Taking Off

An international film festival can be likened to an airplane trip around the world, only instead of stopping to get out of the cabin and sightsee, passengers stay in their seats watching the in-flight entertainment, and instead of announcements from the captain of the aircraft they are treated to question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers.

However, with this year’s 47th edition, the SFIFF is starting to feel like one of those full-service carriers that offers more destinations than anyone else, but lacks much of the manoeuvrability of its smaller, more recently founded competition. San Francisco cinephiles like the SFIFF, and are proud of its status as the oldest and one of the largest film festivals in the country. But this year, some of them apparently decided not to come. Attendance figures for the festival were down more than twenty per cent (from 94,500 to 73,000) (1). It might be tempting to lay the blame at changes in the programming team, or in a comparative lack of “movie star” appearances (2), but I suspect the main reason is simply that other local film festivals are proliferating and improving so rapidly that SFIFF appears to be falling behind, despite maintaining its consistent quality of diverse, adventurous programming choices.

An illustration of the difficulty in filling seats was provided by the second screening of one of my favourite films of the festival, Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). Originally scheduled to run simultaneously in two adjacent houses through an interlocked projection system, it ended up only filling about 2/3 of one house, leaving the other vacant. Watching this film about people watching a film in an all-but-deserted movie hall was the closest experience I’ve ever had to a cinematic equivalent to a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”. As Tsai’s comic images accumulated on the screen, I found myself increasingly sensitive to my surroundings: to my fellow audience members rattling popcorn bags or bumping their legs against the chairs in front of them. I also couldn’t help but imagine the film running through the second projector in the other theatre anyway, perhaps a private screening for Shih Chun and Miao Tien.

Comparing SFIFF audience sizes to those in Tsai’s film is unfair, however. Actually, large and appreciative turnouts were on hand for most programs I caught, including all the retrospective programs: an evening of silent films The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926) and Dans La Nuit (Charles Vanel, 1929) accompanied by Boston’s Alloy Orchestra, a selection of shorts picked by Mel Novikoff Award honoree Paolo Cherchi Usai, and a trio of films by Lifetime Achievement in Directing award recipient Miloš Forman. The choice of the Forman films appeared to be a very San Francisco salvo in the culture war of this presidential election year. The Fireman’s Ball (1967) wags a rubber hose at a group of bumbling civil authorities, while Hair (1979) suddenly, surprisingly, seems topical as it raises the issues of Vietnam-era military service and mass protest that appeal to the political proclivities of this fervently anti-Bush city.

Anyone unimpressed by Forman’s Oscar-studded career of literary adaptations and celebrity biopics over the past 30 years would do well to take a look at his generation gap comedy Taking Off (1971). It’s often been called his first American film, but Forman has referred to it as his “last Czech film” (3), despite its New York setting and 100% English dialogue, as it was made before he took up residency in the United States. The film has a freewheeling structure that privileges observation over exposition. In the first section, Forman cross-cuts between a massive audition where hordes of young people (including, briefly, Kathy “Bobo” Bates) sing pop and folk songs ranging from the earnestly serious to the hilarious, and scenes in which a couple out of Life magazine (Buck Henry & Lynn Carlin) realise that their teenage daughter Jeannie (Linnea Heacock) has run away from their stained glass and pampas-grass adorned home. In fact she’s at the audition, learning how LSD might help her sing better, while her parents are sent on a wild goose chase to upstate New York, where an Ike & Tina Turner concert sharply contrasts youthful energy with middle-aged malaise. They eventually hook up with the Society for Parents of Fugitive Children and encounter Forman favourite Vincent Schiavelli, making his hilarious screen debut as an expert pot smoker. The adults’ absurd adventures reach a climax with a drunken, awkward game of strip poker, at which point Jeannie comes home from her Greenwich Village escapade. The film ends with a coda that shows Jeannie’s levelheaded hippie boyfriend perfectly able to “accept contradictions” but Henry totally out of step, as he sings the Russian melody of “Stranger in Paradise” against an untuned piano. It’s a shame that Forman took the film’s financial failure in 1971 as a sign to change his approach to filmmaking; never since has he so successfully welded together his passions for physical comedy and social satire.

The Corporation

Many of the festival’s hottest tickets were for the documentaries. Vast pools of media ink seemed to coagulate around the McUmentary Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004), but another film that found a large anti-corporate choir to preach to was The Corporation (Jennifer Abbott & David Achebar, 2003). Taking a syncretic approach to its title subject, and using a combination of talking heads, clips of archival, news and protest footage, dramatisations, computer graphics, voiceover narrations, and man-on-the-street interviews, The Corporation crams a huge quantity of material into its 145 minutes. Early on, the filmmakers locate the origins of corporate power in the American Civil War, and show that the very essence of a successful corporation lies in its ability to transfer as many costs (environmental and otherwise) to the public as possible. The bulk of the film is made up of recent examples of corporate abuse, as told by left-wing icons such as Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Rifkin & Michael Moore, as well as by those caught up in the corporate system, including several former and current CEOs. Ray Anderson, the founder of carpet manufacturing company Interface, Inc, describes in a Southern drawl the epiphany which made him an unlikely environmentalist, and offers a utopian vision of corporations actually becoming an ecologically sustainable presence on the planet. The final minutes of the film are devoted to success stories of mass movements that have been able to exploit cracks in the corporate wall. It’s impossible for these last few images of successful resistance to counterbalance a two-hour portrait of insatiably increasing corporate power, but the film invites us to add our voices to the resistance and leave the theatre feeling positive about change.

