SIFF-TACULAR: The Seattle International Film Festival 2012

Paul Simon, Paul
Williams, Bad Brains, Charles Bradley, Ginger Baker and, ahem, Anonymous were
among this year’s choice offerings.

 

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

 

Over the course of 25 days, from May 17 to June 10, the
Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) screened over 270 features in venues
both in Seattle
and surrounding areas. As such, even seeing a film a day only allows you to
scratch the surface. According to an informal poll of passholders (hello Fool
Serious!), at least 40 hardy souls saw 100 or more films; BLURT’s final tally
was somewhat less. Here’s a recap of some of this year’s highlights. Along with
a fun fact: though SIFF says it’s in its 38th year, it’s really the
37th – some bizarre superstition led them to skip using the number
“13” during the actual thirteenth year of the event and go right to “14,” thus
forever confusing those who calculate dates from SIFF’s inception in 1976 and wonder why SIFF is actually one
year younger than it claims to be.

 

 

 

 

SIFF was one of the lucky fests that got to see Under African Skies: Paul Simon’s Graceland Journey on the big screen instead of a tiny television set. Directed by noted
documentarian Joe Berlinger (Metallica:
This Monster Lives
and the Paradise
Lost
trilogy), the film chronicles the story behind Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland album. Its success upon its release in 1986 was matched by the controversy of
Simon’s breaking the UN cultural boycott by recording part of the album in South Africa.
Simon faces a number of his critics in the film, and it’s clear he still
doesn’t get it. He feels that since he’s not a racist, and opposed apartheid,
why shouldn’t he be able to work with whatever musicians he wants? Overlooking
the point that it wasn’t his fight, and exceptions
to a boycott only undercut the boycott. But time has also mellowed the critics,
and everyone now agrees there was some worth to Simon’s work with the artists,
especially when he brought them out on tour, thus putting the absurdity of
apartheid before a worldwide audience. There’s plenty of concert footage and
interviews (both archival and current), making this a well rounded look at the
subject, and one that should please fans of the album in particular. The film
is available as part of the new Graceland reissue, and as a standalone release on
Blu-ray.

 

 

 

 

Fat Kid Rules The
World
was one of SIFF’s delights, actor Matthew Lillard’s directorial
debut, based on K.L. Going’s young adult novel of the same name. The lumpen Troy (Jacob Wysocki) is a miserable high schooler whose
suicide attempt is thwarted by the
scruffy Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a drug addled, if hyperactively friendly,
musician who slowly but steadily pulls Troy
back into the land of the living. The film’s locale was shifted from New York to Seattle,
which undoubtedly helped the movie win over a hometown crowd, but it was more
than just civic pride that made this one of SIFF’s hits (with an additional
screening added to the schedule, and also making the “Best of SIFF” program
that runs the week after SIFF has officially finished). The film looks at
adolescence without condescension, manages to tug on the heartstrings without
overt sentimentality, and avoids crass humor for the sake of getting a cheap
laugh (well, at least aside from the vomit scene). And, most importantly, shows
how punk rock can save your life (Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready also wrote the
film’s score). At the film’s first Seattle screening Lillard was thrilled by
the crowd’s response, inviting everyone who worked on the film to get on stage
(over 30 people trooped up), and shared a few anecdotes (he might’ve been
forced to play Troy’s stricter-than-thou dad, had William Campbell not signed
on at the last minute). A recent campaign on Kickstarter was successful in
raising funds to help in the film’s distribution, and promotional events tied
in with this summer’s Vans Warped Tour are planned. Check out the film’s
website and Facebook page for more info.

 

 

 

 

Paul Williams Still Alive is less a documentary about the legendary singer/songwriter and more about the
relationship between Williams and director Stephen Kessler. Initially,
Kessler’s something of a pain; hounding a clearly disinterested Williams,
cutting him off in mid-interview, making lame jokes about his lack of
experience as a documentarian. It’s something of a frustrating experience for
those who came expecting to learn about Williams’ work, as he’s rarely asked to
talk about it. Instead, the film evolves into a look at celebrity, and how
outside perceptions (in this case,
Kessler’s) can be way off base; “He’d have been happy if I’d been living in a
trailer,” Williams jokes of Kessler. In fact, Williams exudes a natural grace
and clearly comfortable in his own skin, seen performing the occasional show,
and putting in a lot of time as a substance abuse counselor, having been clean
and sober for over 20 years. Though he walks out on Kessler when he’s shown a
video of a talk show appearance when he was clearly flying high, Williams
agrees it was important to keep the clip in, for if it’s a painful reminder of
where he’s been, that pain is undercut by the fact that he also knows it also a
moment from a past he will never return to, being both stronger and wiser. And as
someone who had posters of both Phantom
of the Paradise
and Bugsy Malone (which both feature scores by Williams) on my wall during college, I took
advantage of Williams’ appearance at SIFF to geek out myself, with Kessler
kindly taking a photo of me with the man. (Note to Paul: please don’t do a
remake of Phantom of the Paradise.
Please. Just don’t).

