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Film Features

The observer



FILM Filmmaker Jem Cohen is known for his artful documentaries, including 2003 Fugazi portrait Instrument. His latest, Museum Hours, has many doc-like qualities, but it’s the closest he’s come to a narrative. Set in Vienna, it follows Canadian Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) as she arrives to care for a dying cousin. Adrift in an unfamiliar city, she meets Johann (Bobby Sommer), a guard at the stately Kunsthistorisches Museum. He offers to show her around and serve as translator, and a genuine friendship — based on a shared affection for art — is formed.

Like the artist Bruegel, whose paintings so fascinate his characters, Cohen focuses on the details of everyday life; his camera lingers as carefully on street scenes as it does on the museum’s priceless artifacts. I caught up with Cohen — a Persistence of Vision Award winner at this year’s SF International Film Festival — just before Museum Hours‘ theatrical release.

SF Bay Guardian Museum Hours shows some well-known landmarks, but it’s more focused on Vienna as a living, breathing city.

Jem Cohen I’m always fascinated by the city beneath the city, and particularly the city that is not made for tourists. Vienna is known for [the Vienna State Opera], and glorious views — and all of that is fine. I don’t have anything against it. But there are back streets, neighborhoods with immigrants in them, and places where people who don’t have a lot of money go. All of that is something that I wanted to bring to the surface, but in a natural way, because [Anne] is stuck there, wandering, and she doesn’t have a lot of dough.

SFBG Working in the Bruegel room, Johann muses that he always notices something new each time he looks at the paintings. Do you feel like that about Vienna?

JC I feel that way about every city! I feel that way about street photography, too. When you wander, if you just open your eyes and ears, then you will receive gifts. Things will come around the corner that you don’t expect. That’s eternally the hidden motor of my work.

SFBG What drew you to Bruegel?

JC Standing in front of his paintings, I felt this uncanny kinship that had a lot to do with my work as a street photographer. In particular, it’s this feeling of being in the random particle generator of life, and not knowing exactly where to look. It’s a very particular thing to have events going on all over the frame and you’re not told, “This is the one important thing.” You have an openness which allows you to constantly shift what is foreground and what is background, and try to make something out of that. I feel that’s part of the street photography tradition, and it’s part of what Bruegel was sort of miraculously doing in the 16th century.

SFBG Museum Hours contains an extended scene of a museum docent delivering a lecture about Bruegel to a tour group. Why did you include that?

JC I wasn’t making Museum Hours for any market. But if I had been, that scene would have been the kiss of death. Everyone would have said, “You’re out of your mind. You can’t just drop a 10-minute lecture in the middle of a movie and expect people to be OK with that.”

But the scene with the docent allows me to introduce a lot of things that are important to me, in terms of how I feel about art. It also suggests that the main characters of your movie are not the only human interaction that everybody needs to be focused on. Something else could happen; the guard could turn the corner and hear a guest lecturer, and become immersed in that.

SFBG I couldn’t tell if she actually was a lecturer, or an actor playing one.

JC One of the things that I most hoped to do in the film was to have people unsure of what is documentary material and what is not, and unsure of who is acting and who is not, and unsure of whether the movie is a city portait or a narrative about these strangers who meet. Or whether it’s really about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, or about museums as a possible crossroads.

That slippery quality is one of the most valuable things to me about this film, as well as [my film] Chain (2004), which also involved non-actors and actors, and having it be essentially an open question.

SFBG Museum Hours has quite a different tone than Chain. It’s a lot friendlier, for lack of a better word.

JC Chain is, in some regards, a horror film about a kind of depersonalization and homogenization of the world that’s insidious and, in its way, quite brutal. Museum Hours is a film that has, at its core, a belief in art as something that goes from past to future, and actually continues as a viable human communication. It’s also about friendship and the kindness of strangers.

I don’t see those two projects as antithetical; they’re just different facets of the same world. I don’t feel, as a filmmaker or as a person, that everything goes either light or dark. But I’m glad that I don’t always have to make movies that are angry, because Chain is an angry film. It had to be.

SFBG How did you cast your lead actors?

JC I had seen Mary Margaret O’Hara as a musician almost 25 years ago. I was just so taken by her presence that I had in the back of my mind that someday I would love to work with her on a film.

When I met Bobby, he was working as a driver and a waiter. I used him in one earlier project just to read some German text, and I loved the way he sounded. I also liked the fact that he had a lot of odd life experience that he could bring to the role.

SFBG They’re both credited with writing some of the dialogue, too.

JC It’s kind of a half-scripted movie. Sometimes, it’s actually one of them speaking lines that I had written, with the other one being completely free to respond. Again, I tried to make it unclear what lines are scripted and what lines are not — so that the film feels more like life to me.

I wanted to make a down-to-earth movie. I thought it would be lethal to deal with, basically, art, life, and death, and do it in a pretentious way. People have their range of passions, which can include Rembrandt and AC/DC. That’s fine! That’s the way I live.

SFBG I’d love to see Museum Hours in a double feature with The Mill and the Cross (2011). What did you think of that film?

JC I didn’t see it! I felt like I couldn’t see somebody else’s Bruegel movie while I was making my own. I will seek it out and watch it now, because I heard it’s quite lovely. It’s really nice to me that that so many people have responded to Bruegel over the years. I think there’s something very “of the people” about him that also intrigues those of us who work in cinema. *


MUSEUM HOURS opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.

Highway to hell



FILM On Oct. 24, 2002, a man and a teenager were arrested upon being found sleeping in their car at a Maryland rest stop. That ended the three-week reign of terror known as the Beltway sniper attacks, in which 13 people were shot (10 fatally) in a wide area surrounding Washington, DC. When facts started coming to light, what seemed most striking about these attacks were their utter randomness — the perps had pre-selected locations but not victims, the latter being just passers-by ranging from age 13 to 72 — as well as the curious relationship between the two shooters.

Forty-one-year-old John Allen Muhammad had met 17-year-old Jamaican Lee Boyd Malvo three years earlier when on a vacation with his three children in Antigua. (He’d actually kidnapped them for this purpose.) Malvo, who was more or less parentless, was sorely in need of guidance and a guardian. Taken back to the US by his new protector, the boy got a perverse dose of both, and was too grateful, gullible, or intimidated to question it.

A former US Army mechanic and driver, Muhammad lived an itinerant lifestyle with his new “son,” moving them from one end of the country to another with very little stability. Meanwhile Malvo was encouraged to steal — shoplifting the Bushmaster XM-15 with which they later committed the Beltway attacks — schooled in expert marksmanship, and inculcated in his “dad’s” bizarre antisocial, paranoid, punitive ideas about “waking people up” to the “evil” in the world. Phase One of the plan was purportedly to kill six white people a day for one month; the final goal was either (according to defense attorneys) to regain possession of Muhammad’s biological children, or (according to Malvo) to extort millions from the government to create a boot camp for other boys, who’d be trained to help trigger some murky downfall of our corrupt society.

Alexandre Moors’ first feature Blue Caprice offers an unsettling if ambiguous take on a case that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Here, Lee (Tequan Richmond) has been abandoned by his negligent mother when he spies tourist John (Isaiah Washington of Grey’s Anatomy) frolicking with his younger kids; hungry and otherwise needy, he follows them around, eventually making a desperate bid for the older man’s attention.

Taken to the US, Lee accepts whatever strange wisdom his minder has to offer — that the latter’s ex-wife is “a fucking vampire;” that he himself needs brutal “training” that includes his being left tied to a tree deep in a forest; and that if he really loves his “dad,” he needs to complete various tasks as ordered, including shooting a particular woman point-blank in front of her home — even if later it turns out she “might have been the wrong woman.”

All this seems some sort of paramilitaristic preparation. But it’s also an outlet for John’s bottomless, often scarifying anger, and his need to create someone as emotionally disconnected from other humans as himself. For a while they stay with a former Army buddy and fellow weapons enthusiast (Tim Blake Nelson) who’s too much of a good ol’ boy to sense anything wrong about the visitors. But Ray’s wife (Joey Lauren Adams) does, and there’s tension in the way her suspicion might make her the latest woman John regards as an enemy.

The shootings themselves are dealt with very discreetly in Blue Caprice, though it’s chilling enough just watching the two leads arbitrarily pick targets. Moors and scenarist Ronnie Porto aim to conjure an atmosphere of isolation and indoctrination where we’re nearly as blindsided as Lee; the nondescript American settings they temporarily inhabit become hostile environs he and John infiltrate like spies for reasons that understandably wouldn’t make a lick of sense to anyone else. “They don’t realize the house of cards they live in. All it would take it one little push,” Muhammad says ominously, seeing himself as one-man destroying angel of some Great Lie. His delusions are as incoherent to us as they remain in real life.

While its deliberate omissions and psychological gaps are somewhat frustrating, Blue Caprice does cast a spell — aided considerably by Brian O’Carroll’s artful photography (no shaky-cam here) and a fine, unpredictable original score by Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson. The real Muhammad tried claiming that no proof could be found that he actually committed any of the shootings. That notion was tossed aside in court, and he died by lethal injection — calling himself an “innocent black man” to the end — in September 2009. Malvo was sentenced to life without parole. He revealed little in his Virginia trial, but by the time of his subsequent prosecution in Maryland, he no longer felt the need to protect Muhammad, and denied he’d been the sole triggerman. Just last year he came forward to say that Muhammad had sexually abused him.

Since the trials, the two have been linked to as many as 12 unsolved additional killings. What’s perhaps most disturbing about their case is that, strange as it is, in today’s US such conspiratorial murder of strangers doesn’t really seem that strange at all. Think of it this way: in 1976, the plot of Taxi Driver seemed improbable. But we now live in a world of well-armed Travis Bickles, prepping themselves to avenge some grave personal injustice they think everybody else must pay for. *


BLUE CAPRICE opens Fri/20 at the Roxie.



FILM It still boggles the mind that perhaps the most important single figure in the socio-religiously conservative Italy’s artistic media of the 1960s through the mid-’70s — an extraordinarily fertile period, particularly for cinema — was an openly queer Marxist atheist and relentless church critic. Pier Paolo Pasolini stirred innumerable controversies during his life, ending prematurely in his alleged 1975 murder by a teenage hustler. (Conspiracy theories still swirl around its actually being a political or organized-crime assassination.)

He was an acclaimed poet, novelist, screenwriter, director, playwright, painter, political commentator, and public intellectual. In several of those roles he was pilloried — and prosecuted — for obscenity. What seemed pornographic to some at the time now, for the most part, looks simply like heightened, gritty social realism, and frank acknowledgement that sexuality (and morality) comes in all shades. Yet one must admit: Arguably no filmmaker outside the realm of actual porn put so much dick (often uncut, and occasionally erect) right there onscreen.

Pasolini’s film work has a lingering rep as being somewhat rough sledding, in both themes and technique. Certainly he was no extravagant cinematic stylist on the level of Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, and Bertolucci (though he contributed as a writer to films by the latter two), the other leading Italian auteurs of the time. But it’s surprising how pleasurable on many levels his features look today, as showcased in a traveling retrospective getting its Bay Area exposure at the Castro Theatre, Roxie Theater, and Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive through Oct. 31.

The two San Francisco dates highlight the three periods of Pasolini’s cinema; the PFA’s more extensive survey (ending with 1975’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom for Halloween, the kind of programmatic coup de grace that leaves you suspended between “genius!” and “WTF?”) running weeks longer. While there are overlaps, the latter provides berth for his neorealist classic feature debut Accatone (1961), shorts, and several documentaries including 1964’s seldom-revived Love Meetings, in which PPP himself interviews Italians about their sexual attitudes — from asking not-so-young kids how babies are born (“the stork brings them”) to grilling adults about gender double-standards regarding marital virginity. Then there’s 1969’s bizarre Pigsty, which put leading 1960s Euro-art-cine weirdos Pierre Clémenti and Jean-Pierre Léaud in separate threads of a two-pronged experimental narrative. It was weird enough to forgo US release until 1974.

There are also such baffling, shit-stirring features as Hawks and Sparrows (1966), an existential comedy suspended between Beckett and A Hard Day’s Night (1964); plus 1968 shocker Teorema, in which Terence Stamp’s mysterious bisexual visitor liberates and destroys a repressed bourgeoisie Italian family.

This weekend’s Castro-Roxie showcases the extent to which Pasolini was a cinematic populist — however inadvertently for such a radical thinker. His “trilogy of life” brought to the screen bawdy medieval stories by Boccaccio (1971’s The Decameron), Chaucer (1972’s Canterbury Tales) and unknown legend scribers (1974’s Arabian Nights.) All were originally rated X. The first is a bawdy delight; the last is a gorgeously melancholic, serpentine lineup of seriocomic stories-within-stories. Canterbury is a mixed bag, as Pasolini had problems structuring it editorially and was despondent over longtime protégé and lover Ninetto Davoli — who was 15 when they first met — leaving him for a woman. Nonetheless, he gave Davoli a big part in the wonderful Nights, albeit one in which his hapless character is finally castrated by angry women. (Touché.)

