Now That’s More Like It: A Report on the 20th San Francisco Film Festival

In honor of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, Parallax View offers a festival flashback: the Movietone News report from the 20th SFIFF.

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

The 20th San Francisco International Film Festival was … lively.

A half-dozen outstanding films from Europe were perhaps the most newsworthy events (and my list does not include the two popular successes of the festival, Truffaut’s Small Change and Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, whose screenings I was unable to attend). But it was also a memorable festival because of its stimulating variety. Last year’s program was singularly dull, and even its high points seemed to confirm a sense of despair and dead ends, artistically and otherwise. [See “Out of Season”, MTN 46.] But this year San Francisco not only came up with good movies; it also managed to be festive in a way that livened one’s sense of the art and its possibilities.

Films by Alain Tanner, Alexander Kluge, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Claude Miller, Eric Rohmer, and Marco Bellocchio all demonstrated that, contrary to well-founded rumors, the cinema is not dead yet. And there was more: Hollywood on Trial, a documentary, became the catalyst for some revealing “political” moments; Pierre Rissient’s One Night Stand drew an audience reaction which suggested that Nouveau Puritans are everywhere, still; a goodly number of short films reaffirmed the value of work being done in that less-publicized area of filmmaking; and recent Spanish cinema, thanks to some special screenings, began to look like a significant factor in current moviemaking.

The best films:

Jonah [Jonas], Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (Alain Tanner, Switzerland), like the festival entries by Kluge and Fassbinder, is an appealing blend of fiction and journalism. Jonah in particular is concerned with a kind of reportage on contemporary society, while six or so survivors of May ’68 struggle with the decline of revolutionary fervor. Tanner uses a lyrically Brechtian structure to highlight the characters’ dilemmas and dreams, but the variety and affection of the characterizations often nudge it all closer to Cousin, Cousine than to the kind of austerity that the term “Brechtian cinema” seems to evoke. The film succeeds as much as it does precisely because those characterizations manage an élan that seems honest, given the vicissitudes of the daily grind that stand in its way. Filmed in color, Jonah‘s “objective” surface absorbs “subjective” inserts (in black-and-white) of the characters’ fantasies, and such juxtapositions speak to Tanner’s approach to film: a New Wavish realism (characters modified by a sense of duration and locale) which also manages to carry a tentative, lucid idealism. One of the characters (Rufus), temporarily defeated in his attempts to live and work “outside the system,” affirms his determination to keep hope alive even as he goes back to work for the corporations he detests. Here, too, Tanner appears concerned above all with keeping hope alive in a time of “normalization.” The title character, by the way, spends most of the film in his mother’s womb, waiting to be born.

Strongman Ferdinand (Alexander Kluge, Germany) is a portrait of a police official who, dissatisfied with the legal safeguards of “the constitutional state,” switches to the private sector as a professional in “security.” Visually the film has a tinge of absurdism, but Kluge’s script drives its social themes in a psychologically revealing direction, with emphasis on the self-fulfilling paranoia of extremist politics. The title character (played with comic pathos and an abject sense of destiny by Heinz Schubert) superbly caricatures the contradictory psychology of the professional watchdog. American audiences are likely to see parallels with the Watergate mentality, but Kluge’s film also works as a subdued Dostoevskyean fable on the interdependence of security and subversion, of crime and punishment. Ten years from now, Strongman Ferdinand may seem too much a film of its own time, but for now it feels like one of the few genuinely perceptive additions to the social cinema of the 1970s.

Victory March (Marco Bellocchio, Italy) reflects the director’s savage anger as well as the sensitivity which is its somewhat helpless partner. This film adds the Italian Army to the list of social institutions to which Bellocchio has devoted his scathing attention, and the result is an uneasy mixture of the brilliant and the unbearable. Violent frenzies plague both the film and its characters, and more than once the director is peculiarly indulgent toward his characters’ cruelties. Victory March‘s assault on its subject sometimes takes the form of an assault·on the audience, but there are richly revealing moments with a sharp sense of how people come to embrace social situations which are fundamentally repellent to them. One such moment exemplifies Bellocchio at his best: the pathetic grin on the face of a sadistic officer (Franco Nero) confessing his desire to have a son so that he might train him from the beginning of life.

Mother Küster’s Trip to Heaven (R.W. Fassbinder, West Germany) is also “socially perceptive,” although its vision of human misfortune exploited by politicos and media people also smacks of an easy cynicism. Here as elsewhere, Fassbinder gets a number of good performances and, like Kluge, he has the knack of giving a touch of absurdist disarray. But Mother Küster is memorable less for any social comments than for its observation of social milieux. A half-dozen characterizations are inseparable from their settings: Mother Küster’s blue-collar household, a sub–Blue Angel bar, the home of two radical-chic Marxists, a characterless newspaper office, etc.

The Best Way (Claude Miller, France) is something of a psychological tour de force. Two young male counselors at a summer camp are the focus for a study in the ambiguity of sexual roles and identities. Good performances and a certain subtlety of approach play their part, but it is an unexpected (almost too “logical “) twist in the central relationship which gives the film its special force.

