Tuesday, March 31, 2009

SFIFF52—The Late Show (Thrills & Chills From Around the World)

Now that the lineup for the 52nd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF52) has been officially announced, it's time to take a look at what's being brought to the Bay Area this year. The festival—which Executive Director Graham Leggat describes as "a vibrant portrait of contemporary society as it's coming into being"—boasts 151 films from 55 countries. In recent years, one of the festival's most popular sidebars has been "The Late Show" programmed by San Francisco Film Society programmer Rod Armstrong who looks forward to chilling his constituency with a slate of four thrilling late show films that feature a mysteriously hungry infant, a set of hyper-attentive parents, stoner janitors and a darkly comic noir. As Armstrong quips in the press release: "This year's Late Shows—a quartet of adventurous films worth staying up late for—demonstrate the perils of heat-generating cookies, child bearing, cottages deep in the woods, 1960s Bulgaria and much more."

The Late Show quartet offers Yim Phil-Sung's disruptive fairytale riff
Hansel and Gretel (South Korea 2008); a noirish view into totalitarian machinations in Zift (Bulgaria 2008); the disturbing appetite of Grace (USA 2008); and a group of pregnant male stoners in The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (USA 2009). Hansel and Gretel is seeing its U.S. premiere and the other three titles their West Coast premieres at this year's San Francisco International.

Hansel and Gretel is an unsettling cautionary tale about what happens when kids get everything they want. With eye-popping art direction, a trio of terrific child actors and a passel of unsettling moments, this Grimm fairytale twist offers a chilling commentary on childrens' expectations of their parents and vice versa. Twitch teammate X describes Hansel and Gretel as "insanely beautiful" and offers a compelling analysis of the hazardous shift from child actor to adult career, generally inflected through Korean cinema and specifically noted in Sim Eun-Kyung's performance in Hansel and Gretel. X writes: "There will be people who will see Hansel and Gretel as a horror film, maybe a fantasy, but obsessing over genre tropes is not going to make them understand where this boat is heading to. This, first and foremost, is a drama about kids' demons, and their relationship with adults. Sure, it's bizarre, deliriously creative, and joyously grotesque; but at the core is a certain humanity, which eventually emerges and envelopes the story. It's like an old school fairy tale, complete with all the cruel bits." X observes that—though Yim's starting point is the Grimm Brothers' classic—he added one simple detail: "what if Hansel and Gretel couldn't escape from that forest, if they were trapped by their own imagination, dreams and fears?"

At Fangoria magazine, Calum Waddell rated Hansel and Gretel with "four skulls" but expressed concern that the film's "overall subtlety" and "oddly quaint" atmosphere might not work for audiences accustomed to "spilled blood and innards." In my opinion, that's a shining endorsement. Waddell concludes: "Staying true to the tone of the Brothers Grimm, this is an invigorating, and visually ravishing, rollercoaster ride that—even at two hours—never wears out its welcome." At Variety, Rob Nelson proclaims that Hansel and Gretel "puts the grim in Grimm" with its "mix of horror, humor and surreality" and—though it doesn't bother being faithful to the titular fairy tale—"its nerve-jangling narrative of three kids left in a weird old house without proper guidance has dark magic to spare." Nelson concludes: "Flesh-ripping telekinesis, a blue-eyed Santa, an evil deacon, a freaky forest of moving trees and a Danny Elfman-esque string-and-choir score are just a few elements that make Yim's film translatable worldwide." Further, David Bordwell—the dean of film criticism—relays Yim Phil-Sung's acknowledgment that Hansel and Gretel was informed and influenced by Joe Dante's episode of the Twilight Zone film, as well as Night of the Hunter. Bordwell enthusiastically concludes: "Brisk, fast-paced, and boasting remarkable sets—dazzlingly lit, jammed with toys and sweets, and ineradicably sinister—Hansel and Gretel could earn cult following in America." Along with its two screenings at the festival proper, Hansel and Gretel will also have an encore screening at the Roxie Film Center in anticipatory celebration of the Roxie's 100-year anniversary.

Rod Armstrong writes that Zift is "an unforgettable narrative about fate, freedom and various societal notions of justice." Using a framework of film noir, exquisite black-and-white cinematography and rapid-fire dialogue, Javor Gardev's immensely energetic cinematic debut depicts the story of an ex-con named Moth in his first night after release from prison. Zift had its North American premiere in the Discovery Program of the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, following its Silver George for Best Director at the Moscow International Film Festival. As synopized then, The Moth is freed on parole after spending time in prison on wrongful conviction of murder. Jailed shortly before the Bulgarian communist coup of 1944, he now finds himself in a new and alien world—the totalitarian Sofia of the 60s. His first night of freedom draws the map of a diabolical city full of decaying neighborhoods, gloomy streets and a bizarre parade of characters. "Zift isn't exactly a victory," J. Robert Parks writes at Daily Plastic, "but I found it to be a lot of fun." Parks praises cinematographer Emil Christov's creation of "a fantastic mood with his sleek black-and-white widescreen photography and sharp angles. And what can you say about a movie in which a truly erotic sex scene is intercut with footage of a female praying mantis devouring her copulating mate? Misogynistic? Maybe, but I was smirking too much to notice." Twitch teammate Todd Brown noted that Zift's trailer "opens with one of the most politically incorrect tattoos ever dreamt up…." I'll let you decide for yourself.

