'EO' | Credit: Courtesy Skopia Film

SBIFF is a sufficiently large, diverse and broadly-intentioned festival that it serves many needs and tastes. Many crave the Hollywood celebrity factor and the English language programming. Some flock to social justice documentaries, and some seek out anything with a surfing theme. Some gorge on cinema of all stripes, taking advantage of this once-a-year cavalcade of film in our town, while others heed the plan of maybe catching one or two films during the fest.

And some of us enjoy many aspects of the festival, but mostly appreciate the international component of the program. Which is why the introduction of the new “International Directors Panel” this year — held at the Arlington on Sunday afternoon — is a great idea whose time has come, and should stay.

Festival head Durling, himself an avid fan of the international component of cinema and of this fest, presided over the all-star panel onstage, which included Oscar noms Colm Bairead (The Quiet Girl), Edward Berger (All Quiet on the Western Front), Lukas Dhont (Close), Santiago Mitre (Argentina, 1985) and veteran Polish director behind the miraculous Bresson-influenced Donkey’s eye view EO, Jerzy Skolimowski. Durling pointed out that Skolimowski was a co-writer on the classic early Roman Polanski film Knife in the Water.

And after going through each of the younger directors, it was the witty and wise Skolimowski who created a circular appreciation of the gathered artists. “I have seen all of their films and I love each one,” he said. “They are all the best films, adding with a smile, “including mine.”

He compared EO to the quiet films Close and The Quiet Girl, saying “I am in the same league, talking about things that are difficult to say in words. We tried to give a voice to the voiceless.” Skolimowski also expressed his admiration of Berger’s comment about trying to get various filmmaking factors behind the idea of “being in the stomach of Paul” (the haunted soldier protagonist in All Quiet). Getting into the stomach, heart and mind of characters is a key goal of cinema, here and especially abroad. 

Long Ago and No So Far Away

Just hearing the healthy smattering of Carpenters music in the latest in the line of Carpenters films and docs, Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection, fills the heart and ears with her highly personal form of timeless beauty and wonder. It reminds us that, whatever your musical taste or hipness code, hers was one of the great pop voices of all time. That makes her tragic early deaths of anorexia, at age 32, all the more painful, and her story all the more exploitable. 

Fortunately, this Randy Martin-directed doc is unauthorized, therefore without the truth-bending spin her brother Richard Carpenter might have forced upon it, had he been involved. All in all, it is a thorough and affectionately-made chronicle of Karen’s story, and yet one wishes there was less dwelling on her health issues and the demise we already know too much about. The music should be the thing. 

Still, we get valuable commentary from another late great pop chanteuse, and Santa Ynez local, Olivia Newton-John, Carney Wilson and Belinda Carlisle among others.

Somehow, there is a mainstreaming Hollywood polish to the film’s perspective. One of the fascinating aspects of the Carpenters cultural reach is that the musical splendor and creamy goodness broke through to listeners and artists beyond the pop realm, earning a latter-day artistic cache as heard on the Carpenters 1994 tribute project If I Were a Carpenter, which include a hauntingly whispery version of “Superstar” by Sonic Youth. 

Another legendary case of cultural love and observation came with what is possibly the most fascinating Carpenter film to date, Todd Haynes’ student film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (YouTube link), made with a true affection and in artfully clunky stop motion — with Barbie dolls. The new film features a few scenes from the Haynes project, and would have gained an interesting left-of-Hollywood perspective by including commentary from Haynes himself.

Quibbles and missed opportunities aside, Starved for Perfection manages to be an enlightening and educational contribution to the Karen Carpenter archives, and fan club — of which I’ve been apart since the days when it really wasn’t hip to admit to such fandom.

Andean Understatement

In a field of busy and louder cinematic distractions during the festival, sometimes, lower and quieter can win the race for our attention. so it goes with the Ron, simple and meditative Peruvian film Samichay, in Search of Happiness, from writer-director Mauricio Franco Tosso. Shot in black-and-white and mostly in remote Andean locations, the film proceeds like a rural neo-realist journey which demands that we relax our oversaturated senses and sense of time.

Once duly reprogrammed, we fall into the languid pace and minimalist narrative in this tale of an Andean peasant grappling with what to do with his humble, beloved cow Samichay (making this a timely addition to a cinema year which has given equal protagonist time to a donkey—in EO — and another bovine heroine in the remarkable British documentary Cow. Though shot primarily in an understated style, the appearance of a key 360-degree shot towards the finale sweeps us into an unexpected emotional swirl.

Samichay is yet another example of SBIFFs admirable programming of artistic and/or experimental Latin American films over the years, the kind of challenging films unlikely to find a home in multiplexes anywhere in the Americas. That’s what the self-respecting film festival is all about.

Who’s Afraid, Danish-style?

Very early in the marital slugfest that is the Danish film Tove’s Room, we recognize strong echoes of Edward Albie’s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In both cases, what was powerful on screen started out with a well-known stage play, Both pivot around mutually sadistic partners playing crew games with each other and flinging acidic wit, partly fueled by the presence of a terrorized innocent in the house.

In the case of this acid-laced Danish pastry of a film, directed by Martin Zandvliet and written by Jakob Weis, the true life background adds to the sting of the thing. Tove Ditlevsen was a highly regarded Danish writer, and by the time of this story’s early 1960s setting, she was a drug addict and sometime habitue of mental institutions, with a jealous and controlling newspaper man for a husband (shades of writer Shirley Jackson’s domestic quandary, seen in the 2020 film Shirley). A young idealistic aspiring novelist shows up to the Copenhagen apartment one afternoon, presumably for herring and aquavit and conversation about Rilke, with no idea about the bitter banter to come. 

At one point, Tove mocks the young writer’s distaste for the nasty goings-on, saying “oh you love all of this filth and fury. It’s like field work for you.” And in some way, those of us who enjoyed the film (many left) felt slight guilty pleasure pangs, for taking voyeuristic delight in the cynical gamesmanship. 

After Sunday’s screening, respected Danish actress Paprika Steen, looking much slimmer and healthier now, appeared for a Q&A, looking emotionally worse for wear. She seemed visibly shaken, this being her first time watching the finished film and remembering the cathartic hurdles involved in both her stage and screen versions. She apologized to the crowd, insisting “I’m really not sentimental, but this got to me.” Intense as the piece is, she confessed “it’s like a catharsis to be able to do this.”

Incidentally, Steen is also in Santa Barbara to present the U.S. Premiere of a new comedy, Fathers & Mothers (also written by Weis), which she directed. Of this dark comedy, she noted, “I promise it’s a lot nicer than the one you just watched.” But sometimes, a visit to the dark side, with the edgier dynamics more common to the theater than cinema, can bring its own transformative rewards.

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