The Frances Farmer Show #20: SIFF 2019


Sean and Evan discuss some of the films they saw at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, including neo-giallos from Peter Strickland (In Fabric) and Yann Gonzalez (Knife+Heart), Joan Micklin Silver’s shambolic newspaper picture Between the Lines, Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, James Mason supercut Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03), Chuck Smith’s doc Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground, Makoto Tezuka’s Legend of the Stardust Brothers and more.

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SIFF 2019: Week Three+ Preview


Heading down the home stretch of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, here are some titles to watch out for.

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers – An experiment from mid-80s Japanese cinema about a fictional New Wave band. Directed by Macoto Tezuka, the 22 year old son of legendary comic book creator Osamu Tezuka.

Distinction – Jevons Au was one of the five directors who contributed to the controversial Hong Kong omnibus film Ten Years, and one of three directors who made Trivisa, one of the better HK films of recent years, under the Milkway Image umbrella (where he also co-wrote Romancing in Thin Air). This is his solo directorial debut, a social problem drama about a school musical program for kids with disabilities.

Enamorada – Archival presentation of the 1946 Mexican melodrama starring María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz.

Lynch: A History – David Shields’s film about sports, the media, and American racism, compiled entirely from hundreds of archival clips of Seahawks legend Marshawn Lynch, is the essential film of this year’s festival.

I am Cuba – Mikhail Kalatozov’s ground-breaking 1964 Soviet-Cuban propaganda film is quite simply one of the greatest movies ever made. The cinematography (by Sergei Urusevsky) is wildly innovative, but the story itself, an episodic accounting of the social conditions which paved the way for the Cuban Revolution, is just as breath-taking.

One, Two, Three  – One of Billy Wilder’s greatest comedies, featuring one of James Cagney’d finest performances. He plays a Coca-Cola executive in Cold War West Berlin trying cope with his boss’ daughter’s romance with a Beatnik Commie Red while opening the Soviet market to the wonders of profitably fizzy sugar. Possibly the fastest movie ever made.

Go Back to China – Director Emily Ting follows up her amiable light rom-com It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong with this film about a Chinese-American woman who has to go back to China to work at her father’s toy factory. The father is played by Hong Kong comedy icon Richard Ng.

Barbara Rubin & The Exploding NY Underground – Chuck Smith’s documentary about the avant-garde filmmaker and the crazy art world she frequented (Allen Ginsburg, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, etc etc).

I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians – The latest from Romanian director Radu Jude is about a theatre director attempting to stage a show about the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews in Odessa after its capture by Romanian troops in 1941.

House of Hummingbird – SIFF calls it “Eighth Grade in South Korea.” But it’s probably better than that sounds.

The Dead Don’t Die – Jim Jarmusch’s zombie movie opens June 13. SIFF has it slightly earlier.

MEMORY – The Origins of Alien – Documentaries about Alien are always welcome. This one “features a treasure trove of never-before-seen material from the O’Bannon and Giger archives, including original story notes, rejected designs and storyboards, and exclusive behind-the-scenes footage.”

SIFF 2019: Lynch: A History (David Shields, 2019)


If this movie was nothing more than a collection of randomly-edited clips of Marshawn Lynch doing stuff, it’d still be one of the most entertaining films of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. But like its subject, there’s a lot more to Lynch: A History than catch-phrases, crotch-grabs, and motherfuckers getting their faces run through. Director David Shields, an English professor at the University of Washington, is best known as the author of the acclaimed Black Planet, a look at race and the NBA through the lens of the SuperSonics 1994-95 season. Lynch appears to be a follow-up to that story, using the football player, and his contentious history with the media, as a way to explore the confluence of race, sports, and the media. Like Lynch himself, at various times gregarious, silly, hilarious, taciturn, guarded, shy, and angry, the film heightens the contradictions of a systemically racist society that elevates young, physically gifted black men into multimillionaire role models while attempting to control their every means of expression.

Entirely made up of archival film clips, hitting all the highlights, on the field and off, of Lynch’s public career, the film situates him in a long history of Bay Area radicals, Oakland residents from Jack London to Bobby Seale to Tupac Shakur. We get clips of African folklorists discussing trickster gods intercut with classic hilarious Lynch clips (like driving the cart around the field at Cal, or drinking a fan-proffered bottle of Fireball and throwing Skittles to the crowd during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory parade). We get all the amazing runs (deeply-profane fan videos of the Beast Quake are always welcome) and all the self-righteous whining from the media about Lynch’s refusal to answer their stupid questions. About the only great Lynch content I noticed was missing was when he played Mortal Kombat with Rob Gronkowski.

