Take that, you measly ten-day and two-week film festivals: the Seattle International Film Festival, 37 years old and counting, runs from May 19 to June 12, more than three weeks all told. Which is why I’m flying up for opening and closing weekend only, kind of a cruel joke for a doctrinaire completist such as myself, but still irresistible. Cannes is not the only beautiful seaside location showing movies in May!
I’ve been assiduously collecting dining tips for Seattle, which I haven’t visited in more than a decade, despite the fact that eating during a film festival becomes secondary, not to mention eating well. My priorities get all messed up.
Getting his picture taken for the Guest Pass just in front of me in the Hospitality Suite at the W Hotel is the movie-star-handsome and charming Justin Chadwick, director of SIFF’s opening-night film, The First Grader.
In fact, we’re the only two guests there, and though we lock glances, quizzically, for a moment, I’m too shy to remind him that we met briefly at the Telluride Film Festival last September. He’s been on the festival circuit for seven months since then, after all, meeting thousands of people briefly.
The First Grader is the only movie on offer today, I think, and so I intend to turn left upon exiting the W and visit the Seattle Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, which is old news in Seattle (opened in 2004) but new news to me. But no, it turns out there is a press screening of The Whistleblower at 2 p.m., so instead I turn right and stroll towards a mall called Pacific Place, one of the nearly-twenty theaters and other venues where the festival is deployed, sprawled all over Seattle and its suburbs.
Driving in from the airport, I was proudly informed that today was the warmest yet for Seattle this year – approaching 70 degrees, a milestone that is apparently tracked every spring, as I learn later on local TV news (latest date ever, May 23). I am immediately struck by how prosperous and glamorous and clean downtown Seattle looks – thanks, Microsoft! People are enjoying $3 oysters and French pastries and fancy cheesesteaks, al fresco, as I traverse the blocks. There are no empty storefronts. Downtown San Francisco seems grungy in comparison, despite the fact that grunge was invented here, a few decades ago. Women look more stylish than in San Francisco (though less so, I hasten to add, than in New York – let’s not go crazy here).
Even a mildly raucous NAFTA-related protest watched by two bored policeman on bikes that I pass doesn’t change the delightful on-holiday mood. Pacific Place turns out to be an upscale mall (Tiffany’s! Barney’s New York!) with an AMC tucked under the skylight on its top floor. There’s a long, long lineup for the press screening. It turns out that there have been three press screenings a day, Monday through Friday, for three weeks (SIFF programs over 400 films), and the audience has something of the jovial camaraderie experienced on a cruise ship.
The Whistleblower is a socially-conscious, based-on-a-true-story movie about a Nebraska policewoman (the strong-eyebrowed Rachel Weisz) who joins the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia and uncovers sex-trafficking that’s abetted by her fellow officers and tacitly permitted by officials. Occasional and welcome appearances are made by Vanessa Redgrave, bursting with maternal integrity and wearing distractingly long silver earrings in the shape of feathers (it would appear they are the only pair she owns, or maybe something of a personal fetish), the believably-shifty David Straithairn, and, most surprisingly, Monica Bellucci, looking beautiful but tired (un-plastic-surgically-refreshed) in a turn as a cynical bureaucrat. (Oddly a fellow female peace-keeper of Weisz’s has strikingly surgically plumped lips.)
The movie’s heart is in the right place – though it’s always jarring to see, in a film about exploitation of women, scenes, however discreet, of women being beaten or used sexually that border on exploitation themselves. The Whistleblower errs on the side of discretion.
There’s just enough time to return to the hotel and change for the opening night film and gala. My instructions to arrive at McCaw Hall at Seattle Center (also the home of the SIFF Cinema, which is programmed year-round) are for such an early time – 5:30 for a 7 p.m. screening -- that I somehow imagine I’ve been booked for something called the Red Carpet Experience, which includes pre-movie nosh and drinks and -- what I’m most interested in -- a gift bag that’s promised to hold “more than $450” in swag.
What was I thinking? Of course I’m not on the Red Carpet Experience list (the tickets cost $250). I’m merely let into the theater early, after standing in a premium ticket line and being asked repeatedly by seemingly numberless volunteers attired in provocative black-and-white costumes that I believe are emblazoned with a Bay City Rollergirls logo, if I have my ticket and a corresponding gold wristband.
I find myself inside the theater, in a prime seat, in a Lincoln-Theater-like majestic wood-lined room (that in its daily life serves as the host for ballet and opera performances), fully an hour before the performance (of a film I’ve already seen and hope to perhaps catch that long-wished-for two-hour nap during). Idiotically I have nothing to read. Luckily a kindly Seattlean lends me his Seattle Times newspaper (“don’t do the crossword puzzle!,” he admonishes). After that palls, I grab a copy of the SIFF guide and mark up all the movies I’ve seen elsewhere – around 35. An enthusiastic volunteer usher named Jeanette and I trade tips.
