It’s being released to coincide with World AIDS Day, but Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles isn’t so much about AIDS as it is blood — human hemoglobin seems to pour from every frame. Part Holy Communion, part arsenic-laced Syrah, it’s constantly being wielded by the film’s characters as a weapon in their desperate struggles to survive both the disease and its political and social ramifications.
The movie’s sweeping triptych of stories spans three continents. The first tale, which takes place in China, features Lucy Liu as a very pregnant woman bound to a man dying of AIDS who illegally collects and runs blood out of her dilapidated VW bus. The second (coyly titled “The Passion of the Christ”) follows a poor, HIV-positive Montreal porn actor (Shawn Ashmore) and his Quebecois waitress mother (Stockard Channing), who purposely infects herself with the virus so she can sell her life insurance for a huge profit. Finally, in coastal South Africa two missionary nuns (Sandra Oh, Olympia Dukakis) and a nun in training (Chloe Sevigny) care for dying AIDS victims in the midst of white plantation owners exploiting HIV-infected employees who are so ignorant about the disease they believe they can be cured by passing it on to virgins (i.e., children).
So it’s not exactly Happy Feet. But compared to those sad sacks in Babel, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s exercise in sadistic anguish, 3 Needles’ characters handle their various afflictions with aplomb and ingenuity. The fight may be futile, but it’ll still be fought — complete with a few sacri-licious jabs at the Big Man himself. It’s doubtful that bisexual Irish Catholic provocateur Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden) is calling for an Elton John–style outright ban on religion, but his piercing words and images offer a visceral inoculation against the complacency of the church, the worldwide government, and the free market itself.
It all adds up to a wet, crimson slap in the face of global apathy — and a desperately needed one at that. After all, breaking through the polite rhetoric should only take a little prick. (Michelle Devereaux)
Opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com
- No categories
It’s being released to coincide with World AIDS Day, but Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles isn’t so much about AIDS as it is blood — human hemoglobin seems to pour from every frame. Part Holy Communion, part arsenic-laced Syrah, it’s constantly being wielded by the film’s characters as a weapon in their desperate struggles to survive both the disease and its political and social ramifications.
If you live in the city and you’ve been blessed, you’ve had the experience of meeting a lover on a favorite street corner, in an open square, or by a favorite vista or shadowy and partially hidden place. The opening scenes of Julián Hernández’s Broken Sky tap precisely into this hide-and-seek game for grown-ups — and the heightened expectations and disappointments it can create. Plaintive college student Gerardo (Miguel Ángel Hoppe) has the rare type of exaggeratedly masculine-feminine features — eyes wide and almost crossed — that are made for melodrama. As he waits over and over in different settings for the arrival of his boyfriend, Jonas (Fernando Arroyo), a variety of excited emotions flutter across his rapt face.
This dance of expectation and eventual pleasure is just one of the urban pas des deux within Hernández’s second feature. Broken Sky might very well be a four-way chain of pas de deux pieces, tracing the gradual breakup of a first love. At its very best, the movie creates something hauntingly, intuitively perceptive from these portraits of everyday urban movement. Near the end of the film, when Hernández and cinematographer Alejandro Cantú return to one such repeated pattern — Gerardo’s movement around an apartment bed that once had a magnetic force for Jonas and him but now only seems to repel them from each other — the effect is heartbreaking.
But who will have the patience to reach that moment? At nearly two and a half hours, Broken Sky would have benefited from a rigorous edit that not only reduced its run time by 40 to 60 minutes but also removed the voice-over passages that provide virtually its only dialogue. (This suggestion is from someone who can comprehend, let alone appreciate, the languid rhythms and unconfined eros of Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul — in other words, it isn’t the conservative miscomprehension of a New Times–era Village Voice.) By even occasionally imposing heavy-handed and pseudopoetic narration on the proceedings, Hernández seems to doubt his core instinct that the words of pop songs, the semiotics of T-shirts, and the looks on Gerardo’s and Jonas’s faces are — aside from a classroom lecture on Aristophanes — all that is needed to tell their story.
That’s a shame, especially because the director has an extraordinary collaborator in Cantú. Together their camerawork charts, colors, and most of all cruises Mexico City with a flamboyant fluidity equal to that of Diego Martínez Vignatti’s cinematography for Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven — another recent movie from Mexico that (along with Ricardo Benet’s News from Afar and Fernando Eimbcke’s Duck Season) trumps the efforts of better-known contemporaries who’ve ventured to Hollywood. Like Battle in Heaven, Broken Sky contains enough 360-degree pans to make even Brian de Palma spin-dizzy. However, compared to Reygadas’s baroque nationalist allegory (or the urbane sensuality of Night Watch, Edgardo Cozarinsky’s recent hustler’s-eye view of Buenos Aires society), its young love narrative seems trite. Strip away the potent combination of Hoppe’s puppy dog pathos and Arroyo’s pout, and the message seems to be that you should never wreck your relationship for a dude with a tacky rat-tail hairdo.
Had Hernández’s presentation remained mute save for the lyricism of ballads and Dvorak-or-disco-beat instrumental passages, Gerardo’s and Jonas’s archetypal qualities might be as convincing and layered as their embodiment of — and struggles against — the callow surfaces of contemporary gay life. That latter friction took on black-and-white overt outsider form in the director’s first full-length film (after almost a decade of shorts), 2003’s Jean Cocteau–influenced A Thousand Clouds of Peace. Shot in color, Broken Sky resides closer to gay mainstream consumerist codes, while still critiquing them via a defiant romanticism. In a sense, its extended length could be seen as a direct antithesis to the increasing length of gay porn movies in the DVD age, with each protracted chapter straining toward a skipped heartbeat instead of an orgasm.
Quoting Marguerite Duras at the outset, semisuccessfully treating a twink’s misbegotten nightclub hookup as the stuff of epic tragedy, and taking even more time than Duras might to tell a simple story (not to mention one that involves characters she would’ve found silly), Hernández can’t be accused of lacking audacity. He knows how to ravish the viewer — an excellent quality in a director who loves to choreograph love. The fact that Broken Sky’s title credit doesn’t arrive until nearly an hour into its action — or stasis — more than hints he’s influenced by Apichatpong’s revelatory Blissfully Yours, but unlike that innovative director, he’s still working, conflictedly, within the framework of contemporary gay identity and its attendant commercialism. He and João Pedro Rodrigues (O Fantasma; Two Drifters) are the standout moviemakers in this restrictive realm, but as of now, lacking Rodrigues’s devil-may-care imagination, Hernández will have to settle for number two — with a Bullitt T-shirt. SFBG
Dec. 1 and Dec. 3–7
429 Castro, SF
Book lovers always lament movie adaptations: they rarely deliver. But Fast Food Nation, like a swift injection of growth hormone, adds flesh and character to the very real problems of where America’s food comes from and the different ways it’s absolutely mishandled. The feature film is based on the 2001 nonfiction book by journalist Eric Schlosser, who helped director Richard Linklater finesse the screenplay into something of a morality tale tracing the true origins of a Mickey’s hamburger.
Following the tangled strands of food production and consumption, the film jumps between the perspectives of exploited immigrant workers clad in Hazmat suits in a meat processing plant and Greg Kinnear playing the hapless corporate hack trying to figure out just how in the heck his company’s Big Ones are coming up contaminated on the buns. There’s a predictable arc to the narrative, most noticeable in teenage character Amber (Ashley Johnson), a bright-eyed Mickey’s employee who gets a see-the-light lesson from her ex-activist uncle (Linklater favorite Ethan Hawke). Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) as the apathetic burger flipper is the perfect antidote to Amber’s painful optimism, serving up some old food service clichés. But his spit in the burger isn’t the biggest “eww-gross” moment.
Linklater, a vegetarian, wasn’t able to get permission to shoot in an American meat processing plant, so the movie uses real footage from a Mexican one that agreed to be filmed because Schlosser’s tale casts a true light on America’s despotic immigration policies. The scenes of women trading sex for jobs at the border-town plant become very believable when juxtaposed with images of real-time slaughter. Schlosser said workers at a Greeley, Colo., plant whom he interviewed for the book criticized the movie after a screening in Denver — the Mexican plant looked too sterile and unrealistic compared to where they work.
It’s been 100 years since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle inspired laws to reform meat packing plants. By turning journalism into fiction and transutf8g that from print to real, stomach-turning imagery, Fast Food Nation once again questions America’s massive appetite. I still haven’t eaten meat since I saw the scene in which a cow’s skin is stripped off its body with a chain and a winch, a process more befitting an offshore oil rig than a slaughterhouse. (Amanda Witherell)
FAST FOOD NATION
Opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters
See Move Clock at www.sfbg.com
People like Christopher Guest’s improv-based comedies — This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind — in a peculiarly self-satisfied way, confident that enjoying them means they’re in on a sophisticated joke that the ordinary Adam Sandler–liking rabble don’t get. Yet for all their small joys, Guest’s films make me wish they had big ones — bigger laughs, sharper satire, more narrative drive. The actors automatically raise a smile because we’ve loved them so many times before. But are they the best judges of their material? I had secret doubts — and A Mighty Wind made it OK to say them out loud.
Still, For Your Consideration seemed a sure thing. But the result is an in-joke without a punch line — one that seems even more impotent due to the proximity of Borat, a satire that actually has something to say and is freakin’ hilarious besides. The idea here is that a small feature with a cast of minor names is being shot with no great expectations when suddenly Oscar rumors start floating around, putting all concerned into an anticipatory tizzy — most notably has-been actress Catherine O’Hara, hungry newcomer Parker Posey, Guest’s own temperamental director, and Eugene Levy’s conniving agent.
So far, so OK. Guest and his most loyal creative partners here (Levy, O’Hara, Fred Willard) have on average logged over three decades on film and TV. They must have experienced more than a few troubled shoots and monumental egos. Yet the major characters here are blandly nice, none more than mildly eccentric. And the Oscar-buzzed movie they’re shooting, Home for Purim, parodies the kind of stagy, earnest, wannabe Arthur Miller prestige project that has been DOA since the ’70s. And back then it would have been a PBS or Hallmark Hall of Fame special.
