Saturday, May 29, 2010


In tandem with its Memorial Day Weekend programming of 72 hours worth of war films, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) pays an all-day birthday tribute to Clint Eastwood on Memorial Day proper, highlighting nine Eastwood performances and premiering The Eastwood Factor produced, written and directed by Richard Schickel, narrated by Academy Award® winner Morgan Freeman. Unbelievable as it might seem, Eastwood achieves 80 come Monday, born in San Francisco on May 31, 1930.

As TCM synopsizes: "This new film presents Clint Eastwood both at his home and visiting film locations and sites where his movies were created, including the costume department and the Eastwood Scoring Stage on the Warner Bros. lot. Eastwood's candid, intelligent and often humorous interviews about his body of work and the choices he made, along with abundant clips from his movies, come together to form an up-close and personal portrait of one of the great movie icons. The end result is a clear reminder of why Eastwood's career as both a great filmmaker and actor has been so enduring."

The Eastwood Factor was originally released by Warner Home Video (WHV) earlier this year as part of its Clint Eastwood: 35 Films, 35 Years at Warner Bros. giftset. TCM will present an extended version of the film, which will be released on home video June 1 in conjunction with the releases of Eastwood's latest film, Invictus (2009).

Also on June 1, WHV will release four new WHV Eastwood collections along with The Eastwood Factor Extended Version as a single DVD title for a suggested retail price of $14.97. The Eastwood collections include The Clint Eastwood Collection, a new Blu-ray box set featuring 10 films on Blu-ray; Essential Eastwood: Director's Collection, on both Blu-ray and DVD; Essential Eastwood: Action Collection; and an Eastwood Blu-ray Promotion, with Blu-ray double features. In addition, Clint Eastwood: 35 Films 35 Years at Warner Bros., the previously released 19-disc collection, will now include the feature-length The Eastwood Factor Extended Version.

I've had a chance to take a look at Schickel's new documentary and find it intriguing for diverging from his more usual practice of letting his subject interviewees speak for themselves without narrative voiceover (a practice we discussed in
my interview with him some time back). Schickel has handed that honor over to Morgan Freeman, whose longstanding association with Eastwood recently culminated in Invictus, a project that Freeman brought to Eastwood's attention. Freeman's voiceover skillfully guides us towards an enhanced contextualization of Eastwood's body of work.

Of concern, however, is that The Eastwood Factor is clearly meant for existing Eastwood fans and not so much for those unfamiliar with his iconic work. In its thorough survey of the many films under Eastwood's belt—in which he has either starred and/or directed—the documentary is rife with spoilers and pretty much reveals the ending to each and every film it discusses. Though this provides some appropriate insights into films seen, it was not so much appreciated for films not yet seen. So a big fat spoiler alert needs to be given to anyone planning on catching the documentary's world premiere on Monday, May 31, first at 7:30PM and then at its encore screening at 1:15AM (PT).

Here's the schedule for TCM's Memorial Day birthday tribute to Clint Eastwood (all times Pacific).

3:00AM—The First Traveling Saleslady (1956). Co-starring Ginger Rogers, Barry Nelson and Carol Channing. This offbeat, comic western features Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing as a couple of gals trying to sell girdles in the old West. Amazingly, Eastwood plays Channing's love interest.

5:00AM—A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Co-starring Gian Maria Velonté and Marianne Koch. This atmospheric and exciting Sergio Leone spaghetti western is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1961 samurai film Yojimbo, with Eastwood taking the role played by Toshiro Mifune in the original. Eastwood's character comes into a town with two warring gangs, and he proceeds to play them against each other for his own gain. This film made Eastwood an international star and—thanks to Ennio Morricone's legendary score—changed the way westerns sounded for decades to come.

6:45AM—For a Few Dollars More (1965). Co-starring Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Velonté. Eastwood is back as the nameless gunslinger in this sequel, which finds the character forming an uneasy partnership in order to track down an outlaw. A scene in which Lee Van Cleef strikes a match on the neck of Klaus Kinski is particularly memorable.

9:00AM—The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). Co-starring Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. Sergio Leone's third film in the Dollars trilogy features Eastwood, Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as three gunmen hunting for a Confederate government treasure chest. After the film's tremendous success, composer Ennio Morricone's theme is now a pop culture icon. A reminder that I transcribed
Robert Osborne's on stage conversation with Eli Wallach when The Good, The Bad and the Ugly screened at the first-ever TCM Classic Film Festival.

Noon—Hang 'Em High (1968). Co-starring Inger Stevens, Ed Begley, Ben Johnson, Bruce Dern and Pat Hingle. Continuing the success he enjoyed with spaghetti westerns, Eastwood starred in this American take on the sub-genre. He plays a hanged man who survives and goes on the hunt for the men who strung him up.

2:00PM—Where Eagles Dare (1969). Co-starring Richard Burton, Mary Ure and Michael Hordern. This rip-roaring World War II action flick recaptures the excitement of the old Republic serials. The story involves a group of soldiers sent to rescue an American officer held captive by Germans in a mountain-top castle.

5:00PM—Kelly's Heroes (1970). Co-starring Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland and Carroll O'Connor. Eastwood returns to World War II with this funny, action-filled movie about a gold heist behind enemy lines.

7:30PM—The Eastwood Factor (2010). World television premiere.

9:15PM—Dirty Harry (1971). Co-starring Harry Guardino, Reni Santoni and John Larch. Eastwood introduced one of his greatest characters, rule-bending cop Harry Callahan, in this taut action film about the hunt for a serial killer in San Francisco. TCM premiere.

