Good evening, folks. Or morning as it would be at this point. Hope you’re all having a splendid internet experience at this current point in time, and I thank you in advance for stumbling upon my coverage of the 58th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival. I had a long Friday taking care of business out in this area, but it was plenty fulfilling and I’m happy to tell you about it if you’re happy to read about it. The day started off just as it did last year, without a hitch. I arrived just over an hour before the first film was to start and picked up my Press Badge without a hitch. After acquiring my ticket to the film Iris, I made the brisk walk over to the line in front of the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas which still looks glorious as ever.
Now, Iris is not the Oscar nominated Judi Dench movie from 14 years ago. This is a new film from the late great legendary documentarian Albert Maysles. I hate to admit here to everyone that I’ve never seen another Maysles film in my life, but I imagine I still have enough time left before I die to get to at least a few of them. Iris is essentially a fly on the wall documentary about a fashion icon named Iris Apfel. We get to see her way of living. We get to see her model a ton of her outfits and jewelry. We get to know her husband who turns 100 years old over the course of the film. We get to see her go on shopping sprees. And we get to hear her make a ton of very funny deadpan quips about her age, her behavior and her past. She is very funny and she has no problem carrying a 90 minute documentary. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot more to it than that, but I had no trouble with staying entertained through the course of the film.
Then about an hour after Iris ended came Entertainment, a film by Rick Alverson whose previous film The Comedy generated a lot of talk among critics, if not necessarily any real breakout success. I haven’t seen The Comedy, so I can’t comment too much on how Entertainment is similar or different, but I’m pretty sure the results will be the same. A lot of people will talk about it. I certainly was talking about it, and I really couldn’t figure out if I liked it or not. Alverson is determined to show the most unpleasant sides of touring as a stand-up comedian as he can. He really shows no mercy in displaying the depressing monotony that can come about with this way of life. There’s nothing even remotely flattering or enviable about what we see in this film. It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience, but I have no doubt that that’s exactly how it was meant to feel, so I certainly can’t call the movie “bad” even though that’s probably how many will see it.
Alverson was in attendance at the screening and was good enough to answer questions of the audience afterwards. He had a pleasant and yet quiet demeanor, completely without vanity. I went up to him and thanked him for his work afterwards and mentioned that I was now planning to see The Comedy soon now. His response was, “You’re going to have a rough evening.” If the experience is anything like Entertainment, he’s probably right.
And after two brand new films that have so far been seen by few, it was now time for an older film that had been seen by a fair amount of people over the last seventeen years. Only this was not the version of that film that they remember. 54 was released in late summer of 1998 to very modest box-office and middling to negative reviews despite the presence of recent box-office godsend Mike Myers giving his first fully dramatic performance ever. It tells the story of a kid named Shane O’Shea played by Ryan Philippe who gets hired on by owner Steve Rubell (Myers) to work at the legendary and notorious nightclub known as Studio 54, where sex, drugs and rock and roll run rampant with A-list celebrities every night (Rubell: “What’s 2+2? Shane: “Huh?” Rubell: “You’ll do fine.”). Shortly before its release, director Mark Christopher had been forced by the studio Miramax to cut a multitude of the more graphic and explicit scenes and replace them with around thirty minutes of reshoots which in some cases completely changed the characters’ relationships and possibly changing the whole message of the film. It’s not the first time such a thing has happened, but it’s rare that a director is given the chance to go back 17 years later and carefully find a way to reassemble the original film he envisioned and then put it into release. Not only did he completely excise all but a few seconds (according to IMDb) of the studio mandated reshoots, he managed to scour all of the archives at Miramax studios, as well as the basement of his editor, for all of the original footage that was forced to be dropped and reassembled it all for his very special director’s cut which made its North American debut just last night at the legendary Castro Theatre.
(This is the trailer from the film’s original release.)
I can’t say that I’ve seen the original incarnation of 54 as I was a bit young for such a film in 1998. So while some of the new old scenes were pretty easy to spot as they were in quite bad shape, I certainly can’t give an expert account of the differences between the two. But no matter what you’re feelings are about either version, I must say it’s kind of beautiful that director can and would go to such pains to distribute his original version that was taken away from him seventeen years ago. I can definitely say that I liked the film. It’s not perfect, but when glancing at the reviews it garnered from critics in 1998, I think it’s a safe bet that it has to be better than the previous version.
And seeing it with such a large audience composed of fans of the film, fans of the actors and tipsy Friday night Castro party folks who were seeing it for the first time, it was a hugely enjoyable exercise in Rocky Horror level audience fandom. People reacted with cheers, “OOOHHS” and uproarious laughter every few minutes at just about every moment. They were very into the movie, which probably helped me with being more into the movie myself. Probably more so than I would have been if I had just been watching at home on my own. It didn’t stop me from getting the feeling that it felt just a little too much like a cheaper version of Boogie Nights, a film released just a year earlier. Nor did it stop me from feeling that the movie kinda lacked enough of a throughline and just kind of ended without enough of a payoff. And what about Neve Campbell? Her character felt seriously underdeveloped, and romantic scene with Ryan Phillippe seemed to come out of nowhere and end just as quickly. So yes, it’s far from perfect, but it had enough engaging characters and displayed an interesting display of history and humor, plus a dynamite performance by Mike Myers. So I have no trouble recommending it if you’re a fan of the actors, the era, or the original film.
Director Mark Christopher and actors Ryan Phillippe and Breckin Meyer, both of whom seem to have collectively aged about three and a half weeks since they shot this film, were in attendance at the screening and were good enough to offer a brief question and answer session afterwards. They were all clearly very enthusiastic about finally getting this director’s cut out there, or as they put it, “the film we set out to make.” They talked about the history of what Studio 54 was to the culture and how such a place couldn’t really exist in a world of social media and oversaturation. They were clearly very proud of their work, and they should be. The questions that came from the audience ranged from lame to embarrassing. While they responded to all with plenty of goodwill, things got pretty awkward when one guy asked, “So I’ve never seen the original cut, so I have to ask what’s that version like and what was so bad about that version?” Their answer basically consisted of emphasizing the fact that they made that version too so they’d probably rather not use those words, and that there are plenty of articles he could find on Google that would answer his question. A legit question made awkward by a very poor choice of words. How about, “So I gather that you prefer this version to the original release, so are there any specific reasons why?” Something like that?
Anyway, the movie was a lot of fun. The screening was a lot of fun. I’m very glad this version of 54 exists and I may even go back and rewatch it some day. Thank you for checking out the first edition of my coverage of SFIFF and I hope you check out future editions as well.