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Film Review

Life through the lens



FILM It’s been nearly 30 years since documentarian Ross McElwee made Sherman’s March — usually written without its lengthy, if accurately descriptive, subtitle: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. It picked up the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 1987, years before the festival became a career-maker for the likes of Steven Soderbergh (whose Sex, Lies, and Videotape premiered at the 1989 fest). If McElwee didn’t go on to become a household name, he did begin his Harvard teaching career during the Sherman’s March era. He currently holds the title “Professor of the Practice of Filmmaking” — a suitably important job for an artist whose practice has informed the work of countless filmmakers over the past three decades.

Two of McElwee’s key works, along with short films by his Harvard colleagues, make up “Afterimage: Ross McElwee and the Cambridge Turn,” a three-day Pacific Film Archive series that has McElwee in conversation with author Scott MacDonald (American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn). Sherman’s March is not included, but Backyard (1984) ably demonstrates his trademarks: first-person voice-over (delivered in his unmistakable Carolina drawl); turning the camera on friends and family, most of whom are willing subjects; and crafting a plot of sorts out of a personal journey. (At 40 minutes, Backyard was presumably easier to program than Sherman’s March, which runs 155.)

His most recent feature, 2011’s Photographic Memory, retains all of these characteristics; it also incorporates cinema verité footage first glimpsed in Backyard. The films are ideal companion pieces. Both address father-son relationships, with a focus on the son’s lurching entry into adulthood. In Backyard — shot in the summer of 1975, when McElwee was on summer break from his filmmaking grad program at MIT — the artist documents his brother Tom’s preparations for medical school, a career choice that delights his conservative, Southern-gentleman surgeon father. To his other son, the one with scraggly long hair and a camera attached to his face, Dr. McElwee admits, “I’ve resigned myself to your fate.”

Backyard can also be read for its themes of race in the mid-1970s South, where segregation is still a way of life, and its exploration of grieving, since at the time of filming McElwee’s mother had recently died. It’s as multilayered as the many lives it captures, in a time when filming people just going about their everyday business was pretty uncommon. Dr. McElwee, for one, wonders why his son is wasting expensive film shooting his father puttering around the yard. Back then, home movies were just that — certainly not made for public consumption, and the relaxed demeanor of McElwee’s subjects bears this out.

By contrast, Photographic Memory — one of 16mm devotee McElwee’s first ventures into digital filmmaking — is very much a product of the 21st century. The son from Backyard is now the father, fretting over his own directionless son, Adrian. We see Adrian (in footage no doubt repurposed from earlier McElwee films) as an adorable kid, calling his father “Da-da” and comfortably emoting in front of the lens. Present-day Adrian, an emo 21-year-old, is a glowering poster child for the Selfie Generation, forever tapping on his phone, slurping on iced coffee, and giving off an air of unearned superiority. He avoids eye contact. He’s no longer interested in being filmed, unless he — a budding filmmaker himself — is the one calling the shots. “What makes me think he’s hearing anything I say?” McElwee wonders after trying, and failing, to break through.

At wit’s end, McElwee digs up old journals and photographs from his early 20s, pre-Backyard, when he took a year off college to bum around France (his father was, naturally, aghast). There, he met a charismatic man who became his photography mentor, and a woman with whom he had a significant affair. “It’s admittedly painful to try and penetrate the purple haze of my prose,” he says over a scene where he flips through his youthful scrawlings as his son holds the camera. “I feel a little embarrassed at showing Adrian these pages.”

Admitting embarrassment is a dying art in these narcissistic times (Ugly photo? Just throw a filter over it! Made a mistake? Blame the haters!) — and it’s one reason why McElwee’s films resonate so powerfully. He’s keenly self-aware in a way that’s refreshingly old-fashioned. He knows when to let his images do the talking, and when to let forces beyond his control steer his narrative. There’s much to take in when he returns to sea-swept Brittany, a place he’s romanticized in his memory. “The whole experience was so … French,” he wryly notes, realizing how vague and clichéd that sounds.

As McElwee immerses himself in the scenery he’s dreamed of for decades, he reflects on what kind of person he was back then. Turns out the atmosphere awakens the essence of his younger self far better than his old photos, which are filled with places and faces he doesn’t recognize. (If only he’d had a movie camera back then!) If the stealth mission of his trip is to grasp onto something, anything, that will help him relate to his moody son, it goes mostly unfulfilled — witness a Skype conversation between the US and France, as cluttered with technological difficulties as it is attitude problems.

