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55th San Francisco International Film Festival: from Fest Guilt and Porn to Rory Kennedy's 'Ethel'

Festivals
by Meredith Brody
April 27, 2012 7:29 PM
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Ethel and Rory Kennedy


I’m not particularly fond of the phrase “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans,” (even if it’s attributed to Woody Allen). But I’m being reminded of it daily.  A couple of days ago, I felt guilty that I was watching a James Bond marathon instead of attending the afternoon honoring Barbara Kopple with the Persistence of Vision award, rationalizing my absence somewhat by (a) telling myself that I’d seen the movie they were screening, “Harlan County, USA,” more than once, and (b) that I was helping to instill cinephilia in my two young companions.

Today I feel guilty about choosing Rory Kennedy’s documentary about her mother, Ethel (and, by extension, her father Robert Kennedy, the Kennedy family, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, and politics of the 50s onwards, all touched on in 97 minutes), over a 2 ½ hour Russian movie, “Target,” about “characters struggling to find meaning in a near-future ultra-capitalistic and over-consuming Russia,” especially because “Ethel” is scheduled to be broadcast on HBO this spring. But I wake up tired and I dread seeing, well, parts of “Target,” if you know what I mean.

I do sneak into the amusing Q-and-A with director Alexander Zeldovich afterwards, along with another local writer who tells me he watched the movie on his 27-inch computer screen, making me feel that maybe I could still watch it on my TV, after all. Insert screed about “I don’t go to film festivals to watch movies on DVD,” complete with anecdote about the horror I once felt watching a Toronto critic spend day after day in the noisy media room at the Toronto International Film Festival, because he could get in maybe one more title a day if he didn’t bother traipsing around from venue to venue. Thereby never seeing anything projected larger than a computer screen, and never feeling the ineffable pleasure of communal watching.

So there. I feel the ineffable pleasure of communal watching in “Ethel” that I’d never get at home alone, manifested in audible sniffing, among other strong reactions. I’d run into a friend at the festival a couple of days ago who’d just emerged from “Ethel” and had felt compelled to congratulate Rory Kennedy on the film’s power afterwards. Still glowing from the encounter, she told me she felt re-energized about the possibility of changing the world for the better. I’m sorry that Kennedy wasn’t still in town this afternoon for another Q and A.

So now I feel guilty that I’m going to see a wildly successful commercial film that is due to be released in May, by the Weinstein Company, no less. “Les Intouchables,” about a wealthy paraplegic whose zest for life is re-invigorated by the joie de vivre of a poor immigrant African servant, quickly became the second-most-viewed movie in France ever (after “Welcome to the Sticks,” aka “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis”), and eventually the highest-grossing movie in a language other than English (breaking the record for “Spirited Away").

I kinda dread it. The plot seems, dare I say it, racist (what’s the opposite of noble savage?), not to say clichéd and patronizing and cutesy. But I’m nothing if not a student of the zeitgeist, and once I’m seated in big ol’ room One with an obviously excited capacity crowd, laughing at the deprecating charm of the two young directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano (who warn us that their movie is “in color, with dialogues,” i.e. not “The Artist), I’m ready. Etonne moi!

But the crowd’s excitement quickly turns to confusion once the movie unreels once, then twice, without subtitles. Yes, God laughs: apparently this copy (a digital one, I think) has no subtitles, although the credits themselves are in English (“based on a true story,” etc.).

By the time the announcement is made that members of the audience can choose to either get refunds or stay and watch the film in French, an hour has gone by. I stick around, but can only stay for half the two-hour film, because I’m due to meet old friend Pierre Rissient, in town to receive SFIFF’s Mel Novikoff Award “bestowed upon an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s appreciation of world cinema.”  

“Les Intouchables” is indeed racist, clichéd, patronizing, and cutesy. (At least the hour of it that I see.) (And scheduled for an American remake!) I’m reminded, uncomfortably, of the time several years ago when I sat in a theater watching “Welcome to the Sticks,” (shown during the SF Film Society’s French Cinema Now festival), surrounded by a wildly guffawing audience, feeling kinda clueless. (I note that an American remake of “Welcome to the Sticks” still is listed in pre-production.)

Pierre and I catch up in the lobby of his nearby hotel before I accompany him to a party hosted by the Bank of the West (whose parent company is French) in honor of contemporary French cinema and “Les Intouchables,” conveniently held in the ever-changing restaurant next door to the Kabuki now called Pa’Ina Lounge. Pa’ina means “get together” in Hawaiian, a little Google tells me, and I guess that you can find char siu bao, siu mai, and egg rolls, in Hawaii, as well as sliced ham, cubes of cheese, and baguette (a nod to France?). Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I appreciate free food as much as the next festival geek, although not the over-loud music that forces me to shout into director Fred Schepisi’s ear. He’s never seen the Castro theater, where his “Eye of the Storm” is showing as part of tomorrow night’s tribute to Judy Davis, and I assure him that it’s a matchlessly preserved movie palace.

I run upstairs to the movie palace known as room 1 at the Kabuki, to see “Cherry,” the first movie directed by local hero and prolific novelist Stephen Elliott. I’ve heard it’s something of a valentine to San Francisco. I love paeans to cities: the first few minutes of “Oslo, August 31,” in which voiceovers of different reminiscences of the town accompanied shots of Oslo, were among the most exhilarating I’ve spent at the festival, even if the movie did take a very different turn afterwards.

There are recognizable, even iconic, SF locations (even in the scenes that are supposed to be set in Long Beach or on the road to SF, but hey! That’s scrappy independent low-budget fimmaking!) The audience applauds when two friends admire the long SF panorama from the top of Dolores Park, saying “This must be the most beautiful city in the world.” (Ever the curmedgeonette, I turn to my seatmate and whisper “I guess they’ve never been to Paris. Or anywhere else.”)

But the rags-to-riches -- or maybe unactualized-laundromat-employee-to-actualized-porn-director -- story plays like it should have been run through the old computer one more time.  Ashley Hinshaw glows as Candide/Angelina, but Lili Taylor, James Franco, Dev Patel, and Heather Graham (still glowing herownself much as she did as Rollergirl, which I oddly glimpse within 24 hours as it’s back in heavy rotation on HBO) are given what feels like parts of characters rather than characters.  And if co-writer Lorelei Lee thinks that not all porn stars were sexually abused as children, as she tartly informs one questioner after the film, one wonders why she and Elliott include a creepy shot of the protagonist’s (step?)father looming over her as she lies in bed clutching her younger sister and pretending to be asleep.

In today’s online porn world, I think, judging from what I’ve seen in “Cherry” and heard from its creators, plotlines may have gone away – it’s pure cut-to-the-chase, if you will – but there doesn’t seem to be any concept of guilt. I wish I could say the same as far as guilt is concerned. But I hear from one of my favorite film writers of all time, David Thomson, that the best movie he’s seen recently is Julia Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet,” which was screening right down the hall while I was watching “Cherry.”  I won’t be able to make its only other screening. It doesn’t seem to be scheduled to play anywhere outside of LA and NY. God laughs.
 

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