Monday, April 30, 2007

BRANDOThe Evening Class Interview With David Thomson

Monday and Tuesday evenings, May 1 and 2 respectively, Turner Classic Movies is premiering their fascinating two-part documentary on Marlon Brando, produced by the Grief Company and written by Mimi Freedman. The documentary in its entirety has already screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and will appear in sidebar at Cannes next month. David Hudson has gathered together a few reviews at The Greencine Daily, to which I'll add Brian Lowry's write-up for Variety.

One of the many talking heads approached to reminisce on Brando and to discuss the body of his work is Brando biographer David Thomson who agreed to meet with me to expand on the man, the actor, and his films. After acknowledging his fingerprints on the project (he put Mike Medavoy, one of the Brando executors of the will, in contact with TCM), Thomson conceded:

Thomson: That doesn't mean to say it couldn't have happened without me; it easily could. I think in fact I had a little role in it happening; but, I never dreamed it was going to turn out to be as big and as solid and as adventurous a piece of work. Once the Greif Company got on to it, it was clear they were going to do a tremendous research job with a lot of bits of footage of Brando that I'd never seen before. And, of course, they were able to go to Tetiaroa, which was very important to the film, and they got the children to talk. You really do get a more rounded feeling of Brando than I ever thought possible.

As we talked about it earlier, they asked, "How would we do it? What would it be? Would it be the whole life?" I said, "No, I think the whole life is probably too much." Although they really came close to doing it. I said, "Make it what he means to actors." That's there still because they have so many actors speaking very well about him. You really do get a sense of what he meant to a generation of American actors—not just American but particularly. They covered it pretty well. I'm very pleased with it.

Michael Guillén: I was too. When you wrote your lovely obituary piece for the Guardian, you ruminated, "Will there ever be a book that 'explains' the man? I doubt it." Has this documentary reversed your doubts? Do you think it has come close to explaining Brando?

Thomson: Well, I do. I don't know what the general public thinks about him now and what they care about; but, I suspect this film is going to deliver a lot more than most audiences are expecting. It's a deeper, richer portrait and certainly it's got the good and the bad. It's got the ambiguities in the man. It's got the self-destructiveness as well as the creativity. It really asks the questions about him, which I don't think anyone's ever going to answer. He was a phenomenon and sometimes not a very happy phenomenon, sometimes happy.

Guillén: In the pieces you have written about Brando that I was able to get my hands on, you seemed focused on his failed potential or what he could have done had he applied himself more consistently. Someone else might give one remarkable performance for which they're remembered for the rest of their lives and that's enough; but with Brando—despite his many remarkable performances—there's still a sense of how much more he could have and didn't achieve. That discrepancy in expectations on an actor made me consider that an actor as iconic as Brando becomes responsible not just for his craft, but for his public and what they expect from their icons. Where it might appear that he thwarted public expectations, I felt the documentary skillfully pointed out that—in fact—he reapplied his energies to veer away from acting towards social activism.

Thomson: Well, you know, that was a while ago. There's a younger generation that doesn't know about his activism. They covered the Oscar thing for Godfather very well. They set it up and as soon as you see Sacheen Littlefeather, you remember, "Oh right! I remember." And you remember it as a kind of absurd occasion.

Guillén: In your Guardian obit you wrote, "The maiden wore buckskins and false eyelashes." That made me laugh.

Thomson: But then, Russell Means comes on and very credibly and forcefully says just how much for the good it meant to the people at Wounded Knee and so on. You see it in a larger perspective. In a way, it's the Academy that looks a little bit silly.

Guillén: In retrospect, they do.

Thomson: It was a horrible outrage at the time—not outrage; that's not quite the word …

Guillén: It was uncomfortable.

Thomson: Yeah. And it was offensive to a lot of people obviously. But when you think about it deeply, the offense that Brando felt—and he's not the only actor who's ever said, "Don't give me prizes; it's silly"—but the offense he felt about the way Native Americans were treated is genuine. That's something that comes out of the film that I think is true of him. From the very beginning both politically, idealistically, sensually, and emotionally he was crazy about people of color. He really had this love of them. It actually looks more honorable now than perhaps it did at the time.

Guillén: At the time too he was, I believe, one of the first to use a gala event like the Academy Awards to make such a strong political statement. Now we're more used to that melding of stages. As someone who has covered Hollywood and its films for a while, do you remember how you felt about it at the time? Did you consider it a trick on the movie going public?

Thomson: I'm trying to remember—did this not come very soon after George C. Scott refused the award for Patton?

Guillén: I think Scott was first, yes.

Thomson: But Scott didn't send somebody to make a gesture of it. He simply—as I remember it—said, "I don't think it's decent to give prizes to actors because we're not in a competition. One man plays one part as a rule and that's what it's about." My feeling at the time was that—while I felt Sacheen Littlefeather looked fake—the notion that an actor might say to the Academy, "Well thank you, but no thank you and I'd just like you to know why I'm saying no" was totally legitimate. I just wish that Brando had said that himself. If Brando would have come on quietly and said, "I really appreciate this and your kindness but I've decided I'm not running for awards anymore" and just walked off, I think he would have had more strength and dignity. Sending the girl up was the mistaken part of it. That made it look like a circus event. He had an absolute right and some reason to say, "Thank you but no, I don't want the award" but he should have said that himself.

Guillén: So going back a bit more towards the early part of his career, from a British perspective where there has been such a vaunted tradition of treading the boards, how did you first hear of and how was Brando being regarded for his electric theatrical performance in A Streetcar Named Desire?

Thomson: It's very funny, it's just flooded into my head, there was a radio show in Britain at the time in which two Canadian actors who had gone to live in London—Bernard Brayton and Barbara Kelley—did a comedy show. Bernard Brayton loved to impersonate Brando. The first time I ever sniffed Brando on the wind—because I was really too young to go to see the films when they first came out; I didn't start to see them when they were coming until maybe Viva Zapata—on this radio show Brayton did this character called, as I remember, Brandy Marlow, who mumbled all the time. I'm sure it was crude and vulgar.

I was very interested in acting and, as you say, if you're English you're brought up to have a great admiration for the English acting tradition. I remember the impact of Julius Ceaser, which probably opened when I was about 12. I remember my father saying to me, "Oh, this Brando won't be able to do that. He's really going too far this time." I knew the play because I was reading it at school. I knew the speeches. I was learning them, maybe about the same time he was. And of course, he was able to do it and did a great job in it. That was the moment in which it became clear that the man was a very sophisticated and cultivated actor and that this extraordinary, early naturalism, the psychological hesitation was almost the smoke screen under which Brando came in on. He was, in fact, a very clever actor with accents. He could do Shakespeare. He could do whatever he wanted to do. Whatever really interested him. For me, growing up, it was Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean—who seemed almost to come along at the same time—and were just emotionally so much more credible. Acting had seemed to me until that time to be people who put on make-up and costume and learned the lines and did it as a recitation. It's something said in the film, with that generation, people just started behaving.

Guillén: Are you using the term "behaving" as shorthand for method acting?

Thomson: Well, yeah. I mean, I was interested enough to read about it at the time and I realized that the Actors Studio was sort of behind it all. I appreciated that someone like Kazan—who was not only directing many of these films and shows—was also a cofounder of the Actors Studio. He was very important to it. It taught me that there was a kind of acting where people just went deeper into the truth and had found it in a search through themselves, whereas English acting was much more formal, much more a deliberate pretense. This was rawer. Because I was that age and what you're going through at those ages, it meant a lot to me. I certainly for a time fell very much in love with American acting.

Guillén: Has method acting influenced British theatrical acting at all? Has the approach transferred over?

Thomson: Oh, yeah. A lot. That generation had their impact all over the world. People like Depardieu, Delon, even someone like Mifune, would probably all say that it affected them. English actors before the Second World War tended to sound upper class; after the War they became working class and then classless. They became more real people.

Guillén: I like something you wrote about Brando early in his career, that from the outset he had "a rebelliousness, an ego and an intricate self-pity determined to be wronged." Are you saying he's self-destructive?

