Thursday, January 22, 2015

NOIR CITY 13—Half-Time Roundtable

Welcome to a gentle back-and-forth about the movies that have played at Noir City 13 (NC13), the Film Noir Foundation's annual film fest, now at its midpoint at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. My thanks for contributions from Meredith Brody, David Robson, and Brian Darr.

Opening Night (January 16, 2015)
Woman on the Run (Dir. Norman Foster, 1950)
Born to be Bad (Dir. Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Meredith Brody writes in her IndieWire preview: "This year's theme, for lucky Noir City 13: the bonds of matrimony, or, as Eddie intoned: 'Engagement ring, wedding ring, suffering.' …Friday night's thrilling, rather over-the-top sold-out opening night in the 1400-seat Castro Theatre. A glorious new 35mm print of the San Francisco-set Woman on the Run (1950), restored by the Film Noir Foundation in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive (largely financed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Charitable Trust), debuted, followed by an archival 35mm print of the also San Francisco-set Born to be Bad (1950).

"The always-exquisitely-produced Noir City evening also featured a quick-cut noir montage by Muller protege Serena Bramble, a delightful video from Reel SF comparing the actual shooting locations for Woman on the Run (gasp! some were shot in Los Angeles!) with how those locations look today, and, after Born to be Bad, a screening of its alternate, rather more sly ending shown outside the United States.

"And, mysteriously, the ever-increasingly theatrical Eddie Muller, clad in what he was quick to point out, earlier, was his own dinner jacket, crawled onstage during the intermission, bound and gagged, presumably by his two glamorous peignoir-clad Miss Noir City colleagues, dark-haired Evie Lovelle and redheaded Audra Wolfmann. I was so flummoxed by the sight that I don't remember the storyline behind the skit."

Brian Darr: "The exuberant laughter filling the theatre during the opening night selections Woman On The Run and Born To Be Bad, both of which I'd previously seen only on home video, put these films in a new light. I realized that Woman On The Run fits snugly into the same category as John Huston's The Maltese Falcon: a mystery anchored by a quintessentially San Francisco protagonist who relies as much on her wit as on her wits. Ann Sheridan's nonchalant readings of lines like "the dog is our only mutual friend" is as intentionally disarming to the detectives grilling her character about her missing husband, as it is to those of us holding onto our seats, waiting to find out what will happen next, and being surprised by her emotional transformation over the course of the picture. And Born To Be Bad, though skillful (and surprisingly relevant) in its noir-ish depiction of the personal dangers created by a society's resistance to class mobility, is best appreciated as a feature-length verbal spar along the lines of All About Eve. One wonders how much better it would be remembered if the airstrip scene in its denouement, obviously tacked on by producer Howard Hughes while director Nicholas Ray was nowhere near the camera, wasn't present to pollute the film's final impressions. This unfortunate scene was even included in the alternate ending digitally presented by the festival (and available on the Warner Archive DVD) after the archival 35mm print finished projecting. If the audience's laughter at this scene had a derisive component, it was well deserved."

Along with his contribution to this round table, Brian Darr has likewise written up Woman on the Run from variant angles, first for his Keyframe preview of the festival for Fandor, and then at his own site Hell on Frisco Bay.

Michael Guillén: I have to agree with Eddie Muller that Serena Bramble's talent for editing and mixing improves with each effort. Her cinematic overture to NC13 tantalizingly mashes up Frank Sinatra's "Love and Marriage" with Al Green's "Love and Happiness" while snippeting images of unholy matrimony from the festival's slate of 25 films, all to satisfying effect. Muller emphasized that the poor quality of the clips from Woman on the Run in Bramble's overture was due to nothing better being available to Bramble at the time of editing; but now with the newly restored negative and print, the film is back to visual brilliance.

For those who stayed in their seats after Woman on the Run, NC13 offered a Reel SF video by Brian Rollins (aka "Citysleuth") comparing location shots used for the film, then and now. When it was revealed that L.A.'s Bunker Hill was used to stand in for San Francisco, the Castro erupted into a hissing den of snakes. Reel SF's gumshoe work can be studied in detail at his site. (Note to self: you have to interview this guy to find out how he goes about his research.)

Woman on the Run itself was first-rate entertainment and a triumphant 35mm restoration for the Film Noir Foundation. Ann Sheridan's world-weary wisecracking revealed the touch of co-screenwriter Alan Campbell, better known in Hollywood as "Mr. Dorothy Parker." The film's mid-point reveal amped up the suspense for the film's second half, which culminates at a simulated Playland on the Beach where Woman on the Run's tension literally becomes an exhilarating rollercoaster ride. Perhaps the main iconic signifier of Playland is Laughing Sal, who always reminds me of being a young gay boy in the disco era attending opening night at the I-Beam on Haight Street (October 1977) where Laughing Sal was hired for the night to laugh at the dancing throngs crisscrossed by laser lights. She now resides at San Francisco's Musee Mecanique at Fisherman's Wharf, still laughing and by no means retired.

Opening night at Noir City also ignites my continuing appreciation for the "extraneous" performers in these oft-overlooked films. As they say, just because you're on a diet doesn't mean you can't look at the menu and—as an aging gentleman who was quite a tomcat on the tiles in my youth—my only misbehavior these days lies in catching the eye of minor supporting actors celebrated in noir vehicles. Ross Elliott—who plays Sheridan's husband-on-the-lam—would be one of those. I've known Elliott from TV work, westerns, some sci-fi. Not the most handsome of actors, Elliot nonetheless looks good in Woman on the Run. Then again, a snap-brim fedora and a light-colored trench coat might make any guy look his best. At Movie Morlocks, Richard Harland Smith pays a snappy tribute to the actor.

As for Nicholas Ray's Born To be Bad, it was the first of a quartet of films at NC13 celebrating the career of Joan Fontaine. In the Ray vehicle she's more naughty than bad, as characterized by how effortlessly she can lift an eyebrow with the most insouciant of smiles; deliciously malicious but not—in my book, at least—dangerous. According to wordsmith Phil Cousineau "mischievous" comes from the same root as "achieve" and rose in popularity in the 14th century "to describe a malicious deed or a selfish accomplishment." You can't blame Fontaine's character Christabel Caine for using her wiles to manipulate men. The pleasure in watching this film is in knowing she's not as clever as she thinks she is and wondering how and when she'll get her comeuppance. It was lots of fun to view the film's original ending, which had been rejected by the Production Code office and only released in foreign markets. Pleasurable because it revealed that even comeuppance doesn't necessarily thwart incorrigibility.

Also appreciated Robert Ryan's brusque confidence in this film. Admired when he's wooing Christabel (Fontaine) and she compliments the view from the balcony, to which he quickly responds, "It's better with me in it."

Saturday (January 17, 2015)
Suspicion (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)
The Bigamist (Dir. Ida Lupino, 1953)
Ivy (Dir. Sam Wood, 1947)
The Suspect (Dir. Robert Siodmak, 1944)

I've already offered Frako Loden's capsule on The Bigamist, but David Robson notes as well: "The first piece I've seen at Noir City that felt like an ensemble theatre piece, with everyone seeming equally engaged in a full-bore analysis of the topic at hand. All of the performances are carefully considered, firmly committing to each character's choices without veering even once toward melodrama. Beautiful emphasis at climax on how the choices made will reverberate for the rest of the characters' lives, underscored by the ambiguous and devastating final freeze-frame. Naturally, the Noir City audiences laughed like it was a comedy. (Sidenote: Lupino's job at a Chinese restaurant induced strong visions of her in a full-color but no less gaudy Canton, shot by Christopher Doyle. Maybe in the next life.)"

Meredith Brody: "Sam Wood's Ivy, though beautifully mounted, was something of a disappointment—especially after seeing Joan Fontaine's considerably more witty and nuanced performance of a less-murderous femme fatale in Born to be Bad."

Michael Guillén: Shifting from mischievous to a murderous overachiever in Sam Wood's Ivy, Fontaine once again set her sights on dismantling her goody two-shoes persona with her characterization of the cool, calculating Ivy Lexton who poisons one man who loves her, while framing the next, all in pursuit of the wealth and prestige she prefers. Billed as an "Edwardian noir", Ivy was ripe with mannered details underscoring the pitfalls of social decorum and the challenges of social mobility. I have to concur with Meredith that—by aiming to be cold—Fontaine ends up flat by comparison to her role in Born to be Bad. Still, there was that one wry moment when she begins shopping for her funeral hat. One must look good even when they've been very very bad.

Similar manners set the stage for Robert Siodmak's The Suspect where Charles Laughton excels as a lonely tobacconist whose shrewish wife (Rosalind Ivin, also in Ivy) pushes him to the brink. Everyone I spoke to expected the plot to reveal an affair between Laughton's son and his young protégé Mary Gray (Ella Raines), but we were all surprised by a much deeper (and sadder) story of guilt and conscience. We expect criminals to be punished for their crimes; but, Laughton's performance in The Suspect harkens to Oscar Wilde's sage assertion that no good deed goes unpunished either. Laughton is the master of the reaction shot, even as Stanley C. Ridges as Inspector Huxley was a little too smug and know-it-all for my taste, anticipating plot developments through deductive announcements.

Sunday, January 18, 2015
Shockproof (Dir. Douglas Sirk, 1949)
Sleep, My Love (Dir. Douglas Sirk, 1948)

Meredith Brody: "Sunday offered two screenings each of Douglas Sirk's Shockproof (screenplay by Sam Fuller), starring the then-married-in-real-life Cornel Wilde and Patricia Knight, and his Sleep, My Love (independently produced by Mary Pickford), with Claudette Colbert tormented by Don Ameche (understandably distracted by the sexy Hazel Brooks), and rescued by Robert Cummings—a fabulous double bill."

David Robson: "And where the hell did that title come from? Cornel Wilde tears into the role of a crusading but lovelorn parole officer like a straighter, more pro-active Farley Granger, but in the end he's so swept up in his feelings for parolee Patricia Knight that he becomes weirdly disengaged—the look in his eyes in the third act is that of a man who's watching it all happen to himself, not believing he could have flown so far astray. There's the feeling of Sam Fuller's original sledgehammer script throughout, and even if the climax is watered down by re-writer Helen Deutsch, the final joke seals it all beautifully. Bonus: lovely Bradbury Building interiors."

