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Seattle International Film Festival 2008: F. Murray Abraham, It Always Rains on Sunday, The Children of Huang Shi, & More

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Seattle International Film Festival 2008: F. Murray Abraham, <em>It Always Rains on Sunday</em>, <em>The Children of Huang Shi</em>, & More

Much more entertaining and enjoyable than any movie I’ve seen in the last several days was actor F. Murray Abraham’s refreshingly plainspoken talk about his life in the theatre and the disappointments of his post-Amadeus film career. Holding court for a too-short 90 minutes at Northwest Film Forum this past Memorial Day, Abraham, every bit the engaging charmer, reminisced about working with Milos Forman, Woody Allen, and Lina Wertmüller (the last of whom confessed to him, over a few glasses of wine in between takes, “I haven’t been able to make a good movie since I got rich”).

Abraham also offered a delightfully contrarian dismissal of Daniel Day-Lewis: “He has scorn for acting. If you have to have surgery, you don’t go to a surgeon who operates once every three or four years. He makes shoes or something.”

Asked by moderator Jeff Shannon to elaborate on what he meant by saying “I teach arrogance” to his acting students, Abraham replied: “All of art is basically arrogance. Any creative artist is arrogant. You’re a creator—what does that put you next to? How else can you stand up in front of 5000 people and not control them, but take them with you?” Of his own training, he confessed that the longer he studied with Uta Hagen, the worse he got—that in emulating her techniques, he lost his own: “Don’t fall under their influence completely, forgetting everything you know. Don’t try too hard to please—find your own way.”

When Shannon asked Abraham what he ideally wants from a director, the actor stated, “A nose for truth. Milos Forman had it. There aren’t many who do,” and he added with a broad smile, “If you’ve seen some of the terrible movies I’ve been in, you know what I’m talking about!” On whether to refuse or acquiesce to a director’s demands to play a scene a certain way: “If a director is adamant about something you know is wrong, give it all you’ve got—to prove that they’re full of shit.”

If Abraham, dressed very informally in black cargo pants and a red and white long-sleeved “The Complete Works” t-shirt (American Airlines lost his luggage, he explained), seemed in his New York energy a tad arrogant, it was always with more than a dash of self-deprecation. I was amazed and moved when he admitted, “What’s happening at this point in my career is—I need help! Directors are afraid of me.”

Which brings us to the elephant in the room, candidly confronted: “I had certain demands when I won the Academy Award. I would only do starring roles, not supporting ones. If you say no often enough, people stop asking. It still hurts, in a different way now than it did then… I handled that very badly. I’d like to write a short pamphlet on what to do after winning… so that you don’t get overwhelmed by hubris, which I did.”

Watching Abraham, I kept thinking that he’s ripe for rediscovery and reinvention as a comedian. He excels at light comedy, as I thought his turn as a Greek chorister in Mighty Aphrodite long ago proved. And he showed us clips from his recent stage work in a trio of Ethan Coen one-acts, including one where he plays a blissfully profane, white-robed Old Testament God in an argument with the New Testament God, that amply showcase his astute comic timing.

In the course of the audience Q&A, the screenwriter Stewart Stern (seated next to me in the center of the front row) asked about staying motivated during the lapses, and Abraham began by saying, “I know who you are,” which broke the entire house into spontaneous applause. “When you’re not working for eight or nine months, you lose a sense of self. Your work is your self. Keep exercising. Keep the voice ready.” Early on, Abraham performed on the street, “just to get in front of people,” by doing monologues or improv and even children’s theatre on the back of a truck. And he gave this salient advice, as applicable to writers as to actors, that if you decide to leave, “Don’t be bitter about it,” because the time you spent developing your art “isn’t wasted time.”

Abraham, who’ll also narrate the Genesis Suite with the Seattle Symphony while he’s in town, replied to someone’s question re the quality of the work that’s sent to him: “I haven’t seen that many good scripts,” noting that his 1989 film An Innocent Man started out as a “tough, punchy piece of work” written by an ex-con, but by the time Disney/Touchstone Pictures got done making it “acceptable,” it was nothing. Of course, there were quite a few screenwriters in the house that afternoon, and one ventured the inevitable question: How can I get a script to you? The answer: Abraham gave out his home address. Or maybe an agent’s address. A mild ripple went through the crowd regardless. And in the back of the room, an old-timer with fond Oscar-night memories stood up and recalled how Abraham, the year after his own win, in presenting Geraldine Page with a statuette for The Trip to Bountiful, said, “I consider her the greatest living actress…” It was one of those incandescent moments, and a mere 22 years later, we now have the back-story, straight from Abraham: “I’d told Geraldine that even if her name wasn’t there, I was going to announce it.”

The day prior to Abraham’s appearance at SIFF, the festival honored Ben Kingsley with a (yes, I can neither type nor say this aloud without feeling like Chuckles the Clown) Golden Space Needle Award. I didn’t bother to go. Nonetheless, Monday’s event with Abraham and last year’s well-remembered sessions with Anthony Hopkins and Robert Benton reflect what the festival does best: Putting fine actors and directors into forums where they can talk shop with the rest of us. Instead of just one or two events such as this per festival, it would be the way to go, I think, to up the number in years to come. Scale back on the sheer volume of horrendous films that are shown day in and day out and bring in major figures throughout the week.

