Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Frameline39 2015 Preview Capsules

The following are preview capsules for ten films screening at the 39th edition of Frameline, the world's oldest and largest LGBTQ film festival. This year's fest runs from June 18 to 28.

Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands (Denmark dir. Christian Braad Thomsen)
The insanely prolific queer German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have turned 70 this year, had he not died at age 37 after directing some 40-plus feature films in 15 years. This new doc from a longtime Danish friend attempts to psychoanalyze Fassbinder and his work via some fascinating, never-seen-before interviews (including one that was filmed immediately after his first feature, Love is Colder Than Death, got booed by critics at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival). Those interviews mingle with appropriate film clips and contemporary conversations with surviving members of Fassbinder's un-merry band of actors. Amongst the latter I was particularly thrilled to hear from pasty-faced actress Irm Hermann, the ex-office worker whose masochistic on-and-off screen relationship with the director got played out in 19 films. While To Love Without Demands should be essential viewing for Fassbinder aficionados, it's probably overwhelming and a bit academic for neophytes who would be best served by simply watching a handful of his films. To that end, Frameline39 will also be screening the director's final feature, 1982's phantasmagoric sailor's wet dream, Querelle.

54: The Director's Cut (USA dir. Mark Christopher)
A highlight of the recent San Francisco International Film Festival was director Mark Christopher's reconstruction of his much-maligned 1998 movie, 54. Starring Ryan Philippe, Salma Hayek and Breckin Meyer as three romantically linked employees at NYC's famed discotheque, this new cut features 44 previously unseen minutes that essentially put back all the gay stuff expunged from the original release. While this new edit isn't quite the "minor masterpiece" some critics have proclaimed, it's an awful lot of fun – whether you're vicariously reliving your own misspent youth or nostalgia-tripping for an infamous era not actually lived firsthand. 54: The Director's Cut is already available on VOD, but it should really be experienced in the company of an exuberant Castro audience on the Friday night of Pride weekend. Director Christopher is expected to attend.

In the Grayscale (Chile dir. Claudio Marcone)
Seashore (Brazil, dir. Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon)
These two low-key indie dramas from South America are all the more impressive for their being works by debut feature filmmakers. In the Grayscale captures a period in the life of Bruno, a serious-minded 35-year-old Chilean architect who's been hired to design a large-scale public monument in Santiago. The titular grayscale refers to the ambivalent existence he inhabits midway between leaving a 17-year marriage and embarking on a same-sex relationship with Fernando, a high-strung local tour guide from whom he seeks inspiration. Claudio Marcone's film impressed me with its naturalistic, intelligent adult dialogue and a recurring symbolism which manifests itself brilliantly in the final shot.

The two male leads in Seashore are a generation younger and their still-unformed sexualities place them in a sort of "grayscale" as well. Lifelong best friends Tomaz, who's gay, and presumably straight Martin drive to a beach house where Martin is expected to wrap up some sketchy family business. They spend time quietly hanging out until the idyll is broken by an overnight bacchanal of booze, loud music, drugs and for Martin at least, sex with a female friend. The morning after finds the hungover buddies hazily reminiscing about the night's events and it's also the first time we're privy to any discussion of Tomaz' sexuality. One thing leads to another, and well, you can guess where this one's headed. Like everything else in this lovely and enigmatic film, the welcome denouement feels neither false nor unearned. The meaning of the final scene is sure to initiate some post-screening discussions.

Love Island (Croatia dir. Jasmila Žbanic)
In 2006, Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanic won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize for Grbavica, a searing drama about a mother and daughter in the aftermath of the 1990's Balkan genocide. One decade and two additionally well regarded features later, she returns with this silly and overbearing comedy set at an all-inclusive beach resort in the Adriatic Sea. Greek actress Ariane Labed (Attenberg, Alps) stars as Liliane, a very pregnant French landscape architect on holiday with her sweet but boorish Bosnian husband Grebo. Also on the scene is Flora, an ex-lover of Liliane's who works as the resort's social director. The trio is put through a contorted sexual roundelay as Liliane works out whether to stay with Grebo or leave him for Flora. There's a half-baked gay subplot involving Grebo and a male resort employee to boot. In all, it's an innocuously diverting 86 minutes with some genuinely inspired laughs. A handful of musical numbers help lend Love Island a Mamma Mia-like¬ vibe.