Thomson: My reading of Brando is that he sort of organized his life so that he ended up being or feeling wronged. I'll give you an example of that, which was not quite as firmly pushed in the documentary as it might have been. He clearly had a pretty bad time with his father.

Guillén: You suggested he'd been physically beaten?

Thomson: I think so and I think that in many conventional ways he and his father did not get on. There was this huge impulse in his life to be free of his father but then when he begins to become famous and so on, he hires his father as his business manager. A terribly revealing thing.

Guillén: How so? How do you mean that? I found it disturbing but couldn't articulate why.

Thomson: It's almost as if he wants to provide another great test to see whether his father will let him down or betray him again. Because he does. His father lost a lot of money of his. That wasn't spelled out but it was a very nasty, awkward business. And yet, you know, Brando had no one to blame but himself. You don't normally hire your father as your business manager. That's asking for trouble and he did it. That moment when he and his father appear on the Edward Murrow show Face to Face, there's a real tension between [Brando and his father]. You could feel that Marlon should never have hired his father. It was a terrible thing to have done. Asking for trouble. But it cemented Marlon's feeling that his father was his worst enemy. As late as Last Tango In Paris, you remember, where he has these speeches about the father—which are clearly much drawn from Brando's own life—and in the book he wrote later, he feels this anger towards the father, even a need for vengeance, at an age when most people are giving it up and thinking, "Well, okay, my father was a shit. We didn't get on. But maybe I was as much to blame as he was." Brando didn't ever reach that point. He held him close to himself because it gave him energy; the feeling that his father had betrayed him. I think he did that with a lot of people. He was cunning and would sometimes maneuver people into backing out of relationships with him and then look at them and say, "You betrayed me. You let me down." Because he needed emotionally to feel that he was the victim.

Guillén: Was survival of that victimization an important motivation for him?

Thomson: Again, my reading of him is that he thinks as a young man that he wants to be an actor and he does everything to become an actor and he succeeds. By the time of On the Waterfront, I'd say, when he's still quite young, he's probably the outstanding actor in the world and the quality of the work begins to deteriorate. He would say that acting let him down; that he invested in it and then he found that it didn't really stand up under the pressure of time and repeat work—maybe he wasn't prepared to work hard enough? (And getting away to Tahiti was a big part of this, just being on the beach, the beach comber kind of meditation)—that acting had worked out the wrong thing for him. It had forced him to keep company with scoundrels, terrible business people, who had deceived him and betrayed him and swindled him whenever they could, although he was doing just as much to them, in fact. He was quite an unkind person to employ. He would take the money and run.

Guillén: Sounded like it in the documentary. I appreciated that, with regard to your participation in the documentary, you ended the first half and began the second half—every actor's dream!—with commentary on his tyranny and his on-set behavior.

Thomson: He really became monstrous. You have to say that he understands drama enough to know that—whatever the provocation you've had—that's a terrible thing to do to call down a curse on the whole enterprise. Okay. Anyone's going to make some bad films because, by the law of averages, you can't not. So you can't expect everything you do to be as good as everything else; but I don't think he always tried and I think he should [have tried]. I think you owe it to the other people in the enterprise. For instance, he treated Coppola on Apocalypse Now really badly and Coppola had recovered his career with The Godfather. Coppola had really stood out for him in that role and risked a lot. I think he earned better treatment than he got from Brando. But Brando was not generous in that way.

Guillén: In terms of the documentary coming out at this time, what is the value of Brando to contemporary audiences? Or to young actors? He affected me so much but I was at the tail end of his generation; but what about young people who don't know his performances?

Thomson: Every day these days I find myself marveling and horrified at how ignorant a lot of people are about stuff that I take for granted. It's proper and reasonable that a few years after a man's death someone should come along with an attempt at something thorough, carefully done, certainly goes to the people that you want to hear talk about him. What will the public think? I don't know. I don't think anybody who comes to the program with a fair mind will do anything other than be fascinated and impressed. The story of the man is so intriguing. He's clearly such a bundle of different energies and you see—even if you've never seen anything of Brando before—you see clip after clip that's good. They chose the clips well. I would have hoped that people would say, "Pretty interesting." We're still definitely in the age where a lot of American acting is very much affected by him. It's interesting to see people on this show like Sean Penn, Edward Norton, Johnny Depp, basically younger actors, and I think it's still the case probably in acting school in this country that there are kids watching Brando films, learning and absorbing. His example there is still as strong as ever. I hope it will do a lot of good in the sense that it will make people more aware of what it is to put your life into films and that kind of thing.

Guillén: I watched the documentary with my roommate who was relatively unfamiliar with Brando.

Thomson: Really?

Guillén: Yeah, he's from Mexico and wasn't really brought up on American film or American pop culture.

Thomson: That's interesting.

Guillén: It was interesting because he thought the first part of the documentary was entertaining—all the clips of Brando's early films—but he was especially fascinated with the second part of the documentary that highlighted Brando's later years and his increased engagement with political activism.

Thomson: He didn't know about that?

Guillén: No; but, for that matter, neither did I really. But my roommate found Brando's support of indigenous groups, the Black Panthers, and Martin Luther King's civil rights movement to be fascinating. That's what he walked away with from this documentary; not Brando as the actor but Brando as the activist and the notion that acting was used not for the power of the performance but for the platform it provided to achieve social change.

Thomson: Brando, for his time, was an unusual American. This was a kid of the late 30's and 40's and I think absolutely, genuinely—there wasn't anything contrived about it—he had this terrific response to people of color, Latin people, music, jazz, South American rhythms, the drumming, the people of the South Seas, the [Native Americans], the Blacks. For a Midwestern kid, he was ahead of his time. I think it came from a real feeling of their greater sexual honesty. It would be very interesting indeed if that's what comes out of this: the guy who really got sick of Hollywood, wanted to go live in the South Seas, wanted to do things for civil rights, [Native American] rights, that kind of thing. I grew up with that and I knew it; but, for someone who didn't really know that Brando did that, I could see that it would be very striking indeed.

Guillén: Branching away from profiling Brando as an individual, I'd like to talk about some of the films. One that you didn't get to comment upon in the documentary much but that elsewhere I've read your opinions about—which surprised me—is On The Waterfront. You don't seem to really like that movie much.

Thomson: I don't.

Guillén: Whereas myself—every time I watch that scene of Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in the car, the famous "I could have been a contender" speech—I get all choked up and am thrilled to the core. But you criticize that he exhibited his technique and that it interfered with your appreciation of his performance. Could you speak about that?

Thomson: I've never quite known what that film is about. There are an awful lot of private messages… For Kazan and Schulberg it meant something about informing. There's the part of the film that's about labor relations with the waterfront and then there's this very romantic vision of this ex-boxer and I would say that—compared with those early films (and I remember feeling this when I saw the film first and I saw this when it came out)—I didn't believe he was an ex-boxer. I believed he was an actor pretending to be an ex-boxer. I did believe that he was paraplegic in The Men and I did believe he was Zapata and I believed in Streetcar, but I felt there was a real gap of pretense in On the Waterfront. If you put that with the uncertainty about what the film was about, for me it's simply not as powerful a film as it is for many people I know.

Guillén: I did agree with your highlight of his performance in The Fugitive Kind, which is a film that I likewise agree is so overlooked and I think his performance is stunning in that film, as is Anna Magnani's; she's absolutely luminous. Magnani is an actress who requires someone of Brando's strength and virility for there to be a believable balance.

Thomson: They had real battles too.

Guillén: Did they? You got some gossip?

Thomson: Brando, who was—as you can imagine—a constant sexual aggressor with people he was working with, was a little sexually afraid of her. I don't think he'd ever met someone quite like her. He makes remarks about how she doesn't wash and she doesn't shave her armpits, which suddenly make him sound sort of prim. He found her hard to deal with; but, the challenge worked very well. It's a terrific film.

Guillén: I think so too. All the performances in The Fugitive Kind are outstanding. I find it interesting that Brando—alongside his performance of the thrillingly virile Stanley Kowalski—has performances in Reflections In A Golden Eye and The Missouri Breaks, which if they're not "gay"—such a nebulous term!—are certainly commenting upon gender variance, specifically the sinister aspects of gender variance. Can you comment on his performances in those two films?

