The 40th Annual Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 15, with a screening of John Ridley’s Jimi: All is By My Side, and complete its 25-day run on Sunday, June 8 with The One I Love as the Closing Night Film. Here is Parallax View’s coverage and guide to SIFF resources for all 25 days. * Updated 6/9/2014 *
It’s #SIFForty! The 2014 Seattle International Film Festival is the 40th edition, at least by the numerical count (SIFF jumped from the “Twelfth Annual” in 1987 to the “Fourteenth Annual” in 1988, skipping Lucky Thirteen just like a high rise, but when you survive this long, who really sweats the details?). It holds the claim to the biggest film festival in America, by both length (a marathon twenty-four days) and number of films. This year’s presented 270 fiction and non-fiction features—including twenty feature film world premieres, twenty-one feature film North American premieres and eight feature film American premieres—and 168 shorts.
SIFF has grown a lot in its forty years, expanding into education, special screenings and, in the last decade, year-round programming films throughout the year—and they celebrated by announcing two major events for the organization. SIFF just purchased the Uptown Theater, the three-screen complex just west of Seattle Center that they leased a couple of years ago, and along with that new mortgage they’ve taken on the lease of the Egyptian Theater, giving the Capitol Hill landmark and festival anchor that closed in 2013 a new lease on life. SIFF reopened the shuttered theater for the festival and then will close it again (temporarily) while it raises money for renovations and a planned fall opening as a year-round venue. Without SIFF’s commitment, that space would surely have been gutted or torn down and turned into apartments or condos.
All of that was announced at the opening night festivities before the screening Jimi: All is By My Side, John Ridley’s portrait of Seattle-born rock legend Jimi Hendrix in London the year before he broke in America at the Monterey Pop music festival. Once again, opening night took place in McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, a great place to experience dance or opera or theater but a lousy venue for movies, thanks to acoustics that send movie soundtracks reverberating through the hall. That might seem like a death knell for a music biopic but due to resistance from the Hendrix estate, Ridley was unable to use any of Hendrix’s original music or compositions.
Should you utter the title The Babadook out loud, you may be in danger of summoning an Australian bogeyman from its hiding place—and woe betide those who doubt its existence. Film Comment calls this first-time effort from director Jennifer Kent “the real deal” in horror, so expect to lose some sleep. (Egyptian: 11:55 p.m. Fri., June 6. SIFF Cinema Uptown: 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 7.)
In Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a young woman (Babel Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi) becomes convinced that Fargo is real, and journeys to the movie’s setting to find money buried in the snow. Well, Fargo did claim to be based on a true story, even if that turned out to be a Coen brothers jape. This film is from another set of filmmaking siblings, David and Nathan Zellner, and comes with warm notices from other festivals. (Egyptian: 7 p.m. Sun., June 1 & 4 p.m. Mon., June 2.)
In going from Wendy & Lucy to Meek’s Cutoff, Portland’s Kelly Reichardt blithely established the kind of range that most indie filmmakers can only dream about. Therefore her new one, Night Moves, automatically becomes a must-see. It’s about a group of Oregon environmental activists; Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning lead the cast. (Lincoln Square: 7 p.m. Fri., May 23. SIFF Cinema Uptown: noon Mon., May 26.)
“My films are a little weird,” says Taylor Guterson. It’s a weird statement to make about his two easygoing features. His debut Old Goats (SIFF ’11) and his new Burkholder both concern a group of of elderly, sometimes cantankerous codgers facing their retirement years on Bainbridge Island, where the director grew up. The films gently meander through their doings and conversations, which have a habit of detouring into blind alleys. Those detours are intentional, says Guterson, the son of bestselling novelist David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars): “There are people out there who think that that’s not how you tell a story, that you never bring up something that . . . doesn’t have a point. And to me it has a point. They go off on these tangents because that’s what they do.”
Today based on the Eastside, Guterson is a self-made filmmaker with his own video production company. Chatting in a Mercer Island coffee shop, he’s like an earnest, relaxed grad student. So why, I ask, has he created a stock company of senior citizens? Reflecting on Old Goats, he says, “I was 27 and thinking, ‘If I don’t just figure out a way to do it now, I’ll never make a feature.’ ”
The press release has been unleashed, the complete schedule has been announced, and at 9am on Thursday, May 1, the schedule will go up on the SIFF website and tickets will go on sale online and at the SIFF Cinema Uptown box office (the Pacific Place SIFF box-office with open later). The 40th Seattle International Film Festival season is officially underway.
