Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Everyone knows that the French (specifically, journalist Nino Frank) coined the term film noir. But not everyone knows just how immersed the French became in the production of their own films noirs in the years following World War II.

With that in mind, and noting the rising awareness that film noir was (and is) an international phenomenon, legendary programmer Elliot Lavine has teamed up with Midcentury Productions Executive Director Don Malcolm to assemble a twelve film, four day mini-extravaganza that will take audiences at the Roxie Theatre on a twisted, feverish journey into the heart of Gallic darkness. San Francisco audiences who had their appetites whetted for foreign noir earlier in 2014 can do no better than to congregate at the Roxie from November 14-17 to discover the hidden treasures of French film noir that this landmark series will unearth for them.

The festival will feature familiar international stars—Jean Gabin, Brigitte Bardot, Simone Signoret, Lino Ventura—but will place them in the context of lurid ménages and murderous deceits that have been given a uniquely French twist. It will also probe deeply into the reservoir of actors and directors whose work in France during this time frame has been unjustly neglected for the past half-century.

"It seems that the Nouvelle Vague, which revered film noir, ironically managed to push much of the French film noir movement that preceded it into the shadows," Malcolm notes. "Only a handful of these films have resurfaced in America thus far—Rififi, The Wages of Fear, Bob Le Flambeur, Grisbi, to name a few—but that's just the tip of the iceberg."

"By the time this festival ends," Lavine promises, "those who've seen these twelve films will realize just how well the French embraced the noir style—and they won't be able to stop talking about the sexy, scheming blondes who dominate the action."

French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 379. Photo Sam Lévin
It's not just Bardot, who'll be seen twice—as the leggy streetwalker opposite Jean Gabin in En Case De Malheur (aka Love Is My Profession) and as the murder-trial defendant in Henri-Georges Cluozot's social problem thriller La Verité. The bevy of blonde French bombshells bubbling under Bardot is incredible.

"Mylene Demongeot, Marina Vlady, Odile Versois, Barbara Laage, and Cecile Aubry are simply astonishing," Malcolm enthuses. "The French bring a fully adult dimension to their conception of the femme fatale, and these performances prove that in spades!" But even the non-blondes—the legendary Simone Signoret in Dédée D'Anvers, Daniele Delorme in Voici Les Temps Des Assassins (aka Deadlier Than the Male) and Catherine Rouvel in Chair de Poule (aka Highway Pickup)—will leave audiences breathless.

"We are going to have to hold a contest to see who the audience considers to be the nastiest of all the bad girls," Lavine grins. "It will be a very tough choice!"

In addition to reviving lesser-known works by master directors (Henri-Georges Clouzot, Julien Duvivier), lesser-known but equally worthy directors who excelled in French noir (Rene Clement, Claude Autant-Lara, Yves Allegret, Henri Verneuil, Robert Hossein, Eduoard Molinaro) will also be showcased. But the most incendiary double bill, concluding the festival on Monday night, November 17, showcases two of France's most legendary midcentury literary figures—two writers who could not be further apart: Jean-Paul Sartre and Boris Vian. Sartre's play La Putain Respectuese and Vian's novel I Spit On Your Graves both tackle the still-controversial subject of American racism, and the on-screen results are electrifying.

"Boris Vian is the embodiment of French film noir in all its glory and its excess," Lavine notes. "He was the first person to embrace the idea. I Spit On Your Graves, which appeared in 1946 just as the term film noir was being coined, fuses pulp fiction and social commentary in a unique way that is still controversial and disturbing today."

"And Vian literally died for that idea of noir," Malcolm adds. "He fought director Michel Gast throughout the production of the film version, and at the premiere of I Spit On Your Graves, he stood up after the first ten minutes, cursing the screen. After a moment or two of vitriol, he suddenly clutched his chest, collapsed—and died right on the spot!"

While Roxie patrons are encouraged not to follow in Vian's footsteps during the screening of "The French Had A Name For It," there's little doubt that they will be enraptured by the rediscovery of a new treasure trove of dark thrillers done only as the French could do it.

My thanks to Larsen Associates for this press release and credits to Donald Malcolm for the following program capsules.


Manon (1949, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)—In between the highly touted Quay des Orfevres (1947) and La Salaire de Peu (1952) the often-clinical Clouzot indulged his most fervid powers of lurid extrapolation with Manon, his deliriously dark reworking of the notorious Abbe Provost novel Manon Lescaut. Clouzot modernizes the tale of star-crossed Parisian lovers and transplants their escape location from eighteenth-century New Orleans to post-WWII Palestine to wondrous visual effect (courtesy of long-time Clouzot cinematographer Armand Thirard). Baby-faced Cecile Aubry sets the tone and look for a series of blond bombshells that will prove popular in French noir of the fifties. With Michel Auclair and Serge Reggiani. (100 min.)

La Verité (1960, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)—The emergence of Brigitte Bardot signaled a sea change in how sexuality was depicted on screen, and her superstardom provoked a firestorm of controversy and backlash. La Verité traded on that notoriety and placed itself squarely in the middle of the French culture wars, with Bardot literally and figuratively "on trial" for her lack of decorum. Flashbacks ignite the sordid tale of her character's misplaced love for a narcissistic composer (Sami Frey) and become the basis of a furious courtroom battle when she is charged with his murder. With Paul Merisse and Charles Vanel as the bickering barristers. (122 min.)


Les Maudits (1947, dir. Rene Clement)—Henri Vidal (1919-1959) was too handsome for his own good—his early promise as a successor for Jean Gabin was sidetracked by his success in early sword-and-sandal-epics such as Fabiola (1949). Prior to that, however, he is at his best as the kidnapped doctor in Rene Clement's exceptionally tense Les Maudits, where the strangest of all possible bedfellows are trapped together in a submarine commandeered by a group of Nazis attempting to escape in the last days of WWII. Clement creates a series of interlocked, claustrophobic cat-and-mouse games that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Photographed by the great Henri Alekan (Beauty and the Beast, Such A Pretty Little Beach). With Florence Marly, Marcel Dalio, Michel Auclair, Anne Campion. (195 min.)

Une Manche Et La Belle aka A Kiss For A Killer (1957, dir. Henri Verneuil)—Director Verneuil, a Turkish expatriate best known for his helming of The Sicilian Clan (1959), is in top form here adapting a James Hadley Chase source novel (The Sucker Punch) into a well-modulated Gallic amalgam of Sunset Boulevard and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Vidal is the trophy husband of a rich dowager (Isa Miranda) who is slowly seduced into murdering her by his comely, cunning secretary (well-played by Bardot lookalike Mylene Demengeot). With crisp lenswork from esteemed French cinematographer Christian Matras (Grand Illusion, Le Ronde). (98 min.)


Toi Le Venin aka Blonde In A White Car (1958, dir. Robert Hossein)—Suavely deadpan Robert Hossein quickly became a force on both sides of the camera with his breakthrough film The Wicked Go to Hell (1955), which also introduced him to France's blondest minx, Marina Vlady (whom he would soon marry). Hossein's key collaborator in his noir phase (1955-64), however, was novelist Fredric Dard, considered by some to be France's answer to Raymond Chandler. Toi Le Venin, from Dard's novel of the same name, is a nasty little ménage a trois in which two sisters (Vlady and her real-life sister Odile Versios) lead Hossein down a primrose path littered with thorns. Featuring subtle, evocative photography from Robert Juillard (Germany Year Zero) and a cool, jazzy score from Hossein's father André. (92 min.)

