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by Sean Axmaker

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Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 1)

SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks
SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks

I’ve traveled to Pordenone, Italy, three times to attend Le Giornate de Cinema Muto, the biggest, grandest, most dedicated silent film festival in the world: eight days of morning to midnight screenings of the masterpieces, rarities, rediscoveries and revelations. Yet in my own backyard (more or less) I’d never been to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the weekend-long celebration that unspools every July at the Castro. Until this year. To the world it was the 14th Annual SFSFF, but it was my first visit to this well mounted, well curated and exceptionally well attended festival. It won’t be my last. To the rest of the world it may seem like a curious pursuit, but I can think of few pleasures greater than spending a couple of days in the Castro (even without air conditioning) soaking in silent films and live music by some of the best silent accompanists in the world.

Curating a silent film festival takes a special kind of art. Apart from rediscovered and newly restored films, there is none of the urgency of discovery and representation that drives the selection in the rest of the film festival world. And while 80-90% of all silent films have been lost to time and neglect, that still leaves thousands upon thousands of features and shorts available to programmers at any given time. So how do you choose a dozen programs that balance the known and the unknown, masterpieces and curiosities, while suggesting the scope of thirty-some years of silent cinema from all over the world? I don’t know the secret alchemy, but the programmers of SFSFF have found it. The features of this fest are firmly in twenties, the golden age of silent cinema (the exception is the 1932 Wild Rose, from China’s own golden age of silent cinema), with shorts spanning nearly thirties years. The result is not just an appreciation of the greatness of the art across genres and cultures, it is testament to the state of the art of cinema from the mid-twenties to the dawn of sound, and of the Hollywood filmmaking machine where every cog was a professional at the peak of his profession.

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on ‘Humpday’

Humpday, the third feature from local filmmaker Lynn Shelton, made its world premiere in the Dramatic Competition section of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It was the first film sale of the festival and went on to win a Special Jury Prize “For the Spirit of Independence.” It subsequently played in the exclusive Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and was the Centerpiece Gala for the Northwest Connections sidebar at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year. It makes its theatrical debut on Friday, June 10 in New York and Seattle.

Lynn Shelton
Lynn Shelton

Humpday is the story of best friends – one married and seemingly content in a conventional lifestyle, the other an aimless traveler whose artistic ambitions are unmatched by his accomplishments – who reunite after 10 years and make an unusual commitment to an extreme art project: two straight men having sex on camera for an amateur porno festival. Mark Duplass (of The Puffy Chair and Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Joshua Leonard (co-star of the indie blockbuster The Blair Witch Project) play the very straight buddies who essentially dare each other into the project and Seattle stage actress Alycia Delmore co-stars as Duplass’s wife. The rest of Shelton’s cast and crew was drawn from the pool of Seattle talent. I had previously interviewed Shelton about her first two features, We Go Way Back and My Effortless Brilliance [read the interview on Parallax View here] and and then kept running into her at screenings and receptions. Wouldn’t you know, we became friends. This interview was conducted at her home in January 2009, mere days before she left for the Sundance premiere (and before the film’s sale to Magnolia). It was relaxed and fun, probably the last interview she gave under such easy-going conditions, and he we hung out for over an hour talking movies, her particular approach to filmmaking and the Seattle independent scene, among other things.

How did you come to cast Mark Duplass?

I met Mark on the set of True Adolescents, which was being shot in Seattle in August of ’07. He was starring in it and I was shooting still photography. We knew of each other, we had mutual friends in the filmmaking community, so it was sort of like no introduction was necessary. We just gave each other a big old hug the first time we saw each other and immediately bonded as filmmakers. We would jabber away over the craft table and at lunch and we realized we had a lot in common in terms of our filmmaking philosophies. And it was really clear that we wanted to work together in some capacity by the time he went back to L.A.. I told him that I wanted to direct him.

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Claude Chabrol on DVD

Consider this a post-script to Ten Days’ Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon: your guide to revisiting Chabrol on DVD (U.S. DVD releases only). More than half of Chabrol’s over 50 features have been released to DVD stateside, thanks in large part to such labels as Kino, Kimstim, Pathfinder and First Run, with other labels filling in the gaps with individual titles here and there. It’s almost enough for a representative retrospective. Almost.

