SIFF 2016: Highlights and Observations

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

Q&As

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).

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

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

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

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

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

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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)

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

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

 Remembering Dan Ireland (Sunday, June 12)


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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!

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SIFF 2014: 40th Anniversary Special Presentation of The Whole Wide World–Saturday, June 7

Carl Spence and director (and SIFF co-founder) Dan Ireland

Carl Spence and director (and SIFF co-founder) Dan Ireland

The first Seattle International Film Festival began on May 14, 1976, at the Moore Egyptian Theatre and ended on May 31 (there was no 13th Seattle International Film Festival, which is why this year is the 40th Seattle International Film Festival).  Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald (which I’ve also seen spelled MacDonald) started the festival a year after taking over the Moore Theatre and renaming it the Moore Egyptian Theatre.  The first festival showed 18 films.  In 1985, the festival moved to the Egyptian Theatre on Capitol Hill, which was renovated (as was the Moore) by Ireland and Macdonald. (Sources: Historylink.org and SIFF History)  Therefore, it’s appropriate that not only would the 40th festival show one of Ireland’s films (his first feature), but that they would show it at the newly opened Egyptian Theatre.

Before the feature film, however, there was a short, and before the short, there was a wait period, as Carl Spence, Ireland, and Macdonald were all on hand to fiddle with the equipment after the previous screening in order to make sure that Ireland’s screening went off flawlessly.  That meant that passholders were put in a “holding area” in the lobby before being allowed to enter the theater.  Our passes were all prescanned, as well.

Once all was well, we took our seats, the ticketholders took their seats, and we were treated to an introduction by Spence.  Besides mentioning that Ireland and Macdonald started the Seattle International Film Festival, he thanked the sponsors (as the presenters always do), which in this case were board member Aron Michael Thompson, who underwrote the screening, and the always awesome Scarecrow Video, who has sponsored several of the screenings I’ve gone to at the festival.

Then Dan Ireland came out, thanking Carl for opening four screens that had been closed (three at the Uptown, one at the Egyptian).  He said his and Darryl’s hearts had hurt when the Egyptian had closed.  After that, he introduced the world premiere of his short, “Hate from a Distance.”  The story had originally come to him from Dennis Yares while Ireland was filming Jolene with Jessica Chastain (Yares wrote the screenplay).  The film coincides with the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act and centers around an image that horrified Ireland when he first saw it: that of a mother dressing her son in a KKK outfit (the photo appears onscreen at the end of the film).  Ireland then introduced the cast and crew members in the audience and had them stand, which were Yares (writer, producer), Kate Krieger (actress), and Harry Gregson-Williams (composer).  He also thanked Darryl for continuing the festival after he left to pursue directing.

“Hate from a Distance” is an excellent short film that tells of racism as seen through the eyes of a child.  Danny Baker (Asher Angel) is a young white boy whose father Ned (Brendan Bradley) is forever at odds with his black neighbor, Clyde (Rashawn Underdue), despite the fact that they used to be friends when boys.  Danny traces the animosity back to when Clyde tried to prove that he had a claim on the land that Ned owned, only to have the deed ripped up before his face by the judge.  The current dispute is that Clyde’s children steal potatoes from Ned’s property.  The film ties in the Biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar and the three men in the furnace with the house that is set on fire near the end of the short.  The film is dedicated to the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing, an act that helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The dedication is preceded by a quote from Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

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Dennis Yares, Kate Krieger, and Harry Gregson-Williams are asked a question by Ireland

When the short ended, Spence and Ireland were joined onstage by Yares, Krieger, and Gregson-Williams for a short Q & A.  Having come from Canada, Ireland noticed a difference in how blacks were treated in the U.S.  He said we shouldn’t look at “how far we’ve come, but how far we have to go.”  Spence asked if Ireland was worried the film was too dark.  “Of course!” Ireland said, but he wanted to make a statement.  Spence then wanted to talk about the music.  For that, Gregson-Williams (who has scored all of Ireland’s films) had written a gospel-like piece prior to being asked, which Ireland decided to use.

D.D. Yares expounds on an answer

Yares expounds on an answer

Then Ireland talked about Krieger and her character.  Even though Krieger is the most talented actress (or actor) he’s mentored, when he came to her with this character (who plays Danny’s mother), he told her, “This is the most constipated character you’ll ever play.”  Krieger wasn’t the only person acting in the film who Ireland has mentored; he also mentored Bradley.  As for Angel, there’s a different connection: he’s Yares’s grandson.  Though child actors can be “terrifying,” Ireland said, “Working with Asher is a dream.”

The film will be playing at the Museum of Tolerance on July 2nd.

The Whole Wide World (Dan Ireland, 111 mins, USA 1996)

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Renée Zellweger as Novalyne Price and Vincent D’Onofrio as Robert Howard (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

Before The Whole Wide World was screened, Ireland shared a message that D’Onofrio had sent him (he couldn’t be there because he was shooting elsewhere).  In it, he said the film will always be close to his heart.  “I consider The Whole Wide World a classic,” he continued.  Also, there is a scene in the movie where he is swinging a sword, which had to be sharp enough to cut blades of grass.  At the end of the scene, he plunges the blade into the ground.  When he looked down, he noticed that the blade had only missed his foot by centimeters, and he thought, “Only for Dan.  Only for Dan.”

Zellweger also couldn’t be there, as she was attending her mom’s birthday on the East Coast (“That’s what I love about her, ” Ireland said).  Ireland had Spence read her message, in which she wrote, “Hi Danny boy!” and gave instructions to embarrass the brilliant composer (Gregson-Williams), but to embarrass Vinny (D’Onofrio) even more.  She also thanked D’Onofrio for helping her act (by putting it all out there).

We then learned that we would be seeing a print, and not just any print, but Ireland’s personal print (according to Ireland, it’s the only print out there, which is a shame)!  Spence also mentioned that they rigged the speaker system from McCaw Hall so that the movies at the Egyptian would sound better than they had in the past.

(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

The Whole Wide World opened SIFF 22 in 1996.  People who saw it back then recall it with fondness, and indeed, it is a wonderful film about the relationship between Texas schoolteacher Novalyne Price and Conan the Barbarian author Robert Howard.  Howard is uncouth, doesn’t like others, and isn’t respectable, but he has a good heart, is a good writer, and has a great imagination.  There is much made about his closeness to his mother, which might have prevented him from having any sort of romantic relationship, but the movie is really about two people who cared deeply for each other, even when they wouldn’t admit it.  The script is well-written, the acting is great, the Texas sunsets sumptuous (colors really pop more on film than they do on DCP–especially reds), and to watch a print, despite a few frames that had a bit of dust in them, was such a treat.  Sweet and sad, this is a lovely piece of work.

Like most of his criticism, Roger Ebert’s review of this film really gets to its heart.  If my review doesn’t convince you to see this movie, I hope his more detailed review does.