The St. Louis International Film Festival isn't Telluride or Toronto. Out-of-town cinephiles don't plan their year around it; paparazzi don't pack the streets. But for SLIFF executive director Cliff Froehlich and, we'd add, for the film-loving St. Louis public that's a good thing.
"We're a regional festival, not a destination festival," Froehlich says. "But we do think we're offering some of the best films in the world. We're showing many films that simply won't get the opportunity to play in St. Louis. And the best way to see any movie is on the big screen."
Now in its fifteenth year, SLIFF continues to bring in daring films by big-name auteurs: This year's slate includes Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn, Claude Chabrol's A Comedy of Power and André Téchiné's Changing Times. The inclusion of such esteemed directors is undoubtedly a draw, but this is not just a festival for the art-house set.
"We don't specialize in one type of genre," Froehlich explains. "We can't be all things to all people, but we want to offer a wide selection so that no one feels intimidated. People have this notion that [film] festivals are only for the elite, for cinephiles. In fact, there's a significant number of movies that people would really enjoy if only they gave [them] a shot."
Over the next two weeks, SLIFF will offer many films that deserve a shot. Festivalgoers can attend a midnight screening of The Host, a brilliantly campy Korean monster film. There's a caper film (Ireland's What Means Motley?), two slasher comedies (Behind the Mask and Severance), a gangster movie (Johnny Was) and a charming British teen flick (Starter for Ten). On the opening night of the festival (Friday, November 10), an extraordinary program of animated shorts screens at the Tivoli; selections include "The Fan and the Flower" and "Guide Dog" by Academy Award-winning director Bill Plympton and "Moongirl" by Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick.
This year's festival also brings a number of special events (although, with nearly 50 directors being flown in to discuss their films, one might argue that the screenings themselves qualify as special events). The Sundance Channel New Filmmakers Forum's Emerging Director Award will be given to one of five up-and-coming directors. At 11 a.m. Sunday, November 12, members of the public are invited to stop by the Tivoli and have coffee with the NFF judging panel, which includes New York magazine film critic David Edelstein (formerly of Slate). And stick around for another treat: a game show in which panelists (including Crumb, Ghost World and Bad Santa director Terry Zwigoff) watch short documentaries and decide which are real and which are staged.
While there are far too many films and events to include in this space, RFT staffers have reviewed some of the week's most intriguing. (See the November 16 film section for selections from SLIFF's second week.)
Fuck (Steve Anderson). First things first: The F-word does not stand for Fornication Under Consent of the King. Or For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Or anything else. Its origins are a mystery, but word's impact is not. The film points to its omnipresence in culture, from Meet the Fockers to French Connection UK T-shirts to hamburger chain Fuddruckers. Early in Fuck, Sam Donaldson calls the F-bomb "a grand word with so many meanings" and admits using it from time to time. In an I Love the 80s-like fashion, the film is divided into segments, including "Fuck Hollywood," "Fuck Politics" and "Fuck Religion," and talking heads dissect how it's affected each institution. What's so interesting is the film's juxtapositions of evangelicals and Ron Jeremy, of Hunter S. Thompson and Judith "Miss Manners" Martin, of Concerned Women for America and Janeane Garofalo. The movie highlights the arbitrary nature of the word and points to the ridiculousness of the FCC ruling that said it's indecent as a noun but not as an adjective. Some people love the word for its historical contributions and its advancement of free expression, while others claim those four letters hurl us toward a wholly uncivilized existence. All told, this largely entertaining film advances, uh, freedom 629 times. Screens at 9:45 p.m. Monday, November 13, at the Tivoli.
Mr. Mayor (Michael Barnard) In 1949 Alfonso J. Cervantes placed a phone call to his wife Carmen, effectively kicking off what would become more than two decades of public service to the City of St. Louis. He told her he'd decided to run for alderman of the Fifteenth Ward; she asked him what an alderman was. His reply: "I don't know, but I said I'd do it."
For the Cervanteses, the documentary Mr. Mayor could easily double as a family photo album. Chronicling a deeply personal account of a tumultuous time in St. Louis history, eldest son A.J. Cervantes Jr., who produced the film, combines hundreds of interviews, photos, newspaper clippings, and excellently restored film and audio excerpts to tell the life story of the city's 43rd mayor.
"It's an interesting, classic American rags-to-riches story a kid from the wrong side of the tracks working hard with enormous energy, becoming hugely successful in business and his family life and politics, and leaving a major imprint on St. Louis," the producer says. We spoke to Cervantes about Mr. Mayor, which opens the St. Louis International Film Festival on Thursday.
Kristie McClanahan: Despite growing up very much in the public eye, your childhood seems to have been pretty, well, normal.
A.J. Cervantes Jr.: I think that my father's life, his childhood and his high school years, were so dysfunctional. He was the baby of six kids during the Depression era, and his father and his mother had separated, and his father just wandered off. My dad had nothing, literally taking off with just some coins in his pocket at fifteen and going out to California. When he came back and became successful in business, one of his first missions with his family was to create stability in a normal family life and good schools. My dad was really committed, I think, to healing some of the wounds of his youth.
