Thursday, November 20, 2008

3rd i 2008—BIOSCOPE

"Look at that mountain; once it was fire."—Paul Cezanne.

Augmenting her Film International article on plein-air screenings—"Screenings By Moonlight"—Kay Armatage's sidebar essay on "Travelling Projectionist Films" provides an insightful accent on the recent Castro Theatre screening of K.M. Madhusudanan's 2008 Bioscope, which Frako Loden earlier characterized as the "revelation" of this year's 3rd i Film Festival, and which could easily be added to Armatage's survey of films reflecting the theme of travelling projectionists; a survey in which Armatage includes narrative features The Picture Show Man (John Power, Australia, 1977), Battu's Bioscope / Cinéma itinerant—Rêves et illusions (Andrej Fidyk, Poland, 1998), Wind with the Gone / El Viento se llevó lo qué (Alejandro Agresti, Argentina, 1998), Ticket to Jerusalem (Rashid Masharawi, Netherlands/Palestine/ France/Australia, 2002), and Electric Shadows / Meng ying tong nian (Jiang Xiao, China, 2004), and the short film contributions Zhanxiou Village (Chen Kaige) and En Regardant le Film (Jhang Yimou) to the 2007 portmanteau Chacun son cinema, as well as Tombee de nuit a Shanghai / Night Falling in Shanghai, Chantal Akerman's contribution to the 2007 Portuguese omnibus State of the World. Another worthy entry to this survey would be Brazilian director Marcelo Gomes' 2005 Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures (Cinema, Aspirinas e Urubus).

As Frako Loden synopsized in her Evening Class preview of Bioscope, winner of this year's NETPAC jury award for best Asian film at Osian's Cinefan Asian and Arab Film Festival: "[T]his parable set in 1920s Kerala explores the hypnotic effect of the recorded moving image: while evoking a distant (un)holy memory, it pronounces a curse and steals the soul. A poor Indian inherits a Bioscope crank-operated movie projector from a Frenchman which he takes around to villages showing Western films and the earliest Hindi 'mythologicals' (such as the 1918 Birth of Lord Krishna). His wife lies mysteriously ill, harassed by the recurring image of a white man shipwrecked on a beach. Meanwhile those bewildered villagers not entranced by scenes from Lumière, Caligari and Griffith begin grumbling about the evil box trapping the ghosts of dead white men. Bioscope's dreamlike images removed from their context and sound design themselves call forth memories of such visionary works as Aguirre, Wrath of God and Colossal Youth, which also sleepwalk us through troubled dreams and memories of colonialism."

Kay Armatage characterizes this category of films: "These films often tend to set their bucolic cinematic fantasies against a backdrop of the bad and yet somehow nostalgic old days of rural isolation, economic deprivation and political penury. Yet lurking beneath the romantic travelling projectionists that inhabit them is another history of multiple contradictions that come along with these open-air screenings, a history of economic expansion and governmentality." (Film International, 2008, 6:4, p. 41.) As she further observes, "Nostalgia for the arrival of cinema in the rural hinterland is a frequent note in films which … reflect the lost past of cinematic virginity; the spectacle of electrification literally illuminates them, as travelling projectionists carried their generators with them to outback areas." (Ibid.)

Of gendered distinction to Andrej Fidyk's Battu's Bioscope, whose narrative likewise tracks the introduction of cinema to rural Indian populations—wherein scenes of Bollywood films show men savagely brutalizing women, inducing terror on the faces of the rural women in the audience—the audiences in K. M. Madhusudanan's Bioscope are notably male, though equally horrified at the questions raised by "the spectacle of electrification." Met with equal parts fascination and fear, the flickering images of Lumière shorts and German expressionism, as well as Dadasaheb Phalke's Shri Krishna Janma (Birth of Lord Krishna, 1918) depict—as Lucy Laird writes in her festival program capsule—"a more innocent world, a more innocent vision, beset by superstition, but on the verge of modernity." The glimpse of Krishna defeating the Nāga Kaliya in Phalke's silent film is especially enticing. As one of the villagers murmurs in as befitting a definition of cinema as any: "All this is an illusion. But the story is true." Phalke is considered the Father of Indian cinema and Bioscope provides my first exposure to his work; a revelation indeed. This revelatory cinematic historicity is precisely Bioscope's most sterling contribution.

Jai Arjun Singh ("Jabberwock") eloquently writes at the remarkably informative site Ultrabrown (I've long been looking for a site on Indian cinema and this one satisfies fully): "Bioscope is a languorously paced film with a lot of recurring imagery, notably a beautifully shot slow-motion scene—taken from a woman's feverish nightmares—that shows the bloated corpse of a white man being washed up on a shore and carried away by three fishermen. There's something appropriate about the slow pace, because what we're seeing here is an elegiac tribute to a world that is on the verge of being altered forever—we can see that modernity is about to impinge on this setting, that permanent change is on the horizon, and the film seems simultaneously excited and saddened by the prospect, looking ahead to the future but also reluctant to leave the present behind."

As Anuj Vaidya, Associate Festival Director for 3rd i, has intimated, many of the original silent films from India are in "a tattered condition" lacking the funds for necessary restoration. The National Film Archive of India—whose stated mission is "to safeguard the heritage of Indian Cinema for posterity"—wasn't even initiated until 1964, by which time they had already lost over 50% of India's silent cinema heritage. The Evening Class anticipates a seminar 3rd i will be conducting in the spring on the history of Indian Silent Cinema.

Cross-published on Twitch.


Hostess Peaches Christ is thrilled to announce that a great, big, B-movie dream of hers is about to come true! One night only on Wednesday, December 17th, at Landmark's Bridge Theatre, Peaches will present—not just once, but twice at 7:00PM and 9:40PM—a Midnight Mass produced stage-show featuring cult film icon and genre superstar Bruce Cambell live and in-person. Peaches has been dying to honor Bruce Campbell—as she says "forEVER"—and is putting together this San Franciscan evening of Idol Worship, preceding the Bay Area premiere of Bruce Campbell's directorial debut My Name Is Bruce. Tickets are $10.50 and can be purchased here.

Synopsis for My Name Is Bruce: When the small mining town of Gold Lick, Oregon needs to rid itself of a vengeful monster, they kidnap actor Bruce Campbell—star of the Evil Dead trilogy, Bubba Ho-tep and countless B-movie horror films—and recruit him to be their local savior. Mortified at first, Bruce eventually goes along with the plan, convinced that it's all an elaborate birthday present from his agent (Ted Raimi). But the scheme goes horribly wrong when their hero, known more for fighting directors than mythical warriors, haphazardly leads the town in battle against the beast. Confronted by a monster that's not a guy in a rubber suit, and with the blood of innocents on his hands, Bruce has to choose between the harsh reality of Gold Lick and the sanctity of his former, artificial life. A horror comedy written by Mark Verheiden (Smallville, Battlestar Galactica), My Name Is Bruce co-stars Grace Thorsen and Taylor Sharpe.

This is a match made in heaven … well, maybe hell (as in hella fun)! See you there!

