Tuesday, October 27, 2015

MVFF38: SEMBÈNE!—An Evening Class Question for Jason Silverman

Nearly ten years ago when I started The Evening Class, I was being influenced by my first exposure to national cinema(s) from the Global South, notably Africa, and specifically the work of Ousmane Sembène. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the "Father of African Cinema" and stumbled across a quote of his that inspired the title for my site: "Cinema is the evening class for discriminating adults", which spoke to my own dream that the art of cinema might be strengthened by sociopolitical impulses towards cultural change. My cinephilia has morphed considerably in this past decade but my love for Sembène's work has remained steadfast and, thus, I was delighted to catch the screening of Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman's welcome documentary portrait Sembène! (2014) [official site] at the 38th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF). Sembène! will open theatrically in mid-November.

As synopsized by MVFF programmer Zoë Elton: "One of the 20th century's most inspired storytellers, Ousmane Sembène's (Moolaade, MVFF 2004) own life story is itself extraordinary. A fifth-grade dropout from Senegal, as a young man he went to Marseille where working as a dockworker politicized and inspired him. Returning home, his dream of becoming the storyteller for a new Africa led him first to novels, then to film—despite the complete lack of infrastructure to support filmmaking. Known as the father of African film, his debut feature Black Girl (MVFF 2015) remains a classic of 20th-century cinema. Longtime biographer and colleague Samba Gadjido collaborates with filmmaker Jason Silverman to tell Sembène's story: It's a portrait of a hero, a man of fearless vision who spoke up for the marginalized, and who laid the foundation for a vibrant cinema culture in West Africa. Through archival footage and a wealth of interviews—some surprisingly candid—Sembène! is rich and moving, a compelling tribute to his genius."

Several visual layers texture Gadjigo and Silverman's complex portrait, and I'm grateful to have had an opportunity to enquire about at least one.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Thank you so much for this remarkable portrait of one of my intellectual mentors. I was intrigued by the layering of the graphic guidance of your interstitial chapter headings. Can you speak a bit about the artists who did this for you and how you folded their collage-like designs into your overall project?

Jason Silverman: Before Samba Gadjido became our first-person narrator, there was a fictional animated character who was going to tell the story, which I will tell you—as an independent documentary filmmaker with no money—is a bad idea. We took animators Edwina White and James Dunlap and a whole stop-action rig to Dakar, Senegal and we started buying all kinds of materials to turn into these 2-D puppets that we were going to use and animate. We actually made some really beautiful things; but, there was no way we were going to be able to tell the story that way. James and Edwina stuck with us through the whole project, even though at various points there was no animation in the film.

We re-cut the film several times, but, in its last iteration, I pulled out every piece of graphic reference over our six years of image collecting and printed them out—there were a few hundred—to talk with the editor (Ricardo Acosta). We filtered through them and pulled out what we liked and worked on the structure of the film that way. These pieces of graphics by Edwina and James kept rising to the top. We knew they had a meaning and a place in the film but we didn't know where, but finally decided that they would be at the front of each chapter.

All of the materials, the pallet, pieces of magazines and fabrics, that's Dakar [Sembène's home in his final years]. Although the final work wasn't done in Dakar, we workshopped it in Dakar. We hope we have that sense of authenticity. We actually left the entire animation rig at a cultural center there. We held an animation workshop with interns—we're still in contact with some of the artists we worked with—so hopefully there's people making animations in Dakar now.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


The Third i San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (3rd I) is the highlight of my autumn film festival schedule. I'm grateful to indefatigable festival directors Anuj Vaidya and Ivan Jaigirdar, who keep both my front-yard and Vimeo mailboxes filled with screeners so I can sample the offerings when I can't attend the physical festival due to prior commitments. So my reviews are based on small-screen viewings that can never match the excitement and energy of the Third i screenings at the Castro Theatre and New People Cinema in San Francisco this past weekend. For those screenings this comes too late to be a preview, but maybe those who see it will be persuaded to attend the November 1 edition at CineArts in Palo Alto Square.

The November 1 screenings include Umesh Aggarwal's documentary Jai Ho, about the prolific and popular movie soundtrack composer and musician A. R. Rahman, or the "Mozart of Madras." A compilation of his scores wakes me up regularly when my iPod decides to revert to alphabetical order, so his songs from Bombay and Dil Se . . . have seeped through my sleep-consciousness many times. Of course Rahman has gone on to Western fame with soundtracks for Lagaan and Slumdog Millionaire, the latter of which netted him Oscars® for Best Song and Best Score. Jai Ho is a lively, conventional treatment that lets colleagues like Mani Ratnam, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Danny Boyle expound on Rahman's professional behavior and wide-ranging musicality.

Much less conventional is Kamal Swaroop's 1988 Om Dar-B-Dar, this year's oddity in a digitally restored version. For me this cult film's great value lies in its departure from any conventional genre structure or narrative coherence. Loosely, it's about the inhabitants of a Rajasthan town facing love, music, bicycle accidents, moon landings and the metamorphosis of terrorist tadpoles. The characters talk to each other in a kind of passionate blank verse. This film, which starts getting delightfully weird in a classroom sequence 30 minutes in, is one of the standouts of the festival. I know I'm missing 80 percent of its spiritual-political-cosmological subtext, which makes the experience even richer. Reflective and self-reflexive, it's a mythological film for the 1980s.

