During the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, where Lady Vengeance screened under its original title, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, director Park Chanwook (through a translator) discussed payback, villains, and cyborgs.
SFBG Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance don’t really form a conventional trilogy in terms of characters and plots — but they share themes [betrayal, revenge] and motifs [child kidnappings, kidney transplants]. Were all three films conceived at once?
PARK CHANWOOK They just happened. I didn’t plan them from the beginning. After the first film [Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance], I didn’t want to make another film about revenge, but somebody brought me a very nice script about revenge: Oldboy. The third one [Lady Vengeance] actually came out in relation to the questions I received at a press conference before filming Oldboy. People asked, why would I deal with revenge again?
SFBG What made you decide to have a female character as the lead in the final film?
PC Because it’s the last film of the trilogy. In my previous films, the females did not have any major roles. I wanted to compensate for the lack of female presence, so I decided to have a female as the lead character. I wanted to give it a different touch, so I thought a female would be best.
SFBG The lead actor from Oldboy [Choi Min-sik] also appears in Lady Vengeance. Why did you choose to use him again, and why did you cast him as a villain instead of a hero this time?
PC There’s no direct connection between those two films, simply because it’s the same actor. He happens to be a great actor who can portray the role of a villain. Actually, the actor Choi had never taken any role as a villain previously — his image in Korea is warm and like a patriarch. In this film he has this image of a children’s teacher, but underneath there is this image of villain. The fixed image actually helped to disguise the real villain.
SFBG Your films are known for being violent, but there is also a sense of humor, however dark, that’s very apparent in all of them. What do you think is the connection between humor and violence?
PC I wanted to avoid ending the film with a dark, heavy scene because I wanted to give the audience room to have a more intelligent interpretation of the whole story. If you have only violence then you may miss that chance. This way, you can step back and think about it more objectively.
SFBG What’s next for you?
PC The title of my next film is I Am Cyborg — that’s the direct translation from Korean. Once I release it the English title might be different. It’s the story of this mental patient who thinks that she may be a cyborg, and she meets a boy. It’s a romance! (Cheryl Eddy)
- No categories
During the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, where Lady Vengeance screened under its original title, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, director Park Chanwook (through a translator) discussed payback, villains, and cyborgs.
“It has to be pretty. Everything should be pretty,” explains Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), who throughout Lady Vengeance is variously referred to as “a real live angel,” “Geum-ja the kindhearted,” and “the witch.” The fact that what has to be pretty is a gun should surprise no one who’s seen Korean director Park Chanwook’s gruesome Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or his staggering Oldboy. His latest is the glorious female-revenge film Quentin Tarantino wished he could make, ending up with two so-so Kill Bills instead.
And Lady Vengeance has similarities with Kill Bill: a very bad man, a stolen child, and an agonizingly long period of inactivity preceding a fevered, focused pursuit of payback. But Geum-ja doesn’t fall into a coma; at the start of Lady Vengeance she’s exiting jail after serving 13 years for a crime it’s pretty obvious she didn’t commit. Behind bars, she’s been plotting, sweetly luring fellow inmates into her debt so that they have no choice but to help her on the outside. As the film’s intricate story line slowly reveals, she’s most intent on punishing the man responsible for her confinement (a children’s teacher with sinister tendencies, played by Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik), but there are other considerations — including a reunion with her long-lost daughter, now an English-speaking adolescent being raised by a square Australian couple.
Park’s previous revenge films drew some ire for their vicious violence, but they also earned the director a passionate following among genre fans. Lady Vengeance is no less cleverly brutal — granted, nobody cuts off their own tongue with a pair of scissors in this one — but it’s also Park’s most elegant effort, starting with graceful opening titles that introduce a classical, harpsichord-laden score. Overall, the film has a more feminine quality than Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Oldboy — obviously a result of the casting, but it’s a twist that also permeates Park’s visual and tonal style. The film’s obligatory moments of over-the-top nastiness are tempered by an overall mood of delicate, lusciously colored restraint.
A big part of Lady Vengeance’s success is owed to Lee, perfectly cast as a woman caught between the conflicting forces of maternal instinct and the need for sweet, sweet revenge. Her years-ago arrest is chronicled for us by a breathless newscast; it seems Geum-ja became a media sensation not just for her confessed terrible crime (kidnapping and killing a child), but also for her refined beauty (the TV says, “tabloids compared her to Olivia Hussey”). And indeed, Lee is an exquisite actor, slipping between perfectly telegraphed emotions with often-wordless ease.
After prison, Geum-ja reenters society with relative ease, partially because of her skills as a baker (no accident, a stereotypically feminine talent), and her cool good looks. Her transformation into the lady of the title is achieved by applying crimson eye shadow (“People are always saying I look kindhearted”), a kind of superhero disguise that foreshadows the blood she’s hell-bent on spilling.
To fully explain Geum-ja’s motivation would deprive the viewer the pleasure of following Park through Lady Vengeance’s brambly maze of a plot. However, the statement “the kidnapper had kidnapped a kidnapper’s kid” (delivered in complete seriousness, though the film’s not without plenty of gallows humor) sums things up pretty well. Lady Vengeance falters only in its final quarter, when Lee steps back from the action for a few key scenes. Her quest for revenge is what drives the film, and without her red-rimmed gaze front and center, things meander a bit.
By the end, thankfully, she’s back in focus; her mission may be completed, but there’s no Kill Bill–style sense of triumph. “He made a sinner out of me,” Geum-ja says about the man she desperately wants to punish. And he will die, of course, but will Geum-ja ever find atonement? Lady Vengeance ends on that question — as pretty as ever. SFBG
1572 California, SF
2230 Shattuck, Berk.
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com for showtimes
Perhaps a good indicator of a social problem’s gravity is the number of documentaries it inspires. This year crystal meth addiction, specifically in gay urban communities, brings us two, Meth (Todd Ahlberg, 2005; Fri/16, 3 p.m., Castro) and Rock Bottom: Gay Men and Meth (Jay Corcoran, 2006; Sat/17, 1:15 p.m., Victoria). Watching two treatments certainly seems like a good way to get to the truth — what might be downplayed in one can achieve its rightful resonance with reiteration in the other. And the irony of cautionary tales is that because they admonish by example, they’re inherently fun.
Still, the two films, while stylistically dissimilar, are enough in accordance with one another detail-wise that only one ticket need be purchased. Even the ambivalence in the two, where it shows up, is similar. Another commonality is high quality. When the interviewees in either film aren’t perceptive and articulate about their own predicaments, which is rarely, their evasions and delusions are just as revealing.
The one you decide to see may come down to a packaging preference. Meth is a sleek number whose visuals and soundtrack slyly evoke the circuit parties that took meth abuse under their wing and add the appropriate energy to rapturous accounts of nine-hour sex marathons and wholesale exterminations of self-doubts before serving as an effectively creepy counterpoint to descriptions of the drug’s eventual toll. The film relies solely on interviews with users, however, and though they’re surely an important source for information on the subject, it can feel a little claustrophobic with regard to perspective. Rock Bottom: Gay Men and Meth’s editing will appeal to those who like fewer hospital corners; it also offers more voices, from health care professionals, family, and friends, without skimping on first-hand accounts and without ever sliding into brochure-speak. Either choice is quite an education. (Jason Shamai)
"Who is going to tell our stories if we don’t?" asks Madeleine Lim, founder and director of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project. She has a point. After wracking my brain to recall queer women or trans people of color who have graced a movie screen this year outside of a film festival, all I could come up with was Alice Wu’s Saving Face — which certainly didn’t play at the multiplex. Lim firmly believes that "as long as we’re not in the studio systems writing, directing, and producing these films, we’re never going to see ourselves on the big screen." Her "little stab" at putting such stories front and center was creating the QWOCMAP program, which offers free digital filmmaking workshops to queer women and trans folks of color.
