Tindersticks' Stuart Staples brought his gorgeously moody music to bear on Claire Denis clips at the Castro Theatre.

Snapshots Reveal Personal Side of SFIFF54

Michael Read, editor May 1, 2011

Tindersticks Light Up Denis Clips
Your (or at least my) otherwise typical frantic Monday gave way this week to the mellow evening collapse into a high balcony seat to let the wash of colors on and off the screen massage eyes and ears, as British chamber-rock band Tindersticks took the Castro stage during SFIFF54, filling the inimitable movie palace with a transporting range of sounds set to an absorbing montage of faces and scenes—all culled from six films the band had scored for French auteur Claire Denis and her intimate, mysterious, tactile, delicate, passionate, sensual, fierce, erotic camera. Largely instrumental passages punctuated by the deep, rich croon of lead singer Stuart Staples came backed by orchestral touches from a gorgeous string section. The clips toggled between scenes from Nénette et Boni, Trouble Every Day, Friday Night, The Intruder, 35 Shots of Rum and White Material, and almost every one felt like a work of filmic portraiture unto itself, especially as brought viscerally forward by Tindersticks’ enveloping live score.

High points were many, including a languid, lingering shot of a couple kissing to the gentle, probing explorations of the band, or the latter’s break into a wild frenzy of orchestral tumult over which rose reverberating blasts of trumpet (bringing a wild horseback ride through a frozen landscape excitingly to life). Then there was the notoriously carnivorous sex-murder scene from Trouble Every Day, in which a man impulsively tears down the makeshift wood partition separating his room from that of a gorgeous temptress dispensing a brand of carnal knowledge from which he’ll never recover. Audiences left that night gently, satisfyingly altered and, in at least one instance, cautioned. Asked what he took away from the evening, Festival-goer Jim, still reeling from the face-biting reel, delivered this lesson: “The boards are there for a reason. Don’t take down the boards.”—Robert Avila

Personal Stamp

In 1977 a postcard reached Pune, India, where Terence Stamp had been meditating and practicing tantric sex for a number of years. It contained an offer he couldn't refuse. "It had always been my great ambition to work with Marlon Brando," Stamp said, so he emerged from the ashram to play the bad guy in Richard Donner's Superman. A meeting of iconic gravitas? "We felt really sort of silly, the outfits and everything. I'm looking at Marlon and he's looking at me, and we're both on planet Krypton." A second offer was made by Brando to Stamp, regarding two "dishy" traveling companions. Unfortunately, it typifies much of Friday's discussion at the San Francisco International Film Festival between Stamp and film critic Elvis Mitchell: too good to miss and too dirty to repeat. (Let's just say that the swinging ’60s didn't end in 1970.) Stamp has always embodied a reassured presence, which he credits in part to an experience collaborating with Federico Fellini. Il maestro's direction left a little to be desired (and was beyond X-rated), but working for him was a gift. "What happened during the shooting," Stamp recalled, "was that I used to wake up laughing. And I suddenly realized that this guy, who was one of the world's greatest living directors, really liked me. He never did much more than one take. I thought, Fellini doesn't just like what I do, he likes what I had. It gave me this incredible confidence." The evening ended with a rare screening of Fellini's film Toby Dammit, selected for the Festival by Stamp himself. In some regards, his choice seems like a cunning joke about career achievement awards. Stamp plays an exhausted actor visiting a foreign country to receive an award, whose acceptance speech takes a turn for the bizarre. His character says, "It's not true that I'm a great actor, no it's not true. I could have been, but I haven't worked for over a year. My last director complained because he said I was drunk. I don't know why I came here. What do you want from me?" —Ryan Prendiville

