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 Seattle International Film Festival 2012
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film festivals            During the closing days of the 25-day SIFF, some colleagues and I sat on a jury for a competition of American independent films which have yet to find distributors.  One always expects to find some good films in any competition, but brilliant work is hard to come by. Yet a brilliant movie was on the bill, a movie of stylistic control and profound humanity.

            Keith Miller’s Welcome to Pine Hill opens with a white guy walking his dog on a Brooklyn street. Whether through intention or accident, he is in an African-American neighborhood where he is confronted by a reasonably large black man, who claims the dog is his and that the white guy stole it.  What follows is a deceptively simple conversation that is a mini-masterpiece in cross-cultural misunderstanding, each dog lover talking past the other until they finally realize that they are telling their truth own truths to one another.  The white guy – who is played by director Miller – agrees to pay the black guy $250, the dog’s original price.

            It’s been said of Jean Renoir that he was ready to pick out any of the characters at the beginning of his movies, follow him or her, and build a feature around them, such was the depth of his empathy. In Welcome to Pine Hill, Miller chooses to follow Shannon Harper (the name of both character and actor), the man who claimed original ownership of the dog.

            Shannon was a small time criminal working on then periphery of the local drug trade and doing a little breaking-and-entering as well.  He has worked to put that part of his life behind him and has just started the straight life working as a claims adjustor.  Then, just as things are beginning to pick up, Shannon discovers he has no future, either in the short or long term.

            What follows is an extraordinary journey, internal and otherwise, as Shannon traces his memories.  While he does settle a few outstanding issues and visits those close to him, the movie isn’t interested in recording cheap, sentimental good-byes.  For one thing, Harper has the dramatic reserve of a natural movie actor.  Miller’s camera is able to linger on Harper’s face and capture the passage of thought and feeling, even at Harper’s most masked moments.  But the lens can’t dislodge that mask completely.  Miller knows that there is an impenetrable unknown at a person’s spiritual core and that it is better simply to acknowledge it is there than to waste time in futile speculation.  As a result, Harper is that most human of conundrums, the familiar mystery.

            Despite being a first-time feature filmmaker, Miller possesses a technique that far surpasses that of the vast majority of American directors. One particularly effective scene revolves around Shannon’s visit to some old buddies to relive the good old bad days.  The encounter becomes increasingly complex as each of the half dozen men let their feelings loose, emotions that run from nostalgia to resentment.  Miller’s camera work and editing is nothing short of brilliant, shifting viewpoints to note not just emotional shifts, but the perspectives of multiple individuals.

            Finally, Miller gives Harper the respect he deserves (the same respect John Ford gave Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers in 1956).  Miller must finally let Harper go.  The camera stops shadowing Harper and remains still, allowing Harper his dinity and privacy.

There were some other movies in the American independents competition. Here’s a breakdown of some of them.

419  Ned Thorne directs and co-stars in this thriller about a New York actor who becomes obsessed with recovering his money from a South African cyber con. Thorne combines conventional feature filmmaking with mockumentary techniques, which here at least is self-defeating. Thorne makes good use of the South African background and stages some decent suspense scenes. But ultimately it’s too thin and inconsistent.

White Camellias  Dreadul soap opera starring Cybill Shepherd as a Hollywood somebody whose dinner party goes to pieces. She has the usual Gay Friend to help her out while director Russell Brown relies on the most oversized close-ups you’ll never want to see.

Eden Director Megan Griffiths brings a professional polish to bear on this based-on-fact story of organized sexual slavery in the U.S. The movie doesn’t give its heroine a free pass on her eventual complicity and though the story itself hits the rare pothole, Griffiths stays a gear. As is often the case with this sort of subject matter, Griffith has to juggle the exploitation of the characters with the exploitation of her cast; she does quite a job.

Easton’s Article Tim Connery’s somber effort proceeds from the not unfamiliar premise of a person who can suddenly see into some of the near future. Connery stays far away from even the suggestion of cheap thrills, determined to play out the human consequences of his sci-fi premise. He needs to work on his technique and do more than merely record a screenplay, even a good one.

The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had with My Pants On Drew Denny directs and stars in this road movie about a young woman who sets out on a cross-country jaunt to distribute her father’s ashes. Denny decides to reduce the number of encounters with strangers by introducing a girl buddy to ride along – except when she might get in the way, at which point she arbitrarily disappears. Self-indulgence isn’t always a fatal blight, but enough is enough.

Sin Bin A mess of a movie about a van shared by a group of high school buddies for would-be seductions of young ladies. Director Billy Federighi apparently wanted to add a scintilla of moral gravitas to this worn out set-up, but he doesn’t manage either that or any laughs.

Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean One of those movies that’s so bad it threatens to be funny; unfortunately Matthew Mishory’s pretentious, affected, nonsense is merely excruciating.

Future Weather A 12-year-old girl, abandoned by her mother and forced to live with her disliked grandmother (Amy Madigan) brings all her emotions to bear on a school and the impending disaster – local and otherwise – of climate change. The movie’s script is just too pat and director Jenny Deller doesn’t display the chops to suggest any depth.

Henry Sheehan
August, 2012
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