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Notes from the 34th Seattle International Film Festival - Dispatch One

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Notes from the 34th Seattle International Film Festival - Dispatch One

The 34th Seattle International Film Festival gets underway this Thursday, May 22. The press screenings, however, commence nearly a month before. For this first dispatch, I’ve set out to record my day-to-day impressions of what I was seeing, witnessing, experiencing on screen.

DAY ONE: April 28, 2008

Armed with a life-affirming mocha breve from Caffé Zingaro, I make my way to the subterranean blue battleship known as SIFF Cinema. En route, I meet Elaine, a longtime platinum passholder and occasional online reviewer. We greet each other warmly and express hope, hope that the transcendent power of cinema will not desert us (although, secretly, both of us know better). Walking in, my expectations were a trifle high. Shouldn’t they be?

The first film of the first day happens to be (from Russia, but not with love) Anna Melikian’s Mermaid. Utterly abhorrent and overlong at 114 minutes, the movie begins as one creature and ends as another entirely. In short, it’s a feel-bad movie in drag as a piece of surrealist whimsy. Staggering out of the theater, I recalled John Simon’s quip as he exited an Adrienne Rich poetry reading—that in order to appreciate it fully, one would need the combined attributes of Homer and Beethoven—chiefly, being blind and deaf. The same applies here.

Mermaid opens on an expanse of puppet waves; brightly animated fish of blue and gold swim in a sea of pale turquoise and white. From this fanciful beginning, the animation stops, and it becomes clear that the bouncy, rolling sea is actually the fabric of a dress, twitching from side to side, covering a fat woman’s derriere. Our heroine of girth (Maria Sokova) strides past volleyball players on the beach, arrives at an isolated spot, strips naked save for her strand of pearls, then tiptoes into the Black Sea. In the first of innumerable gross excesses, Melikian treats us to underwater shots of this bovine entity, known only as Mama, as white as a whale, her hips and thighs nearly as enormous.

Mama emerges to find a sailor, surprised, sitting on the shore. They copulate, naturally, and their daughter, conceived in the sea, swims into being. There’s a cut to a little girl, age 6, running on the beach, a redhead with freckles. Named Alisa, she’s brought to life by Anastasia Dontsova, who gives the movie’s lone engaging performance. Alisa wishes to study ballet. Her repulsive mother’s hedonistic posing in front of a mirror (she shakes her rump admiringly) makes them late for an appointment with a ballet mistress who sternly refuses to audition the girl. The mother never brings her daughter back, the girl’s dream dies, and in later life, when Alisa visualizes herself as a child, the 6-year-old that she was is always clad in a tutu and tights. Melikian, thus, at least has a sense of how parents oh-so-casually fuck their children up, but a single insight isn’t enough on which to base a 2-hour film of grotesques on parade.

Set in the coastal port of Anapa, the movie early on boasts a few beguiling sequences suggestive of a powerfully symbiotic relationship to and with water, such as an aerial shot of Alisa standing amidst an onslaught of uniformed sailors on a pier, the deck flanked by blue sea, an image lensed for maximum impressionistic effect by the cinematographer Oleg Kirichenko. Likewise, in the scenes that take place in and around the family shack on the beach, there are instances of sensory perception involving open windows looking out on other open windows looking out at the sea, followed by a reverse tracking shot that would indicate that rows of stacked, empty water containers are what’s holding up this precariously perched domicile.

The film steps forward in time: Alisa leaps from a cute 6-year-old to a deeply unattractive 17-year-old, played by the unprepossessing and untalented Masha Shalaeva, who resembles an unholy cross between Scarlett Johansson and a very young Jill Clayburgh, and whose face is mostly jawbone. The locale switches to Moscow, and this is where the film becomes truly insufferable. There are endless close-ups of Shalaeva’s reptilian, open-mouthed, vacant expressions accompanied by flaccid, repetitive poppy jazz on the soundtrack, an awful score by Igor Vdovin for flute, harpsichord, and synthetic drumbeats—music by which to enjoy a self-induced lobotomy.

