Monday, December 31, 2007

PSIFF08—Michael Hawley's Schedule

The 19th Palm Springs International Film Festival ("PSIFF") starts in a few days, and I've spent the last week concocting a strategy that will allow me to see as many films as possible during my nine days there. If all goes according to plan—which it won't—I'll be seeing 40 films. That may sound like a lot, but it's only a fraction of the total 222 films from 60-plus countries on offer. That's 32 fewer films than last year, which is reflected in the fact that there are no screenings that begin after 9:00PM this year. At least I should be getting to bed at a decent hour. So without further ado, here's a look at which films I'll be seeing and which ones I'll regrettably be missing during this year's trip to the California desert.

The PSIFF is probably best known for its
Awards Buzz—Best Foreign Language Film section, so let's begin there. This year the festival will be showing 55 of the 63 films submitted as Oscar hopefuls in this category, and I'll be coming to the festival having already seen seven of them (Exiled, The Orphanage, The Silly Age, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, The Edge of Heaven, Taxidermia and Silent Light). It's interesting to note that the festival is screening the Hungarian film Taxidermia for the second year in a row, and that they've mysteriously opted not to show Mexico's submission, Carlos Reygada's Silent Light. (Other conspicuous omissions include Jiri Menzel's I Served the King of England from the Czech Republic and Andrzej Wadja's Katyn from Poland). I've decided not to see heavy hitters 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and Persepolis in Palm Springs because they're due to open in Bay Area theaters shortly after my return.

The 17 films that I will be seeing from this section are literally all over the map. I'm most excited about Takva—A Man’s Fear of God (Turkey) and Lee Chang-dong's award-winning Secret Sunshine (South Korea). 12 and 881 are, respectively, Nikita Mikhalkov's Russian adaptation of 12 Angry Men, and Singaporean maverick Royston Tan's tribute to Getai, an outlandish form of musical revue performed during the island nation's Ghost Festival. Other films high on my list include Israel's Beaufort (Silver Bear winner at Berlin), I Just Didn’t Do It (Masayuki Suo's examination of the Japanese legal system), Icelandic crime thriller Jar City, Argentine drama XXY about a teenage hermaphrodite and You, the Living, Swede Roy Andersson's follow-up to 2000's amazing Songs From the Second Floor.

My remaining eight films from this section are slot-fillers—movies that sound somewhat promising and fit nicely into my festival schedule. They are Ben X (Belgium), Caramel (Lebanese chick-flick), Eduart (a gay-themed film from Greece), Eklavya: The Royal Guard (a Bollywood film starring Amitabh Bachchan that clocks in at an amazingly short 107 minutes), Gone With the Women (Norway, from the same director as 2001's Elling), The Pope's Toilet (Uruguay) and The White Silk Dress (Viet Nam). Two films I strongly regret not being able to fit into my schedule are Mongol from Kazakhstan (directed by Russian Sergei Bodrov and starring Japanese heartthrob Tadanobu Asano) and Canadian Denys Arcand's Days of Darkness, which completes the trilogy he began with Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions.

Because French cinema is my favorite in the world, I was anxious to see what Palm Springs would come up with this year. Quelle déception!
Sixteen French films are in the line-up—but I'd happily trade the entire lot of them for a look at Catherine Breillat's The Old Mistress, Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain (his follow-up to 2003's Cesar-winning L'esquive), actor Jalil Lespert's directorial debut 24 Measures, Gaël Morel's Après lui, François Ozon's Angel, Olivier Assayas' Boarding Gate, Jacques Nolot's Before I Forget (his follow-up to Porn Theater) and Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two. Alas…

Of those 16 French films that indeed are in the festival, I'm sure I could do worse than the five I've selected. The first two are new works from old masters Jacques Rivette (The Duchess of Langeais) and Claude Lelouch (Roman de Gare). Then I have high hopes for the well-reviewed Sylvie Testud/Pascal Greggory WWI drama La France, and the Mathieu Amalric/Michael Lonsdale Nazis-in-the-corporate-boardroom drama Heartbeat Detector. My fifth selection is a wild card from the festival's New Voices/New Visions competition, Micha Wald's In the Arms of My Enemy, aka Voleurs de chevaux. The first sentence of Lisa Nesselson's Variety review clinched it for me: "Finely muscled hairless young men treat each others' bodies like piñatas in Horse Thieves, a rustic revenge tale set 'somewhere in the East' in the early 1800s, when most men's lives were smelly, brutish and short." Bonus points were given because one of those muscled young men is Grégoire Colin, who's given such great performances in the films of Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat.

None of the remaining French selections held any interest for me, except for André Téchiné's excellent The Witnesses, which I caught at Frameline 31. Looking over the list of titles, I found myself asking at what point did Daniel Auteuil (Conversations With My Gardener) and Audrey Tautou (Priceless) become reasons not to see a movie? Actor Guillaume Canet's second directorial effort, Tell No One, is in the line-up, but given that I walked out of his debut—2003's My Idol—I decided to take a pass. There's a Klaus Barbie documentary, My Enemy's Enemy, but if you've already seen Marcel Ophüls' five-hour, Oscar-winning Hôtel Terminus, what would be the point? Lastly, there's one French film that sounds so horrible it could actually be kind of fabulous, but it doesn't fit into my schedule. That would be Poltergay, about a young family that moves into a haunted mansion that used to be a gay disco!

The festival's 17-film
Cine Latino section, which includes works from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, was also a bit of a disappointment for me. Of course I was thrilled to see universally acclaimed In the City of Sylvia in the line-up. But the remaining selections are unknown entities, with the exception of 99-year-old Manoel de Oliveira's Christopher Columbus, The Enigma and the feature film adaptation of Brazilian TV series City of Men, neither of which terribly interest me. Where, I ask, is the Brazilian blockbuster Elite Troop or the documentary Manda Bala? Or any of the Argentine films that have been winning festival prizes this year, such as El Custodio, Mientras Tanto or El Otro? In the end, I'll only be seeing the aforementioned In the City of Sylvia, Spanish film Solitary Fragments (which Michael Guillén has convinced me is a must-see) and a Mexican film called Burning the Bridges.

To help celebrate Israel's 60th birthday, the festival is presenting a special 10-film sidebar titled New Israeli Cinema: L'Chaim! In addition to the previously mentioned Beaufort, notable selections include this year's Camera d'Or winner from Cannes, Jellyfish, and last year's Israeli Academy Award-winning Best Picture, Sweet Mud (both of which I've seen and was under-whelmed by). Regrettably, I'm not able to schedule in Amos Gitai's latest film, Disengagement, which has garnered some excellent reviews. I am, however, looking forward to My Father, My Lord, which won Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca this year. I should also mention that the festival, in a Special Presentation, is screening The Band’s Visit (Israel's original Oscar submission that was disqualified for having too much English dialogue). The film opens soon in U.S. theaters, so I've decided to wait until then.

There are a dozen Italian films in the festival, but the only one I’m seeing is In Memory of Myself. This is the latest from director Saverio Constanzo, whose debut feature Private, was one of my 10 favorite films of 2004. Two Italian films I would have seen had my schedule allowed are Daniele Lucchetti's My Brother is an Only Child (presented as a Gala Screening) and master Ermanno Olmi's One Hundred Nails. Interestingly, Italy's submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Giuseppe Tornatore's The Unknown Woman, is not in the festival line-up.

The remaining contemporary narrative features I plan to catch can all be found in the festival's
World Cinema Now section. Of the better known directors with new films at the festival, I’ll be seeing Kim Ki-duk's Breath, Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Ploy, Youssef Chahine's Chaos and the one I'm anticipating most, Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching (in which the director unravels a real-life murder mystery hidden in a Rembrandt painting). Documentary filmmaker Chris Smith (American Movie, The Yes Men) has gotten raves for his narrative feature debut, the Goa-set, Hindi-language The Pool. And in Irina Palm, Marianne Faithful plays a grandmother who turns to prostitution to help pay for a grandson's operation. Rounding out my World Cinema Now experience will be The Art of Negative Thinking (Norway), Parents (Iceland) and Those Three (Iran).