The KimStim box set of five Chabrol films
The KimStim box set of five Chabrol films

Most of Chabrol’s major films are available, but among the most glaring omissions are his match set of debut features: Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959), both starring Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy. The roots of his entire career can be found in these beautifully crafted dramas, which are not thrillers per se but complex character studies with roiling relationships; that dynamic remains throughout the best of Chabrol’s films. (For the completist with an all-region player, there are Australian releases of both films in PAL format.) Criterion, how about tackling these New Wave essentials, either in special editions or a no-frills Eclipse collection with some of Chabrol’s less well-known films, like Les godelureaux (1961), also with Jean-Claude Brialy. Also unavailable are Landru (aka Bluebeard, 1963), his beautiful but uncharacteristically neo-realist The Horse of Pride (1980) and his “Dr. Mabuse” film Dr. M (1990), and the anthology films Les sept peches capitaux (The Seven Deadly Sins, 1962) and Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (World’s Greatest Swindlers, 1964), to which Chabrol contributed a short film apiece.

What’s most frustrating about the treatment of Chabrol’s films that are available on DVD is that he isn’t given the critical attention of his New Wave compatriots. Criterion has lavished attention on the films of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and Louis Malle with beautifully restored and remastered editions of the films supplemented by new and archival interviews and documentaries. The Kino releases of Chabrol’s early films are fine and KimStim’s releases look good, but many of the Pathfinder releases are indifferently mastered from mediocre prints and the quality varies substantially from disc to disc. Ten years ago it wasn’t as much of an issue, but with the growth of home theater and HD widescreen monitors, what was a minor defect before becomes magnified.

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The Seventh Seal – DVD (and Blu-ray) of the Week

The Seventh Seal on Criterion Blu-ray
The Seventh Seal on Criterion Blu-ray

Arguably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman’s films and certainly his most iconic, The Seventh Seal is Bergman at his most allegorical. Max von Sydow, young and blond and heroic, is a disillusioned knight returned from the Crusades in a state of spiritual desperation: his faith has been shaken by senseless death and terrible cruelty he’s seen perpetrated in the name of a silent God. Coming home to find his own country ravaged by the Black Plague doesn’t help matters much and as he searches for some sign of a benevolent God, he plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure with a grim white face. Gunnar Björnstrand is his skeptical squire, suspicious of religion that plays upon and encourages the blind fears of a superstitious population and cynical about a culture that values human life so cheaply.

The landscape in the opening scenes mirrors the harsh reality of his existence: rocky, cold, with jagged cliffs that look torn out of the land, scrub grass hills with scraggly trees. Only in the domestic scenes of Jof (Nils Poppe) and his family, wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and infant son Mikael, does the sun come out to warm their world with anything close to hope. And it’s that warmth, that hope, that promise of the future the knight sees in their love and their laughing child, that he is able to save by his simple sacrifice.

As I remembered from college, it’s full of heavy themes about faith and loss, about the meaning of life and the fear of death, with a lugubrious and introspective knight trying to hold onto his idealism in the face of a grim world and an unforgiving existence. What I had forgotten was the details: religion is a grotesquery of death and suffering, the strange and the sick are accused of being in league with the devil and are executed while the trembling devout lash themselves in penitence, offering their suffering as proof of their devotion, or as a sacrifice to a merciless God in exchange for sparing their lives. “They speak of Judgment Day,” says one. Things have not changed in 50 years or 500 or 1000 years.

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Interview – David Carradine

David Carradine died Wednesday in Bangkok at the age of 72. I had the pleasure of interviewing him in 2004, while he was promoting Kill Bill Vol. 2. This interview was originally published on GreenCine in April 2004.

David Carradine as Bill
David Carradine

The son of John Carradine and elder half-brother to Keith and Robert, David’s career began in the early 1960s, mostly playing heavies and punks, though he also took on the role of Shane in the short-lived TV series spin-off of the film. His career took off when, in 1972, he starred in Martin Scorsese’s Hollywood debut, Boxcar Bertha, and created the role of half-caste Chinese-American Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk wandering the 19th century American West in search of his American relatives, in the hit TV series Kung Fu. His subsequent career bounced between prestigious projects with Hal Ashby (Bound For Glory), Ingmar Bergman (The Serpent’s Egg), and Walter Hill (The Long Riders), TV-roles, and dozens of B-movies, and he can count such cult classics as Death Race 2000, Sonny Boy (where he plays a woman!) and Q (directed by old Army buddy Larry Cohen) to his credit. In between he’s helmed his own personal projects, among them the films You and Me and Americana. Carradine got his star on the Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame in 1997.