Cross-published on Twitch.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

TIMELESS SPIRAL—Five Flavors of Late Night Ice Cream

Fujiya & Miyagi—"Knickerbocker". Vanilla, strawberry, knickerbocker glory.

Fujiya and Miyagi - Knickerbocker

Friendly Fires—"On Board". Funky and cute and ready for the starting gun.

Firewater—"Borneo". You gotta love a group that out-and-out identifies President Bush as a monkey.

Devlin & Darko—DJ version of "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn and John, whose own
animated video can be found on YouTube. If only I could whistle.

Datarock—"I Used To Dance With My Daddy" (by Parallax). I love Paris, don't you?

VOICES OF LIGHT / THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARCThe Evening Class Interview With Mark Sumner

Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent film classic The Passion of Joan of Arc is a renowned masterpiece whose rescue from obscurity is the stuff of legend. Long thought to have been lost to fire, the original version was miraculously found in perfect condition in 1981—in a Norwegian mental institution. I first heard of the film through the diaries of Anaïs Nin in her compassionate written portrait of Antonin Artaud, who portrayed the monk Massieu. Long interested in Artaud, I welcomed the opportunity to view the film when it achieved a digital restoration for its Criterion DVD release.

The film details the last hours of Joan of Arc after she has been captured by the English. Her trial, imprisonment, torture and final execution are rendered similarly to a passion play, particularly through Dreyer's facial close-ups, effected through the use of recently-developed panchromatic film. Renée Jeanne Falconetti (aka "Maria" Falconetti) was commended for her multifaceted performance as Joan, which was her second and last movie role. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael enthused Falconetti's turn as Joan of Arc "may be the finest performance ever recorded on film."

Lack of funds prevented Dreyer from employing the new technology of sound for his film so he elected to shoot it silent, intending it to be watched that way with no musical accompaniment. However, in 1994 composer Richard Einhorn wrote an oratorio based on the movie, entitled "Voices of Light", which was offered as optional accompaniment on the Criterion DVD release. Einhorn's oratorio combined with screenings of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc proved to be a stunning evening of music theatre. The critically-acclaimed event brought sold-out houses to their feet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival; at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center; at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap with the National Symphony; and in dozens of major concert halls across the country. It has now made its way to San Francisco where it will be performed live at the Castro Theatre on Monday evening, November 17, 7:30PM in a co-presentation with Pacific Film Archive. There will also be an encore performance on Sunday, November 23, 7:30PM at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley Campus.

The concert features the University of California Alumni Chorus, UC Men's and Women's Chorales, Perfect Fifth, The Women of UC Berkeley's Perfect Fifth as the Voice of Joan of Arc, and orchestra. Soloists are David Maier, tenor, and Martin Bell, bass-baritone. Tickets will be available at the door; General Admission $15, Seniors $12. For more information, call (510) 643-9645 or visit the UC Alumni Chorus website.

This spectacular concert will be conducted by Dr. Mark Sumner, director of the UC Choral Ensembles. The Evening Class had the opportunity to touch base with Dr. Sumner in anticipation of this event shortly before his running out the door to fetch the 35mm print at FedEx. My thanks to Katie Woodruff for facilitating an introduction.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Mark, could you provide some background on your position with the UC Alumni Chorus?

Mark Sumner: I've been there for 12 years. It's an extracurricular wing associated with Cal Performances. Our particular department also contains the Cal Marching Band and the Jazz Ensembles, which are an instrumental group of students for those three components and I oversee the activities of nine different ensembles.

Guillén: This particular event will include two or three different ensembles, will it not? The University of California Alumni Chorus, the UC Men's and Women's Chorales, and Perfect Fifth? Let alone orchestra?

Sumner: That's absolutely right, yes.

Guillén: I'm aware this is a concert that has been performed in various venues around the country since its initial debut, but how did it arrive to the Bay Area through you and your association with the Pacific Film Archive?

Sumner: I performed in some of the original performances with the composer conducting back in the mid-'90s while I was still living in Los Angeles. I did a tour to the Midwest where we did several performances and I did several performances in Los Angeles at the Ford Ampitheatre and around. Anonymous 4 were used as the voice of Joan of Arc. The group that I sang in toured with them. I became familiar with both the movie and the oratorio some 13 years ago or so. It came to mind last year when the San Francisco Choral Society did a piece that was written not too long ago to accompany an anti-war documentary, which I felt was appropriate for the time. I noticed that they didn't perform it with the movie so I rented the movie, which I found to be insulting; I didn't care for it at all. I thought to myself, "Surely the Einhorn score to one of the greatest movies ever made would be something to do." I thought it would be a fun thing for my students to be involved in, the chorus that I've had for 12 years, I'm always interested in unique programming for them, so I phoned the composer and before I knew it we had a contract and we're doing it! I had done it with 12 voices but I thought it would be much more powerful with a large chorus, a "sea of humanity." You see that in the movie in the stark contrast between Joan's face, up close and personal, and the judge and various other people, but then there's the masses outside the church and the chaos and the protest, the people whose faces you see later in the movie who are just as emotional about what Joan represented.

Guillén: I'm aware that Dreyer didn't initially intend music to accompany the film and that Einhorn's oratorio—though inspired by the film—was only later combined with the film to great effect. Can you speak about Einhorn's oratorio?

Sumner: It's rather unique in its design. There are several components to which I particularly responded. The musical language he uses is definitely inspired by medieval harmonic writing, yet it also seems to evoke 20th century elements. Einhorn studied with Philip Glass. I think he had a pretty good ear for emotion and drive and intensity. The music pairs up nicely as a commentary and as an enhancement of what you're seeing visually. The texts that he selects are quite remarkable.

Guillén: My understanding is that those texts come from the writings of medieval female mystics?

Sumner: Exactly. There are some of Joan's own words; but, of course, she was illiterate. She didn't write them down herself. There were some surviving transcripts of things she had said. Just as Dreyer discarded his original screenplay and decided to go with actual transcripts of Joan's trial, Einhorn was strongly inspired by this appropriate selection of texts. Also, with a large chorus often using words from the traditional Catholic mass, juxtaposed with Christian writing inspired by Joan of Arc, or by other female mystics as you said who were likewise burned at the stake, it's remarkable how Einhorn's choice of texts interweave with the movie.

Guillén: I understand you will be using Perfect Fifth for the voice of Joan? Can you speak about them?

Sumner: I have some very talented young singers so I decided to use the female singers in Perfect Fifth, similar to Anonymous 4 who specialize in medieval renaissance music. Perfect Fifth is a select madrigal group and the girls will be sharing solo duties and also singing together the voice of Joan in harmony and sometimes in unison. There are moments in the movie where Richard Einhorn has set places where the voice of Joan is sung in innocent-sounding series of simple melodies and beautiful open harmonies and so I specifically wanted a younger quality of voice and Perfect Fifth does that very well.

Guillén: How did the Pacific Film Archive become involved in the project?

