Wednesday, January 30, 2013

NOIR CITY 11: HELL DRIVERS (1957)—Alan Rode Introduction

Continuing their tribute to Peggy Cummins, Noir City offered two vehicles from 1957: Cy Endfield's Hell Drivers and Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon (aka Night of the Demon). Alan K. Rode—who I interviewed at Noir City 6 upon the publication of Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy—provided the introduction to both films.

When Eddie Muller first phoned Rode to advise that the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) was flying Peggy Cummins out for Noir City, Rode encouraged FNF to consider Hell Drivers. Through the auspices of Noir City programmer Anita Monga, they were able to reach out to Park Circus to secure a print from the U.K.

For Rode, Hell Drivers epitomizes the word "gritty", literally gritty, grinding, testosterone-filled, edge-of-your-seat, and sure to have you gripping your chair. A signature post-war British film that's uncompromisingly tough and violent, Cummins' co-star Stanley Baker was the perfect fit. One author described Baker as "the British version of Jack Palance" with a face clenched like a fist; but, there was a lot to Baker. He had grown up in a coal mining family in South Wales and was an authentic tough guy. His father had lost a leg in a coal mine. Baker's upbringing influenced his character Tom Yately in Hell Drivers—a guy who just got out of jail for a crime gone wrong, suffering from a lot of guilt, and looking to start over with a new job hauling ballast. What Yately doesn't realize is that he has left a tough and uncompromising prison world only to enter another world that is hypercompetitive, brutal, corrupt and violent.

But when he shows up to hire on, who wouldn't take a job where his initial interview is with Peggy Cummins wearing a pair of blue jeans? Let alone that the cast for Hell Drivers is a who's who of British cinema in the 1960s. In addition to Stanley Baker, the film's testosterone is supported by Patrick McGoohan playing an all-time villain ("and you'll wonder how the cigarette never falls off the edge of his lip"), Sean Connery, Gordon Jackson and the late great Herbert Lom.

From a directorial perspective, Hell Drivers is equally significant for having been written and directed by Cy Endfield, who likewise helped write the script for Night of the Demon, as well as writing and directing the upcoming Noir City entry Try and Get Me!

Endfield grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father lost everything during the Depression. He studied drama at Yale, was associated with the Communist Party for a time, then went to Hollywood where he was hired by Orson Welles' producer. Endfield had met Orson Welles in a magic shop because—in addition to being a writer and a nascent filmmaker—he was also an inventor, eventually inventing the world's smallest typewriter. He worked with Welles because Welles' producer said Endfield was the only one who could play a magic trick on Welles and make him look silly.

Endfield started in the MGM shorts department where he produced a significant short entitled Inflation (1942) about American companies gouging people during the war effort. The short was acclaimed but then quickly withdrawn and Endfield was labeled as unreliable. He drifted into B films, shooting several Joe Palooka films (which established his relationship with Hal. E. Chester) and then made The Underworld Story, which was quite a significant film in 1950 starring Dan Duryea. He then made Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury), by which time he had secured a passport to leave the country for a trip to England. When his passport expired and he went to get a new one the government basically told him, "We don't like you. We're not going to give you a passport." So he found himself unemployed in England, unable to return to his home country, and began doing uncredited writing gigs through assumed names, including Night of the Demon.

By 1956-1957, the Hollywood Black List had started to cool down and Hell Drivers became the first film Endfield had made since 1950 where he could actually put his name on the title. Interestingly, Stanley Baker made six pictures with Endfield and four with Joseph Losey. As ex-patriates working in Britain, both Endfield and Losey had a perspective upon Britain, the people, the time, the post-War culture, that other English directors did not have.

NOIR CITY 11: GUN CRAZY (1950)—Movie Posters

Alternate title: Deadly Is the Female



Tuesday, January 29, 2013

NOIR CITY 11: GUN CRAZY (1950)—Eddie Muller Introduction and On-Stage Conversation With Peggy Cummins

I have literally grown up in San Francisco's Castro Theatre where—at the tender age of 20—I caught my first film on its giant screen (if I remember correctly, Bette Davis in Now Voyager). That would have been back in 1975 and now nearly four decades later, my mind swims with the myriad premiere events, celebrity tributes and film festivals that have taken place in that majestic movie palace—one of the few remaining venues of its stature left in the United States—where the Mighty Wurlitzer ritually belts out "San Francisco" to enthusiastic audiences clapping time in unison. Nearly every major community-based and genre film festival has held its opening night ceremonies at the Castro, if not their entire runs, and whereas some have come and gone, others like San Francisco's annual Noir City film festival continue to prosper and grow, the opening night of its 11th edition breaking all attendance records to date.

Naturally, as with any expanding midriff, things need to be let out and restitched here and again to accommodate growth. The increased popularity of Noir City's opening night has necessitated new strategies of ticket tiering, crowd control and media access, adjustments that inspire both grumbles and grins. The opening night reception customarily held in the Castro's mezzanine is fast becoming an unwieldy mass of elbow shoving and spilled wine; but, one thing holds constant throughout the proceedings and that is the surety with which the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) delivers a program of noir favorites assembled from the best prints available or recently restruck under the aegis of film education, restoration and preservation. In other words, as this year's theme attests, Noir City is "keeping it reel." That's bang for your buck, folks.

To launch its second decade, Noir City elected to pay tribute to Peggy Cummins, "the deadliest female in all of film noir", by way of opening their 10-day festival with Cummins' iconic performance as Annie Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy (1950), directed by Joseph H. Lewis from an (uncredited) screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, and co-starring John Dall (as Annie's partner-in-crime Bart Tare).

