Monday, March 31, 2008

AMERICAN ZOMBIEThe Evening Class Interview With Grace Lee

I've long felt that Grace Lee's American Zombie and J.T. Petty's S&Man would be the perfect doublebill date, primarily because they're both refreshingly honest about being false documentaries morphing into the horror genre. As I've already written, horror movies are once again the rage; but, curiously the really good ones are now called documentaries.

I caught American Zombie when it played the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and spoke briefly with Grace Lee at that time. The film opened theatrically in Los Angeles this weekend, with no immediate prospects in view for a Bay Area screening. I was holding off on posting my interview until the film appeared Bayside; but, consider it might be more important to advance its Los Angeles premiere in hopes firing that booster engine propels it to San Francisco.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I know you don't like to use the term "mockumentary" so we'll call American Zombie a genre mash-up, how's that? My first question is where can I buy my "Jesus Was the Original Zombie" t-shirt?

Grace Lee: Actually, it's so funny. At South by Southwest—where I was last week—I was told I should make buttons or something. It might be interesting. There's so many merchandising prospects with this movie that I never even thought about.

Guillén: Well, I hope you make buttons or t-shirts or something because that's my favorite slogan right now.

Lee: In Texas someone said, "Actually, isn't Lazarus the original zombie?" Same difference.

Guillén: Exactly. Have you seen J.T. Petty's S&Man?

Lee: No.

Guillén: S&Man and American Zombie would make the perfect doublebill date.

Lee: Oh really?

Guillén: Like American Zombie, S&Man is a documentary that gradually shifts into a horror film. Yours, however, has its own unique tone, specifically through the way you comment on social ills through sophisticated (albeit dark) humor. How did you shape American Zombie? How was the idea formed into the finished film?

Lee: I made this movie called The Grace Lee Project first. It was a personal documentary and, in a sense, it was about me and women who shared my name and the stereotypes of identify confusion surrounding this very Asian American name. I've sort of been obsessed with movies about identity and politics and things like that. I felt like zombies are a blank slate. Zombies are kind of out there in the zeitgeist right now; but, it's not like I'm a zombie movies aficionado. It just sort of started with a friend of mine. We started talking about ideas and the film was inspired by these strange type of dreams that she'd been having. I thought it was so interesting the juxtaposition between a very mild-mannered girl having these violent dreams, sort of like the character Lisa in the film, who's incredibly free but dark underneath. What's underneath the surface of this happy-go-lucky person?

Guillén: It's interesting that you think of zombies as being a kind of zeitgeist sponge that can represent any segment of the population. In your film, they play into minority politics. After garnering several accolades for The Grace Lee Project, which established you as a documentary filmmaker, do you feel you have jeopardized your journalistic credibility in any way by following up with a false documentary? Or do you care?

Lee: I don't really care. I'm interested in many different things. If I make a regular documentary again and people don't want to see it because they feel I've compromised myself by making a movie with zombies in it, I think they've missed the point. They've missed the joke. Identity politics is as much a target as myself.

Guillén: It takes a certain sophistication to make fun of your own credibility. As the documentary filmmaker in American Zombie, you're trying to steer the focus of the documentary. Both you and John Solomon in the film have agendas regarding what the film should be and how it should be shaped. That tension between the two of you speaks volumes about the process of documentary filmmaking; how it's organized; how it's accomplished; the fallacy of its alleged objectivity.

Lee: Right. I'm glad you got it on that level. Like you said, my background is not horror movies. My background is documentaries. This film is about the issues around making documentaries and placing it in a different context.

Guillén: The final scene where you, as a documentarian, are faced with a horrific quandary about what to do with an injured party you have feelings for, is a chilling choice. But this is exactly the risk that any documentary filmmaker takes when they start a documentary and don't really know half the time how the film will evolve.

Lee: Glad you got it!

Guillén: In the film the zombies, or "revenants" as you call them, come into being as the result of violent deaths. You situate this scenario in Los Angeles and yet there's not a single Black revenant in your film. Since Blacks are such a strong community in the Los Angeles metropolitan area who have suffered a history of violence, I found their absence notable. Did you think about that at all?

Lee: Not in those terms. I definitely knew we wanted to make a portrait of Los Angeles and—I don't know what you thought about the film—but a certain joke we had was that this was Crash Zombies.

Guillén: Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed how you used zombies to represent a marginalized minority and perhaps that suffices in and of itself to represent ethnic minorities. Usually when you see a film about zombies, they have a signature physicality. They move slow. Drag their feet. That kind of thing. I like how you shifted that a bit and had them move regularly so that they were more like everyday people trying to fit in with the non-revenant population. Maybe some skin was rotting and falling off. Maybe there was a maggot or two.

Lee: Judy, the assimilationist zombie, is in denial about who she really is and kind of comes into her own at the end.

Guillén: How did you develop the four main characters?

Lee: The film started with the characters. They were like archetypes. We definitely wanted a woman because you don't see that too often. We wanted an activist, someone from the marginalized community who could speak for them.

Guillen: I found myself chanting for a while, "We're here. We're dead. Get used to it!" [Laughter.]

Lee: We wanted a slacker kind of guy. We definitely wanted a character who was searching for identity, what happened to her, her lost memories, obsessed with recovering the past. We had this idea that Grace Lee, me, is a documentary filmmaker caught up in socially conscious issues who just wanted to find out what the zombies had to say.

Guillen: Playing yourself as a socially-conscious documentary filmmaker was especially intriguing because you showed the documentarian's folly, how you could be so caught up in the issue of community building and community fairness, whereas John Solomon's character as a documentary filmmaker mainly just wanted the proof of the refridgerator.

Lee: He was trying to make a monster movie.

Guillen: I was trying to figure out what was next for you from the press notes; but, I wasn't sure if I could rely on them because they're so wry. You have some real information with some fake experts in there. I couldn't tell what was real or not.

Lee: I'm sorry. [Chuckling.]

Guillen: No, I get the joke. The press notes as fact are as unreliable as the documentary as fact.

Lee: It's interesting how people really want to believe. I've had so many conversations with people where they would ask, "What's your project?" "Oh, it's a"—and if I don't insert the word 'fictional'—"documentary about zombies living in L.A.", they'll say, "Oh great great. What do you mean by zombies?" "The living dead." "Oh. Okay. That's really interesting. I'd love to see it." [Laughter.] People just accept things at face value, which I also find to be indicative of our culture.

Cross-published on Twitch.

SOCKETThe Evening Class Interview With Sean Abley

At the time when I spoke with director/screenwriter Sean Abley, congratulations were due because Socket had just been picked up by TLA Releasing, which launched the film's DVD release on March 25th (here's the trailer).

Abley spent the better part of the 90's in Chicago writing, directing and producing theater for his company, The Factory Theater. He then moved to Los Angeles where he spent time writing and producing more reality TV than he'd care to admit. "No names," he jokes, "to protect the not-so-innocent from slanderous accusations and libelous intimations." Thankfully, children's television rescued him and helped him develop a handsome resume of writing gigs for the Disney Channel, ABC, and Fox Family. In the "Where Does This Belong?" category, he wrote video segments for the "Men In Black—Alien Attack" theme park attraction at Universal Studios Florida starring Rip Torn. He's likewise rendered several queer readings of the horror genre for The Advocate.

Along the way he started producing films. After aiding and abetting the slaughter of young teens in Butcher House for FatKidFilms/Idolik Entertainment, and writing the screenplay for the horror flick Rope Burn for Moving In Pictures (soon to be released on DVD), he graduated to directing his own feature horror script, Socket, for Dark Blue Films and Velvet Candy, LLC.