11:00PM—Magnum Force (1973). Co-starring Hal Holbrook, Mitchell Ryan and David Soul. In this, the first of several sequels to Dirty Harry, Eastwood is back as Callahan, this time involved in an investigation that may lead right back to the police department. This macho thriller was written by John Milius and Michael Cimino. TCM premiere.

1:15AM—The Eastwood Factor (2010). Encore.

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DO ASK, DO TELL!—Frako Loden Previews 3rd i's Queer Eye Mini-Film Festival

June is the month for celebrating unions of every stripe, but recent exciting events make us want to celebrate gay civil rights more than anything else. This past week's Congressional steps toward the eventual repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell military exclusion policy of gays is a great thing, but things have been cooking on other continents as well. Last summer the Delhi High Court in India repealed Penal Code 377, decriminalizing private consensual sex between adults of the same gender and overturning a nearly 150-year-old colonial-era law.

So South Asians have cause to celebrate queer heritage too. Whether they live here in Diasporaland or over there in the Motherland, they have news to report and films to show. San Francisco's South Asian independent film impresarios
3rd i—approaching their 10th year in the business—have gotten busy compiling such films into a one-night program ushering in Gay Pride Month. They have plenty of works to choose from. According to 3rd i's press release, "A surge of LGBT films and film festivals are popping up all over India; and even mainstream movies are boldly taking on queer themes (the first full-on male-on-male kiss arrives this summer in Bollywood!)."

While we wait for that Bollywood production to wash ashore, we could do a lot worse than to catch 3rd i's offerings on Sunday, June 6 at
Japantown's VIZ Cinema, currently my favorite place to see films in San Francisco. The evening—co-presented with Frameline—begins with a program of six Queer South Asian Shorts. The Calcutta-shot documentary Are We Talking Straight? (Anindya Shankar Das, Prachi Tulshan, Anirban Ghosh, O. Sircar, D. Dutta, India, 2009, 30 mins) is the obligatory person-on-the-street poll of views toward the imminent repeal of Penal Code 377, exposing a wild spectrum of attitudes toward homosexuality. Two of my favorites are parody/inversions of Hollywood and Bollywood: Mr. and Mrs. Singh (Punam S., USA, 2009, 12 mins) views some of the tropes of the Brangelina Mr. and Mrs. Smith through a same-sex lens, and Chingari Chumma, or Stinging Kiss, (Tejal Shah, Anuj Vaidya, India/USA, 2002, 8 mins) forces the clichés of 1980s Indian action films into the realm of queer fantasy. While hero Amitabh Bachchan plunges up and down hills in his car trying to reach his damsel in distress, the bandit has the damsel bound, gagged and caged . . . leading to a most unexpected (but graphic and satisfying!) conclusion. Unexpectedly and beautifully moving also are the final moments of The Bath (Sachin Kundalkar, India, 2005, 16 mins), a film project initiated by a Mumbai-based organization supporting male sex workers.

The feature-presentation program is the San Francisco premiere of the soon-to-be-released 2010 director's cut of Rudi Dolezal's 2000 documentary Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story. The first five minutes are a montage (over Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury's rendition of "The Great Pretender") of characterizations by an impressive roster of informants—Dave Clark calls him "the Eighties' Edith Piaf"—concluding with Sir Elton John's, "Quite simply, he was one of the most important figures in rock 'n' roll of the last 20 years."

Not really interested in proving this importance except by saying so, The Untold Story instead wants to provide a geographical and historical context for the enigma of Farrokh Bulsara, born on the island of Zanzibar in East Africa of Gujarati parents and schooled in Mumbai and later London, where he achieved global fame. Perhaps to explain Mercury's flamboyant zest for life, a priest at
Zanzibar's Parsee Fire Temple, where the singer was confirmed into the faith of Zoroastrianism, says that the difference between Zoroastrianism and other faiths is "that, for us, life is a celebration."

At St. Peter's, a rigidly authoritarian boarding school in Mumbai, Farrokh formed a band called the Hectics. Even then he had a coterie of fans who considered him more important than Elvis—and they seemed to love him despite his outrageous penchant for calling other boys "darling." A school friend says, "He didn't have a stage fright, otherwise he would be a shy boy. When he went on the keyboard, he would be in a bliss playing, and like—I would put it crudely—like getting multiple orgasm!" It's comments like these that make you grateful for this film. It's no pedestrian Biography-network profile of the operatic rocker that focuses only on his flamboyant performances and then solemnly switches to his death from AIDS. It narrates the indignant letters he wrote to his parents, his adoration for his little sister, his musical influences from
Lata Mangeshkar to Liza Minnelli, his global awareness, his profoundly loving relationship with Mary Austin.

Six years into that relationship Freddie came out to her, and from then on they were lifelong friends. You might expect a film stressing his South Asian roots to be conservative about his gayness, but it's as forthcoming as Freddie's interviews and his associates allow it to be. There's footage of his outrageous 39th birthday party in Munich. Informants include his personal assistant Peter Freestone and the late Jim Hutton, the man who lived with Freddie for the last six years of his life and nursed him through his final illness. It's his female professional associates who reveal the most about him—costume designers Diana Moseley and Zandra Rhodes and, most movingly, opera star Montserrat Caballé, whose duets with Freddie are the peak of his non-Queen career.

Tickets are $10 for each program or $16 for both. Complete program information, including show times, ticket prices and other events, can be found

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Friday, May 28, 2010


I am woman, hear me snore.

Is that too cliché a dismissal? Pardon me for not putting more effort into trashing this completely unnecessary self-indulgent film, which undermines both global feminism and gay equality by reducing them to their most shallow denominator. Oh, I get it: to have is to be. Uh, but hello: I think those French existentialists meant that as a criticism?

