Manoel de Oliveira

April 19 – May 3 2001

This year the San Francisco International Film Festival said good-bye to its creative director of 19 years, Peter Scarlet, and with that impending line-up change one couldn’t help but wonder about the future of the Festival. The appropriately monikered Mr. Scarlet has always provided devoted Bay Area cinephiles a dose of the difficult and the sublime, challenging audiences and working in their defense. I became an instant, ardent supporter one afternoon during Whispering Pages (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1996) when some unthinking parent’s baby began crying and Mr. Scarlet’s unmistakable voice piped up authoritatively, “Get that child out of here.” He is moving to Paris to run the Cinémathèque Française. San Francisco should miss him.

Upon the announcement of Scarlet’s departure, a new executive director was also revealed and local papers ran stories with titles like “Film Festival Head Seeks Balance: Hollywood fare likely to have higher profile.”(1) Yikes. More than ever, the Festival seemed torn between ingratiating itself with the slightly independent arm of the Hollywood industry by debuting the likes of Ed Burns’ Sidewalks of New York (2001) and maintaining its devotion to the international and the obscure. Scarlet’s unmistakable flair for programming diverse and ground-breaking work was still on display, but there was a subtle feeling in the air that things could be changing for the worse with a newly initiated $500-a-plate Gala Award night being the most undemocratic example. The lifetime achievement awards managed to straddle industry and art. On the one hand you had Akira Kurosawa Award winner and head ramrod Clint Eastwood and on the other you had Persistence of Vision Award winner and Hollywood Babylonian Kenneth Anger. Two figures who might have met up sometime in the mid ’80s in the back room of some San Francisco S&M dungeon just like in Clint’s neglected-by-the-festival-catalog ode to his own inner Lucifer Rising, Tightrope (Richard Tuggle (2), 1984). If the two were ever in the same room at this Festival, I missed it.

Intriguingly, the Mel Novikoff Award for “enhancing the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema” was handed out to two entities: the remote Cahiers du Cinéma and the local San Francisco Cinémathèque, as if to poor salt in the wounds of those who continue to crave Mr. Scarlet’s brand of cinematic challenges from near and far by emphasizing the distance between San Francisco and Paris. Cahiers is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year after having provided film culture with some of its most vibrant critics and filmmakers; it continues to make waves by pronouncing films like Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993) the best of the decade. The S.F. Cinémathèque was honored for 40 years of dutiful service as the Bay Area’s most reliable source of avant-garde film and video. Both institutions curated programs for the Festival, and the Cinémathèque demonstrated its mission with a show of avant-garde titles that ranged from Bruce Conner’s racy take on Ray Charles, Comic Ray (1961), to Scott Stark’s harrowingly funny deconstruction of airplane safety cards, I Walk with God (1994).

Cahiers chose to present a selection of the enchanting but slight films of Jacques Rozier. Almost entirely unseen in the United States, Rozier’s films delighted Festival audiences. The films were easy to take and carried enough cultural baggage to lend a bit of weight to an otherwise uneventful intercontinental flight. The plaudits ranking him the equal of Truffaut, Godard, and (gasp) Vigo went unfulfilled. Adieu Philippine (1960) plays like a rough-edged Gidget (Paul Wendkos, 1959) in which Moondoggy decides that since he is being sent off to war, it is not so bad to screw Gidget’s best pal. The relationship between all the “pals” comes off innocent-lots of giggling and dancing-and perhaps it is. Rozier’s overlong Maine-Océan Express (1985) was a mélange of linguistic play and cultural misunderstandings. A group of characters hailing from different classes, countries, and professions come together and forge a bond over tunes and booze. The laughs come, but at the expense of the actors, who play Frenchified versions of Popeye, Grace Slick, and refugees from various Monty Python sketches. Ultimately they seem stuck in an improvisatory loop that won’t end and cannot erase the differences between them. At one point a lawyer delivers a willfully confusing closing argument about the nature of speech and class, communication and power structures, but the movie never does more than merely elaborate these cultural differences and return us to a civilized world.

Desiring to move beyond civilization through digitization, local boy Wayne Wang’s Center of the World (2001) and French directors Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-Moi (2000) served to sex the Festival into motion. Digital skinfests both, they struggle to get a grip on sex and money in the digital age. The Center of the World is the sweeter film, offering all those recently outcast dot-com geeks the proposition that if money can’t quite buy you love, it might buy you 65 hours to convince a stripper you love her and still have time left to play your round of Doom. That the ensuing dot-com bubble burst made this exploration of geek wealth and the way it changes peoples lives quaintly out of date was an irony painfully in effect in the still smarting Bay Area. Peter Sarsgaard as the client impressively unearths the macho romanticism lurking inside even the most sensitive of computer-weaned boys, while the object of his transaction, Florence, played by Molly Parker, struggles behind her freckles to retain what she can of her self-made identity as a knowing stripper grrrl. Carla Gugino plays Florence’s over-estrogenized call-girl friend, and for a moment the entire film almost collapses deliriously under the weight of her wet kisses. The Center of the World makes explicit the relationship between fantasies of control and desire and the downright dumb awkwardness that can accompany falling in love.

