Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
May 2005
2004, U.K.
director: Matthew Vaughn

I can tell you there's a twist at the end of Matthew Vaughn's directorial debut without giving anything away. That's because Layer Cake is one twist after another, from beginning to end, and you'll never know if you've seen the last one until the credits roll and the lights come up. Maybe there's a crane shot to cue the closing song, but you won't find out from me. You'll need to go through all of the layers of this pop-scored celebration of violence, a gangster/heist movie so familiar that when a character we hardly know sarcastically says, "Who me?" the audience laughs. Someone tells him not to go nuts on the bad guys, and he says, "Who me?" Who is he? We don't know, but his response is all the character development we need because it tells us exactly which cliché to plug into the body moving around on the screen.

He's the witty guy given to violence against people who piss him off. This is his last job. He wants out. And actually it's one of his cohorts who turns out to be the nastier hot-head, suddenly beating a man to a pulp while the soundtrack moves into Top Gun mode. Douglas Sirk did something similar in 1959's Imitation of Life when he staged a sudden street beating to uptempo, percussive jazz, but he audaciously provoked racial questions in the process, his clairvoyant camera swiveling away from the action before anything happened, preferring to watch the characters indirectly via their reflections in a window.

Layer Cake asks no questions and offers no reflections. It's a simple dance of thugs, and the camera is a willing participant. It dips and turns as much as the plot and dissolves between scenes to keep their ingredients from clumping. Dissolving between scenes is another of Sirk's trademarks, but he made women's pictures. This is clearly is a man's picture. Or rather a boy's picture. Once when songwriter Steve Earle was playing a show in Texas he introduced his fellow touring musician, Julie Miller, by announcing that "Texas state law says we have to pretty up the stage once every hour." Earle was kidding, but Vaughn has taken that sentiment to heart, trotting out a female character whenever the film needs a visual charge, whenever a scene needs a dose of hysteria, and whenever a male character needs an excuse to twist his thick neck. As Vaughn understands them, the laws of his genre require it, and he seems happy to oblige.

One scene involving a sniper took me by surprise. It's a brief flourish, purposely disorienting, certainly worth a smile. And I suppose someone interested in who is conning whom might also have fun unravelling the detailed plot, but I didn't bother. To me the movie feels not so much tedious as stale, despite the glossy sheen, like the lacquered, six-month-old cake in a display window, meant to make your mouth water but not, I'm afraid, meant to be eaten.

San Francisco International Film Festival
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If the unintended recurring theme of 2004's Toronto International Film Festival — or at least the sliver of it that I experienced — was "children in peril," a topic explored to varying degrees of depth by movies like Turtles Can Fly, Nobody Knows, Tarnation, Moolaadé, Stray Dogs, and The Holy Girl, then a number of films at this year's SFIFF cover the relationships, often strained, between parents and their children. It pops up in The Gravel Road, Kings and Queen, The Intruder, Murderball, Saraband, Following Sean, Mouth to Mouth, Brothers, and Boys of Baraka. If we widen the scope to cover generational issues then we can include stories of people dealing with the way life has changed in a generation or two — the fathers dealing with the sons en masse, or vice-versa — a central element of Profiles of Farmers, What's New at Garet?, Days and Hours, Kamancheh, Cinévardaphoto, and even The Power of Nightmares.

Coincidentally, A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis wrote a few days ago in the New York Times that "paternity was a theme of more than one of this year's winning films" at Cannes. I guess if we define our memes broadly enough, everything fits.

But another more surprising theme in San Francisco's offerings this year — surprising because it seems more esoteric than family relationships — is that of the shrinking world. Many of the character's in this year's films travel without traveling, virtually. They live in an age when geography is no barrier and any place on earth is reachable, or seems for a time like it might be. In films like Hawaii, Oslo, Pilgrimage, Boys of Baraka, The World, The Intruder, Phantom Foreign Vienna, The White Diamond, Innocence, Frank Borzage's revived classic Street Angel, and even the experimental features The Year of Living Vicariously and Tokyo Magic Hour, place is specific in the minds of the characters but abstract in its actual location. It's home, it's Hawaii, it's here, it's anywhere but here. Wherever it is, it's critically important to everyone involved, whether unobtainable or easily reached.