With their unprecedented amounts of full nudity, offering up sexuality (and normal, imperfect bodies) as something simply natural rather than prurient, each portion of this “phallocentric” trio was instantly notorious. The films became his greatest commercial successes — though curiously he later abjured them, partly out of guilt that so many actors’ “innocent bodies [had] been violated, manipulated, and enslaved by consumerist power.” Who but Pasolini would be depressed by having hits?

That shift from comparative joie de vivre back to bleak commentary on social injustice resulted in unintended swansong Salò, a grueling depiction of classist sadism that usefully transfers the Marquis de Sade’s infamous Bastille-written 1785 120 Days of Sodom to the bitter end of Italy’s World War II-losing fascist era. While in the literary original aristocratic children were kidnapped to be abused by decadent church and secular power mongers, here it’s pointedly spawn of the anti-fascist peasant underclass (all actors assuredly 18-or-plus to avoid prosecution).

The characters forced into ever-escalating sexual and violent degradations to survive, no mercy is spared. Salò remains banned in several countries, notably Asian and Middle Eastern ones. Its largely naked, helpless “young victim” cast (who apparently thoroughly enjoyed the filming, having no idea just how fucked up the material was) proved Pasolini’s last instance of drafting nonprofessionals who struck his eye. As a showcase for such raw talent, it was second only to a film he’d made a decade earlier: 1964’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a gritty, black-and-white riposte to the garish CinemaScope Biblical epics of the era. Ironically, that film by a Commie atheist fag remains one of the cinematic depictions of Christ most highly regarded by believers.

Nearly all these movies featured his favorite discoveries Davoli and Franco Citti, the former an endearing comic goofball, the latter a smoldering hunk usually cast as amoral evildoer. Both enjoyed long careers after their mentor died. Their very different types of screen charisma remain high among the delights that Pasolini’s cinema offers today. Davoli will be on hand at the Castro and Roxie screenings. Given his guileless, antic persona in the films, it’s a fair bet he’ll be a riot in person. *


Sat/14, $12

Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF

Sun/15, $12

Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF

Sept. 20-Oct. 31, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.



Reel to real



FILM At a moment when gay people and gay rights have never been more prominent — from the escalating numbers of states and countries permitting gay marriage to the controversy over Olympics-hosting Russia’s murky new anti-gay legislation — it’s hard to imagine the climate in which Portrait of Jason premiered in late 1967. The “new permissiveness” was just beginning to impact American cinema; soon there would be a small vogue of mainstream films addressing homosexuality in one way or another. But they would mostly be condescending, tragic, hostile and/or grotesquely comedic — you could argue there wasn’t a truly sympathetic Hollywood feature about a non-stereotypical gay relationship until 1982’s Making Love. (Which flopped, despite all publicity, and encouraged no imitations.)

Today it’s a common complaint that them perverts are too damn omnipresent in the news, on TV, everywhere — their heightened public profile somehow violating the “rights” of others to ignore or hate on them. But nearly half a century ago, Shirley Clarke’s documentary “portrait” of one rather flaming real-life personality — not just gay, but African American, too — seemed unprecedentedly exotic. No less than then-Supreme God of All Cinema (and supremely heterosexual) Ingmar Bergman called it “the most extraordinary film I’ve ever seen in my life … absolutely fascinating.” He probably found mankind’s first moon landing two years later less startling.

The latest in Milestone Films’ “Project Shirley” series of restored Clarke re-releases, Portrait of Jason can’t be experienced that way now. Any surviving exoticism is now related to the subject’s defining a certain pre-Stonewall camp persona, and the movie’s reflecting a 1960s cinema vérité style of which its director was a major proponent. Perhaps influenced by fellow New Yorker Andy Warhol’s early films, the setup couldn’t be simpler: instead of staring at the Empire State Building or somebody sleeping for X number of hours, we spend 12 hours in the company of Jason Holliday, née Aaron Payne. (He explains someone named Sabu in San Francisco during his “three, four, five years” there “was changing people’s names to suit their personality,” adding “San Francisco is a place to be created, believe me.”)

Or rather Clarke and her then-partner, actor Carl Lee, spend those hours — from 9 pm to 9 am — with Jason, while we get a 107-minute distillation. Nattily attired, waving a cigarette around while downing an epic lineup of cocktails, Jason is a natural performer who relishes this filmic showcase as “my moment.” No matter what, he says, he will now “have one beautiful something that is my own.”

At first Clarke and Lee simply let him riff, prompting him to speak calculated outrages they’ve probably already heard. (“What do you do for a living, Jason?” “I’m a … I’m a stone whore. And I’m not ashamed of it.”) He seems to be trying out material for a nightclub act that’s part Lenny Bruce, part snap diva. “I guess I’m a male bitch, because I have a tendency to go around and unglue people. I’ve spent so much of my time bein’ sexy I haven’t gotten anything else done. I’ve been balling from Maine to Mexico.” He shares anecdotes of working as a “houseboy” for rich white women during his in SF; he dons ladies’ hats and a feather boa to do imitations of Scarlett O’Hara, Miss Prissy, Katharine Hepburn, and Carmen Jones.

He’s indeed the life of his own party — increasingly smashed as wee hours encroach in Clarke’s Chelsea Hotel room — but there’s a certain desperation to this act that she and particularly Lee eventually pounce on. The exact nature of the two men’s relationship intrigues once Lee starts goading Jason to cut the “bullshit” and pony up some truths. “We know you’re a big con artist and you don’t really give a shit about nothin’ and nobody,” the off-camera Lee barks, later referencing some “dirty lies” Jason had allegedly spread about him.

By the time the former is calling the latter a “fuckin’ nasty bitch,” the film has become a queasy mix of exploitation and collusion. “Nervous and guilty and simple as I am,” Jason has a braggadocio that camouflages a self-loathing he’s just as willing to expose. When actual tears-of-a-clown are shed, the filmmakers seem cruel. Still, the “portrait” is incomplete — Clarke and Lee don’t press their subject to explicate the past spousal abuse, suicide attempt, and “nuthouse” and jail stays he drops into conversation as casually as he mentions a friendship with Miles Davis.

Two years later Yoko Ono and John Lennon would film the extremely disturbing Rape — 77 minutes of a camera crew silently, aggressively following an increasingly bewildered and panicked young woman around Manhattan, reducing her to a whimpering wreck. It was a human experiment in the name of art as striking as it was sadistic. While less traumatic, Portrait of Jason also stretches a very 1960s notion of cinema-as-angry-analyst’s-couch to uncomfortable lengths.

Clarke, who died in 1997 — one year before Jason — remains a fascinating, underappreciated figure who suffered all the consequences of being a stubbornly individual filmmaker in an era when women directors were rare and little-respected. (Not that that’s changed greatly since.) Switching from dance to movies in the ’50s, she earned an Oscar nomination for a 1960 short, then won one outright for a 1963 documentary about poet Robert Frost. Yet her career was constantly stymied, finally forcing her into academia. French director Agnès Varda’s 1969 curio Lions Love has her playing herself, a matter-of-fact New Yorker baffled equally by the Hollywood industry she’s trying to enter and by the upscale hippie ménage à trois antics of her hosts, Warhol star Viva and Hair co-creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado.


PORTRAIT OF JASON opens Fri/16 at the Roxie.

The truth hurts



SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL The 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival broadens its scope this year with a theme — “Life Through a Jew(ish) Lens” — that allows it to encompass a wide spectrum of films. Though plenty of SFJFF’s programs do specifically address Jewish religion and culture, some of the films I watched were only tangentially “Jew(ish)” — as in, they simply happened to be made by a Jewish filmmaker. For fans of quality programming, however, that’s a moot point: SFJFF 2013 is a solid if eclectic festival, with a typically strong showing of documentaries well worth seeking out.

Previously seen locally at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller is as timely as ever, with the advent of increasingly restrictive abortion legislation in states like Texas and North Carolina. This doc focuses on the four (yes, only four) doctors in America who are able to perform late-term abortions — all colleagues of Dr. George Tiller, assassinated in 2009 by a militant anti-abortionist.

The film highlights the struggles of what’s inherently a deeply difficult job; even without sign-toting (and possibly gun-toting) protestors lurking outside their offices, and ever-shifting laws dictating the legality of their practices, the situations the doctors confront on a daily basis are harrowing. We sit in as couples make the painful decision to abort babies with “horrific fetal abnormalities;” a rape victim feels guilt and relief after terminating a most unwanted pregnancy; a 16-year-old Catholic girl in no position to raise a child worries that her decision to abort will haunt her forever; and a European woman who decides she can’t handle another kid tries to buy her way into the procedure. The patients’ faces aren’t shown, but the doctors allow full access to their lives and emotions — heavy stuff.

Similarly devastating is Brave Miss World, Cecilia Peck’s portrait of Israeli activist Linor Abargil, who survived a violent rape just weeks before she won the Miss World pageant in 1998. As Linor travels around the world on her mission to help others heal from their own sexual assaults, it becomes clear that she still has some lingering issues of her own to deal with. Taking action — working tirelessly to keep her rapist in prison; making a painful return trip to Milan, where the attack happened — only brings a certain amount of closure. Her emotional fragility manifests itself in a newfound embrace of religion (much to the confusion of her largely secular family, fiancé, and gay best friend), which is somewhat at odds with Brave Miss World‘s female-empowerment message. Still, though it gets a bit documentary-as-therapy, Brave Miss World offers a compelling look at one woman’s determined quest to help others who’ve suffered similar traumas — urging them, through sheer force of personality, to speak out and become activists themselves.

More cinematic therapy is offered up by the structurally similar Here One Day and My Father and the Man in Black. In both of these first-person docs, the filmmaker remembers a parent who committed suicide, making extensive use (in both cases) of remarkably candid audio and written diaries that were left behind. In Here One Day, Kathy Leichter delves into her troubled mother’s manic depression as she cleans out the closets of the New York City apartment where she grew up — and where her own young family now resides. Even more fraught with meaning than her mother’s physical leftovers — a mix of both meaningful (her writings and recordings) and pack-ratty (a trash-scavenged Marie Antoinette bust, a Coca-Cola memorabilia collection) — is the window where she leapt to her death in 1995. Leichter’s father, longtime New York State Senator Franz Leichter, is among the family members who speak openly about the event.

Filmmaker Jonathan Holiff’s My Father and the Man in Black is no less personal, but it offers slightly broader appeal, weaving the tale of Holiff’s father, Saul Holiff, and his stint as Johnny Cash’s manager from 1960-73. Holiff’s association with Cash coincided with the musician’s At Folsom Prison triumph, but also with the height of his raging drug problem; the beleaguered Holiff spent much of his time doing damage control in the wake of cancelled (or should-have-been cancelled) concerts. Parenting wasn’t a high priority, the younger Holiff recalls, but once the filmmaker discovers his father’s memoir and memorabilia-stuffed storage locker, he’s able to piece together the man behind the anger (and the drinking problem). The film relies perhaps too heavily on re-enactments (that, in turn, are heavily inspired by 2005’s Walk the Line), but it offers a not-often-seen perspective on show biz’s darker aspects, as witnessed by a man tasked with managing a superstar whose addictions often threatened to overtake his talent.

Beyond parental angst, another favorite theme among SFJFF doc-makers is race. Paul Saltzman builds off an incident in his own life for The Last White Knight, an insightful but at-times difficult to watch film anchored by an interview with Delay De La Beckwith, aging racist. (His father, the late Byron De La Beckwith, was finally convicted in 1997 of killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963.) Saltzman and the younger Beckwith, who are around the same age, first met in 1965: one, an idealistic student who traveled to Mississippi to help register African American voters; the other, a proud KKK member who punched Saltzman in the face because he didn’t care much for meddling outsiders. Welcome to the South!

Using animation, interviews with other civil rights activists (including Harry Belafonte and Morgan Freeman — though the latter insists “I don’t talk race”), and personal reflections, The Last White Knight strives to explore the current state of race in America. At its heart, though, it’s about the two men who form a surprising friendship of sorts, despite their combative past. It’s unclear, after all these years, if Beckwith is truly a chuckling specter of evil (“Got what they deserved,” he drawls when asked about the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner), or a simple-minded man who thinks nothing of saying “Obama is a direct descendent of the devil” — and, while smiling and chatting with a man he knows is Jewish, “Jews control all the money and the media.” Jaw-dropping doesn’t begin to cover it, but Saltzman remains admirably composed throughout.

Race also factors, inevitably, into The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Bill Siegel’s lively investigation of the boxing champ’s Nation of Islam conversion, name change, and refusal to fight in Vietnam. If you’ve seen an Ali doc before (or even the 2001 biopic), a lot of the footage and material will feel familiar. But Trials, which offers interviews with Louis Farrakhan and Ali’s former wife Khalilah, among others, does well to narrow its focus onto one specific — albeit complicated and controversial — aspect of Ali’s life.


Contemporary civil rights struggles factor heavily in Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army (first screened here at DocFest), about a trio of public defenders struggling with daunting work loads (one women has 180 clients at a time) and a system seemingly rigged against low-income defendants, many of whom plead guilty, whether or not they actually are, because they simply have no other options. Like After Tiller, it’s a doc that offers a sobering, eye-opening look at a job you wouldn’t want — yet makes you glad that those who do it are such steadfast characters.

