The A+ List: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Pacific Film Archive

Sunday night, I attended a screening at the Pacific Film Archive of one of my favorite western’s, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–another film on my A+ list of movies that I’ve loved dearly for decades.

The PFA screened it as part of the series Cinema According to Víctor Erice.

In his last masterpiece, John Ford summed up the myth of the American west that he had weaved into the fabric of his long career. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays almost all the tropes of a Ford western–the drunk doctor, the dead man’s hand, the shootout, and the conflict between the wilderness and civilization. But this time around, we know it’s a myth. Ford knows it’s a myth. And even the protagonist knows that this isn’t the true story.

In Liberty Valance¸ Ford and his screenwriters (James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck) split the conventional western hero into two men, neither of which is complete without the other.

The most important of these, the character through whom we see the film, is Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart)–an idealistic young lawyer newly arrived in the west. Rance, as his friends call him, has none of the skills we associate with western heroes. He can’t shoot a gun or ride a horse. But he knows right from wrong, objects to the macho posturing around him, and in the end proves braver than anyone.

Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) has all the skills that Rance lacks. He’s the toughest guy around. He’s basically descent, in that he’s not a criminal and will occasionally help people in need. He pretty well fits Winston Churchill’s description of America: You can count on him to do the right thing–after he’s tried everything else.

Let’s consider those names. Who would name their newborn son Ransom? And the shortened version of his name suggests rancid. As the story unfolds, and we learn that he’s been living a lie for decades, we can see how the guilt from that lie has rotted him, making the word appropriate. And the name Doniphon sounds like a mispronunciation of Donovan–as if something is just not right.

And then there’s the name Liberty Valance. Why give the movie’s villain a name that suggests a swashbuckling hero? Especially this villain. As played by a not-quite-yet famous Lee Marvin, he’s one of the craziest, most sadistic thugs ever to grace an American western. Everyone except Tom is terrified of him.

Of course if Tom was sheriff, or just civic-minded, Valance would be dead or in jail. But Tom isn’t interested in any battles but his own, and town marshal Link Appleyard (another strange name; played by Andy Devine) seems only interested in saving his own hide. It’s absurd that this broad comic character would have a position of power, and it’s never explained. But the story requires an ineffectual sheriff, and making him funny helps us accept the absurdity.

Ford fills the town of Shinbone with memorable characters. Consider Dutton Peabody (an almost unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien) as the talkative, muck-raking, Shakespeare-quoting, yet alcoholic newspaper man. Or Tom’s handyman Pompey (Woody Strode)–apparently the only African-American in town. Dignified and uneducated, he bears the weight of entranced racism, eating dinner in the restaurant’s kitchen rather than the dining room.

I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance four or five times before I realized that Tom Doniphon is an alcoholic. We don’t see him drunk until quite late in the film. But twice, people who know him well go out of their way to keep alcohol from touching his lips. What’s more, we learn early on that he died penniless.

That’s not a spoiler. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens decades after the main action., when Senator Stoddard and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles as the film’s ingénue) return to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Most of the film is a flashback–an old man’s memory of his youth.

And what a memory it is. The film has two severe beatings, a political convention, a showdown in a frontier restaurant, and a one-room classroom scene where men, women, and children–black, white, and Mexican-American–learn about democracy.

What the John Ford western doesn’t have is Monument Valley. Ford went out of his way to avoid anything visually beautiful or epic here. This is a western morality tale set on a soundstage, not the vast expanses of Utah. And on the rare occasions where the films goes on locations, the background looks like an undeveloped part of the Los Angeles basin.

In the end, Ford reminds us that he’s spent his career weaving a mythology, and that while a myth can contain a grain of moral truth, it is always a lie. Rance has carried that lie in his heart for decades, and he will never be free of it.

Unlike Rance, Ford was able to expose that lie, and even to some degree validate it. He would make four other films after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he never made another masterpiece.

Up until Sunday night, it had been more than 30 years since I last saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on the big screen. Although it’s not a visually beautiful film, it was still a major improvement over my DVD. I could enjoy the details of the town. And the audience laughed and gasped in all the right places.

