Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Seattle International Film Festival has maintained a welcoming low profile despite its size (at 25 days it is the longest and largest film festival in the country) and growing reputation. Growth is something of an imperative for the modern film festival, which seeks increased relevance each year, more world premieres and red carpets, greater revenues for the host city. Whether intentionally or not, Seattle has remained a cinephile’s delight, and at 40 most closely resembles Toronto’s TIFF—inaugurated as that city’s “Festival of Festivals,” a showcase culled from the festival circuit, also in the mid-1970s—at say 19, before it changed its name and went Hollywood. It’s a good look.
This year SIFF comprised over 450 films, arranged into shop-friendly categories like “Make Me Laugh,” “Thrill Me,” and “Open My Eyes.” The galas and special presentations, including Boyhood, Dior and I, The Fault in Our Stars, and They Came Together, tended to be films on the cusp of wider release. On the last day of the festival, a final screening of the latter, David Wain’s attenuated spoof on the common romantic comedy, filled Seattle’s historic Egyptian theater with the late-brunch crowd. For the following screening, Abuse of Weakness, Catherine Breillat’s brittle survey of self-loss and exploitation, Wain’s rowdy audience was almost entirely replaced with a more somber group.
Regarding Susan Sontag
Notable among the documentaries showing at SIFF was Regarding Susan Sontag, in which Seattle has a small but terribly potent role. It was to Seattle that Sontag traveled in 2004, desperately ill with a rare blood cancer, to undergo an experimental treatment. It was in Seattle, her son David Rieff describes, that Sontag received a death sentence, in a hospital room overlooking Mount Rainier. She screamed when her doctors told her the treatment had failed: “But this means I’m going to die!” Even more than writing, the film suggests, what Sontag most loved to do was live.
Nancy Kates’s documentary is a reflective look at the life of one of the last American writers to persuasively hold the title of “public intellectual.” Executed in standard biographical style, with archival footage (some gems, including her early Sixties walk-on in an obscure French film) and talking heads, Regarding Susan Sontag can’t help but package its subject, and this process of bundling and shaping has its own interests. Kates, for example, spends significant time reconstructing Sontag’s love life, something Sontag’s sister says she kept a kind of half-secret to the end. Kates connects Sontag’s lesbianism, and more broadly her access to gay subculture, to the thinking behind such essays as “Notes on Camp,” and its influence on the thinking that followed. Still, the recurrent appearance of Harriet Sohmers Zwerling—the only remaining point, in addition to Sontag and playwright María Irene Fornés, in an old love triangle—grows uneasy, as though the recollections of one early lover might suggest an entire sexuality.
But then it is the nature of even the most objective-minded documentary to slant and ply its subject matter, something that stayed in mind as I watched Trace Amounts, Eric Gladen and Shiloh Levine’s investigation into the possible connection between autism and childhood vaccines. Gladen began researching the subject after connecting his own sudden illness to a possible mercury poisoning, and lays out in coherent and lucid fashion his argument that using mercury as a vaccine preservative is unnecessary and in fact might be doing great harm. Gladen’s great stress on the unreliability of even the “hardest” scientific information and the pliability of facts can’t help but ricochet throughout Trace Amounts, and not strictly in his favor. Which is not to dismiss the information as presented, much of which is alarming, but to point out the difficulty of achieving clarity, especially via documentary, on a subject as personally and politically charged as this one.
SIFF had a few gala presentations—including Jimi: All Is by My Side, John Ridley’s Jimi Hendrix biopic—but only one “Gay-la,” a traditional slot this year filled by the rather tiresome Nia Vardalos vehicle Helicopter Mom. Salomé Breziner’s sexual-identity comedy made its world premiere at SIFF, the story of a mother (Vardalos) so overbearing that she can’t wait for her son (Jason Dolley) to decide whether he’s gay, straight, or somewhere in between, especially not when there is a scholarship for gay students on the line. Where it concerns Vardalos and her truly egregious behavior (she “outs” her son to the entire school and threatens the young woman on whom he is crushing), the tone of this film sours; despite otherwise genial performances this harshness makes the rest of the film tough to enjoy. The handling of the sexual politics in play is similarly glib, making Helicopter Mom an odd choice for a presentation designed to highlight (rather than travesty) LGBT themes.
You Must Be Joking
Another comedy, You Must Be Joking, made its world premiere to less acrid effect. Director and star Jake Wilson collaborated with co-star Sas Goldberg on the story of a woman misspending her youth, and her dreams of being a stand-up comic, working as a Manhattan paralegal. Goldberg and Wilson (who plays her gay best friend) bring the necessary charisma to a story as friendly to canned humor as it is to genuine freshness, making You Must Be Joking distinctly sweet as well as funny.
This year’s program included films from over 70 countries, and the foreign selections made up most of my viewing highlights, notably Polanski’s beguiling Venus in Fur and Rebecca Zlotowski’s vital Grand Central, in which Léa Seydoux and Tahar Rahim play workers in a nuclear power plant who begin an illicit affair. Lucky Seattle to have had them, among many others, to sample from this spring, where any number of festivals were contained, for considered and considerable viewing pleasure, within this single, great big one.