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Follow the Bitch
Identity Cards: Some male-bonded poker buddies discover that women hold the upper hand in Palo Alto director Julian Stone's "Follow the Bitch."

Cinequest entries hope to leverage film-festival screenings into distribution deals

By Richard von Busack

'Usually everything is chaos right about now," says Cinequest founder Halfdan Hussie, "but it's going well this year." It's the last fortnight before the San Jose Film Festival (Jan. 30-Feb. 5 at the UA Pavilion and Camera 3 in San Jose).

Hussie is helping oversee the delivery of more than 50 films for the week-long festival, on subjects ranging from the Incredible Hulk to Dorothy Parker--films that are as often crowd-confusers as they are crowd-pleasers. In the past seven years, Cinequest has flourished and changed season from fall to winter. This year brings jury prizes for the first time--something extra to lure independent and "maverick" (Hussie's word) directors to San Jose.

Hussie himself is currently finishing his own feature film, due later this spring. He's therefore sensitive to the search by independent directors and producers for distributors who will make sure their movies play nationwide.

The purpose of a film festival is the same as that of the film industry--not to get a small crowd to see a film but to get a larger one (indeed, Ed's Next Move, Loser, Last Call and Sweet Nothings found theatrical release after last year's Cinequest). Still, what the festival provides, even after seven years of steady growth, is intimacy.

Guests like to come back. One returnee this year is Jenni Olson (Trailer Camp, Cinequest 1996), who will bring another show of "coming attractions" reels. Afro Promo (Feb 4, 9:30pm, C3) features blaxploitation tidbits and racist moments that aren't going to be on the next Oscar broadcast's "collage of golden Hollywood memories."

New guests, such as actors Moira Kelley and Jennifer Jason Leigh, are also scheduled to appear, as well the makers of the much-heralded documentaries on groundbreaking directors Sam Peckinpah and William Wellman.

Card Tricks

Cinequest also provides a showcase for local filmmakers. Julian Stone's Follow the Bitch (Feb. 1, 9:30pm, C3; and Feb. 3, 11pm, UA Pavilion) is a tart comedy set against an all-night poker game (at which one of the games is "Follow the Queen" under its more popular frat-boy name). An embittered but harmless L.A. writer's anti-everything (particularly women) diatribes are challenged by Liz, an unexpected guest at his card table. (I would have titled this film The Taming of the Shmuck.)

Writer/director/co-producer/editor Julian Stone grew up in Palo Alto; co-producer Dion Luther was a San Jose State University graduate. Stone says that Follow the Bitch is still without an American distributor. "We have a foreign distributor, Goldbar; they've changed the title to Poker Face, because of translation problems."

Stone decided to turn director after years of screenwriting. "You can actually make a good living writing screenplays," he says, "without actually having any movies made. Facing the possibility of another five years going by and nothing on screen, I sold just about everything and decided to make the movie."

Follow the Bitch was shot in Stone's own apartment during the course of a week, "with a break for Valentine's Day"--that last detail should clear up any doubts about Stone's sensitivity.

This year, Cinequest is also hosting foreign filmmakers who may be famous in their own countries but haven't yet got their work into the U.S.

The opening-night film, Luna e l'altra ("One and the Other"), by Italy's Maurizio Nichetti, is a "neorealistic fantasy," according to the director. Especially pleasing is Iaia Forte as Luna, a too-tightly buttoned teacher at a repressive school in the 1950s.

Her shadow, bored with Luna's existence, escapes her and takes on a life of its own, first at the town's brothel and then in a circus. Forte, wistful and lewd in her two roles, gives the fluffy, silly fantasy touching underpinnings.

The film co-stars Ivano Marescotti, last seen as Roberto Benigni's best friend in Il Monstro. Here, the Mussolini-browed Marescotti plays the authoritarian principal of the school (who marches the women at the bordello to the same whistle he uses to keep the students in line).

Since Luna is a lower-class Neapolitan working in comparatively rich Milan, Luna e l'altra serves as an allegory about national unity, a fact that Nichetti helpfully pointed out over the phone. (The troubled nation of Italy is faced now with secessionists who want to saw the prosperous north loose from the unemployment-plagued south.)

Nichetti is the popular Italian comedian seen in Volere Volare and The Icicle Thief; he made his debut as the conductor in Bruno Bozzetto's 1976 Allegro Non Troppo--a superior satire of Fantasia that I love better than its source. As one could guess from watching Luna e l'altra, Nichetti worked in a circus.

"In 1969, when I was younger, I worked as a clown in Circus Medini, the same circus that was in Fellini's La Strada, at the end of the film," he says. "It was a world of fantasy, completely independent of the normal life of the people: a good place in which a shadow can find friends."

