February 11, 2007

PIFF Dispatch. 1.

In his first dispatch, DK Holm not only reviews four films but offers a fine and fun introduction to Portland and its festival as well. It runs through February 25.

Portland International Film Festival Round numbers make convenient landmarks. Thus, as the Portland International Film Festival embarks on its 30th season of films, its venerable age invites comment and reminiscence. Especially because with Portland, Oregon, being such a weird movie town, it's a surprise that the festival has lasted this long in the first place.

PIFF, as it inevitably came to be abbreviated, began in the spring of 1977 in a small art film theater called The Movie House. This theater was part of the Seven Gables chain, based in Seattle, and the brain child of a tempestuous former bookstore owner named Randy Finley, who turned the bright idea of occasional showings of movies based on novels, amid the stacks of books, into a mini theatrical empire. Seven Gables eventually came to open three theaters in Portland. It thrived. And then... it didn't. Two years later, the festival came under the guardianship of the Northwest Film Study Center (as it was then called).

The Northwest Film Center (as it is now known) is a branch of the Portland Art Museum, and its mission statement announces itself as "a regional media arts organization founded to encourage the study and appreciation of the moving image arts; foster their artistic and professional excellence; and to help create a climate in which they may flourish." The NWFC sponsors a film school, exhibits a prolific number of films per month, and has various outreach programs, notably one within the Portland public school system. Mounting the month-long festival takes all year, and makes for an intense final two months both for the staff and the local reviewers, not to mention the city's film buffs.

Speaking of which, Portland has a reputation for being movie mad, but that is something of an exaggeration. Seattle is the movie-crazy city, where a huge rental shop like Scarecrow Video can thrive and someone like Guy Maddin can drop in and easily shoot a whole feature film with the cooperation of local film-friendly organizations. Portlanders, on the other hand, like movies, sure, but they tend to favor the films everyone else in America likes. Portlanders are the most massive of mass audiences. For example, the Burt Reynolds "comedy" Hooper made more money in Portland than in any other market back in 1978, the second year of PIFF. Meanwhile, that same year Northern Lights (one of the first of the modern era independent films, back when they were truly independent), Martin and Bread and Chocolate did little business. Portland's blandness of sensibility has rendered it one of those perfect market research burgs, where corporations audition brands.

Portland breeds a different sort of filmgoer. This is the town where its seemingly unemployed Generation Why sit for hours within its numerous coffee houses drinking $5 dollar brews seriatim and typing endlessly into their brand new MacBooks. Everyone in Portland is "in a band." Or they own a brew pub. Or they virtually live in one. Portland Man rides his bike to work (cursing at the Earth-fracking cars the entire route), enters each of the city's monthly foot race marathons, works for the city (probably the Water Bureau), shops at Whole Foods, and to this day thinks back fondly on that wine tour of Provence he and the wife made back in '92. Portland Woman, by contrast, is an independent and independently minded citizen who can't find a worthy male. She is a mirror image of the Sex in the City gals but without the clothes. She is obsessed with shopping, eating, her figure, her co-workers and office politics, her favorite celebrities (or her favorite causes), and is either about to enter, is in, or has just departed her Fag Hag stage. They complain about never meeting any good men and then move in with a meth addict. Personals ads here are very popular and highly effective. People in Portland don't "date." They have a date, and then get married.

Within this context, it's a wonder that any films get seen at all. Yet over the years, the festival has expanded from one small venue to its current reach, four auditoria scattered throughout the city (though all of the theaters are confined to the city's downtown area), hosting a dizzying number of offerings.

The Portland International Film Festival is unusual among film festivals. It's rather stripped down, in comparison to the annual Leviathan in Seattle. It offers no prizes (though results of an audience poll are announced a few weeks after the festival ends). Generally it doesn't host filmmakers or offer panels. What if does have, however, is films in abundance. Indeed one might say all out of proportion to the city's population and its movie love meter rating. Last year, the festival offered 134 films and attracted 30,000 viewers. This year, PIFF offers some 80 feature films in the span of 17 days. The festival's daily schedule, which includes at least 20 films, tests the dedicated film buff's mathematical and logistical ingenuity.

Das Leben der Anderen The Portland International Film Festival opened on Friday with a gala celebration staged at one of the city's modestly outfitted live theater venues, the Newmark. The opening night film was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), with the director in attendance.

Von Donnersmarck's film is, simply put, a masterpiece. It tells a story of some intricacy, delicacy, complexity and political import. At the same time, it is technically accomplished, and is at least as visually stylish as Scorsese's The Departed, which is to say that on the camera-flourishes chart, both films rest at about 8, low for a Scorsese but high for anyone else. It probably won't win an Oscar as Best Foreign Film (it's up against Pan's Labyrinth in that category), but is a more coherent work, being pitched somewhat lower.