Thomson: I've probed it further and it's something they didn't include at all in the documentary and I can see why because it needs time to get into. Streetcar meant different things to different people. For Tennessee Williams it was a veiled—necessarily veiled because censorship would not have allowed anything else—a veiled portrait of a refined sensitive spirit finding the pleasures in rough trade. I think when the play was written, that's what it was. The poetry in the play comes from Williams's own excitement at the prospect of the rough embrace. Now, that text in '47 could not be produced. Kazan, an intensely heterosexual director, who always had to identify with the character in his stories, comes along and turns it into a much more acceptable heterosexual story; but, again, one in which the brute will rape and conquer the sensitive spirit. The reason it worked so dramatically and so excitingly at the time was because there was that feeling of an unspoken message behind the play.

Guillén: This tension between two different types of masculinity?

Thomson: Yes. But I think Brando was on to this. Brando understood it. I'm pretty sure from researching the life that Brando had several homosexual experiences as a young man. Not necessarily because he felt he might be gay, but because he was so interested in any sexuality that he thought, "I've got to try it. I've got to see." I think you've got an actor who had in his own nature, his own being, an unusual understanding and—again, think of it in terms of 1947—an unusual understanding of this issue and was unusually drawn to it and, yes, I agree. I love Missouri Breaks and one of the reasons I love Missouri Breaks is because it's a very witty sort of gay teasing, although a very standard heterosexual figure. I've talked to Arthur Penn about this and it's absolutely true that he encouraged Brando to put every character he could think of in the broad character of the part; but, there's a gayness there in the playfulness and everything. I think Brando was very interested in the relationships and—again, something left out of the film—he had many intense male friendships, often with people who you would not have guessed that, would not have been the most obvious. He was very interested in male friendship and I think he found it much easier to stay friends with men than with women.

Guillén: The home movie the documentary reveals of Brando, Montgomery Clift and Kevin McCarthy in drag and camping it up is priceless. These are three of the most beautiful men in Hollywood.

Thomson: Yeah. You feel it, don't you?

Guillén: How about Reflections In A Golden Eye?

Thomson: They gave it proper attention [in the documentary] and it's an extraordinary film. Again, it's one of those films [where] you just wonder how they made it at that time. It was sort of an "Elizabeth Taylor film." In those days an "Elizabeth Taylor film" was a beast of its own kind. But it's an amazing film and he's very good in it.

Guillén: I appreciated how his performance captured that militarized repressed homoeroticism. By contrast his playfulness in Missouri Breaks replicated for me the gay quest for identity, often pursued as shifting identity. He was so protean in Missouri Breaks and that, for me, speaks for the gay experience.

Thomson: It was a part of his life.

Guillén: I haven't asked the obvious question: did you ever get to meet him?

Thomson: Not at all, no.

Guillén: But you wrote the biography….

Thomson: Well, it's a short biography.

Guillén: …and then you had an editorial hand in bringing out Fan-Tan, this posthumous novel of his co-written with Donald Cammell? Cammell was responsible for Performance, right?

Thomson: That's right. I'll give you a copy of it. A very good example of just the kind of friendship I'm talking about. He met Cammell … Cammell was Scots living in Paris in the late 50's. Brando met Cammell in the late 50's in Paris when he was doing The Young Lions. They became terrific friends. It really lasted until Cammell's suicide. Cammell had wanted Brando and Mick Jagger in Performance but Brando let him down. He wouldn't do it. Much later on they tried to collaborate on a project which turned into this novel, which really Cammell did but Brando had a lot of input into it. It's all explained in the book; I'll give you a copy. Again, it was a friendship where both men sort of walked away thinking the other had betrayed them and I met people who wondered if there hadn't been a gay passage in that friendship too because Cammell was a famously omnivorous person sexually, loved orgies and multiple partners and that kind of thing.

Guillén: Well, I have an elderly friend here in the city who swears he slept with Brando, one of the Beat poets, but I've never been completely sure he was telling the truth.

Thomson: I would tend to believe it.

Guillén: I guess I'll have to re-evaluate that. Elsewhere you've written that among the actors who are out there now Jack Nicholson would probably come the closest to having the kind of iconic stature that Brando achieved. Do you still think that's true? Is there any other actor who you think has what Brando had?

Thomson: Well, there's a group of actors who clearly were very very much influenced by Brando. It would include Pacino, Beatty, DeNiro—they're all sort of "Actors Studio-ish" actors—and Nicholson. Nicholson and Brando were neighbors. They lived side by side on Mulholland Drive. Nicholson has the largeness of spirit that Brando had; the interest in everything. There are resemblances. But one of the things that came across in this documentary was just the range of actors in America who clearly felt Brando was their model person who inspired and, in a way, enabled them to be actors.

Guillén: Back to the strain of thought about his "gay" performances, The Wild One was a film whose leather wardrobe has had a direct and profound influence upon American gay subculture. One suggestion I wanted to propose to Turner Classics was to explore those four performances with a queer reading.

Thomson: I think that's a great idea.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

2007 SFIFF50—A Question For Emanuele Crialese

Emanuele Crialese's on-stage ebullience at the opening night screening of Nuovomondo (Golden Door) helped kickstart the celebratory spirit of SFIFF50. Golden Door, which in graceful, measured draughts portrays the episodic journey from old world Sicily to the new world shores of America, likewise blends a historically-detailed naturalism with fantastic imaginings of the immigrant dream. I thanked Crialese for bringing his lovely and intelligent film to the festival and commented that the presiding image and most intimate metaphor of the film was that of swimming in the rivers of milk. I asked him to speak to his creative decision to present this immigrant dream so literally that it veered into the surreal.

Crialese responded that many people in Italy had an "amazing fantasy" of America; they thought America was the promised land where rivers flowed with milk and honey. "America was for a long time—I would say until about 10 years ago—the promised land." This generated some knowing laughter from the audience. By simple analysis, Crialese determined which were the most ancestral and archetypal fantasies of the idealized America and he represented them through the hopes and dreams of his character Salvatore Mancuso (portrayed by Crialese regular Vincenzo Amato who likewise graced the Castro stage with sleek and handsome elegance). When Salvatore dreams of giant carrots floating in rivers of milk, it is fantasy, yes, but it is also—especially in the film's final image—a metaphor to express, "Good, now you are in the river of milk, swim, swim in the wealth, swim and (hopefully) you will arrive somewhere." Crialese purposely left the film's outcome open-ended to insinuate hope and to fasten the dream to his heart and head, even if he has lost sight of America as a more free and just land. Truthfully, he wasn't sure if this dream would come true for his characters, but in his film he wanted to fully merge our mutual ancestors into this dream of the American promise. "Because [Americans] are dreamers," Crialese explained. "That dream is so powerful and strong."

While researching for the film, Crialese was struck by how immigrants—writing home to their families—lied about their early experiences in America, not wanting to "cut the dream" or disappoint their families in the old country, aware that the dream helped those family members who had been left behind to escape their old world misery by anticipating their own eventual journey to the promised land of America. You can't imagine how many lies I read, Crialese recounted, people who wrote home saying, "Yes, this morning I swam in the river of milk. This morning I found three or four coins on a tree." The dream—like any ideal held aloft—proved necessary even if, as Crialese qualified, it has been manipulated. The fact that America is a united nation enforces how this dream is shared and how lucky we are as Americans to take part in the dream.

The importance and the essence of the final image of the film is Crialese's "small message to say, okay, now, when are we going to stop dreaming and maybe we're going to make the dream come true?" Again, he poses the query without an answer; an evocative question mark hovering mid-air. "I don't know when," he comments truthfully, "but I really hope very soon."

Cross-published on Twitch.

Friday, April 27, 2007

2007 SFIFF50—Opening Night Introductory Remarks

When Graham Leggat appeared on the San Francisco Film Society scene after its members had been subjected to the inept tyranny of his predecessor, there was good reason why the SFFS membership was cagey. We were all muttering amongst ourselves nervously, "Is he a good witch? Or a bad witch?"

