Monday, August 30, 2010


Edgy and juiced up with genre, this year's Vanguard Program at TIFF strikes me as especially strong over years past. "I'm calling it now," Twitch teammate Todd Brown asserts. "Vanguard is the best program of the Toronto International Film festival 2010" and "the program to beat."

At Ellen's Age / Im Alter von Ellen (Pia Marais, Germany)—A German flight attendant falls into increasingly bizarre adventures when she leaves her husband, quits her job and joins a radical group of animal activists. Official site. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

Facebook synopsis: "This is the tragic-comic story of Ellen, a 43-year-old flight attendant whose life takes a shattering turn into the unknown. In her charming but occasionally over-strung way, she is inclined to compensate in an adventurous fashion her fear of intimacy and commitment to relationships. Driven by a sense of alienation so characteristic of city dwellers today, Ellen seeks a place to belong and in doing so, becomes a tourist in the lives of the people and groups she encounters, which leads her towards a surprising catharsis…"

At MUBI, David Hudson singles out David Jenkins' dispatch from Locarno to Time Out London: "A cryptic, almost Haneke-like study of alienation and indecision which sees Jeanne Balibar as a crisis-stricken air stewardess who goes in search of her true vocation. It's a difficult movie, one that treads a thin line between the playfully enigmatic and the incomprehensible, but its intelligence, precision and intent to provoke were palpable."

The Christening / Chrzest (Marcin Wrona, Poland)—Michal (Wojciech Zielinski) hopes to change his luck and escape his criminal past. But when he's pursued by a violent gang, he desperately tries to find a way to save his family. Official site [Polish]. IMDb. TOFilmFest. International Premiere.

TOFilmFest synopsis: "Michal has what he always dreamed of: a beautiful wife named Magda, a newborn son, his own firm. He chooses an old friend, Janek, to be the godfather of his child. This is just the beginning of Michal's plan, who asks his friend to take an interest in his wife... At the beginning the plan works out, but it becomes increasingly difficult for Michal to come to terms with it. Michal knows his deeply hidden past will inevitably come back to him, and Janek will have to make a decision, of which he will never forget the consequences."

At Twitch,
Todd Brown writes that The Christening is "the sort of artful, relationship-based spin on a crime thriller that drive[s] voters wild come award time. In fact, the film already has been awarded, picking up multiple nods at Poland's Gdynia Film Festival. The first person I showed this to described it as equal parts Brothers and A History of Violence, which seems fair enough."

Cold Fish / Tsumetai Nettaigyo (Sion Sono, Japan)—Equal parts black humor and bloody dementia, and based on a true story, this film is a portrait of a Japanese tropical fish dealer responsible for more than 40 murders. Screening in Venice. Jason Gray has the scoop. Official site. IMDb. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

Twitch teammate Mack has put up
a gallery and the Cannes chirashi (sales flyer) with its expanded synopsis. Tomblands features an interview with Sion Sono.

Confessions / Kokuhaku (Tetsuya Nakashima, Japan)—Tetsuya Nakashima's Confessions, based on the six-part serial novel by Kanae Minato, is one of Japan's most important films of the year. A stylized mixture of cruelty and compassion, the film spins the dark tale of vengeance of a teacher whose little daughter has been killed by two of her students. IMDb. TOFilmFest. Canadian Premiere.

David Hudson has rounded up reviews from the New York Asian Film Festival. Aside from those, Ronnie Schieb at Variety describes Confessions as a "coldly stylized symphony of cruelty. Pic builds inexorably from one shocking revelation to the next amid the austere, regimented symmetry of a Japanese middle school where two student sociopaths receive their comeuppance at the hands of a teacher." Schieb regards Confessions as a "high-concept exercise" that showcases "extreme fragmentation, rhythmic intensity and stylistic pyrotechnics" and concludes that "the formal beauty of Nakashima's imagery ... serves less to aestheticize horror than to visualize a state of mind where instant gratification trumps human connection." At The Hollywood Reporter, Maggie Lee writes: "Cynical, anarchic and impeccably crafted, this revenge thriller with a socially caustic twist on the image of the mater dolorosa offers no respite in tension, no redemption for any character and an ending that is as merciless as it is a satisfying payoff."

Easy Money / Snabba Cash (Daniel Espinosa, Sweden)—The worlds of a mob enforcer, an escaped convict and an ambitious young business student collide in an explosive and white-knuckled thriller based on the 2006 bestselling Swedish novel by Jens Lapidus. Peter Ericson dubs it "Stockholm noir." Official MySpace page. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

A Horrible Way to Die (Adam Wingard, USA)—When a serial killer escapes from prison, he pursues his ex-girlfriend, who has fled to start a new life in a small town. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Kaboom (Gregg Araki, USA/France)—Smith's everyday life in the dorm—hanging out with his arty, sarcastic best friend Stella, hooking up with a beautiful free spirit named London, lusting for his gorgeous but dim surfer roommate Thor—all gets turned upside-down after one fateful, terrifying night. At MUBI, David Hudson has rounded up reviews from Cannes. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

L.A. Zombie (Bruce LaBruce, Germany / USA / France)—Corpse-eating meets poverty politics in this pornographic art film set on the streets of Los Angeles, where an alien zombie brings dead men back to life. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

From Locarno,
David Jenkins dispatches to Time Out London: "Rather than a torrent of extreme bad taste, the film turns out to be a tender study of otherness in the big city and a cunning reversal of genre conventions." At Eye Weekly, Adam Nayman concurs: "Bruce LaBruce's already-notorious film is more melancholy than confrontational. Porn star François Sagat plays the zombie, Los Angeles plays itself and assorted corpses are tenderly sexed back to life." At Xtra, Matthew Hayes spoke with an upbeat LaBruce after L.A. Zombie was yanked from the Melbourne International.

