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The 2004 Seattle International Film Festival: It's MINE! ALL MINE!

by Aaron Ducat

Living through to summertime in Seattle is a rite of passage. Eight months of dreary, drippy, selfsame 50-degree-ish days in which the only variations are what hue of gray the sky is, how strongly the rain falls and how many shots of espresso for this morning’s latte transform, in the blinking blear of an eye, into a grandeur and magnificence unavailable elsewhere in the U.S. One wakes to 80-degree cloudless, expansive blue skies as gentle breezes blow balmy baby-kisses effusively across downtown from the Sound. Mountain ranges shed their misty coverings and stand proudly: the Cascades to the east, the Olympics to the west, all dominated by the monstrous and eerie upturned ceramic vase that is Mt. Rainier floating in the southeast. The forests and ranges are swarmed by hikers, campers, backpackers, joggers, mountain climbers. Boats flood the waterways with kayakers, sailors, swimmers, wake boarders, fishers. A drive across the 520 bridge near the University reveals wan teenagers bridge jumping off an unfinished exit ramp into the waters of the arboretum. The Mariners, albeit not worthy of much laud this season, fill Safeco field with the bitter strong smell of garlic fries and resounding calls for beer and hot peanuts, and one of the sweetest sounds an American boy will ever hear: a baseball cracking off a wooden bat. Pale Seattleites take to the streets in shorts and sandals to celebrate: Solstice Parades, Seafair parties, gay pride marches all intended to say: we made it, we put in our time: this beauty is ours now to enjoy.

Profuse profligacy’s profit us who have toiled under the gray rainy skies. Possessively we guard our secret Eden against tourists cramming the public market in search of flying fish and a picture in front of the original Starbucks. Ask any true Seattleite what it’s like to live here and the answer, from those of us jealous lovers intent on protecting the sacredness of our beloved little town, is endlessly gray rainy days; seasonal affective disorder; requisite trips to California for some ultraviolet light and Vitamin D; you wouldn’t like it here, no no it’s very depressing; Moving here you say? No I’d highly recommend against it; seriously, stay away. It’s not that we’re mean-spirited - in fact Seattleites are generally too nice (try merging onto the highway when everyone’s saying “No, you first. No you. No I simply insist you first…”) - it’s just that we want to enjoy this magnificent land and all it’s offerings with as few other people as possible.

This year, from May 20 through June 13, as hundreds of directors and actors and critics flooded our city for the 30th Anniversary Seattle International Film Festival, we managed to pull off the ruse, providing only various shades of gray interspersed with intermittent rain. Gone were the mountains, the Sound, the hiking, the swimming. Nature dropped a curtain of clouds around our beloved Emerald City, and all that was left to look at over those three weeks was over 200 feature films from over 50 countries worldwide. The only unfortunate thing is that many of the films were so good, interesting and diverse that those attending will avidly wait to come back next year. For the movies. Alas, who knows if we’ll be able to keep things under wraps again?

The most notable film I saw at this year’s festival was November (Noviembre, 2003, Spain). A tale of a group of young street performers in Madrid attempting to navigate the lines between artistic integrity, financial pressure, social constraint and government regulation shows like a pragmatic neo-Marxist’s dream questioning of the developmental processes of art. Wonderfully written, directed and acted the movie prods the audience to question the relationships between the above factors without ever falling into simplistic solutions nor overly didactic moralizing. Culminating in one of the most passionate and metaphorically touching endings I saw at this year’s festival, this is a dream movie for anyone interested in the creative and distributive aspects of art.

