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Seattle International Film Festival 2008: Cherry Blossoms: Hanami, Faces, Up the Yangtze, & More

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Seattle International Film Festival 2008: <em>Cherry Blossoms: Hanami</em>, <em>Faces</em>, <em>Up the Yangtze</em>, & More

What exactly remains to look forward to as SIFF, the most interminable film festival in North America, tolls on and on… and on? Well, not much. As we collectively stagger toward the June 15 finish line, there’s plenty to steer clear of, notably Doris Dörrie’s exquisitely photographed yet insipid Cherry Blossoms: Hanami, which I watched on screener the other night, and yes, I watched it all the way through, all the way to Dörrie’s insane climax of two white people—a ghost and her cross-dressing husband—performing what they consider to be Butoh in front of Mount Fuji, the uptight hubby at last able to embrace certain dainty qualities that, in Miss Dörrie’s distinctly anti-male scheme of things, make him a better man. The picture isn’t as loathsome as her documentary, How to Cook Your Life (seen—and walked out on—at SIFF 33), yet Cherry Blossoms droops from the bough with Dörrie’s trademark, jerry-rigged “truths” about gender. The director seems most pleased with herself when she can corner a man into admitting how soft and weak he is.

A prime illustration of this: observe the tearful speech given by a 30-something accountant after he samples his father’s effort at reprising the dead mother’s recipe for cabbage rolls. A single taste triggers memories: how he fled Germany to Japan to escape dependency on his mother. This “good son,” whom Dörrie has taken great pains to reveal as a boorish lout in various scenes of drunkenness, is thus brought to his “senses” by home cooking, a ploy by which the director advertises her own steaming heaps of insight while reveling a little too neatly in pinning the character down, like a lepidopterist sticking it to a butterfly. Furthermore, although Dörrie extols traditional Butoh as a fine, wonderful, and life-enhancing activity, her attitudes toward the rest of Japanese culture, particularly pop culture, aren’t markedly more advanced from those of Sofia Coppola in the execrable Lost in Translation.

The final weekend will also bring screenings of two modestly successful films, Frozen River and The Wackness, which I praised, some time ago, in my first dispatch. But the movie not to miss isn’t anything new: in a class by itself (at least in the context of this festival) looms a special archival presentation of Faces, the 1968 John Cassavetes masterpiece, in honor of the film’s 40th anniversary. Although I’ve seen Faces several times over the last 18 years, it’s been a while, and so it will be a bit like seeing it with new eyes. I can’t wait to rediscover the young Gena Rowlands, who was rarely lovelier than in this. Assuredly, Lynn Carlin (who should have won the Oscar she was nominated for) and John Marley would never again have roles that enabled them to be this good, this funny, this moving. And then there’s Seymour Cassel and his dance with the women, a sequence unforgettable for any number of reasons. The reaction Cassel gets—when he dares to tell a suburbanite she might be making a fool of herself—stands out as one of them.

Partisans, remember: Pauline Kael cruelly panned this film (her missing the boat on Cassavetes’ genius in itself being an endorsement) while her much sharper compatriot at the Times, Renata Adler, recognized Faces for what it was. And so can we: Saturday, June 14, 4 o’clock high, at SIFF Cinema.

As for this weekend, the pickings are paltry. Best of the lot: Be Like Others.

Iranian-American filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian left her native country at the age of six. She returned there—a place where homosexuality is punishable by death, but where sex-change operations are perfectly legal—to helm this documentary on male-to-female pre-op transsexuals. Eshaghian shot most of her footage in Tehran’s Mirdamad Surgical Center, capturing waiting room conversations that range from anxious fears of being disowned by families to an impassioned argument between a female radio journalist and a young transsexual over the notion that Iranian theocracy essentially forces these operations on gay men.