Alisa, dulled by years in a “special school,” blankly endures a series of grunt jobs in the big city—scrubbing urinals, testing lightbulbs, and dressing up in a yellow foam cellphone costume. Throughout this, Melikian, a former advertising copywriter, incessantly shoves ad slogans in our faces, textual non-sequiturs aimed at women on what sundry products can “do for you.” I would hate to think that there are viewers gullible enough to take the writer-director’s abrasive admixture of bleak realism and smug quirkiness as a statement on anything. This ultimately sadistic trash is strident in how mechanically it yanks us around. For example, Alisa, encased in her cushiony cellphone body suit, placidly observes a ballet class of women and girls doing what she once wanted to do, but never found her way into. She’s mesmerized by the grace and poise and line of the student ballerinas, and we’re pulled into the tranquility of it as well. Out of nowhere, the window between her and the dancers shatters; the reverie erupts into a street riot of smashed cars, physical attacks, and overbearing sound design that amplifies every thud, bump, and feedback screech. Mermaid is rife with rude awakenings, constant rug-pulling on the director’s part that amounts to psycho-emotional whiplash. It’s as if Melikian were getting right up in our faces, close enough for us to smell her, and hissing, “Fuck you. You thought this was going to be charmingly offbeat, huh? Well, FUCK YOU!”

The director will cut scenes in such a way that one ending on a quiet moment immediately yields to a form of aural rape in the next. Melikian does this so damn often, she’s clearly proud of herself for having thought it up and inflicting it on us. Mermaid reaches its nadir when a peroxide floozie hurls a bottle at an aquarium, smashing the tank to smithereens, all because she’s jealous of a small goldfish. This act of vandalism seems to be the inverse of the movie’s lighthearted opening scene—a metaphor for the filmmaker’s crunching the gravel of our expectations. As of this writing, Mermaid lacks a U.S. distributor. Guess what? It doesn’t deserve one.

Blessed with a splitting headache after this, I had no patience with movie number two, which began immediately afterwards, an archival screening of Josef von Sternberg’s 1953 The Saga of Anatahan. Von Sternberg uses no subtitles in telling a story of Japanese sailors stranded on an island in the Pacific. Rather than let the performers speak for themselves, he relentlessly narrates the film in lofty tones that aren’t merely condescending, they’re xenophobic in the extreme. Whatever interest the film might have had as an historical curio dissipates in practically no time. At the entrance of a kimono-clad beauty, von Sternberg reels off a list of personae through which she permutated in the eyes of the sailors, then states, “Finally, she was to become a woman—the only woman on earth!” I decided I’d be better off to skip out for lunch, so I left.

I returned for Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress. Set in 1835, the movie initially seems as if it’s going to be as stultifying a period piece as Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais. For Breillat, however, costumed formality and the robust bowing of Baroque violins on the soundtrack are mere window-dressing for yet another of her transgressive freak-shows. The supremely ugly and ungifted Asia Argento, the sort of non-actress only Manohla Dargis could defend, stars as La Vellini, who sports a large, beaten-up red rose in her jet black curly hair and, in her first few scenes, wears a black fishnet wrap draped over short sleeves of bumblebee gold (Georgia Tech colors). I couldn’t tell whether the character was supposed to be a courtesan who has slept her way into high society, or whether that interpretation is all the grubby presence of Argento lends itself to. The movie follows a flashback structure in which young Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) recounts for an aristocratic dowager the unending narrative of his perverse association with Vellini. Ryno and Vellini are supposed to have been an illicit item for ten years, except that Aattou appears so young, their affair would have had to begin when Ryno was barely a teenager. “You’re reputed to be a most formidable Don Juan,” the dowager remarks, yet he looks like a kid, albeit not a displeasing one: Aattou’s Ryno has thick, pouty lips, skin pale as fresh cream, agreeable brown eyes, an engagingly cheeky smile, a prominent nose, and he recites his lines well enough.

God only knows what the attraction is supposed to be for him to Argento’s Vellini, she of the sullen expression and coarse-featured face both dirty and unclouded by thought. The moment at which the movie crosses the boundary from merely inept to unforgivable comes when Vellini abandons her decades-older husband, Sir Reginald, for Ryno. Breillat’s camera backs the elderly man into a corner and parks on him in an appalling lack of empathy as he weeps and wheezes in sorrow. It’s a scene done in such cruelty and poor taste that the blood-drinking bit of Vellini feasting on Ryno’s open gunshot wound is considerably less offensive.

