Experimenter and Closing Night at the San Francisco International Film Festival

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival closed Thursday night with the local premiere of Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter–a biopic about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose controversial experiments examined how we react when our empathy conflicts with our obedience to authority.

Speaking of authority figures, when we entered the Castro Theatre, we found almost all of the seats had "Reserved" signs on them, as they had on opening night. Only a few rows at the front and back of the theater were available for regular people.

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The opening talks lasted a little under half an hour. Festival Executive Director Noah Cowan, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, and the film’s writer/director, Michael Almereyda, came up in turns and thanked companies, organizations, and people. And then the movie began.

Experimenter is slated for a theatrical release, so I can only give you a paragraph about the movie.

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In the early ’60s, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) ran tests that tricked subjects into thinking they were torturing someone. He wanted to see how many would stop when ordered to keep going. His methods were extremely controversial. Almereyda, who clearly sides with Milgram in the controversy, finds unique and entertaining ways to tell the story, such ashaving Sarsgaard talk directly to the camera, and occasionally using obviously fake backgrounds. The acting is mostly excellent, and the subject matter is just plain fascinating. Winona Ryder plays Milgram’s wife.

I’m giving it an A-.

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After the movie, Rosen lead a Q&A with Almereyda, Ryder, and Alan Elms, a researcher who worked with Milgram on his experiments (Harley Ware plays him in the movie). Some highlights:

  • On how Milgram’s book insired Almereyda to make the movie: "The dialog [in the book] was complicated and profound. As you read it, you realize the depth of his interest."
  • Almereyda admitted that Elms "corrected some really stupid mistakes" in the script, including having to remind the auteur that Milgram didn’t smoke.
  • On his unusual narration technique: "The whole idea of talking to the camera didn’t come from House of Cards, but from [Milgram’s] own movies."
  • Ryder, when asked about playing someone who is still alive: "It was important for this particular story and Michael’s vision [that we] get approval. i was quite nervous, but as soon as I met her she has such an incredible grace."
  • I asked about two scenes where, for no apparent reason, an elephant walked behind Sarsgaard as he talked to the camera. Almereyda  and Ryder told us the elephant’s name, and that she made every one on the set happy. But they didn’t give me a serious answer.
  • "We had 20 days to shoot this movie. we didn’t have time for fooling around."

After the Q&A, I went to the Closing Night Party at the Mezzanine. The music was enjoyable and loud, but not too loud. I could wander comfortably and talk to people. I had a good time.

War and music: The Kronos Quartet at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Wednesday night, San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet came to the San Francisco International Film Festival to present their music-and-moving-image piece, Kronos Quartet Beyond Zero: 1914-1918. I was in the audience.

This was not the usual silent movie presentation. The Quartet commissioned Aleksandra Vrebalov to write the music. Then they commissioned Bill Morrison to create a new film, made up of old footage, to match the score.

The theme is World War I. The work is intended to be an anti-war piece.

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Since this was first and foremost a concert, let me start with the music. It was beautiful and haunting. Appropriately for the subject matter, it had a sad and tragic feel to it. But not all of it was live. It started with an old recording–Bartok playing one of his own pieces (no, I didn’t recognize it; I was told). Occasionally, we could barely hear voices, and instruments not played by the Quartet.

Bill Morrison’s montage seemed less about the horrors of war and more about the horrors of nitrate decomposition. The images came from contemporary newsreels and cinematic propaganda–rolls of film people haven’t looked at nearly a century. They ranged from bad condition to barely watchable. Yet Morrison seemed to revel in every blob of jellied nitrate, finding a strange beauty in the disintegration.

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But when you looked through the rotting film to the original images, they just weren’t that interesting. Soldiers marching. Soldiers eating. An occasional dead body. The result was more of a lightshow than an anti-war statement.

But the lightshow and the haunting music worked well together. I give this presentation (I can’t quite call it a film) a B+.