With the theater packed with an audience buzzing with anticipation, the now legendary disembodied "voice of Noir City", William P. Arney, situated the audience's attention towards the stage and screen with his wry drawl: "Alright ladies and gentlemen, you might as well settle in because no one is going anywhere for a while. I see a lot of newbies in the audience tonight, and plenty of repeat offenders, but all of you have drawn the same sentence. So start rationing your popcorn, planning your bathroom breaks, and budgeting for those parking tickets, because you have been found guilty of extreme movie fanaticism and you're about to serve your time." Introducing Eddie Muller as "writer, noirchaeologist, San Francisco literary laureate, boss of the Film Noir Foundation, and Lindsay Lohan's personal media consultant", the crowd erupted into affectionate applause for everyone's beloved Czar of Noir.

Once the applause subsided, Muller let out a huge sigh. "It seems like about 10 seconds ago I was on this stage concluding our fantastic 10th anniversary celebration of Noir City … and then I must have blinked, because an entire year has gone by. But I know that something happened in the middle there because things are very different now than they were at the end of the last festival and a lot of those things have to do with this city and an incredible sense of civic pride, this coming from a native San Franciscan. The last time I stood on this stage and we closed the Noir City Film Festival, there was a different world champion in baseball, and when this festival concludes next Sunday, we will be the city of champions!" Muller noted that another "surge of pride" this week stemmed from the opening of the San Francisco Jazz Center, which in his estimation provides San Francisco an official claim to being the jazz capitol of America. "And, as if there was any doubt at all, the 11th edition of this festival proves that San Francisco—and specifically the Castro Theatre—is the film noir mecca of the world. Yes, that's right, I said mecca. I'm afraid the FBI is going to start tapping my phone line."

"Last year when we celebrated our 10-year anniversary," Muller continued, "I was actually secretly a little bit disappointed because the Film Noir Foundation did not have any restorations to present to you, so we made up for it this year because—during the next 10 days—we will be presenting the world premieres of four 35mm restorations, three of which are funded fully or partially by the Film Noir Foundation, which means that you guys actually paid for it.

"Since all of this began, it has occurred to all of us at the Film Noir Foundation that we are not only in the business of preserving films, we are actually in the business of preserving the filmgoing experience. So it's incredibly great to see all of you packing this house tonight and there are people in here who are here because they remember what it was like back in the day to come out and see movies like this with other people, to socialize, to actually get out of the house and meet other people and see other human beings and we're actually doing this for a new generation because we want them to know that movies [and here Muller turned towards the Castro screen and spread out his arms wide] are this big!"

Speaking of the next generation of noir aficionados, Muller shouted out to Serena Bramble whose new clip reel "When Death Comes" preceded his introduction. Technical glitches marred that premiere a bit; but, those kinks will assuredly be worked out by the film's next presentation on Bad Girls night. Bramble has a keen sense of editorial rhythm and assembles her images judiciously.

Muller then introduced Audra Wolfmann, this year's Miss Noir City and "mistress of festivities", who accompanied him on stage to further announcements. Noting that—though sweaty and sexy on the festival poster (which emulates J. Howard Miller's infamous 1943 "We Can Do It" propaganda poster)—she had dried out and cleaned up nicely, Audra countered by congratulating Muller on managing to free himself from being hogtied on the projection room floor. "Audra really enjoyed this photo shoot," Muller commented, "because she did actually get to tie me up and trample on me for a couple of hours." "It was a dream come true; I'm not going to deny it," Wolfmann admitted, "but you were such a director. You were like, 'Tie it tighter. You tightened the knot wrong.' "Something else San Francisco's been getting a reputation for," Muller quipped.

As for the opening night film Gun Crazy, Muller advised, "If somebody tells you that the movie you are about to see is the most exciting, dynamic and cinematically influential film noir movie ever made, just agree with them. It's not worth arguing, okay? Without this film Jean-Luc Godard would never have been inspired to make Breathless, David Newman and Arthur Penn would have had nothing to shoot for when they made Bonnie and Clyde, nobody would refer to Joseph H. Lewis as the most creative B-movie director ever, and all of those guys owe an incredible debt to the woman we have here tonight, whose performance in this movie is plainly and simply the most ferocious female ever to appear on a motion picture screen. We do it right here at Noir City so I am absolutely thrilled to welcome to San Francisco—I made her leave the sixguns at the hotel—please give a San Francisco welcome to Annie Laurie Starr, the fabulous all-the-way-from-London Peggy Cummins."

A San Francisco welcome is always a thunderous event and Cummins was visibly moved as she stood to receive her standing room ovation; an ovation that was repeated as she found her way to the stage to converse with Muller after the screening of Gun Crazy.

On stage, Cummins found it difficult to speak at first, "tremendously moved." She admitted that she felt a little bit like Cinderella, in that a few days down the line she would be back home, washing up over the sink, peeling potatoes, and doing all the normal things one does. "My son will say, 'How'd you get on, Mum?' How can I tell them? What's the song? I left my heart in San Francisco? That's the song that I'll be singing."

Muller asked Cummins if she understood the audience reaction? If she understood why people love Gun Crazy and her character Annie Laurie Starr, though "love" is a weird way to put it? After all, she's had a few years to think about it. "Quite a few years, as you can see," she laughed, but then stated, "To try to give reality to it, it makes me very sad in many ways watching it now. I very seldom see it. I get a lot of letters from all over the world and they all speak about Gun Crazy and, of course, it's wonderful but it still makes me feel very sad at times because it's a sad movie—isn't it?—in a way. I don't want to know what you think about me in it, but anyway you seem to be kind enough to like me for it so I'm very grateful. That's all I can say. It was a great part for me. Can you imagine at this stage in one's life to be here after so many years and to get this reception? It's unbelievable. It is! You genuinely like and understand the movie, I believe. You probably know that I came to America in 1945 from England and I was going to play in Forever Amber, but they said—whoever they are—that I wasn't sexy enough." The audience hissed disapproval.

"That would have been Darryl F. Zanuck," Muller clarified.

