Tuesday, May 1, 2012

SFIFF55 2012 Festival Diary III


Sunday, April 22

Traffic is hellish on the streets surrounding Japantown, with Post Street blocked off for the final events of this year's Cherry Blossom Festival. I get off the bus early and walk to the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, so as not to be late for my first program of the day, Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award: Barbara Kopple. As explained by SFFS Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, the award honors "the world outside of narrative features," and famed documentary filmmaker Kopple accepts the prize, declaring, "Persistence. I love that word! It's so crucial to the work we do." She dedicates her P.O.V. Award to three people we've recently lost: war correspondent Marie Colvin, former SF Film Society Executive Director Bingham Ray and Hazel Dickens, the folksinger whose songs play such a vital role in Kopple's Harlan County, USA. and who has passed away earlier in the day. In a break from tradition, Kopple's Oscar® winning 1976 breakthrough film screens before her on-stage interview, not after.

Documentary filmmaker and 2012 Persistence of Vision Award winner Barbara Kopple in (brief) conversation with Jon Else (photo by Tommy Lau)

As luck would have it, Brian Darr at Hell of Frisco Bay has recently posted a marvelous essay on the film, and I have just enough time to read it on my phone while waiting for the show to begin. It adds immeasurably to my appreciation of a work I haven't seen in 35 years, being shown here at the festival in a glorious 35mm print taken from a 2004 restoration. After the screening we're treated to a clips reel of career highlights. Then minutes into Kopple's on-stage interview with documentarian (and former P.O.V. Award winner) Jon Else, the fire alarms go off and the entire building that's packed with festival attendees has to be evacuated onto Post Street, which fortunately is still closed off to traffic. Several fire engines arrive and I never find out what the problem is. The festival staff and volunteers do an incredible job of keeping chaos to a minimum and we're back inside within 20 minutes. Regrettably, it's too late to resume Kopple's interview, so I get in line for my next movie.

Festival attendees spill out onto Post Street when the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas fire alarms go off during a busy Sunday afternoon (photo by Tommy Lau)

Despite a reticence towards films about Africa made by non-African filmmakers, I check out Ulrich Köhler's Sleeping Sickness based on the Best Director Silver Bear it won at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival. It's a fortuitous choice as I'm completely taken by this moody and menacing parable about the diminishing returns of post-colonial foreign aid (a theme Ousmane Sembene explored in a completely different way in 1993's Guelwaar). In the first half of the film's bifurcated structure, an arrogant German doctor prepares his return to Europe after years spent working in the Cameroons. Three years later, a European-born, ethnically African doctor arrives to evaluate a medical clinic that has outlived its usefulness. It's being run by the same German doctor, who never left Africa and is now exhibiting shades of Kurtz from Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Köhler's climactic set-piece is a nerve-wracking, nocturnal jungle hunt, which I'm grateful to be watching in 35mm, given digital's limited capability for rendering darkness.

It's a jarring transition from deepest Africa to the bloated heart of American consumerism as displayed in Lauren Greenfield's documentary The Queen of Versailles. Ostentatious barely begins to describe the lifestyle of Time-share King David Siegel, trophy wife Jackie and their brood of eight, for whom construction has begun on a 90,000 square foot house that will contain 30 bathrooms and 18 kitchens. In a story arc not anticipated by the filmmaker, the banking crisis puts a kibosh on their dream and we watch as they cut back in living large. Whenever I begin to feel sympathy for their plight, I think back to the film's beginning where Florida resident Siegel brags how he "personally got George W. Bush elected president" in 2000 and declines to say how because "it probably wasn't legal." Director Greenfield is on hand to provide anecdotes about her time spent filming the Siegels.

Monday, April 23

I pass on an afternoon screening of Hirokazu Kore-eda's new film I Wish in order to do some writing. The director's not attending the festival as he did with his two previous films, and I know his latest will open at a Landmark Theater on June 1. Comes evening I head down to the Castro Theater for Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs) with Buster Keaton Shorts, which is this year's SFIFF combination of silent cinema paired with a live rock music score. Purists consider this very concept an abomination, but I'm always game and frequently thrilled by the results. (Don't tell anyone, but I even loved Giovanni Spinelli's much-maligned solo electric guitar accompaniment to Murnau's Sunrise that was performed at last year's SF Silent Film Festival – an event that was, incidentally, co-sponsored by the SF Film Society).

Merrill Garbus, Ava Mendoza and members of tUnE-yArDs perform beneath the Castro Theatre screen, accompanying four Buster Keaton short films (photo by Pamela Gentile)

As a 58-year-old who proudly struggles to keep up with current "alternative" music, I'm actually familiar with both tUnE-yArDs and "whokill," the 2011 album that topped the Village Voice's annual Pazz + Jop Poll. Judging by the crowd, it's fans and not regular SFIFF attendees who have sold out the 1400-seat Castro. Garbus, assembled on-stage with her band and guest guitar virtuoso Ava Mendoza, faces the screen and simply states by way of introduction, "You guys get to look at our behinds." Then the screen lights up with Buster Keaton's One Week, and the joyful onslaught begins. Encompassing everything from pounding percussion to squawking jazz riffs, chugging funk, surf guitar and pygmy-like vocal loops, the music aligns brilliantly with Keaton's on-screen antics over the course of four short films (which also includes The Haunted House and Fatty Arbuckle-starring Good Night, Nurse! and The Cook). The audience, 90 percent of whom I'd wager has never experienced silent film in a theater, roar their approval when it's all over. Along with 2010's SFIFF combo of band Dengue Fever and dinosaur movie The Lost World, I'd say this is one of the most artistically successful projects in this series, which is the brainchild of SFFS programmer Sean Uyehara. Fortunately for those who weren't there, a taste is available on Vimeo, where the SFFS has posted a 2 1/2 minute sampling

(Photo by Laura Gentile)

1 comment:

Michael Guillen said...

Go, go, GO, SpeedRacer, GOOOOO!!