Set in East Germany in 1984, the film's overriding concern is the ambiguity of a society in which one half of the citizens watches the other half (a theme, it appears, of the similar Red Road, also in the festival and to be reviewed later) and the possibility that dissent might spring up within the soul or mind of one of the oppressors. Von Donnersmarck's exercise in 70s Cinema of Paranoia offers us five interesting characters. The first is a popular playwright who is that rare man in a Communist county, a true believer. The second is a Stasi agent, a kind of Harry Caul who is assigned the task of leading a surveillance team against him. The man making the assignment is his direct supervisor, one of those cheerful mid-level managers who somehow manages to get away with statements and actions that would land others in deep trouble (the Bill Haydon of his particular spy club). His immediate boss is a high party official, who essentially dispenses or withholds governing arts funding, and he has asked the mid-level manager to have the playwright watched. Why? Because the bloated boss lusts after the playwright's mistress, a pill-popping actress who needs the party official like an indie rock star needs her connection. Thus is an imprisoning chain forged.

Captain Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi agent, is played by Ulrich Mühe (Funny Games), an actor who manages, at the film's beginning, to make himself smaller than the role. Georg Dreyman the playwright is played by Sebastian Koch (also in Paul Verhoeven's Black Book) with an attractive openness of spirit that is slowly crushed. Lt Col Grubitz, the mid-level manager, is played by Ulrich Tukur, the party official Thomas Hempf by Thomas Thieme and Christa-Maria Sieland, the mistress, by Martina Gedeck. All are superb, yet one feels like a rube gracing the digital bits of GreenCine with praise for the film when J Hoberman calls it "a compelling thriller but an unsatisfying character drama", and both he and Ed Gonzalez of Slant compare it unfavorably to a new documentary about the Stasi prison, The Decomposition of the Soul, Mr Gonzalez adding that The Lives of Others is "obscenely lauded." Or especially Scott Foundas's uniquely harsh review in the LA Weekly (the Oxford-educated, six-foot-nine Von Donnersmarck defends himself against Foundas and other negative reviews in an interview with Michael Guillén [and Michael has since posted a rather alarming and disheartening follow-up]).

The Lives of Others The Lives of Others offers an inherently conservative vision of politics, one that posits that an attempted "ideal" society will inevitably end up corrupted, while at the same time believing optimistically in the ability of individuals to change. Indeed, it is through art itself, in the film's most controversial passages, that Mühe begins to change, lifting poetry from Dreyman's shelves in his absence and weeping quietly over the music emanating from the apartment via the multitude of microphones. In fact, the film's tense, ominous score, credited to Stéphane Moucha and Gabriel Yared (Cold Mountain), which avoids the mindless metronome sea-sawing strings that defines most modern movie music these days, is one of The Lives of Others' reassuring components, along with the editing of Patricia Rommel and cinematography of Hagen Bogdanski. Together they evoke the New Classicism of Coppola, Friedkin, Schatzberg, Bogdanovich and so many others of the 70s renascence. It was probably nostalgia for the lost days of cinema as well as the machinations of the plot's epilogue that brought me to tears, both times I've seen The Lives of Others, at the film's last sentence and final image.

In person at the film's opening on Friday night, Von Donnersmarck proved to be a tall, well-spoken, fresh scrubbed. During the question and answer session on the stage of the Newmark Theater after the film, von Donnersmarck surprised at least one member of the audience (me) by citing Richard Attenborough as a one-time mentor.

Day Two proceeded with a large selection, including a program of shorts, and the features Days of Glory, from Algeria, and, from South Korea, both Woman on the Beach and King and the Clown.

One of my pet peeves is elite and snobbish audiences who go nuts over qualities in art films that they would abjure in American films. You know the type of viewer I mean. The Volvo-driving special-diet fuss budget who not only doesn't like network TV but doesn't even own a television, a point they announce proudly whenever the vulgar subject of television comes up. They also hate "Hollywood," a term which to them means trivializing entertainment designed by corporate masters to distract the masses. Like the Puritans of yore, they can't stand the idea that someone, somewhere is having fun.

Days of Glory So when they are confronted by a film such as Days of Glory they laugh in all the right places, weep in the predetermined spots, and applaud at the end in awe of the film's solemn profundity. If the film had been directed by Steven Spielberg, they would laugh at its manipulative narrative effects and mock its tear-mongering heroics. But because it has the imprimatur of being "foreign," a particular sort of American audience will forgive all that.

