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Seattle International Film Festival 2008: Chris & Don: A Love Story, Theater of War, Ballast, & More

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Seattle International Film Festival 2008: <em>Chris & Don: A Love Story</em>, <em>Theater of War</em>, <em>Ballast</em>, & More

It all begins in earnest tonight, the official opening of the 34th Seattle International Film Festival, and somewhere out there, Charlize Theron will be standing on a red carpet, which, if it’s the same red carpet that was rolled out for Sir Anthony Hopkins last year, will be neither red nor a carpet. It will be, as Moira Macdonald of the Seattle Times so succinctly noted, an orange mat. (I’ll be skipping Charlize’s little movie, Battle in Seattle, anyway. Nor will I attend this afternoon’s press conference; one may as well save one’s energies for the after-party.)

There are at least a trio of films I’m eager to see this first weekend, movies that either weren’t screened ahead of time or that I missed: An archival print of the 1947 British noir It Always Rains on Sunday; composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s tango doc Café de Los Maestros; and James Bolton’s Dream Boy, the young auteur’s first film since The Graffiti Artist, which I considered a festival highlight in 2004.

And now for the movies I have seen.

How one takes to the documentary Chris and Don: A Love Story depends almost entirely on whether one finds the garrulous septuagenarian Don Bachardy charming or repellent. I did not find him charming.

Part glorified home movie, part treatise on the dreary obsession elderly queer men have for young male flesh, the film, in what might generously be called a multimedia collage, depicts the predatory (is there any way that it can’t be?) relationship between Christopher Isherwood, aged 49, and Bachardy, then 18, in 1950s Hollywood. It’s mentioned that some of Isherwood’s otherwise liberal acquaintances and neighbors balked at the men’s 31-year age difference, yet there are no real voices of dissent to be heard anywhere in this sycophantic love-fest. John Boorman, however, saliently observes the older writer’s effect on the gap-toothed hayseed he took as a lover: “Isherwood had succeeded in cloning himself.” And even that’s taking the charitable view of cultivation; I’m more inclined to view it as Single White Male.

Bachardy speaks in an affected, mincingly effete old-maidish timbre. He’s supposed to be terribly cultured, I imagine, yet when he speaks of Isherwood “deflowering a young boy,” or laughs at his own unsavory little jokes, I found myself wincing at his vulgarity. Late in the movie, we hear an audio excerpt of Isherwood reading from his 1977 book Christopher and his Kind; up to this point, it’s been Michael York narrating bits of Isherwood’s journals, and the sound of the real Isherwood comes as a shock—the rhythm, accent, and pitch are identical to, in fact indistinguishable from, Bachardy’s.

Not that Isherwood emerges all that well from this portrait, either. Do we really need to learn, for example, that his “sinking feeling of love for Don” was somehow irrevocably bound up with “torn shorts”? Or that, re the scampish, teenage Don prancing on the beach in swim briefs, “His bristling crew-cut affects everybody who sees him”? There’s something icky about this two-some, despite all their professed excursions to the ballet and the theah-tah. And how could I be expected to have patience with anyone who complained about spending weekends with E.M. Forster and Somerset Maugham? As a young man, Bachardy felt (quite rightly) intellectually inferior in their presence, and would that I could have said to him at that stage, “Try reading their books! Maugham is not that difficult to understand!”

The movie also has a few sentimental sequences of primitive line drawings of a cat and a horse—Bachardy and Isherwood’s pet icons for each other—amateurishly animated by the twins Katrina and Kristina Swanger. Yet it’s Chris and Don’s dependence on beefcake shots, including a staged recreation of buff young guys making out at a dinner party, that make this just another queer cinema bottom of the rental bin ghetto movie.

~

Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson provides better sport. After being cudgeled by Taxi to the Dark Side, my expectations were not high, and indeed, the first hour of Gonzo, taken up with Hell’s Angels and a famously bad acid trip in Vegas, was tedious beyond imagining. Just at the point I was ready to walk out, Gibney arrives at Thompson’s participation, as a Rolling Stone political correspondent, in George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign; from this moment on, the movie leaps up to another stratosphere of engagement and never lets go.