"Well, it was the studio. Anyway, a very good actress played the part. Linda Darnell is, sadly, no longer with us; but, she actually—when I think of it—was probably much better than I could have been really. But then I got my luck with getting this part. When I say 'my luck', well, it was a part that I felt I could play. Don't ask me why. And it wasn't only me. Nothing is only you. It's the writer, the script, the director: I'm sure you've all heard these things before but they are true, aren't they?"

Agreeing that they absolutely were, Muller nonetheless qualified that there were members of the audience who didn't know the historical background of the film and, therefore, he wanted to pursue that line of inquiry. The producers of Gun Crazy were the King Brothers—Frank, Maurice and Herman King—who had a reputation for being low rent filmmakers; but, they belied that reputation because they made tremendous movies, of which Gun Crazy could be considered their crowning achievement. Characterizing them as "bottom feeders" (to which Cummins responded, "I beg your pardon?"), she then affirmed that they didn't give her that impression and that she got along with them very well, as she gets along with most people. "We get along," she smiled at Muller.

Noting that Forever Amber was a huge bestselling romance novel by Kathleen Winsor and that the search for the actress to play Amber was commensurate to the search for Scarlett in Gone With the Wind; 20th Century Fox did a worldwide search for the actress to play Amber in the film. Zanuck chose Cummins—who was then only 18—to play Amber. Muller asked if Cummins could first detail her acting background in the U.K.

Cummins outlined that she started off in Ireland at the Gate Theater in Dublin. They wanted a child to do a silhouette scene in The Duchess of Malfi. Although she initially wanted to be a ballet dancer, and took classes at a local school, she was singled out to play the child in the Gate production. "I looked like a boy," she said, "I was straight up and down with short hair and very small, so I got the part. On the first night I had to stand [sideways] which was a silhouette on stage; but, I thought—well, I didn't think, mind you, in this part—'I just don't understand. I want to look at the audience.' So I turned right around to look at the audience. When the scene was over, and we came off [stage], the director said to me, 'You should not have done that. You were meant to stand the other way.' And I said, 'But I wanted to look at the audience.' So.

"From that they needed other children in other Shakespearean plays … and I got a lot of parts. I was given a quarter—not a half—but a quarter pound of chocolates and that was my salary. My brother used to meet me to pick me up to take me home on the bus and he ate all the chocolates before I ever got home. …I got all these parts and I got very good reviews, you know? Then, I had this part to go to London. My mother wasn't an actress but I think she was very keen. I was unaware of being an actress or whatever you might have called it and, yes, one enjoyed it, I enjoyed the parts. There's a story I could tell you if we have enough time about a gentleman who is here who saw me in that play in London, which really was my great success on the London stage, and that brought me to the attention of Zanuck at 20th Century Fox."

The play was called Junior Miss and Louis—the young man who saw her in that production—was, at the time, a G.I. stationed in the U.K., 24 years of age to her 18. Now living in the East Bay, Louis had recently written Cummins reminding her that he had seen her in Junior Miss at the Savoy Theater in London "with the doodle bugs coming down." Cummins recalled having to act against the sound of those falling bombs as if nothing were happening. "That's acting," she boasted. When Muller and the Film Noir Foundation were arranging for Cummins' travel to the U.S., she mentioned this anecdote about the letter she received so the Foundation contacted Louis, inviting him to come meet her at Noir City. Of course, he had written her the letter with no knowledge that she would be in San Francisco, but welcomed the opportunity for Noir City to be the chance to reunite with her after some 60 years or so.

Not wanting to bring up bad memories, Muller nonetheless presumed it must have been devastating for Cummins to lose the role of Amber after having initially been cast. In typical Hollywood fashion, they had started filming the movie with Cummins in the role and then rather unceremoniously announced that the production was closing. "It was shattering," Cummins admitted, "to get a part like that and then find that the whole production had been shut and that was it." She went home to the U.K., made other films—including Curse of the Demon (1957) and Hell Drivers (1957), both included in Noir City's Cummins tribute—but of course the film that did more for her than any of them was Gun Crazy.

Muller wondered when Cummins first read the script for Gun Crazy—which had originally been entitled Deadly Is the Female—if she wanted to play the part because she had just been through this ordeal where she'd been told she was not sexy enough? Cummins responded that she never really took notice of that comment. But because she had blonde hair and pale skin, she was cast in a lot of nondescript roles. Not to say that the productions were nondescript. She was grateful for her role in Curse of the Demon but there really wasn't much to it and the true pleasure was in acting across Dana Andrews who she considered a lovely man and a wonderful actor. Despite unassuming roles, her career has afforded her the chance to work with many talented actors who made her look good. John Dall, she insisted, made her look good in Gun Crazy, though admittedly she made him look pretty good as well. "It's a reciprocal thing," she explained. "In acting it's terribly important that you both get on and both have the feeling of what the script is about, and not analyze it too much."

Cummins admitted that she was unaware at the time that the script was ghostwritten by Dalton Trumbo. The story for Gun Crazy was originally written by MacKinlay Kantor in the Saturday Evening Post and it was quite an elaborate story based very much on Kantor's upbringing. The original story was more Bart's story and a heavy thing about why someone would have this fetish for shooting guns. The King Brothers bought Kantor's story and screenplay, but then the smartest thing they did was to hire Dalton Trumbo—who had been the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood but was then blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee—because they could get him on the cheap. They had him rewrite the screenplay and bring it in in such a way that it was actually manageable. He cut a lot out of Kantor's screenplay and tightened it up. A lot of the kinetic energy seen in the film had to do with Dalton Trumbo's screenplay; but, of course, he did all of this under the radar because he had been blacklisted. Millard Kaufman, a fine writer in his own right, acted as Trumbo's front for the project. Trumbo did this because he was trying to write as many scripts as he could to earn as much money as he could before being sent to prison for contempt of Congress as one of the "Hollywood Ten." The Prowler was another film written by Trumbo for which he received no credit. Actors like Cummins were more often than not totally unaware of Trumbo's involvement. In retrospect, Cummins considered it amazing that she was lucky enough to act in one of his scripts but emphasized how disconcerting it was to realize what he went through.

As for director Joseph H. Lewis, Cummins recalled he had made quite a few very good films, but emphasized that credit couldn't lie just with the screenwriter, or the director, but must include the camera man, and the make-up technicians, etc.. "I'm taking credit now," she said, "which should be their credit. You know what I mean?" Muller conceded that, yes, a project like Gun Crazy was much like "catching lightning in a bottle" where all the right collaborators together made something so special.

Muller then wanted to know about the film's action sequences and stunts, all of which Cummins performed herself. Cummins recalled that when it came to shooting the film's final sequence in the marsh, Lewis complained to her that she was putting too much black dirt on her face but the truth was that she was going through all that water and she was falling down and getting dirty. It was difficult to shoot, as well as emotional for her because she felt Annie's desperation in being hunted and caught. Hopefully, she said, that emotion came through? Cummins confirmed that her multiple stumbles and falls in the film were not choreographed or rehearsed by Lewis, they were genuine, and "poor" John Dall had to keep dragging her and telling her, "Come on!" And, of course, she joked, she couldn't let go of her handbag. What self-respecting woman would let go of her handbag while running through a swamp?

Muller noted how there had been spontaneous applause after the bank robbery scene, which has since become acknowledged as one of the great scenes in Gun Crazy. Again, Cummins confirmed that the scene was not as rehearsed as one might expect. Lewis encouraged the actors to improvise their dialogue as they went along in these scenes because he knew the actors had done their work and knew what was expected of them. Case in point, in that scene when John Dall goes into the bank and Cummins is waiting in the car parked in a place where she shouldn't be parked, the cop arrives and (in character) Cummins thought, "Oh my Lord, look who's coming. How can I get out of this?" She got out of the car and made small talk. She was wearing her cowgirl outfit, so the policeman looked at her guns, she looked at his, he said hands off, Dall came out of the bank, they knocked him out and took off in the car; all of it was fairly spontaneous for such a long scene filmed in one take. To film her looking back at the crime scene and shooting the policeman, the back end of the car had been cut off and there was a platform with the camera and microphones in place to film her. Cummins remembered that "the chaps were a bit nervous about my driving."

As for her co-star John Dall, Cummins described him as a great stage actor, which meant a lot to her because she considered herself more a stage actress than a film actress. In fact, watching Serena Bramble's introductory clip reel that featured the faces of so many of Hollywood's most famous femme fatales, by comparison Cummins felt she was nobody: "They were great stars." Muller protested, "But so are you, Peggy. You have achieved immortality with this film." The audience applauded in agreement, to which Cummins murmured, "Don't make me cry. Please, don't. Emotionally, you can't realize what it's like to sit here at my stage in life. It's amazing. I can't help but think of all these people who have helped me and I truly have left my heart in San Francisco."

Photos courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation.

Of Related Interest: Marilyn Ferdinand interviews Cummins for Keyframe. G. Allen Johnson does the honors for the San Francisco Chronicle. Further write-ups for Noir City 11's opening night include Lara Fowler at Backlots; Michael Strickland at Civic Center; and Sean Martinfield for The Huffington Post. Festival overviews provided by Tavo Amador for the Bay Area Reporter and Tom Mayer for Cinesource (which includes an interview with Eddie Muller). Daily updates from Noir City can be found at the Film Noir Foundation's Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


The Roman god Janus, patron of the month of January, inspired my participation at the 24th edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), as I looked both North and South while sifting through 180 films from 68 countries, including 61 premieres (3 world, 21 North American and 37 U.S.) to shape—as is often done in the face of so much choice—my own private film festival. I drew heavily from PSIFF's Cine Latino and Nordic Light sidebars for my selections.

Although programming for PSIFF has in the past been criticized by some for consisting of middling titles that coddle their senior demographic—calling into question the responsibility of programmers to educate rather than appease; in other words, to curate rather than program—I'm fully aware that film festival personnel must cater to multiple stakeholders invested in such events, no less the buying public. True to Janus, they must look to the newly introduced as well as the consensually-annointed, to the spectacular as well as the humble, to narratives of all scale and tempo and length, in order to offer a representation of world cinema at this contemporary moment. Some titles will always be missing from such a representation, just as several wait to be discovered, and all in all—with a little thoughtful research beforehand—a good time is all but assured. Then again, as was explained to me by one elderly woman, one can arrange their schedule solely by time slot, like playing scratchers in the lottery. Not my style, but to each their own jackpot.

Perhaps the most notable distinction of this festival from years past, however, was the seeming decrease in talent accompanying their films. I'm not talking about PSIFF's "other" film festival with its red carpet posturing and gala award extravaganzas (which require a separate press pass altogether, let alone a healthy obsession with Hollywood's celebrated marketability), but all those foreign directors with little or no celebrity who in the past have shown up at PSIFF to lobby for their films' chances in the race for the Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars®. With the short list being announced earlier than years past, those no longer eligible perhaps lost incentive to attend? Rumors were circulating widely regarding how the festival would compensate. Will the festival shift to December to anticipate Oscar® pronouncements? Would it re-strategize its Awards Buzz profile and aim for late January? Attendees, such as myself, who schedule PSIFF as a post-Christmas event in a serious effort to get away from winter climates back East, in the Midwest and the Northwest, would suffer not to have our holiday from inclement weather; though, admittedly, this edition of PSIFF disappointed many of us with increasingly chilly weather as the festival progressed and the potential hazard of being hit over the head with a serrated palm frond blown off an overhanging tree.

