SIFFting (Seattle International Film Festival)

SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) was oh-so-Seattle-y. I’d be more afraid to explain what that means if I thought my dear friend Mary, who is a staunch Seattle convert, would actually read this.

Seattle is a very clean, amiable city that, like most places, matches its civic personality to its climate. In this case that translates into slightly uncommited, indeterminate, ultimately mild if rarely sunshiney. The locals are disarmingly nice. During my stay there, (I arrived for the last week), barristas drew me maps; strangers sorted out which buses I should take; herds of traffic slowed to a complete stop the minute I stepped foot off curb. By Day 2 I longed for a remark as strong as the local expresso: a sneer; a diatribe; hell, a sidelong look at my boobs. Anything to cut through the veneer of overcast skies and polar fleece.

Perhaps that’s why so many Seattlites who consider themselves alternative still dye their hair bracing colors ‘90s-style; at least you can glimpse hot pinks and greens through the clouds. What goes for alternative in Seattle moved into the mainstream of the rest of the country 10 years ago, though, and then sank without a trace except on annoying retro-grunge nights of certain New York City clubs. Short bangs (not long ones swept sideways), Mary Janes, ripped jeans, rock tee shirts, plaid flannel. And the rest are scrubbed clean with pressed jeans, fugly shoes, and guileless expressions unsullied by wrinkles. (Dewy climates beget dewy skin, apparently.)

You could argue that a town’s film festival in turn takes its cues from the town’s personality. (The sexual misadventures that distinguish the Bermuda film festival for sure gives new meaning to the word “triangle.”) That said, Seattle’s film festival is actually fairly impressive. A full 28 days (most festivals are significantly shorter), it includes a wide range of new features from foreign language and domestic directors, many of which promise to be the biggest indie hits of the summer: The Last Mogul, Layer Cake, Junebug, Ellie Parker, Mad Hot Ballroom, Shake Hands with the Devil, (which came and, I believe, went already at Film Forum), Murderball, Heights, Her Minor Thing, Deepwater (oy), Americano, Last Days, March of the Penguins, Lipstick and Dynamite, and (of course) Miranda July’s You and Me and Everyone We Know, which took Caméra d’Or at Cannes, thereby stripping its best asset: sleeper status. (Welcome to the making of an indie hit 101, j’guess.) A tribute to Argentine film. A secret festival (a Crackerjack idear, if there ever were one). Special honorariums for Joan Allen and Peter Sarsgaard, both terrifically worthy actors.

So it’s probably merely coincidental that I cobbled together a rather monotonic program for myself, but I can’t help but wonder. All the films I screened — admittedly, a bit of a sloppy seconds conglomeration as I was trying to only screen movies that I hadn’t seen before — fell under the umbrella of fine though I was never knocked out of the water unexpectedly. At the Hamptons film festival 2003, I randomly sat in on Assisted Living, still two years away from finding distribution, and really dug it. At SIFF (is everyone too well behaved to call it SIFFilis but me?), I never did quite experience that out-of-pocket surprise, which arguably is the best part of small festivals.

Of the 11 movies I screened, then, here are a few particularly worth mentioning: Mars, a surrealist number about the tiny aspirations of a tiny Russian town stumbled upon haplessly by a visiting prizefighter. It shone brightest when its youngest cast member, a tiny blonde female Mussolini, barreled across the screen, maternal amusement tugging at her small features. “This world is not ours. The freedom of choice is one illusion or another,” drones one character. Overall, a kind of abject Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie. A Wonderful Night in Split, a black-and-white Croatian film, genuflected far too much at the altar of Quentin Tarantino by way of Sin City (drugs, teen prostitutes, a-chronological sequencing). Its best scene was, like a true pussytease, its first: messy, comic love made amongst a rubble of cabbage soup and dumpy kitchen chairs. In Heights, Glenn Close and many pretty, almost others play a host of artists connected by a social web that they don’t entirely glimpse; twas fine but perhaps best suited for viewing in default mode on the Sundance Channel. Frozen, a Northern English film about a fish worker seeking to make sense of the disappearance of her sister, transcended its many filmic repetitions through brilliant casting. Namely, fierce, economical Shirley Henderson, one of my favorite actresses working today and the exact sort of a 40-year-old the US lacks in spades. (Her faint American shadow is Jennifer Jason Leigh, I suppose; another intense, compact woman, albeit one who simply cannot act).

Perhaps it wasn’t merely my own program. Members of the five juries reported a genuine difficulty in picking out the best of their litters. One jury that shall remain unnamed wanted to avoid awarding a film altogether. (Even the laidback SIFF powers-that-be couldn’t brook with such nonsense.) For me, the best moments of the festival took place when the visiting filmmakers tromped right over all the Seattle niceties. “Enough with the copperhead salmon already,” was a typical comment after a few days. Filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia in particular cut quite a figure when he arrived late for interviews brandishing comic book bags. “I am not a serious filmmaker,” he said, wiping mustard off his face when introducing his own movie (the sitcomartist El Crimen Perfecto). “I don’t like serious movies. Here I am cool, indie modern Euro moviemaker. But in Spain I am a fat fucking big-budget bastard,” he said with much glee.

