San Fran Film Fest By Marc Vogl. For two weeks this spring, San Francisco was positively slathered in highbrow cinema. Taken as a whole, the festival acts as a sort of massive satellite dish allowing a fortnight of global cable access for San Fran film buffs hard up for Algerian, Cambodian and Russian film...

For two weeks this spring, San Francisco was positively slathered in highbrow cinema. Taken as a whole, the festival acts as a sort of massive satellite dish allowing a fortnight of global cable access for San Fran film buffs hard up for Algerian, Cambodian and Russian film. Perhaps this is the place to gush over the impressive job the festival’s programmers did (and that outgoing artistic director Peter Scarlett has done in particular), putting together another overwhelming edition of America’s longest running annual film festival, but I have a couple of complaints to raise and this intro seems just the place to do it.

First on my list of complaints is the need for pre-film festival trailers. Why do they exist? This year’s was particularly innocuous—ambient music over a montage of stills from festivals past followed by a rolling scroll of benefactors and sponsors. By the fifth viewing, let alone the tenth, the trailers are like someone else’s kid at a school talent show whose performance one politely tolerates but who one would rather corner in the wood shop and lathe to death.

Second on my list is the ocean of volunteers this festival recruited to get viewers to their seats. Why is it that on Memorial Day weekend half a dozen acne-ed teenagers can seamlessly pilot an eight-screen multiplex through a night of multiple blockbusters but it takes dozens of well-intentioned (if usually a little confused) volunteers to seat people at a film festival? I don’t get it. As someone who has both volunteered at a major film festival and organized a minor one, I am convinced that six 10th graders earning $7 an hour is a better value for patrons and festival producers alike.

Mind you, my critiques are applicable to most film festivals; so I hope the good folks at SFIFF don’t take it personally. The operational nigglings not withstanding, the SF Film Festival is a cinematic tour de force, the kind of experience worth blowing your annual two weeks vacation on, or better yet, getting laid off a few days before.

Dora Heita (Japan, 1999; dir. Kon Ichikawa)
Frank Serpico, Dirty Harry, Axel Foley, Town Commissioner Koheita Mochizuki: gritty cops who aren’t above bending the rules to bring down the bad guys, and keeping their sense of humor and honor in tact while doing it. In director Kon Ichikawa’s samurai western Koji Yakusho plays the Commissioner Koheita (aka Dora Heita), sent from central headquarters in Edo to the corrupt fiefdom of Horisoto. His mission is to kick ass, take names, and clean house.

Beautifully costumed and authentically designed, the film looks like RAN but plays like Beverly Hills Cop. Commissioner Koheita ruffles his superiors feathers from the get go; he spends lavishly and drinks wildly as an undercover roughneck. When it’s time to mix it up, he slices and dices thugs, brings yakuza bosses to their knees and takes down crooked shogunate g-men too.

It’s deliciously refreshing to see a stylized period film written so casually. Without betraying conventions of Edo era Japan, the archetypal figures are effectively humanized—commissioner Koheita never shows up for work, and his secretaries give him grief about it like Moneypenny telling Bond that he missed another date. When he goes deep undercover in the back alleys of Horisoto and his geisha girlfriend Kosei (Yuko Asano) follows him, he becomes a plainclothes cop with lady troubles. Throughout the saga his one trustworthy friend is tipping him off, warning him that everyone is out to get him.

There aren’t many fight scenes, and the ones that are aren’t particularly thrilling. Instead it’s Yakusho’s convincing portrayal of a moral cop taking care of business in an immoral world that makes Ichikawa’s film fun to watch.

The Harem of Madame Osmane (France, 2000; dir. Nadir Mokneche)
In September of 1993, Algeria sat on the precipice of a civil war that pitted populists against aristocrats, liberals against fundamentalists, Arabs against Francophiles, men against women and claimed 100,000 lives. Set during this ominous moment in his native country’s history, director and writer Nadir Mokneche pits all the forces of his divided land against one another in the confines of a single villa. Managed by Madame Osmane (Carmen Maura), the villa is subdivided into separate flats but is effectively home to a family of women who express their love and frustration in self-destructive ways.

