SIFF is now in session. Already wrapping up its second frenzied week, the Seattle International Film Festival 2013 has hit full roar… and it feels like a caffeine-fueled finals night at college. There’s some serious work involved. You’re up ‘til two in the morning for Midnight Adrenaline thrills like the already infamous “Fateful Findings” (which, based on early reviews, is a bona-fide contender for Worst Film Ever Made). Running between classes is a necessary evil (try catching a morning comedy at SIFF Cinema, then rushing to Capitol Hill’s Egyptian Theater for a noon-time thriller). On the upside, you’ll be educated about the cultural impact of regional icons like rock ‘n roll photographer Jini Dellacio (“Her Aim Is True”), and enlightened to the feminist-punk Riot grrrl movement (“The Punk Singer”). SIFF is worth the sacrifice.
I’m handing in some overdue homework written below. But with SIFF School continuing through June 9th, there’s plenty more to follow.
What Maise Knew
In “What Maisie Knew,” a 6-year-old girl becomes wise beyond her years as neglectful, self-centered parents plunge into a messy divorce. Treated like a relay baton, young Maisie (played with spectacular realism by Onata Preal) is handed off by her rock-star mom (Julianne Moore) and snooty art-dealer dad (Steve Coogan) to nannies, stepfathers, and teachers while they spar bitterly for custody rights. Maisie quickly learns how to navigate the emotional minefield building up around her, but beneath a stoic front, anger percolates from within.
Films about dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen. But “What Maisie Knew” is presented almost entirely from a child’s perspective, and it’s amazingly effective. We’re riding shotgun alongside Maisie as she’s whisked off to trial hearings. Later, we share her seat in a lonely preschool lobby. Waiting for tardy parents to drive her home, she stares sadly into traffic as unfamiliar cars inhabited by anonymous faces whiz by.
Much to their credit, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“The Deep End,” “Bee Season”) don’t let us off easy by creating black and white heroes and villains. Mom and Dad might be pathetic, but they’re also complicated people who truly love their child. Late in the film, Moore’s face registers a sudden shock of insight when her efforts to embrace Maisie are met with the recoiling arms and cold eyes of a daughter who’s fed up.
Will you leave “What Maisie Knew” with tear-stained eyes? Most likely, but not for the reasons you might think. There’s hope in these cold, muddy waters, as more benevolent, empathic forces watch from the periphery, eventually providing Maisie with the solace she deserves. There’s a lovely, ethereal light at the end of this tunnel, and we cheer our patient protagonist’s delight in finally feeling the sun. “What Maisie Knew” is an emotional masterpiece, a “Kramer vs. Kramer” amped up to the shrill, chaotic pitch of our modern world.
Jin, a 17-year-old girl and Kurdish freedom fighter (Deniz Hasguler), tires of the bone-rattling explosions laying waste to the mountainous forests around her. After abandoning her group of gun-toting, cliff-climbing comrades, Jin descends from the hills in search of solace.
“Jin,” the beautiful but redundant adventure film from Reha Erdem (“My Only Sunshine,” “Kosmos”), juxtaposes nature’s wild, pristine beauty with the jarring, destructive forces of mankind at war. Jin navigates past soldiers en route to town, encountering several kindred animal spirits along the way. Cliff-side caves are shared with a lumbering bear, and when Jin hides from her adversaries in a tree, nesting falcons silence their screeches. These subtle scenes suggest that nature has taken Jin under its wing, offering safe shelter even as the insurmountable war machine closes in.
“Jin” boasts some of the most visually stunning depictions of nature I’ve ever seen. Luscious emerald moss carpets a vast forest. Blazing stars radiate assurance and comfort as Jin nods off beneath the night sky. However, the film’s human interactions, such as Jin’s compassionate treatment of an enemy soldier’s battle wounds and her assault at the hands of lecherous townsmen, fall flat. It’s as if a few clumsily-staged live-action scenes were inserted into a nature documentary.