After the presentation, the quartet returned to the stage for Q&A. Neither Vrebalov nor Morrison was with them, but Drew Cameron–a papermaker whose work added to Morrison’s imagery–joined in. Some highlights:

  • On the process of creation: "It began with our relationship with Vrebalov. She’s written some wonderful pieces for us. And we began to realize that it’s been 100 years since the outbreak of World War I.
  • "When you think of it, the recording of music was very new at that time, and people were just beginning to have music in their homes."
  • "This was the first time we’ve played this at a film festival. The smell of popcorn was just great. We should have that at concerts."
  • "Sometimes as I play I feel that I’m really in the trenches and I can’t get out."
  • "A lot of times when war is portrayed in a visual way you see a lot of blood and gore. Here it’s in the film itself…that the film is decaying."

Cinema’s past and cinema’s future: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Yesterday was a very strange day for me at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I didn’t see a single, complete film. But it was still worthwhile.

Mel Novikoff Award: Lenny Borger

The Novikoff Award goes to someone who who "has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema." Sometimes it goes to someone famous, such as Roger Ebert. This year it went to Lenny Borger, whom I had never heard of before the award was announced.

imageIn her introduction, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen described him as a "film writer, translator, scholar, and something of a film sleuth." An American who’s lived much of his life in Paris, he writes English subtitles for French films. The event included the North American restoration premier of Monte-Cristo, a 1929 French silent epic directed by Henri Fescourt that Borger was instrumental in restoring.

This was Borger’s first visit to San Francisco. He was interviewed on stage by Variety reviewer Scott Foundas (Borger was once Variety’s Paris correspondent). Borger came off as shy, and not comfortable talking to an audience.

A few highlights from the interview:

  • When searching European archives, "Being in Variety helped me open the door. Archivists are very secretive people–except for the ones I know who are here."
  • About Monte-Cristo: "What you’re going to see now is what I call the full monty. You have to leave a margin for some shots that are missing. If any of you have reels of film, get in touch with me."
  • "Monte Cristo has no reputation at all. I spent a lot of time trying to convince people to see it."
  • He called Brussels "the best archive in the world. The French are always the last to recognize their own films."
  • On translating dialog into subtitles: In the beginning, it was just information. If you look at old subtitles, they’re often very comic." He described a French subtitle in Sam Peckinpah’s war movie, Cross of Iron, where the word tanks was translated to merci.
  • A single subtitle can’t be longer than 70 characters. "Less than a tweet."
  • About his experiences with Godard: “The first film was a wonderful experience. The next film a little less good because he started cutting titles. Film Socialism was a nightmare."
  • "I worked on Children of Paradise two or three times. I’ve never been satisfied with it."

Then they screened the movie. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to see all of it–I had a 3:00 appointment to interview Douglas Trumbull. But I wanted to see as much as possible.

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What I saw was wonderful. Beautifully photographed and acted, it pulled me into its epic tale of an innocent man framed and arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, set in the post-Napoleonic period.

The music, though recorded, was excellent. The intertitles were in the original French, with Borger reading his translation live.

And then, a little less than an hour into the movie, I reluctantly got up and left. That was difficult.

I hope to see the full movie someday. Or maybe I should just read the book. It’s my son’s favorite novel.

Douglas Trumbull interview

Douglas Trumbull didn’t remember me, but I could hardly expect that he would. Last time we met, I was a movie-obsessed teenager. My stepfather, John H. (Hans) Newman cut the sound effects on Silent Running, and I spent a day hanging around the studio where Trumbull and his team were creating special effects.

We talked briefly about Hans’ work on the film, then went to the main subject. Trumbull wants to be "directing movies at 120 frames per second."

imageTrumbull has been a major player in special effects for almost half a century. 2001: A Space Odyssey made his name. He also worked on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He has written and directed two features–Silent Running and Brainstorm. He developed Showscan, a special immersive format that ran 70mm film at 60 frames per second (fps).

Breaking away from 24fps–the standard frame rate since the talkie revolution–is clearly a major obsession with him. With digital cameras and projection, it’s become practical. "I started experimenting. I realized there’s another thing we can do here. They have projectors that could run at 144 frames. Let’s try it."

(I should mention that I have never seen a motion picture projected at a fast frame rate. I have to take other people’s words for the quality.)

"I made this kind of discovery, doing some experiments at 120 frames. One of the first things I noticed: You can use any shutter opening you wanted. With a 360 shutter, you can blend frames together. You can get back to a 24-frame conventional release. It looks exactly like 24."

Trumbull decided to use 120fps rather than the maximum 144, because 120 is evenly divisible by both 24 and 60–the American television standard.

