Medicine for Melancholy

24 April – 4 May 2008

In the State of Cinema Address at the 51st San Francisco Film Festival, delivered annually by a prominent figure ”to address complex issues facing contemporary cinema”, this year’s honoree Kevin Kelley, technocrat of Wired magazine, essentially fed the notion of film as we know it to the silicon wolves. Ascending and proliferating as the Word has before it, Image will be radically loosed into our culture, and its unforeseeable manifestation will be synonymous with, even constitutive of, cinema. Whether it’s cause for lamentation or giddy anticipation is, by now, a moot point in the speculation of cinema’s next frontier. Listening to Kelley, who himself is simply ”listening” to the technology, I was distracted by a point he raised in which, in a place such as India where piracy is rampant, people go to the movie theatres for the air conditioning. Pay for the comfortable climate, get a free movie with it.

The theory bodes well with the Hollywood/multiplex paradigm, but I couldn’t help but think of it, perhaps simplistically, in relation to the Festival’s newly refurbished digs at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. A posh make-over of a faded multiplex in San Francisco’s Japantown, designed to create an immersive environment for film exhibition to include reservation seating, dining and drinking (not to mention cozy chairs), the new venue at least holds out hope that people will continue to see movies in theatres. Acclimating to the change (admittedly not so dramatic), both between and during shows at the 51st SFIFF, I wondered if the aesthetic boost wouldn’t have the equivalent effect of air conditioning: movies as byproduct, brought to you courtesy of a Film Festival that prides itself on presenting a ”gloriously diverse slate” (1) of cinema.

Call me a cynic, a pundit, paranoid. But I’m still smitten with the memory, from a not bygone SFIFF edition, of a visisting Abbas Kiarostami being mobbed in the theatre lobby, and dissappearing through the fire exit doors (this being the old Kabuki). This, I thought, was what festivals were about. Although I can’t recall any distinguished directors being ushered away from crushing adoration at this year’s festival, my fear of gratuitous cinema was unfounded (implying, of course, the rather attractive notion of necessary cinema). The festival kicked off its post-quinquagenary in relatively unmodified shape, with the new digs even allowing for year-round programming under the auspices of the San Francisco Film Society.

Mike Leigh, Errol Morris, actress Maria Bello, and screenwriter Robert Towne all received career recognition, while J. Hoberman nabbed the Mel Novikoff Award for having ”enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema.” I’ll say. At a time when critics are getting laid off by the numbers, it’s nice to see a particularly examplary writer trotted out on-stage for a Q & A, followed no less by a screening of José Luis Guerín’s critically fecund En la ciudad de Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia). Paradoxical perhaps, but Hoberman is the rare critic who can unequivocally sustain ambivalence in his judgement of films, a virtue in our either/or culture, and something I took to heart as I doted on the SFIFF program.

The native Medicine for Melancholy by newcomer Barry Jenkins seemed arch by title, but showed a sweet sense of humility in the depiction of a nascent romance between two young African-Americans who, at film’s outset, stumble into a San Francisco dawn bound by the awkward recognition of their drunken one night stand. They introduce themselves, then part ways: he tentatively, she more impatiently. Jenkins, of course, gently yokes them back together – the left-behind purse, naturally – in over little more than a day, but stretches their connection into something enduring as they reflect on, and are reflected in, San Francisco’s innately pictorial but increasingly gentrified urban landscape (lensed in muted shades of grey, with swaths of colour revealed and withheld like bits of personal history). The connection to Ray Bradbury, implied by the title, was lost on me, but Jenkin’s M.O. seems inspired by the sci-fi author’s rather down-to-earth injunction: “Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning —just follow him or her all day.“ (2) Winner of the Audience award.