TLA describes Socket as "an erotic sci-fi fantasy like no other" where "a pair of gay lovers literally get a jolt as they plug in for pleasure." They synopsize: "After being struck by lightning, Dr. Bill Matthews (Derek Long) receives extra special care from a mysterious, sexy hospital intern Craig (Matthew Montgomery). Having survived the same natural accident, Craig introduces his new recruit to an underground group that uses electricity to reach ecstasy. Soon the two develop an insatiable appetite for wall sockets and each other, but it's not enough for Bill. Using his gifted talents as a surgeon, this doctor will stop at nothing to find the ultimate charge!"

Socket received a favorable review from Fangoria's Jeremiah Kipp who praised it as "a thoughtful, imaginative slice of low-budget filmmaking, where the big ideas transcend the limited means of production." The film's "excellent performances" bring "identifiable humanity to the unusual ideas."

The official Socket DVD release party will be held Wednesday, April 2, 8:00PM at MJ's Bar, 2810 Hyperion Boulevard, in Los Angeles, California. Socket will also screen Monday April 14 at 7:20PM as part of FilmOut San Diego's "Thriller/Camp Night."

* * *

Michael Guillén: Socket has been making the rounds on the Gay film festival circuit?

Sean Abley: Yeah. It had a fairly short run. We got started kind of late with the festivals because we wanted to premiere at Outfest and the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, so we held out. Then we basically did the rest of the festivals after that. I guess you would say we had half of the season on the festival circuit.

Guillén: Congratulations on being picked up by TLA Distributing. Was that for DVD distribution and/or theatrical distribution?

Abley: Basically everything except theatrical. DVD, pay for view, video on demand, all the downloadable technologies. It will also show at festivals and special screenings.

Guillén: I am hoping you'll bring it to San Francisco, possibly through Dead Channels, as I'm sure folks here would love to see it on the big screen. I know I would.

Abley: I would love to come to San Francisco with the film. Sadly, Frameline was one of the few festivals that rejected us this season.

Guillén: That's unfortunate; because Socket is a deft piece of queer horror, yet stands quite well without qualifiers as a solid contribution to the horror genre in general. Definitely the Cronenberg influence is there, which is fine by me as I'm a great fan of David Cronenberg. Can you talk a bit about how you developed the story for Socket? Where it came from?

Abley: Sure! The initial idea was actually quite a long time ago; it was probably over 10 years ago. I was living in Chicago at the time and I had started a theatre company and was sort of feeling cocky enough that I thought, "Well, if I can start a theatre company; I can make movies!" I'm a gigantic horror fan and, of course, a Cronenberg fan, and I had just read J.G. Ballard's Crash and became interested in taking something not sexual and making it sexual (although I now know that people do use electricity during sex; though—at the time—I had never heard of it).

That was the impetus—the visualization of putting something into your flesh (the light socket came up pretty quickly)—and definitely I wanted to do something Cronenbergian about the body, biological science fiction. Then, I started mapping out the bones of the story and decided to make it gay for some reason. I'm not exactly sure why I decided to go in that direction; but, once I did, I decided that was important to the story that there be a gay science fiction out there but it was not important that their homosexuality was part of the plot. I tried to keep that almost secondary.

Guillén: Though I'm aware you have discounted that Socket is not a direct reflection of the methamphetamine pandemic within the gay subculture, I maintain the film effectively lends itself to that interpretation. Would you agree?

Abley: Yeah; but, it's more about general addiction than specifically meth. I don't hide that fact at all. There was one review that came out that made it seem like I was trying to be too clever about it and not reveal that it was about addiction; but, no, it's completely about addiction. I see Socket as an addiction movie, it's also a vampire movie (in the sense that someone preys upon someone else), and—when I was structuring the story—there was a point where I decided quite firmly that it was going to be an addiction story. I sat down and I wrote out the beef of what an addiction story would be regardless of what the substance was. It followed out when I wrote the script.

Guillén: Socket certainly captures the allure of addiction and how exciting and fun substance abuse can be at the beginning. It's exciting to watch your characters get hooked up at first and then sobering to watch their gradual decimation physically and socially. You handled that depiction responsibly.

Abley: Thank you.

Guillén: Though you discount that methamphetamine abuse was not your immediate or particular focus, I believe the film can be very helpful to gay communities struggling with this issue. I don't think you'll be able to avoid their applying this understanding onto your film. As a lesson on the hazards of addiction, it's very well-done.

Abley: Thank you. One of the things that I did specifically want to do along those lines was to point out how addiction isn't fair or democratic. In the movie I specifically made Bill (Derek Long) the lead character the one who can't handle it. Everybody else seems to be able to handle it. It's like how some people can drink and some people can't. There's no rhyme or reason to who has an addictive personality and who doesn't. That's my outlook on the plot.

Guillén: When Frameline rejected Socket, did they give you any reasons why?

Abley: No, none. I know there was another science fiction film that was trying to get into the festival that they also didn't program—though the two films were very different—but, that would be the only reason I could guess. Some of the reviews have been pretty harsh. I think the reason for that is we're not giving people who are primarily focused on gay film what they're expecting to get. It's not about young boys, it's not a coming-out story, and the lead character isn't likeable, he's into destructive behavior. When people who are a little bit narrow-focused don't get what they normally get, they decide that it's not for them.

Guillén: There is, however, a longstanding precedent for queer horror. I'm pleased that you're contributing to that field. Do you intend to continue in that direction?

Abley: Absolutely. I'm producing a project right now that's a gay thriller and the next thing that I'm shooting as a director and writer isn't necessarily a thriller—it's more of a gay Russ Meyer flick—but, yes, definitely, the producers that I worked with on Socket—John Carrozza and Doug Prinzivalli—and I all share the same ideas and goals as far as making movies. If I could make gay horror movies for the rest of my life, that would be great.

Guillén: When you decided to make a gay horror movie, surely you realized it would be an uphill battle for distribution? Thus, its being picked up by TLA Releasing is a godsend. Were you aware, however, that Socket might not have the market you wanted it to have?

Abley: We were cocky enough to think that if we created something different, people would snap it up. We were very idealistic in that sense when we made the movie. We actually didn't think it was going to be hard at all to get a distributor or to get into film festivals or get good reviews. We've sort of been proven wrong on two or three accounts. TLA was enthusiastic from the very beginning and that was great for us. They're the company that we really wanted to pick up Socket. The fact that they did, is great.

Guillén: I haven't had a chance to research the film's critical response; you're saying you've received harsh reviews? Would that be because you're creating a gay image that doesn't align with the more commodified images of gay characters?

Abley: Part of it is that definitely, plus the fact that we're giving people something that's different. There's always got to be a first one and often times that first one is not looked on well. The other thing is that Socket is being pushed as a horror movie and I don't think it's a horror movie; I think it's more a science fiction film. People are expecting to be scared when the film is actually more weird and creepy and disturbing than scary and that's what the bad reviews we've received have criticized.

Guillén: From my standpoint, your depiction of pleasure as horror is quite edgy. It trips into a taboo region. People don't like to think of their pleasure as horror.

Abley: That's very specific to the gay community. We live in a gay culture where no matter what your fetish is, you expect people to say it's okay, no matter how out there or destructive it may be. So, sure, if my movie is thought of as something that is making pleasure or sexuality the bad guy, then that probably pushes some buttons.

Guillén: I've not researched this, but, I would be curious to know how Cronenberg's Rabid was initially received? I'm sure some of his reviews weren't favorable either.

Abley: I don't know. I love that movie and it's so prevalent in my mind when I think about his films; but, I would love to know too. Something must have clicked because he got to make more movies after that.

Guillén: I'm surprised to hear you say some of the critical response to Socket has been tepid because I found it solidly produced and acted. But I guess it goes without saying that in this genre especially critical response is not as crucial as, say, word-of-mouth or shelf life, which ultimately gives life to a film like Socket.