But there are no tidy endings in McElwee films, because that’s how life is. In the last scene, it’s revealed that Adrian has decided to attend film school, mirroring Tom McElwee’s decision to follow in his father’s footsteps. Is there another McElwee legacy in the making? Stay tuned for the inevitable next chapter. *


March 30-April 2, $5.50-9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk



Lost in space


FILM It’s so seldom a film of major scale and budget is made without at least some standard commercial aspirations — however misguided — that the rare exceptions seem as curious, improbable, and wonderful as unicorns. (And about as useless, any bottom-line-oriented producer might say.) We’re not talking Heaven’s Gate (1980), Ishtar (1987), or Battlefield Earth

It’s rare enough for an artist to complete one such project. Alejandro Jodorowsky stands nearly alone in having made at least two. A Chilean émigré to Paris, he had avant-garde interests that led him from theater and comic book art to film, making his feature debut with 1968’s Fando y Lis — a low-budget, little-seen harbinger of things to come, based on a play by likeminded Spanish stage and screen surrealist Fernando Arrabal. Undaunted by its poor reception, he created El Topo (1970), a blood-soaked mix of spaghetti western, mysticism, and Buñuellian parabolic grotesquerie with the director playing a messianic lone gunman whose spiritual path requires violent cleanup of a corrupt society. It gradually became the very first “midnight movie” sensation, playing for years to audiences of stoned hippies — no doubt causing some bad trips en route.

After that success, he was given nearly a million dollars to “do what he wanted” with 1973’s The Holy Mountain. It was, essentially, El Topo redux, albeit without the western motifs and with a staggering Pop-Op-surreal pictorialism to its less-Leone-more-Hesse vision quest. He played the Alchemist, a seer-trickster who leads nine representatives of the modern world on a journey to their own souls. It ended with the camera turning on itself and cast turning toward the audience, “breaking the illusion” because “real life awaits us.”

This extraordinary, singular, pretentious, crazy epic was a big hit in Europe. (Rather strangely, it utterly flopped in the US, and its revival was tied up in legal woes for years; before one announced SF screening at the old York Theater, a private collector’s print was seized and impounded.) French producer Michel Seydoux asked Jodorowsky what he’d like to do next. Dune, he said — though as he confesses in Frank Pavich’s fascinating new documentary, he hadn’t actually read Frank Herbert’s cult science-fiction novel yet, though a friend “told [him] it was fantastic.”

In many ways it seemed a perfect match of director and material. Yet Dune would be an enormous undertaking in terms of scale, expense, and technical challenges. What moneymen in their right mind would entrust this flamboyant genius/nut job with it?

They wouldn’t, as it turned out. So doc Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of “the greatest film never made,” one that’s brain-exploding enough in description alone. But there’s more than description to go on here, since in 1975 the director and his collaborators created a beautifully detailed volume of storyboards and other preproduction minutiae they hoped would lure Hollywood studios aboard this $15 million space phantasmagoria. From this goldmine of material, as well as input from the surviving participants, Pavich is able to reconstruct not just the film’s making and unmaking, but to an extent the film itself — there are animated storyboard sequences here that offer just a partial yet still breathtaking glimpse of what might have been. Intending to create “a cinematographic god … a prophet to change the minds of all the young people in the world,” Jodorowsky’s plans were more fabulously grandiose even than Herbert’s fantasy of galactic war over a planet producing hallucinogenically enlightening “spice.” (The author himself did not appreciate all the director’s ideas.) His cast, to be led by son Brontis (like dad, an eerily ageless interviewee), would include such outsize personalities as Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, and David Carradine. Music would be provided in part by Pink Floyd; designers included H.R. Giger, Moebius, and Dan O’Bannon. Not everyone met the filmmaker’s requirements for collaborative “spiritual warriors” — Douglas Trumbull, the FX wizard for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was rejected for being all business.

As the documentary details, this dazzling package did indeed impress the Hollywood suits needed to complete its financing. They had just one quibble: Jodorowsky. It was his vision, but he was too much of a wild card for a commercial gamble of this scale.

Finally, bitter defeat was admitted. Screen rights were later acquired by Dino De Laurentiis’ company. Hired after numerous other directors jumped ship, David Lynch still considers 1984’s Dune his worst, most creatively compromised film. (Thirty years later it’s still awful, despite some stubborn defenders.) Jodorowsky, who admires Lynch, admits he was perversely relieved at how abysmally that costly flop turned out.

His own filmic career took a hard hit from which it never really recovered. 1980’s Tusk and 1990’s The Rainbow Thief were incongruous, barely-seen, half-hearted stabs at the mainstream; 1989’s Santa Sangre a welcome return to form, yet it also a somewhat pale imitation of earlier work. (His forthcoming first feature since, The Dance of Reality, has elicited similar responses.) He busied himself in other projects, notably writing fantasy comics. His Dune became a mostly forgotten industry tale — ah, the Seventies, when they were that crazy. (But not that crazy, alas.)

Yet the incredible storyboard tome got circulated around. As vividly suggested here via clips, its influence is unacknowledged yet hard to deny in umpteen subsequent movies and other media, from the Star Wars and Alien films to recent releases. As the now 85-year-old Jodorowsky serenely observes, “[My] Dune is in the world like a dream. But dreams change the world, also.” *

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE opens Fri/28 in San Francisco.