Bundled up more than usual and dodging such hazards, I managed to catch 25 titles in-cinema, a few on screener, one on streaming while waiting for my flight home in the airport, and arranged for a few substantive interviews (to follow). For now, here's my wrap-up of PSIFF's 24th edition, organized alphabetically.

* * *

Much has been written about Michel Franco's After Lucia (Después de Lucía, 2012) with regard to its scathing indictment of peer bullying, and there's certainly enough of that on screen to make you furious; but, what seemed more interesting to me was the very question asked by many of the audience members as they were leaving the theater: "Why did Alejandra (Tessa Ia) allow herself to be bullied so severely by her classmates? Why didn't she tell her father or anyone in authority? Why didn't she fight back?" The title implies the answer to those queries. Lucia, Alejandra's mother, has died in an automobile accident before the film has even started. Her absence is structural and within it smolders enough survivor's guilt to more than incapacitate any individual, let alone a young teenage girl. I appreciate that Franco has approached the self-inflicted damage of survivor's guilt with such a dry eye; but, even without manipulative music to cue emotion—and similar to his earlier film Daniel & Ana (which I didn't much care for)—Franco ruthlessly exploits the foibles of upper class Mexicans, almost to a fault. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Winner of the Best Director Prize, as well as Best German Film, at last year's Berlin Film Festival, and the opening night film at San Francisco's Berlin & Beyond, Christian Petzold's Barbara (2012) is anchored on an amazingly restrained performance by Petzold's muse Nina Hoss in the title role. Rivaling Isabelle Huppert in conveying volumes with the slightest arch of an eyebrow—or, more specifically, the creased dimple at the edge of her mouth—I couldn't take my eyes off Hoss for fear of allowing a universe of emotion to pass me by. But this is not merely a performance-driven film; its elegant, precise, nearly classic narrative depicts life under Stasi surveillance, accounting for why Barbara hides so much and reveals so little. And it squares off to Freedom's complicated countenance. Shall Barbara flee to the West with a man who would make her his wife and disallow her to practice medicine? Or should she be the doctor she has trained to be, albeit under surveillance? Official site [German]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

When Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri, 2012) was introduced to its PSIFF audience, the sponsor Lesbian News was resoundly thanked. Spoilers anyone? Of course, the film is accomplished beyond its own narrative, which as a gay male is one I've long endured: the role of the Catholic church and internalized homophobia in misinterpreting and misshaping the very natural feelings between same-sex couples. This is a sad story brilliantly told and its final scenes are as bleak as they are accurate. Official site [Hungarian]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

I'm grateful to Linda Blackaby and Michael Hawley for steering me towards Canadian entry Camion (2012), Rafaël Ouellet's solid drama about a father who—after a fatal vehicle collision (which made me yelp out loud)—suffers a breakdown requiring the assistance of his two sons who come home to help him get back on his feet. By doing so, they move their own lives along towards more authenticity and fulfillment. The performances are all downplayed and honest, you care about these people, and you gain a real sense of homecoming as a resuscitative act. The film's hunting sequence is about as intense and thrilling a turn as in the more visible The Hunt. Men and their guns. IMDb. Facebook.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize, Un Certain Regard, Cannes, Aida Begic's Children of Sarajevo (Djeca, 2012) had its U.S. premiere at PSIFF. I was quite fond of Begic's Snow when it screened at the 2009 PSIFF and was looking forward to Begic's follow-up, which proved not quite as poetic as Snow but commendable nonetheless for Marija Pikic's lead performance as the beleaguered Rahima (earning her the Best Actress award at the Sarajevo Film Festival). The film's narrative is slight—basically the problems Rahima encounters making ends meet while taking care of a delinquent brother who is being bullied at school—but works as a portrait of postwar Sarajevo and the lingering inequities towards Muslims. Having lost her parents to the war, and one brother to drugs, Rahima struggles to keep her youngest brother Nedim on track. Perhaps if she would not wear a head scarf she would not draw provocation upon herself? But Rahima refuses to compromise her integrity.

There were two scenes that harkened back to the beauty witnessed in Snow. Comfortable with a friend, Rahima removes her headscarf and her beautiful hair falls loose like soft water. It suggests how she must guard her beauty, hide it even, within an environment of corrupt politicians and predatorial criminals. Then there is the dream where, with her beautiful hair down her back, Rahima silently pursues a woman dressed in a sky blue burka who moves through war-ravaged Sarajevo. When Rahima finally catches up to her, and the woman turns, for a moment you see that her face is a mirror. As noted in PSIFF's capsule, "Aida Begic's underlying theme is Bosnia's lost moral compass as it remains trapped in a torturously slow transition from a state of war." However, as much as I was invested in the actors' performances of their characters, the narrative lacked traction. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Brazil's feted feature The Clown (O Palhaço, 2011) by Selton Mello presents its charm in straightforward, broad if familiar strokes. Nothing too complex here, hazardously simplistic in fact, but colorfully filmed (and one of only three titles I saw on 35mm at PSIFF) with a palatable moral: cats drink milk, mice eat cheese, and we should all do what we can do. Take it or leave it. Offical website [Portuguese]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

It never ceases to amaze me how powerful Isabelle Huppert is as an actress; how little she has to do to convey so much. In Marco Bellochio's Dormant Beauty (Bella addormentata, 2012), there's a scene where she's in the dark and glances sideways that wowed me. I'm fond of Bellochio's work, caught several of his films at SF's New Italian Cinema years back and had the opportunity to meet him; but, it was Huppert who lured me into this film. I'd give anything to meet her.

