Monday, April 29, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 4

The big first weekend wraps up and I only saw three movies on Sunday. Granted, one of them was a 5 hour marathon, but 3 is a little light for me on a weekend.

I started the day with the adorably charming French animated children's movie ERNEST & CELESTINE. I knew nothing about the series of French children's books that this film is based on, but I know trust that they are as charming and delightful as the film. Celestine is a little mouse living in an orphanage. Every night, they tell her the story of the big, bad bear. Ernest is a bear. He's awakening from his hibernation, and he isn't bad, he's just hungry. He doesn't want to eat mice, he wants to eat candy. Celestine, meanwhile, is charged with the task of collecting teeth from the bear cubs. See, all of mouse civilization is based on their ability to gnaw, so dentistry is an important profession and replacement teeth are in high demand. Well, Ernest and Celestine meet, and through a series of wacky adventures become friends. Although they face prejudice (and are fugitives from justice) they manage to overturn society and teach kids important lessons like follow your dreams, fight against prejudice, overthrow the class system, and break through the fear that society has taught you to feel. Lessons that are somehow perfect for children and dangerous for adults. These adorable little anarchists will show us all the way to freedom and happiness.

Then I actually had enough time between films for an actually sit-down meal (Pizza Inferno, delicious food an an impressive selection of craft beers.) That was a nice little bonus in my schedule.

And then my next film was LEVIATHAN, one of the most highly-touted films in the festival, at least in my circle of cinephile friends. I want to say to everyone who recommended this film to me...you suck! I didn't just hate this film, I was violently, viscerally bored by everything in it.

So let me explain what I think the draw is, what's supposed to make this film so interesting. It's a look at life and work on a commercial fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts. They took a collection of small, durable digital cameras and they in turn put them...everywhere. On the deck, skimming across the water, up on top of the mast, in with the fish, etc. And so they get some impressive shots and unique perspectives.

And my reaction to all of it was, "So what?" So now let's get into a little bit of Film Theory 101 (note: I've never taken a film theory class, I read one book on it about a decade ago, and I'm way out of my depth. But this was the easiest way for me to understand what pissed me off so much about this film.) There is a classic theory of film editing that says the action is really moved forward not by what's on screen but by what's off screen. That is, competent editing will make the audience curious about what's off screen, then reward that curiosity. Think of the classic (cliche) Western scene. You see boots outside the door to a saloon, the swinging doors open, the music stops. You see everyone in the saloon look up, and then look nervous. This has all built up your curiosity. The one thing you're thinking about--Who is that man who just walked in?--is the one thing that hasn't been shown. And just when your curiosity is properly piqued, it's rewarded--the man is revealed to be a notorious criminal (or lawman, or preacher, or the guy they left for dead, or whatever.) As it goes, the theory is that all classic cinematic storytelling follows some variation on this formula. I don't necessarily subscribe to this theory, or at least I think this theory is neither universal nor complete. And I actually love it when films contradict or subvert this theory. For example, the entire genre of horror films can be seen as a subversion of this. In the gory torture-porn ones, it piques your interest and then punishes instead of rewarding it. In the more suspenseful ones, maybe instead of piquing your curiosity, it makes you afraid to see what's off-screen, and then respects your fear by not showing it, or only showing the reaction to it, thereby increasing your fear.

Well, that brings me back to LEVIATHAN. This film doesn't pique my interest in what's going on off-screen. Nor does it make me fear it. And then it moves on to another scene with no motivation. It's not rewarding the audience's curiosity, nor is it punishing it. It's not acknowledging the audience's existence. And as an audience, I will not have my existence denied like that. Yes, there are occasional individual shots that are impressive, but there's nothing to tie it to the previous or next shot. Cinematically, that's no more interesting than stringing together every explosion Michael Bay has ever committed to film (and as much as I hate his movies, I have to admit they contain some impressive shots of explosions.) Come to think of it, that might be better than anything Michael Bay has ever made, but that doesn't mean it would be worthwhile. But it would be no less worth my time than LEVIATHAN.

And finally, I ended my day with a 5 hour masterpiece from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, PENANCE. Originally made as a 5-part TV series, it opens in grade school. Emili is the new girl in school, and one day, while she's playing volleyball with her friends, a strange man comes and asks for her help reaching a tight place in a duct he's working on. An hour passes, her four friends wonder what's become of her, they walk into the school, and they find her dead body. The killer isn't found, and although all four girls got a good (but brief) look at his face, they can't remember anything. Emili's mother, Asako, is angry at them, and swears that if they can't identify the killer than she will--sometime in the future--force them all to do a penance that she approves of. Cut to 15 years later, the killer still isn't found, the girls are all grown up, and Asako returns to their lives. Each episode focuses on the life of one of the girls, with the fifth about Asako herself. Each girl has been affected by the killing in a different way. One completely eschews contact, becoming more of a porcelain doll than a person. One has become a teacher and taken up martial arts so she can be a protector. One has completely lost her humanity, saying instead she is a bear (this encounter takes place in prison.) And one has become selfish, living happily for herself and rejecting the very idea that she has to perform a penance. Issues of revenge, fear, sibling rivalry, sibling protectiveness, family, loss, etc. deeply affect everyone. And in the final episode, the very idea of penance is turned on its ear. If I were to be pithy, the two aphorisms that sum it up best are "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" and "Living well is the best revenge." But I prefer Kurosawa's careful, nuanced, and detailed 5-hour explanation to any pithiness.

Total Running Time: 467 minutes
My Total Minutes: 325,753
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