While Cannes assumes its privileged position in the cinematic cosmos, the extant film world lurks in relative shadow, an eclisse that nonetheless calls attention to more modestly proportioned proceedings. Still flashy in its own west coast (relaxed) way, the recently wrapped San Francisco International Film Festival – 54 and counting! – soldiered on in relatively familiar fashion and hit a sweet peak with an inspired musical program that would be the envy of any croisette flaneur.
British ensemble Tindersticks play chamber pop that lends itself favorably to the Festival’s continually popular, if occasionally enigmatic, pairing of musicians with silent films at the city’s choicest venue, the historic Castro theatre (note to John Waters: no cuts in the ticket line!). Straying from the usual script, the Festival enlisted the band to perform pieces from their fruitful and cryptic collaboration with director Claire Denis, (a SFIFF regular) with whom the band, in various incarnations, has worked since Denis’ dreamy family drama Nenette et Boni (1996). ‘Worked’ is the operative term here, but it hardly conveys the depth of their engagement, so effectively have the band insinuated themselves into the textures of Denis’ radically dynamic oeuvre as to become generative of it. Along with cinematographer Agnès Godard, who has acutely penetrated and exposed the supple surface of Denis’ troubled world – from the latent desire lurking in bed sheets to the violence of dreamed dogs thrashing in snow on other continents – the band issue haunting and wistful treatments of Denis’ often opaque narratives in unsuspecting ways, discreetly eddying around already elliptical occasions (better to think of Denis’ stories in terms of thrust rather than plot) with repeated motifs tinkered out on vibes or plundered with bass, always restrained until loosed like the prevailing animal instincts onscreen.
Expecting a concert, then, would inevitably mislead. Here was the band playing song sketches to a tightly (and cleverly) edited sequence of passages – from what will likely become known as Denis’ ‘midcareer’ – with the practicality of musical instrumentation dictating a non-chronological approach, and favoring no one film. Langour and crisis intertwine like love and hate in Denis’ films – slightly indulged in Vendredi Soir, exaggeratedly in Trouble Every Day – and it’s curious to listen how the band fold this in to their compositions: a flute somehow signifying a portentous note to White Material’s imminent colonial collapse, a melodica riff bringing a sense of simultaneous levity and melancholy to 35 Rhums’ becalmed generational divide. Propulsion and stasis are key too, as a kinetic rhythm accompanies the film’s train montages, while apartment scenes are charmed with a childlike keyboard/melodica sigh, evocative of Denis’ Ozu homage while capturing some of Mati Diop’s beauty. With an unsensational sensitivity, the band converge the two strains like parallel tracks meeting, just as Denis manages to convey a sense of time passing both gently and tragically (Josephine’s romance and Rene’s death as versions of equally inevitable departure/loss).
Fractured and opaque, L’Intrus is more indelible than memorable, and here front man Stuart Staples delivers a caustic and bruised score of scratched guitar notes over rolling/thunderous drums, protracted by mournful trumpet blares that find fullest expression as the film detoxes on the high seas to a boat heaving on a charcoal colored tide (I’m still haunted by this passage years later). The band cut to Gregoire Colin-as-Boniface in Nenette et Boni as he clumsily, erotically kneads pizza dough as if it were the surrogate flesh of Valeria Bruno Tedeschi, and the Castro crowd is humored by Denis’ caprice: has it really been fifteen years since Denis’ reverie made a fetish of the baker’s wife, of percolating coffee makers, and soft rabbits on the kitchen floor?
Tindersticks extract beauty from restraint just as Denis locates presence through ellipse. Without particular narrative context the show’s clips lose a certain magnitude but are freed up to act as autonomous visuals for the band’s playthroughs – at the very least, this is one exquisite live music video. Either way it’s a magical evening: luxuriating in the fruits of a dedicated collaboration that sees both artists in pursuit of an elusive, jagged, and wistful eroticism. Among industry folks convening later that evening in a Mission district bar, consensus was that the annual music spectacle was necessary enchantment (and more so for its scarcity, with only two US dates, and Lisbon to follow), inherently low-key but beguiling to states of inattention. Had the house cued Corona’s ‘Rhythm of the Night’, or The Commodores’ ‘Night Shift’ upon our collective slow amble to the exit, surely Denis’ influence as an artist would have manifest in a spontaneous dance party or melancholy breakdown. But credit goes to the well-healed British band for an enduring and inexorable contribution to Denis’ legacy: theirs is the sound of something vague and menacing, an elegant crisis.