Well, it turns out that Graham Leggat isn't a witch at all, but an accomplished, professional and personable Executive Director, committed to his San Franciscan constituency. Helming the longest-running festival in the Americas, Leggat has recognized that civic pride is a strong asset to help him steer SFIFF into the future.

Appearing last night on the Castro stage for the festival's opening night feature Nuovomondo (Golden Door)—beaming with enthusiasm and whirling microphones as expertly as any gunslinger—Leggat offered introductory remarks.

Acknowledging first the hard work of his seasonal festival staff, Leggat brought Linda Blackaby to the stage, who he characterized as the "unsung hero of the Film Society, who has kept its curatorial integrity through the lean recent years" (a euphemism for the aforementioned reign of terror). With astonishing and graceful brevity, Linda accepted the tip of the hat and relinquished the microphone to let the proceedings commence.

"When people told me when I came out here last year for my first year that the festival had lost a step or two, all I had to do was open the program catalog and see the extraordinary work that Linda had been doing all along to tell them they were wrong. We're really glad that Linda has held the festival together over the last several years and for many years to come, I'm sure."

Naming off the "colossi" who have "built and sustained this exhilarating festival for more than five decades", the energy of said guardian angels and patron saints informs "tens of thousands of others who have contributed to the International's aesthetic integrity, civic significance and financial health. They have done so—like us—with pleasure, hopefulness and determination."

Leggat further asserted, "The credit for this International and the 49 festivals that have come before us radiates far and wide beyond this court room throughout the city, across the country, and around the world and we owe a debt of thanks to a world-wide republic of collaborators: to the enthusiastic sponsors and partners of the festival; to the many talented filmmakers, producers, distributors, and publicists who have trusted us with their works; to the scores of energetic presenters in the Bay Area who share our love for unconventional work and support our desire to bring diverse audiences together under one roof; to the dozens of consulates and international groups whose mission it is to bring the world to San Francisco year round; to an enlightened city government and film commission under the leadership of Stephanie Coyote; to the Grants City Arts Program and the Hotel Tax Fund and the many foundations that support us; and also, of course, to the print, television, radio and online journalists who have covered us enthusiastically and with great intelligence over the years; and, of course, to you, our loyal, devoted audiences, especially our Film Society members.

"If the International is, as I believe, beloved by the City—and I do believe that—it's because a whole city of San Franciscans have been an integral part of its life. For more than half a century all of you, and those before you, have fed and cared for us, taught us how to behave in public, and watched with pride and pleasure as we've grown into one of the world's finest film festivals. Now, in this landmark anniversary year, the San Francisco International is the flagship film festival of the Americas.

"The staff and I also feel—and we hope that you will agree—that this year's International is extraordinary not only for its historical significance—what we think of as the rich, buttery taste of the golden anniversary—but also in and of itself. In our book it's not enough just to turn 50, as our older members of the audience would testify. Just turning 50 might be the result of mere obstinance. Instead, we have aimed this year to present the 50th International that is both equal to any that has come before and is, in many ways, a peerless culmination of half a century of excellence."

Crediting the festival's partners and sponsors (with a singled-out shout to Ruthe Stein's 50 days of coverage at SFGate), Leggat then moved on to thank the Italian Cultural Institute and the Consulate General of Italy for helping to present the opening night feature Golden Door, which he introduced accordingly: "We didn't commission this film; but, we might have. The fact that we have a film called The Golden Door—where the characters in this touching immigrant saga find themselves moving from the Old World, from a superstitious Sicily to the mixed blessing, perhaps, of the New World but certainly to the future—resonated with the programming staff when we were looking for just the right film to open the International on our 50th anniversary. It's a film about sacrifice, about hope, about forgetting, and as we enter our 50th year we are looking forward through—as it were—the golden door of this festival to a future that is almost upon us in fact about one minute after midnight on closing night when we begin to build out in earnest a year round wide-reaching San Francisco Film Society. So this film has an important symbolic value for us but, beyond that, of course it is an absolutely extraordinary film in its own right.

"Emanuele Crialese has made three films now, this being the third, and San Francisco is the only festival that has shown all three films together. He's a great friend of ours and we're very happy to have him here. What's most wonderful about this film, I think, is that the immigrant saga is something of a chestnut in the film canon but this film reimagines the genre entirely. It has a wholly contemporary feel, such that—at the climactic moment on Ellis Island when Nina Simone breaks into song (anachronistically but nonetheless breaks into song)—you will feel as if this story of a hundred years before is your story. You will feel that this story represents every moment that you have felt where you have come to a momentous threshold and passed through and nothing in your life will ever be the same again. We are at this threshold at our 50th anniversary and we can think of no other film we would rather have as opening night than Emanuele Crialese's Golden Door."

Leggat then invited Crialese on stage and the film's lead actor Vincenzo Amato. Once the applause subsided, Crialese expressed that it was a very special night for him and for all those who participated in the adventure of filming Golden Door. Unable to secure funding, the project gestated for nine years. Finally, "before becoming completely bald", Crialese secured the financing for the project. The film, Crialese explained, is both historic and autobiographical. Had it not been for America, he would never have had the chance to become a director and flex his imagination. If he hadn't immigrated here from Italy he would most certainly have become a lawyer, not to disparage any attorneys in the audience. He was especially grateful to the San Francisco International because—when no one else wanted his first film—SFIFF accepted him. Time passed and five years later he was invited again. And now ten years have passed, he has lost most of his hair, and SFIFF has honored Golden Door by making it the opening night feature.

Photo courtesy of indieWIRE. Cross-published on Twitch.

2007 SFIFF50—Forever

Using my write-up on Olivier Dahan's La Vie En Rose as a segue into commentary on Heddy Honigmann's Forever, I pay another visit to Edith Piaf's grave in Père-Lachaise Cemetery while faint refrains of La Goualante de Pauvre Jean drift off into the overhanging chestnut trees. Why did I cry? Was it because we had lost The Little Sparrow? Or because I recognized even then the weight of carrying on? The responsibility to create as the truest form of homage? As—the word implies—the ability to respond?

In her Filmmaker interview with Scott Macaulay, Marion Cotillard recalled that when the project was first proposed to her, she met Olivier Dahan "at that French café near the Père Lachaise. I live [near] there, and [Piaf's] buried there." Heddy Honigmann might just as well have filmed this connection between Piaf's grave and the early conversations that generated the film La Vie En Rose. That continuity between the dead and living through the medium of artistic expression is unquestionably one of the main themes of Honigmann's tranquil, lovely documentary.

If it is true that the etymological root of religion is the Latin religare—which means "to tie, to fasten, to bind"—then perhaps it is memory itself that binds the living to the dead, accounting for what I've long accepted as the religiosity of memory. Honigmann skillfully captures the nature of that religiosity, its faithfulness, its evocation. Whether through the maintenance of gravesites, offerings of flowers and touchstones, pilgrimages, or one of a million mirrors of memento mori, rituals of memory serve to underscore the import of what has been left behind and how it might inseminate the future. "Death is the mother of all beauty," poet Wallace Stevens once wrote. And Joni Mitchell once sang, "I look at the granite markers / those tributes to finality / to eternity / and I look at myself here / chicken scratching for my immortality." The gravestone is mirror; memory its reflection. What Honigmann suggests is that art is the memory that lasts the longest because it frequently inspires new art and sustained remembrance.

There's much to love in this documentary. Not the least of which is Honigmann's uncanny patience to sit and wait and watch, to let the stories come to her, to gently coax them near like shy deer, like nearly invisible things hungry to be seen. A young Japanese woman at the grave of Chopin reveals that she is in Paris training to be a concert pianist because her dead father loved Chopin. Three blind people allow her to film them "watching" Simone Signoret. A taxi cab driver far from home sings a plaintive ethnic lament. A woman reveals that the love of her life died three months after their marriage from a bee sting. That story touched me because bees—in and of themselves—are symbols of what is to be done with death. Antonio Machado saw it. Bees make sweet honey from old failures. And absence is presiding presence after all.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

2007 SFIFF50—Michael Hawley's Preview

What follows are some alphabetically-arranged thoughts on the films Michael Hawley had the chance to preview for this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. With the exception of Flanders and La Vie en Rose, all were seen on screener DVDs. Links to the film titles provide program capsules with pertinent screening and venue information.