Un Temoin Dans La Ville aka Witness In the City (dir. Eduard Molinaro, 1959)—France's greatest character lead in the 1960s and 70s, Lino Ventura, has his breakout role here, as a revenge murderer who finds that his "perfect crime" was witnessed by a cab driver and must try to eliminate him. As events unfold, Ventura finds that he is as much hunted as hunter. Stunning night photography from Henri Decae (Bob Le Flambeur, Elevator to the Gallows), and an evocative score featuring jazz greats Kenny Clarke and Kenny Dorham. (86 min.)


Dédée D'Anvers aka Woman of Antwerp (dir. Yves Allegret, 1948)—Bursting through the echoes of "poetic realism" contained within its narrative, Dédée D'Anvers showcases the emergence of Simone Signoret, a hooker with a hankering for a better life. The original French femme fatale, Signoret is both luminous and complex, presaging a series of follow-up performances in similarly-themed films over the next half-decade. With Bernard Blier, Marcello Pagliero, Jane Marken and Marcel Dalio. Evocatively photographed by Jean Bourgoin (Black Orpheus, Mr. Arkadin). (86 min.)

En Case De Malheur aka Love Is My Profession (dir. Claude Autant-Lara, 1958)—Gabin! Bardot! Oh-la-la (or, should we say, OMG)!! The trouble starts when Gabin, a distinguished lawyer, defends Bardot, a prostitute who has committed a robbery. He gets her off, and finds (to everyone's dismay, including his wife) that he gets off on her; she becomes his mistress. Alas, Gabin's efforts to "upscale" her are fraught with peril, for she has another lover, a handsome young student (Franco Interleghi), who slowly builds into a murderous rage. With Edwige Feuilliere. Based on a novel by Georges Simenon. (105 min.)


Chair de Poule aka Highway Pickup (dir. Julien Duvivier, 1964)—Legendary director Duvivier (Pepe Le Moko, Le Fin du Jour, Panique) was nearing the end of his illustrious career, but he saved one of the best for last in Chair de Poule, in which the essence of noir's hard-boiled school is distilled in a taut tale of fate, lust and enveloping entrapment. Robert Hossein is at his astringent best as a thief on the lam who jumps from frying pan into the fire when he holes up at a highway truck stop where he's quickly embroiled in the grasping, malevolent schemes of a hard-bitten, voluptuous vixen (Catherine Rouvel) who will literally stop at nothing to get what she wants! With Jean Sorel, and Jacques Bertand. With photography from Leonce-Henri Burel, longtime right-hand man of Robert Bresson. (107 min).

Voici Les Temps Des Assassins aka Deadlier Than the Male (dir. Julien Duvivier, 1956)—While the other French femmes fatales are "hot," none of them approach the coiled ferocity of Daniele Delorme in Deadlier Than the Male. It's possible that no one in the history of cinema is as driven by the bitter recollection of her hardscrabble youth to a life of ruthless scheming—even Delorme herself, when interviewed, shrank from the implications within the character. American noir aficionados would do well to recall Angel Face and think of Delorme's work here as "Jean Simmons on steroids." Matching her step-for-step are Jean Gabin, the target of her desperate, malevolent scheming; Gabriele Fontan, as his cold-hearted mother; and Luciene Bogaert, as Delorme's drug-addicted mother. Featuring superb camerawork from Armand Thirard (Clouzot's right-hand man), Deadlier Than the Male is arguably the definitive French film noir. (107 min)


La P… Respectueuse (dir. Marcello Pagliero and Charles Brabant, 1952)—Barbara Laage was Orson Welles' first choice to play Elsa Bannister in The Lady From Shanghai. A viewing of La P… Respectueuse will show you what Welles saw in her … and then some! Her character, a down-on-her-luck singer, escapes the frying pan—New York City—only to land squarely in the fire—the racist, segregated South—where she witnesses a brutal race murder committed by a Senator's son. Only she can vouch for the black man who is being framed for the murder. Laage burns up the screen as she struggles to do the right thing against increasing odds. Co-directed by Marcello Pagliero (long-time right-hand man to neo-realist master Roberto Rossellini) from a play by Jean-Paul Sartre. (Full 92 min version.)

J'Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes aka I Spit On Your Graves (dir. Michel Gast, 1959)—See the notorious film that literally killed the author of its source novel at its own premiere! Boris Vian's fever-dream novel of a light-skinner race-avenging psychopath had been the focus of intense controversy beginning with its publication in 1946, and the prospect of a film version brought the twelve-year contretemps squarely back into the public eye, with Vian and director Michel Gast trading barbs in the press as the movie went into production. Ten minutes into the initial screening on June 23, 1959, Vian rose from his seat, furiously denouncing the film—at which point, he clutched his chest and collapsed, suffering a fatal heart attack! He was only 39. I Spit On Your Graves features a fine jazz score composed by Alain Goraguer, which goes down smoothly amidst all the mayhem that ensues in Gast's crude but effective evocation of Vian's dark landscape. (109 min.)

#STUCK (2014)

It's easy to see why Stuart Acher's Stuck (2013) [Facebook] won the Audience Award at the 2013 edition of the Sun Valley Film Festival. And I'm delighted that it's enjoying a run at San Francisco's Roxie Theatre, with screenings continuing through October 16.  This vehicular narrative froths up its meet cute into a satisfying love story with a warm upbeat ending. It's an entertaining and honest romance from start to finish. Credit lies in the pacing, of course. Brisk tight editing with revelatory flashbacks inch us episodically forward through a drunken one-night stand and its comic aftermath. Two early morning strangers rush to escape each other and end up being stuck in traffic together long enough to let down their guard and discover each other; an exchange skillfully conveyed via charismatic turns from Acher's two lead actors: Joel David Moore (Avatar) and Madeline Zima (who doubles as Executive Producer). Zima and Moore, in fact, were recognized with a Special Jury Award for Acting at last year's Napa Valley Film Festival. Their chemistry shines with sensual dalliance and considerable wit. Moore's lanky charm sides up well to Zima's haughty beauty. Zima has described Stuck as "kind of like When Harry Met Sally, but stuck in a car and compacted, and then reversed."

Confining a narrative to the interior of a car would be hazardous with someone of less ingenuity than Acher. Not only does he break from "he said she said" witticisms with sweeping aerial shots of gridlocked traffic, but his camera every now and then casually explores various personalities in nearby cars who are similarly stuck. This wry social study recalled me to Julio Cortázar's 1966 story "The Southern Thruway", a compelling account of a traffic jam in the south of France that lasts for a couple of days (and on which Jean Luc Godard based his 1967 film Weekend). In his own deft style, Acher creates a microcosm of society by profiling a cluster of cars and their drivers stuck in L.A. freeway traffic.