Smotherly love



Lots of big-budget English-language movies are made in Romania now, because it has good production facilities, flexibly “period” locations, and most importantly because it’s probably still a lot cheaper to shoot there than wherever your story is actually set (whether 17th-century France or even contemporary suburban America). But that trend started nearly a quarter century ago, when producers of low-rent horror movies (notably Full Moon, with its Subspecies and Puppetmaster series) realized they could film whole movies right where Dracula came from, for less than their LA catering budget.

That sort of thing continues today, and there’s even a Full Moon Festival that is the country’s only annual horror/sci-fi showcase. Yet in terms of actual Romanian movies, made by and (at least theoretically) for Romanians, horror has never gotten much of a foothold. The Romanian New Wave that began making waves internationally about a decade ago is as far from guilty pleasure genre terrain as possible, being heavy on the very long takes, cryptic narratives, and bleak realism of a particular, stratifying form of high art cinema. You could make a case for some being psychological horror stories, like Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the cheerful tale of two young women trying to get one illegal abortion amid the pro-life climate of the Ceausescu dictatorship.

At last, however, Romania has come up with its very own, original, terrifying monster movie. Yes, it is only psychological “horror,” replete with more long takes, cryptic narrative aspects, and bleak realism. But nothing has been quite as skin-crawling a filmic experience in a while as watching Luminita Gheorghiu as a Bucharest grande dame practicing her particular form of Machiavellian maternal concern in Child’s Pose. It’s a good thing Mother’s Day is still some weeks away, because here is a movie you will need to shake off before regarding your own “I carried you for nine months” claim-staker with anything but fear and loathing.

Cornelia Keneres (Gheorghiu) is introduced kvetching by phone to a friend about her son’s girlfriend — one who, being insufficiently Brahmin-born (among other things), she does not approve of. But you sense right away she wouldn’t approve of anyone who complicated her successful apron-string strangulation of said only child. She plumbs (and plies with unwanted secondhand-clothing gifts) their discomfited, shared housekeeper for every possible detail about what Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) has said and done of late. She clucks over the affairs of other people’s children with similarly well upholstered, upper-class Bucharest matrons you just know steered their families’ good fortunes with iron-butterfly will through the awkward transition from corrupt old Communist regime to brave new capitalist world. One such pal is a none-too-retired veteran opera diva who, while coaching two young singers in front of a small audience, can’t resist butting in on the junior soprano’s part repeatedly.

Cornelia is appreciating this spectacle — selfish, war-painted gorgons must stick together — when she gets an emergency call with some bad news. Her thirtysomething “boy,” driving recklessly on a country road, has hit and killed an actual boy. Swooping down like a mother hawk, she immediately sets about intimidating the local police and trying to revise the statement Barbu has already given them.

This might be a heartrending tale of sacrifice and love under tragic circumstances, if it weren’t for the fact that Cornelia is palpably a horrible, horrible person, and her son — who shows no signs of being much better — hates her guts. The child he killed is an inconvenient abstract for her, and one suspects what Barbu feels is less guilt than an all-consuming self-pity that this should happen to him. Jobless, hapless, and pampered, he’s the kind of terminal manboy who will never be able to make decisions of his own, or stop resenting his parents for making them on his behalf. (Actually dad, played by Florin Zamfirescu, has clearly long since given up on both of them in disgust.) He whines, he chafes in his mother’s presence. But notably, he doesn’t tell her to stop meddling, because he’s too weak to either save his own ass or accept the criminal punishment that would befall most people in his position. The line between love and control may blur between them, but it’s not about to be severed.

This Golden Bear winner by Calin Peter Netzer, who co-wrote it with Razvan Radulescu, is a bit over infatuated with handheld jerky-cam at first, a distracting aesthetic choice that does not heighten the immediacy of its mostly cold, conversational scenes. But Netzer (whose prior features, 2003’s Maria and 2009’s Medal of Honor, were well-received if little seen beyond the festival circuit) settles down after a while, his film’s impact gathering as the camera grows more and more still. There are chillingly well-realized tête-à-têtes between Cornelia and her Barbu’s well-intentioned, overmatched girlfriend (Ilinca Goia); Cornelia and a reptilian accident witness (Vlad Ivanov) she hopes to bribe into changing his testimony; then a blood-freezing standoff between Cornelia and Barbu himself.

Finally, she meets with the parents of the dead child, two “very simple people” whose desire for justice she tries every trick in the book to manipulate. It’s a bravura performance of grief, empathy, and desperation, such that Cornelia might even believe it herself. Like her bleached hair, the emotions she expresses have been inauthentic for so long she can no longer tell the difference. Recalling the mother monster in the Alien movies, she just does what she has to in order to protect offspring who probably won’t even be grateful. And like that ghoul, she has umpteen ways to eviscerate anyone who gets in the way. *


CHILD’S POSE opens Fri/21 in Bay Area theaters.

