Part of the pleasure in attending a film festival in an unfamiliar city is in exploring the city by varying your venues. So I decide this morning to trek to the Neptune, in the northern part of the city, to see the highly-recommended Submarine, a quirky-looking English coming-of-age story that Weinstein Co. is releasing in a couple of weeks. Google Maps offers me both walking (an hour-and-a-half) and bus option (20 minutes), but I lazily grab a cab.
“This is the University district,” the driver says, pointing out the University of Washington’s Seattle campus from the freeway bridge we’re crossing.
As I’m waiting in line, I overhear a volunteer tell a patron that the theater, most recently a part of the Landmark chain, has been sold to a live theater group and all the seats have been torn out so it can function as a music venue. Folding chairs – padded ones, he emphasizes – have been put in place for the festival. “I just paid $16 to sit in a folding chair?!,” I think to myself.
A trace of the theater’s 1922 charm remains, though the aquatic-themed stained glass seems to be of much more recent vintage. I seize upon the library book that my seatmate is reading as an excuse to strike up a chat. I even ask if the bus that stops outside the theater will take me back: “to the Egyptian?” he asks.
I wonder how he knows that’s where I’m headed, since there are other alternatives. It happens to be where he’s going, and it turns out that he has a car, so I boldly ask if I can hitch a ride. “Sure,” he says, but warns me that he might leave the screening early – he hadn’t originally intended on seeing Submarine, he’s here on a whim.
Submarine instantly captivates me with its witty script, lively and fresh filmmaking, and pitch-perfect acting from a cast of knowns (Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine) and unknowns (Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige). Roberts is Oliver Tate, a 15-year-old who’s madly in love with Jordana (a happily un-waiflike Paige), who spurns him after relieving him of his virginity, and equally obsessed with saving the faltering marriage of his curiously uptight parents. Tate narrates the film in tones that alternate between knowing literary flourishes – the story is divided into three chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue -- and psychological cluelessness.
There’s an unexpected fillip when he drags Jordana into an arthouse to see a movie (an hour early, “so we can get good seats”), and the theater is called the Neptune. A frisson runs through our audience.
I’ve enjoyed myself tiptop. It’s a first film, so I await further efforts from Richard with glee. My new friend and I walk through a tempting street fair and drive through a beautiful residential neighborhood with houses ranging from the turn-of-the-century to mid-century modern en route to the Egyptian. We’re going to see Four More Years, a Swedish romantic comedy that appeals to my companion for both its political and gay themes.
Four More Years is not the assured, seductive debut that Submarine is – it’s not a debut at all, as it’s the second film of its director, Swedish actress Tova Magnusson-Norling. Coincidentally, it also begins with narration from its main character, once a front-runner to be elected Prime Minister of Sweden, but, after an unexpected loss, now in the process of rebuilding his political aspirations with the help of his chilly, attractive wife (incarnated by Magnusson-Norling) and boyish speechwriter. A chance encounter with a fellow politician leads to the seeming revelation that he’s gay, threatening his career and his happy home – especially since his new love is a member of an opposition party.
The film’s swift pace and attractive actors beguile me for a while, though my patience wears thin both with the rather helpless and unappealing persona of the main character and the familiar romantic comedy tropes. We’ve come a long way from the daring New Queer Cinema (there was a homosexual thread in the plot of the somewhat less-cliched Norwegian Happy, Happy, seen day before yesterday).
We exit the theater into a buzzing, somewhat anxious thrum: the next event at the Egyptian is awarding the 2011 Golden Space Needle for outstanding achievement in acting to Ewan McGregor, along with a showing of Beginners, the autobiographical film directed by Mike Mills. It’s sold out, and there’s a long line of supplicants hopeful of squeezing in.
I’ve already seen the movie twice – once last September, in Toronto, where its solid but modest virtues were somewhat obscured in an avalanche of bigger, noisier movies, and again just last month, when it was the opening night movie for the San Francisco Film Festival. That viewing was also the one when I realized, with a start, that I’d known Paul Mills, Mike Mills’ father, whose coming out as gay in his 70s supplies the film’s plot, as a child. He was the curator of the Oakland Museum, an impossibly glamorous figure that I met many times on museum visits with my mother, a Bay Area figurative painter.
I’m told that the presentation of the award will occur after the film’s screening, so I sneak away, not wanting to occupy a seat for such a hot event. As luck would have it, I leave the theater just as McGregor is coming in – he treats the waiting crowd and the photographers to an unexpected display of charm when he mimes walking into the lobby in slow motion, the better to be captured on film.
I walk swiftly to another venue, the Harvard Exit, less than a mile away, which proves to have bags of charm itself. Another Landmark theater (what would we do without them), it’s housed in a building constructed for the Women’s Century Club in 1925.
