Out of Season: The 19th International San Francisco Film Festival – Take 2

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Mine has been a sheltered existence: I never attended a film festival before. And as a matter of fact I attended only four days of this one. But four more disillusioning and dispiriting days I don’t expect, or want, to experience for quite a while, thank you.

It was bad enough knowing that the Joseph L. Mankiewicz tribute, The Romantic Englishwoman, Les Ordres, Black Moon, the Michael Caine tribute, Conversation Piece, the Louis Malle tribute, Chronicle of the Years of Embers, and Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August—to list them in approximate sequence of anticipatory enthusiasm—would take place before teaching and Film Society commitments permitted us to wing south. The remainder of the program was dominated by unknown and hence unanticipatible quantities, save only for the latest film by the director of The Hireling (which we most wanted to see), a three-hour Soviet WW2 epic by Bondarchuk (which we least wanted to see), a new French film starring Jeanne Moreau (which closed the festival and which, because of return-flight connections, we knew we couldn’t see), and tributes to Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda, and Stanley Donen. Of these last, Hackman and Fonda were two eminently admirable people whose work and ever-emergent identities are so much a part of the contemporary cinematic experience that any summary tribute to either seemed a little inappropriate; but I was perfectly prepared to admit that some tribute designer might very well be able to put the consistently likable creations of director Donen into clearer perspective for me, and besides, the general interruptedness of his career in the late Sixties and early Seventies tended to redouble the justification for a festival salute now that that career seems to be off and running once more. And of course, a film festival is a film festival (isn’t it?), and who knew which of those untried films and filmmakers might be the L’avventura or Viridiana, the Godard or Jancsó, of 1975?

Thursday afternoon was tribute-free and, thanks to a telephone briefing from Peter Hogue several weeks earlier, we had planned to devote it to catching the double feature Middle of the World and A Very Curious Girl at the Cento Cedar. However, the reunion conversation with The Hogue which claimed us from our 1 a.m. arrival till a still wee-er hour of the morning resumed in the light of day, so that night’s festival offerings became our first tour of cinematic duty. MOVIETONE NEWS had a permanent reserved seat at all the evening performances but the festival press office obliged us with a couple of seats side-by-side for Bride-to-be and A Virgin Named Mary. These vouchsafed an approximately 120-degree-angle view of the screen, which we were able to modify by a stealthy movement centerward as soon as it became apparent that both films were far from sold out.

From any angle, Bride-to-be—more properly, Pepita Jimenez, after the novel of origin—made for an appalling first taste of the festival and a dreadfully accurate index of what to expect of both the programming and the audience. Stanley Baker at least looked in splendid form as a 19th-century Spanish don whose full-grown son, a priest-to-be, returns home to be introduced to the young widow intended to become his stepmother. Baker enjoys the effect this supposedly fascinating creature has on all the menfolk in the community, and is further amused by her unnerving of his insufficiently virile offspring. The lad takes to flagellating himself regularly and, when this fails to purge his unwholesome dreams of trading indulgences in the confessional, requesting the maid to tie him in a martyr pose on his bare bedsprings. One keeps hoping for some sign that director Rafael Moreno Alba takes a blackly humorous view of these proceedings, but any such reading would be wishful generosity; besides, Peter Day either is, or plays the son as, such a block of suet that it’s impossible to be anything but contemptuous of the proceedings as well as Morena Alba’s deadly pretentious earnestness about the whole thing. The festival program bills Bride-to-be as “a stunning visual masterpiece”; not for the first time, this proves to mean that the colors are darkly handsome, the compositions arty, and the swooning camera movements disassociated from any form or meaning. It certainly is “visual,” and that seems to be enough to certify cinematic excellence with the audience, whose primary concern throughout our sojourn will be to spot “ideas”—e.g., The Church and Sexual Repression—whenever they heave into view or, more frequently, hearing by way of banal and explicit dialogue. (Bridetobe, a Spanish film, is spoken in English).

Pepita Jimenez does possess one rather nice moment: the conclusion, in which a wedding party emerges from the cathedral, poses in the sunlight for an instant, and Pepita (Sarah Miles), now the son’s bride, turns to receive congratulations from—and lay a sparkling-eyed, open-mouthed kiss on—father-in-law Stanley Baker (hey, why didn’t he make that movie?). But the highpoint of the show is provided by an esoteric special-interest group-apparently consisting of two people in the Palace of Fine Arts audience: About midway through the film there is a day-in-the-country scene wherein the director, while laboriously keeping us advised of both father’s and son’s movements around and awareness of the glamorous Pepita, cuts to a closeup of two fighting-cocks about to be flung at each other. In the center of the auditorium, in perfect metronomic phase, two hisses. Cut away from the birds: the hissing stops. Cut back to the birds: the hissing resumes. Cut, stop; cut, hiss. It is unclear whether the twosome disapproves of cockfighting, birds, or banal symbolism.