Creating this microcosm proved to be a major challenge for an indie film shot in 10 days. Anticipating a "Carmageddon " when Interstate 405—the largest highway in America—was shut down for construction, Acher excitedly hired a helicopter to film footage of the gridlock only to encounter slight traffic, drivers having been sufficiently warned away by dire predictions of the worst traffic jams in L.A. history. Through CG plates and parking lot recreations, Acher was able to visualize the traffic jam he expected from the closure of 405, thereby creating the context for a young man and a young woman to put on the brakes, then start up all over again.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

MVFF37 2014—David Robson: Four Preview Capsules

David Robson holds a degree in theatre from the University of Virginia. He is the editorial director at Jaman, a website that offers a smarter search for new movies to watch on line. David blogs irregularly at the House of Sparrows, but is often too busy seeing movies to write about them. The following quartet of preview capsules for the 37th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival constitutes his debut appearance here on The Evening Class. We're delighted to have him aboard.

Dracula vs. Frankenstein (dir. Al Adamson, 1971)—Many Z-grade genre movies have achieved a certain notoriety thanks to an ironic "so bad it's good" approach taken by audiences in the last three decades. But schlock auteur Al Adamson's curious body of work provides a consistence of vision, the strident, bold ineptness of which renders it quite unlike any other. Divulging plot details on this super-low-budget horror flick would risk making it sound conventional, so why bother? Adamson's opus boasts veteran horror actors J. Carrol Naish (doing his damnedest to do right by the dialogue's stabs at philosophy) and Lon Chaney, Jr. (stuck, again, in the role of a homicidal manchild) with lesser-knowns like the beautifully-named Zandor Vorkov (a unique Dracula, from his silly 'fro to the echo effect on his voice), and everyone commits wholeheartedly. Which only makes the plot that much more bewildering. (Frequent Welles collaborator Gary Graver's cinematography makes every shot look like stock footage, which only enhances the movie's timelostness.) Even more hilarious is that this is one of MVFF's most expensive tickets, thanks, probably, to the presence of Metallica's lead guitarist (and horror devotee) Kirk Hammett, who will be on hand to introduce this screening. Though it's unclear if he selected Dracula vs. Frankenstein for inclusion in the festival, if he did, you might ask him why.

Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2014)—Juliette Binoche is Maria, a famous international actress offered a role in a new production of the play that launched her career. But the offer is fraught with complications for Maria, as it would have her playing a different character opposite a young, difficult Hollywood talent (Chloë Grace Moretz) in Maria's career- and life-defining role. Maria retreats to the Swiss Alps where, accompanied by her patient assistant (Kristen Stewart, a revelation here), she contemplates the role, her difficult relationship with the writer who created it, and the very passage of time. Writer-director Olivier Assayas has made a career out of examining social shifts through the prism of the creative process; in his newest state-of-the-earth address every exchange is weighted but graceful, with half the movie spent watching Binoche and Stewart in and around the Alps, their conversation taking in life and art, high- and low-brow, age and youth, time and space. The total experience is never less than bracing, plus there's an interlude on a spaceship that might make you wish Marvel would let Assayas have a crack at one of their movies (OUR VOTE: a Dr. Strange sequel, introducing Moretz as Clea).

Two Days, One Night / Deux Jours, Une Nuit (dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 2014)—Brittle family woman Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has just been voted off of her job at a solar factory. When her supervisor admits that the process behind the decision was stacked against her, it buys her a weekend to get her co-workers to consider changing their vote to let her stay, and in the process give up their badly-needed bonuses. The new movie from France's Dardenne Brothers balances neo-realistic, documentarian storytelling with a quest that often feels mythic. Cotillard is the first veteran actor to appear in a Dardenne movie, and she's absolutely believable every second she's on; we feel her anguish and shame in every encounter with every co-worker, urging her silently from our seats to just keep it together, even as her noticeably frayed nerves and prescription drug use threaten to shatter her for good. It's as suspenseful and tightly constructed as any thriller, and it's probably happening in your neighborhood right now. Gripping.

ALLoT (A Long List of Things) (dir. John Sanborn, 2014)—The films of New York-bred, Berkeley-based video artist John Sanborn have been a staple at MVFF, and this, his latest, is among his most personal. Sanborn's 40th high school class reunion prompted him to interview his classmates for a video memoir, and Sanborn edits their reflections into a mix of anecdote, poetic and cinematic digressions, self-interrogations (via Sanborn and surrogate selves, played by Thais Schwab and daughter Miranda Sanborn) and some straight-up confessions to create a vivid portrait of a shared past as "a place that never existed, but is remembered fondly." The results are an absorbing, even moving, mix, and even when Sanborn ditches the mosaic for a painful autobiographic reflection in the final third, one remains engaged. Central to Sanborn's memoir is the notion that we all begin in the same place, "handed the same script." Sanborn so gently mixes the personal with the universal that one inevitably sees one's own life within his screens.

MVFF37 2014—Michael Hawley Peruses the Line-Up

The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) arrives early each autumn, giving Bay Area cinephiles their first look at acclaimed new films from Cannes, Locarno, Venice and Toronto. I undoubtedly smiled when I saw that my two most anticipated movies of 2014, Xavier Dolan's Mommy and Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu, had made the cut for MVFF's 37th edition. And now thanks to a rare confluence of good movie karma—both are screening at a venue accessible by public transportation, both screen on my days off, and both had press comps available—it's for certain I'll be boarding that Golden Gate Transit bus to San Rafael once again.

Mommy and Timbuktu each competed in the main competition at Cannes this May, with the former winning the festival's Prix du Jury for Xavier Dolan, its 25-year-old, gay French-Canadian director. The judges decided he should share the prize with 83-year-old Jean-Luc Godard (for his new 3-D movie, Adieu au langage), and together they represented the youngest and oldest filmmakers in competition. Dolan, for those just tuning in, took Cannes by storm in 2009 with his debut film, I Killed My Mother, and has followed through with four more impressive features. While some consider him a fraud, Dolan's eye-catching, emotionally oversized dramas consistently hit my sweet spot. Timbuktu, the other film I'll be trekking to see, is the latest exercise in humanism from Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness, Bamako), whom many consider Africa's greatest living filmmaker. His new film is based on events that occurred in 2012, when the titular Malian city of legend was overrun by jihadists hell-bent on imposing sharia law. Timbuktu left Cannes with the festival's Ecumenical Jury Prize. Its lead actor, Ahmed Ibrahim, is expected to attend the film's MFVV screenings.

In addition to these two important works, MVFF37 has programmed five more selections from Cannes' 2014 main competition. The festival kicks off on opening night with Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman, which screened in competition nine years after Jones' last neo-Western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, won him the festival's best actor prize. The Homesman co-stars Hilary Swank, who will participate in MVFF's opening night festivities. This year's best actor award went to the incomparable Timothy Spall, who portrays British Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner. If you miss the film at MVFF, it'll be back in the Bay Area starting on Xmas Day. Based on true events and set in the world of Olympic wrestling, Foxcatcher is Bennett Miller's follow-up to 2011's Moneyball. The film, which stars Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and a reportedly unrecognizable Steve Carell, garnered Bennett Cannes' 2014 best director prize. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Night features Marion Cotillard as a factory worker who must convince co-workers to forego bonuses so that she might keep her job. While the film is that rare Dardenne Bros. joint to leave Cannes empty handed, Cotillard is being talked up as a serious Best Actress Oscar® contender. Rounding out MVFF37's impressive collection of Cannes competition titles is Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria, a reportedly challenging, meta-movie homage to the art of film acting, starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart.

From Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, MVFF37 has scooped up two more prize-winners for its 2014 line-up. Sweden's satiric Force Majeure lampoons contemporary notions of masculinity and took home the sidebar's jury prize. It traces the repercussions faced by a husband and father after he initially abandons his family during a ski resort avalanche. Director Ruben Öslund's previous film was the excruciating (in a good way) bullying treatise Play, which I was lucky enough to catch at San Jose's Cinequest a few years back. The 2014 Un Certain Regard award for best actor went to Aboriginal icon David Gulpilil for his role as a man caught between two cultures in Rolf de Heer's Charlie's Country. Gulpilil is perhaps the world's most recognizable indigenous actor. Debuting at age 16 in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, he's carried on with a distinguished career in such Australian films as The Last Wave, Rabbit Proof Fence and de Heer's own The Tracker and Ten Canoes.

Cannes isn't the only festival from which MVFF has drawn prize-winners for its line-up. Haru Kuroki took home the best actress award at this year's Berlin Film Festival for her portrayal of a maid in an upper middle-class Tokyo home in Yôji Yamada's The Little House. Set in the years before and during WWII, it's Yamada's follow-up to Tokyo Family, his mostly unnecessary remake of Ozu's classic Tokyo Story, which played last year's fest. It's especially worth noting that The Little House will be the only movie at MVFF37 to be screened in 35mm. The winner of the coveted People's Choice Award at last month's Toronto Film Festival was The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as real-life WWII gay British code-breaker Alan Turing. The film is directed by Morten Tyldum, whose last effort was the memorable Norwegian genre thriller Headhunters. Also amongst the prize winners is Carlos Marques-Marcet's 10,000 Km. (aka Long Distance), a two-hander that explores the effects of technology on a long-distance relationship. 10,000 Km. won a SXSW special jury award and is one of nine features that make up ¡Viva el Cine!, a MVFF37 Focus on Spanish-language cinema.

October 1 was the official deadline for countries to submit their entries for the 87th Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film competition. As would be expected, a number of MVFF entries are amongst the submissions. In addition to the aforementioned Mommy, Timbuktu and Two Days, One Night (representing Canada, Mauritania and Belgium respectively), five additional potential Oscar® nominees get their Bay Area premiere at MVFF37. Spain has submitted David Trueba's Living is Easy with Eyes Closed, in which a Beatles-obsessed high school teacher (Javier Cámara) strives to meet up with John Lennon during the 1966 filming of Richard Lester's How I Won the War. Trueba is the younger brother of veteran Spanish director Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque, Calle 54). Dominik Graf's Beloved Sisters [no available link] is this year's entry from Germany, and focuses on a romantic triangle between 18th century poet Friedrich Schiller and two aristocratic sisters. Graf's last film to play the Bay Area was Beats Being Dead, the first chapter in the omnibus Dreileben trilogy. Ronit Elkabetz (Late Marriage, The Band's Visit) is my favorite Israeli actress and for the third time she stars in a film co-written and directed with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem premiered in Directors Fortnight at Cannes and details a woman's five-year ordeal trying to legally obtain a divorce in Israel. MVFF37 will also be screening the Oscar® submissions from Croatia (Cowboys) and Taiwan (Ice Poison).

MVFF is the Bay Area film festival where one is most likely to see movie stars and other notables walk the red carpet. In addition to Hilary Swank's appearance on opening night, this year's fest will play host to Laura Dern, Elle Fanning and newcomer Eddie Redmayne. Dern accompanies closing night film Wild, which co-stars Reese Witherspoon and is director Jean-Marc Vallée's follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club. Just as her sister Dakota did at last year's festival, Elle Fanning will be receiving a MVFF "Spotlight" treatment with a screening of her new film Low Down (opening in local cinemas on November 14). Also earning a MVFF37 "Spotlight" tribute is actor Eddie Redmayne, who's about to become a lot more famous with his starring role in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim). Redmayne is probably best known to American audiences for the 2011 fantasy My Week with Marilyn and a little film called Les Miserables.

The musicians of rock band Metallica are this year's MVFF Artists in Residence and each band member will be on hand to personally introduce a movie they've selected. For example, guitarist Kirk Hammett has chosen Dracula vs. Frankenstein and singer James Hetfield has picked the Sergio Leone masterpiece The Good, the Bad and Ugly. Also hailing from the rock music world will be Moon Unit Zappa, who'll appear at screenings of a new documentary about her father Frank, Summer '82: When Zappa Came to Italy. Finally, Bay Area foodies won't want to miss the Special Screening of Soul of a Banquet, which will feature an on-stage conversation between director Wayne Wang, visionary Chinese chef/restaurateur Cecilia Chang (the film's subject), and local food icon Alice Waters.

While it would be impossible to touch upon the entire MVFF line-up—especially the enormous selection of worthy non-fiction films in its Valley of the Docs sidebar—here are four final entries I'm personally interested in. If you're a fan of New Zealanders Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Eagle vs. Shark, Boy), you probably won't want to miss their co-directed vampire spoof, What We Do in the Shadows. Scandinavian genre films seem to be all the rage these days. In Hans Petter Moland's In Order of Disappearance, a Norwegian snow plow driver (Stellan Skarsgard) seeks bloody revenge against a Serbian drug kingpin (Bruno Ganz). A new film from Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) is always most welcome. His latest Diplomacy recounts the true story of the Swedish consul (André Dussollier) who convinced a German general (Niels Arestrup) not to destroy Paris in the closing days of WWII. The film will also open at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas on October 24. Then there's Stéphane Lafleur's enigmatic-sounding, French-Canadian entry Tu dors, Nicole, which follows an aimless 22-year-old over the course of one summer. My interest is piqued based on Lafleur's Continental, a Film Without Guns, which played a San Francisco Film Society Quebec Film Week back in 2008. Lead actress Julianne Cote is expected to attend the screenings.

Cross-published at film-415.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


During my recent stay in San Francisco I had the opportunity to attend two separate events showcasing the short films of Curt McDowell. The first—under the aegis of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' seventh edition of Bay Area Now (BAN7) and in collaboration with [ 2nd floor projects ]—was a program of five shorts, screened in conjunction with the BAN7 exhibition EROS / ON. The second was a companion event at the Roxie Theater screening two more of McDowell's rarely-seen short films.

As synopsized by YBCA, Curt McDowell (1945–1987) was a filmmaker, actor, visual artist, and writer. He arrived in San Francisco in the mid-1960s to attend the San Francisco Art Institute in the painting department and quickly changed course to become a filmmaker to work with George Kuchar, within a period that witnessed the Summer of Love, gay liberation, and the onset of AIDS, to which he succumbed at the age of 42. The author of numerous films that recast the American dream of plenty in pansexual terms, McDowell, like so many artists of his generation, indulged in the era's carnal abundance, and his appetites and experiences are reflected in the work. Thundercrack! (1975), his well-known feature, was cowritten with George Kuchar. He directed over 30 films, such as Confessions (1971), Weiners and Buns Musical (1972), Loads (1980), and Sparkle's Tavern (1985), celebrating sex as well as genre riffing and autobiographical narratives that bear the influences of Jack Smith's lush, DIY camp aesthetic; Rainer Werner Fassbinder's explosive melodrama; and Nan Goldin's glimpses of countercultural bohemia. McDowell had a vast history with 101-year-old Roxie Theater in San Francisco. The theater was reinvented in the 1970s as a vital repertory and alternative first-run cinema by his partner Robert Evans, along with Bill Banning, Peter Moore, and Anita Monga.

