Wednesday, October 29, 2008

DELWENDE at the SFFS Sundance Kabuki Screen

In his unpublished 1997 dissertation "From 'Culture' to 'Commercialization': The Production and Packaging of an African Cinema in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso", Thomas J. Bikales offered the sobering reminder: "[A]s much as Africa's and Burkina's films and film makers penetrate the international circuits … they remain far removed from the mainstream. Despite the ever-increasing number of international film festivals and conferences devoted to African cinema, despite the growing body of literature … African cinema continues to be a product produced, consumed, and debated first, on an international more than an African scene, and, second, in an elite, academic/intellectual context that, for better or for worse, is far more circumscribed than many with an interest in African cinema see and/or would like to believe." (Bikales 1997:ix, quoted in Kay Armatage's "Screenings by Moonlight", Film International 2008, Vol. 6, No. 4, p. 38.)

This compromised situation is further complicated by the theoretical problem that "some critics and directors see European funding as a Faustian pact for African and Arab directors", notwithstanding the practical necessity of such alliances with France, in particular, "because it has led the battle for recognizing cinema as culture and national identity, the so-called 'cultural exception' in the ongoing WTO GATT trade dispute with the United States." (Kevin Dwyer, Beyond Casablanca: M.A. Tazi and the Adventure of Moroccan Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004:338, 365 and 412, quoted in Jeffrey Ruoff's "Ten Nights in Tunisia: Les Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage", Film International 2008, Vol. 6, No. 4, p. 50.)

Kudos to the San Francisco Film Society for offering the revival screening of S. Pierre Yameogo's Delwende: Lève-toi et Marche to their admittedly cinephilic constituency but via their running Sundance Kabuki Screen series, open to the general public. Hopefully, mainstream audiences will take the hook, as Delwende is a compelling dramatic narrative, which—in her recent review for The New York Times—Jeannette Catsolulis writes: "demonstrates how superstition supports patriarchy and how easily both can slide into misogyny."

I first caught Delwende at the Pacific Film Archive's 2nd African Film Festival back in February 2006. Inspired by the true story of Napoko Diarha, accused of having eaten a soul and subjected to her village elders' decree, S. Pierre Yameogo's disturbing exposé of how ancestral customs employ superstition to dictate life in African villages was presented in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, marking the occasion of director Yameogo's first visit to Cannes. Yameogo is known for his committed activism in Burkina Faso, defending essential human and cultural values in his efforts to rouse a continent whose social development is slowed by some of its customs and traditions. Delwende examines the unjust fate awaiting certain women whom the community has designated as "soul eaters." In rural areas, they are blamed for mysterious deaths. As outcasts, these women are doomed to become scapegoats for all the society's ills. As Yameogo stated his intentions at Cannes: "There are people in the capital that still believe in 'soul eaters' today. I wanted to describe through the film that it is important for traditional beliefs to evolve and for Africa to wake up. I wanted to show that some people exploit these beliefs to lie, cheat and abuse others for personal interest. These traditions are corrupted."

Delwende: Lève-toi et Marche clearly aligns with the school of African cinema that believes women are the future of mankind, following closely behind Ousmane Sembene's acclaimed Moolaade and even "unspooling" (as Variety phrased it) in the same Un Certain Regard—Prix de l'espoir festival slot. Following up on his earlier documentary on the "witch shelter" phenomenon of Burkina Faso, Yameogo's feature is named after one such "shelter." Its French subtitle ("Get Up and Walk") refers to both the exiled sojourn of Napoko (Blandine Yameogo), a woman accused of being a soul eater witch and the emancipatory search of her 16-year-old daughter Pougbila (Claire Ilboudo) to rescue her and bring her to justice. One of Delwende's most compelling scenes is Pougbila's walk out of her village, into the city, to find her mother in the "witch shelter". As Catsolulis writes: "In a country where women can be forced to drink a vile 'truth potion' or become outcasts, Pougbila's resolute march is more than just an act of defiance: it's the promise of progress."

In its unflinching portrayal of the sad, nefarious practice of scapegoating and how traditions are manipulated to unjust, sexist ends, Delwende depicts the ritual of the siongho, wherein two virgin males carry what is either a bundled corpse or some kind of wooden "divining rod" simulated to look like a bundled corpse. This is carried around a village in search of a "soul eater" or a "witch" to blame for, what in the film, is a meningitis outbreak. Underscored by Wasis Diop's beautiful soundtrack, Delwende is a heady reminder of how vengeful leaders can subjugate women's bodies to enforce their own patriarchal authority; a caution not so far removed from our own country. As Acquarello writes at Strictly Film School: "In its fabular, affirming, and profoundly humanist approach towards critical self-examination, Delwende favorably evokes the films of Ousmane Sembene and Idrissa Ouedraogo in its incisive social expositions of outmoded customs that contribute to the cultural stagnation of post-colonial Africa."

Cross-published on Twitch.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Film International Special Issue on Film Festivals (Vol. 6, Issue 4)

Regular readers of The Evening Class are, no doubt, aware at this point that I am an affirmed film festival junkie. I credit this addiction to the influence of Michael Hawley who introduced me to the San Francisco International some 12 years ago. I had been attending Frameline and some genre festivals; but, with the San Francisco International, I was hooked! When I began The Evening Class a few years back it was an online literary reaction to my increasing involvement with film festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area, with infrequent sojourns to festivals out of state. I had become intrigued with what I have often termed "the sociality of film culture"; a term that keeps adapting even as my own experience of film festival culture keeps adapting. Certainly, watching films within a film festival venue is a distinct experience from watching films in their theatrical distribution. For starters, the audiences are different. I would even go so far as to say that the latter filmviewing experience (and its attendant audience) has become increasingly less attractive to me as time goes on and there are many reasons for that, which I hope to explore in due course. Where there has been much focus on the formal qualities of film production and the evolving nature of film criticism, in my opinion not enough attention has been paid to reception studies and the sociocultural dimensions of global cinema as reflected through film festival culture, in contrast—let's say—to the sociocultural dimension of online discourse about film studies, which lately has begun to remind me of a high school popularity contest.

With transnational aplomb, the current issue of
Film International (Vol. 6, Issue 4) is a specially-themed issue on "Genre Films & Festival Communities" that seeks to redress that oversight. This issue has been indispensable in helping me articulate my continuing position within this cine-phenomenon. It's been one of the most impressive and serviceable film journals I've read in quite some time and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in film festival culture. Its most immediate reward has been exposure to the work of Dina Iordanova, guest editor for this particular issue. Dina Iordanova is Professor in Film Studies and Director of the Centre for Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Her research approaches cinema on a meta-national level and focuses on the dynamics of transnationalism in cinema; she has special interest in issues related to cinema at the periphery. She has published extensively on international and transnational film art and industry, including Budding Channels of Peripheral Cinema: The Long Tail of Global Film Circulation and (most recently) New Bulgarian Cinema (both published by College Gate Press and beautifully produced by PoD provider Blurb). Dina Iordanova's blog DinaView likewise features erudite commentary on international films, directors, actors, and events.

In her editorial introduction to Film International 6:4, Iordanova has stressed how the proliferation of film festivals around the world necessitates a concentrated focus on the international dynamics of the festival phenomenon. She succinctly summarizes the key concerns of each of the essays contributed to the issue and frames the questions that run through the collection: "What is the impact of the worldwide festival network on the other elements of the global film industry? How does the festivals' hierarchical … system impact on the complex dynamics of global cultural production and distribution? What is the place of festivals in the structure of international film distribution (and, increasingly, production)? What historical and technological conditions led to the current powerful positioning of festivals as fundamentally influential cinematic institutions? What is the role of festivals in the system of national, regional and worldwide cinematic culture? Can the international festival operation be economically rationalized? Are festivals indeed crucial yet underestimated links in the context of the global film industry?" Proposed answers to this initial set of questions essentially serve as springboards into further inquiries. By reviewing the history of the evolution of film festival culture, and by scrutinizing specific festivals while likewise addressing more general issues concerning the functioning of festivals at large, further questions arise about the role of festivals in the context of arts management and cultural policy and "a range of other issues, such as the specific temporal and spatial aspects of the festival circuit, the paradoxes and contradictions of the economic logic of festivals (straddled between the culture/commerce divide), the importance of film markets attached to festivals, the role of centralized festival regulation, the impact of new digital technologies, the complex festival synchronization across national and international frameworks and the professionalism of the film festival operation." (Film International 6:4, pp. 4-5.) In the weeks to come, I intend to pepper entries here at The Evening Class with insights gleaned from the diverse approaches represented in the current Film International issue.

