Film Festival Memories
Welcome to a new series where we resurrect an idea from a few years ago in which your Seattle Film Critics answer questions and provide insight into their personal taste and history with the world of film. Each edition of Seattle Cinema Survey will feature responses from several of the critics in the SFCS and provide information for how you can follow more of their work. We hope that this series will at times be educational, at times entertaining, and always interesting. Thanks for reading!
To kick-off this revival we are focusing on the very thing taking up most of our time over the next month, the 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival. So in honor of SIFF (May 17 – June 10), we asked our critics to share some of their favorite and most memorable film festival experiences. Enjoy.
Through SIFF, I’ve seen some of my favorite films, like Kinji Fukasaku’s thrilling Battle Royale, which I saw at the Cinerama (Quentin Tarantino was in the audience), and Federico Fellini’s heartbreaking Nights of Cabiria, which screened at the Egyptian in a newly-restored print. I ran into a coworker and his wife at the latter, and we had a brief chat beforehand. Afterward, I was so choked up, I left without saying goodbye. I needed to spend some time with myself and my thoughts. I wouldn’t say that that was my best SIFF memory—there have been so many—but it was the film that made the biggest impact. In it, Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, plays a prostitute looking for love. She finds herself instead.
While I’ve been fortunate enough to cover many film festivals over the years, including Sundance, SIFF, and Fantasia, my most memorable experience traces back to 2014’s Port Townsend Film Festival. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was my first film festival. I fell in love with the collegial atmosphere; an opportunity to escape adulthood in a chaotic blur of excessive eating, drinking, and movie watching. What could be better, right? The first night of PTFF found me in the Starlight Room screening an adorable indie called “Life Inside Out.” If you’ve never been to the Starlight, I highly recommend it. Funky chairs of all denominations, snuggly blankets, and a fine assortment of liquors from which to choose. As for the film, it’s a modest little charmer about a middle-aged housewife re-connecting with her brooding teenage son through their shared love of music. It stars the real-life mother/son acting team of Maggie Baird and Finneas O’Connell. The film features several songs performed by the duo, both of whom are delightful. Finneas, in particular, is a talented musician and vocalist. After the screening, Maggie and Finneas stopped by the Starlight, eager to perform songs from the film for the enthusiastic (and slightly tipsy) audience. There was only one problem: Finneas wasn’t old enough to legally step foot inside of a drinking establishment! Undeterred, the entire audience filed outside the theater into the cramped three-story stairwell for an impromptu performance by Maggie and the under-aged Finneas. I’m sure a fire marshal would have put a quick end to the festivities, but luckily, there were none to be found this early Saturday morning (just past midnight). It was a quintessential ‘festival moment’ when a group of complete strangers are inextricably tied together by their shared love for cinema. Sadly, I was unable to record any footage of this event, but it’s a memory I will always cherish. Not only is it the moment when I fell in love with film festivals, but also the moment I committed myself to following this ‘film critic thing’ wherever it might lead. I guess that’s a good thing. 😉
I can’t narrow it down to just one, so here’s a brief list:
Some filmmakers I’ve not talked to but have smiled and nodded at: Jia Zhangke, Liu Jiayin, Heiward Mak, Ying Liang, Bi Gan, Chapman To, Aubrey Plaza, Wang Bing.
Some great archival films: Chimes at Midnight, The Apu trilogy (a marathon at the Pacific Place), The Big Road and Love and Duty, Rebel Without a Cause, The Color of Pomegranates (in a sold out Harvard Exit).
Great audience experiences: Olivier Assayas’s six hour Carlos in an absolutely packed, massive theatre in Vancouver; watching Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After with a sold-out crowd of mostly Chinese and Chinese-Canadians while the Umbrella protests were on-going in Hong Kong; seeing women applaud the mere appearance of Isabelle Huppert’s name not once but twice at VIFF in 2012 (for In Another Country and Amour); pretty much anytime watching a Hong Sangsoo movie with a crowd is amazing, but the Hill of Freedom screening in 2014 was exceptional, the crowd totally in tune and abuzz with its sense of humor.
First experiences: Some of my favorite filmmakers I discovered at festivals, the most obvious being Johnnie To, who I’d only vaguely heard of before wandering into an early morning show of Sparrow in 2008, and Hong Sangsoo, who’s Like You Know it All in 2009 is maybe the best film there’s ever been about being at a film festival.
The first memory that springs to mind was a midnight SIFF screening of the Japanese rock and roll zombie movie “Wild Zero” in 2000. It was packed house at the Egyptian on a Friday or Saturday night. They delayed the screening because the lines for the bathroom were so long. The energy was off the charts, people bounced off the walls, and the whole place erupted when Guitar Wolf tells Ace, “Love has no borders, nationalities, or genders! Do it!” It still stands as one of my favorite movies of all time. (I tracked down a janky bootleg VHS copy, and when it finally hit DVD in 2003, along with a built-in drinking game, I walked to Scarecrow, rented a copy, watched it four times with various friends, and bought my own copy when I returned the rental.) It was raucous and fun and no one had cell phones—everything a midnight movie should be. It also introduced me to a movie I now love and that I wouldn’t have seen anywhere else, at least not for years, which is everything a film festival should be.
Throughout my years covering Sundance and SXSW, I’ve experienced no shortage of memorable movie premieres, parties and interviews; endless days of up to 6 film screenings and severely limited sleep (my favorite lineup of all time probably being my day at Sundance ’14 that started at 8 AM with the world premiere of ‘Boyhood’ and ended with a midnight screening of the world premiere of ‘The Guest’). In terms of memorably moments, sneaking into the premiere of ‘Furious 7’ by hiding out in the bathroom after ‘Spy’ is definitely top of mind but in terms of pulling back the curtain and seeing how the sausage is made, nothing can top my experience at the premiere of Seth Rogen’s ‘Sausage Party’. A lot of movies come into festivals with “work in progress” versions of their films but that usually means they’ll edit out a few jokes here or there from the final product. This creation was in a league of its own. There were entire sequences that had not yet been drawn, colorized, or rendered; with storyboard outlines playing on the screen to accompany the voice actors for minutes at a time; there was no score; the whole thing was about as far from a finished product as you could imagine and yet the whole audience was still in stitches. It was like being invited over to a filmmakers house to privately screen a legitimate work in progress. That night will go down as one of those experiences you can only have at a proper film festival.
Watching ‘La La Land’ in Los Angeles at the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in IMAX is about as perfect of an experience as possible for such an incredible film. The theater itself is an iconic Hollywood landmark – and the fact that it was a centerpiece feature of AFI FEST meant this wasn’t just another festival screening – this was an event. The second I walked out into the cool LA, autumn air, I knew with absolute certitude that I had not just experienced the best film of the year – I had just seen one of my favorite films of all time. The film consumed my every thought and filled me with every emotion, to the point where I really had to compose myself for the next movie screening that night. That was the first of 8 times I saw ‘La La Land’ in theaters. It still resonates with me to this day – but that first screening, at such a special theater, in such a special city, is my most memorable film festival experience.