Monday, December 29, 2008

FILM IN FOCUS—Behind the Blog

I was completely honored when Nick Dawson invited me to contribute to "Behind the Blog" at Film In Focus. To be in the company of Campaspe, our favorite Self-Styled Siren; Todd Brown, my editor at Twitch; Sujewa Ekanayake; The Cinetrix; Tom Sutpen; Andrew Grant; David Hudson; Matt Dentler; Brandon Harris; Karina Longworth; Matt Zoller Seitz; Kimberly Lindbergs; and Chuck Tryon is a confirming vote of confidence and means the world to me. We all dream of being included into a community and Film In Focus has just made my dream come true. Many many thanks! What a wonderful way to start 2009!

Along with their ongoing acknowledgment of the work of bloggers, Film In Focus—on the coat tails of the recent release of Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk—has likewise started a Bay-centric sidebar focusing on our favorite
Movie City: San Francisco. At this sidebar you will find articles on Milk, the Vertigo tour, San Francisco Noir, selections of favorite films by San Francisco film personalities, and an examination of one of San Francisco's most redeeming qualities—its gayness!

IN ROTATION—The Greencine Daily

Like the proverbial tourist in London, I feel compelled to snap a photo of the changing of the guard. As recently announced at The Greencine Daily, David Hudson is moving "onward" to IFC where he intends to continue posting "all the news that's fit to link". Though this is a great development that David's talent will achieve a new manifestation—and equally great news that Aaron Hillis will continue commandeering The Greencine Daily with consummate professionalism—I can't help but feel the press of time: onward and inward.

So I salute David Hudson at this important juncture. Out here in the ether it takes a particular genius to give shape to the shapeless and to form an embodied society out of so many disembodied voices, which is precisely what he has done. Through his skill set of critical overviews and aggregates, David has singlehandedly introduced a society of writers to each other and reminded us all that we are in this together. It's not enough to write solipsistically, each to our own keyboard and screen, particularly when the ideal we hold aloft is the communication of our responses to the art form called cinema. He has reminded us of the importance of cross-pollinating each others' work and that this begins with the reading of each others' writing.

He has also given credence to those of us who came out of nowhere, summoned by the democratization of online journalism. I remember when I let him know that I had started The Evening Class and how thrilled I was to be added to the Daily's blogroll. As a postscript to my previous entry regarding the practice of interviews, I likewise recall notifying David by email when I conducted my first interview and his enthusiastic encouragement. Speaking only for myself, David Hudson has helped me become the film writer I am today. Not only by the professional opportunities he has given me by optioning interviews for The Greencine Daily but by being a personal champion and a friend. Thank you, David, for what you have created these past five and a half years. I look forward to your growth at IFC.

LISTS 2008—My 10 Favorite Interviews

In 2008 I conducted nearly 60 interviews! Dependent upon which perspective you take, that's either borderline insanity or richness beyond measure. Contingent upon the time of day, day of the week or increment weather, I vacillate between these two perspectives. Yet, in gist, it has simply become my life and what, perhaps, truly needs to be kept in perspective is that these last few years of conversing with the talented creators of and participants in the world of cinema is merely a continuation of an ongoing lifelong journal project inspired by the diaries of Anaïs Nin.

In my late teens growing up in rural southern Idaho, I felt oddly isolated from my surroundings and vainly destined for something more. As fatefully as Henry Miller's visit to her country home—which ushered Nin's introduction to the artistic life of Paris in the 1930s—the diaries of Anaïs Nin ushered me into an imagined life. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to say her diaries were my sensual revelation. Early on I learned that life is for the making and that the sole purpose of the dream is to manifest itself in detail. Further, nowhere is that manifestation more acute than in the intrapsychic process that shapes and determines the interpersonal sphere. It might be more exact to say that—in my mid fifties—I have come to understand these are not interviews at all, but intraviews, by which I understand myself through understanding others. At certain phases of my life this process of social and self-discovery has been in turns literary, psychological, mythopoeic, archaeological, political and—most recently—spectacularly cinematic. The medium has shifted from private entries in handwritten diaries, to nurtured correspondence with authors (including Anaïs Nin, the muse herself), through seasons of symposiums rubbing shoulders with mentors in the fields of psychology, psychiatry and theology, through street activism, onto this most current manifestation of the one-on-one conversation whereby my creativity expresses its curiosity in the creativity of others.

I love each and every conversation I have been gifted to claim. In some sense, though 55 and frosted at the temples, I remain 16, writing by candlelight into a diary: "Someday I want to meet Anaïs Nin. Someday I want to meet Joseph Campbell. Someday I want to meet Linda Schele." The only difference is that now the diary is The Evening Class and I speak to myself with unerring confidence: "I met Pedro Costa. I met Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I met Catherine Breillat." Ultimately, from whichever perspective you choose—insanity or an embarrassment of riches—I hope these conversations remind and inspire those younger than me to enter the world, to question it, and to make the answers their own. As the field of film writing becomes more democratized, my wish in 2009 is that more and more young writers enter the field to enrichen and diversify it with their own perspectives, their own dreams. Afterall, harmony can only be achieved by more than one voice.

So because it's easier to sift my 10 favorite interviews from 60 than it is to choose 10 films from the hundreds I've seen this year, here's my year-end list.

For sweetness alone, and the sense of reaching back to peer into yesteryear, my conversation with Ann Carter-Newton—the child actress of Curse of the Cat People—was a thoroughly satisfying experience provided by Turner Classic Movies. I offered that interview as a contribution to the Val Lewton blogathon. My heartfelt thanks to Sarah Schmitz, Charlie Tabesh and Robert Osborne at TCM for their ongoing collaboration.

Meeting Pedro Costa during his Pacific Film Archive residency proved a rapturous examination of Costa's body of work and deepened my appreciation of his aesthetic philosophy. I'm grateful to Shelley Diekman and Susan Oxtoby of PFA for facilitating the opportunity and to Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily for optioning the piece.