The radio interviewer, dressed in a layered black-and-white hejab that resembles a nun’s habit, nearly loses her cool in serving up this Orwellian defense of the state: “Iran has the best social services in the world for transsexuals. First of all, no other country on Earth changes the gender on your birth certificate.” Eshaghian neither editorializes nor milks for pathos; she simply presents the horrifying contradictions her subjects face. We meet Vida, for example, a “woman” who has undergone the change, yet still seems very much like a man in drag. Eshaghian also includes a female-to-male case: a butch lesbian who boasts to her doctor, “Girls already like me. Imagine how popular I’ll be when I have a beard,” with a level of self-confidence her effeminate counterparts do not possess at all.

What I love about Eshaghian’s filmmaking is how she stands completely out of the way. Her style evokes Sontag’s rhetorical question: A photograph is not an opinion—or is it? A year after the pre-op preparations (and hesitations) Eshaghian followed up with her subjects. One of the most arresting contrasts involves a couple: Ali, a slim, handsome young hairdresser, and his chubby former boyfriend Anoosh, who has since become Anahita. In the “before” phase, the attraction between the two, if a tad inexplicable, was nonetheless genuine; both partners were gung-ho for the “legitimacy” an operation would confer. A year later, Anahita couldn’t be happier with “herself,” yet look at the change in Ali’s eyes. The shots of Ali photographed in profile, as he casually yet emphatically dodges the marriage issue, are extraordinary. You can tell that it’s over for him—that he needs a man who looks like, or at least functions as, a man—the new woman seated next to him being no substitute.

As a vision of Iran and the inhumanities specific to that nation, Be Like Others deserves a spot on a double bill with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. But it also merits much more attention than that.

In the realm of documentaries, quite a few people have championed Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze, a film about which I have wildly mixed feelings. The first time I saw the movie, back in February at the Portland International Film Festival, I was outraged. I couldn’t believe how appalling the film was: Michael Moore muckraking wedded to rigorous visual poetry in the mode of Michelangelo Antonioni. And how nakedly the picture tugged at our heartstrings! A month ago, I saw Up the Yangtze again at a press screening in Seattle. I’m glad I went a second time. Although some of my reservations remain, and it’s hard not to wince at all the xenophobia on display, the overall effect was as if I were watching a different film. How, how could it be so much better on the second go-round? Had it been re-cut? Apparently not. On Memorial Day, I interviewed Chang. He answered head-on my questions as to whether it was emotionally exploitative to hover so closely over suffering. Our conversation will appear in Northwest Asian Weekly towards the end of June, when Up the Yangtze opens at the Landmark Varsity.

I can’t imagine, though, that a second viewing would by any means improve Robert Levi’s Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, a documentary that does a grave disservice to its subject and to admirers of Strayhorn’s work. I resented how Levi co-opted the gay black composer as an exclusively tragic figure. Competent yet timid (and rather too eager to be lugubrious), this doc was shown on PBS a year and a half ago; so why program it in the festival? There’s nothing quirky or distinguished or idiosyncratic or personal about the filmmaking, as there was in, say, Raymond de Felitta’s vastly superior ’Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris or in Véronique Doumbé’s Denis Charles: An Interrupted Conversation. Instead, it’s a jazz film that isn’t transcendent, and it’s afraid of being so. There’s a glimpse of the movie Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life could have been in hypnotic footage of Duke Ellington reciting Strayhorn lyrics while listening to a reel-to-reel tape of Strayhorn play piano. There’s a terrific sense of dislocation here, as well as being an odd little monument to Ellington’s marginalization of Strayhorn. (Levi, in one of innumerable missteps, doesn’t identify the song.) There are beguiling snippets of Hank Jones and Joe Lovano in performance, plus intriguing statements from interviewees Gunther Schuller and Strayhorn biographer David Hadju. But all of us would be better off re-reading Hadju’s splendid book or listening to just about any recording of “Lotus Blossom” or “Something to Live For” or “Passion Flower.”

