SFFilm Saturday Report

Here’s what I saw and heard Saturday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

 State of Cinema: Edwin Catmull

Every year, the Festival invites someone to give a State of the Cinema address. This year, it was Dr. Ed Catmull, President of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation – two Disney divisions that push cinema both artistically and technologically. He obviously had some interesting things to say.

His talk concentrated on the intersection of technology and art. A few high points, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • I wanted to be an animator. But there were no classes in that, so I studied physics.
  • It’s perceived in our culture that there’s something incongruous between art and technology. That’s not true.
  • When Walt Disney was coming up, filmmaking was the high tech of the day. He spurred other people to improve the technology. When he died, people remembered the art, but forgot how he made it. They didn’t understand that technology and art are combined.
  • Computers were seen as a threat to people, especially artists. They had cartoons with wall-sized computers and men in lab coats.
  • The growing Internet created massive data servers, which some brilliant marketer called The Cloud.
  • If you pay attention, the warning signs of change are visible. But they’re not predictive, because a lot of companies make stupid choices.
  • Special effects changed the possibilities, then home video changed the economics.
  • Has technology made writing and directing any easier? Has the ease of entry resulted in films with deeper meanings? Are the stories any better?
  • Virtual Reality has been around for 40 years. What changed? The graphic cards got fast enough so that the lag went away.
  • If we don’t change technology we die.

His talk was followed by a discussion of Pixar employees. I was unable to stay for that.

A Tribute to Ethan Hawke: Maudie

For over a quarter century, Ethan Hawke has been a major star in independent and Indiewood cinema. He’s made a name for himself with such films as Reality Bites, Gattaca, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Boyhood, and the Before trilogy.

After an introduction and a clip reel, Hawke and director Michael Almereyda (who directed Hawke in the 2000 version of Hamlet) sat down and talked. Including the audience Q&A, the conversation ran for more than an hour. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity.

  • On his job: Acting is so much a part of who I am. You do something and it feels incredibly natural.
  • Early experiences: I was 12 years old when I got my first paying acting job. The other kids would talk about Shaw and Shakespeare, and I was thinking “This is a job?”
  • You can always write, but as an actor you can only be as good as the opportunities you get.
  • On his reluctance to play someone who carries a gun: It’s hard to have a career making professional movies and not kill people.
  • On working with Denzil Washington: He was my favorite actor when I was growing up. I watched all his movies before working with him. I realized actors watched him rather than act with him. Acting should be like dancing – you work with your partner.

And then they screened his latest film, Maudie.

Here’s a love story, set on the beautiful Nova Scotia coast, about two people unlikely to find love. Maude (Sally Hawkins) suffers from severe arthritis. To escape her family, she takes a job as a live-in maid with Everett (Hawkes) – a loner who lives in a tiny house outside of town. Everett is emotionally repressed, outwardly macho, filled with inner pain, and deeply sad. They eventually marry and learn to love each other. But it’s never easy. As Maude gains fame as an artist, Everett can’t handle the changes. A lovely, heart-wrenching biography of Canadian artist Maud Lewis.

I give this excellent film an A.

After the film, there was another Q&A. By that time, I’d been sitting in that theater for three hours and had another movie coming up within the hour. I reluctantly left.

Maudie will not play again at the festival, but will receive a theatrical release.

The Incredible Jessica James

Before the film started, writer/director Jim Strouse came onstage to introduce the movie. He said he was glad it was being screened on a Saturday night, because it really is a Saturday night type of movie.

This very funny romantic comedy starts with a powerfully funny scene that takes on the trials of dating in the age of Tinder. It’s the funniest scene in the movie, but many of the ones that follow also provide considerable laughs. The movie stars Jessica Williams (late of the Daily Show) as a struggling playwright who also struggles with her love life. Williams is an amazing presence; she’s beautiful, lively, and incredibly funny. The story is cliched, predictable, and shallow, but her presence and the many laughs makes Incredible worth seeing.

I give it a B+.

After the screening, Strouse and and Art Director Nora Mendis came on stage for some Q&A. Strouse did most of the talking. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • On the star: Jessica Williams is a force of nature. She had a small part in my previous film, People Places Things. After that, I wanted to make a movie where she’s in every scene.
  • On designing her apartment: We picked a rug for the character’s apartment. Turns out Jessica’s real apartment has the same rug.
  • On a white man writing for a black woman: We had a lot of conversations. The character became a blend of both of us. I told her to let me know if something feels wrong. She knows things I can’t know.

This was the only screening of the movie at the festival. It will not get a theatrical release, but it will be on Netflix soon.