The only scenes attuned to today’s showbiz — not coincidentally, the funniest here — lampoon empty-hype Entertainment Tonight–type shows, with Willard and Jane Lynch as breathlessly excitable hosts. Elsewhere, For Your Consideration seems to have been made by fogies — it’s stiff jointed and embarrassingly proud of limp drollery that seldom pays off in real laughs. Like Home for Purim, this movie thinks it’s Oscar material. But it’s not even the stuff Golden Globes are made of. (Dennis Harvey)
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
Opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com
When Japanese documentary filmmaker Kazuo Hara was approached by Okuzaki Kenzo — the subject of his 1987 The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On — and asked to film him committing murder, Hara strongly considered it before turning him down, more than anything because he “had become really sick of Okuzaki.” Or so he told an interviewer. This sounds like bullshit, and it may be, but the filming approaches and content of Hara’s body of work make you think that maybe he could have done it. (Okuzaki, incidentally, is currently serving time for the unfilmed murder attempt.) Hara has captured on film, in a doc that is essentially the sanctioned stalking of his ex-wife, the full frontal birth of her child. This was in 1974, understand, way before the Learning Channel or even The Cosby Show. He has followed a head case who once slung pachinko balls at Emperor Hirohito as the leader traveled around Japan accusing ex-soldiers, not without reason, of cannibalism. He has filmed the assaults of old men being accused, not without reason, of cannibalism. This is a filmmaker who might very well show up to a murder if he could still stand his subject.
Two of Hara’s docs will be showing this week at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Goodbye CP (1972) was his first film and caused quite a fuss in Japan for its uncensored look at the lives of people with cerebral palsy. It’s been called sadistic, and it almost broke up the marriage of its main protagonist, but it’s applauded by civil rights groups and is still shown to social service workers as a not-too-gentle reminder that those with CP aren’t anatomically smoothed-over dolls.
A Dedicated Life (1995), about the life and death from cancer of Japanese author Mitsuharu Inoue, isn’t as gonzo as most of Hara’s other films, but it’s one of his fullest and most mature. The transgression of the biography (beyond a fairly fruitless preoccupation with Inoue’s playboy persona) is Hara’s gruesome admission that he was basically waiting for the man to die so that he could get more candid interviews from those who knew him. This information, taken from an interview with professor Kenneth Ruoff, adds menace to the scenes in the doctor’s office and muddies the poignance of conversations Inoue had with his wife about his illness. But the poignance is always there, in this and Hara’s other films. It just usually has to share the spotlight with the creepy methods of the man behind the camera. SFBG
NO BOUNDARIES: THE TRANSGRESSIVE DOCUMENTARIES OF KAZUO HARA
A Dedicated Life, Thurs/16, 7:30 p.m.
Goodbye CP, Sun/19, 2 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, screening room
701 Mission, SF
Staunch characters — S-T-A-U-N-C-H. That description applies to Grey Gardens devotees, who’ve found their unwavering dedication and commitment rewarded with a new Albert Maysles movie about the Edith Bouvier Beales. Still, another look at the original 1975 Grey Gardens will probably always be the best way to honor and commune with Big Edie and Little Edie — if ever a classic rewarded repeat viewings, it’s this one. All the Maysles brothers (Albert and the now-deceased David) had to do was bring the film. What they saw was amazing: Little Edie racing toward the camera — that final, perfect gentleman caller — in her best costume for the day; food and animals gathering around Big Edie’s throne room; a deep “sea of green” (Little Edie’s words) on the estate threatening to block out an ocean of blue. At one point Little Edie says she is “pulverized” by new things, but she doesn’t have to say that she’s buried alive by old ones. A single shot late in the movie turns a banister into her prison bars so effectively that Douglas Sirk would be jealous.
In recent years, Capturing the Friedmans and especially Tarnation have ventured into the same family-gone-wild domesticity as Grey Gardens, but neither comes close to matching its direct bravery or complex humanistic profundity. Today, as Drew Barrymore and others come a-calling with rip-off projects, the lesson that film and Broadway actors and producers should’ve learned from the Edies is right there in the lyrics of one of Big Edie’s favorite songs. Don’t throw bouquets at them, let them throw bouquets at you. That’s exactly what Little Edie — dressed in a Jackie O red ensemble (worn backward, of course) — literally did to the audience at the film’s premiere, and it’s what she and her mother metaphorically do to everyone who watches any minute of the movie, which immortalizes their one-of-a-kind offhand wit and poetry. When Little Edie heard that someone wanted to make a movie about her starring Julie Christie, she plunged deep into playing the role of her life — with acute, revelatory self-consciousness — for the Maysles brothers. When will Hollywood learn? (Johnny Ray Huston)
It’s rare when a filmmaker is able to match provocative themes with evocative imagery — and do it consistently. Addressing race and class issues in his arrestingly photographed works, James T. Hong is one such artist. His filmography includes Behold the Asian: How One Becomes What One Is (which won a Golden Gate Award at the 2000 San Francisco International Film Festival despite its labeling of dot-com-era San Francisco as “the white asshole paradise”) and Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms (Sensitive Version), an excoriation of white guy–Asian girl couples. (It’s a comedy, and a brutally funny one at that.)
“To tell you the truth, I’ve never thought anything I’ve ever done was very controversial,” Hong explains before allowing that the audience at the 2004 Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival, where Taipei 101 screened, included at least one person who threatened to fight him after the lights came up.
Not that Hong minds. One of his guiding principles as a filmmaker is “to make people think differently about a particular topic, whatever it’s about — to see it either in a new light or hear a voice that they themselves can’t express,” he says. “It’s not interesting to show movies to people who already agree with you. It’s better to show to a hostile audience.”
It’s certainly possible that his two newest works, The Denazification of MH and 731, might stir up the wrong (or right) kind of crowd. Both are technically different from films he’s made before: Denazification retains his signature narration-over-black-and-white-footage style but is entirely in German; 731 was shot on high-definition color video. Both were created using footage Hong captured while traveling earlier this year; both deal with questions of perspective in individuals and countries greatly affected by World War II.
“I’m just a war nerd,” he admits, but his interests extend far beyond those of the casual History Channel viewer. While the 2005 SFIFF featured his Iraq War parable, The Form of the Good, both of his latest efforts tie into his WWII fascination. The experimental 14-minute Denazification, which pays a visit to Martin Heidegger’s Black Forest cabin, explores the philosopher’s late-in-life struggle to come to terms with his wartime allegiance to the Nazi party.
Hong — who was born in the United States but says he’d jump at the chance to move to China permanently — calls 731 “a regular documentary — at least what I think is a regular documentary.” The 30-minute film features footage of an abandoned facility in northern China once used for biowarfare testing. The filmmaker’s narration grimly describes the Chinese view of the horrors that transpired there (“3,000 were killed in live-body experiments”) — before switching gears and offering the Japanese response (“war and atrocities go hand in hand”).
The point-counterpoint structure of 731 prefigures Hong’s most ambitious project to date, an in-progress film with the working title New History Zero. “It’s a feature-length documentary about the war and revisionism — the way the Japanese see it, the way the Chinese see it, and the way that America has had a huge influence on the way that the Japanese have dealt with the war, which is incompletely.”
After Denazification, Hong hopes to make more films in other tongues, to “force people to understand that English is not the only language.” But his overriding goal is as personal as it is political.
“My aim now is to communicate more with Asians. I realized that most of the Asian Americans I’ve encountered don’t like my work. Either it’s too nonnarrative — they’re more into the Hollywood type of movies — or it disturbs the kind of quietist attitude that they have,” he says. “They want to just fit in like everybody else. They don’t want to look like assholes. My aim is always to show that no, we are assholes — everybody is.” (Cheryl Eddy)
Like the steadfast Salton Sea itself, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea has displayed remarkable staying power. The first version of the film played at the 2004 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, one of more than 100 festivals that have screened the doc since its initial release. Salton Sea reappeared — with new narration by John Waters — earlier this year at the Red Vic and other local rep houses, and the response was so positive that Metzler says the pair are now talking to major distributors with an eye toward a larger theatrical release in the spring.
“Salton Sea has taken on a life of its own,” says the San Francisco–based Metzler (Springer is currently living in Berlin but plans to move back to the Bay Area later this year). “When we first started out, we were having the regular problems that any filmmaker has about finding funding and later, distribution. We soon realized that since the film encapsulates both the quirky, indie movie sort of thing and also the environmental issues, nobody knew how to sell it. We always knew there was an audience out there, but it was gonna take two things: one was overcoming the hurdle of getting people familiar with the Salton Sea, because people didn’t know about it. And then also we recognized that a large audience for the film was people who don’t normally watch documentaries. So we took it out on the road, and wherever it screened it’s gotten an enthusiastic response and created this momentum on a grassroots level. The film, which we kind of expected to die two and a half, three years ago, just keeps on getting bigger.”
Anyone who’s seen Salton Sea knows why. Sure, Waters adds quirky star power, but the film’s briny subject is already as chockablock with character as it is with dead tilapia. Metzler and Springer trace the sea’s accidental birth (two words: engineering mistake) and first century, which saw the region spiral from thriving resort into scruffy, smelly, near-abandoned ruin. Most compellingly, the film draws out the people who choose to dwell on the sea’s desolate shores for whatever reason, be it the low cost of living or most poignantly, the fierce hope that the sea’s 1950s and ’60s salad days will somehow miraculously return.
Though Salton Sea continues to chug along, the filmmakers have begun to turn their attention to new projects. Metzler and fellow San Francisco filmmaker Lev Anderson are currently working on a documentary on the band Fishbone (Springer is helping with shooting and editing); Metzler and Springer plan to reteam for a pair of docs — one on taxidermy and one on evangelical Christian backpackers who follow the path of the apostle Paul through the Middle East. “We have a deep affection for outsiders, and we always want to explore different subcultures,” Metzler says. Then there’s that other idea they have, for a doc on German tiki bars. Metzler’s take on the phenomenon is in line with the duo’s filmmaking philosophy: “It just shows you people like to embrace the exotic, wherever it might be.” (Cheryl Eddy)
The Film Arts Foundation turns 30 this year, and to celebrate it’s throwing a party at the Castro Theatre. One-minute movies are a major element of the FAF’s birthday bash — 60-second efforts by some of the organization’s filmmaking members will be shown as part of an evening program MCed by Peter Coyote and Nancy Kelly. Considering FAF members include Les Blank, Debra Chasnoff, Nathaniel Dorsky, Rob Epstein, Sam Green, George Kuchar, Amanda Micheli, Jenni Olson, Jay Rosenblatt, Caveh Zahedi, and Terry Zwigoff, the result promises to be exciting.
