Sunday, November 11, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 1

I finally have a break in my SLIFF schedule (morning of Day 4) long enough to right up some coverage. So far the 2007 St. Louis Film Festival has been a great time and I’ve been particularly impressed by the number of directors, actors and documentary subjects in attendance. I’ll be giving short reviews of the films I’ve seen including shorts and also voicing my reactions to the various Q&A sessions.

Title: Honeydripper
Director: John Sayles
Country: USA
Score: 7.5
John Sayles is not only a well-recognized director, but he’s also a safe bet year-after-year and so I think he was a fine choice to open the festival on Thursday. If you are at all familiar with his prolific output, you’ll know exactly what to expect from this one: superb ensemble cast, small-town regional feel, regular people who talk in with a layback ease, class and race issues, etc.

“Honeydripper” is about an African America family trying to keep their Alabama bar (a rundown live-music venue called The Honeydripper) above water despite a failure to tap into youth culture or wealth. A bit predictably, they stage an all-out concert with a famous musician, Guitar Sam, to raise enough dough. The twist comes when he fails to show up and drifter with a new-fangled electric guitar gismo steps in to fill his gig.

While this film is on par with Sayles consistent seal of quality, it never rises into greatness. The acting and dialogue are strong (as usual), but the familiarity of the script and the obvious trajectory of the plot arc don’t generate much excitement. There is a half-hearted attempt at magical realism that I wish would have been more pervasive, because in its current state it lies awkwardly on a single character: merely a clichéd combination of Tiresias and “the spirit of rock and roll.” The issues of class and race aren’t interrogated in much earnest, but they make up in sincerity what they lack in originality.

It was great to see Sayles in person and he had quite a cadre of cast members along with him. Sadly, the audience got off to a bad start with a barrage of awful questions. The most interesting parts of this session were stories from Sayles life and career, which revealed a man who has waged a grassroots war for funding and cultural diversity over a lifetime of shoestring classics. My least favorite answer was his closing comment, wherein he blamed the gluttony of wannabe indie filmmakers for the difficulty of getting financial backing. It seemed pretty sour, especially since I’ve always believed more new voices, ideas and artists can only be a positive development. As an admitted outsider, the problem in my eyes seems to be that studios don’t want to take a risk on anything new or different.

Title: The Collector
Director: Feliks Falk
Country: Poland
Score: 7.0
Lucek is a debt collector who takes far too much pleasure from his job. When we first meet him, he’s trying to seize medical equipment from a failing hospital while the machines are still hooked up to critical patients. Lucek has no friends or family, but subsists on his smugness, power lust and a loveless affair. He’s so effective at his job that even his coworkers are jealous and the police find him despicable. Surprisingly, Falk and actor Andrzej Chyra succeed in making him almost likable, since his petty need for success and societal revenge are so terribly human.

Unfortunately, the film is a bit facile in its narrative and thematic preoccupations. It doesn’t take much experience with previous variations on the plot to know that a run-in with an old flame and a nearby suicide with shake him to his foundation and cause him to rethink his deeds. What is interesting is that his redemption has its cuteness tempered by outside corruption. It soon becomes obvious that his victims are not as innocent and honest as they seemed and that his attempts to right his wrongs will not be met with gratitude. I like this type of mixed salvation more than wholesale fantasy.

Andrzej Chyra is good in the lead and the supporting cast does well in their own right although they work best as sounding boards and points of comparison for Lucek’s selfishness and single-mindedness. The film’s transitions are set to hip, dance music while Polish architecture flows past Lucek’s car. It’s a concession to style that is not so overt in the rest of the film, and shows an admirable effort to keep the pacing quick (mostly this works) in a story arc that is usually stretched into false epicness.

Title: Darius Goes West
Director: Logan Smalley
Country: USA
Score: 9.0
“Darius Goes West” is a documentary road movie that is deservedly swooping up every award it has competed for (15 at the current count). It tells the tale of Darius Weems, a teenage wheelchair-bound victim of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy who takes a trailer from Athens, Georgia to California in the hopes that MTV will custom mod his chair as part of their show, “Pimp My Ride.” Having never left his home county before, Darius and his roadcrew friends visit national landmarks and two oceans, testing the wheelchair accessibility of the country along the way.

Darius is a genuine and compelling young man, with a lot of drive, humor and intelligence. He composes raps on his trip as part of his correspondence with MTV and shows an enthusiasm for everything he encounters that seems more active and cheerful than most people who can walk and expect to live past 30. One doesn’t feel pity for Darius (he wouldn’t want you to), one feels admiration. He’s the type of guy you’d want to hang out with because he feels good about himself and makes everyone around him feel good, too.

These days, “inspirational” is almost a dirty word for me. It’s been co-opted by Hollywood, the AFI and every indie filmmaker who knows that emotions sell more tickets than talent. However, “Darius Goes West,” is inspirational in the most real and honest ways and though the camera is out of focus occasionally and the recap ending is a mess of editing, the film more than makes up for it with it with insightful inadvertent character studies, corporate indictment (without any trace or sarcasm or bitterness) and kinetic, welcoming realism.