The "Voices of Partition" program examines the effects of the devastating 1947 division of Bengal and the Punjab into separate states of Pakistan and India, that stands as the largest displacement in human history with a death toll exceeding one million. Mara Ahmed's graceful documentary A Thin Wall takes a lyrical, nostalgic look at those regions before Partition through the memories of Ahmed's elderly relatives and friends. Relations among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims are remembered as neighborly and paternalistic. Just as vividly, we learn of the tragedies that resulted from the brutal imposition of new boundaries—a division not just of regions but of hearts. The November 1 screening features a panel discussion with the filmmaker, Partition witnesses and a "citizen historian." The program is presented in collaboration with the 1947 Partition Archive, which has collected 2000 life stories from 10 countries.

Sadly, I wasn't able to preview Nyna Pais Caputi's documentary Petals in the Dust. Subtitled "The Endangered / Missing Indian Girls," the film examines the astonishing thesis that 50 million girls have been eliminated from India's population in the last century through infanticide, selective abortion, trafficking, domestic abuse, rape and dowry deaths. I'm glad to hear the film counters its horrific cases with stories of activism and resistance.

That's what's still to come on November 1.

Now I'd like to share my notes on screenings of this past weekend, from weakest to strongest.

I hope that the New People's "secret screening" of a rough cut / work-in-progress of Tanuj Chopra (Punching at the Sun)'s Grass/Brown Girl Stoner Film was hazy with cannabis smoke (the note instructed viewers to "bring Mary Jane"), because that's the only way I can imagine enjoying this film—in an uncritical daze. Two clueless young women sitting in a park debate what to do about a backpack full of weed left by one of their boyfriends. First dubious step: Sample said weed, think about pizza, proceed from there if you can. As stoner comedies go, it's utterly forgettable—a blessing for the wasted viewer next morning.

PK, Bollywood's big 2014 Christmas release directed by Rajkumar Hirani and starring Aamir Khan five years since their huge hit 3 Idiots, is a critic-proof fantasy about a goofy, lovable alien marooned on earth. Constantly mistaken for a sex pervert since he arrives naked and tries to download language skills from Earthlings by grabbing their arms, PK teams up with a rookie journalist who's in love with a taboo Muslim man to question the vagaries of the world's religions, if only to help him get back home. This gentle satire of religious differences puts PK into situations where he innocently commits one sacrilege after another.

Haider is the third in Vishal Bharadwaj's trilogy of Shakespeare adaptations, after Maqbool / Macbeth (2003) and Omkara / Othello (2006). Not having seen the other two, I can't compare them with this Hamlet adaptation. Its inspired setting in embattled Kashmir promises nuances it doesn't quite deliver, but the scenes between Haider and his Gertrude (the always mesmerizing Tabu) are excitingly and troublingly erotic.

Safar / Journey (India: Pratyusha Gupta, 2013) was my favorite of the shorts I saw. A young former prostitute starts a new job in a new town as maid to a recently widowed Parsi woman. While she makes herself indispensable to her vulnerable employer and gains the fatherly affection of the chauffeur, hints of her past threaten to destroy the new life she's created.

Aside from PK, Dheepan will get the widest circulation of all these films, since it was directed by Jacques Audiard and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year. It's an undoubtedly powerful film about a Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger who cobbles together a fake family to qualify for refugee status and becomes a caretaker in a Paris suburb. The first half is taut and nerve-wracking, as Dheepan faces a world of immigrants caught between a hostile French mainstream society and the crime-infested banlieue. But the second half, and especially the climax, makes use of Dheepan's "very particular set of skills" and turns the whole production into a generic revenge action film.

Silence in the Courts (Sri Lanka: Prasanna Vithanage, 2015) is a deceptively matter-of-fact documentary examining the efforts of a Sri Lankan journalist to uncover the cases of two wives who were sexually assaulted by the judges deciding their husbands' cases. Low-key re-enactments and voiceover recitation of court transcripts set the stage for the terrible crimes inflicted on these women and their spouses, while the newspaper editor traces his crusade to bring the judges to justice. It's a powerful indictment of the patriarchal legal system.

By far the strongest film of the festival is Labour of Love (India: Aditya Vikram Sengupta, 2014), a debut work that has won awards at Venice, Marrakech, Abu Dhabi, BFI London and more. After a series of titles over a black screen referring to a recession being manipulated to cause high levels of unemployment in Kolkata, we are immersed into the daily routine of first a woman, then a man, as they wordlessly and efficiently prepare for work as an accessories shipping checker and print operator. Forty minutes in, seeing the closeup of a hidden door key, we realize that they are a married couple with work shifts that ensure they will rarely sit down together. Unlike the jobless demonstrators in the streets, this couple is fully employed—but what is their gainful status worth if they never see each other? This film is mesmerizing in its attention to tiny details, delighting the voyeur's compulsion to see how others do the most quotidian things. (The husband scrapes the remains of a previous bar of soap off a newer, for reasons known only to himself.) It occasionally takes on the aura of Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, when the couple's separate walkways swing into a melancholy slow motion. In their solitude, every gesture spells love for the absent other. When they finally do come together, they're transformed into a sylvan fantasy where domestic bliss is a transcendent state.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

MVFF38: TRUTH (2015)—Q&A with James Vanderbilt

"Truth will out," my mother used to say to me, "and your lies will find you." She wanted me to believe that honesty would somehow keep truth near, if accountable. She led me to believe that's what everyone wanted. But in the "truth is what we spin it to be" advent of the 21st century, honesty has as much valence as the TV channel you surf away from or the political party to who you believe you owe allegiance. In our increasingly polarized nation, Americans at odds seek out the truths that bolster their particular beliefs. James Vanderbilt doesn't believe that's necessarily good for a society.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to discuss with Robert Gordon the effect of the Buckley-Vidal debates on television punditry as the first indications of the devolution of news coverage into infotainment. With Vanderbilt's debut feature Truth (2015), we witness investigative journalism under attack during the Killian documents controversy, nicknamed "Rathergate", that resulted in American journalist and television news producer Mary Mapes being fired from CBS and the constructive resignation of CBS national news anchor Dan Rather.

With James Vanderbilt's permission, this transcript is cobbled together from the public discussion after the screening of Truth (2015) at the 38th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival. I've rephrased the questions for conversational flow. I post this transcript in tandem with my one-on-one conversation with Vanderbilt regarding the craft of screenwriting, published at Fandor's Keyframe.

* * *

Q: Adapting Mary Mapes' memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power as the basis for your first feature film Truth, I'm aware your script took some significant departures. How did you decide to complicate Mary Mapes' back story by profiling her damaged relationship with her father?

James Vanderbilt: That developed through talking with Mary. It wasn't something that was actually in her book. I ended up spending a lot of time with Mary. She was reticent initially to option the book. She wrote it right after what had happened. I called her up and went down to Texas to spend time with her and to try to convince her that this would be a positive thing. In spending the time with her, she started to tell me about how she grew up, she told me about these experiences, and—as Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) says in the film (but I also said it to Mary)—"You would get hit for asking questions and you grew up to do this as a profession." She looked at me and said, "I never thought of that. I never looked at it that way." For me, that was immediately the key to the lock to her character. This amazing woman had built this incredible life for herself where she had the perfect job, she was working with the best people, she was at the peak of her game. She had built all these layers upon layers to protect herself, as we all do, to not feel like the scared little kid that we all have inside ourselves. By virtue of the experience that she went through, all those layers got stripped away and she had to deal with it. Once I got that from her, and we talked about it, and we figured it out, I realized it was the structure of the story.

Q: Shortly after being fired from CBS for "Rathergate", Mary Mapes received the Peabody Award for her journalism exposing human rights violations at Abu Graib. The timing couldn't have been more haunting. What effect did that have on those involved with Rathergate? Where was Mapes when she received it?

Vanderbilt: She received it at home because she didn't have a job anymore. She was informed by phone, as she had been out of work for about three months: "Guess what? You've just won the most prestigious award you could win, but you're still fired." It's a fact I wanted to include in the film because it revolves around the idea that everything you've done before is wiped out because of an error in judgment. Mary had been to the Middle East many times. She even went to Afghanistan with Dan Rather. She said she was the first person to bring a curling iron to Afghanistan, and Rather made fun of her for it.

Q: Do you know what Mapes has done with her time since being fired?

Vanderbilt: For a long time, nothing. To hear her tell it, she drank a lot of glasses of chardonnay. Then she did a lot of work on death penalty cases. We didn't have time to put this in the film, but she had done a lot of journalism about the number of people executed in Texas compared to the rest of the country. That's a big passion for her. So she worked on several cases there. She worked on Maggie Davis's campaign doing opposition research. Her husband Mark Wrolstad worked with the Dallas Morning News for years and got a buyout in 2009.

Q: Was Cate Blanchett your first choice to portray Mapes? How did you approach her to get her involved?

Vanderbilt: When we tried to put the movie together in 2007, Cate was in a different place. But it was amazing and interesting watching her come to the fore over the following six years. When we finally put it together two years ago, she was absolutely our first choice but I never thought we would get her. Her agent read the script and liked it and said, "I would love to send it to her." She was doing the rounds with Blue Jasmine. It worked out that they sent the script to her the morning after she won the Academy Award® and I thought, "We're screwed." Who wins an Oscar® and then says, "You know what I would love to do next? Work with a first-time director on a politically-charged thing? That's a great career move!"

But, thank goodness, she responded to it and I got a phone call saying, "Cate would love to get on the phone with you. She's in Sydney now with her family." We talked for half an hour. She asked me what I thought my approach would be and other general stuff. She was lovely." I got off the phone and my agent called me and said, "How'd it go?" I said, "It went well." Then she called me back about 45 minutes later and said, "Oh, yes, she's going to do the movie."

As for working with her, she's such a gift. She and I often talked about that scene of Mary on the phone with her father as the lynchpin of the movie and the key to her character. On the day of shooting, she came out and did it a bunch of times and we did it all in one shot. Almost the entire movie is locked down from a camera perspective—it's very classical—but that was the one scene we wanted to film hand-held so that you felt off-kilter in it. She went out, parked it, and there were a lot of wet eyes on set.

Q: Is it a coincidence that so many people from Australia were involved in this film?

