Sunday, October 28, 2007

Three Angry Men

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD
(Sidney Lumet, US, 2007, 116 mins.)


before%20the%20devil2.jpg

Don't call it a comeback / I've been here for years.
-- LL Cool J, "Mama Said Knock You Out" (1990)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Before he was a movie director, Sidney Lumet was a TV director. Before he
was a TV director, Lumet was a theater director. After watching Before the Devil
Knows You're Dead
, it occurred to me that the entire cast had trod the boards.

The list includes those best known for their silver screen work, like Marisa
Tomei and Ethan Hawke, whose theater-directing debut just opened Off-
Broadway. But look closer, and you'll find actors who've enjoyed their big-
gest successes on the stage, like Tony winner BrĂ­an F. O'Byrne (Frozen)
and Michael Shannon (both theatrical and cinematic versions of Bug).

It's not that Lumet's 44th (!) feature is stagy or theatrical, although the two-
person-in-a-room scenes are among the best. It's that the melodrama merges
two of his favored genres: the crime caper and the family tragedy. As he puts
it in the press notes, "In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the char-
acters, and in a well-written melodrama, the characters come out of the story."

Network.jpg
Albert Finney's doppelgänger froths his way to an Oscar

When I think about Lumet and the family tragedy, I flash back to his version of Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night (1962). More so than the police pictur-
es and corruption classics of the 1970s (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, etc.), Before the Devil Knows You're Dead evokes O'Neill, Shakespeare, Chekhov--Lu-
met once directed a version of The Seagull--and even a few of those Greek guys.

If you've seen the trailer, you've got the gist of the thing, except it emphasiz-
es the criminal aspects of playwright Kelly Masterson's first screenplay, possibly
because the family dynamics are too complicated to summarize in 60 seconds.

In short, Hank (Hawke) and Andy Hanson (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) are New
York-based brothers living beyond their means--yes, Masterson will allude to their
not inconsiderable physical dissimilarity before this fractured fairytale is through.

Blue-collar Hank can barely keep up with the child support payments to his ex-
wife, Martha (Amy Ryan, almost as feisty here as in Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, where she incinerates the screen), while real estate broker Andy makes more money, but as a heroin and cocaine user--shades of Katharine Hepburn's morphine-addicted matriarch in O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece--he's having a harder time of it.

And that's just scratching the surface. Hank is also having an affair with Andy's
wife, Gina (the frequently topless Tomei), and neither man is particularly close
to their father, Charles (Albert Finney, from Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express).
These relationships may be strained, but Andy's bright idea about how to se-
cure a financial windfall will bring long-simmering tensions to a full boil.

Charles and their mother, Nanette (an underused Rosemary Harris),
run a suburban strip-mall jewelry store. To their father's disappointment,
his sons chose not to join the "mom and pop operation." But at least it's
insured, so Andy talks Hank into robbing the joint and fencing the gems
for some quick cash. It is, as he spins it, "a victimless crime."

before%20the%20devil3.jpg
Shannon in the center

The plan is for Hank, wearing a disguise--he looks like The King of Comedy's
Rupert Pupkin--to enter the shop while the afternoon clerk is manning the
counter. Without telling his brother, Hank decides to drive the getaway car,
roping in his friend, Bobby (O'Byrne), to handle the hold-up. Suffice to say,
their plan falls apart the minute the unstable Bobby walks in the door.

Everything that can go wrong, does. The only "good" thing is that Charles
has no idea his sons were involved with the robbery. From that point forward,
Lumet concentrates on the rapidly unraveling psyches of his central trio (Tomei
and Harris are fine, but the story isn't really about them). Before the crime, the
three were able to treat each other with some degree of civility. After all hell has broken loose, they can no longer disguise their true feelings for each other.

Yes, that's right, Before the Devil... is an actor's paradise, and Hawke, Hoffman, and Finney rise to the occasion. Then there's Michael Shannon, as Bobby's brother-in-law, Dex. It's a small role, but Shannon makes one hell of a hilariously menacing impact. So much so that I predict big--or at least interesting--things for the blue-eyed lug.

It's too soon to say whether the film will represent Lumet's comeback. He never
went away, and his previous picture, Find Me Guilty (2006), attracted respectable notices, but it's been ages since he had a hit. Since younger audiences may not
be familiar with his work, the actors will have to be the main draw. Fortunately, this
is his starriest cast in ages--two Oscar winners (Hoffman and Tomei) and six nomi-
nations (shared between Finney and Hawke). The good reviews should also help.

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Hawke and Tomei pay tribute

Further, Lumet may be 83, but this hi-def enthusiast is no more stuck in the past than Jacques Rivette (79), Alain Resnais (85), Eric Rohmer (87), and Manoel de Oliveira, who turns 99 in December. In the press notes, Finney states, "I worked with him 32 years ago. He shoots just as fast now as he did then. He's still the same."

At the very least, the movie proves Lumet has learned from the mistakes that marred his 1990s output. First of all, he tends to do his best work with classically-trained actors, like Henry Fonda, Peter Finch, and Al Pacino (about whom he says, "Yes, Al Pacino challenges you. But only to make you more honest, to make you probe deeper. You're a better director for having worked with him"). And not mov-
ie stars, like Sharon Stone (from his ill-fated Cassavetes remake, Gloria) or Mel-
anie Griffith (from his previous diamond district thriller, A Stranger Among Us).

Also, as Lumet acknowledges in Making Movies (1995), an essential read for anyone interested in American cinema, "I've done two movies because I needed the money." I doubt his most recent falls into that category, although he adds, "Because I'm a professional, I worked as hard on those movies as on any I've ever done."

Fortunately, Lumet's hard work has paid off this time around--the title comes from the Irish toast, "May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead"--and he's currently at work on feature #45. As David Mamet, who penned the screenplay for The Verdict (1982), succinctly sums it up, "Sidney is the maestro."

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I'm gonna take this itty bitty world by storm / and I'm just gettin' warm.
-- LL Cool J

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead opens at the Egyptian Theater on 11/2.
Images from OutNow! and Ruthless Reviews (Will Hart, ThinkFilm).

Monday, October 22, 2007

An Introduction to Anthropology














THE PORNOGRAPHERS / Jinruigaku Nyumon: Erogotshi Yori

(Shohei Imamura, 1966, Japan, 35mm, 128 mins.)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part
of the social structure. I want to make messy, really human, Japanese, unsettling films.