This weekend brings the Queer Women of Color Film Festival, an official event of the National Queer Arts Festival that Lim organizes and curates along with M??nica Enr??quez and Darshan Elena Campos. "Tender Justice," the first evening’s program (Thurs/8, 7 p.m.), showcases shorts by young women aged 18 to 25. Many deal with issues of violence and assault, some obliquely: In the experimental piece Messages, by Alyssa Contreras, a girl wanders through a surreal red-and-black nightmare listening to hateful cell phone messages left by various family members.
On the second evening, queer Latina filmmakers come together for "En Mi Piel: Borders Redrawn" (Fri/9, 7 p.m.). The event, which includes a panel discussion, is entirely bilingual: "It is political to reclaim spaces that are bilingual, in light of the immigration debate and the backlash and racism that it has generated," says cocurator Enr??quez. There are shorts by Bay Area and Los Angeles filmmakers, as well as a group of Mexican filmmakers who traveled here on a grant from the Global Fund for Women. One highlight is filmmaking collective Mujeres y Cultura Subterranea’s La Dimensi??n del Olvido, a gritty documentary that chronicles the lives of women and startlingly young girls who live on the streets in Mexico. Others include Liliana Hueso’s Las Mujeres de Mi Vida; Aurora Guerrero’s Pura Lengua, which skillfully handles a narrative about a Los Angeles Latina queer woman who deals with a horrific police assault; and Amy André’s En Mi Piel, in which an FTM half-white, half-Chicano trans man named Logan recalls his journey back to Mexico, the search for his roots becoming part of his new identity.
The third evening, "Heart of the Flame" (Sat/10, 7 p.m.), features works by students of Lim’s over the age of 25. One such is Kenya Brigg’s Forgiven, an autobiographical narrative about recognizing her grandmother’s strength of forgiveness, which she observes when the elderly African American woman uses a cake to bury the hatchet with a white neighbor who once signed a petition to keep her from buying a house in their Castro neighborhood. SFBG
QUEER WOMEN OF COLOR
SF LBGT Community Center,
1800 Market, SF
There’s always room for another film festival in this town, especially when said fest is drowning in blood, guts, and supernatural shenanigans. The San Francisco Independent Film Festival’s festering youngest child, Another Hole in the Head, returns this week for its third year of ghouls gone wild.
Standouts include The Hamiltons (think Party of Five meets Martin), directed by a local duo whose enticing nom de screen is "the Butcher Brothers,” and, from Greece, Yorgos Noussias’s excellent To Kako (Evil), which cribs from Romero and 28 Days Later in its tale of a ragtag band of urban survivors scrambling to evade the marauding undead. And yes, it does incorporate the dreaded fast-moving breed of zombies, but even genre purists turned off by that factoid will forgive the film once things start going apeshit; I’m thinking in particular of a scene in a deserted restaurant that unleashes 2006’s most satisfying head-squashing to date. The film also has enough of a sense of humor to include the line "If you don’t trust me, trust this!" (cut to: a giant rifle) and a last shot of near-genius proportions.
Per usual, HoleHead brings in several Asian horror flicks, including Shinya Tsukamoto’s enduringly creepy Haze and Yudai Yamaguchi (Battlefield Baseball) and Junichi Yamamoto’s disappointing Meatball Machine. There are also a handful of classics, like Bruce Kessler’s 1971 psych-out Simon: King of the Witches and — in perhaps the festival’s most inspired move — John Boorman’s 1973 Zardoz. Sean Connery’s spectacular loincloth is but the first of many, many reasons to view this neglected masterpiece on the big screen.
Also well worth catching (either at the fest or during their June 29–July 2 run at CELLspace): splat-happy theater troupe the Primitive Screwheads (Evil Dead: Live!, Re-Animator of the Dead), who return with their latest, The Chainsaw Massacres, which boasts a rumored 60 gallons of stage blood poised to rain down on the audience. Plus: disco!
ANOTHER HOLE IN THE HEAD
See Film listings for venue and ticket information
The term CinemaScope might conjure a 2.66-to-1 vision of an extra-bodacious Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire, or, if you’re a certain breed of movie maniac, it might inspire a recitation of Fritz Lang’s famous Contempt-uous remark that the format is fine for filming snakes and coffins, but not for capturing people. Bizarre, then, that Liu Jiayin has taken an outmoded approach known for gargantuan celluloid spectacle and revived it — brilliantly — for small-scale digital family portraiture. Winner of numerous festival prizes, including the competitive Dragons and Tigers award bestowed in Vancouver last fall, Liu’s BetaSP debut feature, Ox Hide, has more than once been deemed the most important first feature to emerge from China since Jia Zhangke’s 2000 Platform. That’s a fest obsessive’s way of saying that Liu is the real deal — in addition to possessing a charismatically baby-butch camera presence, she knows how to write, stage, and shoot a funny, unsettling, and pointed scene.
Twenty-three scenes, to be exact, a number reflecting Liu’s age when she made the movie. Ox Hide consists of just that many immobile but rarely "static" shots, each used to depict a moment from the cramped and quarrelsome domestic life she shares with her mother and her father, the latter a stubborn and slowly failing leather goods merchant. (Thus the title.) Making "reality" TV look about as stupid as it is, Liu shares a unique use of format and a sharp focus on the family with ’90s teen PixelVision pioneer — and former Le Tigre member — Sadie Benning, and like Benning, she’s got terrific timing both on-screen (bickering about noodles at the dinner table) and off (using a close-up of a printer to reveal her kin’s economic struggles). Local curator Joel Shepard deserves thanks for bringing this movie to the Bay Area, kicking off a "Beijing Underground" series that will span a few more Fridays this month. (Johnny Ray Huston)
Thurs/8, 7 and 9 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
Cast a spell — that is what movies (at least nondocumentary ones) are or were supposed to do, and yet how often do they achieve that aim today? V??ctor Erice’s original feature, 1973’s The Spirit of the Beehive, is partly about the spell a masterful movie can cast, and also is a many-shaded masterpiece that casts an unforgettable spell, a waking dream that disperses in a way that seems to infect the world outside the darkened rooms in which it breathes and lives.
At first glance the story seems so simple, and after all, it is set "Once upon a time …," as an intertitle announces, just after a credit sequence featuring objects relevant to the story — a beekeeper’s mask, a train, a well, a mushroom, and that surrealist standby, a clock — drawn by the film’s lead actors. But more specifically, it takes place somewhere on the Castilian plateau of Spain around 1940, as Frankenstein comes to town. Ana (Ana Torrent) and older sister Isabel (Isabel Teller??a) are among the children who race through the barren rural landscape to a movie barn to see James Whale’s classic chiller, but it is only Ana who cranes like a lunar flower under the projected light, ignoring a prelude from the film’s producers that warns viewers not to take what they see too seriously. Before Ana and her sister emerge playfully shrieking from the darkened building, Erice has already allowed Frankenstein‘s influence to seep outside, into the seemingly oblivious existences of the girls’ mutually alienated parents, a beekeeper (Fernando Fern?
There were macabre and fantastical American films in the silent era, many starring "Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Chaney. But horror as a Hollywood genre arguably didn’t exist before 1931, when Universal released what may be the two biggest monster franchise titles in cinematic history.
One was Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring Hungarian émigré Bela Lugosi as Bram Stoker’s suave bloodsucker. The other was James Whale’s Frankenstein, which starred, uh, "???? — as The Monster." That was the actual on-screen billing, though word soon leaked out that portraying Mary Shelley’s "Modern Prometheus" under grotesque makeup was a certain English actor named Boris Karloff. Well, renamed: Onetime farmhand William Henry Pratt had changed his moniker long before, the better to snatch those multiethnic roles his imposing features could encompass.
