SBIFF Diary, March 11: Peter Case Performs Live

Artist Sang and Played After a Screening of 'Peter Case: A Million Miles Away'

There’s something special about the rare occasions when music documentary screenings at SBIFF segue into actual performances by the subject we’ve been spending time with onscreen. The “reel” morphs into the “real,” ushering in a wave of extra-strength veracity. In recent years, that effect has occurred with Jakob Dylan and Sérgio Mendes onstage at the Lobero Theatre. We can now add another example of the list as of Friday afternoon, thanks to Americana legend and respected troubadour Peter Case.

Peter Case | Credit: Courtesy

After the world premiere of director Fred Parnes’s soulful and thorough documentary Peter Case: A Million Miles Away, the director and producers of the film showed up, as did Case, guitar in tow. Case has played the Lobero stage many times as part of the legendary Sings Like Hell series, named after Case’s 1993 album. He claims that Sings Like Hell was his first album that made any money. But as an artist who decided to go solo many years ago, he travels light and can light up any space. That includes the front area of a multiplex theater such as the Metro 3.  

The charismatic artist confessed that he hadn’t touched his guitar or played music “out” during two years of pandemic life, then quickly broke into a song-and-a-half with his open-tuned guitar. He played “Every 24 Hours” and a fragment of “Who’s Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile,” the song which opens the documentary. 

Case is a cult hero in the Americana world and a musician’s musician. But his story and sound remain only modestly known to the general public. His one song recognizable to a broader audience is “Million Miles Away” (hence the film’s title), from his influential power-pop band The Plimsouls. 

The film draws on archival footage, fresh in-studio material, and insider interviews, including conversations with Chuck Prophet, Ben Harper, Van Dyke Parks, Mitchell Froom, and Steve Earle. Parnes does a stellar job of filling in gaps even die-hard fans might have missed. 

Case’s story begins in the tiny town of Hamburg, New York, close to Buffalo, and finds him heading west to San Francisco, where he co-created the melodic punk outfit The Nerves, before landing in Los Angeles and starting the Plimsouls in the late ’70s. 

In 1986, Case went solo, exploring his lifelong passion for country blues, folk, and unplugged rock ‘n’ roll, at a time before solo mode was popular. The long-haul story also includes frustrations with Geffen Records before finding relative happiness at smaller labels, heart bypass surgery, and an all-star 65th birthday celebration at the iconic McCabe’s in Santa Monica, one of Case’s regular haunts.

At the Metro, Case also made an impromptu run-through of “Act Naturally,” the classic Buck Owens tune covered by the Beatles, “They’re gonna put me in the movies,” he crooned, tongue-in-cheek. “They’re gonna make a big star outta’ me … all I gotta do is act naturally.” 

Acting naturally comes naturally to Case, one of his charms.


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THE FRENCH CONFECTION

There’s a tradition at SBIFF that goes back to its earliest days of offering a crowd-luring bit of comic French froth. This year that film is writer-director Emma Benestan’s Hard Shell, Soft Shell. It’s a refreshing female perspective on the traditionally male genre. In this case, the driving narrative force is a romantic comedy relationship dance with a group of jocular males spicing up the mise-en-scène. Romantic alliances rotate, with plenty of fizzy comic banter along the way.

Az, an oyster farmer, loses his TV actress girlfriend to a suave actor, only to try to win her back through the agency of a faux girlfriend, Lila, who also trains our protagonist in dance and poise. Who’s zooming and ultimately wanting who becomes the film’s slippery slope and primary attraction. Needless to say, the title Hard Shell, Soft Shell, applies to oysters and the gallery of central characters.   

Comic relief and feel-good sauces also figure into two other fine French films this year, despite their sometimes deadly serious intents. 

Renowned veteran director François Ozon’s Everything Went Fine (Tout c’est bien passé) is based on the book by Emmanuèle Bernheim, who also wrote the screenplays for Ozon’s films Swimming Pool and 5×2. The story concerns the real end-of-life saga of the incurably ill Andre Bernheim, who insisted on having his daughter help him end it, leading to a legal suicide clinic in Switzerland. Cajoling and consoling don’t soften his stubborn insistence on assisted suicide, but there are many urbanely humorous moments within the agonizing. Just as her book paid respects to her late father, Between Two Worlds also becomes Ozon’s memorial nod to his collaborator, who died in 2017. 

A female writer — played by no less an icon than Juliette Binoche — is also at the center of Between Two Worlds. Our heroine is surreptitiously slumming in the mundane world of cleaners to research a book on strained conditions in the workforce. She ends up cleaning ferries on the English channel and develops a tight bond with several colleagues in the industry. Emmanuel Carrère directed the film, and it makes a sideways connection to the dramatic genre in which a disguised central character establishes deep emotional relationships in an alien context. In keeping with the formula, a sense of betrayal erupts when the writer’s identity is accidentally revealed. However, Carrère opts, perhaps wisely, to end on a suspended note rather than a tidy wrap-up or a happy, forgiving rapprochement. Maybe it’s a French thing.

A BITTERSWEET AND FUNNY DANISH DELIGHT

Considering the modest component of easy-to-love comedic entries in this year’s SBIFF program, one can’t ignore the unique and eccentric pleasures of the Danish film Miss Viborg. In her film debut, Ragnhild Kaasgaard plays the protagonist, Solvej, a plus-sized former Miss Viborg. Viborg is a city in central Denmark. Now 61, her life consists of compulsive eating, daily rituals, caring for her compact dog, dabbling in ham radio, and riding her scooter around town illegally selling prescription drugs for a living. Her life’s backstory is revealed only towards the film’s end. Solvej’s existence deepens with the inclusion of an adolescent neighbor’s increasing role in her life and the prospects of a lorry driver’s romantic interest, as well as a bundle of cash gone missing.

The film’s deceptively light atmosphere and unexpected pockets of poignancy are reminiscent of two of director-writer Marianne Blicher’s admitted influences, Wes Anderson and Percy Adlon.

The disarmingly confident first-time filmmaker spoke about her priorities in the post-screening Q&A with programming director Claudia Puig. “In my work,” she said, “I have to have three things. First, there is the dramatic part and humor in the vessel. Then I have the design and the aesthetics in place.” To that end, Blicher’s film is a sparklingly visual piece, attentive to the color and composition of each shot in part thanks to cinematographer Martin Munch. Referring to the impoverished neighborhood in Viborg where she shot the film, Blicher said, “We wanted to make a fairytale in the ghetto.”

As the Q&A wound down late on Friday night, Blicher summoned up a more significant, possibly even global, notion. “If we use humor in our daily lives,” she said, “maybe we could move mountains.”


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