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Agua—Goyo leaves the desert trailer where he's been hiding for years. The desert dirt road becomes a highway lane which becomes a swimming pool lane. And it's here that we meet Chino, a young man with a very pregnant girlfriend and dreams of making the Argentine national swim team. Goyo has returned to enter the 57 kilometer Santa Fe-Cordoba river race, a open-water swimming marathon he won eight years ago, but for which he was unfairly disqualified due to doping. When Chino fails to make the national team, Goyo enlists him to pilot his guide boat in the river marathon. Director Verónica Chen certainly delivers a more visually arresting film than her 2002 debut Vagón fumador (Smokers Only). I don't think I've ever seen competitive swimming photographed more exquisitely, and the contrasts between the pool scenes (filmed underwater) and the river scenes (filmed overhead and from the swimmer's POV) are striking. It was no surprise to learn that Chen swam competitively as a child. She also has an admiring eye for the male form (the film is a veritable Speedos on Parade) and perhaps a fetish for body shaving (even Chino's girlfriend works in a body waxing studio). In the film's press notes, Chen alludes to a multitude of thematic and symbolic intentions lying within her film. After a single viewing, however, I can only say that these intentions must be buried somewhere deep beneath the film's shiny surface.

Nacio y Criado (Born and Bred)—Argentine director Pablo Trapero's tale of tragedy and redemption starts out benignly enough, with scenes of Santiago, a successful Buenos Aires interior designer, living a happy professional and domestic life. In short order, however, a family car crash brings life as he knows it to a halt. The film makes an abrupt shift, and we're tossed into the furthest reaches of Patagonian wilderness where a demon-plagued Santiago now ekes out a miserable existence hunting and working at a remote airfield. The remaining screen time is spent waiting for him to reach a point of catharsis and return to society. It's a very long wait indeed, made bearable to this viewer by gorgeously photographed Patagonian landscapes and a gallery of finely realized supporting characters. In an interesting twist, it's hinted that his family may not have died in the crash, bringing into question the necessity and purpose of this self-imposed exile. With Born and Bred, Trapero continues to build upon a solid body of work that includes past SFIFF selections Crane World and Rolling Family.

Congorama—This is one I almost ejected from the DVD player at the one-third mark, and am I ever glad I didn't. Because once I understood where this Belgian film by Philippe Falardeau was coming from and where it might be headed, it became increasingly rich and surprising. Award-winning French actor Olivier Gourmet plays Michel, an unsuccessful inventor (solar-powered lawnmowers, anyone?) who lives in Belgium with his Congolese wife and child, and his ailing novelist father. One night he learns that he's adopted and was probably born in a barn in Quebec province. Next thing you know, he's heading off to Canada and accepting a fateful car ride from a stranger who holds the key to both his past and his future. The film may come off a bit contrived for some tastes, but I ultimately found it delightful with interesting things to say about the traits we do and don't inherit from our families.

Flanders—Boy, I really wanted to love this, especially after the disaster that was Twentynine Palms. It's really not bad, but with the exception of one amazing scene and Bruno Dumont's continued genius for landscape, nothing in it struck me with the originality and force of his first two features. A vaguely drawn young farmer goes off to fight in an unnamed desert war, leaving behind his vaguely drawn, mentally unstable female fuck buddy. They both learn that war is hell. As atrocious as it was, for me, Twentynine Palms was a hundred times more interesting than this.

Sei dai tinwong (The Heavenly Kings)—This film directed by Bay Area native turned Hong Kong superstar Daniel Wu is probably my least favorite of the festival films I previewed. It's a mockumentary of sorts in which Wu ropes fellow Hong Kong actors Conroy Chan, Andrew Lin and Terrence Yin into putting together a boy band. This premise might have seemed clever in 1997, but 10 years later, its flat observations about the pop music industry are, unfortunately, last millennium's news. All four actors are very easy on the eye and likable (except when oversized egos become the catalyst for stale, manufactured drama), but this isn't enough to push the film beyond the scope of vanity piece. Local fans of the four actors may find something to appreciate, and I suspect that's who the festival is catering to by programming it in a prime Friday-night-at-the-Castro-Theater time slot at which actor/director Wu is expected to attend. For an opposing point of view, Russell Edwards raves in Variety.

La Vie en RoseOlivier Dahan's lurching, wildly impressionistic don't-call-it-a-biopic biopic of Edith Piaf largely succeeds due to a powerhouse performance by Marion Cotillard. Playing the beloved chanteuse from late teens to her death at 47 (when she looked 77), the actress bunkers down in Piaf's fevered artistic soul and lip-synchs her way through some songs for the ages. Director Dahan does an especially good job of bringing to life Piaf's childhood, which was spent in whore houses, traveling circuses and for a brief period, being completely blind. He also concocts a bravura sequence detailing the morning when Piaf learns that boxer and love-of-her-life Marcel Cerdan has died in a plane crash en route to be with her in New York. Fans will find whole life episodes missing; her discovery and mentorship of Yves Montand for starters, but alas this is cinema, not A&E Biography. As a bonus, in one of the most sublime movie moments of the year so far, we get to witness the night When Edith Met Marlene.

O Céu de Suely (Love For Sale: Suely in the Sky)—After working the past few years as a screenwriter for hire (Lower City, Cinema, Aspirin and Vulutres) Brazilian director Karim Ainouz switches gears from the frenetic pacing of 2002's period piece Madame Sata to bring us this leisurely contemporary story. Beautiful Hermila returns to the backwater town of Iguatu with baby in tow to await her boyfriend's arrival and the start of a new life. Realizing she's been abandoned, restless living with family and unwilling to take a chance with an old flame, she devises an escape plan. She'll raise money to leave town by selling raffle tickets to "a night in paradise". Sumptuously photographed by master cinematographer Walter Carvalho and featuring a wonderfully understated performance by Hermila Guedes, Love For Sale also boasts one of the most winning finales of any film in recent memory.

The Old Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music—My fear was that this documentary might simply be a concert movie of various musicians performing selections from Harry Smith's famous anthology. I should have had more faith in director Rani Singh, however, whom I subsequently learned is also the founder and director of the Harry Smith Archives. As it turns out, the film is an excellent mix of concert and archival footage, photos, interviews and analysis, spanning the breadth of Smith's talents as artist, filmmaker, and especially, musical archivist. It would serve as a wonderful companion piece to Paola Igliori's 2001 Smith documentary American Magus, whose prime focus was the films. Speaking of the films, anyone who attended SFIFF49's Harry Smith event with live music by Deerhoof will get a kick out of seeing Philip Glass and DJ Spooky accompany some of the same material here. Among the film's many concert performances, personal favorites include David Johansson, Sonic Youth and David Thomas. Music writer Greil Marcus provides succinct commentary on the artistic and sociological import of Smith's anthology, and Ed Sanders and Allen Ginsberg contribute some lovely personal memories. Be sure and watch for a still photo of an amazing mural Smith painted in 1950 at San Francisco’s Bop City nightclub in the Fillmore district. And finally, this quote from Smith: "Perfection may be perfect … but to hell with it!" Words to live by.

Otar Iosseliani, The Whistling Blackbird—This affectionate portrait of Georgian-French director Otar Iosseliani was made for the French TV series Cinéma, de notre temps. Directed by his protégé Julie Bertuccelli, it follows Iosseliani through the entire process of creating his latest feature, Gardens in Autumn (also showing in this year's festival.) From idea board (a wall covered with scraps of paper which say things like "a burglar is greeted ceremoniously") to storyboard, from production design to financing (a trip to Cannes to meet with Russian investors), from casting to shooting, we're there every step of the way. The film's best scenes are of his benevolent battles with long-time producer Martine Marignac, a tough old cookie who controls the purse strings and is invaluable in helping Iosseliani make the film he wants, within reason. "Who do you think you are," she snarls, "Jacques Rivette?", when it becomes clear that Iosseliani's vision for the film will take four hours of screen time. You have to feel sorry for her, working with an eccentric old man who responds to budgetary questions by putting his fingers in his ears, or by replying, "I don't know, that's a metaphysical question." For those who are unfamiliar with the director's work, the film is interlaced with well-chosen clips from his filmography, including the wondrous stork scene from my favorite Iosseliani, 1999's Farewell, Home Sweet Home. If Gardens in Autumn is half as good as this documentary, we're in for a treat.

