Whatever one can make of the tangled espionage plot maze that is Hong Kong film The Silent War, and for what that maze is ultimately worth in the artistic overall scheme, director Alan Mak’s lavish ‘50s-ear period piece is a delight to eyes, and especially ears. At the center of the spy yarn is a supra-sound-sensitive piano tuner inducted into clandestine service, and the resulting film is one of the more sound-centric wonders and mise en scenes of the SBIFF program. In a few dazzling composite shots, the camera’s eyes leads us surreally through labyrinth’s of multiple settings, following the lead of his highly-attuned ears. That’s entertainment, of the slightly sonic sort.
(Another notable and creepily sound-tuned film this year is the French film Maddened by His Absence, in which the dank industrial whir in the basement where William Hurt spends much time lurking reflects his troubled mental state).
In other sound news this year, the second annual “Cinesonic” sidebar of the schedule is another well-stocked bounty of music-related films. No doubt, the Dave Grohl-directed Sound City is the closest thing to a masterpiece on that list, a history-meets-present day wonder – which shifts from objective remove to an direct integration of filmmaker and subject (Grohl actually buys the beloved Neve Console mixing board and gives it a good run for its money, with no less than Sir Paul McCartney in the room). One of the great films of this festival, and one of the best rock films ever made, Sound City is a must-see and hear for any musician, or pop music fan of the past 30 years.
By that high standard, Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation, directed by Canadian Laura Archibald, is a much duller affair, a rehashing of material already amply covered in books, films, and re-polished collective Boomer memory. But it nonetheless paints a mostly engaging portrait of a scene highly influential on pop culture in its early ‘60s wake. There is an elephant in the room of this subject, and Archibald only gives a fleeting glimpse of said pachyderm: of course, we’re talking about the man Bob Dylan, the greatest legend to have emerged out of the Village “ferment.” As we hear from interviewee Kris Kristofferson (another ‘60s Village-spawned success story), “Dylan did as much for the Village as the Village did for Dylan.”
But lacking any direct involvement from Saint Bob, whose slightly surreal account of the period and scene is well laid-out in his book Chronicles, Vol. 1, the filmmaker instead draws on some vivid vintage footage and stills, giving a strong sense of the atmosphere, mythic haunts, and telling testimony from the likes of Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, John Sebastian, and Steve Earle, among others reeling in the years and memories.
Meanwhile, later that night in the after-hours slot of Thursday’s schedule, it was a ripe time to head to Finland, and that special, dry Finnish humor, courtesy of the deliciously strange rock doc The Punk Syndrome. Finnish cinema can be a world unto itself, especially in the hands of a worldly master like Aki Kaurismaki, many of whose films have been screened at SBIFF over the years, and the man responsible for that other oddball rock flick charmer, Leningrad Cowboys Go America.
Director Juka Kärkkäinen’s saga of the rise and wobble of a Helsinki-based punk band, a motley combo of endearing mentally-challenged punkers called Pertti Kuikka’s Name Day, keeps delivering backstage and back story scenes which both perpetuate and refresh the old clichés of the often bland and self-congratulatory rock doc genre. These are not bigger-than-life, monomaniac rock stars, but humble and committed punkers, with a quirk or three (i.e. a song about podiatrists).
The leitmotif sound in the strikingly fine documentary More than Honey is a prevailing buzz, the film being all about bee biz. Swiss director Markus Imhoof’s More than Honey is more than just another nature doc, instead combining a valuable, globe-trotting exploration of the endangered state of bees with seductive and often macro-close-up visuals and a sense of engagement from beginning to end. Imhoof and team move between the Swiss alps to Visalia, California’s almond fields to China, where migrant workers painstakingly pollinate plants in areas where bees have been decimated, to Australian bee experiment zones to the southwest, where “Africanized” bees, drifted up from Brazil, are feared and also treasured, by intrepid beekeepers who know a superior bee when they see, and hear, one. More Than Honey is everything you wanted to know about bees but didn’t know who to ask, with an added visual splendor attached to the educational component.
Broken, British director Rufus Norris’ fine film starring Tim Roth, along with other impressive though lesser-known actors, could be compared to another angst and dark twists in the suburbs genre as seen in the Dutch film at the festival, The Deflowering of Eve van End, but minus the biting satirical humor. What it does have as a leavening agent is a warm spirit, between the emotional gnashing and grisly bits, concerning the innocence — however imperiled — of a child’s eye view of life. Echoes of films as varied as Little Children and Danny Boyle’s sweet Millions converge in a film where the ‘burbs are fit to ‘splode.