The Late Show continues on the second weekend of SFIFF with the West Coast premiere of Paul Solet's debut feature Grace, a shocking story of maternal desperation in which a new mother wills her stillborn child to life and is resolved to attend to its every need, including its disturbing cravings for "special food." At Cinematical, Eric Snider reviewed Grace at Sundance and affirmed it's "at least as effed-up as you'd expect." Snider notes that Solet, "having mastered the art of intense silence and tight close-ups, knows how to be subtle when subtlety is called for. He also knows how (and when) to let the blood flow—and my heavens, does the blood ever flow in Grace. People bleed from terrible places, and for terrible reasons, and Solet does not shy away from it. The childbirth scene alone is horrific, the unnerving music and editing adding to the ghastliness of what's on the screen. I would be suspicious of any person who watches the entire film without cringing." Notwithstanding, Snider found Solet's screenplay to be "lean and efficient, focused entirely on this one line of thought: How far would a woman go to have a baby? Fans of population control will be glad to know that Grace is one of the most effective anti-procreation stories ever told." At Dread Central, Heather Wixson praises Solet for delivering the story of Grace "with a directorial precision and quiet restraint that demonstrates skill beyond his years and makes it hard to believe that this is just the start of his career. His ability to handle such intricate subject matter like the mother-child bond displays Solet's maturity in crafting a complex script." At Fear Net, Scott Weinberg adds Grace to the cinematic lineage of May, Teeth, and Inside, and confirms: "Grace works on a variety of disparate levels, and it's tough to find a 'weak link' in this debut feature. The pacing, the tone, the cast, the score, the confident approach to some potentially nefarious subject matter ... this is not a horror film that feels like it comes from a first-timer. But perhaps a 'new guy' is the only one who'd tackle such a risky concept, and it's the genre fans who get to reap the rewards."

David Russo's witty and imaginative
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle is a bittersweet fable about a ragtag bunch of janitors tackling key issues like corporate malfeasance, the search for religion and, of course, male pregnancy (a perfectly gendered counterpoint to Grace). Hilarious and bizarre, the film surprises with its deeply felt affirmation of the miraculous. At Paste, Michael Dunaway writes that The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle "is a pure unalloyed delight" and emphasizes that "in Russo's hands, what could be either an acid-vision experimental arthouse film or a zany pseudo-subversive gender farce transcends both and becomes a truly remarkable film. It's a moving exploration of gender, commitment, purpose, hope, and perhaps most of all, religion." At Screengrab, Andrew Osborne especially appreciates that Natasha Lyonne is "in fine form as a market testing guru pushing ominous 'self-warming' cookies (with some pretty unnerving side effects)." Though Lyonne would most likely be the first to eschew categorizations that she's on a "comeback", she is nonetheless flexing her mastery of the independent film and is enfleshing the villainess Deborah Tennis in Peaches Christ's debut feature All About Evil, currently shooting in San Francisco.

Vibrant portraits of contemporary society coming into being, indeed!!

Cross-published on

Thursday, March 26, 2009

YOLANDA M. LÓPEZ by Karen Mary Dávalos

San Franciscans undoubtedly know the artistry of Yolanda M. López, even if they may not specifically know her by name. Though widely recognized as one of the best-known artists of the Chicano art movement, an overdue and in-depth focused overview of López's art has only recently been accomplished by Karen Mary Dávalos, associate professor of Chicana/o studies at Loyola Marymount University, by way of her recently-published eponymously-entitled monograph on López, the latest in the series "A VER: Revisioning Art History" by UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press.

In this groundbreaking overview of López's life and career, Dávalos traces the artist's participation in Bay Area activism in the late 1960s and her subsequent training in conceptual practices. Dávalos explores how López's experiences informed her art, which ranges from posters to portraiture and the highly influential "Guadalupe" series to later installations. López has consistently challenged predominant modes of Latina/o representation, proposing new models of gender, racial, and cultural identity. Yolanda M. López reveals the complexity of the artist's work over time and illuminates the importance of her contributions to Chicana/o art, Chicana feminism, and conceptual art.

Come join Yolanda López in Celebration and Conversation with independent artist and cultural critic
Amalia Mesa-Bains, director of the Department of Visual and Public Art. Amalia Mesa-Bains' works—primarily interpretations of traditional Chicano altars—resonate both in contemporary formal terms and in their ties to her community and history. As an author of scholarly articles and a nationally known lecturer on Latino art, she has enhanced understanding of multiculturalism and reflected major cultural and demographic shifts in the United States.

This event will take place Friday, March 27, 2009, 7:00-9:00PM in the Main Gallery of the
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110. Admission: $5.00. Book available for book signing after the conversation. More Info: (415) 821-1155.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

SFIFF52—Michael Hawley Anticipates the Line-up

Bay Area cinephiles will be obsessively checking their in-boxes this Friday, awaiting e-mail instructions on how to access the program for the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF52). The line-up won't be officially announced until the March 31 press conference, but for the third year in a row, SF Film Society members get to peek (and start buying tickets) four days earlier. Press releases have arrived at a steady clip over the past few weeks, and the festival has already revealed much of its hand. Here's a recap of what we know so far, followed by a bit of speculation and wishful thinking over what Friday might have in store.

The Opening Night film will be the hometown premiere of Peter Bratt's La Mission. The film stars the director's brother Benjamin and is a redemption drama set in San Francisco's Mission District. The after-party will take place in the very neighborhood where the film was made and will be a two-venue affair: Bruno's Restaurant on Mission Street between 19th and 20th, and two blocks north among the ruins of the old El Capitan movie theater.

I'm really thrilled by the festival's choice for
Closing Night film, Alexis Dos Santos' Unmade Beds. The director's first feature, Glue, was a wholly original look at teen angst in an Argentine backwater and one of my ten favorite films of 2007. His latest is set amongst young creative types living in a London squat, and features rising French star Déborah François (The Child, The Page Turner). The after-party takes place at the popular downtown nightclub Mezzanine.