-- Shohei Imamura (1926-2006)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

As the title indicates, Mr. Ogata (Shoichi Ozawa) makes dirty
movies, but he does many other things besides. In this discursive,
darkly humorous portrait of repression in a rapidly-changing socie-
ty, director Shohei Imamura takes pornography as his starting
point before moving on to incest, mental illness, the women's lib-
eration movement, and more. You name it, and it's in there.

This makes The Pornographer: An Introduction to Anthropol-
ology, as the original Japanese title would have it (similarly, 1963's In-
sect Woman
is sub-titled Entomological Chronicles of Japan), both ex-
hausting and entertaining--or to quote Imamura, "Messy, really human,
Japanese, unsettling." And pissed-off without succumbing to polemics.



Ogata lives in Osaka with hairdresser Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto). As in
Black Rain, the creature in this case is a carp (pigs, eels, whales, and
snakes also enter into his work). Haru, Ogata's landlady, believes her re-
cently deceased husband has been reincarnated as a fish, and since it's
always watching her--the poor thing is kept in a too-small aquarium and
can barely move--she can't fully commit to her favorite tenant. (Tsai
Ming-liang swiped the same conceit for What Time Is It There?)

Consequently, Ogata, who doubles as a part-time pimp, isn't get-
ting much action with the increasingly unhinged Haru, but her adol-
escent daughter, Keiko (Keiko Sagawa), is starting to attract his at-
tention. Haru's college-age son, Koichi (Masaomi Kondo), on the oth-
er hand, is turning into a nuisance. He's always asking for money, and
when Ogata isn't able to help him out, Koichi steals what he needs.

Like Michael Powell's chilling Peeping Tom (1960)--with laughs
instead of chills--this black and white CinemaScope feature explor-
es voyeurism, but that doesn't make it voyeuristic (there's very
little nudity). Yet the viewer become implicated by watching.


Ogata is shown shooting his 8mm pornos, but Imamura is just as con-
cerned with his complicated personal life as his colorful profession. Oga-
ta is a pornographer in every sense of the word--not just through the
movies he makes (and the "virgins" he procures), but through the way
he treats his adopted family. Forcing the troubled Keiko to take the
place of her ailing mother, for instance, only pushes her towards por-
nography. Arguably, this makes Imamura a pornographer, as well.

By extension, the filmmaker seems to suggest that the state is the
ultimate pornographer. When men like Ogata aren't able to follow
their true passions--in his case, making blue movies for sex-starved
salary men--those passions can curdle into perversion and depravity,
infecting everyone in their vicinity (by the end, Ogata has gone way
over the edge). It's not so much that Imamura is taking a stand for
pornography, but for freedom of expression. In all its forms.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Every time I watch one of Imamura's pictures,
I learn something. And every time I'm enthralled.

-- Martin Scorsese

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Shohei Imamura in brief: After assisting Yasujiro Ozu on Early
Summer
, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, and Tokyo Story, the
director debuted with Stolen Desire in 1958. (About Ozu, he has said, "I
wouldn't just say I wasn't influenced by Ozu: I would say I didn't want to
be influenced by him.") Along with only two other international filmmak-
ers, he has won the Palme d'Or twice, for Ballad of Narayama and The
Eel
(shared with Abbas Kiarostami's equally humanist Taste of Cherry).

Click here for my review of Vengeance Is Mine (1979).



Part of the 18-film retrospective A MAN VANISHES - THE LEGACY OF
SHOHEI IMAMURA, The Pornographers opens on 11/1 (10 of the tit-
les are unavailable on video). The Northwest Film Forum is located at 15-
15 12th Avenue between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click
here
or call 206-329-2629. Co-curated by NWFF program director Adam
Sekuler, the series continues to seven other cities. A commemorative
tour book featuring essays by Scorsese and others will be available at
all venues. Free of charge on 10/26 opening night (Stolen Desire), it
will cost $5 thereafter. Images from NWFF and Senses of Cinema.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Black and White and Blue All Over

LET'S GET LOST
(Bruce Weber, US, 1988, 35mm, 119 mins.)


let%27s%20get%20lost.jpg

Almost blue / It's almost touching it will almost do
There's a part of me that's always true...always.

-- Chet Baker sings Elvis Costello

*****

It's too bad, really, that Bruce Weber has become best known for his
Abercrombie & Fitch photographs. They all look the same. The male
models have muscular bodies, smooth chests, and square jaws. Their
hair is usually tousled. Their pants usually hang off their hips. It's a look.
It's a lifestyle. It says: I'm good looking, totally vain, and possibly braindead.

That description doesn't apply to slightly-built jazz man Chesney
"Chet" Baker, Jr.
Okay, he was movie-star handsome in his heyday, but
he wasn't stupid and nor was he devoid of talent. If his version of "My
Funny Valentine" doesn't break your heart, you're one stony cat. Others
have sung it with greater finesse, but few with more aching vulnerability.