When Warren Beatty bowed out of Quentin Tarantino’s long-gestating revenge epic Kill Bill, Tarantino brought in the then 66-year-old Carradine and completely rewrote the role for his new star and the man who was Woody Guthrie, Death Race 2000’s Frankenstein, and wandering Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine received a career revival men half his age would kill Bill for.

No April Fool’s joke, Carradine came to Seattle on April 1, 2004, his second stop in a two month publicity junket for Kill Bill, Vol. 2. His weatherbeaten face showed his age, and his long salt-and-pepper gray hair, hanging loose down about his shoulders, and his serene smile and easy-going willingness to talk about any subject showed a man comfortable with his year. Dressed casually in a brown leather jacket and a loose-fitting white shirt, open to his chest to reveal a small silver dagger hanging from a chain, and running shoes with no socks, he calmly chain-smoked one cigarette after another while he weighed questions and offered insights with a nonchalant confidence and modesty.

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M Butterfly and The Sky Crawlers – DVDs for the Week

M Butterfly (Warner)

Warner Home Video releases a quartet of DVD debuts, all with troubled critical histories: loved by some, disliked by many, largely ignored by most. And that’s what makes their arrivals so interesting: it gives us a chance, an excuse even, to revisit the films. That said, I’m up to my eyeballs in the Seattle International Film Festival and thus only had time to see one of them, but it was a revelation.

M Butterfly on DVD
M Butterfly on DVD

David Cronenberg’s M Butterfly was largely misunderstood or, worse yet, dismissed by most critics when it was released in 1993. The coolly dispassionate screen adaptation of the David Henry Hwang’s Broadway play, itself based on a true story, is in the same key as Cronenberg’s Crash and A History of Violence, and explores the same issues of identity, sexuality and self-definition that he’s been exploring all his career. But in 1993, coming in the wake of The Crying Game and Farewell My Concubine, this elegantly directed period film struck critics as wrong-footed. Jeremy Irons’ René Gallimard, a French diplomat in 1964 Peking, falls in love with Chinese Opera star Song Liling (John Lone), who becomes his fantasy of the submissive Asian woman, as much René’s creation as Song’s. Because, of course, Song is a man. It’s not only obvious to us but to everyone around René that Song is a man (if not as it plays out, then in retrospect – the odd looks René gets as he comes backstage at the Chinese Opera to see Song and the disgust on the face of Song’s servant as René visits Song’s home are not for Song but for René). His mistake is not a misreading of the culture – that would require some knowledge of it – but a complete ignorance of it.  Anyone who knows anything about Chinese Opera understands that the female parts are  all played by men, as least before the Cultural Revolution put an end to all such decadent and chauvinistic practices. There’s plenty of evidence that René sees only what he wishes to in the Chinese culture, from the trap that he and his wife fall in to accepting all the western assumptions of Chinese clichés to his disastrous predictions of the Chinese response to American policy in Vietnam. Just like the opera that gives the film its name (and the name that René gives Song: Butterfly), it’s a western fantasy of idealized, self-sacrificing Asian submitting to the power of the west with demure grace and romanticized tragedy. In other words (Song’s words specifically), another example of imperialist arrogance in a foreign land.

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Interview – David Russo and Little Dizzle

I originally met David Russo years ago, after his short film Pan With Us had won an Honorable Mention at the Sundance Film Festival. He was a friend of a friend and had joined us for a night out, where somehow David and I wound up arguing over art and critics. His position was the necessity of the former and the irrelevancy of the latter (he was the artist, I was the critic) and I took up the defense my profession, or at least my own approach. Curiously, it was one of the best conversations I’d ever had. It reminded me of why I got into the profession and what criticism should aspire to, searching out the great and good, looking for inspiration, celebrating what you find interesting and valuable. And it was enough to make a brief connection with an artist whose work I have continued to appreciate with each new film. His short films are beautiful pieces of cinematic sculpture, personal visions carved out of the world, and he brings that sense of craft and beauty and imagination to his feature debut, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle.