Normally, in early November the Film Arts Festival rolls around, but this is an important transitional year for the organization, with recent changes such as the hiring of executive director Eric Hayashi. The Film Arts Fund for Independent Cinema continues to award money to filmmakers whose visions are individual and who aren’t — unlike the vast majority of directors today — following the dictates of TV markets. This year Green (currently working on a movie about utopian visions) and recent Guardian profile subjects James T. Hong and Michelle Silva (“Wild Eyes,” 5/18/05) are among the grant recipients. (Johnny Ray Huston)
FILM ARTS FOUNDATION’S 30TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
Wed/8, 6:30–8 p.m. reception; 8 p.m. screening; 10 p.m. after-party
429 Castro, SF
It only takes a few minutes of watching Iraq in Fragments to recognize that the film stands apart from the Iraqumentary pack: dazzling cinematography in place of the dull visuals of the evening news, slice-of-life narration instead of talking heads. Divided into three sections, director James Longley’s reportage shows us the everyday chaos in Baghdad and beyond with dramatic vividness — a vividness that, if nothing else, makes us realize how degraded most of the imagery we receive from Iraq is at the moment. Longley’s style owes as much to neorealism as it does to vérité documentary, with an emphasis on rhythm, ritual (school, shaving, washing feet), and — somewhat tiresomely — child perspectives. The director doesn’t explicate politics and often drops us into complex situations without explanation — he expects a lot from his audience but at the same time knows that the tangled human emotions cast before us will give the film meaning. It’s the kind of ambitious work one imagines a director like Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers) would have made if he’d had access to digital technology.
Though the film nabbed a couple of major awards at Sundance, it’s taken months for Iraq in Fragments to get a proper theatrical release here. Fortunately for Longley, the film’s material is evergreen, not tied to specific events, and still wholly relevant to the unfolding devastation. I spoke with the director during last spring’s San Francisco International Film Festival.
SFBG: How did you decide to make a documentary about Iraq?
JAMES LONGLEY: In 2002 I premiered Gaza Strip [his first feature-length documentary] up in Seattle, and someone asked me what I was going to do next. By then it was already clear that we were going to invade Iraq … and I just said I was going to make a film about Iraq. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, I didn’t know what to expect, but I just decided [to] dive in no matter what.
SFBG: After getting kicked out of the country in the immediate buildup to the US invasion, when and how did you return to Baghdad?
JL: I waited for [the war] to end in Cairo. The last two weeks in April, the war was running down, the statue fell, and I flew immediately from Cairo to Amman, Jordan, and then drove across the border, which was totally open. I just kind of settled in. I had my camera and found an apartment. I found people to work with as translators and started filming.
SFBG: It’s striking how comfortable the film’s subjects seem around your camera, especially since you’re an American. How do you go about getting embedded in this way?
JL: Mostly it’s just a matter of making friends with people and hanging out…. It was a conscious choice to have that feeling of being a fly on the wall. When you make that choice, you do whatever it takes … and really, what it takes is a lot of patience. I went through 12 different translators. The difficult thing for them was when I would go out to a farm or wherever I was filming and just stay there from morning until night, just hanging out. Most people demand some kind of action, but in this case the work was really in action, punctuated by really fast decision making. You’re going to be a fixture in this place. Everyone’s going to know who you are, and you’re going to have to say hi to everyone and drink tea with everyone day after day…. If you’re willing to do that, after a while people won’t think it’s such a big deal when you’re filming.
SFBG: Given the on-the-fly nature of the scenes, Iraq in Fragments is also a powerfully cinematic documentary. How does this level of film style factor into your direction?
JL: When I was shooting the film, I was definitely thinking of cinema, not of television. I grew up hating TV and never actually had one…. Conceptualizing the movie while shooting it, I was always thinking, “What’s this shot going to look like on the big screen?” Having that in your mind the whole time changes the way you imagine it, changes the way you shoot; it changes everything. I want to shoot the next film in high-def 3-D [laughs]. (Max Goldberg)
IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS
Opens Nov. 10 in Bay Area theaters
These days finesse in the art of montage is too often used to compensate for ineptitude (or just laziness) in the art of storytelling. Of course, rhythmic, Eisensteinian montage can be beautiful in itself and can even bear the weight of actual substance. Right now there is no more impressive practitioner of this particular skill than Alejandro González Iñárritu, who since his first feature, Amores Perros, has worked on the kinds of expansive, crisis-driven, crisscrossing stories that practically require cathartic crescendos of pure editorial bravado.
González Iñárritu doesn’t write his own screenplays (Guillermo Arriaga does), and the two features since Perros have credited others as editors. But Perros, 21 Grams, and the new Babel are so much of a piece — conceptually, thematically, stylistically — and the work his collaborators have done elsewhere is so dissimilar that there’s no doubting González Iñárritu’s all-controlling hand.
Anyone who works on so ambitious a scale risks missteps and unevenness. Babel is a teetering monument, and its plot is hole pocked as if made of Swiss cheese. Yet it’s also better shaped as a whole than Amores Perros and carries its burden of existential hand-wringing less pretentiously than 21 Grams. Mercifully, it abjures the latter’s jaundiced palette for Rodrigo Prieto’s full-bodied, naturalistic wide-screen compositions. There are individual passages that are as dazzling as anything onscreen this year. Perros told three consecutive Mexico City stories; Grams interwove three chronology-scrambled threads set mostly in New Mexico (though originally conceived for Mexico City). Babel sprawls across the globe, tenuously linking tales of culture shock in Mexico, Japan, and Morocco.
The last is where San Diegan professionals Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have gone for reparative alone time. They’re about to reconcile, maybe, when a stray bullet from a young goatherd’s gun strikes their tour bus. The panic among fellow passengers and impact on innocent locals are ramped up by international media attention on this “terrorist act.”
The same couple’s two preschool children are back in San Diego with Mexican housekeeper-cum-nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). She’s willing to go the extra mile when the globe-trotting parents get in trouble — but not, when those troubles drag on, to miss her own son’s wedding. Amelia finally decides to take her towheaded charges across the border, with reckless nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) as their most untrustworthy chauffeur.
Ultimately connected to these dramas by the thinnest of threads, a third strand centers on deaf-mute Tokyo teen Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Her mother is dead, her CEO father distant. Further alienated from the speaking world, Chieko plunges into raver postures of wannabe nymphomania that are by far Babel’s least convincing or pointed ploy. Still, they engender the movie’s most exhilarating montage — an ecstasy-propelled joyride that arcs from desire to bliss to aftermath, only slightly overdoing the audio on-off effects meant to capture the nonhearing experience.
What is González Iñárritu saying here? Why are the near-death experiences of American yuppies straying outside their home safety zone — in nations painted as menacingly chaotic, even the director’s native Mexico — more vivid than the travails of residents? Surely that’s not González Iñárritu’s intention, but the star power of Pitt and Blanchett and the pixie perils endured by their fictive kids tend to tip the scales in that direction. In interviews the director says what he thought would be a movie about cultural differences ended up being about subjects — family, parenting, compassion — that unite all people. Babel does gesture thataway, yet its primary emphasis is on crisis creation and ambulance chasing. Hot-button issues like terrorism, illegal immigration, and US imperialism are diversionary flags González Iñárritu waves without actually signaling anything.
Among filmmakers working in this fashionable crazy-quilt-of-humanity genre, many less talented ones are even more convinced they’re making an important statement about life. Babel is so accomplished and urgent as spectacle that maybe it’s folly to expect more than the rewards of an engrossing, sweeping surface. Babel might not be a great movie, but you can’t watch it without knowing González Iñárritu will someday make one. SFBG
Opens Fri/3 at Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com for theaters and showtimes
For Cheryl Eddy’s interview with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, go to www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.
1. Shriek of the Mutilated (1974) Not only the greatest title in cinema history but also its single greatest achievement. Never before (or since) have bad acting, cannibalism, alcoholism, and the Abominable Snowman scaled such heights. The greatest film ever made.
2. The Wizard of Gore (1970) Director Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast) does it again, becoming the first filmmaker in history to slaughter someone on camera with a live chain saw. A mad magician runs amok with ghastly results. If the crude and relentless gore effects don’t turn your stomach, the “acting” certainly will.
3. Straight Jacket (1963) High camp is the order of the day as convicted ax murderer Joan Crawford returns home after a lengthy stay in the loony bin, only to seemingly resume her old habits. Hilarity ensues in this William Castle–directed classic. Crawford really sells it. This is the stuff of which drag queens are made!
4. King Kong Lives (1986) Quite possibly one of the most misguided, unintentionally hilarious, idiotically optimistic sequels ever made, this follow-up to the Dino de Laurentiis–produced remake of King Kong boasts a plethora of delights for the bad movie enthusiast. Kong, after falling to his supposed death from the heights of the World Trade Center, is retrofitted with a giant artificial heart during a Monty Python–like opening sequence. It is a film that has to be seen to be believed. Several bong hits might help.
5. The Car (1977) Never has vehicular manslaughter been so much fun! The screenplay boasts “technical advice” from Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. SFBG
San Francisco filmmaker Dan West codirected Monsturd and the forthcoming RetarDEAD.
Four presidents have been killed in office: the two you hear about (Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy) and the two you kind of don’t (James A. Garfield and William McKinley). But any time a political figure meets a violent death, post-traumatic stress can echo through generations — particularly because Hollywood is so fond of assassination cinema. Oliver Stone’s JFK is the most exhaustive example but certainly not the first; John Wilkes Booth pops up in 1915’s Birth of a Nation.