bruce%20weber2.jpg
The Weber/A&F/Calvin Klein ideal
Oddly enough, though, his Oklahoma offspring (two boys and one girl) resemble
A&F models-or at least they did in 1987. But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's unlikely Weber, the director of Broken Noses and Chop Suey, would mind. His newly-restored documentary also ping-pongs through time. It's an increasingly trendy technique that comes across as unnecessarily convoluted in the wrong hands, but Weber's film plays more like musical improvisation than conventional biography.
He starts by contrasting the pretty trumpeter of the 1950s with the rumpled
vocalist of the 1980s. Since all of the footage is in black and white, the transitions are seamless. In fact, though a few subjects reference the 1960s and 1970s,
Weber avoids the color era altogether. Instead, when he isn't excavating archival material (stills, TV appearances, and film clips) or shooting interviews, he sets
their words to seemingly random images. Baker liked dogs-as does Weber-so there's a scene set in Santa Monica, in which Jeff Preiss's camera captures some puppies at play. The owner is never identified. It shouldn't work, but it does.
I couldn't say for sure what Baker was doing during those lost years.
Associates suggest he was shooting smack, working menial jobs, and avoid-
ing his four kids (he also had a son with his first wife). Weber concentrates
on Baker's most famous personas-the popular musician of the past and
the cult figure of the present-before exploring his family life. Along the way,
he speaks with two of his significant girlfriends. And once Ruth Young hits the
screen, the whole thing comes alive. Not that Let's Get Lost was dead before, but Baker was a heroin addict. When he talks, he talks very...verrrry...slooowwwly.
bruce%20weber.jpg
Weber and friends
The fuzzy-haired singer waxes rhapsodic about their tawdry times together. She's certainly a ballsy chick, but Young seems reliable enough. Baker's ex-wife, however, presents a darker side to the Ruth-and-Chet story. And everything changes. What had seemed like a fairly straightforward narrative, in terms of content rather than chronology, grows more complex. Speakers continue to contradict each other throughout the film-Baker included. Though his recall is surprisingly good.
Nonetheless, the director doesn't answer every question or fill in every
blank-and that must've made jazz fans hot around the collar, since they
live for record labels and session dates-but Weber brings his subject to
gloriously cantankerous life, which is ironic as Baker died shortly after filming wrapped. Because his death was ruled accidental, it's hard to say whether he
was dying during the making of the documentary. I suspect that he was. Only
57 in 1987, the musician looks much older. Which isn't to say he looks terrible.
By the early '70s, his prettiness was gone, but Baker never lost his innate cool.
Nonetheless, most reviews make it sound as if he morphed into some sort of monster. In his otherwise excellent Village Voice piece, Jim Ridley describes Baker's face as a "drawn, hollow-cheeked death mask." The Washington Post's Hal Hinson uses the word "ravaged," adding "scarred by age and hard living." Believe me, it's not that bad. As Ridley qualifies, "Yet there is beauty in the vestigial traces where beauty has been-and the impermanence of beauty is Weber's true subject."
If anything, Weber tries too hard to beautify his portrait by surrounding Baker
with hip young things like actress Lisa Marie and Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player Flea. Those particular sequences do play much like live-action layouts-hey, once
a fashion photographer, always a fashion photographer. Or at least, that's the
world to which Weber has returned. Then again, maybe he only had one great film
in him. In which case, I'm glad he made it, because Let's Get Lost is a great film.
let%27s%20get%20lost3.jpg
Almost me / Almost you / Almost blue.
-- Elvis Costello, Imperial Bedroom (1982)
*****
Part of the annual series EARSHOT JAZZ FILMS, Let's Get Lost plays the Northwest Film Forum from 10/26-11/1. (A DVD release is planned for later this year.) Other highlights include Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer and Imagine the Sound, Ron Mann's profile of four free jazz proponents. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629.
Images from Answers.com and The SXSW Film Festival, lyrics from Lyrics Freak.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Eternal Summer - Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

7429.jpg
Bryant Chang, Joseph Chang and Kate Yeung

Returning for a repeat screening, Eternal Summer initially showed at SIFF 2007 and was described in the program:

"Friends since childhood, the studious Jonathan and athletic Shane must confront their true feelings when a new girl enters their lives, who falls first for one and then the other. An affecting look at young love-both gay and straight-that became an award-winning sensation in its native Taiwan."


As noted, the film was a big deal in Taiwan, where coming out movies are a novelty, but to my cranky, jaded eyes it seemed a bit soppy, the sort of sentimental gush where every emotional scene seems to occur during a downpour and the climax happens on a beach. At first, I thought, "Maybe I'm too old to watch this. It's for kids in their late teens, early 20's, really," but then I realized, when I was that age, I probably would have hated the film even more. So, it wasn't my cup of tea, but as Susie Greene would say on Curb Your Enthusiasm, "Fuck you and fuck your tea."

So, who is this for? Someone who would enjoy watching a 90-minute Abercrombie ad. In fact, one of the characters wears an Abercrombie t-shirt in one of the scenes.

Actually, there is another reason to watch it. As Kathy Fennessy noted in her Stranger review, "The reason to catch Eternal Summer isn't that you've never seen this film before-brainy lad falls for jock best friend-but because it's just as beautiful as the pillow-lipped Mr. Chang."

The film is beautifully photographed by Charlie Lam, in honey golds and mango greens, in a style redolent of Christopher Doyle.

Otherwise, it's a teen melodrama, like an extra special episode of Dawson's Creek and yes, as I type this, I realize I'm totally selling some of you on it.

As for sex, there is a scene or two of that, but if you want to see two Asian guys go at it in a much better film [with a much better soundtrack] rent Happy Together.

Eternal Summer, 2006, Taiwan, 95 min.
Saturday, October 20th, NWFF, 4:30pm

Eternal Summer - Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

7429.jpg
Bryant Chang, Joseph Chang and Kate Yeung

Returning for a repeat screening, Eternal Summer initially showed at SIFF 2007 and was described in the program:

"Friends since childhood, the studious Jonathan and athletic Shane must confront their true feelings when a new girl enters their lives, who falls first for one and then the other. An affecting look at young love-both gay and straight-that became an award-winning sensation in its native Taiwan."


As noted, the film was a big deal in Taiwan, where coming out movies are a novelty, but to my cranky, jaded eyes it seemed a bit soppy, the sort of sentimental gush where every emotional scene seems to occur during a downpour and the climax happens on a beach. At first, I thought, "Maybe I'm too old to watch this. It's for kids in their late teens, early 20's, really," but then I realized, when I was that age, I probably would have hated the film even more. So, it wasn't my cup of tea, but as Susie Greene would say on Curb Your Enthusiasm, "Fuck you and fuck your tea."

So, who is this for? Someone who would enjoy watching a 90-minute Abercrombie ad. In fact, one of the characters wears an Abercrombie t-shirt in one of the scenes.

Actually, there is another reason to watch it. As Kathy Fennessy noted in her Stranger review, "The reason to catch Eternal Summer isn't that you've never seen this film before-brainy lad falls for jock best friend-but because it's just as beautiful as the pillow-lipped Mr. Chang."

The film is beautifully photographed by Charlie Lam, in honey golds and mango greens, in a style redolent of Christopher Doyle.

Otherwise, it's a teen melodrama, like an extra special episode of Dawson's Creek and yes, as I type this, I realize I'm totally selling some of you on it.

As for sex, there is a scene or two of that, but if you want to see two Asian guys go at it in a much better film [with a much better soundtrack] rent Happy Together.

Eternal Summer, 2006, Taiwan, 95 min.
Saturday, October 20th, NWFF, 4:30pm

Best of Lezsploitation - Michelle Johnson Interview - Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

helmut-newton10.jpg
Newtonian motion

One of my favorite things at the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival this year... actually, what the hell, my favorite thing at the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Film Festival this year is Michelle Johnson's compilation of sexploitation clips, The Best of Lezsploitation. Having enjoyed the film, it was a pleasure speaking with Michelle on the phone. According to an interview in the SF Bay Guardian, she grew up in a small Texas town but, to my NJ ears, her voice had a lot of New York attitude. Indeed, she reminded me of fellow New Jerseyian, Sharon Mitchell. I guess, in my inartful way, what I'm getting at here is, Michelle Johnson is a good egg, a good filmmaker and a good interview.

ESF: How did this project get started?

MJ: It started with two friends, who were curating for Homo A Go Go in Olympia, who know I have quite a number of cult movies and had showed them. I started showing some of them, with friends in LA at L Word screening parties, and they said "Wouldn't it be cool if you could put something together that was just a montage of lesbian scenes?" and I was like, "Yeah, that would be cool." So, I just set about thinking how I could do that and how I could pull these very different movies together and, being a DJ, using music was a logical choice, especially music of that genre, so I just started sifting through all these different movies, finding sexy clips, funny clips, sexy and funny clips and just pulled it altogether, then sat with a giant hard-drive full of stuff and just started editing.

ESF: It's very nicely edited. You used some very nice effects to make the transitions.

MJ: First thing I've ever edited in my life.

ESF: Well, the screener had this nice little intro thing with 'Triple X Selects'. Did you do that?

MJ: Yup, did it all.

ESF: Cool. It looked really professional.

MJ: Yeah, I did it on Final Cut and iDVD.

ESF: In compiling the material, what sources did you use? Was it all from your DVD collection?

MJ: Yup, all DVD.

ESF: Since you were going to show this in a bunch of festivals, did have to get permission from Blue Underground or other distributors to use the clips?

MJ: Yeah, well, I couldn't seek permission until I had what I wanted and was also mindful of who I thought I could work with, based on their availability here or overseas, so I purposely chose not to,AeP I wanted to find smaller, independent companies that I knew I could get in touch with and track, because that was a whole process right there. So, once I had what I wanted, I sought out all the companies I wanted to deal with and gauged their interest and approachability and made choices based on that. And actually Bill Lustig, who owns Blue Underground, is a gem. He's a big horror and cult fan and was super helpful and ended up giving me separate work for his company, which was really cool. So, I sort of just approached it that way. And I'm still in licensing with other people. But he was cool enough to tell me, "You know what, Michelle, if you use 3 minutes of any of my movies, you get it for free."

ESF: Great. Who did you have to go through to get the Emmanuelle 2 clip?