Visions of fish
Visions of fish

I’ll let Russo’s own words describe the film: “Male janitors becoming impregnated by experimental cookies that get warm in your mouth when eaten, and then giving birth to blue fish that only live mere moments afterwards. They have to pull together to become midwives for one another, and then deal with the loss and loneliness of miscarriage.” It’s of course about much more than that, including spiritual hunger and the drive to create and the strange life of late-night janitors (drawn largely from personal experience – Russo was a janitor himself for eleven years). Some of the most vivid parts of the film are the side-effects of male pregnancy: cramps, cravings and visions like drug trips, the latter created by Russo in his distinctive, largely hand-made animation style.

Russo did not come out of art school or film school. He started making films for himself while still working as a janitor, slowly developing his art and his techniques, but rarely sharing them with audiences. “I NEVER wanted to be a feature filmmaker until I went to Sundance six years ago,” he explained in an E-mail interview I conducted with him back in January, while he was finishing post-production on Dizzle in preparation for its Sundance debut. “I enjoyed having a successful, professional career as a ‘Film Artist,’ but I guess the warrior side of me just needed even more of a challenge.”

The script for Dizzle was written in 2001, right before the invasion of Iraq, but the inspiration in many way came from a particular experience from his janitor days. “One night I found a miscarriage in one of the women’s room toilets. It changed me. Soon I got to thinking: what if something like that happened to men?” When Russo was awarded a “Start-to-Finish” grant by NWFF, he pulled out his script.

In preparation for a profile of David Russo and Dizzle that I wrote for the Seattle Weekly, I sat down with David and his wife, Celia, for a long brunch interview. You can read the profile on the Seattle Weekly website here. Only portions of the interview made into the feature, so here is the complete interview, wrestled into a kind of shape that makes it sound more organized than it really was.

You spent a long time trying to get this film off the ground. How did it finally get produced?

There’s a lot that I want to say. We spun our wheels for about two years until Peggy Case came on-board as producer. And then it lurched into production without anyone seeing where it came from, really. It was amazing. Because it was just a last ditch effort that we went to L.A. and held auditions. Just a last ditch effort. Well, we don’t have any money, we’re just going to go down there and make believe that we have money, so I got a hold of my commercial agent, got a beautiful office to hold these wonderful auditions, I saw hundreds and hundreds of actors, worked with each and every one of them. It was an opportunity for me to show to potential investors that I can relate to actors just fine. I was able to change and make performances no problem, it was wonderful. And after that, the thing just lurched. We had to shoot only three weeks after it was greenlit, because of the availability of certain actors, and it got greenlit out of nowhere. I wanted to shoot this in the winter or the autumn, I didn’t want to shoot in the middle of summer, a night movie, are you kidding, where we’re having to shoot graveyard during the solstice? It was a nightmare. I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to, and then just, bang. If I had it to do over again, I would have had six weeks of preparation and not just three, because it was chaos. I am amazed that we pulled it together. Think of all the locations that are in there, all of that had to be done. All the casting had to be done in that three weeks. So I was probably down on it for good reason, I probably understood that we were just spinning our wheels, but it was going and auditioning actors that really gave it the traction it needed to at least get done in some form. We never did raise all the money, but who does?

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SIFF 2009 – Summer Hours, Still Walking, The Hurt Locker

The complications and tricky negotiations of family, as siblings grow up and leave to establish their own lives and their own families, was a central theme of numerous films at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Two of the best films from that festival, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (L’heure d’ete) and Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s Still Walking, highlight the opening weekend of the 2009 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival.

summerhours
Jeremie Renier, Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling in "Summer Hours"