Another outstanding film shown this year was Patric Leconte’s The Girl on the Bridge (La Fille sur le Ponte,1999, France). Though not a new release (it was shown as part of a showcase of Leconte’s work), this movie is everything you’d ever want from a romantic comedy: witty barbed dialogue, an intriguing plot, interesting characters, a stunningly beautiful lead and a perfectly suited ending. After one of the most memorably witty and sadly realistic opening monologues, we pick up as Adele (Paradis) is contemplating throwing herself off a bridge into the murky Seine below. Passerby Gabor (Daniel Auteuil) accosts her in a classic Psych-101 how-not-to-be-sensitive-to-the-struggling-suicidal diatribe which sets the movie running as the two join forces as part of Gabor’s struggling knife-throwing circus act. Shot entirely in black and white, the film develops all the normal struggles of a romantic relationship (fidelity, trust, hurting and being hurt, temptation) through the optic of their knife-throwing act. It’s rare to find a film in this genre which is thoughtful, witty and erotic (Gabor and Adele sell knife-throwing as a sensual, carnal pleasure all the more enhanced by the lack of standard erotic requirements, i.e. nudity), and this is a tremendous film worthy of repeated viewings.

Garden State (2004, USA), written, directed and starring Zach Braff (Andrew) of the wonderful TV show Scrubs was another strong showing. Tracing the languid life of an overmedicated 20-something come back to Jersey for his mom’s funeral, this film has some very witty dialogue, situational humor and a cast of quirky characters (including Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard) whose charm balances perfectly with the darker elements encountered. While never attempting to boldly speak on behalf of a generation stagnant and seeking, the film succeeds in depicting the struggles for identity, meaning and “home” so familiar to many 20- and 30-somethings. Had Andrew’s issues with his father been better explored and developed they would have added a strength and passion to the supposed concluding reconciliation which is currently missing; as it stands we’re left with some schmaltzy blather about moving on and growing. Nevertheless this is a funny, intelligent and charming movie which hopefully signals more and better in the future from Braff.

Both Bright Young Things (Great Britain, 2003) and director Stephen Fry received a lot of attention at this year’s festival. Set in the late 20’s/early 30’s of jazz-age Britain, we are presented with a celebrity culture intently focused on the every doings of its stars, whose vapid and vacuous lifestyles are chronicled and celebrated in the daily papers. We follow young Adam (wonderfully portrayed by Stephen Campbell Moore) as he flirts through the various strata of this jumbled heap of druggies, drunkards, homosexuals (not a joking matter at this time - many were persecuted, and frequently left the island, for such predilections), and avaricious narcissists as he attempts to marry the uppity Nina (Emily Mortimer). Based on Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies and featuring an outstanding cast including Stockard Channing, Peter O’Toole, Jim Broadbent and Dan Aykroyd (yes, that one), this is a witty, suave romp through the brittle corridors of hedonistic celebrity worship whose parallels to modern American culture are both unavoidable and pertinent (two words: Bennifer...). Even though the film’s characters are urbane, witty and often caught in highly amusing situations, at some point the movie begins to feel a lot like watching The Apprentice or The Simple Life: it’s hard to care about shallow rich bastards and their doings. While throwing out comparisons with such negative connotations may serve to undermine the overall quality of this film, the film has handicapped itself by providing hollow, inaccessible characters while at the same time holding up a needed mirror to our fascination with anyone who can get on the television.

Big City Dick (2004, USA) is a documentary focusing on Seattle street performer Richard Peterson, an autistic savant fully worthy of our time. The film highlights his local performances as well as his recording career (he has several albums out and is most famously known for appearing on the Stone Temple Pilot’s 1994 Purple album [go ahead and dig it out of the back of your closet - there’s nothing wrong in admitting you thought they were the future of rock-’n-roll. Listen for that hidden track at the end]). Along the way we learn about Peterson’s fascination with the background music to 1950’s television shows, as well as his love for and tendency to stalk “celebrities”, by which Peterson means everyone from local, Seattle-based personalities to stars like Johnny Mathis and Jeff Bridges. Some interesting insight is provided into how “stars” approach and tolerate fans constantly being in their space: Mathis seems at best to put up with Peterson, while Bridges is wholly inviting and supportive of Peterson’s interest. Peterson is a fascinating subject in need of a documentary which explores the line between “crazy street person” yelling incoherently outside of Seahawks games and abused, neglected child raised in a challenging environment. Sadly, this documentary does not succeed in walking that line. Midway through the film it is revealed that the man Peterson thought was his biological father was in fact not; what might have been one of the most pertinent and interesting points of departure for an exploration of Peterson’s past is instead quickly brushed aside in favor of more footage of Peterson interacting with local Seattle personalities. By virtue of being local the film was a fan favorite: Peterson proudly beaming his gap-toothed smile against the arabesque background of the Egyptian Theater made for a touching moment. However, often corny editing effects and a disjointed, rambling narration dulled an otherwise engaging topic.