Karloff, whose huge film legacy is commemorated in a Balboa Theater retrospective starting this Friday, had labored without much recognition in nearly 80 bit and supporting parts since 1919. Public clamor to identify Frankenstein‘s hulking yet plaintive monster ended that once and for all — making Karloff as notorious as the already Broadway-famed Lugosi overnight. Forever after they’d be linked as Hollywood’s twin ghouls. Both were typecast by genre fame, relegated to endless B-, then Z-grade productions. (Unlike Lugosi, Karloff managed to avoid working with legendarily inept Ed "Plan 9 from Outer Space" Wood — but he did end his career laboring on four back-to-back Mexican horror films of almost equally hilarious artistic bankruptcy. Check out the demented Torture Chamber, released well after his 1969 death and most definitely absent from the Balboa slate.)
Heavy on Golden Era classics, very light on the schlockier work that dominated Karloff’s later years, the retrospective is full of rarities and 35 mm restorations. All the Universal Frankenstein films are represented, plus 1932’s The Mummy — another primary horror figure Karloff made his own. The series’ surprise is its several gangster flicks — a genre that hit the fan just before horror did, affording glower-faced Karloff plenty of employment opportunities. He’s eighty-sixed in a bowling alley in the 1932 Scarface and plays a killer convict in another Howard Hawks film, 1931’s The Criminal Code. You can also see him as a crazed Islamic fundamentalist(!) in 1934’s The Lost Patrol, one rare occasion in which he worked with a "prestige" director like John Ford.
But the bulk of the Balboa’s 26 titles are horror, made by studio talents who never got near an Academy Award — though god knows James Whale’s witty The Old Dark House (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) have aged better than whatever won Oscars those years. Ditto The Body Snatcher a decade later, innovative producer Val Lewton’s take on real-life grave robbers Burke and Hare. Body costarred Lugosi, who’d earlier joined Karloff in expat Hungarian director Edgar G. Ulmer’s tardy riot of German expressionism, The Black Cat (1934). Another gem is 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, a rare horror effort for sniffy MGM that compensated via high art-deco gloss, sexual sadism, and racial stereotypes pushed to the point of absurdist camp. Under such conditions, Karloff often seems as amused as he is sinister, shading his material not with condescension but with delicate irony. He was never undignified, though the films often were. He gladly participated in ridiculing his own image, however — notably in the stage smash Arsenic and Old Lace, in which his thug character confesses, "I killed him because he said I looked like Boris Karloff."
The gentlemanly offscreen Karloff loved children, and had mixed feelings about his professional prowess at scaring the bejesus out of them. His daughter Sara Karloff kicks off the Balboa series with an evening of home movies and live chat. You can safely bet her reminiscences will land at a safe distance from Mommie Dearest territory. SFBG
"As Sure as My Name is Boris Karloff"
June 2–8, June 16–22
3630 Balboa, SF
For showtimes, see Rep Clock
It’s Easter weekend in the Mission District, and despite the rabbit snuffling around Rick Popko’s backyard, Cadbury eggs are the last thing on anyone’s mind. "I think we’ve killed everyone we know," Popko explains grimly, grabbing his cell phone to try and recruit one more zombie for the final day of filming on the horror comedy RetarDEAD. Moments later, Popko and RetarDEAD codirector Dan West survey the scene in Popko’s basement. To put it mildly, it’s a bloodbath: The ceiling, walls, and carpet are dripping with cherry red splatters. A smoke machine sits primed for action near a table loaded with gore-flecked prop firearms.
Several weeks later (plus several coats of paint, though a faint pinkness lingers), what had been a gruesome morgue has now reverted to its natural domestic state, save an editing station assembled at one end. A framed poster commemorating Popko and West’s first feature, 2003’s Monsturd, hangs on a nearby wall.
Monsturd is a true B-movie. Thanks to some seriously weird science, a serial killer morphs into a giant hunk of raging poop. Drawn into this sordid small-town tale are an evil doctor, a down-and-out sheriff, and an intense FBI agent, plus Popko and West as a pair of screwball deputies. Toilet jokes abound. After a three-day premiere at San Francisco’s Victoria Theatre, Monsturd found some success on video, most triumphantly surfacing in Blockbuster after the chain purchased 4,000 DVD copies.
Popko and West hope Monsturd‘s cult notoriety will aid RetarDEAD, which happens to be its direct sequel. It starts exactly where Monsturd ended. "Dr. Stern [the mad scientist played by Popko-West pal Dan Burr] rises from the sewer," West explains. "He gets a job at an institute for special education and starts a test group on these special ed students. They become remarkably intelligent, and then the side effect is they become zombies."
"In a nutshell, we kind of liken it to Flowers for Algernon meets Night of the Living Dead," Popko interjects.
"It’s a background gag to get the whole premise of the joke title. People go, ‘Well, why is it RetarDEAD?’ It’s because we needed a gimmick," says West, adding that the title came before the film (and was settled upon after an early choice, Special Dead, was snatched up by another production).
Best friends since bonding over a shared love of Tom Savini, circa 1984, at Napa’s St. Helena High School, Popko and West are so well matched creatively that Burr describes them as "like the left hand and the right hand" on the same body. Both are keen on beguiling titles. Monsturd‘s original moniker (Number Two, Part One) was dropped after being deemed too esoteric; Monsturd, they figured, would solicit more interest in video stores.
"We knew it’s such a stupid title that you would have to rent it just to see if it was as dumb as you thought it was," West explains. And for self-financed filmmakers like West and Popko (who both have full-time jobs and estimate they spent $3,000 on Monsturd and $12,000 to $14,000 so far on RetarDEAD), clever marketing strategies are essential.
"We have to think, when we’re making these movies, what can we sell, what can we get out there, what can we make a name for ourselves with?" Popko says.
"On this level, you go to the exploitation rule, which is give ’em what Hollywood cannot or will not make," West adds. "And they’re not gonna make Monsturd."
Dirty deeds . . .
Monsturd took years to complete and taught the duo scores about the capriciousness of the DVD distribution biz. Though one review dubbed it "the greatest movie that Troma never made," Popko and West actually turned down a deal with the famed schlock house, unwilling to sign over the rights to their film for 25 years. After hooking up with another distributor, they didn’t see any money from their Blockbuster coup. Still, they remain proud of Monsturd and its success.
"We tried to make it the best movie we possibly could, but we had nothing," West explains. "We didn’t piss it out in a weekend. It took a year to shoot it, then it took a year to put the thing together."
"We didn’t just shit out a crappy movie, pardon the pun," Popko says.
Neither filmmaker seems concerned that their trash-tastic subject matter might prevent them from being taken seriously as artists. And it doesn’t bother them that Monsturd‘s joke tends to overshadow the film itself — not just for viewers, but for critics, who were by and large polarized by the killer shit-man tale.
Popko also recalls unsuccessfully submitting Monsturd to a half dozen film festivals intended to showcase DV and underground flicks. Quickly pointing out that the film got picked up anyway, he blames image-conscious programmers: "It’s like, how can you have a respectable film festival when you’ve got a shit monster movie playing in it?"
Though Popko and West live in San Francisco and filmed both Monsturd and RetarDEAD in Northern California, they say they don’t feel like part of the San Francisco filmmaking scene. Again, they suspect the whiff of poo might have something to do with it.
"We’ve kind of been ignored," West says. "We’re not bitter about it, but it would be nice to be acknowledged for what we’re doing — we’re making exploitation films, and we don’t really have any guilt about what we’re doing. It’d be nice for somebody to develop a sense of humor and acknowledge it once in a while."
. . . done dirt cheap
As with Monsturd, RetarDEAD is a nearly all-volunteer effort, pieced together when the responsibilities of real life permit. Despite the obstacles — say, a sudden insurance crisis involving a rented cop car — unpredictability is clearly part of the thrill.