Moving with the sluggish pace of a drunken turtle, “Jin” could also use an editor. Its haggard heroine walks… and walks… and walks. The images surrounding Jin might be pretty, but there’s no momentum to her snooze-inducing trek. The gorgeous sights lull us to sleep when they should be rousing us to cheer her rugged plight.
Flight of the Storks
If needles aren’t your thing, steer clear of “Flight of the Storks,” a macabre murder mystery where scalpels slice skin, syringes stab necks, and bird beaks puncture chest cavities. Having already aired on French television as a mini-series, Jan Kounen’s three-hour thriller involves a young British ornithologist named Jonathan Anselme (Harry Treadaway). Alongside Max Bohm (Danny Keogh), his birdwatching mentor, Jonathan intends to follow migrating storks as they fly from Switzerland to the African Congo. His motive? To find out why so few feathered friends are returning from the journey.
Almost immediately, “Flight of the Storks” steers into turbulent skies. Bohm is discovered dead in a stork’s nest, his eyes and innards picked clean. Despite the gruesome demise of this beloved father figure, Jonathan vows to continue the journey alone. During the ensuing road trip, he’s plagued with hallucinatory fever-dreams, in which lost memories of a traumatic childhood incident are brought into focus. Meanwhile, Jonathan discovers diamond theft, romance, and ghoulish depravity while travelling through Bulgaria, Turkey, the Middle East, and Africa.
“Flight of the Storks” attempts to juggle multiple storylines. One involves a criminal scheme behind the dwindling stork population. Another concerns Jonathan’s efforts to re-assemble a grim chapter from his past, long since buried deep beneath the soil of amnesia. Looming over this entire, labyrinthine web of warped mystery is a chilling maniac played by Rutger Hauer, equal parts Colonel Kurtz and Josef Mengele.
For me, watching “Flight of the Storks” became a confounding love-hate relationship. I admired the film’s crisp cinematography and surreal grotesqueness (a freakish nightclub, inhabited by goth masochists suspended from hooks, would scare away Marilyn Manson). But I also became lost in the movie’s impenetrable maze of sub-plots. Days after the screening, I’m still not entirely sure I tied up all of the loose ends concerning either Jonathan’s pivotal memory, or the linkage between the storks and an elaborate smuggling ring.
With its multiple story threads and melding of imagery both sophisticated and gruesome, “Flight of the Storks” reminded me of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” But that film wrapped up its loose ends with resolution and clarity. In comparison, Kounen’s film resembles a sleek, gadget-packed sportscar that’s great to look at, but too confusing to drive.
The Punk Singer
Flash back to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-nineties. Bikini Kill, a predominantly female band from Olympia, Washington, is pushing hard and defiantly against the sexist barriers that had previously denied women access to the mosh pits of a male-driven art form. Kathleen Hanna is the band’s iconic face: a stammering punk prima donna equal parts valley girl kitsch and feral banshee fury. Loudly and proudly, her primal songs address the scarring fallout from rape and abuse against women. Hanna’s blunt feminist proclamations become gospel to an army of followers…the riot grrrl movement.
Fast forward to 1997. Bikini Kill breaks up. Hanna remains active with subsequent solo project Julie Ruin and pop-rock band Le Tigre. Over time, however, she fades away during a mysterious, gradual slide off the rock ‘n roll map. Where did she land?
“The Punk Singer,” Sini Anderson’s densely-woven biopic, provides the answer. It also captures the shocking-pink hues and crude fanzine spirit of Hanna’s life and legacy. Alongside talking-head luminaries including Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Joan Jett (who explains that Hanna made it okay “not being the perfect, big-titted girl”), Anderson’s film boasts a treasure-trove of historical footage. We behold Hanna’s striking live presence with Bikini Kill, her pogo-stick bounce morphing into sensual undulation. Meanwhile, her friendship with Kurt Cobain would make history: Hanna spray-painted the phrase “Smells like Teen Spirit” onto Cobain’s wall, before Nirvana immortalized it as the title of their signature anthem.