For Luna e l'altra, Nichetti directed a fellow graduate of the Circus Medini: a camel. "There was some problem with the weather in Milan in the winter," says Nichetti. "It was not good for the camel, but he was very clever, a very good actor, very accustomed to taking direction."

Leigh Way

In the brothel scenes, Nichetti's film shows a quaint naughtiness. Nichetti's brothel is so innocent that an old man who dies in it goes straight to heaven. In a very different mode, Cinequest's big-name guest star, Jennifer Jason Leigh (who appears Jan. 31, 7pm, UA), has brought shadows to the traditional movie fascination with sex work.

It's interesting to note how often women are courtesans or prostitutes in movies. Carolyn Galerstein's book Working Women on the Hollywood Screen (Garland; 1989) finds "prostitute" the most frequent on-screen profession for a woman, after secretary and entertainer. Galerstein, it should be noted, lists under the heading "Entertainer" plenty of suspect occupations like "Taxi Dancers," "Chorus Girls" and "Dancehall Girls." You don't have to be a cowboy to know what "dancehall girl" means.

Filmmakers find sex work appealing as a way to add to the unpredictability of woman's character, as an easy expository shortcut in action movies and dramas, and as a quick excuse to get the heroine's clothes off with a minimum of fuss.

Janet Gaynor, Helen Hayes, Anne Baxter, Donna Reed, Shirley Jones, Jane Fonda and Julia Roberts all earned either Oscar nominations or the award itself for playing women in the sex business. No doubt, given the buzz, Courtney Love will be among the Oscar nominees for her stripper in The People vs. Larry Flynt.

If Jennifer Jason Leigh were known for one thing, it would be taking the risqueness out of sex work in various performances. In her most thoroughly enjoyable film, Miami Blues (Feb. 2, 10:45pm, UA), Leigh's Susie, a novice escort, takes up with Alec Baldwin's Junior, a charming but dangerous psycho being tracked by a police detective (Fred Ward, delightful in the role of an alimony-ridden, toothless but far from witless cop).

Leigh's masked distaste for her job as a hooker is just right--readable but not overloaded with soul-sickness. Her Susie ("Pepper," she tries to call herself) comes from such a remote part of Florida that she's never even really heard about the existence of women who don't do as they're told. Leigh brings the gradations of a first-class performer to what could easily have been a paper-thin role.

In her more recent movies, Leigh seems to be looking for a new persona by searching through the comparatively wide range of characters that 1930s movies offered women. In two movies, she adopted the purring speech of Jean Arthur (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle; Feb. 2, 9:15pm, UA) and the Coen brothers' wild farrago, The Hudsucker Proxy--Arthur couldn't have beat the spin Leigh gave the word "Muncie" to sum up the world of the hicks. In Kansas City, she plays a girl who worships Jean Harlow.

Leigh's angry, powerful acting is a challenge to the vapidly written parts for women of the 1990s; and one of her next films will be the daughter, Caroline, in Jocelyn Moorhouse's adaptation of Jane Smiley's King Lear pastiche, A Thousand Acres.

But in her work is also the potential for further, unwatchable torrents of pain: such as the agony of the gang-raped Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn (Jan 31) and the scenes in which she spills her guts before the microphone in the dire Georgia (Feb 1, 12:30pm, UA), a Leigh performance that critic Shiela Benson tellingly describes in the Cinequest catalogues as "punishing."

Picks and Pans

Some of the other selections at the Cinequest:

Black to the Promised Land
(Jan. 31, 5:15pm, UA; Feb. 1, 7:30pm, C3
A group of teenage African American students from New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant district travel to Israel. There they do agricultural work in exchange for room and board in accordance with the maxim "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" (when the head of the kibbutz, or communal farm, explains this idea, he doesn't cite Karl Marx). At first, the dozen or so kids have a horrible time adjusting; to her vast humiliation, one of them actually ends up assigned to a cotton field ("Kunta Kinte is dead, but I'm here," she says disgustedly). But by the end of the trip, most have come to love the spirit of cooperation on the commune and respect themselves for the new strength they've found. Wholesome, yes, but as touching as it is subversive, and the documentary ends on a diminuendo. At the beginning, director Madeleine Ali polls the students, getting the opinion that Bed-Stuy's terrible reputation is due to the fact that strangers in the neighborhood have a hard time. After their travels, the students themselves are strangers of a sort. Their adjustment to the hopelessness back home makes the ending serious and poignant. (Richard von Busack)

Blue Mountain
It Takes Two: Melanie (Sabrina Luthi) and Sonia (Chandra Gotz) stick together in 'Blue Mountain.'

