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SFIFF 55: Judy Davis, 'Women with Cows,' "The Giants,' Rissient on Hawks

Thompson on Hollywood By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood April 30, 2012 at 3:21PM

I have viewed myself into a corner; there’s practically nothing playing this afternoon that I haven’t already seen. I have prepared for this by checking out press screeners, despite my internal script that runs: “you don’t go to film festivals to watch movies on DVD.” So I choose either talking heads docs or movies with less than epic sweep.
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The onstage interview at the Castro is conducted by Elvis Mitchell, critic and curator of the Film Independent program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Davis surprises by diverging from the well-trodden path of interviewees professing great affection for every director and actor they’ve ever worked with. David Lean was intimidating and less than totally helpful on “A Passage to India.”  Why did she undertake Lillian in Hellman in “Dash and Lilly?”  “I think it was the money – and Sam Shepherd.” David Cronenberg is courageous and perverse, and re-wrote “Naked Lunch” in a matter of days when filming remained in Toronto instead of going on location in Morocco. Woody Allen is “unusual” – “We never really talked.”  On “The New Age,” Michael Tolkin was “another weird one…he wasn’t sure what he was making.”

A question from the audience about River Phoenix, who died at the age of 23 while they were making the unfinished “Dark Blood,” elicits “It was a fraught film. I didn’t like [director] George Sluizer, to be frank.”  She ends with a rousing paean to the movie that’s about to be screened, Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of Nobel prizewinner Patrick White’s Australian family saga “The Eye of the Storm,” saying it’s the first time she’s worked with a script that she feels is saying something true about Australia, about its alienation and dislocation, “a need to sort of justify one’s presence in an alien landscape…[that’s] beautiful, harsh, and difficult to understand.”

I’ve already seen “The Eye of the Storm,” which co-stars Charlotte Rampling as the dying mother of Geoffrey Rush and Davis, and Davis’s few words explain much about what I’ve seen.

The following day I play hooky from the Festival again. I’ve been tapped to drive Pierre Rissient to Stanford, where he’s going to contribute reminiscences of his friend Howard Hawks to critic/historian David Thomson’s class on the director. I pick Pierre up at the Fairmount, where he’s breakfasted with Fred Schepisi, and we talk nonstop about movies and books en route to Palo Alto.

It’s a gorgeous day, and I’m surprised by the bustling, prosperous atmosphere of University Avenue.  We find our way to Thomson’s class on the massive, rather intimidating campus, built to my eyes on an inhuman scale. It’s held in a windowless auditorium in an impressive hall fronting the parklike oval quad, where parking costs a quarter for ten minutes, no credit cards are accepted, and I have nowhere near the twenty or so quarters needed to cover the more than three hours we’re to be there. The future of modern living, to quote the prescient Edward D. Wood Jr.

The class is on its fourth session, which begins with a clip from Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima, mon Amour.” To which I say “huh?!” But over the course of three hours Thomson weaves a fascinating and challenging criticial narrative that encompasses not only that film but a previously assigned novel by James Salter, “A Sport and a Pastime,” a long and mesmerizing clip featuring Nicole Kidman from Jonathan Glatzer’s film maudit, “Birth,” and, finally, Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from Hawks’ musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” 

Entrepreneur/philanthropist David Packard’s exquisitely restored Stanford Theatre repertory house is concurrently presenting a nearly complete Hawks retrospective, to which the Thomson class is invited gratis. Pierre contributes a glimpse of Hawks as host and companion as well as filmmaker. I once spent the day in Palm Springs with Rissient and Hawks, so I chime in with my bit.

As I drive Thomson and Rissient out of town, I see people already lining up for that evening’s double bill of “Ceiling Zero” and “The Dawn Patrol.” The rush hour traffic doubles our driving time to two hours, but again there’s nonstop distracting chatter about books and movies, including anecdotes about everyone from Abraham Polonsky to George Worthing Yates, one of Pierre’s favorite genre writers, heretofore unknown to me, who, it turns out, was related to Herbert Yates, owner of Republic Pictures. The dreadful traffic causes me to re-assess my fantasy of auditing what remains of Thomson’s class. Maybe on a night when I can catch a Hawks double bill at the Stanford, I think.

This article is related to: Festivals, Festivals, San Francisco International Film Festival, Guest Blogger, Genres, Features


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