And on Sleep, My Love, Robson notes: "If the repeated emphases on hypnotism and amnesia don't seal this movie's status as a horror noir, then look out the Courtlands' window at that bridge that appears to end somewhere inside their house. It looks and feels like a portal to some nightmare world, with Don Ameche a smooth but sinister troll living at its mouth. Very much Gaslight+, with Claudette Colbert straining to see through the veil toward some kind of truth, aided by handsome and kindly stranger Robert Cummings. A lengthy stop at a Chinese wedding introduces bridegroom Keye Luke, given a bit more virility and resourcefulness than he ever had as Number One Son—an ongoing franchise in which brothers Cummings and Luke continue to solve crimes could easily have been kicked off by this one."

Brian Darr: "I've been struck by audience reactions to the Noir City films I've attended this year. As many before me have commented, over the years fest-goers have built up a not-undeserved reputation for deflating moments of gravitas by letting out streams of collective laughter at lines of dialogue that may seem particularly dated, or delivered in an overwrought manner. It seems especially to occur for films following female characters, as many of this year's selections do. These reactions can be quite a shock for those who are far more used to watching 1940s and 50s films on DVD or on Turner Classic Movies than in the cinema spaces where they were originally designed to be showcased. Everyone has their own memory of a moment when an inexorable tragedy playing out on the Castro screen is jarringly accompanied by merry delight, sometimes to the point of seriously distracting from the mood its makers were trying to summon forth. However, the audience for this year's double-bill of Shockproof and Sleep, My Love was in fact the quietest I've ever experienced at a screening of Douglas Sirk films. From where I was seated (toward the rear of the orchestra) I heard no giggling, no running commentaries; this was a rapt theatre, silently thrilled to be taking in the next plot twist or striking angle of Patricia Knight or Claudette Colbert in the company of fellow fans."

Monday, January 19, 2015
The Thin Man (Dir. W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke)
After The Thin Man (Dir. W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke)

Meredith Brody: "Monday, Martin Luther King Day, offered two screenings each of The Thin Man and After the Thin Man, neither really noirs, but, as the excellent Noir City 13 program book allowed: 'In honor of this year's festival theme, NOIR CITY steps from its sinister shadows to pay tribute to the most marvelous (fictional) marriage in the history of the movies, the blithe and boozy union of Nick and Nora Charles.' (And here's where I part company with the fanatical 35mm print fanatics: both of these copies were worn and well-used, especially The Thin Man, which often jumped out of frame and was missing a bit of dialogue at a changeover or two. I would have preferred a glossy projected DVD.)"

David Robson: "Offered by Noir City as a palliative to the dark side of marriage explored throughout the series, the first two Thin Man movies spotlight Nick and Nora Charles, per Noir City 'the most marvelous marriage in the movies.' Like all successful married couples, Nick and Nora have both clearly married the coolest person they know, and it is a goddamn joy watching them banter and drink through high society, solving mysteries merrily as they go. The Film Noir Foundation are often at their best when booking 'not quite noir', and these two movies are so blithe and endearing, so engrossing and funny that I doubt anyone was splitting hairs over whether they truly qualified as noir."

At his site Hell on Frisco Bay, Brian Darr has particular fun contextualizing The Thin Man series from its Redbook origins to its tinseltown adaptations. "The Thin Man," he writes, "is one of those classic Hollywood movies that has little to no formal notability, but that stands out from the sea of studio-system potboilers by dint of character and tone." No one would argue that either The Thin Man or After The Thin Man are noir films, but Darr gives some very convincing reasons why they've most likely been selected for NC13's program.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Caught (Dir. Max Ophüls)
The Set-Up (Dir. Robert Wise)

David Robson on Caught: "God, just watch Max Ophüls move. His camera glides effortlessly through the scenes in this movie, not to show off his high style (Birdman this isn't) but to serve the story, to give the characters space to breathe, and grow. Strong drama of a romantic triangle, mining incredible power from the climactic meetup of all three; no punches are thrown, but Ophüls mines exquisite and suspenseful conflict just from his artful triangulation of the bodies of bel Geddes, Ryan, and Mason. Excellent detailing of secondary characters, too, with Curt Bois strong as another well-paid hanger-on of Ryan's (plucked, perhaps non-consensually, from a working class life—his relationship with Ryan could be another movie unto itself) and Frank Ferguson genial as a kindly, sorta wacky obstetrician going halfsies on a medical office with Mason. (And what a gorgeous scene as the camera pans back and forth across bel Geddes' empty desk, capturing a nuanced, respectful rapport between Mason and Ferguson; collegial, not too intimate, but with just the right hint of familiarity, even fondness.) Manages a weird feat of making its audience actively root for the death of an unborn child, which may be as black as noir gets."

Michael Guillén: I concur completely with David Robson as to the compelling choreography of Max Ophüls social mise en scène, particularly noted in the scene where Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) dances with Larry Quinada (James Mason). Not only is Mason admittedly not a very good dancer, but they are jostled about and bumped into by an enthusiastic crowd on the dance floor, which serves to heighten the privacy of their growing intimacy. The contrast of this romantic privacy within a public space rhymes with the visual loneliness rendered in scenes where Leonora is figured diminutively in the vast interiors of the Ohlrig mansion. Along with Woman on the Run, Caught surfaces as a major discovery at FN13 and I look forward to the opportunity to watch it again, though when I'll be able to see it in 35mm on a giant screen with such a rapt, appreciative audience will be anyone's guess.

As the second half of the evening's tribute to Robert Ryan, The Set-Up could be thought of as an early example of what has come to be known as "elevated genre." I'm not a big fan of boxing movies, but—as Eddie Muller offered—The Set-Up is like a boxing movie written by Albert Camus (though written by Art Cohn). It is relentlessly existential and the boxing ring and its environs stands in for a social temperament and a historical moment. Here, again, the film's rogues gallery of characters—the blind man "watching" the game, the fat man eating endless concessions, the wife who scares her husband with her rising blood thirst, the husband who excites his wife with his over-reactive mimicry—accentuate the value of minor characters to populate and flesh out a script.

The locker room was, likewise, filled with coruscating if brief performances. One can't help but wonder what the film might have been like if James Edwards—originally meant to play Stoker Thompson per Joseph Moncure March's poem (March became infuriated when his black character was replaced by a white actor)—had been given more rein than as the supporting character Luther Hawkins. Further, Darryl Hickman as Shanley never looked sleeker.

As for a project ostensibly shot in real time, The Set-Up kept reminding me of television's 24 and its digital timepiece to accentuate the conceit of the passage of real time. In Wise's film, he relied on an old-fashioned clock face to count down the minutes.

Brian Darr: During Tuesday's double-bill of Max Ophüls's Caught and Robert Wise's The Set-Up, I felt I actually observed the audience getting wiser. Though people again seemed for the most part rapt watching Barbara Bel Geddes's roller coaster of a ride into wealth and poverty and back again, they gave Robert Ryan such a resounding round of applause at his first screen appearance as the Hughes-inspired industrialist Smith Ohlrig, that the next line or so of dialogue was muffled inaudibly. When he first appeared as an apparently exhausted prizefighter in The Set-Up however, almost everyone kept their hands apart, as if they realized they'd might miss something if they succumbed to the urge to clap. Ryan's ovation wasn't enough to put a dent in a tremendous second viewing of Ophüls's greatest Hollywood film (according to Jean-Luc Godard), which frequently demonstrated how the German Jewish émigré's fascination with complicated camera movements encouraged a more naturalistic treatment of dialogue than that of his peers. More than once actors would stumble over a line of dialogue in a way that felt very much in line with their characters' state of mind; one imagines another director insisting on a new take, but for Ophüls each take is more of an undertaking. As James Mason, the third star of Caught, would later explain in verse:

I think I know the reason why
Producers tend to make him cry.
Inevitably they demand
Some stationary set-ups, and
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor dear Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

NOIR CITY 13: THE BIGAMIST (1953)—By Frako Loden

Screening in a restored 35mm print courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Ida Lupino's The Bigamist (1953) joins a line-up of unholy matrimonies at the 13th edition of Noir City (NC13) that honors actress Joan Fontaine in a double-bill matinee tribute. As stated in NC13's program notes: "A San Francisco couple (Joan Fontaine and Edmond O'Brien) wants to bolster their unfulfilled marriage by adopting a child. But when a social worker (Edmund Gwenn) checks the husband's background he learns there's a second wife (Ida Lupino) in L.A.! This remarkable film uses a familiar noir framework to turn the genre's tropes inside-out, flipping gender roles and dissecting the pitfalls of buying into the matrimonial myth of 'happily ever after.' "

Back in March 2009 Frako Loden wrote up a profile of Ida Lupino for The Evening Class and I repurpose same for NC13's screening of The Bigamist.

* * *

Ida Lupino (1918-1995), was another actress who turned to directing mid-career. Lupino herself can't exactly be considered lost as a director—she has a decent body of feature-film work and an impressive television resume. But seeing what she left behind, it's tempting to think how many more films she might have helmed had she the opportunity of, say, a Don Siegel, to whom she's often compared with the condescending "poor man's" prefix.

According to Lupino's biographer William Donati, a conversation with Roberto Rossellini had a profound effect on Lupino. Complaining about Hollywood, he asked her, "When are you going to make pictures about ordinary people, in ordinary situations?" He meant it rhetorically, but perhaps she took it personally.

Lupino's directing career began in her early 30s, when she was starring in Columbia productions like Lust for Gold (with Glenn Ford) and her husband Collier Young was a screenwriter and assistant to Harry Cohn. When Young resigned in a fit of anger, the couple joined up with a B-movie production company named Emerald. A few days before shooting began for Not Wanted (1949), director Elmer Clifton had a heart attack and producer Lupino took over. The film, about an unwed mother, was the first of hers that tackled bold and controversial themes such as polio, bigamy and rape.

The Bigamist (1953), a Filmakers production, was made the same year as Lupino's tense, Mexico-set The Hitch-Hiker, often cited as the only true film noir made by a woman. Bigamist's screenplay was written by Lupino's ex Collier Young, who was currently married to co-star Joan Fontaine. A meld of melodrama and mild procedural driven by an adoption agency investigator, the film has only a superficial noirish resemblance to Double Indemnity in that the confessional male voiceover constantly refers to a "Phyllis" living in Los Angeles. At one point it seems Fontaine's businesswoman wife, "in one of her executive moods," will be blamed for her husband's seeking affection elsewhere. But Lupino manages to keep both her and the second, tougher waitress wife (played by Lupino) sympathetic, while lending some compassion to a husband (Edmond O'Brien) whose traveling-salesman loneliness gets him into one fine mess.

* * *

Some further notes from NC13's slick program (designed by the formidable Michael Kronenberg):

"RKO Pictures had distributed many films produced by Ida Lupino and Collier Young through their company, The Filmakers. Tired of losing out on profits, the partners decided to finance and self-distribute The Bigamist on their own. Its failure at the box-office spelled the end of The Filmakers, and unfortunately derailed Lupino's big-screen directing career for 12 years, until she was hired to helm The Trouble With Angels in 1965.