Melinda McDowell [Milks], Curt's sibling and an actor in many of his films, was present to introduce both programs and to engage in Q&As at both venues. She qualified when she took to the YBCA screening room stage that she was not so good at coming up with things to say about her brother's films and was better at answering questions about them. "Because I know the answers." Pulling a list of the evening's scheduled films from her purse, she asserted how fortunate an audience we were to be able to see a rarely-seen video by George Kuchar that he made for a one-off show in Chicago a few years ago. No one but her has a copy. Melinda didn't know Kuchar had made this video until she attended the show in Chicago, which featured some of Kuchar's films along with McDowell's. The video is basically Kuchar talking about McDowell and introducing him to a film-viewing public who might not know much about him, including mention of their own romance. People who knew both of them, Melinda asserted, would find this video of special interest because of the opportunity to hear George's side of his interaction with McDowell.

As for McDowell's short film Confessions (1972), Melinda confirmed that her brother was literally confessing to their parents and telling them in detail every bad thing he'd ever done. Asked if her parents ever saw Confessions, Melinda answered no, of course not. "They would have been horrified." As insight into the film, Melinda noted that the patchwork quilt Curt lies on while confessing to their mom and dad was made by their mom, who also wrote the lyrics to the music playing in the background. Curt was a sentimental, loving son, Melinda insisted, and Confessions wasn't made out of disrespect. Rather, it was made out of respect for their Mom, who he loved.

In his lovely broadsheet / chapbook written to accompany the selection of films in the [ 2nd floor projects ] screening, Johnny Ray Huston recalls: "I saw Confessions for the first time, and it put the world together for me, breaking through silence and leaping across states to share three-ways and four-ways and so many secret jewels of experience with mom and dad." And asks: "How much joy and lust and friendship can be crammed into one 16-minute movie? 'To put it into words is just not that easy to do.' After a tearful confession, Curt casts one true love as a leading man and lets the images do most of the talking, so what you know about him is felt. The difference between a messy guy in bloom and a perfect lifeless doll. The beauty of women's faces and men's cocks in close-up, and dirty bare feet, stepping forward. A live-wire radio built by editing that switches from folk to blues in a heartbeat. Fanfare, a cum shot, and a burst of applause as the director walks away from the camera, into San Francisco daylight. There's no happier ending in cinema."

With regard to the third film on the program, Ronnie (1972), Melinda advised that Ronnie, the young man who is the subject of the film, never had a clue that anyone would ever actually be watching the film. He thought he was just doing something for a little bit of money that day and that would be the end of it. "Boy, was he wrong," Melinda laughed, "because so many people have seen Ronnie." But he never knew. Though he'd be an older man now, Melinda expressed interest in seeing him again to say hi, if anyone knew how to locate him. Watching Ronnie, Melinda said she holds her breath throughout the entire film.

Huston writes of Ronnie: "Ronnie shaving, the camera staring down at his tight torso. Ronnie lighting a cigarette, a valentine heart tattooed on his forearm, a man on a horse dangling from his necklace, and his tighty-whiteys peaking out over his khakis. Ronnie reclining on the hardwood floor. Ronnie standing erect as the camera glides up and down his body, from his stout face to the shiny black boots on his feet. Ronnie scratching his cock. Ronnie naked in monologue in front of the window overlooking the street, the camera looking up from between his legs. Ronnie with his hands held behind him, a belt welt on his hairy, meaty right cheek. Ronnie on his elbows, laying stomach down on the floor, his back arched and his legs spread to show off his glorious ass.

"Ronnie, 'a very fussy guy' who doesn't 'believe in letters,' but who is writing a book he hopes will be a 'good seller,' titled Black and White. Ronnie, who wishes 'the Lord could come down off the cross and change things.' Ronnie, who still could have been a model for Old Reliable, or the subject of a story in Boyd McDonald's Straight to Hell, if he wasn't lucky enough to be immortalized as the star of Ronnie, a gorgeous black-and-white movie directed by Curt McDowell."

The evening's fourth film, A Visit to Indiana (1970), has received a response over the years that Curt would never have dreamed possible. That it would be purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, that it would be included in the Library of Congress, Curt would not have had a clue that the film would come to be seen as a social commentary.

As for the final film of the evening, Boggy Depot (1973), Melinda was convinced curator Margaret Tedesco included it in the program specifically because it's one of Melinda's favorites. A musical, Boggy Depot starts Curt, George Kuchar, and Ainslie Pryor, a beautiful young lady who starred in several of Curt's and George's films. Johnny Ray Huston asked Melinda if she could talk about the songs in Boggy Depot, "because I really love them and they're hilarious." Melinda admitted to loving all of Curt's musicals. Weiners and Buns (1972) is another of her favorites. She said Curt and Mark Ellinger loved to make those songs together. She has numerous reel-to-reel tapes of the songs those two wrote together, though she wasn't actually there during the songwriting sessions and wasn't personally involved.

Curt made a lot of his short films as a consequence of the fact that film was expensive. If he was working on a bigger project like the 60-minute Peed Into the Wind (1972), or any of the films that were a little bit longer, if there was any film left at the end of the roll he wanted to use it up, every inch of it, so he would come up with some short film written right then and there.

To wrap up the program, they included the five-minute Thundercrack! trailer narrated by George Kuchar, partly to entice the audience to purchase the DVD next year when it's finally released to celebrate the film's 40th anniversary. Melinda promised a great DVD release party that everyone could attend.

Asked if Curt knew about George before he met him, Melinda confirmed that, yes, Curt had heard of George, was his champion, and even had something to do with George coming to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute. George left the Bronx behind, came to San Francisco, and stayed.

Admitting that Curt had kept explicit diaries since the age of 17, I asked if any of that material was going to be made available? "Heck no," Melinda answered, explaining that in his diaries Curt revealed every detail of every encounter with every person, naming names. For all the time that she was with him, Curt wrote about her in his diaries like they were her diaries too. She wouldn't have let anything be published about George because George was private. Curt wasn't. He didn't care who read his diary entries. If it was up to Curt, he would have had the diaries published; but, Melinda was concerned with liability and privacy issues about all of the people written about in the diaries, since Curt was admittedly promiscuous. She's sure many of those people would not want to be named. Even if she changed their names, people would be able to figure out who was who.

Margaret Tedesco brought up the fact that Curt's prolific output as an artist was made all the more remarkable for recognizing that he was blind in one eye. It gave him an advantage, Melinda suggested, because—when you look with two eyes—an image is three-dimensional. With one eye, an image is not three-dimensional and much easier to render two-dimensionally on paper, creating an illusion of three-dimensionality, which worked for him. Being blind in one eye was not a drawback for him. Further, as one could guess, Curt was quite the voyeur but binoculars were of no use to him. Melinda bought him a monocular and he was so proud of it and enjoyed it immensely. He could look out the window at guys across the street.

One piece of good news Melinda shared with her YBCA audience was that Mark Toscano, an archivist of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences—and formerly involved with Canyon Cinema—asked the Academy 10 years back if they would be interested in having Curt's films restored and preserved at the Academy and having new prints struck? They said no, of course not, no, because of the content. But just recently Melinda found out that the Academy has changed its mind, perhaps due to new blood, and has asked for all of Curt's films—including ones most people haven't even seen yet—to preserve them at the Academy.