Of course, you can’t wait to find out what the highlights are (well, my highlights, as far as that goes) so here’s a sketch of what’s big, what’s interesting, what’s arriving with big buzz, and what you might want to look out for when the schedule goes live. (The full press release is copied below.)
Opening Night, as was previously announced, is Jimi: All is By My Side, John Ridley’s film of Jimi Hendrix in the year before he broke in America at the Monterey Pop music festival. It debuted at Toronto last year and made its American debut at SXSW in March; Seattle marks its second American appearance. As you may know, the Hendrix estate would not license any of Hendrix’s compositions to the film, which leads to some storytelling gymnastics and one killer cover that I will not spoil for you. The film opens the festival at McCaw Hall (which, to be honest, is not the most sonic-friendly space for film soundtracks) on Thursday, May 15, and director / writer John Ridley (fresh off winning an Oscar for his screenplay to 12 Years a Slave) is set to attend.
The Seattle International Film Festival announced this week that it will kick off the 40th Seattle International Film Festival with a screening of Jimi: All is By My Side, John Ridley’s film about the early years of Jimi Hendrix in England before his breakthrough, on the Thursday, May 15 opening night gala at McCaw Hall. Director / writer Ridley, an Oscar winner for his screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, is expected to attend.
The film, which debuted at Toronto last fall and made its American debut at SXSW in March, stars Andre Benjamin as Hendrix, who was born in Seattle and rests at Greenwood Cemetery in Renton, and co-stars Hayley Atwell and Imogen Poots as the women in his life as he played his way through the London club scene in the 1960s.
SIFF also released its 2014 promo. The theme is “Cinescape.”
Iranian cinema has a history of couching its criticisms of life in Iran in metaphor. Mohammad Rasoulof’s 2009 The White Meadows offered the oppressive, authoritarian culture of contemporary Iran as a warped Gulliver’s Travels through a lifeless salt marsh of islands out of some surreal medieval world. What’s most startling about Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn is its audacity in projecting a portrait of the authoritarian regime in direct, confrontational terms. Opening on a contract murder that plays like an American gangster picture dropped into dusty slums outside Tehran, the film takes a circuitous route to outline the workings of a totalitarian state that intimidates and terrorizes its intellectuals and dissident writers. Along with the web of writers connected by censored and suppressed works, we follow the thugs doing the dirty work for a vicious minister, including a man whose motivation is simply money to pay for his son’s operation (it’s not a corny as it sounds). He’s constantly stopping along the route to see if the money has reached his account, interruptions that keep the political horror story firmly framed within the banalities of everyday life.
The script is overly complicated, stirring in characters who appear without introduction, and a little repetitive in the second act, but it seems churlish to complain that such a provocative, covertly-made portrait of the Iranian government as a brutally repressive regime could “use a little cutting.” The confusion sorts itself out as the intimidation turns into outright terrorism, 1984 by way of The Godfather, while an inspired formal twist puts the whole ordeal on continuous loop, a cycle of never-ending despotism. I found echoes of The Lives of Others in the routine surveillance of citizens, but this is more confrontational and brutal and Rasoulof hasn’t the safe distance of exploring a fallen regime. His targets are current and he puts a target on his chest for this. For that reason, he’s the only artist on the film who takes credit; the other names are hidden for fear of reprisals (we assume the actors are expatriates safely out of country). As of now, his passport has been revoked and he is unable to see his family, whom he has already moved out of country. That’s some sacrifice.
Trapped,also of Iran, is a more conventional thriller that opens with a sense of optimism and possibility, thanks to a groovy theme song from Cat Stevens. Nazanin Bayati is a first-year medical student in need of housing (the dorms are full) and Pegah Ahangarani is a fast-living salesgirl with a spare room and manic-depressive symptoms. It seems headed for psychological drama, an Iranian Single White Female maybe, until Ahangarani is arrested for debt and Bayati and ends up tangled with a gangster loan shark.
A few weeks after the closing night of the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival, the Granville 7—an old-school multiplex in the heart of downtown Vancouver with screens squirrelled away on four levels (including that funky little screen hidden between two floors)—was shuttered and slowly gutted. It was a failing theater, to be sure, with no investment in the new digital projection technology. But for two-and-a-half weeks every fall, it was the center of screening operations for VIFF: seven screens right downtown, only a couple of blocks from at the Vancity and Pacific Cinemateque satellite screens.
