I spent Friday, May 21â€”the first day of regular screeningsâ€”at the Neptune in the University District, a fine old theater with personality and history. It’s recently added a digital projector for 3D screenings, but those studio pictures run off of what is essentially a massive hard drive of digital information. For the films that arrive on digital video for SIFF screenings, most of them independent productions, a different sort of player is needed.
The first show got off to a rocky start when the film, projected digitally from a low-fidelity source (not the 35mm print promised in the catalog), suddenly broke up in digital noise and stopped. The venue manager explained that it was the “First test run of the projector” (she probably meant the player, not the projector) but that didn’t explain why it was so poorly calibrated for the film. Air Doll suffered from serious stuttering images, with panning shots jerking across the screen and the slow, careful movements to the actors broken up like a strobed image. While first it appeared intermittent, it became clear it was cyclical: a few seconds of (relatively) smooth movement, then a few seconds of rapid-fire jerkyness. That’s in addition to the bleary, badly-registered color and generally blurry image with scan lines visible throughout, not to mention the sudden intrusion of the soundtrack to another film (this one in English and apparently a documentary) suddenly cutting in halfway through the film. The sound was fixed (after I brought it to the attention of a theater employee) but the motion problems were never addressed.
How to do a rock and roll film is intertwined with why to do a rock and roll film. Two biopics of rock icons (one more iconic than the other) play at SIFF this weekend, but genre aside, there isn’t much in common with the two.
Nowhere Boy (dir: Sam Taylor Wood, UK) is the early life of John Lennon, the man who would put together the Beatles as a teenage boy. As fellow critic Tom Keogh observed in a post-screening conversation, this may be the first film to imagine the meeting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney on the screen (read Tom’s capsule review at the Seattle Times here). What’s so marvelous about the film (including that meeting) is that it isn’t elevated into some mythological status: none of those clichéd lines where someone in the group or some prescient member of their early audience predicting their greatness or prophesying how they will “change the future of music.” These are British boys brought together by a restless, emotionally knotted teenage Lennon, a teenager whose artistic impulses and rebellious tendencies serve him poorly in high school but drive him to create a skiffle band. All they have in common is a love of American rock and roll and the charge of playing in front of an audience. Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass) is utterly convincing as the “Goon Show”-loving John, raised by his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George, whose smoldering issues of abandonment by his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), are fanned into flames when George dies and Julia suddenly reappears (“the one with red hair,” is how John refers to her at the funeral) and becomes a part of his increasingly emotionally turbulent life. Nowhere Boy shines a light on details from a part of Lennon’s life that few beyond the most passionate fans knowâ€”John’s reconnection with his mother and the first shows of his proto-Beatles band, the Quarrymenâ€”but it’s rewarding because the story is not about the formative life of a star, but the emotional life of a boy who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother (it’s not that simple, of course, but to a teenage boy it sure feels that way). It’s also the story of sistersâ€”both mothers to the artistically inclined and reflexively rebellious schoolboyâ€”and the choices of the past that continue to haunt and divide them.
SIFF held its opening night in Benaroya Hall (for the first time) with a typically SIFF opening night film: The Extra Man, with Paul Dano as twentysomething literature teacher Louis Ives, a shy young man mired in sexual confusion, a fantasy life born of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and the eccentrics in his Manhattan apartment building, notably his roommate. Kevin Kline is the life of this rather precious coming of age film as Henry Harrison, a former playwright and full time “extra man” (an escort to the wealthy society widows who like a man on their arm for social events) who rents out a room in his walkup to make ends meet.
Directors and co-screenwriters Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (adapting the novel by Jonathan Ames) fail to capture the lively personalities that made their fiction debut, American Splendor, so splendid. Dano is less a man out of time than simply removed from the life around him (his thin, tentative smile and shrinking violet body language presents repression without suggesting the yearnings beneath it) and the film’s evocation of his inner life plays like bad community theater rather than a richly detailed fantasy of an idealized existence. But then there’s Kline, whose theatrical, judgmental Harrison is a genuine eccentric with a full life behind the flourishes and “a strange power over people,” in Louis’ own words. “It’s my constant disapproval,” explains Harrison, tossed off by Kline as an aside to the matter at hand. “Many people find it paternal.” John C. Reilly has less to work with offers a warmly vulnerable man under glaring eyes and a wild-man beard. This is just the kind of film that SIFF regulars have come to expect from opening night: mainstream moviemaking with indie colors and oddball edges just quirky enough not to offend.
Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion)
Stylistically adventurous and brazenly confrontational in his filmmaking, Nagisa Oshima was Japan’s young turk of New Wave filmmaking: formally challenging, politically provocative, stylistically audacious and instinctively confrontational. That kind of approach was a bad fit for the studio system, as you can imagine, and he jumped out of the restrictions of conservative studio filmmaking for a five-year freelance sojourn before he and his wife, actress Akiko Koyama, formed an independent production company, Sozo-sha. Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion), the five-disc box set from Criterion’s no-frills budget-minded label Eclipse, collects the initial five narrative features from this company. To my gaijin eyes appear to be marvelously lurid genre pieces and exploitation films, less reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s politically laced genres blasts that Seijun Suzuki’s mad sixties cinema. But there is something dangerous under the big bold style, which Oshima throws across a succession of CinemaScope canvases, and there’s a familiar strain of self-destruction and obsession behind his outlaw figures.
Critics more informed than I about both the director and the socio-political culture of sixties Japan make the case that these are in fact rife with political subtext, defined by Oshima’s disappointment with the political left and the student movements of the past and expressed through the violent actions of criminals and killers and repressed citizens who crack under the pressure and indulge in unrestrained excess. (The film notes by Michael Koresky on each disc, the only supplement of the stripped-down release, suggest the same, but the essays don’t make any specific connections between the films and the events and/or cultural conditions that the films confront.)
Director Cristian Nemescu was a rising star of what has been branded the Romanian New Wave when he and his sound editor were killed in a car wreck near the end of post-production of his first feature. As a tribute to Nemescu, the producer released California Dreamin’ as is. The director would likely have tightened the film up some but his dryly hilarious presentation of skewed cultural identity and appropriation, his blithely scathing portrait of bureaucratic impotence and ingrained corruption in post-CeauÅŸescu Romania (circa 1999), and the way he appreciates his characters even as he mercilessly satirizes their schemes and scams fills the film with a generosity of spirit and a richness of detail. Even at a leisurely two-and-a-half hours, there is plenty happening on screen.
“Everyone has their reasons,” was the motto of Renoir’s Rules of the Game. In Nemescu’s miserable little Romanian village, everyone has their agenda. NATO peacekeeping mission commander Captain Jones (Armand Assante in a gruff growl) wants to get his shipment of military equipment to Kosovo. Station manager Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who runs his railroad position like a gangster and pillages every shipment that rolls through, blows off the government orders and sidelines them in a petty show of power and insolence (his reasons are slowly revealed in the flashbacks to World War II). His teenage daughter just wants to get out of the village and sees the arrival of the Americans as, if not her ticket out, at least a diversion for a while. The factory workers just want to stage their strike for maximum effect and find themselves stymied by Doiaru and overshadowed by the Americans. And the Mayor sees the captive audience as an unprecedented opportunity to promote his town and its absurd effort to transform into a high-concept tourist destination (complete with a copy of the Eiffel Tower and a Texas-themed hotel).
The 36th Seattle International Film Festival, still the largest (and, at 25 days, the longest) film festival in the United States, opens on Thursday, May 20 with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s The Extra Man, the Sundance premiere starring Paul Dano and Kevin Kline, and ends (at least symbolically; there are a few more straggler screenings, but I digress) on Sunday, June 13 with Get Low, starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. In between, 256 features (narrative and documentary) and 150 shorts are scheduled to play (the term “unspool” no longer seems appropriate in a cinema culture where so many presentations are digital projection) in venues all over the Seattle area.
In addition to the familiar Seattle venues—the Egyptian on Capital Hill, the Uptown in Queen Anne, the Neptune in the University District, SIFF Cinema at Seattle Center and Pacific Place downtown—there’s the opening night at Benaroya Hall, week-long stints in West Seattle (at the Admiral Theatre), Everett (the Everett Performing Arts Center) and Kirkland (Kirkland Performing Arts Center), and special events at the Paramount, the Triple Door and the Pacific Science Center IMAX.