And just in case the Seattle audience was inclined to give him one more benefit of doubt, he crowed, “It is not my English that is bad. It is me that is bad. I am bad!” and pounded his enormous chest, emblazoned with a beheaded woman.

Does it really rain in Spain?

Generically Speaking: The Snoozefest That Is Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Just so you know: Mr. and Mrs. Smith really is stone-cold shite. I can understand the compulsion to see it if only to gauge firsthand whether or not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were truly making it. (Answer: Does a scientologist proselytize on a subway?) But be forewarned: When the film ended, I wanted my two hours back. I could have used them to, like, clean my cupboards or something.

The film, about two married assassins unaware of each other’s identity, buckles under the weight of:

A. Angelina Jolie’s acting. It’s not like Pitt didn’t stink up the joint — he barely dipped into his bag of tics to shuffle through this little conceit — but he comes off as Olivier next to her mannequantics. She really did deserve the Oscar for her performance in Girl, Interrupted, but it may be that she was merely mining her true personality structure. Since then, she’s admittedly chosen shoddy vehicles, but she has been shoddy in them; it’s hard to tell where her Lara Croft ends and the Craft action figure begins. (They’re both very waxy.) With her pneumatic features and impossibly long, tapered limbs, Jolie is always easy on the eyes in a way that invites the projection of all kinds of wisdom and wryness upon her. But since I don’t actively want to fuck her (critics who do vascillate between punishing her for it and grossly overlooking her limitations), I can’t help but observe how woodenly she preens for the camera. I challenge Jolie to hold a weapon without lowering her lids and pimping out her lips. And she is supposed to be Hollywood’s stock temptress these days — possibly because her breasts seem real. What dire, Dairy Queen days these are.

B. An interfering soundtrack. To the point where the movie would suddenly stop in its tracks and convert for the duration of a song into a music video. I am more stringent on this point than some, but I don’t think a film should ever take its cues from its music; it’s an awful cheat for conveying information or an emotional development. In Smith, I could close my eyes and known exactly when the fighting stopped and the lovin’ began. It was easier, actually; when I can see it, the flexing of Jolie’s lips educes a dying fish rather than a woman in love.

C. A too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen script, which, as usual, robbed the film of any coherence. For example, why does it matter so much that two assassins live under one roof? And does it really matter so much that an entire army of assassins would be sent out to kill them? And where do the two place on the assassin food chain? Why don’t they experience any fallout from being assassins? Who contracts them? And why if they are so smart do they never figure out each other’s identity, especially since they’re in the same field? Did the script-writing sessions take place in the kind of sweaty sensory deprivation tanks that Michael Jackson’s jurors must currently be beating their heads against? The script would have benefited from either better developed gags or higher stakes. (With The Bourne Identity and Swingers under his belt, director Douglas Liman certainly has both a better action movie and comedy in him.) It would have benefited, in other words, from a committment rather than a story-by-consensus. As it was, what should have been the climatic ending just about dribbled to a stop.

The best thing about this film is the Smiths’ kitchen, all steel and marble and (naturally) very good knives. Maybe the Iron Chef would have spiced things up. We would have needed Vincent Vaughn moonlighting as a homicidal momma’s boy to make it worse. Doh.

A Critic’s Manifesto (West Coast Notes)

I must confess I’ve fallen into a bit of a funk lately, which is pure and simple why I’ve not been posting. (Nay, it wasn’t just because The L Word dashed our every hope.) It’s the “what’s it all about, Alfie?” cinennui that keeps hitting me below the belt, coupled with the precariousness of an underemployment.

I’ve been seriously taking stock of all and sundry in my life. Of the relevance of chiming my own voice in the cacophony of the cultural conversation already chattering. Obviously this sounds like the roaring of depression’s ugly head, but if it is, it ain’t just that. There really does exist an oversaturation right now of critical voices, partly thanks to the Internet — even it is a technology that has democratized the dispensation of information.

In some ways.

I’m out on the West Coast right now again, shedding some Pacifica light on my dusty and dull Easterly woes. As usual, I’m charmed beyond reason by the many missing pieces of the movie industry jigsaw that LA offers up with a big ole glass of watermelon juice. I’ve met Álex de la Iglesia, a Spanish filmmaker who pretty much comes second only to Pedro Almodóvar (pronounced AlmoDOvar here) in his own country but has received US scanty distribution even on DVD. I nervously coffee-klatsched with a group of older, bombastically funny old Hollywood types, including Paul Mazursky. I’ve drunk good wine in a studio bigwig’s backyard while the very future of the movie business was shoptalked. And one point that’s repeatedly been made is that new computer and television-viewing (Pay Per View, TIVO) technology threatens to derail the movie business as we know it.