You don’t even have to be president to get your own assassination narrative (see: this fall’s Bobby) or be a successful target, for that matter. The Assassination of Richard Nixon spun would-be Tricky Dick killer Samuel Byck into a Travis Bickle–by–way–of–Sept. 11 man with a twisted take on the American dream. Fictitious films like Nashville and The Manchurian Candidate also pick up the assassination thread; Taxi Driver went one further by actually inspiring John Hinckley Jr. to take aim at Ronald Reagan.
Images of Reagan’s shooting outside the Washington, DC, Hilton clearly influenced Gabriel Range’s made-for-British-television mock doc Death of a President, by my count the first to imagine the death of a sitting president. The murder takes place Oct. 19, 2007, outside a Chicago hotel surrounded by angry antiwar protesters. Actors playing secret service agents, speechwriters, and sundry witnesses recall their experiences; the events themselves unfold via staged and real footage, some massaged with special effects to make the holy shit! moment as authentic as possible.
But the holy shit! is what you expect — and once Death of a President segues into the President Dick Cheney era, it assumes the far less salacious task of exposing post-9/11 America’s darker corners. A Muslim man is nabbed for the crime; his home country of Syria is taken to task as the FBI scrambles to make a motive out of terrorism. PATRIOT Act Three is passed. Civil liberties become even more restricted. But is the suspect really the killer? Is he a patsy? Or is he guilty only of wrong time, wrong place, wrong race?
In many ways, Death of a President resembles The Confederate States of America — a fake TV doc beamed from a reality where the South won the Civil War — rather than its assassination-obsessed cinematic predecessors. This, despite all the controversy surrounding the film’s sensational suggestion that someone might think the world a better place with Bush in the grave. Ultimately, Range is more interested in using Bush’s untimely death as a way to address issues that already exist in 2006, notably the lose-lose repercussions of a hopeless, never-ending Iraq war. Alas, there’s nothing shocking about that. SFBG
DEATH OF A PRESIDENT
1572 California, SF
2230 Shattuck, Berk.
Inspired by Tad Friend’s 2003 New Yorker article “Jumpers,” filmmaker Eric Steel spent 2004 shooting the Golden Gate Bridge — intentionally capturing the plunges launched from the world’s most popular suicide spot. The resulting doc, The Bridge, studies mental illness by filling in the life stories of the deceased through interviews with friends and family members. After playing to packed houses at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, The Bridge opens for a theatrical run in the city that’s perhaps most sensitive to its controversial subject matter. I spoke with Steel during the New Yorker’s early October visit to San Francisco.
SFBG: When you contacted the families, did they know that you had footage of their loved ones committing suicide?
ERIC STEEL: The families didn’t know, for the same reason that the Golden Gate Bridge authority didn’t know. My biggest fear was that word would get out about what we were doing and someone that wasn’t thinking clearly would see it as an opportunity to immortalize themselves on film. My original plan was — when we finished shooting at the bridge, and when I’d completed all the interviews — that I was then gonna tell the families that I had the footage and review it with them if they wanted to see it. But in January of 2005, I went to the bridge authority and said, “I have all this footage, and I have these interviews with the families. I want to interview you, the highway patrolmen, and the people who came into contact with these people before they died.” They went to the San Francisco Chronicle and suddenly it was all over the front page. I spoke to most of the families that I’d already interviewed and explained, “You have to believe that I’m a sensitive person. We’re all doing this in order to save lives and not to exploit people.” Almost all of them felt that way, but [some] didn’t. Also, there were families that I had not yet contacted. Some said, “We don’t want to have anything to do with you,” but others said, “We think you’re doing this for the right reasons.”
SFBG: There aren’t any officials interviewed in the film. Why did they refuse to participate?
ES: I think it would be very hard for them to respond to some of the issues that we raise. We could easily have used interviews in the film that we didn’t, that were much more damning, of what the highway patrolmen and the bridge people did and didn’t do. There’s one man, the crystal meth addict — we called the bridge as soon as we saw him climb over. It took them four and a half minutes to [reach him]. From where my crew was sitting, I could have run to that spot faster than they got there.
SFBG: How many calls like that did you make?
ES: We probably called 20 times during the year. We didn’t call so much that they thought we were crying wolf. But for us, it was simple: as soon as someone made a move to climb up onto the rail, we made a phone call.
SFBG: Was there ever a point when you thought, “I’m filming people jump. Should I be doing this?”
ES: Because we had already determined that if we could intervene, we would, and that would be the priority, it didn’t feel like we were waiting to film them dying. We were out there because we knew it was coming. With 24 [suicides in an average year], it was like every 15 days you would expect someone to die. If 10 days had gone by and there hadn’t been an incident on the bridge, I know the [camera crew] who was working the next day got increasingly anxious. But not a day went by when you didn’t think you were watching somebody who might be preparing to die.
SFBG: Did you ever consider acknowledging your role within the context of the film, maybe via narration?
ES: I really wanted to be invisible, in a way. For me, there was something strange about explaining too much. I thought it would let the audience off the hook a little bit too easily.
SFBG: Have you been drawn into the debate over the suicide barrier?
ES: I believe that it’s ridiculous that they don’t have a barrier. At the same time, I recognize that the barrier’s really the final moment where you can make a difference. The lives stretch back in time, and there are all sorts of moments where people could have intervened. If we had a better health care system, better mental health services, we wouldn’t be in the same position. The burden is on the bridge to put up a barrier, but it’s also on all of us to take more responsibility for the people who need our help. (Cheryl Eddy)
Opens Fri/27 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com
Few American independent features in recent memory have seemed as truly capable of turning something old into something surprisingly new as Old Joy — an achingly beautiful ode to the varieties and vagaries of iPod-era young male disaffection based on a short story by Jon Raymond and transformed into something richly steeped in the increasingly remote cinematic traditions of ’70s New Hollywood by Kelly Reichardt, a filmmaker all-too-little heard from since her startlingly downbeat Badlands rethink, River of Grass, played film festivals more than a dozen years ago.
An oft-times emotionally elliptical tale of two increasingly estranged friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), approaching the end of their 20s, Old Joy is, however, far more than yet another return to the once-hallowed terrain of Amer-indies past. It is resolutely modern and of the moment — in everything from its narrative nuances and politically loaded peripheral details (including a startling glimpse of the marquee for a movie house called the Baghdad) to its cognoscenti-inclined casting of Oldham as the philosopher-fool at the (off-)center of its tear-shaped universe. Old Joy finally attains escape velocity from the anomie of the past by deciding to wear its hand-me-down stripes inside out. In the process it rediscovers the sort of between-here-and-there heartbeat once found within Henry Gibson’s archly overblown anthem to Americanarama in Robert Altman’s Nashville: how far we all have come till now, and how far we’ve got to go.
Set mainly among the verdant, mountainous Cascades of rural Oregon and poignantly bookended by brief episodes in the quasi-Buddhist backyard retreats of suburban Portland and the vagrant-haunted halogen corridors of its (relatively small-town) inner-city nights, Old Joy ultimately extends well beyond those parameters even as it dissolves into them. “It’s all just one huge thing now,” Oldham’s Kurt at one point rather blankly declaims. “Trees in the city, garbage in the forest. What’s the big difference?” And though Reichardt’s film scarcely seems to have an answer to that question, her filmmaking paints a wholly deliberate picture of contemporary America in contrasting tones of talk radio babble and freak-flag-flying drum circle excess. Old Joy finally comes to limn a new millennium mural within which the collapse of dissenting voices on both the right and left of the political spectrum is an indistinguishable part of one great, awful, swirling whole.
With betweenness a central, dynamic element of Reichardt’s film, it seems somehow entirely surprising and altogether natural that she proves to be a filmmaker intent on discovering a new frontier by following the bread crumb trails of some joyfully old-fashioned cinematic extremes. No better example of that tendency can be found than in the way that Reichardt counters her own heartfelt if generationally predictable fealty to a ’70s touchstone like Five Easy Pieces (implicit in a roadside diner scene) with a far stranger red wagon reference to an altogether unlikelier era’s angry-funny relic, Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Old Joy’s adenoidally intoned expression of age-old alienation manages to escape the antigravity of tradition. Reichardt’s movie trumps the oppressive politics-present-and-accounted-for exertions of cornball kitsch like World Trade Center with a succession of mumbling inarticulations, inchoate male intimacies, and the barely stressed but overwhelmingly evident assumption that when it comes to rediscovering certain perpetually misplaced American verities, Two-Lane Blacktop may be just another way of saying Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Loading a dog and a doggie tent into the back of a Volvo and running down the road to nowhere (occasionally in reverse) on their way to half-remembered paradises among the mighty pines, Mark and Kurt slowly begin to explore their mutual and individual disappointments with the world, themselves, and each other. Not since the windscreen mindscapes of Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road has the conjunction of motion sickness, modern living, and the struggles of overgrown boys seeking to finally attain the status of men seemed so moving — and so at pains to find a way to get moving at all.
As the strains of Yo La Tengo’s dream-drift soundtrack and cinematographer Peter Sillen’s high-def digi-vistas of roadside splendor increasingly blur together and as Mark and Kurt at last begin to haltingly immerse themselves in the baptismal fluids of Old Joy’s promised land — the Bagby Hot Springs, a remote and rustic respite for body and soul nestled deep in the old-growth woods — Reichardt’s film finally finds a way to cross the myriad bridges briefly glimpsed from Mark’s Volvo windows as Old Joy’s relatively brief but precisely calibrated screen time whizzes by. But if what you find once Old Joy finally reaches its destination seems neither precisely a sense of uplift or letdown, rest assured that’s a carefully patterned part of Reichardt’s picture too — a moment that seems neither an ending or a new beginning but yet another frozen teardrop in a world that’s only just begun to thaw.
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com for theaters and showtimes
For an interview with Old Joy writer Jon Raymond, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.
Kenny Shopsin is a philosopher-cook who shrinks his kitchen to the size of the world and enlarges the world to the size of his kitchen, likening his old stove to ”a whore’s ass” and pasting terrorists onto the wings of flies. Here are the rules at his General Store in Greenwich Village, New York City: no parties of five or larger, and everyone has to eat. Don’t insult the cook by ordering just coffee unless you want to eat it. Also, most legendarily, if you’re not a regular, you can go fuck yourself.