When Pat Caddell, a McGovern campaign pollster, remarks on the late journalist, “His great advantage—no one was paying attention to him,” that got my attention. And it reminded me of something. Or someone.

For Thompson (no relation to yours truly; at least none that anyone’s aware of—although this note in the Gonzo press kit, “While his pen dripped with venom…he surprised nervous visitors with the courtly manners and soft-spoken delivery of a Southern gentleman,” does read like a fair description of me) how he wrote Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 was defined by this credo: “The last thing I cared about was establishing long-term relationships on Capitol Hill.” Thus he was free to observe that the media’s “blind rules of dogma” allowed the “cheap crook” Richard Nixon to “slither in,” and that Hubert Humphrey was a “dishonest old hack,” a characterization that Gibney interviewee Pat Buchanan relishes. “He did some of his best work on the liberals,” Buchanan recalls, though the arch-conservative (surely the season’s most unanticipated scene-stealer?) notes with an air of wry nostalgia that Thompson once pegged him as, “Davy Crockett in Nixon’s Alamo.”

One of the great surprises in Gibney’s documentary lies in how well Buchanan emerges, and that he and—his opposite—George McGovern lend the picture the gravitas of history. Thompson liked McGovern; in archival footage, we see why: McGovern’s speech on Vietnam, “Let’s admit we made a mistake and get out,” registers as no less impressive today. McGovern—surprise number two—seems even more heroic in the new footage Gibney shot. And here it’s impossible not to keep on quoting, as the prescient former candidate thunders, “I’m sick of old men in air-conditioned rooms dreaming up wars for young men.”

Gibney moves from this back to the early ’70s and parallels Thompson’s growing respect for McGovern with the writer’s complete disdain for Ed Muskie, seen flipping out on campaign trail speeches, his halting, harried style “symptomatic” of the hallucinogen Muskie was rumored to ingest (a rumor, of course, begun by Hunter S. Thompson).

The resultant book on McGovern’s quest for the presidency and his landslide defeat by Nixon, “captured a certain moment… a perversity,” states Timothy Crouse, another perspicacious witness, adding that well over 30 years later, we’re in “essentially the same nightmare [Thompson] described back then.” Indeed, the all-too-transparent, nothing-ever-changes similarities between then and now give Gonzo its cinematic power, much more so than the biographical goings-on at the journalist’s Woody Creek, Colorado compound. When Thompson, after Nixon’s re-election, exclaims, “How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?” he could as easily direct the question toward the loathsome George W. Bush as to the simultaneously naïve and manipulative Hillary Rodham Clinton, who with her blandly racist appeals to “white Americans” comes off as some slouching, violent thing sprung from the darkest corners of Joyce Carol Oates’s imagination.

So, yes, Gonzo is flawed yet worthwhile. Gibney evokes the ethos of the mid-1970s with far more alacrity than he brings to the 1960s recreations. There are choice memories here, from Jimmy Carter’s ballsy 1974 University of Georgia speech before a roomful of attorneys to Laila Nablusi’s hushed exhalations of being introduced to Thompson in John Belushi’s dressing room at Saturday Night Live, a place, one gathers, where anyone who was someone eventually met.

We also glimpse a pair of visually arresting photographs. Early on, Gibney inserts an outdoor black-and-white still of Thompson, around the age of thirty, seen in silhouette in the center of the picture, shirtless and holding a cigarette. Sunlight pours in through the right top corner of the snapshot, sunlight that at once illumines and obscures. Then near the end of the film, the much older Thompson stands in front of a mantelpiece in his home; conspicuously displayed behind him rests a hefty Pauline Kael volume—I think it was 5001 Nights at the Movies. For a certain kind of viewer, myself included, the juxtaposition of Kael and Thompson, the decision to show this particular image out of the thousands at Gibney’s disposal, carries the kick of homage within homage.

