SIFF Interruptus

Normally, I would be covering the Seattle International Film Festival next month. Due to professional and personal reasons, however, I’ve decided not to cover it this year. I’ll still be attending its movies, and I’ll still be working at one of its venues, but I won’t be writing about it here, or (as happened last year) on Twitter. The professional reason is that I’ll be working more hours this year than in the past, and so will have less time to write about my festival experiences. The personal reason is private.

I will, however, be covering Sakura-Con this weekend, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. I’ve got a couple of interviews lined up, and I’m excited about the panels and events being offered. I also have a new photographer helping me out with photo-taking this year (and, more importantly, being in charge of lugging my camera around). Hopefully I’ll post my entries before the end of April, and may even write a few posts during the Con itself!

Until next time!

P.S. While I’m not covering the festival, I do wish to draw your attention to SIFF’s new layout for its website. It’s pretty!


SIFF 2016: Highlights and Observations


Opening Night Gala (Thursday, May 19)

IMG_0886For the first time in the seven years I’ve attended the festival, opening night didn’t have great weather. It also didn’t have any guests from the opening night film, which makes me wonder if there was a Q&A after the movie ended (the cast were still enjoying the society in Cannes, possibly at a cafe). If SIFF had held it a week early, the weather would’ve been gorgeous, but on Thursday night, it rained, though since the rain didn’t start until after 7 in North Seattle, I’m hopeful that everyone was inside the venue before it began.

It turned to a light drizzle by the time I arrived for the gala proper, and had dissipated by night’s end. As happens with movies made by people with the last name of Allen or Polanski, controversy followed the selection of Cafe Society as the opening night film (and led to an article here from the executive director of Reel Grrls), but it did open Cannes, and it did put butts in seats. Since the only thing I’m privy to at SIFF is how to make a good latte, I can’t tell you why it was chosen over other films, and speculation is for cable news.

Since I had a big dinner, I didn’t have much of the food at the Opening Night Gala, though it looked delicious. The music was great, too, and since I always find myself directly in front of the speakers, I remembered to bring earplugs this time, which means I could hear the day after. The only mishap involved using a cheap bottle opener to open bottles of sparking water for some lovely ladies, cutting my finger on one of the bottle caps. When the bleeding stopped, I went back to dancing, though I missed the conga line.

Best Films of the Festival (That I Saw)

Best Overall: Our Little Sister (Kore-eda Hirokazu)


Photo courtesy of SIFF

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest film employs genius Kanno Yoko’s touching compositions with a story that is lighter and funnier than most of Kore-eda’s other films, but just as profound. In fact, I’d put this one up there with his best (Maborosi, After Life, Nobody Knows,  possibly I Wish). The plot is simple: three grown sisters discover they have a younger step-sister at their father’s funeral and invite her to live with them. Kore-eda deals humanely with each sister, and while the dramas they deal with are small, there is such warmth in the film that only people who confuse darkness with depth will mind.

Best Documentary: Tower (Keith Maitland)


Photo courtesy of SIFF

This intense film uses actors and actresses to recount the first person experiences of several people affected by the first school shooting in U.S. history, which took place when a sniper climbed the clock tower at the University of Texas in 1966 and began firing on the people below. The filmmakers use the same kind of animation seen in Linklater’s Waking Life, along with actual footage, to give the audience the sense of the extreme heat, heroism, cowardice, and fear that people felt on that day. No explanations are given as to why the sniper did what he did; his name is not even mentioned. This film is about the people who were affected by the gunman, not the gunman himself. And while a late segue into more recent school shootings fumbles a bit in linking together all of these tragedies as stemming from the same cause, it is the only stumble that the film makes. One could argue that the epilogue drags on too long, but I welcomed the breather after the intensity that preceded it.

Best Archival: Dragon Inn (King Hu)


Photo courtesy of SIFF

While Chimes at Midnight is the better achievement in film, it still has issues with the sound quality, something that may play better on speakers with less punchy bass, where Welles’s lines tend to turn into rumbling gobbledygook. Plus, while I admire Shakespeare and this film, particularly the images that now have a clarity to them lacking in other incarnations, Dragon Inn is more fun to sit through, with an equally excellent picture restoration and flat, monaural soundtrack that doesn’t temper the shrieky highs, but luckily doesn’t have many shrieky highs to contend with. Both are great archival restorations, but Dragon Inn edges out Chimes at Midnight for watchability.

Most Thought-Provoking: A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (Iwai Shunji)

photo courtesy of SIFF

Photo courtesy of SIFF

I’m not sure if this film belongs in such exalted company as the films listed above, but it will make you think during its three hours, and no shot is superfluous. My one issue is with an act of cruelty that occurs within the first hour, when a man who is supposed to be the friend of the female protagonist secretly frames her for cheating on her husband and ruins her marriage. No explanation is given for his behavior, unless he thought he was doing her a favor. There are hints that he’s in love with her, but those hints are dropped once the main story begins. Then again, if we are to take the work as satire, he is more deus ex machina than person and doesn’t need to be logical. Part of the fun in the film is seeing where the plot goes, so I won’t spoil it for you here, other that to say that there’s delightful ironies throughout, such as when a group of strangers playing family members act more like family toward each other than actual family members do. But the film stays in the memory, and the ending is perfect.

Director Iwai Shunji with translator (l) and moderator Eddy Dughi (r)

Translator, Iwai Shunji (director), Eddy Dughi (SIFF moderator)

Other great films: The Bacchus Lady, Beware the Slenderman, Chimes at Midnight, Tickled, We Are X

Male Directors, Female Leads

Many of the films I saw this year starred female protagonists in female stories directed by men. In each one of them, I thought how different the film might’ve been if directed by a female. Even Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, while a sensitive portrait of family life among sisters, includes romantic angles that are less out-of-place due to the conservative nature of Japanese domestic life, but less progressive than what the characters of Take Care of My Cat experience in South Korea. A Bride for Rip Van Winkle has a main character who’s a porn star, Where Have All The Good Men Gone included discussions about boyfriends (briefly) in a film about finding a lost father and escaping an abusive one, The Bacchus Lady is about an elderly prostitute. And yet, the films center on multi-faceted women, most of whom are independent from men or had boyfriends but didn’t rely on them. And neither The Bacchus Lady nor A Bride for Rip Van Winkle are meant to titillate, but focus on society’s ills against women and how women carve out their place in the world, regardless.