Grim Fairy Tale
As the Bob Dylan lyric goes, "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose." But when what you lose is a family fortune, the repercussions can be overwhelming. Director Eva Mulvad ruminates on the notions of money and family in her documentary The Good Life, an uncomfortably personal examination of the relationship between an elderly Danish woman named Mette and her peevish middle-aged daughter, Anne. "It is a drama between a mother and a daughter. It needs to be honest and pretty intimate," said Mulvad at Thursday's Q&A. Having gone from 40 years of living large to a new reality of pinching euros, it's not surprising that tension and dysfunction permeate Mette and Anne's everyday activities. "One of my ambitions was to work with a complex character," Mulvad explained in reference to Anne. "It was a big challenge to not make (her) unlikeable. I hope you understand her, why she is the person she is today." Mette wishes the best for her daughter, but fears their troubled relationship will end like a Greek tragedy. "I was actually looking for a happy end for the story, but somehow it's more the way it is in reality," said Mulvad. "I would have loved it to be different." Knowing this makes the close-up shot of a Shakespeare misquote in the women's apartment all the more poignant: "We sleep just to dream." The Good Life screens again May 1 at the Kabuki at 9:30 pm. —Monique Montibon

Sublime Noise
Perhaps the most ingenious film at this year’s SFIFF is the Swedish offering Sound of Noise, which had its SF premiere at the Kabuki yesterday with codirector Johannes Stjärne Nilsson and production designer Cecilia Sterner in the house to chat with a clearly beguiled audience. The film picks up where Stjärne Nilsson and Ola Simonsson’s sensational 2001 short Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers—for which six guerrilla musicians break into a flat to make astonishing music with household objects—left off. “We thought we were done with the concept,” Stjärne Nilsson said, “but we continued to perform music with objects such as forklifts and cars. We came up with so many ideas that we decided to work on a script and see what happened.” The director reported that in preparation for the film he and Simonsson, along with composer and drummer Magnus Börjeson, spent a year collecting sounds and recording them. “When you make music in this way you have to be humble,” he said. “Some sounds simply don’t lend themselves to music. For instance, we planned a scene for a park lake, where the drummers played on water. It was a very peaceful, moonlit scene. But in the end Magnus wanted to scrap it. He said that no matter what he did, the music ended up sounding like he was going to the bathroom.” The codirectors developed the script in parallel with creating the music, an endeavor that proved more complicated than they could have imagined. “Sometimes we had to rewrite in order to make it work musically. But we knew one thing: the music had to drive the story forward. It should not be like a classic musical film, where actors stop to sing and dance and then continue with the story line.” In exploring the comic potential of a fascinating conceit—the creation of music as a criminal activity—the filmmakers and their drummers have borrowed from movie musicals, crime capers and classic love stories to create something wholly unique.—Michael Read

First Lady of the Kabuki
A lively crowd gathered at the Kabuki Theatre last night for a Bay Area debut of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s incisive new documentary Miss Representation, which takes aim at the pervasive problem of gender inequality in the United States and beyond. This latest endeavor by San Francisco’s former first lady, who can count a Stanford MBA, environmental conservation work and several roles in TV and film among her numerous accomplishments, is nothing short of empowering and highly relevant. Newsom took to the stage before and after the screening to say a few words about the film and the social action campaign that underlies it. The impassioned Q&A session, launched by San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat, encouraged an already motivated audience to think critically about feminism and how it has evolved in recent years. When asked about the challenges of undertaking a project that was as personal as it is political, Newsom eloquently described a “dance” that allowed her to tread a fine line between the two. More importantly, though, she commented on just how necessary a film like this is, not just for women but for men as well. “At the end of the day,” she said, “we all have at least one woman in our lives that we respect and revere.” Reason enough, the audience decided, to level the playing field once and for all. The next and final SFIFF screening of Miss Representation is at New People on Wednesday, May 4 at 5:45 pm. —Damon O'Donnell