One doesn't really think of the PSIFF as a place to see restored-print revivals of older films, but this year's
Archival Treasures section is presenting three worthy selections. Unfortunately, I'll have to miss the first one, Josef Von Sternberg's 1935 Crime and Punishment. But I will be on hand to see San Francisco's own "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller present a new 35mm print of John M. Stahl's 1945 Technicolor film noir, Leave Her to Heaven, with Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde. I also look forward to seeing Romanian director Lucian Pintilie's 1968 Reenactment, to be presented by film historian Milos Stehlik. This long-banned social drama is credited with being an important inspiration to today's generation of acclaimed Romanian filmmakers.

In addition to showing most of the films being considered for Best Foreign Language film, PSIFF screens Oscar-worthy documentaries in its
Awards Buzz: Best Documentary Feature section. This year the festival will show 12 docs on the AMPAS 15-film shortlist, five of which will become official Oscar nominees. Considering that I saw over four dozen feature documentaries in 2007, I'm kind of shocked that I've only seen one of the films on the shortlist (No End in Sight). I'll see one more in Palm Springs, Tony Kaye's acclaimed look at abortion in America, Lake of Fire. Had they fit into my festival schedule, I would have also welcomed the opportunity to see Nanking, Please Vote For Me, The Price of Sugar, Taxi to the Dark Side and White Light/Black Rain, all of which I understand are excellent. Along with the Awards Buzz films, the festival presents 24 more documentaries in its True Stories section, none of which I'll be seeing. Of those, I most regret missing Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, on the subject of Antarctica, and Black White + Gray, which examines the relationship between art curator Sam Wagstaff, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and rocker Patti Smith.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

THE VIOLINThe Evening Class Interview With Francisco Vargas

Francisco Vargas' multi-award winning Mexican drama, The Violin, opens January 11, 2008, in Bay Area theatres (including the Roxie Film Center in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley). The Violin, a Film Movement release, runs 98 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not yet MPAA rated.

Film Synopsis: Shot in glorious black & white, The Violin tells of Don Plutarco, his son Genaro, and his grandson Lucio who live a double life: on one hand they are musicians and humble farmers, on the other they support the campesino guerilla movement's armed efforts against their oppressive government. When the military seizes the village, the rebels flee to the sierra hills, forced to leave behind their stock of ammunition. While the guerillas organize a counter-attack, old Plutarco executes his own plan. He plays up his appearance as a harmless violin player, and makes it back into the military-occupied village to try to recover the ammunition hidden in his cornfield. His violin playing charms the army captain, who orders Plutarco to come back daily, consequently developing a relationship in which arms and music play a tenuous game of cat-and-mouse.

After studying theatre, at the National Institute of the Arts, Francisco Vargas studied Communications at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, as well as Dramatic Arts at the Hugo Argüelles workshop. In 1995, he began his studies in directing and cinematography at the University Center of Cinematography Studies. Conejo, his first short film, obtained a solid reputation while touring the international film festival circuit. For five years, he produced radio shows that helped preserve and promote traditional Mexican music. Since 1997, he has worked as a director or director of photography on several commercials, documentaries and short films. In 2004, he made a documentary, Tierra Caliente, se mueren los que la mueven, which was an acclaimed hit in Mexico and the rest of the world. In 2006, The Violin was chosen by the Cannes Film Festival as an Official Selection—Un Certain Regard—and won Ángel Tavira the best actor award. It is Francisco Vargas' feature length directorial debut. Recently surpassing Amores Perros, The Violin has become the most internationally awarded Mexican film in history with 46 awards from festivals around the world.

The following interview (which is not for the spoiler-wary) is cobbled from personal conversation and a Q&A session while Francisco Vargas was accompanying The Violin at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival, supplemented by a follow-up email exchange with Vargas, negotiated through Film Movement. My profound thanks to Rebeca Conget for her facilitative translations.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Though The Violin is reminiscent of the Guerrero guerrilla movement of the 1970s, it's intriguingly vague as to particulars. Were you purposely avoiding situating this narrative in a specific time and place?

Francisco Vargas: Basically, the film has no defined time or place. Or rather, it has it but it doesn't have it. If it does, it's an open-ended definition because we didn't want people to get the idea that the film's narrative is something that happened in the past or something limited to one particular region. When people ask me what is the time and place of this film, or what conflict is being specifically referenced, I tell them it's very easy to define it. All you have to do is take a map, put it on a wall, point your finger, and—if your finger doesn't fall on the sea—you will surely point to a place where this has happened either a long time ago or is happening even now as we sit here talking. What I always say is that, unfortunately, it will continue to happen. So, to answer your question, yes, there is a time and a place but it's understood in a broad sense, not a specific one.

Guillén: Does your film thus express an ongoing struggle taking place not only in Latin America but throughout the Global South?

Vargas: People who have studied these movements throughout Latin America have said that if you do not attack the conditions that cause people to rise in arms, then the conditions will continue to happen, as will resistance. I never get tired of saying wherever I go that governments mistakenly attack the people who resist oppressive conditions instead of attacking and resolving the conditions. I also never get tired of saying that incidents like those shown in The Violin are only the background. What I'm more concerned with is telling the story of human beings. As I said earlier, you can say it happened some years ago, it's happening now, it happens in Mexico, it happens in some other part of Latin America, where in the world is it going to happen next?

Guillén: Where has the film shown in Latin America?

Vargas: It's been shown in Argentina and—when it premiered in Colombia—it had a great deal of meaning for the people there. Also in Brazil. I, myself, have not traveled to those countries but we sent Don Ángel Tavira (who plays the lead character Don Plutarco) and some of the other actors to those premieres.

Guillén: Your black and white cinematography reminds me of the camera work of Gabriel Figueroa and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Can you speak to what you feel it is about the black and white aesthetic that expresses the soul of the Mexican people?

Vargas: The first reason we had for using black and white cinematography is because it doesn't define the time and place so much. There are actually many reasons, but another very important reason is that we didn't want to create the stereotypical representation of Mexicans as personified by colorful folkcraft. Neither did we want to create a piece of pornographic poverty as some people were doing in the 1970s, which was an aspect of commercial cinema on our continent back then. I didn't want to be on either one side of that issue or the other. I wanted to get to something much deeper. When you're talking about as delicate an issue as we're presenting in The Violin, you present what is good and what is evil, but there is also a broad grey zone that has a depth and complexity that's difficult to talk about. We wanted to stay within that grey zone and not identify with either the good or the evil. We also wanted to pay homage to an ancient tradition of Mexican aesthetics—both in the cinematography and in the oral culture of traditional music.

Guillén: Speaking of traditional Mexican music, this film has all the trademarks of a corrido. Were you thinking of corridos at all when you wrote the script?

Vargas: I will say it flat out: this film is a corrido. There's lots of music in the film expressed in lots of different genres; but—if there is a musical term to describe this film—it is a corrido. The musical genre of Mexican corridos, with regard to the revolution, was a way of actually communicating news about things that had happened from one place to another. It was also a way of keeping memory. But most of all it was a way of liberating the spirit of the people. This was the way that the spirit of the need for change among the people was safeguarded over the years. The film starts out with a corrido and it ends with the boy Lucio singing a corrido. In fact, the corrido that Lucio is singing is a transformation that he himself has made of the corrido at the beginning and this is how the oral tradition works.

Guillén: I presume that it was within the five years you produced radio shows to help preserve and promote traditional Mexican music that you ultimately came to know Don Ángel Tavira? Can you speak to when you first met him and what it was about him that inspired you to—first—create a short film and then expand it into The Violin? Can you likewise speak to your usage of non-actors, including the specific casting of Ángel Tavira as Don Plutarco?

Vargas: The project of The Violin was always a single one, although I shot 30 minutes first and then the rest of the movie. Maybe the work you're referring to is a documentary called Tierra Caliente, se mueren los que la mueven (Tierra Caliente, The Best Ones Are Passing Away), but that film has nothing to do with The Violin. This earlier film is about Don Ángel, about his music, the place he came from, and his life. Hopefully, you will get to see that someday.

The casting for The Violin was a mixture of professional actors who were not very well-known but who were very good and true non-actors. Forgive me for digressing a moment but I want to stress that this film as a project involved many people. Making a first film in any part of the world—but Mexico in particular—is very difficult. So I decided that—if this was going to be my debut—I wanted it to be the debut of many other people. For many actors who could never have a leading role in a motion picture, I wanted them to have it here. So we have a handful of professional actors who are very good but then a lot of other people who are not actors.

