PIFF 2018: Wrapping Up


The gentle shadow of a sweet melancholy fell across my days as the 41st Portland International Film Festival drew to a close. The festival proper ended on March 1, with encore screenings of audience favorites shown on March 2–4. I saw 27½ films this year, by far the most ever. It was a comfortable number. Before this year I thought I was doing great if I made fifteen to twenty. Maybe I should have made an effort to see more. Thirty-five or forty could have been within reach without throwing myself into too much of a tizzy dashing from theater to theater, film to film. As it was I thoroughly enjoyed the festival. I tend to do better when I take things at a measured pace conducive to reflection and contemplation. Holding at bay the temptation to see as many films as I could cram in contributed to that even if I missed films I would have liked.

The half in 27½ came one morning at Whitsell Auditorium when the screen went dark about an hour into The Great Buddha* (yes, the asterisk is part of the title; I do not know its significance). My first thought was a technical issue. It turned out the museum had lost power. A security guy instructed us to go up to the lobby, where we milled around for a few minutes until the theater manager announced that the problem was major, they did not know when power would be back up, so she was canceling the morning screening. We could come back at 1:30 to check on the status of the afternoon screening scheduled for 2 pm.

I had been iffy about the afternoon film anyway, so I came home and dined on the peanut butter sandwich I packed for lunch between press screenings. The weather cooperated throughout the festival with midday temperatures around 50. For the most part it was dry or we had only that little Portland drizzle during the intervals between films when I was out and about. Each day I ate my sandwich either on a bench in the South Park Blocks or while wandering through the park blocks and around the Portland State University campus. Some days I hit the library when I had time to kill before returning to the museum to queue up for the 2 pm film. One day my eye fell on Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It by Ronald Aronson. Ah, but that is a topic for another day.

On the day of the power outage I began having second thoughts about that afternoon film. This was on Thursday of the third week of press screenings, festival's end not yet near but coming into view, and with its approach the melancholy was seeping in. Fortunately, before I turned off the computer and headed for the bus stop, an email from the film center popped into my mailbox with the announcement that the 2 pm press screening was canceled. So iInstead of taking in a movie I built some character with a run on a loop that took me to the top of Mt. Tabor. That made for a fine afternoon.

It is always a pleasure to take in the work of favorite directors and actors. This year Claire Denis is the only director whose name I knew, and with her I am only marginally familiar. South Korean director Hong Sang-soo (Claire's Camera, On the Beach at Night Alone, The Day After) is a new find, as is Chloé Zhao (The Rider). I will look for their films in the future. Isabelle Huppert (Claire's Camera) and Juliette Binoche (Let the Sun Shine In) are old favorites whose films I always try to catch. Huppert is a joy in a film that is slight but pleasant, while Binoche gives a fine performance in one that I enjoyed after a fashion but was far from knocked out by it. Sandrine Bonnaire (A Season in Paris) and Steve Buscemi (The Death of Stalin) are other actors you may recognize. Bonnaire is strong in a supporting role, while Buscemi is a bright light in an ensemble cast.

La Villa (The House by the Sea) is hands down my favorite film of the festival. Other favorites, off the top of my head and in no particular order, so doubtless leaving something off, include The Third Murder, Spoor, Ice Mother, What Will People Say?, and Ava. Among films that, shall we say, did little for me, are Zama, Vazante, and A Ciambra. The Death of Stalin on opening night was good for some laughs but all in all a disappointment. These are personal, quite subjective judgments. For instance, I overheard someone recommend A Ciambra to her friend as one of her favorites. My PIFF pal Mary did not seem to have any favorites, nothing that she liked outright, but she liked parts of every film she saw. I can relate to that. There is nothing I regret having sat through.

Ah, PIFF pals. I made some festival friends while attending almost all of the twice-daily press screenings that ran for three weeks. These are people I got to know a little bit as we saw one another day after day at Whitsell Auditorium. As PIFF pal Bob observed, he has friends he sees only at the festival, but he sees them every year, and they all have their favorite seats. I generally sit on the aisle, left wing as a political statement, toward the back, as I have done since discovering film my freshman year in college. Bob looks to be more or less of my generation. He sported a cane and sat in front of me at a number of press screenings, the ones he did not have to miss due to a conflict with therapy sessions as he recovers from being struck by a car while crossing an intersection. It turns out that Bob used to be a runner, a marathoner who ran Boston and New York every year. Eight years ago he had to give up running because of his back; his doctors can't believe what good shape his knees are in, but his back developed a bad attitude. He misses running every day. He misses it, but he seems to take it in stride, as he does his current injuries. Meantime, there is the festival and an upcoming trip to Alaska to tick that off his bucket list. Good guy.

Mary is another new PIFF pal, a former schoolteacher who I gather must be in her early eighties. After this year's festival I now have a number of new lady friends, all pushing eighty if not beyond and full of life. Mary is quiet, soft-spoken, and just lovely with her enchanting smile. She sat behind me most days. On the second or maybe it was the third day of press screenings she tapped me on the shoulder and said she was glad was I sitting where I was because I did not interfere with her view. It was the beginning of a beautiful festival friendship.