Other politically-minded documentaries drew attention to the Middle East. While Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2003), Route 181 – Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel (Michel Khleifi & Eyal Sivan, 2003) and the Golden Gate Award-recipient Checkpoint (Yoav Shamir, 2003) were explicitly political, another film used the subject of music as a way of allowing everyday voices to broach the subjects of politics and religious tolerance. With quite a few members of the Bay Area’s Lebanese population in attendance, the screening of We Loved Each Other So Much (Jack Janssen, 2003) prompted strong emotional responses from the audience. It’s a leisurely portrait of Beirut, constructed chiefly of interviews with fans of the indomitable Lebanese diva Fariuz, but it’s not a “talking heads” film. The gorgeous reds and browns of the digital photography, accompanied by the exquisitely soulful voice of Fairuz on the soundtrack, seemed to make the audience all the more receptive to the disparate voices of ordinary Beirut citizens, often located within the cityscape by the judicious use of a zoom lens. A Palestinian waiting in Beirut for an opportunity to return to his homeland asks, “Do you want to exploit my story in a film about Fairuz?” A woman recalls meeting Fairuz as a young girl and quotes her song “Reproaches”: “My heart is accustomed to pain”.

Jean-Michel Roux’s Investigations into the Invisible World (2003) also contained quite a bit of beautiful photography (in this case dizzying aerial shots of Iceland’s craggy landscape), but felt more like an exercise in cinematic tourism than an investigation. We are told that practically every Icelander believes in fairies, ghosts, sea monsters, UFOs, or all of the above. As proof, we’re shown a series of interviews with believers as varied as a druid, a farmer, a former president, and Cold Fever (1995) director Fridrik Thór Fridriksson, but only one skeptic, a physicist who doesn’t have much screen time. Upon seeing that one village’s map to the gnomes’ homes is written not in Icelandic but English, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this is effectively a put-on for tourists. No doubt people genuinely believe in these unfilmable creatures (apparently, sea monsters have never been caught on film because observers are too stunned to remember to use their camera), but why do they invariably describe their visions by comparing them to special effects from Hollywood films like Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) and the Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)? Roux’s failure to disturb my skepticism didn’t prevent me from being mildly entertained, as I was by Diane Keaton’s Heaven (1987). But if the ultimate test of a documentary is that it document, this fails.

Coffee and Cigarettes

As for fiction films, SFIFF programmers followed a tradition of balancing the works of acknowledged masters works against those of new directors, genre films against arthouse cinema, and independent American films against those from around the globe. Raúl Ruiz’s fantastic That Day (2003) is at once a genre film and an arthouse film. It melds slapstick comedy with a science fiction setting, and using flashy techniques reminiscent of a 1970’s horror film, such as dramatic zooms and split diopters; yet its blood-drenched plot is easier to describe as a metaphor for Chile’s capriciously brutal Pinochet regime than to follow logically. Another big laugh-getter was the opening night film, Jim Jarmusch’s anthological Coffee and Cigarettes. Scaling back from the technical ambitiousness of films like Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai (1999) and Dead Man (1995), Jarmusch returns to the spirit of earlier works Night on Earth (1991) and even Stranger Than Paradise (1984), where he let his camera pick up the electricity (or lack thereof) that flows between two people locked in each other’s company. Many have singled out certain segments of this film, such as Alfred Molina’s or Cate Blanchett’s, as the best of the bunch, but I liked them all, and found the cumulative effect of their over- under- and mis-communications especially satisfying.

Yet if I’d stuck only with films by established auteurs, I’d have missed out on a lot of excellent work by emerging directors. Two very different films from Thailand exemplified this principle, though Pen-ek Ratanaruang may have outgrown the label “emerging”; his Last Life in the Universe (2003) expands on the themes of fate and self-agency that he’s worked with in his previous features. The film is being compared with Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) for its graceful depiction of a connection between two mismatched souls through the lens of an unreliable tourist camera (in this case DP Christopher Doyle’s), its essential mystery is even greater: not just “what did he whisper?” but “who exactly are these people anyway?”