A week or so later, Melinda was present to introduce a second set of Curt McDowell films at the Roxie Theater, specifically Taboo: The Single and the LP (1980), which Curt made based on some bizarre graffiti he discovered first in one restroom, then another, and then another, all around San Francisco. He couldn't help himself and had to make a film about the Abner family referenced in this graffiti, which included statements like "Abner slapped hard like blue magic." So Curt created a character named Blue Magic. The characters in Taboo, in fact, enact statements made in the graffiti. But the mystery remains: "Who wrote the graffiti?" There were only the three members of the family: Abner, Dorothy and Mary. Recently, Melinda determined through a Google search that they were real people. She found the gravestone of Abner and Dorothy and discovered that Mary—the part she played in the film—is alive and living near her. Mary would be 74 now, and though Melinda has never met her, she feels Mary would be horrified with Curt's interpretation of her family in Taboo. With that in mind, Melinda said we would be seeing familiar faces—George Kuchar, Marion Eaton, and herself—in this "strange little film."

Melinda isn't quite sure what Curt was trying to do with Taboo and asked her audience to give her a clue if they knew. What is clear is that Curt had a crush on Fahed Martin and wanted to see more of him, literally. The film might have been an excuse for that. George had shown her drawings and pictures Curt had made of this young man. He was clearly having a great time interacting with Fahed and making Taboo gave him a chance to film him scantily clad in wet pants.

Asked about Curt's involvement with the Roxie, Melinda recalled that he worked at the theater for many years. But he also fell in love and married Robert Evans, one of the original owners of the Roxie.

Sparkle's Tavern is another McDowell film that few people have seen. "Let's talk about what it is and what it isn't," Melinda suggested. It is not like Thundercrack! There are no hardcore scenes in Sparkle's Tavern. When Curt decided he wanted to make this film, he asked Melinda what her main fantasy was. She had just recently returned from Wyoming and she told him that her fantasy was to be in a room full of cowboys who all wanted her. So he made that happen in the film. What the film turned into, however, was a more personal story for Curt. He represented himself and Melinda as the brother and sister in Sparkle's Tavern whose naughtiness reflected their personal naughtiness in making films like Thundercrack!, etc. But what it was really about was Curt's desire to be publicly accepted by his parents. Even though he knew they loved him very much, he wanted to be acknowledged in public by them, which was hard for them to do at the time. What he created was a story that had this happy ending.

Melinda apologized after the screening for her performance in Sparkle's Tavern, reminding us she was not really an actress. "I'm not sorry I'm in it," she said, "just sorry you had to see it." She hoped we could get past her performance to see what the film was supposed to be. She praised Connie Richmond's performance as Brenda. And George Kuchar's performance as Mr. Pupik. She asked if anyone knew what "pupik" meant? In Yiddish, it means "belly button."

Melinda mentioned the scene with Brandon where she's lying on her bed crying. She didn't know how to cry for the camera so they literally shoved an onion under her pillow. But the tears at the end of the film were real because the little note she's handed in the scene was written by George who said, "There is shit on your shoe." He had to know that would make her cry. Curt didn't know why she was really crying at the end of that scene. He asked if she wanted to stop filming but she said no, and encouraged him to keep filming while she was crying (even if it was because of the note).

As for working with Marion Eaton, Melinda described her as being exceptionally professional and knowing all her lines at all times. She wanted to be like Melinda and Curt's mother and tried her best. She's local so she couldn't capture the true Midwestern accent their mother had, but she tried. Melinda never wanted to tell her that she didn't sound anything like their mother because she thought Marion's performance was great just the way it was.

A piece of good news Melinda recently discovered is that—out of the 65 films that the National Film Preservation Foundation have chosen to preserve this year—one of them is Sparkle's Tavern. Curt never would have dreamed that would happen and that Sparkle's Tavern would have been chosen to be preserved for posterity. He would have been so honored.

Once Melinda opened it up to the audience, I was quick to assert that—despite her own humility towards her acting chops—she was a radiant presence on the screen. Melinda said my comment made her "a smiling fool." My question, however, was about the film's spectacular costumes, especially her final costume. Curt created the costume, she answered, and she still has it, though admitting she can't fit into it anymore. It was unquestionably a spectacular creation with its Elizabethan stand-up collar and hand-beading.

One final piece of news is that—in preparing Thundercrack! for its DVD release, and its inclusion in the Academy archives—she came across some footage in the short print of Thundercrack! that had not been included in the long print. She explained that when Thundercrack! was experiencing its cult status at midnight movies, it was considered a little too long and was cut down to accommodate midnight crowds. That left only one long print. Making the situation even more problematic, Melinda recalled that several of the traveling prints of Thundercrack! were confiscated. The first time Curt took the film into England he had no trouble because he had written on the label of the film cannister: Thundercrack! Weather Conditions of the Southwest United States. They let it in. They didn't know. But the second time he tried to get into England with the film, they confiscated it at the border. Another time, the film was pulled out of the projector by the Montreal police at a film festival. So several of the prints have been lost and the effort is to compile one final version from all the elements left.

Of Thundercrack!, Johnny Ray Huston writes: "Though Thundercrack! is as unique as a pair of George Washington peepholes, it has deep roots in horror and comedy. The film's orgiastic cast are free-love descendants of the frighteningly funny eccentrics in James Whale's The Old Dark House. Its trip to a haunted house is a Midwestern rite of passage."

[My thanks to Johnny Ray Huston for permission to replicate passages from his broadsheet / chapbook entitled "the single and the LP" and lovingly inscribed, "For Michael, my compadre!"]

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SEISMOGRAPH OF AN ERA—The Evening Class Interview With Peter von Bagh

The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF56) presented its 2013 Mel Novikoff Award to legendary cinephile Peter von Bagh for his lifelong commitment to international film, accompanied by an onstage conversation with Anita Monga and a screening of Helsinki, Forever (Finland, 2008), von Bagh's ode to Finland's capital and its cinema. SFIFF56 likewise screened Mikko Niskanen's Eight Deadly Shots (Finland, 1972), a rarely seen epic drama, considered by many a lost masterpiece of Finnish cinema and personally selected by von Bagh for its U.S. premiere at the festival.

"Peter von Bagh embodies the essence of the Mel Novikoff Award," said Rachel Rosen, San Francisco Film Society's director of programming. "He has worked indefatigably and infectiously to share his appreciation of world cinema and has many good stories to share about the filmmakers and icons he's met during his half century in the movies."

Throughout his career Peter von Bagh wore many different hats in the cinematic arena. Besides being a film director, one especially attracted to compilation films, von Bagh had been a television and radio producer, book publisher, curator and program director of the Finnish Film Archive, professor of film history, artistic director and cofounder of the Midnight Sun Film Festival and artistic director of Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato festival. As a film critic and historian, he (co)wrote and/or (co)edited more than 30 books, including The History of World Cinema, 1975 and 1998. Regarded as a Finnish national treasure, von Bagh is a true master of international film and an extraordinary example of cinema lived to the fullest.

