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SFIFF 54 Day Ten: Dog Day Afternoon, Cinema Komunisto, James Woods, Making Friends with Books

by Meredith Brody
May 3, 2011 4:53 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood


On day ten of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Meredith Brody talks Dog Day Afternoon, sees and loves Cinema Komunisto, digresses on James Woods (among other things) and makes friends via Bossypants and Chekhov's short stories:

I start the day by watching as much of the program honoring Frank Pierson with the Kanbar Award for screenwriting as I can before dashing off to see Love in a Puff. The clip that Pierson showed in his Master Class, the afternoon before, reminded me that (a) I know Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon -- the movie they’re going to show as part of the tribute -- very well indeed, (b) yes, the 70s were a golden age of movies, (c) Pacino’s performance (not to mention John Cazale’s – but then I just did) is more riveting than any I’ve seen in the past nine days.
And when I glance over the program, the only one that comes close is that of James Woods in Salvador, 1986, oops. I remember that I wanted to check IMDb to see what Woods has been up to lately. I type in James Wood by accident, and the top result I see lists Source Code, which makes me happy – hey! He’s still working, and I should really get around to seeing Source Code. But then I realize it’s another actor named James A. Woods aka James Wood by credits error, born in 1979, and veteran of several other movies that I haven’t got around to seeing, including Hatley High and Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer.

The James Woods I’m thinking of, it seems, has spent much of the past decade voicing characters in video games. I sincerely hope that the credit listing him as Security Guard #2 in a 2009 episode of iCarly is an error -- not unlike the one the other night when I clicked on my DirecTV guide listing The Gold Diggers as the 1984 movie directed by Sally Potter (It could happen!). In the event, it turned out to be Gold Diggers of 1935.

But I digress. (Well, one more little digression. I am happy to see James Woods listed as third-billed in the upcoming remake of Straw Dogs, though I am not sure how happy I am that they are remaking Straw Dogs). Back to Pierson: The well-dressed and well-prepared (as ever) Steven Jenkins, Deputy Direct or of the San Francisco Film Society, cites Pierson’s reputation as a hellraiser, back in the day – I am surprised to learn Pierson is 85, especially since he’s still working as a producer on Mad Men (his IMDb screenwriting credits end abruptly in 1990).

The clip reel, heavy on Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke, King of the Gypsies, and Dog Day Afternoon, lighter on The Anderson Tapes, In Country, and A Star is Born, shows a definite authorial voice – for a moment everybody on screen sounds the same (and, for the people in the theater who haven’t seen Dog Day Afternoon yet, they are no longer in suspense about the fate of John Cazale. Spoiler alert! But not by me).

I sneak out before the feature starts, afraid I will be unable to leave once it does.

God forbid I should have missed Love in a Puff, directed by Pang Ho-Cheung, who’s directed nine films, none of which I’ve seen. I have to remember that when I read that a movie is part of the New Hong Kong Cinema, that I should check just how new it is. I try to make myself interested in the thin story of two attractive young people who bond over smoking cigarettes in legal outdoor spaces and text messages, for formal and other reasons, but the movie overcomes my critical defenses. Nobody has anything interesting to say. (Apparently by rushing out to my next screening – there’s no breathing room built into my schedule until after the fourth event – I missed a cute credit sequence. Damn!).

Thompson on Hollywood


While waiting for Cinema Komunisto to start, I strike up one of those instant friendships that are part of the pleasure of film festivals. My seatmate is reading a collection of short stories by Chekhov, which provides an opening. It turns out that she works at a school in the Tenderloin, and has a singularly intelligent way of approaching the festival, never seeing more than two movies a day. I tell her one brief anecdote about my trip to Yugoslavia in the days before it broke up – that in every city and town we visited, one of the best, most imposing mansions would invariably be pointed out to us as “Tito’s house.”

I just adore Cinema Komunisto (Elizabeth Taylor pictured). Billed as “more than a history of the Yugoslavian film industry” – it’s barely that, since unidentified clips zip past at the speed of light – it entrances me. A complicated editing strategy returns to a huge (yet not as huge as envisioned), now abandoned Belgrade movie studio, still stuffed with rotting props, moldy costumes, and canisters of film turning to video, in between conversations with elderly veterans of the state cinema, montages of Yugoslavian films, clips from international productions shot there (glimpses of Orson Welles, Yul Brynner, Kirk Douglas) as well as a once-famed Yugoslavian film festival held in a Roman arena in Pula. Tito is ever-present, as he was when I was there: some of the most touching footage is that of interviews with the loyal projectionist who screened films for the movie-mad President for Life nightly. It’s a touching film as well as a funny one.