Days of Glory (Indigènes) is Rachid Bouchareb's answer to Saving Private Ryan. The film, which Bouchareb co-wrote with Olivier Lorelle, follows four Algerian muslims as they (rather inexplicably by the film's terms) choose to enlist in the Free French army and fight the Germans. The film is divided into several discrete chapters, marked by a date and location in the European Theater, and noted by a von Trierian visual effect in which a high angle landscape image dissolves from black and white to color, as if a full-palate cloud were passing by. In the first sequence, we meet most of the various players.

These men mainly include Saïd Otmari (Jamel Debbouze), a slight of stature illiterate with a disabled right hand (he's the film's mascot-like Radar). There's also Yassir (Samy Naceri) and his brother Larbi (Assaad Bouab), who have joined up for mercenary reasons, to raise funds for Larbi's future wedding. There is the lovable giant Messaoud Souni (Roschdy Zem), who has a fling with a local (Aurélie Eltvedt), and there is the angry rabble rouser Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), who notes with peevish regularity that the French solders are promoted and granted leave while their Algerian brothers are not. Eventually they come under the leadership of the cadaverous-faced Sergeant Roger Martinez (Bernard Blancan), whose mood swings are unpredictable.

If this film were made in the 1930s about WWI, it would star Michel Simon as Messaoud, Marcel Dalio as Saïd and Jean Gabin as Abdelkader. And it would have the same degree of sentimentality, and a similar rousing affect. And it would be equally loved by American art house audiences (if the reaction to the PIFF advance screening of Days of Glory is any measure of its future success). In fact, it's telling that the Weinstein Company picked it up, as the film sports that blend of broad canvass and superficial ideas that made Miramax successful back in the 1990s, and it's hardly a surprise that the film has been nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. But as with most WWII B-films (and their successors, the teen slasher film), the narrative is episodic and arbitrary.

As it turns out, though, has a larger political point. A final title card complains that colonial subjects have been only intermittently compensated for their war efforts, and lawsuits are ongoing. This is an important point, and one wishes that the film were instead based on a Jarndyce and Jarndyce-type tale to get its cause across, instead of clothed in the stale heroics of an action film.

Woman on the Beach Hong Sang-soo's highly touted Woman on the Beach proves to be a sub-Rohmer style tale: quirky lovely females are preyed on by atrocious hypocritical men. In this case, it's an emotionally confused film director dancing between two seemingly similar women. From its sentimental opening musical theme to its static cinematography (occasionally interrupted by sudden jarring zooms, such as the one at the 46-minute mark) and, by virtue of its focus on mundane people and their actions, Woman on the Beach feels curiously bloated and empty at the same time.

The narrative concerns blocked director Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) taking a working vacation to the western shore of Shinduri beach in order to get a handle on a vague script idea he has about the interconnections between people (the sort of idea that everyone is Hollywood appears to be having these days). Kim drags along his dorky production designer (Kim Tae-woo), who is married but who also happens to have a girlfriend, a composer named Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-Joung). Kim steals Moon-sook away from the dork, then pushes her away, then regrets his actions and takes up with another vacationer who supposedly resembles her, and then deals with Moon-sook again when she tracks him down back at the resort. Well, at least he gets his two-page script out of the farrago.

Apparently more "accessible" than Hong's earlier films, which also apparently feature film director protagonists, this is due to the film's absorption in the quotidian: driving, stopping for treats, looking at cherry blossoms, lavishing attention on a couple's dog met on the beach. All of this feels like padding, except the dog, named Dori, which soon comes to symbolize the pinball nature of romantic attachment in Hong's view of society (the dog is cruelly abandoned by its owners, and rescued by a stranger). Kim is like a Neil LaBute character, a charismatic and mature male stealing a dork's unlikely pretty girlfriend, flaunting his experience and power over weaker people. In the end, his character feels like the result of a self-forgiving auto critique.

Others have liked the film, of course, including Todd McCarthy of Variety, Nick Schager of Slant and Andrew Grant, writing here at the Daily.

King and the Clown King and the Clown, on the other hand, is a polished, colorful, epical tale set in Korea's distant past. It is also a plodding, padded, long-winded "tradition of quality" tale that of course proved to be a huge hit in South Korea. The film's popularity is surprising, and also rather encouraging, because of the explicit gay elements of the story, which makes it perhaps the South Korean equivalent of Brokeback Mountain. The plot is simple. Traveling street performers Jang-seng (Kam Woo-sung) and Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi) offend the king (Jung Jin-young) with a satire on his private liaisons. Summoned to the court, they are commanded to amuse the king, who eventually finds himself fixed on the more outwardly feminine Gong-gil. Court intrigue ensues, and "theatricality" motivates numerous late stage plot poins.