The audience had an especially audible reaction to a segment where Darius laments that the only really dispiriting moments on the trip were when places weren’t wheelchair accessible that really should have been. Right after he speaks the line, the camera cuts to the St. Louis arches. Ouch! There really is no excuse. I think I’ll actually write an email to them and suggest they get a ramp installed.

I was amused that Darius frequently comments that no one knows who Jerry Lewis is (the leading television advocate for awareness about DMD), but that every teen watched “Pimp My Ride.” I’ve seen Jerry Lewis in several films without ever having seen or heard of the MTV show Darius loves. It sort of made me feel like a crotchety elder (at 22).

Title: The Memory Thief
Director: Gil Kaufman
Country: USA
Score: 9.0
So far this has been my favorite of the festival. Kaufman’s debut film stars Mark Webber (“Storytelling,” “Dear Wendy”) as Lukas, an aimless, overly-sensitive tollbooth operator. He starts to read “Mein Kampf” when a neo-Nazi throws it at him and later gets yelled at by a Holocaust survivor (Allan Rich) who sees the book. This starts a chain-reaction that draws Lukas into a fascination with Holocaust survivors and their testimonies. He takes a part-time job at a Holocaust archive transcribing tapes and observing interviews. Far from a healthy attempt to acknowledge, explore and understand the past, Lukas is in a freefall of pathological obsession and over-identification.

Comparisons to “Taxi Driver” are inevitable with this claustrophobic character study. The gradual curvature of Lukas’s descent into madness is perfect and provides handholds for dozens of tough themes and deep debates to grapple. His friendship with Mira, the attractive daughter of a Holocaust survivor he longs to interview, provides a level-headed alternative to Lukas, but the director is smart enough to give them both lines that sound morally and ethically correct (and natural) so our loyalties bounce around constantly. Lukas’s motivations and intentions are beautifully blurred into a complicated complex of victim, survivor, violator and savior all without having lived through the historical events or even being Jewish.

Gil Kaufman has discovered a cavern dark with moral grays and he intelligently shines a flashlight on endless miles of controversial catacombs. Though he doesn’t illuminate a way out, the mental spelunking should be required exercise for anyone interested in fictional treatments of global tragedy.

I was truly surprised that Gil Kaufman was actually there for a Q&A after the film, because it must take a lot of bravery to deal with the possible negative reactions. Indeed, one Holocaust survivor in the audience had issues with a thinly-disguised surrogate for Steven Spielberg (not very sympathetically portrayed) and even I’m not sure how I feel about the director using actual interview footage (conducted by himself with full permission). I look forward to seeing more from Kaufman in the future.

Title: Hear and Now
Director: Irene Taylor Brodsky
Country: USA
Score: 6.5
Irene Brodsky grew up with parents who were born deaf. At the age of approximately 65, they both decided to get cochlear implants. Brodsky films their decision, the surgery and the aftermath.

The compelling human interesting story packed a fairly full auditorium despite two screenings (most of the films only have one). I had to admit that I was curious how the couple would react to their first sounds and how it would change their lives. It is enormously endearing to see their first experiments: listening to footsteps and flushing toilets, going through the carwash twice in one day just to hear the sounds and noting that geese make the most annoying of all noises.

This is story about Brodsky’s parents, and she admitted this right away in the following QA. Considering that her parents are fascinating, creative, witty and loving, they certainly make a watchable pair that won instant audience sympathy. Sadly, the film fails to do anything more than simply present these two likable senior citizens, although early in the film there are some windows into the life of a deaf family. The audience doesn’t really gain any insight into the surgery, the debate in the deaf community, the effort and progress of mastering hearing or the perspectives of others who have undergone the surgery in different circumstances.

The questions from the audience were perhaps more revealing than the film itself and helped to voice some of my problems with the film and the events themselves. One hearing-impaired audience member was rightly outraged that the film was not fully subtitled meaning that he did not understand quite a bit of it. As a big proponent of subtitling all films, I had to agree with his shock and wondered why Brodsky insisted that it was an “artistic decision” to release an untitled version.

More disturbing, was the lack of post-operative surgery and speech-recognition training that was brought up by several questioners. How could an informed director who has made four films on deafness, not provide her parents with the care and aid universally acknowledged as requisite by medical professionals? I also felt uncomfortable with Brodsky parading her parents onstage “for questions” (mediated through a sign-language translator) and then misinterpreting every question as being directed at her own life and her career.

Title: Crossroads (1928)
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
Country: Japan
Score: 5.5
Kinugasa’s restored 1928 film, is one of the first great works out of Japan. It tells of a dirt poor brother and sister who live in the pleasure district slums of Tokyo. The brother falls helplessly in love with a snide geisha who disdains him, shrugging him off for more amusing company and driving him to duel a rival lover far above his skill level. Blinded by ashes in his eyes, not to mention jealous rage, the young ronin attacks the rival and thinks he kills him, driving him to fear and guilt that are actually unfounded. He flees to the protection of his sister, a diligent seamstress who would do anything to protect him. While her brother moans in pain and loss (not realizing his blindness is temporary), the unfortunate girl fends off a fake police constable, eventually agreeing to sleep with him if he agrees not to arrest her brother. The decision ends in a real murder, completing the tragic inevitability of their sorry lot.