Equally exciting is programmer Sean Uyehara's annual pairing of an iconic silent film with a live, newly composed score. This year's wild combo is 1925 stop-motion dinosaur epic
The Lost World with music composed and performed by exotic Bay Area club favorites Dengue Fever. I've written more about this highly anticipated event here (click and scroll to the bottom).

Receiving this year's Peter J. Owens Award for acting will be none other than screen legend Robert Redford. I can think of dozens of more interesting choices, but hey—when someone of his stature agrees to show up and collect an award, the resulting publicity and cachet for the festival rightfully trumps all. (At least he's not getting the directing award à la Warren Beatty in 2002). Redford's career will be celebrated with a retrospective of film clips, on on-stage interview with SF Chronicle editor-at-large Phil Bronstein, and the world premiere of a newly restored print of This Property is Condemned (just joking … it'll be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, natch.)

Newly restored prints are a recurring highlight of SFIFF52, and here are three more that have been announced: Sergio Leone's 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1955 Le Amiche, and John Cassavetes' 1974 A Woman Under the Influence (with an expected live appearance by Gena Rowlands).

Bruce Goldstein will be the recipient of this year's
Mel Novikoff Award, which is given each year to "an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." Goldstein has been the programming whiz behind New York's Film Forum for the past 22 years, and is the founder of Rialto Pictures, a distributor which specializes in classic restorations. He'll be interviewed on-stage by another great programmer, Anita Monga, following a 20-minute reel of Rialto trailers. The evening will be capped off by a screening of Federico Fellini's 1957 Nights of Cabiria.

All of the above-mentioned programs will take place at the Castro Theater, continuing the festival's recent trend of using the historic venue exclusively for special events. This year the Castro will host only three regular screenings. Although not as yet officially announced, the titles are up on the theater's website, so I'm hardly revealing state secrets here. The Tiger's Tail is an unreleased 2006 John Boorman film starring Brendan Gleeson which has received mixed to poor reviews (we're talking a Rotten Tomatoes 7% freshness rating). The film obviously has its defenders, as it was included in last month's Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center. Every Little Step is a documentary about the Broadway musical A Chorus Line, and is scheduled to open in theaters immediately after the festival. Moon is the feature directorial debut of Duncan Jones (who happens to be the son of David Bowie) and stars Sam Rockwell as an astronaut whose three-year stint on the moon is about to come to an end.

Four films comprise this year's
Cinema by the Bay section. The anticipated highlight is undoubtedly the world premiere of Christopher Felver's documentary on Bay Area poet/writer/activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The other selections are Frazer Bradshaw's Everything Strange and New, Allie Light and Irving Saraf's Empress Hotel and David Lee Miller's My Suicide.

In a SFIFF first, the festival has generously pre-divulged the names of all the documentaries competing for the Best Documentary Feature Golden Gate Award, plus all the narrative features competing for the New Director's Prize. Thirteen feature documentaries will contend for a GGA $20,000 cash prize, and I confess they're all unknown entities to me. Three which catch my eye are City of Borders (about Jerusalem's only gay bar), Kimjongilia (an indictment of North Korea's Kim Jong II) and Speaking in Tongues (a look at four SF public schoolchildren enrolled in Chinese and Spanish language-immersion programs). Of the 11 narrative features competing for the $15,000 New Director's Prize, Autumn from Turkish director Özcan Alper and Snow from Bosnian director Aida Begic have received considerable acclaim and were films I'd very much hoped to find in the SFIFF52 line-up. Ursula Meier's Home stars Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet and features cinematography by the great Agnès Godard, making this a personal must-see. I'm also pleased to see three Latin American films in this section, representing Guatemala (Gasoline), Argentina (The Paranoids) and the U.S. (Don't Let Me Drown).

So that's everything we know so far. Strangely, we're still waiting to learn the recipient of this year's Founders Directing Award. Whoever it is, they'll be getting their award at the Castro on May 1. Also TBA are the Centerpiece Event, the Persistence of Vision Award, the Maurice Kanbar Screenwriting Award, the Midnight Awards and the State of Cinema Address.

Now all that's left to ruminate upon are the individual films that'll make up the balance of the program. I haven't attended any festivals outside the Bay Area in the past year, so my wish list has grown to an unwieldy length of nearly 100 films that have played the international festival circuit between last year's Cannes and this year's Berlin (with a few stragglers leftover from Berlin08). I've painfully narrowed them down to 25, and the list could easily have been comprised exclusively of French-language films or films from Latin America. Since there's no use in wasting wishes, I've excluded several films I know for certain will open soon after the festival (Tulpan, Adoration, Rudo y Cursi, Summer Hours, Departures and Lorna's Silence). When the program is revealed on Friday, these are the 25 titles I'm most hoping to see laid out before me:

35 Rhums (France dir. Claire Denis)
Bellamy (France dir. Claude Chabrol)
The Country Teacher (Czech Republic dir. Bohdan Sláma)
Desert Within (Mexico dir. Rodrigo Plá)
Eden is West (France dir. Costa-Gavras)
El Olvido (Netherlands/Peru dir. Heddy Honigmann)
Everyone Else (Germany dir. Maren Ade)
The Girl on the Train (France dir. André Téchiné)
The Headless Woman (Argentina dir. Lucrecia Martel)
Il Divo (Italy dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
I'm Going to Explode (Mexico dir. Gerardo Naranjo)
It's Not Me, I Swear (Canada dir. Philippe Falardeau)
Julia (France dir. Erick Zonca)
Lake Tahoe (Mexico dir. Fernando Eimbcke)
Lion's Den (Argentina dir. Pablo Trapero)
Little Joe (US dir. Nicole Haeusser)
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (Parts I & II) (France dir. Jean-François Richet)
The Milk of Sorrow (Peru dir. Claudia Llosa)
Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire (US dir. Lee Daniels)
The Sea Wall (France dir. Rithy Panh)
Still Walking (Japan dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
Three Monkeys (Turkey dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Tony Manero (Chile dir. Pablo Larrain)
United Red Army (Japan dir. Kôji Wakamatsu)
The Window (Argentina dir. Carlos Sorin)

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


"Artists don't need criticism. Artists need love."—Chuck Jones

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and filmmakers Peggy Stern and
John Canemaker—who earned Oscars® for the animated short The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation—have collected the memories of one of Hollywood's greatest animators in a unique, half-hour film entitled Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood. This film, which combines an interview with the legendary animator with newly created animated segments, premieres on TCM Tuesday, March 24, at 5PM (PT), followed by a selection of his films (complete schedule below).