Gibney’s movie never openly asks, “Where are the Hunter S. Thompsons of today?” It inherently raises the question in frame after frame, most especially so in the “meeting” of two iconoclasts, two writers who made a difference. And there’s another implicit question, or set of questions: How could a political journalist and a cultural critic of such vast influence leave no apparent heirs? Would our gatekeepers recognize them, if they did?

~

Moving on… to documentary number three, John Walter’s Theater of War, which begins in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre, during a 2006 rehearsal of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Curtain up on Meryl Streep, in gray cap and uniform, overacting coarsely in the lead role, missing the nuances of the character, stomping on the lines (“on their broad stupid backs”) all the while New Age piano music pipes, at great odds, on the soundtrack. Streep, trying to play “tough,” appropriates a bit of Ethel Merman’s vocal color in her delivery, yet this only reminded me of how much more at ease Merman would have been in the part. Walter then cuts to black-and-white close-ups of Streep being interviewed, and in these takes, the actress seems real and funny and intelligent. So why is her performance so off? Her out-of-the-frame, barely audible interviewer asks, “Do you view Mother Courage as a tragic figure?” Streep looks bemused, then giggles at her own answer: “I think of her as you and me.”

In these moments, Streep, wearing her hair long, loose, and blonde, seems nothing at all like the doughy matrons that have dominated her screen repertoire for the last dozen years or so. Though her face has its lines, her smile and manner are still very much those of the ingénue she was for all too short a time in the summer of 1979, as the beer-sipping Southern belle in The Seduction of Joe Tynan and the willowy, languid lesbian in Manhattan. Where has that girl been? The best thing about the pretentious Theater of War is that it shows us she’s still in there somewhere, however submerged.

When Streep isn’t being interviewed, the movie, alas, goes belly up, in no small measure because John Walter’s mise en scène is, to put it mildly, a mess. Granted, when you corral such self-important masters of fake eloquence as Tony Kushner, Jay Cantor, and Oskar Eustis in front of a camera and let them ramble on in search of profundity, what else would be the result? Walter scores the film to music by Robert Miller—patterns of non-advancing, non-developing, numbing repetitions that could have been lifted straight out of Philip Glass. The ascendant motifs in Miller’s orchestrations, brightly colored woodwinds eternally circling back on one another, comprise the musical equivalent of a hamster wheel.

Eustis commissions Kushner, author of the reprehensibly bad Angels in America, to translate a new version of Mother Courage (what’s wrong with the old translation?) a ploy that in no time at all outs itself as a mere marketing gimmick. Kushner approaches the task pretty much as you’d expect of someone who’s made a cottage industry out of his own sentimentality and phoniness. When his translation’s raison d’être turns out to be, “to make something playable by American actors,” that does not say much for our theatre. Here’s the mightily goateed Eustis on Brecht: “And what he decides he needs to do is to put himself at the service of something much larger than himself. And what he does over the next few years is subject himself to the discipline of Marxism. And that act of submission is incredibly admirable and, uh, imitatable.” There’s no such word as “imitatable.” It’s typical of Walter’s overreaching that he underscores the end of this speech to a crescendo of thunder, and in his sloppiness identifies Eustis as the “artist director” of the Public Theatre rather than as the artistic director.

Besides Streep, and besides Carl Weber, whose recollections of attending Mother Courage’s 1949 Berlin premiere impart a sense of heft and genuineness, the only other sensible person on-screen happens to be Jeremy Lydic, the props man at the Delacorte. Considerably more interesting and down-to-earth than the prattling artistes, Lydic, in the five minutes Walter allots him, evinces a love for his profession that feels natural and unforced. Yet even this Walter manages to goof up, by inserting footage of the pompous ass Tufts professor Cantor paraphrasing Marx to his students on how labor conditions, defines, and to a greater or lesser extent takes away from us. We hear Cantor intoning, “As we produce objects, we produce ourselves. Class acts as a constraint,” while we watch Lydic at work at the set; Walter makes the condescension even more invidious by superimposing Cantor’s lecture spiel “Someone who is made and has very little say in their own making,” over images of a mechanic adapting a golf-cart chassis to fit under a jeep in place of the original combustion engine. What is the point of this contrast? Are we supposed to regard with pity these men who work with their hands, while the “genius” academe pilfers the ideas of others to make himself seem fascinating? Doesn’t Walter realize the level of rigor and intelligence required of the laborers he chooses to illustrate this thesis? Cantor, a homely little chap with a comb-over, elsewhere quotes Warhol on Coca-Cola, no doubt hoping to strike impressionable souls as terribly hip, when he’s really just intellectualizing his own plebeian lack of taste.