Vanderbilt: No, we shot the film in Australia, which was one of the conversations we had after Cate committed to the film. She said, "Listen, I told my family that I wasn't going to work this Fall." She has three boys of varying ages, 12 to 6. She said, "I don't know if I can do that to them. Can you make the movie in Australia?" So when you're talking to Cate Blanchett on the phone, you say, "Absolutely!" You hang up the phone and go, "How the Hell do we make this movie in Australia? It's supposed to be in New York and Texas." We started scouting down in Sydney, which is an amazing city that lends itself. We did the bulk of the movie in Australia, shot one day in New York, shot some stuff in Texas, and weirdly one day in Los Angeles, even though the movie doesn't take place there either. It was a double for New York. So there was a lot of Australian crew, a great Australian crew.

Q: As you developed the script, did you consult with Dan Rather?

Vanderbilt: I did. The first thing I did after I spoke to Mary and got the rights to the book, I called Dan up and went to New York with Mary to meet him. I wanted to see them together in a room and see what that relationship was. They could each say how much they liked each other but that was no substitute for being in a room with both of them. After the second hour they forgot they were being observed and started behaving naturally with each other, which was great for me. It was grist for the mill.

Then I spoke to him a lot on his own because I wanted to see what he would say about this situation when Mary wasn't around. He was incredibly open and honest about his career and cognizant that he was telling me his experience, but that I would have to then go away and make the film how I had to make it. For a public figure, he could have been very guarded and nervous; but, for some reason, he was the exact opposite. He was trusting. Both he and Mary knew that neither had editorial say over the film and that they had no control over how they would be portrayed; but, they were both welcoming and honest in talking about their experience.

Q: Had you met Robert Redford before casting him as Dan Rather?

Vanderbilt: I knew him a little bit. I had written a movie that he was going to direct and so—when I wrote this—I always had him in mind, but I knew I couldn't go to him until I knew who would be playing Mary. I wrote the script, we got Cate involved, and then I wrote Robert a nice note and said all the reasons why he should do this, going back all the way to All the President's Men, where journalism was then and where journalism is now, and how Truth in a way could be bookends in saying something about that; but, I always felt that the big buy of the movie would be Dan Rather. We all know Dan. He's been in our living rooms for 40 years. We know his face and his voice. I had a lot of conversations with producers about who to cast, and I always wanted Bob to do it. There was the concern that we know him so well, how would he meld into Dan Rather? My thinking was always that Bob has the same baggage Dan has. He occupies a place in Americana, as Dan does. I figured if we could get him to do it and be down for it, he would do an amazing job.

The conversation Bob and I had was, "I don't want to put you in prosthetics. I don't want to put you behind a bunch of make-up. I don't think this should be an impression. I'd like to grey your hair a little bit and play with a little vocal intonation and just play the character. Hopefully, that will be it." He came, did it, and couldn't have been more amazing.

Q: How did you develop the role of Mike Smith for Topher Grace?

Vanderbilt: Topher and I actually grew up together. We did drama camp together as kids, because clearly we were very popular, as most drama camp kids are. So we've known each other forever. Topher read the script independent of me. I hadn't spoken to him in several years. He auditioned and worked really hard to get into the movie, which is great. But I realized during the first week of production that he was actually dressed like me completely. I went to the costume designer and said, "He's dressed exactly like me in the movie." He had a thumb ring and I have a thumb ring. She said, "Yes, I know, I dressed him completely like you. I stole everything from what you wear.

Q: It's Topher's character Mike Smith who—in the scene where he is barred from returning to his desk—gives voice to the conspiracy theory that Karl Rove had something to do with discrediting the media's effort to expose Bush's National Guard service and switching the conversation away from the subject at hand.

Vanderbilt: Which is exactly what Mike Smith believed happened. I felt we had to honor that and be true to that in the film. Mike feels that way, but obviously other people feel differently about how that went. We wanted to be honest that everyone comes at it from a different place and a different point of view. When Dan filed his lawsuit and sued for breach of contract, in discovery it came out that people had talked to Republican strategists about who to put on the panel to make it look like it was a strong panel who was really going to dig in. But other than for that, no, there was no revolution. Dan lost his lawsuit. It was thrown out in Appeals Court.

Q: With regard to that panel, how did you reconstruct those proceedings when—as indicated in the film—there were no transcripts?

Vanderbilt: I spoke to Mary Mapes and Dick Hibey (Andrew McFarlane) who were both there. They verified each others' recollections. For probably obvious reasons, I did not talk to anyone who was on the panel. Certain lawyers told us not to make those phone calls and their recollections would have differed anyway.

I don't know anything more about the Rove conspiracy theory. I tried to put into the film as much as I could humanly verify. And I don't mean to denigrate Mike Smith's beliefs by calling them a conspiracy theory. With regard to these things, my mind always goes to a certain place where—for certain things to happen, so many people have to cooperate and so many people have to keep a secret and I find, time and time again, when you're talking about government, if three people know something, it leaks. I don't know how they could get away with certain things like that. What is interesting to me about it, though, is that we don't know, and we will never know. Maybe I shouldn't say that? Maybe tomorrow it'll come out one way or the other? It's tricky. I did this other movie Zodiac about the Zodiac killer where we never really find out who the Zodiac killer is. For some reason, I like movies about handwriting analysis.

