April 20 to May 4, 2000
This year, San Francisco was Coppola ga-ga. Opening night saw Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999) consumed like jawbreakers stuffed in Marlon’s maw. We like you, Sofia, we really like you, was the mantra as local journalists sucked up to the winery runner/café owner’s progeny. The excitement of an opening night film made by a Coppola created a sense of community that transcended aesthetic shortcomings and gave Sofia her moment in the sunlit fields as male viewers pondered, once again, what it might be like to be a 13-year-old girl. The film itself is a sweetly awkward thing, dreamily lensed speculations on what it means to be teenage, female, and sexually budding, combined with misfired humor and a media sideshow that concretizes the very feminine mystique the film wishes to preserve.
A press release boasted that forty percent of the films in the festival this year were made by women (this viewer’s percentage seen veered closer to thirty). A large number of these came from France, from whence another daughter of a genius flew in under the radar and delivered a film about the space the modern world has created between working with our hands and working with our bodies. New Dawn (Emilie Deleuze, 1999) starts on the dreary Metro and bursts into a song of protest led by a video game tester, Alain (Samuel Le Bihan), who is joined by a guy in a Spiderman mask. Unexpectedly mixing realms of fantasy and the mind-numbingness of work, New Dawn draws parallels between computers, cranes, physical desire, and the primacy of the physical; it would make a perfect computer screen vs. earth double bill with Office Space (Mike Judge, 1999). Alain gives up his video game testing to work cranes, a move that ships him away from his family to an intensive training camp where he meets his absurd object of desire, Manu (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), a younger chap obsessed with heavy machinery and heavy metal who admires Alain’s joystick prowess. Away from his family, Alain is drawn to Manu, and their dancefloor-clearing exploits make stupid once again the male need to jump around and kick. It’s the homoerotic Karate Kid (John G. Avildsen, 1984) of bulldozer movies.
Coppola has us watching her watching boys watch girls; Deleuze has us watching her watching men watch men. Both create fresh fields of space, and focus on the gestural (giggles and glances in Virgin Suicides, Alain fingering his wife in a bathtub as she washes the back of their child in New Dawn), but Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) changes the stakes of watching altogether. Denis makes seeing primal and mysterious. Suddenly we are watching ourselves watch cinematographer Agnés Godard watch Denis watch men who in turn watch each other. And while a number of viewers were watching their watch, the rest were hypnotized like Denis Lavant’s irrational Legionnaire. Aged to a skewered Robert Ryanesque vision of leather and experience, Lavant continues to be master of movement and momentum; no one knows when he’ll stop and no one really wants him to, do they? Not Denis, who provides a coda of intensely rendered ecstatic unknowingness, capturing the power in Lavant’s elegantly off starts and stops.
One of the pleasures of the SFIFF is its experimental programs which offer the chance to see what exactly cinematic edges are being cut. The only truly home-grown movie I saw was the aptly titled Flip Film (Alfonso Alvarez and Ellen Ugelstad, 1999), a one-minute animated city portrait. Barely experimental, it was more quaint than cutting-edge, allowing the audience a sixty-second respite during an avant-garde screening that offered up such knowingly knowing fare as Domain (Julie Morray, 1999), which misguidedly riffs violence and religious imagery aimed at tots to no end. Jim Jennings’ longish Miracle on 34th Street (2000) lets us see what an underexposed camera receives as it maneuvers through swarms on Santa’s street, splashes of white briefly puncturing the black screen to reveal silhouettes and spots of space. Phil Solomon’s equally rigorous and even more longish Twilight Psalm II: Walking Distance (1999) is lots of celluloidal boil and burning; it overcomes a too-industrial soundtrack with its fusion of haunting lava-like moves and vaguely rendered humans made less than human, made bubbles, made timeless. notes, letters (Stephanie Barber, 2000) was neither too long nor too knowing and produced the most profound occasion of unremembrance on my part. Too busy trying to figure out what it all meant, I neglected to note down the words passing across the screen or what was beneath them, but I can tell you I was strangely moved, and I desire to see it once more just so I can again become so wrapped up that I forget to remember.
Found footage has become so institutionalized by 2000 that it gets its own program (“Putting films together because they’re similar isn’t always the best idea,” remarked one festgoing friend). What Bruce Conner saw in the original Spike Jones was an eruption of instability, one image crashing or flowing into the next with unpredictable dexterity and force. Times have changed and, yeah, our TV commercials do that now. Luckily the ’90s had Craig Baldwin and Martin Arnold keeping us in check, offering new ways of approaching found footage. Unfortunately their influence, particularly Arnold’s, can be found in stuff like Oz Mix (Harada Ippei, 1999) and 2 Spellbound (Les LeVeque, 1999), which cutely pseudo-critique Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) and Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945) by telling us broadly what Ozu and Hitchcock said sorta subtly; even more unfortunately these “found-footage” videos are set to late-’80s techno-type tunes. Then there is Outer Space (Peter Tscherkassky, 1999), which returns to the forgotten found footage model of Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1934), transfiguring Barbara Hershey’s rape-ridden romp through The Entity (Sydney J. Furie, 1981) into an otherworldly onset of sound and fracture that is only briefly marred by Tscherkassky’s need to late in the game acknowledge the film’s self-reflexivity by inserting sprocket holes in the exquisite image. Leave us nowhere, give us nothing. We know it’s self-reflexive; we don’t need to be reminded.
