Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wisdom = Combination of Opposites

Recently I had the chance to interview an art director about his craft. I asked him to describe how he thought all the effort that he put into the sets will translate to the audience when it's all said and done. "You hope it's just a feeling... you know?" I realized then that's the most any artist hopes for, to display or transfer a feeling, indescribable by logic. That's why Black Swan was enchanting, why Cave of Forgotten Dreams was so moving, and it's why I couldn't separate my eyes from the screen while watching She Monkeys, the first narrative of Sweden's Lisa Aschan.

The subject matter is a little jarring, maybe that's how this film is so good: while it's entrancing it's also slightly uneasy to digest. A pre-sexualized 8 year-old who is in love with her cousin; and the competition between two teenage girls, one manipulative, both strong-willed. It's possible Aschan creates the feeling of unease by how bluntly she illustrates characteristics of good and bad, as journalist Ilya Tovbis pointed out to me in the festival press lounge when I asked him why he liked it. As opposed to black or white, as good and bad are often portrayed by amateur works of art (or Disney), she portrays them in a way so real that we the audience can't hide.

The visuals, stark and perfectly set with meticulous attention to detail while often bright and fun suggest youthful sexuality, tension, and perfection. By the time it ended suddenly, my feelings ranged from being slightly disturbed, a lighter feeling of damn, girls are mean, and like what I just watched was well-told.

She Monkeys is the first narrative of Sweden's Lisa Aschan, it won the Dragon Award for Best Nordic Film at the Goteberg International Film Festival, and is up for the New Directors Film Prize Competition at SFIFF. Winners will be announced May 4th.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Werner Herzog in 3D: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I have been delaying it long enough, it's time to write about experiencing Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams Monday night. Not that I have much to say besides SEE IT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Let the film envelop you and enjoy the ride.

I won't be a fool and spoil for you or try describe the near out of body experience in too many words. Here are just a few thoughts:

As she introduced the film festival programmer Rachel Rosen said, "This film reminds us how extraordinarily wonderful and mysterious of a world it is." The crowd clapped when "Werner Herzog" came up on the screen. These viewers, who got their tickets far in advance and waited in a long line are no strangers to the wonder of Herzog.

A note on 3D: I realized after watching and being so moved by the sensual nature of the 3D camera that I have never seen a 3D live action film before. I don't consider Avatar live action because it is told through so many special effects, same with Tron, and besides that all I have seen in 3D is Alice in Wonderland (underwhelming, not filmed in 3D but rather a 2D-3D conversion), Toy Story 3 (Yay of course), and Coraline (Yay of course) but Herzog's was the first live action without major special effects. Also it is the very first documentary filmed in 3D, and Herzog [who I consider of the next level of human development] must be the first to have used the 3D camera as such a natural part of his filmmaking. The well written SFIFF54 program comments on the subject best. "Who better to adopt the form than Werner Herzog, our veteran guide to landscapes and mindscapes dislocative yet immersive? Eternally attracted to the spectacular, mystic and strange, he’s forever plunging head-first into exotica his bemused point-of-view renders gently inviting. There’s scarcely a Herzog feature...whose outré content, personalities and imagery wouldn’t make perfect sense in the stereoscopic form."

Since the caves that Werner and the 3D camera show us in this story were discovered in 1994 after being covered by limestone in a massive landslide, we witness the 32,000 year-old paintings inside as "a frozen flesh of a moment in time...they created the perfect time capsule." Adding to the mystery, the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc caverns are now locked by a steel door. No visitors allowed besides the occasional researcher granted access by the French Ministry of Culture.

A whole supporting cast and crew of interesting academics and scientists play supporting roles here, including a "Master Perfumer" and an "Experimental Archeologist." Many of them best explain the experience of being in the caves on more spiritual/emotional terms than logical, and that's really what this film is about. One man speaks to the experience of being in the caves as emotional shock. After coming out he needed days and weeks to relax and absorb the experience. "I am a scientist but I am human too," he says when describing coming out with a "powerful feeling of understanding things." Another expert ties the experience of the cave paintings to his opinion that human described as homosapien is wrong and that the descriptive word should be homospiritual instead.