Blue Mountain
Feb. 1, 4:45pm; Feb. 3, 7:15pm; both at UA
In his feature directorial debut, Thomas Tanner has crafted a powerful story about the friendship forged between two young girls who are both struggling with some very real demons. Usually bright and motivated, Sonia begins failing at school and becomes increasingly despondent as she shoulders a destructive family secret. But she is heartened by the arrival of the vivacious Melanie, who, despite troubles of her own, becomes Sonia's champion. Inescapably, as the girls come to rely on each other for support and survival, the film takes on a hint of teenage Thelma & Louise, but Blue Mountain has a darker, more nightmarish aspect to it, in part because it focuses on two children who must ultimately act as adults to protect themselves. Tanner effectively reinforces this drama with a subtle but insistent use of the contrast between peaceful, pastoral outdoor scenes and staid, floorboard-creaking interiors. (Heather Zimmerman)

The Closest Thing to Heaven
Dixie Digs: Howard (Michael Mattison) extols the virtues of the New South in 'The Closest Thing to Heaven.'

The Closest Thing to Heaven
Jan. 31, 5:15pm; Feb. 1, 3:30pm; both at UA
Working the territory between the picaresqueness of Slacker and the psychodrama of Short Cuts, Dorne Pentes' feature tracks the fortunes of a grab bag of Charlotte, N.C., folks during a long, lazy afternoon. A lovelorn drunk tries to win back his wife; a brother and sister confront the death of their mother; another pair of siblings cope with their aging father; two stoners concoct futile money-making schemes. The various vignettes are tied together by a white-suit-clad narrator who imparts lightly sardonic facts about the new South and introduces an excruciating rendition of "Dixie" by the world's worst Elvis imitator. The stories all tend toward overly sentimental resolutions, but the film manages to sustain a congenial touch throughout, avoiding the too-easy trap of condescending to its characters' flaws. (Michael S. Gant)

Herbert's Hippopotamus
Feb. 1, 12:15pm; Feb. 3, 4:30pm; both at UA
At UC-San Diego in the late 1960s, German philosopher Herbert Marcuse (One-Dimensional Man) galvanized student activists with his analysis of capitalist discontent and drove conservatives (who couldn't even agree on how to pronounce his name) to frothing rage with his unique blend of Marx and Freud. This Danish documentary traces the uproar over Marcuse during the Vietnam War protests, when everyone from the VFW to Gov. Ronald Reagan wanted the elderly professor sacked. Director Paul Alexander has assembled some fascinating period footage and interviewed many of the participants, but the film never really succeeds at explicating Marcuse's message. Overly fascinated with Southern California's "exoticness," director Paul Alexander Juutilainen doesn't seem to see that Marcuse's notion of revolution proceeding from the marginalized rather than the working class fomented some of the worst tendencies (elitism and self-absorption) of the student New Left. (Michael S. Gant)

Lost in Mississippi
Jan. 31, 5pm; Feb. 1, 2:45pm; both at UA
A loose "mondo Mississippi"-style documentary that investigates the story of a rash of prison suicides. Director Jim Chambers talks to a series of penal authorities in Mississippi--one of whom claims that a prisoner under his care killed himself to make the prison look bad. Chambers' subjects are either genuinely innocent or among the smoothest-faced liars in North America. Apart from the main story, the documentary is marred by trendy camerawork and intrusive, obvious narration--typically, when Chambers gets footage of something interesting, like an 11-year-old kid who claims to worship Satan, he'll underscore what we've just seen: "An 11-year-old devil worshipper." (Richard von Busack)

Madagascar Skin
Feb. 1, 7:30pm; Feb. 4, 5:15pm; both at UA
A droll and surreal story of a marked man with a spectacular port-wine birthmark--"stain" isn't the word; it's more as if someone had doused him with an entire bottle of Sandeman's. Rejected at the gay discos, lonely Harry (John Hannah) flees to a remote coast to be seen no more by man. Beachcombing after a storm, Harry finds some human flotsam: Flint (the affable but devilish Bernard Hill), a sort of tattooed mer-man, found buried up to his neck in the sand. Chris Newby's tale of the courtship could have used a little more narrative tension, but it's a very peculiar love story, one that has enough weight to keep from evaporating. Newby, whose handsome, strange Anchoress played at the 1994 Cinequest, here demonstrates a sensibility you'd love to see more of. (Richard von Busack)