Microphone (Ahmad Abdalla, Egypt)—A bold example of new North African cinema, Microphone mixes and remixes fiction and cinema verité as it follows an Egyptian expatriate's return to Alexandria, where he dives into a thriving underground music and arts scene. Official site. IMDb. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Monsters (Gareth Edwards, United Kingdom)—Six years after a probe carrying alien life samples crashes in Mexico, a photojournalist must escort his boss' daughter through the "Infected Zone" back to the safety of her home in the U.S. Official site. IMDb (where there's a whole queue of reviews at External Reviews). Wikipedia. Facebook. TOFilmFest. Canadian Premiere.

Our Day Will Come / Notre jour viendra (Romain Gavras, France)—The highly anticipated debut by French director Romain Gavras (director of M.I.A.'s video Born Free) focuses on two outcast redheads—a bullied teen (Olivier Barthelemy) and a psychologist (Vincent Cassel)—who embark on a hallucinatory journey to Ireland in a quest for freedom. Official site. IMDb. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.


My thanks to Girish Shambu and David Hudson for pointing me to Chris Fujiwara's N+1 essay "To Have Done With the Contemporary Cinema", which I found to be a fascinating if flawed brownstudy on—as David phrases it at MUBI—"the slippery notion of 'contemporary cinema' "; an essay which appears to have emboldened Girish to dismiss the "contemporary" cinema programmed at this year's Toronto International Film Festival or—if I'm understanding Professor Shambu's argument—any international film festival as fodder for "capitalist imperatives." I find Girish's entry as fascinating and as flawed as Fujiwara's essay and for many of the same reasons. Their fascination lies in the discussions they inspire—never a bad thing—but their flaws require objection.

First of all: I object to the elitist tone of both pieces. Girish's entry seeks to delimit the role of international film festivals to satisfy the preferences of a particular constituency (as if a festival can only be "good" if it meets those preferences) instead of understanding that a "good" festival caters to as many constituencies as possible, and never the same choices across the board. What works for TIFF might not work for the NYFF or the San Francisco International and to aim to reduce all festivals to a formula stifles creative difference. Whereas the overall tone of Fujiwara's essay is dismissive from the get-go, perhaps for turning people into nouns for what they do, rather than to describe their activities through adjectives. In other words, no one is "just" a journalist nor a critic nor an academic nor a ticket-buying civilian. At times we are each of us journalistic, critical, academic and consumerist in varying degrees and in endless combination. I see no point in pitting critics against journalists. That's a false hierarchy and I don't see what good it serves. I will never understand this academic need to classify everything into categories and to equate such activity into some kind of elevated understanding of the subject at hand; for me that's akin to—as poet Leonard Cohen states it—"pinning a butterfly to wood." If Fujiwara harbors concerns that he has lost touch of the contemporary for being an accomplished film critic, then perhaps he should go slumming and allow himself to be an accredited journalist for a season or two? Truth is, he can be both. He can retain his individual critical sense of what is contemporary and access journalistic privilege to what is consensually perceived as contemporary. They don't necessarily cancel each other out and, truthfully, can transmute each other into the gist of all film commentary: personal taste. For academics, critics, journalists and festival attendees alike: doesn't it always come down to personal taste?

I object primarily to Fujiwara's suggestion that the window of a film's contemporaneity closes swiftly after its presence on the festival circuit and that it is "truly contemporary only for a small group of people—critics, programmers, and distributors." I disagree with his limited definition of what is contemporaneous, not in how he understands the relationship of films to current events (Jafar Panahi's imprisonment; Apichatpong Weerasethakul's detainment by the Thai government; Peter Brunette's fatal heart attack in Taormina—all his examples) but in his strategic dismissal of the etymological root of "contemporary", which is to say "within the same time." Here I would lean on a comment made to me by TCM host Robert Osborne who admitted his disgruntlement with the dismissive term "old movies." A movie isn't old, he said, if you're seeing it for the first time.

No matter how old a movie is by production date or within the annual cycles of the festival circuit, if you are experiencing a film for the first time it is a contemporaneous spectatorial event. It is happening in the here and now. In fact, I would argue that this is precisely the contemporaneity that academics and DVD cinephilists have over the contemporaneity of journalists tethered to mere theatrical rollouts. Their discipline attaches "old films" to current events and/or immediate experience in provocative and relevant ways. By example, even Fujiwara references Metropolis to argue that journalists are embedded deep inside capitalist imperatives and can there be any question of how DVD film writing has encouraged the new cinephilic poseurs? Fujiwara, in fact, advances this argument best: "A film must be untimely to be worth talking about." Or rather, I would say it is the timelessness of films that accounts for criticism's efficacy, not whether they are contemporary or not contemporary. Film maudit, genre revivals (noir, silent), DVD commentary all underscore that the contemporaneity of film is the shared moment between the film and spectator, nothing more, nothing less and is betrayed by anyone wanting to define the contemporary through the straw man of capitalist imperatives.

Cross-published on

Sunday, August 29, 2010


It's hard not to love a program that features 15 World Premieres, 3 International Premieres and 9 North American Premieres! Once again, TIFF showcases innovative talent from around the world, refining Chris Fujiwara's recent definition of "contemporary" cinema in his N+1 brownstudy. Perhaps what is contemporary is simply what is waiting to be discovered?

