Pressures of work keep me at home through the mid-afternoon, though I was longing to see the one-time-only showing at 1:30 of a work in progress, Joann Sfar Draws from Memory, director of Gainsbourg (Je t’aime…moi non plus), which I saw the night before. It sounds right up my alley: directed by Sam Ball, double Golden Gate Award-winner at previous SFIFFs, “tracks Joann Sfar…on an odyssey through the dual Algerian and Eastern European family heritage that is the wellspring of his work on paper…followed by a discussion with Ball…about the pleasures and perils of representing well-known artists on the screen.”
I try to assuage my longing by reminding myself that it was only recently – that very week, in fact – that I learned that Sfar was a man. (The name led me astray. So shoot me.) And that I was not really either a connoisseur – or a fan – of his comic-book oeuvre. Still, being stuck just 12.7 miles away from a movie I could waltz into and possibly enjoy, complete with the presence of the movie’s director, causes me pain.
Which is not assuaged by the first film I do manage to get to, You Think You Are the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiest, generally acknowledged to be the best title of the festival. (Before the movie, I have a delightful encounter with Pacific Film Archive director emeritus Edith Kramer and her houseguest-for-a-week, veteran Museum of Modern Art film programmer and currently programming for the BAM cinématek Adrienne Mancia, picking up credentials at the press office to see films across the bay at the PFA. It’s inspiring to sense the continuing passions of two tireless enthusiasts who are responsible for shaping and fulfilling the movie lusts of legions of other filmgoers.) You Think You Are the Prettiest But You Are the Sluttiest follows the picaresque and unsatisfying (in more ways than one) sexual adventures of a foul-mouthed drunken Chilean slacker who insults the girls he attempts to penetrate both verbally and physically. Among his charms, he’s a premature ejaculator. And I prematurely ejaculate myself from the movie – after, I point out in my own defense, more than two-thirds of its 82-minute running time – and walk over to a cocktail party being given for Brazilian director Walter Salles, recipient of this year’s Founder’s Directing Award (joining such earlier honorees as Kurosawa, Bresson, Mike Leigh, and Francis Ford Coppola), at 1300 Fillmore, a couple of blocks away.
1300 Fillmore is a neo-soulfood restaurant. The party is held in its lounge area, which feels a bit cramped with happy celebrants clutching wineglasses (why do we call such events a cocktail party when only wine or beer is on offer? Just asking) as occasional servers thread through with underwhelming hors d’oeuvres. (Bland polenta-like cheese grits cradled in spoons, and little toasts topped with what I think is meant to be pimento cheese, are the only two I snag. I know that contributing space, alcohol, food, and labor is a generous gesture for the host restaurant, but if part pf their intention is to get partygoers interested in their place enough to return as paying guests, I don’t think they’re succeeding in this instance. But maybe I’m just cranky because I usually forgo alcohol during film festivals, knowing that imbibing is an almost-guaranteed ticket to dreamland during these sleep-deprived times.)
I chat with Tom Luddy, who hosted Salles at the Telluride Film Festival early on with Central Station, and more recently with The Motorcycle Diaries, and his Telluride co-director, Gary Meyer. I glimpse local luminary, poet/playwright Michael McClure, one of Salles’ sources for his possible upcoming film of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road . In keeping with a personal etiquette demanding that I talk to at least one person I don’t know at such events, I have a satisfying exchange with a lively woman who works at Pixar, where we have a mutual friend, it turns out. She is passionate about typography (she shows me her tattoo featuring the names of every dog she’s ever had, inscribed in different typefaces), and working on a documentary about film titles, a subject I also have a minor obsession with. Where, we lament, is today’s Saul Bass? I get her card so I can send her a link to a website I currently have a major obsession with, www.acollectionaday.com, whose daily posts often have typographical interest.