Why all the candy on the shelves?
“People like to take candy,” Shopsin tells Matt Mahurin in I Like Killing Flies. And as for whomever is waiting to kill themselves to blow up America, “I wish them luck.”
Mahurin, a committed regular at the General Store, is always in the right place with his camera. We hear from kindred spirits, meet the Shopsin family, and watch Kenny, an alchemist, turn soup into soup the way Harry Smith turned milk into milk. This is the cook as a cook in a kitchen where total collapse is fended off by duct tape, cups on string, a busted red flyswatter, and the metaphysics of telling fuckers off. A tin of shredded coconut, apparently invented to keep the dish rack from collapsing, is also and finally a tin of shredded coconut — useful for dusting a stack of pancakes speed-glazed with a flaming-hot spatula.
Mahurin’s film makes this clear: genius has something to do with food if the cook is a genius and everything to do with doing what you must do.
The Shopsins were squeezed out of their old shop of 32 years in 2002. I Like Killing Flies documents their lucky move down the street. Unscrewing the front door from the jambs, Shopsin cracks that he might use it as a cheap headstone. Compared to the original spot, the new Shopsin’s General Store is a sprawling, airy tree house but still quite funky. The West Village is getting way too slick and specialized, and everything about Shopsin’s funkifies through overdiversity — too much creativity. I counted 138 different soups on the menu, including pistachio red chicken curry and Peruvian shrimp avocado, as well as dozens of “Breakfast Name Plates,” including the Twain (“huckleberry Finnish crepes”) — yet all Shopsin cares to eat, he tells Mahurin, is his own chili stewed with a splash of coffee. He compares such counterintuitive fusions to sodomy. Mara and Zach Shopsin took orders from me and my girlfriend, and the cook himself, in his Shopsin’s T-shirt (he doesn’t remove it for the whole movie) made sure that we walked out with free candy.
Mahurin’s documentary is one you can live in. Your head fits right into this furnished hollow tree. The film mentions but does not explore the death of Eve Shopsin, Kenny’s wife, in 2003, but we get to enjoy her presence for the whole first hour or more, which is a blessing in itself. (Julien Poirier)
I LIKE KILLING FLIES
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF
Director Paul Rachman and writer Steven Blush collaborated on every aspect of American Hardcore — literally. “This is a two-person operation,” Blush explained as we settled into a booth at a downtown San Francisco restaurant, where the filmmakers (and passionate music fans) discussed their new documentary.
SFBG What drew you into the hardcore scene?
PAUL RACHMAN I was a college kid at Boston University in the early ’80s [when] I went to my first hardcore show at the Gallery East: Gang Green, the Freeze, and the FU’s. I’d never heard anything like it. It was dissonant, it was loud, and it was coming from 16-year-old angry kids. It just socked it to me, and I wanted more of this all the time. That’s what made me pick up a Super 8 camera and start shooting; it was the beginning for me in terms of both my introduction to hardcore and me becoming a filmmaker. Ever since those days I’ve never, ever done anything else.
STEVEN BLUSH Somewhere at the end of my freshman year [at George Washington University in Washington, DC], I saw Black Flag at Nightclub 9:30, right before Henry Rollins joined the band. It just wrecked my life. A decade later I realized how much the subculture affected me, as to who I am today — but I also realized that the history was totally lost. I just decided, DIY-style, to write a book. Around that time [when it came out], I ran into Paul again — we knew each other from the hardcore scene — and he broached the idea of making the film.
PR I instantly knew what the film should be. It needed to be this kind of visceral, first-person account — no narrator, no experts. Because hardcore didn’t have that. You didn’t listen to anybody. Nobody explained to you how to do anything. You didn’t want that around, and the film had to reflect that. So it was documentary in its rawest, purest form: let your subject tell its story. We shot 120 interviews and it was about culling the story out of that.
SFBG Were there any artists not in the film that you wish you could have included?
SB There’s two bands you will not see in American Hardcore: Dead Kennedys and the Misfits. With both bands there’s a real problem between the singer and the other band members. It was like, if you work with one, you couldn’t work with the other. We just had to bail out of that situation. Ultimately, this is the story of a culture. It’s the story of a scene and a community. There were no stars in hardcore. We wanted every single person — we did extend the offer to everybody. But at a certain point, if they don’t come through, you have to move on.
SFBG Do you hope that people who aren’t hardcore fans will see the movie, and what do you think they’ll take away from it?
SB American Hardcore is a rock film, but it’s really about youth culture. It’s a testament to the power of youth, about what you can achieve against all odds. Because these bands had nothing. They had no resources, no talent, no hot look. They had nothing to fall back on except their conviction. So it is kind of a clarion call to kids to say, you know, seize the moment. Take off the iPod. Log off MySpace and get with it. (Cheryl Eddy)
For an extended interview with Paul Rachman and Steven Blush, visit www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.
REVIEW Tired of those battered punk-rock veterans of the hardcore years? You know, the geezers rocking in their thrift-store easy chairs, wheezing, “You had to be there — those were the days. I saw Darby when …” before heading to the acupuncturist? Can you help it that you never saw Flag back before My War? That you never tasted the ostracism that the real punks experienced?
No — and those born too late, after the jocks took over the mosh pit, will be thankful that none of the aforementioned ’tude is present in this exhaustive but not exhausting documentary by Paul Rachman and Steven Blush. The filmmakers’ cred is impeccable (Rachman directed music videos for Bad Brains, and Blush wrote Feral House tome American Hardcore: A Tribal History, upon which the film is based), and their resilience (the two toiled in true DIY style for five years on this sprawling document) allows them to rise above Johnny-slams-lately poseur status. And as historians, journalists, and cat wranglers, they deserve the highest praise meted out to those hoping to encapsulate a fired-up, barely containable, and truly grassroots DIY movement: they get the story mostly right.
The filmmakers conducted more than 100 interviews with key players in the US hardcore scene (as well as sundry head-scratchers like, um, visual artist Matthew Barney). My, does it show. Getting essential punkers like Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, Bad Brains’ HR, Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris, Cro-Mags’ Harley Flanagan, and Black Flag’s Henry Rollins to party with the camera and to tell their own stories was the best possible move the filmmakers could have made. Their subjects look back with all the intelligence, humor, honesty, urgency, and perhaps surprising to some, subtlety that made them form their own bands, book their own tours, and put out their own music in the first place.
Within the first half hour, Rachman and Blush do the important work of politically contextualizing the 1980–86 wave of hardcore, connecting the dots between the “mourning in America” election of Ronald Reagan; an era that only appeared to offer the alternate balms of disco decadence and shallow sitcom kicks; and the rise of a disgusted and less-than-heard generation that produced more songs, posters, and agitprop railing against a sitting president than the world has seen … until Dubya. Few other recent music docs have been as refreshingly clear-cut — and cutting — about their politics, a direct reaction to an ’80s marked, as one commentator puts it, by a ’50s-style return of the “white man’s order.” In a sense, American Hardcore will be an education not only for kids bred on MTV-appropriated mall punk but for baby boomers convinced of Generation X’s apathy; a far-from-mellowed Vic Bondi (Articles of Faith) offers, “If you’re looking for radicalism in the 1980s, you should look at hardcore.” The film also gives adequate shrift to the pressures that shaped and perhaps ultimately destroyed the genre — for instance, the TV news–making melees between punks and the Los Angeles Police Department — drawing the line from those clashes and band names like, natch, Millions of Dead Cops (MDC).
Bristling with the energy of its music, fans, and grainy shots of men yelling into mics at rec centers, Kiwanis clubs, and random bunkers-turned-venues throughout the country, American Hardcore abounds with great moments. Rachman and Blush rightfully focus on the nexus between DC and LA — Minor Threat–Bad Brains and Black Flag–Circle Jerks — giving Bad Brains in particular, and notably the few black faces in a wash of pasties, their genuine due and eyeballing that straight-outta-an-unwritten-great-American-novel, Apollonian-Dionysian odd couple, MacKaye and Rollins. Though one wishes the filmmakers had snagged more and better live footage, American Hardcore can still claim such incredible, illustrative instances as that of the graying Rollins complaining today of all the crap he’d catch from audiences as Black Flag’s frontperson (remember the halcyon days when being in a punk band meant getting loogied on?) followed by archival images of Rollins onstage getting repeatedly pummeled by an audience member before the vocalist finally loses it and starts wailing back a hundredfold.
But even as the filmmakers display a real affection for their subject, they resist getting too nostalgic. Rachman and Blush don’t pull punches when it comes to fingering the sexism and violence in the scene — and go as far as to name names. Yet the filmmakers talk to too few women and apart from Bad Brains, too few players or observers of color: perhaps there’s no skewing reality, but for a scene that’s this politicized, it looks pretty pale and male.
Perhaps revealing their native predispositions and personal connections, the pair also give the Boston and NYC scenes far too much emphasis and they pointedly neglect the flyover zones. Where are Minneapolis’s Hüsker Dü and Texas’s Big Boys? And while Rachman and Blush get brownie points for their cultural-anthropological leanings and quirky side stories, they eventually fall down on exploring the music itself, its permutations, and its impact outside the rec rooms: do we get any inkling, for instance, of the fact that hardcore started to seep into the MTV mainstream with bands like Suicidal Tendencies?
When the scene finally peters to a close in ’86, Rachman and Blush chalk it up to fickle fans moving on with the trends — wither hair bands? — and stalwarts like MacKaye wearying of the fisticuffs, but there’s just as valid a case to be made for the music changing and artists evolving, as they so often inconveniently do. Black Flag morphed toward heavier, sludgier metal, Bad Brains embraced tradder Rasta sounds, and MacKaye broke it down, post-punk-style, with Fugazi. But perhaps that’s for the next installment: American Hardcore: the Metal/Grunge Years. SFBG
Opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters
Once upon a time, a fair number of people, heartened by the Sexual Revolution and the corresponding collapse of censorship in movies, thought porn was just the preliminary phase to the next obvious step: soon, they assumed, mainstream films would also have real, explicit sex.
