Wednesday, November 26, 2014

HOLEHEAD 2014—BLOODY KNUCKLES (2014)

It's difficult not to get heavy-handed with the puns when writing about Matt O'Mahoney's debut feature Bloody Knuckles (2014) [IMDb / Facebook], which boasted its world premiere at Fantasia in their newly-launched Underground sidebar. Bloody Knuckles has since gained fans at a handful of genre festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. Did I mention it was shot digitally?

Bloody Knuckles arrives to San Francisco as the first of three opening night entries for the 11th edition of IndieFest's Another Hole in the Head Film Festival (Holehead). With an indirect tip of the hat to San Francisco's Chinatown, Bloody Knuckles reveals an '80s VHS horror aesthetic with low-budget production, a clever use of practical gore effects, and politically incorrect comedy ameliorated by foxy, sympathetic lead actor Adam Boys (who plays Travis, the creator of Vulgarian Invasions, an underground comic that gleefully wallows in the obscene) and his winsome love interest Amy (Gabrielle Giraud).

Angered by the Canadian debates about self-censorship in the wake of the 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, O'Mahoney vented his frustration by reminding folks that people fought really hard for their right to freedom of speech and that buckling to threats sets a terrible precedent. In Bloody Knuckles he aims offense at Asians, Blacks, and Gays in equal measure. Contingent upon your perspectives on subcultural stereotypes, you'll either wink, wince, or walk out; but, you'll have to give a hand to O'Mahoney's deft balancing act that softens equal opportunity offense with the effective distraction of mayhem, carnage and humor. A special shout-out to the use of Loretta Lynn's "Fist City" over the closing credits as an especially wry (and classy) touch.



As synopsized by Holehead: "Casually dismissing his detractors as pious censors, Travis finds himself in dangerous territory after his comic targets a shady Chinatown businessman named Leonard Fong. Mr. Fong does not take kindly to the offensive caricature of him and orders his goons to punish Travis by severing his drawing hand. Rattled to his core, Travis abandons his comic and retreats into a miserable, alcoholic existence. That is, until his hand returns from the grave. The hand urges Travis to resume Vulgarian Invasions but Travis refuses, fearing a deadly reprisal. The hand, however, will not relent and embarks on a perverse, by-any-means-necessary mission to rejuvenate Travis' once bold spirit."

Marina Antunes interviewed O'Mahoney for Quiet Earth, after stating in her review for the film: "Ever wonder what would happen if Thing dragged one of the Addams kids through a seedy underworld of dirty comics, contraband pesticides and underground sex clubs? That's kind of what Bloody Knuckles is about." O'Mahoney offers further commentary in his Fantasia video interview. At least one thumb up for an offensive but fun entry at this year's Holehead.

 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)—A Few Evening Class Questions for Screenwriter Jason Hall

Yet another eleventh hour entry in this year's Oscars® race is American Sniper (2014), directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, decorated United States Navy SEAL and the most lethal sniper in American military history. Based on Kyle's autobiography of the same name, American Sniper's screenplay was written by Jason Hall, a struggling television actor who has since become one of Hollywood's up-and-coming screenwriters.

When Hall first approached Chris Kyle about adapting his bestselling autobiography into a film, Kyle was "a little prickly at first", his "eyes filled with turmoil", but they established a working relationship that then carried over until 2012 when Hall began writing the script. Though "not the chattiest guy in the world", Kyle provided a lot of input into Hall's script, as did his wife and the people around him who knew him well. Hall texted him when he was turning in the script and the following day Kyle and companion Chad Littlefield were murdered by 25-year-old fellow veteran Marine Eddie Ray Routh, whom Kyle and Littlefield had purportedly taken to the gun range in an effort to help him with what they were told by his mother was post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Kyle had started going to the Veterans Administration to pick up guys who had been wounded, taking them out hunting or to the gun range for target practice, and in that way found some peace of mind. It was his own way of being of service without redeploying to the Mideast for another tour of duty.

Hall was interested in Kyle's personal story because he wanted to know what compelled men like Kyle to fight? Why did they feel compelled to put themselves through tour after tour of duty? As the film revealed, Kyle enlisted when the U.S. was not at war. So his experience was a little bit different than those men who enlisted after they saw the Towers fall. With Kyle, the need to protect others was within him from an early age. He would always stand up to the bullies and protect his younger brother (who later told Hall that Kyle got beat up on too, yet always defended him). Within the film, Kyle's father teaches him that there are three kinds of men: sheep, who don't know how to protect themselves; wolves, who prey on sheep; and sheepdogs who protect the sheep against predators. Along with wondering why men like Kyle fight, Hall was equally intrigued by what it cost them. In Kyle's case, it cost him dearly.

As a screenwriter, Hall believes there's no sense in making a movie about an individual if it doesn't say something about all of us. He hoped that by helping to create this film it would reveal that Kyle's personal story was the same as the story of our country. We are the country that feels the need to do what's right and just and, as a country, we've been on overwatch for a long time. We've been on the top looking for the bad guys. But at some point, as with Kyle, when the sheepdog hunts the wolf long enough he becomes a hunter. In real terms, this often results in PTSD. The challenge of presenting this issue within a filmic treatment is to not caricature those with PTSD as powder kegs waiting to blow. Each individual experiences the syndrome variously, no less the stigma attached to the condition, so it's a very personal thing for these guys. It's hard to closely examine the issue of PTSD without these men feeling they are being undressed and laid bare. These men of war are trained like professional athletes. Millions of dollars are spent training them. But the military doesn't continue on to train them how to come home and find peace. Despite the few things that are done to indoctrinate them out, the military moreorless abandons them when their duty is done. Most of these soldiers come home and have no jobs; 40% have nowhere to live.

American Sniper had its first screening at AFI Fest where critics (see The Hollywood Reporter) cautioned the film would have a difficult time convincing liberal, left-leaning audiences to rally around a Navy SEAL best known for killing people; but, Hall disagreed and said he wasn't as concerned with audience reception as with critical fallout. Kyle's autobiography was a bestseller in the flyover states, which speaks to what is relatable in his story. Unfortunately, the book was written at a time when Kyle was really struggling with his PTSD and was written with an angry voice.

What Hall learned from interacting with Kyle is that you can't ask a man who he is. A man is not going to break his heart open to an investigative journalist. But you can ask his wife because his wife is going to tell you the truth. Ten days after Kyle's funeral, his wife Taya phoned Hall and told him, "If you're going to do this, you better do this right. Unfortunately, this is going to be a large part of how my kids remember their dad." She then proceeded to make herself available by phone every day for three or four hours a day. They spent a good 200 hours on the phone talking about Kyle. She got to process her grief and feel useful solidifying her husband's legacy in the right way. She told the story of a man who was so sweet before the war with a gentility and solidity that she responded to. She talked about how that was chipped away by his four tours of duty. The scene late in the film where she tells Kyle that she feels she finally has her husband back and knows how hard it was for him to get back to her and their kids actually happened. She had the chance to tell him that word for word a couple of months before he was murdered.

Hall graciously accompanied the film for its San Francisco Film Critics Circle screening on Thursday, November 21, 2014 at San Francisco's Century 9, which afforded an opportunity to ask him a few questions about his work on the film.

* * *

Michael Guillén: As a screenwriter writing a script that is, in effect, critiquing the dehumanization of war, how do you negotiate this line of prurience where you've actually ended up with a film that is quite violent? I'm interested in how you decided to frame the action and the forces that led to his dehumanization?

Jason Hall: I approached this story … I saw it as the story of Achilles. In my reading of Achilles—what I come away with—is that the hardest victory is the one in which he got his humanity back. You can't sugarcoat this because this is what these guys went through. What I've put up on the screen is 1/100th of the violence and hostility that they witnessed over there. I've heard things that would peel your eyes back. It's a lot that we ask of these guys and it would do them an injustice not to show at least a portion of what they went through. We ask, "Oh man, what did you see?" We say, "Thank you for your service. Don't really want to hear about it, but thank you so much." The illumination of a little bit of that so that we can get a taste of it opens their experience up so that we can understand it a little better.

Hopefully, this movie will speak to those returning soldiers who aren't Chris Kyle, who aren't Navy SEALs, but who know his name. Like I said, he's the Achilles of that war and he struggled and he had to ask for help and he came home early and it was a tough war for Kyle so hopefully these other guys will see that—if Achilles had to ask for help—maybe it's all right to admit that, "I don't feel okay. Maybe I can talk about it." But I tell you what, there's still this huge stigma, especially within Special Forces, about: "We don't deal with that. We don't get any stress. We don't have it. Because we're trained beyond that. Because they weeded those guys out and we're the tip of the spear." That's a dangerous thread because it prohibits the guys who are experiencing PTSD to come forward, which is unfortunate.

Guillén: But in terms of your craft as the scriptwriter, how much of that action were you able to lay out ahead of time in the shooting script?

