Film Festival Roundup, Part 1

Posted April 27, 2009 at 2:59pm by Carl Martin, edited April 28, 2009 at 8:02am

3 days into the festival and already I'm behind, having modified my Saturday plans to accomodate the last Utopia/Dystopia screenings at SFMoMA. No, SFIFF doesn't have a complete stranglehold on the cinema scene for its 2 weeks.

Anyways, I started off on Friday with the evasively-titled Lake Tahoe at the Kabuki (last show is Tuesday at PFA, where the image should look better!), the second feature from the director-cinematographer team of Fernando Eimbcke and Alexis Zabé. This film inherits its lead actor and its deadpan-to-a-fault sensibility from their previous collaboration, 2004's Duck Season, but adds color and Cinemascope to the mix.

The use of scope I found problematic, as Zabé overwhelmingly favors static, straight-on shots, many of whose flatly laid out compositions are somewhat unflatteringly bulged out by the use of wide-angle lenses--I suspect the sleepy village streets were too narrow to secure a better vantage point, and the filmmakers too harried or too set in their ways to adapt their shooting strategy to this circumstance.

Zabé also shot Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light in a very measured style, but nonetheless allowed himself to respond to the various moods evoked in that film's scenes. One shot pans 360+ degrees to take in the entirety of the landscape, referencing Godard's Weekend or the interior shot that comprises Akerman's La Chambre. In another bravura sequence from the Reygadas film, the camera finds a Tarkovskian lyricism as it dances intimately about a family bathing in a river. Clearly, Zabé has chops, but isn't allowed to flex them fully in Tahoe.

This rote shot scheme isn't sufficiently intellectually motivated to be interesting in itself, but could have been redeemed were the characterizations and the action itself more compelling. Unfortunately, Eimbcke directs his actors to be as flat and affect-less as possible. And while inner states are alluded to--a recent death has caused some turmoil--they seem external to the film. Perhaps 15 seconds could be trimmed and no evidence would remain.

It probably sounds like I hated this film, but really I didn't react too strongly to it one way or the other. And it did have several wonderful moments. The appropriately-named Daniela Valentine's tarty auto-shop employee and her kung-fu-fighting co-worker are cyphers but fun to watch, though when their relationships with the protagonist "pay off" it feels pretty cheap (though in the first instance, I'll take it!). The most stunning (and hilarious--is this a comedy? sort of...) moment in this film involves a dog that does exactly what it's called on to do, right in the middle of one of the long, static takes, and suddenly the style is entirely appropriate to the content.

No digital intermediate was used, nor any special effects. I don't even recall any opticals. there are (all-too) frequent punctuations of black, but they're straight cuts, not fades, and unfortunately don't resonate like the less-frequent and thus more-powerful image elisions in films like Celine and Julie Go Boating or The New World.

Enough, already! Let me discuss a film I loved--Karim Dridi's Khamsa. Also scope (though shot non-anamorphic, presumably Super-35), also fully-analog, and also suffering from the Kabuki's less-than-perfect scope projection lenses. Cyril Dobinet and Antoine Monod's photography doesn't box itself in unnecessarily; it's freewheeling, without making a big deal about it.

This naturalistic depiction of dirt-poor petty-criminal youth in Marseilles recalls the Dardenne Bros., though perhaps with not quite so much emotional austerity and real-time rigor, and a little more visceral shock value. For some reason Francophonic culture produces scads of this type of film, a good number of them great. État-side, controversy dogs such efforts, like the excellent Kids.

As has been codified in recent French films, young miscreants get around exclusively on little motor scooters, and parents, if present at all, seem to hover on some parallel plane, looking down with ineffectual disapprobation. The kids are self-sufficient (if such can be said of those who make a living via purse-snatching and break-ins), but their ragtag community is constantly threatened by rivalries, racial tensions, and the law.

Our "hero", diminutive 13-year old Rom-Arab mutt (if you will) Marco, having gone AWOL from a reformatory, reunites with his friends and sets about trying to make a man of himself. His world is populated with a colorful and fully-drawn assortment of characters. The fact that the actors are non-professionals recruited from the area allows them to relate naturally and helps to flesh them out, to seem lived-in--a midget with an inverted face and a speech impediment is treated not as a freak but an equal, and when he trains his fighting cock we believe this is his true vocation--but the surprise here is their heartbreaking emotional intensity. Dridi wrings amazing performances from these guys.

I'd walk the other way, fast, if I saw one of these little punks on the street, but in this film they had my empathy. I was moved. Check it out. Khamsa plays once more, April 29, through the PFA's lenses.

Yesterday I hit the classics at the Castro. I gritted my teeth and endured the digital "restoration" of Le Amiche. Unfortunately I sat too close, and my eyes were constantly darting between the subtitles and the rest of the tall Academy-ratio screen, where the preponderance of somewhat similar-looking characters with post-synched dialog made it very difficult for me to follow the story. I'll have to see it again under better conditions. Meantime, here's Mr. Darr to pick up the slack.

Please indulge for a moment an audience beef. Towards the end of the film, one of le amiche utters a very poignant, telling line, revealing a masochistic aspect of her relationship with men. The audience, perceiving in this an outdated sexual attitude, erupted in jeers and hisses. Whether the contempt was directed at past mores, at the tragic character, or at Antonioni himself, its expression was quite unwarranted.

Supposedly the restoration of the film was done digitally due to scratching, dirt, and excessive grain (!) on the negative, on the questionable theory that mitigation of localized damage justifies altering the character of the image as a whole, and that interpolating (basically inventing) hidden information is preferable to teasing out what is really there by cleaning and wet-gate printing. As for the resulting image quality, it was soft, kind of flat, and lacked punch, and some of the scratches were still barely visible. But I've seen worse, to be sure.

Then A Woman Under the Influence. This second viewing confirms it as a Masterpiece. Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk are fantastic, as are the unknowns who flesh out the cast. The kids, while totally different from the kids in Khamsa, prove again that child actors don't always spoil the movies they're in. I was a bit dismayed to find that the fourth reel of this print had already acquired a preponderance of fine scratches. You have to be careful who you let run your restorations, UCLA! (And they are, in general.)

OK, more soon...