Sumner: I actually went to them. They had shown the movie recently a year or two ago in Berkeley so I approached Susan Oxtoby because we wanted to present it more than once and I was looking for appropriate venues. For the size of the choruses that I was wanting to engage, PFA had no venue themselves that they could offer me; but, Susan was so excited about this project that she agreed to help sponsor the presentation at the Castro Theatre, as a place that would—of course—screen a 35mm print.

Guillén: Will the Castro Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer be used in the presentation?

Sumner: Not for the Einhorn score, no; but, we've asked them to play before the show just as they do for everything else. I have no idea what they're going to play and I can't imagine it fitting with the movie very well—the movie is so serious and strong—but, they're very creative so I'll be curious to see what they come up with.

Guillén: Well, Mark, thank you for taking the time. I'm really looking forward to what I expect to be a remarkable event.

Cross-published on Twitch.


Yesterday's demonstration at San Francisco's City Hall underscored my awareness of how atrophied my political activism had become during the Bush administration. It felt good to feel myself return to form. Jesse McKinley offers an inspiring overview of the national protest for The New York Times. Not wanting to stop there, however, I sought out something else I might do to further this fight within my existing interests and volunteered for the "No Milk For Cinemark Theatres" campaign, which I felt could be an effective strategy to ameliorate the less-focused animosity towards the Sundance Film Festival.

As Dave Poland reported at The Hot Blog, John Aravosis chased down another significant "Yes on Prop 8" financial supporter: Alan Stock, the CEO of the Cinemark theater chain, who donated $9,999 to the Yes on 8 Campaign. The reasoning behind the "No Milk for Cinemark Theatres" campaign is that if 1,000 individuals commit themselves to see Milk at a competitor's theatre instead of Cinemark, at an average cost of $10 a ticket, that will result in $10,000 of lost revenue. Hopefully, the numbers will be even higher than that.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area the Cinemark Theatres to avoid are:

Corte Madera—Century Cinema (41 Tamal Vista Blvd.)

Daly City—Century 20 Daly City (1901 Junipero Serra Blvd.)

Hayward—Century Theatres at Hayward (1069 B Street)

Larkspur—Century Larkspur (500 Larkspur Landing Cr.)

Mill Valley—CinéArts Sequoia (25 Throckmorton Ave.)

Richmond—Century Hilltop 16 (3200 Klose Way)

San Bruno—Century at Tanforan (The Shops at Tanforan)

San Francisco—CinéArts at the Empire (85 West Portal Ave.) and Century 9 San Francisco Centre (835 Market St.)

San Leandro—Century 16 Bayfair Mall (15555 East 14th Street)

San Mateo—Century 12 San Mateo (320 East 2nd Avenue)

San Rafael—Century Northgate (7000 Northgate Drive) and Century Regency (280 Smith Ranch Road)

Sausalito—CinéArts Marin (101 Caledonia)

I strongly encourage readers of The Evening Class to check out the No Milk for Cinemarks Theatres website to determine which Cinemark Theatres to avoid in their areas. Boycotts work. A boycott of a Sacramento theatre company resulted not only in the resignation of a Yes on 8 contributor, but a public apology and donation to the Human Rights Campaign! We can—(or as Tom Ammiano stated it more forcefully in yesterday's rally) we will—do this again.

Of related interest is that the organizers of the successful Join the Impact rally are now calling for December 10, 2008 to be Day Without A Gay, encouraging the gay community to take a historic stance against hatred by donating love to a variety of different causes. Don't call in sick, call in gay and—in alignment with International Human Rights Day—donate your time to service!

UPDATE: Via Steve Silberman, DailyKos reports on internal memos from the LDS Church that reveal their longstanding strategy to defeat same-sex marriage.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


It's a far cry from a bunch of drag queens fighting off a police raid on the Stonewall Bar or—earlier here on the West Coast—Compton's Cafeteria; no less so for word-of-mouth having amplified a net-driven rage of protest gone viral. So you don't need me to tell you where to be today; but, just in case. It's history in the making. Exactly one week since Amy Balliett and Willow Witte of Join the Impact announced a national call to action for the LGBTQI community to protest Proposition 8 and to fight for equal rights across the nation, the community has come together at global numbers predicted to exceed 1 million in 300 participating cities across the country.

See you there!

Friday, November 14, 2008

TIMELESS SPIRAL—Video Oatmeal For Breakfast

Think of these as four plump juicy raisins to brighten up your morning oatmeal. They got me boppin' around my kitchen.

The Black Ghosts: "Any Way You Choose To Give It"—Save your broken umbrellas; they might come in handy. This "romantic goth" group will be featured on the soundtrack for the upcoming film Twilight.

Born Ruffians: "I Need A Life." Three self-professed geeks with sweet chops.

Bondo do Role: "Office Boy"—Think B-52s bopping around to Portuguese gay slang.

Black Kids: "I'm Not Going To Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You." Face it: Why should I?

I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance with You

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I never feel a great need to argue politics because I believe politics are more about actions than words. Many many years ago I was counseled by Chippewa elder Sun Bear: "Vote for who you want to; but, plant a garden." So I am both voter and gardener. That being said, however, the results of casting my vote in America's recent election brought not only unmitigated relief and inspired hope in democratic ideals, but also introduced conflicted feelings about how victories are hard won and how the edge of victory is painfully serrated.

As happy as I am that Barack Obama was elected President, I have to admit that it did not please me at all to receive a last-minute automated telephone call from him encouraging California voters to vote for Proposition 8, the state initiative reversing the fortitude of the California Supreme Court and halting gay/lesbian marriage. If—as has been written—politicians are indeed one-eyed cats, one has to wonder with which eye Obama is viewing the future when he includes gays and lesbians in his acceptance speech even as he lobbies for their second-class citizenship? Much statistical ink has already been spilled noting that the increase in the Black-American vote that secured Obama's victory is the same vote that reversed the California Supreme Court decision to grant gays and lesbians commensurate rights in the institution of marriage. At 55, I watch the pendulum swing on this grandfather's clock with weary patience. We're here, we're queer, and we persevere. I fundamentally believe that justice will prevail even if setbacks are instituted in the name of justice.

Part of the ingratiating process of pendulumatic politics is the necessary strategy of boycotting, because in this country you have to hit them in their wallet before they will finally pay attention. It saddens me to read on indieWIRE that the Sundance Film Festival is being singled out for boycott because I do believe they have done much to further the queer cause; but, I endorse it as a nudge for the organization to move out of Utah. Wouldn't San Francisco be a perfect location for future editions of the Sundance Film Festival? Isn't it time to shift their weather from snow to fog?

Other boycotts are in place; one against the Mormon-administered Marriott Hotels, which I likewise endorse. And there are several on-line signature initiatives currently in motion. This will, undoubtedly, be one of those key issues reversed and counter-reversed through several elections until youthful acumen replaces ageold prejudices. I place my faith in the young, even as I weed my garden and prepare it for Winter.