"Collier Young's script was a reflection of his own life: he was married to Joan Fontaine, but his ex-wife was his business partner and the film's director, Ida Lupino. Fontaine took over the role, unsalaried, as a favor to her husband when Jane Greer, originally cast as Eve, had to back out."

The rumored enmity between Joan Fontaine and her sister Olivia De Haviland is abbreviated in the Fontaine quote: "I married first, won the Oscar® before Olivia did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it."

Thursday, January 15, 2015


I don't know anyone generous enough to call 2014 a year of great precedence-setting in the movies, but it had one distinction. Never before in the history of cinema was there such a line up of movies, high and low, going after the critics. Movies as relatively unambitious as Chef (2014) and as eclectic as Birdman (2014) weighed in on critical perniciousness.

Over the decades, cinema had fun with lone-vulture critics: your Waldo Lydecker; your Addison DeWitt (recall the blasphemy of George Sanders in All About Eve (1950), helping himself to Matthew 6:26 as his personal introduction!). "General Kael" was the official Skeletor of George Lucas's mighty bad Willow (1988), and Siskel and Ebert clones turned up in Roland Emmerich's Godzilla (1998). No one has yet dealt in fiction with Armond White, still at large despite his expulsion from the NY Film Critics Circle last January.

Despite layoffs, attrition, and the odd suicide, there's still a healthy pack of critics. Rotten Tomatoes can count about 300 for full-court press to weigh in on some blockbuster. Indie films might only get two or three writers to show up and say something. Is aggregation the real aggravator here? A year of poor box office left everyone with someone to blame.

Chef sold the fantasy every idler has had now and again of fixing up a clapped-out food truck and taking it to the nicer parts of the country. It concerns the mid-life crisis of Carl Casper (Jon Favreau), a well-known L.A. restaurateur. Part of what catalyzes his crisis is the repeated attacks of an insanely vicious and confrontational critic Ramsey Michaels (Oliver Platt)—"the most well-known food blogger in the world." Michaels calls Casper out on Twitter, for being a boring chef and a fatty. (Platt's a well-padded man himself so—to use the appropriate culinary parlance—this is the pot calling the kettle.)

On the DVD extras, Favreau confessed that Chef was an allegory for movie making. A scriptwriter pal maintains that Casper is furious because he knows that the critic is right and that, as a chef, he's not "stretching" himself. I don't know if I agree. Firstly, Michaels' insults are so playground level. Secondly, Casper turns out to know exactly what the public wants. Rather than test marketings and taking notes and enduring round table interviews, Casper can take his Cuban sandwiches to enthusiastic gulpers and watch them shovel 'em down without complaint. And the winner-take-everything-in-the-whole-wide-world ending isn't like the fate of any filmmaker I've heard of. (Casper really ends up on top; it's amazing Favreau didn't include a finale of his hero making a hot pressed sandwich of himself, ScarJo and Sofia V on a bed of hundred dollar bills!)

Birdman was far more direct. Riggan, Michael Keaton's actor on the verge of madness, hands it to one of the few figures of elderly female dignity in the cinema today, Lindsay Duncan. The Scots actress here bears the witchy name Tabitha. She's a vodka-soaked critic in a Times Square bar—Riggan gets into her face and rants, telling her to shove her writings up her withered ass.

To her credit Duncan's Tabitha holds her ground. She holds it just as Terence Stamp does, as art critic John Canaday in Big Eyes (2014). Stamp's Canaday is obviously a bitter brute, but he is the one of the few indomitable critics in 2014 film, standing tall against the Keane Kitchskrieg of the big-eyed hobo kids. Canaday can take care of himself, deflecting the dinner fork Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) aims at his eyes using a fast karate block with one hand.

Duncan also stands cold as a lizard, lending her class and authority to some insane dialogue about how she is standing in the gap between washed up movie stars like Riggan and the purity of Broadway. Purity? Really? In the era of Annie revivals and Kinky Boots? "Who'd want to be a critic?" Riggan spits. (Longtime critics think, "I'm sure I don't know who'd want to be. Only the several hundred thousand communications majors trying to take my job, I guess.")

Switch theaters at the multiplex, and you'll see Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner (2014). There, director Mike Leigh depicts a horrible afternoon at John Ruskin's house. The rising young arbiter, played by Joshua McGuire, does that upper-class twit / Elmer Fudd thing with his w's as he attacks Turner's beloved Claude Lorraine. Leigh being Leigh, and Spall being Spall, we must feel pity for an artist like Turner, so sensitive from having to hear wrong-headed criticism that even the true and honest praise starts to sting.

I could go on: Top Five (2014), with Rosario Dawson as a conniving critic, or Wild Tales (2014), in which a diabolical trap is set for someone who wrote a derisive music review.

You could start to feel self-conscious if you were in the critic's trade, but nothing came out in 2014 that matched the most ghastly / hilarious anti-critic movie ever made: Theater of Blood (1973). Vincent Price stars as a scorned ham named Edward Lionheart, snubbed at awards time. To settle accounts, he takes out a London theater critics circle one by one, using a gang of wino groundlings and methods of vengeance found in Shakespeare.

Here's some Titus Andronicus pie for a gourmand (Robert Morley); there's a good soaking in a butt of Malmsey for a wine-snob scribe. Similar baroque paybacks await the rest, since this movie knows its Bard, taking violent demises from the obscurer plays like Henry VI and Cymbeline. The lovely Price, an ambassador to 20th century cinema from the Jacobean era, honors the spirit as well as the lines of Shakespeare.

Occasionally, noble critics appear in cinema, such as Anton Ego in Ratatouille (2007) and Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane (1941). Everyone knows Ego's speech about the unimportance of critics, as delivered by the voice of Peter O'Toole. Few get the point of the speech: Ego tells the truth about the rats in the kitchen and loses his job for it. Now, that's professional honor.

In Kane, Leland (Joseph Cotton) has to turn to the bottle to deal with that Christian-Scientist-With-Appendicitis problem of hating the bosses' girlfriend's singing. He doesn't finish the review, but at least he was brave enough to start it, knowing he'd be out of work the next morning.

And to counterpoint the backlash against critics in 2014, one remembers the public love for Life Itself (2014), a documentary about the final days of Roger Ebert. Both those who'd been pricked by Ebert's criticism, and those who always felt Ebert was a bland writer, honored the man's bravery. Even Vincent Gallo must have sniveled a little, watching it.

A critic's job can be defined between two parameters. Italo Calvino felt the job of a fiction writer "is basically to raise problems for you to solve." And then there's the opposite point, in that story of Pauline Kael in full pride, "My job is to tell him"—and here she pointed at Sidney Lumet, sitting next to her—"what to do."

In the New Year, I hope for more understanding for the misunderstood and beleaguered profession, and give a promise not to bite except when it's called for.

Richard Von Busack is a staff writer at San Jose's Metro Newspapers. He's the author of The Art of Megamind and has written for Entertainment Weekly, n +1 and He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


The Pacific Film Archives retrospective series "Ready For His Close-up: The Films of Billy Wilder" kicks off tomorrow evening with a 4K digital restoration of Sunset Blvd. (1950) and continues through February 28, 2015 when it wraps up with a 35mm print of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). It's a nearly even tug-of-war between DCP and 35mm projections in the series, so—dependent upon how much of a celluloid purist you are—it's advisable to double check PFA's website. Several of Wilder's signature favorites are present—Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity (1944), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Ace In the Hole (1951), Sabrina (1954), The Lost Weekend (1945), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960)—with a few lesser-known titles to round out the series. As Steve Seid states in his introductory essay: "There are two sides to every coin. The superlative American director Billy Wilder worked the fine, serrated edge between—between dark noirs and ribald comedies, between blithe romance and sorrowful drama. Maybe he was just a realist who saw our lofty aspirations compromised, time and again, by our glaring limitations: somewhere in between is the joke and the crying shame."

Included within the series is Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939), where Wilder's collaboration with Charles Brackett on the script helped launch his career in Hollywood. Often mentioned as a "major disciple" of Lubitsch, in fact, by no less than Jonathan Rosenbaum who compared the two in his Stop Smiling essay "Sweet and Sour: Lubitsch and Wilder In Old Hollywood" (replicated on his website). "Wilder, a Viennese Jew, used Lubitsch, a Jew born in Berlin, as a major reference point throughout his filmmaking career," Rosenbaum asserts, "and to what degree he succeeded as well as failed in emulating his master" is the main issue addressed in Rosenbaum's essay. One presumes that what Wilder is emulating is the oft-cited "Lubitsch touch", which Rosenbaum partially identifies as not "so much a touch as a kind of guarded embrace. It was actually a vision—a way of regarding his characters that could be described as a critical affection for flawed individuals who operate according to double standards." Particularly in his comedies. This can be readily traced to Wilder's own comedies—less sweet than Lubitsch and more sour and misanthropic, even cynical (thus the essay's title)—which employ "the double standard that drives his characters into elaborate and often tortured deceptions."

In his review for A Time To Lie, Rosenbaum expands that lies and their eventual exposures were given "moral weight" in Wilder's comedies involving deceptions in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, from A Foreign Affair to The Seven-Year Itch to Kiss Me, Stupid to The Front Page (among several others). Rosenbaum notes that Wilder "was often accused of cynicism for creating heroes who were so willing to deceive."

In his review for Housesitter, Rosenbaum again associates Wilder's comedies with "the baroque complications that grow out of elaborate lies. The first Wilder examples that spring to mind are The Major and the Minor; Some Like It Hot; One, Two, Three; Kiss Me, Stupid; The Fortune Cookie; and Avanti!. The lies in these movies are about age, gender, politics, prostitution, physical injury, and adultery."

It's unfortunate that Avanti! is not included within the PFA series as this is Rosenbaum's admitted favorite and—when I asked him which of his writings on Wilder he would recommend—he offered his essay "The Sour Journalist and the Sweet Romantic: Billy Wilder in Avanti!", available at his website. What's of immediate interest in his "sweet and sour" ascription is that it has transferred from the Lubitsch / Wilder interaction to rest fully within Wilder himself, though even Rosenbaum himself qualifies: "It would needlessly oversimplify Billy Wilder's oeuvre to reduce it to the dialectical play between two fundamental traits—his journalistic training and instincts on the one hand, which tend to be vulgar, explicit, and critical, and his romantic emulation of the style and vision of Ernst Lubitsch on the other hand, which depends more on ellipsis, suggestion, and lyrical appreciation. I doubt, for instance, that Some Like it Hot (1959) or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), two very different masterpieces, could be adequately accounted for by this formula. Nevertheless, the interaction between these two particular strains in Wilder's work still seems to account for a great deal of what remains vital and enduring about his gifts as a writer-director."

