November 20, 2009

denver film festival 2009

film fest, 09:

I went to a few Denver Film Festival screenings this year; this is the first year I have done so. A couple of years ago, I nearly went to a screening of The Scarlet Empress (1934) (and regret not going), and the year before that I was tempted by a screening of The Big Parade (1925). (They seem to have stopped showing classics, the only exception to that this year being a 50th anniversary screening of The 400 Blows (1959).) But this year -- the first year I have ever respected what today's filmmakers are doing -- I wanted to see (nay, was desperate to see) two films, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (2009) and Film Ist. a girl & a gun (2009). I saw them. But my first festival encounter began a couple of days earlier.

Josh wanted to see a film called Harmony and Me (2009). I hadn't heard of it, but it played Saturday night, a night I always have open. OK, I said. I glanced at the film festival guide's film description. Indie. Comedy. Austin. I get it -- Austin, SXSW, Richard Linklater, slice-of-life, guy-whines-about-girl, Mumblecore. No, I should stop using that label. These guys are maturing in style, maybe even becoming important. But still: indie musician lead, ungrammatical title (from a song lyric), quirk and absurdity ... what else can I call it?

We bought our tickets that cold morning and appeared half an hour before the screening that cold night. We were supposed to form a ticket-holders line. Where do we queue up? we asked. Over there, on the other side of that pillar. We make it to the other side, confused, standing around for some minutes, dazed. Finally, some bold beginners start the line behind the pillar and we appear behind them. We had missed the sign. The line grows quickly (were the others loitering with uncertainty like we were?), and we are in an awkward location (an intersection, other festival goers cutting through us and asking once a minute what our line is for). "This is obviously well organized," a man in our line says mockingly, affectionately. I bet he loves this festival. He is middle-aged, white, well dressed (who isn't but me here?), clearly a fellow of humble authority. Having found security in life, he looks to learn culture, is here to become cultured. There are lots of these people around. "It was either [derogatory generalization of a film] or this," exclaims another. So many choices.

A coordinator comes out and begs us for our patience. We grant it. Later she thanks us, but asks us to wait a little bit longer. We are an exceptionally patient line, so don't mind her request. She appears again, this time for action, and leads us to a side door where our tickets are ripped and we are ushered into the theater and into our seats. We are in the big theater. It doesn't quite fill up.

The audience chats and gossips for those few minutes before the screening begins, but, all too soon, we are interrupted by a coordinator introducing the film. She also introduces the filmmaker, who finishes the introduction. He is hip. Oh no, I think. He is too hip, too dirty. Certainly smart, but not the demanding intellectual I had hoped for. But who is intellectual these days? I put aside my fears and hope that the film is more smart, less hip.

The lights dim, the screen blazes. Short advertisements for Starz play. A short film plays which I would rather forget. Josh asks for his Tofurkey Jerkey, which I retrieve from my bag. ("Jerk me," he says, a most uncomfortable joke in a darkened theater.) After that, Harmony and Me.

Justin Rice is Harmony. I have seen Rice in other movies, but, for whatever reason, can't recall them just now. This film begins after Harmony's last relationship has ended. He spends the rest of the film missing the girl he lost. It is by now a tired theme, but I am OK with that. The film is very choppy; episodic and emotionally unfocused, this film jumps quickly from one unrelated scene to the next, from one joke to the next. The cast is surprisingly big. Among them is Karpovsky whom I recently saw in Beeswax (2009). He is awesome. The film is paced by the jokes. The humor is sincere; it is that wit which is peculiar to the hip. The jokes are frequently uncomfortable. Jokes about love, jokes about death, a joke about sperm -- uncomfortable, crude, but not crudely done. They are honest jokes. Yes, I like this.

The film ends and already I begin to forget it. I try not to, but my memory fails -- no solid core to latch onto. The film's episodic structure works against it. It dissipates in my mind.