Baise-Moi doesn’t have anything to do with love. It seems to have something to do with violence and perhaps with emotionally detached fucking, the kind you do while you’re watching Gaspar Noé’s I Stand Alone (1998) at the same time. A violently depicted rape spurs two young women, a porn actress and a call girl, to embark on a death-strewn, sex-filled road trip. As exasperating as it is exhilarating, the film maintains a murky ideology lost somewhere under a hotel room bed. Then again, who needs ideology when we have Godard’s “girl and a gun” times two. Just watch where they point that thing.

There was a lot of talk at the Festival about the digital revolution, but for all their merits and their audacity, The Center of the World and Baise-Moi again demonstrate that the transfer from digital chip to the film strip is still far from being up to the task of retaining full color range and depth of tone. If not for their urgency and frankness, the films would simply sit there, flat and unyielding. Flatness was on unadorned display in Alain Cavalier’s digitally lensed documentary Lives (2000). It introduces us to four subjects: an eye surgeon, a sculptor, a butcher, and a film editor. Moving from analytical observations of the surgeon’s final day on the job to incompetent in-and-out-of-focus footage of the sculptor’s studio, the movie looks as cheap as the tape stock it was captured on. The final section, its most heralded, is a guided tour through one of the last homes of Orson Welles. Cinephiles gasped at the sight of its uncleanliness-what is that on the ground? A script. In Orson’s own hand! Look, yonder, Orson’s bidet (broken, you see, because Orson broke bidets). The trip though Orson’s disheveled past is a sham. In situating its own artlessness amid the ruins Welles left behind, the film obscures how bad it really looks by calling to mind the stunning visuals of the fallen filmmaker.

Two densely rich black-and-white films demonstrated the power of celluloid and focused their gaze on small communities dealing with political and social forces beyond their control. Devils on the Doorstep (Jiang Wen, 2000) vigorously takes on the Japanese occupation of China during WWII, telling the story of a village burdened with the task of hosting two Japanese POWs for a week that turns into months. Actor/director Jiang Wen keeps things kinetic, the expertly lit handheld photography and deft quick cutting embody the maddening plight of the hapless townspeople. Playing the befuddled but honorable main character himself, he is a big lug who is handed the overwhelming responsibility of harboring the POWs by a mysterious figure known only as “Me.” The intensive examination of the villagers’ fear and their desire to just live their lives undisturbed is almost derailed at times by the film’s tendency to slide too far into farce and repetition, divorcing us from the horror and the humor at hand. It never veers too far off-track, however, and continues to twist and turn toward its sadly gorgeous climax. The climax is both heart-wrenching and liberating in its brief movement to color.

Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr continues in the black-and-white Nietzchean niche he is carving out for himself with Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). Composed of a series of scenes, most of them stunners, the Harmonies unleashed themselves on the audience like a black wave. The film opens with a last call that is only content to go down by establishing the position of every stumbling drunk in the place as a piece of the Milky Way, revolving around each other in a haze of vodka and beer. The orchestrator of this dance of a dozen drunks, a.k.a. Tarr’s Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), is Lars Rudolph as Jonas, wunderkind and disastrous baby-sitter. With eyes sunk into the back of his feet and a grin like a golem’s, he serves as the audience’s point of entry into this coldly constructed town on the verge of chaos. The poor can find no work and mill about simmering. Adding to the strain is the arrival of the circus, which brings with it an awe-inspiring whale. The coming of the big fish is one of the most luminescent stretches of the film, the imagery flowing into abstraction as a massive vehicle gilded in aluminum speeds through the frame and lights a sparkle in Jonas’ eyes. Tarr’s lumpens exude earthiness with every breath, and even onetime glamour girl Hanna Schygulla looks like she’s been raised on a diet of dirt and potatoes. Her presence nonetheless adds life to the proceedings and suggests that for all the Tarkovsky comparisons, ideologically Tarr’s closest artistic cousin may be ol’ Fassbinder himself. The bleakness and the brightness fold into one, and audiences looking for meaning are left scratching their heads. The post-screening Q&A with Tarr was one of the most excruciating in recent memory. “Is there any hope?!?” “Does the whale have anything to do with Jonah?” “Nihilistic, pessimistic, mystical. These are the adjectives that come to mind after seeing this film.” With the look of a man who had heard it all before and whose patience was wearing thin, Tarr was purposely elusive, denying allegory and symbolism and expounding on the materialism of the film. One audience member on the verge of exasperation demanded that Tarr leave him with something, anything, positive. “What was it about Lars that made you cast him,” the inquisitor asked leadingly, “was it a joy you saw in him?” Well if it was, I thought to myself, Tarr did a damn fine job beating it out of him onscreen. In person, Lars was all smiles and enthusiasm relating a story of the delay of the first day of shooting because the only film they had to shoot with was too short to capture Tarr’s lengthy take.