And if we are just speaking logically, what is it about being in the caves, among the paintings? Well, has anything so old, in such fine, fresh form has ever been experienced. No. Part of the powerful feeling must also come from the fact that very few people have witnessed them. And the drawings represent the "invention of the figuration of things," from a previously oral culture.

Alas I fear I've said too much.
Heavier applause this time at the end: "Written, narrated, and directed by Werner Herzog." Im not sure I have ever felt such depth of feeling at the sight of a byline before.

Children of the Princess of Cleves at SFIFF54

Monday at the San Francisco International I saw the North American premiere of documentary Children of the Princess of Cleves, by French neuroscientist turned filmmaker Regis Sauder.

Cleves portrays students of a high school literature class in Marseilles who are reading and studying the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Cleves. The first thing I like about this documentary is how relatable it is: most of us can remember back to highschool required reading. We follow along as the students read and study the book while dually we are woven into their personal lives: they experience large and meaningful feelings of love and heartache, angst, and excitment that reflect the themes they are reading in the book. And Sauder does an excellent job weaving, I found it a very powerful documentary in large part because of the filmmaking. The high school characters in the documentary sometimes act out scenes from the book, sometimes voice the scenes to the camera, then dialog of them talking about their own lives and feelings is voiced-over footage of them in their daily lives, that is often very close up shots on their young acne-d faces (which I especially noticed since I got there late and had to sit in the 3rd row...) The tight, personal shots, and the drama of the fiction they're reading make for a nuanced and interesting twist on documentary.

*This is also posted over at my fest21 film blog

The State of Cinema is...Not Necessarily Taking Place in a Cinema

Sunday night, closing out day 4 of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Christine Vachon of Killer Films delivered the State of Cinema Address. Christine has personally produced over 60 films, including I'm Not There, Boys Don't Cry, One Hour Photo, and the 2010 HBO mini series Mildred Pierce. The annual Address is billed as assessment of cinema + culture + society. Here's a little summary.

The style of the talk was the type where Vachon would ask a question, sort of state that she didn't know the answer, and then go on to offer lots of personal insight into the current state of things that suggested certain answers. I'll admit that as I sat in the audience I felt like I wanted her to tell us things with more certainty. "I came here for answers!" I couldn't help but feeling. ...But silly me, of course the smartest way of all is to be sure of the uncertainties.

- Vachon has produced over 60 films. Which, as she said, means "I have seen independent cinema die and be reborn at least 3 times." Over those years she has witnessed "How terrified the film industry is of change." She remembered back to hearing film editors say they would never work digitally. When she first started in the industry there were two types of film: very experimental cinema and Hollywood films, but not a lot in between. "Then I realized that there was this whole other kind of cinema... people were starting to make movies and not asking permission to make them. They were saying 'I don't see my life reflected, I don't see my world up there so I am going to take matters into my own hands.'" Vachon says this is happening again. And with the availability of cheap equipment that creates a professional look + more and more online distribution portals, this will only increase. But "they're doing it and it's not necessarily happening in a theatre near you," she said. "In some ways the name of this address should be, 'The State of Cinema is not necessarily taking place in a cinema,'" she said.

*photo credit- Pamela Gentile, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

-As we spend more and more time in front of our computers, the way we consume media is changing dramatically. For the first time Vachon just signed a contract that included a certain number of tweets and facebook updates per day. Does the way we consume media affect the stories we tell? Though she never answered just how it does, she brought up this point at least 3 times during her talk so I'd say yes it definitely does.

-Now we have multiple pathways of distribution, multiple mediums for reaching audiences, and things are changing for the better. "What's happening now is we have to be: budget agnostic, format agnostic, content agnostic, and platform agnostic ...and that's exciting," said Vachon.