The art of martial arts



CAAMFEST Prolific producer Sir Run Run Shaw, an iconic figure for kung fu movie fans, died Jan. 7 at age 106 after an epic career in cinema. (Amazingly, he did not retire until 2011.) CAAMFest screens a trio of films in tribute: Li Han-hsiang’s musical The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959); King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966), a major influence on Ang Lee’s 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — both feature lethal leading lady Cheng Pei-pei; and Chang-hwa Chung’s cult classic 1972 King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death), which one assumes Quentin Tarantino can recite in his sleep. (You only have to get as far as the title sequence to hear music he used to memorable effect in the Kill Bill films.)

Hong Kong International Film Festival Society Executive Director Roger Garcia penned Shaw’s obituary for the Jan. 13 Wall Street Journal, noting that “[Shaw’s] life and career grew alongside movies’ evolution from the black-and-white silents to today’s global media industry.” Shaw and his brother Runme opened Hong Kong’s largest studio in 1959, “a potent artistic and business combination that ushered in the era of Mandarin film production.” Shaw Brothers Studio “revolutionized the martial arts genre” via collaborations with directors like Come Drink With Me‘s Hu; it also served as a launch pad for actors who became international stars, like Jackie Chan.

I caught up with the HK-based Garcia by email to ask him a few more questions about the late, great Sir Run Run Shaw.

SF Bay Guardian The Shaw Brothers had an enormous filmography. What stands out about the three films in CAAMFest’s tribute?

Roger Garcia The films reflect some of the characteristics of Shaw Brothers Studio’s output at the time, when Mandarin language production dominated the HK film scene. Li Han-hsiang’s King and the Beauty is exemplary of the “quality” costume picture and Huangmei opera films of the time. It also features the great director King Hu in it — he was Li’s protégé. [He directed] Come Drink With Me, generally regarded as a groundbreaking martial arts film with its innovative staging. The film made a star of Cheng Pei-pei. She had previously featured in some Shaw Bros musicals and was a dancer originally. King Boxer is interesting because it was made by one of the best Korean action filmmakers, Chang-hwa Chung. It was a characteristic of the Shaw Brothers to bring in directors from other Asian countries to basically remake some of their native hits. [Another example] is Umetsugu Inoue, who specialized in remaking his hit Japanese musicals into Mandarin Shaw Brothers movies.

SFBG What other Shaw Brothers films do you recommend?

RG The most interesting are the films by Lau Kar-leung, especially Executioners From Shaolin (1977) and Dirty Ho (1979), which are masterpieces of the genre. 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) is also popular and an enjoyable film.

Other works are the coded lesbian and gay films, especially 1972’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, which is a staggering work about lesbian love and intrigue by Chu Yuan. It is a pinnacle of gay cinema. I also find the camp aspect of Chang Cheh’s The Singing Thief (1969) quite charming.

SFBG What is Shaw’s lasting legacy?

RG I think in terms of film — because we must not forget he created TVB, the major Chinese TV corporation, and was also a major philanthropist in the last years of his life — he brought Chinese cinema to the post-war world. He also had a vision of pan-Asian cinema with distribution and production around the region that we are perhaps only catching up with now! *


Sat/15, 2pm, The Kingdom and the Beauty; 5pm, Come Drink With Me; 8pm, King Boxer, $12 per film

Great Star Theater

636 Jackson, SF



Sturm und drang



FILM It is awkward, no doubt, living in a land whose 20th-century legacy was becoming synonymous with evil — “Nazi,” “Hitler,” and “Holocaust” are still terms we use in describing or comparing the absolute worst human behaviors. Toward the end of Generation War, a three-part TV miniseries being shown here as a two-part movie, one character anticipates the cultural amnesia of peacetime by saying “Soon there will only be Germans and not a single Nazi.” That’s a canny statement in a nearly five-hour soap opera that doesn’t have quite enough of them.

Postwar Germany willed itself not only into economic rehabilitation, but into becoming one of the world’s more politically progressive and socially tolerant societies. (With exceptions, of course.) No doubt part of this was a function of guilt, and younger generations’ determination not to repeat the past. But it must also have been driven by a desire to bury that past as discreetly as possible without actually seeming to do so. Neo-Nazi freaks aside, you won’t likely now meet anyone in Germany who pledged allegiance to Hitler. Nor would you have 30 or 50 years ago. Even (or especially) guards at Auschwitz shared in the selective national amnesia that followed capitulation and the subsequent revelations of war atrocities. It’s understandable, if not entirely to be sympathized with: How do you live publicly with being on the side of the exterminators? You don’t, that’s how. You gradually build up personal distance until it’s a wall scarcely more abstract than the one that came down to reunite Germany in 1989.