These thoughts came into focus this morning when I read the following on the Joseph Campbell Foundation website: "The story of Obama's faith begins with his mother, Ann. Raised in the Midwest by two lapsed Christians, she lived and traveled throughout the world appreciating all religions but confessing to none. One of Ann's favorite spiritual texts was Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, a set of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers that traces the common themes of religion and mythology, Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, tells Newsweek. When the family lived in Indonesia, Ann, on occasion, would take the children to Catholic mass; after returning to Hawaii, they would celebrate Easter and Christmas at United Church of Christ congregations. Ann later went back to Indonesia with Maya, and when Obama visited, they would take him to Borobudur, one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. Later, while working in India, Ann lived for a time in a Buddhist monastery."

Though Joseph Campbell himself came under fire from Christian theologian Martin Buber for seeking to compare Christianity with the other religions of the world, there is perhaps no greater effective politic to counter the ill-advised alignment of church and state; any church, any state. I hope that Barack Obama recapitulates his—perhaps—politically strategic endorsement of Proposition 8 to recognize the hurt and the harm it has done. Time will tell, as it often does in any individual's spiritual progression. Hopefully, as with any individual, his spiritual journey is a non-ending evolution.

Another loss for me in this political campaign was that of an endeared aunt who sent me one of the most racist, religiously intolerant emails I've ever received, and who—when questioned about such hateful advocacy—responded by calling me small-minded. I'm too old to obediently grant respect where it is not due and—as I weed my garden for Winter—recognize that there are no small minds, only small actions. I dedicate this entry to her.

The work continues.

SFIAF08—The SF360 Interview With Sean Uyehara

My interview with San Francisco Film Society associate programmer Sean Uyehara regarding the 3rd edition of the International Animation Festival is up at SF360. Unbeknownst to me, my editor at SF360 lopped off the tail end of the interview, which I offer here for posterity's sake (though I don't know why I should; to quote Woody Allen: "What has posterity ever done for me?"):

SF360: With the San Francisco Film Society's recent partnership with the Film Arts Foundation, will you be teaching any of their film courses?

Uyehara: Yes, I'm teaching an introductory class on basic concepts in film criticism: why critics take certain positions, what it is that they're falling back on, what their assumptions are. What acumen do writers bring to this kind of writing, what are their goals, and how do they evaluate a movie? What is their criteria?

SF360: Are these classes being held at the Ninth Street Film Center?

Uyehara: Some of the classes are being held there and some are being held in the Presidio.

SF360: Well, Sean, to wrap up, thanks for the insightful preview. I'm genuinely looking forward to this year's edition of the International Animation Festival and, once again, congratulations on your expanded, multi-faceted efforts.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, November 10, 2008

3rd i 2008—Frako Loden Previews the Line-up

I'm looking at the schedule for the 6th annual 3rd i (as in "eye") San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, starting this Thursday November 13. The festival kicks off Thursday evening at the Brava Theater, continuing there Friday evening, and moves to the Castro for longer programs over the weekend. I'm reviewing nine and a half of the fifteen offerings to see what I would choose if I had only one full consecutive day and night to devote to it. Don't get me wrong—I personally think it's worth following around all weekend, but most people have non-festival lives to lead and errands to run.

What makes both Saturday and Sunday long but rewarding slogs is the excellence of their morning films. (My thinking is, if you're at the Castro for an 11:30AM screening, why not stay the entire day and night?) Saturday's is the lovely 1929 silent film A Throw of Dice (Pranpancha Pash), directed by German director Franz Osten, who made Hindi films with Bombay Talkies producer (and Dice villain) Himanshu Rai. Osten/Rai's previous works Prem Sanyas (1925) and Shiraz (1928) have been shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Dice, a UK-India-Germany co-production that predates Bombay Talkies, dramatizes episodes from the Mahābhārata in which gambling junkie King Ranjit loses his kingdom and fiancée in a crooked wager instigated by a jealous rival. When Ranjit's loyal vassals learn of the cheat dice, they storm the vast deserts and majestic forts of Rajasthan (where the film was shot) in epic numbers.

Dice's 2006 restoration and re-release is graced by a superb, dreamy score by British-Indian composer/musician Nitin Sawhney that perfectly fits the mixed-blood origins of this production. An open-air screening at London's Trafalgar Square in August 2007 drew an audience of 10,000 to see this production, which forgoes hyper-Orientalist stereotyping in favor of a lyrical and romantic pictorialism. A tiny pet deer prancing around the heroine's room is unutterably charming. I wished some of the spectacular long shots were held much longer to allow contemplating all the lavish detail—fabulous Rajput costumes and headdresses, elephants and camels and palace interiors. The action sequences are dynamic enough that I would gladly have sat admiring the décor during narrative breaks.

Saturday's midday screening, Nishtha Jain's Lakshmi and Me, is a slight letdown after the director's profound and brilliant 2005 documentary City of Photos, about urban photography studios mainly in Kolkata. But her good intentions are undeniable and often rewarding in this doc about Jain's relationship with Lakshmi, her maid of five years. A domestic since the age of 10, when the film begins she is working at six different homes for 10 hours a day. Despite the title and perhaps thankfully, the emphasis is more on Lakshmi, a dark-skinned village girl from a large, poor family whose patriarch is more often filmed snoring drunkenly than conscious. When Lakshmi falls in love and then gets pregnant with a young tailor from a caste even lower than hers, the father threatens to take the whole family away from Mumbai—they can't afford living there anyway. As the connections between the two women—employer/employee, filmmaker/subject, "white"/"black" and finally friends—inevitably blur, Jain takes her camera along on prenatal exams, domestics' organization meetings and tense scenes of family discord. Lakshmi and Me raises a number of important issues, both personal and political, that I wish she'd resolved more satisfactorily by the end.

Due to a malfunctioning screener I wasn't able to get beyond the first hour of Vishal Bharadwaj's 2003 Maqbool. But what I saw made me want to finish up this Macbeth adaptation on the Castro screen on Saturday afternoon. Bulbous-eyed Irrfan Khan, who also plays the police inspector in Sunday's Slumdog Millionaire, is the title character, urged against his conscience to assassinate his adoptive father, who also happens to be the reigning Mumbai crime boss. Tabu plays Maqbool's Lady Macbeth (the two played Obama campaigner Kal Penn's parents in The Namesake), the godfather's mistress who is having a passionate affair with Maqbool. The first hour of this tale of vaulting ambition is awash in astrological predictions, corrupted officialdom and sacrificial blood—I hope the second hour is just as full of the direst cruelty.

I haven't seen the Saturday evening screenings, but I'm told they're fun to varying degrees. The 2007 hit Om Shanti Om reunites megastar Shah Rukh Khan and director-choreographer Farah Khan for a romp through 30 years of Bollywood history and a few times as many star cameos. This is the kind of music-and-dance spectacle that sells out seats, draws huge South Asian groups, and turns the Castro into a lively faux-retro-'70s Mumbai theatre for nearly three hours.

Those who manage to get to the end of this evening may resemble the living dead, but at least you won't have trouble identifying with characters in the 2007 Pakistani slasher-zombie film Hell's Ground (Zibahkhana). I'm told that the novelty of its being (according to director Omar Ali Khan) Pakistan's "first modern horror film" attenuates early on, but that its flail-wielding, burqa-veiled psycho butcher provides genuine chills—see Michael Wells' Twitch dispatch from the 2007 New York Asian Film Festival.