Dormant Beauty broaches the important subject of euthanasia against a highly-publicized incidence in Italy that divided the nation. Despite some masterful and truly intriguing editing choices, I found the film "outsized" (as Michael Hawley put it), encouraging melodramatics that perhaps suit an Italian temperament, but not mine. I spent several sessions at the Hemlock Society back in the mid-'90s when a friend of mine dying of AIDS asked me to help him end his suffering by a lethal injection. At that time, I spoke with many individuals who were either wishing to die or asking their loved ones to help them die and never personally experienced the histrionics on display in Dormant Beauty. Instead, I encountered thoughtful individuals who felt no need to heighten the drama of their situations. The choices they were facing had, perhaps, defused their anger, their fear, their uncertainty. I'll never forget those conversations, which convinced me I could not assist my friend (something over which to this day I feel some regret and guilt). But not enough guilt to quote Lady Macbeth in my sleep; a truly "outsized" moment in the film, even for Huppert. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Watching Everardo González's Drought (Cuates de Australia, 2011) was as much an exercise in appreciating González's precise and compassionate eye detailing the hard lives of rancheros living in the water-forsaken regions of northern Mexico as it was putting up with clucking Palm Springs matrons who behave like those folks in Catholic legends who look down from Heaven on those damned in Hell as a measure of their own righteousness. They're more concerned that a burro is hit with a switch than the fact that mothers must worry that their unborn children are malnourished and dehydrated in the womb. They protest when an animal is slaughtered for food and will probably go home and order their Mexican cook to serve up steaks for dinner. Hypocrites. They disgust me.

As someone who grew up now and again working in the fields and on ranches, I had nothing but respect for the tenacious spirit depicted in Drought. Perseverance and humor furthers. González crafts a simple but effective alignment between the coming of the rain and the birth of new children. Winner: Best Documentary, Los Angeles Film Festival. IMDb. Facebook.

Elevated genre maintains philosophical heights in first-time Spanish director Jorge Torregrossa's The End (Fin, 2012), which takes all the bite out of the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse to present more of a fade-out, as stars begin to blink out of the sky, and people disappear one by one from one second to the next, for no known cause or reason. By avoiding any evident external threat as explanation, the situation gains gravity and depth, becoming—as the program capsule attests—"a thoughtful meditation on human connectedness and individual identity." It's always lovely to watch Maribel Verdú, no less here than in her other appearance at PSIFF as the wicked stepmother in Blancanieves, and a good looking cast makes all the more poignant their disappearances one by one. Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

I was a great fan of Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth's Altiplano (2009) a few years back; it made my top ten list for that year. So I was excited to see their follow-up The Fifth Season (La cinquième saison, 2012), billed as a kind of sci-fi fable about—not so much man against nature (as in The Deep) but nature against man—thus, imagine my disappointment at this overwrought and regrettably pretentious film. Perhaps film companion Michael Hawley described it best as disappointingly "slight." The premise was sound, and there were some impressive visuals, but I could barely get out of the theater fast enough. Perhaps I was too tired? The press notes boast a long list of "rave" reviews, which goes to show that with film criticism, the devil can indeed quote scripture...

Ryan Lattanzio wrote up first-time director / screenwriter Antonio Méndez Espaza's Here and There (Aquí y Allá, 2012) for The Evening Class—and then later in a slightly altered version for Indiewire—when he served as a student juror at Cannes. I'm grateful for his guidance. I made a point of catching the film at PSIFF and found it to be a small, simple, but enriching human tale. I overheard some folks in the audience complain that "nothing was happening", which in my mind has become a euphemism for people unwilling to settle and breathe into the circumscribed lives of the less fortunate. A lack of compassion does not good criticism make and I wish these folks with their exasperated sighs of boredom would learn to leave a theater quietly.

I was touched by how this family set out to dream even with little chance of their dreams coming true. Esparza structures an unassuming parallel narrative that speaks to how local economic pressures shape the lives of one generation after the next. Pedro (in a humble, heartfelt incarnation—I can't quite say "performance"—by Pedro De los Santos) returns home from working "allá en El Norte" to a wife who has faithfully waited for him (yet who doubts his fidelity) and two daughters who struggle to relate to their father's difficult experience. Then there's the young boy who dreams of being a break dancer and asks Pedro's guidance on how to work in the U.S. He's become infatuated with a local girl and—in one of the film's most moving sequences—forlornly asks her to wait for him until he returns. With no opportunities at hand, it's all that men can ask of those they love when they leave home to work. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

I was quite smitten with Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways (2012). Dolan is not always in control of his own talent, but is becoming increasingly so with each project. What is he? All of 25? Imagine what maturity is going to bring to his filmmaking. For now, he is mature beyond his years. From the film's earliest close-ups, I started thinking about Ingmar Bergman and by film's end felt that Laurence Anyways could very well be thought of as Scenes From A Marriage for a gynandrous generation. Sygyzies have rarely been so invigorating. My understanding is that Gus Van Sant has signed on to help hammer Dolan's film into a more commercially viable vehicle—there were excesses I could easily see cut—but the basic momentum of the film, its brave core themes, its visual imagination, are knockouts. A love story for the 21st century. Official site [Canadian]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Winner of the Lion of the Future for Best First Film at the Venice Film Festival, Ali Aydin's Mold (Küf, 2012) had its U.S. premiere at PSIFF. This slow-burning lapidary film offers the patient viewer intense embers that all but go out during its course. Basri is a 55-year-old railroad worker, widowed for 6 years, whose son has been missing for 18 years following anti-government activity during his student days in Istanbul. With his body hunched over and exhausted from walking miles of track every day, enduring ongoing grief and uncertainty, and with hardly a change in his stony facial expression, Basri embodies one of the most wretched creatures on earth through the sheer physical presence (and hangdog countenance) of Ercan Kesal, known for his work in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's films. Mold's opening interrogation sequence is hazardously static, making me want to crawl out of my skin, but then Basri's tragic loneliness takes weight in the viewer's heart, a hard and sad stone of embittered truth set amidst Murat Tuncel's remarkable cinematography. Official site [Turkish]. IMDb. Facebook.