Generation War was originally called Our Mothers, Our Fathers, to underline the relevancy of the discussion it’s presumably trying to stir at home — even if for many viewers the war generation would have been their grandparents’. Directed by Philipp Kadelbach and written by Stefan Kolditz, it starts out in dismayingly hackneyed fashion as we’re introduced to our youthful protagonists. Celebrating a birthday in 1941 near the war’s start, when Axis victory seems assured, they pose for a photo you know damn well is going to be the heart-tugging emblem of innocence horribly lost for the next 270 minutes.

There’s true-blue Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), who’s already served one tour of duty to the west, and is now heading to the Eastern front with younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), a dreamy pacifist. In love with Wilhelm but annoyingly reluctant — for years on end — to say so is sugary Charlotte (Miriam Stein), herself headed to the front as a nurse. Staying behind are Greta (Katharina Schüttler), who fancies herself the next Marlene Dietrich, and her boyfriend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), who can’t convince his willfully oblivious parents that German Jews like themselves are in mortal danger.

Needless to say, all illusions are eventually dashed. Amid the grueling, endless, disastrous campaign against the Soviet Union, Wilhelm is embarrassed by his “cowardly” brother until the latter adapts to pervasive inhumanity by becoming a cold killing machine himself. Charlotte overcomes her squeamishness at the daily hospital carnage while retaining her compassion. Greta does become famous, thanks to the high-ranking Gestapo patron (Mark Waschke) she sleeps with. But the prima donna arrogance she develops proves perilous, and her attempts to get Viktor smuggled out to safety go awry — escaping a train headed to a concentration camp, he joins a group of Polish partisans scarcely less anti-Semitic than the Nazis.

Fast-paced yet never achieving the psychological depth of similarly scaled historical epics, Generation War grows most interesting in its late going, when for all practical purposes the Allies have already won the war (at least in Europe), but Germany continues to self-destruct. Imminent peace provides no relief for protagonists who’ve survived only to find themselves fucked no matter what side they stay on, or surrender to.

That moral and situational complexity is too often missing in a narrative that aims for sympathy via simplicity. None of the protagonists are “really” Nazis — they’re mysteriously free of racial prejudice and other drummed-in ideological points, even if (for a while) they dutifully speak about serving der Fatherland. (Only bad, subsidiary people seem to buy into those concepts; Wilhelm is never shown killing women or children, and the death camps remain off-screen.) The underrated recent film version of The Book Thief (2013) was criticized for soft-pedaling the era, but it was about (and from the viewpoint of) somewhat sheltered Aryan children living in a civilian wartime. Generation War‘s characters are of exactly the age to be fully indoctrinated young zealots, yet none of them seems touched by National Socialist dogma. Even though it’s mid-1941 when we meet them, they act like official anti-Semitism is still a some minor, misguided inconvenience.

Of course such naiveté is designed to maximize their later disillusionment. But War doesn’t even try to approach the serious analysis of national character in something like Ursula Hegi’s great novel Stones from the River, in which we come to understand how time, propaganda, and preyed-upon weaknesses can turn a town of perfectly nice Germans into fascists capable of turning a blind eye toward the Final Solution. Embarrassingly, this shallower fiction tries in the end to pass itself off as truth: Before the closing credits we’re given birth and death dates of principal characters as if they were inspired by real people. (One purportedly lives still.) It’s one thing when some dumb horror movie opens with “Based on a true story” — wanna buy a bridge too? — but in this context, the fib is worse than disingenuous, it’s slimy.

In addition to being hugely popular at home, Generation War stirred considerable controversy (not least among insulted Poles), which is good. “Never forget,” indeed — but for such a big populist cultural event, it’s an awfully soft reminder. If it were one of the 1970s miniseries it recalls, it wouldn’t be relatively hard-hitting Roots, but Rich Man, Poor Man, in which tough sociopolitical issues of postwar America were whipped into sudsy melodrama cloaked in somber self-seriousness. *


GENERATION WAR opens March 14 in San Francisco.

Constructing change



FILM Two of the most deep-rooted national-character-defining American tropes are a) that we are a profoundly self-reliant people, and b) the Horatio Alger myth that anyone can go from “rags to riches” if they have a good heart and a tireless work ethic.

Despite their enduring popularity, neither has aged very well in terms of real-world application of late. Globalization has moved offshore many of the jobs and services that corporatization had already removed from the small businesses that sustained smaller communities. And the Horatio Alger myth? Please. It was a highly effective weapon of mass distraction 150 years ago, and it’s even more so now.