Simple and sweet, the Stern/Canemaker documentary sketches the mirthful soul of a man who has delighted children and the spirit of children within adults for decades. Commencing with childhood reminisces of orchestrating nature off a seaside boardwalk, Jones pinpoints where the concept of the Acme Company came from, how a stray cat named Johnson taught him about the individuality of cats, which informed his ability to characterize animations. Jones talks about his family—a doting mother, a disciplinarian father, and a favorite uncle who trained ants and taught him a lesson in perspective: that the road is better than the end. Jones further delineates the influence of Mark Twain on the creation of Wile E. Coyote, and how he creatively compensated his own insecurities with girls through the presumed irresistibility of Pepe Le Pew.

The Stern/Canemaker film Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood grew out of director Stern's interest in exploring the childhood experiences of artists. In 1997, Canemaker—a longtime mutual friend of Jones and Stern—brought them together for the interviews that became the basis of the film. During the interviews, Jones spontaneously began sketching his boyhood self as he related his memories. These sketches later inspired the documentary's animated sequences, which Canemaker directed.

Shortly before his death, Jones had an opportunity to see a test cut of the film, with new animation and archival imagery blended into the interview footage, and pronounced it "delightful." The Jones family subsequently provided additional material from the family archive, resulting in an intimate film full of revealing anecdotes about the events and personalities that influenced his early creative life and long career in cartoons.

The following is the complete schedule for TCM's March 24 tribute to Chuck Jones (PT):

5:00PM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)—Premiere
5:30PM The Night Watchman (1938)
5:40PM Prest-O, Change-O (1939)
5:50PM Sniffles and the Bookworm (1939)
6:00PM Elmer's Candid Camera (1940)
6:10PM Scent-imental Over You (1947)
6:20PM Haredevil Hare (1948)
6:30PM Duck Amuck (1953)
6:40PM One Froggy Evening (1955)
6:50PM What's Opera, Doc? (1957)
7:00PM The Dot and the Line (1965)
7:15PM The Bear that Wasn't (1967)
7:30PM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)—Encore
8:00PM The Phantom Tollbooth (1969)
9:30PM The Night Watchman (1938)—Encore
9:40PM Prest-O, Change-O (1939)—Encore
9:50PM Sniffles and the Bookworm (1939)—Encore
10:00PM Elmer's Candid Camera (1940)—Encore
10:10PM Scent-imental Over You (1947)—Encore
10:20PM Haredevil Hare (1948)—Encore
10:30PM Duck Amuck (1953)—Encore
10:40PM One Froggy Evening (1955)—Encore
10:50PM What's Opera, Doc? (1957)—Encore
11:00PM The Dot and the Line (1965)—Encore
11:15PM The Bear that Wasn't (1967)—Encore
11:30PM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)—Encore
12:00AM The Phantom Tollbooth (1969)—Encore

Legendary animation producer, director and screenwriter Chuck Jones was the last surviving giant from the golden era of Warner Bros. animation, a period spanning roughly from 1935 to 1959. He excelled at designing and posing expressive characters. Jones has been quoted as saying that an animator is "an actor with a pencil." If so, his work revealed him as a master thespian.

The son of a sometimes abusive father, Jones dropped out of high school and enrolled in the Chouinard Art Institute (later known as the California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles at age 15. After a brief stint at a commercial art studio, he became a cel-washer at the Ub Iwerks Studio. He moved up the ranks, becoming a cel-painter, cel-inker and in-betweener (assistant animator) before being fired, rehired and fired again by Iwerks. He worked a variety of jobs before becoming an assistant animator with Leon Schlesinger Productions, the animation unit at Warner Brothers, around 1933. The animation team of Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising (Harman-Ising) had recently departed, and Schlesinger was building his own unit.

Jones was promoted to animator in 1934 and worked on several cartoons helmed by Friz Freleng and others before being assigned with Bob Clampett to Tex Avery's unit at Termite Terrace, the nickname for the bungalow on the Warner lot where the animators toiled. This astonishing assemblage of talent first collaborated on the epochal Gold Diggers of 1949 (1936), Avery's first cartoon for Warners. With this uneven start, an important new era in cartoon history had begun.

By 1938, Jones had graduated to the status of director. His early efforts revealed a strong debt to Walt Disney in both style and subject matter. Set in a world where cute was king, these cartoons typically featured a small, quiet character in a large, forbidding environment, such as in The Night Watchman (1938); Naughty but Mice (1939), which introduced the mouse character Sniffles; and Little Lion Hunter (1939), which introduced the character Inki.

In the early '40s, much of Jones' work was overshadowed by the work of Bob Clampett. But he explored styles and honed his skills, often working without pay on the first cartoons for UPA (United Productions of America), with his 1942 cartoon The Dover Boys becoming a major influence on what would become the UPA style.

After a crippling animators strike, of which Jones was a fervent supporter, studios began cutting back on production costs for cartoons, which resulted in less lavish animation. This cutback, however, spurred Jones to some of his greatest achievements. He began experimenting with stylized minimalist backgrounds, refining movement and paring character animation down to its essentials.