The Marquise of O… (Eric Rohmer, West Germany) is a faithful rendering of the classic tale by von Kleist. It is nicely done, it has good acting by Edith Clever and Bruno Ganz, and it displays the tone of civilized intelligence that marks Rohmer’s best work. On the surface, Marquise may seem to have more to do with Truffaut’s Story of Adèle H. than with Rohmer’s own My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee; but while Adèle and Marquise both bring a cool gaze to “romantic” stories, Rohmer seems dispassionate where Truffaut is oddly sentimental.

Until very recently, my idea of Spanish cinema was limited almost entirely to a few films by Buñuel and Carlos Saura. But three special daytime showings at this year’s festival afforded contact with a contemporary Spanish cinema possessed of a dark, brooding vitality. The least of the three, Saura’s Cousin Angelica, is a rather poetic study of memory and the scars left by the Spanish Civil War. Saura has his adult actors play their characters’ childhood selves in various flashbacks, but the pathos of his Proustian methods does not quite transcend their artificiality. Though not included in the regular evening programming, José Luis Borau’s The Poachers proved one of the most impressive “premieres” of the festival. Set mostly in and around a kind of clandestine hunting lodge, the film brings a hard-edged, elliptical realism to a story about the psychological and moral underside of a rigid, hypocritical society. Borau’s ironic, coldly ferocious treatment of characters on the borderlines of crime and madness is exceptionally effective, especially in a time when directors more often try to shock audiences into freedom or protest by flinging crime and madness into their faces. Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, part of the festival’s revival of “best” films from past years (in this case, 1974), also reveals an impressive measure of intelligence and control. It makes a striking addition to the European tradition of adult films about children, but like The Poachers and every Saura film I’ve seen, it uses its story to reveal the destructive internal pressures of a society whose history is a continuing nightmare. While Borau is more restrained than Saura, Erice shows greater delicacy than either. The Poachers and Spirit of the Beehive both distinguished by the darkly evocative color cinematography of Luis Cuadrado.

One Night Stand, made by a French director (Pierre Rissient) in Hong Kong with English dialogue and an American star (Richard Jordan), was the object of an extraordinary amount of undeserved contempt from audience and critics alike. Rissient’s film is very uneven, but what threw the audience was Richard Jordan’s confused, bitterly literate main character. Particularly in a somewhat scatological sequence borrowed from Henry Miller, the audience made it quite clear that it wanted an image of enlightened personhood where Rissient and Jordan were trying to give us an image of screwed-up, self-defeating “masculinity”. The press conference afterward revealed several critics’ capacity for crypto-Victorian misinterpretation.

Film and politics often mingled during the festival, with the most interesting instance coming after the screening of Hollywood on Trial, a solid documentary on the effect of HUAC and McCarthyism on Hollywood. The film itself is an illuminating account of the period, giving special attention to both “the Hollywood Ten” and the historical forces that led to the days of the movie industry’s blacklist. As a social history, Hollywood on Trial is both more moving and more thoughtful than The Front, which nevertheless will surely get more exposure. The late Dalton Trumbo makes an especially pungent contribution to the film’s retrospective reportage. But the post-screening activities, a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers and some of the survivors of the period, displayed more than a little of the selfcongratulatory moral superiority which the film so studiously avoids. Not the least of the ironies therein lay in some of the participants’ willingness to name names—of people who refused to cooperate with the makers of a film about people who refused to name names.

Most impressive of the also-rans was Lumière, Jeanne Moreau’s debut effort as director and writer. The film features a number of interesting characters (Moreau herself plays the most important of the four actresses on whom the story concentrates), but the direction is selfconscious in a rather uninspired way and the narrative tends to dissipate the intensity of its best moments. Jiri Menzel’s Seclusion near a Forest (Czechoslovakia) is a likably modest domestic comedy made memorable at the end by an utterly unexpected mythic image of rebirth. It’s almost too nice, but Menzel’s absurdist sense of humor supplies a quietly ironic edge. Frank Cassenti’s The Red Poster, from France and Z Productions, mingles images of past and present as a troupe of young actors prepares a dramatic tribute to a highly international group of World War II Resistance fighters. Original in its way, the film still lacks force. Hu-Man (Jerome Laperrousaz, France) has Terence Stamp and Jeanne Moreau, but its attempts at mind-trip science fiction are almost entirely unsuccessful. It must be indicative of something that the critics and a full-house audience were very much more patient with this inept, visually trite plunge into time than with Rissient’s rough-edged, visually raw plunge into personality. In The Marriage (Arnaldo Jabor, Brazil), incest, leprosy, sexual frustration, social inequality, and orgies of violence combine to make the film itself one of the conditions that the audience would like to protest against.

Among shorts, I was especially impressed with three animated entries: the Czechoslovakian A Bird’s Life, Will Vinton’s Mountain Music, and Sally Cruickshank’s Quasi at the Quackadero, each of which makes especially effective use of the animated cartoon’s surrealist potential. Other outstanding shorts: Bruce Petty’s animated lecture Leisure, John Canemaker’s documentary Remembering Winsor McCay, Lawrence M. Lansburgh’s spectacular and suspenseful sailplane tale Dawn Flight.

© 1977 Peter Hogue

A pdf of the original issue can be found here