Kinugasa masterfully assays the possibility of pain, suffering and sadness in the Japanese lower class. His visuals are a hallucinogenic nightmare of spinning, whirling carnival games that create a macabre gaiety upon which to foreground the misery of poverty, yearning, rejection and fear. Yet the film never gets deep inside the heads of its characters and one feels like they exist simply to have fate and society conspire against them. The imagery becomes quickly repetitious and film mires after only half an hour with camera positions revisited too often and the story held back for the big dramatic finale.

Musical Accompaniment:
Live music was provided by a team of avant-garde players that mixed classical Japanese instruments and modern polyrhythmic dissonance. Not really my type of thing, but it did fit the onscreen action and gave the whole film a somewhat ghostly, unnatural resonance.

Title: Water-Themed Shorts
Directors: Various
Country: USA
Score: 3.0
Before “Crossroads” a series of seven locally-made water-themed shorts were shown:

Electric Water – A quick formalist experiment with high-contrast close-ups of ripples. Super-imposing these almost made it interesting, but mostly this was boring and not nearly structured or selective enough to be mesmerizing, which was clearly the goal.

Two Rivers – Water on statues. 50/50 documentary/meditation. Worked for about a quarter of its running time.

Meditations on Maya – Somewhat interesting formalist investigation of waterfalls and other natural phenomena mirrored into unusual, dynamic symmetries.

The Source – Water as texture and visual pattern. Great theme for an elegant quickie, but botched by lack of material and inexperienced framing.

Suds – A camera pointed out of the front window of an auto as it goes through the car wash. It says something really bad that this was my second favorite of the entire batch.

Rolling Shoals: Skipping Rocks – A handful of the shots of rocks being skipped on water. The last one was played slower than the rest. The examples chosen were not particularly impressive and the editing was awful. I think this could have worked if it had been a single shot of an amazing rock-skip played in extreme slow motion.

Touch – Easily the best. Reverse-silhouettes of a man and women reveal videos of waves and other water movements. The effect makes the water look like it is the skin and substance of the actors. Careful timing and camera movement over the naked close-ups caused various effects and interpretations of the liquid. This film actually succeeding at being fresh, thought-provoking, beautiful and even sexy. The other filmmakers could learn a lot.

Musical Accompaniment:
The shorts were all silent, with music inflicted by an avant-gardist who was allowed to design his own “water-based instruments.” I was so excited for this to be cool, but it was embarrassingly bad and only marred the films.

Title: Jamie Travis Shorts
Directors: Jamie Travis (duh)
Country: Canada
Score: 8.5
This was a “retrospective” of shorts by 28-year-old Canadian Jamie Travis. His darkly surreal films are moody celebrations of graphic design, kitschy formalism and retro revisionism. I found all of them to be funny, delightful and, above-all, aesthetically astute. They have the dour suburban malaise of a Wes Anderson film with the unpredictable visual quirkiness of Lynch.

Patterns Trilogy – These were three films about a young couple that live in the same apartment building. The first two parts take the perspective of the girl and boy respectively and the final part brings them together in climactic musical sequence. The focus is often on visual patterns, but the motif is extended into the habits of daily life, the clichés of romance and the cycle of emotional reactions. The use of color, texture, pattern, design, framing and split-screen was fairly brilliant, creating a satisfying whole that wallows in everything from glossy 60’s interior design to the fatalistic rollercoaster of puppy love.

The Saddest Boy in the World – From the same country that brought you “The Saddest Music in the World” comes this miniature biography of a green-eyed tyke in an all-green world. The boy is a stirring, endearing sad-sack who quietly drowns in a pool of his own neglected tears. In the opening shots he prepares to hang himself, while flashbacks inform us of his depressing life. He is friendless and the victim of endless misfortunes (including being kidnapped and returned after no money was paid), filmed with irresistible deadpan humor and the warped perspective of youth. The combination of comedy, craft and bizarreness made this an easy pick for my favorite short in the festival so far.

Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come to Dinner – Three small children and a mother form the core of the most dysfunctional family of all time. They are all reserved, compulsive eccentrics who can eek no joy from their sterile lives. The mother cooks psychotic quantities of unappetizing food and reacts violently to the presence of brown eggs in her cartons of whites. The children carry out unusual behavioral disorders that are finally revealed as odd escape routes into a realm of fantasy further removed from reality than even their current circumstances.


Mad Dog said...

Apparently the Patterns Trilogy was shown at some festival thing in KC I'd never heard of. Huh.

FilmWalrus said...

Yeah, the director said the KC retrospective was his first ever and that he was extremely nervous. This was his second, and he was still quite bashful, but apparently both screenings had good reactions.