May 2, 2006

San Francisco Dispatch. 2.

Following the fabulous success of the first installment, Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow continue their dialogue on the San Francisco International Film Festival. Herein, they discuss the particulars of German expat cinema and the wonders of Backstage, screening tonight as part of the festival's annual "Zoom!" event (and acquired only a few days ago by Strand Releasing).

SFIFF 49 Eaves: So, the recent hiatus in our conversation had more to do with your absence than the overwhelming critical response to our last effort.

Marlow: It's true. The road gathered me up and swallowed me whole. I disappeared for the delightful Independent Film Festival of Boston and the overrated Tribeca Film Festival. At least I was able to return in time for Heaven and Earth Magic, literally driving from the airport directly to the Castro Theatre.

Eaves: It was a great show. The first part of the program seemed a little less popular. Slow hums and beats, broken up by a jarring, loud organ. I loved the second part, though. Individual Deerhoof songs played to abstract color-shapes in motion. I'd heard those songs before, but I was amazed at how much it felt like they were written especially for the shifts in the films.

Marlow: A trick that our mind produces, placing order in the midst of chaos. It's the same effect you get when playing Dark Side of the Moon to a screening of The Wizard of Oz. They were quite successful at selecting the right pieces, of the right durations, for the abstractions. Admittedly, I was a bit biased towards their score, given the many years I hosted a radio program devoted to "broken refrigerator" music. I suspect that there will be more of the same at the Addictive TV event Wednesday night at Mighty. I guess that I should thank Joel Bachar, in part, for putting that together.

Eaves: Was there anything you were sad that you missed?

Marlow: The tributes, mostly. I've met Werner Herzog and Guy Maddin on a few occasions, but I was disappointed to be out of town for the latest feature from the former and what I presume was a fascinating discussion with the latter.

Eaves: They were both pretty captivating in their own way. On receiving his crystal pyramid statuette, Maddin immediately broke into a reverie on the possibility of "death by statuette," both his own and other predecessors. He's been working on a documentary on Winnipeg, so he spoke a bit about that. Winnipeg has the highest concentration of sleepwalkers in the world, apparently, and not just by a little. By a long shot. Of course, its past was populated by charlatans of all kinds. It's also the only place that, by law, allows ex-tenants access to their previous homes. Just for one night, though. He also spoke a little about the condemned warehouse where he keeps his old sets. It's not fully protected from the weather, so they're slowly deteriorating into ruins.

On the other hand, just looking at Herzog's clip reel before the great onstage conversation was enough to remind you how consistently unique and important his work has been. Someone commented to me later that maybe it was because of his contrariness that he didn't suffer the mediocre fate of some of his "New German Cinema" contemporaries. Of course, he denies that there ever was such a group.

Marlow: I agree that the whole "New German Cinema" tag is merely a convenient grouping for historians and little else. As for mediocrity, they can't all die in their prime like Fassbinder. It's a bit difficult to even think of Herzog and Wenders as German directors anymore since their homes are now on this side of the Atlantic. Of course, their combined exposure to American inanities has had a more perverse and detrimental effect on one more than the other.

Eaves: Herzog says that he only makes Bavarian films! You know, like [Jean-Claude] Carrière, he was raised in a small European town with no exposure to cinema.

Marlow: If only we had such a luxury now. Tsai's The Wayward Cloud shows distinctly too much exposure to cinema of every sort. Part melodrama, part musical, part masturbatory fantasy.

Backstage Eaves: Okay, enough of all this. I know that you're dying to talk about Backstage. Everyone keeps telling me about the amazing opening scenes and you can't seem to get that one song out of your head...

Marlow: Emmanuelle Bercot has crafted one of the most self-assured debut features that I've seen in years. The cast is remarkable. Emmanuelle Seigner is quite exceptional as the troubled singer and Isild Le Besco's performance as an adoring fan is believably overwrought. She shows an amazing depth and talent for such a young actress. It certainly helps to have Agnès Godard as the cinematographer, of course. The music, as you mention, is fantastic, but an audience's like or dislike of the material depends somewhat on their affinity for Françoise Hardy-like chanteuses and French pop music. As you know, I hardly listen to anything else these days.

Eaves: Yes, I know how you love the French pop.

Marlow: Backstage is probably the best film about celebrity and hero worship since All About Lily Chou-Chou. Of course, I am a little weary of critics equating Seigner's character to Madonna or lazily, loosely comparing the storyline to All About Eve. What happened to imagination and accuracy in film criticism?

Eaves: For once we can recommend the Zoom! event, a regular feature of the fest. One of the perennials I like the most at SFIFF is a fairly new one, the "State of Cinema" address. Brad Bird last time 'round, Tilda Swinton this year. Guest speakers are asked to deliver a speech on the "State" and that is their only guideline. It has to be intimidating. We don't often sit down and listen to someone speak on a topic for that long, particularly on cinema. The guests really seem to think about it. Bird chose to call for a return to showmanship in theatrical exhibition. Swinton read a letter she had written to her young son, responding to his question, "What were dreams like before cinema?"

Marlow: I suppose that I should state definitively, for the record, that I was not paid by the festival to ask my so-called "question" of Tilda Swinton. People can stop asking me about that now. I was a bit surprised that Graham Leggat selected me out of the audience. I could see him hesitate before he finally gave in. That man is a true risk-taker.

Eaves: That might've been the softest softball I've ever seen pitched. "Honorary citizen of San Francisco," indeed! We seemed to have has a weekend of actors getting passionate about creative distribution.

Marlow: A reference, no doubt, to our late evening drinking session with John Turturro and Suzanne McCloskey at the Clift on Saturday. He admitted a few times that he's ready to forego two years of his acting career in order to head up a Hollywood studio. Any takers? Even if he did the worst job imaginable, he'd be certain to do much better than the current suits in power.

Eaves: Amen.

Marlow: I suppose it's safe to say, with only a few days remaining, that the festival is a real improvement over recent editions.

Eaves: There's a real energy about it this year. All of the staffers and volunteers seem so happy. There's a great Polaroid of Graham in the Hospitality Suite, asleep, and scrawled underneath, "The boss, one week to go."

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Posted by dwhudson at May 2, 2006 4:59 AM


Marlowe loves French pop?!!! We need to talk, Jonathan. I have lots! And have access to even more: my friend Michael Hawley is nuts about French pop.

Posted by: Michael Guillen at May 2, 2006 8:59 AM

In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Hardy, you'll find France Gall, Brigitte Fontaine, Jane Birkin, Sylvie Vartan and other Yé-yé singers in constant rotation.

Posted by: Jonathan Marlow at May 2, 2006 9:42 AM

For those of us who were unable to attend the address, would you mind relating this "softest of softballs"?

Posted by: Brian at May 2, 2006 10:32 AM

It is partially quoted above. I asked, given Tilda Swinton's connection to Bay Area filmmaking (regarding Teknolust, The Deep End and so forth), if she could be considered an honorary citizen of San Francisco. To which, of course, she readily accepted. No surprise there (and none intended).

Posted by: Jonathan Marlow at May 2, 2006 10:48 AM