The New Girlfriend (France dir. François Ozon)
France's most entertainingly subversive director attended Frameline exactly 15 years ago, presenting his second and third features, Criminal Lovers and Water Drops on Burning Rocks to an appreciative Castro audience. Ozon's 15th film is an intricate and witty transgender dramedy that affixed a permanent grin to my face when I caught it at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. French superstar Romain Duris stars as a widower who dresses in his deceased wife's clothes, solely as a way to comfort their infant daughter. Or so he says. After his wife's BFF (Anaïs Demoustier) catches him in drag, the pair embarks on a surprise-filled adventure encompassing gender fluidity, confused sexual desire and plenty of red-herring dream sequences. Restrictions put upon Frameline by the The New Girlfriend's U.S. distributor is undoubtedly why this sublime film screens just once during the festival, late on a Thursday night way over in Piedmont.

Reel in the Closet (USA dir. Stu Maddux)
This fascinating documentary celebrates the importance of archiving and preserving LGBTQ moving images from an era predating ubiquitous smart-phone movie cameras. Highlights include footage shot in the North Beach lesbian bar Mona's Candle Light in 1950 (with audio!) and an all-male skinny-dipping pool party filmed sometime in the 1940's. Amongst those lending authoritative commentary are Susan Stryker (Screaming Queens: A Riot at Compton's Cafeteria) and renowned photographer Dan Nicoletta, a Frameline co-founder and Harvey Milk compatriot. The film also spotlights the organizations leading the charge to archive these materials, from the Lesbian Home Movie Project of Bucksport, Maine to the U.S. Library of Congress (whose eloquent spokesperson Mike Mashon is a familiar face to San Francisco Silent Film Festival attendees.) Reel in the Closet closes with the advent of video, which was cheaper and allowed people to shoot longer. Regrettably, it resulted in lots of Pride parade footage but little in the way of intimate moving images revealing how LGBTQ people lived their lives (the documentaries of the Queer Blue Light Video Collective being a notable exception).

Tab Hunter Confidential (USA dir. Jeffrey Schwarz)
With his acclaimed bio-docs on Vitto Russo (Vito), Divine (I Am Divine) and Jack Wrangler (Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon), Jeffrey Schwarz has established himself as our foremost chronicler of notable gay personalities, a talent for which he'll be honored with this year's Frameline Award. Schwarz' excellent new project surveys the turbulent life and career of iconic 50's actor-singer-horseman-heartthrob Tab Hunter, cleverly employing public archival materials to comment upon the man's clandestine private life. Lining up with salient commentary on Hunter (née Arthur Gelien) are such diverse voices as Robert Wagner, Connie Stevens, George Takei, Rona Barrett, Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Muller (the Bay Area's Czar of Noir and co-author of Tab's autobiography) and of course John Waters, who revitalized Hunter's acting career by starring him in 1981's Polyester. One of Confidential's many highlights is hearing Hunter open up about his long and complicated love affair with Anthony Perkins. While the film's "Hold Review" status keeps me from divulging more, I promise Frameline39's Castro screening of Tab Hunter: Confidential, with Hunter and Schwarz in person, will be a major highlight of the festival.

To Russia With Love (USA dir. Noam Gonick)
A special sidebar at this year's Frameline is Game Changers: Sexuality & Sports, comprised of six features and 17 shorts. Although I couldn't be more disinterested in sports, I found much to appreciate in this documentary about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The film skillfully braids several trajectories, starting with that of its executive producer and poster boy Johnny Weir, the figure skating champ and NBC commentator who comes off as an unaware, haughty fur-clad diva. Then there are the LGBTQ Olympic athletes who struggle with their desire to make political statements during the Sochi games. Ultimately, none do, but who can blame them when arrest and prison enter in the equation. We also follow the valiant efforts of one Konstantin Yablotsky to stage Open Games, an LGBTQ athletic competition scheduled to take place in Moscow three days after the Olympics close. Every Open Games event gets shut down by authorities except for one, a table tennis competition attended by heroic Greg Louganis. The heart of To Russia with Love, however, belongs to Vlad, a gay Sochi teenager who endures intense, daily persecution for his sexuality. Efforts to publicize his plight pay off big time in the film's uplifting climax, when a prominent American athlete selflessly comes to the rescue.