“The Punk Singer” then observes both Hanna’s transformation into a more refined pop-rock princess with subsequent bands and projects. Of her 1997 solo album “Julie Ruin,” she explains that its music “talked to women,” compared to her work with Bikini Kill, “singing to elusive asshole males.” Hanna’s artistic evolution continued with Le Tigre, which abandoned angry denouncements to ask, “What are the good things?” The film also touches on her marriage to Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, who shared his wife’s pro-feminist stance (Horovitz gave a 1999 MTV Awards speech denouncing the multiple rapes occurring at that year’s Woodstock Festival).
During its final stretch, Anderson’s film becomes a more intimate portrait, as Hanna tearfully explains how the progressive effects of Lyme disease have limited her ability to write and perform music. Of the disease’s insidious impact on her stamina and breathing, she likens her voice to a bullet that “couldn’t hit the target.” Ultimately, “The Punk Singer” ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that perhaps this charismatic woman will resume with both her music and message.
It you’re curious about the Northwest’s riot grrrl movement and its music, “The Punk Singer” is a must-see. And even if you have no interest in this musical aesthetic, you’ll likely find Anderson’s film an admirable proclamation of how strongly Hanna’s voice has empowered her female followers. “All Girls to the Front,” indeed.
Her Aim Is True
In direct contrast to the enraged rebel-yell of Kathleen Hanna, Jinni Dellaccio entered the rock scene as a gentle, understated soul. Although she blew the saxophone during childhood, Dellaccio was never a rock musician. She was a fashion photographer, who shifted to rock ‘n roll in her late forties. Her Hasselblad camera forever immortalized those bands and musicians whose songs shaped the Northwest’s cultural landscape during the sixties and beyond.
You’ve likely seen her work: Mick Jagger caught gazing wearily from the stage during the tail end of a grueling tour. A towering Neil Young staring down through the dangling fringes of a leather jacket. The no-frills, black and white Sonics shot slathered across the band’s “Boom” album cover. Whether they were international acts with tour stops in Seattle, or hungry young regional bands, Dellaccio’s lens re-invented them all with her fresh, spontaneous style.
“Her Aim is True,” Karen Whitehead’s thoughtful, engaging documentary, both acknowledges Dellaccio’s visual contributions to rock history and embraces her refreshingly positive spirit. During many photo shoots, the motherly image-maker would invite bands to lunch at her Gig Harbor home, using terms of endearment like “you lovely boys.” She hosted photo sessions not from stuffy studios, but from her backyard. Clients were lensed not during cheesy poses, but while climbing trees and lounging about in the mist and rain. Wearing velvet berets, gold medallion, and a perpetual smile, Dellaccio is the antithesis of doomy rock debauchery.
“Her Aim is True” follows Dellaccio’s initial forays into rock with bands like The Sonics and The Wailers, through more contemporary shoots with The Moondoggies. There’s a huge amount of memorabilia on hand, with Seattle authorities like promoter Pat O’Day recounting the formative history of Northwest rock. Whitehead also offers a detailed arc of the celebrated photog’s personal life, from her depression-era upbringing in Indiana through her current residence in Northwest Washington.
But ultimately, the film’s heart and soul rests with Dellaccio’s delightfully upbeat, remarkably optimistic presence. Her face grows long only when reflecting back on the overdose of a beloved musician friend, and the stroke-related death of Carl, her husband of 58 years. Captured during a recent photo shoot staged at the Crocodile Café in downtown Seattle, she’s seen warmly extending her hand to a young rocker, exclaiming, “You are a cutie!” And during a celebration of her work held at the Experience Music Project, her eyes and smile literally gleam with magic, carpe diem spirit.
We all know about rock ‘n roll’s dark side. But through “Her Aim Is True,” we’re reminded of the positive energy and vitality thriving within this culture of sound. Dellaccio’s photos capture the joyful side of rock, and her smile shines light upon its shadows.
Stay tuned for more SIFF.