Wednesday, November 09, 2011


What distinguishes mortals from immortals? Is it longevity? Or is it free will? Are the characters of Gods as flawed as those of humans? Is that which is best in a human what touches the hem of the Gods? How does an actor humanize his portrayal of a deity to make him more relatable to an audience? Are the Gods old wise men in the clouds or are they young, virile and prepared for battle? These are all queries that will, undoubtedly, spring from viewing Immortals (2011), the new sword and sandal epic by Tarsem Singh (Tarsem) poised to open theatrically on 11/11/11; a date that comes once in a century. The ballyhoo for this film started earlier this year when Tarsem and members of his cast—Henry Cavill, Luke Evans, and Isabel Lucas—joined producer Mark Canton on San Francisco's Wondercon stage to promote the film. The following transcript is cobbled together from Tarsem's comments at that event.

Tarsem first grabbed my attention with his music video for R.E.M.'s smash hit "Losing My Religion", which won Best Video of the Year at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards. Tarsem's feature film directorial debut was The Cell (2000), starring Jennifer Lopez, which I found visually fascinating, if not distractingly so. Its sumptuous surface belied depth. Some reviewers agreed with me, most notably Jonathan Rosenbaum who wrote at the
Chicago Reader: "There's almost no plot here and even less character—just a lot of pretexts for S&M imagery, Catholic decor, gobs of gore, and the usual designer schizophrenia." Others, like Roger Ebert, disagreed, writing: "For all of its visual pyrotechnics, it's also a story where we care about the characters; there's a lot at stake at the end, and we're involved. I know people who hate it, finding it pretentious or unrestrained; I think it's one of the best films of the year." Ebert walked his talk and slotted The Cell in his top ten for 2000.

Tarsem's sophomore effort was The Fall (2006), whose debut I caught at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. Once again the critical response was divided, with Nathan Lee of
The New York Times describing it as "a genuine labor of love—and a real bore" and Ebert remaining consistent in his praise: "You might want to see for no other reason than because it exists. There will never be another like it." This time I was won over to Ebert's side of the fence, appreciative of Lee Pace's attractive chops (which I grew to further admire in the following year's television series Pushing Daisies).

Immortals promises the same sensorial visuals that have become Tarsem's signature and might prove that the third time is the charm, especially given its A-list cast. With Henry Cavill's handsome good looks yoked to this mythic tale loosely adapted from the Theseus legend, and riding the groundswell of his upcoming turn as Superman in Man of Steel, hearts are bound to throb. Add the ever-fascinating Mickey Rourke as the villainous King Hyperion, Luke Evans as Zeus, Isabel Lucas as Athena, and several of movieland's hottest and youngest (including Robert Maillet as the Minotaur), and I anticipate a speed ramp straight to entertainment.

On What Immortals Is About

The idea of immortality. Every culture has a different idea about it. You have gods who—by definition—are immortal, unless they fight and kill each other. Then you have humans—that's what I was interested in—where you see how far mortality can go. You either have people like King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) who believes seeds are immortality: Attila the Hun, rape and plunder, how many children you make, your genes pass on, you're immortal. Then there's Theseus (Henry Cavill) who believes deeds make you immortal: you do great things and you're known forever.

On Directing Mickey Rourke

You don't
direct Mickey! It doesn't particularly keep me on my toes as a filmmaker to not know exactly what I'll get each take from him. When I make a film, there are very few areas where an actor can improvise. I probably keep the actors on their toes because I've cast Mickey—a loose cannon with a spear who believes in physical contact—so you can't be closer than two feet. When he's doing things like that to you, you wake up!

On How Immortals Differs From His Earlier Films

My earlier film
The Fall was a very personal film. It was like my way or no other way. A film like Immortals, on the other hand, is a much more acceptable film, but I still wanted to make it in such a way that my DNA would be in the movie. I came into preproduction meetings with very dark coffee and then there was Mark Canton and the other producers with their glasses of milk. Somewhere inbetween we found the right mixture for a lot of people. I was aware there was going to be a bigger tug-of-war than on The Fall but, in the end, I felt Immortals ended up with enough of my DNA that was highly acceptable to people. But, it's a different animal.

On Working in 3D

3D is a tool. It's only a tool. If you try to put the cart in front of the donkey,
then I think you have a problem. I didn't want to poke your eye with it. If I did, I probably would have made Piranha in 3D and have it eat whatever I wanted. I do enjoy those films, but in this film 3D is just a tool. I looked at working in 3D as a continuation of my style because I tend to shoot tableaux and not fast-cutting stuff. If I tried to film the Jason Bourne movies in 3D, I would be in trouble: handycam and shakycam and Paul Greengrass are not meant for the 3D format. What I tend to shoot naturally tends to 3D. I embrace it and I love it.

On Filming Battle Sequences

I dig fight sequences. Generally, anything that requires shouting and actors threatening to destroy each other tends to be easy when you're doing green screen, though it tends to be physically hard for the actors. But when it comes to smaller intimate scenes against green screen, the details nearly kill you. Intimate scenes require intimate objects at closer spaces and the technicians did an incredible job there. For the battle sequences, I started with Caravaggio meets Fight Club. I laid down the rules of physics in this film so that the physical was not really involved. They can jump from 10,000 feet down and not get hurt. They're not going to fly up. Batman I can do. Superman, I don't know. I don't know how you break those laws of physics; but—once I lay those rules down in the action sequences—the film became much more visceral.

On What Proved Difficult

The moment I had my vision and started to put the film together, it all fell into place. The most difficult thing in making a film like
Immortals is getting the chance to make a film like this in the first place. Once you get there, it's much easier than all those little projects you might want to do. With those, you have no money, no support, whereas with a film like Immortals half the trouble is getting the producers to agree with your vision. If they agree, most of the battles are done, unless they're lying.

On What Has Influenced His Visual Style

Everything you grow up with influences you. The books you read. The porn you watch. The Tarkovsky movies you watch. Everything gets mixed up in your head, the Discovery Channel, animals eating each other, I don't know. I look at all that stuff; but, when a script comes to me I ask, "Do
I have a take on it?"

I started with Caravaggio, but by the end of the film if you say, "That looks nothing like Caravaggio, that looks nothing like
Fight Club", well, if it does, I will have failed. I look at something and I tell myself, "This is where I start." Caravaggio and his finger of God lighting, early Ridley Scott films, staying far away from sunlight composes the image in a particular way. Then you start working and suddenly Henry Cavill's best shot looks like this and Luke Evans' is like that. Caravaggio would never do that shot. Do you want action? Or do you want to stick to tableaux? Everything changes. When I say that the film is a mixture of Caravaggio and Fight Club, I'm telling you where I started. Were there other influences? Yes. Everything I learned in art school and from the Discovery Channel has showed up there.

On Whether Immortals Is Mythologically Accurate

Unfortunately (or fortunately), not too much. As any mythology buff knows, Greek mythology is never consistent. Sometimes somebody was a son, sometimes they ate them, sometimes they had incest with them, they would do different things on different days from different stories. I had to take the story of Theseus and see what I wanted to do with the Gods. Doing a Gods movie with Theseus is like doing a dinosaur movie with cavemen: they did not exist together, in Greek literature or anywhere. Once we cast Henry, I decided the Gods were going to be fighting. Once I decided they were going to be fighting, I wanted to change the laws of physics like I said earlier, and I didn't want them to be fighting like in a Chinese martial arts movie. I decided that if they were going to be fighting, the Gods had to be young. That's when I asked myself the question: if you were 80,000,000 years old and could live forever, would you want to look like someone in their forties or their fifties or their sixties, like me? Or would you want to look like Henry Cavill? If you have to be immortal, you would want to be youthfully immortal. You can still be wise. All the jokes about how a 20-year-old can be wise doesn't matter. For me the idea is that the Gods have been around forever and have chosen to look young. If anyone thinks that they should look like an 80-year-old rather than a 20-year-old, I'm sorry, I won't see your pictures.

As to how familiar I am with Greek mythology, I wouldn't particularly make a movie in limbo. You can never make a film from mythology or literature without pissing off a lot of people. You have to figure out how many you want to piss off and how you can still end up getting a good story. To look at someone young like Luke and think how he's going to play Zeus, I would be terrified if I was him. I can do shop talk. I can do anything practical on a set there is to do. It's very easy for me. But I cannot do what these actors do. I don't know where they get it. But did I do my homework? Yes. Did I want to change it up? Yes. Should I have changed it up? I think so. Even to Caravaggio, anyone from the Renaissance period is completely different from the Greek period. Apart from the stories, artistry is a rendition. Artists have license. If they want to paint Zeus, they can paint a really white man in his sixties, take his face and put their boyfriend's body underneath so that he looks amazing. But I would look at that and say, "I don't want a face replacement." How do you find an actor who can be young but act wise? That's Luke Evans. He's sitting right there.

On Whether He Has Any Interest In Filming Folk Mythology From India

Yes. But, unfortunately, what I tend to shoot requires a lot of money. If I were writing films, I might write there. Right now usually the films that I end up doing look like the tail end of a dying genre. When everyone said serial killer films were dead, I filmed
The Cell. And now they say there are too many sword and sandal films, so I do Immortals. But I ask myself, "How can I put my DNA into a film that has its finger on the pulse of pop culture?" I don't think right now Mahabharata is going to be on that pop culture hit list. It's unfortunate. But I might.

On What's Next

I'm about to do Mirror Mirror (2012), my take on Snow White. Everyone asks me why. I guess it's because I don't have any children and the only way I can pass my genes on right now is through my films.

On Whether Reinterpreting Cultural Legacies Has Been Intentional

I would have to say that working first with
The Fall, and then moving into Greek mythology with Immortals, and then on to a Grimm Brothers fairytale with Mirror Mirror has been ... accidental. The Fall was all about what not to do with story writing. Everyone kept telling me that a story had to move forward, but for me The Fall was about reading another person's body language to tell the tale. It was about storytelling. Immortals is not that. It addresses a much larger audience with a Greek tale, so it's less calculated.

On What It Was Like Learning His Skills Through Advertising

I was actually in school when filmmakers like David Fincher were doing their best work making commercial videos. I was in class with Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. All that visual form that you see in my films came out of these classes where we were taught about pictures as storytelling. When I came out of school, I met Fincher afterwards. He came up to me and he said, "What do you think? We're the next generation. Should we do something together?" I said, "I don't think I'm ready. I don't feel like making films. I love advertising. I love music videos. I could do this for another decade and a half and—when I come out of that—I'll make movies if I can." At that time David Fincher and others like him were making commercials and music videos as a stepping stone. I, on the other hand, was a prostitute in love with his profession. I did commercials and I loved them. It just so happened that I came to the gate much much later.


As is often the case, one need look no further than MUBI to achieve an overview of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia (2011). After offering the trailer, David Hudson rounded up the reviews from the film's premiere at Cannes (where Danny Kasman also weighed in), reported on the controversy surrounding Von Trier's press snafu that earned him the status of persona non grata, and then expanded his critical round-up from the New York Film Festival. Most recently, Hudson has reported on Melancholia's multiple nominations at the European Film Awards.

I caught
Melancholia at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and was stunned by its somber beauty and its unflinching infatuation with the apocalyptic. The film opens theatrically this week and—though I don't really have much to add to what's already been written—I do have a few tangential impressions I wanted to share. When I watched the film, I was struck by its depressive weight, its gravitas if you will, where gravity is determined by the pull of celestial bodies upon each other. If ever the "inner reaches of outer space" could be palpably felt, Melancholia achieved that microcosmic / macrocosmic correspondence in shaded spades. For me the film was a grim and dark fantasy about inauthentic weddings and the clay feet of the paterfamilias.

It was Charlotte Rampling's stony performance as Gaby that most unnerved me. Gaby possesses what Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton-Perera has brilliantly described as the "death eye" in her groundbreaking study Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women (Inner City Books, 1981), which explores the deeper meaning of the wedding ritual by way of the Innana / Persephone mythologem. In essential ways the death eye is grounded in the authentic experience of marriage, even as it mercilessly exposes the false marriage (one might say the marriage of convenience) through lancing insight. Brinton-Perera provocatively suggests that what feels at first like a curse might actually be a key to feminine strength and freedom. Gaby's psychological attitude triggers Justine's descent and Justine (in an award-winning performance by Kirsten Dunst) does, indeed, go
down under the weight of her mother's negativity. But it could be argued that Justine needs to find her own strength because she cannot rely on any of the men around her. Her philandering father Dexter (John Hurt) is of no help, weakened by a penchant for saturnalia; her spouse-to-be Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) can't live up to his namesake and conquer the devil of her depression; and her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) favors science and reason to ill effect, trying to ward off an impending loss of control, only to succumb to the ultimate act of cowardice and abandonment. The archetypal underpinnings of Von Trier's narrative are so pronounced that they are nearly hidden in plain sight.

This visually ravishing descent narrative cogently captures the oppressive influence of a suffocating familial environment and—as I watched the film—I kept thinking of an early memory of Carl Gustav Jung's, poignantly recalled in his autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections: "I had anxiety dreams of things that were now small, now large. For instance, I saw a tiny ball at a great distance; gradually it approached, growing steadily into a monstrous and suffocating object. ...I see in this a psychogenic factor: the atmosphere of the house was beginning to be unbreathable."

Melancholia takes my breath away on multiple levels, both oppressive and liberating. It is, indisputably, one of the year's best films and will be a front runner in the oncoming awards season (which sometimes feels like an impending planetary collision in its own right). When the cast of Melancholia appeared on-stage at TIFF, Kirsten Dunst saw the film's opening sequence—frequently interpreted as oneiric—as less Justine's dream than the very real possibility that Justine was actually from the planet of Melancholia, which was how she worked with the role. Kiefer Sutherland added that Von Trier shot much more specific footage for the opening sequence that he decided not to use. By doing so, he allowed the sequence to be sparse enough so that it could be interpreted variously by each audience member, which Sutherland believed was "a strong move."

Regarding the strength that Justine develops to face the apocalypse, a strength that is nowhere evident earlier in the film, Dunst stated, "Lars and I talked about that a lot. When people are depressed, they're less afraid or not afraid of what's about to happen. In having no fear, you can be the strongest one in such a situation." For me, this is a clear confirmation of the value of Brinton-Perera's notion of the "death eye."

Sutherland: "One of the things that Lars did that was truly unique from any other experience I've ever had in film, we didn't block scenes out and we didn't do a lot of rehearsal. We were actually forced to find moments as they were happening. There was some panic and fear about that. At first, I thought it was his way of trying to control the thing, but there was actually a reason for him to do it like that. It had a profound impact upon me as an actor and Lars and I talked about that a lot. I think that was one aspect that allowed us to focus on the moments instead of the whole scope of the film." Udo Kier added that—after having worked with Von Trier for years—he's learned that Von Trier hates actors who act. He wants them to be in the moment, reacting honestly.

One hilarious moment in the TIFF Q&A was when an audience member asked Udo Kier how he maintained his youthful, sexy appearance? "You've made my evening," Kier beamed, and admitted that—since he has had no plastic surgery—he must be sexy by nature. Another respite arrived when the cast was asked what working on the film had taught them about the anxieties and depressions of people in their own lives. Skarsgård was quick to refute: "I'm from Sweden and we're all very happy in Sweden." When asked if he thought things would have "turned out differently" if Jack Bauer had been on the scene, Sutherland fessed up that Lars Von Trier would have kicked the shit out of Jack Bauer.


Belatedly screening in November as part of the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing Film Society Cinema at the New People—can someone please explain to me why this venue is no longer referenced as the VIZ (which, in my opinion, sounded so much better)?—Daniel and Diego Vega's Peruvian fable Octubre (October, 2010) has finally arrived in San Francisco. My eyes and ears in SF advise, however, that opening night had all of three people in the audience. C'mon, San Francisco!! Don't let October's cinephilic overload keep you from catching the quite charming October on the last day of its run.

I thought now might be a good time to revisit my interview with Diego Vega on the occasion of the film's North American premiere at the Toronto International.

Upcoming entries in the Film Society Cinema at the New People include Sascha Rice's documentary California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown (2011), Denis Côté's Curling (2010), and Nick August-Perna, Carlo Mirabella-Davis, and Chris Dapkins concert footage The Swell Season (2011). Of related interest, Seattle's Northwest Film Forum one-ups San Francisco's Film Society by scheduling an in-residence conversation with Denis Côté later this week. Not to be undone, however, the Film Society counters with their own artist's residency with Uruguayan filmmaker Federico Veiroj whose valentine to cinema
La vida útil (A Useful Life, 2010) was one of my favorites from last year. This might be a good time to revisit my conversation with Veiroj as well.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


The sun's rays tumble thick as golden tresses on the charmed cobblestones that pass underfoot. As the skies transmute, from amber gleam to emerald glimmer and at last to sapphire sparkle, young Tim's waking life in a European orphanage descends into dream. At least it would on a usual night. It seems that a star name Adhara has vanished from the sky—a particularly meaningful disappearance for Tim, who was promised by his mother that this stellar guidance would forever be there to deliver him into gentle slumber. Wide awake with the fear of his solitude, Tim encounters a diverse bunch of characters—"workers of the night"—each of whom play a special role in midnight's orchestration. Frosting the window panes, misting the alleyways and even lightkeeping the star-strung sky, each chore accomplished in kind by the characters of the night's citizenry. So it is that Tim blazes out on an adventure to challenge his shadowy fears and rectify the dimming of the night.

In Nocturna (Adrià García & Víctor Maldonado, 2007), we visit a picturesque, but inconsistently thoughtful scaffold by which Tim summons the courage to face his fears. We must admire the breadth and imagination of the company that supplies the night: the bumbling sock-bandits, the chatty hair-tanglers, and even the pseudo-villain that causes kids to wet their beds ("Uncle Pee"). The character designs are unique and playful—non-derivative of Disney, Dreamworks or Studio Ghibli. Beyond here though,
Nocturna's bravado tapers. The inevitable rooftop tangles and musical interludes feel hastily applied and flatly choreographed. There are clichéd appeals to inside / adults-get-it jokes, ethnolects as markers for social standing, and a boring (if stylistically ravenous) arch-villain, "The Shadow." Still, the film is admirably overt in its textual and sensitive invocation of the word "death," for what is happening to the stars. Like Adhara blips in and out of the heavens, Nocturna is a variably refreshing entertainment.

Nocturna will screen as part of the San Francisco International Animation Festival on November 12th at 3:00PM at the New People Cinema. [See Michael Guillén's earlier critical overview here.]

Cross-published at Cinefrisco.


Readers of The Evening Class have seen my preview of the sensational "Top Drawers" program screening at this year's San Francisco International Animation Festival (SFIAF). Another of SFIAF's thoughtfully curated shorts selections includes "The Best of Annecy", which highlights a handful of imaginative and provocative features in a variety of styles, each of which were accepted into this year's Annecy International Animation Festival.

It's been well-said that "film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth," but—where animation is concerned—this may be a grave understatement: there are whole tall tales, or perhaps entire mythologies, packed into the single animated cell. The Lost Town of Świteź / Świteź, la Cité perdue (Kamil Polak, 2011) manages to steal away with our spirits into an eminently colored and iconic world. Textures of stone and pine are themselves given life by the flicker-lit shadows that usher us through entire epochs. This same perspectival glissando convenes in Big Bang Big Boom (BLU, 2010) and Sidewalk Scribble (Peter Lowey, 2011), both of which summon forth engaging narratives from urban landscapes. No-less unbounded in its mobility is Paths of Hate (Damian Nenow, 2011), whose depiction of a scorched earth dogfight delivers a biting intensity that pits a chilling guitar solo against two demon-pilots duking it out to bitter ends.

In The Eagleman Stag (Michael Please, 2011) we are introduced to the idea of a "weighty moment," which is that awareness of the immense gulf of time separating a newly minted four-year-old from his fifth birthday by a quarter of a lifetime. Its great comedic wit opens doors, making accessible philosophical realms that may otherwise have aggravated our usual proclivities when spoken so plainly. Luminaris' (Juan Pablo Zaramella, 2011) comedy is imaginative, infectious and hopeful. We happily digest the tidy gets-the-girl storyline thanks to the heaping portions of playfulness and novel visions of the fantastic. [See Michael Guillén's earlier write-up here.] Sticky Ends / Chroniques de la poisse (Osman Cerfon, 2010) turns a corner here, bearing down on the comedy of the absurd, where undeserved comeuppances abound with a kind of idiosyncratic giddiness. I snickered throughout, but lol'ed when the credits rolled the name of the production company,
jesuisbiencontent. Uh-huh, sure you are. Now, we can only guess at what Plato's (Cohen, 2010) geometric allegory might entail, but we're perhaps better off simply enjoying the ingenious interplay of two and three dimensional spaces, as its line-drawn protagonist toils to escape his own imprisoning flatness.

Screenings will take place on November 11th at 7:00PM and November 13th at 2:00PM at the New People Cinema. Cross-published at Cinefrisco.


Allow me to preview a shorts program playing at the upcoming San Francisco International Animation Festival (SFIAF). "Top Drawers" is a selection of brief forays into fantastic universes where gravity has been obliterated, colors resonate like a crystal chime, and harmony is a carefully sculpted ball of clay. You can enjoy these sensational experiences yourself at New People Cinema on Friday, November 11th at 5:00PM and again on Sunday, November 13th at 4:00PM.

Hinterland (Jakob Weyde & Jost Althoff, 2010)—The war drums sound, and you're off—rampaging through the night forest, weaving in and out of pitch black pines, the limestone crackling beneath the momentary weight of your paws. The world around you, compressed into a two-toned blur of frenetic bygones. What's come out in you is a wildness, a slobbering savagery.

White No White / Weiss Kein Weiss (Anna Bergmann, 2010)—You hop along joyfully, frolicking and forging ahead in your iodine dream, but before you is a wall that will go unnoticed until you smash up against it. There is a melancholy at the fore and, indeed, the aft. Is it simple curiosity that compels you beyond that wall, or something more? One thing is for certain, you will become something larger.

Romance / Romanze (Georges Schwizgebel, 2011)—A sweet reverie guides the reel over the cerebral lamp. You imagine the places you will be, the hands you will touch, and the dangers you will face. Quickly, then slowly, you approximate a sphericity of being. Every blue is deep and every red is warm. When at last you awake, those wavelengths seem to reach your eyes out of phase.

Muybridge's Strings / Maiburijji no ito (Kōji Yamamura, 2011)—Up from the sea comes Time Herself and her daughter. A mother, so in love. You're struck that beauty is not eternal. But you are man, the toolmaker—ingenious to a fault. Encountering a musical stave that bears a set of lines and a cluster of feelings that will arpeggiate and repeat for many ages, you taste obsession. Infinity is alive in the moment, and she will be reinvented frame by frame.

Flux (Candaş Şişman, 2011)—Intermittent signals emerge; we've made contact. They appear to you as the sounds of a mechancial interaction, but that discounts the life force that is everywhere here apparent. You stand amazed at the cave paintings of some far advanced civilization.

Metachaos (Alessandro Bavari, 2011)—You float along a digital factory floor, spinning in perpetual elegance. There it is, a neuronal invasion, an antimatter meets matter moment. Industrial fluids are magnetically activated. Freefall is the constant, even while gravity has lost her hold. A quivering panic, you envision. Blankets of pernicious debris rain down on the hopelessly tortured, and the unaffected ones, they act out a self-imposed regimen of frozenness. This is death's thumping libido.

METACHAOS from Alessandro Bavari on Vimeo.

Strata #3 (Quayola, 2009)—You recall that the universe is a projection, and that all information from the very beginning sits on the surface. Every sculpture, every painting, every man, then, is a pixel on a plane of infinitesimal precision and galactic breadth. Should that projection ever break down, should her scan lines skip a frame, should her colors ever distort, what wires would you behold? What are her Sistine underpinnings?

I Know You (Krebitz, 2010)—In fits and starts, our internal rhythms are haunted by the scribbles of our own invention. You know your own story, your own secret places. You have an Achilles' soul and an abiding terror.

August Song (Jodie Mack, 2011)—Lushness and dehydration coexist in the haze of your hookah smoke. Unpredictable progressions of familiar patterns. Textures of home envelop your carefree childhood dance. A serene psychedelia, a roundness of sound buzz about your head. Fireworks reflected in a cardboard sea. You stutter-step through layers of stilted movement, until your thoughts become fluid and polyphonic again.

Cross-published at Cinefrisco.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

3RD I 2011—Frako Loden Previews the Lineup

I always feel semi-miserable near the end of October. It's because I've seen just a handful of films from the San Francisco Film Society's (and other bodies') glut of autumn film festivals or missed out on others entirely. I feel I can never keep up with what I should be seeing, which in my blacker moods I've guessed is exactly how these film entities want me to feel. But then I get the call to look over the yearly offerings of the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, aka 3rd i, and I cheerfully try to see every DVD screener that comes my way. There's no angst, because every work is rewarding in some way. This year's program is especially robust, and I'm hard put not to recommend spending the entire five days attending it. 3rd i launches Wednesday November 9 at the Roxie Theater, where it continues screening films Thursday and Friday, moves to the Castro Theatre for a full Saturday, then returns to the Roxie and Little Roxie on Sunday. Here are my impressions of most of the offerings in no particular order.

The local shorts program focuses on families. Mani Ram's
First of Many is a sugar-coated Christmas tragedy. In Pallavi Somusetty's Pretty Tied Up, the heroine is a BART-riding Hayward gal harassed by a white guy who can't even pronounce Namaste. She's on her way to her secret job as a dominatrix but dreads the meeting her aunt has set up with a candidate for arranged marriage. In Vikram Ahuja's Do I?, a groom on the threshold of married life finds himself in a series of comical nightmares. Nara Denning's Narcissus, starring local journalist Nirmala Nataraj, is a dreamy gothic allegory about idolatry and reflection. Sandeep Sood's animated marital comedy series The Post-Nup Show includes an episode about the perils of wishing he were Salman Rushdie. And there's no telling what festival co-director and Hindi film parodist Anuj Vaidya has up his sleeve with a live, futuristic "neo-benshi" sendup of Manoj Kumar's 1970 Bollywood diaspora classic Purab aur Paschim (East and West, 1970).

Another shorts program of films from other parts of the world examines changing notions of gender and sexuality. The standout work is the 30-minute documentary The Boxing Ladies (dir. Anusha Nandakumar, 2011), about three Kolkata sisters who aspire to make a living with their fists. Most boxing movies celebrate the underdog, and these girls weigh in with fighting spirit as their only advantage. Their (offscreen) father encourages them, but their mother is aghast that they cut their hair and punch back instead of taking criticism silently. Still, if they win at the national level they'll get jobs and bring prosperity to the family. (Co-presented by Frameline.)

Bollywood at the Castro Saturday night presents Delhi Belly (Abhinay Deo, 2011) [Facebook], the hit bromance / caper film starring Imran Khan as a hesitant fiancé who along with his roommates incurs the wrath of a vicious crime lord when one of their stool samples is inadvertently switched for a cache of diamonds. You can imagine all the Apatowisms, not to mention the f-bombs, occurring in a plot in which a slobby but lovable guy is due to be snatched from his buddies by marriage. A blogger who keeps track of these things says Khan's Tashi is "not only the first Hindi-film hero to go down on his girlfriend but also the first to be embarrassed by an inconvenient erection." The hilarious retro dance numbers were choreographed by Farah Khan (
Om Shanti Om).

In the spiritual road movie Semshook (Siddharth Anand Kumar, 2010), young exiled hero Tenzin embarks on a 500-mile motorcycle journey from Dharamsala, India, to his ancestral homeland Tibet. Also on a journey to find out what happened to his long-absent father, Tenzin opens the man's trunk to find only a photograph of the Dalai Lama with the word
semshook (defined as the pursuit of truth and the courage for truth to prevail) scrawled on the back. Tenzin's journey becomes a 50th-anniversary commemoration of the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese, both outcomes tinged with uncertainty, violence and mortality. Minor flaws like corny musical choices are offset by the stunningly beautiful location photography and the deeply moving yearning of a man for the country of his birth.

Another film journey with enthralling visuals is The Image Threads / Chitra Sutram (Vipin Vijay, 2010), a trippy, sensuous exploration of the mental and spiritual landscape inside the mind of Hari, an IT professor. Hari's conversations with his acrobatic muse / avatar Ramani are cryptic and profound, as are scenes of his grandfather performing rituals of black magic. Don't labor to understand the voiceover narration literally. Just let it wash over the extravagant images created by stop-motion animation, lavish photography and a rich lighting and sound design for a fabulous compendium of Indian visual culture in the virtual age.

I Am Sindhutai Sapkal / Mee Sindhutai Sapkal (Anant Mahadevan, 2010) is a sturdy, hagiographic biopic of a woman who goes from illiterate rural child bride to orphans' Mother Teresa and literacy fundraiser. As the now admired and middle-aged Sindhutai takes her first plane ride to San Francisco to give a speech, the film employs a pedestrian flashback structure, where for example airplane turbulence reminds the heroine of being raped by her husband, or being confused by on-board immigration forms recalls making it only to the 4th grade. Comparisons to
The Color Purple are apt, except that Celie doesn't get a triumphant ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to attend a conference in San Jose. But seriously, the film is inspirational if a little abrupt in its heroine's transformation from victim to victor. Winner of three National Film Awards, India's Academy Award® equivalent.

This year's program boasts a pair of strong feature documentaries about US-based Indian performers. If Big in Bollywood (Bill Bowles and Kenny Meehan, 2011) were billed as a mockumentary, I would have readily taken it as pure fiction. But it's not—it's all true. Indian-American acting hopeful Omi Vaidya lands a part in the Bollywood comedy
3 Idiots starring Aamir Khan and becomes an Indian superstar overnight. His film crew of American friends, doubling as a megastar's entourage, captures the film-crazy world of Mumbai guest appearances and awards shows. At every stop Omi struggles, but then complies, with the demand that he stay in character, delivering a speech in (evidently) hilariously bad Hindi praising a rapist.

I could watch only the first 40 minutes of Play Like a Lion: The Legacy of Maestro Ali Akbar Khan (Joshua Dylan Mellars, 2011) before my screener went dead. But this documentary, which was well-received at the recent Mill Valley Film Festival, begins promisingly with the life and times of Ali Akbar Khan, the legendary sarod (a fretless 25-string lutelike instrument) virtuoso and his influence on George Harrison, Carlos Santana, Mickey Hart and other major Western musical figures.
Play Like a Lion celebrates the Khansahib's North Indian musical lineage, which can be traced to an ancestor in the 16th-century court of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Having attained the title Ustad (master musician) early in his career, he established music schools in Kolkata, Northern California and Switzerland, often played with his brother-in-law Ravi Shankar and taught at UC Santa Cruz, receiving the MacArthur "genius" grant in 1991. Suffering from kidney disease (he died in 2009), he cedes the more active role in this film to his California-born son Alam, who bravely tours India playing the sarod without his father.