The 35mm print, supplied by Paramount, was serviceable but disappointing. Some scenes were washed out, and much of it was scratched. I can only hope that Paramount will one day take the time to restore it properly.

After the movie, I hung around with other members of the audience and discussed the movie. We all agreed that the PFA should show more westerns.

Early DeMille and early Tarkovsky: Saturday at the movies

I saw two different movies at two very different theaters on Saturday.

The Cheat at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

I not only attended this screening. I was part of it. I introduced this 1915 Cecil B. DeMille melodrama at the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

Among major American auteurs, DeMille stands alone as something of a punchline. Although his films were almost always commercially successful, they seldom got good reviews about most of them today have not aged well–unless you count their unintended camp value.

But DeMille deserves considerable credit as a pioneer. As much as any individual, he can be called the inventor of Hollywood. Not only was he one of the first filmmakers to build a studio in that particular Los Angeles neighborhood, but he was a genius at that very commercial mix of sex, sin, violence, and Christian morality–all washed down with lurid melodrama.

His early works were often brilliant, and none so much as The Cheat. James Card called it “a towering masterpiece of 1915.” The film stands out with its remarkable use of atmospheric lighting, creating a sense of the exotic, the foreign, and the dangerous. The film also makes brilliant use of Japanese screens, especially in its one truly violent scene.

The Cheat also made a star out of Sessue Hayakawa–it also made him into a matinee idol. At a time of extreme racism in America, women–including white women–swooned over this handsome Japanese immigrant.

It wasn’t just about looks. Hayakawa easily gave an best performance in this film. In 1915, actors were still figuring out the differences between film and stage acting. While his co-stars, Fanny Ward and Jack Dean, appear to be playing for the last row in the balcony, Hayakawa played for the camera.

Make no mistake, The Cheat is a racist film. Hayakawa plays the villain, a Japanese trader who has wormed his way into respectable society. Outward, he’s a polished and proper aristocrat. But he nurses a dangerous, uncontrollable lust for white women, and he lashes out cruelly when he doesn’t get his way with them.

But when you consider that The Cheat came out the same year as The Birth of a Nation, it doesn’t seem so bad.

Although The Cheat was made and released in 1915, all existing prints (to my knowledge) come from a 1918 re-release. By 1918, the USA and Japan were allies in World War I, so Paramount changed the intertitles, making Hayakawa’s character Burmese. (You could do that sort of thing very easily in a silent film.)

The feature was preceded by The Doll House Mystery, an entertaining two-reeler.

The 16mm prints screened for both films were serviceable but not exceptional. There were no tints and some shots looked washed out.

Judith Rosenberg, as usual, did an excellent job accompanying both films on piano.

Ivan’s Childhood at the Pacific Film Archive

Last night, the Pacific Film Archive opened the series The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky with his first feature, Ivan’s Childhood. When I first read about this series, I felt it was an opportunity to finally dive into the great Russian director’s work.

And no, Ivan’s Childhood is not a prequel to Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

The point of Ivan’s Childhood is that Ivan never really gets to have a childhood–or at least not an adolescence. When we first meet him, he’s happy, innocent, and loved by his mother. Then he wakes up from that dream to a far more horrible reality. It’s World War II, and the Germans have killed his family. Only 12 years old, he has joined up with a group of partisans fighting the occupiers.

The soldiers, most of whom love and care for Ivan, want to send him east to safety. But he refuses. His young heart burns only for revenge.

Is Ivan’s Childhood an anti-war film? Hard to say. It doesn’t shrink from the horrors of war, although it represents them entirely as the horrors of Nazi occupation. When the film was made in 1962, the memories of those horrors will still fresh for most Russians; films like this were catharsis, not escapism. And while Ivan’s single-mindedness comes off as strange and sad, it’s also completely understandable. The Nazis made his life impossible, and controlled anger is all he has left.

The film’s black-and-white visuals–mostly of swamp, denuded forests, and ruined buildings–create a sense of loss and sadness that matches the story. It’s a beautiful, haunting tale.

Those images were well supported by the excellent 35mm print screened Saturday night. It was from the PFA’s own collection.

