BLURT GOES TO THE 2011 SEATTLE FILM FESTIVAL

Another fine year for
SIFF: dope-addicted rock stars, maniac chess champions, litigious java-drinkers,
even Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

 

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

 

For those in charge of the Seattle International Film
Festival
, bigger WAS decidedly better. It’s the largest festival in North America, running around three weeks (for 20111, May
19 to June 12), and this year they presented a whopping 250-plus feature length
films from 67 countries (and that’s not counting the shorts). Though some have
suggested SIFF might be more manageable if it was scaled back, the chances of
that happening are unlikely. SIFF’s not even just about Seattle
anymore; in addition to the nine theaters used around town, there were
screenings in the neighboring burgs of Renton, Kirkland, and Everett.

 

SIFF is primarily an audience driven fest, not industry
driven; it’s the kind of festival where attendees will (rightfully) gripe that
the archival screening of Black Narcissus didn’t use a pristine film print but a digital copy. There are certainly
discoveries to be made of films you’ll be lucky to see once and then never
again (particularly among the foreign flicks), but there’s also a whole glut of
stuff that’s previewed at SIFF before going on to wider release. Some are
already out there, like Submarine, a
likeable, if predictable, coming-of-age story set in Wales, which tries too hard to be
“quirky,” though the lead performance by Craig Roberts as a troubled teen is
nonetheless engaging. Or Beginners,
drawn from director Mike Mills’ own life, which finds Oliver (Ewan McGregor)
dealing with his father’s (Christopher Plummer) unexpected decision to come out
of the closet at age 75. It’s a charming story in which the humans come
dangerously close to being upstaged by a dog. There was another
yet-to-be-released McGregor film on display, Perfect Sense, a sci-fi themed love story about a couple finding
themselves just as the world starts getting to grips with a series of plagues
that affect the senses – not an ideal first date movie. McGregor himself
dropped in at SIFF to pick up a Golden Space Needle Award for Outstanding
Achievement in Acting, but there were, alas, no Blurt sightings.

 

 

 

The sci-fi/love theme also turned up less successfully in Another World, which seems to be about
the sudden appearance of a duplicate planet earth, but then gets into the story
of a former drunk driver seeking to make amends with the sins of her past.
Neither story gels fully, so the mish-mash doesn’t work. We’ll take vampires
anyway, and while the succinctly named Vampire didn’t win a lot of raves, the German We
Are The Night
,
which will come out later this year, is good giddy fun for
the most part. Head vampire Louise (Nina Hoss) is looking for a new companion,
and puts the bite on punky petty thief Lena (Caroline Herfurth), introducing
her to a new world of designer clothes shopping, clubbing (you know how vampires
love to go clubbing), and blood sucking. But there’s a pesky male detective on
their trail, and “complications ensue” as they say, which leads to a not very
satisfactory conclusion. But it was fun while it lasted.

 

 

 

There were plenty of cool docs this year, and all of the
following are recommended. You might have already seen Bobby Fischer Against The World on HBO, which offers great insight
into the troubled genius of chess. During the post screening Q&A, one the
film’s producers gratefully thanked HBO for their generous funding of
documentaries, and indeed a number of films the network funded cropping up in
the SIFF schedule. Look out for Project
Nim
, which might described as about cruelty by, not to, dumb animals, the
animals in question being human beings. In the 1970s, a Dr. Herbert Terrace
tried to see if a chimp could pick up language skills if raised by a human
family, and thus the luckless Nim was taken from his chimp mother and given to
a woman whose main qualification seemed to be that she was Terrace’s
girlfriend, the first stage in what proved to be a strange life journey. Power,
the desire for recognition, and humanity’s responsibility for looking after the
so-called “lower” animals all emerge as key themes.

 

 

 

Equally powerful is Hot
Coffee
, which looks at how legal rights are being stripped away bit by bit
in this country. The coffee in the title refers to the case of Stella Liebeck,
who was made a national joke for suing McDonalds after burning herself with
their coffee. Anyone still thinking such a lawsuit is frivolous is invited to
boil water and pour it over their genitals until getting the kind of third
degree burns that require skin grafts, for that’s exactly the kind of thing
Liebeck experienced, as gruesome photos shown in the film reveal. First time
filmmaker name Susan Saladoff (a lawyer), draws on other heart-wrenching cases
to make her points, illustrating how “mandatory arbitration” hurts the consumer
by drawing on the story of Jamie Jones, who alleges she was raped by her fellow
employees while working for a subsidiary of Halliburton in Iraq, but was told
she couldn’t sue because of the arbitration clause in her contract (five years
later, the case went to court last month). In the lively post-screening
Q&A, Saladoff urged the audience to hold home viewing parties when the film
screens on HBO.