"When you undertake this shit, it’s an adventure: ‘What did you do this weekend?’ ‘Well, I was chased by 42 zombies, and the weekend before that, a bunch of burlesque dancers ripped our villain apart and ripped his face off,’” West explains. "It’s like, how else would you spend your free time?"
This sentiment extends to the film’s cast, several of whom have known Popko and West for years and reprise their Monsturd roles in its sequel. Coming aboard for RetarDEAD were members of San Francisco’s Blue Blanket Improv group, as well as the Living Dead Girlz, a zombie-flavored local dance troupe.
Beth West, who jokingly calls herself a "fake actor," stars in both films as the X-Files-ish FBI agent (Dan West’s former wife, she was roped into the first production after the original lead dropped out). Despite both films’ bare-bones shoots — and other concerns, like trying (and failing) to keep continuity with her hairstyle over multiple years of filming — she remains upbeat about the experience: "I loved being part of such a big creative effort."
Though his character is torn to shreds in RetarDEAD, Burr agrees. "This film is going to be 100 times better than the last one, as far as direction, camera shots — everyone was more serious this time," he says. He hopes that RetarDEAD will help Popko and West expand their audience. "Someone’s gonna notice the talent there. Maybe not in the acting, but this is these guys’ lives. It’s never been my whole dream, but it’s always been their whole dream."
For RetarDEAD, technical improvements over Monsturd, including the introduction of tracking shots, were important considerations. However, first things first: "We knew we wanted this to be gory as fuck," West says. An ardent fan of Herschell Gordon Lewis — notorious for stomach turners like 1963’s Blood Feast — West once hoped to lens a biopic of Lewis and his producing partner, David Friedman. Though it was never completed, he did get the Godfather of Gore’s permission to use a snippet of dialogue from the project in RetarDEAD.
"This whole thing begins with his intro — it’s like that Charlton Heston thing for Armageddon, where it’s like the voice of God — but it’s Herschell Gordon Lewis talking about gore," West says. "It was the one way I could go to my grave saying I finally figured out a way to work with Herschell Gordon Lewis."
Appropriately enough, RetarDEAD pays homage to Lewis’s signature style. "Monsturd had a couple of bloody scenes in it, but it was pretty tame," Popko says. "This here, we’re planning on passing out barf bags at the premiere because, I mean, it’s gross. We’ve got intestines and chain saws and blood all over the place."
Overseeing the splatter was director of special effects Ed Martinez, one of the few additional crew members (and one of few who were paid). A late addition to the production, he "made the movie what it is," according to West.
"A zombie film in this day and age, you can’t do amateur-quality makeup and get away with it — it’ll be a flop," says Martinez, who teaches special effects makeup at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and is a veteran of films like The Dead Pit. "And [Popko and West] know that."
Though Martinez is used to working on bigger projects, he stuck with RetarDEAD — dreaming up such elaborate moments as a Day of the Dead–inspired man-ripped-in-half sequence — because, as he says, "In a way, I’m a coconspirator now." He also appreciates the directors’ sheer enthusiasm and appreciation. After a killer take, they were "literally high-fiving me. Most low-budget filmmakers are so egocentric they would rarely do anything like that. Good effects are important, but they’re not the only things that are important."
Dawn of RetarDEAD
Though a third movie in the Popko-West canon is already in the planning stages (Satanists!), it’s looking like several months before RetarDEAD — still being edited from 30-plus hours of raw footage — has its world premiere.
"We only get one to two nights a week to do this," Popko explains. Making movies for a living is the ultimate dream, but for now, both men view their films as being in the tradition of early John Waters: made outside the system and laden with as much bad taste as they please. Potential distributors have already advised the pair to adjust RetarDEAD‘s divisive title, a notion they considered "for about five minutes," according to West.
Popko and West’s films may be throwbacks to the drive-in era, but their outlook on the movie biz is actually quite forward-looking. Popko — "the carnival barker" to West’s "guy behind the curtain pulling levers and switching things," according to Burr — anticipates a day when tangling with queasy distributors won’t even be necessary, because many films will simply be released directly over the Internet. Both directors are also very interested in high-definition technology; they plan to upgrade from their old DV camera to a new HD model for their next effort, for reasons beyond a desire for better visual quality.
"What HD has done is bring grind house back," West says. "Now you can make stuff on a level that can compete, aesthetically, with what Hollywood’s doing — almost. As far as your talent, you’ll be able to compete realistically with other movies. Now people can make good horror movies on their own terms."
"If you really want to make a movie, you can," Popko notes, stressing the importance of production values. Though the cutthroat nature of the indie film world is always on their minds, they welcome the new wave of B-movies that HD may herald.
"Now, there aren’t movies like Shriek of the Mutilated that were done in the 1970s, which could compete [with Hollywood]. These movies can now come back into the fold as long as they’re shot on HD — and there will be a shit fest like none other," West predicts, adding that he’s looking forward to the deluge. "The world’s a better place with shitty movies in it." SFBG
The Guardian presents Monsturd
Mon/5, 9 p.m.
2565 Mission, SF
It would be a mistake to describe Clean as another entry in the already crowded field of movies about drug addicts. Yes, the film’s plot follows a familiar arc with serious bottoming out en route to recovery, and yes, the leading role — played by Maggie Cheung — is, typically, the kind of juicy part that allows an actress to stretch her chops to emotional and physical extremes. Clean does seem a rather conventional film for adventurous French director Olivier Assayas (Demonlover, Irma Vep), but its careful handling of a very specific phenomenon — the rock-star widow — distinguishes it from the usual portrait of the needle and the damage done.
Cheung’s frizzy-haired character, Emily Wang, is obviously meant as a Yoko Ono/Courtney Love refraction; one imagines she’d get along well with Blake in Last Days‘s alternate universe. Much maligned by the manager and fans of her fading-star boyfriend, Lee, for ruining his career, Emily begins Clean on the defensive. After the couple have a fight, Emily shoots heroin and falls asleep in her car; on returning, she finds Lee dead of an overdose. She spends six months in prison and then begins rediscovering life in fits and starts, mostly in Paris. Assayas tracks the difficulty such a character faces in accepting an everyday life with icy cinematography and listless camera work. Emily goes through it for the sake of her estranged son, who’s been raised by Lee’s hardened mother (Martha Henry) and forgiving father (sweet grizzly bear Nick Nolte). Redemption does come — mostly in the form of a Golden Gate landscape shot, actually — but it’s slow going.
Of course, there’s another fold to all this, namely that Assayas and Cheung collaborated on Irma Vep, married, separated, and only then worked together on Clean. Many commented on the way Irma Vep, which starred Cheung as herself in a fictionalized account of an aborted film, worked to demystify the actress. Clean seems to move in the opposite direction, with Assayas casting Cheung in a part tailored to consume her. Regardless of motive, it’s clear that Cheung’s acting and Assayas’s direction are formidable, matched forces, making for an on-screen tension not unlike the best of what von Sternberg and Dietrich could produce. (Max Goldberg)
1572 California, SF
2230 Shattuck, Berk.
See Rep Clock for showtimes
Drop Marina (Marina Vochenko), one of the three main characters in Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4, into Eli Roth’s Hostel, and she’d be a Nameless Evil Whore, instead of a leather trench-coated weary Moscow hooker with a wryly crude sense of humor. It’s all a matter of perspective, and Roth’s — even if lampooning American xenophobia is his excuse — is boring.
Marina is the kind of woman whose night begins with an escape from a bed tangled with nude bodies, and ends with a trip to a desultory Edward Hopper’s–nightmare bar, where she trades bullshit stories with the only other customers, telling pretend cloning agent and real-life piano tuner Vladimir (Yuri Laguta) and phony KGB drone and real-life meat man Oleg (Konstantin Murzenko) that she works as an ad rep for a device that uses ions to make office workers think they’re happy.