As the musical chairs of sustainable life in our society are steadily winnowed, hope continues to be pegged on education — where funding for music classes went away long ago, and probably chairs are next — because, really, what else is out there for most people? But public K-12 gets worse and worse, while higher education gets ever more expensive and less valuable. (Of course, without it you’re even more screwed.) Recent years’ legislated focus on test scores has helped make lower education grindingly tedious for most students at a time when they more desperately need to succeed at it than ever to have any chance at an adulthood that doesn’t pledge allegiance to Sam Walton (and food stamps). Even if there were money for it, who is interested in innovating (rather than just privatizing) public education?


If You Build It is a documentary about two people who, in fact, are actively interested in just that: Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller are partners in Project H Design, which runs Studio H, a program that draws on their architecture and design training to train middle-to-high schoolers in those disciplines while hopefully bettering their personal futures and communities as a whole. They get a chance to put their ideals (and curriculum) into practice when they’re hired for a year by Chip Zullinger, the “visionary” new superintendent of schools in Bertie County, North Carolina’s poorest. It’s so badly off that the opening of a Domino’s Pizza in county seat Windsor represents a major boon to area employment. There’s “no reason to stay here” for local youth, no opportunity and little hope of any developing, making Bertie a perfect laboratory for H’s experiment in ground-up community self-improvement.

But this “design bootcamp” has barely begun when Zullinger is canned by the school board for unspecified “numerous disagreements,” and all his new projects are immediately shut down. In desperation, Pilloton and Miller offer to continue without salaries (foundation grants are in place to cover their basic equipment and materials), so they’re given the go-ahead. Why not? They’re a freebie, now.

The 10 junior class members who’ve signed up are a racial mix. Expecting “a class where we’d make little toys or somethin’,” they’re instead challenged to figure out the basic tenets of design themselves in a series of increasingly complex, locally relevant projects. The first is to create individual boards for “cornholing” — something that hereabouts does not mean what you’re thinking right now, being more a sort of beanbag-toss game — the next constructing idiosyncratic chicken coops. (This is taken seriously enough that chickens are kept in the shop studio in order to study their behaviors and preferences.) Finally, there’s a competition to design a downtown farmers market building — something the area badly needs, as there’s no outlet for local produce and the sole available supermarket’s monopoly allows it to price-gouge.

For the students — despite varying discipline, some admittedly due to the oppressively hot weather during actual market construction — Studio H is a complete win, empowering and inspiring, engaging like nothing else available at school. The completed market is, it seems, a triumph, generating new businesses and jobs even outside its own roof. Yet even after a successful second academic year, the school board again declines to budget salaries for Pilloton and Miller. Maybe, as the latter learned after building a “gift” house in Detroit that ended up abandoned and trashed, people simply can’t appreciate, feel a sense of ownership or responsibility toward something they’ve been given for free.

At least that’s the lesson suggested by Patrick Creadon’s documentary. But for a movie about a program that in turn is about rebuilding communities, If You Build It doesn’t really seem interested in this particular community. Of course we get the usual establishing shots indicating that, yes, this is a certifiable Hicksville. But we never hear from school board members, from Zullinger after he’s fired, or from parents aside from the grateful ones of Project H students. When we see kids passively digesting various curricula at computer monitors (even phys ed is partly online), we’re left to assume this is simply a matter of bad, even stupid adult judgment: Can’t they see these teenagers are dangerously unengaged?

On the other hand, maybe Bertie County simply doesn’t have money for more than a bare minimum of on-site teaching staff. Maybe the supe’s innovations didn’t fly with the board because they meant cutting other essential programs. Who knows? We don’t, because that kind of key info isn’t here. Nor, really, is much character insight — we see little of the students’ lives outside class, and the Studio H duo (partners personally as well as professionally) come off a bit colorlessly, because they’re not viewed very fully, either.

Despite these flaws, If You Build It nonetheless demonstrates how public education still has near-infinite potential to shape lives and whole communities for the better — at least if it pretty much does a full 180 from the direction it’s been headed in for some time. Pilloton and Miller are currently doing their thing at a charter school right here, in Berkeley. That’s great, but also somewhat disappointing, because it’s precisely places like Bertie County that need their like so much more critically, and are drastically less likely to get it. *

IF YOU BUILD IT opens Fri/28 in Bay Area theaters.

Masterpiece theater



FILM “I’m not a painter,” admits Tim Jenison at the start of Tim’s Vermeer. He is, however, an inventor, a technology whiz specializing in video engineering, a self-made multimillionaire, and possessed of astonishing amounts of determination and focus. Add a bone-dry sense of humor and he’s the perfect documentary subject for magicians and noted skeptics Penn & Teller (longtime Jenison pal Penn “hosts,” while Teller directs), who capture his multi-year quest to “paint a Vermeer.”