For starters, I glance at the epidemic hazard of an oversaturation of film festivals in the Bay Area alone. In October, as helpfully detailed by Brian Darr at
Hell on Frisco Bay, there have been 12 film festivals, many dovetailing if not downright overlapping each other. Though one would like to perceive this as an embarrassment of riches, more truthfully it feels—as Brian described it—"crammed" and "at least eleven too many for one cinephile to attend" or to "write about with much care and detail." Brian did his best and my approach was to leapfrog festivals to do justice to those I landed on. I received frequent, nearly frantic, emails from such festivals as the United Nations Association Film Festival and the International Documentary Film Festival requesting coverage. Though I have never had to before, this year I chose to guiltily ignore some of these requests, and consciously not attend some of the festivals, in order to provide decent coverage to the rest. As Sergei Mesonero Burgos writes in his essay "A Festival Epidemic in Spain": "Of what use are film festivals? If the abundance of something were related to its necessity … we would venture to say that they have become increasingly indispensable. But, for what? And for whom?"

I chose to focus on the second edition of Dead Channels, the inaugural line-up of French Cinema Now and the Arab Film Festival. Despite some very good programming on the part of Bruce Fletcher, Dead Channels was not as well-attended as it should have been for the amount of excellent press it received from nearly every media outlet in the Bay Area. As Burgos has further written: "Is there enough audience to sustain all this abundance of events? Assuming that the answer is positive, this still does not mean that the audience will always be there." (Film International 6:4, p. 13.) Contributing to the dilemma is that some of the entries in Dead Channels—Let the Right One In and Surveillance, to name two—were likewise on the lineup at the Mill Valley Film Festival. To minimize this maddening overlap, as a film writer I specifically avoided mentioning Mill Valley, much like I avoided mentioning the midnight series at the San Francisco International Documentary Film Festival, which—like Dead Channels—revived Tokyo Gore Police, a film that—to worry the bone—had already played at earlier film festivals in San Francisco. Overlapping dates, overlapping line-ups, repeated programming, have contributed to what Salvadore Llopart has termed "a true feeling of anarchy and chaos" and which Burgos warns "has helped undermine the traditional consideration that film festivals once received by the critics, the public, and the industry." (Supra, p. 12.)

The capacity crowds at French Cinema Now, however (except for the noticeably unpopular and underattended Lads and Jockeys) made me question exactly what had happened at Dead Channels? Fundamentally, I believe it's a genre problem (and possibly a venue problem). With the increasing digital access to genre films (you can buy certain foreign-region titles through Twitch before they've even reached American soil), genre-specific film festivals are being cut off at the knees, especially when they're competing with films that have no digital distribution or ready exposure. As someone who loves genre films and someone who finds little delight in the social deficit of being banished to home entertainment, this is a troubling development. There was a time when you would go to a genre festival to see films you'd never see at your local multiplex. And Bruce Fletcher deserves high marks for not charging filmmakers submission fees and for programming entries such as Karla Jean Davis' Golgotha and Jimmy Creamer's Reality Bleed-through, which—honestly—might never see a theatrical screening anywhere else without Fletcher's visionary generosity. In the realm of genre film festivals especially—along with festivals oriented towards representation of minorities long assimilated into the larger culture (I'm thinking of the problems being faced by Frameline)—new strategies must be devised if these festivals are to survive.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Claude Miller's A Secret is a solid, satisfying drama about the consequences of barely-guised desire set against the dangerous political background of Nazi-occupied France. Based on Philippe Grimbert's autobiographical novel, A Secret constructs its revelations through enspirited premonitions and layered flashbacks, interestingly rendered in full color while the present day is shot in black and white; a cinematic inversion of the norm that works quite successfully, as if to say (by way of color) that there is more life in the past than there will ever be in the present. In other words, the colorful secrets of the past have leached the vitality out of the present.

Scrawny François (Valentin Vigourt) was born a four-pound baby who, despite vitamin B injections, has never physically developed into any form of noticeable strength. His imagination is strong, however. He imagines a stronger older brother who defrays the frustrated disappointment of his athletic father Maxime (Patrick Bruel) and champion swimmer mother Tania (Cecile de France). How could someone so slight slip from their loins? And why does his imagined brother drive his parents to aggravation? When François discovers a toy in the attic, truth escalates until François realizes that his imaginary brother is not as imaginary as he once believed; ghosts being those most inclined to reveal hidden secrets.

Said secrecy is not just about how François' parents survived the Occupation, but—to Miller's credit—a nuanced study of the near impossibility of keeping secrets. Though it's never openly stated, Aunt Louise (Julie Depardieu)—who reveals the family's skeletons to François at 15 (Quentin Dubuis)—comes off as Lesbian (in a fascinating award-winning turn as the non-judgmental keeper of the family's secrets). Maxime who has tried to make his Jewish ancestry secret by aggressively wishing it away, baptizing François Catholic and Gallicizing the family name, is brought fullface to his unsuccessful evasions when his first wife Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier) disastrously claims her Jewish identity, and that of their son Simon (Orlando Nicoletti), in a moment resembling Medea's inturned rage. The horrors inflicted upon the Grimbert (previously Grimberg) family by the Nazis strike a significant balance with those incurred by the family's paterfamilias Maxime, whose regrets in old age truly are illuminations come too late.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

ITALY ARRIVES BAYSIDE: PFA—Moments of Truth: Italian Cinema Classics

About a week after New Italian Cinema wraps up in San Francisco, and with appetites whetted for Italian cinema, Pacific Film Archive—in collaboration with Instituto Italiano Cultura di San Francisco—launches "Moments of Truth", their 11-film tribute to the classics of Italian cinema. As Judy Bloch, Publications Director for PFA writes: "Neorealism (the term coined by Italian critics in 1942) is generally acknowledged as the first full-fledged movement for an authentic cinema, a reaction both to fascist Italy's escapist films and the inherent capitalism of Hollywood-style product. But neorealism was a far cry from cinema verité; as lyrical as it was direct, as sentimental as it was polemic, it was, after all, art. Our series celebrates the art in this initial moment of truth and its many inheritors in Italian cinema."

Saturday, November 29, 2008
8:00PM—Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)

Sunday, November 30, 2008
5:15PM—Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)

Friday, December 5, 2008
6:30PM—The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008
7:00PM—Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960)

Saturday, December 13, 2008
6:30PM—The Moment of Truth (Francesco Rosi, 1965)

Sunday, December 14, 2008
6:30PM—Sandra (Luchino Visconti, 1965)

Thursday, December 18, 2008
6:30PM—Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961)

Thursday, December 18, 2008
8:30PM—The Fiancés (Ermanno Olmi, 1963)

Friday, December 19, 2008
8:45PM—Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Elio Petri, 1970)

Saturday, December 20, 2008
6:30PM—Zabriske Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970)

Sunday, December 21, 2008
3:00PM—La dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)

Cross-published on Twitch.

ITALY ARRIVES BAYSIDE: New Italian Cinema 2008

Has the uncertainty of the global economy and the shrinking value of the American dollar got you down? Depressed that you couldn't afford a trip to Italy this year? Don't fret! Turn that frown upside down! The San Francisco Film Society and Pacific Film Archive—both in collaboration with the Instituto Italiano di Cultura—are bringing Italy to the Bay Area via the 12th edition of New Italian Cinema running mid-November at Landmark's San Francisco Embarcadero Center Cinema and PFA's "Moments of Truth: Italian Cinema Classics" running late November through December at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive.

The San Francisco Film Society, New Italian Cinema Events of Florence, Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco present New Italian Cinema, November 16-23 at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema. This eight-day festival is dedicated to celebrating the rich cinematic tradition of Italy and bringing to Bay Area audiences the directors and films that are driving the recent resurgence in Italian filmmaking. The core of New Italian Cinema is the competitive section with seven films by emerging directors, bookended by a three-film tribute to Tuscan director Paolo Virzì, one of Italy's most socially concerned filmmakers, and the Closing Night screenings of two risk-taking films, Puccini and the Girl and Gomorrah.

"As Italian films enter a new renaissance, the 2008 New Italian Cinema festival offers a significant lineup of recent works by up-and-coming directors," said Film Society programmer Rod Armstrong. "This year's edition covers issues of immigration, aging, friendship, murder and how to make great chocolate. Our Opening and Closing Night films, including Cannes Grand Prize Winner Gomorrah, give notable historical context to life in Italy, ranging from the 18th century to the present."

The New Italian Cinema Events (NICE) organization in Florence—working with selection committee members Linda Blackaby, director of programming for the Film Society; journalists Deborah Young and Barbara Corsi; and Peter Scarlet, executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival—chose the films to present in the 2008 New Italian Cinema competition. Most filmmakers are expected at the Embarcadero for Q&As with the audiences. The NICE City of Florence Award will be decided by the combined audience ballots from San Francisco and New York and announced at the Closing Night Award presentation following the 5:15 pm screening of Puccini and the Girl on Sunday, November 23.