Irregardless of the fact that his focus is on Avanti!, this essay by Rosenbaum is immensely helpful in situating the strengths and weaknesses of several of the titles in the PFA series and is highly recommended reading. Further insight on a similar gradient can be found in Rosenbaum's Chicago Reader review of Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


When it comes to academics, I have to admit that I am not the brightest bulb on the marquee; but, I am ever eager to learn and—as I was taught by my mentor Joseph Campbell—I am committed to the populist practice of winnowing from the "thickets of jargon" that characterize academic writing those insights or ideas that a non-academic audience might appreciate. That's by way of qualifying that it would be near to impossible for me to "review" Adrian Martin's valuable survey Mise En Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). As accessible as I find his language, his erudition sometimes flies over my head or bounces off my rather blunt forehead. It will take a few more readings for me to feel in enough command of the rich diverse ideas he has presented in this volume to sufficiently "review" same. Why hazard being presumptuous when I can just be honest?

Yet time waits for no man, let alone a reviewer, and I can only respond slackjawed to the swift, brilliant responses of Girish Shambu and Jonathan Rosenbaum to Martin's latest publication. How can they read and absorb so fast?! Girish breaks down the four things the book is trying to do and Jonathan highlights some of its key achievements. Along with Rosenbaum, however, I urge Palgrave MacMillan to provide an affordable paperback copy of this volume as soon as possible.

What I can do, however, in lieu of a review, is to launch a new sidebar on The Evening Class that I'll entitle "Applications", which is really the way I process books. How do I apply what I am learning? Where do the insights gleaned from reading a book like Mise en Scène and Film Style find their way into my spectatorial and critical practice? Let's give it a shot, shall we?

Perhaps the most evident achievement of Mise en Scène and Film Style is its careful and thorough attention to the historicity of such a deliciously vague French term as mise en scène (along with the equally delectable dispositif, découpage, décalage, montage, auteur, genre, cinephilia). If anything, Martin has underscored why I was never clear about the exact meaning of mise en scène and why—every time I asked—I received a variant answer. The history of mise en scène has involved a fascinating variety of applications through an evolving continuum of critical and cultural fashions and nowhere has this been laid out more clearly and helpfully than in Martin's survey. Mise en scène becomes "the term that means everything." Citing Paul Willemen (1994:226), Martin summarizes that a term like mise en scène, though cherished, rarely defines anything precise in cinema. "Rather," he writes, "they mark a confusion, a fumbling attempt to pinpoint some murky confluence of wildly diverse factors." (2014:1) I feel exonerably confused with optimistic room for improvement.

I've been traveling on the film festival circuit with Martin's volume under my arm for a couple of months now and it has been genuinely fun to approach films with his insights, as I've understood them and (again) as I have applied them. This exercise is not meant to be in any way exhaustive as much as indicative of how the book is impacting my sensibility while reading it.

At last year's edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), I had the great fortune of watching POV Award recipient Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves, a heady nine-screen composite of Julien's original installation, projected for its SFIFF audience and enhanced by a fascinating on-stage conversation between Julien and B. Ruby Rich. Bubbling at the surface of my overflowing cauldron of untranscribed recordings, I've never quite known how to approach writing about this split-screen one-off event, which seemed so much more than "just a film." Although in his volume Martin focuses on Brian DePalma's Passion (2012), much of what he says about DePalma's film spoke to my experience of Ten Thousand Waves, especially with regard to the "polyphonic interplay between multiple screens, spatialised across the walls or constructed zones of a gallery" His definition of spatialised cinema as a "version of a gallery-like installation, but brought back into cinema and co-ordinated on a single screen" displaying "evident formal fragmentation, the tension between displayed parts and levels, that we experience in modernist and postmodernist artworks" and his alignment of such a practice with dispositif ("an apparatus, arrangement or set-up of interrelated pieces or elements") has provided the perfect tool for me to return home and finally work on this piece. Wish me luck!

Further, I very much enjoy how Martin speaks through his text to his readership as if he were addressing them from behind a lectern or, even at times, across a café table: "Has not the cinema always been, in some crucial senses, a dispositif? Has it not always been a game with a multiplicity of spaces, looks and sounds? Has it not always been the sum—or rather, the face-off—between the different media that comprise it: theatre, novel, radio, music, painting, architecture?" (2014: xiii.) As someone who deeply appreciates the connective tissue between art mediums, I find that quote inspiring.

In mid-November, en route to San Francisco, my flight was delayed out of Boise due to an early snow fall. Anticipating same, I had the good sense to have Mise en Scène and Film Style close at hand, and read, first: "Part of the argument of this book is a plea to always attend closely and full-bloodedly to this type of materiality in cinema—a materiality that works on the double register of textuality (concrete properties of the constructed, composed work) and the spectator's emotions (the affects that films create in us, the experiences we have of them)" (2014:xvii) and then: "In recent years, some scholars and critics have revived the concept of mise en scène in the context of a general engagement with affect—the spectator's emotional states triggered by a film—over and above the literary or dramatic niceties of thematic meaning." (2014:18)

In that marvelous way that words evoke image, the second I finished reading these sentences I instantly visualized The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), wherein I was much taken by the sequence of dissolves used by Olivier Assayas to film Kristen Stewart driving on curving roads. I loved this sequence because it was purely visual, purely musical, no dialogue, and though it told me nothing about the narrative per se, it filled me with—as Martin termed it—overwhelming affect. I was deeply affected by the sinuous beauty of this sequence. I felt the torque of each curve, and intuited aspects of Kristen's character Valentine that—though not fully articulating her character—allowed me to feel her character and her struggle for autonomy and independence. This aligns with what Martin terms "an energetic or dynamic approach to film style", which introduces "the action or psychic drives into both the making of films and their reception." (2014:19)

A few years back at the Toronto International, I became quite infatuated with Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) and couldn't absorb enough of his work for months afterwards. For that matter, the passion continues and—thanks to Martin—I now understand a little bit better why: "For Chilean-born Raúl Ruiz, what Sigmund Freud outlined as the mechanisms of the dream-work—the condensations, displacements and overdeterminations that create what we see, hear and feel in our dreams—are the very operations of mise en scène itself. In a striking formulation, Ruiz called these Freudian mechanisms, 'the mise en scène of the dream.' Hence, transporting this concept directly to cinema, all mise en scène, no matter whether it is working on the most obviously dreamlike or the most seemingly naturalistic material, has the function of 'producing displacements of intensity, and condensations' (Ruiz 1999, p. 84). It warps and stresses the scene, twisting it potentially into a strange shape, or an unforeseen direction. [¶] For my part, at the outset of this book, I want to hold onto Ruiz's sense of mise en scène as always potentially transformative—but transformative in ways that refer to the entire materiality of cinema, not solely the inspiration of a director on set or the phenomenological subjectivity of enraptured viewers. Transformation is not transcendence. Mise en scène can transform the elements of a given scene; it can transform a narrative's destination; it can transform our mood or our understanding as we experience the film. Style is not a supplement to content; it makes content—and remakes it, too, in flight." (2014:19-20)

That summarization of the transformative style of Ruiz's cinema could just as easily explain my fascination with the dream works of Olivier Smolders, Charlie Kaufman, or especially David Lynch who—in my estimation—serves the criteria of "strangeness" held out by Paul Schrader as essential to establishing a film canon ("Canon Fodder", Film Comment, 2006). What for years I termed "the Lynchian imperative" I can now accurately reduce to the transformative potential of mise en scène.

Recently, I was fortunate to be in attendance at the world premiere of Dolissa Medina's The Crow Furnace (2014), an experimental essay short which begged the question: "Where's the mise en scène?" In his expert and thorough review of styles of critical analysis, Martin cited a 1956 essay by Jean-Luc Godard ("Montage, My Fine Care") which distinguished between montage cinema ("films essentially structured and formed in editing") and mise en scène cinema ("films essentially created on set or in an environment, in expansive long takes") (2014:54) and I'm grateful for this working distinction to later approach characteristics of a lineage of found footage artifacts.

"If mise en scène is bodies in space," Martin queries further along in his text, "dance scenes are (as we have already observed) prime candidates for pure cinema. But what can a director actually do with these dancing bodies in space?" (2014:58) This question immediately reminded me of my conversation with Wim Wenders whose use of 3D to choreograph the work of Pina Bausch defined the challenge.

When I first began writing on film in 2006 after resigning from a legal career it was largely fueled by an already-existing journalistic impulse inspired by the Diaries of Anaïs Nin, which approached films (in particular, I'm thinking of her journal entry on the 1953 Paris premiere of Gate of Hell) as life-experiences worthy of journal entry. Thus, I appreciate Martin's discernment: "But films are not just the points they make, or even the sum of their thematic structures; they are also palpable surfaces and immediate experiences, sensation-banks and emotional triggers." (2014:107)

Speaking of surfaces, Martin explores the cascading textures of audiovisual art yoked to the computer screen as an extension of filmic mise en scène. He asks: "But what happens when the copresent screen—complete with its user's distractions and the layered, metapsychological effects that result—gets represented back to us 'as is', simply as things that happen on a screen surface, yet staged, timed and fictionalized? This is the premise of the short Canadian film Noah (Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, 2013), which zippily recounts the unraveling of a teen relationship via 'live' social media." (2014:175) Described as a "hybrid-documentary" at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, Noah paved the way for its horrific iteration in Leo Gabriadze's Cybernatural (2014), which was a runaway sleeper hit at last summer's edition of Fantasia.

In his (for me, quite challenging) chapter "The Rise of the Dispositif" (2014:178-204), Martin continues to tackle the reconfigurations of mise en scène within the digital frame by extolling the creativity of the Internet's first true superstars: Nataly Dawn and Jack Conte, aka Pomplamoose, who were fêted at an earlier edition of the Disposable Film Festival (a festival which, singlehandedly, shifted my perceptions of digital imagemaking). Of Pomplamoose, Martin writes: "Their VideoSongs adhere to two exact rules of self-determined construction: 'What you see is what you hear (no lip-synching for instruments or voice). 2. If you hear it, at some point you see it (no hidden sounds)' (TheBestArts, 2014). This dispositif (in this case, there is no better word for it) generates amusing gags: whenever Nataly overdubs herself singing (as she frequently does), we instantly jump to multiple split-screens—in order to maintain the integrity of the game's rules. …Fixed digital cameras, set positions, restrictions on place and action: who could have guessed … that a dispositif could be this much fun?" (2014:182)

Listening to Jack Conte speak about their working methods proved inspirational for me, especially when he detailed how much energy, time and money he put into producing his first album, only to have it fail financially, and how it taught him to "lighten up" in order to succeed. His advice initiated what, for me, became my portfolio approach towards film writing, understanding that what I write on this blog The Evening Class has more to do with a quicker more immediate form of writing than, say, what I might offer to a magazine, or contribute to a publication like The Film Festival Yearbook (an essay which took me seven months to write). In other words there is a value to shifting along a continuum of film writing, from purely cinephilic to critical. These days I add to that portfolio the shoot-from-the-hip short form festival impressions I share on Facebook, never meant to be a bona-fide review, but merely early sketches of what I hope to develop later on down the line. My true pleasure in film writing comes from shifting along this continuum and writing at different pitches of acumen.