Sergio Nasca became some kind of San Francisco Film Festival property last year when his The Profiteer scored an unexpected success with audience and reviewers. Perfectly logical, then, to include his A Virgin Named Mary in this year’s program. Whether through determined partisanship or weak judgment, the programmers and the present audience seem to think the new film is just swell. Its conscious humor is a relief after the unintentional (and largely unrecognized) hilarity of Bride-to-be, but Nasca’s jokes about bawdily irreligious villagers who are still susceptible of being flummoxed by a contemporary “miracle” tend to resolve into the same basic joke again and again, and after ten minutes or so one has heard all he has to say on the subject of corrupt Catholicism and the gullible proletariat and, worse, had all the fun it’s possible to have without some sense of comic nuance. (Symptomatic gag: a moronic altar boy—a Fellini leftover from I clowns and Amarcord—repeating the same subhuman tic, a slantwise convulsion of his lips, as the despairing working-class priest glances helplessly his way at ten-second intervals.) There is a species of arthouse viewer for whom Bawdy Peasant Humor is an article of bourgeois faith, and Nasca’s film will suit this audience right down to the ground. And again, the obvious taking of A Position on the Church as Social Anachronism seems sufficient to qualify the movie for cinematic seriousness.

There is a press conference with Gene Hackman early Friday afternoon, which enables us to pay our respects to one of the best actors in the cinema today and then, after an hour or so of the earliest Hackman film clips, slip away to a matinee of Swept Away, a missed festival film, at a San Francisco theatre. But first, to the press conference. It is entirely consistent with the aura surrounding our brief festival experience that the first question put to Hackman, by a columnist from a gay publication, has to do with “the very macho image you project in your film roles, and even in your American Express commercial on TV.” Hackman slides his palms together, tries to turn his wince into a polite smile , and says, “Karl Malden—[coughs and clears his throat]—that’s Karl Malden.” The questioner is repeating his question in another form and doesn’t get the message till several tries later on Hackman’s part. “Are you sure?…”

Hackman says he doesn’t take himself seriously but takes his work seriously while doing it. Most of his answers suggest a likable self-effacement at the same time as a sense of specific evasiveness about accounting too precisely for the effects—and origins—of his performances. Someone asks about a specific gesture in Night Moves and he shrugs it off as “actor’s energy” rather than a calculated index to the character; working with directors like Coppola or Penn, he says, “You really think that you’re inventing it but you’re not really—they’re slidin’ ya a1ong.” He offers brief comparative observations on the French Connection directors, William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer—both are “high-energy” types; “Billy is a—uh I would say that the feeling on the set with Billy is much more of [his] being in control [whereas] John pays lip service to ‘It’s your doing’ to the actor” but generally hedges on other director-related questions (“Maybe I should know more about film. I’ve never been one to keep up with film, know what’s in vogue.”). Kathleen Murphy gets to ask him about the curious disparity between Arthur Penn’s vehemently negative characterization of Harry Moseby (Hackman’s character in Night Moves) in a recent Sight and Sound interview and the very sympathetic human being the actor realizes in the film. At first he shambles and doesn’t seem to understand the issue, brokenly recalling Moseby as “a bodily-pleasure-seeking kind of a person … into sports and all once” and murmuring sotto voce that he used to be that way himself; but then he delivers as astute an observation as any why Gene Hackman is a superior movie actor: “I can’t go in and do a working guy and pretend I’m better than him. One of the big mistakes maybe that actors make is to do tongue-in-cheek, make fun of their character. The audience knows.”

Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August tended to undercut what little enthusiasm I feel for the cinema of Lina Wertmüller, and reinforces my belief that well-meaning critics are so anxious that there be an important contemporary woman filmmaker that they’re damn well going to find her in this wildly erratic, fitfully spunky but inveterately safe-playing director. Peter Hogue, Molly Haskell, and distressingly few others have commented on the pretend quality of Wertmüller’s social and sexual revisionism; and while I’m pleased that Wertmüller isn’t simplistically doctrinaire on the deeper sexual revolution of the Seventies, I find her inappropriately symbolic position—for which she shares some of the blame with the feverish press—increasingly irritating. Her best moments, as both director and social commentator, are still too resolutely that: moments in which a one-foot-in-the-mud-while-the-other-is-trying-to-climb-a-mountain visual style and the inspired unpredictability of her characters and her casts—most especially Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini, of course—combine to drop us into unexpected pockets of equally unexpected and uncategorizable emotional and intellectual disarray, in which state we shiveringly find ourselves in intuitive touch with the ethical quandaries of our time. I trust I make myself obscure.

Meanwhile, this latest Wertmüller I’ve seen (Everything Ready—Nothing Works, from last year’s festival, is expected in Seattle soon) suffers more than its predecessors from heavyhandedness and simplemindedness. Melato, as a spoiled rich bitch, is numbingly restricted in a repertoire of mannerisms for establishing the character’s unpleasantness in the first half of the film, and Giannini’s kicked-mongrel expression, endearing though it is, is also grievously overused. Even in its turnabouts the film is too shrill by far; and while Wertmüller occasionally seems to insist that the self-contradictoriness of her characters and their avowed sociopolitical positions is very much to the point, there’s also an uncomfortable sensation that about a third of their ringing declarations about social injustices and the hypocritical absurdities of sexist morality are to be swallowed medicinally whole. Festival fever apparently accompanied the film to the Clay Theatre since at least one portion of the audience tended to applaud such statements triumphantly, albeit by way of throaty “Right on!”s instead of politely fervent clapping.

Kathleen and I had markedly differing responses to The Adoption, a very small-scale Hungarian film by Márta Mészáros, wife of Miklós Jancsó. I bother to mention this marriage mainly because Mészáros’ film has nothing whatsoever in common with those of her husband, including stylistic adventurousness. Not every filmmaker need dynamite his/her way into a special niche in the cinema, but The Adoption simply struck me as too unassuming, too ordinarily East European: lots of telephoto work, with attendant massing-up of out-of-focus objects in foreground and back-; rainy-day black-and-white tonalities; performances that seem glum and lackluster as often as, or slightly more often than, they seem naturalistically subdued. In short, too reminiscent of a lot of other undistinguished Czech and Hungarian pictures we saw during the East European New Wave period of the mid-Sixties. Kathleen was a good deal more positive about the film’s unforced feeling for the quiet extraordinariness of ordinary people, especially the relationship between a middleaged factory-worker widow and the sullen “bad girl” from a state home she lets use her house for rendezvous with a boy. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the movie; neither does there seem to me a good deal of reason to call attention to it via a film festival. Some of the working press took to the film and mildly rebuked the fest coordinators for having failed to give them a preview of it—as they did preview the expected heavies—so that they could have commended it in advance, the box office was among the skimpiest of the festival. Speaking of New Waves, erstwhile Godard regular László Szabó, rather thickened and softened within the last decade, plays the widow’s married lover.

We decided to bag Sergei Bondarchuk’s They Fought for Their Country in the interest of tooling to the Larkin for another belated festival pickup, Louis Malle’s Black Moon. The Larkin audience was noticeably mystified by the entire proceedings, which was fair enough; the trick is, I think, to take Malle at his word and not worry about what the thing means. If this disarmer sounds suspiciously like Buñuel’s sly assurance that the author certainly intended no symbolism in The Exterminating Angel, in this case it’s appropriate. I got the distinct feeling that Malle’s primary motivation for making this “A1ice in Wonderland for the Seventies,” to borrow Hogue’s phrase, was a cozy desire to make a movie about his country home and the surrounding countryside. There are far worse reasons for doing a film, and seen in this light Black Moon is quite uninsistently delightful in its benignly manic shuffling of heavy thematic innuendo (War, The Efficacy of Language, The Quest for Sexual Identity, etc.) and lazy, mossy lyricism.