New Italian Cinema's Opening Night Bay Area premiere is Paolo Virzì's Napoleon (and Me) (N (Io e Napoleone), 2006), screening Sunday, November 16 with Virzì in attendance. On the isle of Elba in 1814, the exiled Napoleon (Daniel Auteuil) finds himself welcomed by most of the residents. Not so easily swayed is an idealistic and obsessive young teacher named Martino (Elio Germano) who sees his chance to assassinate the ex-dictator when he is hired as Napoleon's secretary. Complicating matters is the comely Baroness Emilia (Monica Bellucci), who is involved with the young scribe. Amid intellectual parrying and romantic pairing, the question of who is manipulating whom constantly shifts. Rooted in the tradition of commedia all'italiana and aided by terrific performances in lead and supporting roles, Napoleon (and Me) effortlessly combines comedy and historical drama with an effervescent touch. Written by Furio Scarpelli, Giacomo Scarpelli, Francesco Bruni, and Paolo Virzì; photographed by Alessandro Pesci; with Daniel Auteuil, Elio Germano, Monica Bellucci, Sabrina Impacciatore. 110 min.

That screening will be following by the 8:00PM Opening Night Reception with Paolo Virzì at One Embarcadero Center, Lobby Level (former Gallery One space). Complimentary Peroni beer, Italian wine from Siena Imports and appetizers from Fuzio Universal Bistro will be served. An encore screening of Napoleon (and Me) follows at 9:00PM.

On Monday, November 17, the New Italian Cinema tribute to Paolo Virzì continues. Before winning over international audiences with Caterina in the Big City, Paolo Virzì stunned and delighted Italian filmgoers with his work. This is a rare opportunity to see two early Virzì films on the big screen: the Venice Festival Grand Jury Prize winner Hardboiled Egg (Ovosodo, 1997) and Virzì's directorial debut Living It Up (La bella vita, 1994).

Hardboiled Egg screens at 6:15PM. Set in the city of Livorno (the filmmaker's hometown), this is the coming-of-age story of Piero, nicknamed "Ovosodo" after the part of town where he lives. Deftly weaving lighthearted comedy with indelible moments of social realism, Virzì portrays Piero's hardscrabble life at home with his mentally retarded brother, his easily annoyed stepmother and his criminally inclined father. Amid familial difficulties, school crushes and new friendships, a kindly teacher named Giovanna (Nicoletta Braschi) helps Piero find his way. With heartbreaking observations and rib-tickling vignettes, Virzì has created a pitch-perfect tale of male adolescence. Written by Francesco Bruni, Paolo Virzì, and Furio Scarpelli; photographed by Italo Petriccione; with Nicoletta Braschi, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Regina Orioli, Malcom Lunghi. 99 min.

Living It Up screens at 9:00PM. The Tuscan coastal town of Piombino is the setting for Virzì's nuanced story of economic and marital hardships among the working class. A supermarket checkout girl named Mirella (Sabrina Ferilli) marries a steelworker named Bruno (Claudio Bigagli) during a prosperous period for Italy in the late 1980s. When the economy goes into a downturn, Bruno is laid off and, seeking new pastures, Mirella takes up with a television presenter. Through reconciliations and new liaisons, Virzì's directorial debut focuses on the attachment between the two as they negotiate their way in a changing world. Written by Paolo Virzì and Francesco Bruni; photographed by Paolo Carnera; with Claudio Bigagli, Sabrina Ferilli, Massimo Ghini, Giorgio Algranti. 97 min.

Tuesday, November 18 sees the first two entries in the City of Florence Award Competition, beginning at 6:15PM with the San Francisco Bay Area Premiere of Andrea Molaioli's The Girl by the Lake (La ragazza del lago, 2007). In a small town in the Italian Dolomites, the body of a lovely young woman named Anna is found by the side of a lake. Though there are no signs of assault or struggle, Inspector Giovanni Sanzio (Toni Servillo) determines that she has been murdered and sets about uncovering the motive and culprit. As he investigates, he questions Anna's ex-boyfriend, her father and even the village simpleton. Meanwhile, the meticulous detective deals with some issues at home, including a precocious teenage daughter and a wife with Alzheimer's. Picking up an astounding ten David di Donatello Awards (Italy's version of the Oscars), Molaioli's debut feature is a scintillating whodunit shot in a spectacular locale. Written by Sandro Petraglia; photographed by Ramiro Civita; with Toni Servillo, Valeria Golino, Fabrizio Gifuni, Marco Baliani. 95 min. Preceded on November 18 only by director Francesco Sperandeo's Bab al Samah (2008). A Tunisian man's search for redemption leads him on a cathartic journey. 15 min.

The Girl by the Lake is followed at 9:00PM with the North American Premiere of Claudio Cupellini's Lessons in Chocolate (Lezioni di cioccolato, 2007). A ruthless Perugian businessman gets his comeuppance in this delectable romantic comedy starring Italian model Luca Argentero. He plays Mattia, a cost-cutting contractor who is being blackmailed by his injured employee, an Egyptian named Kamal (Hassani Shapi). At fault for the mishap, Mattia is forced to attend a chocolate cooking class in Kamal's name. When he catches the eye of fellow chef Cecilia (Violante Placido), he takes advantage of being mistaken for the put-upon, hardworking immigrant, and various amusing situations ensue as his imposture is in danger of being revealed. Cupellini's debut feature offers an extremely entertaining romp with a delicious chocolate center. Written by Fabio Bonifacci, Christian Poli; photographed by Giovanni Cavallini; with Luca Argentero, Violante Placido, Neri Marcorè, and Hassani Shapi. 98 min.

The City of Florence Award Competition Films continue on Wednesday, November 19 with the 6:15PM screening of Carmine Amoroso's Cover Boy: The Last Revolution (Cover boy: L'ultima rivoluzione, 2007) [Italian site]. A nuanced drama about the exploitation of immigrants and their labor, this film offers a memorable performance by newcomer Eduard Gabia in the lead role. He plays Ioan, a handsome Romanian immigrant endeavoring to escape Ceaucescu's depredations by heading to Rome with a friend. Once there, he scrambles to find an under-the-table job and is befriended by an older janitor with whom he discusses opening a restaurant. When a pretty photographer spots him on the street and whisks him off to Milan to model, the attractions of fame and fortune begin to tempt him. The film compellingly portrays Ioan's moral quandaries and his endeavor to retain his humanity amid a callous society. Written by Carmine Amoroso and Filippo Ascione; photographed by Paolo Ferrari; with Eduard Gabia, Luca Lionello, Chiara Caselli, and Francesco Dominedo. 97 min.

Cover Boy: The Last Revolution is followed at 9:00PM with the North American Premiere of Toni d'Angelo's A Night (Una notte, 2007). This affecting, personal drama revolves around five friends and a philosophical cabbie who traverse the nighttime haunts of Naples after a friend's funeral. After the service, refusing to call it a night, the former pals variously splinter and reform as they hit a restaurant, a nightclub, a late-night party, the beach and a bar. Conversational topics include life in the city, soccer, drinking and drugs and, of course, women and love. Romantic liaisons begin and personal confessions are made. Throughout, writer/director d'Angelo showcases the glories of Naples in the wee hours while revealing an ear finely tuned to the random discussions about life that take place between people who were once great friends. Written by Toni d'Angelo and Salvatore Sansone; photographed by Rocco Marra; with Nino d'Angelo, Riccardo Zinna, Luigi Iacuzio, and Alfonso Postiglione. 91 min.

Encore screenings of Lessons in Chocolate and The Girl by the Lake will be shown on Thursday, November 20 at 6:15PM and 9:00PM, respectively.

On Friday, November 21 the City of Florence Award Competition Films continue with the 6:30PM San Francisco Bay Area Premiere of Francesco Munzi's The Rest of the Night (Il resto della notte, 2008). This suspenseful drama follows two trajectories—one profiling an unhappy middle-class Italian family and the other focusing on two small-time hoodlums, one of whom is a recent immigrant. When the two stories converge during a harrowing burglary, the thematic issues of contemporary malaise and xenophobia come to a deadly result. Munzi, who moved New Italian Cinema audiences in 2005 with his first film Saimir, has crafted a complexly realized work where perspective and alliances constantly shift and misguided adults pass their suffering on to the children they love. Written by Francesco Munzi; photographed by Vladan Radovic; with Sandra Ceccarelli, Aurélien Recoing, Stefano Cassetti, and Laura Vasiliu. 101 min.

The Rest of the Night is followed at 9:15PM with the North American Premiere of Federico Bondi's Black Sea (Mar nero, 2008). This moving drama tells the story of elderly and somewhat bitter widow Gemma (Ilaria Occhini) and her young Romanian caretaker, Angela (Dorotheea Petre). Though fraught at first, the relationship between the two lonely women develops and they come to depend on one another. When Angela's husband goes missing in Romania, Gemma must decide how far the bonds of loyalty go and the distance she is prepared to travel in order to help her friend. Bondi's first feature precisely and interestingly delineates the differences between his two protagonists and touchingly shows how each crosses divides of age and culture in the name of friendship. Written by Federico Bondi and Ugo Chiti; photographed by Gigi Martinucci; with Ilaria Occhini, Dorotheea Petre, Vlad Ivanov, and Maia Morgenstern. 95 min.