I didn’t mind Vellini’s anachronistic habit of bellowing, “Adios!” as she exits gold-brocaded 19th-century parlors; however, an exceptionally risible sequence in which Vellini and Ryno’s illegitimate daughter dies from a scorpion sting in the Algerian desert tested the limits of my endurance. Wailing wildly, Vellini cradles in bed the stinking, gray-faced corpse of the child. Ryno, holding a cloth to his nose, nasally pipes up, “We can’t go on like this; it’s been five days. We have to bury her.” Vellini: “Let’s burn her instead!” Cut to funeral pyre as Vellini, still moaning and over-emoting, runs toward the little body as it goes up in flames. Improbably, Breillat then cuts to Argento naked in the sand on top of Aattou, humping vigorously mere feet from the gravesite, in a frenzy simultaneously grief-stricken and orgasmic. At one point, Breillat positions her camera looking upwards into Argento’s mouth as Vellini bays her basso howls. We can see the back of her upper row of teeth, marvel at how hideous they are. Then it’s off to a picnic wherein the mistress takes a small, serrated knife to her lover’s cheekbone, and the two of these idiots giggle and grin as blood trickles down his face. At this juncture, an hour and ten minutes or so into the film, I left.

DAY TWO: April 29, 2008

Well, now, expectations lowered, I arrive the next morning to watch Sir Ben Kingsley play a stoner in Jonathan Levine’s wonderfully titled The Wackness. The movie begins poorly. In truth, I’ve always considered druggies a boring lot, and the snortin’, puffin’, tokin’, chillin’ hip-hop lovin’ children on display at a smoke-wreathed high school graduation party did nuthin’ to alter my perceptin’. Levine and his cinematographer Petra Korner shoot the film in a hazy, washed-out monochrome palette, with no vibrant colors and an excessive use of gray, as if an unwashed bong had doubled as a lens.

It’s set in the sweltering hot New York summer of 1994, but the inert opening scene between Kingsley and Josh Peck, a shrink session that’s a pretext for a drug deal, fails to catch fire. Kingsley’s Dr. Squires at first seems based on the notion of an aged Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate gone to seed. In posing for a family snapshot at the graduation ceremony, Squires’s jaded wife and budding femme fatale stepdaughter fiendishly suck down cigarettes, not even bothering to put them out long enough to commemorate a moment. This is a man, in other words, who’s ended up with two Mrs. Robinsons. But for most of The Wackness, Kingsley leaves aside suggestions of Dustin Hoffman and instead channels one of Robin Williams’s touchy-feely creeps, a la The Birdcage or Good Will Hunting.

Mercifully, Josh Peck is around to save the picture. As 17-year-old Luke Shapiro, a “nice Jewish kid” who’s the friendly neighborhood weed peddler, Peck, quite unlike Asia Argento, has exceptionally nice teeth, and a soulful, believable anima. He has a slightly scratchy, husky voice that’s at odds with his fresh, young face, yet this, too, is part of Peck’s low-key appeal.

A typical exchange between the two leads, as they sulk in a dive bar on a night sultry enough to drop water-filled condom balloons off a balcony, goes like this—

Squires: Why couldn’t Mozart find his piano teacher? Because he was Haydn.

Luke: That’s not funny.

Squires: Lucas, I hate my wife.

Levine’s screenplay, despite such fine, dissociative rapport, has its breakthrough in a scene of Luke and Squires’s stepdaughter Stephanie (played by an aptly full-of-herself Olivia Thirlby), after a languorous day spent on Luke’s drug rounds, sitting at the embankment of what he calls a “mad dirty” river, wondering why the two of them had never hung out together until now. The moment builds to that awkward first kiss, followed by several more kisses that are considerably less awkward.