~

Lance Hammer’s Ballast, gorgeously photographed in the blue mists of a Mississippi Delta winter, put me in mind of Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories. Both films were shot in the Deep South, in corners rarely, if ever, explored by movies, and both owe so much to the landscape. (In fact, I would have been happier with Shotgun Stories had Nichols included more Malick-esque shots of rural east Arkansas and less of the feuding brothers—a topic for another occasion.) Both take as their subject violence within families and those tentative first steps toward healing. And both films—I say this with the ear of a Georgian—get the Southern accents, without exaggeration, exactly right.

Ballast, although flawlessly acted, isn’t a great movie; it’s a singularly idiosyncratic vision of life in and around Canton, Mississippi, and that’s enough, in these impoverished days, to make a film worth seeing. Near the end, Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), who begins the movie in a catatonic state and glacially reemerges into humanity, stands outside a one-room shack that once housed a radio station, the lettering on its façade, “RADIO 960 KC,” still visible against the peeling paint. The place—and the memory of the place from an earlier time—clearly means something to him. I hadn’t any notion of what, but the acting by Smith and the direction by Hammer are rich in implication.

The cinematographer Lol Crawley deservedly won a prize at Sundance this year. He achieves a number of superb wide-angle shots of frond-topped marshes and of azure twilights crisscrossed by the dark silhouettes of spindly tree trunks and finger-thin branches—an atmosphere no less lovely for being slightly forbidding and forlorn. Yet my favorite moment, visually, belongs to a sensuous aerial vertical over a pink/fuchsia carpet: Juneau, a beautiful wolfhound, lies outstretched on the left; on the right, lies James (JimMyron Ross), a troubled little punk with a history of holding at least one relative of his at gunpoint. In this moment, James serenely, gently strokes Juneau’s fur. The color and texture of the dog’s whitish coat against the shaggy carpet, and the ebony skin, the youthfulness of James, the way their reclined figures are positioned opposite each other along the full length of the frame—it’s a transcendent image of peace. (Unlike the poor, snake-bitten canine in Shotgun Stories, this Juneau is no one’s victim.)

Hammer’s screenplay realistically delves into family bitterness, into the “fucked-up kind of love,” one character accuses another of proliferating. As Marlee, the loving and initially unsuspecting mother of James (she tucks her gun-toting, drug addict pre-teen into bed with such tenderness), Tarra Riggs shows tremendous range. She makes Marlee’s rage—and the character’s need to get beyond it—palpable. And I’m awed by how skillfully Hammer and the actors portray Lawrence and James’s relationship changing over time, an unsentimental journey from the brutal to somewhere better. Hammer stumbles a bit on the subject of how James quits drugs after his money sources dry up—how the boy eases off smoking whatever was in his pipe is left unaddressed.

Even so, the low-key black people in Hammer’s film are real blacks—a (welcome) far cry from the glib, hyperbolic caricatures who overpopulate Craig Brewer, Tyler Perry, Denzel Washington, and Wayans Brothers movies.

~

There are so many films in this festival, most of them bad, as you will have gathered, more than I ever could or would see, and so it’s a miracle when something great emerges out of the SIFF quagmire.

