Saturday Night At The Movies

SIFFting through cinema, Pt. 2

By Dennis Hartley

The 2009 Seattle International Film Festival is in full swing, so for the next week or two I wanted to take you along (especially since you helped make it possible for me, ahem).

Navigating a film festival is no easy task, even for a dedicated buff. This year’s SIFF is screening 392 features over 25 days. It must be great for independently wealthy slackers, but for those of us who work for a living (*cough*), it’s a bit tough finding the time and energy it would take to catch 15.68 films a day (yes, I did the math). I do take consolation from my observation that the ratio of less-than-stellar (too many) to quality films (too few) at a film festival differs little from any Friday night crapshoot at the multiplex. The trick lies in developing a sixth sense for which titles feel like they would be up your alley (in my case, embracing my OCD and channeling it like a cinematic divining rod.)

Some of the films I will be spotlighting will hopefully be “coming to a theatre near you” soon; there may be a few that will only be accessible via DVD. So let’s go SIFFting!

Welcome to my nightmare: Justin Hawkins IS Lord Sutch in Telstar

It’s somewhat ironic that I screened Telstar, a new biopic about the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady and then himself in 1967), just one day after a judge sentenced the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Phil Spector (whose career abruptly ended when he shot actress Lana Clarkson) to a term of 19 years to life in jail.

Similar to his American counterpart, the British-born Meek also reached his creative peak in the early 60s, and developed a signature studio “sound” that set his song productions apart from virtually everyone else’s. While the two shared an equally unpredictable and mercurial temperament, they were innovative in mutually exclusive ways. Spector’s much-heralded “Wall of Sound” was generated by utilizing elaborately staged “live” sessions, involving large groups of musicians assembled in cavernous, state-of-the-art studios. Meek, on the other hand, recorded piecemeal fashion, and produced most of his legacy in a tiny home studio, set up in a modest London flat. He would isolate musicians in different rooms in order to achieve very specific sounds for each instrument or vocal track, often utilizing overdubbing (SOP these days, but not at that time). Completely untrained (and unskilled) as a musician, his sonic experimentations were inspired by his obsession with outer space and informed by musical tonalities that came from, uh, “beyond”; his resulting forays have secured him a place as a pioneer in electronic music.

(OK, now engaging Music Geek Mode). One of my prized CDs is I Hear a New World-which was written, produced and conceived by Joe Meek (and recorded by “Rod Freeman and the Blue Men”) which I described thusly in a 2003 Amazon review:

Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson drop acid in a recording studio on the dark side of the moon, and the resulting session yields something that sounds very much like this long lost Joe Meek album. "I Hear a New World" was a more literal title than you might think, as the voices in his head were soon to drown out the sounds of the Muse for the tragically doomed Meek… Informed music fans will intuit snippets of templates here and there for the Residents, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream or even more recent offerings from Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. The fact that Meek bore a spooky physical resemblance to director David Lynch certainly adds fuel to his already eerie aura.

Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time). The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who adapted the screenplay along with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless, flamboyant performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his stage role as the tortured Meek).

In fact, the first 15 minutes of the film are infused with a door-slamming exuberance and manic musical energy that I haven’t seen since the memorable opening salvo of Julien Temple’s love letter to London’s late 50s pop scene, Absolute Beginners. Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes are more akin to the denouement in Taxi Driver. Then again, if you are already familiar with the story of Meek’s trajectory into paranoia and madness, you go into this film with the foreknowledge that it is not likely to sport a very happy ending.

The bulk of the film delves into the more soap opera-ish aspects of Meek’s personal life, like his stormy relationship with his protégé/lover Heinz Burt (JJ Field), a middling singer/guitarist who Meek had hoped to manufacture into the next Eddie Cochran (the plan didn’t work). In fact, one of Meek’s greatest tragedies was how he squandered a lot of his potential with missed opportunities, unfortunate judgment calls and misdirected energies. The most well-known example is reenacted, which is the time that Meek turned down an opportunity to produce some sessions for a certain (then relatively unknown) Merseyside combo managed by a Mr. Brian Epstein. I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on portraying Meek’s genius in the studio, but you can’t have everything.

Still, I got a kick out of the vivid recreations of performances by early 60s rock luminaries like Gene Vincent and Screamin’ Lord Sutch (who was a major influence on Alice Cooper). It’s during those moments (and the sporadic glimpses of Meek working his studio magic) that the film really comes alive. O’Neill’s performance is a real tour-de-force, and he is ably supported by some other fine turns, particularly from Tom Burke, who plays the supremely odd and spooky Geoff Goddard, who worked as an in-house songwriter for Meek (as well as a kind of “medium” for helping him retrieve some of those pop hooks from “beyond”). James Corden is quite engaging (and frequently provides some much-needed levity) as Meek’s long-suffering session drummer, Clem Cattini. The ubiquitous Kevin Spacey (who is featured in at least 3 SIFF entries this year) is also on hand as Meek’s chief investor, Major Banks. I hope this film finds distribution.

Previous posts with related themes:

The Killing of John Lennon/Control

The Gits

Kurt Cobain: About a Son

The Devil and Daniel Johnston/Mayor of the Sunset Strip

Goin’ out of my head: You're Gonna Miss Me : A Film About Roky Erickson, Derailroaded-The Mind of Larry Fischer, A Skin Too Few-Nick Drake, Brian Wilson - I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, Hated , Stardust, Pink Floyd , New York Doll, The Nomi Song, Hard Core Logo, Still Crazy, Eddie and the Cruisers, Phantom of the Paradise, DiG!

Eccentric ladyland: Giovanni has his hands full in Mid-August Lunch

And now for a palette cleanser…a wonderful slice-of-life charmer from Italy called Mid-August Lunch (aka Pranza di ferragosto). The film was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the gangster drama Gomorrah, which I reviewed here). Slight in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. Giovanni doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of her is his “job”. He says that without a hint of irony; in fact Giovanni seems to enjoy being his mother’s fulltime caregiver. He is the quintessential “good son”, from cooking her a fresh breakfast in the morning to tucking her in at night.

Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his almost saintly countenance is put to the test when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion to the countryside with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent due on the apartment, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up the next day with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call to give him a routine checkup, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy). The setup is kind of like an “inside-out” variation on Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, now that I think about it.

This is one of those magical little films where you’re not constantly being reminded that there’s a person behind the camera making “life” happen, but rather, life seems to be happening around the person behind the camera (if you catch my meaning). It’s all the little moments that really make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying some white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Fellini's Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.

Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush…

Just a couple quick mentions here about more films to watch for. I can’t give you the full review of these yet, because the press is requested to “hold reviews” on those SIFF entries that have already found distributors and are all set for release in the near future.

Shrink is a dramedy starring Kevin Spacey as a psychiatrist who is just as screwed up as his patients, who are primarily hotshot L.A. showbiz types. I think you will be hearing a lot of buzz about this one, so keep on the lookout for it. As I said, I can’t tell you much more, but I will say that it’s a classic Spacey performance, a la American Beauty. Shhh!!

Tetro is the latest from Francis Ford Coppola, and it’s a return to form (in some ways-shhh!!). “Family” (in all its guises) has been a pet theme over the years for Coppola, and this film is no exception. It’s an operatic melodrama about two brothers (Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich) and the dysfunctional issues they have with their overbearing father (the great Klaus Maria Brandauer), who is a renowned composer and conductor. I’m no shrink, but um, Coppola’s dad is a composer and conductor (hey, I’m just saying!)

Next week: SIFF wrap-up!