Abley: It's a niche-market film. The people who are interested in this kind of film will find it. That's the important part. Film festivals are fun and it's a thrill to participate in them, but we always saw this movie as either a midnight movie and/or a big DVD release.

Guillén: Dark Blue Films is your production company?

Abley: Yeah.

Guillén: Your production diary for Socket is an interesting read and provides great insight for up-and-coming filmmakers. I strongly recommend that they take a look at it. I'm amazed that your shooting schedule for the film was only nine days.

Abley: Yeah, so were we. I think the original schedule was for 12 days, but because of budget we were looking to make that shorter. Within the production we found four locations that doubled for all the locations in the movie. I think we did a pretty good job. I don't think you can tell we're in the same place all the time. That helped out a lot. Quite honestly, when we got to the eighth day and realized that the next day, the ninth day, was going to be our last day, we were all shocked, pleasantly so. We did have about one extra day of pick-ups and insert shots though that process was spread out over several days. We'd work for an hour and go shoot the hospital and then wrap it up for the day. Then the next day we'd shoot the arm insert and that kind of thing. But it equaled out to about one extra day.

Guillén: I was intrigued by the ninth day's "run and gun" process. Is shooting without a permit a real problem in L.A.? Once people see the film, if they identify a location, is it a problem?

Abley: Once the film is done, once you've shot and left, you're fine for the most part. It's while you're there that you could get shut down. I've never been shut down for all the stuff that I've shot without permits so I'm not exactly sure what the penalty is. I know the cops can make you stop shooting. I know they can fine you. We did have a cop show up one night but, fortunately, it was a night when we had a permit.

Guillén: That's good! I also wanted to commend you on your gender parity. I admired your representation of the lesbian couple. A lot of times when I go to see a gay film, especially if it has a male protagonist, lesbians are nowhere in sight.

Abley: Thank you. It was very purposeful. I really wanted to have a broad spectrum of people in the film and, again, when you see a lot of gay films they're either all-gays or all-lesbians and I really wanted to mix it up. Isn't that how we live? It's how we should live. I did that with the races of the characters as well. When I wrote the script, I specifically kept in mind that it should have a mix of races. I try to do my part along those lines. Alexandra Billings (who plays Dr. Andersen) has been a friend of mine for ages. She's a transsexual actress and every part that she plays on screen is a transsexual and I think she's just a better actress than that. I decided to cast her in a role that had nothing to do with her being transsexual. Hopefully, that's the first of many for her and for other transsexual actors.

Guillén: That gender and racial parity also amplified the horror because, as you mentioned, addiction is not fair, it can hit anybody irregardless of sex, gender, race, age. All that being said, I'm curious if you think you'll find a straight audience for this film?

Abley: That's a good question. My straight friends who have seen it have all enjoyed it. The moments of full frontal gay nudity and sex scenes haven't driven them away. I think that if straight people see Socket, they'll enjoy it and I would love it if it caught on with a straight crowd. Honestly, the characters aren't all gay. That group of people that Bill finds himself in are omnisexual. The label that I believe it's being released on at TLA is the "Danger After Dark" label, which is straight across horror. So, hopefully, it will find that audience. I would love it.

Guillén: So what's up for you next? You're working on the thriller Pornography?

Abley: Yeah, I'm producing that for my editor actually, David Kittredge, who edited Socket. He's also a writer-director and this is his first feature. He's written a gay paranormal thriller set in the world of gay pornography and it's really a great script. It's really smart. Where I'm influenced by David Cronenberg, he's influenced by David Lynch. To describe the plot is almost impossible because of the twists and turns and the timeshifts; but, it's basically about the disappearance of a gay porn star and the people who are trying to figure out what happened.

Guillén: What will you be directing next?

Abley: The next thing I'm directing is called Wildcat Road. It's sort of a departure for me. It's like a gay Russ Meyer road flick. It's sort of a gay Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! It's funny, violent and sexy. We're hoping to shoot that in April because most of it takes place in the desert. Once you get past April, it's a little unpleasant out there. The producers, the Velvet Candy Entertainment guys, came up with the idea and asked me to direct it for them. We're working together again on that.

Guillén: Please keep me posted on that. As an aside, have you ever had the chance to meet David Cronenberg?

Abley: I haven't. But it's funny you should ask that. When I first moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, I was temping at CBS in the business affairs department and I got in the elevator one day to go up to the executive offices for some reason. We stopped at a floor inbetween and the doors opened and David Cronenberg walked into the elevator. So I rode the elevator up to the executive offices with David Cronenberg and, of course, I was absolutely too terrified to say anything because I'd only been in Los Angeles about a month.

Guillén: Aw, that's too bad!

Abley: I know! I should have said something.

Guillén: Absolutely!

Abley: I think it was the same elevator ride that we stopped on another floor and Fran Drescher walked in. So here I am, 30 years old, in an elevator with David Cronenberg and Fran Drescher!

Guillén: [Laughter.] You have definitely paid great homage to Cronenberg through Socket and tweaked his style of "body horror" into a fresh, contemporary inflection. This is a bit difficult for me to phrase, but, another aspect of the film that I found entertaining was the sheer implausibility of its images of body horror. Socket is right in there with the syringe coming out of Marilyn Chamber's armpit or the entry ports for videotapes and program disks in Videodrome and existenZ. Implausible but engaging!

Abley: I also love J-horror. One of the reasons Socket has such an enigmatic ending and why I don't "explain" the science is a direct influence from J-horror, where they never explain why things happen; they just take you for a ride. I love that mindset for filmmaking. My job is to present it in such a way that people don't question it. They suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. I knew that—if I tried to explain the science—the film would just unravel. Because, obviously, it's impossible; but, I set it in a world where it just happens.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

PFA: THE CLASH OF '68—Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964)

Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution has kickstarted the Pacific Film Archive's homage to "The Clash of '68", moderated by curator Steve Seid who—in his introductory notes—specifies: "Soon to be forty years old, May '68 is demonstrating creaky joints, age-related depression, and memory loss. Definitely memory loss. So 'The Clash of '68' is dedicated to the memory of that most remarkable month."

The series provides a fascinating and eclectic dedication, presented in conjunction with the Berkeley Art Museum's exhibition "Protest in Paris 1968: Photographs by Serge Hambourg" and supplemented before each program by "pithy montages" aptly named "Revolution Rewind", compiled by the Pacifica Radio Archives who "have captured vital audio of some of the most incendiary events of 1968, as originally heard on [the Bay Area's] KPFA 94.1 FM and elsewhere." (For starters, I smiled to myself hearing Joan Baez attest that she didn't think a woman should go to bed with a man who has a draft card; an apt entré into the evening's heady mix of sex and politics.)

As Seid synopsizes the series' opener: "It's always just 'before the revolution' if you give in to the stasis of bourgeois life. But this is also a paradoxical state for the exuberant youth, Fabrizio, of Bertolucci's paean to unhinged passion—a state of kept innocence vying with radical impulse. And Bertolucci should know, having been a mere twenty-two years old when he created this brilliant New Wave amalgam that references Stendhal, Godard, Marx, Talleyrand, Rossellini, Chekhov, and others. A young man of haut-bourgeois origin, Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) nonetheless fancies himself a bearer of progressive thinking. His is a shaky idealism, enflamed by the committed words of his Marxist mentor. Then Fabrizio begins an affair with his seductive and unsettled aunt Gina (played with torrid assurance by Adriana Asti). Neither of the conflicting poles of Bertolucci's audacious narrative—the complicated emotions of the amorous aunt, or the exhilaration of proletarian resistance—can offer Fabrizio the safety he requires. A 'nostalgia for the present' afflicts this timorous youth, while all around him, things change."