Greencine likewise picked up my interview with provocateuse
Catherine Breillat who charmed me for being equal parts frail and fierce. Celebrating the critical success of Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress)—which opened this year's San Francisco International Film Festival—my thanks go out to Karen Larsen at Larsen Associates for setting me up to experience the wit and wild wisdom of Ms. Breillat. Who else could equate blood with rubies?

As a Chicano, I thoroughly enjoyed being a fanboy and speaking with Elizabeth Peña on the long-awaited release of How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer. Sonia Rosario, Vice President of Marketing at Maya Releasing, and Susan Steeno of L.A.'s GS Entertainment Marketing Group arranged for this homeboy's sueño to come true. Muchisimos gracias.

As for dreams coming true, shifting from a fanboy soliciting an autograph to a journalist sitting down to talk with genre-masher
Kiyoshi Kurosawa at the Toronto International Film Festival on the occasion of the North American premiere of Tokyo Sonata is right up there with my top five. Maybe one can't make a living writing about film but one can sure make a life at it!

Another complete pleasure—for being able to talk about dreams as much as film—was my conversation with
Charlie Kaufmann for Synecdoche, New York. Dispelling the mythos of his inaccessibility, Kaufmann was generous with his intelligence.

Arnaud Desplechin also impressed me with his friendly, down-to-earth manner and his considerable wit. It was an early gift underneath the tree to converse with him about A Christmas Tale. My thanks again to Karen Larsen at Larsen Associates.

For being nearly poetic in his maverick spirit,
Lance Hammer earned my respect with Ballast. My thanks to Susie Gerhard for optioning the interview for SF360.

With all bases loaded, author Matthew Kennedy scored a triple with my two-part interview with him (
here and here) on the publication of his biography of Joan Blondell and his commentary on Marie Dressler. Not only is Matthew fascinating, funny, and informative; but—as sometimes happens when one is lucky—he has become a good friend, living right over the hill on Bernal Heights.

Finally, as much as I enjoy talking with actors and directors and authors, 2008 confirmed one of my prime objectives here on The Evening Class: to profile the programmers who bring films to the Bay Area. Unsung heroes all, I group together Joel Shepard from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Konrad Steiner for Kino21 (here and here), Stephen Salmons for the San Francisco Silent Film Society (here and here), Steve Seid for Pacific Film Archives (here and here), Sean Uyehara for the San Francisco Film Society, and Michael Lumpkin for Frameline. I've gained tremendous insight into the machinations of film festival culture by conversing with these gentlemen. May they continue their fine work in 2009!

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Austrian director Götz Spielmann's Revanche was—for me—the unexpected discovery and delight of the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. Its tagline inquiry—"Whose fault is it if life doesn't go your way?"—was one I found difficult to readily answer. The film's unexpected narrative sponsored complicated emotions that I had to sit with for a while and which I couldn't fully articulate until I took another look at the film in preparation for its upcoming appearances at both the 2009 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival and the Rafael Film Center's "For Your Consideration" series. Bay Area audiences are fortunate to have two chances to catch this remarkable film; Austria's submission to the Foreign Language category for the 81st Academy Awards. If my experience is at all indicative, you might be grateful to have a double chance.

Initially I synopsized at Twitch that Revanche "starts as a slow burn, shifts from the urban to the rural, and becomes a psychological thriller of revenge held in abeyance. Negotiating by way of secrets, rage and grief are barely tempered. Violence smolders like sexuality beneath the skin and retribution is only one cruelty away." In retrospect, I can see that by "retribution" I was circumambulating around the film's titular double-entendre: Revanche means not only "revenge" but something like "a second chance."

In its opening sequence, the equanimity of a pastoral setting is shattered by the abrupt splash of something thrown into a placid lake. It made me jump in my seat on first viewing and established the tension for the rest of the film. Boyd van Hoeij—perhaps the first writer to comment on Revanche when he saw it at the 2008 Berlinale and dispatched to—identified the source of the splash as a stone; but, I think the permutated plot of the film more accurately reveals that—in a sense—it is the instrument and the incentive of revenge itself that has been thrown into the lake, disturbing the peace. If ever there has been an image of an action and its repercussions, it must be that of the concentric rings expanding from a source of disturbance on the calm surface of a lake. One could almost interpret the question—"Whose fault is it if life doesn't go your way?"—as being heavy enough to cause such a disturbance; heavy enough to sink like a stone. Revenge in essence becomes interpreted as a guilt that has not yet taken responsibility for the fact that—as physics attests—for every action, there's a reaction.

Ruggedly handsome ex-con Alex (Johannes Krisch) is a flunky errand boy for pimp Konecny (Hanno Pöschel) and Tamara (Irina Potapenko) is both a prostitute in Konecny's brothel and Alex's secret lover. Entwined in a forbidden love affair, both are determined to escape the Viennese brothel where they work. Alex comes up with what he believes to be a failsafe plan to rob a bank in a small town outside Vienna. But carrying out their plan proves fateful once a police officer walks into their lives.

"A meandering first half gives way to a spectacular psychological portrait of the deafening silence of pain and loneliness" writes Boyd van Hoeij at Even though Revanche is an Austrian film, van Hoeij astutely draws thematic associations with the loosely-defined Berlin School: "[T]he works themselves are austere, restrained and precise in locating complicated emotions. The directors often work with long takes that emphasize the visual over the verbal, while their stories focus on relatively straightforward protagonists who just try to deal with issues that come up in everyday life."