The case of Don Ángel is interesting, because I met him a long time after I finished this film's script. He is not a professional actor; he's an old violinist from the south of Mexico, a campesino, who really does have a hand missing. Once I met him and found out that he plays the violin with only one hand, I thought he was a strong and exceptional human being. He comes from a family of musicians with a tradition that dates back 150 years. And the music in his region, in the state of Guerrero, in his town, is disappearing, and there are only—apart from Don Ángel—about seven or eight old people who play. So I decided to make a documentary about the music of this region. That was the earlier film Tierra Caliente.

After I finished Tierra Caliente, I decided to take the script of The Violin out of the drawer and start. And because of the characteristics of this movie—the shoot had to be only four weeks, in the mountains, with very cold temperatures, with limited material, a small crew, etc.—I decided it would be good to have an actor as the protagonist, so I asked the casting director to find one. But after six months of not finding him, she came back to me and suggested looking among the old musicians that I already knew and with whom I had worked on the documentary. At that moment I said that we could stop the search and I would invite Don Ángel to work in the film, although there was a risk because of his lack of experience as an actor. And the greatest surprise for everyone was that he ended up being a great actor, since he is a born artist, all his life devoted to music, and when it was time to shoot we only had to train him and take him to the set. And apart from his great screen presence and charisma, his work is the result of—not only my own work—but the work and support he always had from the wonderful professional actors that were by his side, guiding him and supporting him. Great actors like Dagoberto Gama, Gerardo Taracena or Fermín "Justo" Martínez, who worked as actors and at the same time as teachers.

In reality, The Violin was born out of a whole life process, nurtured by lucky encounters with magical people, like my two great-grandmothers. One who died at age 115, and inspired the image of the old storyteller, and the other one, a tough, hardened woman who rode horses, smoked cigars and drank alcohol; all this in the middle of the 19th century. That inspired the image of Don Plutarco, tough and tireless. Both these people were very strong in my life, and in the dramatic structure of this film; but also the love for music and Mexican traditions. And all within the context of the reality that's lived, on a daily basis, by millions of Mexicans and Latin Americans for countless decades.

Guillén: Can you speak to how you've structured the narrative of The Violin? The film employs suspense and build-up but the result of this tension is shown straight off at the beginning of the film.

Vargas: The structure of this film is the simplest possible. One of the purposes of this film was to be an economical production. I wanted it to be this way. If I had a hundred million dollars, I wouldn't have used them. This film had to be like this. Its narrative was structured dramatically in the most classic—in fact the most Greek way—it could be. The story is told without any special effects or any tricks in editing. There isn't even so much as a dissolve in the film. We wanted to reduce the film to the very essence of the story. We wanted to demonstrate that what we need the most is to tell stories and we need to hear stories. To tell and hear stories, you don't need millions of dollars. The film is, in essence, reduced to a situation of an old man sitting around a fire telling a story to his family. That's where you have culture and memory. This was how my grandmothers told stories to me and that's how I wanted to tell a story through my film.

Guillén: Could you speak to your decision to begin your story so violently? Variety's Justin Chang characterized this brutal opening scene as "arguably exploitative" and Manohla Dargis from The New York Times has complained: "It's a wretched opener in part because Mr. Vargas, who makes his feature debut with this film, doesn't understand that he needs to put his camera, and not just his sympathies, on the side of the victims." Film Journey's Doug Cummings, however, intuits "the scenes not only serve to establish the very real dangers the peasants and guerillas face, but also contribute to an unpredictable tone that increases the narrative suspense; in a film where anything can happen, the sense of looming, imminent danger is much more palpable." While Film-Forward's Nora Lee Mandel recognizes the scene as "distressingly timeless." What motivated you to commence with torture and rape?

Vargas: It's interesting that each person can own or interpret a scene, or an element of a film, based on his or her own experiences and in different ways. And I think that at the end of the day that's what's so wonderful about cinema.

The critics in some countries have said that The Violin could not be the same movie without that sequence, that [it's] indispensable. And in other places they said they didn't think it necessary.

The first thing I could say is that it is not an explicitly violent scene. One never actually sees what's happening, one only imagines it, or knows, but never really sees it. During the whole film you never see blood, bullets, confrontations or gore or anything. The narrative rule always was absence as the absolute presence. And I think that the intention works; that's why some people feel that scene is so tough, or feel a silent violence during the entire film; but it's not visible.

It's paradoxical, because there are so many images one sees in movies or TV that are really violently coarse and grotesque; however, we are used to them and don't complain. What happens with this sequence in The Violin is that—although you don't see anything—you know that what's going on really exists, that it has happened, that it's not fiction. Although what you're watching is fiction, you know it's the truth, and that's why it affects you. And it's even more of a paradox because this sequence is merely a still camera shooting the floor, and you can't see anything. The reasons why what's going on is taking place are unknown; therefore, there aren't good guys and bad guys, nor sympathy for the victims or hatred towards bad guys.

On the other hand, it does not portray even a hundredth of the brutality that so many people have really suffered in many places. But I decided to shoot it this way, without showing, without making it obvious; absent in some ways, but violent because of all those things that people already know and associate it with. And, above all, because from the beginning it gives a tone to the whole story; a tone in which one feels the latent and constant danger, like it's lived in reality by millions of people that are not in a film or an X-box game. The sequence is for those who already know (so that they don't forget) and for those who were not aware of the atrocities and excesses of the military (so that they find out). And lastly, because it permits me to feel in my heart, so that then I take a position in life in which it is clear to me that the violation of human rights is terrible, and it can happen at any moment, and we should never allow it, under any shape or form, ever.

Guillén: I share that prayer. How do you plan to follow up on such a stunningly beautiful debut feature? Will we see another film soon?

Vargas: I am finishing the promotion for The Violin, but I'm already working on two other stories. One of them is in the final writing process, and I hope to be able to finish it soon so that I can shoot it next year.

At the same time I continue to produce documentaries. Right now I'm producing one in Southeast Mexico. And a few months ago we co-produced a fiction short that was shot in Mexico with a French company.

Guillén: Who, among Mexican directors, do you admire? Which particular Mexican films do you admire? Earlier, you spoke against the "pornographic poverty" all too often represented in Mexican film; can you state a specific example of what you did not want in The Violin?

Vargas: There are many Mexican directors that I admire. In each decade, despite the ups and downs of our cinema, there have been important directors and films, and each one of them has nourished my work and my life and—although sometimes we may forget—they are the base of our current cinema. To mention certain names would mean I'd be leaving out many others, and I wouldn't think it fair, since in Mexico we have a very rich and important artistic and cinematographic tradition that cannot be reduced to a few names.

What I was referring to with the "pornographic poverty" comment is a tendency that took place not only in Mexico, but in the cinema of many countries, in which they would show the most terrible and pathetic aspects of their respective societies, but in a coarse, simplistic and morbid manner, with the only aim of selling the image based on pity and its sensationalist impact. And it's a type of cinema that in certain times was exported and sold well, and that sometimes re-emerges; but it's not something I'm interested in ever making.

And although it is true that in Mexico we live and see terrible things, it doesn't interest me to talk about it to just show for show, and portray grotesquely the most despicable aspects of our society. What interests me primarily is to tell stories, because that's what a film director is: a storyteller. It interests me to tell stories that make us feel and dream, that move us and allow our imagination and fantasies to fly, but all this based on stories of an immediate reality, stories that touch on and talk about the very difficult context in which we live.

The word that rules in The Violin is dignity, not pity towards poverty. Dignity and liberty are values which millions of Mexicans both aspire to and live with, although those millions also live in poverty.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

CINEMA NOW—The Evening Class Interview With Andrew Bailey

Andrew Bailey's Cinema Now, handsomely published by Taschen, wields considerable heft. Not only because its heavy paper stock will earn you a bicep or two; but, because intellectually it's a rich overview of contemporary filmmaking. If the logical depth of a film is the invested meaning harbored within it, then Cinema Now reflects a logical—indeed necessary—breadth to any focus on film culture. Andrew Bailey takes us on a guided, visually-articulated tour through today's world cinema. Along with his directorial profiles and capsule reviews of their respective films, the volume includes a DVD with such extras as trailers, music videos and short films by Alexander Payne and Carlos Reygadas. His research is supplemented by working indices of film festivals, awards and websites (including Twitch).