MJ: The Emmanuelle clips I'm working with France on, which is a bit of a debacle, because at first they were "Yes, yes," and then they were like, "No, well, you can't use Emmanuelle 2, because we're having problems with the director," so that's still back and forth and in the final bit I end up releasing, I may have to lose the Emmanuelle.
ESF: That's too bad, because it's one of the steamiest clips in the entire piece.
MJ: Definitely, but you know what, it's interesting, people either love it or they don't or they like the campy stuff more. So, it's interesting, lots of different people say different things about it, so at this point,AeP there's just stuff you get super stuck with, you're like, "No, I can't possibly lose that! No way!" ,AeP but going to a lot of screenings and festivals around the country and hearing feedback from lots of different people, I've ended up thinking, "Well, if have to lose that, because it's prohibitively expensive, I may have to."
ESF: That's something I wanted to ask about, the response to the film. What kind of audiences have you've been getting? Has it been a pretty mixed audience or has it been mostly women?
MJ: It's been mostly women, definitely some guys in there. When I screened in NY I had quite a few straight guys that are really into the cult films of that era, who knew quite a bit about them, and I was just in New Mexico, a couple of weeks ago, screening at the Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and there were a lot of men in the audience, a lot of gay men and, at first, my film was screening with the Bruce LaBruce short, so I thought "Well, they're there for that," but they weren't! They were there for my film. Their response was incredible, really great, so I was really happy to see guys there.
ESF: Have you gotten as much of a positive response from the sexy stuff as the campy stuff?
MJ: Actually, in a room full of people watching the movie, the campy stuff gets huge laughs and I think that makes it easier to watch a super-sexy reel, if there's lots of humor in it too. So, I wanted that to be a part of it, because it's really funny and it wasn't ever meant to be that funny, but anytime you're watching these movies you're like "Oh my god, that's crazy."
ESF: A lot of it is funny, but about a third of your clips are from Jess Franco and, particularly the stuff he did in the late 60's, early 70's, had a real kind of poetry to it.
MJ: Absolutely.
ESF: I mean, most of his films are awful but at, least during that period, he had a lot in common with the directors who were making art films.
MJ: Absolutely and when I do presentations at festivals, I do a 20 minute talk, and cover the genre and sort-of how it got started and this particular moment in time when it could happen and can't anymore, in many ways. Once hardcore came onto the scene, it really kind of changed a lot of that. So, these guys were really coming from an art background, certainly Jess Franco was, and so many of his films are like, "Oh, my god, it's so bad," but visually, they're always pretty stunning. They have amazing art direction, great production values and really interesting costumes and sets, so I'm a big Jess Franco fan.
ESF: One of my favorite films is Vampyros Lesbos, which in it's own way, is a faithful version of Nosferatu. He makes an extremely effective use of the locations. I mean, Istanbul, what a location, but also the mood and the atmosphere and the pacing is pretty similar to things Antonioni would do.
MJ: Absolutely, it's a stunning film and it was really the first sexploitation film I saw that I was like, "Wow!" and I saw this back in the mid-90's, when there was weird VHS's floating around and it didn't look nearly as good as when it was released on DVD, but that was the movie that first got me really interested in the genre and what it could do.
ESF: Yeah, it's funny, because you have clips that are absurd and campy and often in a fun way. I mean particularly,AeP I think it's a scene from Bacchanales Sexuelles, where these two girls suddenly do this little horsey thing,AeP
MJ: No, that was from Bare Behind Bars.
ESF: Oh, okay, but looking at that, it was like "What the hell?!"
MJ: The whole thing. Like, even when the girls are in the prison 'playground', for lack of a better word, and just start undressing and doing exercises on the ground, you look around and all the girls are, like, dancing around or have a ring around the rosie thing going on, it's just so absurd.
ESF: But it makes you wonder, how serious could these people have been, who made the films? I mean, they must have had some tongue-and-cheek sensibility going on.
MJ: There had to be, right, but I think that was their idea of sexy, these sort of things going on and, I don't know, they were just really going for it and just,AeP craziness. I don't know if you've seen that film, but it is absolutely insane.
ESF: No, I haven't seen it.
MJ: There's a lot more craziness in that. Also, just for my own personal viewing, I don't want to see films that get too violent against women and I was really afraid I was going to get attacked for that, because a lot of these films have that reputation, and even certainly with Jess Franco, like the mid-70's on,AeP but Bare Behind Bars, when they break out of prison, which it seems like they don't ever want to leave, but they bust out and they just run rampant on the streets of Rio, just killing men, for no reason, it's like, "Wait, what happened? Suddenly they're at carnival? What?"
ESF: Yes. There's definitely a distinction between some of these films and somebody like Russ Meyer, who clearly had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
MJ: Exactly. And I didn't want to use any of the Russ Meyer, because it's so recognizable and so specific and I feel if people know anything about the genre, they've seen images of that and so people would be like "Oh, Russ Meyer."
ESF: But also, he was more intentionally satirical.
MJ: He definitely was, but he was a pioneer. We wouldn't have had a lot of those films if he hadn't made The Immoral Mr. Teas.
ESF: You talked about hardcore and how it killed off the genre, but you have a clip or two from the mid-80's and it was surprising to me that anyone was still making those films then.
MJ: No, the only mid-80's thing I had was a brief clip from Reform School Girls, which is from '86, when they walk into the prison room and everybody's in teddies and 80's lingerie, I was just like, "Wow, that's pretty funny" and I think I used,AeP the only hardcore is a scene from 1978, from Images in a Convent with the nun 69-thing going on.
ESF: So that was a hardcore film?
MJ: It was rated X and definitely shows penetration, but it's not Triple X or anything and it's very much supposed to be an art film.
ESF: The music. What was the source of it?
MJ: The sources of the music were from library collections. Mostly European library collections that these guys would churn out and there would be different companies that would lease them to television shows and movies. It's basically stock-music. It was the stock music of its day and some of those,AeP like KPM was a huge music library and Amphonic was another one and I used a lot from those different libraries.
ESF: What was the track you used over the clip from Score?
MJ: Oh, that's a great one. That's from the KPM music library. It's called 'The Earthmen'.
ESF: Is that on CD?
MJ: You can get it on Sound Gallery.
ESF: Oh yeah, I don't have any of those, but I've heard of that series. The one I'm most familiar with is Easy Tempo.
MJ: Yes, I love the Easy Tempo stuff, too. I had some other stuff from The Beat at Cinecitt/* in an early cut and I just couldn't track the owners down at all and they're out of print and I was actually talking to Italy about it they were just like, "I don't know, man."
ESF: So, I assume that was a whole other process you had to go through to get the okay to use the music.
MJ: Yup. Tracking all that stuff down. And it's all still being finalized, because it's all going to cost some money and I'm just waiting for deals and stuff to happen. There's a cable company that's interested in buying it, so that's sort of what I'm waiting for, too, to put some money up front.
ESF: Okay, but in terms of festival viewing was it any kind of problem?
MJ: No, not at all.
ESF: Tell me a little about your background. You also work as a DJ.
MJ: Yes, I'm a DJ, a musician for many years and was always a cult film collector and very amateur about it and knew a couple of things, but not that much, but getting involved in this film was a really great chance for me to understand the history and educate myself about some of the directors. I mean, I really found Joe Sarno right before I started putting this together and I absolutely love his stuff.
ESF: Was he the one who did,AeP there's one scene where there's a bunch of girls lounging by a swimming pool in a gymnasium, was that his?
MJ: Yeah, that's Girl Meets Girl. That's an amazing film.
ESF: Yeah, that was a really good scene. It had a certain sensitivity to it.
MJ: His films always do and they always have lots of lesbian characters and they're always dealt with very sensitively and they also really fall in love with each other.
ESF: Is he still around?
MJ: He is still around and he's about 90 now.
ESF: Have you spoken with him?
MJ: No, I have not. I have been dealing with Retro-Seduction Cinema, who must have some deal with him, because they are the exclusive people who are re-releasing all his stuff. Not only are they re-releasing it, but they're re-mastering it and they're restoring a lot of these films.
ESF: Yeah, he was a guy who did these films and also did hardcore.
MJ: He did do hardcore under different names, just like Radley Metzger did.
ESF: I recently read the "Other Hollywood" and he's quoted quite a bit in that.
MJ: He's a really interesting fellow. He's getting a bit senile, I think, but his wife, who's been his production partner since the late 60's, is sharp as a tack. He lives in NY and partly in Sweden, though he is American. He's from Long Island.
ESF: You want to do a documentary.
MJ: Yes. I'm trying to track these ladies down. The actresses.
ESF: Would they mostly be in Europe?
MJ: A couple, but some are here. I have a connection through Blue Underground to speak with Jess Franco and Lina Romay, so I'm really kind of winding down on this whole festival thing and can focus on that now, because none of this stuff is really generating money for me, yet, so I still have a day job, you know.
ESF: And is your day job working in film?
MJ: It's working as an assistant for a television producer.
ESF: But you're definitely going to pursue the documentary.
MJ: Absolutely.
ESF: That's fantastic. So, you don't have a film background.
MJ: No. None. Just a lifelong fan and I love lots of different films, not just this genre, so I just felt I was coming to it with a big background of what I like to see in a movie and with a history, because I would see Jess Franco and think "Wow," because his films were surreal and they were beautiful and he gets maligned as a trash film guy.
ESF: So, you've been to festivals overseas as well as the United States?
MJ: I haven't. No. But I've been, I guess, not surprised, but kind of surprised, because I feel like all the people that run these festivals have a shitload of stuff to do, they don't have time to chitchat with me, but they have. It really screened first in Australia last February and people would write me, the programmers would write me back, "We had this many people in the audience and they loved it, they really responded to everything," and so it was really great to see the feedback; and from Austria I got the same responses and there was a brief European thing going on, but now I'm gearing up for the Fall European schedule and, the fact is, I could probably be put up if I went there, but no one's going to pay for your airfare to get there.
ESF: I know they don't really make films like this anymore, but there is a burgeoning market for lesbian porno/erotica . How do you feel about the things that are going on now?
MJ: Well Seduction Cinema, which is the new arm of Retro-Seduction Cinema, tries to remake a lot of these films. They'll do sort-of updates on them and they just don't work for me and I wish they would and that's the other film idea I'm toying with, but I think it would work better to do it as a short, you know much like, I just saw the Bruce LaBruce short and it just blew me away. I thought it was crazy and over the top. Give Piece of Ass A Chance. Have you seen that?
ESF: No, I haven't!
MJ: It's pretty great. And it's completely ripping on the whole Patty Hearst being abducted in the 70's thing, but I think it could be done like that, but as far as a feature length movie, I don't think so. I think we're so aware of camp, it just doesn't fly unless you do something complete with camp.
ESF: On the other hand, maybe you could do something that was more to the atmospheric end of things,AeP
MJ: Absolutely.
ESF: ,AePbut then, you'd run up against the problem of there being so little of an audience for the art film anymore, that having something with long, languorous passages in it might be a tough sell.
MJ: Yeah, it's true.
ESF: I guess what I'm trying to get at is that what hardcore did was to completely separate sex from cinema to the point where, if anyone wants to watch something sexual now, they're going to watch porn and the idea of mixing sexuality or sensuality with anything less that that, people aren't going to be interested.
MJ: No, it's true. It's just a different aesthetic out there. There will always be a market for it and that's the problem I've encountered watching newly made erotica,AeP now they want to call it erotica, but newly made stuff, is they're really trying to make it like a hardcore movie, but without any hardcore things.
ESF: [Laughs]
MJ: It doesn't work.
ESF: It's funny, because, when I was trying to get your screener from the festival, I mean they gave it to me and all that, but they said "We don't want to give this out too freely, because we want to avoid people trying watch it just for prurient reasons,AeP"
MJ: [Laughs]
ESF:,AeP and I said, "If I wanted to watch something for that reason I'd get a DVD from Evil Angel."
MJ: Exactly.
ESF: I'd get a Belladonna flick.
MJ: Get a Belladonna movie, right, and watch My Ass Is Haunted and call it a night.
ESF: Exactly.
MJ: [Laughs] It's very funny to me. It's interesting how it's really gotten lumped into this very racy thing. Porno! It's not really porno, but,AeP okay, whatever.
ESF: No, it's a completely different thing. I mean, it could overlap, but the intention is different.
MJ: Yes. I mean I just heard from Outfest that my film got stolen from the library [laughs].
ESF: That's funny.
MJ: They were appalled and I was like, "Well, that's cool!"
ESF: [Laughs] Well, I guess this stuff still has some kind of attraction.
MJ: This couple came up to me and this character that had been in that Joe Sarno film in the pool, the blonde one that talks the most, she comes up several times in the film. She's the one that beats the girl with the branch. And her character's name is Bibi. If you see Girl Meets Girl, she's fucking amazing. I could have made the whole film with her, honestly, but these two women came up to me after the New Mexican screening and they were like, "Please tell me that character's name is Bibi. We saw this film ten years ago on a bad VHS and we just fell in love with her." And, yup, that's Bibi. It was really nice!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bears - Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