If Marina’s next night began the same way, Khrzhanovsky’s movie would occupy a Russia not far from theatrical tradition, though a hell of a lot ruder and slapstick-happy than Chekhov’s. Screenwriter Vladimir Sorokin is notorious for pinpricking patriotic Soviets and gaseous political tyrants, and the Putins don’t escape his barroom monologues unscathed. But 4 sets its roving, raving sights on a societal vision far beyond — if connected to — some bleary-eyed urban rumination from the bottom of a vodka bottle. All it takes is one cell phone call informing Marina that her twin sister Zoya has died, and the previously stock-still or slowly creeping camera is soon accompanying her shoulder-side on a nightmarish train ride (another inversion of Roth’s Hostel, which 4 predates) and marathon walk through bombed-out, muddy industrial wastelands to Shutilovo. What awaits her there is home sour hell: a mondo bizarro village of raving boozy crones whose sole income stems from the creation of Hans Bellmer–style dolls made up of "chewies" — masticated chunks of moldy bread shaped like noses, dicks, and other body parts.
Turns out Marina’s sister died by choking on a chewy — a little fact we learn when Khrzhanovsky isn’t watching grannies sprint across the landscape to swig absinthe-green moonshine and wake up the few remaining youngsters for another round of graveside wailing. Marina happens to have two other sisters, also twins, which adds up to a foursome that backs up Vladimir’s supposed tall tales about whole towns populated by clones.
Motifs and metaphors run rampant through Sorokin’s screenplay, from its many animalist strains — dogs and pigs, bloody or ceramic — and its talk of a post-humanist Russia where cloning is an open secret, to its numerical obsession, which alternately affirms and subverts the titular figure, described as "the number the world rests on" by Vladimir. At times, this symbolism verges on overbearing, but Khrzhanovsky’s direction takes Sorokin’s playful written ideas into wholly bizarre visual realms. You could say these two are overjoyed to leap off the end of Russia together, and that the event takes place around the time that their heroine starts talking about using grenade launchers as a recreational drug or a psychiatric cure. SFBG
7 and 9:30 p.m. (also 2 and 4:30 p.m., Wed., Sat., and Sun.; no 7 p.m. show on Wed/31)
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF
As far as Lindsay Lohan goes these days, the title of a recent New York Times essay on her vida loca offers a succinct, if not entirely flattering, summation: "Lindsay Lohan: Portrait of the Party Girl as a Young Artist." The freckled former Disneyite has lately been on the verge — though whether it’s the verge of a grown-up career breakout or a total Britney Spears–style image meltdown seems unclear.
Just My Luck, LiLo’s latest, doesn’t bode well for her aspirations to being a movie star in the Scarlett Johansson mode. Donald Petrie, director of Miss Congeniality and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, manages to meet both flicks halfway with Luck, which features a lead character as klutzy as Sandra Bullock’s FBI agent but as Big Apple fabulous as Kate Hudson’s scheming magazine writer. Lohan’s Ashley Albright is the luckiest girl in NYC, which is to say luckiest measured by Sex and the City standards: Cabs screech to the curb the instant they are hailed, elevators are stocked with cute single guys, and Sarah Jessica Parker’s totally chic cocktail dress is accidentally returned with the dry cleaning. Isn’t life frikkin’ delicious?
Naturally, Ashley’s luck — and her outlook on her superficial-yet-cutely-shod lifestyle — totally changes after she spontaneously kisses, yes, the unluckiest guy in NYC, a sweet schlub named Jake (Chris Pine) with rock ’n’ roll dreams. As you can see, the plot is as thin as one of Lohan’s upper arms; 13 Going on 30 is high art by comparison. By the end (and this is not a spoiler, because there’s no way you wouldn’t see it coming unless you recently arrived from a distant galaxy), the finally fortunate-again Ashley’s moment of truth hinges on whether or not she’ll pass the kiss of luck back to Jake, who needs it more than her, because he’s, like, nice to little kids and stuff.
Fortunately, there’s a movie like Somersault around to dig a little deeper into the confusion that arises when innocence takes a dive. Shot two years ago in Australia but just now being released here, Somersault raked in 13 Australian Film Institute awards (if the AFIs are down under’s Oscar equivalent, that would make Somersault more golden than Titanic). Pretty impressive for a film that seems so effortless; 24-year-old star Abbie Cornish (totally convincing as a 16-year-old, and just cast in Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce’s next project) is four years older than Lohan, but her character, Heidi, exudes a far more fresh-scrubbed naïveté.
As angelically fair and danger-prone as Goldilocks, Heidi flees her home in Canberra after she’s discovered making an advance (eagerly reciprocated) on her mother’s mullet-bearing boyfriend. Attracting men isn’t Heidi’s problem; even in a crowded, raucous bar, she practically glows, a quality which no doubt aids her in her fumbling quest to put down new roots. A kindly hotel owner allows her a cheap room, a job as a cashier gets her free meals, and a popular local boy named Joe (Sam Worthington) takes an interest in her.
Rest assured, this ain’t Where the Heart Is. (Recap: Preggers teen Natalie Portman blows into a tiny Oklahoma town and is wholly embraced with homespun heartlandiness.) Heidi is childlike enough to playact in anticipation of her next meeting with Joe, but she’s also sexually precocious to a fault; her judgment is impaired not just by her drinking habits but also by her young age and her desperate need to be loved by anyone who’ll have her. Unfortunately for her, she’s not living in a universe that pinpoints her well-being as its focus (unlike, say, Just My Luck‘s Ashley). Somersault‘s portrayal of real life is harsh, especially for a too-immature-to-be-so-mature girl scraping by completely on her own. Writer-director Cate Shortland deftly conveys the precariousness of Heidi’s situation with restrained symbolism, as when the girl plucks a pair of discarded ski goggles from a junk heap and tries them on — allowing her to glimpse an unyielding world, if only for an instant, through rose-colored glasses. SFBG
Just My Luck
Now playing at Bay Area theaters
For showtimes go to www.sfbg.com
1572 California, SF
For showtimes go to www.sfbg.com
Bogart never says "Play it again, Sam" in Casablanca, and most noirs don’t feature slinky jazz scores, but the misconceptions persist. In the case of the latter, it’s easy enough to see why: A wailing saxophone doesn’t seem far removed from the femmes fatales and smoky nightclubs that populate film noir. But, alas, many of these movies were made before Hollywood discovered jazz — a development that largely took place in the 1950s. Local noir expert and festival programmer Eddie Muller is well aware of this history but nonetheless indulges us with the Jazz/Noir Film Festival at the Balboa.
While not exactly the kind of rarity Muller’s Noir City Festival prizes, Anatomy of a Murder (playing Fri/19, 9:30 p.m.) is always worth another look, not only for Otto Preminger’s studied direction but also for Duke Ellington’s effective, swinging score. If that’s not enough for you, try this: The Duke actually has a cameo in the film wherein he shares a piano with star Jimmy Stewart — stranger collaborations have happened, but this one’s still a dandy.
Bizarre duets aside, Preminger’s 1959 film remains the ultimate courtroom drama. Stewart plays Paul Biegler, a witty, small-town lawyer charged with defending a stationed soldier (Ben Gazzara) who killed in cold blood after learning his flirty wife (Lee Remick) had been raped — or so he says. A temporary insanity plea is entered, a fuss is made over the word panties, and Biegler trades underhanded law tactics with a whip-smart city prosecutor. What so distinguishes Anatomy of a Murder is Preminger’s unusual knack for keeping the audience at bay; over the course of 160 minutes he never entangles us with a character’s perspective. As filmgoers we are almost always with a character, but Preminger’s objective style means we’re a jury, weighing incomplete information to form our own perspectives. Few filmmakers trust their audiences as much as Preminger; fewer still can pull it off as entertainment. (Max Goldberg)
JAZZ/NOIR FILM FESTIVAL
3630 Balboa, SF
$10 ($45 festival pass)
See Rep Clock for showtimes
The significance of a different numeral is noted near the finale, but the number in the title of Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9 makes it clear that the film is but one chapter within a gargantuan project that Barney has been working on for close to two decades, the first seven entries an array of vitrines and video installations predating and possibly even anticipating his Cremaster cycle. Barney has stated that this ninth chapter signals a shift away from the libidinal restraints and hypertrophy (a persistent muscular motif) of earlier installments, into a condition of atrophy. Got that?