After they say goodnight outside her brownstone, Levine does something brilliant. The panels on the sidewalk underneath Luke’s feet light up one by one, step by step, as Luke walks on air, so to speak. It’s a visualization of first love at once urban and fanciful. The imagery, of course, owes something to Michael Jackson’s dancing on and illuminating a sidewalk in the “Billie Jean” video from the early ’80s, but Levine’s staging and Peck’s agile moves are infinitely more truthful and magical. This daring stylistic leap lasts only a few seconds, yet it works to show Luke’s sense of uplift as well as reviving the spirit of the movie. Back at home, he has that beatific smile of being in love, and it’s the rare actor who could say a line such as, “I got mad love for you, shorty. It’s on the real,” (or is that reel?), and make it incandescently romantic. Second only to Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Peck’s work is the most incisive I’ve seen by an American actor thus far in ’08.

A final note: Ben Kingsley should never, ever, ever wear a tanktop. He shouldn’t. Not in dark brown, anyway. Still, The Wackness is worth seeing, flaws and all.

At least Levine’s druggies have a sense of humor about themselves; Ricardo de Montreuil’s, in the horrible Peruvian film Máncora, do not. Titled for a beach resort on the coast north of Lima, Máncora showcases the surf to good advantage, and an underwater sequence at the beginning, as the sunlight above beams through the blue depths below, is a lovely effect from cinematographer Leandro Filloy. Nonetheless, the movie announces itself as a piece of crap, only moments in, by juxtaposing an elderly man’s suicidal plunge from a bridge (he lands/crashes into the windshield of an oncoming car on the highway underneath) with a cut to his 21-year-old son, Santiago, banging a woman in the graffiti-scrawled bathroom of a punk rock club.

De Montreuil is a former “Senior Creative Director” at MTV Networks Latin America, a fact that goes a long way in explaining why his movie has such a nauseating sheen of ugly cool. Máncora belongs to a universe wherein the figures onscreen are either going to be victimized or sentimentalized, but absolutely none of them will be three-dimensional. The film’s rhythms are meandering rather than aggressive, yet the sleazy content makes it unpleasant all the same. The screenplay, which took three hack writers to assemble, gives the performers nothing to go on; even so, sleepy-lidded Jason Day is a complete disaster as Santiago, a puerile fatalist with a violent disposition and zero social skills. Day seems to have been hired for the job based on his ability to smoke cigarettes and rub the top of his buzzed head (though, amazingly, he doesn’t attempt both at once).

Most of the ciphers on parade here are doped-up, alcoholic, hedonist “swingers” who don’t have to work for a living. Sample dialogue: “What matters is what’s fucked, because no one can take that away from you,” and when this pearl of insight meets with silence, the speaker probes: “What’s up, amigo? You look really pensive.” On the flip side of this, we have Batú (Phellipe Haagensen), a happy-go-lucky New Age surfer hippie who always has some wise, shamanistic observation to bestow on lesser mortals. De Montreuil’s sex scenes are directed as if they were “hot,” yet the filmmaker’s notion of intimacy, in general, runs the gamut from psychotic to ludicrous. The equatorial beaches certainly look inviting, and after a while, I wondered why I wasn’t at the ocean myself instead of at this trash.

Film number three that day was a low-budget, absolutely dreadful Gaelic-language kids’ movie shot on DV. My patience for bad cinema exhausted, when two nutjobs got into a fistfight over black pudding, I left.

DAY THREE: April 30, 2008

I skip the morning film. A friend has asked me to drive her to the airport, but even if she hadn’t, nothing could have induced me to sit through Baghead. Not after the previous two days. I arrive at noon for Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Encounters at the End of the World.

Not unpredictably, the doc proves to be a seriously mixed endeavor, a mild tug-of-war between sincerity and deadpan condescension. After a heavenly a cappella Russian male choir graces the opening credits, we join Herzog and company on a cargo plane bound for Antarctica. The director narrates in his elfin Bavarian accent, “Who were the people I was going to meet? What were their dreams?” as the camera pans over sleeping passengers, mostly middle-aged bald men and one token dreadlocked individual of indeterminate gender. It doesn’t matter. We never see them again.

On the ground, Herzog’s first interviewee is a chubby-cheeked fellow in red-faced good health, a former banker in Colorado turned Peace Corps worker in Guatemala turned Antarctic taxi driver, though the cab he steers more closely resembles a plow. “I learned that the world isn’t all about money,” he says, and what a luxury it must be to learn that.