Before the screening, Stanford’s Nariman Skakov introduced both this film and, to a greater extent, Tarkovsky’s general esthetic. He concentrated on the director’s love of very long takes, which was odd, since there are no such takes in Ivan’s Childhood. When he opened the floor up for questions after his talk, he didn’t get many. He should have done the Q&A after the film.

The Best of this years’ San Francisco Silent Film Festival

I planned to report on every day and every screening I attended at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. But that was just too much. So this year, I’m waiting to the end and discussing the highlights.

But first, one serious lowlight. When it comes to reserving seats, the Silent Festival is getting almost as bad as the San Francisco International Film Festival. A huge block of rows–comprising the center of the house where most people prefer to sit–was blocked off with Reserved signs. For Sherlock Holmes, they extended the Reserved section so far forward that even the fifth row was out of bounds for most ticket buyers and pass holders.

Okay, now on the good parts.

Few festivals are as fun as this one between the movies. If you have a pass or a ticket to the next show, you’re welcome to hang out, shop for books and DVDs on the mezzanine, or just talk to people.

And the people you can talk to are pretty amazing. When I came in Friday morning, Kevin Brownlow, Serge Bromberg, and Grover Crisp were within about six feet of each other. A collapsing chunk of ceiling would have set back the cause of film preservation for decades.

Another example: A friend of mine, at the festival for the first time, talked about a silent movie he remembered fondly–The Way of All Flesh. He wondered how he could see it again. As he was talking, who should walk by but Serge Bromberg, who joined in the conversation. Bromberg explained that, aside from one reel, the film is believed lost. (He also mentioned a Charley Chase short comedy made soon afterwards called The Way of All Pants.)

The talks–introductions, Q&A, the Amazing Tales from the Archives show–contained a lot of talk about preservation and restoration. We heard multiple stories about reassembly and re-translating intertitles (a lot of American silents exist through foreign, non-English prints). We viewed recently discovered early Technicolor from Hearst’s Castle. And Serge Bromberg–who seemed to be everywhere this year–told us a long and funny story about acquiring the large collection of a family of total jerks.

One running gag ran throughout the festival. Anyone on stage soon learned they could get applause by saying “35mm,” “nitrate,” or, for a really big reaction, “35mm nitrate.”

So much for atmosphere. Here are my favorite films and presentations at this year’s Festival:

Visages d’enfants (Faces of Children; AKA Mother)

I had never heard of this film before I read the program, so I was in a good place to be blown away. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t know until it started that I was watching a masterpiece.

Set in a small town high in the Alps, in what appears to be the last 19th century, Visages d’enfants follows the difficulties of what is now called a blended family–and–as is so often this case, it wasn’t blended very well. A widower with a son and daughter marries a widow with a daughter. Bullying, anger, and complicated emotions result.

I don’t believe I have ever seen such good child performances. The kids come off has real kids, with their own joys, angers, and issues. I grew up in a poorly-blended family myself, and this film hit every nerve.

One major flaw: The movie climaxes with not one but two nail-biting cliffhangers. That works for Harold Lloyd, but for a realistic story like this one, that was one too many.

Stephen Horne provided accompaniment on piano, flute, and I’m not sure what else.

The Last Laugh

This was my third time seeing F.W. Murnau’s 1924 masterpiece, and my first time seeing it theatrically. I loved it from the first, but this time around, with a big screen, a full audience, and great, live music, I realized that this is A+ material.

An aging hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) loves his job. He gets to wear a fancy uniform with big, brass buttons. He’s a member of the working class, but he dresses up, looks smart, and commands respect. And at the end of the workday, he comes home to his tenement apartment, still in his uniform, and everyone respects him. Then he’s demoted to washroom attendant. He’s so ashamed he can’t even tell his family.

Silent films didn’t get any purer than The Last Laugh. It tells almost everything visually, without benefit of language. The film has only one intertitle, separating the main story from the epilogue.

The music came from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra–an undergraduate program in film scoring at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Several students worked on composing this score, and they took turns at the baton. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it was anything but.