The filmmaker appears and answers our questions. Like his humor, he is honest. Oh, as it happens he is working on a film in which a character, tired of being dishonest, tries over the course of the story to become honest. So says the director, whose honesty is suddenly explained. He answers more questions. He tells us his inspiration for this film's character, Harmony, took root after an encounter with Harmony Korine. He tells us about the cover letter he attached to the script he sent to Justin. He tells us he has no explanation for the coma-lapse scene in the film. He tells us this film is kind of autobiographical, and that he shouldn't be telling us this (but, in the spirit of honesty...).

He tells us that snow flies thickly outside. He is telling the truth. The screening ends and we flow back out into the glowing, snowy night. I pull up my hood, tuck down my head, and slide across the wet sidewalk, Harmony and Me already a distant memory.

Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl played Monday evening. I arrived early. No line this time. I loiter in the lobby, gliding alone between the various festival goers and festival volunteers. I hang out near the master schedule and wonder about the various titles I was reading for the first time, concluding that I am lucky not to be sitting through them. I stare at the flat screen television at the other end of the lobby which runs an advertisement for a horror film. (I lost interest before I learned the title.) I browse one of the magazines that are piled in stacks against the walls, admiring the gloss and pictures that fill it. I wait. Finally a volunteer announces that seating for my film is ready. They rip my ticket and I drift downstairs.

This screening is also in the big theater. Since I am alone this time, I am able to take my favorite spot in the second to last row, atop a step which places the row slightly higher than the rest. I take out my notebook and a pencil and relax. Apparently a new 35mm print of The Red Shoes (1948) is playing in a few weeks, so the onscreen ad-slide tells me. Must go to that. Another advertisement replaces it. The theater begins to fill. Will this screening be as busy as Harmony and Me? Busier. The theater fills. A trio of talkative ladies sits behind me. The Red Shoes slide appears again. But then the slides stop, and the programmer for Starz appears and introduces the film. The lights dim. Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl begins.

I have had only two encounters with Manoel de Oliveira before: Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931) and I'm Going Home (2001). Naturally, I am not sure what to expect from Eccentricities. I focus. The audience, however, needs more time. The ladies behind me whisper. Others shift in their seats, searching for comfort. Stragglers straggle in and blindly feel about for empty seats. The ladies whisper some more. I try my best to focus.

A train. A man. A stranger. A story. This is familiar. The story is set up quickly: the man, working for his uncle in Lisbon, falls in love with the (blond) girl across the street. Their windows face each other, you see. She fondles a unique and stylish Chinese fan, looking over it flirtatiously. The man is hooked. "A dove of ermine, snow, and gold," he says. He awkwardly pursues her, finally gets an introduction. All this bumbling greatly amuses the audience. He wishes to marry her. "No," his uncle-employer says. Either stay single or leave your position. Classic lover's dilemma. He leaves and searches for the money to support the potential marriage. He is in luck, but he must travel awhile. He does. He returns. Gets swindled out of the money he made. Is forgiven by his uncle. &c.

Something strikes me while I watch this, something which I also felt while watching I'm Going Home: this is not an intellectual film. I know that Oliveira's reputation rests in the hands of the arthouse crowd, but Oliveira's virtues are not those virtues of the challenging and ambitious arthouse directors. No, Eccentricities is disarmingly simple, sincere, naive. This is a glimpse of the innocence that the arthouse has lost. This (or so I feel) is art without the burden of the word, in spite of the burden the film critics may try to place on it.

This innocence is (quite unexpectedly) voiced in the film when a character recites a Fernando Pessoa poem; "Keeper of Sheep," XXXII:
Yesterday afternoon a city man
Was talking at the door of the inn.
He was talking to me too.
He spoke of justice and the struggle to achieve justice
And of the suffering of the workers
And of the ceaseless toil and hungry people
And of the rich, who just turn their backs to it all.

And, looking at me, he saw tears in my eyes
And smiled with satisfaction, thinking I felt
The hatred he did, and the compassion
He said he felt.