Secret Festival

One of the reasons I attended Secret Festival this year was that, a few years back, the Fools picked Secret #2 as the best film of the festival. Not wanting that to happen again this year, I went to each screening, only missing Secret #3, due to illness. When the ballots came out this year, Secret #3 was the Fools pick for best film. *Sigh* All that I can tell you about Secret Festival is that Dan Ireland’s spirit was evoked during it, there were lots of bananas, and we witnessed Richard Gere dancing to a song from Flashdance.


Unlike previous years, I decided not to write about the Q&A’s, except to post photos and maybe a few interesting sound bites on Twitter (search @litdreamer #SIFF2016). The tweets didn’t include much information about the guests, however, so here’s a picture from each one I attended, with identifying information included (excluding Iwai Shunji’s, which is above).


Where Have All the Good Men Gone: SIFF moderator, Rene Frelle Petersen (director), Jette Sondergaard (actress),Marco Lorenzen (producer)


First Girl I Loved: SIFF moderator, Kerem Sanga (director), Ross Putnam (producer)


The Eyes of My Mother: SIFF moderator, Nicolas Pesce (director), Jacob Wasserman (producer)


The Final Master: Xu Haofeng (director), Xia Li (producer), SIFF translator, Dan Doody (SIFF moderator)


Beware the Slenderman: Sophie Harris (producer), Dan Doody (SIFF moderator)


Shortsfest Closing Night: Alexander Lewis, Artemis Shaw (directors, “Single Room Occupancy”), Ofir Klemperer (composer, “The Apartment”), Yotam Wax (director, “The Apartment”), Patrick Haggerty (subject, “The Saint of Dry Creek”), Dan Doody (SIFF moderator)


Tower: Megan Leonard (SIFF moderator), Keith Maitland (director), Sarah Wilson (cinematographer)


The Bacchus Lady: SIFF moderator, E J-Yong (director), translator

 Remembering Dan Ireland (Sunday, June 12)


The tribute for Dan Ireland, festival co-founder and director of one of my favorite movie experiences from the 40th Seattle International Film Festival (The Whole Wide World), occurred on the afternoon of June 12, the final day of this year’s festival. While SIFF treated it like its Secret Festival in that it didn’t announce what was playing and would disavow any official account of the program, it did not require signing statements of secrecy, so I’ll tell you what the tribute entailed and then there’ll be no way to verify what I write. 🙂

I entered the theater to a slide-show onscreen, with photos taken throughout Ireland’s life and career, as well as a weepy soundtrack (“We’ll Meet Again” played during the segment that showed slides of Ireland growing up and hanging out with friends). Then Artistic Director Chief Curator and Festival Director Carl Spence said a few words. He first met Ireland when he (Spence) was 23. Reading from a note written by Darryl Macdonald, who co-founded the festival with Ireland, Macdonald mentioned sneaking out with Ireland to see films when they were seven and their first year at the Moore Egyptian Theatre (1975), as well as their first SIFF (the following year). He wrote he’d miss “Dan’s constant positive energy” and his “twisted sense of humor.” In the background showed the banner seen above. Then came a highlight reel (which Ireland put together) showing clips from all of his feature-length movies: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, The Whole Wide World, Living Proof, Passionata, Jolene, and The Velocity of Gary. Then we heard from his sister Judy and younger brother Tim — briefly from the former, at length from the latter.

Tim wondered why Seattle claimed Ireland as “Seattle’s own” when he grew up in Vancouver and also lived in Portland, though he realizes now that Seattle has as much of a right to claim his as the other two places, since he left such a mark here. Also, before his death, he didn’t know the depth of his brother’s relationships. At least ten people told him at the memorial service in L.A. that “Dan Ireland is my best friend.”

“Without a doubt, Dan Ireland really loved people,” he said.

Despite this, he mentioned that Ireland was bullied when younger. One year, he only received two Valentine’s Day cards from his classmates! The story I enjoyed the most, though, was that a young Ireland used to call a movie theater in Vancouver to see if the films being shown there were in Cinemascope or Panavision.

After his siblings spoke, the lights glowed less and the screen filled with clips from some of his favorite movies, including All About Eve and Lair of the White Worm, followed by a “Trailers from Hell” sequence in which he talks about helping to bring John Huston’s The Dead to the screen. It finished with Richard Gere, as King David, dancing to “What a Feelin'” from Flashdance (see Secret Fest above).

We ended with a 35 mm reel of clips shown for the directors guild called “Precious Images” — the first time this reel had been run — and the movie Pillow Talk, which was one of Ireland’s favorite movies, also on 35 mm. To be honest, I didn’t much care for it, though seeing Rock Hudson pretend to be gay during one sequence in the film (when he was actually gay in real life) was interesting, and Doris Day putting on her stalkings was sexier than most woman taking off their clothes. Still, the highlight of the remembrance was hearing his brother speak, and the highlight of all my Ireland experiences remains seeing his personal 35 mm print of The Whole Wide World two years previous.

In Conclusion

I’d hoped to have this post up by the end of June. Here we are in August, and it’s finally up. To be honest, this post was mostly finished, but I kept procrastinating on posting the photos of all the Q&A guests I took, though when it came time to actually post them on the blog, there ended up being not as many as I feared.

Of all the festivals I’ve worked, covered, and volunteered in, this one ran the smoothest, though that may be because I didn’t observe any movies occurring at the new venues that appeared this year, such as Majestic Bay and the Arc Lodge (for brief runs). It could also be because most of the people running the venues have been doing this for years.