At last there's Sunday, which I recommend for the full day-and-night treatment. The first film, which for my money is the revelation of the festival, is K. M. Madhusudanan's 2008 Bioscope. The movie counterpart to Nishtha Jain's documentary City of Photos (which I mention above), this parable set in 1920s Kerala explores the hypnotic effect of the recorded moving image: while evoking a distant (un)holy memory, it pronounces a curse and steals the soul. A poor Indian inherits a Bioscope crank-operated movie projector from a Frenchman which he takes around to villages showing Western films and the earliest Hindi "mythologicals" (such as the 1918 Birth of Lord Krishna). His wife lies mysteriously ill, harassed by the recurring image of a white man shipwrecked on a beach. Meanwhile those bewildered villagers not entranced by scenes from Lumière, Caligari and Griffith begin grumbling about the evil box trapping the ghosts of dead white men. Bioscope's dreamlike images removed from their context and sound design themselves call forth memories of such visionary works as Aguirre, Wrath of God and Colossal Youth, which also sleepwalk us through troubled dreams and memories of colonialism.

Channeling the myths of our past in defiance of the colonialist legacy is a more pragmatic task for the rural child protagonist of the charming King Siri (Siri Raja Siri) from Sri Lankan director Somaratne Dissanayake. Because he got top score in the nation, preteen Sirimal is sent against his will to a city school full of Westernized elites. There he's chosen to play the lead, the ancient King Siri, in a school play. He's clearly the most suited to the role—for a skinny runt he can be imperious—but can't afford the expensive costume, while an ungifted rich boy who longs to play king is scheming to snag the part (with his father attempting bribery). The obvious message—that the countryside produces children who are smarter, more disciplined, healthier, more polite and more attuned to their culture—threatens to make the kid an insufferable prig, but when he starts bawling his eyes out all is forgiven. Parents should bring their children to see this very endearing and often hilarious film.

Not so hilarious—in fact enraging—is the import of Irene Salina's passionate 2007 documentary Flow: For Love of Water. It will make you throw your bottle of Pellegrino water across the room on learning that it's owned by Nestlé, who has diverted water from the public commons and sold it back to the same people at larcenous prices. Not to mention Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Vivendi and Suez. Privatization of water is a major trend in the world of Big Profit, and this well-made film tracks players on different sides of the debate over the global water crisis. Standout advocates are Vandana Shiva and Rajendra Singh.

A more personal and probably more controversial documentary is director Yunus Vally's 2007 The Glow of White Women. Vally grew up black and devoutly Muslim in a sleepy, racist South African town. When he wasn't attending the madressah he was obsessed with magazines filled with images of beautiful white women. When he grew up and moved to the hipster town of Yeoville, he met white women who considered sleeping with a black man to be a blow (so to speak) for political defiance. In the High Fidelity spirit of narcissistic self-examination, Vally puts white girlfriends from his past before the camera to explain his attraction to them and vice versa. As he says in an interview, "As a black man during apartheid, you were accepted as human by having sex with a white woman. It was the one thing that could make you feel equal."

Finally, judging from its climactic place in the program, Slumdog Millionaire is the star of the festival, directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and set in the Mumbai slums. Glitzy, edge-of-your-seat question sessions from host Anil Kapoor during an Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? provide the frame for a picaresque plot explaining how street kid Jamal manages to know all the answers. Jamal is rewarded for his expertise by torture-filled interrogation courtesy of suspicious police inspector Irrfan Khan. The new setting for Boyle seems to have energized his directorial style, boasting headlong virtuoso set-pieces like the "Amitabh scene" that will have you cringing and laughing happily into the Castro Street night.

So which day to go? Make up your own mind; for more info and ticket buying instructions see the festival's website.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A CHRISTMAS TALEThe Evening Class Interview With Arnaud Desplechin

Like a magnum of champagne, Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale christened the launch of the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now series early last month. Desplechin flew in from France to take part in the festivities and earlier in the afternoon we sat down in his suite at the Fairmont Hotel to discuss his latest. My thanks to Donald McMahon for his interpretive assistance.

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Michael Guillén: Arnaud, I feel a bit ill-prepared because I feel I should really watch A Christmas Tale at least three more times before discussing it with you. When I caught it at the press screening with a friend, we argued for an hour afterwards about who loved it more. [Desplechin laughs.] After watching A Christmas Tale, I was reminded of that wonderful line in James Goldman's The Lion In Winter when—after King Henry's three sons Richard, Geoffrey and John have mercilessly connived against each other, amidst many other court intrigues—Eleanor of Aquitaine wistfully remarks, "Ah well. What family doesn't have its ups and downs?"

It seems in this year's crop of films there has been a strong focus on family. In your particular filmmaking, I'm intrigued by the tension you establish between individuals and family. As an individual, you can stage your civility whereas with family you cannot hide. The family gathering becomes the crucible in which the individual gets cooked and no one captures that alchemy better than you. Can you speak to your frequent exploration of this tension between individuals and family?

Arnaud Desplechin: It's funny you mention that because in previous films people have asked me why I like to show the family of the characters, which reminds me of how we used to joke around when I was 8 or 10 about how embarrassing it was when schoolmates met your family. It was always a shameful experience. Your friends would meet your mother or your father or your sister or your brother and they would have all these bad jokes about, "Your mother is like this or your father is like that." There's a shame in showing your family to friends because all the family's naked imperfections are revealed. You can't hide how ridiculous they are. When you're with your family, you can't pretend. Each time I work on a character, I'm curious to know things about his or her family. Suddenly the character can't bullshit me any longer. I know their mother. I know their father. They can't pretend they're such a hero or anything like that. In this film it was even more fun because the family was just so funny. Sometimes when people see that A Christmas Tale is so much about the family, they react to the film by asking me if I'm pro or anti-family; but, I can't say I'm either pro or anti-family. Families just happen. I don't think a thing about the rain; it's just raining. That we are each here today means we were both born and have a family—I don't think much about it—but, this particular family is funny. I've never felt that a family has to work or not work. Of course every family is dysfunctional. Friendships work because you work at them; but, families…?

Guillén: Exactly. Friendships are choices; the family, no choice. Essentially you need both. But let's talk about the families you create. In your last film Kings and Queen you had a father who hated his daughter; in A Christmas Tale you have a mother who hates her son. Is hatred a necessary feeling in the family dynamic? Why is that important for you to show?

Desplechin: The two families in the two films have quite different dynamics. I can see the contrasts and the similarities that you're setting up—the father's hatred in the one film; the mother's hatred in the other—there is a rhyme between the two films, or a resonance. The hatred of the father for his daughter in Kings and Queen had a flavor of King Lear. It was an incestuous kind of love. In that film, we never see his wife. We see the father and his two daughters. We never know his wife. There's not even a photo of her in his apartment. After all the years of living together, the love between Nora and her father became quite dangerous, which is similar to Lear's love for Cordelia. On the other hand, in A Christmas Tale the hatred of Junon [Catherine Deneuve] for Henri [Mathieu Amalric] is more of a political statement, which is that women are not obliged to love their kids. It's silly and reactionary to think otherwise. You can be a woman and you can happen to have kids but that does not mean at all that you are a mother.