As If I Am Not There (Juanita Wilson, Ireland / Macedonia / Sweden)As If I Am Not There explores one woman's experience of the horrors that took place at the beginning of the Bosnian War. Disturbing and powerful, the film is an important testament to the survivors of the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. Based on Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić's real life experiences overseeing the proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague. IMDb. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

ATTENBERG (Athina Rachel Tsangiri, Greece)—A dying architect and his emotionally stunted daughter inhabit a once booming industrial community in the middle of nowhere, now populated by the precious few who didn't have the heart to leave it behind. Competing at Venice for the Golden Lion. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

Autumn / Harud (Aamir Bashir, India)—Shot in striking, widescreen images in India's Kashmir region, Bashir's debut tells the story of Rafiq, a young man struggling to come to terms with the loss of his older brother, who has disappeared in the ongoing border conflict. Official site. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Beautiful Boy (Shawn Ku, USA)—A married couple on the verge of separation are leveled by the news that their 18-year-old son has committed a mass shooting at his college, then taken his own life. Stars Michael Sheen and Maria Bello. IMDb. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Blame (Michael Henry, Australia)—A group of young vigilantes seeking revenge for a sexual betrayal fall far from grace. When the truth is out, they find themselves on the dark side of justice. IMDb. TOFilmFest. International Premiere.

The Call / La Llamada aka Il richiamo (Stefano Pasetto, Italy / Argentina)—Two women, one a married middle-aged airline stewardess, and the other a free-wheeling factory worker, meet and decide to change their lives. Moving to Patagonia and leaving their men behind, they find that escape carries with it a different set of responsibilities. IMDb. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Ceremony (Max Winkler, USA)—Along with his unwitting best friend, a young guy looks to crash the wedding of an older woman with whom he's infatuated. Stars Uma Thurman. IMDb. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Dirty Girl (Abe Sylvia, USA)—Danielle is the dirty girl of Norman High School. When her misbehavior gets her banished to a remedial class, she teams up with an innocent closet-case and they head out on a road trip to discover themselves. Stars Juno Temple, Dwight Yoakam, Milla Jovovich and William H. Macy. IMDb. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Girlfriend (Justin Lerner, USA)—When an unexpected financial windfall affords a young man with Down syndrome some freedom, he decides to pursue the object of his high school crush, Candy. The decision brings him into conflict with her volatile ex-boyfriend, and the three find themselves involved in a complex, unpredictable triangle of love, aspiration and dreams. Stars Evan Sneider and Jackson Rathbone. Official site. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Griff the Invisible (Leon Ford, Australia)—Griff, office worker by day, superhero by night, has his world turned upside down when he meets Melody, a beautiful young scientist who shares his passion for the impossible. Stars Ryan Kwanten. Official site. IMDb. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Half of Oscar / La Mitad de Óscar (Manuel Martín Cuenca, Spain / Cuba)—Oscar and Maria are reunited by the imminent death of their grandfather. Maria has not been heard from in over two years, and now arrives pregnant and with a boyfriend. IMDb. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Inside America (Barbara Eder, Austria)—Drawing on her memories as an exchange student in a nowhere town on the US-Mexico border, Barbara Eder explores the dark side of the American Dream. Official blog. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

Look, Stranger (Arielle Javitch, USA)Look, Stranger is an elegant, spare and powerful telling of one young woman's journey through a war-torn landscape in an effort to get back home. Stars Annamaria Marinca. Official site. IMDb. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Mandoo (Ebrahim Saeedi, Iraq)—After the death of Saddam, Shaho, an Iranian Kurd, is determined to take his ailing father back to his village so he can live out his final days in familiar surroundings. The only thing that stands in his way is a wide-eyed young woman. IMDb. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

Marimbas From Hell / Las Marimbas del Infierno (Julio Hernández Cordón, Guatemala / France / Mexico)—Don Alfonso loses his job playing the marimba, an indigenous, traditional Guatemalan instrument, at a hotel in Guatemala City. He approaches musician Blacko and proposes that they fuse the sound of the marimba with heavy metal. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Norberto's Deadline / Norberto Apenas Tarde (Daniel Hendler, Uruguay / Argentina)—Award-winning actor Daniel Hendler offers a hilarious account of a man trying to combat his shyness. After being fired from his job, Norberto tries his hand at real estate and his new boss suggests he take some personal affirmation courses. Instead he discovers the theatre and his love and unknown talent for acting. IMDb. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

October / Octubre (Diego Vega & Daniel Vega, Peru / Venezuela / Spain)—Money-lender Clemente only knows how to relate to others through transactions. His life is turned upside down when someone leaves him a baby in a basket. When a client, Sofia, steps in to help tend to the baby, Clemente is faced with new possibilities during Lima's October celebration of the Lord of Miracles. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

The Piano in a Factory (Zhang Meng, China)—To fight for custody of his daughter who loves playing the piano, a steel factory worker decides to forge a piano from scratch. An offbeat ballad of friendship and devotion, The Piano in a Factory is an endearing portrait of China in the early 1990s when the certainty of state-run industry begins to falter. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Pinoy Sunday (Wi Ding Ho, Taiwan)Pinoy Sunday is the story of Manuel and Dado, two Filipino migrant workers, who discover a discarded sofa. This transforms their normal Sunday routine into a tale of adventure, perseverance and self-discovery. Official site. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

The Place in Between / Notre étrangère (Sarah Bouyain, France / Burkino Faso)—Bouyain's sensitive debut is a portrait of women caught between Africa and Europe. A biracial woman travels from France to Burkina Faso in search of her mother. In France, a white woman seeks to learn an African language for reasons unknown. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, Finland / Norway / France / Sweden)—Santa Claus is somewhat less than jolly—in fact, he's the stuff nightmares are made of—in Jalmari Helander's atmospheric and witty re-working of a cherished folk tale. Official site. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

Sandcastle (Boo Junfeng, Singapore)—A gentle and affectionate study of the themes of identity, history and memory, Boo Junfeng's debut feature Sandcastle is a loving portrait of a young man coming to terms with the lives of his parents and his grandparents, while trying to make sense of Singapore's troubled history. At MUBI, David Hudson has rounded up a few Cannes reviews where Sandcastle screened in Critics' Week. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.