The last time anybody thought that was probably 1975 — or if really stoned, 1977. But for a while there, that wild idea seemed not only possible but inevitable. Deep Throat pretty much closed the obscenity conviction book on consenting adults watching adult content in public venues. Hugely successful mainstream films such as Carnal Knowledge and Last Tango in Paris seemed to be tearing down the last “good taste” barriers protecting viewers from having frank discussions about sex and its explicit simulation.
The wide-open ’70s offered a variety of liberated lifestyle choices. Cities had singles bars and sex clubs; the suburbs had hot tubs. Top 40 radio was smirking “Mama’s Got a Squeeze Box” and “More, More, More.” Even network TV had gone raunchy with “jiggle” shows (Charlie’s Angels) and odd one-off leering atrocities like the 1979 Playboy Roller Disco Pajama Party. In the midst of all this sex, sex, sex, it seemed a logical end point would be the total de-shaming of America. Fuck movies would become “real” ones, and “real” movies would include fucking.
Who could imagine how far back the pendulum would swing? Porn would survive, but it and sex would retreat behind closed doors. These days the annual art house succes de scandale, like Brown Bunny and Baise-Moi, is invariably depressing and negative.
Ergo, it is worth all kinds of cheering that somebody has finally made that movie. The one that has talented actors having plot-relevant and unfaked sex, that is beautiful, touching, funny, and artistic enough to be one of the best films of the year. It’s John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, which knows exactly how anomalous it is and where it fits into the current zeitgeist. (The most quotable line occurs when one character surveys an orgiastic scene: “It’s like the ’60s but with less hope.”) Mitchell is defiant enough to create hope, even his own zeitgeist if need be.
Cute New York City gay couple the “two Jamies” (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy) are considering spicing up their routine, so they consult sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee). In a frazzled moment, she admits she’s never had an orgasm, something she’s never told her husband (Raphael Barker). These questing characters intersect with others at the sex party held regularly at chez Justin Bond (with the performer playing himself).
Shortbus finds narrative room for stalking, attempted suicide, three-ways, and every numeral on the Kinsey Scale. Yet the film never feels cluttered or sensational. In fact, its openhearted seriocomedy (the script is a collaboration between Hedwig and the Angry Inch writer-director Mitchell and the cast) integrates sex so fully into a plaintive, affirmative call for communality that shock value is only intermittent — and deliberately funny when it occurs.
Will Shortbus occasion new local obscenity challenges? Probably not. But 40 years ago, censorship battles were a constant source of news and box-office draw. Before the United States graduated from softcore to hardcore, with many court decisions en route, the hot spot for all things smutty was several thousand safe yet alluring miles away.
This passing rage for cinematic “sin” from parts North will be chronicled by SF-to-Denmark émigré Jack Stevenson at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this week. He’ll present three programs (a clip show and features Venom and Without a Stitch) during “Swinging Scandinavia: How Nordic Sex Cinema Conquered the World.”
It really did. This “myth of total sexual freedom” — as put forth in Stevenson’s book Totally Uncensored!, due in 2007 — was particularly seductive to uptight Americans. By and large, Sweden and Denmark enjoyed remarkably progressive social attitudes at the time. After preliminary taboo-nudging efforts, one dam broke with I, a Woman, a notorious tell-all turned into a show-all (by 1966 standards) portrait of the sexually restless “new woman.” It grossed an astonishing $4 million in the United States alone. But that was nothing compared to I Am Curious (Yellow), a Godardian “kaleidoscope” of hard-to-separate documentary, improv, and staged elements encompassing all the era’s sexual, political, and intellectual questionings. Finally allowed to screen in America (over 18 months after its late-1967 Stockholm premiere), it was probably the most-seen and most-loathed crossover hit prior to The Blair Witch Project — similarly drawing audiences who expected familiar genre exploitation but got something much rawer and more challenging.
A whole series of Danish porn comedies and angsty Swedish sex dramas continued to be churned out until the mid-’70s. The Scandis had brought down many original barricades: Torgny Wickman’s 1969 Language of Love (which Robert de Niro takes Cybill Shepherd to see in Taxi Driver) might be the first commercial feature to show unobscured intercourse. But they soon found themselves intellectually bored and pushed aside marketwise by the expanded allowance for soft- and hardcore production elsewhere. The yahoos (us folks) had won by simultaneously commercializing and marginalizing the Sex Rev. SFBG
Opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com for showtimes
“SWINGING SCANDINAVIA: HOW NORDIC SEX CINEMA CONQUERED THE WORLD”
Thurs/5, 7:30 p.m.; Sat/7, 7 and 9 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
Ask Aron Ranen about his filmmaking philosophy, and he won’t pause long. “I’m a reality surfer. Things pop up as I’m quote-unquote traveling around the world with my camera.”
When he says “pop up,” he ain’t kidding. While attempting to uncover the truth about the Apollo 11 moon landing in Did We Go? (which screened in 2000 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), Ranen stumbled upon the fact that the magnetic tapes used to record the 1969 event had gone missing. This peculiar nugget resurfaced in the news lately, generating enough buzz beyond the conspiracy fringes to nudge NASA into a response via its Web site: “Despite the challenges of the search, NASA does not consider the tapes to be lost.”
A month ago Ranen appeared on CNN to discuss the controversy. Host Glenn Beck tried awfully hard to paint the doc maker as a wackjob; the segment ends with a joke likening those who believe the moon landing was faked to those who are “still wondering why Darrin One was mysteriously replaced by Darrin Two.” This kind of reaction doesn’t seem to bother Ranen, who between movies teaches digital filmmaking at DV Workshops, the school he runs out of his Mission District studio.
“My motto is film the obvious,” he explains. (Later in our conversation he expands that motto to include “trust reality … and also don’t fuck it up.”) “I’m just trying to illuminate some of the things that are going on in our culture.” Did We Go? is actually not a wackjob’s manifesto; it features interviews with Apollo 11 flight director Gene Krantz and astronaut Buzz Aldrin — as well as the NASA employee who physically closed the hatch on the rocket before its launch. The film doesn’t try to discredit the moon landing; it tries, with sincerity, to prove that it actually happened. (In other words, there’s a reason it’s not titled We Didn’t Go.)
A filmmaker since he was 13, Ranen has made so many short documentaries that he’s lost count. Over the years the self-funded artist has developed his own approach to shooting. His films are generally unstructured — expecting the unexpected — and are guided by Ranen’s first-person voice-overs, delivered in a tone that hovers between curiosity and amazement.
“Everyone trusts me and talks to me in my films,” he says. It’s a claim backed up by the openness displayed by his diverse array of subjects, many of whom Ranen meets on the fly. His film Power and Control: LSD in the 60s — a tangent-riddled exploration of the drug’s influence on politics and counterculture — features chats with an ex–Stanford University researcher whose simian LSD tests earned him the nickname “Monkey Mike” and a now-elderly professor who was among the Harvard students who participated in Timothy Leary’s 1962 Good Friday experiment. Ranen attributes this kind of access to his lone gunman style.
“I refuse to let anyone go with me. I believe so much of documentary is about the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. I don’t want a crew or a sound man to mitigate my relationships with these subjects,” he explains. “When I’m talking to someone, you can see their enthusiasm in talking to me.”
Ranen’s go-with-the-flow methodology extends to postproduction. He “edits organically,” subscribing to what he calls “the pinball effect: as you’re watching it, the edit speaks to you and says, no, take that stuff in the middle and put it up front.” He’s also not opposed to altering his films after they are finished. Power and Control screened as a 70-minute feature at the 2005 San Francisco Independent Film Festival; the version at Other Cinema this weekend hovers closer to 40 minutes. Eventually, Ranen hopes to add a chapter exploring the possible LSD-KGB connection.
His most recent film, Black Hair, is also his most widely seen, thanks to a strategy of free distribution via YouTube. The doc, which Ranen says has been viewed some 100,000 times, delves into the racial and economic issues raised by the fact that most of the black hair-care industry’s retail and wholesale markets are controlled by Korean, not African American, businesspeople.
Ranen’s film inspired Bay Area hair-product manufacturer Sam Ennon to found the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association, or BOBSA, now a national organization aimed at what Ennon calls “reorganizing the whole industry in terms of the distribution channel. It’s not that we want to run the Koreans out of business — we just want to share in the business. We want to recirculate the black dollar.”
Ennon says Black Hair gave BOBSA’s cause a major assist. “A picture speaks better than words. The film is really what turned it completely around.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Ranen, who seems to attract unexpected spontaneity and the not-occasional weird coincidence. His DV Workshops was funded with a settlement he received after learning that Nine Inch Nails had sampled one of his films without permission. The dialogue snippet, taken from Ranen’s film Religion in Suburbia, just happened to include this phrase: “do you believe in miracles?” SFBG
POWER AND CONTROL:
LSD IN THE 60S
Sat/30, 8:30 p.m.
Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
A smiling Kim Deal holds up a T-shirt with “Pixies Sellout” emblazoned across the back. “Where did you get the inspiration?” she asks guitarist Joey Santiago, who named the band’s comeback tour. “’Cause we sold out in minutes!” he offers sans irony. Santiago might not be in on the joke (somewhat inexplicably), but for the rest of us the subtext is clear. Sure, the Pixies are now well into middle age and showing it, but to claim these indie rock demigods are simply trying to cash in on past success is a little unfair. Since they were never really able to enjoy major-league (outside of the United Kingdom) success (which happened after the breakup) in the first place, they’re just now getting used to this whole rock-glory thing.
LoudQUIETloud, shot during the band’s 2004 world tour, frames their collective “holy shit, they love us!” state of shock perfectly while still managing to focus on the individual members’ personal struggles with art, family, and commerce. Before the tour’s start, lead singer-songwriter Charles Thompson (a.k.a. Black Francis) is plugging away at solo gigs and Nashville records; a newly sober Deal (the only Pixie left with any hair) hasn’t recorded with the Breeders in years and is holed up in Ohio; Santiago is scoring films and raising kids; and drummer David Lovering is pursuing “hobbies of magic and metal detecting” (seriously).