VIFF 2013 has been forced to spread its screenings through downtown Vancouver (and one satellite screen farther afield in the city) and the transition comes with challenges for the staff (a whole new set of venues means new layouts, organizational issues and audience confusion) and for longtime attendees who (myself included) had settled in to the convenience of the old VIFF. This year’s opening weekend weather didn’t help. Day-long drizzle isn’t new to VIFF, but it takes on an added dimension of frustration when you are hiking fourteen blocks from the International Village to the Pacific Cinemateque.
Given those challenges, the transition has been (a few glitches aside) largely manageable, thanks in large part to friendly volunteers keeping their cool through the procedural changes on a day-to-day basis and patiently directing patrons to the correct lines (it got pretty darn confusing at the Cineplex Odeon on the third floor of International Village, where space is so tight that lines were formed on two levels to keep crowds organized).
The signature programming—including the Dragons & Tigers line-up of more than 30 features from Asia, the Spotlight on France sidebar, and the Canadian Images’ focus on homegrown cinema—remains intact but largely packed into the first week and a half of screenings (before a number of theaters drop out of the line-up). Which makes VIFF 2013 just as lively as ever as it picks up dozens of films fresh from a North American premiere in Toronto and shares plenty of programming choices with the much more prominent New York Film Festival, such as VIFF opening night film Nebraska, Palm d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color, Locarno prize-winner What Now? Remind Me (which skipped Toronto entirely and made its North American debut concurrently at VIFF and NYFF), Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, Agnieszka Holland‘s Burning Bush, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son, and Roger Michell’s Le Weekend.
On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, Telluride, the venerable film festival tucked away in this remote Colorado mountain village bucked tradition and did the seemingly unthinkable: it expanded. Adding an extra day to its program and a new theater (a 500-seat beauty named in honor of Werner Herzog) to its venues, the festival could be seen as not necessarily outgrowing itself but rather becoming more accommodating. The logic for audiences was that with more time and space to navigate the program (whose slender catalogue fits in a back pocket), the packed houses and epic queues would be diffused to a level more commensurate with a holiday weekend of moviegoing than an arduous pilgrimage to cinephile mecca. Of course there was talk of the festival as having lost some of its rigor on account of breaking one hit too many, and slumming it millionaire style. But leave it to a new film (12 Years a Slave), by the British Steve McQueen—a tale of slavery in the United States with no trace of kitsch, featuring robust performances from actors unfamiliar to the multiplex—to bust all assumptions.
It was Telluride that had not long ago ceremoniously proselytized on behalf of the Turner Prize-winning artist as emerging director, trotting out McQueen for a presentation of the bracing (circa 2008) Hunger, its rawness since mitigated by time and Shame‘s lack of manifest anguish. Were audiences now embracing McQueen at large? Was slavery a subject that American audiences were eager to countenance? “It’s about examining ourselves,” said McQueen at a town symposium with his ensemble cast, “and people may be more ready to examine history.”
In The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, filmmaker and film historian Mark Cousins takes an unconventional, expansive, and almost exhaustive approach to the history of cinema, from the first moving images to modern movies. His 15-hour documentary series is an ambitious attempt to encapsulate cinema, from birth to the present, as practiced all over the world, and emphasizes innovation, expression, and the cross-cultural fertilization of ideas spanning the entire globe. But Cousins is not just an educator, he’s a missionary sharing the beauty and magic of cinema: “A lie to tell the truth.”
The series is on DVD and available to stream on Netflix, and starting on Monday, September 2, Turner Classic Movies will be rolling out the documentary with a new episode every Monday through December 9. Accompanying the series is a festival of films that Cousins features in the respective chapters, playing every Monday and Tuesday night for the first nine weeks of the series (and then Mondays only for the final six weeks).
The series opens with a selection of landmark works of early cinema by the Edison studios, the Lumière Bros., George Melies, and Alice Guy-Blaché, followed by early feature films from D.W. Griffith (including Birth of a Nation) and others.
According the TCM, 119 films will be screened in conjunction with The Story of Film, 30 of them making their respective TCM debuts, from Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1928) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Japanese classic Osaka Elegy (1936) (both Tuesday, September 17) to Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (2006) from Turkey (in December).
G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925), the Centerpiece screening on Saturday night, is a landmark drama of social commentary, a savage portrait of Germany after World War II, when rampant inflation and record unemployment plunged an entire class into poverty and widened the gulf between rich and poor into a veritable ocean. Decadence and desperation and degradation: this has it all, and with a drumbeat of social drama drawn in stark images and situations.