King and the Clown takes its own sweet time relaying this otherwise brief tale, and it is one of those films that make it easy to misconstrue the colorful pageantry as authentic art. The film is well-meaning, and not necessarily bad, just rather slow and full of itself. This minority view is not shared by Jamie S Rich at DVD Talk, reviewing the lavish R3 disc, or Robert Keser at Bright Lights.

Two quick related notes: First, Mike Russell is part of the Oregonian team blogging the festival.

And the Lives of Others/Decomposition of the Soul entry still being updated.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 11, 2007 2:39 PM


Thanks to Messers Holm and Hudson for a nice entry about PIFF. Having only been in Portland for half of the 30 iterations of the festival, I didn't know of its curious origins. (And having learned that before 8 am, I plan on excusing my weary brain from further educative efforts for the rest of the day.)

I'd like to offer some qualifications, however, to my friend DK's descriptions of Portland as a tepid film market. I just did research on this matter last week for a talk before the City Club of Portland, a downtown business/politics society, and I came away very impressed with Portland's movie taste and appetite.

To wit: within a 10 minute drive of City Hall, Portland has 27 screens dedicated to independent/alternative/speciality cinema, only 10 of which are owned by the Regal Cinema chain. Within the same distance, there are, conversely, 26 screens dedicated to mainstream Hollywood fare. More strikingly, Vancouver, Washington, a tiny city just across the Columbia River from Portland and serving as one of its suburbs and bedroom communities, boasts three multiplex theaters and one single-screen family-owned theater, and as many as 30% of those screens are devoted to specialty film. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't think of any American city where alternative screens outnumber mainstream screens. Indeed, the only city I can think of offhand that boasts a similar phenomenon is Paris, France.

Whether it's the cause or result of these numbers, I further learned that Portland, the 24th-largest city in the US, is more or less the 24th city in receipts for mainstream films but jumps to something like 12th or 15th for independent films. We get films from distributors like ThinkFilm, Sony Classics and Warner Independent before other towns our size and larger; we keep attending them longer; they even seep out into suburban theaters that are nominally there for major studio films. Numbers in this realm are hard to come by, but I've confirmed the trend in talks with people at almost every important indie (or studio-dependent speciality) distributor. And I can name dozens of films that were hits in Portland and ran longer here than in virtually any other US market: "The Puffy Chair," "Army of Shadows," "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," "The Secret of Roan Inish," "Whale Rider," "The Story of the Weeping Camel," and many more.

We're also bombarded with fests: PIFF, the PDX Fest hosted by the experimental collective Peripheral Produce, the soon-to-debut PLATFORM International Animation Festival, festivals of Jewish, Gay/Les/Bi/Trans, African, music-themed, and regional film, and so on. (As someone who has to manage the calendar, I can tell you it's virtually never free of these events.)

One more set of numbers: a local freelancer who just moved here from Salt Lake City and is fond of statistics told me that according to his records more than 400 feature films opened in Portland for at least one week in 2006; throw in the festival one-offs and small films that play the Northwest Film Center and various other independent theaters and screening societies, and I feel confident that the total number of premieres in a given year in Portland tops 600. Again, that's surely more than 24th in the nation, I'm sure of it.

It's a curiosity, it is, but just as Portland sports what I believe to be the biggest and best bookstore in the world (Powell's City of Books, a national treasure) and is said to have more beer breweries than any city anywhere (this from the beerhunter Michael Jackson), it has a uniquely independent and successful film exhibition culture.

Thanks for the time and for the PIFF posts, which I look forward to more of,

Shawn Levy
Film Critic
The Oregonian

Posted by: Shawn at February 12, 2007 7:40 AM

I love DK’s intro/take on Portand’s movie-love history in this PIFF article. Floored by the writing (not about movies, I guess), and impressed with the references. More is better. More of this kind of writing. More of these kinds of insights and body of knowledge. Thank you.

Posted by: MA Dolley at February 16, 2007 11:04 PM

whatEVer. why the FUCK are we playing nice with this asshole who mashed together a bunch of utterly random, hate-filled stereotypes about women and called them Portland Woman?

if you don't like portland, don't visit. ever. for reasons you're too ignorant to have attempted to understand, we're perfectly happy here leading our bland, sonofabitch-free existences.

Posted by: Portland Woman at February 19, 2007 8:57 PM