The Yes Men Are Revolting (USA dir. Laura Nix, The Yes Men)
It's been six years since we last heard from political pranksters The Yes Men, when their film The Yes Men Fix the World screened at the 2009 SF Jewish Film Festival (both members Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are Jewish). Well it turns out Bichlbaum is also gay, giving Frameline reason to lay claim to the duo's newest compilation of anti-corporate shenanigans. The Yes Men's antics this go-round exclusively target fossil fuel industries, with some hilariously pointed attacks against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, Shell Oil and the Canadian tar sands industry. Unlike the two previous Yes Men films, Revolting also gives us a peek at their private lives, with Bonanno's decision to lay low and raise a family in Scotland negatively impacting Bichlbaum's own efforts to maintain his first serious same-sex relationship. Just when it appears the Yes Men's days of activism might be over, the Occupy Movement and Hurricane Sandy intercede and pave the way for one of their most outrageous stunts ever. Although The Yes Men Are Revolting opened this week in NYC, as far as I can tell there are no plans for a Bay Area theatrical release. Andy Bichlbaum, who is my idea of a real LGBTQ hero, is expected to be in attendance.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2015

Over the span of two decades, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) has transformed itself from a one-day, three-film event into the second most prestigious silent movie showcase in the world. As you would expect, all the stops are being pulled for the 20th anniversary edition which begins this Thursday, May 28 and runs through Monday. The staggering 21-program line-up includes a quartet of canon-worthy classics nestled alongside several highly anticipated restorations. There'll also be Pauline Kael's all-time favorite film (the 1926 French short Ménilmontant), Harold Lloyd's last silent picture (Speedy) and Frank
Capra's first sound film (The Donovan Affair, whose lost soundtrack will be recreated by live actors). The roster of high-profile guests includes Kevin Brownlow, Serge Bromberg and Leonard Maltin.

All of this goes down, as it has for 20 years, at San Francisco's beloved 1922 movie palace, the Castro Theatre. All programs but one feature live music from SFSFF's stable of world-renowned silent movie accompanists, and every attendee receives a program guide full of enlightening essays about the films – all written specifically for the festival. Lovers of bona fide celluloid should find reason to cheer, with a dozen programs boasting at least some element of 35mm film exhibition. (I'll be indicating which ones based on information from the indispensable Film on Film Foundation.) Finally – if you'll permit a sentimental moment from a 40-year SF resident who barely recognizes his cherished city these days – congratulations SFSFF on your 20th anniversary, with wishes for 20 more. You continue to embody all that's ever been unique and wonderful about San Francisco. Now here's my overview of the 2015 line-up.


Silent film virgins could scarcely receive a better education in what made the era great than by checking out the four gems SFSFF has placed in the festival's evening primetime slots. Kicking things off on opening night will be Lewis Milestone's brutally affecting anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, 35mm), which won Academy Awards for Outstanding Production and Best Director. Filmed with side-by-side cameras as both a sync-sound silent and as a talkie, it's the silent version that most film historians now consider superior. The presentation will be introduced by Mike Mason of the U.S. Library of Congress, which recently restored the silent version to commemorate WWI's centennial. My favorite bit of All Quiet trivia has it that comedic actress Zazu Pitts originally played the main character's mother, but erroneous laughter at preview screenings resulted in her scenes being reshot with a different actress. After the screening, opening night revelers will party at the McRoskey Mattress Company, whose top floor loft will be transformed into a 1920's era Berlin cabaret.