Much of the doc focuses on the grim-looking research center McMurdo Station, a wing of our government’s National Science Foundation, and “From the very first day, we just wanted to get out of this place,” states Herzog. It’s an industrial wasteland filled with trucks, mud roads, corrugated rectangular pre-fab bunkers of metal-gray, its own bowling alley, a radio station (which we never hear), and “such abominations as aerobics and yoga classes.” In the commissary, we’re briefly introduced to Ryan, a young boy billed as a filmmaker/chef whose function is to ensure that inhabitants have an adequate supply of vanilla ice cream.

The sun never sets in the Antarctic summer, from October to February, and one brightly lit middle of the night, Herzog chats up the mirthful linguist/hipster William Jirsa, who’s keeping the plants company in a greenhouse. Jirsa speaks of feeling at home among PhDs washing dishes, whom he considers “my people.” Sporting a bushy goatee that juts out from the center edge of his chin, a mop of hair over his forehead, and square tortoise-shell frames, Jirsa reminded me of the sort of person I might have expected to bump into at a Feelies concert in Athens, Georgia, circa 1988.

A tweeds-clad Englishman from Cambridge, the volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, he of the tousled red curls and wooly scarf of wide green and yellow stripes (best dressed man in Antarctica, hands down), makes for an engaging interviewee during Herzog’s stopover at Mount Erebus. Yet the most memorable “encounter,” indeed the most stirring footage Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger steal away with, involves a penguin colony. We see these animals in a group as a penguin behavioral expert fields inane questions on the creatures’ sexual predilections, then a few of the birds take off, some for the sea, perhaps, yet one solitary penguin leaves the colony behind altogether. The striding purpose of his waddling steps—not going left, not going right, as Sondheim might say—but simply headed straight for the mountains—alone—becomes a bracing example of individualism. This one casually, fortuitously captured great moment is more poignant than anything in Sean Penn’s false and contrived Into the Wild adaptation.

And a cave sequence near the end may be the most purely visually stunning moment in Herzog’s travels: The tracking through such a narrow interior space, the blue-white cast to the curve of the cave wall, and the immobile ice ridges that appear to be undulating ripples—all usher in a sense of being inside a Georgia O’Keefe painting; the textural contours evocatively suggest an arctic equivalent to the artist’s vulvic motifs.

Snow and ice also figure prominently in the next film, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which has the honor of being the best movie to be screened during this first week. Although Hunt is a talented new director who can supply gripping suspense without resorting to soundtrack cues (her film has no heightening music to tell us what to feel), Frozen River wouldn’t be nearly the success that it is were it not for the splendid work of its leading lady, the superb actress Melissa Leo. Leo has great screen presence, a tremendous visual authority; she has grandeur about her, even playing a hardscrabble, blue-collar mom who’s so frighteningly poor she can’t complete the payments on a new mobile home. “I just want my double,” Leo’s Ray Eddy declares. Hunt, who also wrote the screenplay, has great affection for character types who are usually ignored by movies or ridiculed by them. Ray and her two sons live in an industrial town on the New York-Canada border; it’s a sad world, one wherein a teenage boy’s only memento of his AWOL father is an acetylene torch. He uses that torch with such pride, against his mother’s objections, and when they fight over the use of it, there’s very nearly a sense that the sky is falling, because if she takes it away, then that’s the last of his daddy.

I won’t go into the plot, suffice to say it has to do with driving back and forth over the iced up St. Lawrence River, smuggling illegal immigrants in the trunk of a car. The movie opens on a stark wide-angle shot of this jagged white surface—waves frozen in mid-motion. In one night-time crossing, Ray and her Native American “business partner” Lila (Misty Upham) get out of the car to look through the slushy field for a piece of baggage that was dumped, and the cinematographer Reed Morano creates an unostentatiously virtuosic lighting effect: It’s as if the women were walking across the surface of the moon.

I have my issues with Upham’s uninflected line readings, yet a friend of mine who’s worked in and among the Mohawk tribal reservation, from which Lila hails, informs me that Upham’s tense, tonally colorless voice and her expressionless face are accurate. And I wish Hunt had resisted the temptation to pan the camera upward to a building sign that reads “High-Stakes Bingo,” just as the women set out on a final run.