Oh well. Here's some other things I don't like:

When I think of "the city", I think of Manhattan, not Abu Dhabi, underscoring that this entire narrative is woefully misplaced and lost. Talk about an ostrich sticking its head in a Mideastern sand dune. Maybe it was embarrassed?

I didn't mind when the girls were single and having problems dating—as a gay guy, I could relate to that—but, this litany of marital problems bored me to tears. All these years later and what we get is not sex in the city but wrecks in the city. (And, no, I'm not even going to segue into the Liza Minnelli cameo.)

This film seemed intent on making us not like the characters we once loved. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker)—who was once endearingly neurotic—just didn't seem to "get" why the New Yorker drew a caricature of her with her mouth taped shut. Enough with the whining, please. Especially about kissing old boyfriends. And if the ostrich stuck its head in the sand because it was embarrassed, it was no doubt over some of the worst clothes I have ever seen a woman wear in public. A hat that looks like roadkill? Really?

Which leads me to Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) who wins the award for best product placement wearing her Yves Saint Laurent earrings as if this is somehow attractive? Not only that, but the libidinal abandon gay guys once worshipped in her has now become the latest inflection of the Ugly American. Her actions are completely reprehensible in this film. I felt like I had to wash her menopausal sweat off me after coming out of the theater.

Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon)—who, admittedly, has always been the smartest of the bunch—would have to be the one to quip, "Abu Dhabi doo." I'm wondering if—since coming out as a lesbian (duh)—Nixon finally had enough clout to refuse doing any more love scenes with Steve Brady (David Eigenberg), who these days is best served in his cameo spots on Justified.

And Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) comes across as a prune-nibbling prude.

Did I mention that I really didn't like this movie, despite its occasional jokes, and glamorous objectification of men? Not only does it offensively flaunt its worshipped privileges, but it's too long, it's too boring, and, ladies, it's way too late. The big screen does nothing to flatter these broads. I only went because my plus one Andy Samwick desperately wanted to see the film; but, even he had to concede it was the gayest film he's ever seen. Frameline has been put to shame for not scoring it as their opening night chick flick.

Finally, leaving the theater, we were all given a souvenir can of sparkling Sex & the City 2 diet ice tea. Andy insists we should never open these cans and that they should be revered as collectibles to maybe later auction off on Ebay. Dare I admit that I've already poured it down the drain and crunched up the can for recycling?

Stick to your fond memories and the syndicated reruns, folks.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Roger Ebert was the distinguished recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award at this year's edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF53). The presiding theme that ran throughout the celebratory evening held at San Francisco's historic Castro Theatre was that—at a time when (as Jason Sanders states it in his tribute essay) "the future of film criticism remains a real question"—Ebert has proven by example that film criticism's role in championing the work of new filmmakers has kickstarted many a career and encouraged others to hone their craft. To prove that point, the San Francisco Film Society invited four guests whose directorial careers have been personally encouraged by Ebert to share their thoughts: Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Henry & June), Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno) and Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Crumb).

Letter From Tilda Swinton

One guest who had been invited but was unable to attend due to a conflict in her filming schedule was festival favorite Tilda Swinton, whose brave performance in Erick Zonca's Julia was singled out by Ebert for reconsideration. In lieu of attendance, Swinton forwarded a letter to Ebert, which Program Director Rachel Rosen read to the audience:

"Dear Roger: I cannot tell you how sad I am to miss out on our San Francisco moment. I am—as my daughter would describe her dog when it pines—'pretty low to the ground' about the whole thing. Were it not that I'm in Connecticut shooting what I sincerely hope is a great film with
Lynne Ramsay, and were there flights that existed that could get me there and back between the end of a Friday night shoot and an early call on Monday without our company suffering one collective heart attack, you know I would be there.

"You do me and Julia such great honor. Such a beloved film for me and all those who made it. Your support has kept us warm over the past months. The witness you provide for this kind of work is incalculably valuable to all filmmakers working outside the frame of studio movie's muscle and your inexhaustible passion as a film fan means everything. Tilda."

Terry Zwigoff

Introducing Terry Zwigoff as a "director who makes a specialty of literate antisocial oddballs", Rachel Rosen qualified: "that he does it with comedy takes more guts than doing it in tragedy."

"I make films about 'antisocial oddballs'?" Zwigoff countered behind the podium. "I guess that's fair. You write about what you know. I'm actually so antisocial myself these days I find it very difficult to watch a film in a theater among other people. I'm not saying that to be self-serving; it's just the truth. I feel very uncomfortable and I prefer, these days, to watch films at home, especially comedies. I know Roger prefers that communal audience experience—he's a much more well-adjusted, sane person—but, I really can't stand it when I go to a film and the audience starts laughing at something I don't find funny and when they don't laugh at something I do find funny. It's a very alienating experience for me and I'm alienated enough, so.... But whenever I watch a film at home, I got into this habit of wanting to talk or think about it with somebody and, of course, the guy I always choose to think about is Mr. Ebert. I can go to the computer and hope that he has written a review of what I've just watched. Why do I do this? I'm not even sure to tell you the truth because I don't fully agree with him; but, why I do it is because he's a great writer.