Altered State
“I went to a psychic a few years ago. She said to me, ‘I can’t figure out what you do. Are you a general in the army?’….Every film is its own war story, epic or battle royal.” So recalled Christine Vachon, producer of 60 features and founder of Killer Films, in her State of Cinema address. Rather than lament the inevitable death of the arthouse theater, Vachon remains optimistic about the ever-evolving modes of distribution and consumption of cinematic product. “Independent film has died and been reborn at least three or four times over the course of my career. And every time it happens, it reminds me of how terrified we are of change. Thirty years ago you had Hollywood and experimental films and not much in between. But then Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee start to make movies without asking permission to make them. Filmmakers were saying, ‘I’m not seeing my life reflected on screen,’ so they made films that did. And I can see that happening again, but not in theaters. It’s happening in places like YouTube and Hulu.” Vachon is inspired by young filmmakers who shoot on shoestring budgets and utilize the Internet to market and disseminate their work. “If I were going to name this talk,” she joked, “I would call it ‘The State of Cinema is Not Necessarily Taking Place in the Cinema.’” But ultimately, passion is the key ingredient to getting a film made and in front of viewers—be they online or in theaters. “There’s a reason Killer Films has stayed in business so long. We are like cockroaches—we will eat the plaster after the nuclear holocaust. But we are still here because we really care about the films we do.” Listen to a full podcast of last night’s State of Cinema address. —Jennifer Preissel

Les Artistes
“I kept myself out of it until I realized I was keeping myself out of it.” So said Lynn Hershman Leeson of her latest endeavor !Women Art Revolution, a documentary about the history of feminist art dating back to the heady days of the ’60s and ’70s. It was the era when artists like Judy Chicago and Nancy Spero were revolutionizing art history by introducing radical teaching departments to universities, opening women’s galleries, founding publications and producing controversial pieces that upended the status quo of what the art world—dominated by white men—had been for decades. “I was encouraged by many people to tell the story of the evolution of that revolution and I was a part of that,” Leeson remarked. The director left thousands of hours of footage on the cutting room floor, but all those outtakes are thankfully featured at, a collaborative site that documents the fractured but inspiring history of women artists. In Leeson’s words, the film was a collection of “leftovers”—interviews she shot with friends and colleagues like Chicago, whom she filmed in the comfortable setting of a bathroom where they could get the best sound quality. “I felt so honored that these women would be so honest with me in front of the camera. I felt a responsibility to be respectful to these artists who changed American culture. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”—Jennifer Preissel

We Are All Made of Stars
Astronomers have found that the matter found on earth is existent throughout the cosmos; the calcium found on other planets is elementally the same as the calcium in human bones. Patricio Guzmán’s beautifully intriguing documentary Nostalgia for the Light takes this idea of interconnectivity a step further. Fielding questions from an adoring and enthusiastic audience, Guzmán explained that he sought to examine “the past of human beings and the past of matter. I believe human beings need to have an explanation of where they came from.” The process of making the film began with choosing his subjects: scientists, survivors and searchers. In the thin, dry air of Chile’s Atacama Desert, some are observing the skies and digging the earth for clues to our origins while others are surveying the arid landscape for signs of human remains from a more recent past. Realizing that they told “parallel stories, like columns,” Guzmán designed an artful way for both stories and tellers to intersect. One scientist, the daughter of political prisoners who were disappeared under Augusto Pinochet’s 1970s regime, waited seven months before agreeing to be interviewed. She explained in the film how being an astronomer brings her some peace in the realization that everything is part of a continuous cycle of life. “If not for her, there would not have been an ending to the film,” Guzmán said. “But you must not push. You let things happen by themselves.” —Monique Montibon