And if all that sounds too intense, take note of these two films: Mehrnaz Saeedvafa’s Jerry and Me, in which the filmmaker and teacher reflects on Hollywood’s influence on her pre-revolutionary Tehran youth (including her love of Jerry Lewis; if you’ve ever wanted to see clips of 1960’s Cinderfella dubbed in Persian, this is your chance); and Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle, a made-for-Irish-TV concert film that spotlights the singer in 2006, before her slide into addiction derailed her career and ended her life. Here, her voice sounds stunning as she croons her hits in a tiny, 200-year-old church; she’s also sweetly jazzed to discuss her influences (dig her story of hearing Ray Charles for the first time) in an accompanying sit-down interview that reveals how endearing and intelligent she could be. *


July 25-Aug 12, most shows $12

Various venues in SF, Berk, Oakl, San Rafael, and Palo Alto



Glamour revival



FILM The 18th San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens with Augusto Genino’s 1930 Prix de Beauté, literally translated as “beauty prize” but more often referred to in English as Miss Europe. Memo to all wannabe pageant queens: you might as well shuffle off the stage when Louise Brooks — flawless features, perfect hair, sparkling smile, star quality oozing from every pore — shows up to compete.

Though she knows her jealous boyfriend will disapprove, vivacious typist Lucienne (Brooks) impulsively enters herself into the Miss France contest; after she wins, she advances to Miss Europe, where she’s also victorious. (Apparently Miss Universe hadn’t been invented yet, because obviously she’d take that title, too.) When her sourpuss love orders her home, she mourns her lost-and-found glamorous life while confined to their small apartment, where she’s kept company by a caged bird and a cuckoo clock. Amid all this dreary symbolism, a movie contract (offered by a worldly, dandy prince who’d pursued her at the beauty pageant) seems just the ticket to a better life — but as any Brooks fan can tell you, happy endings were not exactly her specialty.

Scripted by frequent Brooks collaborator G.W. Pabst (with René Clair, director of 1924’s Entr’acte), Prix de Beauté was the Hollywood rebel’s last major starring role; though it was shot as a very early sound film, Brooks’ part was dubbed, and it’ll be shown at the Silent Film Festival in traditional silent form. Look forward to a gorgeous print, thanks to a full restoration done last year by Italian film archive Cineteca di Bologna, and accompaniment by seasoned silent film pianist Stephen Horne.

More movie-star charisma comes courtesy of the oft-misunderstood Marion Davies, who gets a chance to display her considerable comedic talents in King Vidor’s 1928 The Patsy. Modern audiences remember Davies for her long association with William Randolph Hearst; some assume she was more or less exactly like the shrill Susan Alexander character in 1941 roman à clef Citizen Kane. And while Hearst did manipulate her career, he was said to prefer her in costume dramas, like 1922’s When Knighthood Was in Flower, in which she played Mary Tudor — hardly similar to The Patsy‘s goofy heroine, sort of a proto-Greta Gerwig type.

The Silent Film Festival’s description of the film attributes The Patsy‘s existence to star director Vidor’s “Hollywood clout.” But its enduring popularity (it closed the 2008 fest) is surely due to Davies’ performance, which famously includes her dead-on impressions of fellow silent stars Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. Living in the shadow of her elegant older sister, Grace (Jane Winton), awkward Pat (Davies) is forever stumbling and messy-haired. (“I wish I were beautiful and seductive, like a stocking advertisement,” she says, in one of the play-turned-film’s many hilarious intertitles.)

Pat pines for Grace’s nerdy beau, Tony — but even when Grace starts sneaking around with a local bad boy, Tony doesn’t notice Pat, despite her attempts to get his attention via some silly self-improvement efforts. Blustering on the sidelines is stage and screen legend Marie Dressler, a 1930 Best Actress Oscar winner for Min and Bill, who plays the sisters’ comedically overbearing mother. The Library of Congress supplies The Patsy on 35mm, with live accompaniment by the five-piece Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Also a tale of two siblings, Henri de la Falaise’s Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935) — a two-strip Technicolor fable shot on location in Bali — is rapturously described by the Silent Film Festival program as “the delineation of Balinese culture … an absorbing and mesmerizing quasi-documentary.” That may be so, but one suspects neither its cultural content, nor its love-triangle story (comely temple dancer falls for the new gamelan musician in town, and he’s OK with that — until he decides he prefers her younger sis), were what lured audiences in 1935. Rather, the sight of “Balinese beauties bathing in all their native glory,” as one poster trumpeted at the time (that’s code for “topless women”), was likely the main draw.

Decades later, however, Legong‘s more exploitative elements feel pretty tame, and the film remains most interesting for its fairly respectful depictions of what was considered an outrageously “exotic” way of life at the time. The Silent Film Festival screens the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s restored 35mm print; a sure highlight will be Legong‘s live score, a collaboration between Bay Area-based ensembles Gamelan Sekar Jaya and Club Foot Orchestra.

Additional highlights include the premiere screening of the meticulously-restored The Last Edition (1925) — a newspaper yarn about a San Francisco Chronicle press worker, complete with thrilling Market Street scenes; Tokyo Chorus (1931), an early entry from the highly influential Yasujiro Ozu; “Winsor McCay: His Life and Art,” biographer John Canemaker’s tribute to the Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) animator; Douglas Fairbanks as the titular outcast in Alan Dwan’s newly-restored 1916 The Half-Breed; and closing-night crowd-pleaser Safety Last (1923), which contains one of silent film’s most famous scenes: comedian Harold Lloyd scaling a multi-story building and dangling from a clock face. *


Thu/18-Sun/21, most shows $15

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF



Once upon a time in Oakland



FILM By now you’ve heard of Fruitvale Station, the debut feature from Oakland-born filmmaker Ryan Coogler. With a cast that includes Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and rising star Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), the film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize en route to being scooped up for distribition by the Weinstein Company. A few months later, Coogler, a USC film school grad who just turned 27, won Best First Film at Cannes.

Accolades are nice, especially when paired with a massive PR push from a studio known for bringing home little gold men. But particularly in the Bay Area, the true story behind Fruitvale Station eclipses even the most glowing pre-release hype. The film opens with real footage captured by cell phones the night 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police, a tragedy that inspired multiple protests and grabbed national headlines. With its grim ending already revealed, Fruitvale Station backtracks to chart Oscar’s final hours, with a deeper flashback or two fleshing out the troubled past he was trying to overcome.


Mostly, though, Fruitvale Station is very much a day in the life, with Oscar (Jordan, in a nuanced performance) dropping off his girlfriend at work, picking up supplies for a birthday party, texting friends about New Year’s Eve plans, and deciding not to follow through on a drug sale. Inevitably, much of what transpires is weighted with extra meaning — Oscar’s mother (Spencer) advising him to “just take the train” to San Francisco that night; Oscar’s tender interactions with his young daughter; the death of a friendly stray dog, hit by a car as BART thunders overhead. It’s a powerful, stripped-down portrait that belies Coogler’s rookie-filmmaker status.

I spoke with Coogler the day after Fruitvale Station‘s emotional local premiere at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater.

San Francisco Bay Guardian How was the screening at the Grand Lake?

Ryan Coogler It was intense! Pretty much everybody at the screening had a stake in the film and the story: being from the Bay Area, being there when [Grant’s death] happened, being a member of Oscar’s family, being an employee of BART or a law enforcement officer, being a member of my family, or being someone who opened up their home or business to our film. Everybody was there under one roof, you know? In many ways, we wanted our film to be something that brought people together — and that screening was a personification of that.

SFBG The film doesn’t make Oscar out to be a saint; rather, it shows that he was a real human who’d made some serious mistakes. Were you careful to portray him that way?

RC Absolutely. We set out to examine him through the lens of his relationships with the people who knew him best. I think that’s often what’s not looked at, in terms of tragedies that get politicized like this: people forget that this guy was a person who mattered to specific people — and he couldn’t make it home to those people. When you know somebody intimately, you know their good qualities and their faults. You know their flaws firsthand, and [their behavior] affects you firsthand. I think it would have been a mistake not to look at the things he was struggling with in his life.

SFBG You were born in 1986, the same year as Oscar, and you’re both from the East Bay. Were there other things that drew you to his story?

RC Those commonalities were a major factor. But young people like Oscar Grant’s lives are lost constantly over violence, and I was really interested in exploring why it happens, and why people shouldn’t be OK with it.

Oscar was the kind of person who is often marginalized, both in the media and in fiction films. I thought that giving his story this type of personal perspective could be eye-opening for people that wouldn’t get to know a character like him in their own lives. So that’s what really drew me to it — to add a perspective that might promote some healing and some growth.

SFBG What was the reaction when members of Oscar’s community found out you were making the film?

RC The Bay Area is culturally diverse, but it’s also diverse as far as opinions go. Obviously, there were people on both sides of the fence, since this was a complicated situation. Some people were glad the story was being told; others were like, “That story doesn’t deserve to be told.” There were also a lot of opinions between those two ends of the spectrum. But overwhelmingly, the community supported the film in many ways, especially when they found out the approach we were taking.

SFBG Did you ever consider making the BART cops full-fledged characters, or did you always plan to just focus on Oscar?

RC I decided from the beginning that Oscar would be the focal point of the story. That was the type of film that I wanted to make, and that was the one perspective that I felt wasn’t really heard — because he’s not around to speak anymore. In terms of filmmaking, it was really a creative choice. You have these types of films that follow one character around, and we really wanted to follow Oscar and see how other characters bump off of him. In the scope of his day, the cops were only involved for a very small amount of time.

SFBG BART itself is almost a character in the film. It’s something that non-locals might not pick up on, but Bay Area residents will be able to tell how carefully you chose your locations to include it in the background.

RC When I was researching the film, I noticed a lot of things that were always there, but that I hadn’t thought about before. In San Francisco, BART is underground. You don’t see or hear it when you’re walking around. In the East Bay, however, it’s always above you. Oscar’s from the East Bay, and I’m from the East Bay, so that’s how I know BART. It’s something that you can always hear in the distance — and it’s something that rushes over you. 


FRUITVALE STATION opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters.

We are the weirdos, mister



FILM RuPaul’s Drag Race season four winner Sharon Needles and boyfriend/season five finalist Alaska Thunderfuck rarely do live shows together. But for Peaches Christ, and her stage-and-screen showing of witchtacular occult movie The Craft (1996), they made an exception.

The Pittsburgh-based couple will star alongside one another in Christ’s Craft-based pre-movie play, as pure evil “Nancy” (originally played to perfection by wild-eyed, real life Wiccan actress Fairuza Balk) and Neve Campbell’s scarred and shy “Bonnie.” The rest of the gothy teen coven will be filled out by Christ as good witch “Sarah” and San Francisco’s first RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Honey Mahogany as “Rochelle.”

“It’s such a foursome vehicle,” Christ says in a phone call. “I said to Sharon, ‘how do you feel about working with your boyfriend?’ Obviously it makes more sense for them to split themselves up and do more gigs. And especially since Sharon was such a phenomenon and Alaska is now coming fresh off the show, and she was such a hit. But I said, ‘see if you’ll make an exception for me?'”

Christ has been sending up cult classics in San Francisco since 1998, and says that it’s become increasingly clear that she needs to keep looking for newly cult titles. (This November look out for 9 to 5 with Pandora Boxx , and likely, a Clueless send-up.) “[The Craft] was brought to my attention by some of my fans these past few years, so I rewatched it and determined like, oh my god, why did I ever dismiss this? It’s witchy goth girls. It’s everything, it’s grunge, it’s goth, it’s witch.”

And Thunderfuck and Needles were both enamored of the film from an early age.

“It was like, one of those movies that everyone knew and saw when I was in high school and it made us feel like we were witches too, which we weren’t, we were just like, nerdy theater kids,” Thunderfuck nasally says from a Best Western hotel in Chicago. “But it made us feel really badass. And everyone was a weirdo in high school anyway.”

“And I’m from the ’90s so the witchcraft was always there,” Needles adds.

The film has grown cult thanks to now-iconic scenes of the witches looking fierce at Catholic school, walking in a line down the hallways with sexy ’90s music filling the montages. Favorites scenes by the performers include the ones of the witches down at the beach, intensely invoking “Manon” then passing out after an electric bolt hits Nancy, or the next morning, walking by beached whales and sharks, or giddily casting spells on another while driving through town, or vividly messing with teen-queen parties, and throwing sleazy jerks out of windows.

During our conversation, Needles perfectly intones the Nancy line, “then why are you still bleeding?!”

“I’ll tell you, this was one of the hardest and most challenging stage plays I’ve ever had to write, because the movie is so full of moments that people love, trying to cram them into a 50-minute stage show was almost impossible — I had to go back in and kind of kill babies here and there,” Christ says. “My memory of it was that it was a lot tamer, and a lot more PG-13 then it is. It’s actually rated R and it’s harsh, and in some ways really horrifying. The way the girls treat each other, even despite the violence or the snakes — I hate snakes — just the meanness of the witches.”

That meanness should play out in some deviously amusing ways during Christ’s The Craft: Of Drag show before the film. The queens play themselves emulating characters in the movie, with key scenes thrown in (someone will get thrown out of a window, and there will be a levitating “light as a feather, stiff as a board” moment) — but with a Drag Race twist. The reason the witches all turn on Christ’s “Sarah” this time, is because she’s never been on Drag Race.

