Sad Songs, Manic Musicians, and Rogue Waves

Here are my six picks for SIFF, in all their oddball glory.

SIFF is a beast so many headed that no one critic can hope to slay (or hail) its polymorphous offerings. Here, then, are my quick takes on six notable titles at the fest. I saw some at Sundance, which keeps the batting average impressively high, but even the clinkers opened my eyes and mind to something new. The most original SIFF movie I've seen in terms of subject is, hands down, Big City Dick (Egyptian, 9 p.m. Mon., May 31), the documentary tribute to local street musician and legend Richard Peterson. In some ways, its nimble co-directors (Scott Milam, Ken Harder, and Todd Pottinger) provide the improvisatory fizz its extravagant hero demands. You can see why Sundance's rival Slamdance Festival gave it the Best Feature Audience Award. That said, the movie rambles quite a bit; it could still use some structure and trimming. Dick is two-thirds of one of the best movies ever made in Seattle, a kind of mash-up of Shine, Crumb, Streetwise, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Peterson is a scary apparition: fat, shambling, haphazardly clad, mumbling through rickety teeth, resentfully shaking a plastic beggar's bucket in the rain while blatting out "After the Gold Rush" on his trumpet. He could be in a Smithsonian diorama as the paradigmatic Crazy Street Person. When area grunge scenesters helped catapult him to fame, some deplored them as heartless exploiters of a retarded guy. I don't think you could still believe that after seeing the movie. Those whom Peterson calls his "personality buddies" don't seem patronizing at all—it's more like respect for his emotional honesty and die-hard dedication. The Stone Temple Pilots paid him around $20,000 to feature a Peterson tune on their Purple album. He's shared stages and recording studios with the Violent Femmes, the Cramps, and REM sideman and local legend Scott McCaughey. He successfully wooed Jeff Bridges by serenading him with the music cues from Bridges' dad's show Sea Hunt. The film depicts the musician's actual if eccentric friendship with the man he calls "Son of Sea Hunt" and his more troubling obsession with Johnny Mathis. Poignantly, he confesses that his celebrity pals are replacements for his "not-talking father," who never loved him. More impressive is Peterson's own artistic integrity, no matter what you think of his art. He's ambitious, and he isn't kidding when he bitterly compares his sales to Pearl Jam's. Though he's mediocre on trumpet, he's not a bad pianist, and his aesthetic imagination is enrapturing. Yes, he's some sort of savant—not so much idiot savant as bratty savant, given to willful rages and amazing mental riffs. Mathis singing reminds him of his most treasured possession, an elephant's trunk; a '56 Buick atop a stump near North Bend inspires him like Richard Dreyfuss and the Devil's Tower in Close Encounters. But these associations are no weirder than T.S. Eliot's objective correlatives, and his pastiche of the '50s TV-theme-song sound has real musical merit. Peterson is beloved by artists not because he's a freak or a misfit, but because he is utterly, relentlessly himself, and because he truly is one of them. This affectionate profile may cause some laughter, but mainly it will inspire the deepest imaginable respect for Richard Peterson. The most original SIFF movie in technical terms has got to be The Saddest Music in the World (Harvard Exit, 9:30 p.m. Fri., May 21; and Egyptian, 1:30 p.m. Sun., May 23), by another artist who stands at a defiantly odd angle to the universe: Guy Maddin, Winnipeg's answer to David Lynch. Set in 1933 Canada, it captures the unsettling feel of those economic hard times when people turned to pop culture to bolster their spirits. Maddin uses archaic lenses that render everything outside a central circle of focus a picturesque blur—and the middle of the frame is pretty dang blurry, too. He's not trying for period realism, but period surrealism. Isabella Rossellini stars as an obscenely rich psycho-nympho amputee beer baroness with glass legs full of brew. To secure Winnipeg's title as the world capital of sorrow, she stages a contest for the teariest tune on Earth. Each country contributes a weird entry contingent, none weirder than the doctor (David Fox) who drunkenly sawed off Rossellini's legs and his slick, pencil-thin-mustached son (Mark McKinney). McKinney absolutely nails the snap-happy style James Fox sent up in Thoroughly Modern Millie, fused with a period cynicism as darkly snarky as Nathanael West. Rossellini goes to town, topping her previous high-water mark for weirdness, Blue Velvet, in a story much better resolved than Lynch's. Maria de Medeiros, Bruce Willis' pouty Pulp Fiction passion