Encore screenings of The Rest of the Night, A Night, and Black Sea run on Saturday, November 22, at 1:45PM, 4:30PM and 7:00PM, respectively, followed at 9:45PM by the North American Premiere of Fabrizio Bentivoglio's Don't Waste Your Time Johnny! (Lascia perdere Johnny!, 2007). Suffused with a gentle humanism, this touching film follows the exploits of an aspiring teenage guitar player living in mid-1970s Caserta. When Milanese master pianist Augusto Riverberi (played by the director) comes to town, young Fausto (Antimo Merolillo) is hired to help him out. Though the musician is arrogant and selfish, the opportunities presented by the job may just give the hopeful strummer the break he longs for. With wonderful supporting performances by Lina Sastri as Fausto's mom, Valeria Golino as a lovely beautician and Ernesto Mahieux as an incompetent music manager, Bentivoglio has crafted a lovingly quirky comedy filled with touching moments and beguiling era-specific clothing and settings. Written by Umberto Contarello, Filippo Gravino, Guido Iuculano, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, and Valia Santella; photographed by Luca Bigazzi; with Valeria Golino, Toni Servillo, Antimo Merolillo, and Ernesto Mahieux. 104 min.

Encore screenings of Don't Waste Your Time, Johnny! and Cover Boy: The Last Revolution run Sunday, November 23, at 12:00 Noon and 2:30PM, respectively, followed by the Closing Night double-bill.

At 5:15PM New Italian Cinema screens the North American Premiere of Paolo Benvenuti and Paola Baroni's Puccini and the Girl (Puccini e la fanciulla, 2008). Visionary filmmaker Paolo Benvenuti, collaborating here with his wife Paola Baroni, fascinatingly employs elements of pure cinema in this historical depiction of musical maestro Puccini and his possible extramarital dalliance with a housemaid. In 1909, the great composer is working on La fanciulla del West in his Tuscan villa in Torre del Lago when whispers start circulating—by the musician's stepdaughter—of his supposed inappropriate behavior. As the story unfolds, all dialogue is heard in muffled tones or through letters read in voiceover as visual representation and musical moments take center stage. Based on recently discovered historical material and employing actual footage of Puccini from 1915, this film richly and indelibly reinvents the musical biopic. Written by Paola Baroni and Paolo Benvenuti; photographed by Giovanni Battista Marras; with Tania Squillario, Riccardo J. Moretti, Giovanna Daddi, and Debora Mattiello. 84 min.

A Closing Night Reception will be had at 7:30PM at One Embarcadero Center, Lobby Level (former Gallery One space), once again with complimentary Peroni beer, Italian wine from Siena Imports and appetizers from Fuzio Universal Bistro.

The 2008 edition of New Italian Cinema finishes up with the San Francisco Bay Area Premiere of Matteo Garrone's Cannes Grand Prize winner Gomorrah (Gomorra, 2008) [site]. Hard-hitting, complex and filmed in a fluid fly-on-the-wall style, Garrone's Gomorrah, adapted from Roberto Saviano's controversial award-winning book, examines in vivid detail the organized crime syndicate known as the Camorra. Focusing on the power its members wield in a northern suburb of Naples and their influence on occupations from dressmaking to waste disposal, this hyper-realistic drama pointedly demonstrates the organization's ability to destroy familial bonds as well as individual lives. Far from the glamorized portrait of the Mafia common in American films, Gomorrah is grim, gritty, almost documentary-like cinema-an exposé of widespread corruption and an impassioned demand that something be done to halt its spread. Written by Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni di Gregorio, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, and Roberto Saviano; photographed by Marco Onorato; with Toni Servillo, Gianfelice Imparato, Maria Nazionale, and Salvatore Cantalupo. 135 min. Distributed by IFC Films.

Film tickets are each $10 for year-round SFFS/IIC members, $12.50 general, $11 seniors, students and persons with disabilities; CineVoucher 10-Packs $90 SFFS/IIC members, $115 general; Opening Night film and reception $15 SFFS/IIC members, $20 general; one Closing Night film and reception $15 SFFS/IIC members, $20 general; both Closing Night films and reception $25 SFFS/IIC members, $32.50 general. Tickets available online or by calling 925.866.9559. Open October 21 for SFFS/IIC members and October 28 for the general public.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Friday, October 24, 2008

TEASE: OLD PROJECTORS—The Evening Class Interview With Amos Goldbaum

It's time for a new sidebar here at The Evening Class, which I'm going to call Tease. One of the pleasures of retiring from the corporate sector was getting to set aside my suits, my ties, my slacks, my designer belts and shoes, and my argyle socks in favor of more casual attire: namely, t-shirts, jeans, white socks and sneakers. I don't miss dressing for success at all, as success was always a relative term, especially when—as Joe Campbell used to say—that corporate ladder was leaning against the wrong wall.

My first venture with Tease was actually The Evening Class interview with Steve Barretto and his "Brown Jesus" campaign. I now follow through with a conversation with street artist Amos Goldbaum, who I recently met in front of The Coffee Bean on Market Street on my way from a press screening to dinner with a friend. I was stopped in my tracks by one of his designs—a t-shirt that sported a collection of old movie projectors. For a better view of the image, be sure to check out his website, the store section, under shirts, where if you click on the image it brings up a large detail (and save yourself $3 by buying them directly off Amos at his street boutique).

* * *

Michael Guillén: So where did this idea of the t-shirt with the old movie projectors come from, Amos?

Amos Goldbaum: I took out a Montgomery Ward catalog from the library. It was a collection of Montgomery Ward catalogs from the 1930s and I was drawing a lot of different old machinery from there and they had a series of models of old film projectors that they were selling.

Guillén: You traced them?

Goldbaum: No, I didn't trace them. I drew them freehand in pen and then went through the process of getting them on to silkscreen for the t-shirts.

Guillén: So what's your background? How did you end up being here in front of The Coffee Bean on Market Street promoting your entrepreneurial street boutique?

Goldbaum: [Laughs.] I don't know, man. I heard about this street artist program through my mom's friends and it sounded pretty sweet, y'know? Making money off your artwork.

Guillén: You have to get a license from the city?

Goldbaum: Yeah, you get a license. I just graduated from college so I needed to make some money and it's going pretty well.

Guillén: You graduated with an art degree?

Goldbaum: Yeah.

Guillén: Well, I gotta tell you this other t-shirt I bought from you….

Goldbaum: The Sutro Tower?

Guillén: Yeah, it's a hit with my neighbors up on Bernal Heights. They've actually stopped me on the street to say, "Hey, that looks like it's on Virginia Street!"

Goldbaum: I need to go back and see what street it is so I can tell people. I live just below there on Richland.

ANIMATION—An Evening At the Balboa With Animation Legend Richard Williams

November is lining up to be Animation Month here in San Francisco, not only with the San Francisco Film Society's International Animation Festival mid-month, but kicking off with a rare public appearance by award-winning animator Richard Williams at San Francisco's Balboa Theatre on Sunday, November 2, 7:00PM. Winner of three Academy Awards, animation director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and author of the definite The Animator's Survival Kit, Williams will be in the Bay Area to meet with animators at Pixar, ILM and other effects and animation houses. He has agreed to appear at this public showing to benefit the local Animation Association, ASIFA-SF. General Admission is $9.00. Seniors and children under 12 years are $6.50. Advance tickets are available here.

As Gary Meyer has advised, Richard Williams has been in the animation business for over 50 years. He created the Oscar-winning A Christmas Carol, directed the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (two more Oscars), created memorable opening titles for features (The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, What's New Pussycat?, Casino Royale, The Charge of the Light Brigade), award winning TV commercials, and other projects including the feature Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure.

As the head of an award-winning studio producing animated commercials for many years he constantly strove to improve the quality of his art. This resulted in his hiring retired Hollywood animators to teach a new generation of artists the craft at his studio. For years copies of lecture notes from these classes were passed around from animator to animator. Then in the 1990s he toured the world presenting The Richard Williams' Masterclasses. That resulted in his best selling book The Animator's Survival Kit (2001) that is a standard reference for any animator today. Now a 16 disc DVD boxed set of his classes taped as he presented his lectures to employees at Blue Sky Studios in NY is about to be released. It includes 412 new animated clips by Williams and other features.