As Pen-ek’s arthouse resume gets bolstered by Last Life, his compatriot Ekachai Uekrontham begins his career with the decidedly more mainstream Beautiful Boxer (2003). To call this a mainstream film is to acknowledge its number one position atop the Thai box office chart upon its release last fall, but also to situate it as a blend of two popular genres, the sports biopic and the katoey (transgender male) film, of late the rage in Thailand even if not elsewhere. Anyone who’s spent time in Thailand over the past several years is likely to have heard bits and pieces of the story of Parinya “Nong Toom” Charoenphol, the kickboxer who used his success at Thailand’s national sport to earn money for a sex-change operation. Beautiful Boxer tells the full story without resorting to egregious fact-twisting. The framing device of a Western journalist seeking out Nong Toom in Bangkok is obviously contrived, but too much fun to resent. And the meat of the film, an extended flashback to significant events in Nong Toom’s life from childhood to the present, enriches our sense of his athletic achievement, which is forcefully displayed in brief but thrilling boxing sequences.

Beautiful Boxer

Most impressively, Ekachai strives to handle real-life katoey characters respectfully; he makes the fact that the katoey has often been treated as a clown or spectacle by the Thai entertainment industry a major theme of the film, a self-analysis that deflects the sort of criticism incurred by the gay volleyball team film The Iron Ladies (Youngyooth Thongkonthun, 2000). It’s no surprise that the real Nong Toom is on record as approving of this version of her life story, and of Asanee Suwan’s cast-carrying performance. An experienced boxer but a first-time actor, Asanee infuses Parinya with physical grace and a sweet shyness, convincingly embodying both his masculine and feminine sides.

Chilean Manuela Martelli was my other major acting discovery of the festival. Star of Gonzalo Justiniano’s B-Happy (2003), she too came to her film completely untrained. Having secured a small distribution deal for his 2002 film El Leyton at last year’s edition of the festival, Justiniano cheerfully fielded questions at the screening, revealing that the character played by Martelli was based on a 14-year-old girl he’d met years ago, and that when he saw Martelli’s face he knew she was the one to play the role of Kathy, a member of Chile’s itinerant underclass. Kathy must endure tragedy after tragedy, unceasing to the point that I almost wondered if Lars Von Trier was involved (4). Manuela’s charismatic presence drives the film, which could have lapsed into the territory of third-world melodrama if not for her performance and a sweet, lilting chamber score. Justiniano even has to pull her face out of focus in certain conversation scenes, or else the audience might get too drawn into it to see the other characters.

I may have wanted to hand out acting awards to Martelli and Asanee, but the SFIFF has its own set of well-established awards. Most of the honoured films were drawn from the long list of films I didn’t see. The audience awards went to the German feature the Miracle of Bern (Sönke Wortmann, 2003) and the stuntwoman documentary Double Dare (Amanda Micheli, 2003). The prize for first feature filmmakers went to Andrzej Jakimowski’s Squint Your Eyes (2003). A FIPRESCI jury was invited to the festival, and selected the Story of the Weeping Camel (Byambasuren Davaa & Luigi Falorni, 2003). The festival’s Golden Gate Awards are presented to non-narrative and short films; this year’s recipients included Checkpoint and Girl Trouble (Lexi Leban & Lidia Szajko, 2004), among others.

One of the few award-winning films I did manage to catch was perhaps my favourite of the entire festival. Nicholas Provost’s Papillon d’amour (2003) received the “New Visions Work” Golden Gate Award, intended for experimental film and video works. It’s a three-minute flurry of images from Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) presented as if one of Kurosawa’s trademark wipe edits had gotten stuck halfway across the film frame, revealing not a new scene but a mirror image. Asymmetries in the master’s mise en scéne are thus transformed into mysterious mothlike figures. The film begins with a doubled image of Fumiko Honma’s left side, prostrating herself before the court of objectivity. Then a shot of her dashing towards her altar as the camera tracks forward to meet her – a dynamic enough motion in the original film, but the disorienting mirror effect makes it especially jarring. The sound of a plucked stringed instrument is suddenly accompanied by a rushing wall of nearly white noise as Honma drops to her knees, becoming a faceless cyclops. There is a cut to Mori Masayuki, dropping his head(s) as he sees his wife submit to the bandit. When Honma returns to the broken frame, she re-enacts his suicide, spinning, her cloak flapping in the occult wind and becoming a tiny napkin-like shape as the noise’s pitch slides higher and higher into the film’s end credits. Provost’s deceptively simple manipulation of Kurosawa’s images is not only kinetically exciting, but seems an especially appropriate appropriation of a work so concerned with subjective and distorted reality of film and of life as Rashomon. Papillon d’amour is precisely the kind of film I worry would fall between the cracks if it weren’t for ambitiously broad film festivals like the SFIFF.


  1. Ruthe Stein, “Where’s the Sizzle?”, San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 2004.
  2. In recent years, the festival’s guests have included Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty and Clint Eastwood. This year, major glamour in the form of Cyd Charisse was on-hand for a screening of Silk Stockings (Rouben Mamoulian, 1957).
  3. Miloš Forman & Jan Novak, Turnaround: a Memoir, Villard Books, New York, 1994, p. 169.
  4. Von Trier was probably busy working on The Five Obstructions (2003), which also played at this year’s festival.