The New Directors competition may be the festival’s most vital section, and this year featured a strong stable of films vying for a 10,000 cash prize. Aditya Assarat’s Wonderful Town was still humid after its Rotterdam Tiger, its langorous beauty belying a gravity of betrayal. Cochochi (d. Israel Cardenas, Laura Amelia Guzmán) is blessed by a graceful, improvisational trek by its two youngsters in search of a horse in deepest Mexico. Similarly conceived, the Brazilian Mutum (Sandra Kogut) features exceptional naturalism in its rural setting as well as in its 10 year-old protagonist’s plaintive response to cruel family life. A virtual unknown outside its triumph at the Jerusalem Film Festival, Vasermil (d. Mushon Salmona) commanded the competition prize for a well enough wrought portrait of an ethnically mixed trio of volatile kids in Isreal’s rough Be’er Shiva, where Salmona drew his nonprofessional cast. Soccer unifies the kids’ frayed, internecine lives, though it thankfully never rises to metaphorical proportions as their differences are subsumed but not transcended by team play. The scrappy, unrefined style invigorates a genre that nevertheless needs no more playing time; Vasermil, at best, can muster a draw.

Naissance des pieuvres

Perhaps synchronised swimming, as a symbol of fluidity and grace contrary to a teenage girl’s developing sexuality (Naissance des pieuvres / Water Lilies, d. Céline Sciamma), provides the coming-of-age saga more perverse variations. Lanky loner Marie floats between two competing attractions; one a star in the pool and avatar of corporeal femininity, the other a bra-burying, shoplifting best friend who’s ”behind schedule in kissing”. Desire, of course, is never synchronised, and its realisation entails the sense of not only learning how to swim but of getting in the water at all. Sciamma is adept at moving her lilies into varying proximity in the pool of adolescent sexuality, but the effort is too knowingly fashioned (lacking, by comparison, the naturalism of Lucrecia Martel or the shock of sexuality in Ozon).

Not long ago Mia Hansen-Løve may have easily fit the part in Sciamma’s film (she played Vera in Assayas’ Fin août, début septembre), but she’s now an accomplished director on the evidence of her debut Tout est pardonné (All is Forgiven). Traditional in composition but mining some jagged emotional terrain, the film charts a dysfunctional relationship between a stalled writer and his Austrian girlfriend. She’s trying to raise their daughter, while he’s contriving ways to get high. That his ensuing doping rituals are shot with a queasy verisimilitude only adds to the impression of Garrel-like abjection. His Jacques Brel looks and literary ambitions only disguise his emotional volatility and misogyny so much. The film’s presumed pardon is furnished by the couple’s decade-long estrangement, narratively prompted when the film shifts to the perspective of their now-mature daughter. This reframing escalates the film’s content into a more dynamic range. Like her character in Assayas’ film, Hansen-Løve may not be fully aware of her reach.

Robert Guédiguian returns, in Lady Jane, to the south of France with a noir that’s full of the blues: the opening post-heist frenzy involves thieves charitably passing out mink coats to the neighbourhood, scored to a boogying blues riff that will echo throughout the film. That was then: now this trio of middle-age crooks has settled into unglamorous jobs and family life, absent of any wrongdoing, until one’s son is kidnapped and the task of fundraising provokes a return to a Mediterranean underworld untouched by the sun. Guédiguian’s usual stable of actors is in good form, and his feel for location unerring, but the demands of genre register too perfunctorily (the strip club owner with girl attached…) or too wrought ( a cycle of revenge that’s more over-cooked than hard-boiled).

Southern French port town Sète is the site of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mahgreb-set family drama – emphasis on family and dramaLe grain et le mullet (The Secret of the Grain). No guns here – the only things going off are mouths, which Kechiche frames in tight shots to insist upon the primacy of words, the power of language. The only thing slowing the flow of vituperation among an extended family is the taste of one mother’s couscous, cooked to perfection every Sunday. Her former husband Slimane is a laid-off dockworker who’s taken up with another woman and her daughter, but who still dreams of opening a restaurant with his ex’s grain as the specialty. The drive to realise this incites familial rivalries and generational tension while unwittingly creating a community, albeit one at the mercy of a French bureaucracy historically inhospitable to the emigré population. Kechiche’s attention to quotidian speech and its attendant moments is dizzying – an inchoate blitz of verité that assumes more intelligible form in the wake of swift and unsensational tragedy. Better had Kechiche sacrifice only the couscous and not Slimane’s fateful motorbike.