- Vachon spoke to early in her career making films oriented and marketed towards gay and lesbian audiences. Now because there is such a massive amount of content for consumers to choose from, marketing towards niche audiences is more necessary than ever. "More than ever indie film is about a direct relationship with the audience... filmmakers can understand exactly WHO they are making films for...but how do you find them?" Filmmaking now is about 1: finding a way to get to your audience (Twitter, Facebook?) 2: Making sure the audience knows where / how to find you (Twitter, Facebook?) and 3: Giving the audience a sense of participation in what you're creating (because the past 100 years of films are now available for consumption consumers need to feel invested to choose yours). Crowdsourcing...

- What is the definition of an independent film? Is it a dollar number? Is it considered independent if Miramax funds it? People ask Vachon this a lot, and she says it's not about the way it was financed but about the vision involved. It's about a true singular vision. An independent film is a movie that couldn't have been made by anyone else, a film that when shown on any platform the singular vision is preserved.

- These days younger filmmakers don't have the same boundaries about what is or isn't acceptable on their career path (ie. made for TV or HBO or online) and that's refreshing.

- As we spend more and more time in front of the computer our appetite for how long we will watch something is changing. Nobody wants movie theatres to die, and Vachon doesn't think the theatrical experience will anytime soon, but currently "We are at a real crossroads," Vachon says. There's so much out there. "If you want to live in 1974 you have more access to 1974 content now than you did in 1974."

- Portals. Vachon spoke a lot about "portals" which I will loosely define as venues for filmmakers to get their content out. Vachon thinks the future will be more and more filmmakers realizing they don't have to go through traditional portals, new portals will become available, filmmakers will be able to own more and more of our own rights, taking portals into our own hands. Because in this age we can DO IT OURSELVES. How refreshing and exciting.

- During Q&A someone asked Vachon what she's like to work with, how she spreads her vision. "The great thing about film production is it's like giving birth...You just have to forget about it or the species would never get propogated." Vachon spoke of getting to set the first day of a new production and remembering "Oh yeah, I HATE this." Haha! She told a story of seeing a psychic once who wondered if she was a general in battle. "Film is tough... Every film is a war story epic. A battle in its own way." Vachon said.

- I found it refreshing how Vachon spoke to corporate sponsorship. Is it about selling out? No, cynical hipsters, it's not. Of Killer Films Vachon said, Though we are never pandering, "Totally we are trying to take advantage of any corporate sponsorship we can."

- It continues to be an interesting time. We are consuming media in so many different ways. "Be open-minded and open-hearted," pleaded Vachon to the movie-goers in the audience.

- She spoke to how making female-driven films is tough, especially films about women in their 30s and 40s. "I have a hard time as a producer figuring out how those films fit theatrically." Later someone in the audience (who I later found out via twitter live feed was filmmaker Miranda July) challenged Vachon to speak to the tragedy of this, but Vachon wouldn't agree that it was even a tragedy at all. Instead Vachon looks at the positive, the opportunity. For example TV right now is practically ALL women-driven stories (Vachon speaks from experience having just produced HBO mini series Mildred Pierce). "That's amazing. Why not focus on what IS possible?" Hear, hear! "I think nostalgia is the most dangerous emotion in the world," said Vachon. Live in the moment! Focus on the opportunity!

- Are film festivals still a great goal for filmmakers? Yes. "Same as it ever was" as far as festivals. "This year Sundance was incredible. More movies sold than ever," she said.

- How will the future work so that filmmakers can make a living? "Ultimately I feel like if people want content, and people want filmmakers to produce content, there's going to have to be a meeting where content gets produced in a way that filmmakers can earn a living." What kind of a way? Vachon spoke again to how we are going to take portals more and more into our own hands. Filmmakers will be able to break off rights more specifically..."Figuring out portals that not only can give a good sense of independent film that people will go to, but also will really compensate filmmakers for putting their work up on them."

"I did hear an agent say that film is the new theatre. You do it for the love," Vachon said with a chuckle, before getting serious. "We're gonna crack it. We haven't cracked it yet but we're gonna crack it soon...We've stayed in business this long because we ONLY make the movies we really care about. We stick around because we only do what matters to us."