"I brought something to read and I hope he doesn't mind but it's part of a review that he wrote for one of my favorite films, which is Army of Shadows: 'Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows is about members of the French Resistance who persist in the face of despair. Rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism. It is not a film about daring raids and exploding trains, but about cold, hungry, desperate men and women who move invisibly through the Nazi occupation of France. Their army is indeed made of shadows: They use false names, they have no addresses, they can be betrayed in an instant by a traitor or an accident. They know they will probably die. This is not a war film. It is about a state of mind. ...[A]bout the war within the minds of Resistance members, who must live with constant fear, persist in the face of futility, accept the deaths of their comrades and expect no reward, except the knowledge that they are doing the right thing. ...Their immediate commander is Philippe Gerbier, played by Lino Ventura with a hawk nose and physical bulk, introspection and implacable determination. To overact for Ventura would be an embarrassment.' That's like the greatest line I've ever heard: 'To overact for Ventura would be an embarrassment.' People forget that Roger is a very funny writer as well as a smart one. I know that's known without my reading that.

"I often times read things he's written and take on a new appreciation for something I've seen, and watch it again, and learn something. Anyway, I'm so socially retarded that I don't think I've ever become friends with Roger in the traditional sense. I don't know him very well personally so I don't have very many anecdotes to share. I had dinner with Roger and Chaz once, but Malkovich's whole crazy family was there.... He's interviewed me a couple of times. He's had me at Ebertfest. I don't know, part of it's—I guess—that you have to keep a little bit of a professional distance if a guy's reviewing your films as well.

"I first met him at the Telluride Film Festival in 1984 where I had my first film Louie Bluie and I had only been accepted in one other film festival before that; it was down at Filmex, which is now called the L.A. Film Festival. I think 12 people showed up to see the film down there. So I didn't expect much when I went to Telluride; but, one of the people in line to see the film was Roger Ebert, which was a big deal to me. I remember I was in the lobby selling LPs—that sort of dates the whole thing; but, at least they weren't 78s—and they were soundtracks to the film Louie Bluie. Roger wanted to buy a few. He came up and I said, 'Just take a few, man, take some.' He seemed rather put off and rather irritated by that because maybe he thought I was trying to bribe him or something.

"I guess the biggest criticism I have of Roger is that his reviews are often too easy on films, except for my films of course—he could never be too easy on them—but, the guy loves films so much that it's almost contagious. He's open, he's smart, he's thoughtful, he's always very clear, and he's got a really good heart and—like I said—he's really funny, which is hard to do as a writer. He manages to make you think critically without making it seem like homework. God knows the world needs more people thinking critically these days about a lot of things.

"Finally, I'm going to tell a short story for Roger's benefit that he's never heard and that probably most of you have never heard. I don't tell many people this; but, I get a kick out of it so what the hell? When I made my film Crumb years ago, my executive producer Lynn O'Donnell suggested that we have a few informal test screenings before we locked picture. She wanted some feedback from an audience and so she got about 200 people to come and she handed the audience survey cards. They would ask you things like: What do you like most about the film? Do you like this? Is it too long? Too short? That sort of thing. After the screening was over, I realized it hadn't gone very well and so I went up to Lynn and I said, 'You know what? Let me take those cards home with me and read them over tonight and I'll give them back to you tomorrow morning.' She said, 'Okay.' So I took them home.

"I was mortified reading the cards because they were unanimously down on the film. The consensus was that I should take Robert Crumb's brothers out of the film, which to me was the whole point of the film. But everyone wanted to go in a more cheery, upbeat direction, and spend most of the time on underground comic books or something, which I had no interest in. So I thought, 'Well, I better take a few of these cards and fill in my own comments to balance this out.' I knew I wasn't going to be able to find any blank cards so I took some Wite-Out and I whited out their comments, then I went down to Kinkos and I Xeroxed about a hundred of these things. I came home and got a bunch of different pens and tried to disguise my handwriting on these cards and wrote, 'Oh, the brothers were great! More of them!'

"Eventually, we had one more screening and I couldn't do that again and, luckily, at that test screening this guy Walter Murch came and everybody felt the same way except him; but, he had enough clout as an Oscar®-winning editor to just say, 'Y'know, the film is great. Just leave it alone.' He went on beyond that to do a free sound mix for me, because we had no money.

"So we locked picture and started submitting it to film festivals and everyone turned us down. Eventually, somehow, the New York Film Festival let us in and it did well there. Roger and his ol' pal
Gene Siskel saw it and they started championing the film on their show. They got it on there three or four times. The first time they did an early review to encourage theaters to actually book the film. Then after that they did it again when it came out to review it. And after that to remind people to go see the film. Eventually, by then all the other critics had gone along and come out for it. Ultimately Roger argued for it at Oscar® time and eventually it made its way onto Roger's list of great films, which was probably a greater thrill for me than winning the Oscar® itself.

"A few years ago Roger did a commentary for the film. The truth of the matter is that Sony Pictures had done a poor transfer the first time they did it and I had been on their case to correct it. Ever since then they sort of made it clear that—if they were going to do that—they wanted me to do a commentary and that's how I could pay them back for all the expense. But I just wasn't comfortable doing a commentary for a film. I think it takes the mystery and the magic out of it and it diminishes the film sometimes if you're not careful. So I was a little reluctant to do it, but I said, 'Y'know, why can't Roger Ebert do it? He could talk about this film. He knows it pretty well.' They said, 'Okay. That's a great suggestion.' So they called Roger and Roger agreed to do it and I said, 'Great! I'm off the hook.' And they said, 'No. You have to do it as a conversation with Roger.' So Roger came and we did this commentary and I tried to sit there the whole time and not say anything. I let him talk. I later found out they had used a lot of his voice from that DVD commentary to help restore his computer voice, which was great.

"Anyway, it's been my greatest hope and fondest joy to talk about Mr. Ebert here. Again, I'm glad he's been given this award. He truly deserves it."