Reconstruction (2003, Denmark) is a thoroughly contemporary film which surrealistically shows the effects on Alex (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) after a night of infidelity with Aimee (Maria Bonnevie). Told somewhat through the eyes of novelist August (Krister Henriksson), Aimee’s husband, the story twists, turns, and constantly reconstructs itself through the convoluted experiences of Alex. The cinematography is outstanding: modern Copenhagen is transformed into a grainy, shadowy labyrinth through which the characters struggle to make sense. This film is not easy to follow on one viewing: as such it’s certainly not a film for Joe-moviegoer, and more than likely will be picked up and pored over by film students with plenty of time on their hands. While conceptually intriguing the film loses appeal by favoring confusion over engagement; the narrative insertion feels more like a chimera than an integral aspect of the storytelling; and the characters, by being perpetually reconstructed, lose their human approachability and become pawns in some mad composer’s arrangement.

Love Me If You Dare (Jeux D’Enfants, 2003, France) was an all out visual display of editing, costumes and special effects reminiscent of another French film Amelie. Julien and Sophie develop a unique bond through their struggling childhoods by playing games of dare with one another. The childhood sequences are surreal, fantastic, funny and brightly entertaining. We fast forward to their college years when it’s becoming obvious that the two are in love; however, inhibited by their childhood gaming, they are incapable of simply stating their feelings for one another and their sentiments are covered over by games whose very nature is disingenuous. At some point the games lose their playfulness: a new tone enters the film as the jovial carefree natures of their youth are replaced by a vortex whose center is spurning the other via humiliating dares. As they age and change and marry other people we are shown two people, clearly in love with each other, yet incapable of expressing that love constructively, an inhibition which leads them to compensate by destroying the other and, ultimately, themselves. One area which should have developed more was Julien’s turning from a carefree boy into a roguish bourgeoisie, and the way these changes were related to his relationship with his demanding, realistic father. This is a well acted, visually stimulating movie which simply becomes horrendously depressing as it progresses: watching two lovers mercilessly destroy each other is draining viewing. Nevertheless there’s plenty left standing to make it worthwhile.

While there were many other entertaining, interesting and unique films presented at this year’s festival, attempting to provide a serious accounting of each is presently beyond my time. Remember, it’s summer now: the sun’s finally out and the trails are calling me to enjoy all the many offerings this great city has at its fingertips. I put in my time. I deserve this. The rest of you will have to wait until next year. If we can pull the cloud curtain and hide our treasures from you again we will. Either way, there’ll be plenty of great films to bring you back.

The tale of the tape:

Torremolinos 73 (2003) Spain - 3.5/5
The Kite (2003) Lebanon, Israel and France - 3.5/5
Reconstruction (2003) Denmark - 4/5
Sex is Comedy (2002) France - 3/5
Big City Dick (2004) USA - 4/5
November (2003) Spain - 5/5
The Girl on the Bridge (1999) France - 5/5
Bright Young Things (2003) Great Britain - 4.5/5
Garden State (2004) USA - 4/5
Love Me If You Dare (2003) France - 4/5

For all the films we saw at Seattle 2004, click here!

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originally posted: 06/29/04 10:48:30
last updated: 07/02/04 10:33:11
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