Last night I was watching a DVD of Chris Marker's Le Joli Mai (1963) and found myself appreciating it from the perspective of Martin's comments on "kinesics": "Kinesics, for its part, offers a complex breakdown of the body—where film studies, in default mode, usually concentrates on faces (the cult of the close-up, filtered through Deleuze's theory of faciality) and eyes ('the gaze'), on the most obvious gestural work of hands…." (2014:138). There was a lot to digest in that early cinéma vérité documentary of Marker's—his visible presence no less!—but, what I kept noticing were his close-ups on the hands of the Black man, the priest, their expressive gestures, which reminded me, in turn, of the two recent interviews I conducted at the Palm Springs International Film Festival with directors Abderrahmane Sissako and Andrey Zvyagintsev, which required the assistance of translative interpreters. With Zvyagintsev particularly, I was fascinated by his staring me in the eye as he spoke and his demonstrative gestures which proved as eloquent as the interpreter's eventual translations. Further, in both interviews I borrowed from Martin's description of "image-events" as a way to approach certain sequences in their respective films.

I could go on and on, but, I presume at this juncture you get the idea. What makes Martin's study of mise en scène and film style is precisely its capacity to enrichen an educated cinephile's cinematic experience by awareness of the stylistic elements and strategies employed to create any single film and the multiple ways those elements and strategies can be approached and expressed. I'll close with a glance at what I'm finding to be one of the most provocative theses in his volume, that of "social mise en scène", which I've applied to two recent screenings.

The first would be Fabrice Du Welz's Alléluia (2014), which I just caught at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The most recent staging of the infamous "Lonely Hearts Killers" of the late '40s, this film begs a comparative stylistic analysis with its predecessors: Leonard Kastle's The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Arturo Ripstein's Deep Crimson (1996), and Todd Robinson's Lonely Hearts (2006). Armed with Martin's volume, I might actually try to endeavor same.

Martin details the conceptual underpinnings of social mise en scène in his chapter "A Detour via Reality: Social Mise en Scène" (2014:127-154), pointing out that—though it is not a totally new idea in film studies—it's an overlooked path. "With social mise en scène," he writes, "rather than going directly or primarily to the unique, idiosyncratic sensibility or world-view of the maker, we attend to the newly grasped raw material of social codes, their constant exposure and deformation in the work of how a film articulates itself. In particular, it allows us to zero in on something specific: known rituals that are recreated, marked, inscribed in the flow of the film, usually in order to be transformed." (2014:134)

To clarify his argument, he utilizes the listening booth sequence in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) where Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) listen to Kath Bloom's "Come Here"—"a play of stolen glances and half-hidden smiles" (2014:135) that register their awkward attraction and stylistically play out the tension between private feeling in public space.

Boyd van Hoeij could just as well have been consciously using the term social mise en scène when—in his review of Alléluia for The Hollywood Reporter—he focuses on the first meeting between the film's killer duo, Michel and Gloria, staged at a chic restaurant, which he describes as having "the precision of a military airstrike." Van Hoeij details the encounter: "Michel talks a lot and ladles on the gentlemanly charm like nobody's business, while Gloria says little, at once shy and mesmerized by this man. Initially, the handheld camera looks at the couple in profile, going back and forth from one face to another in a single take, which stresses the distance and void between them across the table. But halfway through the conversation, over-the-shoulder shots and reverse shots fuse the two together, as the eye of the person opposite looks straight at the face of the other, whose head is seen from the back in the same shot."

Although van Hoeij is the only reviewer I've read to actually use the term mise en scène in reviewing Alléluia, he appears to be doing so predominantly by way of Manu Dacosse's cinematography, emphasizing grit and grain and "numerous intense close-ups allowing the actors to turn their deranged characters into frighteningly three-dimensional human beings." But his description of how Dacosse's camera "stresses the distance and void between them across the table" comports with Martin's definition of social mise en scène as an effective tension between the intimate and public spheres, and expected and unexpected relations.

Another recent application of Martin's proposed social mise en scène would be the courtroom drama Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014) by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. The space of a courtroom and the appropriate behavior prescribed to the space is, first, elasticized by a roving camera that incriminates the viewer into the courtroom through brilliantly pitched moments of direct address, and upsets the court's formality through insubordinate and irreverent asides filmed behind the backs of the solicitors from both sides.

Again, I could go on and on applying insights from this masterful volume into my ongoing appreciation of films and I have no doubt that my reviews in the next few months will do exactly that. For now, I hope I have achieved my assertion of how useful Mise En Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art can be to both academic and non-academic alike. I may not be educated enough to write an informed review, but I am smart enough to recognize what a valuable tool this volume is; it's requisite for any cinephile's book shelf. It is, at once, an easy book to read because Martin is intent upon communication of complex ideas, and also challenging for its complexity. I envision reading this book twice, probably three times, and keeping it at hand for ready reference for years to come. It's well worth the price (consider it an investment in your education), though, again, I hope the publishers will see the need to provide an affordable paperback edition. Until then, pardon me if I keep quoting from it in months to come.

Monday, January 12, 2015

PSIFF 2015—ALLÉLUIA (2014)

Raymond Martinez Fernandez and Martha Jule Beck were an American serial killer couple who murdered as many as 20 women during a killing spree between 1947 and 1949. After their arrest and trial for serial murder in 1949, they became known as "The Lonely Hearts Killers" for meeting their unsuspecting victims through lonely hearts ads. They were executed by electric chair in 1951.

In 1969, Leonard Kastle wrote and directed his one and only feature The Honeymoon Killers starring Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco as the nefarious (if celebrated) couple and it's perhaps the entry I'm most anticipating in Noir City's 2015 line-up, having only seen Arturo Ripstein's Deep Crimson (1996), his Hispanicized and stylishly melodramatized adaptation of these events. Neither have I seen Todd Robinson's Lonely Hearts (2006). Anticipating Noir City, however, I made a point of not missing Fabrice Du Welz's Alléluia (2014) at the 26th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), which—as a Belgian entry—was included in PSIFF's World Cinema Now sidebar, as well as being featured in PSIFF's newly-launched and edgy "Breaking Waves" program.

Alléluia screened as part of the Directors' Fortnight section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where Variety's Peter Debruge noted: "Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz makes good on John Waters' prediction that the trashy cult classic The Honeymoon Killers was due for an Internet-era remake." Updating the tale's lonely hearts ads to online dating, Alléluia delivers its "cautionary satire" in unsettling co-dependent spades. Debruge adds: "Du Welz's interpretation serves as an expertly calibrated dismantling of Hollywood's perfect-couple myth, suggesting that love—especially that which borders on obsession—can sometimes be the most toxic force on earth." At The Hollywood Reporter, Boyd van Hoeij's bottom line: "Two rock-solid performances, gritty cinematography and an impressive mise-en-scene make for a great movie."

Alléluia next screened in the Vanguard program at the Toronto International (where David Hudson picked up a few reviews at Fandor's Keyframe Daily, as did Critics Round-Up). At A.V. Club, A.A. Dowd dubbed the film "spectacularly crazy" and "grisly, darkly comic stuff", praising its star duo Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas as embodying "these infamous maniacs with can't-look-away conviction." At MUBI's Notebook, Daniel Kasman observes: "Shot close in intimate 16mm, the film juggles tones deftly to capture the loneliness, desire, horror, humor, and absurdity in an amour fou between two single sociopaths who find in each other an intense, primal attraction. But both persons are so distorted, and the love between them thereby turning so distorted, that it leads not to the greatest, strangest love affair—though you could call it that, I suppose—but the most perverse: the man sets up a scheme to seduce and rob women, and the woman, quickly beset by manic jealousy, to kill them." At Cinema Scope, Blake Williams writes: "Fabrice Du Welz's present-day reiteration (complete with online dating) is a formally sleek study of looming insanity, and is prone to innervating jolts of hysteria; it also contains one hell of a balls-out performance by Lola Dueñas. And while it may ultimately go down in memory as that film in which Laurent Lucas mimics Humphrey Bogart's hippo call from The African Queen, its conflation of the ridiculous with the sublime is this neo-extremist's most admirable and stirring manoeuvre to date." Last, but never least, Girish Shambu adds: "The 'termite-art' highlight of the festival. Every frame of this film seems to simultaneously carry a fierce awareness of its meager resources and an imaginative response to it. Most of Alleluia (and almost the entire first half) is shot in close-ups of never-ending invention: partially and playfully lit frames, frames divided into zones, expressionist pools of color, bold graphic strokes, starkly inscribed silhouettes."

Alléluia then bolstered its festival pedigree at Austin's Fantastic Fest where it won Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Actor. Notwithstanding, it was perhaps one of the most sparsely-attended screenings I caught at PSIFF, emphasized by its being projected in the Camelot's largest theater, but—as someone who enjoyed the film—I was glad to see it on that giant screen, slight audience be damned. Alleluia is raunchy and rollicking dark fun whose visual flourishes I relished at every chaptered turn.

As noted in the PSIFF program note: "Courtship is an arcane ritual and love demands blood sacrifices in Fabrice Du Welz's gloriously deranged retelling of the ripped-from-the-headlines cult classic, The Honeymoon Killers. The sordid, sinister tale of two serial killers who swindled and butchered 'lonely hearts' in the late 1940s gets an inspired update here. When a lecherous scam artist (Laurent Lucas) seduces a desperately needy mortician (an elemental Lola Dueñas) through an online dating site, he can't conceive of the impulses he's awoken within her. Her fierce devotion to him is rivaled only by her emotional volatility, leaving her as unchecked as a severed artery. As the lovers embark on a Grand Guignol-like odyssey, Du Welz weaves a dark cinematic spell, amplifying the depraved passion until this dizzying affair grows obscenely operatic."