Brothers from Another Planet
Festival programmer Sean Uyehara made it all sound so straightforward: He would introduce the Zellner brothers, a pair of Austin-based filmmakers. There would be shorts, a talk, more shorts and a final Q&A. Simple, right? Then a decrepit elderly man wandered to the stage. Resembling Hans Moleman, he read a prepared statement: “Hello there. Welcome. My name is David and Nathan Zellner, but you can call me Bobo. I come from the planet Fluborg, hold for applause.” This was only the first surprise in Sunday night’s From A to Zellner, a live performance and shorts showcase from the Zellner brothers, whose absurd work so often turns expectations on their head. The piece Flotsam/Jetsam emerged from a purely aesthetic desire, according to David. “For a long time I thought it would be fun to be out in the middle of the ocean on a raft made of luggage with a vacuum and a chicken on it.” When exactly that hallucinatory, poetic struggle of a man adrift at sea turned into a hysterical pseudo documentary of a shark attack is just part of the Zellner’s mystique. Throughout the night’s strange variety show, there was no predicting what would come next, with costume changes, additional characters played by their supposed grandfather (a Bay Area native born in 1923 just blocks away in a Fillmore abortion clinic), or that the brothers and elder statesman would end the show with an unplanned rendition of Limahl's theme from The Neverending Story, complete with a choreographed tap-dancing duet. —Ryan Prendiville

Love in the Time of Banking
In his dispassionate yet tremendously intriguing drama The City Below, German filmmaker Christoph Hochhäusler explores the emotional subcurrents of the contemporary banking world. A love affair between a young woman, married to a promising underling, and her husband’s steely boss is set amidst the apocalyptic menace of the imminent banking crisis. Both parties exhibit the German-style irrationality of raw emotion, which feels rather premeditated, reserved, and at times even non sequitur. The questionable likability of the main protagonists is well compensated by the highly mystifying layout of their interactions and the underlying motivations, which the viewer is continually drawn to attempt to unriddle. On screen, the statuesque Nicolette Krebitz, who plays the adulterous wife Svenja, looks like she has just stepped down from an erotically charged Helmut Newton poster. However, during Friday’s Q&A she appeared as a soft-spoken, lovely actress, eager to share her thoughts and experiences relating to her challenging performance of a woman with obscure, contradictory motivations. “It was very interesting to play a woman who seems to be free, yet, she does not really do what we consider is necessary to do to be free,” explained the actress. The process of creating her character took a lot of time and preparation. “Christoph Hochhäusler is very, very detail-oriented,” she elaborated on her collaboration with the director. In response to the audience’s burning question about the bewildering finale, the actress put it simply, “I don’t know. It is up to you to decide. To me, it was like a painting, a beautiful, perplexing painting.”—Galina Stoletneya

Masters of the Universe
New to the San Francisco International Film Festival this year was the Master Classes series, a collection of three sessions, each offering a unique, intimate look at the inner-workings involved in creating cinema. The series featured acclaimed guests, including renowned French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon, who discussed the ever-evolving roles of film critics, legendary screenwriter Frank Pierson, who offered a step-by-step look at writing the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, and Alison Dickey and Azazel Jacobs, makers of this year’s Centerpiece film, Terri, who discussed the working relationship between the producer and director.

Renowned producer and screenwriter Frank Pierson, known for penning numerous films including Presumed Innocent, as well as being the one responsible for the famous decree in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” shared his process of developing Dog Day Afternoon. Pierson discussed the struggle he had writing the main character, who was based on real-life bank robber John Wojtowicz after he never had the opportunity to talk with Wojtowicz. “I was ready to quit, but I had already spent the advance from [Warner Brothers] and I was going through a divorce.” He tried to look for consistent traits expressed about Wojtowicz from those he did talk to. “I found that all of the characters felt betrayed [by Wojtowicz]. In every case he was always making a promise that he would do good things for them.”

Since meeting in 1997, producer Alison Dickey and Azazel Jacobs were looking for a project to work together on, and they expressed their shared determination to get Terri finished, no matter the challenges. Despite the up and downs securing finances, the pair, “kept proceeding as if funding was coming.” “Really, what we did was just start making the movie,” Dickey said. “When people ask, ‘How do I start?’ You just break it down and start on what you can.”

Although Terri has already received critical acclaim, offering such acclaim is not what critics should be doing, according to French critic Jean-Michel Frodon. He argued that the work of film critics has been simplified in the United States, now offering a simple ‘thumbs up or down’ rating for film. “A critic is not meant to impose on people’s taste,” he argued. “It is to try and elaborate, because you have a bigger understanding.”—Kim Nunley