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By KJ Doughton | June 2, 2009

Call it Communication Station.

At the Seattle International Film Festival Press Office, publicists scurry about from one laptop-lined desk to another. Flustered festival-workers sign out screener DVD’s to critics from The Stranger and Seattle Weekly. From the outside hallway, SIFF staffers introduce two online writers to the director of a controversial, highly touted documentary. Pushing phones against ears, other festival press gurus arrange future interviews between penmeisters and movie talent. The room is abuzz with human connections both physical and virtual.

In fact, human connected-ness, in all of its efficient, desperate, high-tech, and dysfunctional forms, might be the unofficial theme of the 35th Annual Seattle International Film Festival.

But wait a minute. How can I make this vague, er, “connection?” Featuring 392 films in 25 days, isn’t SIFF’s overwhelming buffet of film fodder the largest in the world, worthy of a thousand different angles or interpretations?

Well, sure. One could also argue that the event’s formal catch phrase, “Find the Unexpected,” is the SIFF theme for 2009. Legendary directors Spike Lee and Francis Ford Coppola are booked for tribute events (and to promote upcoming films “Passing Strange” and “Tetro,” respectively). Francis Ford Film Festival, anyone? What about Spike Cinema? The “Northwest Connection” series, dedicated to area works like Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday,” injects local color into SIFF’s latest cinematic palette. Maybe SIFF 2009 should be dubbed “Space Needle Cinema.”

But I digress. The sheer magnitude of SIFF cannot possibly be whittled down to one concept or vibe. It can only be reflected subjectively, through the eyes of its 150,000 attendees. Even so, consider how the struggle for genuine human connection dominates so many of this year’s onscreen selections.

Gala opener “In the Loop” might sound like a “Wag the Dog” style farce, with its canvas of political and military bureaucrats both seeking out and denying intelligence on an impending Middle East war. But it’s really a disturbing vision of communication breakdown. Characters don’t speak to one another, so much as bark, bite, and spit callous threats back and forth.

With jittery, handheld cameras, “In the Loop” thrusts us into the tense routine of British cabinet minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander). An Iraq invasion is brewing, and Foster’s on the air comment “war is unforeseeable” pisses off the already-abrasive director of communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). A joyless, screeching blowhard who addresses co-workers as “cocks and cunts,” Tucker exiles Foster to America, where his unpredictable wordplay is less likely to make a scene.

Once “In the Loop” arrives stateside, we’re introduced to an equally colorful canvas of Yank faces, including James Gandolfini as a crass military General, and Anna Chlumsky, all grown up since her adorable turn in “My Girl” opposite Macaulay Culkin. It’s Mimi Kennedy, however, who scores the loudest laughs as assistant secretary for diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy). When Clarke’s gums suddenly flare up and bleed profusely at the most inappropriate times, “In the Loop” shares in Monty Python’s British tradition of bizarre, laugh-or-cry humor.

More often, however, Armando Iannucci’s busy film plays like an international, sailor-mouthed version of “The Office.” Its quasi-verite style tosses viewers headlong into a disorienting, immediate stew of British and American politicos walking on eggshells to control, micro-manage, and manipulate information. It’s ultimately much ado about nothing, but perhaps that’s the point. Despite the million-mile-a-minute dialogue being volleyed about, precious little is understood or resolved. We’re talking faster than ever, but nobody’s listening.

In her mind-blowing documentary “We Live in Public,” filmmaker Ondi Timoner suggests that virtual interaction is trumping physical communication. With frantic editing and information-overload, “We Live in Public” acts as a cinematic shot of Broadband to the brain. Timoner’s compressed, exhausting film is sure to prompt uncomfortable anxiety as it asks disturbing questions about the price we’re willing to pay for online attention.

“We Live in Public” chronicles the freaky life of computer visionary Josh Harris, whose various Internet ventures predicted our current virtual love affair with Facebook, Myspace, and Youtube. In 1984, Harris arrived in New York City with $900 dollars. Within seven years, he had blossomed as a cyberspace pioneer with Jupiter Communications, an embryonic form of chat-room platform. By 1994, Harris had amassed a net worth of over 80 million dollars. With deeper pockets and a more fearless attitude, he unveiled Pseudo, the world’s first Internet television site, boasting to 60 Minutes reporter Bob Simon, “I’m in a race to take CBS out of business.”

As history would dictate, Pseudo never did take down CBS. In fact, it eventually went under as the New Millenium emerged to burst the dot-com bubble. Meanwhile, primitive phone modems had not yet given way to more efficient Broadband connections, making for one-frame-per-second images. Technology had not quite caught up with Harris’ ahead-of-the-curve vision. The way Timoner sees it, money was never the motive. “Josh spent massive amounts of money on an Internet network, before there was Broadband,” she explains during a press room interview. “He knew more than anybody that Broadband wasn’t gonna come along until 2000 at the earliest. And he didn’t care. He was more concerned with being first, than having a valid business.”