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A big bowl of woof

I have a friend who loves Bears. I don't mean teddy bears. He might like those as well. What I mean is big, burly guys with lots of hair. Seth Rogen fits the bill, as does George Clooney in his beefed-up Syriana incarnation. He's also hot for Kevin James. That one I don't get. At all. But, whatever. I adore Rossy de Palma and I don't expect anyone to understand that. So, it's a particular taste. Fortunately, if you're gay and you're mad for the Kevin Smith type, there's a whole subculture devoted to that, mostly consisting of men who also look like Kevin Smith. Like any other culture, they like to celebrate their beauty in the form of pageantry and thus began the Mr. International Bear Contest in 1992.

The contest is held as part of the International Bear Rendezvous, a yearly event staged by the Bears of San Francisco. As per its name, bears from all over the world attend. In 2004 Marc Klasfeld, a director mostly known for his videos for the Foo Fighters, Jay-Z, Gnarls Barkley and Eminem [oh, the irony] documented the 10th annual IBR. Klasfeld profiles a few of the US regional winners, including Mr. NY Bear, Jay Duckworth, a 6'3", kilt-wearing, bagpipe playing, theatrical prop designer; Mr. Kentucky Bear, Bill Howard, a former marine, horse-breeder; Mr. San Francisco Bear, Dave Hayes, a two-steppin' line-dance instructor; Mr. SoCal Bear, Scott Hunter, a irrepressible show-man, so unabashedly self-promoting, you will find him to be irresistibly adorable or utterly annoying; and last, but not least, Seattle's own Mr. Northwest Bear, Alan Matthews.

Many of the bears in the film differentiate themselves from mainstream images of homosexuality, insisting they aren't twinks, but regular guys who happen to be gay. By this, they mean that, aside from their sexual orientation, they're no different from any other workaday schlubb who likes beer, nachos and Nintendo. Which is to say they're no different from any other guy who avoids exercise, likes to eat chips, leaves their socks on the floor and wears ass-less chaps. Which is to say, they're no different from any other kinky man in North America, gay or straight, twink or butch. Which is to say,AePwhat's the difference again?

All kidding aside, the bears presented in Bears come across as a pretty nice, caring bunch of guys. Although the International Bear Contest centers around a beauty pageant, a good portion of the competition is dedicated to fundraising contests for various community programs. One such challenge involves selling long strips of raffle tickets in a manner known as 'boots to balls'. What this means for the raffle ticket purchaser is that, for $5, you get a fairly generous crotch-nuzzle from a kneeling bear; an event the Miss America pageant could surely use.

In place of a swimsuit competition there's an underwear contest, where the costumes range from basic tighty-whities to full-on leather ensembles. I won't spoil the ending by revealing the identity of the winner but, believe me, personality counts.

Bears, 2007, US, 80 min.
Sunday, October 14, 6:45pm, Cinerama

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Vivere - Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

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Watching this film, two things struck me. One was the nice reds and greens Judith Kaufmann achieved in the cinematography and the other was that a good portion of the story involves a young woman's romantic interest in an older woman. Lord knows, there are plenty of films about older men and younger women [and, according to Hollywood, a leading man can never be too old to be cast opposite an actress under thirty] and a lesser number of films about an older woman and a younger man, but I haven't seen too many about an older woman and a younger woman, especially when the older woman is not a glamourpuss like Catherine Deneuve. So, from my limited experience, this is a unique plot but, looking up the director, Angelina Maccarone, on IMDB, I discovered that this is the second feature she's done on this theme. So, I guess it is a budding genre!

In any case, that's neither here nor there. Employing a bit of chronological backtracking, redolent of Arriaga and I/+/-/*rritu, Vivere presents the intersection of three characters. Francesca, an immigrant taxi driver who takes care of her widowed father and younger sister; Antoinetta, the impetuous younger sister who runs off with her musician boyfriend and Gerlinde, a newly unemployed older woman who intersects with both.

Although given equal time, it is Francesca, worn with too much care and Gerlinde, worn from lack of care, who converge most vividly. With her Fassbinder-worthy face, Hannelore Elsner plays world-weary muse to Esther Zimmering's overburdened youth. When Francesca has to fetch her sister from Rotterdam on Christmas eve, she crosses paths with Gerlinde, suffering from a car-wreck and a wrecked-heart, and it is the compassion that grows from their encounter that forms the heart of the film. A key scene occurs on a cheap hotel bed where all the elements, the reds, the greens, Elsner's cigarettes-and-whiskey visage and Zimmering's receptive brown eyes, come together.

