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SFIFF 54 Day Two: Movies Directed by Women, Miss Representation, The Good Life, Meek's Cutoff

by Meredith Brody
April 23, 2011 8:37 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

San Francisco TOH corespondent Meredith Brody continues her daily diary from the The San Francisco International Film Festival:


If you’re one of the all-access-pass members of a film festival audience, intent on seeing as many movies during its brief annual flowering as possible, one of your main goals is avoiding the fate of the woman who sat in front of me on opening night.

I’d already been jealous when I saw her devouring a fat homemade ham sandwich, perhaps injudiciously adorned (for the comfort of her seatmates) with sliced onions. But I shivered with the shock of recognition when the man next to her gently shook her by the shoulder. “You were snoring,” he said, again gently. And then she checked the time on her Indiglo watch, in another familiar gesture, trying to determine how much time she had missed of Mike Mills’ crowd-pleasing Beginners.

The San Francisco International Film Festival aids the greedy in avoiding sleep deprivation by scheduling their first daily screenings no earlier than 11 a.m. on weekends, and 1 p.m. during the week, with the last nightly programs starting no later than 9:45 p.m. on school nights, and 11:30 p.m. on weekends. Day Two’s first offering is at a gentle 2 p.m., inviting one to judiciously sleep in, in self-defense, after a late night.

Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood

After a book sale and an interesting, uneven lunch at Magnolia Pub and Brewery on Haight (highlight: sharp, bright plate of house-pickled vegetables) with a visiting out-of-town friend, I make it back to the festival’s main house, the Sundance Kabuki on Post, in time for the 3:45 showing of The Good Life, directed by Eva Mulved (which is also playing Tribeca). It seems impossible not to mention Grey Gardens, because it’s also about a once-wealthy, now impoverished aging mother-daughter duo locked in a folie à deux. This pair lacks the cracked charm of Big and Little Evie, but the train wreck of their lives, played out in a picturesque Portuguese coastal city, is still compelling. The impassioned partisanship expressed by the audience as they exit continues as we stand in line both in the ladies’ room and for the fortuitously scheduled documentary, Miss Representation, about the appalling representation of women in the media that results in their lack of social and political power.

Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of ex-San Francisco mayor, now California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the slickly-produced call to arms wraps the personal-is-political images of a sonogram of Newsom’s daughter and her eventual birth around its images of thin-but-bosomy nearly-naked and abused women interspersed with talking-heads interviews with powerful women and articulate teenagers, and starkly animated factoids such as “Women make up 51% of US population, but only 17% of Congress.” In my case, it’s preaching to the converted, but I’m still moved. The glamorous, soft-spoken and articulate Newsom, now pregnant with a son, was dressed in form-fitting silky black with matching stilettos, causing her own representation to be respectfully questioned by an audience member, who did not suggest an alternate outfit, although Newsom assured her that she does, indeed, work at home in sweats and flats. But back to the cause: Newsom wants to improve the world for her daughter.To that end the film is also an opening salvo of a movement, part of a social action campaign that donates the film’s proceeds to women’s leadership programs. Nationwide screenings will be followed by a television premiere in October on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. (Do not insert sexist joke here.)

Before Miss Representation -- what a great title -- I’d found myself sitting next to a woman I see at the SFIFF every year, a well-connected and happily movie-mad member of the Film Society’s board, with whom I exchange tips every year based on what she’s seen at Sundance and I’ve seen at Telluride and Toronto. She touts Circumstance, which won an audience award at Sundance. I recommend, among others, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, which I actually saw more than a year ago in Berlin in February of 2010, and kind of wish I could fit its 187 minutes in again, this time around (it’s the classic long movie that “has cumulative power!”); Incendies, which was nominated for the Foreign Film Oscar; Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times; Errol Morris’ Tabloid; Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins; Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip; and Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou, that I also yearn to see again.

Equally by chance before Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, I find myself sitting next to Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose new documentary about the feminist art movement of the 60s and 70s, !Women Art Revolution, is in the festival. I apologize that I’ll miss its two screenings, both of which, with travel time, would make seeing movies scheduled before and after it at impossible. She cheerfully tells me it is opening in August. But I want to see it now! I content myself with admiring her coat, which is fetchingly embroidered with French philosophical musings around its sleeves.

I must confess I’ve already seen Meek’s Cutoff, in Toronto, last September. But I felt that I’d seen it in a somewhat groggy state, not unlike the woman at Beginners. Since the movie starts in media res, and ends there, too, I wondered if I’d missed something in its own middle. As it turns out, I hadn’t, not even a shot. The caffeine drip worked, both in Toronto and SF.

Often described as an anti-western Western, Meek’s Cutoff is named for a shortcut that the boastful Stephen Meek (an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood) is leading a wagon train of three families (including Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano) towards in 1845 along the Oregon Trail. I still find it beautifully shot, with its formal intentions crystal clear (“real” life is vastly different from “reel” life when it comes to representation), even if its story is ultimately – and intentionally – unsatisfying.

Without even intending to, I’ve seen three movies directed by women (I have to check the numbers, but I think I’ve heard that 30% of the SFIFF 54’s movies are helmed by females). I wish that the directors of The Good Life and Meek’s Cutoff had been in attendance, one of the reasons we go to festivals.

In the absence of Reichardt, I think I’ll go home and search the computer for her Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, mentioned in Rachel Rosen’s introductory remarks. But in the event I just go to bed. Tomorrow is an even fuller film day.


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