This inevitably leads to the question of why not? “I don’t think I’d survive,” Christ says. “I’ve said this to Sharon, I admire them so much for being able to go on that show but Peaches is a very established character that I’ve been doing for a long, long, long time, so it’s very hard for me in a lot of ways to be flexible. You know, I always wear that Bozo the Clown paint, and I just know I’d be ripped to shreds,” she says. Though she has been sending out signals to producers World of Wonder and RuPaul that she should come on as a guest judge for a hypothetical Scream Queen challenge.

It was the show, however, that first introduced her to Needles — Elvira was the guest judge on the first episode of Needles’ season, and she fell in love with the queen (who spurts blood from her mouth during her runway walk). Elvira immediately told Christ, and that’s why she first reached out to Needles, last year.

Along with heaps of praise for Elvira, and the show in general, Needles and Thunderfuck both tell me the drama in their seasons was all real.

Says Needles, “When you take 13 adult males and dress them up like teenage girls, take away their cigarettes and booze, and force them in front of a camera for 16 hours a day for two months, you don’t need a producer or a storyboard, it writes itself.”


Sat/13, 3pm and 8pm, $25

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF


Still beating



FILM/LIT A few weeks before our scheduled interview, Laura Albert mails me copies of 2000’s Sarah and 2001’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Inscribed on Heart‘s title page is a note: “Thanks for being available to revelation.” The volumes are signed “Yours, LA and JT” — the latter, of course, referring to JT LeRoy, the identity under which Albert penned both books.

That secret’s been out since late 2005, and has been dissected over and over. It even inspired a Law and Order episode. LeRoy, and his fantastically tragic back story (just out of his teens, he’d survived drugs, homelessness, and prostitution en route to becoming the lit world’s hottest wunderkind), were Albert’s creations. She was the true author behind the best-sellers listed above, plus 2004’s Harold’s End, dozens of magazine articles, an early script for Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), and numerous other works. (Meanwhile, the androgynous “JT” that had been appearing in public was actually the half-sister of Albert’s then-partner; she wrote her own tell-all in 2008.) On Albert’s website, there are tabs marked “Who is Laura Albert?” and “Who is JT LeRoy?” Both link to Albert’s biography.

Years have passed since l’affaire LeRoy, and Albert has moved through the experience in her own way. (Her business card lists her as “literary outlaw.”) Later this summer, Sarah will be reissued as an ebook, with a fairy tale-inspired cover by artist Matt Pipes. Albert also is working on her memoirs (though she doesn’t like to use the word “memoirs”), and tells me there’s a documentary forthcoming from Jeff Feuerzeig, who made 2005’s critically-acclaimed The Devil and Daniel Johnston. This weekend, Asia Argento’s 2004 adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things screens as part of the Clay Theatre’s midnight-movie series, with Albert and producer Chris Hanley in person, plus Argento via Skype.

Sitting in her San Francisco kitchen, Albert eyes my tape recorder and admits she’d rather focus on the film, not JT — though it’s a topic that inevitably arises. Argento, Albert says, encountered Heart the way many LeRoy readers did, via word-of-mouth recommendation.

“She read the book and she didn’t know anything about JT. At the same time, a small publisher was putting out the book [in Italy], and they wanted to bring JT over,” Albert recalls. “It was a weird coincidence. They were putting on an event, and they wanted to get someone to read. They had contacted Asia, and she already knew about the book, and she wanted not only to do this event, but to make the movie. It’s funny because I thought Sarah would be the first [to become a film], because it was already optioned by Gus [Van Sant]. But Asia moved really fast. We went over to meet her, and I had turned down a lot of people. My feeling was, it’s my baby and I’m giving it up for adoption, and I saw that this was someone I could give my baby to.”

Argento, the daughter of famed Italian horror director Dario Argento, is best-known stateside as an actor; previous to Heart, her directing experience was limited to short films and 2000’s flamboyant Scarlet Diva. Once she decided to helm the movie, her decision to star as the free-spirited, needy, sometimes-cruel single mother of the story’s young protagonist was an obvious choice.

“I had concerns about that, how much she would take on the role, how much it would become her. It’s ironic, because I had given myself over completely to Jeremy, to JT, to Jeremiah,” Albert says. She pauses. “Did you see that French film, about the guy who assumes different characters?”

Holy Motors?”

“Yeah! It really was transformative to me. There’s a scene where someone asks [the main character], ‘Why are you still doing this?’, and he makes reference to the act of giving yourself over completely. And that was it. I gave myself over completely. I did not break character. You know how, in that movie, he’ll do anything? He’ll kill someone! He’s in it. Most people don’t know what that’s like. And that was it. I will never apologize,” she says, firmly. “We’re talking about art. Nobody was harmed in this, really. I didn’t really scribble that far outside the lines. Everything was labeled ‘fiction.'”

At her mention of an apology, I have to ask: does she feel like people demanded one?

“People like to give themselves a lot of credit for how vanguard they are. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had tell me, ‘Warhol would have loved it!’ — including people who were close with Warhol,” she says. “I think it revealed more about other people and what they could accommodate, and what they put on the work, than it does about me. If you have a personal relationship with JT, then that’s a conversation between you and me. I put my email [in the books], and I really did have a connection with the fans because I grew up in the punk scene, and I wasn’t into hero worship. The problem was — psychologically — I wasn’t able to do that. It wasn’t like [adopts goofy voice], ‘Gee, how do I burst forth onto the literary scene? I know! I’ll create a little boy!’ No. It wasn’t like that.”

As we talk, Albert makes references to her own troubled youth: surviving abuse, living in a group home, being institutionalized. Amid the tumult of her teenage life, she would “call hotlines — I don’t know what I would talk about, but it was the only time I could feel. I would give myself over to another being, and it was always a boy. So when I hear people say, ‘I’m gonna do what you did,’ it’s like, good luck. For me it was created the way an oyster creates a pearl: out of irritation and suffering. It was an attempt to try to heal something. And it actually worked, and it did so for a lot of other people. The amazing thing is, now I can be available to people.”

We’re delving more into her work (“I didn’t do anything new — writers have always been using combinations of pseudonyms and identities,” she points out) when the doorbell rings; it’s a Comcast technician here to see about Albert’s Internet connection. We move to her office, which features a wall collaged with photos and several filing cabinets full of archives — material she’s letting Feuerzeig use in his documentary.

But it’s not a room completely given over to the past. It’s also where Albert works on her new projects (besides her memoirs, she’s writing screenplays — building off her experiences working on Deadwood with David Milch), and stashes new mementos, including a program from a recent Brazilian rock opera entitled JT, A Punk Rock Fairy Tale.

Before I leave, she gives me a copy of a New York Times article from 2010 entitled “Life, In the Way of Art;” its subjects include Joaquin Phoenix, still smarting from the backlash after his faux breakdown in I’m Still Here. The director of that film, Casey Affleck, cites a line from a Picasso quote that Albert emails to me in full the day after we speak: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

She’s just as frank over email as she is in person. “It’s OK with me if someone doesn’t like my writing. But they shouldn’t try to tell me how I’m obliged to present my work,” she writes. “When I talk about my personal background, I’m not attempting to somehow bestow legitimacy to what I’ve written — anyone should be able to do what I did. My life history doesn’t matter and isn’t being offered as any kind of excuse.”

I think back to something she said in her kitchen — a simple, powerful summation of a story that will never not be complicated. “JT was my lifeboat. You loved him? Well, I loved him more.” 


Fri/28, midnight, $10


2261 Fillmore, SF



More to grow on


Pit Stop (Yen Tan, US) One of the very best narrative features at Sundance this year, Yen Tan’s drama nonetheless completely flew under the radar of media attention. It’s a beautifully low-key tale of two 40-ish gay men in a Texas small town. Neither are closeted, but they aren’t exactly fulfilled, either, both being in awkward domestic situations. Gabe (Bill Heck) is still living with angry ex-wife Shannon (Amy Seimetz) for the sake of their six year-old daughter. Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda) still shares his apartment with younger, slackerish ex-BF Luis (Alfredo Maduro), who keeps dragging his feet about actually moving out. Everyone is dissatisfied, but not quite willing to risk making a leap into unfamiliar territory. We know Gabe and Ernesto are fated to meet, yet it’s Tan’s terrifically nuanced portrayal of the relationships they must exit first that dominates almost the entire feature. Pit Stop is the kind of slow burner that sneaks up on you, surprising with the force of well-earned climactic joy after so much concise observation of credibly ordinary, troubled lives. Fri/21, 4pm, Castro; June 27, 7pm, Elmwood. (Dennis Harvey)


Free Fall (Stephan Lacant, Germany) A young German police cadet, Marc (Hanno Koffler), finds himself disturbingly drawn to a fellow cadet, Kay (Max Riemelt), during a weekend of training exercises — a regimen that proves to be not quite enough of an outlet to diffuse the erotic tension between them. Back home, though, are Marc’s very pregnant girlfriend, Bettina (Katharina Schüttler), and a circle of friends and family who expect him to continue along his current track of shacking up, forming a family, and demonstrating his loyalty to the macho brotherhood of his colleagues on the force. When Kay transfers into the department, his presence exerts a pressure on Marc that threatens to derail him. Director Stephan Lacant’s film, co-written with Karsten Dahlem, movingly depicts the painful breakdown of a man ruled by impulses he’s unable to face up to, and the consequences that come of remaining paralyzed in an impossible state. Fri/21, 6:30pm, Castro; Mon/24, 9:30pm, Elmwood. (Lynn Rapoport)

C.O.G. (Kyle Patrick Alvarez, US) The first feature adapted from David Sedaris’ writing, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film captures his acerbic autobiographical comedy while eventually revealing the misfit pain hidden behind that wit. Tightly wound David (Jonathan Groff), on the run from problematic family relations and his sexual identity, takes the bus from East Coast grad school to rural Oregon — his uninhibited fellow passengers providing the first of many mortifications here en route. Having decided that seasonal work as an apple picker will somehow be liberating, he’s viewed with suspicion by mostly Mexican co-workers and his crabby boss (Dean Stockwell). More fateful kinda-sorta friendships are forged with a sexy forklift operator (Corey Stoll) and a born-again war vet (Denis O’Hare). Under the latter’s volatile tutelage, David briefly becomes a C.O.G. — meaning “child of God.” Balancing the caustic, absurd, and bittersweet, gradually making us care about an amusingly dislikable, prickly protagonist, this is a refreshingly offbeat narrative that pulls off a lot of tricky, ambivalent mood shifts. Sat/22, 9:15pm, Castro. (Harvey)

Bwakaw (Jun Robles Lana, Philippines, 2012) Grumpy old man in the rural Philippines — OK, Jun Robles Lana’s seriocomedy isn’t going to top many lists as the sexiest movie at Frameline. But it’s one of the most deeply satisfying films at this year’s festival. Six-decade Filipino cinema veteran Eddie Garcia plays Rene, a crusty loner who lives alone and works without pay (he’s officially retired) at the local post office just to have something to do. He has cranky relationships — “friendships” would be a stretch — with the area priest, a widowed neighbor, and two over-the-top queens who run a hair salon. His closest bonds are to a rest-home denizen now too senile to remember who he is, and to the stray mutt who’s sort of his dog — though not so much that he’ll actually let it in the house. After decades in denial, Rene finally accepted his homosexuality at age 60, when “my time was [already] passed.” But he gets an unanticipated new surge of hope, possibly misdirected, upon befriending rough-hewn younger bicycle-taxi driver Sol (Rez Cortez). With its leisurely pace and seemingly stereotypical characters who turn out to be much more complex than they initially appear, Bwakaw is a disarmingly modest movie that gradually reveals a rather beautiful soul. Sun/23, 5:45pm, Victoria. (Harvey)

The Out List (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, US) Documentarian Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, whose previous projects have focused on prominent African Americans and Latinos, supermodels, and porn stars, turns his lens on the LGBTs for a survey film set to air on HBO this month. While there’s no sign of the radical faeries or the poly queers with negative interest in the marriage equality battle, Greenfield-Sanders has gathered a decently varied collection of 16 LGBT individuals, mostly but not only celebrities, whose common thread is having gone public. Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and ex-NFLer Wade Davis describe their time in the closet and their coming-out episodes, while Hollywood stars Neil Patrick Harris and Cynthia Nixon comment on strategies for getting work and fighting the good fight (which for the latter includes closeting her bisexuality). Only an hour long, The Out List merely skims the surface of its subjects’ experiences, but we do get some sense of their scope, which includes finding family in NYC’s ballroom scene, getting elected as a lesbian Democratic sheriff in Dallas County, Texas, and learning to view one’s orientation as a gift from god. Tue/25, 4:30pm, Castro. (Rapoport)