Marshawn Lynch is one of my all-time favorite athletes, I’m thankful to have been closely following the team for his entire Seahawks career, and so of course I’m happy to see these clips again. But thanks to Shields’s expert editing and contextualizing of Lynch’s life and the coverage of it, it’s impossible to watch all this without questioning our own complicity in American racism. The obvious morons of the sports media world, the guys that call Colin Kaepernick dumb for example, make for easy targets (we’re all Randy Moss glaring at Trent Dilfer). More difficult is trying to understand just how much of our enjoyment of Lynch’s surreal weirdness and his other-worldly physicality on the field is based on his conforming to the limited and limiting roles (clown, thug, angry youth) available to black men in the public eye. Possibly as disturbing is the broader question of whether a life lived in that public eye, as it has been for star athletes for a long time and as it increasingly seems to be for the rest of us, can ever possibly be authentic and not just an amalgam of adopted roles and stereotypes, and if that’s always been the case anyway, regardless of the omnipresence of panoptic media.

SIFF 2019: Storm in My Heart (Mark Cousins, 2018)


Mark Cousins’s latest documentary is explicitly labelled an experiment. Struck by the fact that both Lena Horne and Susan Hayward were born on the same day (June 30, 1917) in the same city (Brooklyn, New York), he wonders if by juxtaposing two of their films, watching them side by side simultaneously, we can learn something about them, and by extension about women in Hollywood and America in the middle of the 20th century. And so he plays them, with Hayward’s A Song in My Heart on the left side of the screen and Horne’s Stormy Weather on the right. Occasionally, Cousins will offer up details or trivia in text on a blank quadrant of the screen, biographical info about the two stars, or about the films. Both films were made by the Fox studio, the Hayward a biopic about a woman who sang for the troops during World War II, despite having severely injuring her leg in a plane crash; while the Horne is a loose collection of musical numbers built around a light comedy plot, like an Astaire-Rogers film with an all-black cast. I defy anyone watching Storm in My Heart to pay attention to Hayward when Horne and company are on-screen.

Stormy Weather is, like the same year’s Cabin in the Sky at MGM, a marvelous compendium of all the talent Hollywood refused to utilize because they had the wrong skin color. Leading the way is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the legendary tap dancer who, at 65 years old (but certainly not looking it) stars alongside Horne as a hoofer working his way up the stardom ladder. The movie is almost entirely made up of musical numbers, with Horne singing a bunch, but also Fats Waller, Ada Brown, Cab Calloway, and in one of the consensus greatest dance performances in film history, the Nicholas Brothers. A Song in My Heart, on the other hand, is about a pretty singer who sings prettily who somehow must find the will to sing just as prettily after her injury. She proves an inspiration to the troops, because if a rich white lady with a full-time live-in nurse (Thelma Ritter, naturally) can sing with one properly working leg, then what do an entire generation of men traumatized mentally and physically by the ravages of war have to complain about.

We don’t learn much about Hayward or Horne from their films, but we do learn a little bit about Hollywood. When Stormy Weather ends, there’s still a half hour of A Song in My Heart to go. I didn’t see it in a theatre, but I bet if I had, there would have been an audible groan from the crowd. Cousins, delightfully, helps pass the time until Hayward’s movie ends by throwing on a Cuban short film Horne sang the soundtrack to in 1965 called Now. It’s a series of still images from the civil rights movement: protests and police crackdowns and marches and lynchings, with Horne singing a rousing anthem of revolution to the tune of “Hava Nagilia”. It too has about a thousand times more energy than any random Hollywood biopic.

SIFF 2019: Week Two Preview


Here are some of the movies we’re looking forward too during this second week of the Seattle International Film Festival:

Mrs. Purple – Justin Chon’s debut film Gook was well-received when it played here a couple of years ago, and for his follow-up he continues to explore Korean-American family dynamics, this time with what SIFF suggests is a strong Wong Kar-wai/Christopher Doyle influence.

No. 1 Chung Ying Street – One of my favorite under-the-radar films from last year is this protest drama from Derek Chiu. The first half is set during pro-Cultural Revolution/Anti-British riots in Hong Kong in 1967, the second in the aftermath of the Umbrella protests of 2014. Rather than simply having the two mirror each other, rhyming past and present, Chiu instead configures the present as an extension of the past, where the personal and family dramas of 50 years ago remain unresolved. It’s a clever approach to a familiar subject.

The Bigamist and The Hitch-Hiker – Two Ida Lupino features in SIFF’s archival program, the first is a domestic melodrama starring Lupino, Joan Fontaine and Edmund O’Brien, while the second is a classic film noir, one of the cheap, nasty ones that is tremendously fun.

Cities of Last Things– I don’t know anything about this Taiwanese film, but SIFF says “Three actors portray one tortured Taiwanese police detective in this sci-fi-tinged noir, told in reverse-chronological order, about the significant events that led him down a path of retribution.” Sounds good to me.

In Fabric – Another retro film from Peter Strickland (The Duke of BurgundyBerberian Sound Studio), this one a “fetishistically stylized hommage to giallo that satirizes consumerism as hypnotically as it seduces your senses”

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool – A PBS doc about the great musician and composer that is about as good as these things get. If nothing else, it’s almost two hours of non-stop Miles Davis music.