A skeptic could view all of the above as a deflective shield used to ward off any criticism that is rooted in basic cinematic practice. How can Drawing Restraint 9‘s ponderously juxtaposed ceremonies and abundant array of symbols — from the many variations of the artist’s signature bisected ovular "field emblem" to the multiple manifestations of whales and other sea creatures — be analyzed if they are mere parts of a broader cosmology that the filmgoer isn’t taking into consideration? The worlds of Barney tend to be epically expansive in scope, making even Wagnerian opera seem smallish in terms of narrative configuration (though not in terms of emotional currency). Yet for all their majestic dives into goopy baths and slippery slides through lubricated passages, they remain clinically hermetic.
Perhaps the most expensive wedding video ever made, Drawing Restraint 9 isn’t short on spectacle. Origami-wrapped fossils, an "Ambergris March" street parade, women in white cooing as they dive for pearls, citrus-scented baths, and an enormous petroleum Jell-O mold are just a handful of the first half’s ingredients. Most of these somehow relate to the "Occidental Guests" (Barney and real-life mate Björk), who are bathed and shaved — and, in Björk’s case, given hair extensions that incorporate objects from the ocean and forest floors — before being adorned in furry variants of Shinto marriage garments. Ultimately, the couple meet, mute, at the end of one chilly hall in the Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru before joining a tea master in a ceremony that gives way to an aquatic mating dance. Then out come the flensing knives.
Barney and Björk might be exploring a kinship between Japan’s and Iceland’s cultures. Is the result expensive indulgence? Yes. While the discourse around Barney’s museum exhibitions tends toward solemnity, his ventures into film have met with some irreverence that, however knee-jerk, might also be deserved. In a 2005 interview conducted by Glen Helfand for the local film publication Release Print, J. Hoberman clearly elucidated a film-focused critique of Barney, labeling his "big-budget avant-garde" movies "deeply uninteresting" in relation to the "crazy, quasi-narrative" (though usually more concise) works made in the ’60s and ’70s by underground filmmakers such as Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, and Bruce Conner. Certainly, any spellbinding aspects of Barney’s visuals seem schematic in relation to Kenneth Anger’s or Maya Deren’s alchemy.
One could — perhaps unfairly — make a case that Drawing Restraint 9 is an act of class war against similar, barely funded efforts on film or video today, but more tellingly, it also comes up wanting in relation to similarly expensive efforts, whether they be "experimental" short works — the stunning aerial photography in Olivo Barbieri’s San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award New Visions winner site specific_LAS VEGAS 05 makes Barney’s seem clumsy and unimaginative — or the type of contemporary "art" film that lives primarily on the festival circuit. Both Tsai Ming-liang and Barney have created interlinked cinematic works that spotlight masculinity, but Tsai’s delve into the psyche more acutely than Barney’s phallic drag routines. Tsai’s work is also superior in cinematic terms: Both the editing and the mise-en-scène in his films deliver comic punch lines and emotional sucker punches. At the moment, at least, those are two things that Barney just can’t buy. SFBG
DRAWING RESTRAINT 9
3010 Geary, SF
The sales pitch is "democracy," suggesting national autonomy and individual choice. But the reality here and abroad is free-market corptocracy, which delivers pretty much the opposite. Yet for all their control on government policy and civilian life, corporations largely remain invisible to those not directly involved with them.
So, corporate culture — and the face-lifted culture it exports for public consumption — may be this century’s Esperanto, a language everyone ought to speak but few have bothered to learn. Hoping to bridge that gap is CounterCorp, a new nonprofit that "seeks to document, reduce, and ultimately prevent the corrosive political, economic, and social effects that large corporations have in the United States and around the world."
Other Cinema is hosting a CounterCorp benefit. Programmed by Craig Baldwin, the "Public Image Ltd." program will dig deep into the variably kitschy, ominous, flag-waving, and wallet-depleting propaganda companies of prior eras visited on both consumers and their own employees.
Among the dusty nuggets you’ll glimpse are Avon’s 1960s "The Joy of Living with Fragrance," a groovy 1971 ride down Oscar Mayer’s "hot dog highway," and General Motors’ delirious 1956 "Design for Dreaming," in which a fantasizing housewife-ballerina pirouettes through a Technicolor orgy of luxury wheels, designer gowns, and kitchen superappliances. Then there’s the late-’70s "Caring Is Our Way," a Hilton Hotels recruitment reel wherein African American doormen and chauffeurs (including one "Bo" Jones, perhaps cousin to Mr. Bo Jangles) exalt the joy of bowing and scraping for those "beautiful people" who attend, say, plumbers’ conventions.
Providing a rare in-house flip side to that smiley-face message, Delco Products’ circa 1980 "What’s It All About?" is a guilt-tripping recession extravaganza set to nervous bongo music. Its depressed narrator chides "Somehow … we didn’t put it all together," laying heavy "J’accuse!"s on supposedly lazy-ass American workers for losing jobs and plants to them wily Japanese. That corporate strategy hasn’t changed: When shit hits the fan, a smart CEO still finds ways to blame those damn ingrates further down the ladder.
PUBLIC IMAGE, LTD.
Sat/13, 8:30 p.m.
Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
$5–$20 suggested donation
There are some serious-minded films on the program of this year’s San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, like Cracked Not Broken, about a stockbroker turned crack addict, and The Chances of the World Changing, about one man’s crusade to save endangered turtles. But when there’s an option in life to sample something called Pizza! The Movie, there’s really no way around it. You have to go for the pie.
Director Michael Dorian is good-natured enough to include a clip from "the other" Pizza: The Movie — a low-budget 2004 comedy about a lovelorn delivery dude — in his doc; he’s also clever enough to wrap his film around the theme that pizza is, by nature, a competitive sport. Rivalries lurk in all aspects of the business. The simple question of whose pizza tastes the best is paramount; dozens of parlors, from New York to Los Angeles to an Ohio spot famed for its meat-laden "butcher shop" special, are visited, and many friendly opinions are shared. But other points of contention run deeper than Chicago-style crust, including which trade magazine can claim superiority (bad blood runs twixt upstart PMQ and old-school Pizza Today); mass-market (i.e., Pizza Hut) versus artisan-style pies; and who invented which new twist when, exemplified by a chef who claims he created all of California Pizza Kitchen’s original recipes.
So, clearly, the pizza industry attracts strong personalities. But the absolute highlight of Pizza! The Movie is the Bay Area’s own Tony Gemignani, a champion acrobatic pizza tosser whose skill with dough is as awe-inspiring as his deadly serious approach to his craft. Frankly, I can’t believe Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell hasn’t starred in a feature film based on this guy; the entire 90 minutes of Pizza! The Movie are worth watching just to see Tony’s take on The Matrix, complete with bullet-time dough-throwing. Good thing DocFest goes down in the Mission, where pizza is plentiful — after the movie, there’s no way you won’t be in the mood for a slice.
Another DocFest film with a tempting title is Muskrat Lovely, Amy Nicholson’s affectionate study of a small-town Maryland beauty pageant. The specter of Corky St. Clair looms over the proceedings, which transpire during a festival with twin highlights: the crowning of Miss Outdoors, of course, and a muskrat-skinning contest. (In a tidy display of synergy, one of the pageant girls skins a muskrat as her talent.) The importance of glamour — even when one is a teenager living in an isolated Chesapeake Bay community — is addressed, as is the importance of removing the muskrat’s musk gland before you cook it.
