Out of Season: The 19th International San Francisco Film Festival – Take 1

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Beforehand, the 19th San Francisco Film Festival looked less than scintillating. The parts of it that I was able to see were, by most accounts, the best parts, and if that’s so, then the first impression was not entirely wrong. The 1975 edition of the festival wasn’t bad, but … I’m not sure that there were any absolutely first-rate films in the 12-day program. For me, Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman, Louis Malle’s Black Moon, and Self Service, a Bruno Bozzetto cartoon, came closest. Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August got a much warmer reception than I thought it really deserved (the word-of-mouth consensus seemed to be that this was the Festival’s high point). And Luchino Visconti’s Conversation Piece got a much cooler reception than I thought it deserved, but—given the nature of the film—that was not too surprising.

For me personally, the proceedings were made especially memorable by the presence of J Joseph Mankiewicz as well as by the various contributions of Louis Malle. The Festival’s tribute to Mankiewicz (a string of film clips followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session) ranks with the best of the tributes I’ve seen in other years at San Francisco. And Malle, who made no fewer than three appearances before the public and press, left his mark via both Black Moon and his charmingly perceptive remarks about his own work and others’. But one sign of the Festival’s disappointingly middlebrow direction is that other Festival honorees included Jack Lemmon, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman, and Steven Spielberg—all or most of whom are worthy figures, but none of whom has reached a point where a retrospective might really mean something. Lemmon, of course, comes closest to an exception. But Hackman, for example, has been in films for only a little over a decade and Spielberg, as everybody knows, would still be wet behind the ears were he not so precociously “successful.” (Just for the record, Lemmon “in person” is very like the man we know from the movies, while Caine “in person” is quite another fellow altogether.)

But, as I was saying, there were “high points”:

? The Mankiewicz tribute was a delight largely because of Mankiewicz himself, but a series of well-chosen film clips also made an especially good case for the literate cinema on which Mankiewicz stakes his reputation (the segments, all of them lengthy, were selected with the director’s gift for “arias” in mind). An additional bonus for me came by way of enticing glimpses of People Will Talk (1951), which I had never seen before, and The Honey Pot (1967), which I had previously ignored. In the audience interview after the film clips, the man himself was overflowing with the “good talk” celebrated in his films. He told the story of the night John Ford took on Cecil B. DeMille before the Directors’ Guild during the McCarthy era—and told it most eloquently. It’s an “old story”, but Mankiewicz made it into a spellbinding tale and saved the best—John Ford in tennis shoes and baseball cap, chewing on a handkerchief and sitting on the floor—for the last. Among other things, Mankiewicz is feistier than one would assume from even the likes of All about Eve. He quoted an insiders’ joke about DeMille (who “had his finger up the pulse of the American public”) and he neutralized a hostile question about his rewrites of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s screen dialogue by titling his reply, “Me and Scott Fitzgerald, or How I Came to Pee on the Flag.” That particular question led to a number of intriguing comments on the differences between dialogue for novels and dialogue for plays and films, and Mankiewicz, treated as something of a villain by Fitzgerald’s biographers, was persuasive on behalf of his own braid of cinematic literacy (see The Last Tycoon for what seems to be a fictionalized version of the Mankiewicz–Fitzgerald conflict).

? The Louis Malle tribute was an exercise in frustration. Le Feu follet (1963) and Murmur of the Heart (1972), the latter of which has gone from festival entry to retrospective status in less than half a decade, were shown instead of film clips. And so the Malle tribute not only lacked a survey of the tributee’s career, but its redundant screening of Murmur also cut short the question-and-answer session, which had been wedged between the two features. Fortunately, Malle put in other appearances at the Festival, and his Black Moon turned out to be the most memorable film of the festival for me, though hardly the most entertaining. Black Moon is a sort of “Alice in Wonderland for the Seventies,” a quasi-surrealist dream in which Malle’s Alice-figure flees a guerrilla war between men and women and finds herself at a farm where people and animals mingle in mute mystery and magic. Naked giggling children run about the countryside with a huge pig, a unicorn shows up from time to time, a smaller pig snorts from his kitchen seat while the Alice-figure gulps milk from an oversized glass, insects get an important share of screen time, a snake has sexual relations with the heroine, and a grouchy pet rat has what must be one of the funniest exits ever given a non-human film performer. Cathy Harrison, Alexandra Stewart, and Joe Dallesandro all play major roles (and all are named Lily), but the late Thérèse Giehse is the real star. Malle dedicated the film to her, saying that she inspired it. She plays a bedridden old woman who moves back and forth between life and death and who is suckled by the younger women. Malle’s friendship with both Giehse and Buñuel hovers over the film, as does the “influence” of Bergman—Sven Nykvist was the cinematographer and Malle gave the thing a certain Bergmanesque quality by deliberately shooting only when the sky was overcast.

