My second bad habit is a left over from my eighties-era teenaged contrarianism. I have a terrible tendency not to want to see the movies that everybody else wants to see. If I hear a warning that a movie will sell out, I will deliberately not get tickets to it. Let the fashion victims see the popular movies! I'm going there to find diamonds in the rough. hmmmph! As a result I only end up seeing two or three lukewarm movies and leaving slightly dissatisfied.
This year, determined, despite my capitulation to my usual habits, to get the most out of my film fest experience, I bought tickets to see at least one film every day of the festival, to try to overwhelm bad luck and bad habits by sheer magnitude. So far, the results haven't been encouraging.
Friday's temptation, Pink Ludoos, was a cliché-ridden mess whose high drama moments were mostly howlers. By the end of the film, the audience had relaxed and was just treating this South Asian magical realist melodrama as a comedy--it was much more comfortable that way. Aside from a poor script, clunky directing, and smoke-signals acting, I was kinda offended (or at least, intelligence-insulted) by the fact that the culturally enlightened (read: westernized) heroine and hero and spiritual advisor were light-skinned, while the more tradition-bound characters busy holding everyone back were distinctly dark-skinned. Maybe I'm being too hard on an indie flick ... naaaah. It was pretty bad.
Well, so much for the Asian American (or Canadian) narrative flick. I had greater hopes for the documentary I was to see on Saturday, I Was Born, But ..., something of a personal essay around punk rock, the underground scene, Joey Ramone's death, and Seam concert footage. The director of this piece was certainly far more ambitious and sophisticated than that of Pink Ludoos, however, not much more successful. Shots and editing that were meant to be meditative were just excruciatingly slow: why hold a static shot for thirty seconds when ten will have the desired effect without the undesired effect of putting the audience to sleep? The pace was glacial. Speaking of which, I couldn't tell if the Seam concert footage was so incredibly poorly lighted because Seam shows--which I've never seen--are poorly lighted, or because the director didn't know how to light a concert scene, or because he thought it would be cool to make the audience wade through an unedited song's length of murky. I fell asleep. Twice. Worst of all, though, was the fact that this personal essay obsessed on the personal and forgot the essay part: i.e. gave us an undigested sampling of essentially meaningless personal anecdotes, without opening these up to broader connections with the world, the era, the times, the ethos ... ya know, the good stuff. I might have been too hasty, though, in walking out of the theater after an hour. Perhaps all these faults were mitigated by the genius of the last half hour. But if so, the director lost me before he could make his case, and that's a fault you can't recover from.
This afternoon things started lookin' up, though. Even though it sold out, and everyone on the Hyphen staff seemed interested in seeing it, I still gritted my teeth and went to see the popular Chinese Restaurants: Three Continents, a documentary about three Chinese restaurants in Madagascar, Norway, and Canada (which opened with two shorts on Chinese restaurants in England and the States). Chinese Restaurants confirmed my previous experience that documentaries are the best things at the SFIAAFF; full of fascinating historical background, sharp characters, and a great deal of graceful filmic narrative (ya know, the kind that lets gesture, voice and angle speak instead of voice over). I left that theater satisfied and hungry for more. Chinese Restaurants is playing again at the Kabuki on Thursday at 7:15. I definitely recommend it.
So what's the lesson here? Well, for one, buzz has to come from somewhere; it can't hurt to listen to it a little. I'm not saying that you (or I) shouldn't take a chance on an obscure or unpopular film or director. Just go prepared, and leaven the schedule with a heavy dose of the tried and true.
And buy your tickets ahead of time.