Hall: Oh, I went into it. I get very detailed. In a movie where everything's moving it's hard to get every scene you've written with a camera. It's easy when you're sitting at a typewriter to do it all; but, the beauty of working with Clint Eastwood is that I always saw this as a western and he shot it as a western. He captures the naked emotion. There's a truth to Clint Eastwood. It's not as polished as David Fincher—it's not like a Swiss watch—but, it's so honest that it involves a deeper part of us. Eastwood shot the script he read. He's famous for doing that. He responded to the script and wanted to go out and shoot it.

That being said, I didn't know I was writing for Clint Eastwood. I finished the script and a couple of months later I heard Steven Spielberg was reading it, which for a screenwriter is like: "This is it! I've arrived." I thought, "This is the best call I may ever get in my life and whatever happens, what a great day, right?"

I was taking my truck out into the valley to get fixed. I had bought a truck from Japan and the steering wheel was on the wrong side. I was driving out there when I got a call, "His door is closed. He's reading it right now." I was like, "Oh gosh. He's reading it. Spielberg's reading the script." Then I got a call: "Spielberg's agent just walked down the hall to Bradley Cooper's agent and the door's closed there." And I was like, "Oh my God!" At the same time my phone was dying while I was dropping off the truck. It's at, like, 3%. The guy at the repair shop remembers me and he says, "Oh man, my daughter's doing great!" He starts talking about his daughter while the phone is ringing in my pocket and I want to know what's happening with my script but I also want to talk to this guy and respect him so I let the phone ring and ring. I'm in the middle of the valley and I tell the guy, "I have to go" and he asked, "Do you need a ride?" And I'm like, "No, no, no, I'm just going to walk." I get out of there and answer the phone and they tell me, "Spielberg's doing your movie!" and I'm like, "YES!!" and ask, "So what….?" And my phone dies. I had a five-mile walk to the Starbucks but that allowed me to sit with it and that was beautiful. I developed the script with Spielberg for a number of months. But he had a bigger number in mind than the studio was willing to spend on it so we parted ways.

But then I got another call from Bradley who said, "You're not going to believe who's directing this movie." I was like, "I don't know, Bradley, just tell me." Because I was heartbroken when Spielberg walked off, y'know? He said, "Clint Eastwood" and I was like, "Wow." The crazy thing about it is that there was something charmed about Chris. That's what I found the hardest thing to capture. He had all these nicknames. They called him Midas. They called him Right Time Right Place. He made it out of stuff you should not make it out of alive. He writes a book and it goes on to be a best seller. There was something charmed about Chris and his life that passed on into this movie.

My greatest moment in all this, above and beyond Spielberg and Eastwood, was 10 days ago when his wife came in to watch the movie. She came out of the movie and gave me this big hug and was crying her eyes out. She said, "I just spent two hours with my husband. Thank you." That was it for me. Whatever happens next is gravy. I felt a real duty to do right by her and do right by her kids and tell the story right because I knew those two kids were going to watch this movie someday.

Guillén: Along with putting on 44 pounds for this film, Bradley Cooper nailed Kyle's Texan accent. How much of that regional speak is inflected in your script?

Hall: I tried not to go overboard with it. Kyle would say, "There's a tanga in the winda." I'd be thinking, "What is that?" You don't want to go too far with it so that he sounds hickish because Kyle wasn't a hick. I don't know, I can get a Texas accent after a couple of beers.

Guillén: Along with Selma, American Sniper is receiving early press for being a late entry in the Oscars® race. Can you speak at all to your personal feelings about these studio processes to get the film out there to be eligible for nominations?

Hall: Look, I'm happy to be involved, y'know? I mean, I got to work with Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper! It's a dream come true and I just feel happy to be involved and I'll do whatever they want me to do. It's a thrill. It really is.

Friday, November 21, 2014

SELMA (2014)—Q&A With Director Ava DuVernay, Actor David Oyelowo, and Producers Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner & Jeremy Kleiner

On Sunday, November 16, 2014, I attended an advance screening of Ava DuVernay's Selma (2014) at the Castro Theatre, co-presented by Paramount Studios and the San Francisco Film Society. Only the second screening of the film after its celebrated premiere the week before at AFI Fest, Selma is an eleventh hour entry in the Oscars® race with projected nominations for its director (only four other women have ever been nominated in this category), its lead actor, David Oyelowo, in the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, and its supporting actors Tom Wilkinson (as President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Oprah Winfrey (as Annie Lee Cooper). Following the screening, director Ava DuVernay, lead actor David Oyelowo, and producers Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Oprah Winfrey participated in an on-stage conversation, moderated by Elvis Mitchell.

Mitchell kicked off the discussion by asking Oyelowo about the last speech in the film delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama after the march from Selma. He asked Oyelowo to recall what he felt hearing that speech for the first time and what it meant for him to enact it?

Oyelowo responded that he had an odd experience playing the role of King, which crystallized for him in that admittedly brilliant speech, written by Ava DuVernay. (The filmmakers did not have the rights to King's actual speeches so DuVernay had to write "sound-alike" speeches.) The role was odd for him because there was a spiritual transference in the two days running up to filming that particular speech. He experienced a bizarre fear of being assassinated. "It's true," he said.

Photo: Daniel Bergeron / Indiewire
He and Ava scouted the location where the speech was to be filmed, which was the exact same spot where Dr. King gave his speech. A platform had been set up with a lectern on it, but it didn't feel right to the stage crew so they went across the street to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to ask if they could use their pulpit, which they felt would be more appropriate. The Church said no, they couldn't use their pulpit, but offered instead a pulpit they had found two days previously in the basement. The crew accepted the pulpit, placed it on the platform, and discovered by comparing it with photographs taken of the historical speech that it was, indeed, the exact same pulpit used by Dr. King during his speech. Such serendipities happened time and again during the shooting of the film, Oyelowo insisted.

Oyelowo was well-aware that King's life was severely under threat giving that speech. King was told time and again, "We know there are people who want to do you harm if you give that speech." Oyelowo had researched and placed himself within King's atmosphere so much that he was surprised at the end of the day after filming the speech that he was still alive. Admitting that was perhaps a strange thing to say, he nonetheless still feels fear and anxiety whenever he watches that sequence.

Mitchell quoted a line at the end of John Lewis's memoir on the movement: "The road to Selma was the last acts of non-violence." Being from Detroit, he felt a chill go through him when he saw Viola Liuzzo's name come up on the screen because he knew what happened to her. (Liuzzo, a Unitarian civil rights activist from Detroit who responded to King's call for assistance, was shot to death by Klansmen no less than a few hours after his speech while she was shuttling people to the Montgomery airport.)

Mitchell complimented DuVernay for capturing that every movement is like a family and—as with any family—there will be disagreements. DuVernay stressed that it was absolutely crucial when discussing the life of Dr. King to recognize he was not a monolith. He did not accomplish what he accomplished alone. He was a part of a huge, robust clan of brothers and sisters, really smart people, many of who could have just as easily been the leader of the movement. Except one of them was an extraordinary orator as well and they were able to lift him up and have him guide the way. It's astonishing how much support King had, yet within that support there was a disagreement on how to go about certain acts. It's precisely the strategy of the movement that fascinates DuVernay. As an African American major at UCLA, whenever she heard a speech by King she considered what went into what was said. Of course, the march to Selma happened, but to get behind and underneath what that was about and why, the tactics, was what fascinated her and—when taking on a project as large as this—she figured there were two ways she could do it. She could do it fact-based and follow the rules or try to enter what interested her personally and create something a little more textured. Luckily, she had partners who were behind her and on board with approaching the subject a bit differently.

Mitchell approached Winfrey about the responsibility she felt taking on the portrayal of Annie Lee Cooper, a powerhouse figure of the early Civil Rights movement infamous for punching Selma sheriff Jim Clark. Winfrey said she had been reluctant to accept the role because—even though she's only done a few films—in every film it seems she has to hit somebody. But there was no getting around it. The woman was a fighter who knocked sheriff Clark down and had to be apprehended by two sets of handcuffs. The photo of her being straddled by the sheriff and his deputies and beaten with his billy club shocked the American public into awareness. Even Dr. King himself understood when he talked about the incident in his famous Brown Chapel speech: "Mrs. Cooper was down in that line. As you know, we teach a philosophy of not retaliating and not hitting back, but the truth of the situation is that Mrs. Cooper, if she did anything, was provoked by Sheriff Clark."

Winfrey's initial reluctance diminished after reading an article on Cooper sent her by DuVernay. She discovered Cooper lived to be 100, recently passing in 2010, and that she loved watching The Oprah Winfrey Show. Ava lobbied, "Don't you think she would be so honored and pleased to know that someone she watched all those years is actually going to try to take her life and bring it to life on screen?" That's when Oprah knew she had to do it.

As she was doing the role, Oprah thought not just about Cooper's life and story, and how many times she tried to vote, but how Annie Lee Cooper represents why there needed to be a movement in the first place. She represents everybody's mother, sister, aunt, and cousin who tried and had the will to keep getting up—though being continuously humiliated—to try again and again. That sense of determination and humility is what she tried to bring to the role.

