The film-going day begins with inserting a DVD into the player, which I guess means staying rather than going. It’s A Useful Life, a film directed by a former employee of the Cinemateca Uruguaya, Federico Veiroj, about a longtime employee of the Cinemateca Uruguaya in Montevideo (which occasions a notation in the opening credits that the movie does not reflect the actual Cinemateca Uruguaya in any way shape or form). Said rather sad-sackish employee (played by an Uruguayan film critic with the young/old face of an obsessive) has spent a quarter-century doing all that’s necessary in showing films to the public – programming, introducing, talking on the radio, even repairing a seat in the theater.
For someone who has spent more than her fair share of time in darkened auditoriums of such institutions all over the world, the finely-observed details of the institution are amusing, touching, nostalgic: the programming (Icelandic directors, a celebration of the centenary of Manoel de Oliveira, the umpteenth running of a version of Greed during which our hero simultaneously translates the titles into Spanish), the regulars standing in line, the director who arrives late to introduce his film and is then disappointed with the technical details of its projection.
The tiny Cinemateca is in trouble financially. Rapidly changing times are wittily signaled by the aging, almost obsolete methods of communication used onscreen: old-fashioned Bakelite telephones, faxes, a clunky cassette tape recorder, pay phones, even telegrams. (The film is shot in black-and-white and Academy aperture.) When debts and looming eviction threaten the existence of his longtime employer, our mild-mannered hero takes a reel or two of influence from his beloved film genres and begins to assert himself in surprising ways. I was completely charmed by A Useful Life’s modest pleasures. On the way to see The Last Buffalo Hunt, I drop off A Useful Life and take out a DVD of Attenberg, bowing to the cruel inevitability of schedule conflicts.
But there’s something to be said about watching a movie in the safety of your own home. I stopped trying to exert a great deal of control over my theater environment a long time ago, in the interest of sanity, not to mention safety – I think in the past week I haven’t shushed anybody, and I only asked somebody to stop texting during the movie once (OK, maybe twice. Or three times.)
But just before The Last Buffalo Hunt begins, I catch a whiff of something so malodorous that I’m rather nauseated. I lean forward, towards its source, and see to my surprise a woman holding an open tub of some greasy unguent that she’s applying in gobs to her bare legs. Before I can even think I lean forward and ask her to put the tub away, adding that it’s an odd place to moisturize. “I have skin issues!”, she hisses back. “You can address that in the theater bathrooms,” I say. A minute later I am surprised (but should I be?) to see her pull out an outsized tube of some other highly fragranced grease that she rubs, Lady Macbeth style, into her hands. The pervasive smell of the earlier salve lingers, alarmingly.
Yesterday in the very same theater I was charmed as well as amused that the woman sitting two seats away from me was eating daintily from a plastic takeout container of Asian noodles with chopsticks. She wielded them so well, plus the dish smelled good. (But I was glad when she finished her second snack, a chopped salad that she also used the chopsticks for, just before the movie started. I can be distracted by movements glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. But I would have kept my mouth shut.)
Later that day I read a review of an entirely too timely new book entitled Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, in the Science section of the New York Times. (Hey! Another outmoded method of communication, since I’m actually reading ink clunkily printed on paper.) I am not alone, it seems.
The Last Buffalo Hunt is directed by Lee Anne Schmitt, who teaches at CalArts’ graduate film directing program. Without obviously commenting on the rituals of buffalo hunting that she apparently followed for five or six years in southern Utah, she surrounds the repetitive scenes of the hunt with shots of commercial representations of both cowboy and Indian culture, and the fast food joints, casinos, and stores that now clutter the Western landscape. (And the Eastern one, too, but here we’re concerned with the myth of the West, the frontier, cowboys, and explorers. Quotes from both contemporary and modern sources occasionally appear onscreen.) I am fond of the essay film, and the exciting connections that can be made by the accretion of images that sometimes seem pointed, other times pointless. But I am annoyed by the amateurishness of most of the shooting, sub-home-movie efforts. Listening to the soft-spoken Schmitt respond to the thoughtful questions of Sean Uyehara and the audience afterwards return me to a college classroom, and I mean that in the nicest possible way – I feel fonder of the film than while I was watching it. I resolve to track down Schmitt’s earlier festival favorite, California Company Town, which screened at SFIFF two years ago, as soon as possible.
Afterwards I stroll down Fillmore to Yoshi’s, which is hosting a party for Oliver Stone, who is going to receive SFIFF’s Founder’s Directing Award (once known as the Akira Kurosawa award) tonight. I chat with Tom Luddy, a founder and director of the Telluride Film Festival, and Dayne Goldfine and Dan Geller, happily anticipating the weekend premiere at SFIFF of their Something Ventured, a study of the history of venture capitalism – Dan is excited by the local bigwigs who will be appearing onstage along with the movie at it Saturday screening. (I’m already dreading the dash from the Kabuki afterwards to the Castro across town to see Serge Bromberg receive the Novikoff award and present his Retour du Flamme program of rare and restored 3D films. Oy.) I also chat with Diane Baker, Executive Director of Motion Pictures and Television and Acting at SF’s Academy of Art University, and on the basis of very little (my admiration of her in Marnie? discovery of a mutual acquaintance?) she graciously invites me to the Academy’s fourth annual Epidemic Film Festival, handing me a cream envelope containing a wedding-quality invitation, a ticket, and a DVD. The event unspools the day after SFIFF 54 ends, by which time I expect I’ll be movied out.
Pleasantries are also exchanged with author Peter Manso, whose movie–ready true-crime narrative Reasonable Doubt: The Fashion Writer, Cape Cod, and the Trial of Chris McCowen will be published in two months; and Ed Pressman, prolific producer of over 75 films, including Oliver Stone’s The Hand, Wall Street, and Talk Radio. I overhear scabrous anecdotes of festival bad behavior that I could repeat – but then I would be killed.
Stone, now an elder statesman who still shows flashes of his bad-boy persona, is treated more as an elder statesman or a politician than as a director by his interlocutor David D'Arcy. "I've had a very up-and-down history," Stone says. "People say I'm history, people say I'm washed up, all the time." The adoring audience seem to be more interested in his thoughts – and solutions! – for everything from unfair American taxation to Santa Monica communal farming and agrarian reform
Salvador, which I’ve already seen, but long long ago in a faraway place, starts badly, but the movie picks up pace when it goes south – pun unintended – with James Wood to El Salvador. It’s impossible not to think (as I have been for days anyway) of the recent death of Tim Hetherington, who I met briefly when his Restrepo played at SFIFF last year.
At home, I start watching Attenberg, but when it refuses to play past the half-hour-mark, I give up. My movie-staying-and-going day is over.
[Photo credit: Tommy Lau, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.]