At the Balboa, Richard Williams will be talking about the principles of animation and illustrating them with excerpts from his new DVD set The Animator's Survival Kit—Animated. His wife Imogen Sutton writes, "We have had terrific reactions to this program at Blue Sky Studios (all animators) and at Pordenone Film Festival where there was a general film audience of historians, archivists, academics etc. Dick usually tries to demonstrate by acting things out where necessary—he doesn't like to just stay seated. We expect the show to run between 90 minutes to 2 hours including lots of Q&A." Everyone will get a complementary DVD about Williams' new work. Don't miss this once-in-a-lifetime presentation!

Karl Cohen, author, SF State instructor and president of ASIFA-SF, will moderate the program. This program is a benefit for ASIFA-San Francisco, a member of the Association Internationale du Film d'Animation with almost 40 chapters around the world. ASIFA-SF is a volunteer-run group that presents monthly events (special screenings, lectures, networking parties, etc.) and publishes a large informative monthly newsletter.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

BIRDSONG (EL CANT DELS OCELLS, 2008)—The Evening Class Interview With Albert Serra and Mark Peranson

The Q&A session following the TIFF08 screening of Albert Serra's Birdsong (El Cant Dels Ocells) started off contentiously with one fellow pointedly asking Serra: "Why?" Mark Peranson who played Joseph in the film and joined Serra on stage after the screening, commented that the same question had been asked of them a couple of days previously and Serra decided the appropriate response was, "Why not?" Serra added goodnaturedly, "Why are you alive?" The fellow who asked the question would have none of it and angrily retorted Serra's response was not a fair answer. He insisted he had asked Serra a fair question and wanted Serra to give him a fair answer. The audience did not necessarily agree as the man's one-word question was drenched in critical accusation and—because he would not let go and was disrupting the Q&A session—Serra summarily responded with exaggerated confidence: "Because it's a masterpiece" and stressed that—long after the fellow was dead and gone and buried in his grave—his masterpiece of a film would live on. That earned him applause even as the man who asked the question sulked in silence.

The session stumbled forward with the next question coming from a woman who wondered why so much of the film was shot in darkness? Suffering no fools, Serra answered that every scene that was shot in darkness was because it was dark. He didn't use artificial light and—if he shot a scene at night in the desert—it was night in the desert.

I wanted to shift away from what was beginning to feel like an uncomfortable accusatorial atmosphere to the Q&A so I expressed my appreciation for Serra's unusual interpretation of the story of the Traveling Magi: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. The story of these three Wise Men—some say astrologers—who follow a star in the East until they arrive in Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus with tribute gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, was perhaps best promoted in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12). "Usually," I said, "when you think of this story, or the way this story has been presented to us through Matthew's narrative and Christian art over the years, it arrives overly-dramatized." By contrast, Serra's focus on the quotidian physicality of the protracted journey of the three wise men seemed intriguingly fresh to me, expressing the arduous vigil of their quest. Serra agreed that he wanted to approach the story differently. Most of the historical representations of the Traveling Magi are dramatized after the fact and he wanted to consider what it might have been like as it was happening. He wanted to strip away the theological overlay of thousands of years—which places the story of the Traveling Magi in direct service to the spiritual legitimization of the Christ Child—and return the story to original physical events. In some ways these original events have become heavy-laden with accrued narrative significance and Serra was interested in what some might perceive as the profane secular root of what was to later become one of the most lofty and sacred of Christmas tales. By choosing such simplicity and lack of narrative adornment, Serra—in effect—reduced or abstracted the legend to its essential poetry. He defended this choice. Too often in films Serra feels every image has to be perfectly understood and structurally connected to each preceding or following image. If you are reading a poem, however, each line does not necessarily connect specifically to the next one. Often the power of poetry lies in how it leaps from one image to the next. This might not work for a novel, but it works for a poem and he wanted his film to be more like a poem than a novel. Another fellow expressed how amazed he was that—with all the artificial drama stripped away—so much humanity shone forth.

Regarding the languages spoken in the film, Peranson responded that he was the only one who spoke in Hebrew, the others spoke in Catalan, and he and the other actors didn't understand each other. Their dialogue was thoroughly improvised. "It was an interesting experience, to say the least." This freeform approach to how the film was made day to day, including which scenes they chose to shoot, the looseness of the script—which essentially was a mere 35 pages, not in dialogue form—the improvisational development of the scenes rendered without cuts and with the cameras continually rolling, sometimes with Serra offering commentary, often times not, was all part of the unique experience. Serra qualified that—even though the actors may not have understood each others' languages—they did have a communication about what the scenes were intended to represent. Though there was much freedom and experimentation on the set, there were also very necessary directions in which the film was going, and the actors instinctively moved in those directions. Peranson added that—as in old silent films—communication was achieved through emotional literacy. By watching people's faces, their gestures, you knew what they were "saying" and expressing, even without language or—in their case—in spite of differing languages. Further, Serra commented, most of the actors he works with are non-actors so they couldn't be worked with like you would work with professional actors. They don't understand certain directorial terminology. In gist, the film was an achievement of the balance between freedom and necessity. In his review of the film for Cinema Scope, Robert Koehler wrote: "This is the Bazin root, alongside Catholic conviction and adherence to film's capacity for modern art-making, which is to find meaning and form out of a necessarily rough process that's very willing to stumble and make mistakes. In fact, errors are the point." (Cinema Scope, 35:55.)

"There was only one rule on the set," Serra stressed. "Never answer me. Never look at me. And never stop acting, never stop playing the role." He wanted his actors to react spontaneously, freely. Sometimes he would shout nonsensical instructions not so much to guide them as to purposely force reactions out of them, to force them to pull something natural up from within themselves under pressure of the reality of the set, with the cameras rolling. They might not know what they had to do but they knew they had to do something. Serra found this an interesting way to work because it's a real freedom, even for him. He didn't always know what would happen because he didn't always know what he wanted them to do and that uncertainty afforded intense reactions. Ultimately, he felt this matched the temper of the tale because, in truth, the Traveling Magi were true pioneers, making it up as they travelled along, just as the actors had to do also.

One young woman asked if walkouts surprised or upset Serra during screenings. He replied that he didn't mind. He doesn't blame spectators who don't like the film he has made; a film which admittedly—he, as a spectator—would want to watch. The bottom line is that it is the film he wanted to make, whether or not audiences receive it well.

Serra was asked why he chose to score the scene where the Magi encounter the Christ Child when music was not used anywhere else in the film? The title of the musical piece—cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals' "El Cant des ocells", which he adapted from a Catalan folk song—became the film's title. The encounter between the Traveling Magi and the Christ Child was a difficult moment to stage and—though he scored the film with the instrumental version of Casal's "El Cant des ocells"—the lyrics for the song tell the story: the Christ Child is born, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, all of nature is happy because Jesus is born. It seemed an appropriate piece of music for the moment.

After the Q&A session, Serra, Peranson and I got together for glasses of pinot grigio to discuss the film. As Albert Serra is a spirited conversationalist who speaks in a rip rap broken English, frequently repeating statements with ever rising levels of enthusiasm as if striving for the perfect pitch of enthusiasm, I've elected to forego my usual transcript mode for more of an essay format. Otherwise, he might sound downright crazy; even though—come to think of it—that's one of his most attractive qualities.

Confirming that—though the film was in black and white—it was shot on digital, I admired its look, which reminded me of the ethnographic photography of Mexican masters Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Flor Garduño and Mariana Yampolsky, characterized by tonalities defined by the desert's sharply-angled light. Desert's light is a poetic genre all to itself.

Serra had mentioned that—during the filming—Peranson had likewise been filming a "kind of making of" documentary, Waiting For Sancho. I wondered how they negotiated that? It wasn't a problem, Serra answered, because there was a lot of freedom on the set and Peranson was unobtrusive with his filming. No one really even knew he was making a making of documentary and no one really cared. Peranson added, "It was a small little camera. No one could tell. It was just a handycam I was shooting on."

I was curious about Serra's methodology in developing the film since—as he mentioned—there was no true script, only a 35-page guideline. I wondered how he achieved the look of the movie? Did he arrive on location and simply look around to see what was present to be filmed? Though there was much improvisation during shooting, Serra replied, there was equally much preparation before shooting, where the decisions were made about how the film would look. He did several tests on different cameras for color timing (though the film was printed in black and white) and explored different blow-up processes from digital to film. Though improvisational, the film was not accidental. A lot of work was accomplished before they arrived on location.

I commented that the film achieved an iconic stature through the use of low camera placement and asked if that had been his intention? Serra disagreed that the camera was placed low. First of all, there were two cameras shooting all the time. He suggested that, perhaps, what I was perceiving as low camera placement was actually more the strengths of the digital camera to be within the action, on foot level with the actors? Digital achieves an immediacy. The world of the digital camera is 360° and so, perhaps, my sensation of low camera placement was simply that the camera was in the middle of the landscape? Or perhaps what I perceived more, I offered, was that his compositions were consummately frontal, and thus iconic? That he agreed with. Others have said—and he agrees—that his compositions resemble Middle Age paintings. Perhaps that was the iconicity I was picking up on? Sometimes the digital plane is very flat, reducing perspective, and it creates the sensation in the viewer of being a witness. In that sense, Birdsong is like a gallery of paintings where the images might not literally connect but which—at the same time—can be read in a sequential narrative. It's like if you go to a church and see a sequence of paintings about, let's say, the passion of Christ via the stations of the cross.