Also, this was the first year since I’ve worked at SIFF that I didn’t go to the Closing Night Gala. I did go to the Super Secret Staff Party, but since it’s super secret…

Finally, I thought the festival trailer this year and accompanying song kicked ass:

Until next year!

Sssshhhh! It’s a secret.


Secret Festival. None dare speak of what goes on within this four-day festival-within-a-festival. Those who mention the creations which screen in shadow are never heard from again. What happens in the dark stays in the dark.

This year I shall be attending this adumbral ritual. I can never disclose the names of the films I see; they are referred to in the guide as Secret 1, Secret 2, Secret 3,  and Secret 4. Within this hidden world I may find a masterpiece, or a film unworthy to be called a film.  No plots revealed, cast lists mentioned, or directors lauded. Just generic praise, or generic cursing. Unless my transmissions cease. Then you shall know I am among the damned.


Another Year, Another Festival

What is SIFF? A word. What is that word SIFF? Air. A trim reckoning! — Who hath it? He that loves film. (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

The 2016 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival begins May 19 and continues through June 12, though press screenings began today. I’ve decided to do mostly tweets this year, so follow me @litdreamer for those (or check out the sidebar on this blog). Most movies I see are worth only 140 characters. Some are worth none. For the few which inspire me to paragraphs, I shall post posts here.

One thing I’m curious about is if there’ll be a tribute for Dan Ireland, one of the founders of the festival, who passed away last month. Two years ago, I saw a print of The Whole Wide World with Ireland in attendance. A beautiful film that I loved so much, I started seeking out Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and other tales. A highlight of the 40th Film Festival, as was his short film, “Hate from a Distance” (you can read about both films here). I’m guessing the death happened too close to the festival to program a separate event, but perhaps something will be put together for Opening Night.


I’ll keep you posted, and see you at the movies!

Note: You can find the entire lineup for this year at

SIFF HAPPENED: Closing Thoughts on the 41st Annual Seattle International Film Festival

22 days of press screenings.  25 days of festival proper.  In those 5 1/2 weeks, I saw 48 films, including 25 press screenings, 5 archival films, 3 world premiers, and 7 North American premiers; worked 4 days out of the week at the Uptown and one day at the Harvard Exit (except on the second Sunday of festival, which I took off to see The Apu Trilogy); and saw five films on two occasions — on one occasion, six.  So, as both employee and patron, here are my final thoughts on the 41st Annual Seattle International Film Festival.

As an Employee

What our break room looked like at the beginning of festival...

What our break room looked like at the beginning of festival…

The start of festival.  When a friendly army of venue managers, house coordinators, and volunteers invade the Uptown Theater, and year-round staff slink behind the counter, firing up an overworked popcorn machine to keep up with the demand of bigger bags  — sprung on us just as festival began (the appearance of a popcorn warmer at the end of Week 2 helped).  Luckily, 99.9% of the customers are awesome.  On the last day of festival, I actually heard someone thank the box office staff.  At our final staff party, the managing director told us that operations staff (concessions, box office, events, etc) got positive feedback from everyone.  As for that .1% who complain about parking passes not being handed out when the shared lot is in the hands of its owners, or yell at volunteers over some real or imagined issue (REALLY?!!), or who text or talk during movies, there’s this great thing called Netflix, where you can stream movies at home and not bother those of us who wish to enjoy the communal experience of watching movies in the dark without your complaining or rudeness.

I could’ve worked press screenings again this year, the hardest component of which is waking up early, but I wanted a change, and I wanted to work at the Harvard Exit.  I got both wishes filled, with the added joy of seeing everyone in concessions jell by the second week into a fine-oiled machine, even when the popcorn machine — or signage — was doing its best to thwart us.  And I have to say, though I’ve enjoyed all the staff members I’ve worked with, this year’s crew was special.

..and at the end of festival.

..and at the end of festival.

As a Patron

I saw more movies this year than any other year — by a lot!  Watching so many press screenings before the festival officially began helped: 11 before opening night.

Some notable occurrences:

1. I missed seeing Liza, the Fox-Fairy during press screenings (it was a last-minute substitution for a noon film on Opening Night — and then the 2 pm screening of The Hallow was delayed 40 minutes), during festival (it went on standby), and during Best of Fest (I was working).  No other film did I miss seeing so many times.

2. During the Opening Night Gala, I spent a little too much time dancing near the speakers, the result being that my right ear felt blocked from Thursday night through Sunday, when watching Mad Max: Fury Road at the IMAX Theater removed the rest of the blockage (no joke!).

3. Besides Mad Max: Fury Road, I saw one other non-festival movie during SIFF.  On the first Saturday of the festival, I went from my shift at the Uptown to the Grand Illusion to see a restored copy of The Epic of Everest, a silent documentary with amazing visuals which filmed an unsuccessful attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.  Because I woke early that day, I zoned out a bit while watching the film.

4. The only time I tried to watch a movie that ended right as my shift began was the three-hour The Golden Era, so of course, that showing was delayed by 30 minutes, due to a theater swap that still makes little sense to me.  I should’ve left early, but I stayed till the end.

5. The day I saw six movies, I was fine, but when I saw five movies on the following Thursday (2 press screenings, 3 films), I felt chills during the third movie (The Birth of Sake), and yet stayed for two more.  While I felt a little better after eating, I canceled the shows I was planning to see after work on Friday and the one I was planning on seeing before work on Saturday.

6. I almost passed out during the press screening for Eisenstein in Guanajuato, which proves that my weak constitution can’t handle any sort of lengthy penetration in a film — by any object.

My Picks for Best of Fest

Though I saw some really good films during the festival, and even some great ones, none blew me away, as The Spectacular Now and Wolf Children did two years ago, unless I include the archival Apu Trilogy, which impacted me as greatly (but in a different way) as last year’s The Pawnbroker.  Though I saw it after festival, The Red Shoes also impressed, and there were a smattering of gems in the mix that ended up being better than they had to be, but there were no masterpieces waiting to be discovered, except for the ones I didn’t see.