Often, after seeing a film, I have no impulse to "review" it; I merely wish to record my experience of it, and to place it within the diary of my ongoing film viewing, much as diarist Anaïs Nin did when she included entries about films in her celebrated diaries. Besides, how foolish would it be to "review" a film like Bernardo Bertolucci's sophomore feature Before the Revolution, which has long been acknowledged for its idiosyncratic, flawed genius and its prescient glimpse into Bertolucci's later mature work? My "critical responsibility" shall have to be exactly that: the ability to articulate a response.

"I'm Picking Up Good Citations"

Fresh from Dr. John Beebe's seminar on "Cinematic Expressions of the Anima" the weekend before, wherein Beebe discussed Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934), I felt a shimmer of excitement when I recognized that Bertolucci was citing L'Atalante in Before the Revolution. It felt like Vigo's film had handed me over to Bertolucci's; almost as if two elders were nurturing the experience of a minor. At 54, it's somewhat pleasant to pose the inexperienced naïf, and I am beholden to cinema for that continuing pleasure. How can one ever learn enough about this medium? Will the day ever arrive when I can claim to be the sophisticate?

I wasn't the only one who noticed this citation to Vigo. Rob Davis mentioned it to me in our discussion afterwards while walking to BART and—while doing subsequent research—I discovered it had been likewise noted by Neel Chaudhuri in his definitive Senses of Cinema essay "Clouds Pursuing Clouds" (the best write-up on this film I've read), wherein he appreciatively teases out the film's love story between Fabrizio and his aunt Gina. "Their first love-scene is as erotic as anything Bertolucci has subsequently fashioned," Chaudhuri writes, "reaching a height of sensuality even as Fabrizio and Gina lie on separate beds." He notes the "similarly remarkable scene in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, where two lovers are able to sexually and sensually transcend their spatial separation." Years earlier, Maximilian Le Cain had already pointed out Bertolucci's direct quotation from L'Atalante in his Senses of Cinema profile for Jean Vigo and added that Bertolucci quotes L'Atalante again in Last Tango in Paris (1973).

When it comes to cinematic citation, films can be like Chinese puzzle boxes; you keep finding one film within the other. It can become an addictive mind tease. The citational texture of Before the Revolution is, indeed, seductive and challenging, not only for the "New Wave amalgam" Seid mentioned above, accomplished through the films referenced within the film itself—Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) and Godard's Une femme est une femme (1961)—but, also through multiple intertextual citations to filmic influences (Pasolini, Rosselini, Godard), literary allusions (Stendahl, Talleyrand, Chekhov), historical references (Chief Seattle), and the film's own influence on later films, not the least of which would be Bertolucci's "dream" of May 1968: The Dreamers (2003).

It's been frequently observed that Bertolucci's early films had a direct influence on Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, and—having recently watched Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989)—I belatedly recognize Jarmusch's reference to Bertolucci in the scene where the Italian widow Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) is talked into buying more magazines than she can possibly carry, much like Gina in Before the Revolution.

One further citation—a pivotal sequence in the film which determines Fabrizio's final choices—is when Fabrizio and Gina visit her friend Puck (Cecrope Barilli) by the banks of the River Po. In her Senses of Cinema profile on Bertolucci, Bilge Ebiri describes this "gorgeous" sequence as "a beautifully filmed, lushly scored ode to the environment", which "almost feels like it deserves to be its own short work." Puck's monologue impressed me for paraphrasing Chief Seattle's forlorn correspondence to the President of the United States lamenting "the end of living and the beginning of survival." Aligning a fading aristocracy's ownership of the land with a vanquished indigenous culture's non-ownership of land is a curious choice and, paraphrasing Ebiri, might warrant an essay all on its own.

"Homages and Exorcisms: Pasolini"

As for mentors, Ebiri acknowledges both Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard as Bertolucci's "twin spiritual fathers" and recognizes that many of Bertolucci's "early films work simultaneously as homages and exorcisms."

It's likely Bertolucci inherited the psychosexual dysfunction at the heart of this film from Pasolini. As Chaudhuri details, "Bertolucci worked as a production assistant on Pasolini's first feature, Accatone (1961), and the script for his own feature debut, La commare secca (The Grim Reaper), was based on a five-page treatment by Pasolini." In Before the Revolution, Pasolini's influence is first felt in the homoerotic attraction between Fabrizio and his friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) and, after Agostino's death, the incestuous relationship with his Aunt Gina. At least at this early stage homoeroticism hadn't been artfully melded with facism; that would come later with The Conformist (1970).

Sam Adams at the Philadelphia City Paper quotes Amos Vogel's description of Before the Revolution as "a shamelessly passionate, intensely personal statement of political and sexual coming of age" and "perhaps the most germinal work of the new cinema." Adams follows up and offers his own opinion: "Filmed when Bertolucci was barely in his 20s, the film set the stage for a career obsessed with the conflict between sexual and political passions and the inescapability of bourgeois birth. If its style seems to belong as much to Bertolucci's mentor Pasolini as the budding auteur himself, the feeling that a sensibility is being born as you watch is still thrilling." Though the film's style and ideological underpinnings can be easily recognized as homage, and might even be considered dated by some, Neel Chaudhuri insists the film's display of "playful exuberance" remains infectious, "and the shattered idealism that Bertolucci is able to portray is as palpable and affective as ever." That, I agree, is the film's redeeming relevance. Or as Joni Mitchell once quipped, "Disappointment is my favorite theme."

Because her family's wealth is in direct conflict with his Marxist ideology, Fabrizio breaks off his engagement to Clelia (Cristie Pariset) and seeks to convert his friend Agostino to communism. Agostino resists and ends up drowned. Whether Agostino's apparent suicide has anything to do with Fabrizio's preference for Cesare (Morando Morandini), his Marxist mentor, is left vague; but, clearly, Agostino's death unmoors Fabrizio. At his friend's funeral, the brooding Fabrizio encounters "his seductive and unsettled aunt Gina" who—as Steve Seid notes—is "played with torrid assurance by Adriana Asti." Ten years his elder, she volunteers to sit with Fabrizio in the car while he waits out Agostino's memorial, which he's refused to attend. Their incestuous dalliance might simply be seen as an affront against the norm of the nuclear family. Bilge Ebiri, however, provocatively proposes an alternate reading that "the incest taboo is a sublimation of homoerotic desire."

Whether staged ideological protest or sublimated homoerotic desire, their affair is problematic from the get-go. Gina suffers from constant delusions of reference, which prove exasperating—"every war, storm and fire is her fault" (Chaudhuri)—and Fabrizio is wracked by guilt and doubt. Ebiri characterizes it as "political doubt": "Fabrizio abandons one type of patriarchy (his conservative family) for another (the ideological demands of Marxism). As in most of the director's films, this dichotomy is accompanied by sexual tension."

"Homages and Exorcisms: Godard"

Though Fabrizio wanted to fill Gina with vitality, he provides anguish instead, confirming Anaïs Nin's assertion that "anxiety destroys love." But the road to that destruction is paved with Bertolucci's French influences, primarily Godard, Truffaut and Resnais. As Henry K. Miller puts it at Film In Context, the film becomes "as nouvelle as they come", riddled with "Godardian aphorisms—'style is a moral fact' being one of the most pleasing." Where "R&R" might mean rest and relaxation to the American middle class, for Bertolucci it meant romance and revolution.