Soul of Sand / Pairon Talle (Sidharth Srinivasan, India)—Bhanu Kumar, a lower caste watchman, stands fierce guard over his feudal master's disused, barren mine. One night, a runaway couple in desperate search of refuge, come to Bhanu seeking shelter. The rusted gate of the Royal Silica Mine opens, exposing a bloody world of lust, fear and violence in the name of caste, ownership and honor. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Viva Riva! (Djo Tunda Wa Munga, Democratic Republic of Congo / France / Belgium / South Africa)—Riva returns home to Kinshasa flush with cash. The town is literally out of gas, and he is sitting on a truckload of it. His first night home, Riva falls in love with a beautiful woman and is emboldened when he learns that a local gangster is keeping her on a short leash. Meanwhile, the gang Riva left behind in Angola arrive in hot pursuit of the gas he stole from them. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Wasted On the Young (Ben C. Lucas, Australia)Wasted on the Young is set in the socially conscious and disaffected society of an elite high school where two step brothers occupy opposite ends of the school hierarchy. When a high school party goes dangerously off the rails, they find that revenge is just a computer click away. IMDb. TOFilmFest. International Premiere.

What I Most Want / Lo Que Más Quiero (Delfina Castagnino, Argentina)—María's four-year relationship is coming to an end while Pilar's father has recently passed away. Though their losses are of a very different nature, the two friends find comfort in each other's company. María stays with Pilar in the Argentine Patagonia and the two women share wine and lake visits as they confront their future. IMDb. TOFilmFest. International Premiere.

Zephyr / Zefir (Belma Bas, Turkey)—This shadowy and atmospheric coming-of-age story follows 11-year-old Zephyr. Left in the care of her stoic grandparents, she roams a rural paradise looking for action, trying to figure out who she is and refusing to grow up. Official blog. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. World Premiere.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

NOT NECESSARILY NOIR—The Evening Class Interview With Elliot Lavine

"Of the darkness in men's minds; what can you say?"—Joni Mitchell, "The Wolf in Lindsay"

Not to counter Joni's world-weary query; but, in fact, when it comes to the darkness in men's minds, film writers have a lot to say and often quite poetically. As Wallace Stevens reminded us, death (and darkness) are the mother of all beauty. With darkness serving as inspiration, it's enjoyable to read write-ups on Elliot Lavine's noirish programs for the Roxie Film Center written by local colleagues. This go-round—with his
"Not Necessarily Noir" (NNN) program currently screening at the Roxie through September 2—Mick LaSalle leads the pack with his great piece for the San Francisco Chronicle contextualizing the importance of Lavine's most recent effort, which he asserts "constitutes a breakthrough in programming." That's a bold statement—even for their being longtime chums—and I can't argue with it. (Sample more of their friendship in LaSalle's podcast interview with Lavine conducted for an earlier series wherein the two wax nostalgic for the golden years of Roxie programming.)

As profiled earlier on The Evening Class, Elliot Lavine—former programming director for the Roxie Film Center from 1990 to 2003—helped set new standards for art house cinemas with his film noir festivals, classic revivals and popular premieres. Lavine helmed tribute retrospectives to Norma Shearer, the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations, Monta Bell, many pre-Code films and more contemporary revivals of such neglected gems as Saturday Night Fever, Red Rock West and Naked Killer. How Lavine came to have such an impact on San Francisco's cinematic landscape (and, indeed, the nation's repertory scene) is competently explored in earlier interviews with him by Moira Finnie for TCM's Movie Moorlocks; Lisa Geduldig for the SF Examiner; and Sura Wood for SF360, all conducted around the time Lavine was invited back to the Roxie to program the highly-popular series "I Wake Up Dreaming" named after his TV Guide pastiche I Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of the B Film Noir. The popularity of that series begged for the follow-up "I Still Wake Up Dreaming", the "Best of Colombia Noir", and now the seductively alliterative "Not Necessarily Noir" (which leads me to riff: "Those things that you're liable to read in the Bible, well, they're not necessarily noir").

Following up on her earlier interview for SF360, Sura Wood chatted Lavine up for the NNN retrospective and wrote a preview piece for the B.A.R. At KQED, Michael Fox explored the painful and universal experience of "swapping childish idealism for adult realities" that aptly characterizes the world-shattering dissolution of noir. "Corruption is everywhere, and human nature doesn't change," Fox writes. "These are the timeless lessons of noir that still and will always reverberate with filmgoers. And filmmakers, too, including those young 'uns whose shattered-world moment is still to come." And at Matt Sussman's welcome repository for his critical pieces, Matt writes eloquently on noir's elasticity: "Like many of its hardboiled antiheros, film noir is a career criminal on the lam. Constantly eluding the clutches of the historically particular and categorically retentive, it's especially skilled at flying under the radar only to stealthily reappear years down the line. Just look at the number of times it has been sighted (as well as cited) since its initial appearance in postwar France, when critics first identified something particulier about the 1930s and '40s American films that filled Parisian cinemas." NNN, Sussman concludes "plays fast and loose with genre and decade but ensures that at the core of each of its titles gleams a heart of darkness."

* * *

Michael Guillén: The title for your series is intriguing for being seductively indirect. By saying "not necessarily noir" you're still appealing to the cachet of noir and audience familiarity with noir, even though—by your own definition—film noir is limited to those films made roughly between 1940 and 1960. Several of the films in the series—especially in its second week—fall outside that time frame. Could you have drawn audiences in without the "noir" hook? Why did you choose to bill it that way? What could the series have been called alternately?