Still, amid all the drug tiffs, card tricks, and mostly energetic renditions of classic tunes like “Caribou” and “Hey,” we get precious little insight into the Pixies’ much-ballyhooed musical influence. Even the film’s title — a reference to the band’s signature seesawing song structure — is never explained. Actually, the title is a good characterization of the movie itself: despite the notorious rancor between members that ultimately led to the band’s demise, for the most part they come off as quiet, funny eccentrics in between the thunderous live footage. They’re so unrelentingly low-key, in fact, it’s hard not to wish one of them would explode, like a Pixies chorus, into something a little less tame. (Michelle Devereaux)
Brooklyn, like Oakland and the Mission District, has swelled in the last decade with postadolescents: beards and black hoodies wandering streets on the verge of gentrification. This intermediary space is the setting and premise for indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski’s latest, Mutual Appreciation. Bujalski first made a splash with Boston-based Funny Ha Ha (2002), an unassuming feature made in the tradition of talky indie forbearers John Cassavetes, Eric Rohmer, and Richard Linklater. Mutual Appreciation again collects a group of guarded postgraduates for its cast, but the film is no angsty trifle. Bujalski pulls off that impossible trick — always surprising no matter the influences — of affecting a naturalistic, improvisational flow while maintaining a clear authorial voice. It’s a dynamic that picks up steam with each exquisitely staged scene, making Mutual Appreciation as absorbing as anything you’re likely to see at the movies this year.
How then do we account for this guided freewheel? Cinematography is, as always, at least part of the answer. The grainy 16mm black-and-white film stock isn’t mere affectation but rather a functional stylistic element, underscoring the drab reality of the movie’s unsettled spaces: apartments with everything secondhand and mismatched, unmade beds on nicked hardwood floors, and rooms that are either too big (making one fret over the lack of proper furniture) or too small (making one crouch). Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky court these challenging spaces, always coming up with a revealing composition that frames characters in depth — splayed against walls or hunched in makeshift chairs.
While Bujalski has clearly done his homework on no-budget cinematography, his narration style seems more instinctual and basic to the film’s shape. Like exemplar François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Mutual Appreciation pivots on a youthful, untested ménage à trois: boyfriend-girlfriend Lawrence (Bujalski) and Ellie (Rachel Clift) have lived in Brooklyn for some time, while Lawrence’s old friend Alan (Justin Rice) is new in town, lost in an existential quandary over his life and music (“It’s like pop”). Like so many of his progenitors, Bujalski has an innate sense for particular rhythms of talk. This isn’t just a matter of dialogue (“If you kiss me now, my breath’s going to be all beery and burrito-y”) but also of editing — knowing, for example, how to exit a scene, convey a relationship with an unevenly paced phone conversation, and let the camera run on a given close-up to register a character’s unguarded reactions.
More impressive is the way Bujalski subtly orchestrates little one-acts to achieve genuine drama. The principle instance of such narrative structuring is in the many scenes between Lawrence and Ellie, and Alan and Ellie, but none between the old friends in question (until the closing minutes anyhow). If Mutual Appreciation’s narrative seems accidental, it’s a testament to Bujalski’s understated technique. There is certainly method here, from repetitions of dialogue (“That’s flattering”) and theme (gender confusion) to the patient unveiling of character, the apotheosis of which is a sequence of scenes tracing Alan from one Warholian party to another, no better for the omnipresent tallboys of beer.
What begins as nonchalant talk blooms into compelling drama by movie’s end. It seems no coincidence that one of Mutual Appreciation’s three main characters is an indie rocker. Bujalski, after all, registers the fear and trembling that twentysomethings expect from music (middlebrow Indiewood being as unlikely to produce something relatable as the French “cinema of quality” from which the New Wave broke away). But Mutual Appreciation is more than an outlet; in its illuminating narration, many will see a mirror, an ode to these transitional places in which one blusters toward adulthood, talking all the way. SFBG
Red Vic Movie House
1727 Haight, SF
For an interview with Mutual Appreciation director Andrew Bujalski, go to www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.
Dick Cheney surveys the teeming white crowds at the 2004 Republican National Convention. With their Cheney Rocks! placards and stars-and-stripes Styrofoam hats, these people worship him, but he still looks like he wants to spray them with buckshot. “You’re all a bunch of fucking assholes!” he sneers. “You know why? You need people like me — so you can point your fucking fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’”
OK, maybe Cheney didn’t use those exact words in his convention speech, but we all know he was thinking them, so bless Bryan Boyce’s short video America’s Biggest Dick for making the vice president really speak his mind — in this case, via Al Pacino’s dialogue in Scarface. The title fits: Boyce’s two-minute movie exposes the gangster mentality of Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration, perhaps giving his subject more charisma than he deserves. Ultimately, Cheney gets around to admitting he’s the bad guy — after he’s compared the convention’s hostile New York setting to “a great big pussy waiting to be fucked” and speculated about how much money is required to buy the Supreme Court. “Fuck you! Who put this thing together? Me — that’s who!” he bellows when a graphic exhibition of his oral sex talents receives some boos.
One might think the man behind America’s Biggest Dick might be boisterous and loud, but Boyce — who lives in San Francisco — is in fact soft-spoken and modest, crediting the movie’s “stunt mouth,” Jonathan Crosby (whose teeth and lips Bryce pastes onto Cheney and other political figures), with the idea of using Brian de Palma’s 1983 film. “I knew I wanted extensive profanity, and Scarface more than delivered,” Boyce says during an interview at the Mission District’s Atlas Café. “But I was also amazed at how well the dialogue fit.”
The dialogue fits because Boyce masterfully tweaks found material, particularly footage from television. It’s a skill he’s honed and a skill that motivates the most recent waves of TV manipulation thriving on YouTube, on DVD (in the case of the Toronto-based TV Carnage), and at film festivals and other venues that have the nerve to program work that ignores the property rights of an oppressive dominant culture. “It is, admittedly, crude,” Boyce says of America’s Biggest Dick, which inspired raves and rage when it played the Sundance Film Festival last year. “It’s a crude technique for a crude movie matched to a very crude vice president.” As for the contortions of Crosby’s mouth, which exaggerate Cheney’s own expressions, Boyce has an apt reference at hand: “The twisted mouth to match his twisted soul — he’s got a Richard III thing going on.”
America’s Biggest Dick isn’t Boyce’s only film to mine horror and hilarity from the hellish realms of Fox News. In 30 Seconds of Hate, for example, he uses a “monosyllabic splicing technique” to puppeteer war criminal (and neocon TV expert) Henry Kissinger into saying, “If we kill all the people in the world, there’ll be no more terrorists…. It’s very probable that I will kill you.” All the while, mock Fox News updates scroll across the bottom of the screen. “That footage came from a time when Fox thought that Saddam [Hussein] had been killed,” Boyce explains. “That’s why Kissinger kept using the word kill. Of course, no one says kill like Henry Kissinger.”
In Boyce’s State of the Union, the smiling baby face within a Teletubbies sun is replaced by the grumpier, more addled visage of George W. Bush. Shortly after issuing a delighted giggle, this Bush sun god commences to bomb rabbits that graze amid the show’s hilly Astroturf landscapes — which mysteriously happen to be littered with oil towers. With uncanny prescience, Boyce made the movie in August 2001, inspiring fellow TV tweak peers such as Rich Bott of the duo Animal Charm to compare him to Nostradamus. “Even before Sept. 11, [Bush] was looking into nuclear weapons and bunker busters,” Boyce says. “His drilling in the [Arctic National Wildlife Reserve] led me to use the oil towers.”
Having grown up in the Bay Area and returned here after a college stint in Santa Cruz, Boyce — like other Bay Area artists with an interest in culture jamming — calls upon Negativland (“I thought their whole Escape from Noise album was great”) and Craig Baldwin (“He’s kind of the godfather of cinema here”) as two major inspirations. In fact, both he and Baldwin have shared a fascination with televangelist Robert Tilton, whose bizarre preaching makes him a perfect lab rat on whom to try out editing experiments. “He speaks in tongues so nicely,” Boyce says with a smile. “He’s just so over-the-top and sad and terrible that he lends himself to all the extremes of the [editing] system, such as playing something backwards.”
Boyce believes that the absurdity of “an abrupt jump cut between incongruous things” can “really be beautiful.” And the TV Carnage DVDs put together by Derrick Beckles might illustrate that observation even better than Boyce’s more minimalist tweaking. In just one of hundreds of uproarious moments within TV Carnage’s most recent DVD, the wonderfully titled Sore for Sighted Eyes, a sheet-clad John Ritter stares in abject disbelief at a TV on which Rosie O’Donnell pretends to have Down syndrome. At least two different movie writers at this paper (yours truly included) have shed tears from laughing at this sequence.
“I just picture a conveyer belt, and there are just so many points at which someone could press a big red stop button, but it doesn’t happen,” Beckles says, discussing the source (an Angelica Huston–helmed TV movie called Riding the Bus with My Sister) for the O’Donnell footage. “There’s this untouchable hubris. It blows my mind that people are paid for some of these ideas. Crispin Glover told me that the actors with Down syndrome in [his movie] What Is It? were offended by [the O’Donnell performance], or that they felt uneasy. It is uneasy to see Rosie O’Donnell do a Pee-wee Herman impersonation and think she’s embodying someone with Down syndrome.”
Beckles’s interest in manipuutf8g TV — or as he puts it, “exorcising my own demons” by exorcising television’s — dates back to childhood. But it took several years in the belly of MGM to really fire a desire that has resulted in five DVDs to date. “TV Carnage is my way of screaming,” he says at one point during a phone conversation that proves he’s as funny as his work. Like Boyce and audio contemporaries such as Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk (see “Gregg the Ripper,” page 69), he filters “mounds and mounds and shelves and shelves” of tapes and other material through his computer.