I had to bring up The Hobbit, the only Hollywood feature (well, actually a trilogy) shot in a fast frame rate. Even people who liked the movie hated the unusual look created by 3D at 48fps. According to Trumbull, Peter Jackson was "shooting at 48, but projecting at 98," producing a problematic flicker. He described Jackson’s decision to shoot at 48fps "heroic but mistaken."

Trumbull wants to build a 3D camera that will alternate between the left and right lenses, simulating the way most projectors handle 3D sequentially. Shooting each eye at 60fps, this should take care of that flicker problem.

"’You can make a standard DCP. It’s off the shelf in tens of thousands of theaters."

His brand name: Magi.

But he wants more than just a faster frame rate. Looking back at the glory days of Cinerama and other immersive formats, he wants theaters that bring back showmanship–with curtains that open up on huge, deeply-curved screens.

But will today’s 3D movies work on a giant screen? Even on modest screens, they’re too dim. "If you could get the brightness back, you can increase the field of view. Then you’ve got something that’s better than anything."

Trumbull’s solution: Torus screens, a far-from-new technology which would "triple perceived light." These specially-built curved screens "compensate for what you lose [in 3D projection]. And there’s no cross reflection." Cross reflection is a problem specific to curved screens.

image"It’s time to redefine what a movie theater is. People don’t see any value to the movie-going experience, so we got to make a better movie-going experience. If you increase the size of the screen, people will see it."

His solution: Magi Pods. These are small, 40-seat pre-fabricated theaters. He wants to bring these to museums, amusement parks, and anywhere else where you can set them up. 

Like Trumbull, I’m a fan of immersive cinema. I don’t know if his Magi is the solution, but I hope there is one.

State of the Cinema Address: Douglas Trumbull

But Douglas Trumbull didn’t come to the San Francisco International Film Festival to talk to me. He came to talk to anyone who attended his State of the Cinema Address.

I hate to say it, but after the private interview–which I totally enjoyed–I found the public talk disappointing.

Playing clips off his laptop as he talked, he spent much of his allotted 90 minutes covering his own autobiography. He talked about his birth during World War II, and the excitement he found as a child with Cinerama and other immersive film technologies. He talked about his work on 2001, and how he learned to direct on the job with Silent Running.

When he discussed his second directorial feature, Brainstorm, he implied that Paramount closed and shelved the film after Natalie Wood’s death. But MGM, not Paramount, financed the film, and it was completed and released. I remember that well; I saw it in 70mm.

Eventually he got to his main point, that the Hollywood system isn’t interested in improving the movie-going experience. The studios are "betting the farm on big sequels," while the theaters "give you better seats because they can’t change what’s on the screen."

Much of what we covered was also in my interview, so I’ll just add some highlights:

  • Projecting Cinerama "was a nightmare.” Fifty percent of the box office take went to technical overhead in the theater.
  • "When you change the medium, you have to change how you direct, how you act."
  • "Today we see some of the same issues with 3D [as we had with Cinerama]. 3D cameras are very difficult to use."
  • "Disneyland was virtual reality."
  • "The state of cinema is led by directors pushing into new territories."

His talk covered the full 90 minutes. There was no time left for Q&A.

Music, Sex, and Novelists: Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Here’s what I saw Saturday:

B+ Beats of the Antonov
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This documentary about the current Sudanese civil war starts with a plane dropping bombs on civilians—from the civilian’s point of view. Then, when the bombing is over, laughter breaks out on the soundtrack. In this situation, you need to find something to be happy about. They’re happy that no one was hurt.

Believe it or not, this is largely a movie about music–how it helps bring people together and increases morale. But it’s also a film about the need for multiculturalism. According to filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, the Arabs ruling the country want to force their language and their culture on everyone else–even on other Muslims. (Kuka makes it clear that not all Arabs feel that way, but the ones in power do.)

The film is didactic, and completely accepts the rebel’s idealism. But mostly it shows the resilience of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation.