We’re interrupted by the good-natured, well-received (though for an outlander, sometimes incomprehensible) pre-screening speeches – themselves interrupted by a pre-recorded musical fanfare, of varying length. The SIFF trailer features many whimsical interpretations of what the acronym SIFF could mean, ending with the preferred SEE INTERESTING FILMS FIRST. The FIRST must mean first in Seattle, of course, because most of the 400, as with The First Grader, have been working their way around the festival circuit for a while. I am surprised to see Tom Tykwer’s 3, for instance, listed as a 2010 release in the guide, since I saw it in Berlin in February of 2009, and there seem to be other occasions of what might be release date obfuscation. I saw Gainsbourg: The Heroic Life in a Paris theater in 2009, for example.
But no matter. Co-directors Carl Spence and Deborah Person are greeted with cheers. Mayor Mike McGinn implores the audience to contact their local Washington legislators to pass the Washington State Film Incentive.
When the film starts and it is distinctly out of focus, I seem to be the only member of the audience troubled by this. Finally I can stand it no longer and charge up from row six, all the way up the long, long aisle out into the lobby, where I run into Justin Chadwick, who’s just as upset as I am, thank God. This time he remembers our Telluride encounter and pauses from entreating various staffers to contact the projection booth to send his regards to Telluride’s director Tom Luddy.
The First Grader is another socially-conscious film based on a true story (about a former Mau-Mau fighter in Kenya who stubbornly returns to grade school in his 70 and 80s, determined to learn to read), but unlike the movie I’ve seen earlier today, it enchants the viewer with its expressive filmmaking and beguiling cast. It’s a perfect choice for an opening night film.
Afterwards there’s the usual opening-night party scrum, this time with virtually no chance of running into someone I know – with the exception of Carl Spence, a longtime festival friend, who I congratulate on both the obviously-beloved festival, and his spiffed-up appearance in slick suit and sleek tie. We’re in a dessert lounge branded with high-end Magnolia audio equipment, in service of a big-screen TV, which we admire hopelessly.
A somewhat smaller-screen TV awaits me back at the hotel, where I’m born by a taxi-driver who came to Seattle from the Middle East 17 years ago. After learning of the plot of the film I’ve just seen, he informs me he learned to read by watching Nickelodeon. I am touched. I wonder where he learned to inflate his tip by claiming he only had one quarter in change. I am somewhat less touched.
On day two, as I’m walking briskly towards the first movie of the day, close to 11 a.m., I’m thinking of my two favorite sightings of the day before. When checking into the W Hotel, I see a television-familiar face at the desk, and realize it’s not Zach Braff but Thom Felicia, complete with melon-colored cashmere sweater familiar from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” draped over his shoulder. Festival eyes!
Eight or so hours later, sitting in the swanky McCaw Hall, waiting for the opening night festivities to begin, the woman sitting behind me points out a man who’s dressed to impress, or anyway to be noticed: he’s wearing some kind of a wig-hat that incorporates a rubber chicken, as well as a rubber chicken necklace, atop a black-and-white ensemble that still seems loud and colorful – an abstract-patterned shirt, flowy black shorts, horizontally-striped socks. He seems jovial enough, wandering through the aisles and chatting up people. “He asks good questions,” she tells me, herself a veteran of film events around town. It seems he’s another one of the Serious Fools that run their own balloting website, tracking response to SIFF’s films.
I’m cutting it close to make it to the film, Happy, Happy, from Norway, which is the only offering today at 11 a.m. It occurs to me that therefore I might not get in, what with the number of rabid Platinum and Full Series Pass holders I’ve spied already, determined to make their investment pay off, with no other option available to them. I’m fabricating a plan B, when I find myself miraculously already up Pacific Place’s escalators and inside a 3/4s-full house. I realize that, although it feels like a weekend, it’s still actually a weekday.
Happy, Happy is a well-acted, layered look at the sexual and emotional shenanigans that occur between two married couples living next door to one another in cottages isolated in the Norwegian countryside one snowy winter. Realistic scenes are punctuated by deadpan interludes featuring a quartet of blond young men who sing old American songs and spirituals whose lyrics can be taken to comment on the events or foreshadow them. I’m not surprised that the film is a veteran of both this year’s Sundance and New Directors/New Films festivals.
Afterwards I see Festival diehards already lining up for the next film, Ex, from Hong Kong, again running unopposed, and about an hour away. But I’m headed elsewhere. On exiting the hotel the day before, en route to the press screening of The Whistleblower, I’m introduced to a publicist who invites me to an event promoting a film that’s not on my radar called LOVE, a sci-fi epic somehow, I’m not quite sure, based on the music of Angels & Airwaves, also not on my radar. But I have heard of Blink 182, whose front man Tom DeLonge is also a member of Angels & Airwaves, and the event involves him and the film’s writer/director William Eubank and actor Gunner Wright autographing posters and CDS and the like at the Experience Music Project. It sounds wacky enough, and the iconic Frank Gehry building is in itself a draw. Maybe I’ll stick around and see its current show, “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses.” Anyway, it’s a chance to get outside and enjoy the delightful spring weather.