Though Peranson has performed in some short films, acting in Birdsong was his first true acting experience and he's not really sure he'll ever act again, as "acting is not really my thing." Besides, if he were to act for someone else, he's aware it couldn't possibly be the same experience as acting for Albert Serra. Often he was sitting for hours with nothing to do except to pick up his camera to film what others were doing. Serra offered little direction and different languages were being spoken on set, which he couldn't understand. The experience was further surreal because he arrived on location at Fuerteventura and Tenerife 15 hours after intensively preparing for the Vancouver International Film Festival, which he programs. He was on location for five days and was basically in three scenes. There was a scene where the magi were at the top of a mountain looking at the clouds that lasted no more than a minute on the screen and which took nearly all day to film. That's why, Serra explained, Peranson's making-of documentary is called Waiting For Sancho. "Sancho" is the nickname they gave Lluís Serrat, who played the role of Sancho in Serra's previous film Honor de cavalleria (2006), his rendition of the story of Don Quixote. Serrat is stout and it took him considerable time to climb up the mountain. There were no cars to drive him there nor helicopters to lift him to the top of the mountain. Everyone got to the top way before him and had to, essentially, wait until he arrived before they could continue; thus, Waiting For Sancho. Peranson has detailed his experience in the Summer issue of Cinema Scope ("As High As the Eagles: On the Set of El Cant dels Ocells", 35:57-58) and, of course, through his own film Waiting For Sancho.

Pursuing my appreciation of the film's physicality, Serra confirmed that he prefers to shoot outdoors. He hates indoor shooting. One of his idols is John Ford who—when asked why he liked to shoot westerns—responded that he liked to shoot in the countryside where you can hang out with friends, eat together, work hard together, and sleep like a baby at night. It was exhausting to shoot Birdsong. They would wake at 6:00 in the morning, have to walk two hours to get to location, and then have to wait another hour for Sancho to arrive.

Birdsong further reminded me of Brueghel's painting of the Fall of Icarus, in that this tragic event is framed within an immense, indifferent landscape. In fact, when you look at Brueghel's painting of the Fall of Icarus, it's hard to locate the falling Icarus. He's diminutive by contrast to all that's going on in the painting. I felt Serra was striving for something comparable in Birdsong. His landscapes are immense and often the magi are nothing more than three little stick figures moving across hills. This was the challenge Serra set for himself. He wanted the film to be like a poem and—though frequently poetry can be achieved by close-ups on facial expressions—he wanted instead to create a poetry of distance and duration. I commented that his usage of time was interesting. Instead of using dissolves to abbreviate the passage of time, Serra elected to simulate real time with long takes. Peranson qualified that there weren't that many long takes in the film, just the one really long sequence where the wisemen are walking over the hills, which Robert Koehler describes as "almost like an Aboriginal walkabout." I mentioned that—during the screening—people started laughing at that sequence because there was something comic about its neverending quality. In fact, Serra responded, the take had actually been longer. He actually did cut it down and only because the camera accidentally moved to follow the actors. Perhaps he could have cut it down even further; but, the fact is that he himself loves to observe long takes where attention shifts into meditation. I offered that I think why the audience laughed was because the sense was that the wisemen were lost and were actually walking around in circles. There was something hilariously profane about that. Where was their sacred certainty? Where was the star to guide them?

Following up on the one woman's question about why so much of the film was dark, Serra added that it made sense to him that the Three Wisemen would have been traveling at night, when it was cool and when they could be guided by the star, rather than during the heat of the day. And yet, I countered, you presented the sun as the star emerging from the fog, which I found an interesting idea; the sun is, after all, a star. This is the richness of imagery, Serra stressed. Why did he use the sun as the star? Who knows why? Again, it's like poetry. It doesn't make any sense to read a poem and question, "Why this line?" Not all the lines have a perfect meaning or a closed meaning. He had them following the sun because he liked the light and it led into the next scene where the building was lit by the light. It was a visual aesthetic. Interestingly enough, Peranson shot the same sequence in his documentary without knowing it was going to be in Serra's film. They both responded to the light and the sun appearing through the fog like a star. Maybe the Biblical narrative got it wrong? Maybe the Traveling Magi were following the sun the whole time?

In the press notes for the film, Serra said something I liked. He said Birdsong was not a film about faith but about faith in the film, which he confirmed. To counter all that is potentially gratuitous in a film, you have to have faith that it will express something spiritual or artistic. It's an abstract approach to filmmaking. By comparison, if you view a painting by Mark Rothko, for example, you have to have faith that there's something important there to perceive. Maybe it's all blue or all red and yet you know he intends something by it. In 20 seconds you take the painting in and, without faith, you are lost; it means nothing to you. But the ability to have faith—what Carlos Castañeda used to call "having to believe"—is, perhaps, the gist of the religious impulse.

I asked how the two of them got hooked up together? Peranson explained that Serra had come to the Vancouver International with his first film and they became friends. When I asked why Serra wanted to cast Peranson as Joseph, he said it was because he worked for free. In Serra's mind, Peranson looked like he could be St. Joseph and—when Peranson arrived on location—he reminded Serra that he was Jewish and could speak Hebrew, so they decided to use it.

Being that he worked in digital, I asked Serra how much footage he had to work with? With the two cameras, eight days of shooting, he came up with about 110 hours of footage. Of that, there were 35 hours of footage with sound. How did he then shape it in the editing room? That, Serra replied, is difficult to explain. It's a question of sensibility. He does his own editing. With his first film he gave the rushes to a professional editor who returned with something very stupid so—because of that experience—Serra realized he needs to do the editing himself, which he did on Birdsong, albeit with the assistance of his friend Àngel Martin who spent equal time on location.

Talking about faith, Serra never used a playback monitor on location and it wasn't until he sat down to edit that he actually discovered the film. In all humility, however, he emphasized that's exactly how the masters did it. They didn't have cameras that allowed instant playback. They had to rely on faith and hope the rushes would prevail. Buñuel, John Ford, Ozu, never knew what they had until the editing room. Peranson countered that he believed they watched daily rushes. Serra remained unconvinced that while shooting in the desert John Ford had the opportunity to view daily rushes. I sent them to their respective corners by saying we could research all of that later. The value of not watching a monitor while making a film is that you feel the film, Serra continued. Besides, even when he sits down in the editing room to look at footage, sometimes he likes an image early in the week only to reject it later in the week. What would be the worth of correcting oneself on a daily basis on set?

Peranson articulated that the value of shooting on location without a monitor is that the boundary between shooting and not shooting completely vanishes. There's no "action", no "cut", no direction even. The other day when he was watching Birdsong, Peranson thought that in a way the film is also about filmmaking. When he was editing his own Waiting For Sancho, he realized how much the film approximated the reality of filmmaking. When Serra directed the actors to walk to the top of the mountain to look at the clouds because they were beautiful, it followed that when the actors were being filmed they said, "Look at the clouds; they're so beautiful." The experience of how the film is being made is what you experience watching the film.

Photo of Albert Serra courtesy of Mark Peranson, Cinema Scope. Cross-published on Twitch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

WATCHMEN: Scream Trailer

I don't know about anyone else; but, I can hardly wait for this movie to arrive. The new footage is about a minute in.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORKThe Evening Class Interview With Charlie Kaufman

Topping the childhood tongue-twister of saying "unique New York" 10 times in a row, Charlie Kaufman's titular pun on Schenectady, New York arrived fraught with the hazard of mispronunciation (and just when I finally got Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to trill liltingly off my tongue). While waiting for Jonathan Marlow to finish up his interview with Kaufman for Greencine, I practiced Synecdoche, New York (SNY) over and over underneath my breath, telling myself that if I could say it right even once, then I could thereafter refer to it as "your film" or "this film."

Straight off, I advised Charlie Kaufman that there were some things I simply did not want to talk about and I put those right out on the table. I didn't want to talk about his alleged reclusivity—because it's a browbeaten mistruth—and, despite his being Synecdoche, New York's producer, as well as writer-director, I wasn't particularly interested in discussing the film's commercial viability. He was okay with that.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I want to talk about the nature of your creative intuition and your narrative usage of dream logic. For 20 years I was a full scholar with the San Francisco C.G. Jung Institute. I love dreams. I'm still not completely convinced that my dream life is not my real life and this waking one the illusion. I appreciate films where that oneiric conundrum is massaged. As a filmmaker, what do you consider to be the difference between movies that try to be a dream and movies—like yours—that employ dream logic?