Q: The Republicans really tore into John Kerry about his military past and it just wouldn't go away. But then when it came to this story about George Bush, Jr. not fulfilling his military responsibilities, the story took a total turn immediately to a different subject. Is there anything that the principals involved in this story could have done differently, anything at all, that would have changed the outcome on the subsequent calamity that happened?

Vanderbilt: I don't know. Hindsight is 20/20. You talk to Dan and Mary and certainly they wished that certain things had been different, they felt mistakes were made in vetting the story before putting it on the air and, looking back, they would have done things differently. But the thing that I don't think people realize is that they weren't the only ones on the story. They were rushing to beat The Boston Globe and NBC News at the time. They felt that they had the guy who got George W. Bush into the National Guard. They had him on camera saying, "Hey guys, guess what? I got this guy into the National Guard." They thought that was a great story. They also had these memos that they also felt were a great story. But when it all started to unravel, they were very surprised and were completely taken by shock—CBS was as well—with the speed with which this thing unraveled. No one had ever dealt with the internet working this quickly in this way. The first blog post about the memos being fake actually popped up online before the 60 Minutes episode was done airing. The episode aired from 8:00 to 9:00 on Wednesday night and around 8:42, the first entries saying these memos were fake were already on the internet. It was the speed of it that was so amazing. So, listen, you can never say whether they could have done this or they could have done that. It sadly is what it is.

Q: You're already getting swift boated for making this film (The New York Post calls your film "hogwash" and The Hollywood Reporter "a crackerjack journalism yarn"). You imply in the film what a lot of people think—that CBS was set up by Karl Rove or somebody like that—to undermine the story. Are you going to defend yourself adequately or is this film going to be destroyed by that?

Vanderbilt: I will defend myself inadequately.

Q: You implied in the film that they were set up by somebody on the inside, but you don't identify who it is. Who do you think set them up and are you prepared to say that in public?

Vanderbilt: I don't think that the film implies that one person or another inside set them up. That's not my read of the situation. There is the conspiracy theory that Karl Rove wrote the memos and put them out there in order to discredit anyone who reported this story and make it a non-story. I don't necessarily subscribe to that.

Q: Why not?

Vanderbilt: I don't necessarily think that it's true. I don't have any kind of evidence to point to them. One of the things that we tried to do with the movie was to nail down all the facts that we could as humanly possible and I don't want to necessarily imply something that I can't prove. In terms of reaction to the film, there's no version of making this movie that was going to make everyone happy. Of course, I'm absolutely aware that people are going to take issue with certain facts or portrayals. All I can do is say that—just because you're not going to make everybody happy—is not a good reason not to make a film.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

MVFF38—AMNESIA (2015)—An Evening Class Question for Barbet Schroeder

Not since Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971) has an audience been asked to abandon expectations, suspend disbelief, and invest themselves in such an unusual May-September romance as Barbet Schroeder's Amnesia (2015), which had its U.S. premiere as the Centerpiece Screening for the 38th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival, with Schroeder in attendance to dialogue with his audience.

Whereas Harold and Maude had a morbid quirkiness and the exploratory spirit of the early '70s (including a Cat Stevens score) to suffuse it with cultish cachet, Amnesia plays it straightforward and—despite a rich 6K sound design and Luciano Tavoli's stunning cinematography—suffers for stretching its believability thin.

Martha (Marthe Keller) and Jo (Max Riemelt) become neighbors sharing coastal views of Ibiza, Spain. Martha abandoned Germany in her late teens shortly after WWII, ashamed by the Nazi treatment of the Jews, refusing to speak her native tongue, let alone ride in "Hitler beetles" or drink Reisling wine. She wants nothing more to do with Germany. But then the handsome young German Jo arrives on the island with dreams of becoming a professional deejay. Despite Martha's thick German accent (which Schroeder admits was a stupid mistake that would now be too expensive to correct), Jo is oblivious to Martha's past and feels his affections grow. Keller has had an extensive career—though I'm sorry to say I'm unfamiliar with most of her credits—but I immediately recognized Max Riemelt as Wolfgang Bogdanow from the ensemble of the Netflix original series Sense8, particularly his welcome contribution to the provocative orgy scene in episode 6 of that series.

Respecting the challenges Schroeder set for himself with Amnesia, specifically making the May-September romance believable, his resistance to making theirs a sexual liaison to purposely confound expectations led to scriptural disagreement with his early screenwriting collaborator Peter F. Steinbach who wanted to "go there". I respected Schroeder's decision and expressed my interest.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I appreciate how you have made the May-September romance unique, by way of affection rather than sex. I do want to understand Jo's motivation or what it was that he loved so much in Martha? Could you unpack that just a little bit? It seemed he himself was confused about why he was attracted to her?

Barbet Schroeder: Well, he was attracted because she was a musician and he was attracted because she was a free spirit and somebody leading a philosophical life in the way of the Greeks, where you decide to survive on your own self-sufficiency. You fish what you eat. You grow what you eat. All those elements of a philosophical life in the way the old Greeks experienced it. That excites him because he's not used to it. Obviously, when you see his mother, there's a big difference between her and Martha.

The fact that Martha likes to provoke and have fun and to laugh, even to throw him in the water at the beginning just for fun, are traits of character that are light and humorous and that's what—in my mind—is what attracts him to her.