I’ve already seen most of the movies scheduled against the Walter Salles event that evening, as it happens. Father of My Children, the second film from young French director Mia Hansen-Love, continues her interest in families injured by destructive actions of one of their members, with an extra frisson, this time around, if you know that the central character was inspired by much-loved producer Hubert Balsan (and that the self-indulgent film director portrayed just might be Andrei Tarkovsky). Cairo Time, I thought, was a nice, somewhat more exotic, version of a Lifetime movie, with Patricia Clarkson wandering around a picturesque Cairo in the company of a handsome ex-colleague of her husband while said hubby is delayed by his important life-saving work elsewhere in the region, until I read in the press kit that its filmmakers were under the impression that they were making Lost in Translation (for which they would have needed a wittier script). And Fatih Akins’ Soul Kitchen, I realize, I should have recommended to my fellow filmgoer who wanted a cheerful experience. Although, despite its restaurant setting, which usually predisposes interest in my part, I find Soul Kitchenless interesting and successful than his earlier, hard-edged movies Head-on and The Edge of Heaven.
The evening with Salles proves to be unusually engaging and interesting. I worry at first that the gregarious onstage interviewer, prolific Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárittu, won’t let Salles get a word in edgeways, but eventually he settles down and a real dialogue ensues. The cosmopolitan Salles, whose father was a diplomat (also heir to a vast banking fortune, which goes unmentioned), grew up mostly far from his Brazilian home, which was referred to as “an island on the land,” isolated from its South American neighbors by virtue of its Portugueuse history and language. This has contributed to the fact that many of his films can be seen as road movies, in which the characters are looking for themselves through their travels.
Salles gracefully mentions that the SFIFF is extremely meaningful to him. It was the 2nd festival to select Foreign Land, his first feature fiction film (co-directed with Daniela Thomas), one of the first movies produced in Brazil “after 25 years of oppression and 5 years of [the country] producing no films.” The literate as well as humanistic director quotes many others during the conversation: Marcel Carné, a previous recipient of the SFIFF’s Founder’s Directing Award, who said “Cinema is the art of movement.” Philosopher John Berger: “In cinema we’re all travelers.” He mentions influences: Wim Wenders, “who made me know what space was.” Robert Bresson “made me know what time was.” He quotes expatriate Polish artist Franz Krajcberg, subject of his documentary Soccoro Nobre, who says he carved a giraffe by “taking the wood and I take off everything that’s not part of the giraffe.”
As a curtain-raiser and special treat, Salles shows us (“you’re only the second audience to see this, after Cannes”), a short film shot in super 8 about what cinema will mean to his son, a toddler at the time he made the film, with clips from, among others, Paris, Texas and Man of Aran -- the first film he shows the tot is Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
Afterwards another, longer treat: an hour of footage, specially put together in, we’re told, unbelievably, in only one week, documenting a variety of researches towards the proposed upcoming movie of On the Road. It’s a dizzying, exciting montage of interviews with still-living members of the Beat Generation, including people such as Carolyn Casady who were models for characters in the books, footage Salles took while location scouting, period stock footage, casting reels from previous attempts at filming the Coppola-owned property, and interviews with disinterested observers such as Johnny Depp and Sean Penn (now aged out of roles they once might have played). It’s a wonderful document, reflective of the canard that sometimes the stories behind a movie are more interesting than the movie itself. (One hopes not in this case.)
The two q-and-as, both before and after the movie, are fraught with tension because of a possibly inebriated self-identified old British beatnik (he’s firm about it not being spelt “beatnick,” as it seems it was to his dismay onscreen), who threatens to highjack the proceedings. Always the possibility of excitement at unscripted live events.
If I’d left then, it would have been on a movie-induced high. But I trek upstairs to see Domain, an Austrian-French movie starring Beatrice Dalle as an alcoholic woman unhealthily over-involved with her gay nephew. It’s not just because I have to exit the theater twice to request that they both focus the movie and lower the house lights that I find the experience painful. The staffer who introduced the film said that the writer-director’s insistence on precise language in his scriptwriting was equaled only in her experience by Arnaud Desplechin.
Yikes. I found the movie both pretentious and jejune, a clear candidate for Worst Movie Seen at the Festival. I stuck around for a q-and-a with the director, Patric Chiha, who as often happens talked about a more interesting movie (that he thought he’d made) than the one we’d seen onscreen. Fellow director John Waters posed a question about Dalle, who seemed unfocused and underused to me, and the director’s response seemed equally unfocused.
But I must be honest. Days after seeing the film, I remember a breathtakingly efficient scene of a gay pickup enacted within mere seconds during a bus ride. Even the (possible) Worst Movie Seen at the Festival has its moments.