[Two from Stewart Stern]

The final week before the film festival, SIFF Cinema ran a series of films written by Stewart Stern, best known for writing Rebel Without a Cause. He’s definitely a Seattle treasure. Just as with book readings, special guests at films can go either way, but Stern is a fantastic storyteller.

Of course, it helps that he has marvelous stories to tell, like about traveling in East Asia with Marlon Brando, or how John F Kennedy was directly responsible for The Ugly American being made, or about how terrified Paul Newman was of shooting his first film. He’s a charmer, though, for sure, and it was a treat to hear him interviewed at length by fellow screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie before The Ugly American, and also a shorter introduction a few days later before Rachel, Rachel.

The experience of seeing The Ugly American was much more satisfying coming off of the introduction. It gave context for the politics of the situation, and brought home the bravery of the film, in particular its powerful ending.

The film, starring Marlon Brando, is a critique of American interference in southeast Asia. It’s set in the fictional country of Sarkan, but there’s never any doubt that this is a solid (though simplified) story about American cultural incompetency on a grand scale.

Rachel Rachel had a strong effect on me emotionally. Joanne Woodward is fantastic as a spinster schoolteacher, trapped by small town expectations in general and her mother in particular.  It’s a powerful adaptation of what I understand was an extremely internal novel.

I was also impressed with it as Paul Newman’s directorial debut. There’s one scene in particular that I loved: in one of the flashbacks to Rachel’s childhood we see her father embracing her in a moment that defines love for her in her adulthood, and much later in the movie we learn what happened just before the embrace, which casts an entirely different perspective on everything we’ve seen before.

It is also notable for the inclusion of a sympathetic queer character, Rachel’s teacher friend Calla. Though her advances are refused, the friendship is not destroyed, and she is neither punished nor portrayed as deserving of punishment, which is notable only a few years after The Children’s Hour.