In the film, you didn't shy away from things in your father's political career that didn't work out.
No, there were some incredible challenges. The Spanish Pavilion was one, the East Side airport was another. Even Francis Slay, to his credit, on camera said [the East Side airport] was a very good idea, just bad politics. He pleasantly surprised me with that comment. But it became an anti-Cervantes theme through the whole campaign. And of course, the Life magazine article.
Wasn't that tough on the family?
He stayed enormously positive through all of it. I remember he'd come home, have a cocktail and say, "I wonder who's mad at us today." He just took it as that's the way the world worked and that's what he was going to deal with.
How do you think he'd view the city as it is today?
I think he would think Mayor Slay has done a brilliant job with limited resources. The tax base of St. Louis has continued to erode. The flight to the suburbs that took place in the '60s and '70s has created enormous difficulty in governing the City of St. Louis. And I think Mayor Slay and the board of aldermen have absolutely done an exemplary job given the challenges the city faces in this current day and age.
What do you consider your dad's most enduring legacy?
I'd say the convention center, number one. And I think that there's a more conceptual gift or legacy, which is that he helped sell St. Louisans on St. Louis. He helped foster a great civic pride. And that's why, when you see things like the St. Louis Cardinals or the film festival, these are all indications of a vital city that can have a great future, and I think that's what his mission was and [he'd] reinforce that in any way that he could. I think St. Louis went through a renaissance during his time, because he worked so tirelessly on stimulating business and on generating interest in the city.
Mr. Mayor screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 9, at the Moolah Theatre. Advance ticket purchase required. (KM)
The O Tapes (Chris Arnold). Just call it The Orgasm Monologues. A diverse panel of women (everyone from a 25-year-old Supergirl impersonator to an 80-year-old Dixie Queen wearing a fuchsia halter top and oversize white boa) discusses everything from how they initially learned about sex to their first experience with masturbation. There's even a moment of art therapy, during which the women draw their interpretations of the Elusive O. The dialogue is supplemented with a surprising number of Victorian-era renderings of the female anatomy and lots of fun orgasm facts (including one that will result in never looking at breakfast cereal the same way again). Although their stories range from the typical (oh, the vibrating showerhead) to the downright horrifying (where incest and pedophilia meet on the bathroom floor), there is an overarching sense of womanhood and community that could very well make for the latest installment of sex-education videos. Screens at 10:15 p.m. Saturday, November 11, at the Tivoli.
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (Stephen and Timothy Quay). Stephen and Timothy Quay, twin brothers from Philadelphia, have over the past 35 years created distinctive, macabre animated short films that draw on fables and surrealism to convey a beautiful but cruel world. Harnessing, among other objects, doll parts, screws, antique apothecary tools and slabs of raw meat, the Brothers Quay have developed a fervent following among goths, vampires and Nine Inch Nails fans. (They also worked on Peter Gabriel's groundbreaking "Sledgehammer" video.) In The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, their second feature-length film, the Quays mix live actors and soundstages with stop-motion and computer animation to tell the story of a piano tuner (Malvina van Stille) beckoned to a mysterious forest. He encounters a doctor (Gottfried John) who speaks in riddles ("He is a forest no one can inhabit," explains one character) and is intent on creating an "automata," a musical instrument that harnesses a woman's voice to create its sound. The film is beautiful to look at, but the story is clumsily told; each declaration is delivered with the weight of philosophic inquest, each prop is presented as a profound symbol (though few seem to mean much at all), each fleeting image is offered as though the viewer should understand its significance. "After a while you get used to the confusion," explains the perfectly named character Assumpta fifteen minutes into the film. If only it were so. Screens at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 14, at the Tivoli.
Thin (Lauren Greenfield). The opening words of Thin reveal that 5 million people in the United States are anorexic, and that for one in seven women, the disease will prove fatal. What follows is a wrenching documentary about the women within Florida's Renfrew Center, a treatment facility for the eating disordered. They come in all ages and from all walks of life. Among them is Brittney, a fifteen-year-old who wistfully recalls times spent playing games of "Chew and Spit" with her anorexic mother. Another is Alisa, a mother of two, who admits to joining the Air Force to lose weight. At the center, patients are treated as prisoners as much of their own diseases as of the discipline needed to save their lives. During meals, they are required to have two liquids, two napkins, and no blankets or purses (lest half-eaten veggie burgers be concealed within them). Here, contraband includes cigarettes, tape measures and sugar packets, and talk of numbers, calories and weight is forbidden. From the daily 6 a.m. weigh-ins that are so precise the nurses can tell when the patients have purged or skipped a single meal, to the evenings when a tiny birthday cupcake is enough to bring one patient to tears, this film follows weeks of progress and heartbreaking relapses in the lives of women afflicted with one of our society's gravest ills. Screens at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 12, at the Tivoli.