Hitless in Seattle

CN&R’s lead film critic reports on his annual pilgrimage to the Seattle Film Festival

THE BEST IS YET TO COME The Seattle Film Festival provided glimpses of some exciting new films to look forward to in coming months, including: the American indie <i>Tadpole</i> featuring Aaron Stanford in love with his stepmother Sigourney Weaver.

THE BEST IS YET TO COME The Seattle Film Festival provided glimpses of some exciting new films to look forward to in coming months, including: the American indie Tadpole featuring Aaron Stanford in love with his stepmother Sigourney Weaver.

The annual Seattle International Film Festival is a great stew of a movie event, a potlatch of international film spread out over nearly a month in a handful of movie theaters across the city’s venerable and lively Capitol Hill neighborhood, just east of downtown.

The 28th annual edition of the festival, which ran May 23-June 16, was a typical SIFF mix—the old, the new, the new/old, the new/new, a cosmopolitan array of films ranging from classics to would-be cult movies, with indies, auteurs, art films, and miscellaneous cinematic delights to spare.

I was on hand for most of the last two weeks and got my fill from a variety of tables—films by major directors (Godard, Chabrol, Oliveira, Zanussi, etc.), some wildly imaginative new films from Europe (Sex and Lucia from Spain, Wild Flowers from the Czech Republic), some nifty new American indies (Tadpole and Pipe Dream), the first Inuit feature (The Fast Runner), and a host of retrospective screenings (a series of American films from the 1970s in particular).

Seattle’s near-comprehensive approach to cinephile’s delight is also reflected in its range of featured events and sidebars. This is a festival whose embrace is large enough to include an evening with John Waters, a restored version of Peter Fonda’s spacey 1971 western The Hired Hand, a “Talking Pictures” panel discussion on “Can Films Change the World?” and a midnight screening of a Korean film with the made-for-cult-status title of Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in Daehakno.

The highly praised Canadian feature <i>The Fast Runner</i> with an all-Inuit cast and crew.

For me, much of the best of it was a matter of older films (Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Hired Hand) and new films by older directors (especially Oliveira’s I’m Going Home and Godard’s In Praise of Love) as well as a couple of documentaries about the cinematic past (a substantial and revealing Austrian docu-biography of the great American avant-gardist Maya Deren and, especially, Martin Scorsese’s monumental four-hour tribute to the masters of Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy.

Sex and Lucia and The Fast Runner were the most impressive accomplishments by younger directors, and Tadpole was the most impressive of the American indies on view.

Sex and Lucia (Julio Medem, Spain) is a brilliantly consummated tangle of dream, memory and sun-splashed melodrama. Playing sly games with fantasy and reality, it spirals through the stormily passionate relationships of a young novelist (Tristan Ulloa) with three different women. The result is a sexy, sensuous labyrinth of a particularly enchanting sort.

The Fast Runner, a.k.a. Atanarjuat (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada), takes a 16th-century Inuit story, an archetypal tale from native oral history, and makes it into an astonishingly vivid outdoor adventure. The title character is a fleet-footed young man who must survive an ongoing feud with a malicious rival from whom he has won no fewer than two wives. The Inuit cast and cinematographer Norman Cohn (the one non-Inuit involved) give documentary-style immediacy and epic splendor to this long (168 minutes) and fascinating film.

Tadpole (Gary Winick, U.S.A.) is possible proof that Americans can make witty, sexy films in the manner of the French master Eric Rohmer. It features a precocious prep schooler (Aaron Stanford) who has a serious crush on his stepmother (Sigourney Weaver) and who stumbles inadvertently into the arms of her best friend (Bebe Neuwirth). As such, it—along with The Fast Runner—is perhaps the likeliest of my SIFF favorites to show up in a Chico theater before the year is out.

Twilight films from established foreign directors like Jean-Luc Godard’s<i> In Praise of Love</i>.

Pipe Dream (John C. Walsh, U.S.A.) may have less commercial potential, but it too has plenty of wit and charm. Martin Donovan plays a plumber who, on a whim, poses as a movie director and ends up being obliged to go through with the actual filming of a script by his comely next-door neighbor (Mary Louise Parker). It’s a little like Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending, but without the distracting Woodyisms.

Autobiographical threads run through My Voyage to Italy (Martin Scorsese, U.S.A.), but this chronicle of an extraordinarily rich period in Italian cinema is primarily an immensely engaging exercise in film appreciation. With the aid of generous excerpts from a range of classic films, Scorsese gives us a guided tour to the work of Italy’s greatest filmmakers: Rossellini, DeSica, Visconti, Fellini, Antonioni. The result is almost a film festival in its own right, but it’s also eloquent and convincing testimony on the urgencies of heritage, filmic and otherwise.

Matters of heritage were conspicuous in several aspects of this year’s SIFF, including the “Talking Pictures” forums and the “Days of Heaven” series of films from the 1970s. Scorsese’s documentary and the retrospective screenings (Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, etc.) served not only as reminders of the long-lost artistic daring of another era, but also as rebukes to the cultural amnesia afflicting the contemporary scene in film and elsewhere.

The panel in the “Talking Pictures” forum on the 1970s tended to despair over the state of contemporary filmmaking, but at least one panelist (veteran film editor Frank Mazzola) insisted on signs of hope.

Paradoxically, some of the most daring, least amnesiac and anodyne films in the festival came from still-active old-timers:

AVANT GARDE, ANYONE? Another film featured at this year’s premier Northwest film festival was the Austrian docu-biography <i>In the Mirror of Maya Deren</i>, a substantial and revealing look at the great American avant-garde surrealist.

In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, age 71; France)—as almost always with J-LG, elaborately fragmented narrative, a collaged soundtrack with haunting musical moments, and steadily astonishing image making. This film is like a set of journal notes on love, history, literature, politics, the cinema itself; or is it belles lettres combined with audio-visual genius in a post-Cubist mode?

Merci Pour le Chocolat (Claude Chabrol, age 72; France)—another of Chabrol’s semi-Hitchcockian autopsies on the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, this time with the scathing subtlety of Isabelle Huppert going visibly and quietly mad.

I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, age 93; France/Portugal)—an aging actor (Michel Piccoli) plays defiantly with the late stages of his own life and with death itself. Oliveira’s films take in more and more even as they become simpler and simpler.

Supplement (Krzysztof Zanussi, age 62; Poland)—a young medical student wavers between entering the priesthood and getting married. A somber love story full of gutsy metaphysical daring and the intuitive existential wisdom of late-20th-century Poland.

Even with all that, SIFF and these old guys seemed vitally youthful this year. And the sight of the late Warren Oates driving furiously over Mexican dirt roads with Alfredo Garcia’s severed head on the seat next to him was about despair and revival in almost equal parts.

Part of the pleasure of any good film festival comes, however, from encounters with second-tier films that may or may not get much circulation outside the festival circuit. The bold, extravagant mixture of genres in two Japanese films (Miike Takashi’s The Happiness of the Katikuris and Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera) proved intoxicating even though neither could sustain the brilliance of its best moments.

Gerardo Tort’s Streeters is another sign of new life and inventiveness in the Mexican cinema, even though its penchant for chic realism proves its undoing. The Canadian Marriages is an intriguingly complex venture into period-piece reverie that unfortunately comes off as a mere low-budget sketch for an ambitious variation on certain European art films of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The much-hyped French film My Wife Is an Actress with Charlotte Gainsborough is a glib attempt as a Gallic version of Woody Allen’s romantic comedies. Director Yvan Attal takes a cloyingly sweet approach to the story of a husband (Attal himself) becoming absurdly jealous of the professional intimacies of his movie-star wife (Gainsborough, who is his offscreen wife as well). The echt-gamine Gainsborough is sometimes annoying in her nonchalance, but Attal’s loving portrait of his actress-wife is surprisingly touching.