Monday, October 12, 2015

MVFF38—An Evening Class Question for Sir Ian McKellen

Without question, Sir Ian McKellen is one of the most beloved actors of many generations. When I mentioned to him at a recent San Francisco Film Critics Circle reception that I was amazed how my youthful friends in their late teens and early twenties were as excited as my 60-year-old friends that I was being offered the chance to meet him, it underscored how his appeal has attracted a fan base that stretches out in all directions. "That is something, isn't it?" he responded. I was especially heartened to be afforded an opportunity to express my gratitude for how much he has done for LBGTQ youth. For this, Sir Ian embraced me.

Fêted with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 38th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival, McKellen accepted his bronze award from his lifetime friend Armistead Maupin and regaled his audience with lively anecdotes regarding his career and willingly fielded questions from his audience. Never one to miss an opportunity, I swiftly raised my hand.

* * *

Michael Guillén: There seems to be a tendency in Hollywood right now to honor straight actors who play gay roles and yet—if queer actors try to portray themselves—they're not honored and, often, their careers are placed in jeopardy. You, however, are a tremendous exception to that practice. Can you speak to that?

Sir Ian McKellen: When I first came out, some long-time gay actors assumed that I would now turn myself into a queer artist and that I would stop playing the sort of parts I was playing and just concentrate on gay-related plays and films. I said, "No! I can't. I find heterosexuality is far too interesting a phenomenon to be ignored. [Audience laughter.] I couldn't stop playing King Lear. There's nothing queer about Lear! [More laughter.]

So, I don't get angry when Tom Hanks brilliantly plays a gay man in Philadelphia. I don't say all gay parts should be played by gay actors because, if so, I wouldn't be allowed to play straight parts. Ultimately, we're just actors.

What was wonderful about Gods and Monsters was that I think it was one of the first films to actually take a gay character and treat him with the same respect (and lack of respect) as might have been done had James Whale been straight. It just happened to be about the man, who happened to be gay and had particular problems, but the film took him honorably as himself. Thus, historically, that movie's very important and I hope the industry's moved on since then, but I'm afraid no one looks to Hollywood for social advancement, do they? Hollywood can be a little bit behind the times, which is odd in this state, which is so far ahead of the times than other states. It's an odd thing.

Also, there are young actors being advised by agents, etc., to stay in the closet and to not be themselves because it might damage their careers and yet on the other side of the continent in New York people are picking up Tony Awards and thanking their lovers of the same gender. So there is a bit of a cultural divide in this great nation.

Well, there's lots more to be said about it but I hope that the time has arisen when we can all be ourselves and declare ourselves and understand ourselves and respect each other. That's what I want. That's the way it should be, isn't it? Then us actors could get on with playing any other parts.

Saturday, October 10, 2015


The World Premiere of Christopher Coppola's Sacred Blood (2015) at the 38th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival proves, yet again, that blood is thicker than water. The Coppola Clan as a filmmaking dynasty is now in its fourth generation and—though IMDb lists his role in Sofia Coppola's Palo Alto (2013)Bailey Coppola is only now being officially "introduced" in his father's SF-set vampire romance where he plays Luke, a sensitive street artist. A dead ringer for his uncle Nicolas, Bailey's lean good looks and natural presence in front of the camera promise future opportunity for the young actor who emerges as the main discovery of Sacred Blood, if not the main reason for watching this otherwise low-budget digital exercise that reworks its genre tropes dutifully, if lugubriously, making prudent use of San Francisco locations such as Yuet Lee's in Chinatown, The Condor and Caffe Trieste in North Beach, the steps of Mission Dolores, dark alleys in the Loin, and a Market Street BART station. It's always fun to recognize locations in films shot in San Francisco and Sacred Blood at least provides pleasure in that department.

The story, as it were, involves Natia (Anna Biani), a circus sharpshooter from Soviet Georgia who runs into troubles with an itinerant act that features the moodiest poodle ever filmed. The dog is able to leap through hoops at a ridiculous height due to what her master feeds her and the fact that this poodle won't eat any of the normal food fed to the other circus animals forecasts inevitable tragedy for Natia and her family. Natia ends up on the streets of San Francisco, a vampire having to adjust to the infrastructure set in place that governs bloodsuckers by the Bay. She's swiftly at odds with a freewheeling lesbian vampire who warns Natia that Chinatown is her turf and off limits, as well as a kind of godfather figure who, coincidentally enough, runs a winery and admits to spending his life seeking "the link between the vine and the vein." Really, there's no sense in going on with a narrative synopsis because it doesn't really matter. You'll be lucky to keep your neck up above the film's atmospherics.

Michael Madsen steps in to offer a welcome supporting performance as a police detective (Luke's alcoholic and emotionally crippled father). Madsen's always a treat to watch as he mumbles his way through bloody crime scenes. The best bit in the film, in my humble opinion, is his interrogation of an overweight bouncer who, quite effectively, whispers all of his lines. Along with the casting of Bailey Coppola, it's one of few highlights in an otherwise tepid film. This blood runs secular and lukewarm.