Watching Gina and Fabrizio fall in love on the streets of Parma, accompanied by Gato Barbieri's pop confections, recalls Violet le Duc's novel Mad In Pursuit. Chaudhuri lifts his essay's title from Gina's allegory: "clouds pursue clouds."; "She pursues him pursuing her." Watching their affair, he writes, "is like looking upon parallel rail-tracks from the window of a moving train—they come together, collide, move apart, and all at a speed that makes the spectacle hypnotic and their inevitable separation so abrupt." So much cityscape meandering and kinetic intercutting makes one a bit dizzy, as infatuation is wont to do. Bertolucci's camera somatizes desire. Frequent out-of-focus shots perhaps convey "the nebulous state of mind of its main character," Spiros Gangas suggests at the Edinburgh U Film Society. Keith Breese writes that Before the Revolution "charg[es] indoctrination with corruption and utilize[s] propaganda as style." It's evident, Chaudhuri observes, "that Bertolucci is intent on extending his medium to its fullest potential. Through the course of the film he seems to attempt almost everything that is possible within his means. He uses his lenses generously, persistently zooming in and out, and shifting focus. His camera pans, tracks, jerks, swivels, dollies here and there, scurries behind people, hovers over the River Po, and occasionally rests on the quiet of a tripod. His editing pattern is rarely seamless, audaciously playing with direction, angles and continuity, and often making one frame jump into the next. He uses light and exposure to great effect, contrasting the delicate expressionistic interplay between shadow and luminance in the more intimate scenes with the near-bleached overtones of some of the outdoor shots. The soundtrack is overlaid with dialogue and frequent voiceover, diegetic music, sporadic bursts of film score, and a careful use of silence. Amidst all of this there occur two striking moments of ellipsis—the first is an iris-in that encircles Fabrizio with a rose in his mouth, and the second an almost surreal insertion of color frames as Gina observes Fabrizio through a camera obscura."

In his grand overview of the cine-revolution of May 1968 for New Yorker Magazine, Louis Menand writes: "Apart from Pasolini, who cited the movie in a famous essay, 'The Cinema of Poetry,' in 1965, the Italians hated Before the Revolution. The French adored it. The movie was screened during the Critics' Week at Cannes in 1964, where it won prizes and was identified by French critics as 'an homage to the school of the Cahiers,' which it certainly was. Bertolucci had been a regular reader of the Cahiers almost since he was a child—he was introduced to the magazine by his father, who wrote movie reviews as well as poetry—and he was an acolyte of Godard, whose stylistic fingerprints are all over the movie. Bertolucci became the New Wave's adopted Italian. He went to Paris and met Godard, Langlois, Agnès Varda. Though no one could see his movie, because it lacked a distributor, it became a critical touchstone at the Cahiers. …For his part, Bertolucci used to say that he preferred to give interviews in French, on the ground that French is the true language of cinema. Langlois himself was responsible for the French release of Before the Revolution, which finally happened in 1968. The Cahiers critics all awarded it four stars, their highest rating—'chef d'oeuvre.' By 1968, student radicals were citing it as explanation and inspiration, and the phrase 'before the revolution' appeared in accounts of the events of May in the French press."

"Avant la Révolution"

Of course the phrase "before the revolution" comes from a remark made by the influential 18th century French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, recorded by François Guizot in his Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de mon temps (1858): "Celui qui n'a pas vécu au dix-huitième siècle avant la Révolution ne connaît pas la douceur de vivre." Translated: "Those who haven't lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution will never be able to know the sweetness of life." Menard asserts that Bertolucci meant the title ironically. Life "before the revolution" is agony and Bertolucci has his protagonist mutter, despairingly, "It's always 'before the revolution' if you're like me."

"[Fabrizio] is merely a pretender to the cause," Chaudhuri explains further. "He brandishes a bookish rhetoric but this is only to sound convincing. Towards the end he chokes while chanting a Marxist slogan. This is the realization that he will never be the 'new kind of man' that he believes in—one that is 'wise enough to educate his parents'. So there is some irony in Bertolucci's appropriation of Talleyrand's remark. For Fabrizio there is little 'sweetness' in this time 'before the revolution'; it is filled instead with agony and despair."

Before the Revolution works as "an exorcism of a different sort" (Elibi), which Bertolucci himself defines: "I needed to exorcise certain fears. I was a Marxist with all the love, all the passion, and all the despair of a bourgeois who chooses Marxism. Naturally in every bourgeois Marxist, who is consciously Marxist, I should say, there is always the fear of being sucked back into the milieu he came out of, because he's born into it and the roots are so deep that a young bourgeois finds it very hard to be a Marxist."

(For an interesting aside on how the Talleyrand quote has been applied to the blogging "revolution", see Jonathon Delacour's weary lament at The Heart of Things, which is notable for the historical context it provides for the Talleyrand quote.)

"Nostalgia for the Present"

Steve Seid diagnoses Fabrizio's "nostalgia for the present" as an affliction. Maximilian Le Cain, in his Senses of Cinema review of The Dreamers, characterizes that affliction as an "intensity of the moment linked to its fading, nostalgia without retrospection." Chaudhuri proposes that "[i]f there is a single subject in the film, it is the existence and future of the individual within an ephemeral moment, and the future of that moment itself within a larger historical process." Further, he uses their attitudes towards time to depict the fundamental difference between Gina and Fabrizio. Where she "questions the significance of time and the idea that the world has order that can be manipulated"; his relationship with the present "is more nostalgic because with every passing moment his future becomes his past."

Cross-published on Twitch.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Remember the cautionary adage that too much of a good thing might be bad for you? Would it follow through inversely that too much of a bad thing might be good for you? Recent documentaries on the atrocities at Abu Ghraib—Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and, most recently, Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure—seem to suggest so, as if revealing in gruesome detail what went down at Iraq's notorious interrogation center will somehow provide the remedy I noted lacking in Tom McCarthy's The Visitor, presumably by shocking audiences into awareness and out of complacency into action. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that effect can be expected at this late date in our country as the republic (clearly, we're no longer a democracy) slouches towards Bethlehem to be born an empire (if not at least a corporate oligarchy), and as from the sidelines the Republicans slyly observe the Democrats eating their own. I even wonder if such explicit depiction and—in the case of Standard Operating Procedure—gory reenactment worthy of pop culture's best horror flicks will not induce fatigued avoidance and a mistrust of investigative journalism guised as entertainment?

It's an important question. Recently, while hosting the Val Lewton blogathon, I read Alexander Nemerov's Icons of Grief: Val Lewton's Home Front Pictures. Two of the most compelling sources that Nemerov filleted to serve his thesis were James Agee's October 1943 Nation essay "So Proudly We Fail", and Manny Farber's New Republic essay "Movies in Wartime" published January 1944. They're both fascinating in their critique of—not only films during WWII—but, American audiences at the movies.

Nemerov writes, "Agee wrote in 1943 that Americans at home 'remain untouched, virginal, prenatal' about the war, and that 'our great majority will emerge from the war almost as if it had never taken place.' " At that time, in that war—as historian George Roeder noted—the War Department censored all images of dead, wounded, and disturbed American servicemen until late 1943, when, Nemerov continues, "it realized that the public's widespread ignorance about the brutality of the fighting was a potential drain on morale." (2005:3)

In his New Republic piece, Manny Farber complained that most war movies of the time were "slight" and that "the classic war film formula sterilized and abstracted death." Invariably, every character in a WWII film became a hero, one way or the other. Nemerov summizes: "As Farber recognized, the tragic deaths of servicemen and civilians in the era's numerous war films were precisely not the moments to experience anything like pathos. 'Death and destruction in war are diluted almost out of sight by various devices.' " (2005:3-4, 78, 89.)

"Only one of the group [of soldiers] would be killed," Farber wrote, "and so the death was hardly noticed, or the emphasis turned from individual dying to mass slaughter so that it became no longer a matter of men dying but endless streams of extras running wildly out into the open and falling down. Death would be further sterilized by switching immediately to more heroics, intense activity or scenes with a merry note." (Quoted in Nemerov, 2005:184, fn. 78.)