After the film, first-time director Kuka came onstage for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • "Music is the reason I made the film. It inspired me, and it’s better to make a film when you’re inspired."
  • "On the religion of the people in the film: Muslims are the majority. Then Christians, then other, although there are fewer other. You find the other rituals seeping into Islam and Christianity."
  • "In Nuba [the part of the Sudan where the film was shot], you’ll find Christians and Muslims in the same family. There’s total tolerance. It’s not acceptance, it’s tolerance. They don’t see a reason for thinking that way [opposing other religions]. That’s beautiful."
  • "On where the rebels’ weapons come from: "Its amazingly easy to fund an army in Africa…they’re getting help from people who love to fund African wars."

Unfortunately, I had to leave before the Q&A was over.

You have one more chance to see Beats of the Antonov at the festival. It’s screening Monday evening, 6:30, at the Pacific Film Archive.

B Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey
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First things first: The sex scenes are the best scenes in this relationship drama, set mostly on a freighter in the high seas. Alice (Ariane Labed), leaves her passionate lover behind as she often has to do. She’s a sailor, and the only woman in the Fidelio’s crew. She has some harassment troubles, but mainly she enjoys the attention. I think the movie is supposed to be about the difficulty of staying loyal to your lover when your job takes you away for long periods of time. But Alice doesn’t try that hard to be loyal.

There was no Q&A after the film.

I saw the final festival screening of Fidelio. However, it’s on the festival’s list of films likely to receive a theatrical release (which is why I wrote such a short review), so you might be able to see it eventually.

A The End of the Tour
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Every year, the festival designates one movie as its Centerpiece. It’s usually an upcoming Indiewood feature, often with recognizable stars. It screens the second Saturday night of the festival. Then there’s a party at some club.

This year, the Centerpiece was The End of the Tour. Because the film will get a theatrical release, I can only give you a one-paragraph review. Here it is:

Based on a true story about the meeting of two brilliant minds, this film provides something rare in movies–intellectual discussion. In 1996, journalist and budding novelist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent several days interviewing suddenly respected novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). They bond, sort of, but Lipsky wants access to Wallace’s private thoughts, and Wallace is reluctant to open up. Segel turns Wallace into a fascinating character–deeply troubled and, despite his fame, deeply insecure. Excellent film.

After the film, Segel, director James Ponsoldt, screenwriter Donald Margulies, and two other filmmakers whose names I didn’t get came onstage for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • Ponsoldt: "I had read Infinite Jest (Wallace’s breakout novel) in college. Everyone was trying to read it. It was four or five months of a really intense relationship. Even at my wedding, I had some of his writing read."
  • On creating a narrative film based on actual events: "If the audience had to know [the true story], then we failed. It’s a relationship story and a platonic love story…I don’t like biopics."
  • "I had a strong desire to not make it just be two smart guys talking to each other."
  • Segel on preparing for the part: "I tried to focus on the parts of me that are the same as him."

After the show, I went to the Centerpiece party at Monarch, a club on 6th St. and Mission. Despite some excellent lentil soup, I didn’t stay long. I needed my sleep.

SFIFF Thursday: Japanese teenagers and Chinese Brothers (but not really)

I left work early Thursday to catch some movies at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I only had time for two.

C+ Wonderful World End
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I’m really not sure what to make of this Japanese teenage drama. Seventeen-year-old Shiori lives with her theater-oriented boyfriend and enjoys some modest fame from her video blog. Then a 13-year-old ardent fan worms into her life and begins to mess things up. But before you can say “teenage All About Eve,” the film takes a very strange turn. And then another, and another.

I have to admit that I had a hard time following the story. Perhaps it’s my ignorance of current Japanese youth culture. Or the fact that a lot of on-screen written text wasn’t translated into English. Or maybe it was just incoherent.

But the film had enough good scenes, and a couple of very good ones, to keep it from being a total loss.

The movie will screen two more times in the festival, both at the Kabuki. Today (Friday) at 8:45, and Saturday at 4:45. Tonight’s screening is sold out, but there may be rush tickets available.

B 7 Chinese Brothers
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Larry (Jason Schwartzman) doesn’t amount to much. He drinks an awful lot. He can’t keep a job. He thinks he’s funny. He’s attracted to women, but he won’t lift a finger to connect with one emotionally or physically. He has a loyal, ugly-cute dog. While technically a comedy, 7 Chinese Brothers doesn’t try to be extremely funny. Writer/director Bob Byington seems more interested in examining Larry and his world than delivering laughs. But the laughs it gets are heart-felt, and the story doesn’t really need laughs. The title comes from the REM song.