(But I was scarcely listening.
What does mankind matter to me
And what they suffer or think they suffer?
Let them be like me -- they won't suffer.
All the world's troubles come from poking our noses in one another's business,
Whether to do good or to do bad.
Our soul, the sky, the earth, are all we need.
To want more is to lose it all and be unhappy.)

What I was thinking about
While the friend of mankind was talking
(And that's what moved me to tears)
Was how the distant tinkle of cowbells
As night came on
Was nothing at all like the sound of bells in a small chapel
Where flowers and brooks would go to Mass
Along with simple souls like mine.

(Thank God I'm not good,
And have the natural egoism of flowers
And of rivers following their course
Intent, without knowing it,
Only on flowering and flowing.
We've only one mission in the World:
That's to exist clearly
And know how to, without thinking about it.)

And the man had fallen silent, watching the sunset.
But what's a man who hates and loves got to do with the sunset?
This intellectual burst sent me into a flurry of thought. So much of it rang true in me. So much of it didn't. In my flurry, I managed to jot down two words in the dark that happen to be the best two-word summary I can give of the poem: "exist clearly." I was unprepared for this message. It stunned me. As the film fades into my memory, as I examine its impact on my mind, it is this, my first encounter with Pessoa, that promises to carve the deepest wound ... the only wound.

The film ends. "OK, what?" one of the ladies behind me says. The rest of the audience quickly joins the buzz. I don't though. I was expecting this. I was waiting for it (one might characterize it as anxious anticipation). It was this that sold me to the picture. Eccentricities has a running time of just over one hour (described by others as a "micro-feature"), and I, who adore short running times and concise narratives, had to see how this film handled it. The audience becomes more noisy, and they seem to be finding many things to say about the film ("It really was beautifully filmed," one of the trio behind me explains); and all the while I sit there quietly, looking at my notebook, hiding an irrational grin. I am thinking about that ending I so anxiously anticipated: "yes," I write, "that was very satisfying."

Film Ist. a girl & a gun played Wednesday night. I arrive early again. Alone again. (Dusty was supposed to have come but canceled earlier that day.) I don't have to loiter for long, though. Seating is ready, and they rip my ticket and send me downstairs.

It's one of the normal theaters this time. I expect experimental films don't make it to the big theater often. That's fine. I seat myself optimally again, near the back, right on the aisle. I take out my notebook and observe the people coming in. There is something in this audience that wasn't in the audience for the previous two screenings: youth. This excites me. Also, although it is still too early to tell, it appears that the seats are filling rather quickly. This crowd for an experimental film? Oh, Dusty makes it to the screening after all. We chat. The theater fills some more. This is a lot more people than I had expected.

The film's programmer appears and we calm down to hear his introduction. I miss the first words he says, but no matter -- he has interrupted himself and is now apologizing for not giving the customary introduction which we have been receiving for other festival screenings. This film deserves much more than a canned introduction. Indeed, it gets something more. The programmer tells us how glad he is to see so many people here tonight, this late, for (of all things) an experimental film. This film is special to him, and he thinks it is wonderful to have an audience for it; he tells us this is the only chance we will have to see the film outside of a museum setting (unlike the other commercial flicks that populate the festival, in which the museum setting will be the most unlikely). "I know some of you are going to walk to out of this theater before the film has finished," he says ("I hope so," whispers Dusty -- and several people do walk out during the screening, but, for such a large audience, not nearly as many as I would have thought); but give this film a chance, he continues. "Let the sounds and images wash over you." I, already a fan of the film's director, need no further convincing, but I hope this programmer's sincere plea has convinced the rest of the audience. I hope they walk out of this theater as enthusiastic about Deutsch's technique as this programmer is. "I will program Deutsch until the day I die." What a fellow! Who is he? I want to thank him personally. Maybe even hug him.

The programmer exits. The theater darkens. As the short advertisements for Starz play, I breathe. The programmer thought this was Deutsch's best entry yet into the Film Ist. series. I was hoping he would say this. But one must not be carried away by one's hopes.