Closing out the fest on Monday night is Fred Niblo's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925, 35mm), which is the movie I'm most anticipating. It was one of three films shown at the inaugural SFSFF in 1996, but alas I've never seen it (or the 1959 remake for that matter). Considered the most expensive Hollywood production of its time and the third highest grossing film of the silent era, Ben-Hur is best known for its legendary chariot race, which was shot with 42 cameras at what's now the intersection of La Cienega and Venice Boulevards in Los Angeles. The long list of stars believed to have worked as extras includes Fay Wray, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford and Lionel Barrymore. Legend further has it that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard first met on the Ben-Hur set. The Jesus sequences employ two-strip Technicolor, which is perhaps why it was promoted as "The Picture Every Christian Should See!" Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ will be the only SFSFF20 presentation not to include live musical accompaniment. In its stead, we'll hear a prerecorded score by revered silent film composer Carl Davis, which totally works for me. The program will be preceded by an on-stage conversation between Serge Bromberg and Kevin Brownlow, Ben-Hur having been restored by Brownlow's company, Photoplay.

Occupying the festival's primetime slot on Friday and Saturday evening respectively will be F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) and Clarence Brown's Flesh and the Devil (1926, 35mm). The Murnau, which I'm shocked hasn't screened at SFSFF previously, stars the great Emil Jannings as a Grand Hotel doorman who faces societal shame when demoted to washroom attendant. This immortal, humanist film is noted for its near total absence of intertitles and the kinetic "unchained camera" technique that was revolutionary for its time. Renowned cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to shoot Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Tod Browning's Dracula and 150 episodes of I Love Lucy. Three years after The Last Laugh, Murnau came to Hollywood and made his masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Flesh and the Devil, which SFSFF previously presented in 2007, is remembered for the on-screen chemistry of its two stars, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The handsome pair fell in love while making the film and were reportedly living together by the end of shooting. Kevin Brownlow will introduce this melodrama about two childhood friends whose lives are destroyed by a love for the same femme fatale.

Restoration Spotlights

There's no better way to get a leg up on the latest silent discoveries and restorations than by attending the free admission Amazing Tales from the Archives, which gets Friday's programming underway. This year Serge Bromberg will discuss and screen Figures de cire (House of Wax), a newly uncovered 1914 short by Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques Tourneur, of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie fame). Then the British Film Institute's Bryony Dixon will present new footage pertaining to the infamous RMS Lusitania, with actor Paul McGann (the "I" in Withnail and I) narrating. In recognition of the Technicolor Corporation's centenary, we'll also get to see a two-strip Technicolor tour of Hearst Castle conducted by its architect, Julia Morgan and Hearst himself. Finally, film restorer and SFSFF Board of Directors President Rob Byrne will discuss the restoration of Sherlock Holmes (1916, 35mm), which will screen on Sunday night and is considered THE big archival discovery of the past year. Considered lost until its recent uncovering at the Cinémathèque Française – it had been improperly labeled – the film stars William Gillette as the quintessential Holmes. Gillette performed as the famed detective over 1,300 times on stage, and his mannerisms and costuming are said to be responsible for the Holmes-ian image we still carry today. Sherlock Holmes is believed the only record of his performance. This not-to-be missed event will be the U.S. premiere of a co-restoration undertaken by the Cinémathèque Française and the SFSFF.

Two additional programs highlight recent restorations. In 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History (1913, 35mm), we'll experience the raw footage shot for an all African-American feature, starring Caribbean-American entertainer Bert Williams. Unedited and unreleased due to abandonment by its white producers, the seven reels of footage were discovered hiding in the MoMA's Biograph Studio collection. Highlights are said to include a jubilant two-minute dance sequence and unheard of for its time physical affection between its male and female leads. MoMA Associate Curator Ron Magliozzi will present a slideshow of stills and other materials relating to the would-be film. Another exciting new restoration is the U.S. premiere of Barry O'Neill's When the Earth Trembled (1913, 35mm), a 3-reel spectacular depicting the 1906 earthquake and fire. Rob Byrne introduces and discusses the restoration, which was performed by SFSFF in conjunction with Amsterdam's EYE Filmmuseum. That program will also include the now iconic A Trip Down Market Street, shot days before the earthquake. It's a film this San Franciscan can't watch too many times.