Summer Hours is like a miniature, a small film of small dramas in the scope of large lives. Mortally once again hangs over the story of a family estate and the rich treasures of art history that goes with it. Family matriarch Helene (Edith Scob) has preserved the country home of her famous painter uncle as a tribute to him, complete with unpreserved works by French masters on the walls and rare pieces of furniture and glassworks as household items, and she drills in her eldest the list of valuables that need be accounted for and, if necessary, sold off when she dies. Frédéric (Charles Berling), who lives nearby in Paris, can’t bear to see the home broken up and sold off, but with his sister (Juliette Binoche) thriving in New York and younger brother (Jérémie Renier) settling in China, the holiday family home no longer has the same meaning to them all, let alone their children. The film moves from one decision to another and the arguments that inevitably ensue and it’s not all that subtly engineered. What Assayas brings is a generosity of understanding and a warmth of character to the siblings who love one another enough not to let disagreements change their feelings. It’s a gentle look at the way the ties to the past lose their hold on the next generations, and it closes with a pair of sequences that alone would recommend the film: one that takes you through the Musee D’Orsay from the workshops through to the galleries, and a final scene that recalls his brilliant (and still unavailable on DVD) early feature Cold Water, but with the angry, rebellious destructiveness of the earlier film replaced with a warm communal celebration. Plays Friday, May 22 and Sunday, May 24.

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Jo Shishido and the Red Cherry Blossom Wanderer – DVDs for the Week

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (Kino)

detectivebureau2-3
Jo Shishido is too cool

It may not be the best film of the week but this early Seijun Suzuki yakuza potboiler certainly sports the greatest title I’ve seen flash across my flatscreen all year: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards! The film, starring a cocky and cool Jo Shishido as a private detective (with a side job publishing a scandal rag) who hires himself out as an undercover agent to infiltrate a new gang in town for the local cops, is pure B-movie silliness and Suzuki knows it, plays with it, flaunts it. From the pre-credits sequence, where a gun sale (with weapons sold right off an American army base) turns into guns-a-blasting ambush by a rival gang that launches their assault from a Pepsi-Cola delivery truck that barrels through the swap like a tank, to the return engagement gang war that ends the film, this is all about turning a junky crime script into a blast of energy set against a backdrop of candy-colored sets and kitschy nightclub numbers and set to a score of growling pop music.

With his greased-back hair, dark glasses and pock-marked chubby cheeks, Jo Shishido hardly looks like a matinee idol but he pulls it off with sheer bravado. Shishido’s flippant attitude never falters, whether he’s talking his way into a job for the cops or ingratiating himself with a suspicious mob boss. When a nightclub singer almost blows his cover, he jumps into a duet to play for time. When his backstory (thrown together is rush of improvising) finally unravels, he doesn’t even flinch. He just offers a new service: playing double agent for the mysterious big boss. Suzuki directs it all with tongue-in-cheek attitude, not so much making fun of it as making it fun, playing out the by-the-number twists with bright, bubbly enthusiasm and devil may care energy. His later gangster movie parodies take on a genuinely genre-busting stylistic insanity. Here he’s content to just play up the conventions with a cheery self-awareness and the energy of a New Wave genre celebration. Kino’s widescreen disc preserves all that color with a bright, crisp clarity.

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Of Time and the City and Alexander Korda – DVDs for the week

Of Time and the City (Strand)

timeandthecityIf Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented. And in some ways, that’s what Terence Davies does in his cinematic essay, a personal remembrance of a city that he recalls from his ambivalent perspective of troubled affection and critical commentary. Freely mixing history and remembrance, documentary and commentary, Davies offers up a very personal look at his hometown of Liverpool and the age in which he grew up in England. Though only brief moments of the film are actually shot by Davies himself (the rest is a mix archival newsreel clips, documentary footage, TV news clips and home movies), this is as personal as filmmaking gets and he personally narrates with a witty collection of literary quotes, song lyrics, movie titles and snatches of poetry delivered with a twist of his own sardonic humor. The port city and industrial center on the northwest coast of Britain is best known in America as the birthplace of the Beatles. They have little place in Davies’ remembrance. Though his commentary is backed by a collection of popular songs and snatches of classical music, it’s not the music of the culture so much as of Davies’ life, and by the sixties he had tuned out with the coming of The Beatles and the Mersey Beat and turned to classical music. That was also the time he discovered that he was gay and the culture that he thought was his turned out to be quite hostile to him.

