Sunday, May 13, 2007

2007 SFIFF50—My Afternoon With Heddy Honigmann On "The Rock"

"I guess I seem ungrateful with my teeth sunk in the hand that brings me things I really can't give up just yet."—Joni Mitchell

When I covered the SF International last year I was so excited. I was fresh to writing about film, exploring the interview process, and wooing publicists. This brand new world with its unique sociality promised a respite from an HIV spike that landed me in the hospital twice with life-threatening ailments and cost me a career I had spent an adult life developing and to which I could no longer return. What to do when retired on disability? What to do? Rather than be another of Eric Steel's subjects caught unawares, I thought, "Write, Michael, write as if your life depends upon it" as—in many ways—it did. I thought, "Maybe there's a job for you somewhere in all this that will allow you to leave this mantle of disability behind, this taint of no longer being of any use to anyone…."

It's been an exciting learning curve, there's no question about that, with some incredible perks, but some stern lessons as well. First and foremost, God bless the film writer who has his own. I've met critics for Variety who can barely pay their rent. I've wolfed down finger food with press who resemble a slave class writing for a dime a word, groveling for passes to festival fare. Some of the older guard recall when you could actually get some good money for a piece of writing, before freelance funds dried up, and before the competition became steep with all these pesky new internet journalists, these "cloggers" rushing to the tar pits with the last of the dinosaurs. It's all just sticky sticky sticky these days. The writing may have given me my self-respect back but it wouldn't pay the bills without my benefits. So what does that mean exactly? Should I—as some writers insist—refuse to write for free? And if I write for free (as I frequently do), what promotional angle compensates? More exposure? An expanded reading public? More chances to do more work for free? I came down with pneumonia a month or so back; a direct consequence of trying to write too much too fast for too little. Flat on my back I had to ask myself what I was doing?

Don't get me wrong. I felt thrilled to be one of the first bloggers allowed press accreditation. To have walked through that door when someone left it accidentally open. I remain grateful to have gone behind the scenes to learn not only how movies are made but how festivals are constructed and just how the pedigree of a film is gained. Artistry and business make strange but fascinating bedfellows. Sure the freedom I initially experienced has since been threatened by a collar covered in newsprint and the yanked chain of hold review release dates. Or has it? Was it truly coincidental that smack dab in the middle of SFIFF50 Variety's Anne Thompson had the feature article on the odd fit between old models of print film coverage and jump-the-gun bloggers? At the same time Anthony Kauffman wondered who he could trust among all the new writers and what immediately came to my mind was the process by which I came to trust him: his writing. Doesn't it come down to the writing and if what you write is something people want to read and hear? And isn't there enough to go around? Or do rich relations just toss breadsticks and such? God bless the film writer who has his own….

How many roundtables on how many press junkets does a child have to endure to win his one-on-ones? And even when you've earned that, where's the thrill in talking to someone a dozen journalists have talked to, town after town, hotel after hotel? When does it become nearly impossible to come up with an original question? Or the time to transcribe the talks? When does the success seem nothing more than a sad ragged puppet dance for the publicists who would really prefer you not to write anything negative and who would really prefer you wait a week before the film's release. It's not that I have anything against rules, not really, but where's the joy in such a dance? How can you find a new meaningful life in such writing?

Perhaps in the balance? Something for them and then something for me? What a treat it was to talk to Herschell Gordon-Lewis mainly because no one else was talking to him just at that time. What a treat to talk to Peter Ketnath in Berlin because I was willing to drop some coin to cover the phoner. What a treat to promote local filmmakers in the queer community who don't get much coverage. Moments of rapture when it comes to film writing.

When my filmbud Gustavo Fernandez contacted me to advise he had been chosen to be Heddy Honigmann's host while she was in town and would I be interested in spending the afternoon with them on a sail to Alcatraz, I smiled deep deep down inside, lit up from within by that smile. Payback. "Of course," I replied. You have to understand, I loved Forever—as I've written—and I had even considered submitting an interview request with SFIFF publicity but heard through the grapevine that Heddy didn't really like interviews and everyone I knew was aiming to talk to her so I just didn't feel like wrestling elbows in that throng. Besides, truth is, I didn't want to interview her. I just wanted to spend the day with her and maybe we could talk about Forever along with whatever else we might talk about. And maybe if the waves sparkled just right and the seagulls hovered just right we wouldn't need to talk at all?

It was a lustrous day, perfect for sailing out to The Rock. I've lived in San Francisco since 1975 and have somehow neatly avoided visiting Alcatraz. I guess that's not all that unusual. We take for granted what's nearby. I've gone to remote Mayan sites in the rainforest. I've wandered Istanbul, Paris, Mexico City. It only took 30-some years to make the time for Alcatraz and I'm grateful to Heddy Honigmann for inspiring me to take the trip and to Gustavo for making it easy.

Heddy's son Stefan met me in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel where I looked like someone who was obviously looking for someone. He introduced me to his mother who was wearing a pendant in the shape of a film camera; one he had designed for her when he studied two years as a goldsmith. Heddy was smoking cigarettes like there was just much too much oxygen in San Francisco. This surprised me because she was clearly frail, recovering from back surgery, and—through most of our visit to Alcatraz—once I offered her my arm, Heddy clung on tightly for support. I loved providing it. It made me feel of use.