Cinéma muet

This year's festival includes a welcome collection of French silents, beginning with the double-billed shorts of Avant-Garde Paris. First on that program will be Man Ray's Emak-Bakia (1927, 35mm). I'm excited to finally see this after having experienced Oskar Alegria's weird and wonderful documentary The Search for Emak Bakia at the 2013 SF
International Film Festival. "Emak Bakia" is a Basque term roughly meaning "leave me alone," and Alegria's film is about, amongst other things, a search for the Biarritz seaside mansion (named Emak Bakia) where Man Ray shot this experimental short. Sharing the program will be Dimitri Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant (1926), which Pauline Kael once called the favorite film of her "entire life." Director Kirsanoff was a Russian aristocrat who fled the revolution, and his 44-minute experimental melodrama is said to be an unforgettable record of 1920's Paris. The story concerns two sisters struggling to survive in the titular working class district, having fled the countryside as children following the double axe-murder of their parents (!?) There are no intertitles, with the movie's narrative being exclusively telegraphed via "the elegance of its images."

A pair of French narrative features also graces this year's SFSFF line-up. Director Jacques Feyder, best known for his 1935 classic Carnival in Flanders, shot Visages d'enfants in 1923 but didn't see its release until two years later. (His following film, Gribiche, played the fest in 2013). Set in the Swiss mountains, this psychological drama explores the consequences of
a young man's cruel resentment towards his stepmother. The film is remembered for its "simple intimacy and emotional poignancy," as well as the authenticity of its setting (Visages d'enfants begins with an 11-minute depiction of a village funeral). Prior to the screening, Serge Bromberg will be awarded the 2015 SF Silent Film Festival Award – his company Lobster Films having completed the restoration of Visages d'enfants in 2004. The other French narrative is André Antoine's The Swallow and the Titmouse (1920). This tale of life aboard two Belgian cargo barges was the director's tenth and final feature. It was never released because the producers found Antoine's raw footage too "documentary-like" and refused the necessary financing to complete the picture. Nor was it ever edited – that is until Henri Colpi, co-editor on such classics as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, sculpted a completed film from the existing footage in 1984.

Although he was born in Iowa and worked exclusively in the U.S., I'm lumping The Amazing Charley Bowers in with the French because of his championing by André Breton and the surrealists. Originally an animator on Mutt and Jeff cartoons, Bowers eventually created his own comedies that blended live action, animation and a penchant for Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. The program will spotlight four of his 15 surviving films, including A Wild Roomer (1926), Now You Tell One (1926), Many a Slip (1927) and There It Is (1928), the latter starring a cockroach detective. Bowers' shorts were restored by Lobster Films and appropriately enough, Serge Bromberg will provide the musical accompaniment.


At this point it's worth mentioning that children 12 and under enjoy greatly reduced ticket prices for all SFSFF programs. Over past years I've come to gleefully anticipate the sound of 21st century children howling at the antics of silent comedy on weekend mornings at the festival. Charley Bowers occupies that timeslot on Sunday this year, while on Saturday it'll be Harold Lloyd's final silent feature Speedy (1928). Lloyd plays a failed soda jerk turned distracted cab driver
who's also a diehard NY Yankees fan trying to save his girlfriend's grandfather's horse-drawn streetcar business. I'm especially dying to see the 20-minute segment set at Coney Island's legendary Luna amusement park, where Lloyd gives himself "the finger" in a funhouse mirror. It represents the first on-screen delivery of the now-obscene gesture. Another Speedy highlight is a frantic taxi ride Lloyd gives Babe Ruth, who was just weeks away from hitting his record-breaking 60th season home run. Director Ted Wilde, who also made Lloyd's Kid Brother, directed the baseball star in the previous year's now-lost feature Babe Comes Home. This program is co-presented by the San Francisco Giants and the comedian's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd will do the introduction.

Comedy continues with a pair of films starring actresses who were enormous stars in their heyday, but whose legacies are now somewhat muted. Robert Thornby's The Deadlier Sex (1920, 35mm) stars Blanche Sweet, who made her first film in 1909 with D.W. Griffith's Biograph Studios. Sweet was known for her independence and vivaciousness, qualities not normally accorded Griffith
heroines. Her popularity lasted until the end of the silent era, with Sweet's IMDb profile listing 164 credits (the final one being an appearance on the 1960 TV sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). The Deadlier Sex will be introduced by Josef Linder of the Academy Film Archive, which restored the film, and will be preceded by Dave Fleischer's Koko's Queen (1926), an animated Koko the Clown short restored by the National Film Preservation Board and EYE Filmmuseum. William Seiter's Why Be Good? (1929) was the final silent film for actress Colleen Moore, who soon retired from Hollywood after making three unsuccessful talkies. Moore plays a "shop girl by day and flapper by night" in a film that was accompanied by a Vitaphone soundtrack with music and sound effects. Why Be Good? was considered a lost film until a print was discovered in Italy sometime in the late '90s. Restoration was completed just last year. The screening will be introduced by Leonard Maltin.