Mitchell observed that—in watching Oyelowo's evolving acting career—his performances reveal a keen skill for silences. With the portrayal of Martin Luther King, however, and the familiarity audiences have with the tenor and power of King's voice, Mitchell considered it a brave creative decision to focus on and allow so many silences in the film to characterize King. Specifically, he referenced the scene where King phones Mahalia Jackson and asks her to sing and then listens with so much emotion registering on his face. Mitchell wondered how much of that DuVernay had written into the script or how much had been worked out with Oyelowo during rehearsal and production?

Oyelowo recalled that he and DuVernay had previously worked together on a film called Middle of Nowhere (2012). He had met her through her writing. He read that script—and there were several silences written into that script—and was impressed with her ability to depict the human experience of life. Between the writing and how she drew a performance out of him on film, he knew she had to be the one to direct a film on King because—although we all know King as an icon, as a historical figure, and as a sound byte ("I have a dream…")—the remotest chance of doing him justice on screen would require knowing the human man behind the icon: his guilt, his fear, being a father, being a husband, all the qualities that wouldn't necessarily be seen in a documentary or read in a book. In his experience thus far no one comes close to mining that out of characters than DuVernay.

DuVernay added it was the creative decision of the team to deconstruct the myth of Martin Luther King. There was no further need for mythmaking; that had been done. King was not a speech. He was not a statue. He was not a holiday. He was a brother from the branch. His father was a preacher. His father's father was a preacher. He didn't really want to be a preacher, but it was the family business. Somewhere in there he had to find his way. He went to Boston. He met Carlotta (who, incidentally, was a little older than him; something DuVernay never knew until she started researching him). They moved to Alabama instead of Atlanta to get away from his Dad. All this becomes interesting when you break him down as a man and, within that, he's an amazing orator, does amazing things, and changed the face of the world. But it's even more interesting when you recognize that—when he came home—he had to take out the trash. That was his chore. And when he couldn't remember where the trash bags were, Carlotta had every right to give him the look she gave him. It's important to know these little things. It's important to know that he had marital problems. And that he had a little bit of an ego problem when it came to Malcolm X. His is just another story; but, as a creative team, they decided to approach his story as an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.

Turning to Gardner and Kleiner, Mitchell asked if there were many changes that were wrought once DuVernay and Oyelowo signed on? Yes, Gardner confirmed, there were. She and Kleiner had already been with the project for about eight years; but, it never got off its feet or found purchase. Apologizing for sounding a little "meta-crazy", Gardner believes movies talk back to you when they're ready. They met Oyelowo, who introduced them to DuVernay, and from there they watched the movie come into its own. It had an engine, momentum and life that it had never had before. If you're patient enough to watch that happen, it's one of the joys of the job, Gardner related.

Kleiner added that their company has been very taken by the figure of Dr. King for a long time. In his case, even as a child at five or six, he remembered thinking about this person, reading about him, and going into deep research about him at certain stages of his life. His attraction was similar to DuVernay's; he was caught up in the human being behind the icon. The more he researched King, the deeper King's psychological life became alongside his physical struggle. He expressed pride in what DuVernay and Oyelowo have accomplished in capturing the depth and shades and the highs and lows of this person.

Mitchell then asked the team which scene they shot first? DuVernay replied that the first scene they shot was the jail sequence where King was upset about Malcolm X. She turned in that footage because her cinematographer Bradford Young wanted to shoot the darkest scene first to make sure they could see black people in the dark. That scene and the conversation between King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) where they're quoting Matthew, were a litmus test in terms of lighting, etc.

Photo: Bruce Davidson
Oyelowo added that the scene between he and Domingo was also special because, along with acting together in The Butler, they also played the two black soldiers at the beginning of Lincoln. It was Bradford Young who pointed out to Oyelowo as he and Domingo sat on the bunk in the jail, "I think I've seen this before." At that moment Oyelowo realized that the early scene in Lincoln was set in 1865 and his character was saying to the President of the United States, "When are we going to get the vote?" Then here they were in 1965 discussing, "What are we doing? Are we going to get the vote?" It crystallized the painful injustice but necessitous nature of the journey. They were two actors who were given the chance to represent the same problem 100 years apart. So even though it was the first day of shooting, Oyelowo recognized straight off that they were doing something special.

Mitchell then commented upon the weight Oyelowo gained to fit the role and how he could hear how the weight affected his breathing and helped him move away from his own British accent to capture the sound of King's voice. Oyelowo said his kids had great fun with the extra weight and would laugh whenever he would grunt to bend over to pick up something.

Oyelowo then gave credit to Winfrey, with whom he worked on The Butler, for believing in him. She made that clear to him early on so he shared his dreams with her, foremost being his desire to play Dr. Martin Luther King. He delivered a recording to her where he recited one of Dr. King's speeches. Winfrey said, "Hmmmm. I can see it. Not there yet; but, I can see it." She told him, "You are going to have to go deep." Oyelowo was aware that would involve not only physical, emotional, and mental depth, but spiritual depth as well, because King's engine was spiritual.

Photo: Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP
"I have never given myself over to anything quite as much as this," Oyelowo explained. By doing so, there were by-products he didn't expect. Just to put himself into the mind set of someone who had received so many death threats; being 28 days in any given month away from home, with the weight of the world literally on his shoulders; knowing that the campaign in Selma was dependent upon violence being wrought on people as the only way for the world to see what was going on in Alabama—that they had to turn the cameras on, shake the nest, and hope something would happen—and then when something did happen, bearing the weight of those consequences. All of that did, indeed, bear a physical weight, but there was also an emotional weight, which Oyelowo felt even more. It was difficult for him and scared him because he had to go to dark places in his head where the notion of feeling he might himself be assassinated came into play. He stopped short of asking DuVernay to sweep the buildings near the shoot to make sure some crazy person wasn't lying in wait with a rifle.

Mitchell noted that—though it might seem like a simple thing—so many movies about history sidestep the use of the word "negro", whose inclusion carries significant weight. He wondered if there was difficulty including it in the film?

As one of the producers of Selma, Winfrey was on board with using the word "negro" because—as someone who was born in 1954 and grew up in the South during that time (she was 9-10 years old during these events)—she understood the important nuance between saying "negro" and "black" and had a keen ear for it. Even in the scene where John Lewis was crossing the bridge and said, "Where I come from there are no 'black' people", Winfrey asked DuVernay, "Ava, what do you think? Would he be saying 'black' or would he be saying 'negro'?" Winfrey was very much aware growing up within her own family when the word 'black' appeared. Suddenly they were black people, when they had been negroes. Her father protested, "We're not black people; we're negroes." He didn't like the radical associations with the word "black" in the '60s, and so Winfrey grew up conscious of who was saying that word, what age they were, and whether they were a part of the movement of young people who were out on the forefront of it. "Black" was more accessible to them than to others, like her family.

Mitchell asserted that proper usage of "negro" textured the film and that—for certain members of the audience—it would sound like a bell ringing. At that point, even John Lewis who had been considered something of a radical had moved to the middle and was being called up for being square. Mitchell asked the producers if they understood the necessary texture this unacknowledged glossary of appellatives added to the film?

Gardner said as producers they committed to a script that was authentic, where verisimilitude was important, and there was not going to be a version of DuVernay's movie that wasn't authentic. Therefore, people had to say what they said and do what they did and behave as they behaved. Discomfort be damned. That was the point. Their partners at Paramount were awesome and never stuttered with that stuff. (Not for long anyways.)

Mitchell asked what each of them felt when they finally saw the finished film? Kleiner answered that there was a tremendous responsibility in taking the project on and he believes DuVernay's film does right by history and the intentions of the film and so he was nothing but moved when he saw the complete version and humbled to be a part of it. Gardner agreed that there was so much in this movie that was singularly from DuVernay's heart and soul, not only her representation of the movement, but her representation of women within the movement, and all the flaws and fractures within the movement, let alone the critical notion that King was a human being who was equally flawed, and the hope that notion actually gave to audience members: "Oh, I can protest. I can be a flawed human being and still make a difference."

For Winfrey, wrapping up the film involved multiple layers of emotions. First of all, she was honored to be working with Gardner and Kleiner and Plan B Entertainment. She'd never taken on such a project as a producer and she did so because Oyelowo asked her to. She was happy to be a part of it, but from the very beginning, from the moment she saw the little bit Oyelowo had shared with her on his iPhone, as his friend she wanted to help his dream become reality. So the first time she saw the film, she could only see Oyelowo. She was so happy that he got to fulfill his dream. Then when she watched the film as a producer and was supposed to be taking notes, she was crying the whole time and didn't know if she was supposed to be doing that. Was it professional for a producer to cry? She'd look over at Gardner and didn't see her crying so she would try to stop herself. But she couldn't help it. She found herself hugging the editor. Then she wasn't sure if she was supposed to be hugging the editor. So, for her it was layers of emotion, first for David, then because her great fortune was that she was born in Mississippi but got out by the time she was six years old. She never had to spend a day in a segregated school. She never had to spend time in an environment going to a school where people would make her feel less than. But she has carried with her the stories of her people. She grew up being a student of it and understanding that everything that had ever happened to her happened because of the Annie Lee Coopers and people whose names will never be known who had the courage to keep standing. When she watched the end credits folding in to what they actually filmed, she felt herself a part of every single person who was a part of the movement and created a life where now Ava Duvernay could direct this film when, at that time, they would never have imagined such a thing: the right to fulfill and express the vision of their lives. She was thinking of all those things while she was watching the film and that's why she was blubbering to the side.