Elliot Lavine: I can't even imagine an alternate title. I think in alliterations a lot when I write on film. The triple N factor kicked into my imagination. I went with it and I liked it because it tweaks the notion of noir, which I have obviously utmost respect for—it's been good to me and I like to be good to it—but, I felt it was interesting to push it a little bit and let people enjoy other types of films that share a certain sensibility with films that we've come to know as film noir. You can ascribe certain noir qualities to almost anything, especially in film, so why not seize that opportunity? And at the same time just have fun with it, not take it too seriously, and make it as if it's some kind of stepsister to the entire concept of film noir?

Guillén: Would you consider any of these films or many of these films to be film maudit?

Lavine: I would say the majority of them are film maudit, especially the Jack Garfein film Something Wild (1961); that's major maudit. A lot of them are—I would say most of them—especially the lesser-known ones that have been reviled over the years for no particular good reason, like House of Horrors (1946) with Rondo Hatton. That's probably in the upper echelon of film maudit. It's really incredible; but, most things you read about it in encapsulated Leonard Maltin-type books treat it condescendingly, as if it's an embarrassment almost. But it's an incredibly interesting film and for a lot of reasons, not the least of which of course is Rondo Hatton. Even some of the films that dip into the more modern era like The Woman Chaser (1999) is a maudit, although it tries to mask it with humor. It's grim and weird and dark and nobody sees it or pays much attention to the idea that it's even there, even though the source material is one of the great maudit writers of American fiction: Charles Willeford. If you look at his books—even the ones that have never been made into films—there's that shared quality; that dim-laden, cursed quality. Jim Thompson is like that as well. The Michael Winterbottom adaptation of his book The Killer Inside Me is maudit for me, especially now that it's become so reviled; reviled for being what it is.

Guillén: I like that you reference "shared qualities" because something I've been noticing about genre criticism on film noir in recent years has been these constant discussions about what is or is not film noir and the somewhat academic classification of elements that are said to make up a film noir. But as Rick Altman has suggested in his book Film/Genre, by defining a genre through its common attributes, and determining whether or not a film belongs or doesn't belong to a genre, genre criticism—in effect—conceals or conquers difference and disagreement. Your series unanchors the necessity of such clearcut definitions and bravely exalts difference, deviation and disagreement, so much so that in Mick LaSalle's recent write-up for the Chronicle, he asserts that Not Necessarily Noir "constitutes a breakthrough in programming." Since I believe curators are educators in film literacy; what are you trying to teach or share with audiences about genre in this particular series?

Lavine: Wow. [Chuckles.] At the center of it is an enjoyment factor that comes from films that lie outside of the conventional commercial market, even though they're films that were made for a commercial market. In many instances it was so narrow a market that it excluded mainstream audiences. And so these films pass through some ether, they're out there, but yet there's people who have an inclination to enjoy films that are a little bit off of some conventional radar. So to be able to get them together and put them together thematically is interesting. If you chat with the people at the Roxie who come night after night to these films, you get that sense of building a little bit of a ladder, or a bridge to some form of understanding of something that's being communicated in an intensely visual way. What's really cool about most of these films is that they were made by people who were using more imaginative than economic resources. Consequently, you get films that are frisky to look at. Were you there for Terror in a Texas Town (1958)? Did you see that?

Guillén: Unfortunately, I wasn't able to catch that one.

Lavine: That movie is so weird. Every scene is a brilliant exposition in visual storytelling. You don't see that in many films of that period; there was a lack of visually exciting films that you could really sink your teeth into. I think sometimes people lose sight of the fact that that's what's really turning them on. Genre films exploit that because those were the lower budget movies. People who were really good at making cheap movies realized that those cheap movies were really exciting to look at. They're much more exciting to look at than boring successes. Genre is key to our enjoyment of movies because they take us to the id and leave us there, abandon us there. It's all this raw shit, like Sam Fuller movies. You're thinking, "I'm supposed to be watching a cowboy movie but now I'm thinking about my third-grade teacher in weird ways." I mean, genre opens up doors. It's like an Aldous Huxley concept: all these doors that genre movies can exploit, which other movies tend to ignore because they're not interested in turning people on; they just want to get the job done, make their money and go home.

Guillén: I like how you say that. When I think of genre, I think of juice. These are juicy movies that—as you were saying before—you can sink your teeth into, like a good steak or a ripe peach.

Lavine: Well, yeah! These are the real art movies. This is why the French took them to heart because it becomes more of an emotional issue than anything else. This ends up going back to your referencing the maudit concept because people have a difficult time responding to emotional issues and if the films make them feel strongly in an emotional way—as opposed to a cool, detached, intellectual way—they're going to reject it. They're going to resist it. They're going to condemn it. They're going to put a curse on it. That's what happened to Something Wild, which to me is possibly the ultimate maudit film in the series when you combine what it is and how it was regarded and what it ultimately did to the career of the man who made it. It killed his career as a filmmaker.

Guillén: I was stunned by Something Wild. The opening title sequence by Saul Bass was fantastic, kinetic, truly something wild!

Lavine: It's my favorite opening sequence of any movie. This was, I think, the film Bass did right after Psycho. Psycho was 1960 and Something Wild was 1961. You get that frenetic, horizontal shifting back and forth; it's incredible. Something Wild is like a Cassavetes movie. It seems committed to a certain kind of raw honesty, which is unusual and always well appreciated; but—when you combine it with an insane, savvy cinematic instinct to go along with what's pushing over emotionally—it's devastating. That whole first sequence of the film up to the rape and then when she winds up with
Ralph Meeker where she's still dealing with all that shit is unlike anything in an American movie. I can't reference anything else. Frankly, I don't think there's been anything like it since.