As I leave, rushing again from theater to theater to get a decent seat to see Matthew Barney receiving the Persistence of Vision award, I presume on our brief acquaintance and tell my seatmate “I don’t usually tell people to seek out pornography when I first meet them, but Google Yul Brynner naked and you’re in for a treat!” (So sue me. A print of one of George Platt Lynes’ shots of Brynner – not even the best one! – went for $16,800 at Christie’s in 2005. But I digress).

Matthew Barney, dressed like an artist-workman in lace-up boots, a thick woolen shirt jacket, and a wool cap (which I later think is designed to hide, well, male pattern baldness) is kinda gruff and rather monotone in his onstage conversation with Glen Helfand of the SF Art Institute. He allows as how he does have persistence in pursuing his art – a word perhaps more appealing than “obsessive or delusional.” We’re treated, in addition to clips from the Cremaster cycle, to a screening of Drawing Restraint 17, a silent film, originally intended to be projected on the outside walls of a museum in Switzerland, also the site of some of the movie itself. As usual with Barney’s work – or anyway my reaction to it -- there are gorgeous, seductive, beautifully thought-out, shot, and composed images full of impenetrable symbolism (for those who visit the Internet when they get home, like me, you can fall into a Matthew-Barney-hole that features in addition to official websites such sites as Cremaster Fanatic, where I learn that artist Mike Leavitt has just released an action figure of Matthew Barney through the Jonathan Levine Gallery, expected price between $900 -- $1200).

Barney seems completely humorless today, unlike his films, but he does chuckle when he accepts the fearsome-looking Persistence of Vision award, a sharp pointed glass pyramid – “I’ll take this home and sit on it!”, he says.

Thompson on Hollywood


Since the screening of the Festival’s Centerpiece film, Terri, by Azazel Jacobs, is scheduled for the same theater – yes! The big screen one! – in which I’ve just seen Barney, I don’t have to rush around. I chat with beloved local Bay Area filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, who have also just seen the Barney presentation, and Director of Programming Rachel Rosen – I tell them my only major heartbreaking conflict of the Festival is the next day, when Geller/Goldfine’s new documentary about the history of venture capitalism, Something Ventured, plays at 3 pm, and I can’t see how I can drive over to the Castro and see Lobster Film’s master showman Serge Bromberg receive the Novikoff award and present his 3-D Retour du Flamme clip show at 5 pm. “I have the exact same problem,” Rachel says. Dayna tells me that she’s amazed by how many of the subjects of their film have agreed to join a panel discussion afterwards and says, emphatically: “You’ll never see these five guys all together again!” Point taken.

Another instant festival friendship springs up, again bookish in origin: I see that the woman to my right is clutching a library copy of the brand-new Bossypants by Tina Fey, and I tell her I’m impressed she managed to snag it from the library. She agrees with me: “I was #102 on the waiting list when I signed up,” she says, “and three weeks later they told me it was waiting for me!” (Yikes. I can’t imagine how many copies of Bossypants that means the SF Library must possess.) We continue chattering away about real vs. electronic books, the ease of reserving books online, and within moments I’m writing down worldcat.org (for locating the library nearest you that has the book or DVD you want on its shelves), James Lees-Milne, and MFK Fisher down for her future reading pleasure.

I feel guilty that I haven’t seen Jacobs’ 2008 well-reviewed Momma’s Man, starring his parents – avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and wife Flo – and shot in his parents’ NY loft. After being charmed by Terri, a quirky (forgive me) coming-of-age story about high school misfits bonding with their Vice Principal, the dependable John C. Reilly, I’m heading for the, uh, video store (digital killed the video store!) It’s sort of a post-modern Breakfast Club, and, yes, John Hughes is referenced with affection in the panel discussion featuring Jacobs, Jacob Wysocki (affecting in his feature film debut as the chunky, redoubtable title character), Reilly, Creed Bratton (Terri’s Alzheimery uncle/guardian), and assorted producers (including Reilly’s attractive wife).

I know from our conversation that the young woman and her husband sitting to my right live in Oakland, so I ask if they’ve driven in. When I learn they took BART, I offer them a ride eastwards, thereby gaining more pleasurable book-and-movie chat to ease the transition home. The Internet awaits!

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