Errol Morris

"It's an honor for me to be here tonight. Roger Ebert has given out so many awards to so many filmmakers, it's nice to be part of giving him an award this time around. Anybody who's done this long enough knows that there are two, three, four people who have made an extraordinary difference in their careers for many many many reasons. For me, Roger is most certainly one of those people. He champions unlikely films. His own film festival is the perfect example of this. It's my perfect trophy, by the way, the thumbs up. ...It's something I'm very very proud of, although I was disappointed to find out it was not Roger's thumb.

"I had made my first film Gates of Heaven. I think this is true many many films later, you don't really know if they're good or bad. You really depend on someone to tell you that they're not as bad as you might think and, in fact, they might be good! For me, very early in my career Roger Ebert—because my film went to the New York Film Festival; I was really lucky to be accepted—but, there was a newspaper strike that year in New York so no one read about the film. And then out of seemingly nowhere these reviews appeared on television and in the newspaper from Roger and Gene Siskel, almost as if he would not give up. In fact, he hasn't given up—I think it's now something like 30 years—his obsession with this film and other films I've made. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

"What do you hope for when you make a film? That someone out there will appreciate it, perhaps see it in a kindly light, or maybe see things in it that you saw in it, or maybe even see things in it that you never even noticed. It's truly a blessing and Roger has certainly played that role in my life over the years. For that alone—aside from all the great writing and the great criticism—I am grateful.

"It also occurred to me—I will be brief—that there's something very odd about this man. He's not really just a film critic. He's also an icon, quite clearly. I remember when I first met him—I believe I first met him at the Cannes Film Festival years and years ago—I was told, 'Y'know, Roger always writes about his experiences at Cannes' and I read the one from that year. I remember saying to my wife at the time, 'This guy writes really really well.' And it's absolutely true. He's an extraordinary writer. If I call him 'kind', it seems like it's the wrong way to put it; but, he's an enthusiast and a person who is very much a person of conviction....

"So it's an enormous privilege for me to be here. He means—and continues to be—a lot to me. He's mastered every form of this sort of thing: as a writer, as a newspaper man, as a television personality, now as a blogger, and I'm sure that—if in the future there is a new kind of media that is developed—he will master that as well."

Jason Reitman

"Terry, I have one word of advice for when you're in a movie theater and they are laughing at the thing that's not funny. It's something I do when my wife drags me to a horrible romantic comedy. You just have to laugh three times as loud and talk about what's happening on the screen: 'Oh my God! She doesn't know that he's already in the bathroom!' And just get bigger and bigger and bigger. You can own that film.

"It's hard to give context for the life of Roger Ebert when it is he who has given us all context. He is America's critic. He's one of the few people who comprises our cinematic voice of record. He is ... 'The Thumb.' It's almost hard to come up with what we're supposed to say. Roger's name alone stands for his great writing, his criticism, all his contributions that have lived so far beyond them. One would think one could say, 'Now the Mel Novikoff Award goes to Roger Ebert' and that would be it.

"A few times a year Roger will choose a film, sometimes a studio release, but more often a film on the fringe, something small that was made for all the right reasons; something that moves him, and he will blow wind into the tiny sails of this film and give it a life that otherwise would be unimaginable. I'm not the first person to talk about this. I realize everybody's actually talking about this. I have personally experienced it. I remember arriving at the Toronto Film Festival with this tiny movie about teenage pregnancy starring an unknown Canadian actress named Ellen Page that I really thought, 'This will be a festival movie and it will not be seen otherwise.' I remember when the movie ended and people began to clap, I saw Roger—he was actually seated a few seats away from me—and he nodded to me. It was an extraordinary thing! The next morning he had already started talking about the film. He shone a spotlight on it. He gave people a reason to pay attention to it and by the end of the week I got a call saying that Roger would actually like to sit down and talk to me about the film. I was terrified but knew it was going to be a thing I was going to cherish for the rest of my life, and it was. I have no doubt that Roger is one of the very few reasons why people know the name Juno.

"There is a joy for Roger even when he doesn't like a film. I'm sorry in advance for this but here is a quote from [a review of]
a movie that will go nameless: 'I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.'—Errol, you're right, he's a great writer!—'Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.' Here's the thing: even in this review, I know how much Roger loves movies. I know how much he thinks of them, how much he wants from them, what he expects from them, because these are the same things that I look to movies for. I can't quite put a finger on it but there's something about many film critics and the way they write that makes me think they actually hate movies.

"There's an enthusiasm in Roger's writing that can't be mistaken for anything else but joy. He's passionate and cannot be silenced. He's America's best friend who won't stop nagging you until you've seen this new film. Nowhere is this more evident than on Twitter. I know teenage girls that tweet less than Roger Ebert. You could put Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, and the entire staff of Ain't It Cool News and /Film together and not tweet as much as Roger Ebert. He tweets about movies. He tweets about politics. He tweets jokes. Yesterday he retweeted the following Twitter user named Superstanos who wrote: 'I just spent 20 minutes writing WU TANG into a lab table. This is why I go to school y'all.' The Roger Ebert Twitter feed is one of the best publications we have running. I don't mean this sarcastically. It's awesome. It's political. It's daring. It's funny. It's self-effacing. It's everything that I love about his writing. It rails against Sarah Palin. It's even about the artfulness of video games.

"He has somehow found yet another medium and a way to share what he thinks is special. This is the passion I associate with this great man who I was introduced to watching At the Movies and who I was fortunate enough to meet when I was a 20-year-old short film maker at the Toronto Festival. I introduced myself. I had no idea that as a writer he would change my life. His instinct to write and share is one thing, but then he wants you to experience what he has experienced, to feel what he has felt. It's an instinct to give and he gives so much. And so there's really only one thing left to say: thank you. Roger, thank you for everything you have done for my career. And thank you for everything you have done for cinema. I cannot imagine a more deserved honor."

