Janus, Criterion, Coen Brothers, and James Schamus: Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I started the day with Wesley Morris’ State of Cinema address. But as I’ve already written about that presentation, I’ll skip it here and go to the two other events I attended.

Mel Novikoff Award: An Afternoon with Janus Films & the Criterion Collection

Every year, the Festival gives the Mel Novikoff Award to “an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema.” This year, it went to two companies that often work together: Janus Films and the Criterion Collection.

The event happened at the Castro.

If you’re not familiar with them, Janus distributes classic films–mostly foreign–to theaters. Criterion brings classics and not-so-classic films to the home screen via DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming services. If you check out my Blu-ray reviews, you’ll find a lot of Criterion titles.

Much of what we take for granted on DVDs and Blu-rays today–extras, commentary tracks, carefully-created transfers, and presenting a film in its original aspect ratio–started with Criterion on Laserdisc.

On stage, film critic Scott Foundas interviewed Criterion’s Jonathan Turell and and Janus’ Peter Becker. Some highlights:

  • This idea that Criterion has come to play a role in canon creation is an accident. The result is people have started to think that way.
  • On working with major studios: We try to be an asset to the studios. We’ve been able to position ourselves has a way .
  • On their devotion to physical discs: I don’t think the beauty of it can go out of style.
  • Long ago, Turell showed Michael Powell a Laserdisc with one of the first commentaries–possibly King Kong. Powell exclaimed “What I could do with that technology if I were younger.” Then he did the first ever director commentary; it was for Black Narcissus.
  • They’re preparing to launch Filmstruck, a recently-announced streaming service that’s a joint venture between Criterion and Turner Classic Movies. “It’s built from the ground up and just for movies. And it’s wholly curated by us.”

The Novikoff Award presentation always includes a movie. This time, it was the Coen Brothers’ first film, Blood Simple, which Criterion has just restored. So the Coen Brothers and the film’s cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld (now a director) came on stage and joined the conversation.

More highlights, all from the creators of Blood Simple:

  • What a relief to deal with people who understand what your movie is trying to do. It’s not about marketing the movie. It’s about presenting a movie in a particular way.
  • The first day of shooting was the first time we ever were on a movie set.
  • The Coen brothers raised money for Blood Simple marketing it as a splatter movie. “Well, we did have vomiting blood.”
  • M. Emmet Walsh was the only actor in the film that anyone would recognize. When asked to do something a little different “to humor me,” he responded “I’ve done this whole fucking movie to humor you.”
  • Sonnenfeld on shooting John Getz: We could never focus his face. Those in front of him were in focus, those in back of him were on focus. But he was never in focus.

Then we got to see Blood Simple.

The Coen Brothers’ first film shows a promise of what they’d become. An exceptionally dark, violent, gruesome, and funny noir, it tells a coherent story that is totally incoherent to the characters onscreen. You’ve got an adulterous couple (half of which is Frances McDormand in her first film role), a violently vengeful husband, and a private detective with less morals than your average snake (Walsh).

As I watched it, I kept seeing tropes that would reappear in Fargo. While it’s not quite Fargo material, it still earns a clear A-.

There was no audience Q&A. Too bad. I must have 50 questions for Criterion.

Centerpiece: Indignation

For my final event for the day, I went to the Victoria Theatre for the Centerpiece screening of James Schamus’ directorial debut, Indignation.

The film will get a theatrical release in the near future, so I’m not allowed to say more than 100 words about it now:

Most coming of age movies are essentially optimistic. You know that the protagonist will come out alright. But in Indignation, you slowly begin to realize that Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) just might not find happiness. He has no good options, only bad ones. And he lacks the maturity to find the lesser evil. The son of a New Jersey kosher butcher, he does well academically but not socially in a Christian college in Ohio. And if he leaves college, the draft and the Korean War await. Based on a novel by Phillip Roth.

I give it an A.

After the movie, Executive Director Noah Cowan presided over the Q&A with Schamus, best known as Ang Lee’s producer/screenwriter and as the former head of Focus Features. Some comments:

  • On adapting a Phillip Roth book: He’s notoriously difficult to adapt, and I learned that the hard way. Empathy comes out of the brutality. You can’t get that kind of truth on film.
  • On Roth’s reaction: He did me the greatest favor. I sent him the screenplay before we started shooting. He refused to read it. that was the best thing he could do.
  • On why he waited so long to direct: I’ve written a lot of screenplays. Then I think: I could direct it, or Ang Lee could direct it.
  • I know it’s a miserably depressing movie, but I had a blast making it.
  • On directing for the first time: There were two things that were completely new. Where you put the camera, and working with actors.