Tuesday, April 29, 2008

SFIFF51: THE LAST MISTRESS—Opening Night Q&A With Catherine Breillat

Frail, yet radiantly self-amused, Catherine Breillat admitted to being moved by Graham Leggat's introductory remarks and expressed her pleasure to be back in San Francisco. By way of her own introduction to SFIFF51's opening night presentation of The Last Mistress at the Castro Theatre, Breillat stated that it was true when she made the film that she wasn't sure if it was legitimate for her to present a costume drama after the kinds of films she's more customarily known for; but, it involved a subject that's intrigued her for some time.

Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, the author of Une vieille maîtresse upon which Breillat has based her film, was a great romantic and a dandy, subject to censorship and attacked by the authorities. Naturally, Breillat identifies with him. The Last Mistress presents the last hurrah of the 18th Century French aristocracy just before the advent of the 19th Century bourgeoisie. This is a period Breillat feels keenly attached to. As the Marquise de Flers proclaims in the film, "I am furiously aristocratic", Breillat herself feels furiously 18th century.

Hoping her audience will derive as much pleasure from watching the film as she derived making it, Breillat likewise hoped that—after seeing the film—the audience would retain Leggat's complimentary remarks. Though many rushed off to attend the opening night party at the Metreon, those who remained were charmed and attentive.

Leggat began the questioning before opening it up to the audience. He said he was surprised to learn that Fu'ad Ait Aatou—the young actor who played the libertine Ryno de Marigny—had never acted in front of a camera. Breillat recalled when she first spotted Fu'ad sitting in a café. She pointed him out to her assistant and proclaimed, "There is the Marquis de Marigny!" She was just about to send her assistant over to secure his name and contact information when—"miraculously" on his own—Fu'ad provided his cell phone number. Casting for The Last Mistress, Breillat had been trying to find an actor comparable to Alain Delon in Visconti's The Leopard. Unfortunately, French cinema no longer has anyone like Alain Delon, but—when she saw Fu'ad in the café—she knew he was exactly what she was looking for.

Noting that—other than for Michael Lonsdale and Asia Argento—the cast for The Last Mistress included several non-actors, Leggat enquired after Claude Sarraute, daughter of the famous French writer Nathalie Sarraute. Breillat admitted loving working with non-professionals. After they work with her, after their first appearance on screen, she feels she has created them, molded them, they belong to her, and she makes them her own. "I like to compare myself to a painter," she explained. "A real painter creates his own colors—he does not go to the store to buy paint in tubes. If he paints this way, his colors are less intense."

"And Asia?" Leggat teased wickedly, "Did you make her your own?" "Bien sûr!" Breillat responded without missing a beat; but, conceded that—even though audiences will see other Asias in the festival this year—in The Last Mistress, Asia is hers. On the subject of the infamously feisty Argento, Leggat asked if the first order of business for each shooting day was dragging Asia out of whatever club she'd been in the night before? Breillat laughed. Yes, that was true; but—once Asia arrived on the set—she gave herself entirely with full concentration. She is amazingly generous in front of the camera. The first scene they shot with her was the one by the sea wall where she throws herself backwards. "You have to understand that when we were shooting that scene", Breillat pointed out, "there was no safety net, no one underneath to catch her if she fell, nothing. She just threw herself backward with such abandon and with complete trust." This was how she worked throughout the film, generous with her movements, and—if she has many vices, she also has many fine qualities. Enough said.

Leggat then opened the questioning up to the audience.

In an interview conducted for the Criterion DVD release of Fat Girl, Breillat was asked how she made the film and quickly interjected that she does not "make" the film—her technicians "make" the film—she is the film! With The Last Mistress, Breillat projects herself into the character of Ryno de Marigny, much like the novelist d'Aurevilly who likewise projected himself into the young character, even as he wrote the character of the Vicomte de Prony as himself as an older gentleman. Barbey d'Aurevilly has the Vicomte de Prony say about Ryno de Marigny: "Even if he becomes a minister, he will take great pride in the fact that he's unpopular." And that's how Breillat sees herself in France. She sees her glory in being unpopular.

Asked if she was born a provocateuse or if something happened in her life to make her a provocateuse, Breillat explained that what happened was that she was born a woman. "To do what I wanted to do, I had to be provocative."

Asked if there was anything in The Last Mistress with which she was dissatisfied, Breillat countered, "Self-criticism isn't one of my strong points."

Breillat's inspiration for the wedding piece was that she loved the idea of mixing St. Matthew with St. Paul because they say exactly opposite things. St. Matthew uses the image of Christ as the model for newlyweds to follow whereas St. Paul's admonitions prove more self-congratulatory. Breillat has always hated St. Paul.

Did she hesitate about ending the film so resignedly? Did the novel end similarly? Did she ever consider having Vellini and Ryno kill each other rather than prolong their affair? The woman questioning the film's "resolution" qualified that, perhaps Americans prefer something more violent, less resigned? The ending of the film is exactly the same as the novel, Breillat advised and added that—as far as what Americans are willing to accept—"Here in America, you have the example of Hilary and Bill Clinton." That won a hilarious round of applause.

Though asked how she filmed Asia, Breillat countered that she found it much more interesting to talk about how she filmed Fu'ad Ait Aatou. Both actors were extremely jealous of each other. This was fine with Breillat. She never likes her actors to get along too famously because she gets the impression they escape her influence. Fu'ad's people come from the desert and they're quite modest. He definitely didn't want to do the love scene. Breillat assured him that they wouldn't show his penis and that it would be covered. Both actors were concerned about the love scene where Ryno throws Vellini onto her back. Breillat accomplished it with a single take; feeling no need to push for a second take. "Contrary to what people say about me, I respect my actors." Asia was very happy with Breillat's direction and said she was rarely directed as a real actress. She was happy with how the film was shot.

But there were problems on set. Fu'ad—who was supposed to be a great lover—didn't know how to kiss well and so Breillat had to show him how. She took Asia into her arms and kissed her, demonstrating to Fu'ad how it should be done. Fu'ad said an American director would never dream of doing that; but, he was humbled by the experience and did his best after that. "I'm a very physical director," Breillat commented, "and I like showing my actors exactly what I want them to do. In these scenes, I always play the boy of the couple and my male assistant—as you may have seen in Sex Is Comedy—plays the girl. Men and boys are much more modest than women. For them it's a bit of an affront to their masculine pride if they see a woman playing their role. Then they feel they have to do better."

Onstage photo by SF360 photographer Pamela Gentile. Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, April 28, 2008

DARK MATTER: The Evening Class Interview With Chen Shi-Zheng

Chen Shi-Zheng is a China-born, New York-based director, choreographer, singer, and actor. As a child in Changsha, Hunan during the Cultural Revolution, he was taken under the wing of traditional funeral singers, who were among some of the great masters of Chinese opera. He became a leading young opera actor, performing until his mid-20s in many productions throughout China, and simultaneously recorded albums of folksongs and contemporary pop music. He emigrated to the United States in 1987, and was soon tapped by Meredith Monk for a principal role in Atlas for Houston Grand Opera. This began a crossover career in which he explores his own artistic expression that transcends an East/West divide and erases the boundaries between music, theatre, dance and film. In 2000, Mr. Chen was awarded the title "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Ministry of Culture.

In 1999, his landmark 19-hour production of The Peony Pavilion was hailed as one of the most important theatrical events of the 20th century. Mr. Chen's current projects include The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan with music by Stewart Wallace slated for the 2008 San Francisco Opera. Dark Matter, his first feature film, was the closing night film at the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, where he and I had the chance to sit down and discuss the film. Although Mr. Chen has an expressive command of English, it is not always exact and, therefore, I have paraphrased his statements for conversational flow.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Congratulations on breaking out of the four walls of the theatre to accomplish your first feature film and also for winning the Alfred Sloan Award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

I hope it isn't too much of a cliché, and certainly I hope it's not any kind of stereotype, to observe that—as an amateur student of cosmology—Dark Matter harkens back to the ancient Asian truism "as above, so below" or what mythologist Joseph Campbell used to term "the microcosmic/macrocosmic correspondence."

Now that you've accomplished your first feature film—which I understand you wanted to do precisely to break out of some of the strictures of theater—can you comment upon the difference between working in theater and working in film? Did you find new limitations working in film?