Flaws aside, Frozen River is well worth seeing. There’s a marvelous moment when Ray receives a Christmas morning visit from a state trooper, and Leo, in a terrific close-up, does a miniature master class on acting within acting, being chatty and feigning bemused ignorance of what he’s talking about. It may be her best scene; certainly, it’s one of the few she plays opposite an adult male (the once lissome Michael O’Keefe, grown unrecognizably stolid), so there’s an undercurrent of flirtatiousness not seen elsewhere in Ray’s struggles.

DAY FOUR: May 1, 2008—The Press Launch

A dilemma presents itself: on the same calendar page as SIFF’s press launch, I have to go back to my day job as a copyeditor at, I confess, Republican Banker Today, a trade rag at which I was not hired for my political affiliations, whatever those might be. This means I’ll have to miss the advance screening for the festival’s closing night film. Am I shallow enough to ditch work (again) for movie love? But then I think of how bad the closing night films have been over the last five or six years: Jet Lag, for one, also Intimate Strangers, Alan Rudolph’s deservedly obscure Investigating Sex, Gus Van Sant’s odoriferous Last Days, and the least terrible of the bunch, Molière, a comedy that made me laugh exactly once, yet nonetheless offered the beautiful Laura Morante in a role softer and more womanly than the back-to-back bitches she’d played earlier that year in Avenue Montaigne and Private Fears in Public Places.

Therefore, I make the noble sacrifice and show up at the office. Luckily, it’s only a few blocks away from the SIFF screening room in the basement of Seattle’s opera house, so I dash out for an early lunch. There’s no salmon at the press launch buffet, as there was a year ago, and no champagne either. (Lowered expectations?) The luncheon consists of three leafy salads; I try them all—the one with shrimp, strawberries, and toasted hazelnuts rating the highest. The room is jam-packed. I nosh with a few friends and adversaries; this year, as in press launches past, I’m amazed at the sheer preponderance of people who show up for this event, members of “the press” who I never see at other private screenings the rest of the year.

The closing night film turns out to be Bottle Shock, a comedy set in the California wine country, and that, I suppose, will be meant to cash in, however belatedly, on the Sideways bandwagon. I’m glad I’m not able to stay very long, and those of you who recall that Sideways made my 10-worst list of 2004 will know why. At high noon, various functionaries shoo the critics away from the buffet table and into the auditorium. We’re shown the trailer for SIFF’s opening night film, the shot-in-British-Columbia Battle in Seattle. I know people who protested and were jailed at the WTO riots, and so I wince at the made-for-TV-esque potboiler the subject has been reduced to by Charlize Theron and friends. I linger for the first five minutes worth of longwinded speeches by festival staff, then duck out.

Later, from friends who stayed on, I learn some of the reviewer consensus on Bottle Shock. “Execrable,” a former LA Times critic declares. “Bloody awful,” another critic relates in an email, and he went on to say, “It’s a film for people who can’t really handle subtitles but want to feel ’superior’ by seeing a film about the supposedly snooty, elitist subject of wine. There was a moment when it looked like the beautiful blonde intern was going to end up with the déclassé Mexican farm laborer, but eventually she comes to her senses and ends up with the hunky blonde slacker son of the wine company president. Boy, that was a close one.”

OK! Later, also, I peruse the packet I picked up that lists all the films in this year’s festival. There are a few “likely candidates” I’m on the look out for, but to my chagrin, all of them are missing. The two best narrative films that screened last February at the Portland festival, Joanna Hogg’s masterpiece Unrelated and Kim Ki-duk’s Breath, were somehow excluded from SIFF. The worthwhile (and much admired) In the City of Sylvia is, likewise, mysteriously AWOL. I had hoped to see again (and write about) all three of these. Also eyebrow-raising in their absence are the new films by Xiaolu Guo (We Went to Wonderland) and Hong Sang-soo (Night and Day), despite the fact that both filmmakers were represented in last year’s SIFF, vis-à-vis How Is Your Fish Today? and Woman on the Beach.

What is on the roster? Why, Kung Fu Panda, bless my soul. How good to know that SIFF programmers have their priorities in order.

DAYS FIVE THROUGH EIGHT: May 5-8, 2008

In the firm conviction that there has to be more to life, I skip all press screenings.

N.P. Thompson lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest.