San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) proved the vast, subjective and multifold nature of spectatorial pleasure, especially with SFIFF's programming team dependably offering films to expand and evolve reception, challenging audience expectations and arousing new interests.
Case in point would be Lewis Klahr's near-hypnotic stop-action animation collage Sixty-Six (2015). Klahr's been around for quite a while but such is the value of film that a first viewing is an open invitation into a body of work. For me, Klahr was an honest "discovery", albeit belated. I was reminded of Rachel Rosen's comment during our conversation earlier this year when we were discussing experimental cinema and how the knee-jerk reaction to watching experimental films is, "I don't get it." But you do get it, Rachel proposed, if you stop resisting and allow yourself to watch the film on its own merits. Rachel later shared with me that Klahr's films were some of the first experimental works she "got."
Watching Sixty-Six, I unexpectedly experienced a strange recognition that, at the same time, felt very much like a guilty pleasure. A cut-out comic book figure of actor Gene Barry appeared on the screen, which I instantly recognized as the character he played in a '60s television series Burke's Law, a series that I remember loving as a boy because it was so "adult", so "sexy", and, man, did I want an adult sexy life as a young boy! I briefly looked around at the audience with light flickering on their uplifted faces trying to determine if anyone else was reacting similarly. "That's Gene Barry in Burke's Law!" I wanted to announce. During the film's Q&A, Klahr confirmed the identification and noted—when answering a question of mine—that we were perhaps the same age? And that, accordingly, that might afford us a similar experience of the film for having been influenced by similar sources?
I welcome future opportunity to watch Sixty-Six several times to sift out its implicate structure and the emotions elicited from its purposeful juxtapositions. An anthology of 12 short films referencing Greek mythology, Sixty-Six is a rousing testament to what Khlar terms "the pastness of the present" (a state of mind in which I am, admittedly, continually involved), where past and present cohabit the same space, and where an aging artist re-engages with the cultural sources that shaped his perceptions as a youth: source as resource, shaping new perceptions.
Babak Anvari's debut feature Under The Shadow (2016) might be the stand-alone example of hijab horror that we're ever likely to see. Making a major impression at Sundance, this effective startler unnerves its audience with traces of Poltergeist and The Others, while narratively situating itself within the eight-year Iran-Iraq war (which still bears the hypocritical fingerprints of the U.S. military-industrial complex).
Anvari's smart thriller induces significant scares with a suffocating bolt of fabric while cogently, angrily, decrying the submission of women in Muslim society. An absolute thrill to watch in the Alamo Drafthouse as part of SFIFF's "Dark Wave" program and, arguably, the only one in the sidebar that comports with the kind of arthouse horror that Rod Armstrong formerly programmed for the festival. Tim League and Mike Keegan have taken over programming duties for the Dark Wave sidebar but I miss Armstrong's attention to elevated genre, which League and Keegan seem committed to eschew in favor of insane assaults of style over substance. Under the Shadow was their one concession to form, however. Shrieks filled the auditorium, followed by laughter, making for a truly fun evening of genre.
Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys (2015) inspires another viewing of Ford's classic to scout comparisons; but, on its own, despite the film's ample visual style, Les Cowboys is an overwritten protracted narrative that runs out of steam and dissatisfies for refusing to resolve unanswered issues central to the film's convoluted plot. François Damiens, John Wayne's stand-in for Bidegain's adaptation, delivers a loud hamfisted performance. I understand his character was not meant to be necessarily sympathetic, but I was relieved when he was finally out of the picture. By contrast, Finnegan Oldfield, who plays his son Georges ("The Kid") successfully underplays his performance and becomes increasingly virilified and more attractive as he continues his father's quest to locate his missing sister.
Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music (2016), Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre's eight-part documentary series due to air this Fall on PBS, is the late great George Martin's legacy project and is a thoroughly entertaining nuts-and-bolts history of music production. SFIFF offered the first two installments of the series, the first "The Recording Artist" profiled the key relationship between musicians and producers, notably Martin himself, and the second "Painting With Sound" explored the advance of multi-track recording techniques and their creative effects. It's the stories behind the songs that make this documentary positively shine. My favorite sequence was a detailed focus on the recording of "Tomorrow Never Knows" from The Beatles' Revolver album; fascinating from start to finish and a reminder of how interwoven music is with both personal and cultural history. I can hardly wait to watch (and record) Soundbreaking when it airs this Fall.
Lorenzo Vigas' lauded debut feature Desde Alla (From Afar, 2015), winner of the Golden Lion at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival. First, Armando (the ever-wonderful Alfredo Castro) recovers from a blow to his head delivered by 17-year-old street tough Elder (sultry newcomer Luis Silva), and then Elder in turn recovers from a beating by his girlfriend's brothers. Then it's Armando's turn again after he stabs himself in his thigh to prove a point to Elder. Psychological wounds, however, are another realm altogether (even as the wounded thigh is drenched in mythic reference—physically, easy to stitch up; mythopoeically, the stuff of legends).
The absence of fathers and the damaged masculinities that ensue reveal not only emotional resonances between the film's lead characters, but stand in as well for social issues weakening Venezuelan society, specifically urban Caracas. Even more, From Afar suggestively critiques the economic exploitation elicited by interactions between different classes. The erotics are certainly Laurentian, and reminiscent of Robin Campillo's treatment of similar offbeat attractions in Eastern Boys.
Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster (2015), winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes. Lanthimos and actress Ariane Labed accompanied the film. A headscratcher for sure, but this didn't detract from the pleasure of watching this "unconventional love story." Upsetting narrative expectations and assumptions about character development, Lanthimos presents his story with all its quirky turns and surface stylisms, while all the while eliciting deep, recognizable feelings underneath, and an internal logic, such that by film's end you sincerely care for the romantic leads, caught in an upside down universe with genuine feelings for each other. For me, rapt spectatorial pleasure from start to finish.