 

 

 

On the lighter side, Magic
Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search For A Kool Place
is a fascinating look at Kesey’s
cross-country road trip immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip, as seen through the eyes of the
Merry Pranksters themselves. For directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood were
given a treasure trove of footage shot by the group as their made their trip,
much of it never seen publicly. Perhaps most surprising is the revelation that
the Pranksters got away with many of their antics because they actually looked
fairly clean cut in the pre-psychedelic era; Neal Cassidy might’ve been freaked
out on speed (it’s why he could drive all night), but he had short hair.

 

 

 

Page One: Inside The
New York Times
looks at how this esteemed print publication is navigating
the tricky waters of the new media, which have already taken down a number of
newspapers across the country. Print isn’t obsolete (as books like Nicholas
Carr’s The Shallows: What The Internet Is
Doing To Our Brains
point out, people absorb more when they read “hard
copy” as opposed to a computer screen), but the online revolution isn’t
something to be feared or scorned; it’s simply another useful tool that can be
used to expand on your own strengths. Curmudgeonly David Carr, a business
writer, is the scene stealer here, dispensing world weary advice in between
pinning reluctant interviewees to the wall.

 

And then there’s Tabloid,
Errol Morris’ latest work, which examines the strange story of Joyce McKinney,
accused in the late ‘70s of kidnapping her errant fiancé – a Mormon missionary
– in England. McKinney never faced trial, as she
skipped the country while out on bail, but that didn’t stop the UK press from
whipping themselves into a frenzy over a story they dubbed “the case of the
manacled Mormon” (the fiancé was allegedly chained during his capture). McKinney clearly relishes
being given center stage to relate her side of the story, with contradictory
views presented by the media folks who hounded her. It’s a train wreck you
can’t take your eyes off of.

 

 

 

A few other good docs have yet to secure distribution. Lesson Plan is the story of an infamous
1967 high school experiment, in which a teacher’s plan to get his students to
see how quickly ordinary citizens of Germany could’ve been made to march in
fascist lockstep; the story later inspired the films The Wave and a later German film of the same name (Die Welle). For the first time, the
students (and teacher Ron Jones) speak for themselves, and watching how quickly
people can be manipulated is an unsettling experience (one of the participants,
Mark Hancock, told Blurt distribution
is pending).

 

Hit So Hard: The Life
and Near Death Story of Patty Schemel
also has no distribution, but will
undoubtedly get some soon, due to its subject matter. Schemel was the drummer
in Hole for a few fraught years in the ‘90s, and the film draws on the footage
she shot during the period. It’s a harrowing experience; Kurt Cobain looks emaciated
in the footage Schemel shot while living with him and wife Courtney Love and
their daughter. And despite having very clear illustrations around her of the
damage drugs can do (in addition to Cobain’s problems, Hole bassist Kristen
Pfaff died of a heroin overdose two months after Cobain’s death), Schemel was
unable to shake off her own addictions for years, ending up on the streets at
one point. The film suffers from MTV-style editing, meaning the footage is
shown in frustratingly short bursts, and constantly intercut with interviewees
explaining what you’ve just seen. And after hearing so many laud Schemel’s
drumming skills, it would’ve been nice to watch a clip of her playing for more
than 10 seconds. Happily, Schemel cleaned up, and wisely only dips the
occasional toe in the music industry waters these days. Love gets her two cents
in, and former Hole members Eric Erlandson and Melissa Auf Der Maur provide
their own cautious observations. Those still caught up in the
Nirvana/Cobain/Hole/Love soap opera will be drawn to this film like a moth to a
flame.

 

 

 

SIFF opened and began with parties, and you don’t have to be
a VIP to attend them (though it helps in snagging one of the coveted bracelets
that allow you unlimited drinks). Opening night began with The First Grader, based on the true story of an elderly Kenyan who
fights for his right to be educated at the local school. It was a feel-good
opening night choice, if on the made-for-TV movie side, followed by a party on
the Seattle Center grounds. Closing night was Life In A Day, a compilation of footage
drawn from videos sent in from around the world, then edited to a brisk 90
minutes. The footage was shot by ordinary folks (and a few rich ones) going
through their day on July 24, 2010. A few themes: Even people from vastly
different cultures can share similarities. Most people don’t have it easy and
are just trying to get through their lives. And the average human being isn’t
very attractive. Then attendees took over the Pan Pacific Hotel, ravenously devouring
the not quite sufficient food (sliders and sushi), and swilling down drinkies
(Don Q rum, recommended; Barefoot Bubbly sparkling wine, not recommended) while
getting down to a Cars/’80s tribute band. Even cinephiles can boogie when they
want to.

 

[Pictured above: Kurt
Cobain, his daughter and Hole drummer Patty Schemel living together in Hollywood 1992. Photo by Courtney Love.]

 

 

More SIFF by Gillian
G. Gaar at BLURT:

 

2008 Festival

 

2009 Festival

 

2010 Festival (part 1)

 

2010 Festival (part 2)

 

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