Philip Kaufman

"Rose and I left Chicago during the great blizzard of '66 with our little son Peter. We'd done a couple of low budget independent films in Chicago but the films gave no return to the investors, money dried up, and Rose said it was time to head back to San Francisco: always our city of succor. We'd become best friends with Nelson Algren and he came to the airport to see us off. He started to tell us it would be lonely in Chicago without us. Nelson, as you know, wrote The Man With the Golden Arm. At that very time, maybe at that same moment that we were hugging Algren on our way out of Chicago, a bright, tough young kid was just making his way into Chicago. I like to think he took our place. He became a friend of Algren's. And Studs Terkel. And the great Mike Royko. In time he would come to be known as the Kid With the Golden Thumb. Everything you've read by this kid Ebert over all these years should be taken in the context of his being in the tradition of these Chicago guys: tough, give 'em hell, not compromising, no bullshit, tell it like it is, compassionate writers. Like them, Ebert spoke from his heart, spoke against the big boys, championed the little man against small-minded bullies. He told us the truth according to Ebert and—like Mike Royko—he could say with all humility: 'I may be wrong ... but I doubt it.'

"Once, Roger called and woke me up at about six in the morning. Rose and I had made Henry & June and by now Peter was our producer. The Ratings Board had dropped the dreaded 'X' on the film, which meant essentially that it couldn't be distributed. They demanded that I make some cuts. 'Why should I?' I said, 'You guys don't give an "X" rating when a breast is mutilated or blown away; you only give one when a naked breast is caressed. Besides, I applied the same standards I did in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and you gave that an "R" rating.' They said, 'We should have given that film an "X" too.' At which point I might have used the word fuck. They told me I could not use 'the F word' with them and that cemented the 'X' rating.

"I was going to fly to Washington that very day with a big-time lawyer to take on the system and that's the morning Roger called me and woke me up. Roger had been fighting the same fight with the rating system for years and he called us to tell us that the Ratings Board had backed down and that—because we had challenged them and Roger had led the forces of change—they were finally coming up with a new rating: NC17. This was the first I had heard of it. Roger had the news before anyone else. Good news. We felt great at the time. We thought everything had changed. Now, in America we could see films that were—as Rose used to say—'not for children of all ages.' But pretty quickly the powers-that-be found a way to make the NC-17 become the new 'X' and today studios will no longer make or distribute a NC-17 film; but, that's another story. The point of this story is that no one has fought harder or longer or with more enthusiasm than Roger Ebert for justice and fairness and good movies. He's fought for intelligence in movies and, at the same time, he's fought for fun, for sex, beauty, humanity and did I mention sex? In San Francisco, Roger Ebert's our kind of guy.

"Roger and I have both been lucky to find great loves in our lives who stood by us through thick and thin, who had our backs, at the same time led us, who were our partners. I wouldn't be here today if not for Rose and Roger wouldn't be here if not for Chaz. Chaz and Roger, I wanted to tell you a little story about Rose. I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago. Rose and I went to see a film at the Hyde Park Theatre. One of us liked the film and the other one didn't. I've forgotten who felt what. I've even forgotten the name of the film. But I do remember that—in the heat of our passionate disagreement—Rose hauled off and punched me in the face. ...A couple of hours later after thinking things over in some of the local bars, I decided, 'Who needs this shit?' I staggered back to our one and a half room basement apartment on Blackstone ready to end our relationship. Rose had bolted the damn door. I was locked out on a cold, windy Chicago night. I walked around to the alley and found a window that was slightly open. This was the window to the tiny bedroom. As I crawled through the window onto the bed, Rose grabbed me and wrapped herself around me. Tears were all over her face. She whispered, 'Enough of this crap. Let's make our own films. Let's make our own films.'

"We stayed in that bed for days and talked through those days and every night that followed about everything; a lot about films. Our conversation went on for the next 50 years. We never stopped talking. [At this moment grief overwhelmed Kaufman and he found it difficult to speak. Ebert reached out his hand to him.] It's tough being here because Rose and I saw hundreds of movies in this theater. We saw many with Mel. We loved this theater. I thought I could get through this more easily; but, anyway, Rose—as anyone who knew her can attest—never stopped telling me or anyone exactly what she thought. She was fearless and brave as hell, like Roger. As I said, I wouldn't have the honor of being up here on stage with Roger and Chaz if not for Rose.

"I just wanted to say, Roger: thanks for always keeping the bedroom window slightly open. Thanks for encouraging me and these wonderful directors up here and thousands of aspiring filmmakers all over the world to make our own films. Now, as one Chicagoan who has found his home here in San Francisco to another Chicagoan who will always have a second home here, I'd like to present you with a couple of things."

At this juncture Kaufman read aloud Mayor Gavin Newsom's proclamation of May 1, 2010 as Roger Ebert Day in San Francisco and handed Ebert the Mel Novikoff Award.

Cross-published on
Twitch. Introductory photograph of Ebert and friends in front of the Castro Theatre marquee courtesy of Pamela Gentile and the San Francisco Film Society.