Best Archival: The Apu Trilogy.  Technically three films, but really, how can I split them apart?  The World of Apu was my favorite by a hair, but I could as easily have picked Song of the Little Road or The Unvanquished.  Satyajit Ray may be my new favorite director.

Best Documentary: The Great Alone.  A documentary that is as much about the Iditarod as Hoop Dreams is about basketball.

Best Animated Film: When Marnie Was There.  Not the best Ghibli film, nor even the best by this director (I preferred The Secret Life of Arrietty), but still good.

Best Narrative Film: Snow on the Blades.  This would have just missed being in my top-tier the last two years, but that is not to take away from this excellent samurai drama.

Best Actor: Sir Ian McKellan, Mr. Holmes.  Why hasn’t the man won an Oscar yet?

Best Actress: Holly Hunter, Manglehorn.  Her scene with Al Pacino at a restaurant is the highlight of the film.

Best Animal Performer: Arrow Schwartzman, 7 Chinese Brothers.  The most enjoyable thing about this movie.  Maybe the only enjoyable thing.

Guilty Pleasure: The Astrologer.  More poorly put together than movies I rated higher, but amazing in its awfulness.  “You’re not an astrologer, you’re an asshole!” has to be one of the best lines ever uttered.

As for the Golden Space Needle Awards, you can find them here:

And for those of you wondering what the Fools picks were:

Most Liked: Corn Island, The Dark Horse, Me And Earl and the Dying Girl, Inside Out, The Passion of Augustine, Personal Gold: An Underdog Story, Little Forest – Winter/Spring, Secret #2, Love & Mercy.

Least Liked: Beach Town, Venice, The Hollow One, Not All Is Vigil, 7 Chinese Brothers, Chatty Catties, Uncle Kent 2, The Fire, Valley of the Sasquatch, Yosemite

Best Director/Cinematographer: Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Peter Greenaway/Reinier van Brummelen)

Best Script: Me and Earl and The Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews)

Best Music: Love & Mercy (Atticus Ross, The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson)

Best Actor: The Dark Horse (Cliff Curtis)

Best Actress: Phoenix (Nina Hoss)

Best “Guilty Pleasure”: The Little Death

Final Thoughts

This is the sixth festival I’ve helped out with, either as a volunteer (2010-11), concessionaire (2012, 2015), or press screening worker (2013-14), and the sixth I’ve attended.  It is the highlight of the year for me, despite its busy-ness.  I even managed to attend four of the parties this year (six, if you include the staff parties), and while I missed Centerpiece, I didn’t really mind.  I even attended the kickball match, though I didn’t play — partly because I arrived late, and partly because the temperature was in the 80s, and the field was in the sun.

For me, last year’s festival was more memorable, but perhaps that’s because I saw more great films, or due to it being the 40th festival.  This year, quantity did not lead to quality, as my Fool Serious Ballot attested to.  And while there are films I wish to see this summer (most of them festival films I didn’t get the chance to see), I don’t mind waiting in between viewings.  Watching almost 50 films in the space of a month-and-a-half takes a certain kind of insanity that, thankfully, is limited to one time a year.

The Restored Apu Trilogy


At the beginning of each film in the Apu Trilogy, text describes how a 1993 fire destroyed the original negatives (two reels from the last film survived, but were in such bad condition that they couldn’t be used), and how duplicate negatives and superior print sources were used for this 4K restoration.

All three films — particularly the first one — are the best example I’ve seen of a film capturing life in all its complexities — from happiness and joy to sadness and tragedy, from the bustle of youth to the infirmaries of old age, from married life’s disappointments to its triumphs.

Song of the Little Road (Pather Panchali) — 125 mins, 1955

The first film is the most raw of the three films, and the most powerful.  It begins with Apu’s older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta), before his birth, stealing food in the orchard for her great-aunt, Indir (the wonderful Chunibala Devi).  Apu’s birth is introduced when the daughter retrieves the aunt, who has left due to shabby treatment by the mother (Karuna Bandopadhyay, who blames her for her daughter’s stealing habit), in order to see the child.  In the first film, we witness this poor family, with its dilapidated house, its impossibly optimistic dad, its realistic mother, its squatting elderly aunt, its lively daughter, and its precocious son, as Apu (Subir Banerjee) grows into early adolescence.

That raw energy does mean that occasionally the pacing drags, but you never doubt that you are seeing the film of a master.  It also contains some of the most beautiful shots in the trilogy, such as framing the mother and daughter on either side of the door after she throws her out, so that the viewer can see both of them weeping, or the incredible scene of bugs dancing on leaves on the water.

For emotional impact, notice the scene where the mother throws her daughter out for stealing, and then watch Apu’s face later, when she tells him to call his sister to dinner.  Or when Indir comes back, tries to make nice with the mother, realizes she won’t forgive her this time, and goes off to die (the emotional journey that her face goes through in this small scene — from warmth and acceptance to realization and despair — is the best acting done in the entire trilogy).  Or the shot in the fields before the train appears.  But, most of all, the night when the furies seem intent on taking the life of Durga, with their mother furiously trying to prevent her from catching a chill.  And then, the sadness of the end, when the father (Kanu Bandyopadhyay), who has been traveling in an attempt to make money, comes home.  Not realizing his daughter has died, he starts doling out presents.  When he gives a sari for Durga to the mother — who has remained unmoving as he describes his travels — she touches it and bursts into tears.  And then the father realizes what has happened, and he weeps for his daughter.

The Unvanquished (Aparajito) — 109 mins, 1957

The previous film ended with the family moving.  An intertitle in the next film gives a time and place: Bengali, 1930.  This film is technically more assured.  There are no hiccups in the pacing, but that raw energy is lost, as well, only returning in a powerful final scene, when Apu (now played as an adolescent by Smaran Ghosal) decides to leave the village where he and his mother lived with her great-uncle (Ramani Ranjan Sen) and return to school in the city.