Abandoned by a husband who left her for France (and another woman), Madame Osmane raises her daughter, Sakina, alone. On one level their story is a simple chronicle of typical mother/daughter tensions. But added to the mix is the brilliantly played maid Meriem (Biyouna) awash in her dreams of fancy dresses and gorgeous men, the neighbor whose husband has married someone else, and a little girl who seems at once to be everyone’s charge but an orphan as well. Thus, a petit bourgeois melodrama becomes an effective metaphor for a conflicted country turning in on itself. The Algerian story is not a happy one and so neither is Madame Osmane’s, but Mokneche’s bleak and sometimes ugly portrayal of these protagonists is what makes the film hauntingly provocative.

Devils on the Doorstep China, dir. Jiang Wen, 2000)
Devils on the Doorstepchronicles a group of Chinese peasants enduring Japanese occupation towards the end of the Second World War. The dreary routine of quotidian terror is broken one night when two captured Japanese soldiers are deposited in gunny sacks at the door of Ma Dasan (director Jiang Wen). Told to keep them alive and interrogate them until the resistance returns in a week under penalty of death, Ma Dasan is put in a pickle when no one ever comes to claim the prisoners.

Drawing the rest of the village into his plight, Ma Dasan ponders every possible solution to his quandary. Hiding them in his cellar forever is untenable, while abandoning them somewhere is out of the question, and killing them...? If Jiang Wen has a point in this film it’s that, even in the midst of a most vile war, murder quite simply is not something ordinary people can do.

Layering a sentimental folksy humor over a sinister morality tale about the utterly dehumanizing effects of war, Wen’s black and white film moves in increasingly depressing circles to its shattering conclusion. Wen finds bright spots in the souls of the subjugated but he punctures moments of hopes like nails piercing lungs. The political commentary on Japan’s imperial brutality is clear, but Wen, who made this film with Beijing’s blessing, succeeds because his is the rare film that can make an historical subject profoundly personal. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things; works every time

Happy Man (Poland, dir. Malgorzata Szumowska 2000)
An utterly bleak parlor room drama set on the poor side of the tracks in a nameless Polish city, Malgorzata Szumowska’s Happy Man is anything but. Instead, it’s about an enigmatically bummed out man trying, feebly, to put on a happy face and get his life together while he waits for his long suffering mother to die. Thrown into the mix is a woman who falls for our morose hero for no apparent reason, a shifting backdrop of dilapidated tenements and sterile hospitals, and a procession of real estate sharks, lousy doctors and soccer playing clerics.

Szumowska artfully places the camera behind rainy tram windows and dirty plastic factory curtains to infuse her film with the hazy psychosis of her main characters. But while the cinematography is engaging the score is altogether a tease. Symphonic strings accompany the slightest of actions—a short bike ride here, a look across the room there—and overwhelm the generally quite credible acting. The score is so grandiose that it creates an ungratified expectation that the film will be about more than a son, a mother, and a girlfriend trying not to make each other any more depressed than they already are...and it never is.

Werckmeister’s Harmonies (Hungary, Dir. Bela Tarr, 2001)
A stunning reminder of just how many ways there are to use a camera and make a movie, Bela Tarr’s film has “Eastern European macabre” written all over it. Shot in ghostly black and white, the story is as fantastical Franz Kafka or Bruno Schulz. Most scenes are single take extensive tracking sequences that are unnerving in their length. One just can’t believe how long the camera fixates on a man walking down a street, or a tractor moving by, one wants to let go, or look away just to end the tension somehow. One scene in which two little boys jump on a bed banging pots and pans and shouting for five minutes may be the single most incredible scene at the whole festival—it goes on for so long, and is so maddening reality slips away and the temptation to yell “SHUT UP!” at the screen is phenomenal. The fact that the two boys are the sons of a policeman who is doing a terrible job of keeping the peace in his town is a nice touch. The film is full of symbols conveying what heavy-handed dialog would just dilute.

In this nameless hamlet a kindly man walks through the night—delivering papers, attending to an old man, generally being sweet and kind and innocent. But while he makes his rounds an evil air sweeps through the city; a mob forms in the town square, paranoia sets in, and a traveling freakshow deposits an impossibly enormous dead whale in the middle of it all. A phantom “prince” is rumored to be stirring up passions and whether this nameless hysteria is Tarr’s code word for nationalism in the Balkans, or anti-semitism in Europe, or a more personal self-destructive psychosis, it effectively simmers, and simmers, and boils over.