Guillén: Well, that political statement was so charmingly portrayed by Deneuve that she won an award for it! [Laughter.] Which underscores an acknowledgement of its truth.

Desplechin: Some think the truth is that a mother should love her son or a father should love his daughter. It's written in Freud. Wrong! We've all experienced the reverse of that. I mean, c'mon. How many young boys who are only 2 or 3 years old are madly in love with their father and not at all with their mother? Which can be more frightening than the Oedipal fantasy: a boy who loves to be physically held by his father whereas he finds his mother's embrace strange. Or the absolute love a little girl can have for the body of her mother. It's almost sexual. It's something that people may not talk about but it's obvious in everyday experience. Little boys love their dads and little girls love their mothers.

I was also playing with the idea of genre. I wanted to make a French version of a Thanksgiving movie. Usually in a Thanksgiving movie, you're obliged to wait an hour and ten minutes, after which the mother will confess to her son while crying and sobbing, "I never loved you." I love that kind of movie—it's fun, it's popular—but, I think it's a loss of time. Why wait for such a long time? With this family, the Vuillard family, they confess this in the opening scene. They are terrible, brash and bold, saying the forbidden thing to start each scene. After that, you can see how life actually happens. And is it all that bad? No! If you start a conversation by saying, "I'm not that keen on you. I've never loved you. You were born too late and you couldn't save your brother. I don't feel anything for you"; after that, they will spend a good moment together because all the worse has been confessed at the beginning.

Guillén: Their relationship was completely intriguing and vivid. Your films are known for their stylistic density. J. Hoberman has written that in your films plot is frequently trumped by texture. And I'm aware that on the set of Kings and Queen you used Truffaut's maxim: "Every minute four ideas." A Christmas Tale is equally intriguing for its wealth of articulated ideas. For me they were like Pandoric boxes, which—when opened—released much unexpressed emotion. In other words, the ideas contained emotions, which once released—to use Hoberman's term—did texture and complicate the film. Michael Koresky has likewise written that the experience of your films is an "earned emotional catharsis." Can you speak to that dynamic between ideas—which you love—and emotions, which are so strong in your films?

Desplechin: That's a beautiful question. I guess what I'm calling "ideas" are very material. A close-up, not so much on a face, but on the props and details on the set: the white glass of milk in Hitchcock's famous movie, for example, with poison in it. That's an idea. It's not an object any longer. What does it mean? I don't know exactly. I'm not a philosopher. But you can feel that the shot is full of ideas. You can see that it's an idea. In Hitchcock's movies you have a lot of ideas like that. It can be a way of acting: laughing instead of crying; crying instead of laughing. It's complete. Yeah, I love that. So when I'm saying "ideas", I don't mean intellectual concepts; I mean practical, aesthetic emotions. It works if you have the absolute involvement of the actors in their characters. If there is a pure purpose and their performance is not just a game. They create the tension.

Chiara [Mastroianni] told me after shooting a scene that she was surprised when she saw how I had placed the camera on different things, inserting these details of objects, when she—as an actress—was giving her full strength to the emotions in her performance while I as the director was playing around with these different things at the same time. [Laughs.] I wasn't able to pick up every magical, scintillating moment that came through in her performance. I had to count on the fact that the actors were playing their roles to the max and then I would catch the various glints, glimpses, glimmers of emotion.

Guillén: Another way you texture and complicate your films is through cinematic citation. Here, as we're talking, you're already referencing Hitchcock and his use of objects. Kings and Queen definitely bore many traces of Hitchcock. Would you say that in A Christmas Tale you were more consciously informing the film with Bergman?

Desplechin: Yes. The main thing is that it's not a game. It's not a trick. It's more a goal, or an aim, a target, a direction. For me it was a wild rose. No complaints, always fighting, boyish girls. What is cinema if it is not action? You have to provoke actions in each scene. In the process of writing A Christmas Tale, the script appeared as a comparison between two films, which were released in the same year in France: one was Saraband and the other was The Royal Tenenbaums. The Wes Anderson film was quite desperate and full of anxiety and Saraband—though a brutal movie—is full of fun in an odd way. The suture of the two of them was so close to A Christmas Tale that I had to use them. Each time that I was afraid I was copycatting Wes Anderson, I would switch to Bergman and then when I became afraid of copying Bergman, I would go back to Wes Anderson. But c'mon. The feel of all three films is about a house with brash characters, an incestuous flavor, and desperation; but the goal is to have a good show that is full of energy.

Guillén: But in fairness to A Christmas Tale—even if you were using these two other films to navigate and rudder through your creative process—the film is distinctly, uniquely your own.

Desplechin: It's always such an anxiety.

Guillén: Another citation I found quite interesting was when the family was watching The Ten Commandments on the television. I've been in family get-togethers where we've watched The Ten Commandments, almost like we're narcoticizing ourselves. [Desplechin chuckles.] It's like we're trying to get away from the family by watching television.

Desplechin: I loved their deep concentration and how the sounds of the film run all throughout the house so that when Moses parts the Red Sea, you think the family might vanish.

Guillén: Can you speak to the references to Hitchcock's Vertigo throughout the film?

Desplechin: Vertigo is about a dead woman, a dead wife. I used it as a musical motif. Mathieu's character Henri had a wife and it's a fact that she died. He doesn't complain about it—he doesn't really even talk about it—but, he is clearly surviving the death of his wife. When Junon takes off it's because she doesn't know how to deal with her illness and the prospect of the transplant and she too is like a woman, a wife, who is going to die. So the musical theme moves from Henri's mourning to her husband Abel [Jean-Paul Roussillon]. She's not okay with the idea of making him a widow. It just worked. Plus, it was in this scene where she is shopping in the big mall with Faunia [Emmanuelle Devos], buying dresses, and saying mean butch lines, fun sexual stuff, but actually it's absolutely desperate because she's thinking, "I'm so old. It's the last year I will buy a new dress. Next year I will be dead, or too old, and it is finished. It's the last year because I am sick. I have this cancer." Faunia, on the other hand, is young. Both of them are pretending to be brash funny women but the scene is melancholic. Junon is thinking, "Abel will mourn me in one year because I will be dead. This is the last time I will be buying a dress and this dress that I'm looking at is not that nice. I would have preferred to find a really nice dress if it's going to be my last one." The Hitchcockian theme from Vertigo pronounced the melancholy.

Guillén: Yet another way you texture the film is through the use of cinematic devices such as the iris shots and montages; my favorite being the one of the heart locket spinning against Roubaix as a backdrop. Absolutely lovely and thrilling! Can you speak about where that came from? I know what I felt when that image came onto the screen but I can't quite articulate it. What were you hoping people would feel in that image?