pillow, drifts beautifully through Maddin's faux snowdrifts as an amnesiac wife caught up in a blinding Freudian blizzard. There's something ultimately frivolous and indulgent here, but there is absolutely nothing else like it at SIFF. BAADASSSSS! (Harvard Exit, 9:30 p.m. Sat., May 22, and 5 p.m. Tues., May 25) stars director Mario Van Peebles as his father, Melvin. He plays Van Peebles Sr. during the making of the pioneering 1971 blaxploitation indie film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. As invented and portrayed by the elder Van Peebles, the outlaw character Sweetback was the Australopithecus Superfly, a man who boldly defied racist white cops and racist white society. But as the son portrays the father, Melvin becomes an even wilder character, crazed by ambition, sex, money, power, and insane vision that made him spurn Hollywood offers to make Song, which opened in one deserted theater in Detroit. (It went on to gross $62 million in modern dollars.) Mario, who did a bit part at 13 in his father's film—in a sex scene!—does right by his dad, even if that means depicting him as more than a bit of a monster. In the process, he earns his own up-from-nowhere auteur status. After his skateboard opus, Dogtown and Z-Boys, Stacy Peralta gives us a still wilder ride with Riding Giants (Egyptian, 9 p.m. Fri., June 11; and Harvard Exit, 2 p.m. Sun., June 13), an epic, action-soaked 1,500-year history of surfing culture. He stitches together archival footage with an autumnal glow, sassy animation, interviews with over-the-top tube-dwelling characters, and state-of-the-art modern surf footage. At first, the Kerouac-wacky surf dudes were a tiny minority; then the girl midget Gidget (a real person, duly interviewed) got huge, and the shores were overrun. Ever questing, surfers colonized bigger and bigger waves in Hawaii, Northern California, and finally way the hell out at sea, riding 70-foot waves via helicopters and tow ropes. The best moments are the human ones, as when a surf bachelor is befriended by a scruffy kid surfer who nervily introduces him to his mom, who marries the guy, then watches his stepson become the Next Big Thing in the sport. Asked how the kid became great, he solemnly says, "He was born with an extra testicle." I think Peralta might have one, too. Maria Full of Grace (Pacific Place, 7:15 p.m. Wed., May 26, and 5 p.m. Thurs., May 27) quite lacks the deferred reve­lations usually needed to propel plots—the minute we know it's about a rural girl near Bogotá recruited as a smuggling mule by cocaine gangsters, we know every single thing that's going to happen to her. Director Joshua Marston should take screenwriter Joshua Marston out and shoot him. Yet it's a tribute to the former that, despite the plot-impairment of the latter, the movie grabs your heart and won't let it go. Scene by scene, it's done with palpable verisimilitude. Incan­descent star Catalina Sandino Moreno has the most haunting new face I've seen on-screen in months. Her dark eyes glint with anger and hint at infinite depths of grief—and she'll be visiting the fest. The movie is slow, but moving. And I like the irony of the motto on the airport wall as drug mules stampede past, their bellies bulging with condoms full of coke: "It's what's inside that counts." TV veteran Michael Pressman crazily decided to spurn big-buck offers and direct his talented wife, Lisa Chess, in a tiny L.A. theater production of Terrence McNally's Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune. The result is Frankie and Johnny Are Married (Harvard Exit, 7:15 p.m. Tues., May 25, and 5 p.m. Wed., May 26), a filmed re-enactment of the debacle. I don't know if his account is gospel truth, but it sure is devilishly funny—my favorite backstage comedy since Noises Off. Pressman claims the name actor he cast as Frankie sabotaged the production with a star trip, so he had to step into the role himself, despite his long absence from the stage. As the offending egotist, Alan Rosenberg (Chicago Hope) puts his basso croak to operatic good use as the bad-boy movie actor slumming onstage: "I feel like I'm back at Yale with Meryl before Sophia had a fucking choice!" He's awesomely awful, openly ogling Chess, claiming high artistic principle for stoned-out- of-his-enormous-head incompetence, railing, "I did not become an actor to learn lines!" As an actor, Pressman is good, but Chess is better, reminiscent of Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets. The movie never quite conveys what the play offers actors, but this will be a hot ticket for theater buffs and fans of inside-showbiz gossip. How much of it is true? Pressman will be at SIFF to further entangle theater and film, fact and fiction.

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