Beyond the Walls (David Lambert, Belgium/Canada/France, 2012) Aptly compared in the Frameline catalog to such intelligent recent gay relationship studies as Weekend (2011) and Keep the Lights On (2012), David Lambert’s finely crafted debut feature charts its protagonists through an unpredictable, rocky romance. Paolo (Matila Malliarakis) is living with an older woman when he meets bartender-musician Ilir (Guillaume Gouix), who’s amused by the young blonde’s drunken antics while wary of the mutual attraction between them. When immature, puppyish Paolo gets thrown out by his exasperated girlfriend, he lands on Ilir’s doorstep as an uninvited instant-boyfriend, and despite some initial grumbling, that’s pretty much how it works out. Yet an unfortunate turn of events forces a long, involuntary separation between the two that their coupledom might not survive. While it requires a certain suspension of disbelief that focused, self-confident Ilir would fall for the flighty, needy Paolo, the eventual complexity of their relationship makes for a powerful cumulative impact. June 27, 9:30pm, Castro. (Harvey)

Reaching for the Moon (Bruno Barreto, Brazil) Brazilian director Bruno Barreto (1997’s Four Days in September) offers a moving account of the romantic relationship between the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) and the Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires), which spanned the 1950s and the better part of the ’60s. The pair meet under inauspicious circumstances: traveling to Brazil, Elizabeth visits her old Vassar friend Mary (Tracy Middendorf) at the gorgeous rural estate where she lives with Lota, a wealthy woman from one of Brazil’s prominent political families. Unfortunately for Mary, Lota’s regard for the timid, restrained Elizabeth moves along a precipitous arc from irritation to infatuation, her subsequent impetuous pursuit of her lover’s friend revealing a heartless egoism — as well as an attitude toward householding that blends a poly sensibility with a ruling-class sense of entitlement. The film tracks Elizabeth and Lota’s enduring affair during a period marked by professional triumphs, personal lows, and political turmoil, all of which take their toll on the relationship. June 28, 6:45pm, Castro. (Rapoport)

Out Here: A Queer Farmer Film Project (Jonah Mossberg, US) Jonah Mossberg’s documentary crosses the country seeking out the perspectives of LGBT farmers, visiting some 30 farms before narrowing the focus to seven disparate subjects growing food in settings that range from a community garden in West Philadelphia to a farmstead in rural Alabama (or what one participant calls “the toenail of the Appalachians”). An allegiance to organics and other sustainable practices establishes some common ground. However, asked to encapsulate how queerness impacts her farming life, a woman raising crops and chickens in the Bronx’s Garden of Happiness observes, “I don’t think the land asks that question — if you’re gay or straight,” while others tease queerness out of acts like turning to permaculture and draw connections between heteronormativity and industrial agriculture. Look for fermentation guru Sandor Katz at Tennessee’s Little Short Mountain Farm, and stay seated for the longish closing credits interspersed with earnest (and otherwise) discussions of which veggie wins the title of queerest piece of produce. June 29, 1:30pm, Victoria. (Rapoport)

Young and Wild (Marialy Rivas, 2012) Structured around the anonymous and oft-graphic blog posts of a Chilean teenager, director-cowriter Marialy Rivas’s inventive, engaging film depicts a young woman’s navigation — both solitary and very, very public — of her sexual and romantic impulses as they clash with a rigid upbringing of spiritual indoctrination. Raised in an evangelical Christian household, Daniela (Alicia Rodríguez) bluntly documents, under the screen name Young and Wild, a period of upset and exploration during which she is outed as a fornicator and expelled from school, threatened by her hard-edged mother (Aline Küppenheim) with missionary exile, and faced with the sorrow of watching a beloved aunt (Ingrid Isensee) battle cancer. As Daniela begins a relationship with a young man (Felipe Pinto), begins a relationship with a young woman (María Gracia Omegna), and records the proceedings with a complicated mixture of comic insights, lyrical observations, and obscenities, her introspections play with the device of the straightforward voice-over—broadcast to untold numbers of unknown peers who avidly follow and comment on her adventures and misadventures. June 29, 8:30pm, Roxie. (Rapoport)

Frameline37 runs June 20-30 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF; Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St, SF; and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College, Berk. For tickets (most shows $12) and complete schedule, visit www.frameline.org.

Lives less ordinary



FRAMELINE Each year Frameline’s program vividly reflects issues that of late have seemed most urgent in the LGBT community — for many years, for instance, there was an understandably overwhelming amount of films about AIDS. Most recently, the fights for gay marriage and trans rights have dominated many a dramatic and documentary selection.

It is sometimes nice, therefore, in the fray of pressing public debate and community activism to escape topicality and sink into the achievements and personalities of more distant queer-history eras. Several documentaries at Frameline37 offer just that, as they chronicle the lives and times of five extraordinary men (albeit one normally found in a dress and fright wig).

The most San Francisco-centric of them is Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, and Dawn Logsdon’s Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, about “a golden secret of West Coast bohemia.” The late James Broughton was a poet, prankster, and experimental filmmaker who began making films in the late 1940s “to see what my dreams really looked like.” A significant figure in the pre-Beat San Francisco renaissance of avant-garde art, he won a prize at Cannes for 1953’s typically playful, hedonistic The Pleasure Garden, but declined the commercial directing career offered him — in fact he didn’t make another movie for 15 years, when free-love hymn The Bed became a counterculture smash.

Broughton married and had three children (including one with not-yet-famous local film critic Pauline Kael), but at age 61 found his soulmate in 26-year-old fellow director Joel Singer, thereafter devoting his life and work to celebrations of gay male sexuality. (Interviewed here, his ex-wife Susanna calls this turn of events “a very unwelcome incident from which I never recovered.”) The documentary provides a treasure trove of excerpts from a now little-seen body of cinematic work, as well as much archival footage of SF over the decades.

Bringing joy to a lot of people during his too-brief life was Glenn Milstead, the subject of Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine. A picked-on sissy fat kid, he blossomed upon discovering Baltimore’s gay underground — and starring in neighbor John Waters’ underground movies, made by and for the local “freak” scene they hung out in.

Yet even their early efforts found a following; when “Divine” appeared in SF to perform at one of the Cockettes’ midnight movie/theater happenings, he was greeted as a star. This was before his greatest roles for Waters, as the fearsome anti-heroines of Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), then the beleaguered hausfraus of Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988). Despite spending nearly his entire career in drag, he wanted to be thought of as a character actor, not a “transvestite” novelty. Sadly, he seemed on the verge of achieving that — having been signed to play an ongoing male role on Married … with Children — when he died of respiratory failure in 1988, at age 42.

A different kind of tragedy is chronicled in Clare Beaven and Nic Stacey’s British Codebreaker, about Alan Turing — perhaps the most brilliant mathematician of his era, who basically came up with the essential concept of the modern-day computer (in 1936!) He played a huge role in breaking the Nazi’s secret Enigma code, thus aiding an Allied victory. But instead of being treated as a national hero, he was convicted of “gross indecency” (i.e. gay sex) in 1952 and hounded by police until he committed suicide two years later. Half conventional documentary and half reenactment drama (with Ed Stoppard, playwright Tom’s son, as Turing), Codebreaker illustrates the cruel price even an upper-class genius could pay for his or her sexuality in the days before Gay Lib.

Two literary lions are remembered in the last of these historical bio-docs. Daniel Young’s Swiss Paul Bowles: The Cage Door is Always Open recalls the curious life of a successful American composer turned famous expat novelist. He and wife Jane Bowles moved to post-World War II Tangiers, where they entertained a parade of visiting artists — and, by all accounts, a succession of same-sex lovers. Clips from Bernardo Bertolucci’s underrated adaptation of Bowles’ literary masterwork The Sheltering Sky (1990) are here alongside input from acquaintances and observers including John Waters and Gore Vidal.


The latter is the whole focus in Nicholas Wrathall’s Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, and what could be better than that? Perhaps undervalued as a frequently very fine novelist because he was so prolific (and popular), he’s considered here primarily as a public intellectual — a term that seems positively antiquated in our climate of pundits and ranters — and fierce lifelong critic of American hypocrisy in all its forms, especially the political. He was a scold (or a “correctionist,” as he put it), albeit of the wittiest, most clear-headed and informed type. Among myriad highlights here are seeing him on TV reduce friend-rival Norman Mailer to sputtering fury, shred the insufferable right-wing toady William F. Buckley, and make poor Jerry Brown squirm under his effortless tongue-lashing.

Endlessly quotable (“We’ve had bad Presidents in the past but we’ve never had a goddam fool,” he said of George W. Bush), obstinately “out” from an early age if never very PC in his views (“Sex destroys relationships … I’m devoted to promiscuity”), Vidal is aptly appreciated here as “a thorn in the American Establishment, of which by birth he is a charter member.” There will never be anyone quite like him — but we sure could use some who are at least in the general ballpark. *


June 20-30, various venues


The young master



FILM After a banner 2012 and early 2013 — in which his 1958 Vertigo was named the best film of all time by Sight and Sound magazine; a critically-panned but still entertaining-enough biopic hit theaters; and a months-long career retrospective, “The Shape of Suspense,” played the Pacific Film Archive — Alfred Hitchcock’s revival continues. Next up is “The Hitchcock 9,” a San Francisco Silent Film Festival showcase of nine silent films — nearly his entire 1920s output, all made before he turned 30.

His best-known films continue to inspire pop culture (see: A&E’s hit Bates Motel), but Hitchcock’s earliest work isn’t widely circulated. That may change thanks to the British Film Institute’s restoration efforts, the fruits of which are unspooling stateside on a multi-city tour (along with the Silent fest, co-presenters include the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) launching at the Castro Theatre. Live music by acclaimed musicians will enhance each screening, including the five-piece Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Bay Area pianist-composer Judy Rosenberg, and British silent-film specialist Stephen Horne.

In movie-crazed San Francisco, where Silent fest screenings regularly sell out (this year’s event is July 18-21; start your engines, Louise Brooks fans), the only dilemma will be deciding which of the Hitchcock 9 to see. Opening night offers a tempting option in 1929’s Blackmail, which Hitchcock — always adventurous with filmmaking technology — shot as a silent/sound hybrid.

Her blonde hair hinting at what would become a Hitchcock trademark, saucer-eyed beauty Alice (Anny Ondra) steps out on her inattentive boyfriend, a Scotland Yard detective, with an artist whose intentions prove shockingly lascivious. Alice has no choice but to stab her attacker (and rip one of his creepy clown paintings) and skulk off into the night, leaving the murder scene for her cop beau to find. What happens next is given away by the film’s title, but no matter — Blackmail is suspenseful to the end.

Another fair-haired lass encounters menace in closing-night film The Lodger (1926), a thriller that takes its stylistic cues from German Expressionist films, particularly 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Sassy model Daisy (June Tripp, credited as “Miss June”) declares “No more peroxide for yours truly!” when London’s headlines begin shrieking about a serial killer, “The Avenger,” who exclusively targets blondes. Enter a gloomy-yet-dreamy stranger (Ivor Novello), who takes a room at the boarding house run by Daisy’s parents; it doesn’t take long before he makes the landlady uneasy (he does wear a cape, after all), though Daisy finds him intriguing. Naturally, her boyfriend — another cop — becomes highly jealous, not to mention suspicious.

Blackmail and The Lodger are stuffed with elements that would later be easily identifiable as “Hitchcockian” (witness Blackmail‘s high-climbing climax — it ain’t Mount Rushmore, but you see where the idea’s heading). But The Ring, about a love triangle between two boxers and the (dark-haired) temptress that motivates their brawls, is Hitch’s only original script penned without collaborators, and it’s hardly chockablock with psychological terrors. It is, however, a charming sports romance with some nifty technical touches, including an early example of a drunken scene being shot in blurry “booze-o-vision.”


The rest of the Hitchcock 9: 1928’s daffy-heiress tale Champagne; 1927’s Downhill, which also stars The Lodger‘s Novello; 1927’s Isle of Man-set The Manxman; 1928 comedy The Farmer’s Wife, with The Ring‘s Hall-Davis; 1927 Noel Coward adaptation Easy Virtue; and Hitchcock’s feature debut, 1926’s The Pleasure Garden. 


Fri/14-Sun/16, $15–<\d>$20 (nine-film pass, $135)

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF



Hell boys



FILM It’s a typical day in Los Angeles for Seth Rogen as This Is the End begins. Playing a version of himself, the comedian picks up longtime pal and frequent co-star Jay Baruchel at the airport. Since Jay hates LA, Seth welcomes him with weed and candy, but all good vibes fizzle when Rogen suggests hitting up a party at James Franco’s new mansion. Wait, ugh, Franco? And Jonah Hill will be there? Nooo!

Jay ain’t happy, but the revelry — chockablock with every Judd Apatow-blessed star in Hollywood, plus a few random inclusions (Rihanna?) — is great fun for the audience. And likewise for the actors: world, meet Michael Cera, naughty coke fiend.

But stranger things are afoot in This Is the End. First, there’s a giant earthquake and a strange blue light that sucks passers-by into the sky. Then a fiery pit yawns in front of Casa Franco, gobbling up just about everyone in the cast who isn’t on the poster. Dudes! Is this the worst party ever — or the apocalypse?

I chatted with Rogen, his co-director and co-writer Evan Goldberg, and co-star Craig Robinson (The Office) when they hit town a few weeks back; their Bay Area visit included stops at multiple social-media HQs (Rogen’s take: “I thought there’d be more Segways.”) Rogen and Goldberg’s often-overlapping, guffaw-laden answers speak to their lifelong friendship — at 13, the Vancouver classmates wrote the first version of what would become the 2007 hit Superbad.