Sure, we talked about Forever. Not only about Père-Lachaise, but the many cemeteries of the world where she and I have been informed by the memories of others. Cultural inflections make cemeteries different. They're colorful in Latin American countries and more stately in Europe. The Jewish cemetery in Prague has been rumpled by invasive roots, I told her, the Romerio in Chiapas has doors laid upon the tops of graves which once a year are opened to allow conversation with the dead. I mentioned that I noticed that most of the characters in Forever were accustomed to their grief, expressing the religiosity of memory through the tender maintenance of graves. Only the one character, the woman who had lost her husband to the bee sting, cried. Ah yes, Heddy sighed, nodding her head knowingly, the grief was still fresh with her. Yes, she said, it was difficult asking the cab driver to sing. Difficult to sit for hours waiting for the stories to come to her. She would see things—a young girl reading to a grave—and use her telephoto lens to draw closer, hoping that her interest might draw them over to her so that she could find out more. Who was the young girl? What was she reading and to whom? In the closing credits, I said, you have an image of a Mayan stelae. Ah yes, she said, the funeral marker for Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias. Yes, I know, I said, I've actually met the woman who made that monument marker. A small world: the who's who of cemeteries.

I was thrown in the slammer at Alcatraz, blinking in the dark, confined just long enough for the wishful phosphorescence to begin to glow beneath my lids. Heddy liked the dining room, imagining the past. We sat there for a long while before making our break to sunshine. Facing San Francisco, we soaked in sun. Has San Francisco changed since you first moved here, she asks. Oh yes, I answer, the skyline mainly, all these new buildings, this wall of highrises. And inside? The same amount of constructions put up in the name of progress and defense. San Francisco has changed and I have changed and neither of us are as young as we once were. She wants to return to San Francisco, she says, she wants to make a movie here. She's been talking to Jeanette Etheredge (who Graham calls the festival's official legislator) about doing a documentary on the Tosca. What a wonderful idea, I encourage her, there's so much history there. Yes, and surely she would interview many a personage who has frequented the space. The script to Paris, Texas was written there, y'know, late at night when all the other patrons had gone their various ways. But the movie still hasn't come to her. She doesn't know yet what the movie about the Tosca would be. In the interim there is much research to be done. Which I would be happy to help you with if you like, I offer. "Would you?" she smiles, "that would be so helpful."

I think to myself, "Now there's a writing project!" You can still write about film but in a different way, which seems to be the daemon haunting me most of late. We talked about La Vie En Rose. She hasn't seen it but knows it has already opened in France, and not to very good reviews at that. But she acknowledges how difficult it would be to make a movie about Edith Piaf; a woman whose stylizations, whose hand gestures, whose emotional voice hid the woman within. How could a filmmaker find the woman within underneath all of that performance? It would be too difficult to capture in a feature film. It would require a mini-series and even then one couldn't be absolutely sure.

Returning to the city, Heddy snacked on churros before we dropped her off at the Fairmont, ruddied from the sun, exhausted, but scheduled for two interviews at the Kabuki. "It's been an honor and a privilege to spend the day with you, Heddy," I said, clasping her hands in mine. Her smile was sweet. "I hope you will always remember our day on Alcatraz," she answered.

Forever, Heddy. Forever.

Photographs courtesy of Gustavo Fernandez.


Doug said...

"Besides, truth is, I didn't want to interview her. I just wanted to spend the day with her and maybe we could talk about Forever along with whatever else we might talk about. And maybe if the waves sparkled just right and the seagulls hovered just right we wouldn't need to talk at all?"

Beautiful, Michael. I'm so much looking forward to seeing Honigmann's film, and the honesty and lack of pretension in your thoughts and experience here make her (and you!) seem so refreshingly inviting. Thanks for sharing.

Michael Guillen said...

My gratitude lies with you, Doug, thanks for stopping by to comment. And, please, once you've had a chance to see Forever, come back and let me know your reactions.

milenkos said...

michael, although this piece is not formally a film criticism, it does describe the how interconnected the journalist's life is to, say, a walk through Alcatraz and watching a film. I feel your mission has not so much to do with writing about film rather that merging films with the everyday meandering life is made of. Your writing does not come from a vacuum; it does not pretend it exists in a sphere detached from the personal reality of he who sits and types those words. How much can be said for most film criticism, written in test tubes? I really liked this article. No BS, and just as inpiring the Adrien martin interview I read a few months ago about writing on film. The more film writing strays from an "accountant's reality" of a cinematic object, the better; it's all about expanding the notion of what can be written vs. "what's not." I'm very happy you wrote this piece.

Cathleen Rountree said...

What a wonderful piece of writing, and sentiment, Michael. Deeply personal. And lovely photos. My god, you two even wore the same colored clothes on that memorable day! My own interview with Heddy was memorable in its own way (let's face it, how could Ms. Honigmann be anything but?!), but your piece reaches an entirely new dimension.
Merci! Cathleen

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks Miljenko and Cathleen. Your words are soothing, reminding me that the sociality of film culture is my main love.