Desplechin: That's what I'm calling an idea. I can't quite articulate it either. There's something childish about it, something about the lost adolescence of Elizabeth [Anne Consigny], perhaps Spatafora [Samir Guesmi] was Elizabeth's lover? Perhaps the locket doesn't mean the love of this boy for Elizabeth? Perhaps it just means the love Elizabeth feels for her mother? We don't know. It's just turning, like a game, like a merry-go-round. It's just a heart and it's moving. And at the end of the movie Elizabeth places the heart locket at the foot of her mother's bed while she's waiting, not knowing if she will come home. It's a game. That's why I call it an idea, precisely because I cannot articulate it, except through an image and editing.

Also, the heart carries over into the scene where Faunia is leaving the house and Paul [Emile Berling] is so clumsy in his adolescence, so embarrassed, and Faunia draws a small heart on his hand as a gift. It's like his first kiss. So you have the heart moving from Elizabeth to her son.

Guillén: And true to the theme of the film because—though there is so much bitterness in the Vuillard family and the threat of death—there is so much heart in the film. You've been quoted as saying that actors have taught you everything you know and with your preference for ensemble pieces, by now you must know quite a lot? What is the value of working with the same actors again and again?

Desplechin: I've said this a number of times, each time I'm very apprehensive about having to do that. I don't want to do something that has become trite and hackneyed because it's been done before. It's like making love, you know? The first time it's easy to make love and have it work and be impressive….

Guillén: Well, for some.

Desplechin: [Laughs.] But by the 30th time, it's a lot more difficult. When I approach Mathieu and Emmanuelle, or when I asked Catherine, I felt, "She saw me work on Kings and Queen. She will say, 'This guy, I know all his tricks.' I just have three tricks. It's miserable. It's pathetic." The first time working with an actor it's easy; I can show all three of my tricks. They either like them or not. The second time I have to find new tricks or a refreshing way of creating something else. It seems to me that I'm not trying to continue, or to dig the same path, which is something I do admire in the work of André Téchiné; it seems to me the two of them are still digging the same path but going deeper and deeper. They've worked on five films together. As a writer, I have to reinvent myself and reinvent my actors every time.

Guillén: But is such repeated reinvention possible for a true artist?—and I consider you a true artist—is not the truth more that each artist can only be who they are and create what they have within them to create? It's like the oak in the acorn. You become who you are. Each artist has their constellation of themes that they express. Your oeuvre becomes a process of having expressed, albeit in various ways, who you fundamentally are.

Desplechin: As a spectator, I do agree and share the same point of view. When I'm looking at the films by all the directors I do love, I see that. But in my job, I can't afford the illusion of a self. I'm just making a film. Sometimes I'm doing it because I'm trying to forget who I am, to dream the idea that I can be a new man, having no relationship with any of the previous films I have made, and that what I'm making is absolutely brand new. On A Christmas Tale it was difficult to feel that because I was using so many of the same actors I've worked with before and the plot was so close to plots I've used before, so I felt limited in a way. But when I'm making the film, I just hope—madly (and each time it's a failure)—that this film at last will be brand new and that Arnaud Desplechin didn't direct it. I have to have this solution to go on. There's a tension.

Guillén: Let's speak of Mathieu Amalric. Although it's been referenced by other journalists, I'm not sure anyone has specifically asked you if Mathieu is, for you, an acteur fétiche?

Desplechin: Oh, he's much more than that. He's a great actor.

Guillén: Of course; but, in your films, he isn't expressing your selfhood in any way? You're using him just as a great actor?

Desplechin: There's no doubt he's a great actor, a great artist, and I've no regrets about using him in that regard. But it's perhaps true that after three films or so there is something that we share that's typically French, maybe European, though I'd say French. It has something to do with the difficulty of portraying what a man is on the screen in the movies. Let's be honest, in French cinema there are 12 great French actresses who work all around the world who are well-known and universally well-regarded and who are precious to young girls in any country, in China, wherever. French actors? C'mon. I mean, it's boring, you know?

I remember Truffaut saying that he had gone too far with this character he had created with Jean-Pierre Léaud because French audiences like to see masculine actors for male parts. The French audience doesn't like to accept the fact that the man is broken, castrated, girlish, or wounded in any way. So many academics have noted that in the work of many American actors there is this feminine aspect of what it is to be a man, which is to be wounded. Therefore there is a difficulty it seems to me in France to invent good male heroes who—to my mind—are more complex like American actors. Both Mathieu and I share concerns about these representations. It's difficult to grow up in France at 11 or 12 where you don't want to become the adult men that you see in French movies. You don't know who you will become but you know for sure you can't relate to Jean Gabin. It's impossible. It's disgusting to be Jean Gabin.

Guillén: Really?! Is that true?? How fascinating.

Desplechin: Yeah. To be Paul Newman, yeah. When you're a young French girl of 11 you can want to be Catherine Denueve, or Jeanne Moreau, it's an aspiration to something which is higher than you; but, for a young French boy of 11? The only French actor I related to was Jean-Pierre Léaud because at least he was bizarre, which was something I could relate to. To try to invent figures, male heroes, that young boys can relate to is something that both of us, Mathieu and I, share a concern about.

Guillén: Is that shared concern that you want these male characters to possess an almost mythic humanity?

Desplechin: I guess so. That's something that was true also in the American classics. To become a great actor in the French classics, you had to accept that the camera would look at the girl first, and then at you afterwards. There is something bizarre between the camera and women that belongs just to cinema, which doesn't happen on the stage, it happens only on the screen. If you take a video camera and go into the street and film women, all of them, from girls to 50-year-olds, there is something that is complete, immediately you have something of use about what it is like to be a woman. With the male and film, it is not that fused. The male has to admit some feminine part.

Mathieu and I noticed that for the first time when we filmed My Sex Life. Mathieu was helping out with the direction, he was being an assistant to directors on other films, and I asked him to come help me out with the casting. He was to play a man in love with three women. When I gave him his lines the first time he acted for me, I was not feeling it. I was feeling it with the girls. But I felt the man was the main character in My Sex Life. But I didn't know this male character actually. I loved him because I loved his three wives. That's why I thought he was so interesting. I loved the fact that he loved three wives so differently from each other. It was a good character but I knew nothing about his soul. Mathieu was embarrassed for his vanity because he thought perhaps he was just there to give the lines to the several actresses we were working with but I told him it was a challenge for him to see if he could give something in his acting. That's when we realized that the right model position is to accept that the camera will film the girl first but if you're a good actor people will love you, they don't need to see your face. People go to movies to see a woman's face.

Guillén: If I'm understanding you correctly, you're talking about the long-argued equation of the camera with the masculine gaze and that—in order for a man to be looked at—he must be objectified like a woman and, as you say, reveal what is feminine about him. Or act in such a way as to retain his masculinity by serving the camera's gaze on the actress? Fascinating and problematic. It brings to mind José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia; have you seen that film?

Desplechin: No, I haven't seen this film.

Guillén: You must see it because it's very much about these themes you are discussing and there is specifically a wonderful scene where Guerín takes the camera into the streets of Strausbourg and films—as you say—a variety of women who all prove fascinating just for being women, whether young, old, beautiful, ugly, disfigured, whatever. They're all fascinating in their unique ways.