 

 

 

 

At least Paul Williams never got physically violent with his
director. Whereas poor Jay Bulgar gets hit in the face with a cane by the
subject of his film, Beware of Mr. Baker,
about life and times (some might say crimes) of Cream/Blind Faith drummer
Ginger Baker. The irascible Mr. Baker mostly limits himself to doling out
verbal abuse the rest of the time, hectoring Bulgar about his “fuckin’ awful”
questions, berating him for being an ignorant American, but nonetheless
conceding to relating his life story for the first time director (who finagled
his way into Baker’s life by falsely claiming he was on assignment for Rolling Stone; it wasn’t until after Bulgar
got his first interview with Baker that the magazine then agreed to run a
story). Bulgar then doggedly rounds out the tale by getting interviews with
most of the folks who’ve crossed paths with Baker over the years, not only
including musicians (Eric Clapton,
Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood, and Carlos Santana, to name a very few) but also
Baker’s long suffering wives (in another interview Johnny “Rotten” Lydon hails
Baker as a genius; but he didn’t have to live with him). It’s a searing portrait
of a gifted man plagued by self-destruction every step of away.

 

 

 

 

Then there are the bands that never got their due. Bad Brains: A Band in D.C. charts the
career of the legendary hardcore act that never could catch a break, due to
astonishing runs of bad luck and, as the films goes on, the mental health
issues of leading singer H.R. But the band has managed to persevere, still
playing shows, with a new album said to be in the works (but don’t hold your
breath for its release). There’s plenty of live footage making the case for why
the band remains important, as well as interviews from the band members,
producers, fellow travelers like Ian MacKaye, and unabashed fans like Dave
Grohl.

 

 

 

 

A happier story is told in Charles Bradley: Soul of America. The film is a tale of redemption, and how one man’s unflagging faith in himself
and his talent led to his finally making his recording debut at the age of 62
with the album No Time For Dreaming.
Bradley rose out of poverty to become a cook, also working part time as a James
Brown impersonator. After being seen by Gabriel Roth of Daptone Records, he began working with Daptone artists as himself, not “Black Velvet,” his
stage name for his James Brown act. His fiery, impassioned R&B instantly
found an audience, with Rolling Stone lauding No Time For Dreaming as one
of the 50 best albums of 2011. Yet Bradley remains remarkably down to earth,
even humble, clearly grateful at the extraordinary turn his life has taken, but
with the sadness of the hard times he’s endured never far from the surface. For
anyone wondering what the fuss is about, the film’s live footage explains
better than any piece of journalism ever could.

 

 

 

 

The Savoy King: Chick
Webb and the Music That Changed America
also makes the case that the jazz
drummer didn’t get all the acclaim due him; more people are perhaps aware of
his discovering Ella Fitzgerald than of his own work in the field. The film
seeks to redress the balance, but the filmmakers are hampered by the lack of
archive footage of their subject. And even though well known actors provide the
voiceovers (Bill Cosby as Chick Webb, Janet Jackson as Ella Fitzgerald), the
film’s straightforward approach keeps it a bit dry; in fact, a secondary
section on The Savoy Ballroom which better integrates archival footage and
first-hand interviews, momentarily steals the spotlight from Webb’s story.

 

Once upon a time, the Doe Bay Fest was a weekend event held
every August at the Doe Bay Resort on picturesque Orcas Island, Washington,
where the faithful gathered to groove to the likes of The Head & the Heart,
Damien Jurado, Lemolo, the Maldives, without any of that pesky corporate
sponsorship that gloms on to such occasions. The documentary Welcome to Doe Bay may capture a turning
point in the course of the event, simply by focusing a camera on it. No,
corporate sponsorship is not about to usurp the beloved festival. But its
popularity is such that when tickets go on sale they sell out in minutes,
leaving the producers of the fest in something of a quandary. Since they’re
dedicated to keep the event on a small scale, how to maintain a freshness and
keep it from stagnating? And what do you do when the roar of those clambering
to gain access gets too loud to ignore? The film’s interviewees don’t tackle
those dilemmas, but it’s clearly on everyone’s mind; how can you keep an event
“cool” once the outside world discovers it? It will be interesting to see what
happens with the festival in the coming years; in the meantime, if you weren’t
able to snag a ticket, the film is loaded with great concert footage.