I say just about any recording because, as the movie reiterates several times in the course of 90 minutes, Dianne Reeves, whom Levi keeps cutting away to as some kind of arbiter of Strayhorn’s music, sings in an upper register suggestive of intense sinus pain. It’s an indication of how impoverished our culture has become when Reeves, simply by virtue of being a black woman, can be taken at face value as a jazz singer. She has no range. She cannot navigate the emotional interior of a song; indeed, she approaches interpreting lyrics in a manner reminiscent of someone with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. There isn’t anything individual going on—it’s “jazz” as decided by a committee. Listen to the crude way she pronounces “rugs” in the opening lines of “Something to Live For.” Even a brief clip of the young Nancy Wilson tearing up “Satin Doll” shows up Reeves as a phony; even with Wilson unmistakably under a Dinah Washington blues-belter influence, she still had an individual spark to her performances that has eluded Reeves. (In the interest of fairness, Reeves, twenty years ago, did record for Blue Note an unusually inspired version of Ellington’s “I Got it Bad.” I used to spin that seven-minute track every so often when I was a jazz DJ. But nothing she’s done since compares.)

Ruefully, I must report (while we’re on the subject of letdowns) what a disappointment James Bolton’s new film, Dream Boy, turned out to be. I much admired Bolton’s previous endeavor, The Graffiti Artist, about which I wrote too briefly in ’04. Watched again at some point in the last year, The Graffiti Artist holds up well; low-budget and modest, the movie, in its unassuming way, emerges as a quietly powerful and timeless statement on the isolation of a creative individual. Nick, the tagger, perfectly embodied by Ruben Bansie-Snellman, must go his own way, apart from society, and apart from his one-time lover Jesse (a well-cast Pepper Fajans) who turns from hot to cold sans rationale. The Graffiti Artist portrayed Jesse’s seduction of Nick with a level of insight into bisexuality that’s almost never, if ever, encountered in “gay movies.” The lone sex scene, unprepared for and nearly subliminal, was erotic in the manner that a Cavafy poem can sometimes be totally erotic.

Not so with Dream Boy, which plays like a prurient old man’s wet dream as conceived for the Soft-core Channel. In one film, Bolton has gone from a lightness of touch to over-directing. Bolton, who also receives a screen credit as music supervisor, uses Richard Buckner’s guitar score through almost the entire picture. Those guitars, from folksy pickin’ to thrashing dissonance, incessantly cue us what to feel, how to react. And Bolton telegraphs visually as well: prior to an attempted rape on a stormy night, lightning flashes illumine a primitive sculpture of Christ on the Cross.

Working outside his native Pacific Northwest, Bolton may have felt that this rural Louisiana-set tale of child abuse and of sex between high-school boys needed to be told as a Southern Gothic. But would a more “honest,” less stylized approach have worked when the underlying source material is such trash anyway? Admittedly, I haven’t read the Jim Grimsley novel that Bolton adapts; even so, when such a promising writer-director walks so far off a cliff as Bolton does here, I doubt the book offered much to begin with. I will get to why in a moment.

But first: the casting doesn’t work either. As Nathan, a fragile newcomer to the swampy farmlands of St. Francisville, Stephan Bender, with his big, brown eyes and well-combed blandness, manages to do as competently as anyone could in the early scenes of moping, longingly looking out of windows, and surreptitiously flirting with the Dude across the pasture. Bender nails the generic gay boy archetype, for all it’s worth. The young actor, however, at least in this script, cannot suggest an interior state at all. Therefore, in the film’s climactic passage of four boys roaming a haunted plantation house in the bayou, when Nathan is supposed to be hearing voices and mixing up past with present, Bender’s out of his depth altogether.