Jaime Rosales’ La Soledad (Solitary Fragments) offers a becalmed but equally disconsolate portrait, also inclined to stark metings of tragic incidence. Rosales’ formal control is intensely applied to the rather ordinary lives of Madrid housemates and their kin. A mostly static and ocassionally bifurcated frame delimits the narrative into a less expository context: what is known is often gleaned in conversation. The domestic paring (and pairing) foregrounds, though without severity, a sense of mundanity and isolation among the newly acquainted, but it also reveals an implicit connection among people,  in relative states of repose, simply getting by while not always getting along. The distinction is starkly realised in relation to an act of intractable violence that echoes the Atocha train bombings in Madrid. Not for nothing did the otherwise uncommercial film steal the Goya awards.

Less effective is Icíar Bollaín’s Mataharis, with a similarly feminine-set milieu that improbably employs its characters in a detective agency. Spying, then, becomes the pretext for eventual self-discovery (following much agonising over unsolicited information). Looking, ever an act of power, becomes one of vulnerability. As one character rather plainly puts it: ”Everyone’s entitled to their secrets.” Deception, no matter its intent, exacts a price, but these women are spared the more palpable fate of the German-employed Dutch spy, beheaded by the French, whose name Mata Hari is repurposed for Bolain’s ”investigation” of familial, political and sexual mores.

Up the Yangtze

Call it a tough year when the Johnnie To disappoints (Hu die fei / Linger might be better under the influence of its grieving heroine’s Prozac supply) and also the Béla Tarr; A Londoni férfi / The Man from London is a radically ambitious literary adaption of Simenon that still feels minor by Tarr’s own precedent. Solace could be found in Chinese-Canadian Yung Chang’s restless tour by cruise ship up the imminently flooded Yangtze River (Up the Yangtze). What begins as an obliging farewell trip – to the river, to the director’s grandfather, to a China neither shall long recognise – eddies into darker territory as Yung Chang gets off the boat to witness the effects of displacement from the Three Gorges Dam project, while young Chinese get on the boat looking to make a living. The boat becomes a crucible for various responses to China’s social and economic flux – from exotica-seeking Europeans and North Americans as well as native Chinese at their employ, eager to ply comforting uninflected English in exchange for tips. An overly confident city-slicker ”Jerry” Chen Bo competes for work on the boat alongside a shy farmer’s daughter ”Cindy” Yu Shui, and the otherwise invisible disparity of their lives is cleaved open by the film’s consideration of the intimate within the epic. Like Jia Zhang-ke’s San zia hao ren (Still Life, 2006), Up the Yangtze is evidence, as one observer within the film puts it, of the new face of China’s collective/capital model: doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, only if it catches rats.

Closing night festivities typically entail a sold-out film (this year, Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson played to a packed house at the majestic Castro theatre), followed by a swank party, and then, for all the loyal, a toast up in North Beach at the decades-old haunt Tosca Café. The place has been linked to the San Francisco film world since its inception, and as I watched festival director Graham Leggat take his stand on an old chair to bid farewell to ”The International”, as he calls it, I realise that, with due respect to the new bamboo at the Kabuki, this feels like the festival’s unofficial home. The ashtrays are gone from the bar, and now the festival has its Kinotek, but otherwise there’s comfort in their common status as historic and reliable institutions.

The San Francisco International Film Festival website:


  1. Graham Leggat, SFIFF, in a closing statement.
  2. Ray Bradbury, as quoted on the film’s website.