Guillén: I found that first sequence up through the rape and shortly after completely compelling for being told with minimal dialogue. It's all visual storytelling. And then the film shifts off at such an odd angle when she meets Meeker. Their relationship reminded me of the Stockholm syndrome, which was fascinating for being so unbelievable and yet I went with it.

Lavine: That's funny too because it makes the ending of the film ambiguous. There's a kneejerk reaction of, "Oh, this is horrible and offensive" because it's promoting what the Stockholm syndrome represents, which is to say that a captor will break down his captive to the point where she will accept her captivity and love her captor and do exactly what he wants her to do. So the spectator has the choice of seeing her as a victim or as a happy lady. It crosses the line for a lot of people and they don't know what to make of it. Partly, too, you have to give credit to Meeker and
Carroll Baker because they're unbelievably naked and brave in this movie. Jesus! It's almost difficult to watch it. I sat through it two and a half times over the two days that we showed it even though I'd seen it before. It's profound.

Guillén: As an actress at that specific time, Carroll Baker frequently seemed to play roles of young women victimized by their own inescapable sensuality. She incites male desire, often without fully meaning to. Her characters often express the transition from a kind of precocious sexuality to a feminine experience somewhat tarnished by the world. Her sensuality wreaks havoc on others and herself in socially inappropriate ways. Would you agree with that?

Lavine: Yeah, I think so, even in its titillating Baby Doll kind of way. Even in Giant—where she plays Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor's daughter—she's like that too. Maybe with her it's the Marilyn Monroe syndrome, if you look at how Hollywood is going to use you in a certain way. That's the branding and codifying aspect of movies. People who make movies are money people, they're business people, and they see a formula that obviously works.

Guillén: A lot can be said about whether or not that process of branding or typing is fair or not to the actor as an individual; but, at the same time, it is how that actor as an individual is recognized. There's a spectatorial pleasure in the kind of cinematic shorthand that occurs when audiences recognize an individual actor for the types of roles he or she plays. By specific example, when I look at this movie I'm thinking about Carroll Baker in Something Wild; I don't even remember her character's name. And when I'm thinking Carroll Baker, I'm thinking of a specific type of performance: the sultry young woman sullied by life experience.

Lavine: Her character's name was Mary Ann Robinson. Something Wild also has that incredible dream sequence in the art gallery that plays like a Twilight Zone episode. In fact, the whole movie plays like a Twilight Zone episode. It has an otherworldly quality to it. It's an odd mix of neorealism and Outer Limits.

Guillén: The print of Something Wild was in somewhat poor condition, which you apologized for in advance during your introduction.

Lavine: I will apologize for that until my dying day.

Guillén: Is it the only print available?

Lavine: It's the only known print available. It wouldn't surprise me if there's a print or two out there in the hands of people who were involved with the film; but, this was the only print that was available through MGM, who has the distribution rights. They own the film. It was produced independently and then released through United Artists. So many cool films from the 1950s and '60s were made that way. The Killing and Kiss Me Deadly were both made that way. Many many great films, all genre films, primarily crime films and westerns, were made that way and then released by UA. UA at one point became absorbed and owned by MGM. A lot of the films from this series are from the MGM archives.

The picture quality of Something Wild was fine; but, the condition of the film itself was questionable. There was a lot of sprocket damage, which caused jumping and sometimes it would break down and cause the screen to go black. In one instance, one area of the film was so warped that it got wavy and too close to the projector bulb and burned up right on the screen.

Guillén: Ouch! That's always so painful to watch.

Lavine: So we lost about five frames on that one. But these things happen. This was an original 1961 print.

Guillén: I only bring it up because I'm intrigued by this tension between audiences who understand these things happen with original prints and the so-called "new cinephiles" who expect DVD clarity on the screen. Myself, I'm interested in the old-fashioned experience of a problematic projection especially when a print is so rare. It all seems part and parcel for the experience of rarities; but, I imagine I'm in the minority. Do you find audiences to be patient with projection issues at these revival retrospectives?

Lavine: That's a tough call because we have had a few projection issues and we will always have a few projection issues. Quality varies because the films are of such varied quality. Our committed audience, the people that we've seen over and over, are increasingly more tolerant. Younger people who we haven't seen often at the Roxie or who aren't used to seeing older films in theater are probably going to be less tolerant because they're unaccustomed to that. If all they've seen is Avatar, then they'll probably be bewildered by the projection issues associated with vintage prints. Often as a result, they may not pursue films seen in art houses because of that.

Guillén: Let alone that we're losing so many of our art houses.

Lavine: Well, yeah, it's a sad state of affairs. There's no two ways about it. It's great that at the Roxie we're still able to whip up a crowd for these shows.

Guillén: You've been a film curator and programmer for many years. What does it mean for you to champion a film?

Lavine: That's a pretty big deal internally. I've had my share of interesting movies over the years that I've pulled out of the grave and kicked back out into the world. That's a great big feeling. I can't really liken it to anything else. It's one of the interesting things to come back to you. It's one of the results of your efforts that means more to other people than it can possibly mean to yourself. Almost every series has one or two films that stand out. Something Wild is going to definitely wind up being that kind of film for this series.

Guillén: One I'm anticipating is The Woman Chaser (1999). Can you speak to me a bit about that film?