Quoting from the press release for Cinema Now: "Andrew Bailey is a freelance writer and cinephile based in San Francisco whose articles on film and filmmakers have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and many other publications. His favorite works include The Last Picture Show (1971), Vertigo (1958), Les Enfants du paradis (1943-45), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and 3 Women (1977); his cinematic heroes range from Hitchcock, Lang, and Bergman to Lynch, Haneke, and Denis. His idea of unadulterated movie bliss is the moment Ann Savage turns vituperative on Tom Neal in the front seat of his vehicle in Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945)."

After working in New York in print journalism for 10 years under his nickname "Andy", Bailey has since shifted to "Andrew" to cater to his European market. "In Europe, you don't use your nickname." Bailey covered festivals for indieWIRE, and became a contributing writer to Filmmaker, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Screen Daily and Screen International.

After moving from New York to Los Angeles for a brief stint, Bailey decided L.A. wasn't a "proper city", and relocated to San Francisco. He suggested we meet for lunch at Café Gratitude where the food went way past being mere chow to being "thriving", "satisfying", even "courageous"; very much like our conversation.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Andrew, Cinema Now is a marvelous volume and it made me happy reading it because I've been focusing on film only for the last decade or so, which is—in effect—the period of time this book covers and, therefore, I'm largely familiar with the directors and films you're profiling. The book is aptly named. So current, so contemporary, with no slight to the old guard but a sharp focus on the new, up-and-coming directors on the scene; the directors I've been meeting. How did that focus come about?

Andrew Bailey: It was a combination of things, mainly passion. I had free rein, with the exception of a couple of suggestions from my editor Paul Duncan, who is based out of London. He let me run with it. It was the passion as well as what I could get images for and who wanted to participate, since it is image-driven and Taschen is mainly concerned with photos.

Guillén: And you've actually seen all these movies?

Bailey: I have! I'm proud to say that I have.

Guillén: I'm impressed. Who did not want to participate? I can't imagine anyone not wanting to participate with this project.

Bailey: Werner Herzog was resoundingly no. He just didn't want to be in a book like that because he's just a man apart, I guess. Some people were working. Claire Denis was tied up; she was probably my first choice. She's [currently] inbetween films, which is good, because—if there's a second volume—we can put her in the next one. But, you know, filmmakers are hard to get sometimes. I wanted Olivier Assayas, but he was shooting Boarding Gate and was focused on that. So, I took who I could get and the best images I could get within the framework of the filmmakers that I was passionate about.

Guillén: Which is a group of about 60?

Bailey: Yeah. There was initially 100 and we whittled it down to 60 and probably in a year and a half or so we'll start on Volume Two; but, I've already drawn up a list of about 50. Film changes so quickly now and new names are born every year.

Guillén: They just won't stop, huh? God bless 'em. They'll keep you busy for years. I love the breadth of Cinema Now, its multiple languages; Taschen tends to do that with all their publications, don't they?

Bailey: Especially in that series. There's actually another volume of the same book that's in three different languages—Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese—that you obviously can't get in America. So [Cinema Now is published in] actually six languages. It's internationally designed for the world cinema crowd.

Guillén: Wow. I consider your preface quite prescient in your awareness of how cinema and the cinema experience is changing. I was delighted, of course, to read your tip of the hat to Todd Brown at Twitch. ["More than ever (and for better or worse) it is the internet bloggers who drive film culture, breaking new names and heralding hot titles months in advance of their film festival premieres or theatrical and DVD releases. Bloggers like Todd Brown, at his Twitch website, cultivate instant word of mouth for new films and filmmakers in every corner of the world. Twitch introduced Russian upstart Pavel Ruminov to film fanatics in their living rooms. Ruminov's brilliant internet marketing campaign for his baroque Russian horror film Dead Daughters (Myortvye docheri, 2006) includes a series of web-only teasers that created an eerie mythology for the film months before it entered post-production." (2007:20) How do you know Todd?

Bailey: I know him from his site and I contacted him to get some information. I wanted to include a filmmaker who was "broken" on the blogs and Pavel Ruminov, the Russian director, is in there. I wasn't so much a fan of Dead Daughters as I was of Pavel in his enthusiasm.

Guillén: His strategy?

Bailey: His strategy! Well-put. And I liked the fact that there are sites like Twitch that are breaking genre filmmakers that I think are deeper in their craft. [Pavel] is still finding his way and I wanted to [include] a younger, possibly unheard-of filmmaker that some of the highbrow crowd might balk at. I've been following Twitch for a few years and I like what it's become. [It's] for people who follow genre and I think we're in a golden age of genre filmmaking.

Guillén: I'm lucky that Todd pulled me on to the Twitch team but I often wonder what the heck I'm doing there. I'm kind of their Hollywood connection and sometimes I think, "Who cares about Laura Linney on Twitch?" [Laughter.]

Bailey: As all of those sites tend to do, they evolve over time and I really like what Twitch has become. It's less niche than it was. I can feel Todd's passion and it's always nice to see that on another site. Pavel's entry is for Todd.

Guillén: Are you touring with the book?

Bailey: No. [The San Francisco Film Society signing at the Paranoid Park screening] was it. There was initially going to be some signings at the Taschen store in Los Angeles, and there's another store in New York, but they wanted filmmakers involved too and it was just too hard to get people together at this time of year.

Guillén: As I've been reviewing Cinema Now, I've enjoyed the concise profiles and the images, of course, are spectacular. What was the process involved in actually selecting the images and putting the book together?

Bailey: Again, it was the access to images. I would either go through the producers or the directors themselves, using my contacts of when I was a journalist to get a hold of people. Usually people were enthusiastic because Taschen has a name. They submitted [images]. The shocking thing about the book is that there was no photo budget. It was all press stills or photos from the directors' own archives. There were a lot of photos, [for example] in the Carlos Reygadas section that were straight from the set that you wouldn't have seen anywhere else. Tip of the hat to Carlos and folks like [him who] were participatory and willing to give their stash over to us.

Guillén: When you configured the book, you had this aesthetic of minor text, major image?

Bailey: Yeah. It fits into a series that Taschen has already done. They've done Art Now and Design Now and Animation Now, and I had pitched Cinema Now. I had had a meeting with film editor Paul Duncan—he edits a lot of the film books—when I was living in Los Angeles. We hit it off. He was interested in finding a writer who would be able to do something like this so we both had the same vision for world cinema, something that goes from the high to the low, not discounting genre, not discounting animation. We were on the same page and it was a good match.

Guillén: So we can now anticipate a second volume with a separate set of filmmakers?

Bailey: I wouldn't overlap. I would do a holding slate for the ones I wanted—like Claire Denis and Assayas—hopefully, they'll have new work in two years.

Guillén: Have you any opinions on what I might call the "false hierarchy" of print and on-line journalism?

Bailey: It's changing as rapidly as the film business. In the next 5-10 years, what's print media going to be? Nobody knows.

Guillén: What I enjoy about online journalism is the capacity to create community through hyperlinking. But I prefer the writing adhere to print journalism standards whenever possible.

Bailey: I like the egalitarian democratic voice that comes off the web; the academic film community is pretty much exclusively there now with Rouge and more academic film journals. I'm glad those are there and easy to get. I remember a time when I was in college and I was more interested in academic writing, it was hard to get. It was almost ghettoized. Now the Internet makes more voices readily available. There's more voices in the mix and I think that's only healthy for film culture. [Online journalism] is now a legitimate sector of film journalism and it's only going to evolve more in [contra]direction [to] the way print film coverage is going. I felt this frustration when I lived in New York and was working as a stringer for The Boston Globe covering press junkets of celebrities that I didn't care about and realizing there was less of a free press in that world.

Guillén: Absolutely! That's exactly where I am right now. Battling self-interest with self-respect.

Bailey: You can't say what you really feel. I don't care about Kate Hudson and yet I was sent to cover her. You have a publicist sitting in a room with 10 other journalists, many of whom are trying to get Kate's autograph, and taking personal pictures. [I asked myself,] "What is this? It's insane!"

Guillén: That really interests me because I have been wrestling with this of late. I'm in a somewhat rebellious mode of wanting to relinquish my press credentials with particular publicists because they don't understand what I'm doing.

Bailey: I did that to a degree.

Guillén: Good counsel, thanks. Have you already started work on the second volume of Cinema Now?

Bailey: I'm going to wait. I've pitched Taschen three specific volumes: French Cinema Now, Latin-American Cinema Now, and Asian Cinema Now. Whether or not they go with those depends on the sales of this one.

Guillén: Oh wow, you want to break it down like that, eh?

Bailey: There are enough filmmakers to do it. I've outlined French Cinema Now. Of course, that one would be the easiest to do. Asian Cinema Now would be a challenge because of the language barrier but there's a strong wave of Asian filmmakers and there have been for about the last 20 years. Latin-American Cinema Now, that's a huge possibility there. There's a lot of great films coming out of Argentina, Mexico.

Guillén: Have you any thoughts on how exhibition formats are shifting towards home entertainment rather than the moviehouse experience?

Bailey: I feel so lucky to be within walking distance of the Castro Theatre. I spend a lot of solid time there. There's something magical about that room. I watched most of the Bergmans again recently in that room. Even though I was familiar with most of that work, it was a combination of the films and that room. You don't get that at home. You don't get that on a small screen. You need a shared catharsis with the audience. We're losing it. We're losing the big houses. Multiplex theaters don't have the same ambiance that the Castro Theatre has. My favorite movie of all time is The Last Picture Show and there's a reason for that. It's the end of an era. It's the end of the Mom n' Pop single screen. I don't think they'll fade irrevocably but our whole notion of moviegoing is changing as we speak.

Guillén: Watching a movie on celluloid is going to become an elite cultural activity, like going to a museum or the symphony, opera or ballet. And it's going to cost a lot; that's what's unfortunately going to make it elitist.

Bailey: Well, we just experienced the Reygadas film Silent Light at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The sad fate of that film is that—in this country—its distribution offer was shockingly low. It says a lot about America more than anything else because there is an active arthouse tradition in other parts of the world.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Friday, December 28, 2007

LISTS 2007—Sergio De La Mora's Top 10 Mexican Films

In 2007, Mexican films reaped a number of important international awards (Cannes, Venice, our own San Francisco International Film Festival) and kept the new Mexican cinema hot. Feature film productions in Mexico radically increased to nearly 60 films annually, in large part due to a recently enacted film tax incentive. Thematically and stylistically, Mexican films that circulated in 2007 at both film festivals and commercially were marked by a turn toward small intimate dramas about various forms of alienation and interpersonal communication; highly charged political dramas and documentaries about local and global social issues; and minimalist, highly poetic aesthetics that departed from the baroque styles of internationally celebrated Mexican directors (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro). The following are some of the highlights of films I was able to see this year.

1. El violín (The Violin, Francisco Vargas, 2005). A powerful and lyrical portrait of guerrilla resistance and military repression in an unspecified time and rural location in Mexico (most likely in the state of Guerrero during the 1970s). Beautifully shot in black and white and reminiscent of master cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa's work, El violin features a mix of professional and non-professional actors, including Ángel Taviria in the lead role of the spunky and heroic octogenarian don Plutarco, an itinerant violinist who keeps alive through his music and actions the historical memory of peasant resistance from the Mexican revolution of 1910 to the film's present.

2. Párpados azules (Blue Eyelids, Ernesto Contreras, 2006). One of the standout films profiling Mexico's lonely people. What might a reclusive, socially awkward, 30-something working class office clerk do if she won two all-expenses-paid tickets to a Mexican beach resort? Why, invite a complete stranger to join her, of course! The film features stellar performances by Cecilia Suárez, who plays the mousy, doe-eyed, reclusive woman against typecasting and by Enrique Arreola (the pizza delivery man in Temporada de patos [Duck Season, Fernando Eimbcke, 2004]), playing the shy, non-descript office worker in charge of making photocopies. That is what happens in this bitter sweet comedy that is as sweet and melancholic as the color blue, yet shimmering with hope for its socially awkward lead characters.

3. Familia tortuga (Turtle Family, Rubén Imaz, 2006). A queer film on multiple levels focusing on a day in the life of a dysfunctional lower-middle class Mexico City family grappling with the one-year anniversary of the matriarch's death. Endearing and somewhat mentally handicapped uncle Manuel struggles to keep the isolated members of his deceased sister's family together: teenage niece (an angry, pothead kleptomaniac with a romantic streak) and nephew (a shy, butch homo played by the son of one of the Bichir acting clan) and their underemployed father. This meandering, cinema verite-like film has an ineffable vibe that makes this a most remarkable directorial debut.

4. Los Ladrones viejos: las leyendas del artegios (Old Thieves: Artegio's Legends, Everardo Gonzalez, 2007). An utterly original and fascinating documentary about a generation of thieves who came of age in the 1960s that examines the code of honor of thieves, go figure. Narrated by a charismatic celebrity thief, El Carrizos, famous for having robbed the house of a Mexican president and featuring period archival footage of Mexico City, this film by a young but already noted documentary director launches a fierce critique against political corruption, notably ex-president Luis Echeverría and his henchmen.

5. Malos hábitos (Bad Habits, Simón Bross, 2006). Three loosely connected yet compelling and atmospheric narratives about eating disorders from one of the world's most noted directors of commercial advertising and producer of new wave Mexican cinema films such as Quién diablos es Juliette? (Who the Hell is Juliette?, Carlos Marcovich, 1997).

6. Cobrador: In God We Trust (Paul Leduc, 2007). Rampant globalization and terrorism are just two elements in this odd mix of New Latin American political cinema cum blaxploitation, features Lazaro Ramos in multiple roles, Peter Fonda as a serial killer and Isela Vega as a loopy gypsy. Always testing narrative and visual conventions, Paul Leduc's first feature length narrative film in some 17 years is no exception and was worth the wait.

7. Año uña (Year of the Nail, Jonás Cuarón, 2007). I ended up really liking this film that I thought would be an irritating and gimmicky first feature by the son of acclaimed auteur Alfonso Cuarón. A love story of sorts about a young Mexican teenager and a slightly older middle class, college American woman studying Spanish in Mexico City during a summer, it uses all photography (gradually changing from black and white to color) and voice-over narration in Spanish and English. Starring Diego Cataño (the doe-eyed youth in Temporada de patos) here playing a middle-class teenager with raging sexual hormones.

8. Stellet licht (Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas, 2006). In spite of the fact that this film is nowhere near as interesting as the director's previous work (Japón [2002], Batalla en el cielo [Battle in Heaven, 2005]), nonetheless you have to give kudos to anyone who makes a film about marital infidelity and resurrection among Mexican Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites in the state of Chihuahua. The most compelling aspect of this film was the painterly cinematography by Alexis Zabe who shot Temporada de patos. Awarded a jury prize at the 2007 Cannes International Film Festival.

9. Partes usadas (Used Parts, Aarón Fernández). A notable return to the miserabilist aesthetic that characterizes Mexican cinema internationally (because it sells well). Unlike more recent films about poor Mexico City youth such as De la calle (Streeters, Gerardo Tort, 2001), this debut feature doesn't exploit the plight of its two main young adults but gives them a way out: Los Angeles, the promised land. This homage to youth involved in the underworld of stolen cars and car parts, distinguishes itself from others through its textured look and use of classical music rather than rock en español.

10. Eréndira la indomable (Erendira the Indomitable, Juan Mora Catlett, 2006). The imagery of Indian codices and a self-conscious use of theatrical staging combine in this refreshing complimentary narrative to the tired foundation nation-building Malinche narrative, in this case ostensibly focusing on an indigenous woman warrior who fights against the Spanish invaders and her own people's patriarchal sexism. A unique film because the dialogue is almost entirely in the Purépecha language.

I screened most of the films that make up this list at the 2007 Guadalajara International Film Festival and also at the Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE). I thank both institutions and the University of California, Davis for their generous support.

* * *

[The Evening Class, in turn, wishes to thank Sergio de la Mora for his generous insight into this year's crop of Mexican films, many which have not yet found their way stateside. I adopt his list as a wish list of films I hope to see in the near future. I note that Párpados azules is an official selection in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance 2008.—M.G.]

01/24/08 UPDATE: Brian Darr picks up Sergio's recommendation to watch Párpados azules at Sundance 2008 and reports in to The Greencine Daily: "[I]t's among the best films I've seen at this festival so far."

Cross-published on Twitch.

LISTS 2007: The SF360 List (aka The Confessions of A Festival Junkie)

Susie Gerhard, my former editor at SF360, asked me to contribute a top 10 for today's SF360 entry, where—along with the likes of Susie herself, Dennis Harvey, Max Goldberg, Glen Helfand, Hannah Eaves, Michael Fox, Jonathan Marlow, Claire Faggioli, and Erika Young—I elected to highlight my favorite film from each of my 10 favorite film festivals in the Bay Area.

1. February / Noir City: The Damned Don't Cry

2. February / PFA African Film Festival: U-Carmen

3. March / San Francisco Asian American: Woman on the Beach

4. April / San Francisco International: Brand Upon the Brain!

5. June / Frameline: Red Without Blue

6. July / San Francisco Silent Film Festival: Beggars of Life

7. August / Dead Channels: Nuit Noire

8. October / Arab Film Festival: Making Of

9. November / San Francisco Korean American: A Flower In Hell

10. November / 3rd I: Pyaasa

THE ORPHANAGE—The Greencine Interview With Juan Antonio Bayona and Sergio Sánchez

I had the opportunity to speak with Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona twice this year regarding his debut feature The Orphanage, opening nationwide today. Our first conversation at Toronto will be published next month in my new gig movieScope (out of London); but, my more recent conversation here in San Francisco with both Bayona and scriptwriter Sergio Sánchez is up and running today at Greencine.

Dave Hudson gathers up the continuing critical response to the film—including his aggregates from Cannes, Toronto and New York—at The Greencine Daily.

Cross-published on Twitch. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Wells.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

LISTS 2007—My 10 Favorite Interviews

Without question, the ultimate perk of writing on film is the welcome chance to meet the individuals who make, shape and give voice to movies. I get to texture my own impression of films with the articulated intentions of filmmakers. Granted, I could easily banish transcription to the ninth circle of Hell; but, the conversations themselves are always this side of heaven.

Meeting Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck, the tall force behind the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, was one of the first times I began offering filmmakers the opportunity to refute their detractors. I enjoy doing this because it keeps the dialogue between filmmakers and their critics open-ended and necessarily subjective. I don't believe in gods of objectivity and will topple them at every turn.

As I frequently advise young people (sometimes when solicited; sometimes not), be careful of the straightforward focus of a goal. More often than not, an opportunity comes from the sidelines and, therefore, peripheral vision is your best friend. How was I to know that—by writing up a TCM broadcast of The Enchanted Cottage—I would befriend Tim Massett of Florida's San Marco Theater who, in turn, would help secure me an introduction and interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis, the "godfather of gore"? Greencine picking up the interview was added gravy to this blood red roast.

There's a certain amount of Buddhism to be sifted from the fact that my questions were longer than the answers during my conversation with Apichatpong ("Joe") Weerasethakul. A gentle, shy man, Apichatpong says more with his images than is required by his words. My thanks to Shelley Diekman of the Pacific Film Archives for facilitating an interview with Joe during his PFA residency. It felt more like guided meditation.

Red Without Blue—the heartfelt chronicle of the transformations of Mark and Clair Farley—is, without question, one of the 10 most important films of the year for presenting tolerance as a challenge not only within the culture but in the family unit itself. After sitting down to talk with Clair and Mark Farley, and filmmakers Brooke Sebold and Benita Sills, I was charmed to hear that they considered it to be their best interview. My thanks to Karen Larsen at Larsen Associates and Bill McLeod for setting us up. Mark has since become a valued friend, whose burgeoning career as a graphic and installation artist has captured my attention as much as his participation in Red Without Blue.

Turner Classic Movies have been generous and gracious to me in this past year, providing early access to their original programming and opportunities to interview key figures in said programming. But nothing could top the thrill of meeting the man himself—Robert Osborne!, and the power behind the TCM throne, Charlie Tabesh—when they visited San Francisco for the Silent Film Festival.

Local impresario Bruce Fletcher is my champion. Over the year we've hammered out a working relationship to further each other's objectives. During his Dead Channels Festival of Fantastic Film, he granted me interviews with the controversial Uwe Boll, and underground heroes Jamaa Fanaka and Jack Hill. That opportunity to interview two cult giants, though bifurcated, felt like a singular honor. Thank you, Bruce!

David Cronenberg has been creeping me out since I was a young man. Of all the many directors I might wish to interview, he was in my top five and so I'm delighted that my dream came true. That Viggo Mortensen came along to keep company was icing on the cake. That Greencine picked up the interview was having my cake and eating it too.

Oh my gosh he made me nervous with his piercing blue eyes and contrarian reputation, and thank God he responded to my plea for mercy, but spending time with the "master" Béla Tarr has been, to date, one of the highlights of writing on film. Greencine backed me up on that one too.

I met Marianne Singleton!! You have to understand, I used to faithfully read Tales of the City when it was a column in the local newspaper. I worked at a cabaret-restaurant named Fannys and we waiters would gossip about Armistead Maupin's characters while setting up our work stations. When it was finally adapted into a film, with Laura Linney playing the key role of Marianne Singleton, she won my heart forever. The fact that she's a true beauty and a consummate actress might have something to do with it as well. With my respected colleague Omar Moore to lend support, we charmed her into giving us more time than the publicist wanted to allow.

There are some people who I think are downright brilliant and Walter Murch is certainly one of them. To have even 20 minutes of his time to explore ideas validates me in the way that only a life well-lived can do. Once again, my gratitude to Greencine.

Cross-published on Twitch.

LISTS 2007—My 10 Favorite Girish Drawings

It's at this time of year that I begin wondering if there isn't some famous film score composer named Lists? If not, there should be. Until that's properly determined, however, I join the ranks of celebrated bean counters and offer up the first of a series of lists. My first list has been as much a joy to compile as it was last year. Girish Shambu is an inspiration not only for his honed skills at facilitating discussion on movie thematics, and for tolerating juvenile delinquents in the back of his class, but for tickling us with ink drawings to accompany his entries; less this year, I note, than in years past and I would be remiss in my role as critic not to mention that he has actually tried to pass off some old drawings as new work. Tsk tsk tsk. Notwithstanding, here are my favorite 10.

If it is true that all you need to make a good movie is a gun and a girl, Girish starts us off with those two essential elements. Granted, Sylvia may not have eyes for anybody; which is neither here nor there unless she's aiming that gun.

I absolutely adore "Pour La Suite Du Monde" whose simplicity captures tranquil reflection expertly. Girish has promised me a t-shirt, the likes of which I will probably never see (no doubt because of the way I've behaved in class all year, and which I vainly presume is the direct inspiration for his "Smoking Moon"), but now I have a second t-shirt to add onto the wish list. (Seriously, don't you think that if Girish started a line of t-shirts and sold them to his friends at, let's say, $50 a pop, he'd make a killing? I would spend hundreds, perhaps thousands, for the chance to grace a runway with one-of-a-kind Girish couture. Only a hint from the hinterlands.)

Last year Girish gave us a fish-scaled guitar; this year his guitar's gone all "swirly" on us. It raised my eyebrow, that's for sure.

Also last year Girish illuminated the dark recesses of my mind with a pair of lamps, which he has likewise done this year. His Konichiwa lamp would look fabulous in my livingroom though—as much as I like it—the tassles on his second lamp might cause a flurry of rumors which I just don't have the energy to refute.

I love the movement in his dancer's skirt and her herringbone stockings are killer.

And that selfsame energy of movement decorates the kite that whips around in a sky whose clouds—as things go—have morphed into his end-of-the-year and beginning-of-this-entry Ganesh.

So I finish up 2007 by turning around to look at the white canvas of 2008. I wonder what Girish will draw for us next?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

PSIFF08—Leave Her to Heaven (or, alternately, Leave Her to Spoilers)

Here's a question for you: When you know that a character is going to die in a movie, does it make you watch their presence on screen with a different attention? Having just discussed Fatih Akin's scriptural device of foretold deaths via "chapter headings", I shifted to research on the PSIFF revival screening of John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven, to be introduced by the "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller. I was startled to read that in nearly every review of the newly-struck print, all the deaths in the film were clearly laid out. It made me wonder at what point does a film's shelf life expire so that—by entering the film "canon"—it's no longer necessary to announce spoilers? I guess another classic case-in-point would be Alfred Hitchcock's infamous shower scene in Psycho. Is there anyone who doesn't know (or shouldn't know) what happens to Marion Crane when she decides to freshen up a bit?

As Wikipedia summarizes, Leave Her to Heaven is a 1945 20th Century Fox color film noir motion picture starring Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, and Jeanne Crain, with Vincent Price, Darryl Hickman, and Chill Wills. It was adapted for the screen by Jo Swerling, based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams, and—as mentioned—directed by John M. Stahl. The title is a quote from William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In Act I, Scene V, the Ghost urges Hamlet not to seek vengeance against Queen Gertrude, but rather to "leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her." Leave Her to Heaven won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. It was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Gene Tierney), Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Color and Best Sound, Recording. It was later adapted for television in the 1988 production of Too Good to Be True.

