Theme Spotting at The Longest Running Film Festival in North America

A preview of the 59th San Francisco Film Festival.
By  · Published on April 19th, 2016

The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, the longest running in North America, opens this year at the Alamo Drafthouse in the restored New Mission theater. The inaugural film is the adaptation of Love & Friendship by US-American writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) with Kate Beckinsale as Lady Vernon navigating marriage, society, scandal, and satire.

Friendship is a recurring theme in many of the best releases this year, but not of the Jane Austin variety. Rather, it’s the emotional relationships between men in five very excellent films that allow deeper insight than most into the dynamics of manhood, sexuality, and class — loaded subjects often handled with a heavy hand.

In bringing together, varied looks at the form relationships between men can take, these five unique films give us a rare opportunity to examine and question certain notions of masculinity and bonding about such varied subjects as all-American leading man Burt Reynolds, and a group of teenage schoolboys coming of age in Mexico City.

As a much-needed counterbalance to the dark themes dominating the narrative of contemporary Mexico, Leaf Blower, the poignant debut by Mexican director Alejandro Iglesias Mendizábal, is both a celebration of the blithe spirit of adolescent male friendship, but grounded as well in the protagonists’ emotional lives lying just below a jaunty surface.

Transpiring over the course of a single waning afternoon, and an everyday incident of lost keys, Mendizábal not only draws convincing portraits of three youth as they struggle with typical issues like girls and masculinity, but he also manages to say something profound about the complexity of their nascent relationships with and internalized emotions for one another. He welcomes us right into that most intimate middle — a small clique of adolescent buddies — as their struggles become relatable to our own.

Similarly to the excellent rendering of the dynamics of early adolescence and male social bonding of Leaf Blower, Little Men centers on the precise moment when two young friends from very different backgrounds must learn to navigate innocence through its first bruising understanding of the complexities of an adult world not of the streets, but at home.

With this story, Ira Sachs (Love is Strange), succeeds in making the last film of his trilogy about life in New York and male relationships a beautifully rendered one. In a departure from exploring romantic affiliations, Sachs tenderly explores the bond between two teenage boys who quickly develop a tightly intertwined friendship.

Jake, an introverted, artistically inclined 13-year-old, moves with his family from Manhattan after they inherit his grandfather’s Brooklyn brownstone. He meets Tony, the engaging more outgoing son of dressmaker who rents the building’s storefront.

While the film explores social issues like the real life effects of gentrification and displacement, at its center is a poetic portrait of the platonic but very caring friendship the boys develop in both quiet moments and courageous comradery. In interviews, Sachs has described Jake and Tony’s bond as pre-sexual or perhaps sexual in subtext — regardless their friendship clearly transcends the economic differences that cause so much division in the adult world around them.

Questioning in a very different manner the effects class distinctions bring to intimate friendships is From Afar, a stunning, unapologetic and often painful to watch debut from the largely unknown Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas.

In a realistic, un-sensationalized manner, Vigas’ film examines a slow-evolving and fraught relationship that overtakes the life of a middle-aged loner who frequents the streets of modern-day Caracas cruising (and paying) for quick and impersonal hook-ups.

He pays young working-class men to undress simply while he masturbates. That is until he meets Elder — a desperate, troubled teenager with criminal tenancies. When Armando first approaches “Elder” the encounter leads to assault and robbery. Undeterred by this brutality, Armando tracks down Elder again and again.

Armando eventually becomes a sort of surrogate father to Elder, and as the narration progresses, the film tenderly elaborates on the romantic relationship that has yet to occur between the two protagonists. It is this dynamic that is balefully fascinating, particularly because each character’s need for the other alters over time and blurs the boundaries between friendship, class and love.

The film’s title, however, can be taken on more than one level. As a voyeur, Armando’s gaze on those he desires is always from a distance — and he recoils when Elder offers him direct physical contact. While Armando’s emotions exist in cool suspension, Elder has, so it seems, immediate access to his feelings, whether tenderness or violent anger.

What these diverse takes on male friendship, bonding, and sexual desire do have in common is that they are directed by a man, which is why it’s particularly interesting to compare then them to Chevalier, a film by a female — the critically acclaimed Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari.

Chevalier spins a humorous tale of male relationships in its exploration of masculine competitiveness. Pickled in luxury aboard a sleek private yacht, a group friends of various ages but just one gender decide to compete in a series of improvised challenges: assembling DYI furniture, comparing ’size’ and more generally assessing one another around less tangible things — attitude, posture, underwear — to determine “Best in General.”

Whereas the other movies center on individuals within stories of pairs, and experiences and relationships, Tsangari is more concerned with the mechanisms and patterns that emerge whenever and wherever men are grouped — the urge to assert dominance and masculinity. It is a film that has been called a feminist take on the bizarre universe portrayed by Tsangari’s fellow Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ in his 2009 classic Dogtooth.

But more generally, this film reminds us that although the contest may seem extreme or extremely churlish, events like these have probably occurred more than once in the many histories of male bonding, which as Tsangari shows us, always seems to involve an element of competition; that men will enthusiastically apply themselves to the task, even those they may consider ‘not masculine enough,’ as long as it is part of a competition to determine who is ‘man enough’.

The ambivalent fragility of masculinity’s many forms lights up the receding shadows of a southern fried man cave in The Bandit, an ode to 70’s good old boy culture directed by Jesse Moss. Bandit celebrates a special friendship between the American icon Burt Reynolds and his (and apparently everyone else’s) stuntman — the miraculously unbreakable yet clearly tender Hal Needham. It centers itself during the making of their great collaboration Smokey and the Bandit, which we learn adjusted for inflation long reigned as the 2nd highest grossing film ever.

But it can’t help but zoom in on their very exclusive form of friendship, at times blurring the distinction between friendship and something more intimate. It almost becomes a running inside joke, their bromance and its many twists and turns. As Needham effuses in a vintage clip: “If you’d been women we would have had a great marriage.”

During interviews, friends and colleagues discuss this could-have-been-marriage between two extremely masculine, impossibly charming rascals, one saying “the closest relationship I ever saw in the picture business.” But beyond the transgression of assumed gender boundaries, we learn that their desire for each other was also based on feelings of ‘becoming-one-another’, when Burt, who thought actors were “candy asses,” really wanted to be Hal, who, craving stardom and respect, wanted to be Burt.
Something in that notion of identity swapping does recur in all of these films.

Maybe the hallmark of a great film festival is that it programs sufficiently for each of us to create our strings of meaning, as we play the game of spotting a dominate theme. 173 films in 39 languages offer many possibilities; I hope you find your own.

The San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 21- May 5. Tickets and information available at the SFFS website.