BINGE & PURGE:  SIFF 2005 Image

The catch-phrase for this year’s Seattle International Film Festival is “Feast Your Eyes,” and the event’s poster art features a brilliant motif – cinema icons melding with culinary imagery in memorably original ways. A Japanese sumo wrestler adhered to rice by a seaweed strap is lifted by chopsticks. A sci-fi ray gun is encased by a square of green jell-o. Meanwhile, event t-shirts display other popular movie images impaled by a shish kebab stick, beneath the witty phrase, “Obskewer!”

But the slogan also suggests Forrest Gump at King’s Table, proclaiming, “Life is like a mystery buffet table – you never know what you’re gonna get.” Take a recent night’s back-to-back screenings at Capitol Hill’s Egyptian Theatre. Early evening was wrapped in the sentimental, bittersweet vibes of “The Thing About My Folks,” a Peter Falk comedy vehicle penned and produced by Paul Reiser. People hooted and howled at the clever rapport between a father and son forging an uneasy alliance, then wiped away cathartic tears as this charming road movie glided through its final, feel-good turn.

The pleasant vibes wouldn’t last. “Mysterious Skin,” Greg Araki’s horrifying, shattering study of child sexual abuse, transformed the Egyptian into a broken elevator descent towards hell. There were no tears following “Mysterious Skin” – just shock, sadness, and outrage over the onscreen loss of innocence endured by two teenaged boys still smarting from early childhood trauma. The SIFF audience drifted away from the theater like stunned zombies, reeling from this disorienting, two-film journey through uplift and outrage.

That one night of moviegoing can prompt so many contrasting emotions is testimony to the power of SIFF. And while this northwest smorgasbord of cinema might not boast the brand-name familiarity of Sundance, SIFF is actually the nation’s largest film festival. Want features? This three-week movie marathon has 273 of ‘em. Are short films your chosen entertainment entrée? Choose from 110 different selections during your theater-hopping between the half-dozen venues screening these movie morsels. Craving foreign films? Savor submissions from 59 different countries. And during these war-torn times, SIFF’s peaceful melting pot of different movie styles, languages, and perspectives is a reminder that people from all walks of life can assemble together for 25 days and share celluloid images in a peaceful, mutually respectful environment.

“Winged Migration” proved that audiences would flock in droves to theaters, much like its feathered subjects gathered for their mass airborne journeys to prime nesting grounds. Inevitably, a stampede of successive nature films is now among us. SIFF showcased “Deep Blue” and “March of the Penguins,” two gorgeously-filmed excursions into harsh lands seldom seen by human eyes. Co-directed by BBC Natural History Unit veterans Alastair Fothergill and Andy Byatt, “Deep Blue” is a feature-film counterpart to the duo’s “Blue Planet” television series.

Twenty experienced camera teams plumbed the waters of over 2,000 locations, including South Africa, Australia, Spain, Japan, and Galapagos, compiling 7,000 hours of footage over five years. During a recent phone interview from his UK homelands, Fothergill revealed that “Deep Blue” was much more than merely a rehash of its television counterpart. “We had over 3,000 hours of material for an 8-hour television series, taken down to 90 minutes for ‘Deep Blue,’” he explains. “There is a lot of stuff in the film that is not in the T.V. series . For example, we have a slow, lyrical sequence in the film with jellyfish that never would have survived the pace of television.”

Fothergill also explained that “Deep Blue” was designed to be an experience more emotional than educational. Indeed, viewers expecting a Marlin Perkins-style tutorial on the reproductive cycle of sea horses should look elsewhere, or surrender to the trance- inducing parade of aquatic eye candy dancing onscreen. Mandibles will dislocate from skulls as viewers gawk at whale sharks sucking up plankton like industrial-sized Hoovers. You’ll succumb to the giggles as an army of crabs rolls sand-balls with their pincers, like enthusiastic children assembling snowmen. You’ll fight back tears as a Grey Whale mother and her young offspring are stalked and slaughtered by Killer Whales. You’ll hiss as another pod of villainous Orcas hammers a shoreline strewn with seal pups, battering the benign prey like a Sith army sabering Jedi younglings.