Desplechin: I could put it in a different way. As a woman, when you're filmed, something of your radiance glows. As a man, your ridiculousness shows. I could take one example from a film that I love, Rio Bravo. John Wayne is playing this man who's pretending he's a big shot but is so clumsy. There's this comic scene with the Mexican bartender where the guy has bought red sexy lingerie for his wife from the big city and is having them delivered to the sheriff's office because he doesn't want to be discovered. He's so happy that he's showing them off to John Wayne, placing them in front of John Wayne, just as a female is passing by and looks in to the sheriff's office. John Wayne's character is rendered ridiculous and this is what makes him such a moving hero because he is still brave even with the red panties. You can't pretend to be Greta Garbo, no, you have to accept being John Wayne with red panties, which is ridiculous and yet heroic in a way.

Guillén: Again, if I'm hearing you correctly, women have a natural incandescence in front of the camera and the problem for the male actor is how to maximize his relationship to that incandescence.

Desplechin: Yes.

Guillén: That being said, you have used Mathieu and Emmanuelle several times in your films and you have repeatedly kept them in relationship, which I find an interesting casting aesthetic. You could cast them so that they're not in relationship and yet you have maintained their partnership on-screen. What's that about?

Desplechin: It just works. I don't mean to go on too long about this, it just matters a lot to me, but, when I go to a movie and I want to learn something about my own incandescence—which does exist—I'm looking at the female character. And when I want to learn something about my pathetic foibles, I look at the male character. Do you see what I mean? Accepting that is something that is so great about the camera, which is deceptive in relationship to the world. When I want to learn about my own weaknesses, I am looking at Mathieu. As for the new couple that he and Emmanuelle invented for this film, their relationship is beautiful within the context of the ensemble of characters. They've never quite done this before. The fact that she is so polished and he is so brash and arrogant in front of his family and yet, alone with her, you can see that he is terrified that she will dump him at one point or another. He's behaving like he's five years old and Emmanuelle is the mother he never had, trying not to upset her, and I think that's so lovely. She, in turn, loves the power she can have over this brash man. They're a lovely couple.

Guillén: Surveying the rest of your ensemble, I absolutely adored the two little boys Baptiste and Basile. They give so much heart to your film. If you are, indeed, learning from your actors, what did you learn from those two little boys?

Desplechin: [A long pause.] It was tricky. Because they just look like nothing, they are common boys. It was difficult for them to give a good performance too. That's why I wanted these two boys because they are precisely common, they are not snobbish kids who love to act for the camera, they are just kids, period, they are plain. How can you play that? How can you play that you are absolutely common, lovely boys? Plus, there was a curious thing with the two of them because they are real brothers and there is a two-year age difference between them but they are exactly the same and you can't tell who is older. I needed that because Mathieu's character can't remember who is who—"Bastian?" "No, Baptiste!"—and so between the two of them, it's not so easy for the older because the younger is slightly taller and it's not so easy for the younger because the older is slightly more clever. That's why when they did the play, it worked because the older one was helping the younger one who couldn't exactly remember his lines; but, the younger one is like a little monster with a booming voice and has a charisma that the older doesn't have. There's a competition between them that's lovely.

Guillén: And to amplify what you were saying earlier, the eye is drawn to children like it is drawn to women. In their boyhood they have an incandescence that is lost in malehood. Which leads me to something I read where you were quoted as saying that in your mind you are 15 years old. Which, in turn, leads me to consider that frequently in your films you have adolescent characters—such as Paul in this film—who are emotionally troubled. In Paul's case he was even institutionalized because he was emotionally troubled. What are you trying to say about the young male who is so sensitive and in so much trouble?

Desplechin: That's a subject I have not talked about a lot. I certainly didn't have any idea that I wanted to impose upon the viewer; but, looking at young people—and there are many examples just looking around me—I have the impression that they allow themselves less latitude, less freedom, than I did, or than people did when I was young. Maybe they have been given less freedom than I was given when I was young? In a strange way, they almost express feelings of guilt. If I compare what's going on today with how it was for me when I was 12 or 13, to get to the movies we would hitchhike to the next town over. At 14, with a buddy I would hitchhike to the other side of France! Today that's just not done. Believe me, I'm a liberal guy, or at least claim to be, but I wouldn't allow my child to do that, no. Of course, it must have been dangerous even then when I was young; but, it seemed a part of our lives because life was dangerous, period. These days we protect youth in such a way that we take something away from them. The character of Paul came from this kind of feeling; the idea that he is overly protected, overly loved, which never allows him any room for his self. It becomes difficult just to be young, to be stupid, to be brash. Paul is restraining himself in a way that strikes me as quite contemporary, especially in France….

Guillén: I think that overprotective attitude towards youth has gone global.

Desplechin: Perhaps. Though I'm not so sure in Asia that attitude exists. When I look at Asian films, Chinese films, the youth seem more adventurous as when I was young. But, otherwise, yes, I agree it's perhaps global. Even with all my liberal principles, my so-called love for freedom, I would prefer to suppress the freedom of a young guy to make sure that he would be safe and, ironically, I was not raised like that. I lived a dangerous life and today I'm trying to protect kids from a dangerous life, which is actually stupid because life is dangerous anyhow.

Guillén: Perhaps it's a question of degree? Perhaps the dangers are different now than they were when we were young? I was the same way. I was a wild child in constant danger with a hyperimagination, hitchhiking back and forth across the United States, and I'm so glad I grew up that way. Now even as an adult I wouldn't dream of hitchhiking! Modern life has made me a scaredy-cat! [Laughter.] It's as if a fear has entered life in a way that was never there before. It's a mediated fear that has compromised a natural animal strength, especially in young people. That's why I find that theme so interesting in your films, which I think one reviewer has termed impedi menta: the psychological baggage that keeps people from functioning as they would wish.

You've had two films now where the hospital is something of a stage for comedy. I loved the scene in A Christmas Tale where Junon has checked into the hospital for her transplant and the nurse asks her, "Are you Junon Vuillard?" The timing of one or two beats combined with the disdainful look on her face is hilarious. Did you direct Catherine that way or is that something she pulled out of her performance?

Desplechin: I definitely directed it. This thing is kind of the joke behind the joke behind the joke. The fact that, yes, I tried to transform this marrow transplant into a kind of fairy tale, a fable, a tale, something magic; but, it's a process that's measured by much reality. There's a 6% chance of being killed by a marrow transplant, which means a hospital is legally obliged to cover their ass. Six years ago there would have been a police officer beside the nurse asking for a signature because injecting someone with bone marrow can be like injecting someone with poison. The hospital has to prove that you are who you say you are before the procedure because, otherwise, it will kill you. It's not a fairy tale. Junon doesn't understand at all this absurd legal ritual with the doctor handing the bone marrow to the nurse and the nurse asking her these necessary questions as if she's some kind of priest officiating over a marriage ceremony. Junon is thinking, "C'mon! Go faster!" It's funny because she's like a queen in a sordid situation. But it's very real.

Guillén: That's exactly right. I felt her reaction was encapsulated in disdainful regality. Well, Arnaud, we need to wrap up….

Desplechin: It's been a genuine pleasure.

Cross-published on Twitch.