Shane Danielsen dispatched from the Berlinale to indieWIRE: "Revanche starts out in Ulrich Seidl territory, among a group of Russian and Ukrainian prostitutes, held prisoner in a Viennese brothel, but soon shifts gear, becoming something else entirely—first a doomed love story, then a drama of revenge and redemption, one whose stifling provincialism and inexorable sense of fate recalled nothing so much as Fassbinder's The Merchant of Four Seasons." At The Auteurs, Daniel Kasman comments: "[Revanche] shows just how successfully one can transpose the plot and character based drama of Hollywood to the refined style of European art-house cinema without hampering it with a sense [of] self-importance." Kasman further notes the film's careful elongation of genre conventions, which serves to give "a clichéd story room to breath, to settle down and admit its emotions, and to find its own tempo and tragedy on its own terms, in its own time."

Revanche's North American premiere at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival was mere days before its Toronto screening, but crucial in that Peter Becker—top executive for art film distributor Janus Films and the Criterion Collection—nabbed North American theatrical and home entertainment rights at Telluride. As reported by Michael Jones at Variety, Janus will be releasing Revanche theatrically come March 2009. Dispatching to Spoutblog from Telluride, Paul Moore found Revanche "far and away one of the most exciting new films playing." Moore reported: "Spielmann mentioned in the Q&A afterward that people don't feel at home in their skin when concentrating on what [they're] saying. So, he and the actors rehearsed until what they said was no longer important, then their bodies began to do the acting."

Come the Toronto International Film Festival, Darren Hughes at Long Pauses set aside formalist preoccupations to appreciate the film's narrative, which "particularly over the last 80 minutes" he found "perfectly constructed." He was "tense and curious for the entire length of the film" and "completely satisfied by its resolution." At, Robert Bell likewise extolled the film's narrative, stating: "Explorations of loneliness and the nature of happenstance are palliated by a surprisingly cohesive narrative that features realistic and often unnerving character interactions, as well as some performances that are nothing short of impressive. Much is asked of these actors, given that their characters are often unflattering, weak and entirely human, but earnestly they each step up to the challenge." Variety's Alissa Simon concurs: "In what's essentially a six-hander, the casting is aces." I can only agree that all performances in Revanche are first-rate. Johannes Krisch suffers in brooding anguish, taking refuge on his grandfather's farm under the pretext of cutting a woodpile of logs into winter firewood. "[W]hat the Dardennes did for the lumberyard, Spielmann has done for the wood pile," Darren Hughes quips. "The wood pile is enormous, creating a sisyphean task," Paul Moore writes. "What follows are long takes of Alex in a self-imposed labor camp, cutting log after log to regulate the overwhelming grief and violence wanting to come out of him." Alissa Simon adds that Alex "finds his gnawing despair leavened by the old man's simple work ethic."

When Alex discovers that his grandfather's neighbor Robert (Andreas Lust) is the police man who unwittingly but tragically foiled his bank robbery, he becomes obsessed with exacting revenge. Though it's frequently said that revenge is a dish best served cold, Spielmann intriguingly turns the adage on its ear by suggesting that life—not death—is the ultimate vengeance.

Cross-published on


It's been almost exactly a year since I caught Nic Balthazar's Ben X at the 2008 Palm Springs International Film Festival, where I transcribed his audience Q&A. Ben X has since been picked up by Film Movement for US distribution and I'm replicating that PSIFF08 Q&A transcript to time with the film's Bay Area theatrical run at Landmark's Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco [1572 California; (415) 267-4893], and Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley [2230 Shattuck Ave; (510) 464-5980], opening this weekend.

* * *
Ben X, Belgium's submission as Best Foreign Language Film for the 2008 Academy Awards, is about an autistic boy named Ben who retreats into the computer game fantasy world of Archlord to escape bullying. As indicated by the film's Wikipedia entry: "The film's title is a reference to the leet version of the Dutch phrase "(ik) ben niets", meaning "(I) am nothing".

The film won three awards at the 31st Montreal World Film Festival: the Grand Prix des Amériques, the Prix du Public for the most popular film, and the Ecumenical Jury Prize for its exploration of ethical and social values. Nic Balthazar accompanied Ben X to its PSIFF08 screening and responded to questions from his appreciative audience. Despite some logical inconsistencies, the film gains traction by being such a crowd pleaser. It's hard not to relate to a loner misfit tormented by bullies.

Balthazar, already a well-known film journalist and television personality in Belgium, was thoroughly charming in his enthusiasm for his first directorial feature. He had the audience eating out of his hand with his gregarious humor, an especially important skill when—as he puts it—he's the "human marketing machine" promoting his film. Being Belgium's entry in the Oscar nominations race has put a lot of pressure on him. He feels that he has to win this thing or he'll be banished from Belgium. "And it's such a small country," he laughed, "that you're easily banished."

I started out the questioning by noting that the film claims to be based upon true events and I asked if he could qualify which specific events?

Balthazar: Unfortunately, yes, the whole story of this film began with an article in the newspaper. It's these tales of ordinary horror that you read every day and unfortunately there the story was a lot sadder than we see in the hopeful ending in the film because it was the story of a 17-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome that committed suicide in my home town of Ghent. He threw himself off the medieval castle that we have there, and wrote in his last letter that he had been basically bullied to death. There was an interview with the mother that was so heartwrenching where she said, "There is nothing that anybody will ever be able to tell me that will offer me any consolation."

At that time they had asked me to write a book for young people who don't read—an immense audience because most of the young people don't read these days—and I said, "That's a perfect fit because I'm the author who doesn't write." So I started out making up a story with these same ingredients; a story that—if not consolation—would offer [some] comprehension for this family in mourning. So I didn't quite go to them and ask them about all the specific details.

Unfortunately this is a story that happens a lot with kids, be they autistic or not. One out of three kids is bullied and, unfortunately, the suicide numbers you hear in the film are actually authentic. One out of ten youngsters in Belgium has actually pursued the thought of suicide. This is, of course, staggering and I'm afraid the numbers stateside are not so much better.

