Land Without Bread

The S.F. International Film Festival will honor a venerated Argentine filmmaker all but unknown in the U.S.

Land Without Bread He's a poet, a puppeteer, and a provocateur. Fernando Birri, a venerated Argentine documentary and experimental filmmaker, will be saluted next month with the S.F. International Film Festival's Golden Gate Persistence of Vision lifetime achievement award. Birri's 40-year career spans a dozen films, including the 1962 Venice Film Festival prize winner Los Inundados (Flooded Out). He's not the most prolific filmmaker of all time, perhaps, but the man has kept busy, making his presence felt in other ways. Birri founded the first film school in Argentina, which specializes in documentary, and when forced into exile following the 1966 military coup he started film schools in Venezuela and Cuba. The indefatigable 77-year-old is currently a visiting professor at Stanford's Center for Latin American Studies. The POV tribute marks a rare opportunity to discover the work of a socially conscious filmmaker all but unknown in this country.

The Exterminating Angel S.F. native and 40 Days and 40 Nights director Michael Lehmann was at the SFIFF last year, presenting the Luis Buñuel film Simon of the Desert. “For me,” he wrote in the program guide, “trying hard not to let my own movie fall victim to genre conventions, Buñuel's work provided inspiration.” An amusing sendup of the relentless sex drives and absurd fantasies of men in their 20s, the S.F.-set 40 Days lacks the master's bite, but does climax with a surreal dream scene in which the main character flies through a sea of breasts.

“There was an appendage to that sequence where he opens a laundry machine and a huge flood of seminal fluid overwhelms him,” Lehmann confided last week in an interview. “He wrestles with giant sperm on the floor of the laundromat and tries to put them back in the washing machine. It was my favorite thing in the movie, and I fought hard — they didn't want me to shoot it. You know what? The [test] audience loved the movie, and when that scene happened they went, “Ugh!'” Out it went. “If you're making a movie about a guy who gives up sex for 40 days and people aren't having a good time, then you haven't done your job,” says Lehmann. “This is not a serious treatise on human sexual behavior.”

This is not to say that the director of Heathers has mellowed. His dream project is The Ax, an adaptation of Donald E. Westlake's tale of an unemployed, middle-aged middle manager who creates the perfect job opening by murdering the most qualified candidates and then the current jobholder. “It's a dark satire on late capitalism, the expendability of the older worker, and dog-eat-dog competition, but it stars a 50-year-old man who's a serial killer,” Lehmann says. “Harrison Ford isn't going to play this role. Jack Nicholson's too old to play this role.”

Clearly, Hollywood hasn't co-opted this wise-ass Jewish kid who went to Germany to study philosophy after college. Lehmann reveals (with a hint of embarrassment), “I had a very dark sense of humor about the Holocaust, which I used on Germans. I would push the limits of taste all the time. Never got even a chuckle out of them.”

That Obscure Object of Desire Wayne Wang's The Chambermaid begins shooting in April in New York with Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes. I hope he has better luck with the Manhattan romantic comedy genre than his pal Joan Chen did with Autumn in New York. … May 6, 2002 — exactly two months hence — marks the centenary of director Max Ophuls' birth. Would a double bill of La Ronde and Letter From an Unknown Woman be too much to ask of the SFIFF or one of our fine cinema havens?

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