Pin Gods
Jan. 31, 7:15pm; Feb. 2, 8:45pm; both at C3
With cool, calm and collected reigning champion Walter Ray Williams pacing the way, newcomers Tony, Sonny and Bob learn why only a handful of bowlers make a living at the sport. In this absorbing documentary, filmmakers Jan Grznar and Larry Locke keep a straight face while their subjects wax lyrical about their dreams, but Pin Gods slowly takes on the weight of a genuine drama. By the time Sonny starts quarreling on camera with his impossibly critical father (who makes the dad in Shine look like Jimmy Carter), the stakes are genuinely affecting. As an added bonus, legendary pin god Carmen Salvino offers a running (make that racing) commentary on the "nature of the beast." (Michael S. Gant)

Riding the Rails
Feb. 2, 12:30pm; Feb. 4, 5pm; both at C3
During the hard times of the Depression, legions of displaced teenagers hopped freights in search of work. For some, it was an adventure; for others, a dangerous slide into desperate poverty. Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell's documentary combines historical newsreel clips with some marvelous reminiscences of hard times (including one very resourceful woman's) is often awe-inspiring; indeed, one Bob "Guitar Whitey" Symmonds still jumps aboard a beckoning freight. Face into the wind, he's a figure worthy of London or Kerouac. Riding the Rails provides a useful reminder of what happens when a country neglects the economic well-being of the many in favor of the few, although the narration tends toward the annoyingly overearnest. (Michael S. Gant)

Saint Clara
Jan. 31, 7pm; Feb. 3, 7:15pm; both at UA
In Israel in 1999, Clara, "a weird Russian girl with purple eyes" (Lucy Dubinchik, who outdoes even Natalie Portman in chipmunkhood), evinces a gift of prophecy and telepathy. Slow and uneven but quite funny in spots: Clara's teacher has a great and highly unlikely story to tell about the best day of his life. You wonder why more futuristic films aren't made in Israel. It is the land of the future--because there's lots of terrorism and alienating architecture there. (Richard von Busack)

Jan. 31, 7pm; Feb. 3, 7:15pm; both at UA
Angel is a man whose utter confusion about the meaning of life has led him to believe that he is half man and half angel. He comes to a small farming settlement for the pedestrian task of eradicating a plague of lice from the local vineyards and discovers a close-knit rural community that inhabits a dramatic land of rolling clouds and sweeping vistas of red earth where fatal lightning strikes occur with unsettling regularity. Defining Angel's quandary about spiritual and earthly existence are two women: Angela, his intellectual ideal, and Mari, his sexual counterpart. Complicating Angel's unswerving attraction to both women is the volatile Patricio, Angela's husband and Mari's lover. The clashes between Angel and Patricio are far more interesting than Angel's relationships with either of the women, for as dangerous and dark as Patricio is, he represents the kind of swift and determined action that the confused Angel is not capable of. More often than not, Angela and Mari are just two among the many biblically inspired symbols that define Angel's perspective. In fact, with its ubiquitous symbolism, Tierra vacillates between a bold, effective study of the human condition and mere melodrama. (Heather Zimmerman)

Feb. 1, 5pm; Feb. 2, 11am; both at UA
The title unfortunately describes the experience of sitting through this mysteriously acclaimed independent feature. Jean-Luc Godard by way of Martin Scorsese, Timeless uses a panoply of flashy visual techniques to dress up a tired tale of iconic young losers who run afoul of criminal types and must grasp at doomed romance in the few days left to them. The acting is so uniformly flat and uncharismatic that Melissa Duge sticks in the memory only because she's the sole woman in the film. (Michael S. Gant)

Village of Dreams
Feb. 1, 6:45pm; Feb. 2, 2:30pm; both at UA
Based on a picture book by artists and twin brothers Seizo and Yukihiko Tashima, this quiet yet generally engaging film offers a subtle retelling of the coming-of-age tale. Set against striking scenery and infused with Japanese mythology, Village of Dreams recounts the Tashima brothers' idyllic childhood in a small village in post-WWII Japan. Visually faithful to the fact that it takes inspiration from the lives of two illustrators, the film relies heavily on picturesque detail with lush, lingering cinematography. Through the misadventures of Seizo and Yukihiko, Village of Dreams both recreates a microcosm of society and creates a unique world that combines nature and children's imagination. As out-of-towners, the Tashima family finds its urban sensibilities pitted against the rural way of thinking, a conflict that the young brothers' penchant for mischief only exacerbates. In their forays into the natural world around them, Seizo and Yukihiko do get into more harmless trouble, but they also create a fantastic world of their own, populated by wood sprites, mysterious voices and three watchful old women from Japanese mythology who seem at once to denounce and encourage the mischievous boys. (Heather Zimmerman)

Cinequest takes place Jan. 30­Feb. 5 at the UA Pavilion and Camera 3 in San Jose. (BASS).

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From the January 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro

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