Chen Shi-Zheng: It's very hard to put into general terms the differences. You're always working with actors; that's the bottom line. You hope they can translate your intentions. With the theater, when you come to the end, you actually see the result. With film, it's broken into different steps. You shoot the film and you edit later. What you protract from the shooting is very small. That was my first adjustment. What you see in the camera is a tiny image. In the end, when you project it, it's a huge image. You go through a compressed image into a large image. It was an adjustment for me to look at a monitor for so long because the power of size makes a huge difference. I found editing difficult because it was such an isolated activity. In the theater it might start small but it grows bigger and bigger with more and more people as it goes along. In film it starts with a lot of people and then you end up sitting there alone with the sound editor. It's an isolated exercise on your own. That's very different from how you collaborate with other artists in the theater.

Guillén: Was it a favorable enough experience that you would want to do it again?

Chen: It is a favorable experience. It's unforgettable. It requires such a large amount of time in duration. I could do three operas a year, three months in different cities, record a CD, and that would be considered productive in the theater-opera world. In film, it requires years to develop the script and then find the financing. It's a much longer process, especially for an independent film like mine. Finding the money to shoot it takes more time than anything else. Once the money's in place, well, we shot in June 2006 and now it's March 2007 and we're here in San Francisco.

Guillén: I understand it was a five-six year process to create Dark Matter?

Chen: Yes, just to get the money. It was an on-off thing. Some investors fell through. Finally Janet Yang brought the investor who actually wrote the check. Then making the film went fairly fast. From the first day of shooting to taking it around to festivals was eight months. Very fast. Inbetween I was doing a lot of operas.

It's a profit business. Normally what I do is non-profit where nobody requests a constant accounting. That took a period of adjustment. When you're making a film, many people are constantly reminding you that it's to make money; it's not for the sake of how good the film should be. With most operas, you make it as good as you can as an artistic achievement. But if I wanted to make a film, I had to accept the financial consequences.

Guillén: Unfortunately. You've spoken about how your eye had to adjust from directing a large scale image on a theatrical stage to something you had to see through a small monitor that was eventually projected large. What would you say—having come from the realm of opera—have you infused from that art form into cinema?

Chen: The musicality of the film. Not necessarily the sound, but the rhythm. I always tried to find the relationship between the pictures and the music to see how they depict human emotion through different kinds of musical motifs. When I shoot a scene, I have the music playing already. I know what the music should be in the scene, why the scene exists, and what kind of mood should be present. A lot of times it's like working in opera, where you know the score, and you know the music before you begin the staging. For me that was a part of my preparation. I listened to a lot of music and I put it down in almost every location. I knew what type of music should be played, what kind of mood, and I would go to a location and shoot it. So that's a bit like working with opera where the music score is complete and you go on stage and rehearse it with singers to move the action around with the sound.

Guillén: That's precisely—I would argue—one of the film's strengths. In depicting the East-West correspondence, you used Western ballads like "Red River Valley", which I wasn't expecting. It was a sly comment.

Chen: [Laughs.] Thank you for catching that.

Guillén: So you chose your music first before even starting to shoot?

Chen: Yes. Because for me it expressed a kind of naïvete; a love song to America. If you go to Japan or anywhere in Asia there are many American songs that are sung differently from the way they were originally sung. They're amazingly misinterpreted in a charming innocent way that I find moving. It's the lack of the knowledge of what America really is that makes this misinterpretation beautiful. When I first came to America, it was because I saw a picture of New York and I thought, "I want to go to New York." I had no idea what America was. That's the kind of expectation of a place that can be based on a sound or a song, basically an image. People love the image or they love the sound of the song and they say, "I want to go and see this place." It's a journey. When you travel somewhere distant, you start with something that fascinates you, which serves as a springboard, and the journey becomes something you didn't predict. I wanted to keep a light motif in the film. It is a dark, difficult journey in a way; but, I like to make comedy out of tragedy.

Guillén: You do cull out the comedy in this tragic situation. I would say three quarters of the film has a comic texture, which serves to emphasize the tragedy of the film's final spin. You're saying this is something you frequently do in your theatrical productions as well?

Chen: Yes. I believe the whole comic/tragic split is ridiculous; it's best when it's in combination. Comedy has a tragic dimension; tragedy has a comic dimension. In opera you're always trying to find the humor in the unspeakable tragedy. You're always trying to find the tragic dimension in what is considered a comedy. It's how I feel about this whole play between yin and yang, positive and negative; they're inseparable. They're both always a part of life. The example I like to make is that, among the Chinese, you serve the whole fish. You don't fillet it. You serve it with head and tail. You get the wholeness of life instead of trying to cut it. That way you get nuances.

This was the reason I finally had to go to China to find the lead actor for the role of Liu Xing. It was a huge journey. It took me half a year to find him. I was auditioning everywhere—in L.A., in Canada, in New York—trying to find him. There are a lot of actors who become very hard. They want to be tough male actors and I couldn't find the type of humor and vulnerability I wanted, nor the compelling nuances. This story has a little bit more power because you become sympathetic with the person who struggles through it even though the events in the end are appalling.

Guillén: You selected wisely. Liu Ye mastered this role. His sweetness, his vulnerability, his initial enthusiasm and his subsequent disillusionment were beautifully nuanced. He was the perfect choice for this character.

Returning to the playful tension between East and West, you prefigure the film's final tragedy through a playful gun fighting sequence early on in the film when the Chinese students arrive in the United States and are taken by their sponsor to a western-themed park. As you were saying, I imagine many Chinese come to the United States with preconceived images derived from old movies, like the Hollywood westerns. The tragedy of that misconception in Liu Xing's life was characterized by the sadness of a song like "Shenandoah". In essence, his life became tragic because he enacted the western gunfight. That was a brilliant touch.

Chen: Thanks. There's a certain stereotype you get in your head watching an old western with John Wayne. For a Chinese person, the idea of a gun fight in a pioneer town comes into play when you come to the United States. You feel like a pioneer who comes to a western town who in the end might get shot. The idea came when I was in Utah on location and heard about this theme park where you could dress up like cowboys. I thought it would be a great metaphor for the movie. So we found this place outside Park City.

Guillén: It's my understanding this story was originally your idea? You had read the news coverage of Chinese student Gang Lu who went on a shooting spree at the University of Iowa and you wanted to work with it. Billy Shebar joined you to work on the script. How did you feel when Billy suggested the astrophysics metaphor of dark matter?

Chen: I immediately liked it. We were talking about unreachable goals, about expectations and reality and the gap between, and how far it was between what Liu Xing imagined for himself and what he actually experienced when he was so low. When Billy talked to me about dark matter, how there is something you cannot see that influences what you can see, I thought it was a perfect metaphor. Not only as an external cosmology, but internally as the heart of darkness. When I read in the newspaper about what happened in Iowa, all the witnesses said they never imagined this could happen in their quiet, laid-back Iowa City. No one had a clue. So I felt the metaphor of dark matter worked in the personal realm the same way it worked scientifically. There was a link between the two realms that allowed putting them together through the one metaphor.

Guillén: As story formats go, it's a solid one. Cosmology is frequently expressed through narrative structures that revolve around invisible truths. If you study the cosmologies of various cultures, they usually understand the manifestation of reality as emanating from a dark, invisible source that often cannot be named or given form, even as it creates and influences form. Dark Matter's parallel structure places the image of spiral galaxies and the invisible source of their movement against spiraling, escalating emotions from within; the motion within emotion, you might say. It reminded me of the poet who said the world is not made of atoms; the world is made of stories. In Dark Matter, cosmology serves as the story and the film becomes an exploration of how we communicate story and—more specifically in this case—how failed communication saddens the story.

Chen: When I brought the story to Meryl Streep, she said something comparable to what you just said. She felt that Americans look through a window that offers a limited view, and she felt the story was important because it wasn't about a poor, struggling immigrant; it was about a brilliant mind that could potentially contribute to society. It wasn't a story about teenage rampage. It was about an intelligent person compelled to tragic circumstance. I was shocked and moved by the story because—at the time that the story broke—I had so many friends who had good starts but then ended up with nowhere to go. And it's not just about their academic life as students, but that the mission of life becomes the subject you end up studying. That's something that can't be foreseen. Once their studies were over, friends of mine didn't want to go back to China. Sometimes they had to change their professions in order to remain in the United States. Several who did go back, felt a certain kind of loss. At that time, the propaganda from the Chinese point of view was such that to come to America was everything. It's a naïve point of view. No one prepares these students for any kind of reality once they arrive in America. The only emphasis is on economic skills and many of these Chinese students lack basic skills for communication and learning. They focus on specialized fields, which makes their individual lives somewhat more difficult because they can't break out into a new life in society. I've seen so many people who couldn't find a way to enter American society or to find a life here. They don't understand. They've always known another life where they study chemistry, they study physics, and their studies have no relation to a life off campus and outside academics.