A less triumphant tale unfolds in The Future of Pinball, local filmmaker Greg Maletic’s ironically titled work-in-progress doc about pinball’s painful decline. He focuses on a 1999 invention optimistically dubbed Pinball 2000, a wondrous machine dreamed up by the industry’s most talented (and increasingly desperate) pinball designers, a dedicated group whose job titles were made nearly extinct by the video game boom. Despite a groovy lounge music soundtrack, Pinball weaves a sad tale of creativity being stamped out by big business; also, as it turns out, the eventual fate of the Pinball 2000 happens to be one more thing we can blame on Jar Jar Binks.
The hour-long Pinball plays with Natasha Schull’s 30-minute ode to gluttony, Buffet: All You Can Eat Las Vegas. Drawn in by such gimmicks as the $2.99 shrimp cocktail, self-proclaimed buffet connoisseurs arrange incredible and unlikely food combinations on enormous plates; casino employees, used to dealing with gob-smacking amounts of consumption, ponder how a horseshoe-shaped restaurant really allows for "more flow." Meanwhile, Sin City pigs grunt on a farm outside town, eagerly awaiting the leftovers. After all, as the farmer’s wife points out, humans and pigs have nearly identical digestive tracts. SFBG
SAN FRANCISCO DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF
Also Women’s Building
3543 18th St., SF
Filmed for the most part outside London, and shot by Brit Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), United 93 is nonetheless a wholly American tale — one that still reverberates with enough unsettling intensity that it’s questionable whether or not audiences will want to see it on the big screen. In 50 years, perhaps, United 93 won’t sting so much; it’ll be easier to view it in the context of other Hollywood docudramas mined from national tragedies (and, fortunately, United 93 is directed with far better taste and skill than, say, Pearl Harbor; we’ll see how Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center fares when it opens later in ’06).
As you’d expect, a palpable sense of inevitability haunts United 93‘s every frame. As the minutes of Sept. 11 tick by, we don’t really get to know the film’s characters as individuals. Instead, United 93 switches between the doomed flight’s crew and passengers (all of whom, including the four jumpy hijackers, are represented by actors chosen for their physical resemblance to the actual people) and the increasingly frantic folks on the ground (several air traffic controllers and military types play themselves). Greengrass’s trademark handheld camera is well suited to capturing chaos; one of his few overtly cinematic concessions is the film’s score, which floats in occasionally to heighten tension that’s already running into the red.
Though it focuses on the horror, and heroism, wrought by Sept. 11, United 93 also highlights the day’s ill-managed official response. Without pointing fingers at anyone in particular (except the prez, who’s mentioned as being unreachable, and the MIA veep), the initial disbelief, waves of conflicting information, and general confusion are made achingly clear: Even after WTC-bound American Airlines flight 11 becomes a confirmed hijack, flight 93 idles on the tarmac, eagerly awaiting takeoff. SFBG
Select Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com for showtimes.
Harry Smith is a folk hero. Smith’s masterwork, the definitive, meticulously edited Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), was the bible of the ’60s folk movement that spawned Dylan, Baez, Fahey, and others. To discover it is to stumble into a forgotten, marginalized world, a portal to — as Greil Marcus put it in his book about Dylan’s Basement Tapes — "a weird but clearly recognizable America."
Compiled from scratchy 78s of the late ’20s and early ’30s and split into three two-LP volumes — Ballads, Social Music, and Songs — the collection seamlessly mixes country with blues, Cajun dances with fiery sermons. Tales of murder, suicide, plagues, and bizarre hallucinations wander alongside familiar characters from American mythology: Casey Jones, Stackalee (a.k.a. Stagger Lee), and US presidents and their assassins. These figures regularly appear in American stories and songs — from the Anthology and elsewhere — becoming recognizable but, like all great folk heroes, constantly evolving and remaining a mystery.
And so it is with Smith. A grand self-mythologizer, Smith told contradictory stories about his life: Born in 1923, in Portland, Ore., to an occult-obsessed teacher and a salmon fishery worker, he claimed his mother was the Russian princess Anastasia and his father, Aleister Crowley, a British writer, painter, and famed Satanist. Smith dabbled in many different art forms. In addition to editing the Anthology, he recorded Native American tribal rituals, the first Fugs album, and many of Allen Ginsberg’s recordings. He was also a prolific filmmaker, painter, writer, and all-around eccentric.
Smith’s friends — Ginsberg, Jonas Mekas, and Robert Frank among them — tell stories about a mad trickster genius on amphetamines with an encyclopedic knowledge of old music and art, fascinated by alchemy and anthropology, constantly begging for money, always experimenting with some new project. As a filmmaker, he worked solely in the abstract. His early films from the ’40s and ’50s (released in 1957 as Early Abstractions) are protopsychedelic: Colorful, hand-painted geometric shapes bounce and morph into one another.
His great cinematic statement, however, is 1962’s Heaven and Earth Magic. An hour-long exercise in black-and-white animation, it appropriately comes with a disputed history. Mekas claims the initial print was in color and projected with a special apparatus that Smith designed and then destroyed, tossing it out the window onto the streets of Manhattan.
Whatever the reality, what survives is strange, unique, and frequently wonderful. White cutouts from old catalogs, advertisements, and religious texts float and pirouette through the all-black frame. A loose story emerges of a Victorian lady who loses a watermelon, visits the dentist, and travels to and from heaven. Its mystical and historical imagery is impossible to fully grasp without years of study — or, perhaps, Smith’s brain.
It’s clearly the work of a man who saw the world differently than most of us do — both because he could and because he wanted to. Smith died in 1991, shortly after accepting a Grammy for Anthology. This screening of Heaven and Earth Magic — complete with a live score by local avant-pop outfit Deerhoof — should demonstrate what Smith himself surely knew: He was an American original, an artist difficult to categorize and impossible to ignore. SFBG
Heaven and Earth Magic
(Harry Smith, USA, 1962)
April 27, 9:45 p.m., Castro
SATIRE Outfitted with a name that sounds shiny and desirable, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is in the business of eating shit with a smile, then pretending that aforementioned shit is, in fact, a brand! new! renewable! energy source! Such jaw-dropping insincerity is a must when you’ve got his job: chief national public-relations shill for the tobacco industry. There’s no putting a good face on the promotion and sales of "cancer sticks" anymore, is there? Nick is a genius at suggesting otherwise, or at least at weaving such tangles of faux folky, quasi-inspirational "logic" that his many foes are left confusedly tongue-tied. In private moments he’s still ruthless, pragmatic, self-justifying, cynical — yet an everyman nonetheless, trying in his own way to be a good citizen, even a good dad: On his custody days, he inculcates his son Joey (Cameron Bright) with life wisdom while seldom evoking the Golden Rule. Kidnap attempts, death threats, crusading congressmen (William H. Macy), duplicitous investigative journalists (Katie Holmes), living recriminations like a near dead former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), cold, hard statistics — nothing fazes Nick. A political movie in that it’s about culture-of-spin morality — in which the highest value is placed on the most you can get away with for the sake of the bottom line — Jason Reitman’s film from Christopher Buckley’s novel gives good satire. It’s awfully clever, colorful, and well cast; Eckhart hasn’t been so perfect since he slithered through In the Company of Men. Yet once the moderate dazzle lifts, you might realize that exposing and/or making fun of Big Tobacco is like shooting, er, smoked fish in a barrel. (Dennis Harvey)
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING opens Fri/24 in Bay Area theaters.
Go to www.sfbg.com for showtimes.
In the not-so-Wild West, where assistant directors on Segways roam, washed-up matinee idol Howard Spence (Sam Shepard) gallops right off the set of his latest picture, appropriately dubbed Phantom of the West. Where Howard’s headed at the start of Don’t Come Knocking
Given that the phrase another Vietnam (with or without fucking in the middle) probably passes through lips somewhere every .0000398 seconds at present, it might be a good moment to ponder differences between war-themed movies from the 1960s and today.