So, yes, Ben X was inspired by true events. It was first a novel, Nothing Was All He Said was the title. There was an actor who came up to me and asked me to make a play out of it, a solo. He said, "I found this story and I really want to tell it to people. I want to go around with this story." I said, "That's great; but, the boy is autistic. These are not the people who go on stages and tell their stories." So we made this multimedia kind of play where he was on stage and the people behind him—as so often—tell the story as on television and this is still to be found in the screenplay and in the film.

Frako Loden followed suit by asking if the film would be shown in Japan where bullying and suicide rates are phenomenal?

Balthazar: Yes, and where Archlord the game, which is a South Korean game, is also immensely popular in Japan where this phenomenon of young people who withdraw in their rooms and in this fantasy world is also an incredible reality. The strange thing is that we thought Japan would be our prime target for international sales and they said, "Well, this is not an American film, this is a Belgian film and that will be so hard to market." Hence, the plans we already have for an American remake because I'm afraid also here autism, suicide, people living in the world of Warcraft—more than they live in their real social reality—are also givens.

A woman asked if there was a chance the film would be shown in schools where it might do some good?

Balthazar: We, of course, sure hope so and we have some offers for a DVD release. But you have to help us on the theatrical release because that's the way this game is played. It all depends on this Oscar game and it's a very strange game where we're up against so many other fabulous films but also fabulous marketing campaigns. I'm like the human marketing machine selling myself here and you are all I have to work with; but, we will work well together, I hope. It all depends on that really, whether we have a theatrical release or not, maybe unfortunately, but I'm sure we would try to make it also with this film.

A gentleman noted that the suicide rate among gay teenagers is much higher than among straights and culled out that in the film Ben is frequently called a "faggot." He asked if Balthazar thought homophobia had something to do with the way people reacted to Ben?

Balthazar: Absolutely. I wanted the autism to be a symbol, an allegory for all the people who are different and, hence, are often bullied to death, as you say. If people be autistic, or high achievers, low achievers, if they be Black or Gay or anything that makes them stand out and be different, this is also why it's the harsh realities of life—and I have obviously done quite a lot of research—the homophobia in schools and amongst teenagers is heartwrenching. One of the first insults will always be "faggot" and that's why we put it in the movie.

Balthazar was asked at what point he became involved in filmmaking and why?

I was on the other side really. I was one of these people they call film critics. I prefer to call myself a film journalist. Godard said a film critic is the one who shoots on his own regiment and I always felt that this wasn't the case with the true film critics I knew and admired and I tried to be because you belong more to the regiment than anything else. I hope to have shown that filmmakers and film critics are not so far apart as we tend to think. It's like—if you like good cooking and you go to good restaurants—you're bound to end up in your own kitchen at a certain moment and, well, courage is everything—the slogan of the film—the courage to try and open my own restaurant at a certain time and, of course, you must know that you are living my fantasy or part of it. Of course being a film critic and then making a film is quite dangerous. We screened the film for the first time at the Montreal Film Festival where my dream began because my dream was: "We're going to go to Montreal. We're going to be at the biggest film festival in North America. We're going to be in competition already and then we're going to win the festival and we're going to win the audience award and people are going to love us." We actually ended up winning the Montreal Film Festival and the audience award and that's how we came to be here where—thanks to you—we're going to be winning the audience award, I hope!

It is exciting times with this Oscar thing and this is the place where you can really meet an audience and you know that you do stand a chance because I'm in such awe for the people I contend with. It would also seem presumptuous to say, "I want to win also" but to heck with that, yeah, we need to win! And if we don't win, it's all right of course.

Another gentleman praised Greg Timmermans' strength in the leading role and asked if he was in the stage play and, if not, how long it took to find him for the movie?

Balthazar: Thank you for that question. It's the only sad story in the making of this film. The play, which ran 250 performances, was with another actor who was fabulous also and who was only 30 years old by the time he came to the 250th performance and said that maybe he was getting a little too old to play a teenager and, of course, in film it shows. He was a beautiful macho kind of guy and it was incredible how he played it on stage; but, you can imagine. Basically, it was like saying good-bye to your wife and having a divorce while you still love her very much and then going to look for a new wife. Bigamy! It's one of these casting stories of course and they're always wonderful and often true and this one is actually true. I said, "I need to find a new Ben. How do I do this?" A friend of mine had made one short film with this boy [Greg Timmermans] who came two years out of acting school, no film experience whatsoever except for that short film, which was a multimedia kind of thing. I put it in my computer and I said, "This guy is going to be Ben." I just knew! I called my producer and I said, "Hey listen, I'm so excited, I just found Ben! We can call off the auditions. I just found Ben!" He said, "You with your enthusiasm, it's great but it's annoying, man! We need to do auditions. You know this." I said, "Okay, we'll do auditions; but, you'll see. It's going to be him." And, of course, after all the auditions of many talented young actors in Belgium, we knew it was him and the reason is up on the screen. I am now officially a bigamist. I love two actors with all my heart.

A question about knowing how to time subtitles with the pace of the dialogue evolved into comments on the failure of language to serve the autistic.

Balthazar: People with autism have a very interesting way of dealing with language. They take language literally. For them, what you say is true. For example, one of the intriguing things is they cannot lie. It's difficult for them to conceive that there is something like irony, or symbols, whereas—with most of us—human communication is 30% the words and 70% c’est le ton qui fait la musique, as we say in French, "It's the tone that makes the music." They don't capture the tone. It's such an intriguing thing for me to suffer—if that's the word to use—in autism.

One audience member complimented the deft incorporation of the computer game into the structure of the film and asked how—while he was writing the script—Balthazar envisioned that whole story line? Specifically because it wasn't just a reference of a kid playing a game and his being a gamer, per se, but a folding of the fantasy world of the game into Ben's real world.

Balthazar: Thank you for that question because this is one of the things that I'm proud of. It was just one good idea. You sometimes have one good idea in one year and this was a good idea. We live in Belgium, which is as small as the Palm Springs desert, I think. We don't have the budgets they have in Hollywood. Mr. Spielberg would have just called Pixar and said, "Hey guys, I need this video game." We just basically went the other way around. Archlord is a real existing game, as I said, it's a South Korean game. Online these things are called
MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), which means all these people are actually connected like in the world of Warcraft or Second Life; you probably know that. People are actually with their avatars in this virtual space.

What we did was—instead of having people make this game—we just went inside of this game, so to speak, and filmed there. I had four gamers sitting around the table and one was playing Ben and one was playing Scarlite and the others played the monsters. It's your wet dream as a director because I was the camera. With my mouse I could do these fantastic camera movements that go up and down and normally you would need a crane, etc. But that's what's so fantastic about cyberspace: it never rains, your actors are for free, they do whatever you want, whatever you tell them, they don't need a trailer or anything. You can basically organize anything. You can do a Woody Allen comedy inside Second Life for example; you could do it. This is called in the world of these boys—girls also, but it's mainly boys—who play all the time, it's called "machinimas". They take their monsters and have them to do flips and sing "YMCA" or silly stuff like that. I just thought, "Hey, what if I use that to enhance the production value of my film?" Because this was a film that was made in 25 days. 25 days is what they use to do one car chase in The Bourne Ultimatum. That's the way it was done but the brilliant thing was that we struck the deal with the Korean firm three days before shooting. That was pretty stressful. Now, this game Archlord in the Benelux has gone up 600% and they, of course, were a huge gift for us. I love their artwork and the way then that we tried to make the colors go towards each other. I had a brilliant editor and we basically did the rest.

BERLIN & BEYOND 2009—Michael Hawley Previews the Line-up

The 14th edition of Berlin & Beyond (B&B), the Bay Area's annual week-long festival of new films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, will take place at the Castro Theater from January 15 to 21, 2009. I walked into the festival's press conference hoping to find three particular films in the line-up—Christian Petzold's Jerichow, Götz Spielmann's Revanche and Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex. I'm happy to say that two of my three wishes came true.

The one that didn't, The Baader Meinhof Complex, seemed like such an obvious choice for this year's B&B. It's Germany's 2008 Oscar submission and was just nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Foreign Language Film. Festival Director Ingrid Eggers explained that B&B tried hard to secure the film, but regrettably couldn't make it happen. The movie depicts the 1960s/1970s German terrorist group RAF (Red Army Faction), and Eggers assures us it will arrive in the Bay Area later this year.

Nonetheless, there's a lot of great stuff in this year's line-up. Director Christian Petzold makes his fifth B&B appearance with Jerichow, which garnered great reviews at this year's Venice Film Festival. The film stars Petzold regulars Nina Hoss and Benno Fürmann, and shares a plot with The Postman Always Rings Twice. Revanche is Austria's Oscar entry for this year's Best Foreign Language Film, and tells the tale of a Ukrainian prostitute, her boyfriend and the aftermath of a bank robbery gone horribly wrong. Friends who saw it at Toronto came back raving. Speaking of Oscar submissions, Switzerland's 2008 entry The Friend, will also screen at B&B. The film's director Micha Lewinsky, has also won the festival's MK Award for Best First Feature, which carries a $5,000 cash prize.

The big name at this year's B&B is Wim Wenders, who will receive the Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing. Wenders will appear at the Castro Theater in conversation with German film scholar Gerd Gemünden, following the U.S. premiere of his latest film Palermo Shooting. The version that will screen at B&B is about 20 minutes shorter than the original Cannes edit, which received possibly the worst reviews of any film in this year's competition. We were shown this new version after the B&B press conference, and I'll be writing about it later. As part of its tribute to Wenders, the festival will also show a new 35mm print of the director's 1976 New German Cinema classic, Kings of the Road, as well as a new documentary, One Who Sets Forth: Wim Wenders' Early Years.

The festival's Opening Night feature is
Cherry Blossoms, Doris Dorrie's latest film—and her sixth to appear at B&B. It's a bit of an odd choice considering it just screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October. The Closing Night feature is the stylized quasi-musical rom-com Melodies of Spring.

Five other narrative features have caught my attention. Cloud 9 caused quite a (positive) stir when it screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard, and was frequently referenced as the "old people having sex" movie. The Wave recreates a classroom experiment in autocracy and fascism that took place in a 1967 Palo Alto high school. Ron Jones, the local teacher on whose social experiment the film is based, will appear at the screening. Evet, I Do! is a comedy about four couples in pre-wedding turmoil, whose common link is the same bridal shop clearance sale. It appears this may be the only B&B narrative feature of LGBT interest. The setting for The Invention of Curried Sausage is Hamburg near the end of WWII. Based on a well-known novel, the film stars the always superb Barbara Sukowa and recounts a May-December romance. Finally, Come In and Burn Out concerns three young people caught in the hamster-wheel existence of call-center work.

One of the highlights this year is sure to be a special presentation titled Hollywood Speaks German. When sound film arrived in Hollywood, so did the problem of how to export films abroad. During the silent era, movies were simply given new intertitles to overcome language barriers. In the early sound era, however, dubbing was still an insurmountable technological challenge, so films were shot in several languages. This program features clips from 14 German-language Hollywood films from 1930-31 (including Anna Christie and The Lauren & Hardy Murder Case) and will be followed by a Q&A with film historian Russell Merritt. Conversely, this year's B&B Film Classic screening will be Josef von Sternberg's 1930 Marlene Dietrich/Emil Jennings-starring The Blue Angel—only it'll be the rare, German-made English-language version.

There are several documentary features in the festival, and the one I'm most excited about is Football Under Cover. The film documents a 2006 Teheran women-only soccer match (both on the field and in the stands) between Iran's national women's team and a local Berlin team. Football Under Cover won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary and the Audience Award at this year's Berlin Film Festival. I'm also intrigued by La Paloma—Longing Worldwide, which examines the immensely popular song (even Elvis sang it in Blue Hawaii) that was composed in the Basque country in the 1860s. Director Sigrid Faltin travels the world and discovers that although the melody remains the same, the lyrics have been continually adapted to suit nationality and culture. Lastly, Bird's Nest looks at the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, who designed the Beijing Olympic stadium. I reviewed the film earlier when it screened at this year's SF DocFest.

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film-415 and Twitch.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

THE WRESTLERThe Evening Class Interview With Darren Aronofsky

My interview with Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler proved something of a benchmark because Aronofsky claims the honor of being the first director I've interviewed twice, indicating—I guess—that I have lasted long enough to achieve such a benchmark and that I might stick around for a while to keep conversing with the makers and shapers of my favorite films. The Wrestler was indeed one of my favorite films of 2008. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice International, and has been nominated for three Golden Globes: Mickey Rourke for Best Actor, Marisa Tomei for Best Supporting Actress, and Bruce Springsteen for Best Original Song. The San Francisco Film Critics Circle likewise awarded Rourke Best Actor (in a tie with Sean Penn for Milk). We met in Aronofsky's suite at the Ritz Carlton to discuss the film that has almost singlehandedly resuscitated Mickey Rourke's career. Limping from a rock climbing accident outside of Phoenix, Aronofsky was otherwise in great spirits.

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Michael Guillén: Where to start? I guess we need to start with Mickey Rourke's performance, which is not only great but tempered by sheer grace. You don't often see an actor so emotionally naked. Can you talk about casting him and steering him to that performance?

Darren Aronofsky: Well, it was a very hard role to cast, as you can imagine. Now, in retrospect, it's completely obvious when things match up, as they often do; but, it was a very long path. I can't actually remember the light bulb moment. I do know that I was a big fan since I saw him in Angel Heart. I was 18, backpacking around Europe, and in Paris where I went in to see the film and it just blew me away. Since then I've been a big fan. Then like everyone else I've been wondering, "What happened?" It made me sad that he had turned into this joke. But I was always interested whenever he showed up. When the role came up and we started thinking about names, it was hard because—not only did I need someone who was emotionally surprising, original, and had enough depth to do everything: the humor as well as the tragedy—I needed someone who could do the physicality. I remember being originally concerned about the physicality because normally he's about 190. He's a big guy but he's not huge like a wrestler so I was wondering if he could do it. It turns out Mickey's dad Philip Andre Rourke, Sr. was a Mr. New York, a body builder back in the days, so Mickey grew up within the bodybuilding culture. So he was excited to do this. It ended up being six months of lifting to put on 35 pounds of muscle.

The thing with Mickey is that he's lazy. I think that's because he's one of those kids in school that could just coast through without doing any work, getting B+s and driving you crazy. That's Mickey! He could easily put up his feet in any movie and I think that's what he often does—he just coasts through—so my major job became to challenge him and dare him to do better and to do his best work. Working with him became about pushing him to go deeper and deeper because he's got an infinite well of possibility that he can summon up.

Guillén: How does it feel for you knowing that you have revived his career through giving him this opportunity?

Aronofsky: It's great! I kind of had that experience with Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For A Dream—not that I really revived her career; but, the role opened her up to new opportunities—it's a great thing to do. It's a fun exercise to find these unused talents. It's also exciting to find out how many closeted Mickey Rourke fans there are. That's been way beyond my expectations because, literally, just three months ago he was a joke. He'll say it himself. He called me a week after we won the Golden Lion in Venice and said, "What have you done? A week ago I couldn't get a ham sandwich; now there's paparazzi outside my door!" So it's been great to see all these different people who remember how great he once was and excited to see him do good work again.

Guillén: His performance in The Wrestler aligns with a true comeback mythos.

Aronofsky: He's been trying to "comeback" for a while, doing the jobs he's been doing for the last eight-nine years or so; but, I think he's finally found his groove. He's got a team around him that's supportive. The other day it was emotional, I was in Miami and Mickey sent his sister to the screening—who I had never met—and she came up to me afterwards and said, "Thank you for giving my brother his life back." My Mom lives down in South Florida and she was at the screening too, overheard Mickey's sister, and started crying. I almost started crying too. It was very emotional. I don't think I gave Mickey his life back—ultimately Mickey did the work to get there—but, I helped. I gave him a shot. But it was hard, I'll tell you. Every single financier on the planet—except for the one who paid for the film, and paid much too little for it—said no and the reason they said no was for one reason: because of Mickey. Period. I've said this to Mickey. It's not offensive to him. But every single investor said, "Mickey Rourke can't be sympathetic. He can't hold the picture." I was like, "You're wrong." [Laughs.] So we just kept at it and it took us a year and a half until we found someone who was crazy enough in that finance world to take a risk.

Guillén: Can you talk about where the story came from?

Aronofsky: It was an idea first and the idea was to do something set in the wrestling world because in the observation that (a) no one has done it and (b) the more I looked into it, the more I realized that it wasn't just a joke. When you meet wrestlers who used to sell out stadiums of 50,000 people who are now working for $200 a night, there's something dramatic there right away. I met a lot of these legends who I knew as a kid who were completely accessible and beaten down. It was a long trip. When I first started thinking about doing a wrestling picture, I thought it would be about a wrestler in their late twenties, early thirties, but then it quickly became clear that approach would mean they would be in the
WWE and getting the creative freedom we needed to work in that arena probably wouldn't happen. Then we thought about making a period piece before Vince McMahon organized all the different territories that used to be fractured and brought them all together; but, then we realized we were low budget and couldn't afford that. Then I started going to these independent shows because I knew I could get into that world—it wasn't controlled or anything—and that's where I started to see these legends and that triggered the realization: "Something dramatic is going on here. What's the story?" I started talking to those guys and hearing their stories and, unfortunately, the more I talked to them, the more I detected these similar threads in their lives, of these guys who were on the road for 350 days of the year back in their glory days, who basically just left shambles of their home life in exchange for fame. Basically they were left out as trash once they got past whatever prime is defined by mainstream wrestling. So we put the story together brick by brick.

Guillén: Returning to your casting, clearly Mickey is great, clearly Marisa is great, but I was equally impressed with all of the small roles in the film. I was really taken by your use of Bryan Anderson.

Aronofsky: Who's Bryan Anderson?

Guillén: Bryan Anderson is the fellow who offers his prosthetic leg to Randy the Ram.

Aronofsky: Oh, the kid, yes. How did you know his name?

Guillén: I'd read articles about his rehabilitation from the Iraq War in Esquire Magazine and his dreams of being a stunt man and I was so impressed that you used him in the film.

Aronofsky: I didn't cast him actually. Douglas Crosby, the stunt man brought him in. The stunt man's an amazing guy who likes to give opportunities to kids that have gotten the short end of the stick, like Bryan. Bryan and Doug were like, "Hey, instead of using the folding chair, why don't you use my leg?" I asked, "Is it going to break?" Bryan answered, "Well, it's made out of this space age material that you can't crack. You can hit it as hard as you want and it won't break." So I went, "Mickey, what do you think?" and Mickey said, "Yeah, let's go for it." The crowd came alive chanting, "Use his leg! Use his leg!" It was just great. We realized right then that it made Randy the Ram a people's hero. But it was almost improvised. I mean, we had discussed it before we started shooting but we basically didn't know what was going to happen with that crowd until it happened; it came alive.

Guillén: And also Todd Barry, the stand-up comic.

Aronofsky: Todd's great! I'm an old fan. I'm a little bit in that scene. I knew a lot of those comedians in the underground New York scene. I always want to use them. Also, the writer
Rob Siegel was the editor of The Onion for seven years and also knows a lot of those guys so he said, "Hey, let's write something for Todd." We wrote that role especially for Todd.

Guillén: You alluded when you were talking about writing the script that you knew some of these wrestling legends. Were you a lifelong wrestling fan? Were you a high school wrestler?

Aronofsky: No, no, no. I'm not really a big wrestling fan. I think a lot of guys my age had an eight-month love affair with the sport, y'know? Probably mine was that long, if not shorter. It was before Hulkamania so it was before it became such a cultural phenomena. When I was watching, it was more like something on local TV. But the film doesn't come out of that. It comes out of the fact that wrestling is such a cultural phenomenon but no one has ever dealt with it in a serious way. It just hasn't been, which is strange; but, I think it's because most people think it's a joke. They think it's fake so they think it's a joke and write it off. But the reality is, you look at these guys and they're all dropping dead at 30, 40 years old and the question is "Why?" Where is this drama coming from? The Wrestler is just the tip of the iceberg of the stories that are in this world. I don't know if you know about
the Von Erichs? It's an amazing story about three brothers from a wrestling dynasty that all died.

Guillén: I mentioned to Marisa when I was talking with her that I appreciated how you psychologize physicality in your films. You could have had a lot of mimicry and posturing going on to simulate the wrestling world; but, instead, you've created characters that audiences truly care for. I'm also intrigued with the parallel structure you set up narratively between the lives (and bodies) of Randy the Ram and Cassidy. Can you talk a bit about how you set up that parallel narrative structure?

Aronofsky: It just sort of came out in the development process. We just stumbled on it. The reason we originally came up with the idea of the stripper was because in reality when these wrestlers are done wrestling that's what they do. They go to the strip club. Then the more we looked at the life of a stripper, we realized they too have this line between fantasy and reality. Their jobs take them into a world of eroticism, which is similar to the world of super-heroism that Mickey's character enters. They both go into this fantasy world where they dress up wearing almost nothing; they both have fake names; they both wear spandex; they both use their bodies as their art; and they're both endangered by time and aging. Eventually they're both threatened to be put out to pasture as they get older. So that parallel structure you're noting emerged as we kept developing the characters.

Guillén: And you seem to have a thematic preoccupation with redemption from ruin. What's that about?

Aronofsky: Right, redemption from ruin. There's no redemption in Requiem of a Dream. [Laughs.] It's just ruin. I don't know where it comes from. I don't see a shrink….

Guillén: You make films instead?

Aronofsky: Yeah, that's my way to tap it. I don't know where it comes from.

Guillén: Can we talk about how you put together the sound track? It's all great but my favorite is "Sweet Child o' Mine", which parallels between Randy the Ram and Axl Rose.

Aronofsky: That's true too. Mickey and Axl actually happen to be great old friends. Surprise surprise! It was a lot of fun. The writer Rob Siegel has a lot of skills and one of his skills happens to be an incredible knowledge of music, including "hair music." In the script he wrote in all these songs that were funny but they often were big hits that we couldn't afford. So then we went to the next tier of hair music, which actually made it somehow more authentic, because those smaller hits of random bands, one hit wonders, have an even cheesier feel to them because they never crossed over. It was a lot of fun for me educating myself on hair music because I knew none of it. I really got into it. I listened to a lot of it. It was fun listening to the lyrics. Basically I discovered that every lyric of every hair music could fit anywhere in the film. The Randy the Ram story is sort of a hair music song. The story of Randy the Ram is totally about, "I'm going to do it for the money. Forget my other life, I'm on the road." Those are all the themes that are there so it was the perfect music for the film.