Patang / The Kite (Prashanat Bhargava, 2010) also had strong buzz at Mill Valley and recently won an award at the Hawaii International Film Festival. A prosperous Delhi businessman returns with his Super 8-camera-toting teenage daughter to his hometown, the old city of Ahmedabad, amid its huge kite festival the Uttarayan. But clouding the colorful rituals he hopes will impress his daughter is the family heartbreak he left behind. His attempts to make amends cause more turmoil, while his daughter attracts a smitten young local. You probably won't see a more brilliantly colorful film than this all year. The usually fierce Seema Biswas (Bandit Queen) gives a wonderfully understated, Ozuesque performance as the widowed daughter-in-law.

I had to refresh my memory of Ajay Naidu appearing in comedies like
Office Space and Loins of Punjab Presents to appreciate the seriously altered auteur of Ashes, in which Naidu directs himself as the title character Ashish, a minor pot dealer who's offered a chance to sell heroin just as his troubled older brother Kartik has been released from an institution into his custody. Ashish hesitates for good reason: besides just preferring to stay "strictly herbal," a promotion to the "hard stuff" means his associates carry guns. He has enough to worry about, with Kartik trying to reunite with another released mental patient. But the money and power of gangster life are too tempting; meanwhile, his brother grows increasingly unstable and despairing. The contrived, melodramatic plot is somewhat alleviated by gritty atmosphere—the rooftops and streets of Queens have never felt so mean. Winner of Best of Fest at the Queens World Film Festival 2011.

Selvaraghavan's 2006 politico-gangland epic Pudhupettai screened earlier this year at Pacific Film Archive's "Cruel Cinema: New Directions in Tamil Film" series (co-programmed by 3rd i co-honcho Anuj Vaidya). Now it's the closing-night film at 3rd i and strongly recommended for Dhanush's performance as Kokki Kumar, who claws his way from sniveling sap to callous kingmaker in the streets of Chennai. He's been described as having "the energy of a young Pacino," but I would liken him more to Bruce Lee in his operatic rages at being betrayed and abused. This is a rare look at a harder-edged, over-the-top musical alternative to Bollywood cinema.

I watched much of this year's classic film Gamperaliya / Changing Village (Lester James Peries, 1964) the
Memento way: backwards in 10-minute segments on YouTube. Not a pleasure to view it this way, but I think I was less interested in the chronological plotline for my first viewing of this Sri Lankan family saga—which, by the way, has been recently restored and should be glorious on the Castro screen—and more impatient to discover, in my ignorance of Sri Lankan cinema, some earlier evidence of the formally eccentric touches that made two of 3rd i's latest Sri Lankan offerings so fascinating. They are definitely the most interesting films of the festival—does their being Sri Lankan have anything to do with it?

Flying Fish (Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, 2011) is the first one. If you're not aware of the last nearly 30 years of civil strife in Sri Lanka, the lovely wide-angle landscapes and ordinary lives, including outdoor sex, of the characters in this film might lull you into thinking it's an idyllic place. Wrong: personal relationships are corrupted by political tensions, and the languid pace and minimal dialogue of much of the film crackles into the explosive violence of the final minutes. Nominated for numerous awards, this beautiful and shocking debut feature, shot in the historically strategic city of Trincomalee, mourns the trauma of war in three interlocking stories.

Certainly the most richly allusive, most outrageous yet most irritating film of the festival for me was the second one from Sri Lanka: A Letter of Fire / Aksharaya (Asoka Handagama, 2005). (I didn't get to see Handagama's 2002
Flying With One Wing, which screened at third i's first event in 2003.) Scandal threatens to rock the aristocratic household of a depressed former judge, his beautiful magistrate wife and their coddled 12-year-old son, who dwell in a colonial mansion. When the boy kills a prostitute, his mother hides him in the apartment of a security guard at the Museum of Asian Civilizations. Relationships unravel in the mansion as scenes from a flamboyant TV serial and recollections, and the occasional literary reference, mingle with the murder investigation to spawn a self-reflexive phantasmagoria of desire, impotence, class conflict, rape, incest and revenge. I stopped trying to understand the convoluted backstory and just sat back to enjoy the spectacle of female power unleashed and "weeping like a she-bear" (whaaa?) over males cowering in a swath of destroyed antiquities. At one point the Sri Lankan government banned the film for its daring bath scene, charging child abuse.