Admittedly, the Vietnam War had been going on for a while by the time significant mainstream movieland responses emerged. Among them were John Wayne’s notorious The Green Berets, the morally ambiguous Patton, and myriad antiwar diatribes, of which Catch-22, MASH, Little Big Man, Joe, and Soldier Blue were just the tip
Asia Argento’s The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things is the preposterous story, once widely imagined to be true, of the childhood of Jeremiah “JT” LeRoy, as he bounces between the custody of his foster parents, his prostitute mother, and his sadistic, fundamentalist grandparents. Now that we’ve been divested of the cherished illusion that JT was a homeless, HIV-positive child prostitute, we are free to watch Heart not as poignant and painfully honest autobiography but as what the story always has been: a punk-inflected fantasy about “white trash.” We can finally concede that the character of JT’s mother Sarah, as played by Argento herself, bears no resemblance to anyone you might actually meet at a West Virginia truck stop, but only to the fictive characters on which she’d always been based, characters in other films played by the likes of Laura Dern, Juliette Lewis, and Reese Witherspoon.
Although Jimmy Bennett, who plays the seven-year-old JT, is a fine little actor, bringing an appropriate confusion and blankness to the role, he has the unhappy task of acting alongside Heart’s director, who seems always to have wandered in from a radically different movie. While we’re accustomed to suspending our disbelief in the face of, say, white trash child-beaters with Hollywood abs, or country-and-western truck drivers with Hollywood tattoos, it is impossible to watch Argento without remembering that we are watching Argento. With that amazing face, she could be a Pasolini character, or the type of dame traditionally played by Anna Magnani, an Italian immigrant stuck in a bad American marriage. In her attempt to channel Courtney Love, she also seems to be approaching, but never quite arriving at, the outrageous camp of early John Waters. She’d play well next to Edith Massey or Divine, certainly. The primary pleasure of this film is watching the obvious relish Argento takes in doing endless varieties of white trash drag.
By the middle of the film, however, when we’ve tired of guessing what floozy outfit she will show up in next, it would be nice to have some sense of the troubled tenderness of this mother-child bond. There is little narrative tension in the film, which treats much of Jeremiah’s childhood like a punk rock acid flashback, a technique that doesn’t serve to create the mental landscape of the boy himself. The film relies on Sonic Youth instead of its actors to create its emotional tone. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s anger and dread are appropriately apocalyptic but don’t fill in the blankness of the older JT, played by twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse. Beyond casting twins to play a fragmented child, Argento has one other inspired conceit: hiring herself as the young Jeremiah for the scene in which he seduces his mother’s boyfriend. This technique both conveys the complex identity issues that form the only interesting context for the film and saves the story from veering into the realm of kiddie porn, where it always seems poised to go.
Argento is not the first director to send her white trash protagonists adrift in a hallucinogenic fun house. Thankfully less ambitious than Oliver Stone in her attempts at social commentary and less silly and deep than David Lynch in her attempts to create an American gothic landscape as dreamworld underbelly, she also has considerably less sense of forward drive. Watching children get abused (and waiting for the next scene of abuse) is a narrative pleasure only for sadists and is illuminating only if we discover a trajectory, no matter how deluded the causality. In Marnie, Tippi Hedren’s childhood encounters with her mother’s promiscuity contribute to her adult career as a kleptomaniac. In Sybil the abuse is the answer to the mystery of what dark secrets lie at the heart of the fragmented personality and its missing chunks of time. The message that child abuse isn’t necessarily interesting or meaningful is probably a valuable one, but as a concept it can’t carry the film any more than the brief cameos by Peter Fonda as the evil fundamentalist grandpa, Marilyn Manson as one of Sarah’s polymorphously perverse boyfriends, or the surprise appearance of the convicted shoplifter movie star who once claimed the earliest JT sighting ever
For proof – as if any is needed – that television is overwhelmingly a right-wing medium, one need only contemplate the manner in which DNA evidence is cited in the glut of true crime shows that crowd A&E, CourtTV, and other networks. Almost without fail, DNA is shown being used to convict the guilty. It is presented as proof that the legal system – with scientific help – is just and right.
Jessica Sanders’s new film, After Innocence, is devoted to the kind of true-life stories you probably won’t find on Cold Case Files. The DNA evidence here exonerates men who have been sentenced to life, men who’ve already spent decades in prison on false charges. With this type of subject matter, Sanders can’t help making an emotionally affecting movie.
But After Innocence also looks beyond the entwined grief and relief in these men’s lives to the bullheadedness of the system that put them there. For example, in the case of at least one of the film’s subjects, a prosecutor continually refutes seemingly irrefutable evidence because he can’t face up to the fact that he made a – knowing, not innocent – mistake at trial.
I’ve read reviews of After Innocence that complain that Sanders doesn’t stick to her theme – that her dedication to these men’s lives after imprisonment wavers, giving way to an advert-like portrait of prisoner’s-aid group the Innocence Project. These complaints from a too-literal view of Sanders’s title. After Innocence is by no means perfect, but its name refers not only to the lives of those exonerated but also – and just as crucially – to the actions of the criminal justice system. How will it treat a prisoner after his (or her) innocence has been established?
The answer isn’t a satisfying or inspiring one – it’s maddening. Quite often robbed of more than half their lives, the men of After Innocence are expected to be grateful that they’re "free" today. Compensation? Not a chance. Rather like a certain commander in chief, the legal and criminal-justice forces at play here consider themselves above even having to make an apology. (Johnny Ray Huston)
Perhaps the best book written about a wrongly convicted man is Jack Olsen’s Last Man Standing, a chronicle of the 27 years Geronimo Ji-Jaga Pratt spent caged in a California prison thanks to crooked FBI agents and Los Angeles cops. The narrative starts with Pratt’s childhood in Louisiana, tracks his involvement in the Black Panther party and the decades he spent dwelling in the American gulag, and concludes with his triumphant release from prison thanks to the tireless lawyering of Stuart Hanlon and the late Johnnie Cochran. It’s a fucking amazing read – meticulously researched yet hyper-engrossing, torturous and ultimately uplifting.
But I’ve always had the nagging sensation that Olsen terminated his book at the perfect moment: before the homecoming euphoria wore off and the challenges and mundanity of day-to-day life set in. Can a person truly get on with his or her life when the authorities have stolen the vast bulk of it?
It’s the sort of question the makers of the documentary After Innocence put to eight men who were wrongfully sent to prison. The answers are, as a whole, tear-inducing – most of the men are grappling only semi-successfully with a callous world that’s done little to make them whole. Prison, as one man says, "breaks down your soul. It breaks down everything about you. It takes your manhood. It takes your pride. It takes your decency."
They find themselves struggling with the basics. They have trouble building lasting relationships with lovers. They have trouble finding jobs – how do you explain a 10- or 20-year blank spot on your résumé?
And at times they have trouble simply experiencing emotions. In what you’d expect to be an emotional highpoint, the film documents the release of Wilton Dedge, who is freed from a Florida prison after wrongly serving 22 years for sexual battery and burglary. But on his big day, Dedge looks uneasy and half-zombiefied, as if his decades in the joint have simply siphoned the life from him. It’s perhaps the most telling scene in a film filled with potent vignettes.
While tremendously powerful, After Innocence isn’t flawless. At times the movie is a little talking head-ish, telling viewers what they should think rather than letting them witness the stumblings and successes of the exonerated men. Overall, though, it’s a remarkable work – and one that deserves the widest audience possible. (A.C. Thompson)
AFTER INNOCENCE Opens Fri/20 Lumiere Theatre (415) 267-4893 Act 1 & 2 (510) 464-5980 Showtimes at www.sfbg.com www.landmarktheatres.com www.afterinnocence.com