This one will also screen today and tomorrow at the Kabuki. Friday at 3:30 and Saturday at 9:30. Today’s screening is sold out, so the only tickets available will be rush tickets.

7 Chinese Brothers will likely get an American theatrical release.

Marlon Brando at the PFA (and the SFIFF)

Monday night I decided to attend the San Francisco International Film Festival without crossing the Bay to San Francisco. So I caught Listen to Me Marlon at the Pacific Film Archive.

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about movie stars. But I’ve never before seen one quite like this. Brando recorded his thoughts and feelings into tape recorders over the course of his life, and director Stevan Riley used these recordings in place of the usual voice-of-God narration. You won’t get as many facts in Listen to Me Marlon as you would in a conventional documentary, but you’ll get a far stronger sense of exactly who he was.

I give this film an A.

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After the film, Riley came up to the podium for Q&A with the audience. Some highlights:

  • The first question was actually an opinion, and a minority one: “For me the whole film was spoiled by the music. It was in your face the whole time and it was lousy music. I disliked every minute of it.” Riley responded very well: “That’s very kind of you to say…I’m surprised you’re still here.”
  • About Brando’s famous rewriting of his Apocalypse Now dialog: “There was a stack of tapes, several hours worth, where he was improvising in the role of Kurtz…he was looking into himself for the nature of good and evil.”
  • About clearing rights for film and TV clips: “That was a bit tricky…there was a big debate at the end about whether the budget could afford it…it was a real coup on the part of the producers, they started with Paramount for The Godfather. We got a real favorable deal on that.”

You have one more chance at the festival to see Listen to Me Marlon. It screens at the Kabuki this Wednesday at 8:30.

Fashions and fighting: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I only caught two films yesterday.

A- Iris

I started the day with Albert Maysles’ latest film, Iris. What fun! Here’s what I thought about it:

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Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling.

Maysles died in March at the age of 88, so there was no Q&A with the director.

This was the last festival screening if Iris. But don’t despair, it opens in Bay Area theaters May 8.

B+ The Taking of Tiger Mountain

The bad news came as we were waiting to be let into the theater. Due to technical difficulties, this 3D movie would be screened in 2D. Oh, well. I was looking forward to seeing a 3D Chinese action epic directed by the great Tsui Hark.

Once inside, Festival Executive Director Noah Cowan MC’d the show, which was about far more than this one movie. He started with a clip from an earlier version of the story–a filmed record of a Cultural Revolution stage opera.

After the clip, Cowan brought on Hong Kong film producer Nansun Shi. They showed us clips from other Chinese and Hong Kong films, and discussed the history of Film Workshop, the company that Shi took over in 1981. Her other films films include A Chinese Ghost Story, A Better Tomorrow, and Once Upon A Time In China.

Then they screened The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Based, very loosely I suspect, on a 1946 battle, it’s a big, epic military adventure set in 1946. And it’s a lot of relatively mindless fun. A small band of devoted and virtuous soldiers set out to take a seemingly impregnable fortress from a much larger and better-equipped band of evil thugs. The story involves plenty of tried-and-true devices. It has the hero who goes undercover and manages to outwit the bad guys over and over again. It has the cute kid, traumatized by the bad guys, who slowly learns to trust the good guys. And it has several big, exciting battles, saving the best for last.

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The action sequences depended heavily on CGI, much of which looked fake. I miss the old, more realistic stunt work. On the other hand, I guess it’s good that performers don’t have to risk their lives.

Even in 2D, you can clearly see this is a 3D movie. The opening credits float. Objects fly at you. When a bullet hits a person, it’s accompanied by CGI bursts of blood clearly designed for their dimensionality.

Fun as it was, it left me wanting to revisit some of Hark’s earlier, better work–especially Once Upon a Time in China and Peking Opera Blues.

After the movie, Cowan and Shi came on stage to discuss more about Film Workshop and show additional clips.

Unfortunately, this film hasn’t been picked up for an American release. But it will play one more time at the festival, this coming Thursday, at 2:00, at the Kabuki. Hopefully, they’ll have the bugs worked out by then and will be able to show it in 3D.

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