For those who dig comedy with a darker edge, SFSFF20 offers two movies that'll fit the bill. Géza von Bolváry's The Ghost Train (1927, 35mm) is said to give comedy and horror equal weight, with a story about passengers stranded at a haunted station where a phantom train passes each year on the anniversary of a grisly train wreck. The film was a true international
co-production, with a Hungarian director and both British and German actors. (It was shot a UFA Studios in Berlin). The print we'll see contains French intertitles, which will be translated live by actor Paul McGann. Next, Frank Capra's The Donovan Affair (1929) was the director's first "100% all-Dialogue Picture." The soundtrack, however, is permanently lost, in effect rendering the film silent. That imagined soundtrack will be recreated live at the Castro Theatre with actors from the Gower Gulch Players, along with music and sound effects by Bruce Goldstein, Repertory Director at NYC's famed Film Forum. Starring Columbia Pictures' square-jawed leading man Jack Holt, The Donovan Affair's plot is one I'm sure you've heard before. The lights go out at a high society dinner party and the titular Mr. Donovan gets a knife in the back. Inspector Killigan (Holt) is called to investigate and he insists on recreating the crime by cutting the lights again. Somebody else gets murdered. Rinse and repeat.

This and That

Rounding out the 2015 SFSFF line-up are two films from Scandinavia. Per Lindberg's Norrtullsligan (1923, 35mm) stars the terrific Swedish actress Tora Teje, whom SFSFF
audiences have seen previously in Mauritz Stiller's 1920 Erotikon and Benjamin Christensen's 1922 Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages. She plays one of four secretaries who share an apartment, and her sardonic observations provide the movie's narration via verbose intertitles lifted directly from the 1908 source novel. The other Scandinavian film is also a novel adaptation, this time from Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author Knut Hamsum. Pan (1922, 35mm) is the only film ever directed by actor Harald Schwenzen and it's a romantic tale about a wealthy woman and a reclusive ex-soldier/hunter.

Last but not least, perhaps the most singular selection at this year's fest is Dan Duyu's fantastical Cave of the Spider Woman (1927, 35mm). A prime example of the "magic spirit" films popular in Shanghai at the time, Cave is based on a chapter from Journey to the West, a Ming Dynasty-era literary work considered one of China's great classical novels. Although it set box office records in 1927, the film was considered lost until its recent discovery and restoration by the National Library of Norway (whose representative Tina Anckarman will be on hand to give an introduction). This program will also include the U.S. premiere of Modern China, an eight-minute look at 1910 Beijing, recently restored by the British Film Institute.

And finally, the last day of the festival commences with the free admission program So You Think You Know Silents, a silent movie trivia contest hosted by Bruce Goldstein of NYC's Film Forum. Yes, there will be prizes!

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

SFIFF58 2015 Wrap-Up: Week Two Highlights

Here are some thoughts on five on my favorite programs from the second week of the recent San Francisco International Film Festival. (My round-up of week one can be found here.)

Eden (France, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
SFIFF58's second week got off to an invigorating start with this vibrant and touching evocation of a once hot and happening scene. Based on the experiences Sven Hansen-Løve, who's also the director's brother and co-screenwriter, Eden follows the two-decade trajectory of fictionalized House-music DJ and producer Paul Vallée (baby-faced Félix de Givry) as he scales the heights of Paris clublife before sliding into a morass caused by drug abuse and changing musical tastes. In addition to the breathtaking club sequences, I was impressed by Eden's parade of familiar actresses depicting the women of Paul's life, starting with Arsinée Khanjian (Atom Egoyan's wife and frequent star) as his enabling and long-suffering mother. Greta Gerwig opens the film with a nice turn as the American girlfriend who breaks her French boy toy's heart and she's followed by pixie-ish Pauline Etienne as the steadfast, fellow DJ who shares in Paul's ascendancy. Bad news arrives in the person of beguiling Laura Smet, playing the voracious party girl who expedites Paul's ruin. Then Iranian superstar Golshifteh Farahani turns up, nearly unrecognizable as the admiring, punkish club kid who rescues and redeems him. Amongst the actors playing DJs and fellow scene-sters, it was a comfort seeing stringy-haired schlub Vincent Macaigne, who seems to be in half the French films I see these days. 