Amidst these unrealistic portrayals of the war, the films of Val Lewton expressed a homefront depression, a grief over those lost, though without—Nemerov proposes—any explicit reference to the war. "World War II haunts the horror films of Val Lewton," he opines at the very beginning of his study. "Though none is about the war, it appears in them all the same, even if we never catch a clear glimpse of it. Like a ghost moving through the house, it slams doors and tips over the pottery, inverts pictures on the wall, and shatters windows with rocks never thrown. In movies celebrated for their portrayal of the unseen, the war is the singular invisible beast, the Damned Thing, that stalks around and bends the grass as we look in vain for shade of hide or hair." (2005:1)

Much has changed, of course, since then. As mentioned earlier, the War Department—realizing that the American populace was detached and somewhat indifferent to military efforts overseas—applied a different strategy and in late 1943 began leaking images of death to the American public. "Life magazine published the essay 'Three Americans,' along with a photograph showing the bodies of three dead GIs on a beach in the South Pacific, the tide having washed over them at least once." (2005:30) Photographs taken during the Vietnam War had much to do with turning public opinion against that war and applying pressure on national policy. Perhaps one too many color photos of the atrocities have tipped the scale and inured the American citizenry against the loss of life? Perhaps the real story these days in this war is the loss of our ideals and purpose as a nation? The ultimate horror story?

The connection between wartime and spikes in audience appetite for the horror genre is well-documented. "People want to be scared when they're afraid," Nemerov suggests. In an interview conducted in June 1945 with John L. Scott of the Los Angeles Times, Lewton himself acknowledged that even servicemen overseas liked watching "fantasy-mystery" movies. In the wake of the Vietnam War there was a resurgence in horror films. And now, it seems, as the United States bunkers in for the long haul in the Mideast, horror movies are once again the rage, expressing outrage, only curiously now the really good ones are called documentaries and they frequently portray not just soldiers we have lost but soldiers who have lost their way. Standard Operating Procedure could be a text book example. We've come a long way from Lewton's belief that "dark patches" are all that's necessary to trigger horror in the imagination of audiences to the relish Errol Morris takes in reconstructing the events at Abu Ghraib in horrific detail. Like Brian DePalma's Redacted, I can appreciate Standard Operating Procedure for the horror film it is, if not for being the incisive documentary it purports to be. As a horror film, it's pretty repulsive and frightening.

Michael Chaiken's write-up for the current issue of Film Comment is spot-on: "The stylistic armature of Standard Operating Procedure is the gore-pornography of films such as Saw and Hostel. Morris depicts Abu Ghraib as a carnival of criminality not unlike a Hammer horror film as scripted by the Marquis de Sade. Where reenactment has served the director well in the past, here the film's bloody dramatizations, set to a menacing score by Danny Elfman, suggest a fundamental distrust of the efficacy of the word over the image and a bland assumption that audiences have lost their ability to empathize." Chaiken quotes Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others: "Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience." He encapsulates that "Sontag makes the grim argument that the relentless frequency with which we are confronted with images of genocide, execution, and torture has done little to abolish their occurrence. On the contrary, she suggests that our repeated exposure to so much horror, to so many crimes, has only fortified our defenses." (Film Comment, March/April 2008, 44:2, p. 70.)

Yes, what happened at Abu Ghraib is unconscionable. Yes, the criminality extends to the higher-ups who have washed their hands of the matter by scapegoating inferiors. Yes, those convicted are pursuing the "talking cure" in front of the cameras and come off as being quite misguided, inexperienced or embittered pawns and basically—whether one chooses to "forgive" them or "understand" them or not—they'll have to live with their own actions. Yes, it is still what is being redacted from our everyday media that haunts public morale. Yes, in the face of such human depravity and governmental corruption, the average American citizen once again has no remedy. All of this I caught from Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. All of this I understood from Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight. All of this was compellingly clear in Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side. So I have to ask: what is to be gained by upping the ante and presenting the issue as a horror film guised as documentary? As much as I admire the work of Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure seems like a slickly-produced misfire. I'm still trying to shake off the image of attack dogs in slow motion baring their teeth and chomping at human flesh. Why did I need to have that enacted in order to understand this issue any more clearly?

Cross-published on Twitch.


Tom McCarthy's The Visitor is an important piece of filmmaking, not because it offers remedy to the xenophobic climate dominant in the U.S.; but, because it doesn't. It eschews cinema's too-frequent indulgence of providing false palliatives which allow audiences to temporarily suffer through social ills they can leave behind while picking popcorn out of their teeth, and it scrutinizes—not without considerable compassion and a certain measure of charm—the frustrated ineffectuality of liberal-minded Americans in today's unforgiving post-9/11 climate. Anthony Kaufmann nailed it—blogging to indieWIRE from the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival—when he wrote that The Visitor is not "a movie that tries to activate its viewers, in the way that many recent political dramas have set out to do. Rather, it taps into a profound sense of weakness, a sympathy that many have for the less fortunate, but one that can only go so far." As Syrian detainee Tarek retorts to Walter Vale's feeble and empathetic assurance that he understands: "How can you? You're there and I'm here."

That ineffectual weakness is masterfully portrayed with astute restraint by Richard Jenkins as Connecticut professor Walter Vale in a performance that should finally give this vigilant actor name recognition to a face. His face is familiar to fans of Six Feet Under and several memorable supporting roles in recent years and—in The Visitor—it's a face resonant with exhausted, resigned despair. Life has left Walter Vale behind, widowed and perfunctorily performing academic duties, struggling to get back to his own feelings through inappropriate piano lessons. When he encounters Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a charismatic Syrian street musician, and Tarek's guarded partner Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a Senegalese street vendor of jewelry, occupying his long-vacant Manhattan pied-à-terre, it's as if he recognizes that he is the visitor to the realm of the living. This is beautifully nuanced in two understated glances at flowers in the apartment—when he first enters the apartment he has not set foot in since the death of his wife and encounters the undocumented couple and then, later, when Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) takes up residence there—tell-tale signs that life has returned to an otherwise abandoned space.

McCarthy has taken on a difficult task engendering sympathy for Walter Vale who one tenants-activist told me she liked "despite his owning an apartment in Manhattan that he doesn't occupy." Heedless politicizations aside, The Visitor excels precisely for lifting the humanity of its characters above the evident politics. What could have devolved into a tale of another white person given a life transfusion through ethnic contact—through djembe drumming no less—The Visitor achieves its commendable feat of (as Noah Cowan stated it for the TIFF program catalog) pointing the way "to a place where tolerance becomes active engagement" and to "where the dehumanizing effects of the 'War on Terror' become impossible to ignore."

Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker Magazine has suggested that The Visitor is "a multiculti isomorph of A Star Is Born" where the misfortune of the undocumented couple begets Walter Vale's epiphany. But it's an epiphany measured by the aforementioned helplessness in the face of federal bureaucracy. One of the film's most chilling scenes occurs when rage finally mounts in Walter and he is asked by detention officials "to step away from the window." Feinstein articulates this tension as well when he writes "rather than point to a bogeyman in the unjust immigration process, [McCarthy] reveals a faceless bureaucracy that begs analysis."

Supporting performances are pitch perfect for their precise vitality. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) has a smile so radiant with life and optimism that it underscores the death dealing rigidity of his unjust detainment. Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) reveals emotional vulnerability guised by requisite wariness. But Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass as Mouna, Tarek's mother—a woman familiar with suffering and loss—is downright incandescent in her performance. In one of the beautiful gestures of generosity noted by Cinematical's Scott Weinberg, she knowingly guides Walter through a bitter terrain of pent-up anger before making a sacrifice that will deeply affect all their lives. "Like a title by the Dardennes," Rob Davis writes for Paste Magazine, "the title of the film shifts its object intriguingly from scene to scene, and McCarthy's sensitivity to class and culture is worthy of the same Belgian masters."

