I rush along Fillmore to slip into a 1 p.m. screening of The Colors of the Mountain, too late today to do anything but grab three samosas for $5, so greasy that they turn their paper sack transparent before I reach the theater. Three is more than I need or want, but I’ll be able to turn to someone later today and say “Would you like a samosa?,” a treat unavailable at the movies since the lamentable closure last year of the delightful Bollywood palace the Naz 8 across the bay in Fremont.
The Colors of the Mountain views the shadowy civil war in Colombia between guerillas and rightwing militia through the eyes of young schoolchildren who are ignorant of politics – they just want to retrieve their precious, irreplaceable soccer ball from its precarious position in a land-mined field. As their schoolteacher draws lines through the names of children in her class who have fled the area due to pressure from both sides, the feeling of doom intensifies.
It’s being shown in two theaters across the hall from each other. When the movie begins, they have on the wrong lens, as the image is squeezed – and I jump up and notify one of the many volunteer ushers outside. The problem is rectified while the movie is still running, but then the focus is soft – something apparently that can’t be helped. Last year this theater, # 5, had a lens that was soft on one side. But today it seems to be soft on top. It’s distracting, as is the fact that the woman behind me has a 7 or 8-year-old girl on her lap who is being treated to images of threatening men with guns, a bloody corpse thrown over the back of a horse, and repeated forays by the children of the movie to the land-mined field, as the festival audience moans and shudders.
It’s a testament to the film (which won the Best New Director prize at San Sebastian for its first-time-narrative-filmmaking director, Carlos César Arbeláez) and its largely non-professional cast that it surmounts these obstacles. (Again, alas, the director is not present.) But I vow not to see another movie in Theater 5.
Afterwards I see Year Without a Summer, the North American premiere of the second feature film of a young female Taiwanese/Malaysian director, Tan Chui Mui. (If she directs a third feature that’s selected for the SFIFF in the future, she’ll be bumped up from their New Directors section to World Cinema. Wahoo!)
It’s shown in focus. (For this reason alone I shrug when confronted with the reality that within a very few years all commercial film projection will be digital.) Wahoo again. But its slow pace, hints of magical realism, and poetic tone don’t engage me as, for example, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives does. Even its beautiful cinematography of jungle, sea, rain, and sunshine just serves to remind me that I am at two with nature.
Fortuitously it turns out that I am sitting next to Jean-Michel Frodon, ex-editor of Cahiers du Cinema, whose Master Class on criticism (entitled “The Critic’s Response and Responsibilty”), I’m looking forward to on Thursday, I’m looking forward to. He adds the following recommendations to my growing list: Foreign Parts, a documentary set in a car salvage yard in Queens; Hahaha, a Korean narrative film that has elicited mixed responses from my informants; and The Journals of Musan, another Korean feature, to which he adds the additional intelligence that it’s a favorite of our mutual friend, Olivier Assayas. “He’s on the jury at Cannes – with Uma Thurman, again. I forget what year they were on the jury together at Venice . Ah, the international film circuit!,” I say. “He’s the head of the jury at Deauville,” Jean-Michel replies.
I go immediately – no rest for the wicked – into a program of experimental films entitled Mind the Gap. The audience is cautioned during the intro to give the films a chance. I swear that I do, but I end up either bored or irritated by everything I see. Well, almost: The D Train, by local filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt, pleases with its found footage masquerading as reflections on a long life by an elderly man riding the subway. Jonathan Caouette’s Cannes-bound All Flowers in Time, which even the festival’s catalogue cannot resist calling Lynchian, does not fulfill the promise, not to say genius, shown in his Tarnation.
I leave, uncharacteristically, before the q-and-a in hopes of getting a seat in Theater 6 rather than Theater 5 for Le Quattro Volte (trailer below). But I’m out of luck; 6 is full, and I join a rowdy, cranky line that’s waiting for the audience listening to a q-and-a in 5 to exit. I’m soon distracted by chatting with the guy sitting next to me, who has spent more than four hours today in the Portuguese past of Raul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon, which failed to ensorcel me last September in Toronto (but if the six-hour made-for-TV original comes out on DVD, subtitled, I’ll give it another whirl).
This time the poetic, slow, and meditative film that follows bits of daily life in a hardscrabble mountain village in Calabria, Italy over a year – there’s lots of footage of goats, and I like goats – does not make me feel at two with nature. But I would like it a whole lot more if it was – wait for it – in focus. But nobody else in the theater seems to mind, until the last reel, when it goes completely kerflooey. I mention the Theater 5 problem to two people on the Film Society staff, one of whom replies: “They’re working on it.” (The other says “We can’t fix their projectors!” Oy.) I’m considering a group email to the staff. As well as never setting foot in Theater 5 again.
I hurry out to see the newly-restored World on a Wire by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, made for German TV in 1973 and largely unseen since. I'd love to see Magic Trip, Alison Elwood and the prolific Oscar-winning Alex Gibney’s assemblage of contemporary footage of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters drug-fueled psychedelic bus ride from California to New York in 1964, but it’s up against the only scheduled screening in SF of the 3 ½ hour Fassbinder, which I’m pretty sure I will never have a a chance to see on the big screen again.
It’s fun to see the future as viewed in 1973 (complete with ubiquitous pay phones, sexy 70s cars, and hot orange-colored plastic phones and light fixtures). It’s fun to see nearly all of Fassbinder’s stock company of actors (save Hanna Schygulla, whose baby-faced-blonde role is filled by the similarly exquisite but less charismatic Mascha Rabben). I can’t say it’s a masterpiece, though Fassbinder managed to create an amazing number of them before his untimely death at only 37, but it’s amusing and assured and rather stunningly prescient, anticipating Blade Runner, The Sims, and Life 2.0.
I’ve tried to calibrate my caffeine intake so it won’t carry me too far past 1:30 a.m., when I get home, but I’m still buzzing after a long and interesting day of films. I get stuck online as I track the careers of the actors I just watched in World on a Wire -- a number of whom died too young – and am sidetracked by the notation of the voluptuous blonde Barbara Valentin’s affair with Freddie Mercury. (I’m also surprised to find she had a successful career as a sex bomb outside of Fassbinder’s films. I’d always thought she was too much of a caricature, a female drag queen, to exist outside of his world). I watch a delightful, scabrous 2004 English documentary (in 6 parts, on Youtube) called Freddie’s Loves, filled with scandalous chat from Mercury’s coterie of mates, all complete with pet female monikers, including Daisy, Syreeta, and the Black Bitch. Clearly screenwriter Peter Morgan will have plenty of material to work with on his Mercury biopic 360.
Plus I have to clear off some room on the TiVo. Tomorrow while I’m at the festival, gazing at the big screen, it’ll have to record The Killing and Upstairs Downstairs -- at the very least. Here we are, 21st century, stuck in media res.