If ever you've wondered whether film critics are necessary, Rodney Ascher's Room 237 (2012) will both confirm the value of a deep critical reading of a film as well as demonstrate how some readings teeter and loop towards the ridiculous. Using Stanley Kubrick's The Shining as its fulcrum, five armchair critics pose theories about Kubrick's hidden intentions or—more pertinently—how auteurial intent can frequently have nothing to do with a spectatorial experience. You see what you want to see, perhaps even what you have to see, and whether others agree with you or laugh out loud at you, no one can take away your own experience of a film. Nor, it might be argued, should they. As much as some believe there are right and wrong opinions, or that thumbs must go up and down, Room 237 suggests that a film is not an inviolate thing; it is as malleable (and subjective) as the audience allows. See what thou wilt is the whole of the law. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Insipid musical numbers all but zap the life out of the U.S. premiere of Patrice LeConte's Suicide Shop (Le Magasin des suicides, 2012), whose characters all want to die anyways. Moments of morbid and droll brilliance coupled with enthused competent animation are not enough to save this 3D effort that explains, perhaps, why 3D is flailing at the box office. Clearly the medium has ingested the worst poison of them all: ennui. Those around me seemed more charmed by this vehicle than myself, which by film's end became disingenuous for turning its frown maniacally upside down. A bit Addams, a bit Gorey, a bit Burton, and a bit too chipper about bucking up to the depressive tendencies of the Recession. IMDb.

I was fond of Pablo Trapero's Lion's Den and Carancho, and anticipated catching White Elephant (Elefante Blanco, 2012), the third in his proposed trilogy of films chronicling social inequity. As important a subject as Trapero has tackled—that of the efficacy of the Catholic Church in mediating economic and political unrest among the disenfranchised lower classes of Argentina—the film left me curiously unengaged. I can only fault the lack of characterization of the main protagonists. It wasn't enough to have Father Nicolas (Jérémie Renier, in a Spanish-speaking role) have an illicit affair with social worker Luciana (Martina Gusmán). Renier's character, along with Gusmán's, along with Ricardo Darín's for that matter, simply never came to life as distinct personalities worthy of investment. By film's end, I felt nothing for these individuals put through their paces. The scenes of police squelching civilian unrest were unsettling but also, somehow, formulaic and offputting. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook [Spanish].

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

PSIFF 2013: NORDIC LIGHT—A Few Evening Class Questions for Alissa Simon

Alissa Simon is a Senior Programmer for the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF). A film curator for more than 25 years, Simon was named a 1999 Chicagoan of the Year for her innovative work as Associate Director /Programming at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute. Simon began her career at the Film Department of Walker Art Center and the International Museum of George Eastman House. In addition to her regular work with the festival, she programmed this year's special Nordic Light spotlight. She reviews films for Variety and has served on international film festival juries in Pusan, Belgrade, Amsterdam, Sarajevo, San Francisco, Torino, Ljubljana, Sochi, Cluj, Vancouver and Montreal.

My thanks to Alissa for taking a view minutes from her busy schedule to talk to me about her curated series "Nordic Light."

* * *

Michael Guillén: I've long been interested when national sidebars—or, more aptly, in the case of "Nordic Light" a regional sidebar—are programmed into an international film festival. Can you speak a bit to how you pulled together the programming for "Nordic Light"? Is this a consequence of films you've seen at the many festivals you've attended? Or is this a coordinated effort between programmers from different festivals who have highlighted films from—in this case—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden?

Alissa Simon: It's a coordination effort between our programming team. We believe that one of the things the festival should do is to spotlight national trends. Sometimes we have a mini-focus as well as a bigger focus, but this year it was readily apparent that films from Nordic countries were really strong. Starting in Berlin, we had A Royal Affair along with many other films that were in the market. Then at Cannes, of course, The Hunt. Then in the fall, especially Danish films like A Hijacking surfaced. So we were talking about what we should focus on and the Nordic countries became our choice.

Guillén: When you observe a trend, national or regional, do you approach those countries, their consulates, their film institutes, to help curate such a program?

Simon: Yeah, it depends on what those countries have. The Nordic countries have strong national film institutes so we have ongoing relationships with them. Some films, of course, have sales agents. Some films, of course, have American distributors already. But usually we're working very closely with national film institutes, saying, "This year we have a Nordic focus and we'd really like you to help us by sending some of the filmmakers after we choose the films. Can you pay their way?" Things like that.

Guillén: I'm not sure you can even answer this question, but can you give a reason why Nordic filmmaking seems particularly strong this year? Is something going on behind the scenes? More government subsidies for filmmaking?

Simon: That I can't really speak to but it could well be that government subsidies from those countries are very strong and really pushing their films at festivals. Denmark, especially, has good film schools, good funding, and lots of native talent. Sometimes in other countries when they're promoting their films, one of those ingredients is missing.

Guillén: Once a sidebar such as "Nordic Light" has been organized so competently and woven into the festival's overall programming, do you find that the sidebar will traffick to other film festivals?

Simon: Well, I noticed last year when we did the Arab sidebar, we were the first country in North America to do that and then all throughout the year I noticed other festivals were doing similar programming.

Guillén: So other festivals were taking your curation as a cue?

Simon: Yes, I think so. Exactly. Or else people are just noticing trends on their own by going to international film festivals. Also, last year was an interesting year politically to focus on Arab film.

Guillén: Well, congratulations on a job well done. I've been enjoying several of the entries in the "Nordic Light" sidebar. I mainly come to PSIFF for the Cine Latino program. I see all my necessary Latin American films and then I fill up all the extra spaces with Nordic, so my head's been pivoting north and south this year.

Simon: Why do you come for Latin American programming? Are you teaching Latin American film?