What now? Yep, you read that right: Inspired by artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Jenison became interested in the theory that 17th century painters used lenses and mirrors, or a camera obscura (a device familiar to anyone who’s ever been to San Francisco’s Cliff House), to help create their remarkably realistic works. He was especially taken with Vermeer, famous for works like Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), feeling a “geek kinship” with someone who was able to apply paint to canvas and make it look like a video image. It took some trial-and-error (and one great bathtub “Eureka!” moment), but Jenison soon figured out a way that would allow him — someone who barely knew how to hold a brush — to transform an old photograph into a strikingly Vermeer-like oil painting.

From the film’s early moments, it’s apparent that Jenison, who can fix anything and is obsessed with knowing how things work, is of the “go big or go home” school of thought. Witness his comically giant pipe organ — constructed of organs scavenged from multiple churches — which he plays using self-taught skills gleaned from careful study of a player piano he restored during his Iowa childhood. So when he decides to paint a Vermeer, specifically The Music Lesson (1662-65), he refuses to half step in any way, declaring that he’ll only use materials Vermeer would have had access to. He’ll grind his own pigments and glass lenses, and construct an exact replica of the room in Vermeer’s house where the painting was made.

A trip to Delft, Netherlands, is arranged, with time spent studying the light, architecture, layout of Vermeer’s studio, period-appropriate furniture and pottery, and Dutch (he eventually learns to read Dutch). He also jaunts to London to discuss the project with Hockney (“It’s very clever!” the esteemed painter chuckles over Jenison’s technique), and catch a glimpse of the original painting, concealed from public eyes deep within Buckingham Palace.

Back in the San Antonio warehouse he plans to transform into Vermeer 2.0, he chats with Philip Steadman, like-minded author of Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, a book Steadman says caused “great anguish” among historians. It was controversial, he notes, to suggest that Vermeer didn’t just grab a brush and paint what he saw; this “alternate history” challenges the common perception of how an Old Master worked. But technology creeps into every aspect of Jenison’s project, with both uber-modern sophistication (3D computer modeling to make sure the proportions of his “music room” exactly match the original painting) and 1600s flair, as Jenison stares into the humble mirror that allows him to replicate his subject on canvas.

Jenison’s attention to detail is staggering; a montage compresses the 200-plus days spent assembling each piece of the room by hand. When the actual painting finally begins, the movie is two-thirds over — a smart filmmaking choice, since as Jenison, ever the jokester, admits, “This project is a lot like watching paint dry.” In many of these scenes, Jenison films himself laboring over the work’s many tiny, precise details, including individual stitches on a rug.

Slow moments aside, Tim’s Vermeer is otherwise briskly propelled by the insatiable curiosity of the man at its center. Jenison’s finished work offers more proof than any theory ever could about how 17th century artists were able to “paint with light” so realistically, but it avoids concluding that Vermeer was more machine than artist. Instead, it offers a clear challenge to anyone who subscribes to the modern notion that “art and technology should never meet.” Why shouldn’t they, when the end results are so sublime? *


TIM’S VERMEER opens Fri/14 in San Francisco.

England made him



FILM Swinging London had a brief, faddish life in movies in terms of actual representation, far more fleeting than its influences on music or fashion. But the general cultural shift it signaled did bring some lasting changes to English cinema, notably a new kind of leading man — the period’s celebration of youth and dandyism made it OK for men onscreen to be coltish, vulnerable, androgynously attractive. The prime specimen was Michael York, unabashedly pretty and a bit of a toff — certainly no working-class rough like Angry Young Men Albert Finney or Michael Caine.

The Oxford grad joined Olivier’s National Theatre in 1965, getting cast in a production directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who then put him in his filmed hits The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). But it wasn’t until 1972 that he was seen by everyone as the Christopher Isherwood figure in Bob Fosse’s exceptionally sharp Cabaret, the Broadway musical drawn from that author’s fictionalized memoir. Never mind that he (nor Liza Minnelli, for that matter) would never really be a box-office star; as a name, he was made.

York had a good run through the 1970s. He was D’Artagnan in Richard Lester’s Musketeer films (1973 and ’74), the titular tunic-wearer in 1976’s Logan’s Run, among the stars committing Murder on the Orient Express (1974), John the Baptist in Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, and straight man in both The Last Remake of Beau Geste and the hardly-last Island of Dr. Moreau remake (both 1977).

But the favorite film he’s chosen for his in-person tribute this Saturday at SF’s Mostly British Film Festival is comparatively little-remembered. You could view 1973’s England Made Me as riding the coattails of Cabaret — after all, here he is again as another affable, genteel but cash-poor temporary English émigré to Germany just as the Weimer era is getting tramped by the stormtrooper boots of National Socialism. But the Graham Greene source material (first published in 1935) is strong stuff, intelligently handled by director and co-adaptor Peter Duffell.

York’s Tony Farrant is a pleasant, callow young failure, hopeless at any endeavor that might pay the bills. Having lost yet another job (this time in the Far East), he blows into Berlin to visit Kate (Hildegard Neil), the sister whose queasily inappropriate affections he’s oblivious enough not to have recognized as such, yet. She’s ensconced herself as mistress and second-in-command to Krogh (Peter Finch), international financial titan skating on thin ice amid Hitler’s increasingly nationalistic economic policies.