With both SFIFF56 screenings of Helsinki, Forever and Eight Deadly Shots, I was keenly aware of something von Bagh articulated in his documentary Sodankylä Forever (Finland, 2010-2011): "Film screenings, like films themselves, are part of history; the seismograph of the era." With his passing earlier this week, I recall the privilege of speaking with von Bagh when he was in San Francisco in 2013 to receive the Mel Novikoff Award. He was unpretentious and generous with his intellect and gifted me the four-DVD set of Sodankylä Forever; one of the treasures in my library. My thanks go out to Bill Proctor of the San Francisco Film Society for facilitating our conversation.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on receiving the Mel Novikoff Award from the San Francisco Film Society.

Peter von Bagh: Thank you.

Guillén: One of my predominant interests is in film festival culture and I thought you would be the perfect person to talk to about that.

Von Bagh: That's okay, but with the strong limitation that I don't go to film festivals. I don't like them, though I run a couple of them.

Guillén: Let's talk a bit about the two festivals you run. Can you synopsize for me their singular focus? How long you've been working with each? And how you were drawn into running them when, as you confess, you don't like film festivals?

Von Bagh: In Finland it was more natural in a way because I was programming for the Finnish Film Archive [the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland] for 20 years or so. I started there in 1967 and was programming there all the time until the mid-80s. Originally, I was the Executive Director of the Archive but then I concentrated on programming because I felt that was my thing—I didn't want to go to meetings or anything—so I had that background.

Then I finished at the Finnish Film Archive in 1985, which was very sad for me. I was programming even in my dreams and had no outlets for my thoughts. But that same year Anssi Mänttäri, a Finnish director, was in a small village in the north out in the middle of nowhere—I don't know why—and it was November and all dark. Anssi was probably drunk and was looking out the window at ... nothing. Even during the daytime there were no people around, just emptiness. Then he came up with the idea: "Why not start an international film festival here?" Certainly, the most absurd of all origins for a festival. He was associated with two emerging talents of the time, Mika and Aki Kaurismäki, there were the three of them, and Anssi contacted me and asked me if I would like to become the director of the festival? That's how the Midnight Sun Film Festival started.

At first, I doubted the idea could work. I felt it was too absurd to travel so far for a film festival. But within a month I agreed to do it. We already had good contacts. I had been around for a while with the Archive and had already published Elokuvan historia (History of Cinema) by the mid-70s, which was the only survey of world cinema published by a Scandinavian. But you must remember this was before video. So how did I see films? I went to archives and film shows everywhere. I also had an interest in interviewing film directors. So within the first group of people that we invited to the festival, I already knew Samuel Fuller. I knew Bertrand Tavernier. I'd met the Kaurismäki Brothers with Jonathan Demme. I knew Jean-Pierre Gorin. They were all willing to come as guests to the festival. In fact, since that first festival, no one has refused to come to the Midnight Sun Film Festival. It's just too strange to refuse.

So the festival was created and one specialty of the festival started on the very first morning of the first day, which was that every day at 10:00 there would be a two-hour discussion with one of the guests. It was an astounding event for a film festival. Usually, conversations with guests are flashy and rapid; but, we dedicated time for discussion, which became a signature for the festival. Several guests have since said that it was like a psychoanalytic session. But it was not all serious. There were plenty of funny moments and lots of laughing during the festival, but basically we respected the filmmakers as serious human beings and not joke machines at press meetings. We concentrated on seeing films. And the filmmakers would have time to talk to people on the street. Many film festivals destroy themselves by isolating the big names from their public. At the Midnight Sun Film Festival we didn't even care if someone was a "big name" or not, everybody behaved, no one acted like a star. For example, when Francis Ford Coppola came in 2002, he was absolutely wonderful. He was just one of the group. He never acted as if he were important. Never questioned why he had been invited.

Practicality is one of the most important attitudes when creating a film festival. If we showed a film, we intended it to be a memorable screening under the best circumstances. We wanted to represent the original work of filmmakers in the best way possible so that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I remember that second year Michael Powell stated what has been frequently stated since: "It was as if I was seeing my own film for the first time." That's a specific experience the Midnight Sun Film Festival provides.

Guillén: When is the Midnight Sun Film Festival held?

Von Bagh: It's always in mid-June 12-16. The 22nd of June is the Scandanavian mid-Summer and the festival is one week before that.

Guillén: The sense I'm getting when folks speak about "destination film festivals" is that these are events precisely meant to entice cinephiles to travel far for specific programming. With regard to the Midnight Sun Film Festival, it sounds as if there's an element of the pilgrimage involved. Cinephiles travel to a festival where films will be devotedly dealt with at depth. There's a deep motivation at work.

Von Bagh: With, perhaps, one added nuance. I don't think you could call the Midnight Sun Film Festival audience a cinephilic audience. Of course they like cinema, that's why they come, but they're not as knowledgeable as cinephiles are. By contrast, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is a cinephilic paradise. All the leading cinephiles of the world gather there. But in Finland at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, the audience is composed more of young people who come from all parts of Finland and are curious. By being curious, and accumulating knowledge in front of our eyes, by being directly influenced by film, they are somehow the best audience you can have.

Guillén: The Bologna film festival, then, how long have you been with them? How did that opportunity come about?

Von Bagh: Quite surprisingly, at the end of 2000 I was asked by the founder and existing director of the festival Gian Luca Farinelli to take over the festival in 2001. He was feeling that he could no longer run the festival because he had been hired as the director of the cinematheque and film archive Cineteca Bologna. Cineteca Bologna and Il Cinema Ritrovato are, in effect, one and the same thing; and so Farinelli is my boss in a sense. He basically said, "You do it now." This was one of the most surprising developments of my life. I would never have imagined that I, as a foreigner, would end up being the director of one of the best film festivals in the world! I was always happy to attend and saw everything there and admired it very much. As a foreigner, there were immediately practical difficulties, including some resistance to my appointment, but not so much. It was actually through the encouragement of his colleagues at film archives in Portugal and Spain that I was offered the position. I had never done anything abroad and so, for me, I thought, "Why not do that?" I didn't for a moment think there would be any difficulty in running two film festivals. I would run a third festival if someone wanted me. I've been with Bologna for 13 years now.

Guillén: What are the dates of Il Cinema Ritrovato?

Von Bagh: It runs from the last days of June to early August, eight days.

Guillén: So these festivals are back to back?!

Von Bagh: Yes, back to back. Which has become more and more difficult for me. In the last few years there has only been one day between the Midnight Sun Film Festival and Il Cinema Ritrovato, so it's almost inhumanly possible to recover from one festival to attend the next, let alone to switch the pathways of your brain because, as festivals, they are so different from each other. As we've already discussed, one of them is for cinephiles and the other is for the highest specialists of the world where you have to talk to them and satisfy their wishes to see their films. That's one of the reasons so many people come to the Midnight Sun Film Festival because there are so many diverse programs there and many films that no one has ever seen.

Guillén: Your criticism of the current film festival landscape is how so many of them have capsized into celebrity events where the spectacular dimension of a film festival is overemphasized.

Von Bagh: Very much. Not only the celebrity but that they are dedicated to paying attention only to known names. I would guess that remarkable films escape their attention all the time. They don't access them. They don't even look at them. A thousand films come out every year and no one pays attention to the unknown filmmakers so it's possible to say that the best film of the year might not make it to such a film festival at all.