Thursday, October 08, 2015


The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) is perhaps best known as a showcase for indie-ish Telluride / Toronto movies making their autumnal trudge towards Awards Season glory. For its 38th edition running October 8 to 18, MVFF bookends itself with Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl (starring Eddie Redmayne, who trekked to Marin County last year hawking The Theory of Everything) and Sarah Gavron's Suffragette (whose lead actress Carey Mulligan will be fêted with a MVFF Spotlight tribute). Toronto's People's Choice Award winner Room will also be in the house, with star Brie Larson receiving a MVFF Award "in recognition of courageous work in a career-changing role."

MVFF's winning formula of mixing red carpet awards bait with indies, documentaries and discoveries from second-tier international fests has been enhanced in recent years by an uptick in big buzz, art-cinema breakouts from major festivals like Berlin and Cannes. This year's line-up boasts an inordinate number of works culled from those two events, including nearly all of the top prizewinners. It's a bonanza for Bay Area lovers of international art cinema and the focus of this subjective overview of the festival's 2015 roster.

Berlin Film Festival

This year's Berlinale bestowed the Golden Bear upon Jafar Panahi's Taxi, the director's third clandestine effort since being banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government in 2010. As with This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, Panahi dares to place himself in front of the camera, this time posing as an inept Tehran taxi driver. The film skates a sketchy line between reality and fiction as his "chance" encounters with passengers are recorded by his vehicle's dash cam. Panahi's fares run the gamut from a bloodied accident victim imploring him to film a last will and testament, to two grumpy grannies transporting a goldfish to a sacred spring. He fetches a precocious niece from school (where she's studying filmmaking, natch). These meet-ups obliquely comment upon movie-making, censorship, Iranian social issues and Panahi's own quasi-celebrity. Iranian cinema devotees will also appreciate how he winks at his filmography (the goldfish from The White Balloon) and that of other Iranian directors (Abbas Kiarostami's similarly structured Ten). If you're unable to catch either of MFFF38's two Taxi screenings, it opens theatrically in the Bay Area on October 30.

Of the half-dozen MVFF selections I previewed, my favorite was Radu Jude's Aferim! which also copped Berlin's Silver Bear for Best Director. The Romanian filmmaker's two previous works, The Happiest Girl in the World and Everybody in Our Family seemed to make an impression on the international festival circuit but never reached the Bay Area. Jude's latest is a road movie cum neo-Western set in 1835 Wallachia, an area of modern-day Romania alternately controlled by Russians and Ottomans. In this entertaining and engrossing historical tale, a brusque constable and his teenage son are charged with capturing an escaped Roma slave and returning him to his evil boyar master. Featuring impressive period art direction and finely drawn characters, Aferim! is an arresting look at a long gone era's mores and customs, as well as an eye-opening portrait of slavery and anti-Jewish / Roma sentiment in 19th century Europe. It also boasts stunning B&W wide-screen cinematography shot on 35mm by DP Marius Panduru (12:08 East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective) and should therefore be experienced on as large a screen as possible.

Three additional MVFF38 selections garnered major prizes at Berlin. For their work in 45 Years by Andrew Haigh (Weekend, HBO's Looking), Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay took home both acting awards for this character-driven drama about a long-married couple reevaluating their relationship. Berlin's 2015 Grand Jury Prize was awarded to Chilean director Pablo Larraín's The Club. In this follow-up chamber drama to 2012's Oscar®-nominated No, a Catholic crisis counselor is sent to a beach town retirement home for disgraced priests and nuns. Unfortunately, The Club is one of several enticing MVFF entries not screening at the Smith Rafael Film Center, the only venue readily accessible by public transportation. Finally, the fest will also present Jayro Bustamente's Ixcanul, winner of the prestigious Alfred Bauer Prize given each year to a movie that "opens new perspectives on cinematic arts" (past winners include Lucrecia Martel's La Ciénaga, Fernando Eimbcke's Lake Tahoe and Miguel Gomes' Tabu). Set in a community of coffee harvesters living at the foot of a Guatemalan volcano, Ixcanul has been named that country's first ever submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® consideration.

Cannes Film Festival

As it did last year, MVFF will screen an impressive seven selections from Cannes' main competition, including several major prize winners. Starting at the top there's Jacques Audiard's Palme d'Or winning Dheepan, a searing drama about three Sri Lankan refugees struggling in a Paris housing project. The film was a controversial choice for Cannes' top prize, with many film writers and critics feeling the award more deservedly belonged to first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes' Son of Saul. An intense holocaust drama set in Auschwitz during the final days of WWII, Son of Saul did win Cannes' Grand Prix (or second place) and will appear at MVFF38 as well. Cannes' Best Director prize went to Taiwanese master Hou Hsiou-hsien's The Assassin, a visually sumptuous 9th century martial arts epic. In addition to screening at Mill Valley, Hou's first film in eight years will play the San Francisco Film Society's Taiwan Film Days on October 12, with the director making an exclusive appearance (which is where I plan to see it). It also arrives in Bay Area theatres on October 23.

The remaining award recipient from Cannes' main competition is Todd Haynes' highly anticipated Carol, where it won a (shared) Best Actress prize for Rooney Mara and the festival's Queer Palm. Set during Christmastime in the early 1950's, Mara plays a department store clerk who becomes romantically involved with a well-to-do married woman (Cate Blanchett). Three additional competition films enjoying Bay Area premieres at MVFF38 include a new iteration of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, and the latest from Italian auteurs Nanni Moretti (My Mother) and Paolo Sorrentino (Youth). The latter stars Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda and is the director's first feature since 2013's Oscar®-winning The Great Beauty.

