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Some notes on The San Francisco International Film Festival, & The Axe by Costa-Gavras

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THE AXE by Costa-Gavras

Sipping my bottle of water and snacking on mini-crab cakes during the San Francisco International Film Festival “after party” at Ghirardelli Square down by the wharf made me a little queasy. I’m a bit of black sheep. I attended the opening of the San Francisco International Film Festival by my lonesome and didn’t know what to expect. As I meandered around I grazed on the many fine foods and took invetory of the well-dressed and pseudo-movers and shakers. The monied environment was elegant and a bit of a guilty pleasure…my access to the VIP room not excepted.

A Ghiradelli booth served hot fudge with whip cream. I counted at least fifty types of wine available for tasting. Conversations were lively. In the VIP room, I struck up a conversation with two very striking young women who worked for the company that did the media campaign for the San Francisco International Film Festival.

“So what did you think of the film,” I asked.
“To long.” One said, nipping at her crab cake.
“I didn’t need all that,” said the other one between sips of wine.
“Well, it was the kind of movie that has that existential quality about it…the movie took the audience in full detail through every single murder.” I said.
“It was about a half-hour too long,” said the wine drinker. “Why not have like a montage in the middle and quickly kill the middle three guys.”
“Yea, but I actually liked that Long Days Journey into Night quality of the film.” I said.
They looked at me quizzically as if I was speaking Greek.
“Well, I think I want some water,” said the wine drinker and they drifted away.

As the two women drifted toward the beverages, in the background of where they were standing was Costa-Gavras.

Earlier when the movie, The Axe by Costa-Gavras opened the festival it was followed by what I thought was an ill-advised question and answer session. Even before entering the movie, I noticed while picking up my tickets that Castro Street was crowded with freeks, geeks, and societe. San Francisco has its share of wildly strange folk…this is part of San Francisco’s charm.

After the film, there were questions from the audience for Costa-Gavras. Questions such as, “Why do we go along with everything in capitalism like sheep?” Another question was “Isn’t a story about a man who loses his job too boring and simple to make a movie about?” I kept thinking, goodness, thankfully there is a translator for Costa who can re-interpret the question into something worthy of an answer.

I remember one answer—though I can’t recall the question—where Costa-Gavras said, “A good economy will produce good people. A bad economy will not.” This was his summation of a point that seemed to indicate a unique proposition. He was summarizing the idea that he believed that humans will be violent and amoral when the economics of a situation are bad. And he believed that humans will tend toward goodness and wellness when the economic situation is good. This surprised me.

I thought this answer of his a good idea to use when considering The Axe. It is not a typical artitistic sentiment, and I’m not even sure that I disagree with it. This became for me the through line. The movie, for me, in retrospect was an argument about the economics of life, of family, of war.

So when I saw Costa-Gavras standing there, I said to myself. Hey that’s the director. I should talk to him. I explained to him how I enjoyed the film and appreciated the nature of its “amoral” approach as he called it. I asked him how much it cost to make. When evaluating a movie it seems to me to be important to consider its budget. Gavras did put up his own house, about $500,000 as collateral on the film. The total cost was 4.6 million euros.

When I asked him if that was over or under budget, he looked at me as if I was smoking crack. He said that he cannot go even a penny over budget or he might lose his house. Being over budget was not an option. This is based on the commitment of the producers to the French government. He did talk briefly about the French system wherein the government is obligated to kick in a percentage of the cost of making a film once it gets some sort of approval.

I tried to initiate a conversation with Gavras that would explain his interest in making films. So I talked with Gavras about how he got into filmmaking.

I said, “So how did you get into filmmaking?”
“I wanted to make films.” He said.
I said, “Yes but why did you get into filmmaking?”
He said, “I got into films because I wanted to make movies. That is why.”

So much for my own deep and probing questions.

The movie The Axe chronicles the murderous path of an unemployed chemist. The premise is that if there is only one job that this character is suited for then he must eliminate any and all men who might out-compete him for that job. Desperate for employment, he sets out to kill these men.

The strength of the film is how the audience finds itself aligning themselves with this despicable murderer. Make no mistake, you will sympathize with him and find yourself rooting for him to succeed. All the while, this makes you question your pre-disposition, under the right circumstances, to side with a force that is clearly acting despicably.

Costa-Gavras in this film asks us to endure our own affections. Perhaps even to evaluate our self-loathing. How does one feel about oneself if one felt good being a follower of the Hitler regime? How does one feel about oneself when one feels good and patriotic and “in support” of killing innocent people because they block our economic viablity?

Few films take us down such dark paths. Even fewer keep us laughing and entertained simultaneously. Make no mistake, you will laugh and be amused by the horrible hero. Somehow, as an audience we are reconciled to this reality. Perhaps because, as the movie concludes, it takes one to know one.

My one thumbs down? The party at the Ghirardelli Square didn’t even validate. Despicable!

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About David Koehn

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