Which has set me thinking about who really does benefit from all this new technology. When I ride the subway in Brooklyn, it’s mostly the American Apparel set and the lost-youth professionals who wield IPods, for example. The rest still carry CD walkmen, which now appear as bulky as the laptop I bought only three years ago. I try to imagine what steps it would take to bring the CD stragglers up to speed, and I feel overwhelmed for them. It doesn’t just entail IPods and computers and Internet access. It also entails a comfort level with the technology, which in turn entails education in addition to the necessary equipment.

I mention this because those of us who write about culture are in danger of only preaching to the choir — comprised, in this case, of each other.

The summer’s downslide in movie revenue has sparked a lot of conjecture about the habits and proclivities of the American viewing public, and those conversations have revealed critics’ assumptions. In his recent two cents on the subject, for example, Times critic AO Scott dismisses the worth of most recent movies by saying, “They will each show up eventually…on the transcontinental flight when your iPod battery is dead and you’ve forgotten to pick up the latest issue of Vanity Fair.” That’s a pretty specific population that Mr. Tony is identifying there, one that, I’m willing to guess, doesn’t comprise the bulk of American moviegoers, even those who daily read the Times.

Being downright poor right now — the brokest I’ve been since I worked in the labor movement — I’m reminded of how paralyzing serious financial concerns really can be. I’m cognizant that given my education and community, I’m in a good place compared to many people in the US. (At that, most everybody in the US is in a fantastic place compared to many other parts of the world.) But not matter what, being this broke makes you doubt not only your self-worth but also your future. It’s hard to make plans in good faith when money is required to implement every step toward those goals, no matter how modest. Gas money, interview clothes money, daycare money: For lower-income people avoiding credit card debt or who aren’t even eligible for a credit card, the basic expenses of life loom painfully large.

Under those auspices, art is a necessary luxury. We need something to help us feel better, to both inspire us and to provide us a sense of community. And the role of critics in that equation is less esoteric than you’d think: We’re filters. We help connect a creation with an audience, help separate the cream from the crap. We can point people toward work that wakes them up rather than numbs them further.

In a conversation I had this week with Benoît Jutras, the Cirque de Soleil scorer, he mentioned something interesting. As a composer who began in the wildly esoteric community of contemporary classical music and now scores music for a truly mass audience, Jutras says the transition taught him that creations require perceivers. “Audiences complete the circle of creation,” he intones. So no matter what, he tries to be respectful of his audiences. Ideally, he wants his music to not only really reach listeners but to also take them a few steps past their comfort zone. (Along these lines, he is, admittedly, moving on from Cirque, at least for the time being.)

It’s a goal for critics, too.

Since I’ve been scurrying up and down this funny coast (this week I’m at the Seattle International Film Festival), I’ve had a chance to revisit how many different ways film (and television) fit into people’s lives. When traveling I realize just how dangerous it is to suppose anything about audiences because it’s clear how varied Americans still are, even with the mallification of the US. In fact, we are moving from that infernal melting pot toward a (tuna) niche salad these days, one in which critics take on an even greater importance because it falls on us to serve as guides.

That shift makes it particularly dangerous to write from any perspective other than my own. “I,” rather than “they” or “you” (sorry, Pauline Kael), is more useful and infinitely less condescending. Only by being clear on what I like and don’t like — reacting from my gut rather than to demographic suppositions or to the community of other critics — can I speak honestly and extemporaneously enough to be worth heeding. But on the other hand, I can’t assume that the persons I’m writing to are exactly like me. It’s just that the more specific I am, the more universal I can be; that way people can know who they are working with and what they are heeding. A translation is required, and I would argue that it is that translation which completes the circle between critic and audience.

So what does that translation entail, concretely? It requires less of the old boy’s club chasing their own tails and comparing the size of their, uh, pens, for one. We need new blood and new voices that specify where they’re coming from but never misconstrue those contexts as universal. We have to stop approaching films as mere fodder for potential catchy leads or trends to identify before our peers do (though humorectomists need not apply). It means that we should only include NY-LA industry buzz when it speaks to something larger than itself. And although this in some way contradicts what I am saying about being honest about your own perspective, we also do owe both films and audiences what they call in yoga circles “beginner’s mind,” no matter how many screenings we have sat through. When we’re so stifled by cinennui that we can only perceive a film through the lens of other films, maybe it’s time to take a sabbatical.

That said, my own cinnennui is lifting. I do want to get my voice out there right now, if for no other reason that I still really love films and really do think they articulate and ameliorate the modern human condition in all kinds of ways. I’m going to start posting more again. To highlight on this blog more of the films that I see, especially the amazing features that rarely achieve nationwide distribution (especially foreign language features). To include more interviews with filmmakers to raise the Wizard’s curtain. And I’m going to try, for a change, to get out of my own way. It’s time to see the forest and the trees.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy