Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 4

So even after staying up way past my bedtime for THE VIOLENT KIND, I managed to drag myself back up to the city by 10 am for another day of 5 films, starting with the kid's shorts Flights of Fancy. Here's the rundown on the lineup:
LEONARDO: Da Vinci, that is. His attempts to fly, in clean, simple sketches.
JOSEPH'S SNAILS: A shy boy plays with his snails and gives new meaning to navel-gazing in this claymation short from France.
VEETI AND THE BEANSTALK: A Finnish tale of a father's death and a family that nearly drowns in tears. Beautiful and touching.
PIGEON: IMPOSSIBLE: If you work for the CIA, it's better to just give your bagel to a pigeon than accidentally start WWIII.
MR. MACK'S KITCHEN: A hero documentary about a chef who teaches kids to cook and serve the old folk's home next door.
CRAZY HAIR DAY: Even if you get the wrong day, true friends will help you pull through.
Q&A: For Storycorps, a son with Asperger's interviews his mother, asking some tough questions about parenthood. I actually remember this playing on the radio, and it's just as powerful with the animation.
CHERRY ON THE CAKE: When you're ignored on your birthday, it can make you feel really small.
THE MOUSE THAT SOARED: A circus sensation, a flying mouse reminisces on the surrogate parents (birds) that raised him.

The best thing about the kid's program is the Q&A afterwards, asking funny questions to Lucas Martell (PIGEON: IMPOSSIBLE) and offering their theories on the message of the movie. But I was especially impressed by the little genius a few seats over from me in the front row. When the moderator asked if anyone knew how many pictures it takes to make 1 second of film, I knew the answer was 24. One kid guessed 6, but then this kid answered "usually 24, but sometimes 30." Freakin' kid one-upped me!

Anyway, then I saw a Chines banking epic EMPIRE OF SILVER. Actually, make that banking, Boxer Rebellions, family soap-opera melodrama, wealth, power, death, and more family. It's beautifully shot, and an audaciously-scoped story that on mulitple viewings may be it's greatest strength but with one viewing is it's greatest frustration. There's just so many storylines I can't wrap my head around it in one viewing. The Kang family has amassed a banking fortune, starting with thirty pieces of silver that their ancestor received in exchange for giving a starving man his last bowl of porridge. Generations later, the family is ruled by a powerful patriarch and his four sons. The fourth son is off on his honeymoon when his bride is kidnapped. Alright, I though, this is where the action starts. But 10 minutes later his wife is dead, the culprit (a prostitute blackmailing the family) is revealed and killed, and the fourth brother has a nervous breakdown. In the incident another brother (who had consorted with the prostitute) hangs himself, another goes down on an accident with his horse, so it's all down to the patriarch and the third master (Aaron Kwok). He has his own issues, as he has a past with the family matriarch--his stepmother and former English tutor. Oh yeah, and Jennifer Tilly shows up as a missionary's wife and confidant of Madam Kang. Third master fights with his father over business practices, trying to do well by their customers, avoiding/handling runs on the bank, and shepherding the family legacy through the turbulent times in their country.

Whew! I think I just convinced myself that it is possible to cram this whole movie into my brain, it'll just take another viewing. So here's hoping it gets released, since I won't be able to make it to the other festival screening (May 1, 9:00 at the Kabuki)

Next up, I caught FRONTIER BLUES, from the Iran/Turkmenistan border region. I've written before about how Iranian films tend to bore me (using Hitchcock's famous 'slice of life/slice of cake' quote). In the past couple of years, I believe I've begun to get Iranian film (or this is an atypical Iranian film), because I found it pretty funny. It's still a collection of characters and their daily lives (the term "tableau vivant" came up in the Q&A), but I could recognize and laugh at and with the characters. Hassan wears thick, goofy glasses and takes his donkey with him everywhere. He's sort of the village idiot but insists he has a lot of things going on. Alam works in a chicken farm wear he's always tearing his overalls, but dreams of getting out of there. To facilitate that dream, he tries to learn English on tape but just keeps repeating "My name is Alam" and "Everything is fine." And there's the photographer (director Babak Jalali admitted the character was a parody of himself) who is doing a book on Turkmen and gets a local minstrel to pose in native costume in various (completely unrealistic) situations. One of the funniest scenes is when he's photographing traditional Turkmen wrestling and constantly telling them to stop and hold a pose. All in all, I suppose it's still a slice of life, but it's nearly as sweet as cake.

So then, after a couple of free beers at the Festival Lounge (being press is good!) I caught the animated shorts program The High Line:

VOICE ON THE LINE: A funny little conspiracy about the government training early telephone operators and recording the calls.
ALMA: A girl walks by a store and sees a doll that looks just like her, so she's lured inside.
LOGORAMA: The Oscar winner for best animated shorts is a hilarious action comedy starring corporate symbols. Perfect for anyone who has wanted to see Ronald McDonald take Big Boy hostage and get into a shoot-out with the Michelin Man.
TUSSILAGO: In 1977 Norbert Kröcher was arrested for plotting the assassination of a German politician. This movie explores the role of his ex-girlfriend, still traumatized by the aftermath.
ELECTRIC LITERATURE: A single-sentence animation, with a three-legged dog and woman missing a breast.
INCIDENT AT TOWER 37: Don't hoard the water, fish need it too!
VIVE LA ROSE: Through the ever changing contents of a drawers, we see the story of a love, death, and fishing.
WEDNESDAY MORNING TWO AM:
AFTERIMAGE: A study of motion in chromadepth 3-D (glasses that push blues to the back and reds to the front). Interesting, but grew tiresome at it's 13 minute length.

So then I was back to the festival lounge for a couple more beers (after 8:30 is becomes a cash bar, so $3 beers, not free ones) before I was back for an astounding live cinema event.

UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS is a live movie, music, and spoken word documentary performance by Sam Green and Dave Cerf. Okay, first the technical aspects--what does this mean? Dave Cerf did a live sound mix while Sam Green was on stage narrating a Keynote presentation (think PowerPoint, but don't think your last corporate PowerPoint presentation). On stage with him was the Brooklyn-based band The Quavers, consisting of a baritone guitar, a violin, and a trumpet.

As for the content, I had heard of Utopia before, but I hadn't known one of the key elements of it--that it's a play on words meaning No Place. It is essentially an ideal that does not exist, and the performance played a lot with that notion. It's an ideal, it doesn't exist, but it's still worth striving for. And it's an ideal that's completely wrapped up in the 20th century. The century started with no shortage of Utopian plans. This was the modern age, and modern technology would overcome all our problems. Here, looking at the 20th century in the rear-view mirror, Utopia is seen as a naive, failed idea. A term tossed around as a pejorative to squelch big ideas.

So what about the four movements: First, Esperanto. The universal language based on the strongly Utopian vision that if only everyone spoke the same language, we'd end all wars (ask the former Yugoslavia if that's true). But there are still large conventions of Esperanto speakers from all over the world. Heck, William Shatner even made a movie (THE INCUBUS) in Esperanto.

Second, Revolution. Grand schemes to re-make society. And yes, in the 20th century this mostly means communism. And yes, this led to horrors. Which leads to an interesting counterpoint to Utopia--the forensic anthropologist. Scientists to uncover mass, anonymous graves and carefully study and identify as many remains as they can. A sobering, tragic profession that is also based on the Utopian ideal that every person is valuable, every person deserves to be recognized and treated properly.

And now I have to confess that exhaustion and a little drunkenness caught up with me so I dozed off for a bit at the end of Movement 2 and beginning of Movement 3 (Sam, if you recognized me I was the guy with the big hair in the front row who was struggling to stay awake then). From what I gleaned when I woke up, Movement 3 was about malls. Specifically, I woke up during a bit about the largest mall in the world--in China--and how it's practically empty. And how the inventor of the mall at the end of his life regretted his creation and what became of it.

And finally, the fourth Movement was a Requiem for the 20th Century. Recapping the hopefulness, the failures, and the ideals of Utopia. And the essential paradox of Utopia--that it's all about hope in something that by it's very name doesn't exist. And yet, it ends on a hopeful note, that in the community fairs, the farmer's markets, the corner stores there are (especially in San Francisco) mini-Utopias all around us. Perhaps the era of the Big Idea is gone, but perhaps it can give way to the small Utopias, and through them we can retain hope. Because ultimately, Hope is what Utopia is about, far more than reality.

Okay, enough waxing philosophical. It was an amazing performance, and the live aspect of it worked very well (I can't imagine it as a fully recorded piece now).

Total Running Time: 480 minutes
My Total Minutes: 182,488
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