The Barbara Stanwyck Collection (Universal Backlot Series) (Universal)
Barbara Stanwyck, that powerhouse actress of the sound era of Hollywood cinema, is gifted with a style and sensibility that has arguably aged more convincingly and compellingly into the 21st century than her contemporaries. While you can’t really say her performance elevates every one of her films into classic status, her presence lifts average material, drives good movies and stokes the fire of great films. She played most roles as if she fought her way up from the street to become who she is and wasn’t about to back down from any challenge to her position. “There is a not a more credible portrait in the cinema of a worldly, attractive, and independent woman in a man’s worlds than Stanwyck’s career revealed,” wrote David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film.
There’s little in common between these six films in this set of Universal films apart from Stanwyck, a tough cookie of a movie star who consistently dominated her male co-stars when it came to sheer screen presence, and the fact that they are apparently that last Stanwyck films in Universal’s catalogue that had not been released to DVD. That’s enough, I suppose, especially for a set that opens with such a revelation as Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), a snappy little depression-era crime drama based on a Max Brand story that also happens to be the film that introduced the character of Dr. Kildaire to the screen. He’s incarnated by Joel McCrea here as a passionate and dedicated young surgical intern who works in a New York hospital that is the epitome of Art Deco modernism, with elegantly spacious rooms, curving hallways, walls of glass and spotless white dividers and ceilings. (If Fred and Ginger ever made a hospital film, they could have danced their way through this set and convinced us all it was really a ballroom.) Into this gleaming utopia comes working class Stanwyck and immediately takes charge of the story. She’s a hard-luck girl with a complicated backstory, spending her meager salary to track down her daughter, a little girl lost in a system of orphans and foster kids without a bureaucracy. So she turns to the underworld of hustlers and tipsters for a lead and, wouldn’t you know, young Dr. Kildaire fits right into this world, knocking back beers as at a gangster bar and (because he favors the Hippocratic oath over hospital regulations) befriend a gambling racket boss (Lloyd Nolan) who turns out to be a right joe.
Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film marked a significant new direction for young turk director, away from the impassioned sketchiness of his furiously directed first films and into the realm of carefully composed scenes and formal visual strategies. Developed to showcase his wife and muse Anna Karina (they were on the verge of breaking up), the film follows the journey of shop girl Nana (both a reference to the Zola novel and an anagram for Anna) from frustrated aspiring actress surviving on the generosity of her dates to professional prostitute. Karina isn’t given a glamorous treatment here, not like in the playful musical A Woman is a Woman, but the camera adores her in her simple shop girl clothes and Louise Brooks “Lulu” bob and Godard directs her to the performance of her career, giving a humanity to this shallow girl. It’s not just the famous close-up of Karina, with tears streaming down her cheeks, intercut with Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but her distinctive body language, her distracted behavior around her “dates” and furtive response to a police interview.
Godard makes it a mix of character study, social commentary and street tragedy broken into twelve distinct tableaux (the full French title is Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux), many of them composed of carefully arranged long takes by Raoul Coutard. On the one hand it’s a provocative portrait of social and sexual politics (at one point the soundtrack reverts to a recitation of laws on the business of prostitution) directed with Godard’s distinctive gift for counterpoint and dramatic disassociation, on the other a moralistic tale of a shallow, emotionally reckless young woman ultimately punished for her ambitions and infidelities.
For a political radical, Godard was quite the conservative moralist when it came to women in his films of the sixties; where his male rebels were a mix of lovable criminals, charming cads and doomed individualists, his women are consistently flighty, shallow and ultimately disloyal, betraying the men in their lives in ways large (Patricia betrays Michel to the police in Breathless) or small (Karina’s character cheats on her husband in A Woman is a Woman). This is especially true when Godard’s personal life was in such emotional chaos: Karina wanted to leave him and he was desperate to hold onto her. You could say this was both his offering (to make her a serious actress) and his warning to her. (Spoiler alert) After all, Nana opens the film by leaving her husband to follow her dream as an actress and ends up herself betrayed, abandoned and dead, the victim of callous, thoughtless, brutally impersonal violence. (end spoiler alert) For a film that proclaims itself with the title “To live life” (translated as My Life to Live for U.S. release), it is awfully judgmental. Whose life to live is it anyway? (As an aside, I was brought back to Richard Brody’s excellent Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard after reviewing the film and his rich mix of biography and aesthetic observation makes some excellent observations on Godard’s problematic portrayal of women in relation to his personal life. A well-researched and well-written book and I highly recommend it.)