As for DuVernay, she argued that for her the film was still not finished and so she couldn't answer Mitchell's question. She hadn't had that moment yet. (As of the onstage conversation, the film was due to be finished the following Friday. Visual effects and color correction have yet to be done.) The film is not finished in her mind so that—when she sees what others are calling the finished film—what she sees is all of her friends. She sees Bradford Young's cinematography. She sees Spencer Averick's editing and recalls how they started out editing on his little Ikea set in his apartment with his roommate standing at the door. She sees Morgan Rhodes, the music supervisor. She sees Aisha Coley who sat with her through all the auditions and made extraordinary choices casting the roles. So that's what she sees right now. She doesn't see the whole yet because she's still in it, still wrapping it, and for her it's not done. For this second screening she came in about half way through, stood in the back, and watched the audience's faces tilted up at the light on the Castro screen, which for her was immensely moving because they all looked so beautiful. She heard their laughter, could see their tears, could feel when they were uncomfortable, and that's a filmmaker's dream come true: to tell a story of these great people and have an audience hear and see this later in San Francisco, in this theater, on this street. "That's why we do it," she concluded.

As stated earlier by Winfrey, Selma was a dream realized for Oyelowo. He had first read the script in July 2007. He and his wife had just moved from the U.K. to Los Angeles with the dream of being in movies. He felt a higher power telling him he was going to play Dr. King in the film Selma. The feeling was so bizarre that he wrote about it in his diary: "Me, an English actor who has done nothing here. What am I thinking?" Mitchell asked Oyelowo if Oprah wasn't the higher power he heard? "Now that you mention it," Oyelowo laughed. He credited Oprah with certainly being part of His plan.

It was a visceral, spiritual, deep knowing that didn't leave him for seven years. Every day since that day he was determined to move the needle to get him to the point where he would get to be somehow a part of this incredible journey. The director at the time didn't agree with his higher power and didn't cast him. But the project went from a director who didn't want him to a director who he loved and who he could suggest.

Oyelowo finished up by saying that his name in the Yoruba language of Nigeria, where he is from, means "a king deserves respect." So, a dream realized.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

THE WAY HE LOOKS / HOJE EU QUERO VOLTAR SOZINHO (2014)—Frameline Q&A With Daniel Ribeiro

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."—Antoine St. Exupery, The Little Prince.

Brazilian writer / director / producer Daniel Ribeiro is no stranger to Frameline. In 2008, he screened his first short film Cafe Com Leite (You, Me, Him) and followed up in 2010 with Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho, which was received so favorably that it inspired him to develop the short into a full feature, Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (The Way He Looks, 2014) [Wikipedia / Facebook], his entry for Frameline's 38th edition earlier this year. This tender coming-of-age film emerged as one of my favorites of the festival for blurring the line between ameliorative fantasy and actual possibility.

The Way He Looks had its world premiere at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2014, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize for best feature film in the Panorama section and the Teddy Award for best LGBT-themed feature. It was released to cinemas in Brazil on April 10, 2014 and was met with positive reviews from critics and audiences, ranking as the 5th most viewed film in the country on its first day of release. It has since been selected as the Brazilian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards®.

Boyd van Hoeij's positive review for The Hollywood Reporter deserves credit for inspiring me to watch the film, as I've learned to trust Boyd's perceptions. He writes: "Ribeiro has impressively fleshed out the material into a full narrative, with not only added conflict and a convincing gallery of supporting characters but also an entirely new focus on the quest for independence of the blind lead." At Variety, Jay Weissberg remarks: "Daniel Ribeiro's gay coming-of-age debut has an undeniable appeal ... this is a gay story, done with tenderness and capturing the hesitancy of expressing affection when rejection can have ugly consequences."

As Rod Armstrong synopsized in his program capsule for Frameline, "Daniel Ribeiro has fashioned a magnificent film about teenage love and friendship. Leo and Giovana are best pals, who spend time sunning themselves by the pool and wondering about their futures. As a blind kid who craves his independence, Leo is feeling stifled by his well-meaning parents and hopes to study abroad. Giovana just wants a date—preferably with the recently arrived Gabriel, with his good taste in music and aloof charm.

"A school project pairs the two boys, and Gabriel is effortlessly welcomed into Leo's friendship with Giovana. The dynamics change, however, when sexuality enters the picture. As Gabriel and Leo spend an increasing amount of time together, Giovana feels like she's losing both her best friend and her potential new boyfriend. In the meantime, Leo realizes a growing romantic attachment for the mysterious Gabriel, and a big school party brings all of these tensions to a boil. Throughout the film, Ribeiro is beautifully attuned to the temperaments of his characters and charts their mood swings perfectly. He is similarly expert in portraying the ebb and flow of youthful friendships, and the way romantic attraction can sneak in and overwhelm the unprepared. The Way He Looks is warm, funny, and remarkably well acted—and one of the best film about boys in love since Beautiful Thing."

What follows is a loose transcript of Ribeiro's interaction with his enthusiastic Frameline audience at the film's Monday evening screening at the Castro Theatre (June 23, 2014).

* * *

The inspiration for The Way He Looks came from Ribeiro's ruminations on the first time he felt himself attracted to another body, which—he considered—was a visual memory. As he asked his friends the same question, they all confided that their first loves were intimately linked to a visual memory. This made him wonder what it would be like for a blind person to fall in love for the first time, not knowing if the person they had fallen in love with was young or old, ugly or handsome, arguably even male or female? How would that affect one's sexual orientation? Let alone address the issue of where our feelings of sexuality come from? Some people believe individuals are born gay, but others do not. Posing a blind gay character was an interesting way for Ribeiro to approach the idea that a gay orientation is something that comes from within and is not introduced or influenced by external factors.

In English the film's title bears a double meaning. It can refer to how Leo looks at the world or the way Gabriel looks to him. In Portuguese, that double meaning is not quite the same. There, they were playing with the titles between the short and the feature narrative. The short, Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho, literally means "I Don't Want to Go Back Alone". The feature narrative, Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho, reverses that with "Today I Want To Go Back Alone." This titular sense of independence is one of the changes Ribeiro made when converting the short into a feature-length film and it offered a positive change to Leo's character in the translation. Fans of the short film were worried that Leo and Gabriel were not going to get together in the feature. People were always saying to him, "I hope you didn't change the ending?" The ending didn't change. What changed was Leo's struggle for independence. The choice for the English title was a conscious appreciation of its word play. Further, the decision to have Leo enter a foreign student exchange program spoke to his increased independence and his refusal to run away from what he feared facing.

Ribeiro's own fears when he was casting for the short film was that he would never find a 16-year-old actor who could play a blind person; but, in the first round of auditions, Ghilherme Lobo showed up and he did "that thing with his eyes" and Ribeiro knew he had found his Leo. Once Lobo was cast, and with his main fear resolved, Ribeiro knew the rest would flow; but, he still had to find actors to play across from Lobo with perfect chemistry. First, he found Tess Amorim to play Leo's best friend Giovana; "they were great together." It proved a bit more difficult to find the actor to play Gabriel and Ribeiro resorted to asking around if anyone knew anyone who could play the role and "through the friend of a friend of a friend", they finally found Fabio Audi. Fabio was already 21 when he played Gabriel for the short film, and 24 by the time he was cast in the feature. "He was old," Ribeiro joked, "but good at being young."

Despite it being "a gay film with a blind character", The Way He Looks opened well in Brazil, no doubt to its universal coming-of-age themes. Critics and audiences likewise praised the film's soundtrack. Belle and Sebastian were Ribeiro's favorite band and he wrote their song "There's Too Much Love" into his script even before they began shooting. The rest of the songs were added during the editing process, some originally composed, some—like Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On", David Bowie's "Modern Love", and Arvo Pärt's "Spiegel em Spiegel"—seamlessly incorporated later. It was important for him that the songs were not incidental and that they made "sense" within the film. Bowie's "Modern Love", for example, replaced an earlier One Direction choice that the band would not authorize, but which ended up working better for the party scene.



An audience member asked Ribeiro to talk about the scene where Leo starts seeing Gabriel in his dreams, and wondered how Ribeiro decided to visualize that? Because he was blind without a sense of visual reference, it's most likely that Leo's dreams would have been black; but, of course, Ribeiro didn't want to do that. He wanted to translate a blind person's dream into film in a different way, primarily by expressing what Leo was feeling. Without a general concept of what was going on, Leo could only experience pieces of things, a bit of Gabriel, a little bit of another character Karina, and so on. He felt that was a nice way to understand Leo's dreams.