As for the movies I watched, or tried to watch, since my previous dispatch, most of them I gave up on. I walked out on the 1947 failed crime thriller It Always Rains on Sunday, a movie that seems to me to merit its obscurity entirely. Why was this plodding account of an escaped convict hiding out in the house of his former girlfriend booked for the festival? The programmer who announced the movie didn’t even try to make a case for its resurrection. I also, after about 40 minutes, walked out on The Children of Huang Shi, a sleazy, morally vacant piece of crap that turns the Rape of Nanjing into a Disney picture. That desiccated old hack director Roger Spottiswoode was there for the screening; SIFF’s Carl Spence introduced him as a “master storyteller,” except that there’s absolutely no difference between Spottiswoode’s helming of Huang Shi and his inauspicious 1980 debut Terror Train. It’s lavishly produced, of course, but it’s the kind of bad movie where more thought and care have gone into explosions than into a script. Spottiswoode takes one of the most tragic events in Chinese history, the height of the Japanese occupation in 1937, and uses it as an excuse to stage Raiders of the Lost Ark-style narrow escapes, while at the same time striking a pose of historical accuracy. In other words, the picture exemplifies counterfeit seriousness at its most distasteful.

A couple of authentically Asian films were at least OK, with screenwriter Cai Shangjun’s directorial debut The Red Awn being substantially better than Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s latest offbeat comedy, Ploy. The highpoint of the latter: a jealous wife motions to smother the sleeping young waif her husband has invited to crash in their Bangkok hotel suite. The girl, named Ploy, claims to be 19, looks 12, and sports a massive Afro of frowzy curls. She awakens; the wife, Dang, offers her the pillow: “It’ll be more comfortable.” For a few seconds, Pen-ek holds the shot on this beatific fluff-ball at rest. Then it happens: the wife goes berserk and leaps in for the kill. As Dang, Lalita Panyopas shows unusual resourcefulness in what essentially amounts to a thankless role: the long-suffering spouse of a man who’s become indifferent to her. But then Pen-ek, as in Last Life in the Universe, merely toys with us every step of the way, veering from minimalist farce to clichéd domestic drama to horror movie before surfacing for air in a syncopated musical interlude. A chambermaid, dewy with post-coital bliss, lies back on the bed she shared with her beloved and croons a romantic swing ballad, “Oh, this love, why has the wind carried you from high above?” Pen-ek’s ideas are a little thin, yet Ploy at least offers Chankit Chamnivikaipong’s dazzling camera work and scantily clad, chain-smoking performers who spend most of the movie in bed.

The Red Awn looks and sounds magnificent. Co-cinematographers Li Chengyu and Chen Hao exquisitely capture the summertime vibrancy of flaxen fields under blue skies in rural Gansu province. Their deep-focused lensing of distant mountain ranges creates not only a sense of place, but of the chasm between the estranged father and son at the film’s core. A female migrant worker kneeling in prayer at the right foreground edge of a vast lake, her back turned to the water, as her male counterparts recede within the left background, stands out as one of several striking perspectives. Likewise, the music by Huang Zhenyu and Dong Wei, though used sparingly, accents the drama just right: a solo harmonica at dusk, a bamboo flute after the father survives a murder attempt, a duet for cello and guitar as the scene shifts from countryside to city—all resound with the characters’ held-in emotions. Yao Anlian believably enacts the father’s exterior pain and interior misery; his clashes with his sullen 17-year-old imply the heft of psychological extremes that are not easily healed. For all its insight, however, The Red Awn didn’t fully engage me. Although Cai never sentimentalizes the failed parent-child relationship, as a lesser filmmaker inevitably would, the restraint he deploys in getting at harsh truths keeps the movie, especially the ending, too remote.

Bombs, it must be said, were (and will be) more plentiful than the partial successes. Among the lot I scanned on screeners, I couldn’t hit the eject button quickly enough on either Lina Chamie’s Milky Way or Gustavo Spolidoro’s Still Orangutans, the filmmakers’ attitudes toward death being too puerile for comfort. Likewise, I didn’t linger long on Fumihiko Sori’s moribund Vexille, a far cry from the director’s sweet-natured Ping Pong. And Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces had nothing to say to me, except to wonder whether Stephen Dillane’s role in it is in fact even more constricting than what he has to work with in the trashy yet compelling Savage Grace. Both Férid Boughedir’s Villa Jasmin (which has a structure I’ve come to dread—two parallel stories about the same person or same family playing out at different points in time) and Ferzan Ozpetek’s Saturn in Opposition gave my fast-forward button an extensive workout. Villa Jasmin, nonetheless, boasts stunning Tunisian scenery, and although Ozpetek’s new offering is even emptier than Facing Windows, the Italian director knows how a camera ought to circle, perhaps never more so than in a three-quarter turn aerial shot of a recently widowed man crying, face down, on a rock ledge.

Brief respites from bombs arrived in the form of two worthwhile documentaries: from Argentina, Café de Los Maestros, about a group of tango musicians and singers in rehearsal and, ultimately, onstage; and via the BBC, Be Like Others, Tanaz Eshaghian’s fine, understated film on Iranian pre-op transsexuals undergoing sex-change operations. Café has, alas, already had its festival screenings. Be Like Others plays at SIFF on June 6 and 7. I’ll save my comments on both for the next go round. Until then…

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