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Seattle '07: an embarassment of riches

With over 250 films of every kind to choose from, (mostly new or very recent, but some archival oldies as well), the Seattle Int'l Film Festival might be described as an "embarrassment of riches", mostly gold but, inevitably, some dross and Fool's Gold mixed in with a treasure chest as large as this. The main problem for the would-be writer is not filtering out the nuggets from the crap, the promising from the obviously to be avoided, but trying to navigate the city bus system between the widely scattered venues so as not to miss beginnings of important films, or making tooth-gnashing choices between unmissable movies scheduled at the same time, over-lapping time slots -- or simply, too far apart geographically to get to both. The result is that you grab what you can and hope the ones you missed will show up at a press screening or anotherr festival somewhere down the line. A further result is that you often find yourself viewing some incredibly incongruous concatenations of films, which, in "real life" (which is to say non-festival life) you would never ogle in such weird juxtapositioning.

Let's take an example. Two days ago (July 9) the third Saturday of the fest I managed to get to five different films at three different venues separated by time consuming bus transfers, and the films were in four and a half different languages -- to wit: English, Slovenian English (that's the half), Dutch, Indonesian, and French. The day's opener, an 11 AM screening at the Egyptian was "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema", one I was dying to see but had missed previously because of a scheduling conflict (with another flick I was even more dying to see). Next up was the 1944 Arabian Nights made in Hollywood extravaganza "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" starring the queen of Camp (before the word was invented), Maria Montez, and Turhan bey, the Turkish version of Sabu. A once in a lifetime chance to see a rare studio gem like this on the big screen with an appreciative audience. Not a hard transfer from Capitol Hill near downtown to the Space Needle turf where Ali (John Hall) was about to Bab. However, one problem.

"Pervert's Guide" in which Slovenian Psycho-(ahem -"analytic") film philosopher and culture theoretician, Slavoj Zizek disquisses in grammatically correct but perfectly outrageous English, on a hilarious range of sexual perversions and their possible interpretations in a broad variety of flicks from Hitchcock to David Lynch, via Kubrick and other collective libido obsessives -- with cleverly selected excerpts from the "perverted"
films sequences in question -- goes on two and a half hours! (150 minutes).
The first hour and a half was exquisitely amusing and often highly insightful -- in a jugular vein -- but eventually I began to fidget when I realized this pyschoanaltic orgy was going to be far longer than bargained for, and was beginning to cut into my Ali Baba time.

By the third take on Dennis Hopper (one of the most disgusting psychos ever to disfigure a silver screen) in "Blue Velvet", I was beginning to get sick to my stomach -- even moreso as my illuinated Casio wristwatch revealed that I was missing the beginning of Ali Baba. Somehow I couldn't bring myself to stalk out before the end, then scurried immediately over to the SIFF theater under the Opera House in time to catch the second half of Ali Baba -- which turned out to be the perfect antidote to the mental illness that had gone before at the Egyptian. Ah -- the divine Maria, the poor man's Rita Hayworth in fantastric pink turbans and fleecy harem robes, with her outrageous Dominican accent -- the slick haired Austro-Turkish matinee idol, Turhan Bey, (Universal's oriental answer to Tyrone Power who was away at
war) -- John Hall, the poor-man's Errol Flynn as Ali, and to top it all off
-- portly Cow-poke Andy Devine as the sword slinging beturbaned leader of the thieves! -- in super rich three -strip technicolor, a lavish bejeweled sword-slinging romance for all ages, and the kind of film you would want to take with you to that desert island!

After catching my breath following Ali and Andy's liberation of Baghdad from the Mongol hordes -- talk about timely, the film ends with the raising of the banner of the freed people of Baghdad, a yellow crescent on a black field with a yellow Koranic inscription, no hassles between Sunnis and Shi'ites here! -- I settled down in the same comfortable theater for another Archival exhumation, Fons Rademaker's Dutch masterpiece "Max Havelaar" (The Netherlands, 1976, RT 170 minutes). Fons Rademaker was perhaps the greatest Dutch director and, based on this towering epic, clearly one of the greatest of all Euroopean directors. He died only a few month's ago and "Max Havelaar" is the festival's fitting tribute to his memory. This is a sweeping epic based on a novel of the same name telling a tale of Colonial oppression in the Dutch East Indies -- today's Indonesia -- in the mid 1850s. Havellar was a Dutch colonial administrator with a sense of justice who struggled against a corrupt local Raja and his own fellow racist officials in favor of the ruthlessly exploited local farmers. Other than Rutger Hauer in a small role, there are no name actors known outside of Holland although Peter Faber in the title role is superb and totally believable as Max, and the large cast of Indonesian actors, male and female, young and old, are completely authentic, unlike Hollywood depictions of such "natives". In short 'Max Havelaar' is a classic of world cinema whose nearly three hours of screen time flit by timelessly. However ...

