Judging a festival by its trailer—a dictum noticeably absent whenever we speak about this or that festival from Trendytown USA to the reliable global cities of high traffic tourism and cultural capital. Watching this year's festival trailer, a delicate art and a marketing ploy of its own right, reminds me of The San Francisco International Film Festival's ongoing mission to present films for cinephiles rather than to represent them as a collective brand to potential buyers. Produced by a local ad firm, Factor Design, the 2009 campaign "speaks to the interaction of light and image to produce the cinematic experience we collectively witness on the screen." Or in other words, its short and simple execution invites attention merely with a flash of a good old still from the vast repertoire of 200 films playing at the festival, although Stephan Elliott's Easy Virtue does seem to be over-represented.
However, it's the other trailer that precedes films at the 2009 SFIFF that I'm interested in, the one with all the lucrative sponsors and community partners written all over it, and after repeated exposure, I've grown accustomed to its essentially nonspecific "World" music of the Starbucks compilation genre. Watching it, my anticipation for the next movie has been displaced by my irrational urge to recapture the inane, but irresistible tune played in the trailer again and again, hindered only by the confining cushion of my seat. Oh, how I wish to dance freely to the siren song of the foreign Other, whatever its origins may be, or had been. But for now, it’s best to devour whatever international cuisine is available on the cinema diet, enjoying, despising and sometimes outright protesting contradictory claims to universalism and national identities.
The festival is nearing the end of its run, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t be aware of major oversights and minor quibbles in the last week. A film with promising program notes ended up as an overcooked stew of generalizations. Jonathan Parker's Untitled requires more than a few zingers to reach the satirical sharpness of the most damning political manifestos, unfortunately, it’s also missing the flamboyant, self-aware vulgarity of those "Scary Movie'-esque comedies. For a film that makes fun of snobs, it yearns to be one. Everything we expect of the pretentious Manhattan art scene is delivered with diminishing returns of pomp and prejudice. Once we hit the third act, sentimental consideration for the possibility of "real" talent (albeit not Adam Goldberg) feels like a failed retreat from the calculating cynicism of the opening minutes, as if the filmmakers were too afraid to cut any deeper into the industry's brutal truths.
Philippe Falardeau's It's Not Me, I Swear recreates the adventurous summer of a mischievous Canadian boy by carefully fluctuating between his dysfunctional family antics and the reckless acts he commits to get back at the existential injustice of being alive altogether. A bildungsroman, the film displays none of the tell-tale symptoms of melancholia and confusion associated with the rites of passage we all have come to recognize. Opting for resistance instead of complicity to the twilight of youth, Leon is marvelously anchored by Antoine L'Écuyer's unnerving performance, mimicking Macualay Culkin by appearance and spunky demeanor without that impish smirk of eventual victory. Leon's destructive impulse lends him a mastery over the piano, a trait that shares its genealogy to the prodigious madness of Mozart and Chopin. The omniscient overhead vistas of lush cornfields coupled with sensitively sculpted encounters between children bolster Falardeau’s double sense of visual space, collapsing psychological minutiae and physical vastness into precious movements of bodies navigating through uncertainty. The film's only flaw lies in its unending endurance, teasing us with one too many false closures. Is Leon going to die? No, he's not. Well, maybe he might. When did it become fashionable to imitate the ambiguous fate(s) befalling cinema's other notorious Antoine?
Co-funded by the Film Foundation and Gucci, the festival's signature series gloriously reintroduced to a new generation of filmgoers the bygone masterpieces of Antonioni's Le Amiche and Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence. Le Amiche is a distant Italian cousin of George Cukor's The Women, which I would say is a better suited analogy than the proverbial comparison to their supposedly fierce modern counterparts of Sex and the City. It's steeped in melodramatic speeches and suicides, but at the same time, the neurotic seams of bourgeois frivolity have already begun to show. Antonioni's deft manner of exposing intimacy in artifice and vice versa, is less regarded when it comes to discussing his iconic style. The wide shot reveals only a painter's eye, but fluid scenes of carnivorous confessions and fantasies among men and women say something more about the director as a musical theater choreographer attuned to the nuances of both body language and verbal warfare. A Woman Under the Influence caught me off-guard, a virginal viewing believe it or not, even as it remains to be the only "wow" film in the festival so far. Similar to the emotional terrain mapped out by Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage but substituting blue collar construction workers for white collar doctors, the film ages magnificiently not only due to Rowlands and Falk's bizarre and deeply affecting chemistry, but for me, excels because children were allowed to act like children, kept to such an unbearable presence onscreen rather than off. Playing both instigators and mediators of the combustible violence between their parents, the two brothers and their chubby sister scurry about the house acting on their own sense of self-survival. Drinking with their dad on the back of the pickup truck, dancing to their "death" to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and nudging their mommy for love and kisses after her tumultuous return from a mental asylum, these are the movie memories not of fidelity to domestic realism, but in a league of their own.