It’s possible that Bolton wanted to tell a sweet love story, one with lots of sex under covert circumstances, but then had to remain true to Grimsley’s fantasies of incest, so that the movie ends as a collision of irreconcilable genres. It doesn’t help that Bolton shoots the plantation sequence in blue-screen. Any sympathy for Nathan—what I assume Bolton wants, even if Grimsley doesn’t—gets negated by the horror movie techniques Bolton deploys in a scene of Nathan being anally raped. The editing and sound design are meant to throw us off vis-à-vis who the perpetrator is—a cheap stunt. Or as to whether it’s actually happening or part of Nathan’s on-going nightmare. Dream Boy intercuts the possibilities of two potential rapists. I gather the point of the contrast amounts to this—to show the same kind of man at two distinctly different stages: today’s strapping hetero lad will be tomorrow’s church-going, alcoholic, diddling daddy. And where is Nathan’s honey-colored, protective boyfriend when all of this goes on anyway?

Which brings me to Max Roeg, as Nathan’s crush Roy. Visually, Roeg is just right. Wearing an untucked plaid shirt and jeans as he bales hay to the livestock, Roeg’s Roy fits within the landscape; he belongs to this verdant world of imposingly lush foliage that cinematographer Sarah Levy, who also shot The Graffiti Artist, imbues with a sense of the primordial. Roy sports gloriously beautiful cascading waves of long-ish blond hair that the camera loves almost as much as it devours his athletically built tawny chest. From the first sight of him, as he rinses the mud off his boots in the front yard, a non-verbal attraction slowly, very slowly develops between the boys. Roy, when he isn’t farming, also drives the school bus, which affords Bolton and Levy to insert all sorts of tantalizing shots of Nathan sneaking looks—eyeing Roy’s reflection in the rear-view mirror; admiring a bronzed, muscular arm as Roy operates the door lever.

We know a seduction looms: how could we not after so much meticulous priming? As cloyingly fetishistic as these sequences are, there are greater problems when the boys start slinging around Bolton/Grimsley’s stilted dialogue: “Miz Johnson sez you skipped a grade” or “I can help you in English.” It’s almost better when they don’t speak. And Roeg’s Southern accent isn’t quite believable, which may be an understatement on my part. He looks and moves his body in a Southern way—even his luxuriant hair has a Southern shine. Just not the voice.

The seduction arrives in the midst of an algebra lesson. Nathan places his hand on Roy’s hand. Roy pulls away, yet quickly returns. And then it’s off to the dark underbrush of the cemetery for copulation. (I think I’ll just skip the implications of virginity lost in a graveyard.) Suffice to say, Bolton, once he has his pawns where he wants them, doesn’t skimp on the torsos caressed and rubbed, the kisses, “the works,” while the music, now played on Fender Rhodes, never stops. What I wanted to know was what the characters were feeling and thinking the morning after. We never find out, although in the second sex scene, Bolton pushes boundaries further. One afternoon, after school, after the other kids have been dropped off, Roy stops the bus on an isolated yet still public enough road, walks back to Nathan in one of the passenger seats and impassively exclaims, “Touch me.” In broad daylight, they strip on the school bus, in front of open windows; they moan, commingle, and achieve ecstasy crouching down on the worn leather two-seater. They are almost certainly going to be caught—seen by some passer-by—aren’t they? That’s part of what gives the scene its kick. Bolton paces and stages the shots well, making the most of the cranny their bodies are wedged into, the camera (mostly) musing on Roeg’s form with Bender’s narrow, quivering face sometimes capturing the eye. Yet there’s also that plaintive command, “Touch me,” that is unforgettable. It isn’t spoken brazenly—just the opposite, and yet… the line ought to be in a movie that’s willing to explore the human psyche quite a bit more than is done here. In other words, take the milieu of Grimsley’s novel, if you must, and ditch the rest.

Dream Boy’s penultimate scene takes place on this same school bus, and all the earlier missteps cumulatively lead to this final misstep—a reversal of the rear-view mirror shot seen before. This time, it’s Roy who spies Nathan, under radically different circumstance. It should be devastating: the mind’s eye reflection of that someone who lives in our imagination. And it isn’t.

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