It’s worth thinking of the festival as conducive to such ‘dialogues’, however limited the program’s scope (I say this as one who annually visits SFIFF on the heels of the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, a festival of distinctly more radical proportions). Still, efficiency is the key to a purposeful festival; not in terms of punctual schedules (always nice of course) but of quality over time. Just as an athlete is liable to perform better with less body fat, the question then is: does a festival move with economy? Under Program Director Rachel Rosen, a case could be advanced that SFIFF is tighter and a little stronger. As for dialogues, enter Christine Vachon and Mathew Barney as selections for the festival’s State of Cinema Address and Persistence of Vision Award, respectively, pointed choices both. And for those who’ve yet to sample the expansive pleasures of Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, the bone-dry and sweetly morbid sensuality of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s ATTENBERG, Sergei Loznita’s vastly under-appreciated modern Russian morality play cum road movie My Joy, or the Romanians……well, they are all here, for good reason, and missed at your peril.
And while the Tindersticks/Denis combo indulged some nostalgia, for me at least, for a heyday of what is now a nearly pejorative association of ‘arthouse’ cinema, an unsuspecting and quite affecting glimpse back was provided by Let the Wind Carry Me, a documentary of one of the world’s greatest living cinematographers: Mark Lee Ping-bin, otherwise known as Hou’s cameraman. Says Wong Kar-wai in the film, with whom Lee worked on In the Mood for Love: “If Chris Doyle is a drunken sailor, then Mark Lee is a soldier.” The documentary is insightful, if ironically underwhelming in its visual aesthetic, but the classic (yet degraded?) clips from Hou’s oeuvre found me taken off guard by such a visionary collaboration, in Lee’s case practically randomly hatched in Chinese film school, in Hou’s, well, hindsight chalks that up to the preternatural. Seems the persistence of humility is borne out in Hou’s films, and it’s no coincidence that Mark Lee is the one trapping the light.
Evoking the abject morality of Lee Chang-dong (for whom director Park Jung-bum has served as assistant director) and the shabby anti-aesthetic of early Jia Zhangke, The Journals of Musan proved a deserved winner of the New Director’s prize (with a jury headed up by Nick James from Sight and Sound). ‘Journals’ is to Musan what ‘diary’ is to Country Priest: a semantic departure point for an inquiry into the moral health of its protagonist, in this case a North Korean refugee (bowl haircut a dead giveaway) adrift on the streets of an inhospitable Seoul, scraping out a living as a poster-paster under constant territorial threat, moonlighting as a server of canned Hite in a karaoke parlor, and confusing romance with religion (his object of affection is a choir girl). Director Park, who nobly plays the lead with an existentially hunched back, inhabits a subtle but devastating portrait of a marginal life, absent of cynicism and damned therefore. That the sad protagonist’s sky-blue Nike down jacket, carved up by a razor and bleeding feathers, registers as tragedy is a sign that director Lee has weighted his film with a keen sense of indignity at stake. When the adorable Jindo puppy he inherits is inevitably struck down in traffic, a sense of calm cruelty trumps maudlin sentiment. Ouch. Good.
There’s a well of pain lurking in the verdant El Salvador jungle where the village of Cinquera has been reduced to a ghostly eulogy of its former self in the wake of the 1980 – 92 civil war. Its surviving inhabitants attempt to memorialize while rebuilding, and Salvadoran-born Mexican Tatiana Huezo’s documentary El Lugar más pequeño is a unique construct for being at once a record of atrocity (conveyed in disembodied testimonials) that remains resolutely in the present, witnessing survivors as they cope with daily labors. The seemingly passive approach to the telling of histories is deceptive, as absentee bloodshed is imaginatively evoked in absentia, and the beauty of the lush countryside is riven by unseen violence. Is it better to remember, or forget? There is a sense of formal control here that supports Huezo’s immersion at the prestigious cradle for documentary filmmaking, the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.
There was an odd parallel found in the otherwise disparate Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt) and Letters from the Big Man (Christopher Munch), in which the feminine communes with nativity via empathic powers. In spite of the former’s issue with what one colleague quipped – that it helps if all the actors are in the same movie – Reichardt’s cultivation of empathy has political and transcendental implications, whereas Munch’s sasquatch romance is curiously literal but requires some corny faith to sustain (this is no Thai jungle movie, nor is it an hirsute Old Joy). At the least, Meek’s Cutoff recalled for me an unwittingly poetic update of the ‘70s PSAs that aired on afternoon television, of an Indian shedding a loaded teardrop upon discovering that his homeland has become a wasteland of litter.
Where Lee Ann Schmitt’s Last Buffalo Hunt might be seen as a nonfiction, modern day uptake on the reckless westward destiny nascent in Reichardt’s denuded western, then Detroit Ville Sauvage (Florent Tillon) offers an outsider’s insight into (near obsolete) urban pioneering, the rust belt decay of Detroit’s post-apocalyptic landscape and its potential regeneration. Taking urban ethnography to a micro level, Foreign Parts (Véréna Pavel, J.P. Sniadecki) circumscribes an auto salvage yard in Queens and lets it speak from within, and the resultant anthropology suggests a dynamic of cumulative vitality within the wreckage (working….class), and more than melancholy amid the metal. Call it a case of exquisite decay, extending all the way to ATTENBERG’s rusting mills in forlorn Greece. Cueing the corrosion to a François Hardy tune, there’s consolation yet in remotest corners…