The honor of being the first wholly satisfying movie I’ve seen at SIFF 34 goes to a feature-length cartoon by a first-time director: Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues. Having only seen the movie once, I feel inadequately prepared to trumpet its virtues. Suffice to say that Paley, a one-woman animation “team” who drew every line, has achieved what even the excellent Opera Jawa did not quite do: She’s taken an ancient text, the Hindu epic poem Ramayana, and in adapting the story of a woman’s marriage to, abduction from, and eventual banishment by the man she loves, has “brought it home” in such a way that the universality and the pain inherent to the loss transform into a masterful statement on the vagaries of the human condition. That Paley has also made it a comedy renders her triumph all the more resplendent.

Paley has a sublime sense of color, as the one-eyed pink bats she has flying through a forest will attest; moreover, she understands vocal color as well—in this instance, timing the winged creatures’ flight to a cornet solo. The director’s settings of 1929 jazz and blues 78s as counterpoint to the 14th-century saga of the goddess Sita and her Lord Rama may be the most emotionally evocative use of American popular song on a movie screen since Herbert Ross’s 1981 version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven. Like Ross and Potter, Paley grasps the almost otherworldly power of music and lyrics from that era to heighten a character’s interior state, although here it’s all Sita, wending her way through the course of a relationship via, “Daddy, Won’t You Please Come Home?”, “Am I Blue?”, and ultimately, “The Song is Ended.” Paley’s ability to merge wit and pathos reaches an apotheosis in Sita’s lip-synching to “Mean to Me.” On the line, “You treated me coldly,” Paley envisions husband and wife standing next to the other, each isolated atop a mountain peak; later, there’s an even more astute visualization of this theme that shows the couple in bed, snow falling over Rama’s side of the mattress.

Throughout the song sequences, I kept trying to place the voice. It sounded familiar; I knew it wasn’t Mildred Bailey, in spite of an occasional similarity in timbre. During the end credits, I learned that those light, girlish tones belong (or belonged) to Annette Hanshaw whom, even as a jazz DJ from the late ’80s to the mid ’90s, I had somehow never heard of before. Hanshaw had a brief career during the Depression years, recording mostly for minor labels, then went into early retirement around 1934. She died in 1985. This movie, in fusing her flapper persona with an icon of Indian literature, brings Hanshaw thrillingly back to life.

From time to time, Paley breaks into the action with running commentary by three narrators, a trio of stenciled silhouettes who argue with one another as to what actually happened and when. “And then flowers fell from the heavens, or something,” goes one such speculation, or “Is it possible she didn’t trust the monkey altogether?” As a kind of academic variant on stand-up comics, Aseem Chlabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya play their roles to perfection.

In addition to overlapping different animation styles in Sita’s story (I love how she imagines Mother Earth, a tubby deity whose belly is literally our planet), Paley daringly, yet casually, pulls back from the main currents of the film to include modern-day vignettes of a San Francisco couple whose passage to India not only adds layers of contemporary resonance to Sita’s predicament, it casts a haunting sheen of the eternal over the present. Here, I quote Paley, from her website:

”...as time went on, my life began increasingly to resemble Sita’s. I desperately tried to move on emotionally, but I couldn’t get over my husband. Why was my heart devoted to him, when he’d treated me so badly? My husband’s peculiar behavior resembled Rama’s: no violent explosions, just mysterious emotional implosions. Why had he frozen up?

“The Ramayana doesn’t answer these questions. It is as mysterious and ambiguous as life itself, which is why I came to love it so much. We never really know why Rama banishes Sita. Common interpretations resemble rationalizations and apologies: Rama “had to” abuse Sita to maintain the traditional order of his kingdom, in which the opinion of the lowliest man ranked higher than the life of any woman…Rama’s behavior towards Sita makes no sense…except it’s so realistic.”

Sita Sings the Blues is the must-see at SIFF this Memorial Day Weekend. I’m also looking forward to hearing a distinguished actor extemporize about his craft, in Monday’s “An Afternoon with F. Murray Abraham,” which brings the Amadeus Oscar-winner to the relaxed confines of Northwest Film Forum. You’ll have my full report in Dispatch 3. Until then…

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