The film begins. "Film Ist." -- footage of Annie Oakley showing off her rifle skills -- "a girl & a gun" with texts from Hesiod, Sappho, and Platon (Plato). A Drama in 5 Acts.

Act I: Genesis. Hesiod first. The screen flashes in bursts of creation. A woman is the Earth. I try to get comfortable with the film's construction, try to remind myself that much of this found footage is almost one hundred years old (some of it older). Act II: Paradeisos. Humans, the Earth's children, frolic naked. I am finally getting into the film's rhythm, its logic. This is the creation myth; film is our creation myth. Act III: Eros. It is Sappho's turn now. I am captivated, and I soon experience my first moment of total devastation:

The film is juxtaposing images of people wearing masks: a woman reads a magazine in her home, a couple dances, a man reads a magazine on a park bench (why the mask?), a fellow looks at a pornographic photograph and tugs at his pants. The dancers again. The man on the bench rises and leaves. Oh, it turns out he's gone to the home of the woman magazine reader. "Hold it," I think ... and my heart plummets. In the early days of pornography, most people wore masks or disguises to hide their identities (as though the rest of their bodies wouldn't give it away). As I remember this fact, I suddenly realize what I am about to witness. The masks take on a new and twisted meaning. The mask-wearing, magazine-reading couple greet each other. They get friendly. A woman on a bed (new footage). The couple undresses. A man, looking desperate/forlorn, walks (new footage). A parrot (new footage). The couple has sex. The desperate man, a knife. The woman on the bed. The couple has sex. The parrot. The desperate man. The couple gets dressed abruptly. The desperate man is at the door. The mask-wearing fellow jumps out of the mask-wearing lady's window. The desperate man opens the door. The woman on the bed. The desperate man seizes her, brings up the knife. She grabs it, her whole hand gripping the blade. Blood runs down her arm. He raises the knife and plunges it downward. The parrot swings above, nonchalantly watching this act humans call murder.

And in this moment, everything comes together. I cannot think, I cannot breathe.

Unlike the previous Film Ist. films (what I have seen and remember of them), a girl & a gun makes extensive use of pornography. The film also constructs mini-narratives, like the one I have just described. Their sum emotional effect is overwhelming. I remember at one point during the screening, when someone from the audience was walking out, I wondered if they were walking out because they really hated the film or because they were so overwhelmed that they had to take a break. I am sure they would laugh long and loud were I foolish enough to ask them.

Act IV: Thanatos. To the pornography and violence, add war. My emotions riot. Act V: Symposion. But this is my favorite Act. In Plato's Symposium, Aristophanes tells this myth: there were humans once who were double what we are (eight limbs, two heads, and all that). These humans, trouble to the gods, were split by Zeus, cut into two halves, incomplete, powerless. Thus these two halves now always seek each other, compelled to become whole, and erotic love is the expression of this compulsion, the joining of two human halves being the closest to our original state. I love this absurd, satiric myth. In the film, this myth is related as scientists peer into a microscope and watch cells divide; images of halves attempting to be whole are intercut with this. "This," I think, "is the most brilliant interpretation of that myth I have ever seen." It really is.

Annie Oakley began the picture; the final bandit from The Great Train Robbery ends it. "to be continued...." The credits roll. All the music and film selections are listed. The audience is silent. Dusty breaks out with loud applause. Good man.

Film is our myth. Film is: a girl and a gun, Eros and Thanatos, sex and death.

For each of these festival films, we are given a scorecard, each scorecard listing the numbers 1-5. At the end of the film, we are to mark our rating (1 is the lowest, 5 the highest) and submit them for the "Audience Award." I gave both Harmony and Eccentricities sentimental 4s, glad at least that such films are programmed. But there is nothing sentimental about this rating; I rip the number 5 and exit the theater (chatting with Dusty), eager to sort out my thoughts, eager to tell everyone about my experience.

-Nov. 20, 09


Daniel Suarez said...

35mm print of The Red Shoes - *Praise*

Ian said...

As an update: Harmony won the People's Choice award. I am surprised.