What would the Seattle International Film Festival be if it wasn't the biggest in the country?
Piling on 450 movies at 19 different venues between May 19 and June 12, the 37th SIFF presents feature films from some 70 different countries, docs, archival treasures, secret flicks, and shorts. Every conceivable niche audience is addressed: families, kids, horror film aficionados, music fans, followers of the burgeoning Northwest filmmaking community and others. Ewan McGregor, so great last year in Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, will be dropping in to accept a Golden Space Needle Award. And Al Pacino, on national tour, stops at the Paramount Theater on June 11 just in time to be co-opted as a SIFF special presentation.
What more could a body—or a city—ask? Well, maybe an overarching aesthetic vision or set of selection standards. A raison-d'être besides "we exist and we are omnivorous." This year's films are organized under clever headings—Love Me, Do!; Make Me Laugh; Take Me Away, etc.—to answer the question: "What sort of film do I feel like seeing tonight?" This lowbrow approach skirts challenge or adventure, instead treating movies as the solipsistic equivalent of a food court. And that's the sort of thing that differentiates SIFF from world-class film festivals and keeps it a hometown, hodgepodge cultural rite pretty much insulated from external attention or respect. Yet SIFF toddles on nonetheless, eternally the Pillsbury Dough Boy of film fests, proud of its empty gigantism.
Is this longtime film critic and veteran of prestigious fests such as Toronto, Cannes, Berlin, Telluride and New York a lonely voice crying in the Emerald City rain? No. Seattle's educated press annually anticipates—with chuckles or groans—the traditionally C-level, crowd-pleasing flick that almost always graces SIFF opening night (The First Grader, May 19, a phony feel-good fable about an ex–Mau Mau warrior's quest for education). From Press Launch onward, said press sinks deeper into critical resignation and despair ... or the kind of hyper-enthusiasm they can ride through weeks and weeks of watching mostly second-, third- and bottom-tier movies at screenings sometimes sabotaged by inept presentation: screens so dim you can't see the characters' faces, soundtracks skipping and sputtering, images projected in the wrong size and/or shape.
Old-timers can recall an era when SIFF was an oasis of first-rate global cinema in art-film–starved Seattle. Palpable excitement and anticipation welcomed the latest from cinematic big guns like Godard, Buñuel, Fassbinder and Kurosawa, and from Young Turks representing heretofore unknown national cinemas. The festival was smaller but stronger—and much sexier for cinephiles. The programming philosophy, like that of better-known festivals, aimed to wake audiences up, to open their eyes to the crème de la crème, to—dare I say it?—educate and elevate. Now SIFF's smorgasbord of all-over-the-map ("the most diverse fest!") selections is designed to please the largely undemanding tastes of ticket-buyers. The customer is always right.
So for every, say, ten movies watched in SIFF, maybe one or two will make an authentic claim on your time and critical/emotional faculties. Among the literally hundreds of films in recent fests, a handful of gems glimmer: Winter's Bone last year, 2009's The Hurt Locker, 2008's Edge of Heaven and Let the Right One In. This year, provocative beauties like Abdellatif Kechiche's Black Venus, Dorota Kedzierzawskas's Tomorrow Will Be Better and Carlos Saura's Flamenco, Flamenco have lightened my trudge through mediocrities like Natural Selection, Circumstance, Finisterrae and (sigh) Amador, a sweet, schematic story about love and death, class and flowers, more engaging in the abstract than in actuality.
So as long as undiscerning Seattle audiences are willing to queue up sheeplike for just about anything SIFF programs—never wondering what kind of philosophy drives film selection, and never demanding fewer, better movies, quality over quantity—this festival has no reason to evolve. The communal mantra seems to be: lie back and enjoy the merry month of May-into-June, immersed in a lukewarm bath of far too many undistinguished movies. If the box office thrives, what's the problem?
Then too, business thrives on the back of any film festival, the bigger the better. Sponsors score scads of advertising, and a lot of festivalgoers' money goes for parking, dinner, drinks and all the rest. So, even if anyone wanted to rock the boat, the dreadnought that is SIFF may not be able to rock. Pulling back to a manageable size may be impossible, given the kind of symbiotic business relations which now support SIFF's year-round theater and the ambitious film education center that's just broken ground.
Every cultural event, no matter how valuable and deeply embedded in a community's history and tradition, can gain from the musings of a gadfly. This particular gadfly must wonder if SIFF knows that gigantism is a disease, not a virtue.
Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 18, 2011