Wednesday, September 4, 2013

2013 San Francisco International Film Festival (4 of 2)

Every year, I notice several films screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) get a general distribution deal.  Frequently, their distribution deal is signed at the time of the festival and there is a flyer at the information desk with a listing of these films.  It makes me wonder if I should see so many films at the SFIFF since I will be able to see them at a more leisurely pace later in the year.  The problem is that I don't know all of the films which will be distributed at the time I buy the tickets.  If I waited until the festival started to make my better informed choice, I may not get tickets to the films I want.

Since the 2013 SFIFF ended in May, I have seen eleven films which screened at the festival.  The number may be higher as I didn't fully cross-reference every film in the program.

I have already written about

The East
Frances Ha
A Hijacking
Much Ado About Nothing
The Spectacular Now
Venus and Serena
The Way, Way Back
What Maisie Knew

I saw another three films in August which were on the 2013 SFIFF program.

Blackfish; documentary; directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite; Official Website
Computer Chess; directed by Andrew Bujalski;  Official Website
Twenty Feet From Stardom; documentary; directed by Morgan Neville; Official Website

I saw Blackfish at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, Computer Chess at the Landmark Opera Plaza and Twenty Feet From Stardom at the Balboa.


Before I say anything about Blackfish, I should admit that I am of the opinion that zoos and marine parks like SeaWorld are inhumane.  Keeping wild animals in enclosures is a form of animal cruelty.  Some parks keep them in large enclosures which I suppose is akin to being kept in a large and spacious prison cell at as opposed to a small and cramped prison cell.  These organization do animal research so there is some benefit but I don't think the scales are equal.

However, I am also of the opinion that when human development encroaches on areas where dangerous wildlife exist, we have to eradicate those animals for human safety.  Those two positions may seem diametrically opposed but I am able to feel comfortable with both.  I guess I could go a step further and say that I think humans have developed enough land to live safely but housing developments mean money so I don't expect massive urban infill developments.  My father lives in Las Vegas.  When he first moved into his house, it was two blocks from desert wilderness.  He says he saw coyotes in the area.  As development grew in the area, the desert gave way.  The desert area closest to my father is now elementary and jr. high schools.  There is no place for a coyote in the area which would be safe for children.

That's a long way to say that before I saw Blackfish, I was predisposed to being against holding orcas captive.  The film focuses on the orca or killer whale named Tilikum.  As an aside, several years ago, I spent a very enjoyable summer afternoon at Tillicum Village on Blake Island in Puget Sound near Seattle.  The salmon they served for dinner was delicious.  I highly recommend the cruise to the island.  In fact, if I was in the area, I would get there early so I would have more time to walk/hike around the island.  I like the Pacific Northwest...

Any Tilikum is an orca that was captured at young age and has lived most of its life in captivity.  He first resided at a small independent marine park in British Columbia with two female orcas.  One of the trainers was killed during a performance although there are conflicting reports as two of the whales attacked her.  Soon after that, Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld where he has literally become the stud.  The film displayed a family tree which shows that most of the orcas held by SeaWorld at their various park can trace their lineage back to Tilikum.

While at SeaWorld Orlando, a second death occurred which Tilikum was involved in.  A naked man was found dead in Tilikum enclosure.  It appears the man hid in the park after closing.  What he was attempting to do in the orca enclosure or how and why he came to be naked is up for speculation.  It was suggested the man was mentally unstable.

The film really picks up steam when covering Tilikum's fatal attack on Dawn Brancheau in February 2010.  Brancheau was an experienced and respected orca trainer at SeaWorld.  By that point, they had established higher order behavior by orcas and some of the specifics of Tilikum's captivity.  They document that Tilikum's was attacked at a young age by other orcas and that he has spent long period in darkness and solitary confinement.  The films suggests that Tilikum may be suffering from similar to those found humans that are abused and kept in solitary confinement.

Blackfish definitely appears to have an agenda.  I think it is to expose SeaWorld's lies about Brancheau's and other trainers' deaths and attacks.  The film has a litany of incidents (with associated video footage) to back up its supposition that orcas should not be kept confined and that it is dangerous for humans to be in such close proximity to them.  Typically, such an overt bias in documentary would turn me off of the film. However, as I mentioned this film happens to coincide with my view.