We could obtain only one ticket to the Jane Fonda tribute—the only tribute to sell out this year—and so, because I felt sure (wrongly, as it turned out) that the Fonda audience would stay over for the free late-afternoon presentation of Karen Arthur’s Legacy, I took myself to the Cento Cedar for that aforementioned double bill while Kathleen Murphy attended the festival. That evening’s first feature was the most foolproof piece of culture-vulture bait in the lineup, and the sally of “Bravo!”s that accompanied the curtain close was not, sad1y, prompted by the fact that the curtain was closing. Within 30 seconds of the film’s beginning it was apparent that Czech exile Iwo Dvorak had no more business than anyone else attempting to make a movie out of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. “Outstanding photography with unusual shots from the level of the eyes of an insect” (to quote City Magazine) does nor an equivalent of Kafka’s prose make; indeed, nothing in this utterly wrongheaded enterprise was wrongerheaded, or clumsier, than Dvorak’s attempts to work out Gregor Samsa’s point-of-view problems, whether by subjectivizing literally climbing the walls or cutting to wishfully expressive closeups of Greg in his late beetle period. Per Oscarsson, as Samsa’s employer, comes nearest among the performers to finding a comic style appropriate to representing behavior in Kafka country, but that is absolutely the last kind thing that can be said about the film. At the Festival Press Conference the last evening, the programmers rather uneasily admitted to having accepted two films without having seen them in advance; Metamorphosis was one of them. And yet the suspicion grows on me increasingly that, having seen the film, they might have picked up on it anyway; for its World Premiere audience was clearly in their element even if neither Kafka nor the cinema was honorably served in the process.

Alan Bridges’ Out of Season proved to be a failure but, unlike most of the other films we saw, it was at least trying to be a movie, and mostly avoiding ostentation in its quest to realize ambiguities by way of the medium itself. Cliff Robertson plays a stranger returning to a seaside resort hotel ‘way beyond its best days where, 20 years before, he had an affair with the present manageress, Vanessa Redgrave. Robertson’s back and whether Redgrave’s got him is a moot point; for her daughter, Susan George, is also very interested, and Robertson can’t help being interested in return. Out of Season operates within a very closed system (we recall that Bridges’ first praise came for directing Hallmark Hall of Fame–type plays) and doesn’t ultimately use that closed system as a vehicle for traveling to some other country of understanding. But even within this enclosedness it doesn’t rely on surefire, easily and surely classifiable schemas; in a phrase, you aren’t sure just what happens at the end. The audience that had politely applauded a gob of drool like Bride-to-be and bravoed Metamorphosis hated it, and hissed and booed. Even in his failure, Bridges might deservedly have taken pride.

In such a poisonous atmosphere, Stanley Donen and the audience assembled to honor him and his films afforded the opportunity to draw a clear breath. Whereas the chatter amid evening performance attenders turned on the assertion that “that film had a lot of ideas in it,” or “I liked Jane Fonda—she was very deep” or “There hasn’t been a first-rate film in the festival so far; now, Hearts of the West is my idea of a very good second-rate movie…” (honest to god, I am not inventing this dialogue!), the people at the one tribute I attended at length actually sounded as if they had some feeling for movies, watched them, thought and read and talked about them, mentioned the name Joseph Losey not because, being in the festival brochure, it was a droppable name but because they had something intelligent to say about Joseph Losey. (Festival veterans assure me that tribute audiences tend to be far more pleasant to sit among than those for the evening performances.) Martin Rubin’s selection of film clips tended to stress Donen’s gifts as a choreographic director, and understandably—irresistibly—provoked applause again and again; personally, I could have done with a little more attention to Donen the director of breezy non-musical performances as well, as ferinstance Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and Walter Matthau in Charade; and two extensive excerpts from Arabesque, though they pleased and bedazzled the tribute audience, only served to remind me how completely Donen had blown the light-thriller grace of Charade by opting for a relentlessly literal visual underscoring of the title Arabesque. The man himself was the craftsman without pretense or guile, who confessed he’d like to be able to fix something in every piece of film shown that day and who chirped, in answer to how he got Fred Astaire to dance on the walls and ceiling in Royal Wedding, “I insisted!” A cheerful pragmatism marked all of Donen’s responses, whether explaining how they had to re-animate the Gene Kelly–Jerry the Mouse dance in Anchors Aweigh (directed by George Sidney but choreographed by Donen) because they forgot to have the Mouse reflected, like Kelly, in the polished floor, or urging audiences to bitch whenever they have scratched, broken, faded prints foisted on them, or saying that the long, arduous task of completing a film was “like furniture-making.”