In scenes that recall Metropolis the crazed mob marches through the night to destroy a hospital, the town burns and where once our kindly protagonist doted on an elderly philosopher (obsessed with overturning the musical hegemony that Andreas Werckmeister imposed in the 17th century when he definitively marked out the 12 tones of the scale), at the end it’s the old man who must take care of our hero who lost his soul and his mind somewhere in the night.

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (USA, dir. George Butler, 2000)
I have a soft spot for losers, the silver medallists in life. Edward Shackleton was my kind of guy. Trying several times at the turn of the century to be the first to the South Pole, his expeditions failed repeatedly and he lost the contest to the Norwegian Roald Amundson. The gritty Englishman set his sites on new goals and determined that he would be the first to traverse Antarctica in 1914. Well, he didn’t get far. His boat got stuck in the ice 100 miles from the Antarctic coast and after six months of waiting for a change in the weather it sank. So begins Shackletons’ adventure and the odyssey of his ship’s crew. Like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, to enjoy this story one must put aside whatever rational objections one has to crazy people doing crazy things and then winding up in disastrous circumstances. At the time that Shackleton set out, Europe was plunging into war and the great age of polar discovery was on the way out, in other words nobody much cared about the voyage. But a few wrong turns and it stands as a fantastically exciting adventure.

Lugging life boats along the ice flows as the Endurance went down in the frozen drink, eating the sled dogs, setting out on the frigid high seas in search of rescue, and stranding 25 men on a lonely rock of an island for nearly a year, Shackleton failed to cross the continent but he saved his crew’s life and that (according to the historians and descendents interviewed) is what this film is all about. Equally striking is the way this film is compiled. Using footage for the first time that was shot on a primitive camera by one of the expeditioners, documentarian George Butler makes his film feel a lot more vital than the run of the mill montage of still photos dissolving over ominous music. It’s not only amazing that the film was taken in the first place but that it somehow survived the subsequent journey back to civilization. If there is one disappointment it’s that when the crew did abandon ship the movie camera and the rolls of unused film were not deemed important enough to carry along (a wise choice, but try telling that to your die hard indie filmmaker friends next time your frigate hits an iceberg). The film will tour nationally in the coming year, and an exhibit chronicling the adventure hits museums around the country this year too.

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (USA, dir. Jan Harlan, 2001)
When Martin Scorcese tells you a man is a genius, you believe him. On the off chance you didn’t already realize that Kubrick was a filmmaking God, this fawning documentary will drive the point home. It’s not a particularly difficult task, and for the most part Warner Brothers (who put out most of Kubrick’s films and who produced this doc) has fun connecting the dots in the Kubrick’s stunning career. Taken one after another, clips from Paths of Glory, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket are almost too much. It’s insane how many defining moments in cinema history this high school educated guy from Brooklyn is single-handedly responsible for. Even Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut are depicted as being more significant than one may recall.

Combining highlights from the films with gushing admiration from Scorcese, Woody Allen, Kubrick’s wife Christiane, Warner Brothers execs and various crew members and actors who worked on the numerous masterpieces, the film effectively portrays Kubrick as a man who was expected to change the entire notion of cinema with each new work. This burden explains why he made so relatively few films despite having a major studio that clearly was prepared to let him do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. It’s interesting to hear that he always wished he could have been more prolific and that he realized from time to time that some projects he started were not ones he could finish—which is why Spielberg describes how he came to take over A.I.

Alternating between discussions of how he made his movies (taking over Spartacus at age 30, setting Peter Sellars loose in Dr. Strangelove, technological advances in 2001, using classical music most notably in A Clockwork Orange), how reclusive and detail obsessed he was, and why his movies were both controversial and commercially successful, the documentary begins to feel like a love-in by the time we get to Eyes Wide Shut. It’s clear that as the people who knew him think about the last years of his life they become more self-conscious about saying anything negative. As if the film were a eulogy and not a critical look at a brilliant and flawed artist. The worst anyone can say is that he was a perfectionist—which is a little like telling your potential employer that your greatest problem is being too good. Most irritatingly, Tom Cruise was chosen to narrate the film and while he has a long career ahead of him, the actor’s stature just does not seem equal to the task of describing Kubrick’s life and legacy. For anyone who has seen a Kubrick film this biopic is dazzling, for anyone who has not seen a Kubrick film....what are you thinking?! Stop reading and go see one!

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