Because it does not offer remedy, The Visitor draws essential focus to the need for same. In the interim, diminimized human integrity and embattled individual conscience will have to step up to speak truth to power.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

SFIFF51 2008—Michael Hawley's Anticipatory Remarks

Oh sure, on the outside Michael Hawley is pretending to be calm, cool and collected about the upcoming 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival ("SFIFF"), methodically massaging the press releases to date while—allegedly—patiently awaiting the press conference announcement of the full line-up; but, he doesn't fool me. He's a candidate for meds. Trimming this year's wish list down to 20, April 1 will tell all. In the interim:

* * *

SFIFF turns 51 this year, and Bay Area cinephiles are chomping at the bit to learn how the festival will follow up last year's golden anniversary bash. Patience, patience … all shall be revealed at the official press conference next Tuesday, April 1.

But if you're a SF Film Society member, you won't have to wait nearly that long. For the second year in a row, the festival is making its full line-up available to Film Society members four days before the press conference. Beginning Friday, March 28, members will have the opportunity to view the program and purchase tickets on-line. Membership does indeed have its privileges, not the least of which is the chance to buy 10-ticket CineVouchers for $80 (representing mega-savings over this year's $12.50 general admission price).

Over the past month the festival has been revealing bit and pieces of this year's line-up. So to begin The Evening Class coverage of SFIFF51, here's a recap of what we know so far, plus a bit of wishful thinking/speculation over what the rest of the program might have in store for us:

* Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress starring Asia Argento will open the festival on Thursday, April 24. This is a ballsy, welcome choice.

* The festival will close on Thursday, May 8 with the West coast premiere of Alex Gibney's (fresh off an Oscar win for Taxi to the Dark Side) Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson. It seems this is only the second time in the festival's history that a documentary has served as opening or closing night film (the other being Amazonia: Voices from the Rain Forest, one of three opening night films in 1991).

* The festival's annual directing award gets another name change (now called the Founders Directing Award) and will be presented to Mike Leigh in a program to include clips, an on-stage interview and a screening of Topsy-Turvy.

* Maria Bello will receive this year's Peter J. Owens Award for acting, accompanied by her latest film, Udayan Prasad's The Yellow Handkerchief.

* This year's Centerpiece event will be a screening of Jonathan Levine's Sundance hit, The Wackness, starring Ben Kingsley.

* Black Francis, aka Frank Black of the rock band The Pixies, will perform his newly composed score for the 1920 German expressionist silent classic, The Golem.

* Venerable film critic J. Hoberman will receive this year's Novikoff Award and present a screening of Jose Luis Guerín's acclaimed In the City of Sylvia. This film, which topped SF Bay Guardian critic Johnny Ray Huston's 2007 Top 10 list, actually screened last week at the local Tiburon Film Festival. On behalf of those unable to attend that single North Bay, mid-week, late-night screening (myself included), a thousand thank-yous to the SFIFF.

* There are four films in this year's Cinema by the Bay section, highlighting the works of local filmmakers. The one getting the most attention is Dikayl Rimmasch's Cachao: Uno Más, a new documentary about the Cuban music legend. Director Rimmasch, Cachao himself and producer Andy Garcia are all expected to attend the screening. The other films are Barry Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy (a favorite at the recent SXSW, for which Michael Guillén interviewed Jenkins), Logan and Noah Miller's Touching Home (starring Ed Harris and Brad Dourif), and Mock Up on Mu, the latest from experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin.

* Each year the Castro Theater calendar provides an early peak at some festival titles. The latest calendar just hit the streets (and was posted on-line), so I'm hardly revealing state secrets by reporting these five festival programs:

- A newly restored print of the 1945 Technicolor-noir classic Leave Her to Heaven, starring Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde.

- Swedish director Roy Andersson's mixed bag of absurdist vignettes, You, the Living.

- Fados, Carlos Saura's latest blend of Iberian filmmaking, music and dance.

- The world premiere of Ask Not, Johnny Symons documentary about the U.S. military's failed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

- The Warlords, Peter Chan's 19th century Chinese war drama starring Andy Lau, Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro.

So that's everything we know so far, and it's quite an impressive start, I think. We'll know the rest in a few days, but meanwhile here's a list of 20 films I'm really jonesing to have appear in the final program. They've been culled from a much longer list of 2007/2008 films that have caught my attention since last year’s festival. (Had they not already been announced, The Last Mistress and In the City of Sylvia would certainly have been among them.) My dream festival, in alphabetical order:

Absurdistan—Veit Helmer
Alexandra—Alexander Sokurov
Après lui—Gaël Morel
Dr. Plonk—Rolf de Heer
Eat, For This is My Body—Michelange Quay
Elite Troop—José Padilha
A Girl Cut in Two—Claude Chabrol
Go Go Tales—Abel Ferrara
Help Me Eros—Lee Kang-sheng
Inside—Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury
It's a Free World—Ken Loach
Lake Tahoe—Fernando Eimbcke
The Man From London—Bela Tarr
Mongol—Sergei Bodrov
Munyurangabo—Lee Issac Chung
My Winnipeg—Guy Maddin
Promise Me This—Emir Kusturica
The Secret of the Grain—Abdellatif Kechiche
Still Life (from 2006, but hope springs eternal)—Jia Zhang-ke
La Zona—Rodrigo Plá

Finally, here are several terrific films I saw in Palm Springs, all of which I hope come to the SFIFF for the benefit of local film-friends who have yet to see them. Most I'd happily watch again, given the opportunity:

I Just Didn't Do It
Jar City
My Father, My Lord
The Pope's Toilet
Solitary Fragments
Takva: A Man's Fear of God


L'Atalante, by the seminal French auteur Jean Vigo, is often selected as one of the 10 best films of all time. It tells the story of early days in the marriage of a provincial French woman—with longings to sophisticate herself in Paris—to a river barge captain, who plies the river Seine. Her life aboard the barge, whose name is "L'Atalante", is complicated by the presence of a first mate, an old sea salt played by the great French comedian Michel Simon, who has a strong Breton brogue and a possessive attitude both toward the boat and the husband. His belated recognition of the value of a woman to this masculine set-up is one of the most moving transformations ever recorded.

As with The Heart of the World, L'Atalante also challenges conventions of narrative cinema to make room for an expression of the unconscious. It too privileges the image over narrative, and complicates the masculine hero myth with another archetypal pattern, the realization and revaluation of the feminine. It compassionately examines the masculine attitudes that block and enable the psyche's ability to manifest wholeness.

Noting that most commercial films are predicated upon audience identification, Beebe points out that L'Atalante depends upon and demands that you contemplate image, which circumvents identification. He asks us to be aware of how the movie denies identification. Partly, I would say this has to do with the film's discontinuities. The narrative traction is frequently interrupted, resembling more an assemblage of brief but evocative vignettes. Also, the camera's gaze is more omniscient than subjective. It does not belong to any of the characters and is outside of the action observing the scenes. Thus, we never get to learn about the characters through their own subjectivities. We have to watch and pay attention; work at understanding them.

Dita Parlo as the unhappy bride Juliette is L'Atalante's resident anima. She leaves her grieving mother behind when her husband Jean (Jean Dasté) leads her away from her Normany village to his barge on the Seine where she must find her place amidst its hypermasculinized routines. One could say that—as the anima—she must negotiate and survive the mother complexes of the sailors. From a Jungian perspective, the compatibility of the anima and the mother complex becomes the film's main psychological tension.