One audience member expressed his appreciation that Ribeiro had written a character with disabilities into his narrative, but questioned if Ribeiro had considered casting a real blind actor? Ribeiro answered that when they first started casting, that was a possibility because, as he mentioned earlier, he wasn't sure if he was going to be able to find a young actor to play a blind person; but, once Ghilherme Lobo appeared in the first week of casting and was just so perfect for the role, the quest for casting the character ended. But he admitted it would have been interesting to work with a blind actor.

Another asked what was the most difficult aspect of converting his short film into a feature length film? The short film starts with Gabriel in the class room to the stolen kiss with Gabriel. The short was uploaded to YouTube and made available to anyone who wanted to watch it and so when it came to making the feature, one of the challenges that presented itself was that there was already an existing audience who had a lot of affection for the short so how would he tell the same story in a slightly different way without betraying their affection? He manipulated his script in various ways to keep true to the soul of the short, by way of references to key moments in the short, such as the stolen kiss.

When the microphone came to me, I first praised Ribeiro for his lovely romance that, in my estimation, reflected the best of queer cinema by reaching beyond our identity stories to achieve communication with a broad world audience. A remarkable achievement. Then I asked: "As a romance, it ended happily with a wonderful moment of brave defiance. I'm curious to know if—among queers in Brazil at that age—there is that kind of bravery existing at this time?" Ribeiro confirmed that, yes, indeed, such bravery exists among the young gays in Brazil. Such moments of resistance against homophobic bullying are entirely possible. What happens the next day, however, is another question. But young gays in Brazil aren't hiding anymore and though—as seen in the movie—there are some who are not okay with that, young gays are out and in the open and that's a good thing. Part of it is that young people relate to the characterizations of gays in media, as more and more films and television programs feature gay characters in positive representations. They see that being gay is okay and possible. They see that it's not something that has to be a problem.

Kudos to Strand Releasing for picking up the film for North American distribution and to David Lewis at The San Francisco Chronicle for favorably profiling the film upon its San Francisco run at the Opera Plaza: "If Americans ever start making films like this, the world will be a better place." Further, be sure to check out Pam Grady's Chronicle interview with Ribeiro.

 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

SFFS: FALL SEASON 2014—Michael Hawley Previews the Line-up

The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) Fall Season has revamped itself into a trio of mini-festivals for 2014 and will hold court at San Francisco's 114-year-old Vogue Theatre over three consecutive November weekends. The three events—French Cinema Now (Nov. 6-9), Hong Kong Cinema (Nov. 14-16), and New Italian Cinema (Nov. 19-23)—feature a healthy mix of 2014 festival breakouts, mainstream hits and artsy obscurities, along with a handful of revivals, documentaries and animated features. To boot, each harbors a movie competing in this year's Oscar® race for Best Foreign Language Film. Here's an overview of the titles I'm most looking forward to.

French Cinema Now

Four years ago, French Cinema Now (FCN) opened with an Isabelle Huppert flick directed by Marc Fitousi. The delightful Copacabana saw the French star in the unlikely role of a Brazil-obsessed ditz selling seaside timeshares. Now Fitousi and Huppert have reunited for Paris Follies, which opens FCN's seventh edition. Perhaps just as improbably, their new collaboration showcases the actress as a discontented cattle breeder's wife who sets off to have a Parisian affair, with hubby (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) in hot pursuit. The intriguing supporting cast includes Michael Nyqvist (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Marina Foïs (Four Lovers), Anaïs Demoustier (Living on Love Alone) and seductive Pio Marmaï (Nights with Théodore), and cinematography is by the peerless Agnès Godard. Paris Follies will be the only work in the 11-film line-up to receive two screenings, and director Fitousi is once again expected to be on hand.

The most preeminent FCN titles this year are Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Nightand Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria. Both debuted in competition at Cannes to terrific reviews, although neither walked away with prizes. Both, coincidentally, had their Bay Area premieres at the Mill Valley Film Festival a few weeks back. Two Days, One Night stars Marion Cotillard as a factory worker who must convince co-workers to forego a bonus so she can keep her job. It's Belgium's submission for this year's Oscar® race, repping the fourth time the country has chosen to be represented by the Dardennes. Olivier Assayas' latest stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in what is generally described as a challenging, meta-homage to the art of film acting. Although both have major distribution through Sundance Selects, neither appears on any upcoming Bay Area release schedule I'm privy to. In other words, these FCN showings could be our last chance to catch these important films on a big screen. (Long gone are the days when a film by a major French director, starring Juliette Binoche, would necessarily command a local theatrical release or at least some festival play. Just ask Bruno Dumont, whose recent Binoche-starring Camille Claudel 1914 popped up on Netflix without ever having shown its face round these parts.)

Two additional FCN films were Cannes breakouts, albeit from the Director's Fortnight sidebar. The debut feature from director Thomas Cailley, Love at First Fight, accomplished the unprecedented feat of winning all of the sidebar's top prizes. This off-beat romantic comedy about the budding relationship between a laid-back young carpenter and a female military enthusiast stars Kévin Azaïs and Adèle Haenel. The latter appeared in last year's FCN entry Suzanne, as well as in Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies (SFIFF 2008). Speaking of Sciamma, her follow-up to the unforgettable Tomboy (which landed in my 2011 Top Ten), also made a big noise at Director's Fortnight. Girlhood has been acclaimed a non-judgmental character study of a black Parisian teen's search for identity. According to Variety's Peter Debruge, it "advances the French helmer's obsession with how society attempts to force teenage girls into familiar categories, when the individuals themselves don't conform so easily." Both Girlhood and Love at First Fight were picked up for U.S. distribution by the heroic folks at Strand Releasing.

FCN 2014 also boasts a pair of North American premieres. One of them, The Easy Way Out, is so "new" it doesn't open in France until next March and has only played festivals in the Normandy resort of Cabourg and the Indian Ocean island of Réunion. Director Bruce Cauvin adapts American writer Stephen McCauley's novel about three brothers who are "in different stages of falling in and out of love." One of the brothers is played by charismatic singer / songwriter / actor Benjamin Biolay (FCN's 2011 opening nighter Bachelor Days are Over), which is all the reason I need to check this one out. The film also stars veterans Guy Marchand and Marie-Christine Barrault as the boys' parents, and director Cauvin is expected to be in town for the screening. Also having its North American premiere at FCN is Jean Denizot's The Good Life, which is based on the true story of a father who, following a custody battle, kidnapped his two sons and went on the lam. Denizot's film focuses on the romantic awakening of the younger son (Zacharie Chasseriaud, who made quite an impression in Bouli Lanners' The Giants).

Elsewhere on the FCN roster we find Love is the Perfect Crime, the latest from fraternal writer / directors Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu (best known for the 2005 Cannes competition title To Paint or Make Love). In this Alpine-set psychological thriller, Mathieu Amalric stars as a lothario college prof whose student girlfriend goes missing. The story is adapted from a novel by Philippe Djian (Jean-Jacques Beineix' Betty Blue and André Téchiné's Unforgivable) and the impressive supporting cast includes Karin Viard, Sara Forestier, Maïwen and Denis Podalydès. Then in One of a Kind, director François Dupeyron (Monsieur Ibrahim) adapts his own 2009 novel for the big screen. Grégory Gadebois (Angel and Tony, FCN 2011) earned a best actor César nomination for his performance here as Frédi, a depressed trailer park denizen who "inherits" mysterious healing powers from his recently deceased mother. Jean-Pierre Darroussin returns for a second FCN 2014 performance as Frédi's father. Sharing the Opening Night spotlight with Paris Follies will be Eric Barbier's The Last Diamond. Starring Yvan Attal and Bérénice Bejo (The Artist, The Past), this slick romantic heist thriller has already been tagged for a Hollywood remake. Rounding out the line-up will be a new restoration of Jacques Deray's Three Men to Kill, a 1980 action movie starring the iconic Alain Delon.

Hong Kong Cinema

While it's regrettable that Taiwan Film Days has disappeared from the SFFS Fall Season after a five-year run, we still have this three-day, eight-film celebration of new works from Hong Kong. The film I'm dying to see here is Fruit Chan's apocalyptic farce The Midnight After, which premiered to terrific reviews at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Chan is known for his fabulously icky 2004 feature Dumplings, an edited version of which showed up in the Asian horror portmanteau Three…Extremes. Adapted from a viral internet novel, The Midnight After is the director's first Chinese language feature in 10 years and concerns itself with 16 minibus passengers who arrive in the New Territories suburb of Taipo, now strangely devoid of human life. In her rave review for Variety, Maggie Lee praises this "deliriously high-concept and gleefully low-budget horror comedy" for its "trenchant social satire" and "highly political message about the loss of morality and compassion." Other reviews point to how the film captures the current Hong Kong zeitgeist, especially the estrangement its residents feel towards their rapidly changing homeland. Given recent events, Chan's communiqué has no doubt acquired even greater import.