Also in 2007, they made Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse, a short film starring Rogen and Baruchel as “two guys arguing in a room, basically,” Rogen says. “The world is ending, but our main problem is that we have to deal with each other, and our histories, and our friendship issues.” The idea expanded and became This Is the End, which marks Rogen and Goldberg’s feature directorial debut. An apocalypse comedy? Well, why not?

“There’s always been apocalyptic movies. It’s the biggest idea you can have: the end of everything. But are there any other funny ones?” Goldberg wonders. “I found moments of Volcano (1997) pretty funny. I suppose Armageddon (1998) would be classified as an apocalypse comedy, by accident.”

It’s important to note that This Is the End relies not on natural disasters, asteroids, aliens, or zombies to signal doomsday. “The whole concept was, full Christian apocalypse,” Rogen says.

“Catholic. Christian. Apocalypse. Book of Revelations. It’s the biggest book ever made,” Goldberg adds. “It’s the most popular version of it, so we might as well ride that gravy train.”

Cult-movie connoisseurs will be familiar with unintentionally hilarious depictions of the Rapture, most famously in “scare films” like 1972’s A Thief in the Night. Rogen’s research was slightly more modern. “Along with two of our producers, I watched all of Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind movies,” he admits. “They are fucking insane. It was one of those things where we were like, “Let’s look at it for five minutes. It’ll be funny!” and we ended up watching the whole trilogy. It was unbelievable.”

Neither Rogen nor Goldberg happens to be Christian, which is part of the joke. “A lot of people think we’re gonna be stuck here as hell comes to earth ’cause we’re Jewish,” Goldberg points out.

“It’s true!” Rogen laughs. “That idea fascinated us. Most people in North America were raised Christian; whether or not they actually believe in it, they’re ingrained from a very young age with the general idea that hell is gonna come to earth one day, and the good people will get sucked up to heaven and the bad people will be laid to waste, basically. Which to us was a fuckin’ disturbing concept, especially since it was implied that we would be the ones left behind. I think that’s really where [the film] came from.”

Goldberg elaborates. “In 11th grade, I had a conversation with a Christian friend, where I asked, ‘Let’s say I save a bus full of children who are falling off a bridge. But there’s this serial killer who believes in the stuff that gets you into heaven, and I don’t. Does he still go to heaven, and I go to hell?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah. Sorry, dude.’ Most Christians don’t really think we’re going to hell. But they all know the story.”

Of course, This Is the End has a lot more to it than religious commentary; there’s also copious drug use, masturbation gags, urine-drinking, bromance, insult comedy, and all of the uber-meta in-jokes fans of its stars will appreciate. (When asked if this is the most self-referential movie ever made, Goldberg cracks, “Maybe … unless, is somebody making a movie about the making of this movie?”)

“You’ve seen people play themselves in a movie before, but not to this level,” Robinson notes. “Though there’s two versions, you know — there’s me, singing ‘Take Your Panties Off,’ which I do in real life, and the me who has killed a man, which is not real. Hopefully the audience will able to differentiate.”

With a large ensemble of funny guys (Rogen, Robinson, Baruchel, Franco, Hill, and Danny McBride), plus a raft of cameos, the filmmakers were careful to split the laughs as evenly as possible.

“For the six main guys, we tried to write the best script we possibly could. But sometimes, the actors won [with their improv], because they’re funnier,” Goldberg laughs. “When it came to the party with all the different deaths and stuff, we had a bunch of ideas and we kind of hashed it out with each actor. We tried to make sure we gave everyone one good bit, and I think we mostly pulled it off.”


THIS IS THE END opens Wed/12 in Bay Area theaters.

Wish you weren’t here



FILM Austrian Ulrich Seidl has been making films since the early 1980s, but didn’t get much attention internationally until 2001’s Dog Days, a bleak and nasty ensemble piece about some seemingly ordinary — but all variably pathetic, ugly and/or perverse — Viennese suburbanites sweating through a heat wave. It was the sort of movie that demanded attention, being grotesque, funny, surprising, meticulously crafted, and arguably just plain mean.

Following decades of mostly documentary work, he’d suddenly joined the ranks of what you might call the New (though not necessarily young) Misanthropes: directors like his fellow countryman Michael Haneke, France’s Gaspar Noé, and the Philippines’ Brillante Mendoza. For some their invariably depressing, often upsetting films illuminate the human capacity for cruelty. For others, they wallow in it.

After taking his time making a Dog Days follow-up (2007’s Import/Export, a predictably grim comment on Europe’s immigration inundation), Seidl is back in atypical bulk with his Paradise Trilogy, three lightly interlocking (there’s no real overall arc) features more tightly focused on hapless individual protagonists. Each are observed — and this director is among the most ruthlessly clinical observers around, as if cinema were a laboratory and characters his test subjects — on vacation. But of course the experience of any earthly paradise is a sour joke in the contexts they find themselves in. Striking if unpleasant, the trio gets its Bay Area debut over the next three weekends at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Paradise: Love (2012) makes the pursuit of pleasure look grim indeed, from the rather cheap-shot opening of Teresa (Margaret Tiesel) overseeing mentally handicapped adults as they enjoy an amusement-park outing on bumper cars — a scene whose “grotesquerie” feels exploitative. But once she’s on her holiday in sunny Kenya, it’s Teresa who does the exploiting. At the urging of a cheerfully horny friend (one among many plus-sized, German-speaking women well into middle age holidaying there), she partakes of the local populace of young men who offer gigolo-type services for a price.

But Teresa wants something more — or at least the illusion of it. Ergo she’s thoroughly suckered when the first seemingly non-predatory beach stud she encounters (Peter Kazungu as Munga) starts asking for money — he’s got no end of needy sick relatives, it seems — once they’ve consummated his declared “love.” Similar disappointments ensue. Teresa’s naiveté isn’t exactly sympathetic, however. She unconsciously brings the full weight of class/racial privilege and condescension with her, and is endlessly, petulantly demanding as a sex tourist who insists on being treated as a lover. (The negotiation around how her breasts should be touched by Munga seem to take half an hour alone.) She just wants to be desired. Yet she acts like a pushy colonialist bargain shopper.

In Paradise: Faith (2012), the spotlight is taken by Teresa’s older sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstaetter), who most certainly is not looking for romance, let alone sex — without wearing a cowl, this hospital radiologist has become a fervent bride of Christ. She spends her vacation time alone in her over-large house, scrubbing it spotless, flogging herself clean of impure thoughts before Jesus, and singing hymns at the Casio keyboard. She also goes on daily outings to the homes of strangers, frequently immigrants. She barges in with sizable Virgin Mary statues crying “The Mother of God has come to visit you!,” and tries browbeating them into sin-abjuring prayer. Needless to say, this all seems much more about her needs than theirs.

She returns one day to the unwelcome surprise of husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh), an Egyptian Muslim back after an unexplained two-year absence. They’ve both changed greatly — back then he wasn’t yet paralyzed from the waist down, and she wasn’t a born-again fanatic. He’s nonplussed that her vinegary form of “Christian charity” treats him more as a home-nursing burden than a marital partner, and hostilities between them soon escalate to nightmarish proportions.

Ultimately, faith provides no comfort — and that failure induces a crisis of faith. Rigorously controlled in aesthetic terms, Seidl goes over the top content-wise at times — as when Anna Maria stumbles upon a public park orgy, or uses a crucifix à la Linda Blair — yet this cruel portrait of religious fixation has a certain compulsive, often cringe-inducing tension.

Finally, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel with Paradise: Hope (2013). While Teresa is fucking Africans and Anna Maria proselytizing, the former’s teenage daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz) has been packed off to fat camp, where she and other pudgy youths endure long days of tortuous exercise and other “improving” programs. But the kids have each other; rather surprisingly, Seidl doesn’t rain gloom on their giddy rapport. Melanie also develops a serious crush on the resident doctor, a handsome, friendly, and flirtatious fellow (Michael Thomas) approximately four times her age.

Convinced she’s overdue to lose her virginity, she’s an avid pursuer — and disturbingly, he’s kinda interested. It is the movie’s major failing that seemingly kind, intelligent, grounded Dr. Arzt remains too much of an enigma for us to grasp why he’d even consider taking up a 13-year-old on the offer of herself. Yes, Melanie is cute, vivacious, and likable … but, well, come on. Of course this won’t end well. Still, Hope is indeed the most hopeful of the Paradise trilogy: its main character’s life isn’t ruined already, and she might well survive the hard knocks she’s given here to experience actual happiness.


June 13-30, $8-$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF



In search of …



FILM In the 1970s conspiracy-theory culture flourished as never before, an unsurprising development considering the disillusioned malaise that set in after the turbulence of the 1960s and Watergate. In addition to innumerable theories about the “truth” behind JFK’s death (and later Elvis’), there was suddenly a widespread fascination with such questionable phenomena as the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, Bigfoot, extra-sensory perception, the “Amityville Horror,” and so forth. Naturally this interest rapidly spread from cheap paperbacks to television and drive-in screens.

Such obsessions occasionally sparked upscale treatment (i.e. 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but were more often exploited by filmmakers working on the trashier side of the audiovisual entertainment spectrum. Ergo the surfeit of cinematic dumpster-diving that comprises the Vortex’s June series “The Vortex Phenomena,” whose four Thursday evenings are dedicated to exploring the unknown in movies that themselves are largely pretty dang unknown.

There are at least a couple exceptions — and interestingly they’re the ones least relevant to the theme, being traditional supernatural horror. Most prominent is John Carpenter’s 1980 The Fog, his entry into the relative big time after indie Halloween basically invented slasherdom two years prior. Depicting murderous mariner ghosts who attack a coastal town on its centennial, The Fog is an atmospheric classic of sorts that almost became a career-ending bomb. Assembling a rough cut, Carpenter thought the results so flat he did extensive reshoots that ultimately constituted about a third of the final, successful version. The film still has a structural problem, though: we know early on that the ghoulies want to claim six lives, and since right off the bat they take three, there’s no huge sense of peril for the cluttered cast (including Jamie Lee Curtis, her Psycho-shower-victim mom Janet Leigh, bodacious Adrienne Barbeau, and Hal Holbrook). Trivia note: it was partly shot in Point Reyes and Bolinas.

The other moderately well-known film in the Vortex series is The Dunwich Horror, a striking 1970 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation with erstwhile Gidget and all-around perky girl Sandra Dee as a graduate student unknowingly recruited for demonic sacrifice by a superbly creepy Dean Stockwell. Otherwise, “Phenomenon” features movies even the fairly learned horror fan has probably never heard of — though if you were of viewing age in the 1970s you might have actually seen (and forgotten) a couple of them on network TV.

A pilot for an unproduced series, 1973’s Baffled! features Leonard Nimoy in an unusually debonair role as a racecar driver who begins experiencing psychic visions of future mayhem (sometimes, inconveniently, when he’s behind the wheel). They draw him to England, where a visiting movie star (Vera Miles, another veteran of 1960’s Psycho) finds her 12-year-old daughter going through an uber-bratty phase possibly heightened by demonic possession. The slick mix of comedy-mystery and horror doesn’t quite work, but Star Trek aficionados will enjoy the inexplicable wrongness of seeing Nimoy as a conventional suave action hero, saying things like “You’re a great-lookin’ chick!”

A stand-alone, more typical TV “Movie of the Week” of the same era was 1975’s Satan’s Triangle, which offered “one explanation” for the ongoing mystery of disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. Forgotten bo-hunk Doug McClure is part of a Coast Guard rescue team answering a distress signal from a wrecked yacht on which are found various corpses — and one traumatized survivor, Kim Novak (yet another Hitchcock veteran). What happened? A hint: Name-check the title. And expect a very Christian ending. It’s like a fairly clever attenuated Twilight Zone or Night Gallery episode. Those series’ actual mastermind, Rod Serling, narrates the 1973 omnibus horror feature Encounter with the Unknown — something of a ruse, since he neither wrote or produced this amateurish trilogy of dull, dismal horror stories. Also on the yakkety side is 1978 Italian lukewarm mess Eyes Behind the Stars, in which space invaders wearing sparkly hoodies and leotards with motorcycle-helmet-type face visors wreak convoluted havoc on any human who gets wise to their murky global conspiracy.

There’s likewise too much talk and not enough terror in 1979’s The Kirlian Witness, a murder mystery about a dead florist (and telepathic plants) that’s just odd enough to hold interest. The “secret life of plants” was big that year — then-massively popular Stevie Wonder released an album of that same name, one that was soundtrack to a documentary about floral phenomena that played theaters but seems to have been completely removed from the public sphere since.

The hairy mother of all speculative subject matters arrives in the form of Yeti: The Giant of the 20th Century, a 1977 wonder that manages to combine two of the decade’s most disreputable subgenres, the Bigfoot cash-in and the King Kong knockoff. Dino De Laurentiis’ massively publicized, critically mauled 1976 Kong remake inspired a lot of cheap imitations, none sillier than this Italian production which basically copies the entire second half of that revamp, albeit with a muscled bear in a fright wig giganticized via primitive process shots, terrorizing Toronto. He’s like a 100-foot tall, glacier-thawed, million-year-old Wolfman Jack.