In an age where Holocaust dramas and fictional recreations of the concentration camp experience are perhaps too plentiful—how could a mere movie come close to communicating the inhumanity of such an event, even in microcosm?—Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1959 Kapò is something of a revelation. It’s not the earliest concentration camp drama, though they were rare in the era (Alain Resnais’ discreet, poetic and haunting nonfiction meditation Night and Fog was only a few years earlier), but it is the earliest I’ve seen. Was the history still a fresh wound that needed time to, if not heal, at least scar over before gingerly exploring the tender area? Or was the horror just too great to even comprehend?
Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian Jew with a commitment to tackling politically volatile issues head on, took the challenge with this harrowing drama of a teenage Parisian Jew (American actress Susan Strasberg, her performance dubbed into Italian) who is literally swept up off the streets and sent to Auschwitz within minutes of the opening. Pontecorvo doesn’t give us time to settle into the situation and it’s only as when we see SS uniforms on the street that we notice the yellow star on her coat. Edith is just a kid, a fourteen-year-old girl who hasn’t the self-preservation to run when she watches her parents herded into a truck outside her building. Even when separated in the camp, all she can think to do is look for her parents and look for a way out, a futile gesture that ultimately save her life. While the rest of the youngsters wait patiently, unaware that they are marked for the gas chambers, she sees the reality of the camp where prisoners are stacked in bunks and the bodies of the dead are stacked like cordwood everywhere else. She’s ushered out of the cold by a mercenary survivor (an uncharacteristically generous gesture on her part, but perhaps there’s a jab of maternal protectiveness in her) and into the office of the camp doctor, who takes her coat (with the Star of David brand of death) and gives her the identity of recently deceased thief. “You’re lucky,” he says. “If no one had died tonight, I wouldn’t be able to help you.” That’s what counts for luck here.
The world knows Lloyd Kaufman (or rather, the part of the world that has heard of Lloyd Kaufman knows him) as the face of Troma Films and the director of the notoriously outrageous zero-budget cult-classic The Toxic Avenger and sequels. Fewer people know that he’s directed dozens of films (including the 2006 return to form Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, now also on–yes, it’s true–Blu-ray), produced scores more and made appearances in over a hundred genuinely independently-produced movies (partly out of solidarity with directors working outside the system, partly to promote the Troma brand). And some may even know that he’s the author of numerous books, most recently the guerrilla how-to guide Direct Your Own Damn Movie!, and a producer of documentaries and box sets devoted to practical tips on low-budget filmmaking.
What is less well known is his commitment to independent filmmaking. Not the kind of multi-million dollar films with major stars and studio backing that Hollywood brands as “Independent,” but independently financed and produced films made and seen outside the studio system. He’s the president of The Independent Film and Television Alliance, the trade association for the independent movie industry, and has been actively engaged in the fight to preserve net neutrality. And he created the TromaDance Film Festival, unique in the spectrum of American film festivals in that it does not charge filmmakers a fee to submit their films nor does it charge admission to the shows.
I interviewed Lloyd Kaufman in June 2009, when he was in Seattle for a horror convention. Troma’s tireless publicist arranged an opportunity for me to interview him between appearances and we spent over an hour in his hotel lobby talking about everything from the democratization filmmaking to corporate stranglehold on the distribution and exhibition of movies in the U.S. (from theaters to TV) to the origins of Troma.
As the 11th Annual TromaDance Film Festival prepares to unspool on April 16, 2010, in its new home at Asbury Park, New Jersey, we present this lively interview with the outspoken and passionate Lloyd Kaufman. And be prepared: Kaufman is not shy about letting his passions through in very colorful language. Take it as you will, as warning or enticement.
You have a very interesting set of credits. You worked on Rocky and you were production manager on My Dinner With Andre.
Yes, I was indeed. Those movies, Rocky and Saturday Night Fever, those were my film school.
How did you move from working on those industry productions to creating the outsider studio Troma?
I was making my own movies constantly, I was always making my own damn movies and I was interested in long form, so at the one time we were trying to figure out… I did Sugar Cookies in 1970, I didn’t direct it, I made the mistake of just raising money and writing and producing, and then the distribution didn’t work out too well. And then we made a movie in Israel that’s probably the worst movie in history, called Big Gus, What’s the Fuss (1971), it’s the only movie I’m embarrassed to show and we got screwed on that one, and then Michael Herz and I decided that we had better learn distribution, and that’s when we started Troma in 1974 to both produce and distribute ourselves. Of course in those days there was just theatrical.