I’m here to see Jess + Moss, the debut feature of Clay Jeter, who I’d met at dinner Friday night. When I asked him about the movie, I was taken aback at first by his response – “I wanted to make something starring my girlfriend, who’s a wonderful actress.” (You wouldn’t discount that as a primary reason if Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, or Zhang Yimou said that, I scolded myself). I was intrigued when he told me that the film had been accepted to Sundance in an unfinished state, and after Sundance, was invited swiftly to Berlin and Hong Kong, and is en route to Melbourne, Beijing, and Jerusalem, among other festivals.
I figure I’ll have just enough time to squeeze in an 82-minute movie before having to run back to the Ewan McGregor tribute. But I haven’t figured in the introductions (including one from Jeter), the various trailers, and a rather touching 13-minute short, The Westerner, about a vulnerable young runaway in Los Angeles.
I’m miserable about leaving Jess + Moss before it’s over. Shot in Super-16, the film has a gorgeous, rich, sophisticated look: deep saturated colors, unexpected compositions. The two actors, the coltish Sarah Hagan, as striking as a fashion model yet unaffected, and the young Austin Vickers, are believable as cousins who unite in a world of their own – made up of abandoned farm buildings, forests, tobacco fields – after his parents die and she’s abandoned by her mother. There’s a vague Truman Capote feeling to the goings-on.
I dread having Jeter and Director of Programming Beth Barrett return to the theater for the Q-and-A afterwards and glimpse my empty seat – I’d said hello to both of them earlier as they strode up the aisle. But even worse – they’re both snuggly ensconced in one of the comfy sofas in the lobby. I stop and make my excuses, explaining that I’m obliged to hoof it back to the McGregor tribute, and that I’m devastated to have to leave. “You didn’t tell me how gorgeous the movie was!,” I say to Jeter. He tells me, twice, that the last twenty minutes are the best part. I assure him that I will get to see the film in its entirety, if I have to go to Melbourne (or Beijing, or Jerusalem) to do it.
I hustle back to the Egyptian, and I’ve timed it just right. The movie is in its last minutes, and I get to accost Mike Mills in the lobby and tell him not only how much I like his movie, but that – on my second viewing – I realized that I’d met his father, and how I’d looked up to him as a child. “He was MUCH more handsome than Christopher Plummer!”, I tell him. “Yes,” Mills agrees, “but I couldn’t cast Paul Newman.”
I also realize, as I stand in the hall, watching the last few minutes of Beginners through a rift in a curtain, that I’m just inches away from Ewan McGregor, watching it again himself. At such close range I realize how boyish and slender he seems at 40, with a full quiff of hair and a little goatee.
Mills and McGregor do a Q and A. McGregor recalled his first meeting with Plummer, culminating in a shopping trip to Barney’s with $200 provided by Mills and instructions to buy Plummer a scarf. But Plummer is envious of McGregor’s skinny jeans, and the expedition results in Plummer charging $1200 of skinny jeans to McGregor’s credit card, after flirting with the sales clerk. “Male or female?”, an audience member inquires, but McGregor won’t say. (Plummer’s recent autobiography outs himself as relentlessly heterosexual, but I think the question was alluding to the method style of acting).
Afterwards there’s a long intermission while the stage is re-set with comfy armchairs for an interview of McGregor by Entertainment Weekly writer Dave Karger. At first I’m surprised that the Golden Space Needle award looks nothing like the Needle, until I learn it’s a creation of famed local glass artist Dale Chihuly (in attendance this evening), the rare award that is a genuine work of art. Karger has wisely been instructed to shape his questions around a number of film clips, projected onscreen. We’re treated to an explanation of the logistics of filming the infamous toilet scene (“the worst toilet in Scotland”) from Trainspotting on a specially-constructed set, as well as the lengthy rehearsal period with the “mad” Baz Luhrman (as McGregor’s 5-year-old daughter dubbed him) for Moulin Rouge.
It’s a well-produced tribute – there’s an especially witty segue from a clip from The Men Who Stare at Goats, in which George Clooney references Jedi masters to an uncomprehending McGregor – cut to the self-same McGregor in full Jedi master garb as Obi-wan Kenobi. But as it goes on towards 8 pm I realize I won’t be able to see Red Eyes, the Chilean World Cup documentary, at 7:30pm at the Harvard Exit, as I thought I could. And even the audience’s enthusiastic response to the long clip from Moulin Rouge can’t convince me to stick around to see it again at 9 p.m. in this self-same theater. Or even walk over to the Pacific Place to see the intriguingly awkwardly-titled Bi, Don’t Be Afraid! at 9:30, set in Hanoi, which would complete an almost-all-gay-themed day.
I’m tired, and I have to get to the airport early tomorrow. But as I walk back to the hotel, I find myself wishing that I had a DVD of The Men Who Stare at Goats. I also know that as I fly southwards, the knowledge that there are 21 (!) more days of this densely-programmed, eclectic festival going on without me will sting.
But then, there’s closing weekend…!