The yeti does not appear to have genitals, but gets very excited when the heroine of this otherwise family-targeted entertainment inadvertently rubs one giant nipple. (That is the kind of attention to detail one appreciates in “Un Film di Frank Kramer,” a.k.a. Gianfranco Parolini, a vetern of spaghetti westerns and Hercules movies.) It’s no Shriek of the Mutilated (1974) as yeti movies go, but it does have disco music, super loud wide-lapel men’s sports coats, a heroic Lassie-type dog, and magical leaps of narrative continuity. *


Through June 27

Thu, 9 and 11pm, $10

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF

Facebook: The Vortex Room


Get high



FILM San Francisco has a lot of film festivals (understatement of the millennium), but none until now can claim to show "films from the roof of the world." The first annual Himalayan Film Festival kicks off this week with screenings in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. Opening night features the West Coast premiere of Leon Stuparich’s Road to Peace, a doc that follows the Dalai Lama on his 2008 tour of the UK.

The timing of the visit coincides with a period of unrest in Lhasa, so the trip takes on an unexpectedly political tone, with reporters pressing His Holiness to speak about "the Tibetan problem." Which he does (advocating for "meaningful autonomy" instead of complete independence from China, and emphasizing the need for "a realistic approach" to the conflict), though he nudges his message toward broader themes: universal responsibility, religious harmony, cultural preservation, the environment, and so forth.

In his wake, he leaves a trail of teary-eyed, thoroughly chuffed Brits, including Absolutely Fabulous‘ Joanna Lumley, and proves once again to be one of the world’s most laid-back leaders, with an easy chuckle that puts awed audiences at ease. No wonder he’s such a frequent, favorite subject for documentarians like Stuparich; to that end, if you’ve seen a previous film on the Dalai Lama, this genial travelogue is likely to feel somewhat familiar.

More unusual subject matter is explored in Himalayan Gold Rush, which manages to overcome its stiff, National Geographic-ish narration with a gripping narrative and quite a bit of spectacular scenery. Director Eric Valli travels to rural Nepal to investigate the lucrative yartsa gunbu, or "Himalayan Viagra" trade. Derived from a fungus-and-caterpillar situation that only occurs 5,000 meters above sea level, it’s "worth more than gold" to herbal-remedy shops that cater to rich Chinese clients.

Medicinal claims aside, much of its value is due to the fact that it’s incredibly rare, as well as back-breakingly difficult to harvest. Himalayan Gold Rush zeroes in on a few different foot soldiers, including a father with two young sons who worries about the mountains’ rapidly dwindling yartsa supply — even as he gambles away the family’s meager earnings in a dice game — and a man who rides from camp to camp, buying the crop to sell to his boss, an exporter, in Kathmandu. This, too, is perilous work, with armed guards necessary to protect large parcels of the precious stuff, which to the untrained eye resembles dried-up tequila worms.

An entirely different Nepalese story unfolds in The Sari Soldiers, a 2008 film that focuses on the country’s turbulent political unrest in 2005-2006. It begins with a reminder about the 2001 Nepalese royal massacre, in which the country’s crown prince shot and killed nine of his family members, then himself — or so goes the official version of the controversial tragedy (where’s the documentary on that, by the way?) It then explains how the slain king’s unpopular brother ascended to the throne, and a few years later, amid a Maoist insurgency, claimed "absolute power" for himself.

With this chaos forming a potent backdrop, The Sari Soldiers highlights six women whose different viewpoints make for a remarkably even-handed doc. Not only does filmmaker Julie Bridgham make great use of handheld footage taken amid tense, anti-monarchy student demonstrations, she interviews both a Maoist soldier and a Royal Nepalese Army soldier. Most powerfully, she traces the struggles of a human-rights lawyer who advocates for the country’s alarming number of people who’ve been "disappeared" by the government, including the 15-year-old daughter of another of Bridgham’s subjects.

Other intriguing entries in the small but promising Himalayan Film Festival line-up include another doc about the Nepalese civil war, Beneath Everest: Nepal Reform; a doc about Tibetan athletes’ attempts to earn representation at the Beijing Olympics, Leaving Fear Behind — whose director was jailed because of the film; and, among a handful of narrative works, Old Dog, about a family at odds over the treatment of their much-cherished dog (a Tibetan Mastiff, natch).


Wed/15-Sun/19, $10

Various venues


Crazy sexy cruel


FILM Long before VHS demon Sadako glared one eye through a tent of tangled black hair in 1998’s Ring (American viewers may switch that to “Samara” and “2002”), another angry, swampy-coiffed dame was doing her best to scare the bejesus out of ticket buyers. The year was 1825, and the kabuki play was called Yotsuya Kaidan. Ghost Story of Yotsuya, the 1959 version of that oft-filmed tale — which contains visual motifs made famous by J-horror — kicks off the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ titillatingly-titled “Girls! Guns! Ghosts! The Sensational Films of Shintoho” series (Thu/9-May 26).

Exploitation specialist Shintoho is often described as “the Japanese American International Pictures,” with output likened to Roger Corman’s oeuvre. The comparison is apt, what with the overlapping timelines (Shintoho was active from 1949-1961) and shared love of low-budget productions chockablock with daring, sleazy, violent, racy, and otherwise beyond-the-mainstream themes. Most of the films in “Girls!” are under 90 minutes, and a good portion of them are even shorter. Ghost Story of Yotsuya, directed by prolific Shintoho hand Nobuo Nakagawa, clocks in at a pulse-pounding 76 minutes.

It opens on a kabuki stage, with a macabre song hinting at what’s to come: “the greatest horror there is,” we’re warned, is “the fury of a woman maddened.” Though it takes nearly an hour to get to payback o’ clock, that allows plenty of time to pile up just cause: sleazy samurai Iemon woos pretty, naive Iwa (played, respectively, by studio faves Shigeru Amachi and Katsuko Wakasugi) after killing her suspicious father and shoving her sister’s beau over a waterfall. Unsurprisingly, he makes for a cruel, manipulative husband, using his wife for gambling collateral and feeding her “medicine for your circulation” once a younger, richer girl captures his attentions. The poison does a Phantom of the Opera-style number on Iwa’s face before hastening her death. “I will visit my hatred upon you,” Iwa’s pissed-off ghost declares, and boy, does she — no VCR required.

More cranky spirits populate Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (1960), which leans heavily on (blood) red and (supernatural) green lighting effects to weave its tale of, again, revenge from beyond the grave. This time, it’s revenge so patient it waits generations to cause havoc, cursing a contemporary woman who stumbles into an abandoned house when she and her fiancé keep tracing the same route through the woods in a Twilight Zone-ish frame story. (Pro-tip: maybe don’t declare, “I hate cats!” when you encounter one with witchy powers.) A flashback to centuries prior explores a feud between two families that encompasses forced marriages, haunted hairpins, horrific fires, bodies tossed in the titular pond, and a monster that takes on an oddly feline form.

Of course, not all of Shintoho’s films were period-pic screamers. A trio of black-and-white “Girls!” selections embrace pulpy, seedy, noirish characters and situations. Nakagawa’s Death Row Woman (1960) begins, ominously, as a posh family goes duck hunting. (“You could kill a person!” someone remarks of another character’s shooting skill.) Rebel daughter Kyoko (Miyuki Takakura) doesn’t want to marry the man her father has picked out for her — but her stepmother and stepsister are none too pleased with Kyoko’s own choice, for different reasons. When Daddy Dearest suddenly croaks, it’s a death sentence for Kyoko — who is actually guilty only of being shrill pain in the ass. Lightly lascivious woman-in-prison scenes (this isn’t 1983’s Chained Heat or anything) are followed by a daring, Fugitive-style escape, though ain’t nobody getting justice without suffering through a vat full of melodrama first.

Even more entertaining are the two films in “Girls!” directed by Teruo Ishii: 1958’s Flesh Pier and 1960’s Yellow Line. Both make great use of back-alley characters, with fedoras and fishnets to spare. Flesh Pier‘s action is set in Ginza, as an undercover cop who’s in love with a burlesque dancer investigates the city’s “trade in flesh;” also undercover is a female reporter hoping to get a big scoop on same. (This film contains a fashion-show scene in which nightie-clad models smoke cigarettes on the runway.) Meanwhile, Yellow Line follows a moody hitman (Amachi again) who kidnaps a dancer (a sassy Yoko Mihara) and drags her to Kobe’s red-light “Casbah” district, with her newspaper-reporter boyfriend in hot pursuit. (This film contains a hooker named “the Moor,” played by a white actress in blackface.)

Not available for preview, but likely as mind-blowing as any and all of the above: Michiyoshi Doi’s The Horizon Glitters (1960), described as a “black comedy about a prison break gone wrong;” Toshio Shimura’s 1956 Revenge of the Pearl Queen, about a bodacious, ass-kicking female pearl diver played by Michiko Maeda (a.k.a. “the first Japanese actress to appear in a nude scene in a mainstream film” … this film); and Kyotaro Namiki’s Vampire Bride (1960), in which a scarred young dancer transforms into a horrific, hairy beast. If a picture says a thousand words, the widely circulated still from this film positively shrieks them. 



May 9-26, $8-10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF


Man up



FILM While frequently spiced by dames alluring and sometimes deadly, film noir has always been intrinsically a manly-man’s world. Elliot Lavine’s latest Roxie noir retrospective, offering 30 features over two weeks, seems particularly heavy on vintage male charisma. Whether showcasing the seldom-noted comic chops of Humphrey Bogart, the seldom-appreciated star swagger of Victor Mature, or Cliff Robertson having an unusually credible (for the era) mental breakdown, the range of familiar and ultra-rare titles in “I Wake Up Dreaming 2013” offers a compendium of variably tough guys in tougher situations.

If you’re wondering where the series’ title comes from, the answer kicks things off: 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming is a most enjoyable murder mystery in which Manhattan sports promoter and all-around hustler Frankie Christopher (Mature) decides on a whim to play Pygmalion and make a pretty but coarse waitress (Carole Landis) his Galatea. Once she’s successfully launched as a “glamour girl,” however, she proves quite the little ingrate — “Why should I go on slinging hash when I can sling other things?” she leers, preparing to bolt for Hollywood. There’s no lack of suspects (including reliable sleazeballs Elisha Cook, Jr. and Laird Cregar) once she’s found knocked off.

The publicity at the time focused on 20th Century Fox’s big wartime pin-up and musical star Betty Grable making her dramatic debut as Landis’ “sourpuss sister” (meaning she’s a nice girl who disapproves of her trampy sib). But the movie belongs to Mature, a big strapping lunk who became a punch line about looks-but-no-brains Hollywood he-men. (Later career highlights include playing opposite Hedy Lamarr in Cecil B. DeMille’s vapid 1949 megahit Samson and Delilah, then getting mocked two decades later in the Monkees’ 1968 Head.) But he’s charming, confident, and surprisingly nuanced here. Oddly, Screaming‘s orchestral score heavily features unaccredited lifts from “Over the Rainbow” — a standard now, but then just a song from a two-year-old movie that everybody had already forgotten.

Similarly playing a semi-respectable Big Apple man-about-town, Bogart gives a master course in magnetizing viewer attention while seeming to do very little in the next year’s All Through the Night. “Gloves” Donahue is a gambler — surrounded by memorable flunkies including Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, and William Demerest — reluctantly sucked by his busybody mom (Jane Darwell from 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath) into investigating the death of her beloved local immigrant baker-neighbor. This being 1942, the path leads directly to Nazis — Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, and Judith “Mrs. Danvers” Anderson chief among them. Packed with priceless snappy patter, this comedy action hybrid may lack the “classic” cache of the star’s other ’40s vehicles. But it’s enormous fun, even if it goes off the rails a bit toward the end.

Another revelation in the program is Screaming‘s co-feature Blues in the Night, a strikingly ambitious sort of jazz musical melodrama written by Robert Rossen (director and co-writer of 1961’s The Hustler) and directed by another intriguing, now-neglected talent, Anatole Litvak. Following the very rocky road traveled by a combo of white musicians seriously dedicated to “real low-down New Orleans blues,” this starless effort is one of those rare B movies that packs an incredible amount of incident and depth into a relatively short runtime without ever feeling cluttered.

Some of “Screaming”‘s bills are themed by director or performer. May 19 brings a double dose of 1950s Joan Crawford, with her eerie resemblance at the time to Mrs. Potatohead. Female on the Beach (1955) is a fun thriller in which she’s a widow seduced and possibly menaced by Jeff Chandler, one of the era’s several leading blond pin-up boys. But Robert Aldrich’s 1956 Autumn Leaves is something else: a May-December romance that turns into a serious treatment of mental illness, as much-younger suitor Robertson turns out to be unstable in ways less conventionally scary than credibly pathetic. Unusually vulnerable — her nervously babbling curtain speech might be the finest acting she ever did — Crawford knew this was one of her best movies, and later paid due credit to Robertson’s “stupendous” performance.