Just as there were two deaths in the first film, so there are two in this one.  Apu’s father’s death is much more poetic than his sister’s was, as Ray cuts between shots of his death and birds in flight, but it’s not as powerful.  More powerful is the death of the mother.  Apu, hearing she is seriously ill, returns from his studies and walks through the property, looking for her.  In a scene reminiscent of Bambi, he doesn’t find her, but he sees his great-uncle, and one look from him tells him the truth he feared to learn.

The World of Apu (Apur Sansar) — 105 mins, 1959

The last film of the trilogy manages to balance the technical assurance of the second film with the power of the first film, though to say one film is better than another is to ignore how good the other two films are.

Apu graduates from school but is unable to afford a university education.  His great passion is to write a novel about his life, but he has a hard enough time paying the rent, which is some months overdue.  One day, he runs into one of his friends from school, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), which sets up what Roger Ebert calls “the most extraordinary passage in the three films” (The Great Movies, 44).  Apu (played as an adult by Soumitra Chatterjee) goes with Pulu to the wedding of his cousin.  Unfortunately, when the bridegroom arrives, they discover that he is mad.  To make matters worse, according to the superstitions of the village, if the cousin isn’t married that night, she will never be able to marry.  In these extraordinary circumstances, Apu is asked to marry the girl, whose name is Aparna (played by 14-year-old! Sharmila Tagore).  At first he resists, but eventually he consents, and ends up returning to his apartment a married man.

The best scenes in the film are those between him and his new bride.  He asks her if she would give up everything to live a life of poverty with him.  Her answers reveal a beautiful soul, and while she cries when she first sees his apartment, she nevertheless adapts to her new circumstances.  Watching them fall in love after they get married is one of the supreme joys of the cinema.

Sadly, we the audience spend far too little time with her, as does Apu.  She goes back to her hometown to have their baby, but dies during childbirth.  Apu is devastated, and even contemplates suicide (by throwing himself in front of a train  — notice how the train motif runs through all three films).  He gives up on his novel, gives up on his son, and even seems to give up on life.  The son is named Kajal (Alok Chakravarty) and grows up with his maternal grandparents.  While the grandmother knew how to control him, the grandfather does not, and when she dies, he is unable to parent his willful grandson.  That is when Pulu goes searching for Apu and confronts him about taking responsibility for his son.  Apu says he cannot, because his son reminds him why his wife is no longer with him.

Finally, though, Apu travels to the village to bring his son back to live with him.  Kajal initially rejects Apu as his father, as his father lives in Calcutta and can’t be this poor man.  And yet, despite all the tragedy that has occurred in the three films, the trilogy ends on a hopeful, quiet, and powerful note.

*     *     *

To see all three films is to see the best that cinema has to offer.  To quote Ebert again, “The great, sad, gentle sweep of the Apu Trilogy remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film can be” (The Great Movies, 43).

The Apu Trilogy played at the Seattle International Film Festival and opens June 26th at SIFF Cinema.  For complete listings, click here.

Tuesdays at the Harvy

So long, Harvard Exit!

So long, Harvard Exit!

At the end of last year, the Varsity Theatre became the latest Landmark Theatre to close (it reopened earlier this year under the same management as the Admiral Theatre in West Seattle).  In January, the Harvard Exit followed suit.  Unlike past theaters to close (The Uptown, the Neptune, the Metro, the Egyptian, the Varsity), this one will not reopen as a movie theater under new management nor — like the Neptune — will it be reopened as a live show venue.  But, for the 25-day run of the 41st Seattle International Film Festival, it becomes a movie venue once again, using the downstairs screen (the only one that’s handicap accessible — historical building status prevents an elevator from being put in for the top floor).  And I am lucky enough to have worked there on Tuesdays.

First, let me tell you what’s not at the Harvard Exit.  There’s no employee fridge, microwave, floor mats, espresso machine, alcohol, syrup, Vitamin Water, popcorn seasonings, or cash drawer.  Gone is the cool old projector in the lobby and the water pitcher (the water pitcher returned the final week I worked there). Ice is bought from the gas station; other supplies from QFC.  Restock comes from the Egyptian.

What is there are two comfy couches that make an L-shape just past concessions and a lot more room, as the table that used to be in the center of the lobby now hugs the wall opposite concessions.  There’s still a bathroom downstairs, though locking it is a mystery (in multiple attempts, I managed to lock it once, and then couldn’t repeat the feat), and the bathrooms upstairs are usable, as well.  Old pictures on the walls and soft lighting from electric wall brackets in the shape of candles adds a funereal effect to the proceedings, and indeed, for all intents and purposes, we are holding a wake for the place.

May 19

My first Tuesday at “the Harvy” was slow.  Cleaning and restocking don’t take long when there’s only one movie playing at a time, which left me with lots of downtime.  I took advantage of this downtime to explore the Exit and document it before it’s turned into a restaurant or condos or whatever the heck it’s going to become.

First, here is how the lobby looks.  The couches had people sitting in them all day, so I couldn’t get a photo of them until nighttime….and then the ballot box became part of the picture.  So be it.

Next, I headed up to the third floor, where the second theater sits in the dark.


Across from the entrance to this theater is this empty alcove on the right, probably a second concessions stand (though never used when Landmark ran the building) and a lounge.

Past that door is this weird-looking contraption, a “hidden” women’s restroom, and a rather nice, but rarely seen, lounge.

I then headed back downstairs, pausing to take photos of the second theater and documenting my journey back to the first floor.

After my sojourn upstairs, it was time to take photos of the box office and our tiny office.  Upon entering from the outside, the office is the first door on the left, before the stairs.

Then, outside.  I also got a good photo of the DAR Hall from here, which is where the Centerpiece Gala is held.

My final photos were of the small area which leads to the main theater and the balcony.

May 26

Today, in between shows and cleaning and restocking (we were a little busier this Tuesday than last) and eating crepes from Joe Bar (delicious!), I explored the back staircase and the basement.  But first, I got another chance to photograph the couches, this time with only a rubber band on the table.