La Edad de la peseta (The Silly Age)Pavel Giroud's Cuban coming-of-age comedy contains plenty of surprises, and neatly avoids the clichés which are sometimes common to the genre. Set in Havana during the final months of the Bautista regime, the film also does a nice job of recreating the late 1950's on a low budget. Recently divorced Alicia returns to her mother's home with her young son Samuel. The grandmother Violeta, expertly played by veteran Spanish actress Mercedes Sampietro, initially treats the boy like an unwelcome intruder, but soon apprentices him in the photo studio she operates out of her home. (This rapid transition from wicked witch to kind granny is a singular weak point in the film's script). The photo studio becomes a source for much of the film's humor, as does a closet full of holy statues that Violeta administers to (who knew that by binding the balls of St. Cucufato you'll be able to find something you've lost). The studio also attracts a mysterious actress who comes to have pin-up photos taken, thereby becoming the catalyst for Samuel's sexual awakening. Meanwhile, mother Alicia meets an older gentleman who gives her a job in his shoe shore, and perhaps the promise of future stability. When the revolution comes, all four must decide whether to stay in Cuba or emigrate to the States. Clever, heartfelt and original, The Silly Age should prove to be one of the festival's biggest crowd-pleasers.

Strange Culture—I've been a fan of Bay Area filmmaker Lynn Hershman-Leeson's technology-flavored fantasies ever since Conceiving Ada, which was one of my 10 favorite films of 1998. She brought us the equally fascinating Teknolust in 2002, and this year returns to the docu-drama form of earlier video works with Strange Culture. Her new film details the plight of Steve Kurtz, an established artist who was arrested on absurb charges of bio-terrorism in 2004. It's too complex a story to explain here, but Hershman-Leeson does the job superbly, using a blend of real life interviews, news footage, comic strips and reenactments with actors Tilda Swinton, Josh Kornbluth, Peter Coyote and Thomas Jay Ryan as Kurtz. It's a scary tale of how far our paranoid government is willing to go in this "Time of War and Emergency." The film's appropriately eerie soundtrack is provided San Francisco's oldest anonymous rock band The Residents. And be sure to stay through the end credits for a hilarious encounter between subject and actor.

Beş vakit (Times and Winds)—This stunningly original look at everyday life in a small Turkish village is surely one of the highlights of this year's festival. Divided into five sections representing the five daily Islamic calls to prayer—the film's Turkish title, in fact, translates as Five Times—the film is a series of exquisitely observed moments both sweet and cruel, as lived by a quartet of older children. A boy refuses to wash the hand that has unexpectedly caressed the foot of the schoolteacher he's in love with. Another boy regularly fantasizes about different ways to kill his father, the village imam. Mystified goats on a craggy hillside watch as a shepherd boy is beaten by his guardian. A classroom of children learn about the rotation of the earth, moon and sun. Parents and barnyard animals have sex. Babies and calves are born. Night becomes day, Life continues. We come to know the physical layout of this village intimately, as the camera follows close behind the children each time they traverse its pathways. Magnificent wide-screen panoramic shots contrast with close-ups of local plant life. A soundtrack of buzzing insects and rustling leaves suddenly gives way to the haunting grandiosity of composer Arvo Pärt's orchestral score. This film is a tour-de-force in every possible way, and is the one film I've seen on screener DVD that I deeply regret being unable to see with an audience during the festival.

TuliThe Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros was one of last year's most successful and ubiquitous films on the festival circuit. Philippine director Auraeus Solito's follow-up trades that film's urban setting for a village in the jungle, but its themes of individualism versus societal conformity remain familiar. Tuli is the Tagalog word for circumcision and the world portrayed in this film is pretty obsessed by it, surprising to me since the village is almost exclusively Christian (I can only assume the tradition dates back to pre-Christian times). Containing little of the outrageous humor and transcendence that marked the director's debut, the film is nonetheless a most interesting look at a very foreign culture.

Vanaja—Fourteen-year-old Vanaja is the willful daughter of a drunken, low caste fisherman. Forced to quit school due to dire economic straits, she gets a job working in the mansion of Rama Devi, a former star performer of Kuchipudi dance. Vanaja uses her wiles to manipulate Rama Devi into teaching her this popular form of classical dance, and all goes well until one day Rama Devi's handsome young son Shekhar, returns home to enter local politics. One night he rapes Vanaja, a baby is born, and her low caste more or less ensures that she will not be the victor in the resulting power struggle with the Devi clan. This debut film from writer/director Rajnesh Domalpalli boasts naturalistic performances from its non-professional cast, beautiful cinematography and lovely, organic song and dance sequences.

Cross-published on Twitch.

04/27/07 UPDATE: Other helpful preview guidelines to SFIFF50 include Frako Loden's SF Weekly highlight of the Asian films in this year's line-up and SF Weekly capsules for some of the non-Asian fare as well. Further, she has penned the program capsules for Amour-Legende, Aria, Heaven's Doors, and Stories From The North.

The Bay Guardian's coverage is consummate, as profiled in detail by Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily, where Jay Kuehner offers up his own stunning overview.

B. Ruby Rich's SF360 column is also a fun read, along with Sean Uyehara's "high notes" of the music enfolded into SFIFF50 and Michael Fox's interview with Jon Else, whose Wonders Are Many comes highly anticipated by many.

2007 SFIFF50—David Thomson on The Deal

Recently—munching on boulangerie pastries washed down by freshly brewed coffee to fuel our conversation—David Thomson and I discussed some of his upcoming ventures, not the least of which is his onstage appearance with Peter Morgan during SFIFF50 to help present this year's Kanbar Award and to introduce and discuss Stephen Frears' The Deal, scripted by Peter Morgan. Though Thomson has not yet met Morgan, their onstage interview should prove candid and informative. It takes place Saturday afternoon, May 5, 1:00 PM at the Sundance Cinemas Kabuki.

Along with having provided the program capsule, David Thomson has likewise penned "Kings, Queens and Screenplays", a profile essay on Kanbar recipient Peter Morgan. As if that isn't enough to motivate interest, I still wanted to know why audiences should go see The Deal.

David Thomson: Well. The Deal is a very good film, which only escaped being shown in this country because the powers-that-be said, "Well, there aren't enough people in America who understand the density of British politics enough to follow it." I think that's silly. It's worked out very fortuitously in that we're only months away from the moment when Blair will step down. So "the deal" is going to get its payoff, which is fascinating.

But I suggested showing it because it's never played here at all and because its method is very like that of The Queen in that they did a great deal of research talking to the people involved in the real situation and then turned it into a drama. Also, it's the same actor [Michael Sheen] playing Tony Blair in the two [films], who of course is the same actor who plays David Frost in the Frost/Nixon play so he's very important to this movement. Those are the reasons why. But I would say basically go see [The Deal] because it's smart as hell, very funny, and tells you a great deal about British politics.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

2007 SFIFF50—La Vie En Rose

When I was a child of four living with my Grandma Nofre and Grandpa John in Ely, Nevada, I recall a late afternoon when we were gathered in their living room listening to the radio. A song came on that delighted me and I started dancing. I couldn't help myself. Even though it made my grandparents laugh, I had to dance to that song.

Fast forward to 18 and I'm in another living room in Lucky Hollow, Pennsylvania, and my host puts on an album and suddenly there's this song that I remember from my childhood. I have my wits about me to ask him, "Who's singing? What's the name of that song?" He brought me the album cover and allowed me to attach Edith Piaf and "La Goualante de Pauvre Jean (The Poor People of Paris)" to my childhood memory. He then introduced me to the chanteuse tradition of which The Little Sparrow was the irridescent exemplar.