There doesn’t seem to be any film-related hoopla on offer at the EMP. I question the museum ticket-taker as well as the woman at the information desk, who sends me off across the bucolic Seattle Center towards something called the Vera Project. I pass a huge fountain surrounded by skateboarders and picknickers. Sunlight is dappled through the trees. The Vera Project turns out to be a music venue, locked up tighter than a drum, with a pond-like water feature outside it, in which a toddler splashes while his young mother looks on fondly. I’m still in a good mood as I board the monorail for the quick trip back. I’ve had a delightful excursion and I still slip into Ex right after it starts.
It also is something of a romantic comedy involving the emotional and sexual complications of couples – there are even early jokes about blowjobs in both of the films I’ve seen today – but here the protagonists are callow youths and the script is callow, too. The actress in the lead role is beautiful to look at but her character is selfish and annoying. We’re told she works in publishing, but her work seems to consist in sleeping at her desk and making photocopies. And it’s not wise to feature a framed poster of Jules and Jim in the apartment where she’s crashing with her ex-boyfriend and his current girlfriend, inviting invidious comparisons.
I’m amused when a couple of filmgoers vote with their feet and exit, complaining audibly, a full ten minutes before the film ends.
At the 4:00 hour there are multiple choices at a half-dozen venues strung around town, but I stay at the AMC in Pacific Place to watch Venice, a Polish movie set during WWII. Before the film I hear the people in back of me discussing the rather loud snoring that went on for quite some time during Ex, and I chime in. We debate the etiquette of nudging someone you don’t know. The woman sitting to my right, wearing a Platinum Pass, says that if the snoring had been coming from the front row she would have known who it was. Before our conversation ends, my new friends point out people they know who fly in or drive from around the country to attend the entire more-than-three-week festival. It seems if you book into a hotel for a month you avoid certain hotel taxes, so they even arrive early or stay late. I’m shocked: if I was a regular at a festival, I assume after a while I’d have made local friends and could sleep for free!
I sleep for free during two snatches of the first half-hour of Venice, which increases the dream-like qualities (as duly noted in the program notes) of the film, in which a wealthy, beautiful blonde family of three generations is sequestered in their stately mansion outside a small Polish village as the war around them rages on. The beautiful young blond grandson constructs a fantasy Venice in the flooded basement, where his three aunts join him in performing in various concerts and pageants. It’s no Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but it’s beautifully shot and juxtaposes languorous scenes with shocking ones to good effect.
I seem to like it more than my neighbors do, one of whom sweetly invites me to share a cab with her and two other ladies as they make a dash to the Neptune, where they’re going to see Tom Tykwer’s 3. I decline with thanks, because I’ve got a dinner engagement – and I’ve already seen 3. Oh, is it good, she asks. I fumble around for a response, telling her I don’t know her tastes. All I’ll say is it’s not my favorite of his movies. I reflect, briefly, that if I did go see it, it would be the third movie of the day that involved a tangled group of romantic and sexual lives, with echoes of both the first two.
Of course upon returning to my room I find that the signing event is to be held on the morrow. I have a window for not quite the two-hour nap of my dreams. Instead I fool around on the computer, watching Family Style, the first short film of The First Grader’s director Justin Chadwick, starring a pre-Trainspotting Ewen McGregor, on the ubiquitous YouTube.
The dinner I’m attending is one of those nightly affairs arranged by the festival for a mixed bag of filmmakers and press. It’s at a restaurant nicely named Rosebud, decorated with at least two sleds. By the luck of the draw, I’m seated with a lovely woman who’s just flown in from Vermont , Signe Taylor, to and come to the restaurant straight from the airport (her suitcase is tucked away near the end of the table). She’s directed a documentary about Circus Smirkus, the only traveling youth circus in the U.S. Across from us is fortuitously seated James Fox, director of The Darkest Matter, which he describes as “Lord of the Flies on a space station,” which he shot in Northern California with a crew largely composed of children inbetween the ages of 9 and 18. By the end of the dinner Taylor has decided to attend his next-day seminar on green screen shooting with her niece, and Fox has offered technical support for her next film.
I alternate talking with them with encouraging Richard Harding, young producer of The First Grader, who seems unduly hard-hit by any negative reviews the film has received, not to read reviews at all (good luck with that). Failing that, I say, remember this: the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on. Which cheers him up, a little. As does the late arrival of three Chilean filmmakers of Red Eyes, a documentary about World Cup soccer, who, we’re informed, have just arrived after traveling for 24 hours, and, as the dinner breaks up around 11:30 p.m., are ready to party.
I am ready for bed. Or, anyway, YouTube.