Both the back staircase and the basement are reachable through a door down a small flight of stairs and to the left of the box office (on the same side as the office and the main stairs).  The door to the basement was locked, so I headed upstairs first, where there are apartments and — apparently — one tenant.

There are two doors on the right after you head through the door leading to these stairs.  The first one leads to a supply closet, though I didn’t enter it until my final Tuesday.  The second one is past a short flight of stairs and leads to the stage.  You don’t want to open that one while a movie is being shown, or a beam of light will flash across the screen.  Unlike the other doors, that one is painted gray.

Here’s what I saw going up the stairs.

Once I had some more downtime, I got the manager to unlock the basement door.  Here is where the soda boxes are kept, as well as some old posters, though I had to make a second trip down there to see them, as I missed them the first time.

 June 2

My final Tuesday at the Harvy was spent double-checking the location of some of the photos from the previous days’ shoots and taking photos of places I hadn’t shot before.  Here’s the front hall:

I then checked out the back stairs again for details on which landings I’d taken the previous photos.  Unlike before, each odd landing had trash piled up on it.  Maybe the lone tenant was moving. The mattress was still in the hall, and with trash blocking my path, I didn’t feel like finding out which apartments were empty so that I could see what they looked like. I was, however, able to look in the supply closet and take a photo from the stage door, as well as a couple of the main theater.

I had to wait until the projectionist arrived before I could take the last three photos, so in the meantime, I went upstairs.  An exhibit called James Dean’s Lost Slideshow, displaying photos the famous actor took, was on the third floor.  I remember two people coming by the first Tuesday and measuring for the exhibit (though they measured downstairs).  I got there before the man dressed up as an old-time movie usher stopped by (he comes with the exhibit), as it doesn’t officially open until 4 pm each day.  It was at this time that I decided to take a photo of the men’s bathroom, so for the curious…

As mentioned on day one, I got another shot at the upstairs theater.  Someone turned the lights on and opened the door, giving me better photos of the theater than when all had been dark.

And while I didn’t enter the main women’s restroom for photos (because I’m not a pervert), I did check out the “hidden” women’s restroom on the third floor, past the lounge, which has a unique feature.

I then headed downstairs…

…and took some photos outside (one of them is at the beginning of this post).

My final shots of the night were, appropriately, the view I’ve had the entire time I’ve worked here.

Could I have taken more photos?  I suppose. I don’t have any of the inside of the projection booth, and I didn’t get the key to unlock the employees-only area on the second floor, though I do have a photo of what’s behind that door….

Photo by Mychal Ducken.

Photo by Mychal Ducken

Still, there is such a thing as overkill, and for patrons of this theater, these photos will adequately serve as reminders of a time when Capitol Hill was home to two theaters, one of which was haunted.

As for me, I’m glad I got an opportunity to work there, and to see movies on its screen, one last time.

The final movie playing at the Harvard Exit is the appropriately titled All Things Must Pass.  The final movie I’ll be seeing there is a silent film version of Sherlock Holmes, which plays in the afternoon.  The first film I saw there was Precious, which was only the second movie I saw after moving to Seattle. 

One Day, Six Films — Thursday, May 21, 2015

At Ebertfest, I once saw four films in one day.  During the fourth film, time vanished, reality regressed to dreams, and I left the theater unsure where I was.  During SIFF this year, I saw five films last Wednesday (and am planning on seeing five today).  The next day, I did one better.  Somehow, the films remained distinct, though the press screenings did some time-bending.

Press Screenings–Uptown Theatre 1

10:00 am, Sugarcane Shadows (David Constantin, 88 mins, Mauritius 2014)

Sugarcane Shadows showed promise in its first hour, but petered out in its last 30 minutes. The film deals with residents living in Mauritius who must deal with a sugar plant closing and the coming of modernity to their traditional way of life.  After the film ended, I grabbed food prepared at home, which I’d stashed in the staff fridge.

12:00 pm, Sensa Nessuna Pieta (Michele Alhaique, 94 mins, Italy 2014)

According to the press screening email: “You wouldn’t want to run into Mimmo in a dark alley — especially if you owed his boss money.  His loyalty is tested when a violent confrontation sends him on the run with a beautiful young escort, and we realize his lumbering size is matched only by the size of his heart.”  We also realize that this movie is like scores of gangster movies before it, except with a handheld camera.  It’s not bad, but it’s not special, either.

2:00 pm, Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 98 mins, USA 2015)

The best of the three press screenings, Cartel Land is a documentary that follows vigilante groups on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border combating drug cartels — one to keep drugs and illegal immigrants out of the country, the other to reclaim their towns from violence.

Festival Films

4:30 pm, Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson, 87 mins, USA 2014) — Harvard Exit

As Bus 8 made its way through rush hour traffic, I debated sitting down and eating dinner instead of seeing this film, since I calculated that my arrival would occur around the time the movie was scheduled to begin.  I thought, in particular, of going to La Cochina & Cantina, which has a buffet option.  As I walked by the restaurant, however, I decided dinner could wait, arriving at the Harvard Exit almost exactly at 4:30.  Unlike the two non-press screening films I saw the previous day, I got in before the presenter began talking.  Even before the film ended, I knew I had made the right choice.

This excellent film covers the 2013 Van Cliburn Piano Competition, held every four years in Fort Worth, TX.  Focusing on several of the contestants, we also hear from the newspaper reporters who cover the competition and the judges who decide the winner.  A brief history of the competition and of Van Cliburn is also included (for those who don’t know, Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 in Moscow, making him an international celebrity at age 23).  Afterwards, director Christopher Wilkinson joined us for a Q&A.  When asked how he knew which contestants to follow, he said, “Usually the most interesting contestants make the most interesting music” — his personal favorites being Steve Lin and Alessandro Deljavan.  The film plays after the festival on July 31st on PBS.  In addition, there’s a YouTube Channel with clips from the 2013 competition:

7:00 pm, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (Roger Allers, Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Tomm Moore, Nina Paley, Bill Plympton, Joann Sfar, Michal Socha, 84 mins, Canada 2014) — AMC Pacific Place

If I’d known how bad Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet was going to be, I would’ve skipped it and sat down for a meal, instead of grabbing food on the way.  Since I didn’t know, I walked from the Harvard Exit to Pacific Place, buying a Dick’s burger, fries, and a vanilla milkshake en route.  I also bought a mustard packet, though how I was planning to put mustard on the burger while carrying a milkshake in one hand and the bag in the other wasn’t thought out ahead of time.  Somehow, I timed it all perfectly, so that while I arrived after passholders were let in, this was the first festival screening — minus opening night and press screenings — at which I arrived early.