I've only a few notes to add. In researching Fernandez and Beck, after his World War II service, Fernandez sought work aboard a ship bound for America where a steel hatch fell on top of him, fracturing his skull and injuring his frontal lobe. After his hospitalization, he was arrested for theft and imprisoned for a year, during which time his cellmate allegedly taught him voodoo and black magic. He later claimed black magic gave him irresistible power and charm over women. I'm anxious to see how this plays out in Kastle's film—it's downplayed in Ripstein's—but is front and center in Alléluia where Michel (Laurent) prepares for his first date with Gloria (Dueñas) by performing an "arcane ritual" to The Elementals. In his Hollywood Reporter review, van Hoeij notes "all of Du Welz's films feature religious rituals, often to fill a void in the life of the characters" so it's perhaps no surprise that he should capitalize on this detail. It's fanned into flame when Gloria later joins him in the ritual and they are envisioned dancing naked and silhouetted in front of a raging bonfire: desire as a form of demonic (daemonic?) possession.

With regard to that first meeting between Michel and Gloria, staged at a chic restaurant, which Boyd van Hoeij describes as having "the precision of a military airstrike", he likewise details the encounter: "Michel talks a lot and ladles on the gentlemanly charm like nobody's business, while Gloria says little, at once shy and mesmerized by this man. Initially, the handheld camera looks at the couple in profile, going back and forth from one face to another in a single take, which stresses the distance and void between them across the table. But halfway through the conversation, over-the-shoulder shots and reverse shots fuse the two together, as the eye of the person opposite looks straight at the face of the other, whose head is seen from the back in the same shot." Although van Hoeij is the only reviewer I've read to actually use the term mise en scène, he appears to do so predominantly by way of Manu Dacosse's cinematography, emphasizing grit and grain and "numerous intense close-ups allowing the actors to turn their deranged characters into frighteningly three-dimensional human beings." But I would here apply Adrian Martin's proposed "social mise en scène" as a tool to best understand this sequence, which I've recently gleaned from his important study Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Martin details the conceptual underpinnings of social mise en scène in his chapter "A Detour via Reality: Social Mise en Scène" (pp. 127-154), pointing out that—though it is not a totally new idea in film studies—it's an overlooked path. "With social mise en scène," he writes, "rather than going directly or primarily to the unique, idiosyncratic sensibility or world-view of the maker, we attend to the newly grasped raw material of social codes, their constant exposure and deformation in the work of how a film articulates itself. In particular, it allows us to zero in on something specific: known rituals that are recreated, marked, inscribed in the flow of the film, usually in order to be transformed." (2014:134)

To clarify his argument, he utilizes the listening booth sequence in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) where Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) listen to Kath Bloom's "Come Here"—"a play of stolen glances and half-hidden smiles" (p. 135) that register their awkward attraction and stylistically plays out the tension between private feeling in public space. Boyd van Hoeij could just as well have been consciously using the term social mise en scène when describing how Dacosse's camera "stresses the distance and void between them across the table."

Finally, I assert that my favorite sequence in Du Welz's Alléluia is the intricate citation of the dynamics between Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) in John Huston's The African Queen (1951) where—as Debruge has intimated in his Variety review—the lamination of Michel and Gloria's relationship upon that cinematic pair reveals an inappropriate identification that at the same time dismantles the Hollywood ideal. The intercutting of laughter is brilliant, and poignantly sobered the moment Michel points out to Gloria that you can see in Bogart's eyes the pain of his cancer and his awareness of impending death. I felt tremendous sadness in this sequence, realizing how much Michel and Gloria both dreamed of a "normal" (i.e., romanticized cinematic) life they were never destined to have.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


A signature program of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), "Talking Pictures" presents screenings of some of the year's most acclaimed films, followed by intimate, in-depth conversations with the directors and the stars, moderated by America's foremost film journalists and experts. For this year's "Talking Pictures" programs, PSIFF added a special forum focusing on leading contenders in the race for Best Foreign Language Film honors, in recognition of the extraordinary quality of this year's submissions.

Scott Feinberg, Awards analyst for The Hollywood Reporter, joined a number of the directors of this year's leading candidates for the Foreign Language Oscar® race in an illuminating discussion encompassing their films, what drives them thematically and creatively and the concurrent blessing and curse that comes with being the subject of "Oscar® buzz." While there is no doubt that the attention that comes with being selected by your country as its official standard bearer in the Foreign Oscar® sweepstakes is a boon to career aspirations, the flip side of that coin may be the expectations that such status raises among critics, members of the film industry and filmgoers lining up to see your film. The morning discussion, held at the Palm Canyon Theater in Palm Springs, was preceded by a presentation of clips from each of the directors' films.

In attendance were Paula van der Oest (Accused), George Ovashvili (Corn Island), Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan), Alberto Arvelo (The Liberator), Zaza Urushadze (Tangerines), Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu) and Damián Szifrón (Wild Tales).

Feinberg welcomed his audience and gave thanks to PSIFF Artistic Director Helen du Toit and her programming team for making the panel possible. He equally thanked the panelists for making films that were such a pleasure to watch this year. He promised that by the time we were through with the panel discussion, we would want to seek these films out, an opportunity unique to PSIFF: nowhere else would all nine films on the Oscar® shortlist be available for viewing. After viewing clips from the films, Feinberg introduced each of the panelists, synopsized their films, and began his line of questioning.

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Scott Feinberg: To begin with, I want to do the general question that people are probably wondering: what initially inspired or sparked the idea for the film that brings you here today? Alberto, maybe we can start with you?

Alberto Arvelo: Thank you, first of all, for this invitation and this fantastic idea to bring us together. What inspired me was a simple, old story. I grew up with my father's stories about Simón Bolívar. He took me to bed every night telling me stories of how Bolívar crossed the Andes and his liberation of South America.  My father's not here anymore but I still have his stories in my mind. When I told him at 16 years old that I wanted to become a filmmaker, he told me, "Then you have to make one day a film about Simón Bolívar in some way." For example, the crossing of the Andes, that whole scene, is a sort of homage to my father. It's exactly what he told me when I was a kid.

Scott Feinberg: Abderrahmane, how about you? What was the root of the idea for Timbuktu?

© Gerhard Kassner / Berlinale
Abderrahmane Sissako: My last film was in 2006, so it's been a while. Because I had two girls, two children, and was not in a hurry to do another film. But when the Jihadists occupied the north of Mali, which is the country I know, it was a shock for me. One day I read in the newspaper that a young couple was stoned to death only because they were not married. This was something that moved me incredibly so that is why I decided to do this film.

Scott Feinberg: Paula, people may or may not know that the story at the center of your film is a real one. What was it about that, that resonated with you to the point that you wanted to make a film about it?

Paula van der Oest: Yes, my film is about the nurse Lucia de Berk who was wrongly accused of killing babies and elderly people in a hospital where she worked. When she was released from prison in 2010, the producers of my film were already following her case. She had also written a book. I remember I saw her on TV and she was a woman that some people found a bit strange and peculiar in the way she talks. Even after she was released—and I have to admit that when I saw her—people around me said, "Well, she did it." I realized that I didn't know anything about her. So when the producers came to me with the idea of making the movie, they brought me the first draft of the script. I read it and began to realize her real story: this was how it happened. When you don't know anything and you hear some rumors—we have a saying, "where there's smoke, there's fire"—I felt it was necessary to make this movie to show how this process goes if you don't know anything and if you go along with the mass rumor that this woman murdered babies and children.

Scott Feinberg: George, it's a part of the world that you know, but why did you feel a need to help us learn?

George Ovashvili: First of all, thank you very much. This is a very good opportunity for us to be together, all of us, and really thank you [addressing the audience] for being here. Generally, as most of us think about being alive as human beings, I wanted to tell the story of one human. I got the story from my scriptwriter a few years ago, the true story about the river, which creates a small island during the spring rain season and how the villagers wait for this moment when the islands are formed to go there to grow their crops. Then when the next rainy season comes, that island is washed away and reforms in some other place, where another person comes to plant their crops and start life again. I felt this was an interesting idea because even now in my country people continue to do that. So we created this story about a human who struggles to raise his crops and how his struggle is part of a greater cycle.

Scott Feinberg: I don't know what Vegas would say, but I've got to say that the odds are great that of the nine short-listed films, and the seven we have here, two of them deal with this disputed territory of Abkhazia. Zaza, can you tell us what brought you to your side of the same story?

Zaza Urushadze: This film is about the war and I must say this war was very painful for we Georgians because we lost a beautiful part of our country. And I lost a lot of close people during this war. My picture deals with the acceptance of life in this environment and tried to convey our humanity.

Scott Feinberg: Damián, from what I understand you grew up enamored with short story anthologies and it was a frustration with other projects that led, in a way, to Wild Tales and the short stories that comprise that. Can you tell us more about that?

Damián Szifrón: Yeah. I was developing other feature films, longer ones, regular ones—actually, it was not that regular because it was a science fiction trilogy—and I was writing that for seven years. I was also developing a western and a romantic comedy with these new ideas that kept on coming, mostly from reality, and I didn't know what to do. I stopped them from becoming more feature films because I already had so many in development. I tried to compress them to their minimum expression, like a bonsai treatment, you know? So that's how I got these powerful short stories that expressed a lot of stuff in a very straight way, in a very free way, and I wrote them as an amusement. I didn't know I was going to shoot them so quickly. I thought I was going to shoot my science fiction trilogy first, then the western. But as soon as I finished them, I could tell that they all came from the same DNA and that they were all connected thematically. I saw that they were a film. The film is about the pleasure of reacting against injustice and frustrating real-life situations. I enjoyed writing that a lot and—when a producer that I work with a lot read them—he said, "You should do this right now." So I did.

Scott Feinberg: Andrey, the story you tell in Leviathan, it's a film very much about Russia, but amazingly it was inspired by a situation in Colorado, right?

Andrey Zvyagintsev: This is true as to the origins of the story. It was based on a story in Colorado where a small person, a welder with a major company, conflicted with authorities, which eventually led to certain demolishment of property and eventual suicide, unfortunately. Over the course of time we had to modify this story and adapt it to the realities of contemporary Russia. But now it is safe to say that eventually the story came back to the place of its origin.

Scott Feinberg: I want to turn the focus to something that is one of the few things that filmmakers in every part of the world share, which is frustration at trying to finance your movies. Some of these films were made for, basically, nickels—it's amazing how much art is on the screen for so little money—some have bigger budgets in the tens of millions. But in every case I know that people have had to fight for everything they had at their disposal. So I want to direct this to a few of you guys, but please anyone jump in who feel they have something to add. I want to start with Andrey. People who have seen Leviathan understand it is a film that doesn't just tow the line and paint a totally flattering portrait of Russia. In the same way that all of our countries have things that we are more proud of, less proud of, Leviathan shows Russia's warts and all. And yet, people might be most surprised to learn that a large chunk of the financing came from the government, right?