Fast forward to my mid-20s and my first visit to Paris. My traveling companion Lee Jarnagin has taken me to the Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Keen to my intimate eccentricities, he waits patiently while I hum La Goualante de Pauvre Jean to Piaf's grave. I can't adequately explain to him why paying homage to influence brings me to tears.

Fast forward to October 2003 where—to celebrate my surviving to 50—I've given myself a month in Paris, fulfilling every romantic innuendo I've harbored for the previous two decades: an apartment in the Left Bank, coffee-stained dog-eared paperbacks, strolls along the Seine accompanied by plaintive accordions, and a heart full of winging sparrows tinged by late afternoon light. And because Mystery is so sweet in her dispensations of grace, it just so happened that on that birthday visit Paris had mounted two celebratory exhibitions: one for Jean Cocteau at the Pompidou and one for La Môme at l'Hôtel de Ville. Since the latter was a free public exhibition and near my apartment, I returned several times to savor the thematic installations, thrilling to the film clips of Piaf's performances, and the photographs that chronicled her passionate, all too brief life. I drank Piaf until I was drunk and must admit I've never suffered a hangover and need only to hear her voice to suddenly be 4 again, then 18, then 22, then 50. Her voice contains the span of a lifetime, her's, my own, perhaps everyone's if they have anything near to a heart that measures the sad inevitable passage of time.

Thus you can imagine how much I have anticipated Olivier Dahan's La Vie En Rose, the closing night entry to SFIFF50. Without question, generous samplings of Piaf's music and Marion Cotillard's passionate performance redeem the film's failings. Cotillard's portrayal of Piaf—as Scott Macaulay describes it for Filmmaker—"blasts through historical detail to get at emotional truths about the life of an artist." Comparable to Forrest Whitaker's performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland—another flawed vehicle—Cotillard deserves flung roses for elevating the script handed to her and clearly she will be among the hopeful quintet of actresses nominated at the next Oscars.

My reservations about the film as a whole, however, have been voiced by several critics following its premiere at the Berlinale earlier this year and then later at the "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema" series at New York's Lincoln Center. David Hudson's dispatch to The Greencine Daily remains the most fair and articulate. Complaining that the film's "sudden leaps are neither clever nor obvious" and way too frequent—interfering with the film's "narrative traction"—Hudson offers compensatorily that through this temporally disjunctive device "we realize [very late in the game] that we've been watching shards shed from the spotty memory of an ailing drug addict, which is supposed to explain why we've been not so much jumping as flailing around the chronology of Piaf's tragically short life."

I love his term "narrative traction" because it aptly describes the momentum that needs to be built up in order to access the emotions that inform the film's events. Sadly, that momentum is repeatedly thwarted so that I was left feeling little about Piaf's impoverished childhood and many of the tragic events of her life and for someone who personifies impassioned emotion, this seemed an oddly misplaced judgment on the part of Olivier Dahan. I hope to understand his intentions more fully when he attends closing night.

On the other hand, Dahan achieves some brave directorial flourishes that are both bold and evocative. James van Maanen elaborates in his dispatch to The Greencine Daily: "[Dahan] takes some quite interesting risks, as well: silencing the striking Piaf voice during an important concert, thus allowing us to concentrate on Cotillard's visual presentation and the audience response to that performance." That scene remains one of my favorite frissons from the film. The encounter with Marlene Dietrich was likewise exciting though I wish her subsequent friendship with Piaf would have been further explored. And Jean-Pierre Martin's heartthrob portrayal of boxer Marcel Cedan is virile and magnetic.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, April 23, 2007

CIVIC DUTY—The Evening Class Interview With Peter Krause

Now here's something to take note of. When Civic Duty showcased at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, critics responded variously—as they are wont to do (or as they want to do)—with Franck Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter describing the film as "[a] compelling psychological thriller that well taps into our current national paranoia about terrorism" and one which is "consistently engrossing in its exploration of the fine line between civic duty and vigilantism" and, on the other hand, Justin Chang of Variety complaining that "[t]he screaming all but drowns out the provocative arguments" the film raises. The point being, however, that the ending to the film they reviewed at Tribeca has since been modified. The movie these critics saw is not the movie that audiences will see at the multiplex. So what's done in an instance like that? If the edits are noticeably different (which, in this case, appear true), are the reviews revised in these major trade journals? Or is it a one shot one chance deal with Variety and The Hollywood Reporter? Just an idle question for anyone who might know. For those interested in a plot synopses, I recommend Charlie Prince's at Cinema Strikes Back though, again, some of his arguments and concerns are based upon the Tribeca screening.

Peter Krause—best known for his portrayal of Nate Fisher in TV's popular series Six Feet Under—is every bit as handsome if not moreso than his on screen persona. I was as nervous meeting him as I was meeting Elisha Cuthbert. What is that? I can speak to the world's most creative auteurs and not miss a beat, can stifle a yawn with exquisite grace, but sit me down with a sexy actor or actress and I don't know what to do with my thumbs. I am clearly the child of a strange culture where celebrity is confused with an iconic religiosity. As a member of his queer fan base, I wanted to congratulate Krause on not waxing his chest for Hollywood, but lost all nerve when the time came. What a wuss I yam. I did manage to compliment him for his sensitive and queer-affirmative portrayal of straight brother Nate, for which he thanked me.

[Please be advised that there are several spoilers within the course of this conversation and for those who are spoiler-wary, it would be advisable to return to this discussion after seeing the film.]

* * *

Michael Guillén: Congratulations on Civic Duty. Yours is a fine, powerful performance…

Peter Krause: Why, thanks.

Guillén: …and a provocative script.

Krause: That was the point.

Guillén: Franck Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter said of your performance in Civic Duty that you are "particularly skillful at portraying the darkness underlying a handsome façade." [Krause ducks his head and chuckles.] That quality was a large part of Nate Fisher's character and surfaces again here in the role of beleaguered accountant Terry Allen. Is that quality of innate darkness something you're attracted to when you're looking for a character to play? Why do you choose those roles?

Krause: I can't really address the handsome façade, but in terms of the darkness underneath, everybody has a certain amount of darkness. I may have a little more than my fair share or am willing or able to access that sort of thing. Especially with Terry Allen, the obsessive fear is a cause of great concern for me so I like to examine that. I think it definitely comes out of a sense of self-preservation. For Terry Allen in particular it comes out of a deep need to be a hero. There is so little opportunity for him to feel like a hero in his own life or to feel like he controls anything meaningful in his own life. Being a cog in the machine as an accountant—in whatever company it was that he was working for—didn't feed his soul. Wrapped up a lot inside of whatever else is going on in the film [is] the male psyche in America not having what it needs to feel like a heroic individual. That's just gone. What opportunities does an accountant have to feel really heroic? And there is a need for people to feel that; that's why we have sports, rooting for the home team and watching others perform heroics on the field. The longer human beings are around, the less heroic warfare seems, certainly. At least to me it's a lot more barbaric than heroic and, as a kid seeing war films and things like that, the music and the way it was presented, there's a lot of heroism in there that was going on. I don't know if there's anything heroic, ever, about taking another human life.

Guillén: Some critics have made allusions to the film's resemblance to Hitchcock's Rear Window. Why that intrigues me—more than Civic Duty specifically resembling Rear Window—is how your performance as Terry Allen in Civic Duty falls within the same kind of performance as Jimmy Stewart's in Rear Window. You've recently taken on characters who have an inner turmoil, an anguished ambivalency, reminiscent of Stewart's performances. You join that league of actors who represent Everyman, but not a perfect Everyman.

Krause: No, no, how can we be? Given the world that we're born into? It's a big mess. It's not easy.