One of my favorite essays on the film written a couple of years back when the film came out on DVD by Matthew Kennedy for
Bright Lights Film Journal almost lovingly pays tribute to what Kennedy describes as "a hothouse creation of the ripest, richest kind." Spotlighting Ellen Berent as played by Gene Tierney—"Hollywood's most beautiful overbite"—Kennedy writes: "Leave Her to Heaven shares a closer kinship to Michael Powell's British-made Black Narcissus (1947), where color similarly acts as a breathing character amidst turgid, denied emotions of lust, covetousness, dislocation, and death. If it sparks a memory of Douglas Sirk's lush dramas, there's a reason. Stahl directed Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession in the 1930s. Sirk remade both in the 1950s."

When the new print screened earlier this year at the 45th New York Film Festival, Slant's Dan Callahan was likewise dazzled by the color, evoking "the cool Technicolor greens slashed by the red of Ellen's fire-engine lips." Callahan writes: "Immediately pulsing with the thumping drums of Alfred Newman's stormy score, the film proceeds very slowly at first, as Stahl builds a dreamlike Technicolor atmosphere around his three leads, Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, and Jeanne Crain. These actors are eerily one-dimensional, and Stahl uses their limitations as performers to his advantage, making them look like sleepwalkers in a sort of Life magazine nightmare." He adds: "It is Leave Her to Heaven's signal achievement that Stahl is able to make Ellen both mysteriously unstoppable and poignantly trapped."

Greencine's David D'Arcy caught the same screening at the Walter Reader Theatre where the festival capsule extolled: "Some kind of alchemical fusion occurred between Tierney's exquisite features, [Leon] Shamroy's color palette and director John Stahl's feeling for melodrama, because Ellen is a virtually elemental figure of alluring menace." After puzzling over Tierney's access to nylons during the war, D'Arcy concluded: "Over the top doesn't come close to describing this one. Just be thankful that it's campy enough to keep you laughing through much of the torture that Tierney practices so easily."

Tom Hall was there as well and reported at The Back Row Manifesto: "This print looked fabulous and really brought [out] the depth of design that went into every shot, but there was some controversy in the Q&A after the film when the 20th Century Fox representative was challenged on the studio's preservation strategy (which, in all fairness, was implemented years ago) and their decision not to strike the print from an actual Technicolor positive. Instead, the print came from a restored pre-Techincolor process copy. A lively discussion ensued, and while not all complaints were salvaged, the fact that the film was available and looked so great on the screen assuaged any reservations I had about the image itself; Why pick fights in a graveyard? We're all headed to a digital world anyway..."

I certainly look forward to catching the film in Palm Springs and am—as ever—eager to hear Eddie Muller's introduction. This one is a "must-see" for me.

Cross-published on

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

BERLIN & BEYOND 2008—The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite / Yasamin kiyisinda)

Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven was not originally slated to open next month's Berlin & Beyond—Yella reserved that honor—but, once Ingrid Eggers, Program Coordinator for the Goethe-institut, learned Strand Releasing had picked up Akin's latest, she pitched her woo and secured the film for opening night. It's unfortunate that Akin will not be accompanying the film to San Francisco to give opening night an added wollop. The film will have to stand on its own, which—despite some reservations on my part—it assuredly does. Countless synopses have been written on The Edge of Heaven so I will focus instead on the film's critical reception and sift out themes that interest me rather than recounting the film's plot.

The second entry in an intended trilogy "Liebe, Tod und Teufel" ("Love, Death and the Devil")—of which Akin's acclaimed Head-On was the first installment—The Edge of Heaven was received at its Cannes premiere by critical fanfare, predominantly positive, though edged with some skeptical dissent. Variety's Derek Elley beamed that "The point at which a good director crosses the career bridge to become a substantial international talent is vividly clear in The Edge of Heaven, an utterly assured, profoundly moving fifth feature by Fatih Akin."

The Edge of Heaven won the Prix du Scenario Award at Cannes and is Germany's entry for this year's Academy Awards. Never one to mince words, Robert Koehler—guest writing for Doug Cummings' site Film Journey—opines: "[H]anding Fatih Akin … the screenplay prize for the wretchedly structured narrative of The Edge of Heaven is flatly an insult to screenwriting."

More recently, Greencine's Dave Hudson concurs, though with considerable more tact: "Fatih Akin's been named 'European Screenwriter 2007,' a repeat of the Cannes jury's bizarre choice. Bizarre not because Akin isn't a vital and vivacious filmmaker—he is—but because he and editor Andrew Bird freely admit to completely overhauling the structure of The Edge of Heaven at the editing table. Not that it's helped, I'm sorry to report to my fellow Akin fans. Despite occasional, almost erratic surges of energy here and there, I'm afraid we'll have to count Heaven among his weakest works yet."

Yet—despite my own reservations, which I will detail shortly—I can hardly describe The Edge of Heaven as "weak" and I found myself fully absorbed by (and in support of) the film's thematic and political intentions. Above all, it has a compelling story, no matter how you fall regarding how that story is told. Though I'm quite intrigued by Hudson's intimation that it is somehow inappropriate to bestow a screenwriting honor on a script structured in the editing room.

Sukhdev Sandhu, writing for The Telegraph, admires how The Edge of Heaven "tackles, without ever simplifying or trying to resolve too neatly, issues of diaspora and cross-generational kinship."

Mike D'Angelo, dispatching to The Screengrab, notes: "The Edge of Heaven (which sounds like a Majid Majidi film; the German title translates as From the Other Side) is an assured and disarmingly inquisitive picture, creating a mosaic of unsettled lives in which the pieces never fit quite where you expect them to."

Boyd Von Hoeij, writing for; translates the film's title alternately as "On the Other Side" and qualifies that the film's original German title carries "an even stronger sense of continuity after death" and "also points more strongly to the theme of incomprehension that the Germans and Turks have of each other and the preconceived ideas they have of the other party; the whole idea of having sides seems to conveniently overlook the fact they are all humans."

Jonny Cooper writes at No Tofu: "The Edge of Heaven is a falsely grandiose title. It has been translated from the more interrogative From the Other Side, which better conveys the issues at stake here of borders and landmasses, identification and fervor. Nonetheless, both demark a here and there and an us and them, which is precisely the uneducated dichotomy the film laments."

After we watched the film, my compatriot Frako Loden wondered what the film's title meant. Stranded in translation, and perhaps even strangled by language, it could (and most likely does) mean all of the above: diasporic tension, intergenerational kinship, geographic demarcation, and a philosophical thirst for a fixed, clear identity. For me, the film's (English) title clings to the film's closing image: the shoreline. A man waiting in the sand looking out at the cleanest line of nature: the sky meeting the sea. A man at the edge, contemplating the abyss. I took this as a metaphor for the death horizon; that liminal space that draws those who have survived death as surely as flame confuses the moth. Death confuses language. To set things right, one has to sit and articulate the alphabet of the human heart and the grammar of grief all over again. I know this from personal experience, from having weathered the death of loved ones too often too soon. I sometimes wonder if I shall ever pull out of the orbit of the death horizon? If I shall ever see the world again, or more correctly life, as I once did? Then again, should I want to? Joseph Campbell taught me in my youth that death adds resonance to life, and life has steadily proven death's effect. Over time I have come to respect and honor the death horizon as a field of resonance, a gravitational pull, that solicits contemplation. This is the cradle of philosophy, I imagine, and the image of a man sitting by the edge of the sea, waiting for a conversation with his father, seems as close to the edge of heaven as one can hope for.

Possibly my favorite write-up on The Edge of Heaven is Katja Nicodemus's essay for Die Zeit (translated by Meredith Dale), wherein she sensitively notes, "The Edge of Heaven is, like almost all Fatih Akin's films, an essay on the forms, gestures and temperaments of love."

Which leads me to consider that what I found to be one of the most invigorating aspects of The Edge of Heaven was its fair articulation of lesbian love. The lack of lesbian visibility in film is a theme consistently pounced upon by queer theorists—in contrast to the all-too-gratuitous portrayals of male gay visibility caricatured or commodified beyond recognition, let alone identification—and what I appreciate in Akin's gesture is that he—in some ways—speaks out of both sides of his mouth, satisfying the more customary appetite of male voyeurism with one of the steamiest on-screen kisses in recent memory but, more importantly, crafting lesbian chracters of heroic depth, strength and integrity. To others it might be nothing more than an incidental gesture; but, for me it is important and appreciated.