That's not really the meat of the film though.  The film is set up much like Fruitvale Station.  It starts off with a clip which makes clear that someone is going to die.  Then the film proceeds to give the backstory of Tilikum in particular and orcas and their captivity in general.  Along the way, the talking heads talk about appalling incidents involving the treatment of the whales or the deaths and injuries of trainers.  This has the effect of ratcheting up the suspense of not the "what" but the "why."  I thought the film attributed too many human qualities to the orcas but that's kind of trivial.

The story of Tilikum and orcas in captivity is fascinating in a morbid way so Blackfish was likely to succeed as an engaging film.  Once you bite on that bait, you're hooked for the entire film.


I'm very mild on Andrew Bujalski.  However, earlier this year I saw several Joe Swanberg films at the Roxie.  Swanberg is also associated with the mumblecore movement of which Bujalski is called the godfather.  One of my favorite films from the Swanberg retrospective was Hannah Takes the Stairs in which Bujalski acted in and contributed to the screenplay.  Based on this positive experience, I decided to give Bujalski another chance with his latest film, Computer Chess.  I have to admit that I like to play chess which partially rationalized my choice.  Also, despite not liking the film, I can recall a scene in Funny Ha Ha where Bujalski attempts to teach chess to Kate Dollenmayer's character.  The stars seemed to align so I gave Computer Chess a chance.

Computer Chess is set in the early 1980s.  Bujalski nails the era - the costumes and the clunky computers remind me of my youth.  I read that Bujalski used period specific video recorders to "film" Computer Chess.  Part faux-documentary and part nerds gone wild, Computer Chess is set at a weekend computer chess tournament.  Various computer programming teams compete against each other for a $7,500 prize.  Bujalski uses non-professional actors which results in awkward performance than perfectly match the awkward characters.  The film gets a lot of mileage from interactions between the various socially inept interactions.  One character even performs the knight's tour although I think he landed on the same square several times.

For most of the film, Computer Chess is an interesting if not inspiring film.  If 1980s fashion and technology is not one's milieu, I would think the film would grow tiresome quickly.  Just as Computer Chess ran out of steam for me, it took weird turn into artificial intelligence and technological singularity.  An old school, text-only RGB monitor displays a sonogram and a man has sex with a woman who reveals herself to be a cyborg.  The questions and implications are valid and interesting within the context of the film and in real life but the film completely stepped out of reality for the period.  Bujalski had spent the entire film recreating the 1980s and then he broke from that convention at the end which left me bewildered.

I didn't really like Computer Chess that much but I will say that if I was forced to watch a Bujalski film, I would pick Computer Chess.


I love Darlene Love.  Perennial guest on David Letterman's final show before his Xmas vacation, Danny Glover's wife in the Lethal Weapon movie series, ghost singer on several Phil Spector produced songs including "He's a Rebel" and singer on one of my all-time favorite Saturday Night Live skits.

Darlene Love figures prominently in Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary about rock-n-roll backup singers.  Mostly black females, the backup singers profiled in the film have incredible singing talent but for reasons that vary, they are backup singers.  Some accept their role with grace while others (including Love) aspire to be front and center.  The movie features musical clips from some my favorite songs including the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter and David Bowie's Young Americans.

Love's story is particularly inspiring.  Signing with Phil Spector, she was relegated to backup vocals with her band.  She sang lead on He's a Rebel but Spector released the song under The Crystals and Love's contribution was kept secret.  This would happen repeatedly as Spector would release Love's vocals under another band's names (usually The Crystals).  When her contract ended and she signed with another record label, Spector simply bought the contract from the other label and brought Love back into the fold.  At that point she quit to start family.  Years later, while working as a maid, she heard one of her songs on the radio and decided she had to return to singing.  Since then, her career has flourished.

Other singers featured in the film have different stories.  Some "settled" for backup singing, others could crack the barrier to stardom.  In the film, Sting states that luck plays a large role in determining who becomes famous and who becomes a backup singer.

Twenty Feet From Stardom was a very enjoyable film which told the story of a group of people whose contributions to music and even existence are frequently overlooked.

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