Greta Garbo takes her first role since being “discovered” in Gosta Berling’s Saga (1924) and is marvelous as the devoted daughter of a widower civil servant, basically taking care of her father and her little sister while he gambles their entire future on a stock market bet (a rigged game that we know is doomed to ruin them). Endlessly nurturing and sacrificing herself for others, we know where she’s headed when she ends up in hock to Frau Greifer (Valeska Gert), the neighborhood clothier with the secret club in the back and the procurer who turns desperate women into hookers for her male clients. Garbo is elegant and dignified without tipping into the Hollywood glamour that would soon define her (and fix her teeth), the honest working class innocent about to be savaged by the economic piranhas circling the stream.
The ostensible lead, however, is Asta Nielsen, the thirtysomething German superstar playing the teenage daughter of an impoverished and pious war veteran who accuses her of prostitution and essentially pushes her to it out of necessity. Dressed to the hilt by a smitten banker in fashions that make the Ziegfeld Follies look restrained, she goes through the movie like the walking dead, numb with shock at her station, which apparently her foreign fat cat client finds alluring, if confusing. Werner Krauss plays the butcher, who hordes his products to trade for sexual favors and wields the power of his position like a petty tyrant, and there’s an American aid worker, an aspiring young banker trying to follow in his market-manipulating boss’s footsteps, and a decadent young woman ready to trade her affections for the richest beau, plus there’s a couple of murders, a fiery suicide, a healthy dose of madness, and lots of lurid spectacle.
And yet watching the film is tough. Manny Farber’s designation of “elephant art” came to mind while working through the screening. This is long (over 2 ½ hours), important, heavy, full of social commentary and dreary lessons, and it goes on and on, teasing us with the threat of degradation of its struggling characters while showing damaging actions of the rich. It’s also overloaded with storylines, top-heavy with major characters (some of whom suddenly disappear for long periods, perhaps due to missing footage), confusing and complicated and at times clumsy in its storytelling.
I surveyed the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival for Fandor a few weeks ago, covering the highlights and landmarks in brief. But it was always my intention to explore the films, and my experience with them, in a little more detail, time permitting. As it turns out, time has not permitted much opportunity, so I’ve carved a few hours out of a weekend to collect my notes and my thoughts over a few of the films.
The San Francisco International Film Festival has been expanding its size and its mission from the very beginning, when it was a single film showing with live music. Since then, it has expanded to four days, playing new restorations and rediscoveries, bringing in the finest silent film accompanists from around the world, commissioning original scores, and offering presentations from archivists walking us through their latest projects.
This year marks the latest and most exciting expansion of their mission: the world premiere of two new restorations undertaken by the SFSFF in collaboration with international film archives.
Allan Dwan’s 1916 The Half-Breed, a California frontier western starring Douglas Fairbanks in the title role, has been available before in a largely complete but partially re-edited 1924 re-release held by the Cinématèque Française (that version was released on disc a few years ago in Flicker Alley’s marvelous Douglas Fairbanks box set). Rob Byrne set about attempting to reconstruct the original, longer 1916 cut with the help of an incomplete (and very damaged) print of the original release held by the Library of Congress and a radically re-edited reduction print found by Lobster Films in France. Research into the scant documentation verified a few incomplete sequences and a couple of completely missing scenes, which Byrne, collaborating with Cinématèque Française, was able to reconstruct with the additional prints. (At the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” presentation on Friday morning, Byrne presented a step-by-step look at the process of not just finding footage, but doing detective work into finding the original titles, the original narrative, and the editing as seen on the original release; it was the most detailed presentation I have seen on the work and research that goes in to restoring a silent film.)
The result is not necessarily one of Fairbanks’ best films, but the restored film shows a more nuanced and interesting drama than heretofore seen, a conflicted portrait of racism and prejudice through the filter of history that decries intolerance without defying it (the film can’t let even as noble a half-breed as Fairbanks walk off into the sunset with a white woman), yet vividly lays out the hypocrisy of prejudice and white superiority in scene after scene. The film was adapted from a Bret Harte short story by Anita Loos, whose distinctive wit is evident in the surviving original intertitles (most of them are lost and the difference between the deft language and satirical edge of Loos and the bland writing of the rewritten titles of the reissue is unavoidable).
I knew that San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the premiere silent fest in America, but I was elated to learn from Céline Ruivo, curator of the film collection at the Cinématèque Française and a special guest at this year’s festival, that in Europe, SFSFF has a reputation as one of the premiere silent film festivals in the world. It has earned that reputation. In its now four-day length (three full days plus a gala opening night), it is both selective and expansive in its programming, with rediscoveries and new restorations along with well-known audience favorites and world masterpieces.