The main problem with this movie is its presentation.  The book is supposedly full of profound essays on life, love, children, marriage, work, and play, but the movie makes the mistake of over-emoting, either through the visual presentation for each segment  (most of the directors above are independent artists, who each were responsible for one segment), the music (in one of the worst ideas, the texts are made into songs, with no attempt to make them sound like workable lyrics, or workable music), or pauses in Mustafa’s (Liam Neeson’s) telling of these life lessons, with the result that they sound like sanctimonious crap.  In a weird twist, the version I saw included English subtitles (even though it’s in English), so at times I tried to tune out Aslan and read the words on the screen to see if the truths they espoused still sounded like bad Hallmark greeting cards.  It doesn’t help that after the “song” segments, Neeson repeats the last two lines of the text — as if this is supposed to punctuate the phrase, instead of puncturing its balloon.

While the visuals during the essay portions are at least beautiful, the regular animation is only slightly better than that of a Saturday morning cartoon, though the final scene with the seagulls rises above that mediocrity.  Also, while the essay portions were the main offenders of the film, the sections in between featured flat characters with no personality in trite situations  — a waste of a talented voice cast (besides Neeson, there’s Selma Hayek, Quvenzhané Wallis, Alfred Molina, and Frank Langella — with Langella being the only one who made me feel something besides disgust).  No need to see this film, unless you’re a masochist.  I would’ve walked out, but I had one more movie to see and nothing to do in between, so I enjoyed the visuals during the essay portions and pretended I was deaf and illiterate for the duration.

Update 5/29: Forgot to include this photo, which I took between the two screenings at Pacific Place.  Happy Red Nose Day!


9:30 pm, Cherry Tobacco (Andres Maimik, Katrin Maimik, 93 mins, Estonia 2014) — AMC Pacific Place

After wasting 84 minutes of existence on the previous film, Cherry Tobacco reminded me that some filmmakers know how to make movies.  One could argue that the film has no resolution, but it’s more concerned with the journey that teenage Laura (Maris Nõlvak) goes through than what she learns from it.  The humor is funny, the situations are based in honesty, and the older man whom Laura develops a crush on is not portrayed as a monster, but as someone who may enjoy the company of younger women because of the argumentative existence he shares with his wife.  Ultimately, however, the success of the film is due to Nõlvak’s portrayal of Laura.  Young, fresh-faced, and comfortable with her physicality, she inhabits her character effortlessly, a highlight being an early scene where she dances alone with a confidence that refreshed after the stilted nature of the previous film.  A gem.

Educators, Artists, Activists, and Cambodia

This year, most of the documentaries I saw revolved around four themes: educators, artists, protesters, and Cambodia.  Educator movies made me cheer for teachers; artist movies inspired me to write the truth, particularly when inconvenient; activist films reminded me how tough it is to be one; and Cambodian films filled in details for me of what Cambodia was before the Khmer Rouge, and what it is after.

Romeo is Bleeding (Jason Zeldes, 93 mins, USA 2015)

See my review here.

Paper Tigers (James Redford, 102 mins, USA 2015) — World Premiere

One of three films listed here that deal with educators.  This one covers Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, WA, which is where “problem kids” are sent.  Principal Jim Sporleder learns about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and changes the way they handle student issues at the school, for the one thing that can positively reverse ACEs is the presence of a single caring adult.  The focus, therefore, becomes one of improving the welfare of the student versus punishment.  What makes this documentary special are its subjects, which include six students going to the school the first year this policy is in effect.  The results are so astounding that it should be required viewing for all school administrators in the U.S.

Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson,, 87 mins, USA 2014)

See my review here.

The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor (Arthur Dong, 87 mins, USA 2015)

Under the activist and Cambodia banner comes this excellent documentary about the man who won an Oscar portraying Dith Pran in The Killing Fields and who, in real life, escaped from them himself, only to be murdered in 1996 in what was officially a mugging, but some believe was retaliation for his activism against the Khmer Rouge.  Animation accompanies his nephew’s readings from Dr. Ngor’s memoir.  This film also includes clips from TV interviews, the movie The Killing Fields, and scenes in which his niece (with whom he escaped from Cambodia) goes through his items and explains their significance to the director.  Powerful stuff, and a reminder that the truth of what happened in Cambodia was much harsher than what was fictionally portrayed onscreen.

Most Likely to Succeed (Greg Whiteley, 86 mins, USA 2015)

If Paper Tigers shows what’s wrong with schools’ punishment-based model of discipline, this film shows what’s wrong with its educational structure.  Greg Whiteley starts with a parent/teacher conference in which his daughter looks uninspired to learn, despite being a smart student.  The reason for this, as the movie explains, is that the model for modern schools is over 100 years old — and was designed to create moderately skilled factory workers.  With the Information Age upon us, High Tech High offers a different approach.  There are no grades.  No standardized tests.  Just an exhibition at the end of the year that’s open to the public, in which students showcase projects they’ve been working on the entire school year — projects that incorporate the arts, sciences, and history.  The teachers are allowed to teach whatever course they want, with the goal of being mostly hands-off, forcing the students to explore, make mistakes, and learn from experience.  The film also addresses the concerns of parents who are worried that, while the schools might prepare their kids for life, it won’t get them into college.  While Whiteley concedes that the school is too new to know whether its model works or not, 98% of its graduates are accepted into college.