SFIFF58's screening of Eden was enhanced by the personal appearance of Sven Hansen-Løve and actor Félix de Givry. During the Q&A they revealed that several large club scenes, such as the one at MoMA PS1, were filmed guerilla-style at established venues. Eden's budget couldn't possibly accommodate the necessary 4,000 extras. They also had laudatory things to say about Daft Punk. The insanely famous electronic music duo, who were part of this scene and receive a droll portrayal in the movie, convinced all of the artists represented on Eden's soundtrack to accept nominal fees for music rights that would have otherwise cost the filmmaker an unaffordable €1 million. Asked about the participation of Golshifteh Farahani, we were told she came on board because she happened to be dating actor Louis Garrel, a close friend of the director. After the screening, I lacked the stamina to check out the Eden after party, where Hansen-Løve performed a live DJ set. The next morning I had my own after party upon discovering Eden's soundtrack – 42 tracks lasting 4 ½ hours – available as a digital download on Amazon for a measly 11 bucks. Eden opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on June 26.

Co-screenwriter Sven Hansen-Løve and actor Félix de Givry backstage at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas for the 58th SF International Film Festival screening of EDEN. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

The Tribe (Ukraine, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
Winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes' Critics Week sidebar, The Tribe is like no other film you're likely to have seen before. The setting is a Ukrainian school for the hearing impaired where the entire cast "speaks" exclusively in sign language that's never translated via subtitles. This requires the viewer to pay strict attention to the actors and on-screen action, an easy task given the film's riveting storyline and meticulously choreographed, widescreen cinematography. The Tribe's plot shadows the arc of a newly arrived pupil, a male teen who's immediately shaken down by his bullying, tyrannical classmates. He soon becomes a participant in their nihilistic schemes, which includes the nocturnal transport of female students to a local truck stop for purposes of prostitution. The film's only shred of humanity occurs when he falls for one of these girls, a near-fatal error that serves as a catalyst to the film's explosive finale. Audience members who walked out during The Tribe's unbearably frank abortion scene should be grateful they didn't stick around. I've heard a number of negative comments calling the film exploitative and soulless, which could be true. But undeniably, The Tribe is also filmmaking at its most dynamic and original.

The End of the Tour (USA, dir. James Ponsoldt)
One of my most anticipated programs at SFIFF58 was this Centerpiece screening of director Ponsoldt's follow-up to The Spectacular Now. Based on Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky's memoir of a days-long, snowy Midwest encounter with writer David Foster Wallace during the end of his "Infinite Jest" book tour, the movie is a smart, tender and often comical relationship story about tenuous affection between two talented writers. The film is a particular triumph for actor Jason Segel as Wallace, in this his first non-comedic lead role in a narrative feature. I've made no secret of my crush on the big lug, so when the credits got rolling I bee-lined it for the front row. At the Q&A Segel revealed himself to be the gracious and self-effacing everyman I suspected he'd be. Speaking about his admiration for Wallace, Segel confided that he first read "Infinite Jest" with an all-male book group he formed:

"When I bought the book at a small bookstore there was a very Ghost World kind of girl sitting behind the counter. I set "Infinite Jest" down and she rolled her eyes at me and said, "Infinite Jest… every guy I ever dated has an unread copy on his bookshelf."

Segel also had plenty of things to say about preparing for the role of Wallace, for which he had Lipsky's original cassette tapes as a guidepost:

"The thing I really didn't want it to seem like was "watch Jason Segel try to do "acting." I tried to focus more on the parts of me that were the same as Wallace, as opposed to striving to be something that was outside of myself. There was a real particular music to the way Wallace spoke. I've never seen anybody be able to speak in fully coherent arguments with a thesis and supporting points and a conclusion, and still have it sound conversational."

