SIFFtings II

Last week, in some introductory words about the Seattle International Film Festival, I wondered whether our cinematic feast might be a little more selective, opting for quality over quantity. Wouldn't that approach do much to educate (as well as entertain) audiences, numbed nowadays into accepting mediocrity and dreck as the best the art/industry has to offer?

Since then, The Stranger, defender of the democratic way, made mincemeat of such élitism: "Seattle is not a highbrow town - for movies or for anything else.... SIFF reflects who we are." After all, the writer suggests, "'art' is best defined as communication, as opposed to mere expression."

Hard to define what this odd distinction really communicates or expresses about art (so distastefully highbrow it must be diminished between quotes) - but it disses the likes of Shakespeare, Picasso and Max Ophuls bigtime! All the artistry there's ever been has gloriously flowered through "mere expression," the perfect marriage of content and style. When The Stranger lauds SIFF fare for communicating that people are much the same all over the world, that's not a such a bad prescription for us parochial Americans - but this particular élitist wouldn't mind some "mere expression" - i.e., art - with my middle-brow medicine.

'Letter from an Unknown Woman'

In transplanting Stefan Zweig's 1922 Viennese novel to Beijing in the '30s and '40s, director-writer-actor-producer Xu Jinglei paints a very pretty picture praised by a number of critics for its feminist POV and rich period detail. However, this new Chinese version of "Letter" may find its best use as a teaching tool: mundane, genteel filmmaking that contrasts with the pure cinematic alchemy of Max Ophuls' 1948 masterpiece of the same title.

Ophuls' "Letter" turned a sad little tale of obsession and unrequited love into a delirious meditation on the power of art over time and mortality. Whereas in Ophuls' movie Joan Fontaine falls as much in love with the music Louis Jourdan makes as with the heedless pianist himself, Xu Jinglei's more limited heroine fixes on the man - in this case, a novelist - not his novels, though she enjoys the color and texture of the books in his luxurious library. It's a crucial alteration: one woman embraces and is fulfilled by something having to do with the transformative imagination; the other seems primarily taken with the possibilities of a socio-economic realm (represented in the sumptuous colors and furnishings of the writer's lair) previously beyond her ken.

Jourdan's abandonment of his art in Ophuls' version has to do with his failure to measure up to Fontaine's enchanted gaze. In contrast, Zu Jinglei's heroine may have hungry eyes, but it's never clear whether she values her lover's gifts or cares that he gives up writing novels when the realities of war and revolution overcome him. The birth of her fixation on this undeserving rake is signaled by a fall of golden light that eventually, when they finally make love years later, bathes her face and his. That idealizing light turns both wan and garish during ensuing years, through war, her prostitution to support their child and the last encounter between partygirl and playboy, neither of whom really knows the other.

This Chinese "Letter" is closer to what they used to call "a woman's movie," though it lacks the proletarian pizzazz that thrummed through the American weepies and soap operas that formed that genre. At one point, its heroine exits a movie theater that's advertising "Now, Voyager" and "Woman of the Year" - presumably signaling impossible love and independent womanhood. Ophuls showed his soon-to-be lovers drinking champagne in a stationary railway car as reels of painted scenery, turned by an amusement park attendant, unwound outside their window. Unreality, yes, but also perishable art projected from the couple's dreams. Xu Jinglei shoots her lovers through the window of a warmly lighted restaurant, leaning towards each other eagerly, each caught in his/her own pane/frame of reference. Those cinematic choices demonstrate the difference between a visionary artist and a pedestrian filmmaker with social commentary on her mind.


A brief, largely unengaging and arty exploration of selective memory, a digital filmmaker's color-coded playground. In three acts (entitled "Denial," "Despair," "Acceptance"), a woman photographer, Sophie (very plain Courtney Cox), mentally "frames" different versions of a traumatic event: As she waits in the car, her boyfriend (James LeGros) goes into an old-fashioned convenience story to buy her something sweet. There, with awful casualness, he's gunned down by a thief. After this tragedy, all light seems to have drained out of Sophie's world, and odd cracks in fundamental reality open up everywhere. In each act, she visits her shrink (Nora Dunn) and lunches with her mother (Anne Archer), who knocks her wine glass over every time - get it? it suggests spreading blood! Meanwhile, the photographer probes deeper into the crime, playing private eye abroad in her own mind. As mysterious slides and photographs turn up, she revises, reshoots, what happened in that corner store on November 7. Who died that night? The boyfriend? Another lover? And who's responsible? Is she crazy? Or cured? The characters are so tepid and unappealing you have nothing to hope for and no one to root for; worse, you twig to the mystery's key very early on. Director Greg Harrison coaches us that "the experience of watching the film is what the film is about." OK, I'll go with that: "November"'s all about visual tricks and tedium.[[In-content Ad]]