Guillén: It's obviously a difficult quandary because you would have hoped that Liu Xing would have been offered tools to help him adapt better to American life and yet his adversary Lawrence—who did have the adaptive skills—was somehow not as authentic as Liu Xing, which underscores the quandary if not the hypocrisy of adaptation and assimilation. It's not just about having the skills to economically survive, it's about having the skills to authentically survive and still be able to express yourself, express your mind, and retain the roots of culture. Ambition should serve the fully-realized human being, and not just to become a commercial American.

Chen: Yes. Instead of surviving as a genuine human being, you survive as a copy of someone else. That's very clear in this story. Lawrence survives in his original form. I had a friend who called himself Lawrence. Many of the characters are based on the actual experiences of friends.

Guillén: And their different strategies of survival?

Chen: Yes, different strategies. I stopped and looked around me at how we all wanted to come to New York and how we each found our way to different places even as we strove to not be too different from each other. Even the way you choose a pet reveals patterns of conformity. So much adaptation robs people of their dignity. The mind itself is trained to believe that economic survival alone is the key to success, and yet such survival creates huge emotional and psychological problems.

Guillén: It creates inauthentic lives.

Chen: Yes. It's very sad that it has to take that form and that the meaning of so-called transformation or adaptation to American life is not fully understood.

Guillén: Speaking of Meryl Streep—a wonderful coup to get her involved in Dark Matter—her character was problematic for me. Again, she seemed to personify failed communication. Despite being so earnest in wanting to communicate, she seemed relatively clueless. When Liu Xing came to her with the cosmetics and she realized this horrible situation he was in, she didn't even buy any cosmetics from him! She didn't even help him out in the most basic way that he needed right then. She seemed paralyzed and unable to help him in any meaningful way. Then at film's end when she's practicing her tai chi, she has an abrupt realization or premonition of what is about to happen and breaks her tai chi concentration to run off. Can you explain to me what you were trying to say about her character?

Chen: I lived in New York for a long time. There's an Asian Society where I met a lot of Caucasian ladies who dressed Chinese, studied the Chinese language, studied tai chi, and who basically had very romanticized perceptions of China. Occasionally, they would take one or two Chinese students under their wing and they….

Guillén: They don't get it.

Chen: [Laughter.] Exactly! For me Meryl's character Joanna is similar to the Liu Xing character. They really don't "get" each other or each others' cultures. They both want to eagerly participate in each other's culture but what they know is quite shallow. Too often people think Chinese culture relies on tai chi or one cultural artifact or another. I know a lot of people who have studied Chinese and try to speak Chinese to me by discussing with me how they should find a tai chi instructor or an acupuncturist. This type of relationship is never meaningful or significant and it certainly doesn't help.

Guillén: It's dangerously naïve and presumptive. Joanna's encouragement of Liu Xing to follow his own path was terrible advice to give him at that juncture. It was, in fact, dismissive; a way of not being responsible to him in any way.

Chen: It was a dangerous naïvete on both sides. That's the beautiful flaw. Each character is beautifully flawed. That's what interests me. At the very beginning when I started working on the story, I struggled with how to reveal everyone in this society as flawed without making them pathetic. I tried to create characters where every one of them had some kind of flaw without degrading them. For me it was interesting to depict this as the story unfolds so that the flaws in each character contribute to the failed communication in unnoticed ways. Usually in a drama you have to have a turning point, but I wanted the story to continue and to continue and not have the realization register until it was too late. The scene with the skin cream was purposely ambiguous. It was not necessarily that he was trying to earn money. In his desperation, he was trying to reach out. He was confused and looking for comfort; looking for love in a way. Perhaps his touching her was a way to approach her. In this confused situation, you don't know if it's about a money exchange, an emotional exchange, or a physical exchange. I let it be a little bit muddy. I had the choice to do it differently; but, I decided not to do that when we were shooting. Everyone on the set was crying to see this evidence of this brilliant boy reduced to this needy character. He was so hopeful at the beginning. I watched as my DP was crying and I talked to Meryl and said, "Perhaps it's enough. Maybe he just wants to touch you for a moment and then go."

Guillén: For a moment he didn't feel isolated?

Chen: Yes. And I told her, "At least you let him get close to you. You feel it's okay. Then there's no more to say. Maybe he doesn't need more."

Guillén: Do you feel that the recognition and acceptance of these beautiful flaws that you're speaking of might help people communicate better?

Shi-Zeng: I really don't know what the answer is. It's not as if—as time goes along—we understand each other more. Every day when I'm on the road and reading the Herald Tribune, the news is always about these huge issues between our two countries. In China it's about who's bigger, who's the superpower? These big issues get in the way of people understanding each other. In both countries we talk too much about the big issues and not enough about the human issues and the personal experience of relationship. We emphasize categories of experience too much and not enough about personal experience. Personal experience is what is revealing. As we've discussed, it's flawed, but nevertheless it's interesting. Everyone has an interesting personal story to tell you. Everyone I've encountered from China has had a story about how they've started out coming to this country. Even my American friends have incredible stories about how they've encountered China or Cuba as well. I was hoping the film could propose the question to a general audience that the need to understand requires an even deeper communication in order to avoid further tragedy.

Guillén: The political representation that we get so caught up in to define dialogue actually projects shadows that aren't our personal shadows. The tragedy is that we then identify with those cultural shadows and never really learn about the darkness within ourselves, which is really what we need to do.

Southwest Indian weavers place in their weavings what they call the conscious flaw. By consciously doing this, they acknowledge that we are flawed as humans. In modern times we're more oriented to being perfect and are subject to the danger of not recognizing personal shadows.

Chen: It's a great danger. What's amazing is to think we're immune to this harm because we're perfect. We have this naïve notion that, because we're so strong, we should be able to prevent any disaster or any illness that comes to us. Economic well-being is mistaken for internal well-being. The world of profit does not cover human needs. It's not enough to have a refridgerator!

Guillén: That's reminding me of a comment Ken Loach made recently in Film Comment that—until we handle our bloodthirst for big business—nothing else will resolve. This belief that everything has to revolve around money and multinational corporations is incorrect.

Professor Rizer, played by Aidan Quinn, is an equally complex role handled quite deftly by Aidan. Originally you had considered Val Kilmer for the role and for one reason or another he backed out of the project. I'm glad, however, that Aidan ended up with the role. In terms again of the charming flaw, from the beginning of the film you could see that this guy—as well-intentioned as he might have been—was actually ruthless. Yet he's not a villain really. He's just flawed, as you said.

Chen: But also, as you say, it's a business-oriented, selfish world, especially at this time, where everyone is in it for themselves. This ambition can be shown without being necessarily villainous. When Aidan first came on set, I talked to him about how his character would think, "I run this place. I'm the king of the castle. If someone challenges me, I throw them out a window. Anybody. It's an animal instinct. It's my turn." He's great-looking but very underhanded in the way he plays things out. But as you say, I didn't want him to be a villain. It's more interesting if you remember the interesting relationship with your professors. A son could think his father is a villain. There's more to it than just black and white.

Guillén: There's a point where mentors can become your worst enemy. You captured that in this film. Also the idea that—for a minority—education is the way to access the American dream and that even though you might actually achieve the American dream of education, you might still have nothing. Your film emphasized the invisibility of these brilliant Asian students whose achievements have been co-opted by their advisors.

Chen: That's true in every university and yet no one can raise a finger to stop it.

Guillén: Which, in a way, makes the process the villain?

Chen: Yes. As an assistant professor you're paid a marginal amount of money for the long hours you put in every day of the week to research your advisor's thesis. In exchange for a scholarship with a mere $800 a month stipend, you're required to put in 40 hours of lab work a week, along with the classes, and out of the $800 you have to pay your food and expenses. So you end up most of the time in the lab. At first they thought it was a dream that they got their tuition paid and received a monthly stipend for working at school.

Guillén: And then it just becomes another form of indentured slavery.

Cross-published on Twitch.