Charlie Kaufman: Well, my goal was the latter. I think the difference is that a movie that tries to be a dream has a punchline and the punchline is: it was a dream. I tend to want to explore people's interior lives and in movies it's hard to do. I've often done it with voiceover. But it was my goal this time to do it without voiceover, to take the interior life of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and put it outside of him in the actual landscape of his existence, in his interactions with other people, the way things happen, the more dream-like elements of the story, and try to create an emotional landscape.

Guillén: I was amused by the opening radio talk show where the German literary guest was talking about the melancholic feelings of September. In watching SNY, I felt like I was watching an autumn leaf that had fallen off its tree, spiraling down in ever-tightening circles, which then landed on a calm pool of water sending out concentric rings in ever-expanding circles.

Kaufman: I love that!

Guillén: By film's end I was emotionally ravished, which led me to consider how you structure the build-up of multiple ideas and philosophical enquiries to such an emotional pitch. You've done this in earlier films and repeat the technique here. It must be an intuitive process?

Kaufman: The basis is always the emotions. I try to always keep sight of that. The ideas are in service of that. So, yeah, it is an intuitive process. In this case I thought of images or events that felt emotionally moving to me and I trusted that. It took a very long time to write, longer than two years. So it's had a lot of time to brew. I don't start out with an outline. I don't know where it's going to end. I start out with things I'm interested in exploring and then I allow them to be explored. If I find something 50 pages in that excites me, the story is free to go in that direction. That makes it an expansive experience for me that, hopefully, is reflected in the movie at the end. That's probably an unconventional way to write a screenplay because I think people tend to think of these things as products—"This would be a cool place to go. This would be a cool ending. This is going to sell the movie."—whereas, I trust that I'm going to come to something over time that's going to be interesting.

Guillén: Well, that is intuition, right? That's your creative strength. The audiences who appreciate what you're creating probably practice the same kind of intuitive exploration and are picking up the cues of your own. Especially at the end of this film, as I said, the emotion was so overpowering. It was like the swell of music. It shattered the governance of intellect and plunged me into deep feeling, which is what I love in films; sudden emotional recognition of deep embodied truths. That's the knowledge dreams possess as well. Just as I've said that I'm not convinced that dream life is not the real life, by comparison cinematic life often expresses the real life more than the day-to-day dross, reminding me that it's the creative life that is the authentic life.

Kaufman: I find that I wake up from dreams profoundly affected, in ways that I don't usually experience in my waking life. Sometimes I'm so despairing after a dream, or sometimes I'm so joyful in the morning, and I don't necessarily remember all the details of the dream. I just wake up with a feeling of a hole in my heart, for example, which is a really common thing for me and it follows me throughout the day. As a writer, I'm so interested in whatever that creative process is that goes on at night because I think in some ways I'm so much better at it when I'm not awake than when I am awake, so I try to find a way to access that in my conscious life when I'm writing. Movies are an ideal medium to present that world. I can't think of a better one. It seems like a natural to me. The whole idea of literal realism—which I think is all make-believe anyway that we're sold in movies—it's all a contrivance and a convention that we accept—"This movie is real life. This movie looks like real life."—but, when you break them down, they don't look like real life, even those that are pretending to. So why not explore it? [Chuckles.] Why not explore the larger realm?

Guillén: If we may—not that I want to interpret images in the film….

Kaufman: You're welcome to interpret. I'd love for you to interpret. I won't tell you if you're right or wrong.

Guillén: In shamanic dream theory there is the interesting premise that the goal—if there is a goal—of dreaming is to become conscious in your dreams; to somehow be aware that the dream life is real experience; to have a waking consciousness in dream life.

Kaufman: Sort of like lucid dreaming?

Guillén: Not quite. I don't much trust popular conceptions of lucid dreaming because they attempt to consciously control dream life; I'm speaking more of just a conscious awareness while dreaming. Let me be more specific. In shamanic theory there is the notion of the "scout." A dream can be immensely detailed and complex, all sorts of phantasmagorical things can be happening, but the dream's essence is known in a moment or by the awareness of a presence in the dream—the "scout"—when you know you are in the reality of the dream and not just being entertained by the dream. In the presence of the scout is when you're to wake up in the dream to recognize the potential of the dream as authentic alternate life expression.

Kaufman: I see.

Guillén: In SNY, for me, the scout appeared when Caden is walking with his daughter and they're distinguishing between "psychosis" and "sycosis". That was the moment in the film where sitting in the audience I suddenly thought, "What is happening here? Something's wrong!!" [Kaufman and I both laugh.] That's when I snapped to. How do you structure that when you're writing the script? Where do you choose to reveal that appearances are not what they seem?

Kaufman: In this movie it starts slowly, but it is really from almost the very beginning of the movie. There are clues. My goal is to leave it open. It isn't a calculated thing that you would see it there. There are things that are happening before that, which are probably hard to see; but, if you see the movie again—you've seen it twice, right?

Guillén: Right.

Kaufman: Well, if you see it again, you'll see there's a confusion in time passage from the very first scene. The dates you hear on the radio don't relate to the dates you see in the newspaper Caden's reading. As he keeps reading the newspaper, the dates keep changing in the newspaper. It starts out on the first day of Fall on the radio and then, later in the scene, it's Halloween. Things like that are going on. And then outside there's the man standing in the street, who you see again in the scene where he talks about psychosis/sycosis with his daughter. That character's name is maybe something someone will pick up on, maybe someone won't; but, I don't think that I was scientific in it. I was trying to keep the cues subtle and—like anything in the movie—it's open to the individual having their experience when they have their experience. I think there are things people will relate to in terms of metaphor and things some people won't relate to. Issues with the burning house, for example.

Guillén: I loved the burning house! It made me laugh outloud.

Kaufman: But other people are really frustrated with it. Even after the movie, when I do Q&As and people ask, "Why the burning house? What is the burning house?", I have to say, "Well, it doesn't speak to you. It speaks to other people. There are other things in the film that maybe, hopefully, will speak to you"; but, I'm trying to let this interaction be personal, in the same way that a dream is personal. A dream is for the dreamer when—as you say—the dreamer wakes up within it. I love that something happened there that clicked for you.

Guillén: Truthfully, I love to be confused by a film. I distrust if I know too much what's happening. I measure creativity by the amount of confusion it inspires in me, if that makes any sense, because it heralds new ground, new territory. Since you brought up the burning house, any good Jungian steeped in Jungian theory would see houses in dreams as efforts at self-understanding, constructions of self if you will, the self's architecture. You've had two wonderful dream houses. You had the house being swallowed by the sea in your previous film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—which is a house I have dreamt of—and now the burning house. I've never dreamt of the burning house but I have dreamt of the house being swallowed by the sea. For me, the poignancy of the burning house was that Hazel (Samantha Morton) dies of smoke asphyxiation just when she and Caden finally achieve emotional connection. How profoundly tragic!

Kaufman: Well, she made the choice to live there. In fact, she says in the scene just before she dies that the end is built into the beginning. That's exactly what happens there. She chooses to live in this house. She's afraid it's going to kill her but she stays there and it does. That is the truth about any choice that we make. We make choices that resonate throughout our lives.

Guillén: As you mentioned earlier, films that are allegedly realistic are actually quite false, whereas dreams—though seemingly incoherent—do tell the truth and do point towards what is authentic. The end is built into the beginning and when Hazel was thinking about buying the burning house and the realtor encouraged her to do so because the buyers were eager to sell, she expressed her concern that she might die there. Perhaps dreams remind us that we should be trusting what we feel more than what we think? Another dream device that intrigues me is replication, which Michel Gondry plays with a lot too.

Kaufman: I think that's why we found each other really.

Guillén: Exactly. I love his Kylie Minogue video where she keeps replicating herself loop after loop and we touched upon the replicative nature of dreams when he and I spoke for The Science of Sleep. You employ much replication in SNY. It's enough to have a doppelganger; but, you chose to have triplegangers and quadruplegangers, and you pulled it off astonishingly! Where did that come from?

Kaufman: I don't know where that stuff comes from. It is something that I've come to be interested in and—back to intuition—I trust my interest in it. I used it in my first screenplay Being John Malkovich when he goes into his own portal and finds a world filled with himself. I don't know why I like the feeling of it. In this case, it refers to the projection—again outside of oneself—of one's interior life. It's an exploration of the inner world through trying to understand what's happening outside of yourself, which is what I think we do. We constantly put the exterior world into stories that come from inside us. That's how we organize things. That's what we try to do to make sense of this very confusing existence we have. Again, we think this is reality: the projection of ourselves onto the outside world, all of it in fact, down to what we see. I think it's really interesting that visually the world doesn't exist. It only exists as our brain's interpretation. I sometimes try to imagine what this world looks like without people in it and I don't think it looks like anything. It certainly doesn't look like this.