If “We Live in Public” had wrapped after establishing the pioneering spirit acting as Harris’ muse, it would still be fascinating. But Timoner is after much more. As Harris’ fame and fortune skyrocketed in the nineties, he also became known for eccentric “cultural history projects.” For “Quiet,” he enlisted over one hundred eccentric associates to share a modified Manhattan hotel “bunker,” complete with free food, artsy, Warholian parties, and shooting ranges. Living in cubicle-styled squares equipped with beds, cameras, and televisions, the “Citizens of Quiet” could monitor each other’s every move.

Sound self-indulgent and absurd? Consider this. Is being crammed into a cubicle, flipping surveillance monitor channels to observe every meal, shower, and orgasm emanating from this human beehive, any different than hunkering down in front of a PC, or a marathon of reality TV? With frightening accuracy, Harris suggested that “Quiet” would define a future fixation with online interactivity. He was right. The bunker stood as a physical metaphor for today’s Internet.

The bunker scenes prove a horrific glimpse at decadence run amok. Like an overly permissive parent intentionally spoiling his spawn, Harris encourages impulsive anarchy. An unsettling, walking-on-eggs dread sets in, as we wait for something bad to happen. An overzealous shooting range patron firing at fellow Citizens, perhaps? A rape? An overdose? The clinical, postmodern vibe of Harris’ human rat-cage is the antithesis of cozy. Sinister interrogators pry personal information from more submissive inhabitants, while jarring gunfire rings out nightly. With its weird melding of human flesh (often on display at bombastic, orgy-caliber parties) with inhuman, electronic metal (monitors, guns, wires), the ambiance of “Quiet” is equal parts David Cronenberg and Nine Inch Nails.

Harris’ legacy doesn’t end with “Quiet.” After the bunker was busted in a FEMA raid, he aimed the camera at himself. “We Live in Public,” an online web channel, invited the world to gawk at Harris and then-girlfriend Tanya living their mundane lives in an apartment rigged with surveillance cameras. Even the bathroom toilet bowl was not off-limits. Candid camera, indeed.

Like “Dig!,” Timoner’s 2004 rock doc chronicling the off rivalry between two competing bands, “We Live In Public” feels organic and spontaneous, like something growing out of its own unique story as the camera rolls. Timoner says that her initial focus was on the “Quiet” project, before the film took on a larger life as a time-capsule look at our current fascination with the Internet. “I think it’s the zeitgeist movie of the year,” Timoner proudly proclaims. It’s also a startling portrait of a lonely visionary hungering for human connection.

Hungering not for human connection, but for human flesh, zombies are perhaps the ultimate symbol of communication breakdown, and Tommy Wirkola’s “Dead Snow” gives us an entire Nazi battallion of ‘em.

There’s a proud, limb-shucking legacy of zombie movies out there. The visceral, kinetic, anything-goes playground of horror allows its shameless users carte blanche. “Discard your ids,” demands the keeper of all things Romero, Fulci, and Raimi. “There are no rules.” As a result, you get the gloriously crimson-soaked lawnmower massacre in “Dead Alive,” and the notorious “head giving head” sequence from “Re-Animator.” Let’s not forget the underwater, zombie-eating shark sequence from “Zombie,” either. I love this stuff.

I’m delighted to report that Scandinavian artery-slicer “Dead Snow” merits inclusion into the Undead Hall of Fame. Eager to unwind and take a break from the books, some hormone-fueled medical students pursue a recreational snow retreat. After making the fatal, foolish mistake of absconding with Nazi gold discovered in a remote mountain cabin, these would-be doctors fall prey to vengeful, uniformed officers of the Third Reich.

Director Wirkola obviously knows the zombie genre inside out – and isn’t afraid to pull its innards out farther than they’ve been pulled before. I mean this literally, as well as figuratively. In one brilliantly inventive scene, a character dangles from a cliff holding… not an Indiana Jones-style whip or frayed rope, but a gooey zombie intestine! Because Wirkola realizes that humor is the best chaser for over-the-top horror, he throws in plenty of jolt ‘n laugh moments.

My favorite? An unrelenting, undead Nazi ghoul stands on a hilltop, surveying the periphery for human victims. Unable to spot any future prey, he raises a pair of binoculars to undead eyes. Now wait a minute. Shouldn’t undead Nazi zombies have superhuman vision? The scene prompted howls of laughter, suggesting that perhaps “Dead Snow” was both the scariest and funniest film to screen so far at SIFF 2009.
Ein, Zwei, Die!!!

More to follow!

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