04/29/08 UPDATE: Dark Matter opens in San Francisco and Berkeley on Friday, May 2, 2008 for a weeklong run. At Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas (Berkeley) director Chen Shi-Zheng and producer Janet Yang will be available for a Q&A session Friday, May 2, 2008 after the 7:00PM show. The following evening, Saturday, May 3, 2008, Chen and Yang will be available for Q&A after the 7:15PM show at Landmark's Lumiere Theatre (San Francisco), followed by an After Party at San Francisco's top Hawaiian spot, Hukilau, from 9:00PM to closing. Event is free; no-host.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

SFIFF51—Michael Hawley At the Starting Gun

Ready, get set, go! The wait is over and the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival is fixed to begin. Over the past few weeks I've had the chance to preview a handful of festival titles on screener (plus one press screening), and herein offer some thoughts on what I've seen.

Out of the bunch, the two films with the biggest pre-festival profiles are undoubtedly Catherine Breillat's festival opener The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse) and Jia Zheng-ke's Still Life (Sanxia haoren). Reams have been written about both since their premieres at Cannes 2007 and Venice 2006 respectively. So rather than add to the din, I'll simply say that both are as excellent as anything else to be found in their directors' esteemed filmographies. Asia Argento's feral, spellbinding performance as an obsessed 19th century Spanish courtesan has to be seen to be believed. And Yu Lik-wai's HD cinematography of the area to be flooded by China's Three Gorges Dam is as crisp and sumptuous as digital filmmaking gets. If you miss either film at the festival, don't despair. Still Life opens May 9 at the Roxie Film Center and The Last Mistress will come around sometime in July.

The other film which had previously crossed my radar is Gonzalo Arijon's Stranded: I've come from a plane that crashed on the mountains), which garnered good reviews at Sundance. Quite simply, I think it's one of the best documentary films I've ever seen. Everyone knows the story, how in 1972 a plane carrying members of a Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes. Of the original 45 passengers, 16 survived 72 days on a glacier by consuming the frozen flesh of deceased friends and family. In this profoundly moving, poetic and dignified film, those survivors finally get the chance to articulate their story. Recounting the events in intimate detail and in chronological order, Arijon artfully weaves interviews with recreated footage. The latter is shot silent, and in such a way that gives it the appearance of something created 35 years ago. The film's only narration is that of survivors and a few others linked to the story, such as the shepherd who first encountered two young men who "smelled of death," after having hiked 70 km from the wreckage site to safety and rescue. Stranded tells one hell of a story, and I can't imagine anyone not being touched by it. Unfortunately, the film has no U.S. distribution, so the SFIFF51 may be your only chance to see it.

Two other documentaries with at least one foot planted in Latin America are Fernando E. Solanas' Latent Argentina (Argentina Latente) and Theodore Thomas' Walt & El Grupo. Solanas' film is a treatise which argues that Argentina possesses all the resources it needs to reinvigorate its economy and return as a main player on the world stage. Industry by industry, he documents past glories and current day gloom, laying blame at the feet of privatization, multinationals, and ex-president Carlos Menem. Despite the director's assured narration, breezy tango music interludes and a few diverting on-screen personalities, this is all pretty wonky stuff. Full of facts and figures, it seems tailor-made for either an attentive domestic audience or one comprised of global economics students. Walt & El Grupo, on the other hand, should have a much broader appeal, because, well … it's about Walt Disney, and a government financed goodwill trip to South America taken by he and his favorite artists in 1942. The sojourn came at a perfect time, when both Allied and Axis powers were courting Latin America, and Disney's studio was experiencing a crippling strike. Fortunately for us some 65 years later, the trip was documented with a bounty of photos, home movies and drawings—the research that ultimately resulted in two animated Disney featurettes, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Unfortunately, the participants are nearly all gone and it's left up to their sometimes less than compelling descendents to tell the story.

In contrast to recent years where Argentina has been extremely well represented in the festival, this year we find only one narrative feature in the line-up. Fortunately, it's quite a good one. Anna Katz' A Stray Girlfriend (Una novia errante) is an anti-romantic comedy of sorts in which a pathetic young woman is dumped by her boyfriend at the start of a seaside holiday. She checks into their prepaid hotel alone and ineptly tries fitting in with the locals—that is, when she's not busy torturing her ex with a series of increasingly desperate phone calls. In this her second feature, writer/director/actor Katz offers little surprises at nearly every turn, and inhabits the unsympathetic title role with gusto.

A woman on beach holiday is also the premise for Naoko Ogigami's Glasses (Megane). Our protagonist this time is a prim, uptight professor who finds herself trapped at a laid-back seaside hotel with nothing to do but eat shaved ice and participate in goofy group aerobic exercises. Resistant at first, she soon learns to focus on life's simple pleasures and explore her innate "talent to be here." Droll, meditative and quirky are words that might be used to describe the film by anyone willing to surrender to its transcendental charms. Precious, insufferable and nauseatingly New Age-y will apply for everyone else.

Preciousness exists, but is less of a liability in Malaysian director Liew Seng Tat's debut film, Flower in the Pocket. That's because the two young actors who play brothers Li Ahh and Li Ohm are such screen naturals. Their scenes of after-school shenanigans and domestic self-sufficiency fill up the film's first, better half. Their divorced father, a reticent mannequin repairman, lives with the boys but doesn't share screen time with them until two-thirds through the movie. It's at this point some major drama is introduced into the heretofore lackadaisical storyline, the details of which left this viewer scratching his head and wondering if something was amiss in the subtitling. There's enough to like in Flower in the Pocket to warrant it a look. I was intrigued by the boys' friendship with a Muslim tomboy, and sensed some oblique political commentary when the younger, Mandarin-speaking brother wiped his butt with a page torn from his Bahasa-language schoolbook. But too much of it was clunky and listless, such as the strained learning-to-swim metaphor that ends the film. Given the prizes it won at Pusan and Rotterdam, I'd been hoping for something more.

A far more dire film about children is Nigeria-born, UK-based director Newton I. Aduaka's Ezra, which tackles the issue of African child soldiers. Kidnapped from his school and trained in guerilla warfare, Ezra is eventually forced to commit atrocities against his own village and family while under the influence of drugs. Years later, he's brought before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in an effort to heal himself and his traumatized nation (the story is based on events in Sierra Leone). The narrative unfolds in a non-linear way that's sometimes confusing, but the film remains compelling, abetted by frequently sophisticated camerawork and an effective electronic score. Acting is mixed, no doubt hampered by a decision to make the film entirely in English.

Mushon Salmona's energetic debut feature Vasermil is an edgy teen drama set in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba. Confused, taciturn and full of adolescent bluster, his three main characters represent a crosscut of contemporary Israeli society: Shlomi, an Israeli-born pizza delivery boy; Adiel, a student of Ethiopian descent; and Dima, a recent Russian immigrant who sells drugs and clandestinely plays piano. All three are encouraged to forget cultural differences and unite as members of the same championship-bound soccer team. Just when you think Salmona plans to use the boys and the soccer game as some hoary cliché symbolizing the multi-culti aspirations of Israel at large, he pulls the rug out and delivers an ending that is very much grounded in sad reality. Vasermil, by the way, is the name of Beersheba's main soccer stadium.

There are also four films in the program which I first saw at this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival. Jaime Rosales' Solitary Fragments (La soledad) is the one not to miss. This intense, measured look at the lives of two women from different generations coping with life in contemporary Spain astonished that nation when it took prizes for Best Film and Best Director at the 2008 Goya Awards. These days I rarely allow myself the luxury of seeing a film twice, but I've bought a ticket to revisit this again at SFIFF51. Taken by itself, the first half hour of You, the Living (Du levande), Swedish director Roy Andersson's chain of loosely connected absurdist vignettes, was perhaps the best film I saw at Palm Springs. Unfortunately, it proceeds to get bogged down in its own fallow, deadpan dreariness and doesn't let up until a final, exhilarating set-piece comes to the film's rescue. In Norway's The Art of Negative Thinking (Kunsten à tenke negativt), director Bård Breien lobs a nasty, politically incorrect loogie at our notion of what constitutes appropriate sentiment towards the handicapped. More burlesque than black comedy, the film made me feel neither outrage nor delight towards all the on-screen antics. The fact that it was my fifth film of the day might have been the reason, as fellow audience members were clearly having the time of their lives. Ambivalence would also describe my feeling towards Serge Bozon's La France, in which a young woman disguises herself as a man in order to find her errant husband on the battlefields of WWI. The film is a pleasant diversion, and as always, Sylvie Testud and Pascal Greggory give fine performances. But the four inane musical numbers ultimately made me wish I'd spent those 102 minutes watching something else. I've written about all four of these films in a bit more detail here.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

SFIFF51—Digital Projections At the Festival

Springboarding from the commendable efforts of the Film on Film Foundation to notify the Bay Area viewing public of format projections, I want to first praise the San Francisco Film Society for cooperating with FOFF's calendar project and, secondly, encourage them to list film formats on future program capsules. Especially as the divide widens between varying formats, and the cost of ticketing has gone up, it's a courtesy to consumers to provide full disclosure.