There was one problem with the music. From where I was sitting, the conductor’s head blocked the bottom of the screen, and thus the subtitles. On the other hand, you’d find few foreign films with less need for subtitles.

Sherlock Holmes

This was, of course, the movie we were all waiting for–newly found and restored after sitting in a French vault for almost a century. It’s the only filmed performance by the great stage actor William Gillette–the first playwright and actor to make the famous detective his own.

By the time Gillette shot Sherlock Holmes in 1916, he’d been playing the part onstage on and off for some 17 years. And even without hearing his voice, you can see that he was a great Holmes. He brings an insolence and an air of sarcasm to the role, making him a very modern hero.

The film’s faults come primarily from the stage play, and from its adaptation to the screen (or lack thereof). It appears that the filmmakers simply filmed the play, then added a few intertitles. Much of the time, you’re watching people talk, without any hint of what they’re saying.

And the play has its own problems. For instance, Holmes falls in love, and presumably is heading towards marriage at the final curtain (or fade out). I’m sorry, but Sherlock Holmes does not fall in love.

The Donald Sousin Ensemble provided excellent accompaniment.

Speedy

Harold Lloyd’s silent features tend to fall into two categories: Very funny, and really good stories that are also very funny. I prefer the second category. Lloyd’s last silent film falls into the merely very funny group, and was thus never one of my favorites. The story is weak and meandering, and Lloyd’s character is an absent-minded failure who can’t hold a job. But seeing it for the first time on the big screen, with an audience around me, I realized just how funny Speedy is. And believe me–it’s extremely funny.

Much of it was shot in New York City, and Lloyd’s team had a lot of fun with the locations. There’s a long sequence at Coney Island that makes me want to visit the place–or at least visit the Coney Island of 1928. Babe Ruth has a cameo as himself. And the final chase is one of Lloyd’s best.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, amongst my favorite accompanists, kept the story hopping.

The Donovan Affair

This had to be the weirdest thing at the festival. For one thing, it’s not really a silent movie. At best, it’s an “accidental silent,” as Bruce Goldstein described in his introduction.

It was made as a talkie (Frank Capra’s first). We have the picture, but the soundtrack is lost. So it was screened with live actors lip-synching–usually accurately–the dialog onscreen. Oddly enough, after a few minutes getting used to the experience, it worked. There was also piano accompaniment and sound effects.

The movie is a very silly murder mystery–I believe the laughs were intentional. I don’t think this type of presentation would work with a serious film.

Silent Film Festival opens with All Quiet on the Western Front

Most people think of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)–the Oscar-winning movie that opened this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival last night, as a talkie–and they’re right. But in the early days of talkies, it was common to make an alternative silent version for theaters that had not yet converted, and for the foreign market. This was not unlike the flat versions of today’s 3D movies.

I had seen the talkie version twice before, on Laserdisc and Blu-ray. Last night I saw the silent version. It was also my first time seeing any version on the big screen.

It was a very crowded house at the Castro. Surprisingly, the show started on time with Festival Board President Robert Byrne noting that this was the festival’s 20th year. He thanked a number of people and organizations, including “the projectionists and people in the booth…the unseen who bring us the light.”

Universal Studios, which made All Quiet 85 years ago, sponsored last night’s screening, so Byrne introduced a Universal executive (I didn’t catch his name) who announced a major restoration initiative to save “significant films from every decade of Universal. Over the next four years, we will restore 15 silent films from Universal’s silent days.”

That’s wonderful news. Some 60 years ago, Universal thought so little of its silents that it didn’t bother renewing their copyrights. They’re all in the public domain.

Next up, Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress and author of the Now See Hear blog. “All Quiet on the Western Front was conceived, written, shot, edited as a sound film. What we’re witnessing tonight is a glorious anomaly…This print, which is 35mm [big applause from audience], was preserved by Library of Congress from the original negative.”

The movie started 13 minutes after the scheduled time. Not bad.

Whether silent or talkie, All Quiet makes a powerful antiwar statement. It focuses on one young German man (Lew Ayres) convinced by his professor to serve his country. Not everything is dark; he makes close friends and manages some fun pranks. But all that is overshadowed by hunger, the horror of war, and the deaths of one friend after another.