Jones had directed the second and third appearances of the prototypical Bugs Bunny in Prest-o Change-o (1939) and Elmer's Candid Camera (1940). Though Tex Avery would finally crystalize the rabbit's personality later in A Wild Hare (1940), Jones became one of the best helmers of Bugs Bunny, with such memorable installments as Hare-Raising Hare (1946), Baby Buggy Bunny (1954) and Bully for Bugs (1953).

Jones conceived Daffy Duck as a cowardly self-preservationist continually undone by his own greed or selfishness. Jones' trilogy of cartoons starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd—Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952) and Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953)—were masterfully subtle and imaginative examples of character animation. Jones also derived much comic mileage from placing Daffy in wildly incongruous settings, such as in The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950), Duck Dodgers in the 24½ Century and Robin Hood Daffy (1958). He rose to new heights with Duck Amuck (1953), a classic example of reflexivity in cinema, in which Daffy is presented as an animated figure tormented by a mostly off-screen animator.

Jones won the studio an Oscar with For Scent-imental Reasons (1949), which starred one of his most popular creations, the amorous French skunk, Pepe Le Pew. He also created the Road Runner and Wile E Coyote series, which represented the chase film boiled down to its essentials.

In addition to working with an impressive stable of continuing characters, Jones also excelled at "one-shot" cartoons. The most celebrated example may well be One Froggy Evening (1955), an allegory about a singing frog, later christened Michigan J. Frog, who became the symbol of Warner Brothers' WB Network in the mid-'90s.

Many fans and historians believe that Jones achieved his masterpiece with What's Opera, Doc? (1957), which condensed Wagner's 14-hour Der Ring des Nibelungun into a classic six-minute cartoon. This extraordinarily lavish spoof of opera required 106 shots. In 1992, the film was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

After the demise of Warner Bros. animation in the early 1960s, Jones briefly went to MGM, where he produced and directed a memorable series of Tom and Jerry cartoons. He subsequently kept working through his own production company, Chuck Jones Enterprises, primarily on TV specials, the most famous of which is Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, originally broadcast on CBS in 1966.

Jones and his wife also co-wrote the screenplay for the UPA animated feature Gay Purr-ee (1962), which featured the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet as French cats. And he produced, co-wrote and co-directed (with Abe Levitow) the cartoon portion of the film version of Norman Juster's book The Phantom Tollbooth (1969).

After a semi-retirement in which he lectured, led workshops, painted and received numerous awards, tributes and accolades, Jones returned to the business of directing theatrical cartoons. In 1993, he signed a deal with Warner Brothers to produce and direct new animated shorts featuring classic and new characters. At the age of 82, he produced and directed Chariots of Fur (1994), a new Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon released with the feature Richie Rich. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the following year.

Jones was given an honorary Oscar at the 1996 ceremony for "the creation of classic cartoons and cartoon characters whose animated lives have brought joy to our real ones for more than half a century." He passed away in 2002.

My thanks to TCM publicist Sarah Schmitz for forwarding the above biographical information on Chuck Jones condensed from
TCM's online database. Additional information on Chuck Jones can be obtained at his official website, Wikipedia, and the Senses of Cinema Great Directors Profile on Jones, written by Bill Schaffer.

Cross-published on

Monday, March 09, 2009

L'ENFANT SAUVAGE (THE WILD CHILD)—Introduction by Laura Truffaut

Having recently experienced the insight that Laura Truffaut could lend to the films of her father François Truffaut when she introduced Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) as part of the Jean-Pierre Leaud retrospective mounted by the Pacific Film Archive, I was keen to catching her presentation at The Film Desk reissue of L'Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child), currently screening at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas.

As Steve Indig has synopsized for Landmark Theatres: "The year is 1798, and farmers in the south of France, on the hunt for a predator, instead find a naked young boy, presumably grown up in the wild without human contact. As the latest sensation, he's paraded before fee-paying gawkers at the institute for the deaf and dumb, while Dr. Itard (played by director Truffaut himself) debates with a colleague: is the boy a purely natural human, a tabula rasa, or simply an idiot? Itard takes the boy into his own home in an attempt to educate and civilize him.

"Based on an actual case, and with its voiceover narration (an adaptation of Itard's two reports into diary form), this is Truffaut's nearest approach to documentary, with Néstor Almendros' striking b&w photography evoking the earliest days of the cinema, and a much-imitated all-Vivaldi score. As l'enfant sauvage, Jean-Pierre Cargol, a French Roma boy picked from over 2,500 hopefuls, is alternately ferocious and docile, while as Dr. Itard, Truffaut is superb. (Alfred Hitchcock wrote Truffaut asking for 'the autograph of the actor who plays the doctor, he is so wonderful,' while Steven Spielberg was so impressed by the director's compassionate performance that he cast Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) Cast partly because he realized he'd be directing the boy within the film, Truffaut imposed on himself a 'no smiling' rule—he lapses briefly once—to attain a kind of gravity, but then this only reinforces his ruthlessly unsentimental treatment of potentially treacly material, even as the inevitable question ('Was it worth it?') arises."

Introducing the film at its first screening, Laura Truffaut stated that in 1969—10 years after her father filmed Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows)—François Truffaut filmed L'Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child). Because the main character of the movie was a child, Truffaut decided to film the movie during the Summer school break, which—of course—meant that Laura Truffaut was also on school break. One year younger than Jean-Pierre Cargol, who played Victor the Wild Child, Laura was allowed to spend part of her summer on set, along with all the other various children of cast and crew members. It was a family-oriented shoot. Laura was one of the oldest children, which entitled her to certain privileges. It was a wonderful, peaceful experience for her.

