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?

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