Guillén: As a producer of the film, it's my understanding that you actually had a lot to do with shaping Terry Allen's character. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Krause: Sure. When I first met Andrew Joiner, the writer, and Jeff Renfroe, the director, they were almost ready to part company because they had different visions of things. At that meeting I said, "If I'm going to do this, we'll have to change some things about the script. I want to be brought on as a producer and reshape the script with you. I want to rewrite it." I wanted to take Terry—who had been written as a conservative character (like the character Michael Douglas played in Falling Down); who had a "Buy American" bumper sticker on his car, a right wing guy—and I felt that this kind of paranoia immediately following 9/11 was pretty ubiquitous and it was nondiscriminatory. Everybody felt the threat and for good reason: jet airliners were being flown into buildings in the U.S. and exploding and killing people! I thought that it would be giving the conservative members of our country the opportunity to lash out and feel like they're being made fun of. Also, if another terrorist attack did happen, suddenly [audiences would think] this is a stupid movie about a crazy conservative American. By the same token, it would allow liberal people to lean back, point at the screen and laugh and say, "Oh, but that's not me." Well, we're all in it. We're all a part of the country here, the U.S., and it is a scary time. We're in so deep from the last 50-60 whatever it is number of years that we've been messing around in other peoples' countries and lesser-developed nations and now it's blown up in our face. We're at a point where the division between liberal and conservative is just stupid to me.

So I was more interested in creating a character who represented the silent majority. The liberals have a voice, the conservatives have a voice, and they're the friggin' minority. This mass of people who are complacent and just sit back, [I want to shout,] "Wake up!" In some ways Civic Duty is a cry for help from the silent majority: have a voice, speak up! [Gesturing to the movie's poster where Krause is shown in profile with a cellular phone and a gun.] This is their voice. Their voice is the voice of the person with the loaded gun in their hand screaming, "I don't care!" Their voice is the voice that says, "I am not my country. I don't get to vote on foreign policy. I can't control anything." Well, if you want to control foreign policy, have a voice. Whether you like it or not—I've written this in an article for Moving Pictures magazine, it's just a small thing so you can use it—I just wrote that we are our country, like it or not. "I am not my country" is an empty prayer. We want to say that. We want to say, "I am not my country" but we have a military that represents us. They're in Iraq and Afghanistan and they represent us. Those are our armed representatives. I don't think a lot of times people think that way.

There were a couple of critics [at the Tribeca Film Festival] who faulted us about the ending of the film, saying, "I saw that ending coming a mile away. It would have been much more shocking if your character Terry had shot himself in the head." I thought, "I don't think that would be reflecting the world that we live in very accurately." A month after the festival, there was a pregnant Iraqi woman being rushed to the hospital to deliver her baby and they drift through a Marine checkpoint and our U.S. Marines proceeded to shoot everybody in the car dead. I heard some guy having a conversation saying, "Oh God, I can't believe those Marines." I know they didn't mean that like, "Oh those Marines"; but those Marines, that's us. That's the U.S.A. The ending of Civic Duty obviously is about an innocent in the midst of aggressive conflict getting killed. And if an innocent gets killed in the midst of aggressive conflict, is the conflict worth it? It immediately becomes, "No. Of course not."

Guillén: Well, I know that the ending of Civic Duty has been staged to be purposely ambiguous so that there's some question as to whether or not Terry Allen's suspicion of his neighbor is accurate. The real ending of this film for me, however, and the singular image that I consider a brilliant stroke was the coda where we're shown Terry committed to some institution after the tragic death of his wife. He's shown looking at the TV screen on which a golf game is in progress. That golf game is reflected in the pupil of his eye; but, he's seeing something else and the audience becomes aware that what he is seeing is a paranoid delusion. For me, that disturbing image registered that the real villain in this situation was neither Terry Allen in his misguided obsession nor the neighbor he suspected; but, the media disinformation. Can you speak to that?

Krause: We sat in front of televisions in this country for months on end after 9/11. We wanted information. I don't know if it was some primitive desire for more horror—"What's going to happen next?"—some sense of dreadful anticipation that kept us in front of the TV or if it was wanting information—"Please tell me what to think? Tell me what world I live in"—and I think for quite a while we all believed that we lived in this world where there were thousands of terrorist cells existing in the U.S. and that at any moment bridges across the U.S. were going to be exploded, that buildings were going to be toppling. There was a time when most people thought that in this country; that it was really going to become unraveled. At the same time—depending upon how our foreign policies and our corporations behave globally—I don't know if this is going to go away. I suspect because of the worldwide dependency on fossil fuels that this sort of activity is probably going to continue.

Guillén: It was an odd reflexive moment for me because earlier in the film—when Terry discovered the ATM envelopes and the mysterious beakers full of liquid in Gabe's apartment—the first thing I thought of was, "Oh my God, he's going to poison innocent people by applying that liquid to the envelopes."

Krause: Wow, you're way ahead of the curve.

Guillén: But then that didn't come up until the very end of the film. And then when it did, I thought, "You have the selfsame paranoia as Terry Allen!" That's how implicit it is. I'm not praising myself for guessing anything; I'm saying I had this odd reflexive moment of recognizing a familiar paranoia within myself.

Krause: Yeah.

Guillén: So what are your hopes for this movie?

Krause: I don't know that it will happen but we tried to make a suspense thriller, a psychological thriller, that would appeal to a broad audience. Perhaps somebody who saw this in a conservative part of the country might think, "Yeah, man, we gotta watch it because they're still out there." I don't know, it's sort of a Rorschach test for people in some ways—"What do you see in the film?"—but, there's a lot more going on obviously. We tried to lay in a number of different things. One of my desires too when I was helping these guys reshape this, I said, "We have to echo the world we live in." It doesn't matter necessarily whose mouth it comes out of; it's going to shift. When the time is right maybe something can come out of Richard Schiff's mouth [Schiff plays FBI Agent Hillary] where he represents something other than just a FBI agent. For instance, when he says to Terry Allen, "I don't owe you an explanation." Just that moment. Just that moment; it's an echo of the government: I don't owe you an explanation. Well, the truth is, they do owe us an explanation. The scene with Marla [Terry Allen's wife, played by Kari Matchett] when she says, "Don't we have enough problems at home?" That's another echo. When Terry Allen is saying to Gabe Hassan [the suspected neighbor, played by Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga in his first English-speaking role], and this is when [Terry's] got the gun on top of [Gabe's] head and he's pointing it down and he's saying, "Just tell me the truth. Just tell me the truth." Just tell me where the weapons of mass destruction are. All these little echoes. These actions that you've seen out there by your government, when you put them into people, it's worse. Seeing somebody say to somebody else, "I don't owe you an explanation"; this is vile. If you see somebody who doesn't really care about the truth, who just wants to hear what they want to hear, and they've got a gun at somebody else's head, it's so frightfully disturbing! But, as a metaphor, it's truly what the U.S. was doing at that time. The military were bombing the fuck out of [Afghanistan and Iraq], were sending in troops, armed to the teeth, saying, "Where are the fucking weapons of mass destruction?" with guns pointed at their heads. "Where are they?" "We don't have any!" "Where are they?" You see [average] people doing that and it's a little more like, "Eeeeeuwwww." I hope that the movie reaches a lot of people. I don't know if it will. I can't tell.

Guillén: I wouldn't be so hesitant. It's an effective, provocative thriller. Maybe it has a message people are tired of hearing and don't want to hear anymore but, hopefully, they'll recognize its fresh insights.

Krause: I'm more interested in the provocative part. The thriller part is what will get it seen by a lot of people—and that's something I'm not sure yet of—but I think the ending helps us. Like you were talking about—the reflection is a very important image that we had to get later. That wasn't in the Tribeca Film Festival.

Guillén: That wasn't included in the screening at Tribeca??!

Krause: No. Originally, also, the ending of the film in the original script, Gabe Hassan is a terrorist. I said, "Andrew, you can't do that. We can't make a right wing propaganda fear-thy-neighbor movie. We cannot do that. That's not taking into consideration the racial profiling that was rampant after 9/11." He said, "Yeah, but it's shocking!" I said, "Yeah, all the while the audience thinks he's not and then he is and Terry's vindicated…"

Guillén: Personally, I'm glad you rallied.

Krause: I said, "It's not important whether he is or isn't. What's important is that they're afraid of each other and that they're complicit in living in this fucked-up fear-filled world." It's not a place that you want to live. Hopefully, when people walk out of [the film], they'll be glad that they live in this world and not that world; though that world is pretty close to the world that we actually live in.

Guillén: Thank you very much. I need to wrap up.

Krause: Great talking to you.

Cross-published at Twitch.