Laura referenced two key collaborators who she feels contributed enormously to her father's project. The first,
Jean Gruault, was a screenwriter who had worked with her father previously on Jules and Jim and went on to work with him on a couple of his period films. Gruault's task was tricky. They wanted to keep the film close to the reports written by Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, the physician who worked with Victor of Aveyron. Gruault summarized much of the original material, including scientific treatises, and philosophy books of the Enlightenment that had to do with issues of nature, culture, and the development of language, endeavoring to shape this academic information into a compelling narrative. The story—set during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century—also marked the beginning of modern psychiatry. In fact, the character of Dr. Philippe Pinel (Jean Dasté)—Dr. Itard's colleague at the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb—was considered one of the founding fathers of psychiatry.

Another brilliant contributor to the film was Spanish cinematographer Néstor Almendros, who had previously worked with Eric Rohmer. Truffaut was impressed with his work, especially his b&w cinematography. L'Enfant sauvage was their first collaboration.

I was curious how Truffaut discovered Jean-Pierre Cargol and how he worked with him to achieve such a noteworthy performance in this film? Laura responded that Truffaut's assistant
Suzanne Schiffman found Cargol. She did something which could probably not be done anymore. She traveled all over France and looked at children as they were coming out of their schools. Today that would be considered stalking but at that time it was necessary because there were not that many French child actors. They also advertised in local papers and Laura Truffaut recalled that Cargol was one of three boys considered for the role out of an original pool of 2,500. She remembered her father showing her photos of the three boys under consideration; but, Cargol clearly "had" something more. She remembered him as quiet. Cargol's younger brother was also on set and he was agitated and devilish, all over the place, and funny; but, Jean-Pierre was low key, attentive, quiet, and clearly gifted.

As for whether she played with Cargol much on set, Laura qualified that several scenes—such as the ones in the forest—were filmed with a skeleton crew. The scenes were physically challenging for Cargol as he had to run around naked. Only a few people were allowed to be present for the filming of those scenes and certainly not she. Since Cargol was just about in every scene, he was always working, so she didn't have much opportunity to interact with him socially. Inbetween scenes, even if he came around, he was reserved. "He was among us," she said, "but not fully." She has photographs of all of them playing so she knows they did; but, not a whole lot.

Asked what became of Cargol, Laura believes he became a musician. He was from a gypsy family brought up in the south of France and his uncle was a well-known classical guitar player. She believes he became a classical guitar player like his uncle. As for the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Dr. Itard lost interest in him after a few years. Unfortunately, in reality the story is a bit less lovely than depicted in the film. Although the movie doesn't romanticize what it shows, as time went on Dr. Itard became frustrated that the child never learned to speak and went on to conduct research with other children. His governess Mme. Guérin (portrayed by Françoise Seigner in the film) continued to take care of Victor who learned to work as he grew up and became employed, living until about the age of 40.

As for why Truffaut had taken an interest in the story of Victor of Aveyron, Laura detailed that her father was deeply concerned with the cause of children, especially neglected children and their rights, a cause which mattered a lot to him even though he was not necessarily a political creature and was more focused on his films. But the plight of unwanted children was dear to his heart. Two elements are involved. The first would be autobiographical since Truffaut was himself fairly neglected as a child—not to the extreme of what happened to Victor of Aveyron—but enough to feel empathy. His first film Les Quatre cents coups is widely acknowledged as autobiographical and dealt with parental indifference. Truffaut believed that being indifferent towards a child was just as bad as physical abuse. He was also interested in the relationship between the doctor and the child, which was not so much about love as it was about care. Truffaut was interested in how adults invest themselves in the care of a child; something which was personally important to him and undoubtedly accounted for his wanting to play the role of Dr. Itard.

More generally, there was a book that came out in the mid-sixties in France called Wild Children, which covered several other cases of feral children, but especially the story of Victor of Aveyron. The book included the actual reports of Dr. Itard and Laura said—as soon as her father read this—he knew he wanted to make a film about it. He had also been interested in the story of Helen Keller, first the play and then the movie The Miracle Worker, whose themes he found compelling. Another aspect that meant a lot to Truffaut and which was referenced early in the movie was that everything a child does, he does for the first time. Her father conceived this in filmic language: films show you things for the first time or for the first time in a certain way.

It is clear to Laura Truffaut why her father dedicated the film to Jean-Pierre Leaud. Leaud was the original wild child in his life and career. The relationship between Leaud and her father was admittedly special and meaningful. They worked together again and again. Further, her father felt that he told more about himself in his films which were not blatantly autobiographical, films based on other sources, either adaptations of novels or—in this case—history. In that sense, he saw a connection between this story and Jean-Pierre Leaud. Truffaut's oeuvre can basically be categorized into two groups—the earlier autobiographical films with which he is most associated, such as the Antoine Doinel cycle, and later historical or period-piece films like L'Enfant sauvage and The Story of Adele H.—but, he did not prefer one style over the other; he preferred to alternate between them. Laura Truffaut stressed that her father was unique in that he only made movies he loved. His movies did not cost a whole lot of money for the most part so he was able to do moreorless what he wanted. He never had to make a movie for hire. But that also meant he had to balance his work. He couldn't make too many adaptations of historical novels because, naturally, they were more expensive.

Making L'Enfant sauvage was odd because, at first, he couldn't secure financing, primarily because the film was in black and white and featured no name stars. The only way United Artists agreed to produce and distribute the film was if it was sold and packaged with the film her father had just made: La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid), which was an adaptation of an American novel Waltz Into Darkness by William Irish (Cornell Woolrich). Mississippi Mermaid starred Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo, the biggest French stars of the time, so United Artists agreed to L'Enfant sauvage on the condition that they could have and distribute Truffaut's more colorful, expensive movie. Ironically enough—though perhaps not so surprisingly—Mississippi Mermaid was a big flop and L'Enfant sauvage did very well, especially on American college campuses, making up for the financial losses of Mississippi Mermaid. But all her father's films were personal. He wanted to make them that way. As time went on, even with the historical pieces, he went more towards original screenplays. Adele H., for example, was an original screenplay. He became more interested in initiating material and movies that had one ascending line. Even if they did not have a lot of hope or moved in many directions, he tried to sustain the public's attention with one idea. Adele H. is an example of that. This approach didn't always succeed and he wasn't always happy with the result; but, it was the discipline he adopted.

