On day nine of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Meredith Brody starts small and winds up enthralled by the enduring allure of Terence Stamp.
Odd and thrilling to watch a tiny movie, shot by a two-person crew, about nearly-invisible lives and occupations, on the biggest screen in the Kabuki: one of the treats of a festival. The movie is Foreign Parts, by Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki. For the first time in these chronicles, I’m tempted to quote directly from the SFIFF catalogue : “Anthropological in scope, sensuous in detail, and emotionally resonant throughout…,” with which I can only concur. The filmmaking pair, associates of the Harvard University Sensory Ethnography Lab, insinuated themselves into the daily life of a grubby enclave of car repair and salvage shops in the Willets Point neighborhood of Queens, New York. It’s the kind of grungy, noisy, uncomfortable place –located directly under a flight path, and with third-world-caliber streets with potholes that seem constantly full of water -- that non-residents visit only when necessary, and for as brief a time as possible. Gradually we get to meet a few of the neighborhood residents and workers, and learn that massive redevelopment plans (symbolized by the new Mets stadium looming over the auto repair shacks, close enough to touch and yet somehow untouchable) threaten the Point. It’s a visual dead end, both lower and upper case, in the sense of the play Dead End, in which the richest and the poorest denizens of a city co-exist in uneasy proximity.
The beauty of its saturated colors and the quality of the soundtrack honor the grand scale of the presentation. I’d never heard of this movie before, I went to it merely because it was the first screening of the day and running without opposition, a mere description of what it’s about isn’t enough to explain what it evokes – that’s why we take a chance and gather in the dark!
It’s a hard act to follow, and though I struggle to get in the groove, I’m never quite fully engaged by Black Bread, a worthy but convoluted story about multiple betrayals, both personal and political, surrounding a horrific double murder in a small Spanish town in the unsettled time after the Spanish Civil War. I’m not surprised to read afterwards that the film won nine prizes at the 2010 Goya Awards in Febrauary, including best film, best director (Agustí Villaronga), best actress, and, for two child actors, most promising performances – the first Catalonian film to be so honored. As with the Oscars, top prizewinners can be more respectable than exiting. I’m quite impressed by the naturalism and intensity of the many children performers, but when I hear other people in the theater weeping, I’m not there with them.
The Master Class with Frank Pierson, honoree this year for the Kanbar screenwriting award, is scheduled for an hour, at which time I have to cut out to rush across town for the Peter J. Owens acting award evening honoring Terence Stamp at the Castro Theater. But it’s clear as we approach the hour mark that Pierson isn’t even close to wrapping things up – “I usually spend three or four hours for a Master Class,” he tells us cheerfully, as he tells the projectionist to jump most of the clips he’s planned from Dog Day Afternoon. I’ve enjoyed listening to his anecdotes about the real case that Dog Day was based on, and tips on craft – such as imagining your character changing a tire if you’re blocked. It’s not the first time I’ve heard Pierson speak, so tearing myself away is frustrating, but not impossible.
I arrive at the festival party for Terence Stamp when it’s somewhat past its peak, certainly past any chance of hors-d’ouevres. I almost snatch a slider off a tray as I walk in, until I realize that the server holding it is waiting just outside a group of three or four people that include Mr. Stamp, casually dressed in white shirt and jeans, his halo of white hair lit by that amazing invisible key light that certain human beings carry around with them. He’s still devastating. Nobody in the little huddle might want those tidbits, but they’re inviolate.
So I nurse a watery bar-jet coke – no alcohol for me, I don’t trust myself. (I won’t be dancing on tables, just groggy in my theater seat.) I chat with California Film Institute's Richard Peterson, who is hoping the cold that has kept him away from the festival so far is gone before he leaves for Cannes. I’m thrilled to see the beautiful Daniela Michel, founder and director of the Morelia Film Festival in Mexico, who’s just arrived to serve on the New Director’s Prize competition jury. She introduces me to her fellow juror, Nick James, the editor of English film magazine Sight and Sound, who’s making his first visit to San Francisco.
As we leave the party, we bump into Elvis Mitchell, soon to interview Stamp onstage, smoking a cigar. I introduce Daniela to Elvis, she promptly invites him to her festival, and he promptly accepts. He’s heard about it from Quentin Tarantino, who liked the festival so much when he visited it in 2009 with Inglorious Basterds that he came back as a programmer in 2010.
Terence Stamp as the Peter J. Owens Award winner was a late addition to the Festival’s lineup, too late to make it into the catalogue, but they pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Not only is he possessed of a interesting life story and a lengthy and eclectic filmography, he’s a charming raconteur. Elvis has obviously done his homework, but his job is mainly to get out of the way.
I’ve cleverly left my notebook in the car, so my seatmate Lynn keeps tearing tiny sheets of paper from her own for me as I scribble away, illegibly. Highlights from too many delicious anecdotes: President Bill Clinton and Colin Powell squabbling about who was the bigger Priscilla Queen of the Desert fan at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. “I’ve seen it so many times,” says our Bill, to which Powell replies, pugnaciously, “You haven’t seen it more than I’ve seen it!” Being cast by Fellini in Toby Dammit after Peter O’Toole drops out and Fellini grandly demands: “Send me your most decadent actors!” Stamp saying that he considers his career Before Fellini and After Fellini, which is why he’s chosen Toby Dammit, part of the 1968 omnibus film Spirits of the Dead, based on three Edgar Allen Poe stories, as tonight’s offering.
When Stamp asks Fellini (“He not only likes what I do, he likes who I am,”) for direction before shooting his first scene, the arrival of Stamp, a decadent English actor, at the Rome airport, Fellini says something like: “The night before was your last performance of Macbeth, afterwards you go to a big party, an orgy [pronounced horgy], you drink, you smoke marijuana, you fuck a blonde with big tits while you’re being fucked by a huge black man, and then you take LSD and get on the plane.” “I didn’t ask him for direction after that,” Stamp says.
Toby Dammit is compelling, very Felliniesque – complete with Nino Rota score – and exactly as I remember it, except now I’m a different person than when I first saw it. My seatmates wish we were seeing all the three segments – we remember that the the Jane and Peter Fonda segment was directed by Roger Vadim, Fonda’s mate at the time, but none of us can recall the third segment. (IMDB, waiting at home, tells me that Louis Malle directed Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon in “William Wilson.”)
Now I wish I could see it again, but on Friday I’m happy to head home and watch The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, about the obsessive love affair between the Throbbing Gristle frontman and his partner, a “Pandrogyne” folie a deux in which the two underwent plastic surgery so they’d resemble one another.
I’m glad I stuck around and watched all of Salvador the other night rather than leaving to see Ballad at its first screening. It’s fascinating, frustrating, and leaves me wanting to know more.
To the computer! But first I want to see what books Terence Stamp has written – I want to read the stories, now that I’ve heard them. To my amazement, in addition to Stamp Album (1988), Coming Attractions (1989), and Double Feature (1990), and an upcoming Rare Stamps: Reflections on Living, Breathing, and Acting (2011), I see he seems to have written two cookbooks: The Stamp Collection Cookbook (2000) and The Wheat-Free and Dairy Cookbook: Over 100 Sensational Recipes from the Stamp Collection (2002). Where have I been?