Friday, May 14, 2010

HOLA MEXICO FILM FESTIVAL 2010—The Evening Class Interview With Samuel Douek

Though the touring Hola Mexico Film Festival (HMFF) was woefully under-attended during its San Francisco stint at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema, it nonetheless provided a welcome program of both arthouse and popular films representing Mexico's cinematic output in the past year or so. The festival received some assistance from the Mexican Consulate, and near-to-negligible support from Landmark's publicist Steve Indig (an e-mail blast in the middle of the festival? A "you're on your own" attitude? C'mon, Steve!). Hopefully next year HMFF will hire a publicist and not rely exclusively on either the Mexican Consulate or Landmark to generate buzz on the event and, hopefully, they time the festival to not run the day after the San Francisco International wraps, by which time even the most resilient cinephiles are exhausted. I know I was. I would hate to think that—in a community that boasts such a large Latino demographic—support for HMFF will not increase in the years to come.

HMFF is continuing its national tour, currently screening in Miami at the Tower Theater through May 16, next in Chicago at Landmark's Century Centre Cinemas (May 20-25), then Washington, D.C. at Landmark's E Street Cinemas (May 27-June 1), wrapping up in New York at the Quad Cinema (June 2-June 6). Keep abreast of developments at HMFF's Facebook page.

As Festival Director Samuel Douek states in his introduction to HMFF's souvenir program: "Film has always been an important part of [Mexico's] culture and heritage, but we are now beginning to form a new chapter in Mexico's film history. More than 80 films have been produced this last year in Mexico, the government is giving filmmakers incentives, and numerous private production companies are emerging. Even more exciting, film festivals around the world are continuing to award Mexican films and the new wave of brilliant talent is beginning to emerge. Some would call this the modern day Golden Age of Mexican Cinema."

The proof's in the pudding. No less than a few days before HMFF launched at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema, Alamar—Pedro González-Rubio's sophomore feature—won the New Directors Award at the 53rd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Alamar was just one of the excellent films hand-picked by Douek for his festival.

Australia's strategic concept of touring festivals that spotlight national cinemas and the communities imagined as their respective audiences have been interestingly discussed by Adrian Martin and Dina Iordanova in the recently-published
Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities. At her site DinaView, Iordanova has offered up their exchange. How this strategy applies in the United States is just one of the many topics touched upon in my conversation with HMFF Director Samuel Douek.

Samuel Douek is a man who appreciates film, international travel and—above all—his heritage. Combining his three favorite things, Douek founded HMFF in 2006 with the goal of exposing the international community to the creativity, ingenuity and charm of Mexican culture through film. Douek was raised in Mexico City and at age 23 moved to Sydney, Australia where he received a Marketing degree from Mcquarie University in 2002 and a Masters degree in Event Management from UTS. Once in Sydney, Douek began to visit local festivals in the Sydney area and noticed the lack of Mexican influence in cinema. From that point on, he became inspired to create an international Mexican film festival and HMFF was eventually born. Douek's festival brings misunderstood Mexican culture to educate the entire world, one film at a time. His diverse but well-edited selection of 20+ films allows viewers to experience the unique walks of life that characterize Mexican identity and culture. Over the past four years, the festival has extended its reach to the United States, providing an opportunity for American citizens to experience the beauty, creativity and talent in Mexican film. Currently, Douek splits his time between Australia and Mexico, while also taking advantage of travel opportunities that send him across the globe. Inbetween afternoon screenings, we sat down to talk.

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Michael Guillén: Samuel, what motivated you to create a traveling film festival of Mexican cinema?

Samuel Douek: I didn't know I was doing a traveling film festival at the beginning. I was just following the trend in Australia, which was that all these different film festivals were organized to be ready to travel. They would screen in Sydney, then the next week they would be in Melbourne, then Brisbane, then Adelaide, then to Perth. Two or three of these festivals would run in those cities. For example, they would buy the rights for all these Italian films and screen them. Then the Goethe Institut did the same in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane. And then there was a Spanish Film Festival and a French Film Festival and all of them used the same strategy. I decided I wanted to do a Mexican Film Festival using the same idea.

My first year (2006) I did it only in Sydney and Melbourne and we did really well so the year afterwards we added Brisbane and Perth. In our fourth year, last year, we went to six cities: Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Perth.

During the second year of my festival, I came to the U.S. on holiday. I saw that there wasn't a Mexican Film Festival at all: not in New York, not in L.A., not anywhere! I thought about doing the same festival I was doing in cities in Australia, only here in cities in the U.S. Although it's not the same because in Australia the festival has the same sponsors everywhere. In the U.S. every city has its own sponsors.

Guillén: Who is sponsoring you in San Francisco?

La Kalle 105.7-100.7 FM, Estéreo Sol 98.9-99.1 FM, and Recuerdo 100.3 FM [all under the aegis of Univision 14], Telefutura, and Associated Trucking, Inc. Mexicana, Dos Equis, Cine Latino and Labodigital are our national sponsors.

Also, in Australia HMFF plays in the same chain of cinemas, whereas in the U.S. I work with
Landmark, the independent Quad Cinema in New York, the independent Tower Theater in Miami, and the Arclight Cinema in L.A. So it's different in every city with marketing. The U.S. is much bigger and it's harder to do everything. The news spreads faster in Australia. If there's news in Sydney, it will go everywhere; if there's news in Melourne, as well—it's a 22-million people country—whereas in the U.S., if things are going on in L.A., people in San Francisco won't know. Same with New York. Every city is their own, so marketing is much more difficult than I thought it was going to be at the beginning when I was trying to replicate in the U.S.A. what I was doing in Australia.

Guillén: In Australia, what's your estimate of the Latino population? Are they coming to see your festival? Who comprises your audience?

Douek: It's 70% Australian, 30% Latino. Sometimes there's more, sometimes there's less. Mexico is seen as unique and "exotic" in Australia.