The most high-profile selection on the Hong Kong Cinema roster is The Golden Era, Ann Hui's three-hour biopic about groundbreaking female writer Xiao Hong. The film is HK's 2014 Oscar® submission and it's been nominated for five Golden Horse Awards (essentially the Oscars® for Chinese language art films), in the categories of Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress and Actress (Wei Tang, Lust, Caution). Set during the tumultuous years leading up to the 1949 founding of the People's Republic, The Golden Era is said to be Hui's most expansive / expensive film to date, representing a 180-degree turn from 2011's intimate and heartbreaking A Simple Life. Critics have praised its performances and lavish production design, while questioning the narrative device of having characters address the audience directly with their memories of writer Hong and her mentor, novelist Xiao Jun. The film had a NYC theatrical release in October, but the lack of any impending Bay Area release date may signify this lone Fall Season screening as our only opportunity to appreciate Hui's vision on a big screen.

Hong Kong Cinema opens with From Vegas to Macau, a big-budget action yarn starring Chow Yun-fat. Sharing the Opening Night spotlight will be a kung-fu epic about star-crossed lovers, The White Haired Witch of the Lunar Kingdom. Fans of Hong Kong genre films will no doubt also want to take in Overheard 3, a "stand-alone hardboiled, dizzying tale of loyalty and corruption." The line-up also includes a 20th anniversary screening of Wong Kar-wai's seminal arthouse hit Chunking Express, and Aberdeen, a familial dramedy from director Pang Ho-cheung (2010's genial, nicotine-scented rom-com Love in a Puff).





New Italian Cinema

Now in its 18th year, 2014's New Italian Cinema (aka N.I.C.E. or New Italian Cinema Events) kicks off with an intriguing program titled "An Evening with Edoardo Ponti". The son of legendary producer Carlo Ponti and actress Sophia Loren will be on hand to introduce two recent shorts he's directed, The Nightshift Belongs to the Stars (starring Julian Sands and Nastassja Kinski) and The Human Voice (starring mamma Sophia). Balancing out the evening will be the latest work from another Italian with famous parents. Misunderstood is Asia Argento's semi-autobiographical recounting of the sad / exhilarating, authoritarian-free childhood she endured at the hands of monstrously self-absorbed parents (in real life, horror director Dario Argento and actress / screenwriter Daria Nicolodi). Reviews from Cannes, where it competed in Un Certain Regard, as well as from the recent NY Film Fest, were all over the place. One thing seems certain—it won't be dull.

This year's N.I.C.E. closes, as it did in 2013, with the film Italy has chosen to complete in the Oscars®. It remains to be seen whether Paolo Virzi's Human Capital will ultimately win the award bestowed upon Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty. Virzi has a long history with N.I.C.E. He attended the fest in 2008, when Napoleon and Me screened on Opening Night, and was followed by a mini-retrospective of his debut film, Living it Up, and 1997's Hardboiled Egg (my personal Virzi fave). The uncharacteristically shrill The First Beautiful Thing closed the festival in 2010. Human Capital co-stars Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who won a Best Actress Prize at this year's Tribeca, and the film was nominated for a whopping 19 Donatello Awards (Italy's Oscars®), ultimately winning seven, including Best Film.

The only movie I caught at last year's N.I.C.E. was Stefano Incerti's Gorbaciof, starring the incomparable Toni Servillo. Incerti's follow-up, In the Snow, finds itself in this year's festival. Servillo returns as well in director Roberto Andò's Long Live Freedom, a political satire in which the actor plays twin brothers (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi co-stars). Elsewhere in the line-up we find an animated feature, The Art of Happiness (the first-ever animation to appear at N.I.C.E.), a documentary about a Florence drop-in center for society's marginalized (Per Ulisse) and a fun-sounding neo-giallo, House of Shadows (with the film's director, Rossella de Venuto expected to attend the screening). There's even an Italian film whose dialogue is completely in Arabic. Alessio Cremonini's Border is the story of two women attempting to flee war-torn Syria. Interestingly, Cremonini was a co-writer on Saverio Costanzo's Private, a 2004 Italian film in Arabic and Hebrew which was submitted, and then disqualified, as that year's Oscar® submission from Italy. Private went on to win the FIPRESCI prize at the 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Cross-published on film-415.

FORCE MAJEURE (2014)

As Michael Hawley synopsized in his Evening Class preview for the recent 37th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival, a prize-winner from Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, "Sweden's satiric Force Majeure lampoons contemporary notions of masculinity and took home the sidebar's jury prize. It traces the repercussions faced by a husband and father after he initially abandons his family during a ski resort avalanche. Director Ruben Öslund's previous film was the excruciating (in a good way) bullying treatise Play." Force Majeur has since screened in the Special Presentations sidebar at the Toronto International Film Festival, has been nominated for the 2014 Nordic Council Film Prize, and has been chosen as Sweden's official Foreign Language submission to next Spring's Oscars®. At Keyframe's Daily, David Hudson has captured a wealth of robust reviews from Cannes. The film opens in the Bay Area on Friday, November 7, at Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, Albany Twin in Albany, and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

As the website synopsizes: "Wickedly funny and precisely observed, Force Majeure tells the story of a model Swedish family—handsome businessman Tomas, his willowy wife Ebba and their two blond children—on a skiing holiday in the French Alps. The sun is shining and the slopes are spectacular but during a lunch at a mountainside restaurant an avalanche suddenly bears down on the happy diners. With people fleeing in all directions and his wife and children in a state of panic, Tomas makes a decision that will shake his marriage to its core and leave him struggling to reclaim his role as family patriarch."

Thus, the titular reference to the contractual clause "force majeure", which by definition essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties—in this case, an avalanche—prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract. Here, the contract is marriage and family.

From its introductory staged family photographs that belie glossed-over internal familial tensions, through the avalanche and its aftermath in question, to its admirably non-judgmental final trek down the mountain, Force Majeur is predominantly a tour de force for its cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel whose innovative camera work frames the subject family against the majestic scenery of the French Alps, while simulating a false sense of safety through the meticulously abstracted observation of everyday operations that make a ski lodge run. Precise horizontal compositions provide a real sense of place and environment, not only in landscape, but within the lodge itself, particularly the hallway outside their residence where the parents can argue and attack each other out of earshot of the kids. Wenzel even interrupts the static beauty of his shots with a little Go-Pro action. The two main tools in his box, however, are a consistent use of distance to both minimize and aggravate the subject family's narrative dilemma, and intimate close-ups that allow the actors to color their performances with subtle nuances. Here, Force Majeur tips its hat to Ingmar Bergman. Scenes from a Marriage comes specifically to mind, and in some ways Force Majeur could as easily be called Scenes From a Ski Holiday.

The avalanche itself, immersively filmed, is not only an evident visual for nature's indifference and uncontrollable power, but then becomes a consistent metaphor of how tensions and misunderstandings build and cascade. Just as avalanche smoke and snow blindness stand in for how clarity of perception fails when pit against forces beyond personal control, within the interactional sphere the cascading avalanche resembles a form of spreading contagion as Ebba's judgment of Tomas influences Fanny to judge her partner (Kristofer Hivju) for imagined failings of character. Though not really funny, it comes off funny as gendered perceptions square off, such that—after having his balls busted for failing his family—Tomas achieves a momentary but short-lived reprieve when drinking beers with his buddy. First an attractive stranger interrupts their conversation to tell Tomas that her friend thinks he is the most handsome man at the bar, only to have her return a minute or so later to admit she made a mistake and approached the wrong man. The sting is both unerring and uncomfortable and suggests that the best a man can do is usually in his youth when he's drunk and screaming with friends in a sauna.

That interjected party scene, incidentally, emphasized the expert work of the film's sound design and score by Ola Fløttum who ingeniously melds classic music lietmotifs with pop rock to devise a lingering sense of unease and impending disaster. In this sauna scene, each time the classic music is played to signal civilization (perhaps), the drunk rowdy boys scream, crawl and pour beer all over each other, as if the very notion of civilized behavior is enraging to the instinctual male.

I'm not sure if one is supposed to take sides in this contractual moment of force majeur. In the face of an oncoming avalanche, the mother is unable to move and can only think of protecting her children. The father flees to survive. He's made to feel real bad about having a flight reflex and a survivor's instinct, but such guilt (for me) implies the stranglehold of relationship on individuals and civilized behavior's ill-fitting dalliance with basic instinct. I understood why Ebba attacked her husband and accused him of not being a good father, but the manner by which she tries to get everyone to agree with her seems stereotypically manipulative and hysterical. She even judges a woman she converses with in the bar for believing she can have a husband as well as extramarital affairs. "Why can't I have both?" the woman argues.