In his write-up of L'Enfant sauvage for The East Bay Express, Kelly Vance underscores Truffaut's evident intention "to pay tribute to the early days of film as well as to the glories of the French Enlightenment. Cinematographer Néstor Almendros' gorgeous black-and-white images are composed in a montage D.W. Griffith would have recognized, and just to be sure we get the point, Truffaut ends more than one scene with an iris fade—in which the image fades down to a small circle, usually highlighting a significant object." Though aware that Laura Truffaut was a child during the making of the film, I was curious if she recalled any discussions Truffaut had with Almendros regarding the visual design of the film? Laura confirmed Vance's observation that her father and Almendros wanted to pay tribute to Griffith as well as to honor silent film conventions. She doesn't know where—perhaps a flea market?—but Almendros found an old-fashioned iris and figured out how to make it work. He knew he didn't want a slick modern one.

Also in his article for the East Bay Express, Vance suggested that Truffaut's working relationship with Jean-Pierre Cargol was an instance where "art imitates life" in the sense that "we get the impression Truffaut spelled out each and every gesture in the same sort of detail that Itard imposed on Victor." Laura Truffaut confirmed that her father's directorical style was indeed precise and that he probably showed Jean-Pierre exactly how he wanted him to perform, but this was mixed with Cargol's improvisations inspired by genuine talent. She recalls that her father showed Cargol some movies before they started filming—Chaplin perhaps?—to provide Cargol hints of what he was after. But, generally speaking, there was not a lot of improvisation in her father's movies. Though dialogue was written progressively and not as the film started, he nonetheless had a clear screenplay and knew exactly where he wanted the film to go.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

ANIMATION: AZUR & ASMAR—A Few Questions for Michel Ocelot

Michel Ocelot's Azur & Asmar arrives in San Francisco adorned and bejeweled with superlatives. "The year's most beautiful animated film!," writes Andrew O'Hehir at Salon, "Impossibly gorgeous ... the sheer storybook rapture swept me away!" "So gloriously bright," writes Leslie Felperin at Variety, "audiences with sensitive eyes may need shades." And at Film Journey, Doug Cummings writes: "Sets a new bar for digital animation! Closer to a handsome storybook than a mainstream CGI film, lending the narrative a significant degree of visual enchantment." Rather than rack the thesaurus for additional adjectives—"bewitching ensorcellments" comes to mind—I focus on Ocelot's presentation at the film's first screening at Landmark's Opera Plaza. As a disgruntled aside, the beauty of this film deserved a much larger screen than the woefully inadequate Opera Plaza. The film, properly projected, should be—as Ocelot put it—"like diamonds getting into your eyes." I'm hoping its placement at the Opera Plaza doesn't keep audiences away.

As Ocelot officially synopsizes: "Azur and Asmar is the story of two boys raised as brothers. Blonde, blue-eyed, white skinned Azur and black-haired, brown-eyed, dark-skinned Asmar are lovingly cared for by Asmar's gentle mother, who tells them magical stories of her faraway homeland and of a beautiful, imprisoned Fairy Djinn waiting to be set free. Time passes, and one day Azur's father, the master of the house, provokes a brutal separation. Azur is sent away to study, while Asmar and his mother are driven out, homeless and penniless.

"Years later, as a young adult, Azur remains haunted by memories of the sunny land of his nanny, and sets sail south across the high seas to find the country of his dreams. Arriving as an immigrant in a strange land, Azur is rejected by everyone he meets on account of his 'unlucky' blue eyes, until finally he resolves never to open those eyes again. The once-beautiful child clad in gold is reduced to a blind beggar. Yet, blind though he is, little by little and step by step, he discovers a beautiful and mysterious country. Meanwhile, back in her homeland, Azur's nanny has become a wealthy merchant and Asmar has grown into a dashing horseman. Reunited but now as adversaries, the two brothers set off on a dangerous quest to find and free the Fairy of the Djinns."

* * *

Michael Guillén: Michel, could you please talk about the techniques used to achieve such stunning animation?

Michel Ocelot: Although it doesn't quite show, all the characters are CGI 3D and the backgrounds are 2D; but, I was the boss, not the computer. I decided what I wanted. A lot of computer films tell a lot about what the computer can do instead of telling the story but here I was thinking about the story with the image of the fairy tale, nothing realistic, where we all play together at make believe. I'm not trying to have all the trees look real—if you say it's flat, that's fine with me—but, little by little, you play with my imagery and you believe what I say is true. The image is invented but the sentiment is genuine.

Guillén: What inspired this story?

Ocelot: This story is in the here and now. Although a fairy tale, it is about the conflict between two countries, two cultures. Now there is a Western bloc and a Muslim bloc, rich people and poor people, and I wanted to talk about that. Little by little, the story came to me. At the beginning I didn't think about North Africa, but—as a Frenchman—I thought it would be a good idea to talk about what I knew. So the first country for me is France—though here, now, the translation into English is fine with me—and the other country is North Africa because most of the immigrants in France are from North Africa. I decided that the country on the other side of the sea would be North Africa because it rings true for me.