It’s chronological, both temporally and personally, from the post-war years to the present, and he takes us from B&W to color in a particularly delightful transition involving the crowds taking the ferry to Brighton. “They got on in black and white, but they got off in color,” he deadpans, and from that moment the film remains in color. It’s the modern world and nostalgia is gone as Davies recalls his coming of age in every way. His view of the church shifts to one of suspicion and distrust and a class consciousness seeps in as he observes the royal family (“another fossil monarchy”) and its lavish pageants of marriage and coronation while millions lived in poverty, destitute in slums all over Liverpool. He reserves his most caustic commentary for royalty and the national obsession with the royal family.

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Wendy and Lucy and Enchanted April – DVDs for the Week

Wendy and Lucy (Oscilloscope)

Wendy and Lucy from Oscilloscope Laboratories
Wendy and Lucy from Oscilloscope Laboratories

Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, a road movie that captured both the possibility and freedom of the weekend road trip and the tensions of anxieties of old friends who reunite only to find they have nothing in common anymore (not to mention the distinct shades and textures of Oregon’s backroads), was one of my favorite films of 2007. New York-based filmmaker Reichardt returned to the Pacific Northwest and reunited with writer Jon Raymond for Wendy and Lucy, an even less idealized look at life on the road. This isn’t the romantic road movie of Alexander Supertramp in Into the Wild. This is survival, revealed in all the mundane details of a documentary portrait and the simple power of Michelle Williams’ unadorned performance as Wendy, a single young woman heading off to find work on Alaska in a used car with only her dog, Lucy, for company and support. When Lucy runs off and Wendy tracks her to a group of young drifters gathered around a bonfire, Reichardt keeps her camera back to watch Williams’ careful and wary body language tell the story of her vulnerability. That vulnerability isn’t simply physical. With no fixed address, no cell phone and dwindling savings (all in cash), she’s practically off the grid. Every penny is accounted for. She collects bottles for the deposit and sweeps the seats for change.

The disarming directness and seeming simplicity of Reichardt’s direction can lull you into thinking that there isn’t anything going on, when in fact the film is built on a multiplicity of details and insights, never commented upon but essential to understanding the character and her situation. The subtlety of the plot’s emotional undertones hit hard, once the audience feels them via osmosis. Riechard could be directing a short on O2 broadband packages for all the difference it makes to the intelligence with which ideas are presented. Small thoughts and an endless supply of close reading material just appears as you’re watching. And there’s a reason they don’t jump out at you: they are the everyday details of living in the modern world as experienced by a person living on the edge. A setback that carries a costly but merely inconvenient price-tag to most of us is the disaster that pulls the rug from under Wendy. She’s been sleeping in her car all this time and now has to find a place to sleep (there’s nothing in the budget for a hotel room). Sleeping rough in the nearby woods, she awakens to find a hobo rummaging through her stuff and mumbling to himself. Her vulnerability is never more apparent than in this scene, which Reichert shoots in hard close-up on the intruder’s wild-eyed expression (Larry Fessenden, who is terrifyingly good at looking bedraggled and scary and utterly unpredictable) and Wendy’s paralyzed terror. It’s a terrifying moment and this intrusion into her personal space, as he rifles through her belongings while she wraps herself up in paralyzed terror, is a step away from rape or assault. The ripples of minor obstacles have major repercussions. So to do the small kindnesses of a security guard (Wally Dalton) and an understanding mechanic (Will Patton, who fills his tiny role with life and character). Wendy and Lucy is tender, tough and uncompromising, photographed with a disarming directness and seeming simplicity that looks almost naked next to the dramatic constructions of Hollywood road movies. It just makes her precariousness all them more real.

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Interview: Patrice Leconte – “Life is already too serious”

French auteur Patrice Leconte made his international reputation with the chilly yet emotionally intense Monsieur Hire (which gave French comic Michel Blanc his first dramatic role) and his subsequent string of rapturous, often tragic romantic dramas (The Hairdresser’s Husband and The Widow Of St. Pierre), tales of friendship (The Man On The Train), and the sly, stinging satire Ridicule. And those are just the films that make it across the Atlantic.

Patrice Leconte
Patrice Leconte

So it may surprise some of his fans to know that the film school graduate and former cartoonist first made his reputation in France with second film, Les Bronzes, a goofball comedy released on video in North America as French Fried Vacation. A huge hit, it launched a series of popular comedies. He changed the course of his career with Monsieur Hire but recently returned to the comedies that began his career: My Best Friend, the reunion comedy Le bronzes 3: amis pour la vie and La guerre des miss / The War of the Misses (scheduled to play the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival).