Lavine: That's a pretty cool movie. That's the most recent film; it's a 1999 movie. It's low-budget, very independent, shot in color stock but released in black and white. There are some prints out there that are actually in color but they're unwatchable. The movie has a desperate, trippy, almost psychedelic feel to it. I don't know if you're familiar with the source material? It's based on a 1960 novel written by Charles Willeford—who we talked about earlier—shot in 1999; but, it's true to the period. It looks good, it feels good, it's done somewhat as a comedy but it's dark and psychologically twisted. It's also the director's cut. If you're not familiar with the book or the story, it perhaps wouldn't make sense to reveal it; but, there's a moment in the book that was deemed really really harsh, sort of in a Jim Thompson Killer Inside Me sort of way. After it played at the New York Festival and other festivals, that moment was cut out of the movie thinking that they would have an easier time getting it into the theaters. Although they had a hard time getting into the theatres—it had a limited release—the director's cut is the preferable version for the one moment that they excluded. It's played as sardonic humor with a dark fatalistic undercurrent to it. It's pretty irresistible! Plus, it's in black and white. The newest film in the series is in black and white. And it will play great with its co-feature
Mickey One (1965), which in my mind is the only other film that has a similar sensibility.

Guillén: I remember watching Mickey One on TCM and thinking it was so wonderfully jazzy! I'm looking forward to looking (and listening!) to it on a big screen.

Lavine: It is wonderfully jazzy. It has that fantastic
Stan Kenton score. If you thought the opening credit sequence to Something Wild was great, the opening credit sequence to Mickey One is pretty great too. Mickey One and The Woman Chaser are going to be a great double-bill.

Guillén: Speaking of great double-bills, I thought your opening night double-bill of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Creeping Unknown (1956) was fantastic. It's what drew me into the series.

Lavine: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is my favorite movie of all time.

Guillén: That's what I understand from reading your SF360 interview with Sura Wood. You mentioned to her you've seen it at least 100 times?

Lavine: Way over 100 times. I'm knee-deep in triple digits with that film.

Guillén: I'm probably at about 50 viewings of that film as it's also one of my top ten.

Lavine: Absolutely. It has to be! [Laughs.] Anybody who is tantalized by the possibilities of the medium itself to convey an emotional reaction, an intellectual reaction, any kind of visceral reaction: that film for me comes as close as any other film. It works you over. There's something about the way it's made and the way it feels that makes watching it a great experience. No matter how many times you've seen it, it's exhilarating. Would you agree?

Guillén: Without question. Have you read Al LaValley's Rutgers publication on the film?

Lavine: I have it by my bedside.

Guillén: I appreciated how LaValley characterized Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an "unstable text" that "has been read at one end of the ideological spectrum as a paranoid parable of invasion by Soviet totalitarianism, fueled by the Red Scare and McCarthyism; and at the other end of the spectrum as an indictment of American conformity and the loss of individualism that the Cold War fostered." (1989:4)

Lavine: Right. When, in reality, it's a genre movie made by smart people.

Guillén: Speaking of those smart people, you mentioned to me the other night that you actually met Jack Finney, author of The Body Snatchers? Could you talk a little bit about that encounter?

Lavine: Jack Finney wrote the original source material. Before it became a paperback novel, it was a serial in Colliers magazine. Over the years I've tracked down copies of it. The serial version plays out differently. But then he was hired by Dell to turn it into a novel, which he did in 1955. Walter Wanger got his hands on a copy of it and decided he wanted to make a movie out of it. This became a sensational thing for Jack Finney as a young author with his first novel. Subsequently, he never wrote another science fiction novel in that vein. He wrote a lot of fantasy and other straight fiction and a lot of it became movies, like Assault On A Queen (1966), Good Neighbor Sam (1964) and House Of Numbers (1957) with Jack Palance. He developed a great working relationship with Hollywood and these were all movies that I liked growing up as a kid. I discovered Finney's book The Body Snatchers five years after the movie came out. I was about 13 or so and it became my favorite book. So Body Snatchers was not only my favorite movie, but my favorite book.

Then when I moved out to San Francisco in the '70s, Finney lived right across the bridge in Mill Valley. On a weird hunch, I looked him up and there he was in the phone book. I called him—which was audacious and rude—but I just couldn't resist the idea of calling Jack Finney. He couldn't have been nicer. He invited me up to have lunch with him and his wife, which I did. Subsequently, we stayed in touch a little bit. Whenever I was driving up to Mill Valley I would stop by and say hi. He was a terrific, mild-mannered, amusing, smart, funny guy.

Guillén: Did he relay any thoughts to you regarding the film version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and how it differed from his book?

Lavine: He liked and enjoyed the movie; but, he was a bit burned that they changed the ending. He didn't like the idea that Becky became absorbed, because she does not in the book. Finney's mode was romantic fiction. The whole idea of the man and the woman emerging glorious at the end of the story was important to him and the movie changed that obviously. But, all in all, he liked it and was overall very grateful for what it did to his subsequent writing. That film was a lynchpin for so many people.

Guillén: One of the additional delights of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is that cameo by Sam Peckinpah. Did you ever have the chance to meet him?

Lavine: No. That would have been interesting at best. I don't know how enjoyable it would have been. I certainly love his movies. He's one of my favorite directors. It's great to see him in that cameo and he's really cool. He shows up again later when they run out of the nurse's house and he chases them down the street.

Guillén: Like so many others, I wonder why these films are so popular? We've talked a little bit about the juiciness of genre and their emotional communication; but, I'm also curious about—let's say specifically with Body Snatchers—if we haven't nostalgically romanticized Cold War paranoia? By comparison to contemporary events, the paranoia of that time seems almost quaint, and a simpler, more innocent paranoia.