Another evening pays tribute to the fascinatingly odd oeuvre of longtime industry fringe-dweller Arch Obeler, who famously made the first 3D feature (1952’s Bwana Devil), but is found in more intriguing form here with two earlier black and white cheapies. Bewitched (1945) is an offbeat thriller from the POV of a pretty schizophrenic (Phyllis Thaxter), though that term is never used. Its primitive psychoanalysis is bettered by the post-apocalyptic psychodrama of 1951’s Five, whose titular quartet — including a pregnant woman, a kind African American war veteran, and a fascistic white supremacist — mysteriously survive nuclear disaster but may not survive each other’s personalities. Politically progressive if sometimes dramaturgically simple, it’s a fascinating obscurity.

Other highlights include quintessential cult object The Monster and The Girl (1941), in which a giant gorilla takes out various corrupt underworld types whilst “Skipper the Terrier” follows its trail; ultra-low-budget 1957 Mickey Spillane adaptation My Gun is Quick, with Robert Bray as a marginally less cretinous Mike Hammer than usual; the very cool 1961 British drama All Night Long, which transposes Othello into a jazzbo context (complete with Brubeck and Mingus); and last but possibly least, a double bill devoted to short-lived blonde bombshell Beverly Michaels. A hammer-voiced minor challenge to Monroe, Mansfield, and Van Doren, she was invariably cast as destructive man bait. But like Victor Mature, her performances in Pickup (1951) and Wicked Woman (1953) suggest a more alert, modern intelligence than she was given credit for.


May 10-23, $10

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St, SF



Aquarius rising


FILM Under the guidance of charismatic, luxuriously-bearded leader Father Yod (once named Jim Baker, later known as YaHoWha), the Source Family operated one of the country’s first health food restaurants. They lived in a Hollywood Hills mansion, wore flowing robes, assumed dreamy new names, meditated, and studied Father Yod’s custom blend of Eastern and Western philosophy and mysticism.

As the home movies that comprise Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille’s documentary, The Source Family, suggest, there were golden moments aplenty, even as the mainstream began to view the group with suspicion (and an aging Father Yod’s decision to take multiple wives confused some members — particularly the woman he was already legally married to). Tapping into the group’s extensive film and music archives, as well as interviews with surviving members, The Source Family (opening here with a big gala Thu/2 and running through May 9 at the Roxie) offers a captivating look at what had to be the most earnest (and most photogenic) cult of the 1970s. I spoke with Demopoulos and Wille to learn more.

San Francisco Bay Guardian When did you first hear about the Source Family, and how did you hook up with “Family historian” Isis Aquarian?

Jodi Wille In 1999, a friend showed me a CD box set with all nine of the original Family records. I’d been obsessed with cults, communes, and radical groups from the 1960s and ’70s for 20 years — but I’d never heard of the Source Family. I was shocked that this existed, and that they had this kind of musical output. Also, there were pictures of them looking very beautiful and stylish. But I went online and there was nothing there [about them].

One day, my then-husband, [Feral House publisher] Adam Parfrey, came home with a DVD he’d found at Amoeba Records: a very limited-release student film on the Source Family. We watched it, and I was struck by how thoughtful and charming the Family members were in the interviews.

I went online again, and this time there was a website. I’m a book publisher, too — I put out books on counterculture, sustainability, and things like that [on Process Media and Dilettante Press] — so I emailed, asking if they’d ever considered doing a book. Isis Aquarian wrote back and said [she and her Source Family brother Electricity] had been working on a book for seven years. So I started going through her massive archives with her; we worked to expand the book, which had been written for Family members, for the public. As we were doing that, we were filming interviews with other Family members. When Isis let me know about the film component to her archive, I realized that this was an extraordinary story that had all of the elements we would need for a great documentary.

At that point, I brought in Maria, a close friend of mine who had become a very talented commercial director. Before the book, [The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13, and The Source Family], people were really private about their experiences, and I think some of them were uncomfortable about going public. But the book was received positively; it told the story from the believers’ point of view and I think that helped develop their trust. So we were very lucky to get incredible access.

SFBG You were friends with Isis, who’s credited as an associate producer, by the time you started working on the film — yet it offers a balanced portrait. How did you stay objective?

JW Isis has done an enormous amount of work helping us in many ways, but she was not involved creatively. That was really important to us, to have that freedom, and she agreed to that. But I became close to some Family members, so I think bringing Maria in was really essential to help with the balance.

Maria Demopoulos I think, objectivity aside, we just focused on letting the Family members speak for themselves, and trying to go for as much authenticity as possible, hearing all perspectives. We worked hard to represent as many Family members as possible and really tell the story from an insider’s point of view.

JW We tried to reflect the overall feelings that we were getting from Family members, because everyone had completely different experiences within the Family, and everybody had strong opinions about it.

And it’s not really about being objective — no filmmaker or documentary is ever truly objective. It’s just about being open and letting people come to their own conclusions.

SFBG Since you had access to all of that footage, what was the editing process like?

MD It was extremely difficult, but honestly, we hit the jackpot. It was just like an incredible gift and honor to go through the archive. We had a three-and-a-half-hour cut, and we just kept whittling it down. Often times, we just had to stay focused; even if we had some fantastic footage, if it didn’t absolutely serve the story, we had to pull it out. It was difficult, but that’s actually a great problem to have.

JW And I’d like to give credit to Isis Aquarian for preserving that archive. There were hundreds or maybe thousands of groups like this that existed. But most of them didn’t document themselves, or if they did, they didn’t hold on to the artifacts or preserve the documents. She’s a true documentarian, even now.

SFBG Did you encounter any resistance from former members, or anyone who thought the documentary shouldn’t be made?

MD From the Family members’ perspective, no. They were extremely cooperative. [On the other hand,] since the Source Family existed in Hollywood, they had many connection to celebrities. We approached a lot of celebrities who were around at that time, and we had a tough time getting access to them.

JW The Source Family members all knew about the book, and they knew that people in their 20s and 30s had become fans of the Family. So I think that made them a lot more open to talking to us. But as far as people like Warren Beatty and Donald Sutherland, who were actually friends with Father Yod, I don’t think they were aware of that phenomenon. They were still thinking about how the Source Family was perceived with a lot of controversy back in the ’70s. I think it’s possible that those people, besides being really busy, weren’t quite sure what we were doing with the material, or if they wanted to associate themselves with it.

SFBG Also, now that decades have passed, when people hear “Southern California cult” and “the Family,” they automatically think “Manson.”

JW For me, that was an important inspiration to make this film. Again, when you speak with the participants, or even with scholars, you find it’s a very different story. We have such a primitive understanding of what these radical, social, and spiritual experiments were really doing back in the 1960s and ’70s, and the kinds of effects that they were having on the participants’ lives.

Maria and I interviewed about 40 of them just for The Source Family, and I’ve gotten to know members of other groups over the years. I find that these groups, more often than not, were very important cultural incubators. A lot of progressive ideas came from them, including the slow food movement, the mind-body-spirit movement, the natural birthing movement. A lot of tech-industry people came from these experiments — San Francisco was a hotbed for them. And many of them were harmless. They didn’t create any major havoc. They were high-risk experiments, of course, but a lot of what people took away was deep and transformative.

SFBG Music plays a huge part in the film, and again, you had a lot of material to choose from. How did you decide which songs to match with the footage?

JW I knew the music really well, and then our editor, Jennifer Harrington, did an incredible job working with the music, and Maria pitched in, too. We did it by knowing the music and thinking about the mood, and just playing with stuff to see what fit.

MD We often chose songs that actually lyrically fit with what was happening in that particular scene. The music was incredibly well-suited to what was happening, because they’re basically singing their own story.

SFBG I missed The Source Family when it played the San Francisco International Film Festival last year, but I heard the Q&A got pretty colorful. How have screenings been going overall?

MD Response has been great. We’ve been selling out shows, and the Q&As have been very lively. A lot of people who participated in social experiments or lived in communes have been coming to the Q&As, but we’ve been getting a lot of younger kids as well. It’s been intergenerational.

JW That was the fun part in San Francisco, because there were two or three people in the audience who were in different communities who spoke up during the Q&A, and it became this really interesting group therapy session. And it’s not about us saying, “Oh, it was this way.” It’s us opening up new ideas so people can have new discussions about what was really going on back then.

SFBG What’s the opening event going to be like?

JW For the various premieres, we have Source Family members showing up to do Q&As in eight cities. We’ve got three in San Francisco: Isis, Electricity, and Galaxy — who was the fashion designer in the family. Also at the Roxie, we’re going to have food made from original Source Family recipes.

We’ll also have tribute bands in six cities. In San Francisco, after the screening, the Source Family tribute band is going to be playing at the Chapel [at 777 Valencia] — they’re called the Penetration Blues Band, with Michael Beach from Electric Jellyfish and Colossal Yes, Noel von Harmonson from Comets On Fire and Sic Alps, [and others]. It’s going to be a really fun night! *


Opening event Thu/2, 7pm (complete experience with food, film, and concert, $40; film only, $10; concert only, $15)

Film runs May 3-9, 7:15 and 9:30pm (also Sat/4-Sun/5, 2:45pm), $6.50–$10


3117 16th St., SF


Nordic track



SFIFF “The greatest Finnish movie ever made” — drop that phrase on someone (at least a non-Finn) and they will most likely make some crack suggesting there can’t possibly be enough of them for the distinction to matter. But Finland has had a rich and idiosyncratic filmmaking history stretching back to 1907. It hardly begins and ends with Aki Kaurismäki, the droll minimalist who was the first (and still only) Finnish director to regularly win international distribution.

Evidence of that isn’t so easy to find, or especially to watch, however. When a few years ago the Pacific Film Archive hosted a retrospective of fascinating 1930s-40s melodramas by Teuvo Tulio, it was like finding a time capsule left by a forgotten civilization — contents strange, exotic, and sort of wonderful. One yearned for more. But chances to see classic Finnish cinema haven’t exactly flourished since.

So it’s no great surprise that “the greatest Finnish movie” — so say many folk, including Kaurismäki — should turn out to be one that you’ve very likely never heard of. Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots, which the San Francisco International Film Festival is showing in conjunction with Finnish film scholar-director-programmer Peter von Bagh’s receipt of this year’s Mel Novikoff Award, is a five-and-one-quarter-hour rural tragedy starring Niskanen himself as a poor farmer doomed by both self-destruction and a ruthless social system. It’s not an “epic” in the usual sense of narrative expansiveness. Rather, it’s an intimate, deliberately rough-hewn drama that simply takes a very long—but never dull—time to run its course. The SFIFF catalog aptly compares it to Zola. A modern literary comparison would be to the Canadian novelist David Adams Richards, whose bucolic New Brunswick characters likewise stumble drunkenly from one bad decision to another, hemmed in by poverty and despair, yet ultimately achieving a kind of grandeur in their haplessness.

Niskanen was himself from a poor rural background, and such a handful that his father threw him out at age 13. Nonetheless he retained a strong connection to the culture of small farms that typified Finnish life in his youth but was nearly extinct by his death at age 61 in 1990.

Growing into strapping adulthood, he had some success as a 1950s stage and film actor. A man prone to have a hand in everything, he naturally progressed to operating behind as well as in front of the camera. His 1962 feature directorial debut The Boys was widely praised, and commenced a pattern in which his projects almost invariably (even when they were based on someone else’s life or fiction) contained elements of autobiography: in this case portraying a childhood lived partly under wartime privations.

Youth and country life were two of his major ongoing themes. They reached their combined popular apex in his 1967 Skin, Skin, whose sexy young protagonists on rural holiday reflected the era’s rapidly evolving mores to unprecedented box-office success.

Very different was Eight Deadly Shots, directly drawn from a true crime: After serial scrapes with the law (mostly over his illegal brewing of moonshine), an impoverished small farmer had a standoff in which he shot to death several police officers before turning himself in. Niskanen poured a great deal of himself into the story, supposedly going a bit berserk for real when the climactic sequences were filmed.

With its portrait of a well-intentioned but reckless, none-too-bright, alcoholic, eventually suicidal and family-endangering character — one that, by the way, the imprisoned real-life model found painfully accurate when Niskanen showed him the film — the black and white film finds pathos in protagonist Pasi’s steady march toward disaster. He’s too weak to save himself, yet a society in which a small-time farmer can no longer support his loved ones is as much to blame for his downfall as the hooch brewed in a tub in the forest.

The supporting performances (many cast with nonprofessional residents from the shooting locations) can be amateurish at times, but Niskanen’s own central turn is pretty epic. So is the drama he ekes from the minutiae of rural life — a scene of Pasi coaxing his stuck horse out of a snow drift takes on an urgency that could only be earned by a movie that’s made clear just how few resources (animal, vegetable or mineral) this family has.

Expected to be an 80-minute feature, Shots instead wound up being a TV miniseries. (It was later edited down to a two and a half hour feature that’s considered inferior.) It was wildly praised by everyone, even the country’s president. But the much-married, restless Niskanen never experienced such success again, gradually falling into depression and self-pity as various ventures failed to put him back on top. As von Bagh’s own three-hour TV documentary about the late artist makes clear, he was a very complicated man. But no doubt in Finland, like everywhere else, the really creative people are usually a little bit mad.


May 4, 3pm, $14–$15

Sundance Kabuki


May 5, noon; May 7, 12:15pm (includes 10-minute intermission), $10–$15

Sundance Kabuki

1881 Post, SF



April 25-May 9, most shows $10-15

Various venues