Here are the films at SFIFF51 that will be projected digitally, for those concerned:

1000 Journals
All Is Forgiven
American Teen
Ask Not
Cachao: Uno Más
Calavera Highway
Calcutta My Love
Children of the Sun
Cloud Eye Control and Anna Oxygen
English Surgeon, The
Evolution: The Musical
Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans
Flow: For Love of Water
Flower in the Pocket
Glass: A Portrait of Philip In Twelve Parts
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Hulang Balyan Ng Buhi (or The Woven Stories of the Other)
Ice People
In A Lonely Place: New Experimental Cinema
Judge and the General, The
Latent Argentina
Medicine for Melancholy
Mock Up On Mu
Operation Turquoise
Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind
Scott Arford: Static Life
Sleep Dealer
Stay Tooned, Kids!
Stranded: I've Come From A Plane That Crashed On the Mountains
Toe Tactic, The
Touching Home
Youth Media Mania

FILM ON FILM FOUNDATION—The Evening Class Interview With Carl Martin

My thanks to Brian Darr's recent alert on Hell On Frisco Bay that the Film on Film Foundation ("FOFF") now offers a discriminating calendar alerting Bay Area audiences to which venues are projecting their programs on film. It reminded me that I've been meaning to speak with FOFF's founder Carl Martin for some time.

As FOFF's mission statement asserts: "FOFF promotes film as a living art form by screening works from its history and stimulating its continued use in production and exhibition.

"We envision a vital film culture in which repertory screenings figure prominently on the cinematic landscape, and film—actual film—is not just an object of nostalgia but a living medium of expression. For over a century, the innate physical properties of film have not only served as the key elements in the work of many of our most significant artists, but have constituted a prism through which we have experienced the world.

"In the Bay Area, as in general, the number of venues offering regular repertory programming has been reduced to a paltry few. This is largely due to the popular misperception that the aesthetic qualities of video are essentially equivalent to those of film. Trends in production, distribution, and exhibition have been towards synthesizing these two media, rather than emphasizing their respective strengths. As a result, interest in attending films, especially classics, has waned drastically. Most commercial venues today have adopted a survival strategy based on cutting costs and seeking ancillary profits, and are uninterested in and incapable of offering an excellent film presentation, despite the development of procedures, products, and technologies that make this an attainable goal.

"As a nonprofit foundation we reject corporate short-term expediency and allow respect and reverence for film to be our guide. We screen films on film, with uncompromising presentation standards, showcasing the unique visual, material, and phenomenological properties of the medium."

Martin and I spoke by phone yesterday.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Carl, I'm interested in how you became motivated to follow through on film advocacy?

Carl Martin: I think the "tipping" point were experiences of going to see films that turned out to be just DVDs. I thought this was a terrible thing. I wanted to do something to advocate against that and so I found like-minded people [and developed FOFF].

Guillén: How do you go about advocating your mission statement?

Martin: We're still trying to think of ways to do that. We've done several film programs where we've spoken about the issue beforehand and our film calendar promotes the idea. There are other things that we're hoping to do in the future, maybe give grants, but we don't have the budget for that right now.

Guillén: Well, let me state right out front that I'm behind your efforts 100%. You're providing a necessary public service. As someone who talks to many individuals in the film exhibition industry, I'm aware that more and more features are made on various digital formats and that more and more theatrical venues are becoming equipped to project in that manner; but, what I take objection to is—just as you say—when films are projected digitally, especially without notification to the audience.

I recently confirmed with Joel Shepard at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that their policy has long been and remains that—despite their having state-of-the-art digitial projection equipment—they firmly believe, as Joel phrased it, that "Digital projection is for digitally-produced pieces that are intended to be distributed that way. Everything's leaning more that way; but, a lot of people don't understand that we have to keep both of the formats alive. Just because we have this newer digital technology doesn't mean we should do away with film. I love these new technologies but you can't forget about film. You can't just throw it out."

I likewise confirmed with Kathy Geritz at the Pacific Film Archives that they likewise practice the same policy. I've long appreciated that PFA lists the formats in which a film will be screened in their programs calendar. Several venues, however, do not. Do you have any read on why that is?

Martin: I think there's the perception that nobody really cares. That can be a self-fulfilling thing. Critics never really talk about it and one reason for that might be because a lot of critics watch films on screener DVDs and don't perceive the difference because it's not there in the medium in which they're watching it.

Speaking of the PFA, yeah, they are really good about normally putting formats in their calendar, except—oddly enough—when the San Francisco International Film Festival [shares their venue]. You would think they'd be publicizing this, and they're not; however, when I asked them, they were upfront about it so I'm glad for that.

Guillén: That's an interesting observation about the PFA's separate calendar for films screening at their venue for the San Francisco International Film Festival. It makes me wonder if that separate calendar isn't being printed by the San Francisco Film Society and not by the Pacific Film Archives? Further, I've done some research and determined that—for at least the last 17 years—the programs for the San Francisco International have never listed formats in their capsule descriptions. I'm now researching to see if this carries through with other festivals and their programs. I checked my programs for the last two Toronto International Film Festivals and they, likewise, do not list formats in their capsule descriptions. And I've been advised this same practice is followed by the Cannes Film Festival. I'm wondering if this is standard course for film festivals? And, if so, why? Perhaps they're hedging bets and accounting for all the things that might go wrong with film trafficking? At any rate, I wonder what the public could do to make festival programmers aware that at least a certain constituency would like to have formats listed in the festival program?

Martin: I don't think there's an easy solution to that. You have to approach all sectors. You have to hopefully get critics to talk about it and get critics to watch film on film more so that it becomes part of the discussion. The more grass roots support you can get—people who write emails or who ask when they go to screenings about these sort of things—that helps. But I don't think there's a magic bullet or anything.

Guillén: Film audiences just have to remain vigilant?

Martin: Yeah. FOFF's film calendar was a way of getting the information out there without relying on others to publicize it; to just do it ourselves.

Guillén: It's an admirable task you've assigned yourselves. How do you go about setting that up? Do you contact each venue to determine how they're projecting?

Martin: I've done a lot of emails, yeah. With the PFA it's easy. The Castro usually [discloses formats] on their calendar; but, there have been a couple of problems with that. I've been taken by surprise by some things so I may have to be more vigilant about that. The other day I emailed them and—by and large—they've been helpful.

Guillén: I'm glad to hear that. Just to make sure there's a nuanced resistance to the practice of projecting films in improper format, is that essentially what FOFF is advocating? Because the fact is that—as a cost-saving measure—more and more movies are being shot in digital formats with the intention of their being projected that way. Does FOFF have a problem with that?

Martin: Not the same kind of problem. If something is shot digitally then the authentic way to show it is digitally. In fact, with many recent films they go through a digital intermediate stage and so, arguably, the authentic way to show them is digitally rather than on film. It may be a little closer to the source then. That said, I don't like that trend at all. I'd much prefer films did not use a digital intermediate. But I'm not going to argue with somebody who wants to use video because that's their medium; that's perfectly valid. It's just not the form that excites me and that I'm looking for.

Guillén: It's also my understanding that most documentaries these days are shot digitally and never transferred to 35mm. Though we might all prefer to watch a film on 35mm, it's not always a practical or available option.

Martin: I'd settle for 16mm, which is much closer to 35mm than video. I mean, it's film. It doesn't go through that transformation of the medium.

Guillén: What is it that you have trained your eye to see in film that you don't find in digital?

Martin: There's a color response. Highlights look quite different in digital. Flesh tones and that sort of thing. It's hard to describe but I feel there's a veil over the image in digital and I feel that way as well when there's a digital intermediate. It introduces that veil.

Guillén: Can you describe what actually goes on in the digital intermediate process?

Martin: That's when something that is shot on film is scanned and digitized and post-production is conducted in the digital domain. And then it's output back onto film with a laser recorder, presumably.