- On remaining true to her vision and whether she has been forced to comprimise on anything Vachon said, "All I do is comprimise...But ultimately if you're really focused on the vision the comprimise doesn't matter that much because you have a clear sense of what your 'wall of No' is. At what point is it not your movie anymore?"

The feeling I most took away from her talk ties back to the moment she took the mic at the beginning of the hour with a totally unassuming nature, as my friend and I noted. "The State of Cinema Address," she whispered dramatically, sarcastically. As if she has all the answers. No one does. No one can say exactly what is happening or what will: there is no one answer. But, an aspiring filmmaker myself, I left Vachon's talk feeling excited, invigorated, and not too concerned about the state of cinema. Like she says, "We're gonna crack it.

This is also posted over at my fest 21 film blog.

Friday, April 22, 2011

SFIFF 54: What I'm Looking Forward to

It's springtime and the San Francisco International Film Festival is here again to enlighten us with the latest best film and commentary. May I say YAY?

There is tons of good stuff in the program, so here's just a bit of what I'm looking forward to:

1st: As usual, The State of the Cinema Address. The seductive combination of academia + film and you have the best event of the year for film nerds. Every time I've been my hand is sore after from excitedly taking so many notes. Hmmm, maybe I'll bring my recorder this year... Check out my coverage of the 2008 State of the Cinema Address with Wired Magazine's Kevin Kelly. This year's address is by independent cinema forerunner and risk taker Christine Vachon, cofounder of Killer Films, who as the SFFS says, "has been at the forefront of the independent film movement, championing risky, emotionally demanding work from unknown filmmakers and never shying away from edgy material." She's behind Boys Don't Cry, and a bunch of other cool stuff including that she produced the TV version of This American Life (personal journalism film nerd win).

2nd: Since such a big part of animation is "you never know what the F you are in for" film festivals are the best place to catch the latest. I've had more than a few experiences where I have seen some awesome animation then it disappears into the abyss of it's not on netflix or youtube how do I watch it world. Needless to say I plan on catching at least one or two animations and some of the childrens' categories. A cat in Paris looks interesting - Paris, french language, "watercolor" style. drool.

3rd: There are some seriously excellent looking documentaries in this year's program. Years past at the SFIFF I have seen great documentaries such as Age of Stupid, Crude, and A Journey with Peter Sellars... This year there are 30 documentaries in the program. American Teacher looks like a must-see: we need passionate teachers yet we underpay them. What to do? An inside look into the strife of the modern American teacher through 4 different perspectives. Education is such an important issue right now that every American should feel passionate about embracing, the more we all can learn the better. Cave of Forgetten Dreams- Herzog's latest, filmed in 3D, a look at cave paintings from 30,000 years ago. I heard him discuss it on npr yesterday, and he said once he went into the caves he decided not to go back in for 5 days because "he needed to absorb it." There's also an Yves Saint Laurent doc I'd love to see, Women Art Revolution about women artists in the 60s and 70s, Page One: Inside the New York Times (journalism nerd super win!). Let the Wind Carry Me, an inside look into a cinematographer's world that "details the itinerant lifestyle of a deeply observant and philosophical artist and the tolls that his profession takes on his family life." Enough said.

4th: New Skin for the Old Ceremony: 11 short films set to each track in this 1974 album by Leonard Cohen. "The films will be projected uninterrupted with the album as a soundtrack." HELL YES. I experienced this sort of thing at last year's SF animation fest with the Decemberists' Hazards of Love Visualized and it was awesome. A 21st century cinematic experience. Plus it includes the screening of a 1967 documentary of the young Cohen: Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr. Leonard Cohen.

5th: An Evening with Oliver Stone: Oliver Stone will be on stage for a Q&A. As I mentioned above, I love hearing interesting people speak their minds, and I worked at for a year so by now I know enough about lectures to know when it's going to be GOOD. Oliver Stone? Enough said.

6th: Any of the unexpected awesome films I run into and am transfixed by. Stay tuned...

Hopefully I can make it to all of this. Being currently based out of Reno makes things a bit tricky but yes I will drive hundreds of miles for this stuff.

This is also posted on my film blog over at Fest21.