We would see one more film at the 19th International San Francisco Film Festival: another English-language foreign film (Italian-made this time) of a variety whose blend of pretentiousness, turgidity, and poorly disguised intellectual impoverishment normally condemns them to bypass U.S. theatrical distribution and sell directly to late-night telly. The Devil Is a Woman has nothing to do with the incomparable Sternberg-Dietrich film of that name (the title panel in the credits appeared on a background different from the rest; I have not been able to determine the original, Italian title*). Glenda Jackson is starred but actually appears in only a few of the film’s 105 minutes, playing the Mother Superior of a dungeon-like hostel where various guilt-ridden refugees from the outside world voluptuate in self-persecution. Damiano Damiani (who, alarmingly, is supposed to be directing Sergio Leone’s The Genius) pores over the modernistic lines of this sinkhole of medieval Krafft-Ebing like a fetishistic architecture student but does nothing to cut the inherent silliness of the project and a good deal to exacerbate it. Yet again, the audience savored every schematically ordained kink and literally applauded the hero—a middling-hip young writer who signs on temporarily to help a collaborationist priest complete his memoirs—whenever he spoke up for philosophical or sexual freedom (and there was no irony in the applause). One foresees a 1976 festival film in which the Pope appears on camera, a grin locked on his quivering jaw, to say, “Pretty soon you won’t have the Church to kick around anymore.”

But before that, there was the Festival Press Conference. Festival Director Claude Jarman Jr. gave a brief rundown of the Festival’s administrative history and sketched in its financial support, then reiterated several times that by any standards the 19th had been a very successful festival. The 1,003-seat auditorium of the Palace of Fine Arts was sold out for 11 of the 22 evening programs (The Romantic Englishwoman, The Balance, Chronicle of the Year of Embers, Mariken, Swept Away, Conversation Piece, Black Moon, Metamorphosis, Out of Season, The Devil Is a Woman, French Provincial) and had assuredly made a profit. He pointed out that the total budget of the San Francisco Festival—$170-175,000—is smaller than the built-in deficit of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center ($200,000). Thanks were extended to Martin Rubin for his scrupulously well-researched and –selected tributes (healthy applause from the press corps) and to the programmers for their work (polite smiles).

Initial questions from the local press dealt with the political climate in the city and its potential relevance to the Festival’s future, and other comparatively parochial questions. Then Judy Stone raised a spectre that I’d about given up on in the general atmosphere of cooperation: Why had there been no films from Asia, Africa, South America? Why, with the possible exception of Chronicle of the Year of Embers (a Cannes prize-winner), no Third World films? Why no, for example, Sembène? “Sambanay? What’s that? Who’s that?”—this from the first-string movie rep of one of the big downtown papers. “Ousmane Sembène,” Stone said. Her opposite number grappled with the syllables but, having more to deal with this time around, got them the more garbled. “He’s a very interesting African filmmaker,” Stone elaborated. “Where’s he from?” “Africa,” someone else hazarded tentatively. “Senegal,” someone murmured. “Yeah, but where’s he from?” “Someplace in Africa.”

A few faces at the staff table were a little redder. George Gund, second-in-command to Jarman, recounted the various international festivals the programmers attend: Cannes, Karlovy-Vary, so forth. “We look at everything and a lot of things look for us…. We see as close to everything as is humanly possible.” Yes yes, Stone persisted; but where were the films? Mark Chase explained that there was a real problem with Third World films in that often no one could afford to prepare subtitled prints. And what about the Germans who are so prominent in the current readjustment of our notions of just what constitutes the cinema—Fassbinder, Herzog, Straub? Chase spoke of four or five “marvelous” German films they wanted but couldn’t get: the single English-subtitled print tied up elsewhere, or … “What about the Kaspar Hauser film [Every Man for Himself and God Against All]?” “Well, that’s been shown in the United States,” Chase replied—though this had not disqualified a number of other films that had been shown in the present festival, neither had this policy noticeably affected previous, more challenging and comprehensive S.F. programs.

The conference came to an end with the question scarcely engaged, let alone resolved. Yet one wondered how it could have been otherwise (“‘Samba what?'”); also, given that audience’s filmwatching standards and expectations, whether the Festival planners wanted it otherwise. What was so dispiriting about those four days at the San Francisco Film Festival was not that I hadn’t seen a single film I could greatly admire, nor even that I had seen a number of films I detested. I cherished the notion that a film festival might afford me the opportunity to have some unprecedented movie experience. And I was prepared to be displeased and perhaps even outraged by some of the films I would see—but because they were straining, in mistaken and ultimately unproductive ways, to do something singular, not because they were, as with Bridetobe and The Devil Is a Woman, unmitigated shlock.

* Il sorriso del grande tenatore (grazie nearly four decades later, Internet Movie Database!).

Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson


Leave a Reply