Is it better as a song film or a silent? Hard to say. In the silent version, the main characters come off somewhat as archetypes. With sound, they’re more like real, specific people. Both approaches are valid, and I give both of them an A.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra gave their usual a magnificent performance. Following in their own footsteps from their Wings performance of three years ago, they’ve added a typewriter and other gadgets for sound effects. In a war movie, even a silent one, effects can be as important as music. Occasionally, for dramatic effect, they went entirely silent.

Altogether it was a worthy way to open the Festival.

Mad Men and Mad Max

I attended two screenings in movie theaters so far this week. I thought I’d share them with you.

Mad Men Finale at the New Parkway

My wife and I have been following Mad Men for some years now–without cable or satellite. We binge-watched the first three seasons on disc, and season four on Netflix. We paid to see the last three seasons on Hulu, where each episode became available the day after its broadcast.

But we wanted something special for the big series finale on Sunday. So we went to the New Parkway, where they had been screening the last few episodes live for a paying audience. At $6 a head, it seemed like a bargain.

The presentation leaved a lot to be desired. The houselights stayed on for several minutes after the show started. They finally came down, but they went back up again before the show ended. And we had to sit through the commercials, which weren’t even muted.

On the other hand, the audience was wonderful. Some were costumed as Don, Betty, Joan, and Peggy. The crowd laughed and cheered at appropriate places, and called out encouragement for the characters on screen. That made the problems worthwhile.

So much has been written about the show and the finale that I don’t feel a need to discuss my reactions. But it did make me think about what real separates a happy ending from sad one. It’s all about where you stop telling the story.

Mad Max: Fury Road in 3D at Berkeley’s California Theater

After the San Francisco International Film Festival, I like to cleanse my palate with a big, Hollywood action movie. This year, it took me almost two weeks to get around to that ritual. But I waited for the right movie.

I caught the new Mad Max in the big, downstairs auditorium in Berkeley’s California Theatre. I had to skip out of work early to see it in 3D. For some odd reason, they were showing it flat version–in the same auditorium–for the prime-time 7:00 screening.

You have to understand three things about this movie:

  1. It’s basically one long motor vehicle chase broken up with a few dialog scenes.
  2. It’s surprisingly feminist for this sort of movie. It’s about a woman warrior rescuing a tyrant’s enslaved harem.
  3. Mad Max isn’t the main hero.

Charlize Theron plays the real hero–the woman warrior mentioned above. She’s strong, smart, determined, and ethical. She’s putting her life on the line and burning all of her bridges for a completely altruistic motive. She’s freeing slaves.

Max, by comparison, is just along for the ride. He’s the central character in the way that Dr. Watson is the central character in a Sherlock Holmes story–we see the story primarily through his point of view. Unlike Watson, he has to find his moral center. At first he cares only for his own survival. Slowly, he becomes a valuable part of the team bringing these women to freedom. But he never becomes the team’s leader.

Tom Hardy plays Max. I guess Mel Gibson is too old and too anti-Semitic.

But all of that moral and character stuff is just an appetizer. The main course is the chase, filled with crashes, weapons, hand-to-hand combat, acts of courage, close calls, and fatal errors. It’s fast, brutal, and for the most part very well-choreographed. The film makes effective use of 3D, and should be seen that way.

Occasionally, the action got repetitious, and even briefly tedious. Director/co-writer George Miller could have cut out 20 minutes and made a better movie for it.

Miller does a good job creating a dystopian future Australia (and yes, I know he’s done it before). He gives us a barren landscape presumably savaged by climate change, populated by a handful of desperate people living on shrinking resources and the remnants of a dead civilization.

But one thing bothered me about Miller’s vision. Whatever destroyed the environment apparently killed off everyone who wasn’t white. When you consider that Theron’s character seems based on Margaret Tubman, it would have been nice to cast a black woman in the role.

You’ve probably read about reactionary men’s groups objecting to the film. Think about the reaction if Zoe Saldana had Theron’s role.

I give Mad Max: Fury Road a B+.

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.

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.

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