Again a time problem. If I sat through all of Havelaar I was going to miss at least half of Milos Forman's new all-sytar picture, "Goya's Ghosts", at the Neptune in a different part of the city. As it turned out, Havelaar, most sensibly, had an intermission at the halfway point, so I thought I might split then and catch all of Goya -- and maybe catch the rest of Rademaker's Indonesian colonial epic on DVD or whatever, later. However, at intermission time I realized that I was in the midst of a true masterpiece of world cinema and that it would be a waste not to see the rest of it now, on a perfect subtitled print. After all, the Forman will be around, right... So, I sat through "Max Havellar" until the end and left for the "U" District (two buses with waiting time at each end) at quarter to seven with the kind of warm glow inside you feel when you have just witnessed a true masterpiece.

"Goya's Ghost's" had begun at 6:30 so by the time I disembarked at 45th and University the film was more than half over, but being there anyway, (I was really interested in catching the 9:30 show of the French "Mauvaise Foi" ) I decided to hop into the Neptune to at least get a taste of Forman's latest, the whole of which I could catch later at a commercial screen if I wanted to. The Neptune let's you in late but shunts you up to the balcony, where I came in as famous paintings are being shown to an uncomprehending French officer, accompanied by belly laughs from the audience, and I was not surprised to see the theater packed to the gills. After all, this is one of the prestige films of the festival, the American Premiere of a film by Milos Forman, director of of "Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus, (The only big-name Hollywood director in the whole festival lineup) and the topliners of the film are big international stars -- Stellan Skarsgard, as Goya, Spanish superstar Javier Bardem as an evil inquisitor,(the only halfway believable character in the entire cast) and American cutie-pie, Natalie Portman -- in a double role yet ... Well, to make a long story short, it took me about ten minutes to realize that, in stark contrast to the Dutch masterpiece I had just come from -- I was watching a big pile of expensive mierda, which I will not bother to see the rest of even if somebody offers me a free ticket.

One would be inclined to call this "Forman's ghastly misfire" if there were anything there to start with, which there isn't. Even though Milos Forman comes from central Europe he has no sense of European history, Spanish or
other, except as material to poke fun at -- think "Amadeus". But,
historical accuracy aside, the casting of this picture sinks it before it gets out of drydock. Swede Stellan Skarsgard is ridiculous as Goya (who was hard of hearing and is followed around in this pic by a post-modern sign-language interpreter) and as Spanish as Fumanchu, whereas as Portman looks like she's playing in two different pictures, neither of which has anything to do with 1800s Spain, and even Bardem, who at least IS Spanish, is made to act like a long-haired rock star on a cocaine binge, dressed up as a Spaniard. The only saving grace of this miscarriage is the Goya artwork shown here and there, and the best part of the picture is the end credits rolling over a montage of famous Goya images. A director who started out with wonderful Czech comedies like "Loves of a Blonde" and "Fireman's Ball" back in the sixties, Forman, once a young refugee from Communism now uses (make that "abuses") his prestige and Capitalistic Clout in the Business to grind out colorful expensive shlock.

The final film of the day "Bad Faith" (Mauvaise Foi) is a kind of "Guess who's Coming to Dinner", Paris style, featuring the new reigning princess of French cinema, the almost painfully beautiful Cecile de France as the French version of a "JAP" (Jewish American Princess) who falls in love with a local chap of Arab backround and becomes pregnant by him, which leads to the expected complications when the young couple have to break the news to their respective Jewish and Islamic families. The male lead, Roschdy Zem is also the director of the film (his debut as a director) and author of the screenplay. This is a very successful light inter-ethnic comedy obviously calling for mutual understanding between ethnic groups who have been set at each others throats by events far from France. Altogether enjoyable but, perhaps, hopelessly idealistic. De France was seen here recently in "Avenue Montaigne" (Fauteuils d'Orchestre) and appears opposite Depardieu in another festival film. This is an amazingly good-looking young lady well on the way to super-French stardom. Roschdy Zem, while not exactly another Omar Sherif in looks, is nevertheless a very appealing actor and an obviouisly talented filmmaker -- a new presence to watch on the French film scene,

So, that was it -- Four and a half films in one hectic day -- two very long
-- one schizzoid-documentarian lecture (Pervert's Guide), one Hollywood Arabian Nights camp classic from the archives, One Magnificent masterwork from Holland, one ridiculous all-star misfire from a world-class director, Milos Forman, and a light interracial French comedy with slightly serious
overtones. A Day at the Races -- which is to say, the daily race to catch
up with the films that need to be seen at Seattle, 2007.

Alex Deleon, racing around in Seattle
June 11, 2007

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