It may be surprising that so many films echo this theme, but I think it's also telling. All of these place-specific movies have an undercurrent of stasis. Often, the theme isn't travel but the lack of it. The world's apparent accessibility is in some sense a hoax, masking the foreignness of distant locales. It's a carrot dangled in front of people who physically or economically may never be able to grasp it. The world seems reachable not because these characters have more mobility than they did in the past, not because they can reach any point on the globe, but because global forces have the power to reach them.

Immigration is part of Pin Boy's back story, but the eponymous character's life is spent sitting in a tiny space dodging heavy objects while listening to coworkers talk about the sights and sounds of places he's never been. In one memorable scene, he stares through the tiny window that separates him from the rest of the bowling alley while his friend is talking about getting out of there. Throughout the movie, it's never clear whether he sees his job in the bowling alley as a stepping stone or a dead-end, but in moments like this, although it's just a long shot of his face, the die seems cast.

In Hawaii, Oslo, the characters append "Oslo" to the name of a meeting place to distinguish it from the island in the Pacific. One man's brother says he lives there — on the island — although his prison-pale complexion seems suspicious. In The Boys of Baraka, documentarians follow a group of "at-risk" boys in Baltimore who participate in a program that sends them to live in remote Kenya for two years in an immersive learning experience that couldn't be more different from the violent neighborhood they come from. The central question asked by one of the boys in a time of distress: "Why can't we do the Baraka school in Baltimore?" Why not, indeed.

Jia Zhangke's The World takes place mostly within a park near Beijing where you can see the world in a day — the Eiffel tower, the Manhattan skyline, the Pyramids of Giza. In Claire Denis' The Intruder, Louis zips from France to Switzerland to South Korea to Tahiti in the blink of an eye and only late in the film begins to realize the distances he still can't cross. In Phantom Foreign Vienna, Lisl Ponger shows one ethnic celebration after another — weddings, dances, rituals — cut together thematically like a globe-trotting Chris Marker essay. But — surprise — the entire 27-minute film was shot in Vienna, exposing a diversity lost in most summaries of the city and a vibrant rhythm of life, just below the surface, that seems unconstrained by political maps.

Even Frank Borzage's 1928 silent film Street Angel, revived by the festival and newly scored by the American Music Club, hinges on the abstraction of place. Home is where you hang your hat. Home is where you've found your love. Home is the imaginary alternate timeline your life might have taken if not for those fateful events. It's a buried theme that the band unearths with a moving, recurring song "Take Me Home" which has troubling complexity both times it's sung, as if home is a place not reachable from here. The live performance of the score included an off-stage trumpet that echoed through the theater with no distinct location, just a cry in the distance like a memory or a dream.

And so on. Film after film.

To the list of films above, I'll add Manoel de Oliveira's A Talking Picture. It wasn't part of the festival but I caught it at the PFA the same week. De Oliveira follows a mother and her daughter as they see the famous sites of the Mediterranean via boat, but half-way through he shifts to listen to the boat's captain as he dines with his favorite passengers, a cosmopolitan roundtable where the diners speak their native tongues but understand each other perfectly. The boat becomes an allegory, but I'll have to see the movie again and think about it some more before I can respond to it more than just viscerally.

In many of these films the geographical theme lies atop — or is it beneath? — the other themes about parents and their children, usually fathers and usually sons. They're stories of freshly connected or long-severed interpersonal links but they're told by conflating physical distance with emotional or spiritual distance. It's a potent metaphor, especially in a visual medium like cinema which shows us a character's thoughts by letting us watch her gestures and the places where they happen. It's also a medium that can take us down the earth's seemingly endless tributaries while we sit motionless in our seats, but that's just the meta-textual bonus we get with our Junior Mints. Like the attractions in Jia Zhangke's theme park, the world's icons on display may very well be painted backdrops and cardboard facades.

Posted by davis | Link
2004, U.S.
director: Mark Wexler

If many more filmmakers decide to make documentaries about their famous, difficult fathers, we're going to need a name for them. The dad docs. They include documentaries like The Ballad of Ramblin Jack and My Architect about men who left a big impact on the world but a pretty different impact on their children, and it's the children who are telling the stories, stories as much about their relationships with their fathers as about the men in the titles.

Add to the list the new film by Mark Wexler, Tell Them Who You Are. Who he is is the son of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the man who shot One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, to pick just one, and directed his own film Medium Cool in 1969. Mark's profile of his cantankerous dad is absorbing, thoughtful, and funny, and it's my favorite of the genre — if a genre is what we have — for several reasons. One is that Haskell is not only still alive but feisty as hell, full of energy and attitude, and still shooting movies, even as he's pushing 80.