The wedding in the opening frames of L'Atalante is filmed like a funeral. Bells are tolling mournfully. Everyone's dour or sad. Everyone—other than the bride—is dressed in black. They form a procession two by two. Some protest that Juliette has married a stranger from outside the village and criticize that she has always craved difference. Because of her nonconformity and because they don't know Jean, they moreorless abandon her to him and will not accompany her to the barge. Beebe sees Juliette's collective life in the Normandy village as representative of the collective unconscious. The anima has to leave a collective situation to approach a new life that cannot be apprehended. Individuation is marked by the journey (configured as walking across fields, the steam clouds of trains, boats on the river). It's a mistake to think that individuation is about the ego's progress. The anima has to first separate in order to even encounter the ego. This story is, thus, about the individuation of the anima and—as June Singer might phrase it—the evolution of an archetype.

Watching Jean lead Juliette away from the village across an empty field and through dark woods, I immediately thought again of the Persephone myth, which has come for me to fully represent a woman's marriage initiation. Just as the wedding veil can be equated with the funereal shroud; just as a woman dies to her old life to accommodate her new life with her husband; just as Demeter grieves the loss of her daughter—the mythic template settles neatly into place. Without its even having to be said, it's clear that Juliette is not just a woman. She is something else and her story has the feel of a fairy tale. This is the poetic realism frequently ascribed to L'Atalante whose nearly-surreal discontinuities were to have a profound influence on later generations of French filmmakers, particularly the nouvelle vague.

The film contains a tripartite countenance of masculinity: boy, hero, parent. Jean, as the hero, balances between the cabin boy (the puer) and Le père Jules (the senex) but Jean's heroic stance is merely a posture guising an unresolved mother complex. The mother complex and the anima are not necessarily compatible. Jung, in fact, carefully distinguished the anima from the mother and cautioned that—though the anima might give a man what he needs—it might not be what he thinks he wants. The anima is not necessarily nurturing like a mother. The anima is an image of a function; not of a woman. The woman might facilitate drawing the anima out of the man; but, this does not mean she is the anima. This becomes the great challenge of accommodation between a man and a woman in the early years of relationship. If a man can integrate his anima and reconcile her with unresolved mother issues, he will be able to create room for the very real woman in his life. She, in turn, must survive how he does not accommodate her.

Relying once again on Jungian typology, Beebe sees Jean as an introverted feeling type with a hidden gentlemanliness (frequently seen in performances by Humphrey Bogart and Fred Astaire). He relates petulantly to Juliette's autonomy with extroverted sensation; a kind of old-fashioned patriarchal intolerance and stern rage. Juliette, on the other hand, is an extroverted thinking type because of her enthusiasm for experience and her plans for gaining same. It is when Jean's conservatism and jealousy thwarts her plans that they begin to have problems. But it's not only Jean who thwarts her plans. Le père Jules does as well. Thus, the anima is finding it hard to be compatible not only with Jean's mother complex but Le père Jules'; though his is more complex for bordering on the gynandrous. Le père Jules is more like a mother-father. He exhibits gendered tendencies of both sexes, which is confirmed by the scene where he wears a skirt, by the jar he keeps in the closet which contains his best mate's hands (all that he has left of him), and by his aside that a photograph of a naked Polynesian woman is how he "used to look like." Marina Warner's evocative essay on L'Atalante—one of Beebe's favorites—equates Le père Jules with the fairy godmother in ancient fairy tales.

What begins at first as a competition between them for the affections of the captain—manifested through bouts of laundering and sewing—softens when Le père Jules invites Juliette into his cabin. There, Juliette finds what she was not expecting: the archived beauty of experience. Things brought back from distant shores, foreign cultures; the sheen of memory. Juliette recognizes Le père Jules' capacity for life experience, something she deeply desires. It is why she left home in the first place. Le père Jules reveals to her his body covered with tattoos and, at that time—among sailors especially—you earned a new tattoo only when you crossed the equator. Thus his body, along with the mementos in his room, attest to manifested experience. She admires this. And he admires her admiration.

Their truce, however, is disrupted by Jean's jealousy. He is outraged that Juliette is in Le père Jules' cabin and that she has been combing his hair. In protest, Le père Jules gets drunk and has his head shorn. Once drunk, he leaves the barge to spend the night with a prostitute card reader in Paris. Jean—knowing he has been unfair in his judgments—can do nothing but watch him leave, even if it means he cannot take Juliette out on the town as he promised her earlier. Someone must stay behind to watch the boat. One senses at that moment Juliette's sad and difficult position as her hopes to move into the world are thwarted by the men in her life. One has to admire her for deciding on her own to experience Paris without Jean; that's just how much it means to her. Again, there is something of the anima mundi there, a thirst for the city, for culture, which belies the dreams of the anima. That Paris overwhelms her with its avarice and criminality; that her purse is stolen; that she returns to the dock to find that Jean—in anger—has abandoned her; that she cannot find work—these are the unexpected trials of her thirst for experience.

There's a lot to be said for how Jean is foolish and cruel abandoning Juliette in Paris. He is doing what he thinks is right, of course; but, his resulting depression and decreased verve for life reveal he is truly lost without her and that he has cut off a primary life line. When men become so rigid, so petrified, they need the miracle of water from stone. One of the film's most beautiful images is when Juliette assures Jean that—should he ever want to see her—he should look in water. When dunking his head in a pail of water doesn't work, Jean throws himself into the Seine. Le père Jules, comically befuddled by all Jean's behavior, looks into the pail to see what it is Jean was looking for.

What Le père Jules does comprehend, however, is that his friend, this man he loves and feels protective towards, is completely miserable without Juliette. All the life has leached out of him. It's then Le père Jules places competition aside, trumps his own mother complexes, and matures, shifting towards the father side of himself, which has become a necessary and adequate emotional expression to help mend the situation. The film is saying, Beebe explains, that a father function is required to integrate the mother complex with the anima. Using his own intuition, Le père Jules enters Paris and hunts for Juliette.

This scene is touching on many levels, not the least of which is that Juliette has found herself a room at the Hotel de l'ancre (the Anchor Hotel). "Adrift" is a word that kept coming up for me again and again watching the film and it seemed fitting that Juliette would seek security at the Hotel de l'ancre. She has taken a job at a store where—for a few tokens—people listen to music. When her boss nods off, Juliette listens to music herself, namely songs for the sea, which Le père Jules overhears. Her choice of music guides him to her. Music, throughout the film, designates memory and the record of experience. The anima is like the needle that accesses what's on the record; that, in effect, accesses memory. At this stage one can see that the rigged-up phonograph that Le père Jules attempts to piece together throughout the film is a substitution for the anima; but, it never quite works. It cannot replace Julliette. The men on the A'talante need the anima among them to round out their triad to wholeness; much like the Catholic Church needed the Virgin Mary to complete the Holy Trinity.

The other moment that touches me is how—throughout the film Le père Jules has kittens around him, often perched on his shoulder—and when he finds Juliette, he flings her up onto his shoulder and carries her home. The anima as animal companion.

Dr. Beebe recognizes Jean Vigo's genius as a visionary artist who can dialogue with an archetype, which is—in effect—a meeting between the conscious and the unconscious (as good a working definition for active imagination as any).

Jean Vigo died of tuberculosis at the age of 29. There were many delays in filming L'Atalante due to his disease. On occasion, Vigo was forced to direct from a stretcher. The film was released while he was on his death bed. His wife, too, died of tuberculosis. Vigo was the son of the famous French anarchist Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo (aka Miguel Almereyda) who was murdered in prison, where he was being held on charges of colluding with the German government during WWII. Under an assumed name to protect his identity, Vigo was enrolled and brought up in a boarding school.

It's possible that L'Atalante—with its theme of the necessary intervention of the father to piece together an emotional security for those living on the barge—might have been Vigo's way of expressing his hunger for his lost father; the anarchist who, they say, was always surrounded by cats.