Irena Salina’s Flow: For Love of Water made for a curious double-bill of elemental documentaries. Bitomsky’s comprehensive study of invisible particles is the more eccentric of the two: In it, dust is a museum keeper’s faithful companion, a compulsive cleaner’s archenemy, and a scientist’s evolutionary “proto-matter,” to say nothing of the director’s own peculiar metaphor for cinema (“Film: dust lighting up in the darkness of a theater”). Less obsessive, Flow catalogs the inconvenient truths of the commoditization of water and the effects of global pollution, pinpointing bizarre tidbits (fish changing sex due to dumped chemicals, sewage canals linked to holy lakes) amid its urgency and earnestness. Festival-goers were much more interested in American Teen, and no wonder: Nanette Burstein’s documentary is cannily keyed to the self-infatuation of its Midwestern adolescent subjects, flattering audiences’ view of high-school stereotypes (there’s a drama queen, a tomboy, a sporting jock, and a marching-band geek, but the projections in Not Another Teen Movie were at least upfront about their flatness) while keeping its insights on the level of a Real World episode. Still, American Teen provided one of the funniest audience reactions in the festival, as the thunderous applause that met the closing shot of the artsy tomboy finally arriving in San Francisco turned to stony silence seconds later as the postscript informed us that she eventually decided she was a New York City girl after all.

No interrupted clapping at the closing night: Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson brought things to a rousing end with a revealing and highly enjoyable snapshot of the inimitable slash-and-burn journalist and counterculture buzzard. The subject may seem like an about-face for director Alex Gibney after the politicized outrage of Taxi to the Dark Side, yet one of the film’s biggest surprises lies in the way it pushes past Thompson’s cultish patina to locate the political creature whose satirical skewering, as recalled by Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Tom Wolfe and Pat Buchanan, still resonates in our own era of fear and loathing. Fans looking for Thompson’s druggy details may be disappointed, but then again, movies have always given off their own kind of natural high.

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