Non-Fiction – Both Evan and I really dug Olivier Assayas’s comedy about rich people, infidelity, and book publishing when we saw it at VIFF last fall. It’s got Juliette Binoche as an actress in a TV cop show and a bunch of delightfully insufferable French people talking about e-books. It’s the best Woody Allen movie of the past 30 years or so.

SIFF 2019: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Stanley Nelson, 2019)


Whatever film festival I cover, I always like to find time for a movie about music and/or dance. This year’s music movie is a biodoc about Miles Davis, produced for the PBS American Masters TV series. As such, in no way does it attempt to explore the limits of the form, or give us anything more than an illustrated history of its subject (unlike previous festival favorite art docs like Ballet 422 or any random Frederick Wiseman film). But its limitations being what they are, it’s a solid enough piece of work. A kind of Miles 101 for a general audience, distinguished by wall-to-wall music and excellent use of archival photographs and home movies.

We follow Davis’s life from birth to death, hitting all the musical high points along the way, and making time for the low points of his personal life as well (mainly drug and spousal abuse). First person narration is read in an imitation of Davis’s distinctive rasp by actor Carl Lumbly, repeating Davis’s words from interviews conducted by Quincy Troupe during their writing of Davis’s autobiography. Musical luminaries serve as talking heads, along with a few of Davis’s friends and wives and children. The film is at its best when it gets lost in the music, highlighting with ease what made Davis’s tone and style so uniquely special, ably distinguishing him from his peers in bebop and charting his evolution from post-war New York all the way through the 1980s. As much time is devoted to the later work as the early hits, which is nice to see for once in a music doc. So many tend to focus on a small slice of an artist’s work, Birth of the Cool embraces the whole of Miles Davis though.

And that includes his personal life, the failings in which the film does not excuse, though some of the interviewees might seem to do so. His second wife, Frances Taylor Davis, is the most affecting interview, recalling with equal poignance the good times and the bad ones. The question underlying it all–what do we as fans, as a society, do with a genius artist who does unequivocally bad things–is never really answered. I don’t know that it can be. I do know that Miles Davis, flaws and all, is probably the greatest American composer of the second half of the 20th century.

SIFF 2019: Week One Preview


Here are some of the movies we’re looking forward to this first week of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival:

The Third Wife – The debut feature from Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair has been making the festival rounds to some acclaim. This period drama, about a young girl who gets married off to a wealthy landlord looks to have some Raise the Red Lantern vibes. Could be the second good Vietnamese movie to hit Seattle Screens this year, after Furie.

The Phantom of the Opera – SIFF’s archival program is one of the highlights of this year’s festival, and it kicks off with this silent version of Phantom starring Lon Chaney. I last saw this more than 20 years ago, on Halloween, in a gothic-style Catholic church in Spokane, where it was accompanied by the church organ. It was pretty cool. It plays here at the Egyptian, with a live score by indie band The Invincible Czars.

A Family Tour – Ying Liang’s mostly autobiographical film about a director who is exiled from China after she directed a movie that looks exactly like Ying’s 2012 film When Night Falls, which got him exiled from China. The director hasn’t seen her mother in years, but they arrange a meet-up during a film festival in Taiwan. A quiet, deeply sad movie about the personal consequences of abstract repression.

3 Faces – The latest from Jafar Panahi promises to be a clever bit of meta filmmaking from the Iranian director mostly famous here in the US for continuing to make movies despite being officially banned from doing so.

The Nightingale – Babadook director Jennifer Kent’s new film is a Western set in 19th Century Tasmania. Her SIFF bio says “she was inspired to become a director after seeing Lars Von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer In The Dark and was able to assist the Danish director on his 2002 film Dogville.”

Storm in My Heart – The latest cinephile doc from Mark Cousins, whose very fine The Eyes of Orson Welles just finished its run at the Film Forum a couple of weeks ago. This one compares and contrasts Lena Horne and Susan Hayward via two of their musicals, Stormy Weather and With a Song in My Heart, respectively.

Ten Years Thailand – An omnibus of short films that imagine the future from four Thai directors, including Tears of the Black Tiger‘s Wisit Sasanatieng, Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Knife + Heart – A  giallo-inspired film, the second feature from Yann Gonzalez. The Grand Illusion is going to play this on 35mm in June, along with Gonzalez’s first film, You and the Night. I haven’t seen either of these, but Evan tells me they’re good and I’m inclined to believe him.

Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) – The SIFF description says that someone named “Norbert Pfaffenbichler pieced together clips from 160 James Mason films to examine the eternally urbane star’s career.” You sold me at “Norbert Pfaffenbichler”.

Between the Lines – A new restoration of Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 film about an underground newspaper fighting to survive in Boston. Starring Jeff Goldblum and John Heard.

Spione – A revival of Fritz Lang’s 1928 silent film. The only time I saw this was very very late at night while taking care of a newborn, so I don’t really remember much about it. But Fritz Lang enthusiast Evan says it’s one of his very best.

A Faithful Man – Louis Garrel following in the footsteps of his father and every other French director in making a film about infidelity. Garrel also stars, along with his wife, Laetitia Casta, and Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis (who is in Knife + Heart).