 

 

 

 

The internet is a tool that can be used for good or ill, as
is quite aptly demonstrated in We Are
Legion
: The Story of the Hacktivists. The film is a fascinating
look at the “Anonymous” collective, those folks who frequently wear the Guy
Fawkes/V For Vendetta masks in
public, and merrily hack/disrupt various websites in private (Scientology and
Paypal have been among their targets). There’s also some history on other
renegade online groups (Cult of the Dead Cow, 4Chan). Several members of
Anonymous, as well as other hacktivists, are interviewed, revealing that the
reasons for their activity vary greatly; some are mostly interested in making a
political statement, others are just seeing what they can get away with –
meaning their critics can’t really tar them all with the same brush. Not that
that matters to the authorities; as the film also makes clear, a growing number
of hacktivists are being tracked down by the FBI and now facing prosecution.
Yet the internet genie is certainly well out of the bottle, meaning that
questions of ethics are only going to increase – and the time to think about
them is sooner, rather than later.

 

 

 

 

Director
William Friedkin received SIFF’s Lifetime Achievement Award this (Sissy Spacek
was honored with an Outstanding Achievement in Acting award), and brought along
his new film Killer Joe to boot. The
film is based on Tracy Letts’ stage play of the same name (he wrote the
screenplay as well), and was slapped with an NC-17 rating for its nudity and
extensive violence (as Friedkin told Celebs.com, “It just freaked out the
ratings board”). The plot concerns the hit man of title and his involvement
with a depressingly scuzzy family, with a few sexual kinks thrown in to make it
more “edgy” – because seeing someone getting their face bashed in with a can
apparently isn’t over-the-top enough for the kids these days. It’s billed as a
black comedy, but the laughs become increasingly thinner due to the characters
being basically unlikeable. Friedkin himself was far more likeable during the Q&A:
his favorite movie is Citizen Kane and he modestly doesn’t think he’s made a film nearly as good; he never, ever
had any interest in doing sequels, and turned down the chance to do Exorcist 2; the film he’s proudest of is
Rules of Engagement, and saying it
was “like going to heaven” to work with actors like Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel
Jackson. He further revealed that his approach to directing was “to create an
environment for everyone to do their best,” and dismissed the auteur theory of filmmaking as “bullshit.”

 

 

 

 

For the first time in SIFF’s history, locally shot films
both opened and closed the festival. Your
Sister’s Sister
, now open in select theaters, is the latest work of
Seattle-based writer/director Lynn Shelton, and, like her previous film Humpday, deals with the nature of
pretense – characters who seem confident on the surface, but are plagued with
insecurities underneath. The plot is a (mostly) verbal three way between Jack
(Shelton staple Mark Duplass), mourning the death of his brother, who’s sent by
his friend Iris (Emily Blunt) to spend time alone at her father’s cabin – the
kind of picturesque island that well-off folks always seem to own. Except that
Iris’ stepsister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is also using it as a retreat. And
Iris herself can’t stay away. Add some Tequila, take away any potential
distractions (there’s no phone, TV, or internet), and you know it won’t be too
long before the emotional unburdening begins. In some ways, the characters are
so self-centered they’re insufferable (Hannah stoutly defends her not eating
butter by pleading to an “emotional allergy” to dairy products). And the
ending’s a bit too convenient. But the characters’ fallibility also makes them
very human, giving the film a warm and natural feel.

 

 

 

 

 

The closing night film, Grassroots (which opens in theaters this week) is based on a true story, when Seattle
writer/activist Grant Cogswell decided to take on incumbent Richard McIver in a
race for Seattle City Council. It was a wildly improbable move; City Council
incumbents are generally easily re-elected in Seattle, and Cogswell had
absolutely no political experience to begin with. But after he drafts in his
friend Phil Campbell (a former writer at Seattle weekly The Stranger), their idiosyncratic approach to politics gains them
a surprising groundswell of support. It was a surreal experience for a hometown
audience to see American Pie‘s Jason
Biggs as Campbell (Avatar‘s Joel
David Moore is the hyper-kinetic Cogswell, while Cedric the Entertainer is a
terribly serious McIver), and everyone loved the in jokes (“Fired from The Stranger? How low can you get?”) and surprise cameos. But will it
translate to a larger audience? Director Stephen Gyllenhaal hopes the film will
serve as something of a wake up call: “Politics has always been brutal. The progressives – I’m one
of them – thought electing Obama would solve everything. It didn’t. Now we have
to grow up and not be stupid. That’s the real reason for making this movie, it
says we all have to jump in and help with this process called democracy.” You
can’t say better than that in an election year.

 

 

Previous BLURT Coverage of
SIFF:

 

2008:
/features/view/42/

2009:  /features/view/393/

2010:  /news/view/3837/

2011:  /features/view/919/

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