But when it comes to love stories, Leconte’s cinema is all about the sensual quality of romance and sex. He makes the desire and longing palpable. He captures sex in the sensation of hands stroking flesh and bodies making contact and his camera is like a hungry lover caressing his love. The objects of his desire take on an idealized quality because Leconte presents them as seen by our protagonists.

Two of his most sensual films debuted DVD this week from Severin: The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990) and The Perfume of Yvonne (1994), the second and third films in his “obsession trilogy” begun with the Monsieur Hire). It’s the first release of any kind for The Perfume of Yvonne in the U.S. And if they are dramatically slight compared to other films in his career, they are completely given over to the fleeting pleasures of desire and passion, the fragility of love, the effervescent joys of physical love and the bittersweet emotions revived by remembrance.

I interviewed Patrice Leconte in 2004, when he was the guest of honor at the 2004 Seattle International Film Festival. Conducted on Monday, June 14, 2004, I previously published a version of the interview for GreenCine. I run this revised version to celebrate the release for the two new Leconte DVDs. Though fluent in English, M. Leconte is more comfortable in French and he relied upon interpreter Jerome Patoux to translate his answers (M. Leconte understood my end of the conversation just fine).

Many of your films are very romantic, but they are also about the intensity of love and friendship. In Monsieur Hire it’s an obsessive relationship, while in The Widow Of St. Pierre, the Captain and wife (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are so in love that they will do anything for love and its transformative. I find that unique in your films. It’s not just about friendship but how powerful these emotions can be and how it changes people’s lives.

I always thought that cinema was an incredible to tell love stories. And then moreover, I didn’t really know what else you could tell but love stories. Anyway that’s what interests me the most. You can take people who are living a love story really, really far. You can take off from reality and then you can be much more intense than what you would be in real life. And it’s true that The Widow Of St. Pierre is, first of all, an incredible love story. The love story in Intimate Strangers is must more toned down and suggested, but in the end they are all love stories.

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Deadly Sweet, She Beast, Jean-Claude and Captain Kirk – DVDs for the Week

Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)

"Deadly Sweet" from Cult Epics
“Deadly Sweet” from Cult Epics

Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.

The story is incomprehensible, having something to do with a stolen diary with apparently embarrassing disclosures, a dwarf who shadows the couple through the city, a group of thugs who kidnap Aulin, strip her down to her undergarments and tie her up in a kinky scene that evokes Bettie Page bondage. And yet it is a film of marvelous energy and delirious imagery. The style is appropriated from comic books, experimental cinema, the French New Wave and the British New Wave, with special attention to Godard and Richard Lester, Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a visit to a photography studio turns into an impromptu fashion shoot) and TV’s Batman (graffiti-esque word-balloon punctuations in a fight sequence). In other scenes, he sends the actors into the streets and shoots cinema verité style, following them through the foot traffic from a concealed camera and building the scene out of snatches reaction shots from the observers. It all ends up at “a happening,” a big counter-culture ball filled with hippies and social butterflies where Brass films the winding progress of Trintignant and Aulin through the crowd as if it were a concert movie. Aulin looks exactly like the kind of baby doll playgirl to be found at such a party, but Trintignant (who mugs it up in other comic scenes) it still pretty stiff and establishment in such a free and freaky atmosphere. It’s miscasting of the highest order and it matters not a whit. Brass is having a great time and it is infectious.

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The Wrestler and Nickelodeon on DVD, The Wages of Fear on Blu-ray – DVDs for the week

The Wrestler (Fox)

“Warm” and “human” are not two words you associate with Darren Aronofsky, but in The Wrestler he is both, thanks in large part to the heartbreakingly open and vulnerable performance from Mickey Rourke, the comeback story of 2008. It’s been a long time coming for Rourke, who has been doing tremendous, unshowy work in American indies and oddball pictures for years, all in supporting roles and character parts. But it still makes a great story given the parallels to the film, which is about a once-famous, largely-forgotten, pummeled-into-scar-tissue pro wrestler whose glory days were twenty years ago.