It seemed the consensus of many who attended this year's Cannes that the true cinematic revelations were to be found outside the main competition. Happily for MVFF38 attendees, the festival has lined up a promising selection from Cannes' sidebars. From Un Certain Regard I can heartily recommend Grímur Hákonarson's Rams, an affecting tale from Iceland that won the sidebar's top award. The story focuses on two sheep-ranching brothers who haven't spoken in 40 years, despite living right next door in a desolate valley. When disease strikes and they're ordered to destroy prized livestock, the two begrudgingly unite to preserve a family legacy. An abrupt ending had me wondering if the final reel had gone missing. Rams unfolds at a measured pace, is not without humor, and features breathtaking cinematography from Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (who also filmed the bravura, shot-in-one-take Victoria, a big hit from Berlin which opens in the Bay Area on October 16).

Another rewarding Un Certain Regard selection I previewed was Radu Mutean's One Floor Below. While the director's The Paper Will Be Blue screened at MVFF in 2007, his two lauded follow-ups, Summer Holiday and Tuesday, After Christmas went unseen in the Bay Area (like so much of the New Romanian Cinema canon—hurrah for Netflix where I ultimately caught up with both). Muntean's latest is a wide-screen, slow-burner that places its protagonist at the center of a moral quandary. A middle-aged family man who works "expediting" motor vehicle registrations returns home one day and overhears what turns out to be the murder of his downstairs neighbor. He knows who the culprit is, and the culprit knows he knows—yet when the police investigate he says nothing. The film becomes unbearably discomforting as the culprit, who is also a neighbor, insinuates himself into the private life of our protagonist. Eventually, of course, it all has to explode. Be prepared for a head-scratcher of an ending and much screen time hanging out at a Romanian DMV.

Shifting over to Cannes' Director's Fortnight, MVFF38 has programmed that sidebar's top prize winner as well. Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent employs a bifurcated structure to deliver a meditative critique on the destruction of indigenous cultures (in this case, Amazonian) by colonialist forces. As an admirer of Guerra's The Wind Journeys, which screened at the 2010 SF International Film Festival, this is something I'm greatly anticipating. Another breakout hit from Director's Fortnight was Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Mustang, in which five Turkish sisters pay a severe price for an afternoon's innocent cavorting with teenage boys. The film won the sidebar's Europa Cinemas Label Award and curiously enough was just announced as France's submission for this year's Oscar® race (it's a French / German / Turkish co-production). Other Director's Fortnight selections include Colombian child soldier drama Alias Maria, and A Perfect Day, a black comedy set during the Bosnian War starring Tim Robbins and Benicio Del Toro. Finally, from Cannes' Critics Week sidebar I've read great things about Jonas Carpignano's Mediterranea, a verité-style docu-drama about Burkinabe immigrants working the orange groves of Italy.

Each year the Cannes Classics sidebar premieres restorations of iconic films, as well as recent documentaries about the personalities and craft of movie-making. MVFF38 presents three Cannes Classics docs from this year's edition, including Ingrid Berman: In Her Own Words and Sembene! The latter examines the life and career of revered Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, laurelled as the Father of African Cinema. In conjunction with Sembene!, the fest will also show the filmmaker's groundbreaking debut feature, 1966's Black Girl. The third doc, which I previewed and immensely enjoyed is Kent Jones' Hitchcock / Truffaut. The film explores the ramifications of François Truffaut's legendary eight-day 1962 interview with Alfred Hitchcock that became the basis for one of cinema's indispensible guidebooks. Jones mingles dozens of movie clips with commentary from an eclectic group of contemporary directors ranging from Kiyoshi Kurosawa to Wes Anderson to Olivier Assayas. Best of all is getting to hear snippets from the actual tapes of Truffaut and Hitch conversing through a translator. If you can't see this at Mill Valley, hold on until December 11 when Hitchcock / Truffaut arrives in Bay Area theatres.

Although it didn't screen at Cannes, another movie-related doc worth seeing at MVFF is Women He's Undressed by Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). Her film explores the considerable highs and lows of Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly, a fellow Aussie who arrived in NYC in 1922 and worked on 285 films for Warner Brothers, Fox and MGM until his death in 1964. Remember Bette Davis' "red" dress in Jezebel? Barbara Stanwyck's costume changes as she slept her way to the top in Baby Face? Bergman and Bogie in Casablanca? Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis' drag in Some Like It Hot? Roz Russell's outrageous frocks in Auntie Mame? They were all designed by three-time Oscar® winner Orry-Kelly. The film's title is misleading as the man was quite gay and Women He's Undressed has a lot to say about LGBT life in studio-era Hollywood (particularly regarding Cary Grant, an intimate "roommate" of Kelly's long before Randolph Scott came along). Armstrong's doc moves briskly, combining loads of clips and stills with contemporary interviews of Leonard Maltin, designer Colleen Atwood, Angela Lansbury and a particularly salient Jane Fonda (whom Kelly dressed in her early works like The Chapman Report and Sunday in New York). The film's only drawback is several ill-considered sequences in which an actor portraying Kelly floats around in a rowboat making pithy remarks about his own life. Otherwise Women He's Undressed is pure catnip for lovers of classic Hollywood movies.

Cross-published at film-415.