Guillén: Returning to the San Francisco International Film Festival, which begins this Thursday, I took FOFF's calendar and cross-referenced it to the SFIFF calendar and was quite surprised by the outcome. There's actually quite a lot on the program being projected digitally. I wish I would have had this information before purchasing tickets. Did you secure this information from them?

Martin: Yeah, from their press contact.

Guillén: They were cooperative with you on that?

Martin: Yeah, much more than I thought they would be. I had thought they would blow me off; but, they didn't.

Guillén: I have found Hilary Hart and her team to be quite helpful and I'm especially pleased to hear they have cooperated with the FOFF calendar. So what does FOFF have lined up for the future?

Martin: We're planning a show for June during that fallow period at the Castro when they're just showing Indiana Jones. We want to do a show at the PFA. You want to know what films we're hoping to do?

Guillén: Sure, if you know!

Martin: They're not booked yet; but, we want to do Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, paired with Anthony Newley's Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

Guillén: [Laughter.] Oh you're going to have fun introducing that one!

Martin: Yeah. I'll just say the title maybe and that will be the whole introduction. [Chuckles.] Aside from what we perceive when we're watching something that's digital vs. film, at the production level it's a very different process and that itself affects the outcome. The meaning of the work is affected by the process that created it and so there's a certain quality from working with film that comes through in the finished work and is part of its meaning. That's a big concern of mine as well.

Guillén: Do you have any thoughts on filmmakers like, let's say, David Lynch who has said that he's now sworn off of film because he finds working in digital so much easier?

Martin: Well, often filmmakers will say this and then go back to using film. Or not. I don't feel I can argue with his artistic decision. I will say that some of the films he has made look absolutely fabulous and it's sort of a strange decision coming from him; but, he has his method and that's his business. I saw Inland Empire and I liked it for what it was. It would be a real tragedy, however, if every filmmaker made that decision. That would be a huge loss.

Guillén: Recently, I've had several conversations it seems about precisely this subject. When I was talking to Pedro Costa, he explained that—for what he's trying to accomplish where he's filming—he had to switch to digital.

Martin: Interestingly, what I said about Lynch applies to him too. I saw his first film O Sangue at the PFA and it was just absolutely gorgeous. I can't say the same about what he's shot on video. Though it looks good, it's not the same.

Guillén: Costa himself has admitted the medium's limitations and the creative challenges it presents. I recently also spoke with Heinz Emigholz. He swears by film as well; however, he has admitted excitement over the new digital camera, the Red One, whose resolution is so high and crisp that it competes with film. Via Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily, Roberto Quezada-Dardon has likewise written up an enthusiastic piece on the Red One for Filmmaker Magazine. He claims: "Films will be shot on a Red on the basis of how they look or how small the Red cameras are, not because it's cheaper to shoot on video. In the near future, the playing fields between high- and low-budget films will be leveled." I guess we'll just have to wait and see, eh?

Martin: Resolution is not what distinguishes film from digital. Film has different gauges. 70mm has a lot more resolution that 16mm, obviously, and even if you look aside from resolution, there are these differences of how colors look and how film responds to light.

Guillén: I guess what ultimately concerns me in this ongoing debate is the presumption, primarily by venues, that audiences aren't sophisticated enough to discern the difference between film and digital and, even more importantly, that there's a certain effort to dumb down audiences so that they lose that discernment. I think there's a need for a course or class that promotes visual acuity, perhaps setting the formats up side by side so that viewers can learn to see the differences, pro and con. By unfortunate example, recently at the 3rd I Film Festival, during the projection of the Indian classic Pyaasa, there were problems with the film and they had to switch for a portion of it to DVD. Projected on the Castro's huge screen, the differences were more than apparent.

Martin: Projecting a DVD, the differences will be obvious. But the Castro has also on a couple of occasions shown the more theatrically-intended digital presentations, like they did with Cruising. They did notify in that case but that's not what I want to go and see.

Guillén: I enjoyed reading your rebuttal "The Future of Repertory Is Not Digital" to Mick LaSalle's Chronicle piece on the death of repertory movie theaters. In his piece LaSalle commented, "[I]n 1993, director James Toback came to the Roxie Cinema and talked to a sold-out crowd following a screening of his 1978 classic, Fingers. The energy was electric and continued out onto the sidewalk. But in 2006, when Toback came to the Roxie for an ambitious retrospective of his films, the spectacle was downright embarrassing. He stood in front of the house talking to no more than 20 to 25 people." I appreciated your astute counter: "LaSalle fails to mention that one difference between the Roxie's screenings of Fingers in 2006 and 1993 is that in 2006 it was a DVD. An experience like that will keep people from coming back."

Martin: Yeah, I actually took time off work and took BART into the City and went and sat down and when it started up, it was a DVD. I just left at that point. I didn't want to sit through that.

Guillén: Well, Carl, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak briefly today. I truly admire your efforts and—if there's ever anything I can do to help promote FOFF and its events—please let me know.

04/22/08 UPDATE: I've been informed by the San Francisco Film Society that they are not responsible for printing up the PFA calendars. I appreciate their getting back to me.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

IN ROTATION—SF360's SFIFF51 Coverage

I've been meaning to comment for weeks now on the crisp new design of SF360. They've done away with the graded green-to-orange color scheme (thank you!) and are now bylining their features. Congratulations to Susan Gerhard and her SF360 team for the fresh new look!

This is as good a time as any to tip the hat because it's also when SF360 really shines with its coverage of the San Francisco International. I'll use this Evening Class entry to keep SF360's coverage updated. Along with her initial report from the SFIFF51 press conference (where SF360 photographer Pamela Gentile caught choir boys Rob Davis and Brian Darr reading their festival catalogs as reverentially as hymnals), Susie has organized her writers to focus first on Bay Area filmmakers and their contributions to SFIFF51. These include:

Chuy Varela on Cachao: Uno Mas.

Michael Fox's interview with Johnny Symons, director of Ask Not.

Michael Fox's interview with Renee Tajima-Peña, director of Calavera Highway.

Susan Gerhard's interview with Dawn Logsdon, director of Faubourg Tremé.

Susan Gerhard's interview with Logan and Noah Miller, co-directors of Touching Home.

Michael Fox's interview with Craig Baldwin, director of Mock Up On Mu.

Erika Young's interview with Cornelius Moore on California Newsreel.

Susan Gerhard's interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth, co-director of The Judge and the General.

Robert Avila's "round table" discussion with Evolution: The Musical! filmmakers Andrew Bancroft and Kenny Taylor, as well as actors and Killing My Lobster veterans Tonya Glanz and Jon Wolanske.

Dennis Harvey's profile of Asia Argento.

Dennis Harvey's profile of Jason Lee.

Jennifer Preissel's interview with Eddie Muller, director of The Grand Inquisitor.

Michael Fox's interview with Barry Jenkins, director of Medicine for Melancholy.

Jennifer Preissel's interview with Katherin McInnis, director of Woodward's Gardens.

Dennis Harvey's profile of Mike Leigh.

Michael Fox's interview with "Someguy" and Andrea Kreuzhage, director of 1000 Journals.

Cross-published on Twitch.

SFIFF51—Festival Crossovers

Along with the number of film festivals that seem to pop up each weekend here in the Bay Area, I've taken to frequenting two out-of-town film festivals—the Toronto International in early September (where I have an insider's chance to observe the SFIFF programmers cherrypicking films for the San Francisco International) and the Palm Springs International Film Festival the following January (where I try to second guess what they've actually picked). When the time comes (this Thursday!), my burden of choice is significantly reduced and I can manage my time exploring unforeseen pleasures that Graham Leggat and his programming team have found here, there and everywhere. For your perusal, my festival crossovers.

2007 Toronto International Film Festival

Alexandra—In my dispatch to Dave Hudson's Greencine Daily, I commended Galina Vishnevskaya's engaging performance in Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra, "wherein a lonely grandmother visits a grandson she has not seen in seven years. He has become a war captain stationed in Chechnya and—though at first he is delighted by his grandmother's visit—her disregard of military pride and protocol draws into focus the folly of his commitment to war. Throughout the film, Sokurov shows us the eyes of young soldiers as they respond to the presence of an old woman and they are the eyes of boys bewildered and angered by circumstances they cannot control. As she wanders through the military camp and then the nearby town, Alexandra's presence instills a desire for an old way of life where children respected and took care of their grandmothers, combing and braiding their grey hair." I highly recommend this stately and measured plea for peace.