Andrey Zvyagintsev: The assumption is correct. Initially, one of the co-producers was willing and ready to finance the project completely; however, over the course of time, 30-35% was offered by the Russian Ministry of Culture, which was basically how we got the project going.

Scott Feinberg: Alberto, The Liberator is the biggest project to come out of your country. Just the massive scale: a 69-day shoot, 100 sets, 6,000 costumes, 10,000 extras, $50,000,000 budget! That's a huge undertaking. What was it like bringing all that together? I'm sure it took years of work.

Alberto Arvelo: It was a roller coaster of 10 years, basically, invested in this dream. We all felt that we needed to make this film. It took us 10 years of trying with equity from Germany, Spain, South America, from all around the world. If you want to make a film about the biggest military campaign of mankind, then it was the only way to do it. An epic is a difficult genre because, in some way, you're asked to lend reality to the past and that is the only way to do it. So you're not free in some strange way. You have to serve that story and what happened there. Getting back to what I said at the beginning, the Bolívar military campaign was the longest campaign of humankind; 40% of his army died crossing the Andes. There was only one way to do this: by showing the immensity of this tragedy, of this hope.

Scott Feinberg: I'd like to ask the rest of the panel maybe by just a show of hands or if you want to add a little more after that, I think for a lot of international filmmakers it's sort of a situation where the government does help out in a way and I wonder if that was your experience? For which of you did the government help to finance your film? Paula?

Paula van der Oest: The biggest part of our industry—I can't even call it industry because we make only about 30 films a year—but they're subsidized. But every now and then there's a check, and then it's canceled again, so for this movie money came from Sweden (composer and an actress), Belgium and Luxemborg for financing. This film was about 2,000,000 Euros but also it happened once that I couldn't get a film financed and we made it together with a group of friends with some TV money. But, yes, the main part of the movies are subsidized but people are starting more and more with crowd funding. That's what's happening now.

Scott Feinberg: Damián, did the Argentine government contribute?

Damián Szifrón: Yes, it helped when the movie was being made. We have a system where a percentage of every ticket that's sold for American films goes to a place and then they use that money to help Argentine directors to make their films. I have to say it was not hard to get the money for the film. I'm very lucky. Agustín Almodóvar and Pedro Almodóvar from Spain read the script and they were immediately on board. It's a big movie for Argentina—it was almost a $4,000,000 budget—but it was not impossible. So, for me, the frustration did not come from the money part, no.

Scott Feinberg: Zaza?

Damián Szifrón: [Teasing] Zaza went with a gun. [Laughter.] "I want to make this film." "Okay!"

Zaza Urushadze: The budget for our film was just 600,000 Euros. It was enough.

Scott Feinberg: A simple man. How about you, George, what was your budget?

George Ovashvili: We collected the money for three or four years. My budget was 1.5 million. I have five countries as co-producers. That means that each country came with just a little bit of money. Georgia was 25%. Then Germany, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, France, Spain. It's very hard to find money in our country because the industry is at a very low level and has no money. But we have an institution which gives money every year by a radio competition, but just for two or three projects a year. When the co-producers came on board, they read the script and they thought, "Oh, that's a very simple story, just two characters, one location (an island), so that's very easy." Only later did they realize how difficult the project was because we had to create the island, we had to create the cornfields, and we had to wash away the island at the end of the film.

Scott Feinberg: Abderrahmane, Timbuktu was at Cannes. You've been there before. Have you found that it's gotten easier over time as you've become more established to find the funds you need to make your films or is it always an uphill climb?

Abderrahmane Sissako: For me it never was really difficult to finance my film. First, because they are not very expensive and, practically, the financing came from the French television channel Arte, as well as the other television channel Canal+ and CNC, the national fund for supporting film in France. The financing for Timbuktu came together really fast, I believe, because of the burning subject matter. Our first intention was to shoot in Mali but because of safety issues—there was a suicide bombing and things like that—we were not able to shoot there. I ended up shooting in Mauritania whose government was supportive of our project. There is really no organization for film in Mauritania but they supported us by providing security. There were over 200 soldiers attending to our shoot. At the time there were lots of abductions of foreigners and our crew was international: French, Belgian, and African as well. It was important to have strong security around the film. The government of Mauritania also provided a little bit of financial aid. We also had a lot of sponsorship and product placement, who provided gasoline, cars, things like that.

Scott Feinberg: What I'd like to do now is ask more targeted questions for each of you. To begin with George, Corn Island used hardly any dialogue at all—it was almost wordless—and yet, for me, it was almost more gripping than most action movies with explosions that I've ever seen, particularly at the ending, which gets my heart beating just thinking about it. Has that always been your style of filmmaking to hold back on dialogue? What led you to that decision?

George Ovashvili: Before my first film, I did a few short films that had no words of dialogue. It's my approach. It's not original thinking, but for me cinema is the visual way to tell a story. I've always tried to use less words to tell what I want to say. If I can't show you on the screen, then I can just tell you my story. In Corn Island we have just a few lines. While I was working on the script, I felt the relationship between the characters didn't require them to say anything. I felt they could understand each other perfectly without words or explanations. My storytelling goes very slow, step by step.

Scott Feinberg: Alberto, you can fill the space in a movie with words, you can fill it with silence, and you can also supplement either with music obviously. You have Gustavo Dudamel—who people know not only as the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic but, appropriately enough, the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar—providing the first score he's ever done for a film for The Liberator. How did that come to be? And what do you think it adds? It's one of the best scores that I can remember.

Alberto Arvelo: Music is very important in this film.... This man Simón Bolívar, when he started, suffered a huge amount of loneliness. That's something you can't transmit with words. That's basically, for me, a territory of silence, and music (which is a way of silence). I was in some way attracted to that loneliness and that passion behind this romantic character. As Lord Byron said, Bolívar was one of the most romantic characters ever. Music was fundamental. I spent time with Dudamel trying to understand how to create that music and to talk about Bolívar as the spirit of Latin America. We are made of music at the same time. We are living music always. Music is a part of our lives. With the music we created a character but also a people. This music is about the creation of Latin America in some way. Bolívar was very complex. Dudamel and I worked together before creating a contemporary opera for the L.A. Philharmonic; it was a fantastic collaboration. I went to him to ask him advice about the score for The Liberator. I remember one day when we were at Cannes he sat down at the piano and he was playing and he said, "You should do this in one of the battles" and "you should have this music in a Tchaikovsky choir here and there" and at one point we realized that he was already composing so I said, "Come on, Dudamel, compose the film" and he said, "No, I'm a conductor. I'm not a composer." It was fantastic, he finally said, "I'll do it." I think he got the essence of—not only the sound of Latin America—but, of Bolívar's loneliness. His score is what I feel makes this epic contemporary.

Scott Feinberg: Andrey, not uniquely but Russia is not terribly responsive to criticism, especially from internally, and there are certainly things in your film—from having a portrait of Vladimir Putin behind the corrupt mayor to having Pussy Riot, the band that was jailed, flash by on a TV, and other things that search the general idea that a simple man can be overwhelmed by the system in Russia. I just wonder: did you fear any repercussions for this portrayal? Did you ever imagine that Russia might actually submit this film for the Oscars®? Clearly, it is artistically worthy, but I think some people thought that it might be set aside.

Andrey Zvyagintsev: The very fact of submission of Leviathan for this year's Oscars® came as a pleasant surprise for me. Majorly, this has been the tremendous work one of the producers Alexander Rodnyansky has done on the movie. Partially, the very fact of the submission was also based on a huge backlash that we had in the media back in 2011 when the then-submission caused a controversy in the Russian media. People in the mass media were basically dissatisfied with the then-nominated film. That's why, partially, this contributed to Leviathan eventually having been submitted for the competition.

Scott Feinberg: Paula, your film also points to a pretty dark chapter obviously in the history of your country and one that has been described as "the biggest miscarriage of justice in Dutch history." It shamed the judicial system, and yet it was a huge ticket-seller at home and it's now an Oscar® submission. Did you have any pause about tackling the story? Do you feel a certain responsibility when you make films to share aspects and stories about your country—good, bad, ugly, whatever they may be—is that part of your mandate you feel as a filmmaker? To share stories about your country to the world?

Paula van der Oest: Yes. I'm afraid I don't have a career plan. I started filmmaking and half of the films that I've made I've written myself and they tend to be comedies. I was nominated in 2003 and that was a three-sister comedy. Sometimes producers come to me with scripts, plans, but I always go for story, subject. Therefore, I don't have a very consistent oeuvre—comedies, a film about a South African poet, a dark fairy tale cult movie—every time a new kind of film. This one, I felt it had to be made. Also, it was rather satisfying or important that the nurse, the real nurse, was still around. It was not that she had a veto or had big influence and could stop the movie, but she read versions of the script and saw edited versions of the film. At first, with the first versions, she found it very boring. She said, "I hate it." Finally, she was happy. When we premiered in Amsterdam, it was very weird. After everything that had happened to her, all her years in prison, after all the people who still said "she did it" after she was released from prison, when she walked on the red carpet into that screening, the whole audience rose. It was very moving. She was fragile on stage and I think the film did more for her than the fact that she had been released because people could see how it worked and what had happened and how lonely and desperate she had been all those years. If it weren't for those people who thought, "This isn't right"—there were a few people who kept saying, "This isn't right"—finally, they were proven right. So I felt it very important to tell this story and this was more related to our country or to society. Sometimes I want to make a film I think is important because it says something about people, about life. It has to have a meaning.

Scott Feinberg: Abderrahmane, one of the things that I really admired about Timbuktu—as well as Accused, Corn Island, Leviathan—was how well you cast your child actors and how effective they were in their roles. Individually, as in the scene in which Toya and Issan talk to one another about their outlook, but also collectively, as with the scene of the pantomimed soccer game, which is one of the greatest scenes ever. What's your technique for finding these young actors and getting such effective performances from them?

Abderrahmane Sissako: My first "technique" in Mauritania is that I have no choice. There are no actors. So you have to work with people that really have the desire to do this. So we do what we call a wide casting. We look around for people with personality. As far as the main couple in my film, a man and a woman, they are a Tuareg couple. I needed them to be able to speak Tuareg. In my film there were several languages. In order to find them, I requested that we look in the world of music. My casting director looked on Facebook and she found this Tuareg musician who lived in Madrid. The actress who plays his wife is a Tuareg singer who lives in Paris.