That allowed me something else. Azur & Asmar is a fable and you can use a fable for anything else. While we were making the film, there was some violence in certain segments of Paris. I had no idea anything was happening. I was rollerskating to work, crossing Paris, enjoying the beauty and the peace of the city. When I got to where I was working on the film, where a lot of people were thinking of making something beautiful and good, and where we were all friends, I received phone calls from Japan, Great Britain and the United States asking me if I was okay? If Paris was burning? I didn't understand the question. They explained what they had heard on the news. As more people phoned to ask if Paris was burning—by now I knew what was happening—I told them, "You watch too much CNN." If one of the reporters from CNN had been following me, they would have seen the opposite of what they were showing on TV: a totally peaceful city where people of diverse origins were working together, never thinking of fighting, wanting instead to create something beautiful like Azur & Asmar. That is why in the closing credits I mention that the film is made in Paris with friends from different origins. I asked people on the crew where their parents were from—not their grandparents but their parents—and I wrote these countries down and the list represented the whole planet.

As I was saying, Azur & Asmar is a fable and can be used in any time in any country; but, because I was thinking of North Africa, I added something historical, the Muslim civilization from the Middle Ages when it was brilliant and open. That's a historical "extra" to the fable. It's important to remember that Muslim culture at a certain point was much more interesting and open than Western civilization.

Guillén: Why did you elect not to translate the Arabic spoken in the film, either through dubbing or subtitles?

Ocelot: Arabic was important because I was talking about this civilization. The Muslim civilization put many civilizations together through this language. For example, in Japan they respected my rule: you dub the French, you don't touch the Arabic, you don't subtitle it, that's the clockwork.

Guillén: What do you mean by "the clockwork"?

Ocelot: The way the film works is that you have to know there are several languages in the world and—in reality—there are no subtitles. I think the film is better that way. If you buy the French DVD and—if you look for it—you can find subtitles for the Arabic so you can know what they say; but, it's not the default option. If you just play the film, it has no subtitles. That's the way I want people to see Azur & Asmar. After they've seen it, they can go back and watch it again with the subtitles if they like. My concern now is that I'm afraid the American distributor of the DVD has ruined my film by putting subtitles over the Arabic in both English and French. Tomorrow I am flying to New York to try to stop them. I told them by contract that it's forbidden to dub or subtitle for general viewing. I don't mind if it's an option in the DVD extras. The U.S. launch of the DVD was supposed to be tomorrow; but—if there are subtitles you cannot take off—I will try to stop it.

Guillén: What influenced the look of the film?

Ocelot: I love Persian miniatures very much. They're refined and pretty and are not afraid of being beautiful and understandable. The faces are nice. The costumes are intricate and well-made. I combined those with real things because I was celebrating a civilization that is still beautiful, with gardens and decorative art. I'm encouraging you to go and see the real thing.

Guillén: The African influence on your films is quite striking.

Ocelot: Well, when I was a kid I was Black. [Chuckles.] I was going to school in New Guinea. In the beginning me and my brother were the first two white children in our school. So my primary schooling was in Africa. I have only good recollections from this time. It was a time of total peace and harmony with only good people around me. No violence. At least five religions living well together. And beautiful people who did not hide their bodies, which I tried to show in
Kirikou et la sorcière (1998). Don't be ashamed; it's right. But it was almost impossible to sell to the United States because of the way the women were dressed and the way the hero wasn't dressed at all.

Guillén: Do you have a sense of how your films are received by children?

Ocelot: Children love my films. I feel this film is for everybody beginning from the age of seven, the age of reason, because it is a serious story. Some people told me they felt the film would work for five-year-olds but I thought they were lying until I saw some five-year-olds watching Azur & Asmar more intensely than the grown-ups. A lot of parents have told me that children can start appreciating films at 1½ years of age; but, I think that's a little early. My trick is that I'm not creating my films for children. I make them for human beings just like me. I'm only making films which excite me and interest me today. But I know that in the house there will be kids so I'm trying not to harm them but I tell them all. For kids it's all right if you don't understand; but even when you don't understand, a kid can tell if someone is making fun of them or taking them seriously. They might not understand my films but they see that I'm taking them seriously. The film registers and will help them later. They will understand later. The job of kids is to learn.

Guillén: When Princess Chamsous Sabah sneaks out of the palace to survey her city, she notes the various houses of worship, including a Christian church with—what was to me—a familiar Byzantine representation of Christ. This was a lovely historical decoupage.

Ocelot: In that scene I am telling the history of North Africa backwards. Before the Muslims invaded North Africa, it was a Christian country under Byzantine rule and that's why I show Christ. Before then it was Greco-Roman and I show an arena with the huge sculptured head of Jupiter. Before Greco-Roman, there were Cathaginian and Phoenician images. In those ruins there's another big head of Baal. And before that there were cave paintings.

Guillén: What is next for you?

Ocelot: Azur & Asmar was a relatively heavy work. It was expensive, involving a lot of people, a lot of hardware, software, and it took a long time. I want to come back to short films because animation works very well in short films. Animation is like jewelry making; it's not making big trucks. I have many different stories to tell and—though some are expecting me to make another feature film—I'm going back to short films and television. It's not that I like television that much but television is important because it reaches people and children in their homes. Some people don't go to the movies. I'm going to try to make 10 little masterpieces with the very simple technique of black silhouette, shadow puppet theatre. That's what I'm doing. I'm trying to combine the simplicity of cut-out—which I was used to doing when I had no money—with the convenient aspects of digital animation. I very much enjoy making feature films—I should have started earlier—but, I'm enjoying going back to short stories.

Azur & Asmar is showing at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas, 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco (415) 267-4893. Tickets are $10.50 for general admission and $7:50 for seniors and children. Showtimes (valid through March 12): Fri-Thu at 1:50, 4:15, 7:00, 9:30. Advance tickets can be purchased online at: http://www.landmarktheatres.com/tickets and at the theatre box office.

Cross-published on