One afternoon a man snagged Mary's seat before she arrived, so she sat on my row a couple of seats over from me with one of her pals, a little white-haired woman whose name I never caught, a real ball of fire type familiar from years past. The next day Mary told me that the fellow behind her had kicked the back of her seat throughout the film and at some point took off his shoes and propped his feet up on her seat. Neither of us could believe such behavior. It is not as if he was a young person who should have known better but didn't. He sported my generation's version of the hipster look with longish hair, bandana, and red shirt with the sleeves hacked off. Some time after that, at a screening toward the end of the festival, one which Mary missed, this fellow happened to be seated on the aisle some five or six rows in front of me. Midway through What Will People Say? he rose and snapped at the person behind him who it seems had been kicking the back of his seat. I almost laughed out loud. Poetic justice was served.

Along with the new pals, I renewed my acquaintance with Nadine, whom I met several years ago when I first began attending press screenings, and enjoyed a few brief chats with Brenda, a former colleague at the office and one of the most lovely people I know, who a few years back retired for the second time at age seventy-five. She told me she misses the conversations we used to have in the hallway at work during the festival. We aim to catch up with a happy hour rendezvous in the near future.

Sunday afternoon the NW Film Center threw a post-PIFF party for Silver Screen Club Members at the Portland Art Museum's Mark Building. I often pass on this kind of thing because I have next to no talent for striking up conversation with strangers in social settings where I find myself alone with no one who might serve as an intermediary for introductions. I made this one thinking that I might enjoy one last encounter with some of my friends to talk about films and share festival experiences. With complimentary wine, beer, and a food spread, it could hardly be a total loss.

The event was in Gordon D. and Katherine J. Durant Trustee Room on the 4th floor, a small room with a nice view of the Park Blocks to the east. The handful of café-type tables were soon occupied and room filled but far from packed. Informal and all in all quite pleasant.

I secured a plastic cup of wine in the red flavor and established myself by the window in a corner of the room away from the entrance, at the end of a table where food, Middle Eastern appetizers, spanikopita, little meat pies, that type of thing, was laid out, whereupon the customary inquiry about what films I liked was posed by a fellow of my own generation, attired for the affair in the local style, jeans and sandals, in one hand a cup of wine and in the other a paper plate piled high with a sampling of the delicacies on offer.

Soon I fell into easy and engaging conversation with him and his wife, Scott and Rachel if my memory does not betray me. Like me, they are recently retired and could see more films than in years past, their forty outdoing me by a hefty margin, but it wasn't a competition. Rachel remarked that twenty-seven is a good number. As I rattled off a few titles we found that we enjoyed many of the same films and for some of the same reasons.

Somewhere along the way Scott asked the second customary question: What are my plans for retirement? I told him I have no big plans at present, just my projects that fill the days, which fly away, and the pleasure of running at whatever time of day I choose. Scott asked if I have a card when I mentioned the website and blog. Amazingly enough I do have a card with the website info, and I had one on me. Maybe I will pick up a new reader.

Scott and Rachel have pretty cool retirement plans themselves. They are bicyclists, of the fairly hardcore variety it seems, as they intend to see the world by bicycle. Already they have trips lined up for Greece and Albania, Switzerland and France, and Canada. They plan to return to Portland between excursions and will be in town for next year's film festival. If fortune smiles our paths will cross and I will get to hear of their adventures.

Review is too highfalutin a word for the notes and impressions, often little more than jottings, that are inevitably sketchy by virtue of their number, a desire to write about films while they are fresh in my mind, and determination to post them in a timely manner rather than dribbling them out over a period of weeks and months. I am affected by film in much the same way that I am affected by poetry. What matters is whether and how a film or poem strikes a chord, the degree to which it draws me in emotionally and intellectually. Our customary habit of demarcating between emotion and reason has a long tradition and can be useful, but it seems to me that the two blur into one another far more than existing as distinct, independent features of our selves, and no, I do not intend to get into speculation about the nature of that self.

The first time I watch a film my focus is on what happens, even when as with the films of Eric Rohmer or Hong Sang-soo plot is not exactly at the top of the filmmaker's agenda. Other, more subtle aspects reflective of the sensibility of the director and techniques employed to realize that sensibility, the craft of the actors, &c., are more likely to be picked up on in subsequent viewings than first time around. Not every film rewards a second or third viewing; the best almost always do.

My reviews, notes, and impressions offer nothing analogous to the close reading of a poem in the manner of the New Critics. References to mise en scène, jump cuts, and other technical features are largely absent. Cinematography may from time to time garner a general observation when it is particularly striking and evocative, as with the landscapes in The Rider and Foxtrot.

For the most part I try to relate if and how a film draws me in, or fails to do so, and how it is that I come to care about what will become of the characters, with enough about characters and narrative to give readers some notion whether the film might be of interest to them without giving away too much, the dread spoiler alert. This can be a challenge because knowing what is going to happen does not adversely affect my experience of a film. Once the lights go down and the screen gets bright I go with it. Anything I bring into the theater by way of foreknowledge is relegated to peripheries of consciousness. I am aware that not everyone is like this, so I try not to reveal too much. I may not always be successful.

Kudos are in order all around for those responsible for this year's festival showcasing nearly ninety feature films and more than forty shorts. Ilana the Whitsell Auditorium theater manager and a documentary filmmaker herself (On Paper Wings), Meg the membership guru, and their colleagues at NW Film Center are great. Then there is the small army of festival volunteers without whom it would not happen. Thanks to them all.

Once again I run on. I hope this account has not proven tedious. For me it is an occasion to recollect and reflect on a new batch of good memories. Already I look forward to the pleasures of PIFF 2019. Ciao. Index of Reviews, Notes, and Impressions

#Cinema

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David Matthews

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