Best of all was Segel's response to a question from film writer Michael Guillén about the beat-up looking shoes he wore onstage that night at the Kabuki (watch a YouTube clip of that here).

The program ended and I made my way to my next screening. While waiting in the narrow corridor adjoining the Kabuki Cinemas' houses two and three, I looked up to see Jason Segel himself standing there, fully within bear-hugging range (the corridor also leads to the House One backstage entrance). I managed to croak out a feeble "thank you," to which he looked into my eyes and replied, "No, thank YOU." A minute later I barely noticed when Jason Schwartzman brushed against me en route to his House One screening of 7 Chinese Brothers.

Actor Jason Segel backstage at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas for the 58th SF International Film Festival's Centerpiece screening of THE END OF THE TOUR. (Photo by Pamela Gentile).

Love & Mercy (USA, dir. Bill Pohlad)
My favorite film of the fest by far was this transcendent biopic of the Beach Boys' troubled genius, Brian Wilson. Starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older Wilson, the film alternates emotionally interlocking vignettes set during the mid-60's creation of his masterpiece LPs, Pet Sounds and Smile, with those of Wilson in the early 90's, a broken man subjected to the dictatorial control of his evil psychiatrist Eugene Landy (an effective Paul Giamatti). A shortlist of Love & Mercy's highlights would include the opening montage of early Beach Boys iconography, the lovingly recreated recording sessions (especially of "Good Vibrations") and the phenomenal sound design that conveys the explosion of musical ideas coursing through Wilson's overheated brain. The movie's revelation, however, is the achingly heartfelt performance by Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who selflessly comes to Wilson's emotional rescue. To my surprise, a review of her extensive IMDb credits tells me I've only seen one other Banks performance – as Laura Bush in Oliver Stone's W. You heard it here first; she's the supporting actress to beat comes 2015's year-end awards season. Love & Mercy will open in Bay Area theatres next month.

Cibo Matto: New Scene
My 2015 SFIFF experience ended on the highest possible note with an electrifying evening at the Castro Theatre. SFFS programmer Sean Uyehara outdid himself this year, engaging one of my favorite bands of the past 20 years to accompany a septet of iconic avant-garde/experimental films. It was the festival's best music and film combo since 2009's pairing of L.A./Cambodian rock band Dengue Fever with the silent dinosaur flick, The Lost World. Cibo Matto's four members took the stage and launched into a synth-heavy, percussive bass grove that mingled nicely with Miwa Matreyek's Lumerence and its imagery of fluttering eyeball mountainscapes and space-traveling eggs. Next came Grace Nayoon Rhee's two-minute Unicorn, featuring creepy stop-motion rabbits and a priceless punch line. The longest piece of the evening was Cibo Matto's new score for the 1970 film adaptation of Oskar Schlemmer's geometry-obsessed Bauhaus-era Das Triadische Ballet. Hilarious jibber-jabber vocals from band member Miho Hatori morphed into a swirly, pulsating tempo before surrendering to a thundering jazz-funk vibe that rocked the Castro.

As expected, the personal highlight of Cibo Matto: New Scene was Yoko Ono's 1970 Fly, which I've always longed to see in its entirety. For 25 minutes, the camera follows a fly in extreme close-up as it circumnavigates the nude body of actress Virginia Lust. And yes, it takes about all of 60 seconds for the critter to wend its way "down there." Cibo Matto saved its hardest rocking-out for this piece, with synth player Yuka Honda supplying some spot-on Yoko-style yowling. In the film's final minutes the camera pulls back to reveal Lust's full elongated body splayed along an attic cot, dotted with perhaps a half-dozen flies. We're then taken to the window for a leisurely gaze at the surrounding buildings before the end credits roll, capped by this priceless divulgement, "Flies supplied by NYC." The evening reached a soothing denouement with mellow accompaniment to Marcel Duchamp's 1928 Anemic Cinema, featuring the gyroscopic spinning of alliterative French puns.

Cibo Matto on-stage at the Castro Theatre, rocking out to the 58th SF International Film Festival's screening of Yoko Ono's 1970 film FLY. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)