The Seattle International Film Festival is upon us once again, and nothing can be done about it.
Opening tomorrow, May 17, and running through Sunday, June 10, the behemoth of North American film festivals will beat the local populace silly with 270some feature films, documentaries and shorts, even a 15-hour-long film history "odyssey" to be parceled out over several evenings. The faithful, cumulatively zonked by the seasonal reintroduction of sunlight into their lives and sensory overload from a multitude of screens, will trade impressions, interpretations and life-changing epiphanies while queued up for the next, ever the next, show. And perhaps succeed in remembering a handful of films from the previous year's marathon.
That's the heck of it. Despite the municipally and corporately embraced excess SIFF has come to represent, the fest's 37th edition can't and won't hold a candle to the first several years of its history. The maiden season, 1976, was about 250 films shorter than the present one, but the quality level was consistently high, with a slate of world-class directors. Now ... well, it would be unfair to suggest that the majority of SIFF selections are bad. But too many of them are just there, a Sargasso Sea of meh. Most of the best films would make it to Seattle screens without a festival showcase. Most of the rest wouldn’t, and wouldn't be missed.
How do committed SIFFgoers feel about this state of affairs? A lot of people look forward each year to spending the better part of a month living on trail mix and trooping from one auditorium to another, "doing the festival"—and god bless them. On a social level, it's sweet. People who may not know one another's names meet year after year, exchange smiles, even resume old conversations. I know; I've been one of those people.
It's when you consider SIFF alongside other (I nearly typed "real") film festivals that things get dicey. Toronto and Vancouver show almost as many films as Seattle (in about half the time), yet maintain an informed selectivity, a sense of relevance rather than niche programming and, above all, an awareness of the aesthetic stakes in making and thinking about cinema. Read the thumbnail descriptions in the SIFF program guide. Few consist of anything but plot-and-character précis and/or a fortune-cookie life lesson suitable for discussion around a junior-high cafeteria table.
And how embarrassing are those "pathways"—"Love Me, Do!," "Make Me Laugh," "Show Me the World" et al.—to help the viewer select the right sort of movie to suit the mood of the moment. Please reassure me there's a way to keep the outside world from hearing about that.
OK, let's look on the bright side. And there is one. Since last year's festival SIFF has opened an intimate new theater in Seattle Center and acquired the Uptown triplex nearby. This means more shows in properly equipped venues operated by qualified projectionists who mostly should spare films and filmgoers the horrors of slipshod presentation so prevalent in 2011. On the evidence of several weeks' worth of pre-festival, daytime screenings for press and season pass holders, we're in much better shape.
There's also been a quantum leap in what, heretofore, has been the tenderest of the festival's Achilles heels: chauvinistic boosterism for locally made films. At its frequent worst, this has amounted to affirmative action run amok. (Remember Shag Carpet Sunset? Be glad you don't.) This year SIFF redeems that legacy with some half-dozen festivalworthy, or at least credible-sounding, features produced in the neighborhood.
That most definitely includes Your Sister's Sister, the fourth, most winning and most fully achieved work yet by the estimable Lynn Shelton (Humpday, My Effortless Brilliance)—and on top of that, it's the Opening Night film. Whereas the usual effect of the Opening Night film has been to drive the audience to drink, in this case the drinking should be celebratory.
Also flying the local flag to one extent or another will be Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths' Eden; The Details, a dark comedy with Laura Linney, Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks; Fat Kid Rules the World, from actor, now director and de facto SIFF family member Matthew Lillard (his sister Amy has worked on the festival); and Safety Not Guaranteed, a comedy with a time-travel theme.
Throw in that the Closing Night feature will be Stephen Gyllenhaal's Grassroots, a political satire not only shot in Seattle but drawn from the strange adventures of ex-Stranger writer Phil Campbell when he ran the city council campaign of Grant Cogswell. There are also promising locally made documentaries including Lucy Ostrander's The Revolutionary, about a Pacific Northwesterner whose Chinese Communist party membership cost him 16 years in prison—in China—and Rick Stevenson's The 5,000 Days Project: Two Brothers.
Special events include "An Evening With..." tributes to two Oscar-winners, actress Sissy Spacek (June 7) and director William Friedkin (June 9). Friedkin also has a new movie to bring to the fest, Killer Joe.
Of course, my personal enthusiasm is customarily whetted by archival offerings. As in recent SIFF seasons, their number is skimpy, but the opportunity for discovery runs high. Apart from the 1967 Two for the Road, a notably ambitious marital dramedy written by Frederic Raphael, directed by Stanley Donen and starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, the other four titles are rarities: a long-banned 1971 Russian film, Trial on the Road; a 1933 silent from China, Little Toys, starring the legendary Ruan Lingyu; Only Yesterday, a 1991 animation supervised by Hiyao Miyazaki; and a little-known film noir, The Chase (1946), from Arthur Ripley (Thunder Road). David Thomson's page on this last movie in his book Have You Seen...? should have you salivating.
Let the chase begin. For details, visit http://www.siff.net/festival/
Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 16, 2012