Maccarone wasn't represented at the German Spotlight at SIFF, but this is a nice opportunity to see one of her films and, hopefully, we'll get to see more in Seattle.

Vivere, 2007, Germany, 133 min.
Saturday, October 13, 3:00pm Harvard Exit

Vivere - Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

Vivere_scene_02.jpg

Watching this film, two things struck me. One was the nice reds and greens Judith Kaufmann achieved in the cinematography and the other was that a good portion of the story involves a young woman's romantic interest in an older woman. Lord knows, there are plenty of films about older men and younger women [and, according to Hollywood, a leading man can never be too old to be cast opposite an actress under thirty] and a lesser number of films about an older woman and a younger man, but I haven't seen too many about an older woman and a younger woman, especially when the older woman is not a glamourpuss like Catherine Deneuve. So, from my limited experience, this is a unique plot but, looking up the director, Angelina Maccarone, on IMDB, I discovered that this is the second feature she's done on this theme. So, I guess it is a budding genre!

In any case, that's neither here nor there. Employing a bit of chronological backtracking, redolent of Arriaga and I/+/-/*rritu, Vivere presents the intersection of three characters. Francesca, an immigrant taxi driver who takes care of her widowed father and younger sister; Antoinetta, the impetuous younger sister who runs off with her musician boyfriend and Gerlinde, a newly unemployed older woman who intersects with both.

Although given equal time, it is Francesca, worn with too much care and Gerlinde, worn from lack of care, who converge most vividly. With her Fassbinder-worthy face, Hannelore Elsner plays world-weary muse to Esther Zimmering's overburdened youth. When Francesca has to fetch her sister from Rotterdam on Christmas eve, she crosses paths with Gerlinde, suffering from a car-wreck and a wrecked-heart, and it is the compassion that grows from their encounter that forms the heart of the film. A key scene occurs on a cheap hotel bed where all the elements, the reds, the greens, Elsner's cigarettes-and-whiskey visage and Zimmering's receptive brown eyes, come together.

Maccarone wasn't represented at the German Spotlight at SIFF, but this is a nice opportunity to see one of her films and, hopefully, we'll get to see more in Seattle.

Vivere, 2007, Germany, 133 min.
Saturday, October 13, 3:00pm Harvard Exit

The Best of Lezsploitation - Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

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One of the greatest movies ever made and that's a fact!


One of my absolute favorite genres is the European Sci-Fi Lesbian Vampire movie, a species of film that flourished in the 60's and 70's. Denoted by the use of lurid color, exotic locales, haute couture and snazzy scores, they depicted chic, succulent women in a world virtually devoid of men, their bodies colliding in Newtonian motion. That is, Helmut Newton, not Sir Isaac. Needless to say, these were not films produced for the lesbian community.

In this regard, they could be thought of as being kin to the Blaxploitation picture, both being written, shot and produced largely by white men, a major distinction being that, whereas Blaxploitation features actually featured black people, very few of the women appearing in Lezsploitation films were probably lesbians. A more important distinction, however, is that Blaxploitation films were conceived, to some extent, with a black audience in mind, but Lezsploitation films were made almost exclusively for the eyes of men.

As one of those men, I suppose I should say my appreciation for these pix is a guilty pleasure, but this would be to admit a half-truth. They please me, but I don't feel remotely guilty about it. For that matter, neither does Michelle Johnson. I know very little of Michelle Johnson, but I adore her for the simple fact that she possesses a large collection of cult erotic films, has absolutely fucking impeccable taste in music and has utilized both resources to compile The Best of Lezsploitation.

Spanning a period from the mid-60's to the mid-80's, Johnson showcases clips from 20 some odd films with titles like Swedish Wildcats, Reform School Girls and Bare Behind Bars to an accompanying mix of Italian lounge and jazz beats. Running commentary is provided by narration from Chained Girls, a mondo-like expose from 1965 that contained such gems as:

"Lesbians have their variations from one group to another. There are those women who are cultured and refined who sneak away to some dirty bar in order to find a trampish-looking woman to make love to. Some women break up homes, forsake children for the love of another woman. Then there are the teenage lesbian or baby butch. They roam the big city streets in large gangs assaulting everyone who falls within their path. Some of the weapons they use run the gamut of fists, lead pipes, chains. Many of these girls eventually end up as drug addicts, alcoholics, and prostitutes,AeP"


If this suggests a laugh"nducing kitsch romp, it is. However, if you are anticipating 45-minutes of nonstop retro-tackiness, beware. Although a number of the clips are inspiringly wacky, some are mesmerizing, one or two are a bit disturbing and a few exhibit a surreal beauty that will leave you with the nagging suspicion that the distance between European art cinema and Eurosleaze isn't nearly that great.
One of the best illustrations of this comes from Jess Franco, whose films compose about a third of this compilation. A scene from Venus in Furs depicts a pair of women embracing upon a divan while being adorned up with make-up and festooned with feathers, a tableau worthy of Fellini or Bu/+/-uel; while scenes from Vampyros Lesbos and Female Vampire display a creepy-sexy vibe not unlike Antonioni or Resnais. Mentioning the director of Red Desert in the same breath with the auteur of Killer Barbys vs. Dracula seems absurd, but both drew inspiration from Surrealism, with its tradition of highfalutin' erotic imagery by Balthus, Max Ernst, Paul Delvaux and Salvador Dali as well as Leonor Fini, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, whose portraits of owlish women can be seen reflected in the face of Sandra Julien in Jean Rollin's Shiver of The Vampires. That the glacial mood of Antonioni and Resnais should echo in lesbian vampire movies should not seem odd, since both traded in images of luxury and alienation, often with a female face. The leap from Delphine Seyrig in Last Year At Marienbad to Delphine Seyrig in Daughters of Darkness is very short, especially if a convenient stepping stone is placed in-between by Claude Chabrol in Les Biches.
But hey, who cares about art? This stuff is fun! Jess Franco also directed the pulpily Surreal, The Girl From Rio, a clip from which appears like an outtake from Diabolik and a scene from Bare Behind Bars provides a moment of horseplay so spontaneously absurd that,AeP well, you'll just have to see it for yourself.
As far as the sex part of sexploitation goes, there's plenty of that with scenes of girl on girl abandon in boarding schools, prisons, nunneries and just plain-old bedrooms. Two of the best sequences come from 1968's Daughters of Lesbos, where a cruising cougar seduces a hippie hitchhiker and Emmanuelle 2 where Sylvia Kristel enjoys an Asian sudsy massage in a disco-delirious montage, so jaw-droppingly hot, I'm willing to bet one will be able to hear a pin drop at the Harvard Exit.
Returning to the issue of whether such crassly exploitive material can or should be enjoyed by a lesbian audience, I will leave you with a quote by the director from an interview in the SF Bay Guardian.
"I heard a comment from someone who couldn't understand how you can reclaim films that were made by men for men and present them as queer. To me, what is sexy and what is erotic is in the eye of the beholder. [These films] certainly functioned as fantasy for me way back when I first discovered Emmanuelle. As a kid growing up in a small town, I had no notion of what was queer or lesbian, but these films transported me to a really exciting fantasy world. Sure, it was a trashy, sleazy, over-the-top world populated by powerful, sexed-up women. But really, what's wrong with that?"