The second reason butts right up against the first: by picking up a camera and pointing it at his dad, Mark is daring to step into a world his father knows inside and out. Although Mark is an accomplished photographer and documentarian in his own right, this time it's personal, and Haskell isn't at all sure that he likes the idea. Their relationship is clear from the beginning when Mark tries to interview his father who halts everything to tell him he's going about it all wrong.

But maybe the best thing about Tell Them Who You Are is that Mark includes all of the elements that you'd expect — interviews with his dad, an overview of his career, clips from his movies, and chats with famous people who've worked with him — but in each one he uncovers an idea, a sentiment, that not only links the scene to the movie as a whole but rounds out an overall curiosity about what makes his dad, and dads like him, tick.

For instance, he talks with Michael Douglas who had the difficult job of being Haskell's boss on Cuckoo's Nest. It was his first time producing, and already he was dealing with a domineering cameraman who thought he knew better than everyone else on the set. Douglas tells some fun anecdotes, but he also mentions that Haskell reminded him of his own strong-willed dad, something that Mark seems to find more interesting than the show-biz talk. Mark visits with Jane Fonda who worked with Haskell and is not only a daughter of a famous actor but a famous mother as well, so she's seen things from both sides, in a way.

In each interview, Mark finds a similarity, a parallel, as if he's humming a song about overbearing dads, a poem about men from a certain generation, cut from a certain cloth, and keeping a certain distance from their kids. In a beautiful shot near the end of the movie, Mark asks for Haskell's help as he tries to get a shot of him swimming. He can't quite get the focus right. With a few tips from his dad, he gets the scene, the father swimming toward the camera, the son zooming in closer, until they meet in the middle at the edge of the pool, clear as a bell.

In scenes like these, Tell Them Who You Are radiates dignity, the unusual warmth given off by the frustration of trying to know someone, the honesty and sense of purpose lacking from movies that try too hard for irrelevant emotion. That clearly wouldn't be Mark's style, and it wouldn't be Haskell's either. Mark finally screens the movie for his father, but he thankfully elides his reaction, reducing it to a few seconds that tell us what we need to know. At a screening in Toronto, an audience member asked Mark about why he did this and asked him to comment on his father's response, and again he chose not to say, leaving the moment as just his and his dad's, not because the bond between them is fragile, but because it's real.

This review also appears in print in Paste Magazine #15, April/May 2005.
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2004, U.S.
director: Jessica Yu

If you're making a documentary about Henry Darger, it's probably tempting to fill every nook and cranny of the film with found objects and watercolor characters, just as the man himself filled his apartment with clippings and sketches. Jessica Yu takes the bait as she delves into the life of this reclusive janitor who, unbeknownst to his small circle of acquaintances, spent his evenings alone in his room, for decades, creating an epic tale of good versus evil, typewritten on 15,000 pages and illustrated on huge sheets of cheap butcher paper.

But a documentary on Chaplin doesn't need to be silent and a documentary on Pavarotti doesn't need to be sung. In the Realms of the Unreal might have served its subject better if Yu hadn't tried so hard to give it the same form as Darger's work. After a quick introduction, Yu plunges headlong into a cacophony of voices and a jumble of lightly animated close-ups, and by moving in so close so quickly, she never evokes the breathtaking feeling that Darger's landlords say they felt when they walked into their tenant's room in the last days of his life and discovered his mammoth creation. Yu loses that sense of scale by blowing all of the images up to the same size, and, except for a few fascinating glimpses at how Darger used tracings from newspapers, she loses detail by constantly panning and zooming over his paintings, as if she feels a need to fight for our attention.

She interviews Darger's neighbors and has some fun with their contradictory statements — Henry always sat in the front, middle, or back of the church, depending on whom you ask — and she avoids talking with any experts who might offer a diagnosis, from afar, of this strange man who was preoccupied with the safety of little girls. She wisely leaves him something of a mystery. But even if that decision seems prudent, she takes on the far more ambitious task of guessing how Darger saw the world. When Yu's animators cut characters from Darger's paintings and make them walk through archival footage of Chicago, any real curiosity about the man, and any respect for his work, seems to have been set aside in favor of movement for its own sake. The camera is all too eager to swim in the artist's sea, but it might have revealed more if it had paused to let our imaginations provide the movement, as Darger's presumably did.

Despite all that he left behind, or maybe because of it, Henry Darger is an enigma, and any movie about him will have a number of overlapping stories to tell — the ones he lived, the ones he invented, and the ones that fall somewhere in between. But the color in these stories comes from the oddness of the man at the center. Any attempts to embellish them just seem to get in the way.

This review also appears in print in Paste Magazine #14, February/March 2005.
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Ingmar Bergman's Saraband

The San Francisco International Film Festival wrapped up recently, though it seemed like it had barely begun. It wasn't until the festival's 10th day that I attended a crowded screening at the Castro, and the festival just doesn't seem like it's off the chalk line until then. Even the big screen at the Kabuki — occupied by Japantown's Cherry Blossom Festival for a day or two — didn't appear on my schedule until day 9, so the 48th SFIFF seeped in through small screenings of so-so movies. Maybe next year I should attend the opening night festivities just to get into the spirit of things.

Because of that I was extremely glad that a few friends came out this year for the first half of the festival, and though I wish they'd flown into a stronger cinematic lineup, they perked up an otherwise sluggish start. Doug, Darren, J. Robert, Girish (who was there only in spirit but who cued up his Borzage and Vertigo at the right moments), and I roamed around in impossibly nice spring weather — San Francisco once again made a liar out of me by being neither cold nor cloudy nor rainy in late April — which gave my time-tested city tour a whole new twist. It's not often that my wife and I have visitors who crane their necks to get a look at Scotty's apartment or point to the redwood cross-section in the Muir Woods and say "Here I was born, and here I died." It's not often they stroll through the woods talking about Ozu and Marker, or notice that a hill in the Marin Headlands could have been where Johannes from Ordet made his ominous pronouncements (if only it had been in Denmark), or spend half an hour at Film Yard Video in North Beach just gabbing over box covers, or browse long and hard at City Lights and Moe's.

Was there a festival going on somewhere?

There was, but for me it doesn't start in earnest until 1) film fans pack a movie palace for a foreign film, 2) hopped up San Franciscans hiss at something, anything, and 3) the festival's executive director displays contempt for the movie-loving audience and subordinates film to celebrity, all of which happened after my friends left, sadly.

But happen it did. The trifecta screening was the April 30 showing of Ingmar Bergman's latest film, Saraband, a followup to his classic television and film project from 1973 Scenes from a Marriage. The Wurlitzer organ which plays before every show at the Castro — festival or not — sank into the pit as the crowd clapped along to the rousing chorus of "San Francisco," the house lights came down, people settled into their seats, and then things veered dramatically off track.

The next half hour was a distillation and personification of everything that's wrong with the festival.

It started with a lone spotlight on Roxanne Messina Captor, executive director and acting artistic director of the San Francisco Film Society which runs the festival, standing stage right. After reading a few words about the film (which highlighted its "use of artificial sets"), Messina Captor inexplicably introduced someone who "actually knows Bergman" to "speak about the film." And speak he did, to a confused and increasingly impatient audience, for a good 20 minutes about the film we were about to watch. While he may have had some interesting things to say — I'm not sure, I had my ears plugged and heard only fragments like "as you'll see in the scene at the end" — and while he probably just prepared whatever he was asked to, his placement before the film was idiotic. (I unplugged my ears near the end of his talk just in time to hear him say, "So I think you'll like the film. I do, and I'm not that big a fan of Bergman, actually." Nice!)

Then Messina Captor returned to the stage, the house lights came up, and she said they would take questions.

A rustle went through the crowd until someone shouted what I'm sure many of us were thinking: "Do it after the movie!" (Of course that would have required the executive director to stay for the screening. Maybe I'm being uncharitable.) "Show the film," someone else said as the chatter increased. Then rolling her eyes, Messina Captor said, "We'll show the film in three minutes. I think some people want to ask some questions." A woman near me stood up and yelled, "Please don't do this," and the few hands that had been raised went down. "Don't you want to ask about Bergman?" Messina Captor asked, looking across our heads and into the balcony, clarifying that the evening's guest speaker was the celebrity proxy for the night. No doubt Bergman himself would have been a brighter gem in Messina Captor's tiara, although he surely would have insisted on taking questions afterward.

"No?" she said when no one came forward to query the man who once shook Bergman's hand (though he's not a fan, actually). "OK, we'll show the film," she said, exasperated. And they did, in grand Castro style, with a parting curtain, a huge screen, and an appreciative audience who had successfully turned the wheel in the direction of the skid.

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