Cartoonists — Foot Soldiers of Democracy (Stéphanie Valloatto, 106 mins, France 2014)

This film would’ve been better had it found a tighter focus, and perhaps fewer cartoonists.  What results is a sometimes sprawling work that attaches itself at certain points to its key idea: that cartoonists aid and abet democratic thought, even in countries where they must be wary of running afoul of the censors.  The standout personality here is Plantu, a cartoonists from France, though the other cartoonists have their moments, particularly one who grew up in Israel but lives in Palestine, and one who grew up in Palestine and lives in Israel.

It’s So Easy and Other Lies (Christopher Duddy, 88 mins, USA 2015) — World Premiere

Enjoyable documentary based on Duff McKagan’s autobiography, who played in multiple bands throughout his career, including Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver.  Much of it includes a dramatic reading McKagan did at the Moore Theatre, with musicians playing behind him.  All the Guns N’ Roses songs are conspicuously missing lyrics, which may be explained by the absence of Axl Rose from the doc (though Slash is interviewed).  McKagan’s book is not well-written nor deep, and neither is the movie, but the music is great (McKagan has a great singing voice) and the film mixes animation with the main performance with interviews to keep the story moving.

Angkor’s Children (Lauren Shaw, 66 mins, Cambodia/France/USA 2015)

While the other two Cambodian films I saw are about its past, this film is about its future.  Lauren Shaw became interested in Cambodia after a trip to Hanoi led to Angkor Wat, and then to the rest of Cambodia.  The film focuses on young women who are using traditional arts to help heal the nation (and in some cases, themselves).  Phunam works as an acrobat, Sreypov practices smot (a form of Buddhist chanting at funerals), and the group Messenger Band sings political songs about the downtrodden.  The film also includes interviews with Cambodia Living Arts founder Arn Chorn-Pond, whose own life story is astonishing (and is told in Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick), and with politician Mu Sochua, who Shaw calls the Aung San Suu Kyi of Cambodia.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (John Pirozzi, 106 mins, USA/Cambodia 2015)

While it seems too long in introducing all of the famous singers in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge came to power, I wonder if the impact of the film would’ve been lessened if any of them had been excluded, since the closing shots show how many performers vanished in the killing fields.  Along the way, we are treated to the different musical influences and styles that found their way into Cambodian music, against the political backdrop and series of events that allowed the Khmer Rouge to gain power.  The most historically informative of the three films.  You might need tissues for this movie, but you’ll definitely need a hug.  The last scenes are the most powerful of any film I saw during the festival, excepting perhaps the Apu Trilogy.

The Muses of Bashevis Singer (Asaf Galay, Shaul Betser, 72 mins, Israel 2014)

A charming, wonderfully alive film about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s translators — all of whom were female, none of whom spoke Yiddish.  Singer himself preferred the English translations to the Yiddish originals, even though they are filled with inaccuracies.  One senses that, as much as Singer was in love with his translators, they are still in love with him.

First Saturday Party Highlights–May 16, 2015

You’ll notice I’m breaking one of my rules with this one.  The venue looked awesome, so it’s too bad I didn’t get a photo of it.  You walk inside and everything is white or glass, with two small connected rooms to the right: the first one with food on a table near the back (and walls lined with plants in square cubby-holes), the second with a white couch that snakes its way along the wall for people to sit on.  In the center stands the bar, past it are one or two steps and then the dance floor, with two small alcoves off to the left (behind a standing table) where coats and bags can be kept.

The party was for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and while I briefly saw the director for that film, the highlight of the evening — and so far, of the festival — was meeting Setsuro Wakamatsu (director of the excellent Snow on the Blades) and his wife.

First, a little history.  Two SIFFs ago, I became friendly with one of the festival volunteers at the Uptown, whom I saw almost every time I came to watch a movie there.  That friendship continued through her becoming a lead usher the following year.  This year, she joined the office staff and looked to be having a blast.  When I saw her talking to the director, I knew I had my in, for she knows that I speak a little Japanese — which usually shrinks in proximity to an actual Japanese person.  Wakamatsu-san had a translator (a Caucasian woman born in Japan), and while she was there, he asked me what my favorite part of the film was.  I thought for a while, then said the two main actors.  I also mentioned that idea of transition between the Tokugawa and Meiji eras.  He asked me what I thought of the snow.  “Kirei [Beautiful],” I answered.  He also asked me if I understood the wife’s facial expression when she gives her husband the umbrella.  “I think so,” I said.  “She’s sad because she knows that if he succeeds and finds this man, then he will have to take his own life afterwards.”  In Japanese, the director answered, “Some things are universal.”


With Setsuro Wakamatsu

But then the translator went with Wakamatsu-san’s wife to grab food, and another friend of mine came over and began talking to him.  I was asked to translate.  I failed. He asked me what “blade” meant.  I tried to pantomime it, forgetting that I have an English/Japanese translator on my phone.  He probably think it means to cut someone’s head off.

Despite my inability to translate well, I was able to tell him where I lived in Japan and that I had been a teacher for NOVA.  I also successfully asked him what he thought of Seattle.  “Subarashii [Amazing],” he said, and then I think he compared it to Sapporo.

When the translator and wife returned, she (the translator) gave him a small plate of food.  He offered me a piece.  “Iitadakimasu,” I said as I picked up a piece of bruschetta.  After I ate it, I found out his wife had been a NOVA student years ago in Shinjuku.  I tried to find out which Shinjuku location she had gone to (I taught at Shinjuku Honko, a few times at Nishi, and once at Higashi), but she didn’t understand my question (which, to be fair, I asked in English in a loud room).  She said the best way to learn Japanese was to have a Japanese girlfriend.

Other noteworthy events at the party included visits from Mad Max cosplayers and the subjects of the documentary Romeo is Bleeding.  Also, the DJ’s machine broke during “Livin’ on a Prayer” (he fixed it after several minutes).  But the highlight was talking with Wakamatsu-san.