Cochochi—This gentle gem was aptly placed in the TIFF07 Discovery Program and I wrote it up for The Evening Class. This near-documentary first feature leans towards the ethnographic in its embrace of the indigenous. If your idea of a foreign film is to be taken into another world—one which is rapidly vanishing, I might add—then Cochochi will more than satisfy. In its economy it achieves a serene beauty.

La Zona—As I dispatched to The Greencine Daily: "Paranoia and suspense pervade Rodrigo Plá's feature directing debut La Zona, which has already garnered acclaim at the Venice Film Festival. Experienced through the teenage sensibility of Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), his privileged life in a gated, guarded community is called into question when three young men from the abject ghetto of the surrounding city break over the wall into "La Zona". What ensues is an examination of lives under constant surveillance in an atmosphere of fear and distrust and the rule of mob mentality. It's like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" for the Mexican middle class with a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers thrown in to keep you running from your neighbors. Performances are solid and convincing all around with the welcome appearance of Maribel Verdú (last seen in Pan's Labyrinth) as Alejandro's mother Mariana."

The Man From London—Also to the Greencine Daily: "I've heard disgruntlements with Béla Tarr's The Man From London; but, for my money (fortunately, not found in a valise), this lustrous film is the most accessible of Tarr's films I've seen. Based on Georges Simenon's novel, The Man From London configures suspense as a question of faith. It measures the gradations and degradations one is willing to indulge to escape the banal dissatisfactions of everyday life. And its spiritual assignment is to recognize that it is in the performance of our everyday tasks that our radiance shines through. Our protagonist, Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), hasn't yet achieved that recognition and—as a consequence—is irremediably tempted by an unexpected windfall; namely, a suitcase full of stolen money.

"Tarr assures me the resemblance of this plot device to that used by the Coen Brothers in No Country For Old Men is completely coincidental, though contributing to that coincidence is that I watched both films back to back. Man From London's black and white cinematography and sinuous camera movements shimmer with brilliance as they maneuver confined spaces. My only complaint might be that hearing Tilda Swinton dubbed in Hungarian pulled me right out of the film, though it's clear why her high cheekbones and beseeching eyes were cast. Visually, she contributes to Béla Tarr's ongoing quest for a pure cinema of meta-narratives expressed through the eyes; the greatest storytellers of all."

Further, I had the rich opportunity of
interviewing Béla Tarr for Greencine's main site. I regret he's not accompanying the film to San Francisco. It would have been a pleasure to be intimidated by him again.

My Winnipeg—Having the opportunity to watch this hilariously haunting film in Toronto's Edwardian Winter Garden Theatre with Guy Maddin narrating live was a peak moviegoing experience and I didn't hesitate a second purchasing tickets for the SFIFF screening. Though he swore on the Winter Garden stage that he would never narrate the film live again, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Graham Leggat's considerable charm will convince him to do otherwise. An absolute must-see! You will laugh yourself sick with joy.

You, the Living—Jonathan Marlow convinced me to see this film and it was my fifth press screening of the day late at night. Its dour humor and dim palette were more than I could handle so I walked out. I have felt guilty ever since and feel compelled to give Roy Andersson's film one more chance. Perhaps I'll appreciate it better on a second go-round? But don't hate me if I emerge with staged ambivalencies.

2008 Palm Springs International Film Festival

Leave Her to Heaven—I never miss an opportunity to watch Eddie Muller introduce a film he loves. Anticipating his enthusiasm, I researched the film for The Evening Class and I encourage anyone who hasn't seen Gene Tierney in this Technicolor marvel to feast on her lavender eyes and her murderously green jealousy.

Mongol—Having caught the North American premiere of Shinichiro Sawai's Aoki Ôkami: chi hate umi tsukiru made (Genghis Khan: To the Ends Of Earth and Sea, 2007) at the 10th annual San Francisco Asian Film Festival, I felt primed to dive into Sergei Bodrov's historical epic Mongol (there's something to be said for a succinct title) and was keenly aware that Bodrov is telling only the early part of Genghis Khan's remarkable rise to power. Rumor has it—and I hope it's true—that Mongol is the first of a trilogy. I'm surprised to see it billed as a West Coast premiere at SFIFF51 when it screened earlier this year at Palm Springs; but, perhaps I should just write that off as a minor detail? My favorite scene: thundering hordes of Mongols raging towards each other as thunderclouds collide above! Visually powerful, the film will likewise attract fans of Tadanobu Asano.

Solitary Fragments—This film's spatial complexity and split screen design warrants a second viewing to appreciate the film more fully and to articulate its presiding themes. It's an absolutely consummate piece of craftsmanship, like a piece of architecture whose interlocking design requires circumambulation. It's truly one of the most interesting films I've seen in the last year. For those who need further prompting, I wrote up a critical overview for my PSIFF08 Cine Latino preview.


The Grand Inquisitor—Let it be known that, along with knowing how to introduce a film, Eddie Muller knows how to make one, and to unabashedly pull a favor or two to get it included in SFIFF51's "Feminine Mystique" collection of shorts. Hey, if you know how to work it: why not? Besides, the film deserves to be seen by a new audience after its triumphant premiere at Noir City 6 earlier this year. I wrote that event up for The Evening Class.

Madame Tutli-Putli—I don't care what anyone says, this remarkable animated short—included in SFIFF51's shorts program "The Human Kingdom"—was robbed of the Oscar it deserved. Judge for yourself; but, above all, don't miss it. Once you have, wander on back to The Evening Class to read my interview with animators Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski.

Friday, April 18, 2008

COMPLICATED SPACES—The Evening Class Interview With Heinz Emigholz, Pt. Two

Part One of this interview can be found here.

Guillén: I recently spoke with Pedro Costa who had some interesting things to say about space and filming space. Like yourself, he relies on natural light, not only to get an image with light, but to infer space through off-frame sources of light.

Emigholz: I only use sources of light that are in the house or sunlight. I don't use artificial light, no film lights, in my films because these architects themselves thought about the light situation so much. They placed their houses at certain angles to the light and the landscape. I film wherever possible—where the light is—but I don't throw light into the scene myself.

Guillén: Which leads me to ask about your working methodology when you're shooting. You've clearly done your research, you've established a chronological gameplan for the buildings and how you want to shoot them, you've had to go through the machinations of gaining access and permission, so then you arrive at the building: now what? How much time are you given? Because of the vagaries of weather and the way light is coming into the structure, how much time do you have to create?

Emigholz: I have to start immediately. I make one decision after the other. Usually there are three of us. There's one guy who helps with the camera, which is a really big camera, and he schleps it around. Another person does the sound and talks maybe with the house owner.

Guillén: To keep them out of the way?

Emigholz: I have no time to talk to them. I look at the building and I have to concentrate. It's a complete act of concentration actually. What you said isn't exactly right. I don't know the chronological order of the buildings. When I'm shooting, I'm not really interested. We graph out a travel plan to connect the houses we want to film. The Goff film involved nine thousand miles so, of course, you couldn't shoot chronologically from California to Tulsa and back to California. We film the buildings in proximity so we can do them all in one laid-out trip. The chronology takes place at the editing table, which is an interesting moment when you learn how the houses clash and are connected with each other. That's a fantastic moment. In the Loos film, for example, you'll see that he uses certain elements for a couple of houses in chronology, as if he was using up modules that he had stocked up or something.

What I like is when you arrive at a point and you don't know the weather before. It makes no sense to have written a script for a sunny day and then there's overcast skies. It's better to feel free and that you are open for the situation. It's wonderful to have an overcast day because that means we can do a lot of complicated shots without big F-stop ranges that make it impossible to create certain images because there's too much contrast otherwise, too many shadows. I take the situation like it is and I react very fast to it. I start filming almost immediately and the others have to deal with sometimes complicated social situations. If you look at the DVD for the Goff film, one of us did a film on the side about how we arrived at a building and talked to people. Of course, I have very little time. But it's interesting that an object dictates the number of shots I have to do. First we go around, we go in, and then suddenly something builds up. I have to do this, this, this, this. I look at the light and gauge what we should do in the morning, what we should do in the afternoon. The decisions are made real fast. I don't have to sit and contemplate. I'm just working. Because I can't contemplate by looking through the viewfinder. My decisions to use a certain angle arise from the situation that I find there and then I shoot the image. I'm almost always faster than the people I'm with because I know what I want. When I do one image, it already dictates the next two that I know have to come either after or before. I'm addicted to filmmaking because I like that moment. Your mind has to be on the spot 100%.