Guillén: Ah, that explains why in your press release you bill HMFF as "Your Escape to Exotic Mexico"?

Douek: In Australia they really enjoy watching Mexican stuff because they don't have that much. HMFF has built a great audience there. It works very well for us.

Guillén: At last year's Toronto International Film Festival I had the opportunity to talk to Diana Sanchez who programs most of their Latino films. After acknowledging that Toronto does not have a sizeable enough Latino demographic to target, she indicated to me that she programs films more with a non-Latino audience in mind, aware that many of these are films that Latinos themselves wouldn't go see because they're more arthouse than genre and don't have enough charge. Do you find that to be true?

Douek: A hundred percent. There are amazing Mexican films that go out into the film festival circuit and win awards all around the world but—when they open in the cinemas in Mexico—Mexicans won't go out to see them. That's due to a lot of things. A film like Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas wins awards everywhere in the world, but then he could hardly sell it in Mexico.

Guillén: He told me he initially had difficulty selling the U.S. distribution rights for $10,000.

Douek: So it's not something that just happens in Mexico. A Romanian film that wins top honors at the Cannes Film Festival doesn't know if they'll go home and make a lot of money. Usually those films—though talented and amazing, breaking through with cinematic achievements—don't translate into financial success, and vice versa. Some films like El Estudiante (The Student, 2009) or Arráncame la vida (Tear This Heart Out, 2008) that make millions of dollars in Mexican box office wouldn't go to any festivals around the world because they don't translate. Film festivals are more about the art part of cinema, whereas the box office is more about the commercial side. In saying that, HMFF is a portrait of Mexican cinema and we bring films like El Estudiante and Amor En Fin (Love On A Wknd, 2009), which are both commercial, but then we also bring films like Vaho (Becloud, 2009) or Norteado (Northless, 2009), which are more artistic. At the end, we're just trying to bring cinema that's well-produced with good sound, good acting.

Guillén: I understand that you scout for most of your films at the Guadalajara Film Festival?

Douek: That's where I've started to try and build the core of my festival for the last few years; but, this last year there weren't many good films there.

Guillén: Do you scout at the Morelia Film Festival?

Douek: I haven't been there because it's very close to the time that I'm in Australia launching the new HMFF. It's too problematic to go for a week to Morelia and then back to Australia. But this year I'm really looking forward to going to Morelia because now I think it's the festival to go to. The bulk of great Mexican films this year—Vaho, Norteado, Alamar and La Mitad Del Mundo (The Half of the World, 2009)—all came from the Morelia Film Festival. From Guadalajara this year, I only have Bala Mordida (Bitten Bullet, 2009) and Oveja Negra (Black Sheep, 2009).

Guillén: Since it narrows down to a matter of personal taste, what is it that you're looking for when you scout for films at these festivals? And how do you go about negotiating and securing these films for HMFF?

Douek: What I'm looking for is, as I said, films that are well-produced, that have something unique, that tell a story, that have something to say—not necessarily about Mexico—but a story. I want to see films that are edited well, that have good sound and lighting, and that have good acting: all in all, well done. Unfortunately, a lot of Mexican films are still being made under bad conditions. It's unbelievable that these badly-made films are being made simply because there's the production money to make them. I also look for variety in my program. I want a film like El Estudiante—which is a charming family-oriented film—and then a film like Alamar, a film festival favorite that has won awards all around the world.

To negotiate for the films, if I know the directors I will contact them. If not, I will contact the producers, the distribution company or
IMCINE. By now, any film that's Mexican I have a way to get to.

Guillén: What do you offer your filmmakers? Why should they participate with HMFF?

Douek: We offer them the opportunity to screen their films in other countries. There are a lot of Mexican films that would never come to the U.S. if HMFF didn't bring them.

Guillén: I am personally grateful to HMFF for that.

Douek: Thank you. So that's one thing we offer. We also promote each film individually the best we can. At each city where HMFF plays, we invite the filmmakers to travel with us. [Laughs.] Imagine a huge touring bus with about 20 bunk beds so that the 12 filmmakers could travel with me for one month from city to city. Imagine me driving the bus with all the 35mm cannisters loaded underneath! That would be interesting to do ... once!

Guillén: Speaking of the spectacular dimension of HMFF, I'm aware that Alejandro Gerber Bicecci (Vaho) is the only director attending the San Francisco festival; but, there were several of your directors in attendance in Los Angeles?

Douek: We had a lot of talent, about 15 people. We had an opening night red carpet event for all the Hollywood media and received national coverage from Univision and Telemundo.

Guillén: Will there be talent at the remaining venues on the HMFF tour?

Douek: We always, at least, try to bring the director of the opening night film and one or two more, if possible. The important distinction is that HMFF is a festival but not a festival in the usual sense. In another way, we want to establish ourselves as a week of Mexican films in each city. For one week people can come and know that every time they go to the cinema they're going to see Mexican movies.

Guillén: I mentioned to you that one of the factors I feel is working against you this go-round is the fact that HMFF opened one day after the San Francisco International finished. What determined the timing of HMFF in San Francisco?

Douek: This year, in particular, there is the
World Cup coming up on June 11 so we finish up in New York on June 6. Working back from that date, we set up the festival dates by working backwards every week. Unfortunately, San Francisco's dates were very close to the San Francisco International Film Festival. We didn't do that on purpose. Originally we were going to open in L.A., then go to Miami and then San Francisco and on to Washington D.C., but that became a bit of a logistic nightmare. Next year we would love to tour in June.

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Here is is the promotional video for HMFF USA 2010, made by Jason Archer. Archer has worked with Radiohead, Molotov and on such films as A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life.

Cross-published on