Guillén: Recently, in a conversation with Thomas Elsaesser, he explained to me that the European film festival landscape was created at the time in conscious defiance or opposition to Hollywood's hegemony and that for many years, at least a couple of decades, these European film festivals were able to advocate cinema under the aegis of national cinemas with an auteurial emphasis. But somehow that has been co-opted again by the same commercial forces that they were initially resisting.

Von Bagh: He's absolutely right. Something ghostly happened along the years. Somehow European film festivals have become more Hollywood than Hollywood itself, not only with the ceremonies which imitate Hollywood, but also the concentration on best-selling names, and attracting audiences with stars who they pay to attend.

I am ambivalent about the Cannes Film Festival. I attended Cannes three times in a row in the early '70s when it was still relatively easy to get around. Even then I didn't much like it, and I would disappear after just a few days, but then beginning in 1999 I served three times as a juror at Cannes, otherwise I wouldn't have gone. I served on the jury for Caméra d'Or, which is for first films, and the chairman was Michel Piccoli and I would say that is the best time I had at Cannes because he was such a great personality. Then I served on the FIPRESCI jury, which was the most anonymous because no one on the jury even had time to sit down to talk to each other. It was restless. Then suddenly in 2004 I received a telephone call from Thierry Fremaux inviting me to be part of the Grand Jury. What surprises me now in retrospect is that I seem to have been the only film critic or film historian in the last 20 years who has been on the Grand Jury, which shows how wrong everything is because there should always be at least one film critic or film historian on the jury. They act as if we don't have the knowledge. Instead, they invite stars who aren't knowledgeable about film. The year I was there the jury was run by Quentin Tarantino. What was clearly lacking on the jury was a knowledge of film. That's when I finished with Cannes.

What is good about Cannes is that there is a cinephilic heart behind the machinations. That means they focus on innovation and—with regard to the names—there are not just 20 names from world cinema, but 50 names from world cinema, which means that when someone like Chantal Akerman or Jean-Marie Straub or Manoel de Oliveira make a new film, Cannes will promote them by giving their film good placement. Also, the most interesting new cinema is provided necessary help by Cannes. That is the best that I can say about the Cannes Film Festival.

Guillén: It's my understanding that—in reaction to the fact that the perspective or the vision of European film culture has capsized under the weight of international commercial interests—some film festivals have consciously matured into archival film festivals. Either that or strongly enunciating within their programs restored films from the archives. As you know, here in San Francisco we have the Silent Film Festival, which has turned into one of the best in the world....

Von Bagh: It is very remarkable.

Guillén: ...and we have Noir City, which focuses on Hollywood product but with a focus on public engagement with film preservation. Il Cinema Ritrovato clearly falls within this domain.

Von Bagh: That is the whole point of that festival. There are not other attractors at all. It's totally about rare, seldom seen films that have all but disappeared, restored films and so forth. With the silent cinema, they have a multitude of films that you wouldn't see anywhere else. It's simply the best place to find remarkably interesting old films.

Guillén: It strikes me that the reason that commercial forces could co-opt cinema is because audiences have let them. Is that because, as audiences, we've been colonized by commercial desires? Have we been taught to want only so much out of cinema? And how can festival progammers generate a film festival culture that teaches audiences, and guides them, not only to deeper historical connections to cinema, but to present and relevant connections to cinema?

Von Bagh: I would simply say that film festivals are absolutely free to do better than whatever they do nowadays. They are hiding behind the mask of audience opinion. It's a pretense. First, the audience is not as stupid as they think they are. Besides, it's not about that at all. It's not about whether the audience is stupid or not. At Il Cinema Ritrovato we can freely show anything of real rarity and we will have a full house. Audiences can trust us as programmers, and for me that's the most gratifying thing to see during a festival is when the audience sees something rare.

Someone in the audience might be at their very first film festival, but will still take almost anything. The point is film festivals are a place where you can get audiences. That's somehow alarming. The film culture that ought to be—and used to be—in the network of commercial cinemas, which had repertory theaters that would show films from 20-30 years back, has disappeared completely in Finland. It's impossible for Vertigo or a Preston Sturgess or a Humphrey Bogart film to come to a local theater. It doesn't happen anymore, even though such was the case just 25 years ago. Audiences, who have come to expect mediocre films at commercial theaters, attend a film festival and—within the frame of the festival—will accept any program you're proposing. As a programmer, then you can take considerable risks. At the Midnight Sun Film Festival, all we have to do is advertise that we are showing a film that has not been screened at a commercial theater in 25 years and the house is full.

Guillén: When the European film festival culture started to thrive, the concept of the national cinema became an important tool by which to promote perhaps the most artistic endeavors from each country. However, in our contemporary moment, with production expenses for film becoming exorbitant, there's more international financing going on. That makes the definition of a national cinema slippery. Can you speak to that?

Von Bagh: It's been a problem for quite some years now. And I'm always trying to avoid the dialectic that the more national you are with a film, the more local and truthful to a particular reality, the more universal you get. There was this saying in the '60s and '70s among the Anglo-Saxon film festivals that many of these films situated themselves "mid-Atlantic", meaning their audience was indeterminate; that the films were created for abstract international audiences. This is unfortunate for world cinema because it means local films will disappear. And even remarkable filmmakers will make films that don't situate themselves anywhere.

Roman Polanski was great when he was doing Chinatown in Los Angeles, Repulsion in London, not to speak of his early Polish films. But now his films in a way seem to spread everywhere; they don't have any characteristics of film.

Guillén: You say you're trying to avoid the dialectic that the local can lead to the universal?

Von Bagh: Exactly. My own modest films are very local. For me, it's interesting to think of my youth and my school time in northern Finland. What will happen to those films? For the first time, my films move around in retrospectives in Europe and so on. What will happen to these films that are limited to my childhood, my young age, that town, and what happened there? Somehow I'm hopeful that my films will become something that everyone will understand. I didn't compromise. I didn't remove my films from their surroundings.

Guillén: The compromise taken to make something seemingly international strikes me as a colonial mindset.

Von Bagh: That is a beautiful definition. That's quite thoughtful. It is colonialization. But it's happening in the big countries as well. It's more visible and obvious in the case of some Costa Rican director, but is less obvious with a United States-based director.

Guillén: You've been a programmer for such a long time, do you see a distinction between programming and curating?

Von Bagh: I've never thought of any difference between them because I was sometimes on both sides. Every day I learn the same thing somehow. But I feel the pressure of being the head of a film festival. Once, Edith Kramer and I were having some coffee after an interview and she remembered seeing me at the festival in Bologna sitting in the movies all the time. Edith said, "That's it." That was her policy also. It's a natural instinct. How would you know what's happening in the audience if you don't sit and watch films with them? Then you know your next step after that. I'm always sitting with the audience. That's my way to present. I mentioned this a little earlier, but you can articulate a film showing in a film festival in a way that the screening can be as memorable as a live performance of music or theater.

Guillén: As someone who has seen film culture evolve over the past few decades, any thoughts on the so-called digital revolution?

Von Bagh: I'm extremely pessimistic about that. No one would listen to my complaints. I refuse to see a film like Sunset Boulevard or Singing in the Rain on digital. For me, when it loses its own material truth, it's not the same thing anymore. I think it's tragic.