These arresting, seldom-seen dramas are Shakespearean in scope, even if they’re played out by fish and fowl instead of Hamlet and Titus Andronicus. But how were they filmed? Was it by chance, or through professional calculation and technology? Fothergill concedes that state-of-the-art breakthroughs in sound editing and submersible watercraft helped to bring “Deep Blue” to life, but insists that good, old-fashioned research and persistence were the two most effective and reliable tools in his moviemaking arsenal. For instance, his ocean-based whale-finding crew depended on retired, Cessna-owning dentists in Monterey, California to report sightings of the Orca attack on Grey Whales. Meanwhile, an aquatic showstopper including simultaneous performances by diving Corish Shearwater birds, tuna-guzzling Marlin, and a surfacing, 30–ton Sei Whale was the end product of a lengthy waiting game. “There’s nothing modern or new about capturing it,” the co-director insists, “just the opportunity and time to persist day after day.”

For “March of the Penguins” director Luc Jacquet, his wildlife query was more centralized than that of Fothergill. Rather than plumb the ocean for Hairy Anglers, comb jellies, and Hammerhead Sharks, Jacquet set his sights on a specific target. “March of the Penguins” is an intimate, focused look at the eventful courtship of Emperor Penguins inhabiting the Antarctic. And while this more streamlined look at a specific type of animal might not have the dynamic span of “Deep Blue,” it provides a more informative, in-depth study of its subject. Meanwhile, the film has a dramatic charge equal to that of its deep-sea counterpart.

Morgan Freeman’s familiar, world-wise voice narrates “March of the Penguins,” which lowers us onto the thick March ice of the South Pole. Scads of these waddling birds enjoy the season’s final fair-weather days by gorging themselves on fish, in preparation for a grueling, 70-mile walk to suitable breeding grounds. The place of their birth, this chosen destination point features ice thick enough to accommodate their resulting offspring. What human analogy best fits this pre-mating ritual? Pumping iron at the gym in hopes of getting lucky at a local watering hole? Slapping on Brut Cologne before scoring a date at the corner meat market? Being fitted for a tuxedo prior to the Senior Prom? Tuxedos are an appropriate motif – the Emperor Penguins appear to wear them as a permanent fixture of fur and feathers.

Watching thousands of these beaked, black-and-white sea birds as they convoy together and travel across blinding white landscapes might come across as a boring, repetitive sight. Amazingly enough, Jacquet finds endless variations on how to film his flippered friends. When the flightless forms finally congregate at their birth place and pair up, the director films these cooing couples as they trace each others’ contours with beaks and foreheads. The mood is intimate and – well, yes… romantic.

However, like a tossed-off one night stand, these birds might easily justify that they’re more than just a quick roll on the ice. Following the courtship and mating, couples participate in a clumsy ballet of sorts, in which the hefty, resulting egg is passed from mother to father. One agonizing scene depicts a young couple who, in their haste to transfer the egg, break their precious cargo. The egg dies, confirming that their painstaking trek has all been in vain.

Meanwhile, female penguins are forced to backtrack their frosty steps. Having lost one-third of their body weight during courtship and egg-laying, these mothers-to-be must return to thin-iced terrain, where they can access the ocean and feed. Meanwhile, fathers endure 125 days without food, balancing eggs between feet and bellies while pushing against each other in a massive huddle to keep warm.

As “March of the Penguins” comes to a close, most viewers will no doubt feel a certain empathy and kinship for these marvelous, enduring creatures. Whether appearing comical, as when they skate across ice on their bellies in an effort to rest weary feet, or revealing their mortality, in a scene where one lone caravan-member is abandoned to die alone in the minus eighty degree snow, their behavior is remarkably… human.

The story continues in part two of BINGE & PURGE: SIFF 2005>>>

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