Tarr’s humanism may have been mistaken for fatalism, but real hopelessness was evident elsewhere. The pretentious French title of the German film L’Amour, l’Argent, l’Amour (Philip Grÿning, 2000) gives its distanced game away. It is a clinician’s report masquerading as a romantic road movie set to an American college-rock soundtrack. Despite some effectively intimate 35mm Cinemascope photography, the movie never bridges the distance between the reality of the characters and the term-paper portrayal of them. The naive ne’er do wells in this picture are a bosomy, bush-bearing young prostitute and her lunk -headed, lithe-limbed boyfriend. They hit the road with their cute dog, and the boyfriend happily assumes the role of pimp, unconvincingly transforming from meekly attired dormouse to a cowboy-boots-and-jewelry-sporting hot dog. He hangs out in the bathroom while she conducts her business, her clients depicted as dissolves pumping away on top of her. Interludes occur: Yo La Tengo accompany “poetic” superimpositions of Germany at night, with an emphasis on the colored lights. A whiny post-alt-rocker sings something about Brian Wilson. All these two kids want is to have fun, fun, fun, but the director took the T-bird away, turning them into nothing but ghostly projections of troubled “youth culture.”

Platform (Jia Zhang Ke, 2000) is the real deal. While Grÿning imposes his pointy-headed art rock soundtrack on his characters without stopping to consider what they might actually listen to, the young adults in Platform are inseparable from the music around them. Platform examines the fate of a Chinese theater troupe as it struggles to move from 1979 to 1989 in and around Shanxi province, transforming from the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group to the All-Star Rock ‘n’ Breakdance Electronic Band. An epic of the quotidian, the film balances onstage and offstage performances of cultural change and romantic longing. Quietly observed with a carefully situated camera, events play themselves out with a highly organized sense of casualness. History impacts the characters lives, but the changes are most concretely manifested in the small things, hairstyles, clothes, music, gadgets. Wang Hong-wei, who played the title character in Xiao Wu (Jia Zhang Ke, 1997), has emerged as one of the most watchable actors on the planet. Beleaguered yet hopeful, his ever-present cigarette poised to fall from his fingers and his glasses threatening to overwhelm his face, he plays Minliang, the closest thing the movie offers to a central protagonist. If historical allegory threatens to overwhelm the narrative at points, it is the naturalness and humanity of Minliang and the other characters that hold it together. Platform contains a number of memorable and moving scenes: Minliang wooing the girl beyond his grasp, slowly smoking and hardly moving; an abortion clinic visit as group project; a young girl dancing alone in her room; and numerous scenes of the troupe’s performances-from elegant recitals to punk rock outbursts. Sadly the circulating print has been trimmed from 198 to 155 as demanded by its European distributor; I could have lived with these characters for a lot longer.

On the other side of the age spectrum, former Akira Kurosawa Award winner Manoel de Oliveira, 92, was back on the scene with Word and Utopia (2000). A rigorously framed exploration of the ecclesiastical, the film moves through the admittedly talky life of the 17th-century Jesuit priest Antonio Veira (variously played by Ricardo Trepa, Luis Miguel Cintra, and Lima Duarte), from his youthful days defending blacks and Indians in his little pink mission to his role as an Inquisition-dodging elder statesman positioned alongside a sweet Swedish queen (Leonor Silveira). Oliveira’s old master sense of framing serves the historical narrative well, infusing Veira with a vital intelligence and an insightful wit. Who knows how many more films Oliveira is going to make about aging and reminiscence, amazingly diverse examinations of personal accomplishments and lost chances, but another one was unveiled at Cannes a few weeks after I saw Word and Utopia.

The San Francisco International Film Festival always seems to coincide with the initial Cannes-related buzz. This year the Cannes competition selections were announced on the opening day of the San Francisco Fest, leaving local cinephiles feeling slightly behind the times. When Oliveira is making them faster than you can keep up with, you start to worry. In the past, you could rely on the knowledge that Peter Scarlet was looking out for you, making sure that challenging films by the likes of Oliveira and Tarr did not get overlooked in favor of the newest indie sensation. As this Festival ended it struck me that next year, depending on who the San Francisco Film Society chooses as his successor, I might just have to look out for myself.

Endnotes

  1. Edward Guthmann, “Film Festival Director Seeks Balance”, San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 2001. www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/01/16/DD160114.DTL
  2. Though officially credited to Richard Tuggle, it is widely known that he was dismissed from the set early on and Clint assumed directing reins.

About The Author

Jeff Lambert works at the National Film Preservation Foundation and lectures on film at San Francisco State University. He lives in California.