The opening night program qualifies as both rediscovery and revival. Prix de Beaute (1930, France), directed by Augusto Genina from a screenplay by G.W. Pabst and Rene Clair (who originally developed the project for himself), is famous largely for its star: it was Louise Brooks‘ third and final starring role in her brief European vogue. It was also released in both silent and talkie versions, and the sound version (with La Brooks dubbed by a French actress) is what most people have seen. The recently restored silent version is both longer and more interesting, even while it remains a minor coda to her Pabst masterpieces. The story of a newspaper secretary who wins the Miss Europe beauty contest takes abrupt tonal turns from bubbly romantic comedy to high-society spectacle to working class drama to operatic melodrama. But at its best it offers a look at working class life at work and at play in 1930 Paris and it sweeps us up in the rush of Brooks’ fairy-tale journey to stardom. Her fresh, natural presence in the world of late silent-era acting makes her all the more guileless and innocent in a culture where every man wants to possess and control her.
The programmers are as careful with the musical component as they are on the film materials. Every film is accompanied by live music from world-class silent film musicians. The opening night films was accompanied by Stephen Horne, a solo musician as one man band: he plays piano, flute and accordion (often two at once), and plucks strings of piano to suggest a Spanish guitar in a nightclub scene. The affectionate joke around the theater is that Horne returns to SFSFF every year because they get a combo for the price of a solo act! Also returning this year are the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra from Colorado and the Mattie Bye Ensemble from Sweden, while German pianist and organ player Günter Buchwald made his SFSFF debut on four programs.
The thirty ninth annual Seattle International Film Festival came to a close on Sunday, June 9, day twenty five of the marathon event, with the closing night film The Bling Ring, fresh from its debut at Cannes. Its two young stars, Katie Chang and Israel Broussard, were on hand to introduce the film and send the festival off to its gala closing night party.
Sofia Coppola has done marvelous work in ethereal studies of disconnection and emotional confusion, of people lost in their worlds or blinded by celebrity and affluence.
The Bling Ring fits in very nicely thematically to her growing body of work, but these kids don’t actually yearn for anything beyond fashion accessories and the thrill of robbing the rich and famous and lack any capacity for self-reflection. The dispassionate observation, intercut with social media alerts and pop culture snaps and stories, makes them a reflection of that world without offering us a character underneath worth caring about, or at least fascinated with enough to follow through.
Like Toronto’s, SIFF’s top awards—the Golden Space Needles, this year designed by local artist and sculptor Piper O’Neill—are voted on by the audiences. This year, with plenty of high-profile American indies and international imports on display, the surprise Best Picture winner was the warm-hearted Fanie Fourie’s Lobola, a South African romantic comedy that explores racial and social tensions through laughs (I sadly missed this one; the final show conflicted with my own rare appearance on a festival panel). Director Henk Pretorius, accepting the award via phone, said he would change the title because nobody gets it right. First runner: The Rocket, an uplifting Australian drama shot in Laos.
The Seattle International Film Festival is, as its organizers are proud to trumpet, the biggest and the longest film festival in the United States. It is also the most well attended in the country. Some of that is due to its size, of course, but SIFF is also a festival pitched to the hometown audience rather than attracting visiting film critics.
The thirty ninth edition of SIFF kicked off on Thursday, May 16, with a screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and complete its twenty five-day run on Sunday, June 9 with Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring as the Closing Night Film. Over 270 feature films (fiction and documentary) and 175 short films will play over twenty five days and more than 600 screening events.
SIFF doesn’t have an identifying specialty—it is by design trying to please everyone with a little bit of everything—but it does commit itself to a few worthy sidebars, notably documentary, and specifically the Face the Music programming.
Her Aim Is True is technically not a part of the latter but spiritually it fits right in. The documentary portrait of Jini Dellaccio received its world premiere at SIFF, and fittingly so. In the early 1960s, at age forty, self-taught fashion photographer Ms. Dellaccio snapped her first rock photo (of Seattle garage rockers The Wailers) and began a new career. She took bands out of the studio and into the distinctive northwest light of Washington State’s great outdoors, anticipating the mod style of A Hard Day’s Night with a distinctly American character and energy. I wish director Helen Whitehead offered a wider array of shots (the same iconic photos repeat throughout) and more context on how her work influenced the character of rock photography in the industry, but the film is nonetheless a vital tour through a most unusual, creative and fulfilling life, and Ms. Dellaccio’s voice guides the portrait. She’s still alive and taking photos at the age of ninety six.