The 17th Palm Springs International Film Festival is well underway, and it seems like a good event to resume the blogging here at Filmjourney. Like last year, I wrote a couple dozen film synopses for the festival catalogue and obtained a fest pass in return, but PSIFF remains a mixed bag of an experience for me. While it’s certainly the best event for world cinema in Southern California (232 films from 72 countries), it occurs in a resort town primarily catering to gamblers, golfers, and wealthy retirees. I’ve only been here two days and I already miss the social diversity experienced at festivals in San Francisco and Toronto, not to mention my own neighborhood in Los Angeles.
Regardless, I’m seeing some great films, with more on the way.
Moonrise (USA, 1948)
Could there be a better way of inaugurating a film festival than a lush, restored classic by Frank Borzage? In many ways the cinema’s great romantic, Borzage’s impassioned melodramas in gauzy soft focus set the standard for tales in which love conquered all. What a pleasure it is to see this–one of Borzage’s last efforts and a rare film noir in his oeuvre, equal parts shadowy guilt (lensed by Psycho‘s cinematographer, John L. Russell) and a tribute to transcendent amour. In a matter of moments, the famous opening sequence establishes the protagonist’s backstory: his father was executed for a crime, he has suffered from inherited guilt and years of social marginalization, and is currently in the midst of a brawl with a lifelong tormentor. A viscerally psychological and intimate film about fate versus choice, the heart of Moonrise can be summarized with one of its many memorable lines: “To resign from the human race may be the worst crime of all.” Fortunately for the protagonist (and the audience), Borzage offers an alternative.
Sex and Philosophy (Tajikistan, 2005)
Iranian filmmaker and cinema activist Mohsen Makhmalbaf has recently set up shop in Tajikistan (north of Afghanistan), a country once incorporated into the Soviet Union that survived a civil war in the ’90s but has recently simmered. Makhmalbaf (who founded the first Didar Film Festival in the capital) has fashioned his latest film as a tribute to Tajikistan’s rich song and dance culture; it’s a lively and witty musical of sorts addressing, well, sex and philosophy, presented through vivid and surrealist imagery. It was also apparently the single most offending film of the festival so far for reasons entirely beyond me–scores of viewers walked out of the film in several waves, typically during the more abstract sequences. I can only chalk this up to misplaced expectations by an unadventurous crowd hoping for a casual who-knows-what on a Saturday evening, because I found the film completely entertaining on many levels. From clever motifs (stopwatches marking romantic fervor, enflamed–but doomed to expire–candles) to playfully erotic substitutions for explicit sexuality (washing another’s hair, caressing hands, lovers listening to heartbeats), the film is a visually assured and stylish meditation on the lifelong implications of fleeting passions.
The Death of Mister Lazarescu (Romania, 2005)
Five minutes into this closely observed and riveting film you might think its title is a spoiler, but don’t worry–Lazarescu and his death are virtual McGuffins for the film’s ultimate concern: the various ways people contextualize and respond to the man and his health crisis. Despite his self-diagnosis and requests for specific aid, everyone–relatives, neighbors, paramedics, specialists, and surgeons–offers their own interpretations and judgments. Lazarescu is a sponge for their social as well as medical assumptions. Characters begin to solicit his opinions only after he begins drifting out of consciousness, and filmmaker Cristi Puiu charts this maelstrom of human response with terrific immediacy. Rushing from one overcrowded hospital to another, his caretakers and analysts reveal varying shades of confusion and expertise, professionalism and exhaustion, empathy and callousness, as the night inexorably progresses. The film’s evocation of the emotional and psychological effects of time is stunning; by the end, the characters perform their jobs in a somnabulist haze of late night ethics.