As one who has caught at least parts of most SBIFF tribute nights for the entire run of the festival, I can say that the night out with Martin Scorsese on Monday at the Arlington may have been the most fulfilling and exciting of all. The caveat here, of course, is that I count myself as part of the rabid Scorsese fanbase and a part of the rabid cinema art form fanbase, which are connected issues. Thinking of logical echoes in the SBIFF annals, Leonardo DeCaprio was honored on this very stage several years ago, coming off his rightfully praised work on Scorsese’s The Aviator.
As we were reminded, from a direct source, on Monday night, Scorsese’s life has been about film, with his encyclopedic knowledge of and love for all manner of films, and putting his money and efforts where his heart is, preserving and promoting films from throughout the medium’s history. Not coincidentally, that is also a theme of the director’s current claim to fame, the wildly fine and widely beloved Hugo, half of which is a paean to seminal film artist and crazed experimentalist and shaman Georges Melies (played by Ben Kingsley, who grandiloquently presented Scorsese with the American Riviera Award this night).
It all began at the beginning, with his becoming an addict as an asthmatic child to studying and teaching at NYU (after a brief flirtation with seminary school), using DIY pluck to create his early masterpiece Mean Streets and then a series of films ranking in the upper echelon of films ever made, especially those made with his actor foil Robert DeNiro: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and, for my money, King of Comedy. It was fascinating to watch the personally selected range of clips and retrace some key moments in the Scorsese filmography, from the snappy rapport between Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro in Mean Streets to DeNiro’s virtuoso improvisation from Taxi Driver (“You talkin’ to me?”), replete with the great — and final — score by master film composer Bernard Herrmann, who died the night after conducting the final scoring session.
Music is always key, and a true love for Scorsese, and at the Arlington he made references to musical form, rhythm, and choreography in such details as the kinetic and painful power of the fight sequences in Raging Bull (which took 10 weeks to shoot nine onscreen minutes in the film) and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s dazzling, and famous, long tracking shot through the Copacabana in GoodFellas. On literal musical terms, he showed a clip of Muddy Waters in The Last Waltz and a snippet from his Bob Dylan doc No Direction Home.
Onstage, Scorsese let his nimble, restless mind wander, punctuating his asides and liberal film history references with the verbal mannerism “in any event” to get back on track to whatever question from Leonard Maltin or subject was at hand. More than any other SBIFF tributee in memory, Scorsese covered more ground in terms of the history and art form of cinema over the course of his “this is your life” toast. He has always had a love-hate relationship with mainstream Hollywood moviethink, as might be expected from a film devotee (and deity) whose short list of favorites includes John Cassavettes’s Shadows (which he said inspired him to just jump into filmmaking, on the cheap and with DIY fervor) and the ascetic beauty of Robert Bresson films, especially Diary of a Country Priest, Mouchette, and Balthazar. Netflix that, homies.
He’s 69 now and going extra-strong with the Hugo phenom, which everyone knows was this sometimes tough guy director’s valentine to his 12-year-old daughter, also a budding cineaste. Weaving a tapestry of memories and the ever forward-thinking thrust of new ideas, Scorsese summarized his life so far by alluding to his own path and the nature of the Hugo beast, a passionate matter of “moving forward but working back to the origins of cinema.” It was hard to imagine a more ideal forum for Scorsese’s retrospective and sermon than at a film festival, and particularly the one we proudly call our own.
What’s in a name and a notion: So in planning out the day’s screenings on the fly, I thought I’d scoot up to the Lobero for the Monday early afternoon slot to catch this odd-sounding documentary, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, quickly to learn that this “doc” features Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt and is directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Quickly adjusting to the new info, I figured this is one of Hallstrom’s heartwarmingly idiosyncratic numbers, like My Life as a Dog and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
Short story long, the new Hallstrom film, a slick “coming soon to a theater or drive-in near you” British production about a wealthy sheik’s outlandish plan to orchestrate salmon fishing in the Yemeni river, moves through its early comic fizz, as all involved — including us in the audience — do double-takes over the prospect of the title and premise. The deeper we get into the film, an enjoyable and good-looking film with enjoyable and good-looking talent, moves into its real m.o., as a moody sweet romantic picture, with love in the margins moving toward the center. Thus, Salmon ends up leaning into the mushier end of the Hallstrom spectrum, and that’s not an entirely bad thing.
Quirkiness yields to emotional warmth in a very different way in one of the odder, more darkly comic ducks in the festival schedule, the Irish film Behold the Lamb, from writer-director John McIlduff. With a dry, black-ish humor and life-on-the-outskirts gruffness guiding the film, with a pinch of Beckett here and there, the woozy task/trip narrative strangely pulls you into its world quite nicely. We accept the absurd mis en scene involving drifters, tangled family knots, and an innocent lamb used for less than innocent purposes. Effectively scruffy visual and production qualities are coated by a lovely chamber-esque musical score, a nice relief from the usual movie music froufrou we hear too much of (as in, for instance, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen).
A different, more visually gleaming rogue’s tale this way comes with the picaresquely charming Belgian film Les Geantes (The Giants). Writer-director Boudi Lanners’ brave and beautiful and sometimes raucously funny film, about two adolescent brothers living on their own in their departed grandfather’s country house with their rascalish friend in tow, savors the old mischievous wiles of tracking boys truly being boys without the hindrance of parental or societal control. Of course, there are dark sides to that scenario of unprotected teen life, too, which gives an edge to the mischief. Lining the comic elements are the ravishing and beautifully shot natural splendor of the environs and an underpinning of sadness over the fate of these wild child free spirits. But we suspect, from the self-reliant pluck of the characters, they’ll make it all work.