Genre tropes fetishized to the breaking point also found their way into feature-length narrative in Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-Se, 1999), an honorable entry into the growing genre of international bad-ass films. Detective Woo (Joong-Hoon Park) is the good/bad guy chasing the crooks with a slumped walk and a proclivity to baseball bats. Drenched, washed-out end-of-cinema cinema notable for its two opening set pieces and conclusion, Nowhere to Hide immediately finds beauty in bludgeoning perps in a white heat blaze before orchestrating, with aching stillness, a gangland killing to the Bee Gees’ “Holiday.” If its procedural progression breaks down into a stylized series of variations on ways to beat bad guys, Lee manages to pull it out in the extended face off that closes the film.
Elsewhere, international bad-ass Takeshi Kitano was demonstrating his Jerry Lewis side in Kikujiro (1999). Hooked up with a cute kid as deadpan as he, Kitano sets out on another road trip; the parental search suggests Big Daddy (Dennis Dugan, 1999) meets Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano, 1984), and if it weren’t so funny that might be an apt comparison. With his sadistic and sentimental streaks keeping each other in check, Kitano just about comes out clean on the other side. His compositions present the humor with maximum efficiency, and there is something daring about his continued willingness to bring even his most deliberately paced films to a dead halt so the characters can just spend time goofing off. Nothing is forced here, whether Kitano is dishing out punishment to a pedophile in a park, gambling away the kid’s dough, or playing blind to flag down a car. Kitano’s comedic talents are finally on full display for an international audience more accustomed to his violent gangster persona.
One Piece! (Shinobu Yaguchi & Takuji Suzuki, 1999), a Japanese comedy consisting of 14 short sketches, each shot with single cameras in fixed positions, is a no-budget shot-on-video affair that lacked the necessary charm and compositional savvy to successfully execute such a venture. A promisingly slight premise that centers on instances of embarrassment and miscommunication, it comes off like an immobile Benny Hill on Benzedrine. It’s not clear what pills Portugal’s João César Monteiro is popping, but God’s Wedding (1999) finds international cinema’s randiest rapscallion at his most iconic. Returning to the screen as João de Deus, Monteiro continues to distinguish himself as the greatest lecherous physical presence in the movies. This time João is given unlimited wealth and power by the guy upstairs, all played out in the first unwavering shot, in which he slowly sets out his lunch, eats (sort of), litters, takes a leak against a tree, and sits there waiting as his ship comes in. The world at his fingertips, João becomes dashing savior to a nubile young thing whom he immediately hauls to a nunnery only to pay her a visit in a tuxedo days later-slyly flirting with the head Sister as he overloads his lunch plate. Practicing his own brand of slowed-down slapstick, Monteiro punctures preconceptions about power and age, beauty and desire. If the film wavers when it verges into farcical political critique, it is perhaps because the story is most convincing when João is busy gathering pubic hairs for his collection and requesting a glance of nipple from behind bars. And after his static-camera romp with yet another sweet young thing, everything else is kind of anticlimactic, even when he tries to nail a pillow. If only he’d gotten to those virgin suicides it might’ve been a different story.
Monteiro would have been an inspired choice for the SFIFF’s Akira Kurosawa lifetime achievement award, but they decided to give it to some guy named Abbas Kiarostami instead. Kiarostami, widely regarded as toe-to-toe with Hou Hsiao-hsien as the ’90s’ international filmmaker par excellence, was in San Francisco to pick up his award after a screening of his latest film, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). Striking a pose as cool as Kitano, Kiarostami never doffed his shades and, on receiving his award, immediately handed it over to prerevolutionary-Iran cinema star Behrooz Vossoughi (to the delight of in-the-know audience members). When pressed about what The Wind Will Carry Us is all about, Kiarostami elided questions, better to preserve the mystery. The film itself is full of it, from the off-screen crew that exists only on the sound track to the never occurring event they showed up to film. Moments of humor involving cell phones endeared the film to the audience I saw it with (and yes, despite prescreening admonitions to turn off electronic transmitting devices, a cell phone rang in the balcony). Aside from the respites into gentle laughter the film offered, the award ceremony seemed buried under the weight of world cinema, as if San Francisco’s screens were about to implode on account of Kiarostami’s presence.
Kiarostami lent the festival a feeling of actually being-on-the-map. San Francisco cinephiles have known for awhile that this festival, while a boon for locals, is somewhat doomed by its place on the calendar. The films on view have made the festival rounds, and the cognoscenti are busy speculating what Cannes will offer up in less than a month and lamenting how those films won’t make it here for another year. However that doesn’t stop anyone from basking in the pleasures delivered by films from the likes of Kiarostami, Kitano, Monteiro, Coppola, or Denis. The trailer for this year’s SFIFF was a techno-cyberpunk thingamabob that was more Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo, 1995) than Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999). It pandered to the Bay Area’s rampant dotcom technomania and presented as its mascot a faceless male in an orange Beastie Boy jump suit and glowing face mask that emitted movie images like life depended on it. Sometimes, it seems, life does.