Mickey Rourke: The Ram out of the ring
Mickey Rourke: The Ram bundled up against the cold world outside of the ring

Randy “The Ram” Robinson still lives in that past, at least as far as his taste in hair metal music goes, and pushes an increasingly broken body into the ring for regional cards in the show-biz hinterlands of rural New Jersey for a few hundred dollars a night. At least until a heart attack forces retirement on him and sends him to try to connect with the aging stripper he loves (Marisa Tomei, equally vulnerable but more wary) and reconnect with the daughter he all but abandoned (Evan Rachel Wood). Aronofsky gives his blue collar world of trailer parks and strip clubs an understated authenticity and Rourke makes The Ram a flesh and blood character of natural generosity who just needs to be loved can only find it in front of the crowd. It grabs for the heart and it squeezes, but with calloused, knocked-about brand of sentimentality. The accompanying 42-minute Within the Ring is a superior behind-the-scenes documentary directed with a rough-around-the-edge sensibility that matches both the film and the culture of its characters.

Read my interview with Darren Aronofsky here.

Nickelodeon / The Last Picture Show (Sony)

Peter Bogdanovich had wanted to make Nickelodeon in black-and-white, as he had The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon (“In color it feels made up,” he explains, “In black and white it seems more real”), but coming to the project after a pair of flops (Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love), the studios weren’t very accommodating. So he turned to retrospective reconstruction to desaturate the color and create a black-and-white version for this “Director’s Cut”-branded revision. Keep Reading

Interview: JT Petty, The Burrowers and the “alien territory” of the horror western

Clancy Brown and William Mapother take the first watch
Clancy Brown and William Mapother take the first watch

JT Petty’s third feature The Burrowers is another of his distinctively unusual takes on a generally conventional genre. Set in the Dakota Territory of 1879, where survival is already a challenge, Petty brings a starkly unglamorized sensibility to life and mortality on the Dakota prairie: it opens with a boy come a courting to a farmgirl only to discover a massacre and what appears to be the abduction of the girl. Clancy Brown and William Mapother, who have faces that look like they’ve survived tough times, are perfect as the leaders in a hunting party after a kidnapped girl: confident but unpretentious and very respectful of the country. But they think they’re tracking an Indian raiding party. What they find are fetid holes in the prairie ground filled with bone and blood and sinew, as if a body has been digested by the Earth. Which is close to the truth. Petty plays the unforgiving tensions between the settlers and the native tribes with palpable animosity, the distrust so great that their fragile truce snaps before they even take on the burrowers, the underground creatures that have been hunting on the prairie. He keeps the threat visually vague and the insect-like burrowers shadowy and smudged, creating his horror out of mystery and suggestion, but it’s nothing supernatural or alien. It’s a real western/horror/monster movie with a devoted frontier sensibility and loving nods to The Searchers.

The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and toured various festivals dedicated to films of the fantastic but was otherwise released direct to DVD by Lionsgate (they did the same thing with Ryuhei Kitamura’s English language debut Midnight Meat Train, adapted from the story by Clive Barker). The film deserves better. I spoke with Petty over the phone a couple of weeks before the April 21 DVD release.

Why a horror western?

I’m always trying to get a little bit outside the genre. I think people who watch scary movies now are such a sophisticated group of watchers. We’re probably the first generation that takes multiple viewings for granted, that you can see anything as many times as you want to see it. We’re sort of the video generation and the twenty-year-olds now just assume they can see anything they want anytime they want as many times as they want. So what’s already been done, we’ve seen so many times that I think it’s hard to actually scare people inside that framework. So once you get a little outside the genre, you can hopefully surprise people again.

What makes the combination of western and horror so resonant for you as a filmmaker?

A lot of it is just they’re two of the most cinematic experiences that you have watching a movie. If a horror movie does well, it’s entirely because of the direction, it’s classically not the performance. All the things that do make a horror movie pornographic also make it exceptionally cinematic. If you have a well directed horror movie with a crappy story and bad actors, it can still be a pretty awesome horror movie. And to some extent, the same thing with the western. All of those spaghetti westerns with dubbed voices and obvious cartoonish characters but have this amazing cinematic strength to them still resonate. So I guess horror and western movies are both, in a very specific way, the most cinematic movie you can make. Is that a fair statement to make?

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