Interestingly enough, in the film's final sequence, when Ebba has another panic attack in the bus leaving the lodge and convinces the passengers to disboard because the driver is going to kill them all, the only one who doesn't leave is the woman from the bar who doesn't take to such black-and-white thinking and continues on with the bus. Gender stereotypes aside, there are all different kinds of men and women, I guess, expectations be damned.

BOOK EXCERPT: MISSING REELS by Farran Smith Nehme

Was it really so long ago that the blogosphere sought social cohesion through the early practice of padding blogrolls with favorite bloggers? High on every aspiring blogger's wish list was the "Self-Styled Siren" Farran Smith Nehme, a classic film enthusiast who launched her website, Self-Styled Siren in 2005, focusing on cinema's golden age, particularly the 1930s-1960s. Her frothy—and undeniably informed—pieces on film rapidly earned her a coterie of high-profile fans and praises from Film Comment as one of the top ten film blogs on the internet. As her blog's readership soared, Nehme began writing film reviews for The New York Post, The Baffler, The New York Times, Barron's Magazine, Cineaste Magazine, and Moving Image Source.

Now, in Missing Reels—her wholly delightful and cinematic debut novel forthcoming on November 12, 2014 from The Overlook Press—Farran Smith Nehme's extraordinary talent in film criticism, 1980's New York City and the grand Hollywood romances of yesteryear play off of one another seamlessly, creating an irresistible glimpse into two long lost worlds.

Missing Reels follows a young, starry-eyed Ceinwen Reilly as she moves from Yazoo City, Mississippi to the gritty world of New York City in the late 1980's. While her job and Avenue C walk-up apartment don't exactly exude glamour, Ceinwen will always have old movies and silent films to transport her to a world of smoldering heroes and glitzy galas. But the balance is upset when Matthew, a charming British math professor, waltzes into her life and a classic film-fueled romance is sparked.

While frequenting repertory cinemas and trying to look as much like Jean Harlow as possible, Ceinwen discovers that her elderly downstairs neighbor may have starred in a long-lost silent film. Trouble is her neighbor Miriam refuses to say a word about it. Soon enough, Ceinwen embarks on an epic search for the missing reels—with the bumbling, awkward, and impossibly dreamy Matthew by her side—hoping to leave her mark as a movie archivist ingénue. Together they uncover the mesmerizing, albeit bizarre, New York City silent-film underworld and encounter a slew of quirky characters along the way.

Photo: Gary Spector
Nehme's extensive knowledge of golden age cinema pops up throughout Missing Reels and technical lore of nitrate print storage and the unsung masters of film abounds. The novel's nimble pacing makes Nehme's debut an addictive read and lets it rest perfectly in tune with the spellbinding Hollywood romantic comedies of the past. Missing Reels is a witty battlefield of romantic misadventures and snappy dialogue all set in the perfectly captured world of 1980's New York City.

Advance praise for Nehme's debut novel has been considerable. Vanity Fair columnist and author of Critical Mass, James Wolcott writes: "Not since Woody Allen's romping comedy Manhattan Murder Mystery has a romantic ode to New York moved with this much buoyant speed, flirty banter, frizzy sophistication, and zigzagging zeal—the zeal of amateur bloodhounds on a mission. Missing Reels, the impossible-to-resist debut novel of film blogger and critic Farran Smith Nehme is infused with the love of a time and a place and impelled by the flickering spell of cinema past, the golems and ghosts of classic Hollywood."

Dan Callahan, author of Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, adds: "Missing Reels is as funny and satisfying as a classic Hollywood romantic comedy and as absorbing as the most intricately plotted detective story. It is also an intensely loving, convincingly detailed, elegantly shaped, and thoroughly knowledgeable tribute to the glory and heartache of working in the movies and being a hardcore movie fan, written by one of the best writers on the movies that we have ever had."

And from Mark Harris, author of Five Came Back: "With the same combination of passion, precision and generosity that she brings to her film criticism, Farran Smith Nehme has crafted a lovely, witty and empathetic novel that effortlessly captures New York City in the late 1980s, a moment when being obsessed with movies took—and rewarded—a bit of legwork."

The following excerpt will reveal a crisp cinephilic wit that interrupts the social discourse of a dinner party with parenthetical irony and wry irritation; a charming screwball comedy as irresistible and energetic as the grand Hollywood romances that inspired it and one which—as Kirkus Review states it—"Katherine Hepburn would admire. Simply grand; this tale begs to be filmed."

My thanks to Josie Urwin of The Overlook Press for permission to excerpt from Missing Reels. Copyright © 2014 by Farran Smith Nehme. Published in 2014 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through IndieBound, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.

* * *

And there he was, Professor Andrew Evans, purchaser of Harry's movies, a man so strange he stood out amongst mathematicians. He was dressed soberly in chinos and a v-neck sweater over a shirt, and he wasn't scratching or talking to himself, but this was clearly a weird dude. His hair was down to just above his shoulders, a wiry mix of brown and gray, and his hairline crawled patchily back on his skull. His ears were so big they stuck out through the frizz.

He also appeared to be slightly pop-eyed, but it was hard to tell. Because Andy was staring at her. From time to time a man his age stared at her in the store, but not quite like this. She realized he had moved to shake hands.

"Andrew Evans," he said, in a weedy little voice. She hated thin, high voices in men.

"Ceinwen Reilly," she said. His hand was cold and slightly damp. She had it. The Gold Rush.

"So, how do you know Paru?"

The Little Tramp, she recalled, was in the mountains, snowed in by a blizzard. And his starving companion kept staring and staring, until he began to hallucinate that the Tramp was a giant chicken.

"I'm a friend of Matthew Hill," she told him. Any minute now Andy was going to grab a knife and fork and lunge for her throat. He was certainly looking in that vicinity. No, lower. She pulled the shoulder of her dress back into place.

"Matthew. Yes. I know him. He hasn't been here long. How did you two meet?"

Another social occasion, another lie she hadn't thought to prepare. "I work in the neighborhood and we met . . . around," she said. "We got to talking about old movies and then he wanted me to meet Harry."

"Talking about old movies. That's something of a surprise. I thought he only cared about new releases." His speaking manner was bizarre too, fast, pause, fast, pause, like a cabbie rushing to the next stoplight, then tapping the brakes.

"Maybe he was afraid to bring it up with you. Harry says you're something of an expert on silent movies."

"Afraid. Matthew." Obviously her lying was as polished as ever. Andy repeated her words like she'd told him Matthew had been wearing a toga.

"You know how the English are," she said. "Never want to reveal any kind of ignorance."

"I can't say that's been my observation." Pause. "On the contrary, I find the English are always pretending ignorance, in hopes of gaining some sort of tactical advantage." All righty then. Not exactly president of the fan club. "But I think it's fair to say the silent cinema is something of a passion of mine. Do you know anything about silents?"

"A bit."

He wasn’t waiting for a response. ". . . Because you remind me of a silent star, a great one. Vilma Banky. Do you know her?" Becauseyouremindmeofasilentstaragreatone pause. VilmaBankydoyouknowher? pause.

"The name's familiar."

Her input was wholly unnecessary. "She was discovered by Samuel Goldwyn and made a number of high-quality productions in the 1920s. Her acting skills were not inconsiderable, but she was famed primarily as a beauty. She was promoted as the Hungarian Rhapsody."

A no-talent sex symbol. Was this a good place to say thank you? Evidently not, Andy was still going, and while she was dithering she'd missed the tour of Banky's filmography. ". . . with Valentino, and The Winning of Barbara Worth, directed by Henry King. When sound came in she had difficulties, however. The accent, and she also had a bad case of what they called mike fright. So she retired. Luckily she'd taken good care of her finances, and she was happily married to an actor named . . ."

And here was another thing about Andy. He was a major space invader. As he talked, he inched closer. "But, like a lot of silent stars, more than half her movies are lost." She took a step back. "I hope you don't think it's too forward of me to mention the resemblance."

"Not at all. I'll have to look her up when I get home. But it's probably just the dress."

"That is a very unusual dress. Quite authentic.:

"It should be, it's from the twenties." Where was Matthew?

"So you have an affinity for the silent era."

"You could say that." Another step back.

"That's wonderful, just wonderful in a person your age. Have you seen many movies from the period?:

"Sure," she began. "I saw The Crowd at Theatre 80. With Matthew. He liked it too."

"Theatre 80? Oh no, not there! You couldn't possibly have appreciated it there. Rear projection, 16-millimeter, it’s horrendous. And the projection speed of course is all wrong."

She'd hoped throwing Matthew back into the conversation might discourage Andy, but instead she had opened the taps. Projection speed, it seemed, was the key to proper enjoyment of silent movies. Andy knew all about projection speed. The silent cameras were operated with a handcrank and the speeds varied, but projection often didn't. Sometimes it was too fast, and they were screened at sound-movie speeds of 24 frames per second in clips on television, making everything look like the Keystone Kops. But at Theatre 80 the speeds were a hair too slow. If you showed a silent movie at 16 frames per second . . . Where the hell was Matthew? She couldn’t see him anywhere . . . 18 frames per second, but Theatre 80 was slower than that, and it killed the . . . something. Undercranking. Overcranking. Adjusting to the rhythm of music played on the set during filming. It was all probably very important, but that voice, and those eyes, and how could anyone who cared so much about projection speed not have any notion of the speed of his own sentences?