Now to my reservations, which are purely structural and stylistic. Cineuropa's Giovannella Rendi succinctly writes that The Edge of Heaven exhibits a "non-progressive, non-linear structure … divided into three parts: the first two are specular and the third a kind of summation in which all of the pieces of the mosaic fall into place."

Mike D'Angelo further observes that—within Akin's tripartite division—two of the chapters "sport titles that announce the impending death of a major character ('Yeter's Death' and 'Lotte's Death)"; "a structural device that lends even ostensibly mundane scenes a certain uneasy tension." Ray Bennett at The Hollywood Reporter considers that "[i]t may not be a wise thing to label the major chapters announcing the deaths of key characters" but excuses the choice because Akin "tells their stories with flair and compassion."

The Edge of Heaven's chapter headings remind Rob Daniel (Sky.Movies) of Pulp Fiction. He adds: "Akin navigates his players through disparate stories with the deft hand of a grandmaster, teasing out the ties that bind them and perfectly playing various near misses and chance encounters." But even more than its coincidental and consequential contrivances, what intrigues me about Akin's scriptural device is that its narrative thrust focuses less on the foretold deaths of Yeter and Lotte and circumambulates around the response of their survivors, or—as Gautaman Bhaskaran cogently argues in his dispatch to The Lumière Reader from the Telecom 2007 New Zealand International Film Festival—"Akin spins his plot around tragedies to strengthen his characters' resilience for views that may seem far removed than their own." At his site Lessons From the School of Inattention, Oggs Cruz likewise admires how The Edge of Heaven "subtly dissects the destructive and redemptory powers of death."

How is the arc of loss and redemption to be narrated? Akin foists an answer that, though of interest, is a bit too self-referential for my tastes, hazardously thwarting its own traction like throwing sand on the landing. Fortunately, the genuine heart of this film counters its intellectual contrivances. Variety (Elley) agrees: "Akin doesn't try to hide the plot's coincidences or Swiss watch-like precision, which is given human resonance by the flawless playing of the six leads." Likewise, The Hollywood Reporter (Bennett) notes: "[Akin] has time-shifted certain scenes, and he makes observant sense about the fragility of human connections." Writing for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw's take is that The Edge of Heaven is "an intriguing parallel-life drama of co-incidence and happenstance: the near-misses and near-hits of human contact." Conceding that the plot contrivances are elaborate, Bradshaw agrees with Elley that it is "the heartfelt compassion and intelligence of the direction" that counts.

But not all critics are as forgiving in their allowances. Anthony Kaufmann, dispatching to indieWire, is less generous: "[W]hile Akin's heartfelt political intentions are laudable," he writes, "the under-developed characters seem to be more at the service of the intricate plot, rather than the other way around. The film is well told, with strong performances across the board, but the story's coincidences and constructions feel too neat to ring true."

And then the comparisons begin. Already it's been noted that the chapter headings of The Edge of Heaven hint at Pulp Fiction. Alan Bacchus, writing for Daily Film Dose, observes that Akin "channels the themes and characters of Kieslowski's accomplished oeuvre." The Edge of Heaven's religious themes remind Bacchus of Kieslowski's Decalogue, and Akin's plot structure and characters remind him of Red, White and Blue.

Boyd Von Hoeij likewise notes the presence of Kieslowski, though more favorably: "Akin's work is so serene, contemplative and yet so complex that it bypasses any simple comparisons to recent convoluted choral works such as Crash and Babel and offers pleasing touches of Kieslowskian non-coincidences, though Akin is certainly not on the same level as the legendary Polish director of the Decalogue and the Three Colors Trilogy—at least, not yet."

IFC's Dennis Lim counters, however, that The Edge of Heaven is "visually flat and overly neat", complaining that the film's "crisscrossing premise" is padded "with more pseudo-cosmic coincidences tha[n] even Kieslowski would have tolerated." He concludes that The Edge of Heaven "forces its largely believable and sympathetic characters into an increasingly ludicrous web of contrivances."

Katja Nicodemus levies the same criticism. "Here and there," she writes, "we hear Fatih Akin's script groaning as the fatal, fateful moments are wedged into the plot. And coincidence is hard at work too." Yet her summation of the film is, perhaps, the most fair of all I've read: "So The Edge of Heaven is fundamentally an optimistic film. Because it shows that life is a great muddle of near-misses where sometimes the right people actually do meet up. Or that a homeland can be a feeling of belonging that is less about flags than about a place where at the end of his life an old man can go fishing once again. And because it shows that death is not the final frontier. At least not in a film where the dead so beautifully revive the living."

No Tofu's Jonny Cooper writes that The Edge of Heaven takes its cue "from the Iñárritu school of tangled web filmmaking" and that "Akin entwines three narratives like a triplet of contortionists folding themselves into a bewilderingly small box."

"What differentiates The Edge of Heaven to Haggis or Iñarritu's sprawling mini-epics of mankind's chronic inability to live with each other," Oggs Cruz discerns; "is that Akin values intimacy and control."

Admitting that on its face The Edge of Heaven "sounds like the Magnolia/Babel school of 'we are all connected, let's hold hands' filmmaking", Exclaim!'s Travis Mackenzie Hoover insists Akin "turns the model on its head." He writes: "Instead of disparate people made tenuously and spuriously coherent, this film misleads people intimately linked into losing relationships they need to be whole."

When asked by Cineuropa's Boyd Von Hoeij to describe his narrative technique, Akin freely admitted, "Well, the fact that it starts in the middle and then goes back, I guess that it [is] really something modern, like the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga." But he alludes to further influences: "The fact that the architecture of the script is modern initially inspired me to make a modern film, with a lot of handheld camerawork and things like that, but then I discovered Eastern cinema and Persian cinema and the way they slow things down and let the audience breathe, so then my approach changed."

I guess I bring up the subject of influences on narrative strategies because I question just how "modern" a device this is, especially since—preparing for my Val Lewton blogathon—I was struck by a comment made by William Friedkin in his DVD commentary for The Leopard Man where he asserts that films like Pulp Fiction owe direct allegiance to Lewton's (at-the-time) innovative usage of overlapping, transferred narrative trajectories. It is, therefore, not a strategy without precedent, and critical skepticism to The Edge of Heaven approximates the skepticism met by The Leopard Man when it first came out. I presume that—just as The Leopard Man has passed the test of time—so will The Edge of Heaven.

Finally, some word on the film's casting and performances. In the Cineuropa interview mentioned above, Akin explains: "For some time, I've had this image of a German mother coming to Istanbul to search for her missing daughter. For me, this image had always been connected with Hanna Schygulla. I met her in 2004 in Belgrade and was simply enchanted by her. I was also curious, because some people have compared my films to those from Fassbinder—an opinion I do not necessarily share. It's funny because in Turkey they compare my films to those from Yilmaz Güney, something I'm also ambiguous about, because if you follow in someone else's footsteps, how will you leave your own trace? I did use Tuncel Kurtiz, one of Güney's regular actors. It just felt right. The whole cast works as a cast, not as a homage or a reference to something else, so it was fine."

Despite his disallowances, even Hannah Schygulla likens Akin to Fassbinder. I didn't recognize her at first but found myself instantly enamored with her character. Boyd Von Hoeij ( writes: " Hanna Schygulla gives one of her most riveting performances in years, while the Turkish ensemble is excellent all-round, with Baki Davrak—on whom the film opens and closes—arguably the lead, though he carries it off with a light grace that belies his character's inner trouble."

SignandSight's Michael Althen considers Fassbinder legend Hanna Schygulla the film's "real attraction" and highlights the scene where Schygulla—having moved to Istanbul to occupy the former rented room of her daughter—leaves the house and walks down the street, saying hello to two chess players she passes, "unwittingly repeat[ing] her daughter's very gesture." Althen asserts: "It's not possible to tell in a more beautiful way the inner connection between mother and daughter."

Yet more praise from Variety (Elley): "Schygulla's low-key perf grows more slowly, bringing a reconciliatory glow to the final reels." Rob Daniel at Sky.Movies considers Schygulla's contribution "a standout performance of dignity and grief."

Cross-published on Twitch.