Guillén: I can remember as a child that I would put myself to sleep pondering the morass of subjectivities. I'd be in my bed thinking, "Okay, I'm thinking my thoughts. And my brother's thinking his thoughts. And my sister's thinking her thoughts. And my parents are thinking their thoughts. And the neighbors are thinking their thoughts." And on and on. Millions and millions of people were thinking millions and millions of thoughts and the immensity of that, the morass of it, was almost more than my little body could handle so that I would pass out.

Kaufman: That's what Caden says at the end of the movie. "Look at all those apartments. There are all those dreams in there that we'll never know. That's the truth of it." Yeah. If you try to think of the world objectively, it is all those dreams that people have, all those thoughts that people have; but, it's also, again, that movies present the world very much like eyes, they're visually one point of view, literally one point of view, as opposed to trying to imagine the reality of this room from every point of view. From your point of view, from my point of view, from the floor's point of view, from inside our bodies looking out. If you were to imagine the way that God sees the world, what would it look like? I love the impossibility of that. I love how it tells me that I don't have a clue what's going on. That's an important thing for me to realize in navigating the world. It tells me that there's something so mysterious about this that I need to be respectful of, that's bigger than this day that I'm having.

Guillén: Your writing is reminiscent of the skirmishes of guerrilla warfare. Novelist Lawrence Durrell described writing as being like "raids on the inarticulate." You lunge forward towards something mysterious, you grasp it, then you rush back to safety to savor your momentary victory. The ultimate victory is always something a little beyond most of us but the better writers—and I truly consider you one of our better writers—approximate those mysteries.

Kaufman: Even the word "inarticulate" is inexact; once you articulate something you've reduced it. The question is how do you keep the inarticulate profound? You're told when you begin to write that you need to write about something in the distant past because that's the only way you can really put it in perspective; but, my interest is not in the perspective. My interest is in what is happening in the moment with all of its confusion and my inarticulation, my inability to put it into words. When I'm having a profound experience—and I'm thinking mostly of profound depression because that's when I realize it the most—I can't articulate it. Once I'm able to articulate it, I realize I'm no longer in it and that's not as interesting because then I'm telling a story about it, as opposed to this movement that's going on that's so much bigger than I am, that's so scary, that's so confusing, that leaves me feeling so alone. How do you present that as a work of art? That is the challenge that excites me.

Guillén: I would suggest that one of the ways you have maintained that profundity is that you practice a recursive aesthetic. One of the falsehoods of perspective, let's say, is precisely chronological; the presumption that our lives are a straight temporal line. Dream logic tells us, just like good cinema tells us, that authentic lives are curvilinear. There are no straight lines. There is no point A to point B. All that amounts to is, as a friend of mine once said, the plot of a telephone book. I think that's why when I first saw SNY I had the image of the spiraling leaf and the concentric rings; the film felt curvilinear. I want to believe or—truthfully—do believe that the straight line is a lie or at the very least as Hundertwasser has said, godless. Life is recursive. It doubles back on itself. It repeats itself into layered meaning. I am a person who is haunted by memory and continually informed by the past. Memory constantly textures, recontextualizes and reconfigures my every waking moment. And not enough cinema does that, though it should. I love that SNY keeps coming to my mind as I'm walking around in San Francisco.

Kaufman: I love that.

Guillén: I keep thinking of my childhood preoccupation with the morass of subjectivities. I'm walking down Market Street still marveling at how all these people are creating the world through their own thoughts, memories and dreams. And if they're half-way intelligent, they're creating half-way intelligent worlds. I find that profound and also quite sad.

Kaufman: It is sad. But feeling a connectedness with that can be joyful. You feel that, okay, there is a community of some sort if we allow for it.

Guillén: Absolutely. When I was a full scholar for the C.G. Jung Institute, one of my favorite mentors was Joseph Campbell with whom I interacted whenever he taught there. His definition of compassion as a joyful participation in the sorrows of the world has stayed with me all these years. One should want to joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world. It's not about overcoming the sorrows of the world. It's about being conscious of them and participating with them and remaining joyful even if life is arduous and sorrowful.

Kaufman: The idea that we will be joyful by ignoring what's going on around us is a lie. Such a lie is a painful place to be and an isolated place to be because you know in your heart that you're not really present. Some people say SNY is depressing and my reaction to that is: when I read something that speaks to me or makes me feel connected to other beings like, "Oh yes! I feel that or I've felt that!" and often—when I'm reading something that was written 300 years ago, 500 years ago, that someone wrote that I'm relating to now, through time, they're dead for many years but it speaks to me, even if it's sad, maybe even especially if it's sad—I feel a connectedness to human beings that I don't normally feel because of the culture that we live in, which commodifies everything and makes things about selling to us, about abusing us, manipulating us, so that other people can make profits. I'm speaking about movies. If it's a funny movie, you can laugh but at the end of it you don't feel connected to anything because that's not really true. That's what I tried to do with Eternal Sunshine. I tried to make a movie that was truthful to me about relationships because I've seen so many movies that have been so damaging to me. They're lovely but then you go into your real existence and they're not recognizable so you feel less than. You long for something that isn't even really true. It's always been my goal to be honest in my way that maybe would give someone else solace. This movie is intended to do that. So I don't consider this movie depressing. I think it's sad but not depressing.

Guillén: With regard to relationships, can we talk about scale? I was intrigued by the relationship between Caden and Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) as inflected through their respective creativities. Adele was an artist who painted miniatures to express her vision and Caden was an artist who needed an immense warehouse to construct his vision. What was the magnetism that drew these two completely different visionaries together, even into a failed relationship?

Kaufman: My understanding of those two was that this was the end of their relationship and, in my mind, they were probably less fully-formed as artists at the beginning of their relationship and—as I think people do in relationships—from there they went into different directions. You try to find out what your common ground is even as you move further and further apart. We caught them at that point. If you look at the progression of Adele's work in the movie, it gets smaller and smaller. In her studio at the beginning of the movie you can see some small but regular-sized paintings that you could see without a magnifying glass. The painting we first see her working on when Caden comes into her studio to pee in the sink is about an inch. By the time he goes to the gallery to look at her work, which is many years later, you can't see them at all. They're getting really tiny. Part of it for me is the impossibility of both of those things, which again goes to the dream reality. The type of paintings that she does is not possible. I know people do tiny paintings and there's even a sculptor who does tiny sculptures; but, to do something painterly—which is what these things look like when you see them with the magnifying glasses—at that scale is impossible. As a dream image it appeals to me. Her work is in a way much more effective than Caden's work. Caden's goal in his attempt to do his sprawling theater piece is to impress Adele because he feels so lacking next to her in terms of his work. She's gone on to become….

Guillén: "I can't talk to you now. I'm famous." [Laughter.]

Kaufman: Yeah, she's famous. I intentionally picked an artist whose work I really love to stand in for Adele's work. Caden's work is so literal. The only way he can reflect reality in his mind is by imitating it full-size. He's building a life-size replica of New York City in a warehouse, which again is impossible, obviously, especially when you've got the smaller and smaller versions of the warehouse within the warehouse within the warehouse, which are all full-sized too. It's a dream image but he's not interacting with it successfully.

Guillén: It speaks a bit to the limitations of performativity. Adele's work is expressive; his is performative. It becomes sprawling, unwieldy, and loses focus because it's trying to replicate life, not creatively interpret life.

Kaufman: Yeah. It's like photorealism in painting. What is it doing? Is it commenting on the impossibility of replicating reality? I don't know what photorealists are trying to do, but when I look at their work it doesn't move me, except maybe intellectually or technologically, "They can really copy something." Caden never gets there. Although he might at the end of the movie, you never know. He's got a new idea and you don't know what that new idea is going to be. He spends his time up until the last second trying to reconfigure this thing and not really getting closer. It tends to get more subjective, more about his own life that starts to come through towards the end. But I feel like there's something that happens in that last scene that encourages an idea. I feel there's a connection in that last scene that happens that may not have happened anywhere else in the movie; but, again, it's with someone who doesn't really exist. It's an actress playing the mother of a person he's not playing. And the person she's playing the mother of may not really exist either. In fact, I don't think she does. Ellen doesn't exist except as a figment of Caden's imagination or at least as projected through the voiceover of Millicent Weems (Diane Wiest), who's telling us who this person is. But Ellen never really shows up to clean this apartment that she's supposed to be cleaning. It's just Caden.

Guillén: And we could get into the possibilities of that if the publicist weren't looming over my shoulder telling me to conclude this interview. [Laughter.] That is the quickest half hour I have ever experienced!

Kaufman: It was a real pleasure.

Guillén: Likewise. I hope we have a chance in the future to further our conversation over your next film.

Kaufman: I would love to.

Cross-published on Twitch.