Scott Feinberg: They were also fantastic, but I'm actually talking about the daughter and the shepherd.

Abderrahmane Sissako: In the script the part of the child was a three-year-old girl so I went to visit a Tuareg camp in Mauritania where there are 70,000 Tuareg refugees. I went looking for a mother with a three-year-old child, and I couldn't find them. Every time I entered the tent where we were doing the casting there was this 12-year-old girl who was always there and who always showed up in every picture we took, so my casting director said, "You have to look for a part for this one." So I said, "Look, let's make the child 12 years old." Problem solved.

Scott Feinberg: Zaza, Tangerines is one of the most effective anti-war movies I think you could find. I would imagine that for your country it's probably what All's Quiet On the Western Front was for others for things like that. It makes you see how a lot of what people do during war is stupid and futile. Were there earlier films or filmmakers that influenced the way that you told this story? Obviously, it's a story that is its own conflict, but in the way that you wanted to present it, did you find others to be helpful?

Zaza Urushadze: Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

Scott Feinberg: Just the insanity of it all? That was a much louder film but, yeah, there were some crazy folks in that as well.

Zaza Urushadze: It probably didn't influence me so directly.

Scott Feinberg: As an unrelated follow-up, the main character, the older man in the film (Lembit Ulfsak), is—I understand—one of the greatest Estonian actors. He's had 40-50 years in Estonian theater and film. Tell us a little bit about him because you can see that he knows what he's doing very well.

Zaza Urushadze: I knew him when I was a child. He was famous in the Soviet Union. I would have to say that—when I was writing the screen play—I knew that he would play Ivo.

Scott Feinberg: Damián, I've seen Wild Tales a few times and every time there are people who leave the theater crying because they've laughed so hard. It's hilarious. Each time you think it can't get funnier, it does. Where does your sense of humor come from? What is it you want people to take away from your film?

Damián Szifrón: What you're describing is a great way to leave the theater. I don't think I would ask for more. Regarding my sense of humor, I think of my parents. Both of them were very funny, probably because of their origins. My grandparents on my father's side came from Poland, they were Jewish, and came from the war. They survived and went to South America with nothing at all. Sometimes humor is a powerful tool to improve your life, to create relationships and to move on. So probably that's in my genes. I permit myself to think that humor is a form of expressing themes and issues that—without humor—would miss the target. When you tell a story with solemnity, sometimes a lot of people don't relate to that because everybody has their own problems and life is not easy for different reasons. But with humor, you can establish a strong connection with people. Sometimes in art humor is not that well considered; but, not with moviegoers. Moviegoers do remember what makes them laugh. Humor is a complex way of communication. It includes every other layer. It's like an orchestra with a lot of instruments. You say something humorous and the other person laughs very fast. You communicate fast. In a movie theater packed with people laughing at the same thing makes you feel less lonely in a way. You can understand that we all suffer from the same things, we all get angry about the same things, and that establishes a connection.

Scott Feinberg: Now, in the same way that—if a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there to hear it—if a great film doesn't get talked about or seen, it doesn't matter how great it is. I wonder for each of you what the key was to getting your film seen and talked about? Was there a person? A festival? A moment that was instrumental in helping your film come to the attention of a larger audience? I know a number of you premiered at Cannes, Toronto, Karlovy Vary, Warsaw. Were festivals important? What was key to raising the profile of your film? Alberto, I'm calling on you.

Alberto Arvelo: Our premiere in Toronto was fantastic, I have to say. It was especially important because when I was a teenager in Montreal where my father was a researcher, I wanted to make films. I went to most of the film festivals in Toronto and Montreal and I'd feel the excitement of their red carpets. Being there with my film was fantastic and amazing. People were laughing, crying, clapping in the middle of the projection. I definitely think it was that moment, no doubt. Most of the actors came to join us in that amazing moment. Art is about loving, hugging, feeling and—when you have that equation around you—that's, by far, the fire.

Scott Feinberg: Abderrahmane, Cannes is a special unique place. If they don't like your movie, they let you know. They'll boo. If they love your movie, they'll applaud it for 20 minutes. What was it like for you having been there with Timbuktu and to be so well-received?

Abderrahmane Sissako: It was exactly one year that I was still shooting the film and I arrived in France three days after the end of shooting to do the post-production. So we were really trying to hurry all the post-production to have the chance to enter into the Cannes competition. We were only able to give the finished version of the film about eight days before the festival. I'm telling you that because even I first discovered my film in Cannes. So I had really no distance and absolutely the fact that it was such an incredible response of the press and the public was something very important.

Scott Feinberg: Paula, as you mentioned before, the festival your subject attended put your film on the map for most people, right?

Paula van der Oest: Yes. We got very good reviews. Box-office wise, they could have been better; but, that was okay. The strangest thing is that everybody here on this panel have been selected by major, interesting, very important film festivals; but, my film wasn't. Actually, nowhere. I feel confident about the movie. I love it. I am very proud of it. People are moved when they see it. But so far, no festivals. So out of the blue I was selected as the Dutch entry for the Oscars®, and now I'm on the short list. For me, this is great!

Scott Feinberg: George, you guys premiered at Karlovy Vary, right? That was the beginning? Was that where the momentum for your film began?

George Ovashvili: We had the first version without any sound in 2014. We sent it to Cannes and they refused. At the same time, we got an invitation from Karlovy Vary to be in main competition and we started to think about whether we should go there or not. At the same time we got an invitation from San Sebastián to be in main competition. So it was a bit of a dilemma for my producers to decide where to go. Finally, they said, "We don't have to wait until September. In July we have to go to Karlovy Vary." We went there and I was not expecting anything, but before the closing ceremony the director of the festival asked my producers if they were going to stay for the closing gala and I said, "No, I have a ticket and I need to fly out." They said, "No, no, no, you stay. You have to be there." Nobody told me why. We won the Crystal Globe and the Award of the Ecumenical Jury. It was a good start for the world premiere of my film. When I was selected by my country as the candidate for the Oscars® it was a big surprise for me as well because there were a few good films in competition. Finally, when I was shortlisted, I really could not believe that. I said, "There must be some kind of mistake."

Scott Feinberg: Zaza, you guys started in Warsaw?

Zaza Urushadze: The Warsaw premiere was our first festival and we won Best Director and the Audience Award. After, at different festivals, we got about 20 awards.

Scott Feinberg: Damián, Cannes for you as well must have been an experience? I don't remember too many comedies even being necessarily in competition there. So how did it play over there?

Damián Szifrón: It was amazing. I truly work for the audience. When I write, I never aim for film festivals. Actually, this is the first film I've done that went international. So probably the next one I'm going to think of festivals! But not this one. Yes, I finished the first cut and I showed it to the people involved in the film and they said, "We should send this to Cannes." I said, "Cannes?! You really think so?" Then when I received the call from Thierry Frémaux, he said, "We want the film" and he put the film in the main competition and then he put it on the first Saturday at 9:00 so I was, of course, terrified. But, yes, the reception was magnificent. All the team was there, with the actors, and we began to receive some calls from people who were inside the press screening earlier and they said, "The critics are laughing out loud. The critics are applauding between the episodes." It was a great place to show the film, of course, yes.

Scott Feinberg: Did you run into Andrey out there at Cannes because that's where Leviathan also premiered, right?

Andrey Zvyagintsev: That is correct. We had the most amazing round of applause from both the press and the film critics. One of the festival organizers insisted on our being present for the closing ceremony. We had gotten very revved up and our expectations were set very high. Everything we hoped for actually came true so we were very thankful for this warm reception.

Scott Feinberg: Okay, so with our remaining five minutes, I'm going to ask you to be brief in your response to this, but I think one of the neat things we can do here is to acknowledge how special it is to be on the short list. There were, I think, 83 films that were submitted by countries from around the world. Nine made the list. Seven are here. Five will go on January 22, but regardless, it is a huge honor to have made it this far. I want to ask you about the moment and the meaning to you and your countrymen when you found out from your compatriots. I'm going to direct this specifically to Abderrahmane: Your's is the first film that Mauritania has ever submitted for Oscar® consideration and you've made the nine. That must feel pretty special?

Abderrahmane Sissako: Yes, no doubt, it is something extraordinary for me to have made the short list and to be here at the Palm Springs International with all of the other directors. It's very special. Maybe there's a difference for me than all the other directors because I have the feeling that it is not only my country that I represent but the whole continent of Africa as well.

Scott Feinberg: Andrey, you came close 11 years ago when Russia submitted your film The Return. This time you made it and I know, as you said, it was not necessarily a slam dunk. What was your reaction when you found out that it had happened, beyond being a pleasant surprise? How did you celebrate? [Andrey made the audience laugh by seeming perplexed by the obviousness of the question, spreading his arms out to encompass the immediate experience.]

Andrey Zvyagintsev: It is, of course, an absolutely astounding experience. Our team could not believe it at first; but, as I said, the story goes back to 2011 when the Oscar® committee in Russia was expanded. About 30 people were actually in the committee and they included independent filmmakers, actors, screenwriters, and they helped us to get the project going. This is how, I guess, partially, the movie was greenlit. So, all in all, this is a very interesting and long story and our reaction was, of course, nothing but ecstatic. We were excited and this has been a truly wonderful experience.

Scott Feinberg: Damián, in the 53 years since Argentina first submitted a film for Oscar® consideration, only six have made it as far as yours has now. As a cineaste and a student of film history, that's got to mean something to you?

Damián Szifrón: Of course! It means a lot for us. Everything what's going on with the film is just overwhelming. Sometimes I think that my body can't take that amount of happiness, you know? All this good news! We've been celebrating since the film screened at Cannes. Every month we have a boost. The Oscars®, and having the chance to be here with these immensely talented people, it's wonderful. Sometimes it's a bit strange because of the element of competition, which is strange to art, I would say. It's not natural for an artist to compete. When you're a football player, you have to win and somebody has to lose, and that's the idea of the whole thing. But here, when you work, you're not thinking of what other people are doing. You're not clashing against anything. I don't want to fight him, especially. [Demian nudges Zaza; the audience laughs.] Art has to transcend the competition, and also the nationality, I would say. Sometimes you're more connected to filmmakers from places that are very far away from your's than your neighbor. That makes you a bit anxious because it's not in your nature, I would say.

Scott Feinberg: Zaza, of the other films from Estonia that have been submitted for Oscar® consideration over a period of 22 years, yours is the first that has ever been shortlisted.

Zaza: Mostly, I can't believe it. First a Golden Globe nomination, and now the shortlist? It's amazing for small Estonia and a small Georgia too, since it's an Estonia-Georgia co-production.

Scott Feinberg: Congratulations to you all.