Lavine: Right. As soon as you put a label on it, you wind up doing that. That's a part of it. But I think too it just combines a good story with high level art and the art is the convincing part. People don't consciously think about it. But the real reason why the film works is Don Siegel. If it had been given to a different director to make, it might not have become such a terrific movie. It might have been average, ordinary and semi-forgotten; but, instead, it became something quite spectacular, almost in spite of itself. It means so much to so many people. You usually get a facile response when you ask people why they like it. They'll say, "Oh, it was really exciting" or "the aliens were scary" or "I liked the Communist metaphor" and that's all a disguise that enables people to avoid what they're really thinking about the film. They don't want to give it too much credit. In the last 10-15 years, I've noticed that people have become more resistant to giving film credit for being a powerful medium or a medium that should even be powerful. Audiences are trying to exert their own power over the medium. That's why there's this increasing fascination with how movies are made and the mechanical / technological overbite that's devouring movies in general. It's boring and antithetical to art. It's egregiously offensive; but, nobody gives a shit. They're content to watch their cooking shows on TV. You could scream about it in the dark but it's not going to do much good. You just have to keep putting good movies up on the screen for people to watch.

Guillén: I've long marveled that Invasion of the Body Snatchers portrays the basic fear of going to sleep.

Lavine: And looking under your bed! When I first saw it, I looked under my bed for a year.

Guillén: Looking to see if someone had left a pod, eh?

Lavine: Yeah, that movie influenced me in a great way. I'm grateful.

Guillén: In some ways the basic fears that Body Snatchers communicates—like falling asleep and being absorbed or taken over—are what remain contemporary about the film and which retain relevance.

Lavine: People like to be affected emotionally. That's why they go to the movies, whether they realize it or not; it's not just to look at pretty people. They want to be affected, even if it's uncomfortable. They want to be changed because they know they will safely come back to reality in an hour and a half.

Guillén: You have a good sampling of Paul Schrader's work in the series. Can you speak about including him in your series?

Lavine: I like most of his movies in general. I like that he came about just at the time of this whole resurgence of film noir in the '70s. He seems emblematic of that movement. I like the way he honors certain traditions in his films that are formalized and perhaps not as frantic as Scorsese's or De Palma's; but, he's tied in with those people. He wrote Taxi Driver. He wrote Obsession for De Palma. So he's tied into probably the last truly significant movement in American movies in that mid-'70s wave of incredible potent talent. His films survive; they're interesting. They're morally challenging. They're forcing you to look at stuff that's difficult and unpleasant.
Blue Collar (1978) is the most interesting movie we're running of his. That movie takes a serious look at things. Even now—almost 30 years later—it seems more relevant. His timeless damaged approach is unflinching.

Guillén: Would you consider Schrader a neonoirist?

Lavine: I don't get that term too much. I would consider Schrader a noir stylist. Like Aldous Huxley injected some of his sensibility into his work. The re-emerging pattern in film after film is what his art is about, much in the way of Preminger's art, or Ulmer's art. He honors that tradition.

Guillén: Shifting away from the current series, I wanted to follow-up on a few historical anecdotes regarding your programming at the Roxie. Can you talk a little bit about Barbara Steele visiting the Roxie?

Lavine: That was wonderful. In fact, that's one of my favorite adventures at the Roxie. That was almost 20 years ago; in 1992. I had always loved her and admired her and loved her movies, everything about her. I had a major-time crush on her as a teenager. I got to talking to somebody who told me, "Y'know, she really hates those films and she's really resistant to talking about them." At that point, I had been thinking of putting together a festival; but, not really necessarily asking her to attend it. But when I found out that she wasn't up to supporting those films, it became a challenge. I sought out her number and I called her. She was really very open and a nice person, just great, and didn't mind that a complete stranger called her. I gradually convinced her to participate on the condition that I didn't exclusively run the horror films. I had to put up
Young Törless (1966), the German art film that she'd made, and (1963), in which she had a small part. I agreed to do that. I put up six of her horror films and those two films. She flew to San Francisco for two or three days. She was at the Roxie all day. She talked to people. She loved the experience. It totally turned her around in terms of how she viewed these films. The Roxie was packed day and night, if you can imagine.

Guillén: I regret missing that. Also, I was intrigued by your revival screening of Cruising (1980), whose controversy I clearly remember.

Lavine: That was fun too! It showed people how stupid and silly the whole irrational protest was. Again, that would have to be towards the top of the list of film maudit. To be able to get a huge supportive gay audience in 1995, 15 years after it was chased out of the city, was intellectually interesting. It pitted a lot of people against each other. It never really got ugly. There was name calling but it never got weird or violent.
William Friedkin was interesting too because this film was a sticky point for him and his producer Jerry Weintraub. It almost ended their careers, especially Weintraub. This was his first feature as a producer and now he's one of the most powerful producers in the world. In fact, he got involved on the sidelines when I revived that film. He sounded like a gangster, like Al Capone, when we talked on the phone. He was really funny but you could picture him with a cigar. He was humbled by the whole experience. The revival got great reviews. The Chronicle gave it four stars. It did great business and moved over to the Royal after we showed it. So the Roxie's revival screening breathed new life into Cruising and validated the film.

As for the film itself? People saw it as this weird, kinky genre film. It was an action movie that just happened to have this hot button subtext, because of where the movie was set. It was seen as a visceral exercise in cinema thuggery. It's a movie that beats the shit out of you. But people cozied up to it. The right audience emerged for that movie. It was great. That was a terrific experience.

Guillén: I predict a series on cinema thuggery would be very popular. Well, Elliot, I want to thank you so much for your generosity in talking to me today.

Lavine: Thanks for your interest. It's always great to talk to you.

Guillén: I look forward to the rest of the series.

08/31/10 UPDATE: With his signature flair, Brecht Andersch goes all hardcore on Paul Schrader at SFMOMA's Open Space.

Photo of Elliot Lavine courtesy of Liz Hafalia and the San Francisco Chronicle. Cross-published on