Guillén: It's that quality of being present in your films that is its dramatic quality. You have another description you've used here and again—"recognition of the manifest"—which comes into play here. You're saying that—when you come into a place—it reveals itself to you in an obvious way so that you know what you have to do.

Emigholz: And there's always more I could do. I never have the problem of not knowing what to do or having enough to do. Other kinds of problems might arise. For example, in the Loos film I go into a house in Winter and come out in Spring because it was so cold when we first entered, there was ice rain, and we couldn't continue filming. We had to postpone shooting until the Spring. That was a situation I couldn't control. Not only the weather but the light. It was too dark and I didn't want to use artificial light. Otherwise, when I'm shooting I never hesitate because there's always so much to do.

Guillén: In contrast, then, to Pedro Costa who—in order to access his spaces—has elected to minimize his equipment and has switched from film to video, you're very clear about wanting to work with celluloid and the large cameras necessary. Why are you so committed to 35mm?

Emigholz: The high resolution. If there is a video camera in the future that produces that kind of high resolution, of course I will switch to it. For example, I'm doing a whole project now with a new camera called Red. It has a high resolution. A 16mm negative has just a quarter of a 35mm negative. You can cheat in 16mm and video. You can never tell how far objects are away from each other because the space doesn't read. In 35mm, it does and you can't cheat. You can read the space and that's why I like to use it. Of course, when I'm dealing with architectural space, 35mm is what I want to use. But for a current project I'm doing that deals with cityscapes, I'm very excited about using the Red camera.

Guillén: Another quality I like about your filmmaking is its luxurious autonomy. You really are an auteur filming auteur architecture. You film what you want to film. Pym is your production company. You're calling all the shots and—from what I've read—you only pursue the work of an architect if some space they have created has captured your imagination.

Emigholz: But, to be accurate, it's not only my company. Of course, I try to find combatants so, for example, with the Loos film and the Schindler film, I went to Austria to an Austrian company. They knew my work. I said, "Would you want to produce?" because they could access Austrian money. I didn't produce those films with German money. So I work with different companies as well as my own company. Whenever it's possible to do a co-production, I do.

Guillén: Is it primarily contemporary architecture you're interested in? You have no interest in historical architecture?

Emigholz: Yes, sometimes. For my last feature film two large scenes were filmed in the Cologne cathedral and in Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia. But I always choose locations that mean something to me. The Cologne cathedral was the bad guy and La Sagrada Familia was the good guy. [Laughs.]

Guillén: I was delighted to read that you're considering doing a monograph on the Mexican architect Luis Barragán.

Emigholz: I just today bought another book at Moe's about his work.

Guillén: Do you know Adriana Williams?

Emigholz: Who? Adriana Williams? No.

Guillén: She was Barragán's lover in her youth. She now lives in San Francisco and has written a beautiful coffee table volume on him. I thought it might be interesting to link the two of you up. I don't know if you would need her insight for the kind of work you do….

Emigholz: It's not in process yet; but, at a certain point we have to get access to all his buildings and I don't even know if it would work. You can never know beforehand.

Guillén: She's very well-situated socially in Mexico and might be someone who could help you gain access. I got excited when I read that you were interested in his work because I fantasized getting my fingerprints on that project a bit.

Emigholz: If you can help, that would be great. I want to do Barragán and I want to do Pier Luigi Nervi and I want to do a German builder Ulrich Müther—who's done beautiful shell structures all over the world—and I want to do Auguste Perret, a French architect.

Guillén: Has any Japanese architecture intrigued you?

Emigholz: Not really. Schindler's almost Japanese in the beginning. Also, I want to stop the series! I don't know, that might turn you off. [Laughs.] I have three feature film projects that deal a lot with architecture but in a subliminal way and they're not about specific architects.

Guillén: Returning to the sticky thicket of experimental filmmaking—which is something I'm still trying to get a handle on—part of the argument I had with my friend after we watched Schindler's Houses revolved around the issue of non-narrative films. I said I wasn't sure if I would call your films non-narrative. Though they may not be structured narratives, they're certainly narratives about structures. For me, there's a story being told; there's certainly a chronology and a momentum driving the film forward and maintaining my interest, and he complained that chronology is not narrative. I didn't know quite how to respond to that, but, I nonetheless still felt that there was a narrative momentum in your films. Do you think there is?

Emigholz: Yes, and each time I watch them I always see little bits and pieces of stories that come out of the material and tell you something. For me it's—as you've said—you get driven forward and want to see more and want to see how it connects and so on; but, of course, in terms of film narrative that's a really big topic. There are certain rules how these narratives work, how they build interest, and if there's three acts, and if there has to be a conflict and the conflict has to be resolved, all this stuff, and this of course doesn't interest me. Unless you see the film and think, "My God, that building inspires conflict or there's something going on between him and the builder." Sometimes one sees that too. Loos had problems with certain rules in building and he does this to avoid it.

But I find it quite alarming that all these rules about narrative filmmaking are equally applied to documentary filmmaking. You have a certain set of rules if you're going to film a BBC-like documentary. You go into an archives and get a few little bits and pieces of film, you have a pile of photographs, you have a voiceover, you have music, you have the hand of the composer or the architect who makes a drawing; a computer could make such a film. BBC documentaries could be done by machines. But then if you have a certain approach to the spaces, an individual approach, maybe a poetic approach, can you really deal with this world of narrative formulas? You have to find your own way. Maybe that's what experimental documentary is all about. On the other hand, as I've said before, it's rather simple what I try to do. To this day I don't understand why there aren't more films like the films I make. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this documentary form came from schoolteachers preaching content. The teacher tells you what's important and what's not important. Look to the right corner and you'll see something important. But as soon as there's anything like a hierarchy of language—when somebody tells you something and you listen and you don't look somewhere else—then documentary films are guarding you and guiding you through the jungle or the chaos of the photographed world. When they say, "This is content. This is nonsense", it has nothing to do with it.

When I create an image, of course I can compose it and control it to a certain degree, but why do I sit in the cinema and watch my own films? Because I always see something new in them. As if what was there in reality that I filmed really comes through. You can't read it in one reading. As I've also said, with the Internet you can get all sorts of information about Rudolph Schindler in a second. I don't have to use my film time up with that information. I can use my film time to show you the complicated space. If I would put a voiceover narrative on top of my films, it would subtract your energy from experiencing that space.

Guillén: Surprisingly, I felt that when Thom Anderson first appeared in Schindler's Houses. I was startled, distracted, to see a person. For that matter, I was startled to see the three cats!

Emigholz: You see? It's almost like a vacuum cleaner that draws everything to it. You look immediately to the person or the cats and the space recedes. If I would only film shots with people, you wouldn't look at the space.

Guillén: Finally, you have made comments I find so intriguing about the relationship between architectural structures and nature. You've indicated that some of the architects designed their structures with the thought of what the nature surrounding them would become in time. And in my own background leading ecotours to Mayan centers in Guatemala, I frequently observed the romanticized notion of culture or civilization being reclaimed by nature. I would tell my participants, "What you see here are the bones of a civilization covered over in rain forest; but, that's not how these centers once looked. Like Americans, the Maya paved over nature." They preferred the fecund complexity of structures against structures; the "thicket" that you have referred to in describing architecture in European cities. Can you speak about what Mark Peranson has termed the "strange affiliation of culture and nature that houses have."

Emigholz: On the image it is simultaneously there, whether I film part of a branch on a tree or a plant or a house: they're all on the same level. For me, the nature is absolutely necessary. The view through a thicket to a building, connecting trees with buildings, is a topic for me. It's a task I like. You'll find in my films more shots with no building at all in it. Even in the Schindler film, there are a lot of shots there where there's nothing of a Schindler building; but, it deals with nature, structures, and how do I get from one corner to the other. It's a very interesting topic or task to do that. To build up such a contrast between nature and buildings seems to be wrong to me.

Guillén: You call it a "crime" at the beginning of Schindler's Houses.

Emigholz: Yeah. But then you see, for example, how the color wears off so you can see the raw wood underneath. Perhaps I told you this story already but there was one house owner who said, "Well, you can film our house if you give it a new paint job." [Laughs.] Little did that person know that I'm absolutely not interested in new paint and an ideal state of the house. I said, "Thank you, no, we don't have the money to do that." Though the Schindler houses might be beautiful once they're restored, I prefer them before such restoration.