? The Romantic Englishwoman was billed as Losey’s “most accessible” film—which really means that it’s the closest he’s ever come to making a good comedy. The performances of Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine, and the Tom Stoppard–Thomas Wiseman screenplay (from Wiseman’s novel) have a sort of mod Lubitschean wit, but for all that the new Losey film echoes The Servant and Accident on the themes of class privilege and subtle perversion. Jackson is especially fine as an independent wife and mother whose writer-husband (Caine) provokes her into an affair with a mysterious “poet” (Helmut Berger). The twist here is that the husband’s ingenious and rather refined jealousy precedes and hence creates the affair. Thus, the film is another of Losey’s sharply etched studies in self-destructive psychology, but it is also a deadly serious comedy about coincidences. Events mirror each other in odd ways, and life imitates art, fantasy, fear. Gerry Fisher’s color cinematography is superb; and Michel Lonsdale appears in a delightful cameo which, like the film, is at once smaller than expected and yet larger than it appears to be. And The Romantic Englishwoman has a bit of dialogue which serves as a motto not only for this opulent, ironic fi1m, but for the times as well. Caine (ambiguously cordial): “Bourgeois life has its compensations”; Berger (ambiguously snide): “What would it be without them?”

? I wasn’t able to see Visconti’s Conversation Piece at the Festival, but I did attend a commercial showing shortly after reading of its rather stormy receptions at both the New York and San Francisco festivals. The film displays the lavish production values and lush decadence and despair of Visconti’s recent films, and it also has the perplexing kinds of characters which seem bound to irritate more than just festival audiences. Moreover, there’s Burt Lancaster playing an aging, scholarly Italian, and that no doubt presents problems for American audiences as well. As it happens, I saw Conversation Piece with a matinee audience of about five people and that just may be the only way to see it. For this seems as personal a Visconti film as I can think of: a small private drama of sexual and moral ambiguity worked out in terms of wide screen and grand stylishness. In his somber way, Visconti is the von Sternberg of the Sixties and Seventies, though this film’s story recalls Losey and The Servant. A seductively arrogant woman (Silvana Mangano) and her “kept boy” (Helmut Berger) head up a “family” which rents the upper story of Lancaster’s apartment, more or less against his will, and ends up moving in on his entire life, more or less with his consent. Most of the themes of Visconti’s film career—the family, leftwing politics, social tradition, unconventional sexuality, death and decline—converge here. Conversation Piece is not a masterpiece, but it sums up the paradoxes of Visconti’s vision in an oddly moving way, and its mixture of stately, rich textures with sudden bursts of Absurdist psychology make it a unique, if trying, venture into the confusions of our age.

? Bruno Bozetto’s Self Service is a clever and very funny cartoon which may or may not be a parable on “free enterprise.” It’s to be included as part of the 10th Tournée d’Animation. Three other noteworthy animated films from the Festival, Geoff Dunbar’s Lautrec, Tim and Fredda Brennan’s Truckstop ’75, and Paul Driessen’s Cat’s Cradle.

? Wertmüller’s Swept Away is appealingly photographed by Ennio Guarnieri and has a good deal of likeable comedy. But I continue to find this director’s attempts to bridge the gap between social protest and commercial comedy rather hollow. Wertmüller, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato boast an appealing bag of tricks, but with each new film their special talents look more and more like commercial formulae. Swept Away makes more sense as screwball comedy than as social satire, but its muddled attempts at dealing with sexism and class struggle are too important a part of the film to be ignored.

? Krzysztof Zanussi’s The Balance, from Poland, is an intriguing study of a young professional woman, wife and mother who edges away from the domestic life, dabbles in an affair, then returns to husband, child and home. A sentimentally lyrical musical score lends it a soap opera quality that it doesn’t always deserve, but Maja Komorowska gives a good performance in the multi-faceted lead role. Unfortunately, Zanussi’s screenplay is sharper on the details of office politics than on the domestic realities which end up being so central to the story.

? Claude Goretta’s A Wonderful Crook (But Not as Bad as That) is a modest, mildly diverting anecdote about a young man who turns to crime in order to sustain the family furniture business he has inherited. Most of this Swiss film’s interest is in a peculiar relationship between the young crook (Gérard Depardieu) and a young woman (Marlène Jobert) who works at one of the provincial banks he tries to rob.

? Out of Season is directed by Alan Bridges and at times it has the keenness and intensity of his first film, The Hireling. But despite a good cast—Vanessa Redgrave, Cliff Robertson, Susan George—this study of memory and desire turns out to be much simpler on the whole than some of its highly charged pieces lead one to expect. Bridges and his actors create a mother-daughter-lost lover triangle which is carefully nuanced, but the screenplay (by Reuben Bercovitch and Eric Bercovici) is more situation than story and it gives the nuances no place to go.

Meanwhile, there’s considerable hubbub in San Francisco over the Festival’s future. The Bay Guardian launched an attack on the Festival’s management just as the 1975 schedule was being announced and Albert Johnson, deposed director of the Festival, and Tom Luddy of the Pacific Film Archive contributed to the critical remarks. After the Festival, one of the city’s two dailies, the Chronicle, made a belated attempt to catch up on the controversy aroused in the Guardian and elsewhere, while the Examiner offered rather desultory praise for the ’75 program. Some of the quoted complaints echoed my own feelings—e.g., the apparent lack of adventurousness in film selection and Luddy and others charged that the Festival’s current managers “aren’t knowledgeable film people.” All of this seems geared to the possibilities of an election year: San Francisco is choosing a new mayor and there is apparently some hope that a new regime in City Hall will produce a new regime at the Festival.

Copyright © 1975 by Peter Hogue


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