And really, what is wrong with that?!
The Best of Lezsploitation, 2007, USA, 45 min.
Saturday, October 13, 10:30pm, Harvard Exit
Includes clips from:
Chained Girls ~ Joseph Mawra
Venus In Furs ~ Jess Franco
The Girl From Rio ~ Jess Franco
Brick Doll House ~ Jon Martin
Girl Meets Girl ~ Joe Sarno
Emmanuelle 2 ~ Francis Giacobetti, Francis Leroi
Abigail Leslie Is Back In Town ~ Joe Sarno
Reform School Girls ~ Tom DeSimone
Bare Behind Bars ~ Oswaldo De Oliveira
Ilsa, The Wicked Warden ~ Jess Franco
99 Women ~ Jess Franco
Swedish Wildcats ~ Joe Sarno
Daughters of Lesbos ~ Peter Woodcock
Shiver of The Vampires ~ Jean Rollin
Vampyros Lesbos ~ Jess Franco
Female Vampire ~ Jess Franco
Bacchanales Sexuelles ~ Jean Rollin
Ilsa, Harem Keeper of The Oil Sheiks ~ Don Edmonds
Score ~ Radley Metzger
Eugenie ~ Jess Franco

Monday, October 8, 2007

Further Off the Straight & Narrow

THE WITNESSES / LES TEMOINS
(Andre Techine, France, 2007, 114 mins.)


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International Centerpiece of the 11th annual Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, The Witnesses is a true ensemble effort. Freckle-faced, poufy-lipped Emmanuelle Beart, who last worked with Andre Techine on the World War II drama Strayed (2003), may be the marquee name, but there are actually four-arguably five-main characters, and each gets ample opportunity to make an impression. Techine has taken this tack before, as in the equally compelling Les Voleurs (with Catherine Deneuve)
and Alice et Martin (with Juliette Binoche). He's a master at this sort of thing.

Because I hadn't read anything about the film beforehand, I was surprised to
find that it plays almost like two pictures in one. Not that I was disappointed,
just taken aback. In retrospect, though, Techine's technique makes perfect sense.

After all, the days of Philadelphia, Longtime Companion, and An Early Frost-referenced in the SLGFF documentary Further Off the Straight & Narrow-have passed. AIDS is
still with us, but fear has been replaced by resignation. And selective amnesia.

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Set in the mid-1980s, Techine's 20th feature begins as a lively drama about
life changes. A married couple, Sarah (Beart) and Mehdi (Sami Bouajila, The Adventures of Felix), have a baby-she's a successful writer, he's an uptight vice
cop-a young man from the provinces, Manu (Johan Libereau, Cold Showers),
follows his sister, Julie (Julie Depardieu, La Petite Lili), to Paris, and a middle-
aged doctor, Adrien (actor/director Michel Blanc, Grosse Fatigue), falls in love with
an aspiring chef (Libereau again). Because Sarah and Adrien are old friends, the central quartet often socializes together (on the scenic French Riviera, no less).
As Julie is busy training to be an opera singer, she flits in and out of the story.
The same is true of Sandra (Constance Dolle), a prostitute who Julie and Manu befriend as a consequence of living in the same fleabag hotel-cum-brothel. Sandra claims she loves her job-a fairly preposterous statement-but Dolle's joie d'vivre almost had me convinced. (And if I were casting a French-language remake of
Irma la Douce, she's the first person I'd call.) This is also the kind of film where
a character will stop what they're doing, exclaim, "Hey, that's my favorite song!"
and start dancing. When Sandra did just that, she secured a place in my heart.
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From the start, though, there are intimations of the dark days to come. Sarah
turns out to be a terrible mother, and Mehdi embarks on an affair with Manu. As
they have an open marriage, he betrays Adrien more than he does his wife. Adrien worships the self-centered Manu, who appreciates the companionship, but doesn't share his ardor. Mehdi doesn't want to hurt Adrien's feelings, so he doesn't say a word. When one of these characters contracts AIDS, keeping secrets is no longer
an option. At this point, Techine could've transitioned into thriller territory. The question as to who may get infected next does generate considerable tension, but character development ultimately trumps (some rather convenient) plot mechanics.
Once things turn tragic, the humor and frivolity evaporate, but by then Sarah,
Mehdi, Manu, and Adrien have emerged as unique individuals-not victims, perpetrators, or, worse yet, symbols. Further, to describe The Witnesses as an
AIDS movie implies that the foursome is defined by the ways in which they deal (or don't deal) with the illness. That approach might have worked in the 1980s-or even
the 1990s-but it would seem downright redundant, if not a little tasteless, now.
Rather, The Witnesses looks at the disease from three different perspectives: before, during, and after-after death, that is. Techine doesn't stint on the horrors
of AIDS, but nor does he assign blame. Consequently, I found Mehdi the most fascinating figure. He may be a hypocrite, but Bouajila makes him too human to hate. Mostly, the film is an elegy for lives lost in vain. And forgotten. As much as
I detest the phrase "life-affirming," The Witnesses is anything but depressing.
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Produced by Three Dollar Bill Cinema, THE 2007 SEATTLE LESBIAN & GAY FILM FESTIVAL runs from 10/12-21 at a variety of venues. The Witnesses plays the Cinerama on 10/15. (The Cesar-winning Depardieu also stars in non-fest entry
Blame It on Fidel, which opens at the Varsity on 10/19.) The opening night film,
Paul Schrader's The Walker (starring Woody Harrelson), plays the Cinerama on
10/12. Other highlights include The Itty Bitty Titty Committee, An Evening with
Jane Lynch
, and a restored version of Parting Glances (starring a scrawny Italian-American kid named Steve Buscemi). For more information, please click here or
call 206-325-6500. Images from indieWIRE, Last Night with Riviera, and OutNow.