Suddenly Matthew was at her elbow, and Andy wasn't noticing: ". . . and I tried to talk to the Theatre 80 management, but they really don't care that much about silents, so . . ."

"Forgive me," said Matthew, "but it seems we're going in for dinner. How are you, Andy."

"I'm well. Thank you." Ceinwen imagined Andy watching The Crowd at 24 frames per second. He’d eye the screen the same way he was eyeing Matthew.

"We should go find a seat," said Matthew. "You don't mind if I just borrow her for the duration, do you? I’m sure she'll be happy to go back later to, what was it?"

"Film-projection speeds," she said.

"That's right," said Andy.

"Ah. Sorry I missed that." Matthew made a little after-you gesture and she followed, relieved that Andy was still nursing his drink.

"Where have you been?" she whispered.

"Over by the door, talking to Paru and watching Andy back you up across the room."

"My hero."

"Do you realize you started there"—he stopped to indicate a spot at one end of the bookshelf—"and wound up there?" He pointed to a spot about eight feet away, near the window.

"He kept stepping toward me. Doesn't he realize New Yorkers need their space?:

"New Yorkers need their space. You need Yankee Stadium." He pushed her dress back onto her shoulder. "Have a heart. Andy probably dreams of cozy chats with young Mary Pickford. And there you were, in that dress, with that hair. The answer to his prayers."

"Shows how much you know. He said I reminded him of Vilma Banky." They were keeping their voices low as the others filed into the dining room behind them.

"Who?" He was pulling out her chair.

"Vilma Banky. Silent movies. A sex symbol. They called her the Hungarian Rhapsody."

He let go of the chair and coughed for a second, then resumed pushing her in. "Smooth-talking devil, that Andy."

Harry blasted into the room with greetings for both of them, and he and Donna settled directly across the table. Ceinwen spotted Yoshi sitting way down at the opposite end and reminded herself Donna had said it was nothing personal. She heard Matthew say, "Looking for something?" He was addressing Andy, who was hovering nearby.

"Just trying to find a seat." Andy sounded almost plaintive.

"You're in luck," beamed Matthew. "One right here." He pointed to the empty chair next to hers. Andy quickly leaned past Harry to plunk his glass down at the spot, like he was saving a seat at the theater. Harry's eyebrows shot toward the ceiling. Donna took off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

Ceinwen had come to realize that Matthew had an extremely overdeveloped sense of mischief.

Still, things seemed to go all right at first, everyone passing plates and commenting on the food and Donna exclaiming over the cleverness of Radha putting garam masala in the stuffing. They talked about Paris and what it was like in February and whether there were any good exhibits at the moment. That led to Parisian moviegoing, which led to the Cinémathèque Française, which led back to silent movies, at which point Matthew asked someone to pass the wine.

She told Harry that the bad part of his silent-movie books was reading about a movie that sounded great, only to find out it didn't exist anymore. Four Devils, for instance, or London After Midnight.

"The studios never thought they had any value," growled Harry. "That's what happens when you let raw capitalism determine which art survives."

"I don't disagree with that," said Andy. "But I do think it helps to put things in a broader perspective."

"What kind of broader perspective do you have in mind?" Harry said this way too calmly.

"Lost movies appeal to our sense of doomed artistry," said Andy. It was safer to have him sitting down, thought Ceinwen, though there was still an awful lot of leaning. "The movies in your head are always much better than the movies you sit down to see. We build up heroic concepts of certain directors. Then, when their work is lost, we imagine what we're missing as even better than the movies we have. In that sense, we need lost movies. They fortify our Romantic ideal of cinema, that's cap-R Romantic of course."

She was stymied. How did you find a polite way to say, "That’s just about the stupidest thing I've ever heard"?

"Postmodern poppycock," exploded Harry, pounding the consonants so hard a tiny bit of spit flew in the air.

"It isn't postmodernism, Harry. It's—"

"Rubbish. Nonsense. Have you been sneaking over to the humanities building?" Any minute now, Harry’s finger would be launched at Andy's chest. "I'm not F. W. Murnau, I'm not Tod Browning, I'm not interested in my own puny concept of what they'd have done. I want to see those movies. I don't want to get my kicks imagining little scenes with Janet Gaynor."

"You’re avoiding the question of—"

"And furthermore"—there went the finger, only it was pointing between Andy's eyes—"I do know what happens when some slob tries to reimagine a great movie. I know because I get to sit through the last twenty minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons and see just how Robert Wise stacks up against Orson Welles."

"Magnificent Ambersons," said Andy, who'd been trying to break in, "is a completely different instance, but now that you mention it, Harry, it actually supports my case. That's a movie where we have fragments of the director's vision. When you can see part of a movie, your imagination naturally fills the gaps. Your interpretation of what it would have been like becomes your experience of seeing it."

"Reader-response theory," said Matthew. "You have been playing with the humanities boys, haven't you."

Harry's eyebrows were about to meet his cheekbones. "You've been unfaithful to us, Andy," he intoned.

"Sneaking off at lunch," said Matthew.

"Discussing Barthes at secluded tables in dark little restaurants."

"Meeting Stanley Fish at the Washington Square Hotel."

Andy's hair was vibrating. "It isn't my fault you need a certain vocabulary when discussing the arts."

Ceinwen wasn't crazy about Andy, but she was even less fond of seeing someone ganged up on. "You have to study the arts like anything else," she heard herself say. Her reward was Andy's hand giving her bare shoulder a pat. She pulled her dress back up and caught Matthew leaning a bit closer.

"That's right," said Andy. "We aren't superior to artists—"

"That’s exactly what I'm saying."

"And if you'd let me finish, I was going to say that we also need theorists to illuminate what the artist is trying to do. And my original point about lost films isn't—"

"I don't need their stinkin' theories," boomed Harry.

"Treasure of the Sierra Madre," said Matthew, like he'd hit the buzzer on Jeopardy!. Andy looked stunned. So did everyone else. As they digested the fact that Matthew had referenced a movie made before Watergate, he spoke across Ceinwen, addressing Andy with the air of a patient tutor. "The Mexican bandits, pretending to be officers? Bogart asks to see their badges, and the leader says, 'We don't need no stinkin' badges.' "

Harry's glass went up in a silent toast.

"I know the scene," said Andy. "I didn't realize you were a John Huston fan."

"I'm not." Matthew gave Andy a big smile. "That's Ceinwen."

"I thought maybe Anna took you to see it." She winced. Good grief, who knew professors were this catty. Vintage Visions was more collegial.

"Everybody," said Matthew evenly, "needs a good movie friend."

"I agree," said Donna. "Who wants to go to the movies by yourself?"

Donna then changed the subject, with no attempt at a smooth transition, to Reagan. Politics, apparently, was a much safer subject with academics. Everyone was on the same side.

The party broke up quickly, although Harry and Donna hung back. They took the 1 train at 116th Street. It was cold on the platform, and when they sat down Ceinwen put her feet on the heater underneath the seat. The car was almost empty, just two tired men in down jackets and an old lady in a plaid coat, Bible open in her lap, eyes darting around behind thick-lensed glasses. As soon as the train pulled out she began to speak.

"And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him, and he opened his mouth . . ."

"Wish she'd shut hers," muttered Ceinwen.

Matthew didn't turn. "Done to death, I agree."

". . . blessed are the meek . . ."

"Maybe she takes requests," said Ceinwen.

"Go on, ask her for Ecclesiastes."

"Ask her yourself, you're dressed for it. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."

"Oh, go to hell."

"There's an idea. Revelations. And upon her forehead was a name written . . ."

"Don't you dare."

"Mystery, Vilma Banky the Great. What did you think I was going to say?"

"I'll never hear the end of Vilma. Will I."

"I'm just jealous." She caught herself before the grin spread. "It would take me days to think of a chat-up line that good. I'd have compared you with that woman in the Marx Brothers movie we saw last week."

"Thelma Todd?" She was the only blonde.

"No, the other half of the bill." She shook her head. "The one who hung around Groucho. Similar taste in dresses."

"What?!?"

"Although I can't help but point out, she had a tiara. Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is more—ouch! You brat, that hurt!" She pulled her foot back. "All right, all right, not her."

"Ye are the salt of the earth . . ."  The woman was getting louder.

Matthew moved closer and pushed her hair back, sucking in one cheek as he studied her face. "Maybe Ginger."

"Rogers? I'll take that."

"Gilligan's Island, although the hair—" He put his hand on her knee before she could swing her foot again and they started kissing. After a minute she noticed the subway car had fallen silent and then she heard a shuffling.

They turned their heads to see the Bible lady open the connecting door to change cars. They grinned at each other and kept necking all the way to Christopher Street.