Guillén: No, I'm a freelance journalist who at a certain juncture began to notice the process by which each year a grouping of films become "annointed", travel, and get all the attention in the press, which is fantastic for those films but it concerns me that little press is given to so many other wonderful films coming out of the Global South.

Simon: How do you explain that?

Guillén: I wish I could explain that. It's certainly what I'm motivated to investigate. I don't know whether "Third World" countries have less money to promote filmic product? I don't know if some countries are better at conferring the "pedigree" required by some films to survive on the festival circuit. Or whether some countries in and of themselves insure pedigree? Whatever the reason, I've committed myself to monitoring cinema from Latin American, Africa and Southeast Asia.

Simon: Do you go to Ouagadougou?

Guillén: I've not, though I would love to someday. Up ahead, I'm looking forward to attending the second Panamá International Film Festival to help promote Diana Sanchez's programming. She guides me a lot, both at the Toronto International and the Panamá International.

Simon: I love Diana.

Guillén: Diana's great. She's been very instructive for me. Then I come to PSIFF to see what Hebe Tabachnik offers because she has her own curatorial sense of Latin American film. She focuses on a slightly different group of films and I've found that between the two of them I feel that—at least within North America—I'm getting about the best sampling of Latin American cinema that I'm going to get.

Simon: Where are you from?

Guillén: From San Francisco, though I've recently shifted to Boise, Idaho.

Simon: Wouldn't Boise be a more difficult place to experience Latin American film? Doesn't San Francisco have more to offer?

Guillén: Surprisingly not, despite their demographics. The San Francisco International will offer a few, but that's about it. For example, I was shocked that Pablo Giorgelli's Las Acacias—which I saw in Palm Springs last year—never had a theatrical screening in San Francisco, neither by festival nor theatrical. That just didn't make any sense to me. Let alone that every attempt at a Latin American film festival in San Francisco has capsized for being either too anemic or too bloated.

Simon: That's so strange. There's so many other festivals there. The Asian American for example.

Guillén: No one has ever been able to explain it to my satisfaction. It's a curatorial mystery. So I'm forced to go elsewhere, to festivals outside of the Bay Area, to become acquainted with recent films from Latin America. Then about all I can do is try to put a bug in, let's say, Rachel Rosen's ear in hopes that she might program some of these films in the Bay Area. This year it's going to be my pleasure as well to put a bug in her ear about some of the Nordic titles, though I imagine she's already well-aware of them.

Simon: I'm sure she already is. She's my Cannes roommate.

Guillén: Well, again, congratulations on "Nordic Lights" and thanks for taking a few minutes to talk to me.

Simon: Sure.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

PSIFF 2013—Jackpot / Arme Riddere (Dir. Magnus Martens, Norway, 2011)

Variety's presence is felt throughout the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), no less through several of the program capsules cribbed from Alissa Simon's reviews, along with Boyd van Hoeij's seminar on film criticism, but most importantly through the invitation-only luncheon honoring Variety's "10 Directors to Watch", which this year likewise celebrated David O. Russell with Variety's Indie Impact Award.

Variety's "10 Directors to Watch" debuted in 1996 and the annual event moved to PSIFF in January 2011. It was the first of Variety's "10 to Watch" series spotlighting the most exciting new talents in the fields of directing, writing, producing, acting, cinematography and comedy. This year's "10 Directors to Watch" included: Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda); Wayne Blair (The Sapphires); John Krokidas (Kill Your Darlings); Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking); David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints); Jon Lucas & Scott Moore (21 and Over); Andres Muscietti (Mama); David Ondricek (In the Shadow); Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki); and Rebecca Thomas (Electrick Children). Five of the films—Electrick Children, A Hijacking, In the Shadow, Kon-Tiki and The Sapphires were shown at the festival, where The Sapphires went on to win PSIFF's Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature.

Across the Atlantic in the European version of Variety's "10 Directors to Watch", hosted by the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Norwegian director Magnus Martens was included for his film Jackpot (2011), which made an appearance at PSIFF as part of their Nordic Lights sidebar. As entertaining as a surfeit of testosterone allows, Jackpot joins a long list of films about bad boys bludgeoning humor out of morally reprehensible behavior. I found it derivative but fully understand why audiences lap it up, especially as it is based on a short story by popular crime novelist Jo Nesbø. The film came to my attention, through multiple recommendations, at last Summer's Fantasia Film Festival, where it was included in a small spotlight on Danish and Norwegian film. For their program note, Kevin LeForest enthused that Jackpot "keeps hitting you over the head with beer bottles, throwing severed body parts in your face and splashing blood all over you, yet all the while, you can't help but grin or downright laugh out loud. Martens's film, which is also genuinely suspenseful at times, benefits greatly from flamboyant cinematography, sharp editing and shrewdly used music." Said music alone primes Jackpot for offbeat Christmas programming.

PSIFF's program note tracks Alissa Simon's Variety review. At The Hollywood Reporter, John Defore expects Jackpot to attract remake-rights attention but cautions, "success with such worn-out tropes would be tough to replicate, especially considering how much entertainment value comes via idiosyncratic performances from its Norwegian cast." Specifically, "a wry, skeptical performance out of Henrik Mestad (as the detective investigating the murders) that's so off-kilter we don't need Fargo allusions—a gag with the recycling plant's plastic-shredder one-ups that film's wood-chipper scene—to tell us how seriously, or not, to take the action." At Slant, Nick Schager dismisses the project as "a wannabe-early-[Guy]-Ritchie effort, full of colorful miscreants, seedy milieus, sex and profanity, and quick-cut flashbacks and narrative focus jumps from one nefarious character to another. ...Feigning both fatalistic cynicism and happily-ever-after hopefulness in equal measure, it's merely a grim retread cast in a two-decade-old mold." Sad to say, I agree. IMDb.