A Great Scholar and a Very Bad Mom: Saturday at SFFILM Festival

Like many film festivals, SFFILM creates a different trailer every year, which screens at the beginning of each show. Most years, I’m deeply bored of the trailer well before the end of the festival.

Not this year. A snappy, exciting montage set to an infectious beat, this year’s trailer is short and fun, and has yet to get old. Unfortunately, I can’t find it online. You’ll have to buy a movie ticket to see it.

I saw that trailer twice on Saturday. Here’s what came after it played:

Mel Novikoff Award: Annette Insdorf & To Be or Not To Be

Every year, SFFILM 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, the prize goes to Columbia University’s film professor, Annette Insdorf.

In addition to teaching cinema and writing several books on the topic, she runs the Reel Pieces movie series at New York’s 92nd Street Y.

I had never heard of Professor Insdorf until last month. But after watching her talk for almost an hour, I’m fan. I think I’m going to read some of her books.

After Rachel Rosen started the ceremony, Phil Kaufman introduced Insdorf, telling us about their passionate love affair…with cinema. He told us how she accepts every movie on its own terms. He explained that she – a child of two Holocaust survivors – wrote the definitive book on films about the Shoah, Indelible Shadows. Then he gave her the award, which looks vaguely like the Transamerica Building.

Professor Insdorf sat down with San Francisco Silent Film Festival Artistic Director Anita Monga to talk about movies.

Her father “was the one who made me fall in love with movies. When he was young, he had to pick between buying bread or going to the movies, and he would pick the movies…He took me every weekend to the movies. I grew up loving film.”

She discussed her book Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes. The book discusses how the first scene of a film brings you in, and how great films generally have great first scenes. She also mentioned an exception: Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory – a great film with a pedestrian opening.

Like all film professors, she uses the auteur theory, but she has problems with it. She argued that we need to celebrate artists other than directors, and also celebrate great directors who aren’t in the pantheon, such as William Wyler.

She admitted that she has difficulties with films in languages she doesn’t know. She is, therefore, not an expert on Japanese and African cinema. But since she knows several European languages, she still covers quite a bit.

And, of course, she discussed Holocaust films and her book on the subject. She has had to revive it every few years and new films come out.

The talk was followed by a screening of Professor Insdorf’s film of choice, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942, dark, anti-Nazi comedy, To Be or Not to Be. This is one of the best comedies ever (it’s on my A+ list), and one that dares to get serious for significant lengths of time. For more on this great film, read my Blu-ray review.

It had been years since I’d seen this movie theatrically. Like all great comedies, it really comes alive with an audience. Every gag landed with a big, communal laugh.

Unfortunately, the 35mm print was in bad condition, especially at the end of each reel. Several reels lacked their first few seconds. Sometimes the image looked washed out. I know many cinephiles cheer at the decision to screen in 35mm (see Brian Darr’s report). But I’d rather see a good digital transfer than a battered physical print.

A much worse problem: An old couple sitting near me seemed to believe that their private conversation was more interesting than either Insdorf’s discussion or screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer’s brilliant dialog. Telling them to hush seemed to work for a few minutes.

Aside from that annoyance, it was a great show.

Scary Mother

Despite the title, this isn’t a horror flick. Or is it?

Whatever it is, this Georgian movie is weird, difficult to follow, and yes, kind of scary. The central character might do anything.

Manana (Nata Murvanidze) thinks of herself as a writer. But her writing is awful. She insists that her work is entirely fiction, but the characters resemble her husband and children – and they’re not flattering portraits. Worse, much of her work goes over the line into pornography. She’s clearly crazy, and constantly writes notes on her own skin. Her husband’s take-charge attitude only makes things worse.

I give Scary Mother a B.

I attended the last SFFILM screening, at the Creativity Theater.

3 thoughts on “A Great Scholar and a Very Bad Mom: Saturday at SFFILM Festival

  1. I disagree about her mental state. She is a true artist and is eccentric. I think she was being repressed by her family who she was in total service of. Her husband was highly critical of her. She needed to be free to be herself.

  2. Was hoping you had transcribed Ms. Insdorf’s full conversation…. maybe later? (I also liked Scary Mother more than you did, agree with Claudia’s comments. Not a comfortable viewing to be sure, but a creative spirit desperate to be seen for herself…)

    1. I recorded Professor Insdorf’s talk, but the sound quality is pretty bad. I gave up listening to it about 15 minutes in. That’s why there’s only one direct quote in my article.

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