“It’s not so much that I’m always in front of the TV,” Beckles explains. “I’d just say that I have this divining rod for shit. I have these psychic premonitions when I turn on my TV. I have years and years of footage. I pull all of it into my computer and say, ‘Now what?’ Then I take a swig of whiskey and go, ‘You’ve got yourself into it again.'” On Sore for Sighted Eyes this approach results in eye-defying montages dedicated to subjects such as white rapping. (Believe me, you have not lived until you’ve died inside seeing Mike Ditka and the Grabowskis or the Sealy Roll.)
Overall, mind control is TV Carnage’s main theme. One segment within the release Casual Fridays looks at children who act like adults and adults who act like children — two plagues that run rampant on TV. “Kids are like al-Qaeda,” he says. “They’ll shift their plans every day to keep you wondering. [Meanwhile], you can just feel the adults who host teen shows thinking about their mortgage payments: ‘What are kids doing now? Slitting each other’s throats? Great! Let’s do a show about it!’” An infamous “swearing sandwich” sequence within TV Carnage’s When Television Attacks encapsulates Beckles’s worldview. “People who are into self-help — they might as well be taking advice from a sandwich.”
Breaking from the more free-form nature of TV Carnage — which isn’t afraid of running from Richard Simmons to Mao Zedong in a few seconds — Beckles is working within some self-imposed restrictions to make his next project. The presence of rules has some irony, since the project is titled Cop Movie. “I’m taking 101 cop movies and making a full-length feature from them,” he says. “The same script has been used for hundreds and hundreds of cop movies — they just change the characters’ names, using a name that sounds dangerous or slightly evocative of freedom.”
“The reason I’m using 101 movies stems from this ridiculous mathematical aspect I’ve figured out,” he continues. “If I take a certain number of seconds from each movie, it adds up to 66 minutes and 6 seconds, and the whole construct of 666 makes me laugh. I’ve already cut together a part where a guy gets hit by a car, and he goes from being a blond guy to a black guy to a guy with red hair to a guy with a mullet. It flows seamlessly. It’s a real acid trip — and kind of a psychological experiment. After I finish it, I’ll probably just pick out a casket and sleep for a hundred years.”
The encyclopedic aspect of Beckles’s TV Carnage sucks in more recognizable footage such as American Idol’s Scary Mary and a musical number from The Apple. In contrast, the duo who go by the name Animal Charm tend to work with footage that few, if any, people have seen, such as corporate training videos. “Our interest from the beginning has not been to turn to a video we love or have a nostalgic connection to,” says Jim Fetterley, who along with Rich Bott makes up Animal Charm. “We were looking for things that were empty that could be used to create new meanings.”
Those meanings are often hilarious — the new Animal Charm DVD, Golden Digest, includes shorts such as Stuffing (in which a real-life monkey watches animated dolphins juggle a woman back and forth) and Ashley (which turns an infomercial for a Texas woman’s Amway-like beauty business into a bizarre science fiction story). But if reappropriation brings out the political commentator in Boyce and the comedian in Beckles, for Fetterley it’s more of a philosophical matter. Pledging allegiance to contemporaries such as Los Angeles’s TV Sheriff and the Pittsburgh, Pa., collective Paper Rad, he talks about Animal Charm’s videos as “tinctures” he’s used to “deprogram” himself and friends. “Our videos can make an empty boardroom seem like the jungle or something very natural,” he says when asked about his use of National Geographic–type clips and dated-looking office scenes. “In the videos, the animals are like puppets. You could say it’s like animation but on a more concept-based level.”
While Boyce, TV Carnage, and Animal Charm most often work with found material, their cinematic practice — jump-cut editing, for example — is more imaginative and creative than that of many “original” multimillion dollar productions. “We’re not predetermining any space we want to get into,” Fetterley explains, “other than most often that level of disassociation and absurdity where you are almost feeling something like the rush of a drug.” For him, generating this type of “temporary autonomy” is liberating. “With massive paranoia and war going on, it’s so easy to control a lot of people with fear and paranoia. We like to think if we can sit down and show our videos to our friends and others and have a laugh and talk about it seriously, it might help take everyone out of that mind frame.”
Because of the popularity of YouTube and its ability to create a new type of TV celebrity (and also the recent notoriety of musical efforts such as Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album and Girl Talk’s Night Ripper), reappropriation is reaching the mainstream. But even as Animal Charm’s and Boyce’s clips proliferate on the Internet, a veteran such as Fetterley looks upon such developments with a pointedly critical perspective. “There’s a general tendency right now to get excited about things that are unknown or anonymous,” he says. “Accountability is almost more important than appropriation nowadays. All of a sudden, if something is anonymous, it makes people feel very uncomfortable.”
For artists with names, censorship is still very much an issue. Boyce recently found America’s Biggest Dick (along with Glover’s What Is It?) cited during a campaign to withdraw funding from a long-running film festival in Ann Arbor, Mich. But Fetterley sees a troubling larger picture. “Danger Mouse’s Grey Album is a very solid conceptual project — it’s gray,” he notes. “In comparison, if somebody is doing a New York Times article about something current politically or globally, there are red zones and flags that will be brought to others’ attention whether you or I know it or not. Those are things making this moment dangerous, in terms of not being able to be anonymous. With ideas about evidence dissolving and accountability hung up in legalities, it makes the culture around music or aesthetics or youth culture pale in comparison.” SFBG
LAMPOONS AND EYE-TUNES: BRYAN BOYCE’S CULT JAMS AND MUSIC VIDEOS
With launch party for Animal Charm’s Golden Digest DVD
Oct. 7, 8 p.m.
Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
For complete interviews with Derrick Beckles of TV Carnage, Bryan Boyce, and Jim Fetterley of Animal Charm, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.
You’re walking down the street in the dark. You can hear the steps of a beast with many feet behind you. Every second it’s getting closer and bigger. One minute it’s got the juicy spirit of a young Biggie Smalls and a waterfall piano melody that inspires visions of a tiny dancer. The next, its Ciara-stamped “O” pulses over the metric bump and grind of an Elastica connection. Just when you think you have its ID down, it changes again, shifting sounds and songs at a rate of a dozen a minute. It’s tapping you on the shoulder. It’s gotten inside your brain. It’s Night Ripper, the newest album by Girl Talk.
Gregg Gillis has made three albums under the Girl Talk moniker, but this year’s Night Ripper (Illegal Art) is the one that’s making that moniker famous — maybe because it’s a monster of an album that leaves most mashup ideas and practices in the dust. And to think that the title comes from a simple T-shirt. “There’s this shirt I’ve had for years that shows this skateboarder dude with all these fluorescent colors and skulls everywhere, and it just says ‘Night Ripper’ on it,” Gillis, who lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., explains via phone before a Friday night show. “I wanted an aggressive name [for the album] that also had a party feel.”
Night Ripper’s 16 tracks add up to a seamless 42-minute burst of manic energy. It’s no surprise to learn that Gillis composed the album as one big song. “I built it in three different chunks, so in case I got stuck in one area I could move to another,” he says. “Eventually, I had this whole piece.” The result possesses the type of megamix acceleration you’d find on the late-night Detroit radio stations that bred the likes of DJ Assault. But Gillis says that while he’s heard his share of CeCe Peniston–style techno pop and has nursed a childhood passion for New Jack Swing, neither count as a direct form of inspiration. “In high school I was into John Oswald and People Like Us and Evolution Control Committee and Plunderphonics-y experimentation. I fell into this mode of making megamix-style music through that.”
On his first album for Illegal Art, 2002’s Secret Diary, Gillis drenched Lil’ Romeo and others in static white noise. His flair for harshly comic juxtapositions was already there, present in a track (“What Iff”) that — thanks to Big Tymers — changed Joan Osborne’s infamous “What if god was one of us?” query into “What if god were a project bitch?” One track on 2004’s Unstoppable, his follow-up for the label, the jaw-dropping “Bodies Hit the Floor,” forecasted where Gillis was headed. Over frenzied beats, he ricocheted the “you say” verses of two radically different girl pop songs — Kelly Osbourne’s “Shut Up” and Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” — off each other and threaded Ludacris’s “Move Bitch,” Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” and a ghostly Bone Thugs ’n’ Harmony warrior ode through them.
“I think if you put Secret Diary and Night Ripper together, it’s kind of like Unstoppable,” Gillis says, his analogy suggesting an incessant urge to combine and fuse material. “I’ve made an experimental album, then more of an IDMish album, and now a pop record.” A berserk record that swallows pop music whole. It’s easy to imagine The Simpsons’ sometime market researcher and sexual predator Lindsay “be warm — but edgy-cute” Naegle having an aneurysm upon hearing it. Night Ripper is packed with funny split-second moments, such as a transition in which the hooting synth melody of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” is answered in a birdcall manner by the keyboard hook of Mariah Carey’s “It’s Like That.”
Yet for all its Dirty South meets AOR meets soft rock meets alt-rock meets gangsta meets grunge meets ’80s bubblegum appeal, don’t assume Night Ripper is a Frankenstein built only from other people’s parts. One of its purest blasts of adrenaline stems from Gillis’s own instrumentation, when he adds an accelerating guitar track to the “Girl, shake that laffy taffy!” chorus of D4L’s “Laffy Taffy.” The factoid masters at Wikipedia have already compiled an extensive list of Night Ripper’s samples, nabbing 190 sources. But their efforts can’t convey the sheer goofy your-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate joy of Young Jeezy colliding with Nirvana or a magnified version of Biggie’s trademark beat-fucking “uh” sound (from “Hypnotize”) giving way to an equally exaggerated bump and grind burst from Billy Squier’s onanistic “Stroke.”
With Night Ripper, Gillis has built a popular culture landmark somewhere between a Stars on 45 hit and the copyright-flouting 1987 United Kingdom chart attack of the Justified Ancients of Mumu. He uses a Plunderphonics-like practice to create something that might have mass appeal. “I’m making this music that is challenging yet pop,” he agrees. “I could have gone over the edge and doubled the number of sources and made it insanely crazy to listen to as an experimental piece or I could have slowed it down and made this easy-to-dance-to sort of record. It was a fine line, and I wanted to make something that was fun but at the same time interesting to listen to as a composition.” (Johnny Ray Huston)
For a complete interview with Gregg Gillis, go to Noise at www.sfbg.com/blogs/music.