With "Sweet Child o' Mine", what happened was we were doing the scene in the bar. Mickey was miserable because he hates hair music. He loves Guns and Roses but he hates a lot of hair music. I was like, "Mickey, these are the only songs we can use." There were like three or four songs that we could afford because it costs more money if the actors sing along. I told him, "These are the only three or four songs that we can afford. You have to choose one." He kept putting it off and putting it off and putting it off. He said, "Why can't we get 'Sweet Child o' Mine'?" I was like, "Go ahead, get in touch with Axl and try; but, the last time Axl gave a song to which anyone could sing along, it cost a million and a half dollars." So as the day got closer and closer, it became a possibility because Mickey kept bothering Axl and begging Axl, "Please, let me have it." But you know you have to get the sign-off from everyone in Guns and Roses. But Mickey's friends with all of them, he knows all of them. The day for shooting comes and we don't have the rights. Mickey said, "Just shoot it. I'll get you the rights." I said, "I can't, man. We'll just have to do 'Round the Round.' " So I got him to do "Round the Round." We got halfway through the day and then Axl called and said, "You can have 'Sweet Child o' Mine'." I was like, "Oh gosh, should we go tell Mickey that we got the song? Or just keep going because we can't reshoot?" Because we were on such a low budget that we couldn't go back and reshoot. Axl ended up calling Mickey and telling Mickey and Mickey agreed with me in the end that any of us, anyone, when "Sweet Child o' Mine" comes on could sing along with "Sweet Child o' Mine." It makes them more of a very unique subset that they're both singing to "Round the Round." In the end, creatively, I liked it the best; but, now that we had the rights to "Sweet Child o' Mine", I was like, "Oh great, we'll use it for the final entrance because it's such an important song for us on the film." Mickey used to come out to that when he was a boxer. Whenever he'd do anything athletic in the film, he'd be like, "Put up 'Sweet Child o' Mine' " and we'd blast it so that he was all pumped up when he did his move. For the crew it became our anthem and having it in the film was just a great thing that Axl added. That's why he has that thank you in the end. It's a long story.

Guillén: But a great one! Was it through Mickey also that you secured Bruce Springsteen?

Aronofsky: Yeah, yeah. I had nothing to do with that either. The Boss basically told me that he was doing it because he wanted to help Mickey and he's been hoping Mickey would get an opportunity like this. It turns out he's a big fan of Mickey's. He wanted to help us and he gave us the song for nothing.

Guillén: What I admire in your direction of Mickey is that you got him to offer something different. He's much more restrained and emotionally authentic in his portrayal of Randy the Ram, and not as much a hip poseur as he has been in other films.

Aronofsky: That was a big thing. Probably my greatest conflict with Mickey on this film was the fact that Mickey Rourke doesn't wear any sunglasses through the entire film. [Laughs.] Every day he brought a new pair of sunglasses to the set and I was like, "Mickey, no sunglasses today. People are paying money to look into your eyes. They don't want to look at your face behind mirrored glasses. They want to look into your eyes. That's the gateway. You gotta let 'em in." The thing about Mickey is he's got all this armor on and he's a big guy; but, he's really jelly inside, he's really soft and tender, and that's why he's always wearing sunglasses, is to hide that. He's afraid of the world. He's very afraid.

Guillén: Which really came into play in his scene with Evan Rachel Wood.

Aronofsky: We haven't talked about Evan.

Guillén: I love Evan. She's one of my favorite young actresses. I've loved her since TV.

Aronofsky: What TV show was she on?

Guillén: The role I remember her in was as 12-year-old Jessie Sammler in Once and Again, which I watched religiously for the three or four years it was on.

Aronofsky: She's incredibly talented.

Guillén: How did you pull her into the film?

Aronofsky: It turned out she was a big fan of Requiem. So it was easy to cast her. When they're big fans of Requiem…. She was incredibly well-prepared. It's been great to watch her kick butt. Her up side is infinite as to what she can do if she wants to. She's like a young Meryl Streep. You have no idea what she's going to do. She just turned 21 in Toronto when we screened the film there. She's going to have a big career, if she wants it, if she takes it, if she does it. She can do anything she wants.

Guillén: Speaking of Toronto—where The Wrestler was one of the most difficult press screenings to get into for being so popular—have you been surprised at all by the film's reception?

Aronofsky: I was talking about this last night. We finished The Wrestler two days before the Venice Film Festival; two days before winning the Golden Lion. We finished on a Wednesday, I got to Venice on Thursday, Friday we had our premiere, Saturday they told us we had to stick around for some reason and then we won the Golden Lion. Sunday we left at 5:00AM and sold it that night to Fox Searchlight. So it's been such a roller coaster ride. It's been a lot of lessons. One lesson is—that to make a good film—all you need is an honest performance. Another lesson is you can never ever ever tell. You don't know what's going to come out. It was a hard thing to stick with my gut to go with Mickey because there were a lot of chances to make a lot more money in other situations with other actors; but, it came down to following my instinct. That's my big lesson: if you know it in your gut, you have to follow it.

Guillén: Was it your instinct that led you to scale down from The Fountain to this almost documentary-like feature?

Aronofsky: No, that was Mickey Rourke. There was no money to do it any other way. We just had to move, move, move. It was the only way to do it. I look at these films like—well, I'm not worthy to be compared to Raging Bull, though comparisons have been made—but, if you look at that film, it's just an incredible movie. I don't know if there's a way to make films like that anymore. Every now and then something like There Will Be Blood gets made, a director's given enough time and resources to get through it, but it's really hard when you only have 35 days to make anything as classic as Raging Bull. The Wrestler became about seizing the grunge and our limitations and turning them into our strength. It would be great to have the time and the resources to make a movie the way they used to. Things have gotten so expensive. Something like Raging Bull in today's world would be $60-70,000,000 and to sell it would be another $30,000,000. Raging Bull would be a $100,000,000 movie in today's world.

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