Once again in need of employment, Tony looks to get fixed up by big sis — in fact, his pleasing, sociable English manners could be quite useful to a man as brilliant yet uneasy with people as Krogh. Then again, his gabby naiveté could also jinx matters much bigger than he grasps. It’s inevitable in Greene’s universe that cruel fate should choose the least guilty party in a web of corrupt intrigue to fall upon, like an anvil from a rooftop.

The role could hardly fall more squarely in York’s comfort zone. Yet it would be a mistake to take the seeming ease with which he delivers Tony’s very easy personality as anything less than very deft work. No wonder it’s a personal favorite — you can sense his engagement in a hundred fresh, surprising, perfectly in-character touches.

After his Seventies peak, York remained busy. But his type began working against him — an ingenue’s worst enemy (even a male one’s) is the onslaught of age — and he didn’t transition as well as some peers to character roles. He slid down the ranks via such odd stints as a short run on Dynasty knockoff Knots Landing and playing Dario Argento’s Phantom of Death in 1988 (the director saving the word “opera” for a later movie). Eventually he was seldom used save to personify old-school Englishness as a joke or fossil, whether visibly (as Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers series) or as a voice actor (as a Transformer, in Star Wars and Batman cartoons, video games, audio books, etc.) In recent years he’s also written several well-received memoirs and lectured extensively on acting Shakespeare.

England Made Me is not the only older film in Mostly British this year, though it’s the only one that comes with a living star in person. No one will be resuscitating the recently decreased Peter O’Toole, memorialized with a screening of 1982’s My Favorite Year; nor will there be any thawing for Richard Burton as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, 1965’s faithfully bleak adaptation of John le Carré’s breakthrough novel. The latter film plays a “British noir night” with Stephen Frears’ bizarre and rather brilliant 1984 The Hit.

Otherwise the focus, as usual, is on new (or new-ish) films from the UK and beyond. Some have already played theatrically here, like Neil Jordan’s middling vampire opus Byzantium (2012), Beatles-related documentary Good Ol’ Freda (2013), and Michael Winterbottom’s biopic about the UK’s sultan of 1960s and ’70s smut, The Look of Love (2013).

Coming soon to theaters — sooner still if you catch them as part of the festival — are director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi’s excellent seriocomedy Le Week-End, as well as Mumbai-set The Lunchbox. Speaking of the colonies, outback thriller Mystery Road and kidnapping drama Last Dance represent Australia.

If you appreciated Will Forte’s turn in Nebraska (2013), it’s worth seeing Run & Jump, in which he’s equally effective as an American doctor whose emotions unfreeze while doing research in Ireland — also the setting for Stay, a drearier piece distinguished by Aidan Quinn’s fine take on the stereotypical Irish rascally charmer. What Richard Did is a quietly intriguing melodrama about middle-class teenagers shaken by the aftermath of a fight outside a house party. Farther down the socioeconomic scale, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant offers a portrait of children involved in petty crimes that’s as potent as the best of Ken Loach or the Dardennes. *


Feb. 13-20

Vogue Theatre

3290 Sacramento, SF



Ennui the people



FILM San Francisco IndieFest celebrates its Super Sweet 16 with multiple films presenting an appropriately teenage outlook on humanity: Most of the time, people suck. They suck in ways you expect, ways you don’t expect, and ways you should have expected but chose not to, for your own sucky reasons.

Fortunately, not all of these lessons in disappointment come packaged in depressing movies — though at least one, Bluebird, does. In snowy Maine, an otherwise kind and responsible school bus driver (Amy Morton) screws up the head count at the end of her route, and a child is left behind on a long, cold night. The small town reacts as you’d expect, with stares and whispered gossip. But as it turns out, most of the characters affected by this tragic mistake are already in a pretty bad place, and must now face hitting a floor even lower than they’d imagined was possible.

Chief among them is the bus driver’s weary husband (Mad Men‘s John Slattery, playing nicely against type except for one very Roger Sterling-ish scene), who’s just found out he’ll soon be unemployed, and the neglected boy’s troubled mother (Louisa Krause), who adds this incident to her running list of personal demons. Writer-director Lance Edmands edited Lena Dunham’s 2010 breakthrough Tiny Furniture (blink and you’ll miss Girls‘ Adam Driver in a handful of Bluebird scenes); his first feature as writer-director is very much in the classic American indie mode, with ordinary people’s lives intersecting in an ordinary town, extreme feelings of loneliness and unfulfilled dreams lurking just below the surface. Frankly, it can get morose, though Emily Meade (who resembles a younger Emma Stone) brings some spark as a high-schooler dealing with sucky boy drama on top of sucky everything else.

Less earnest, thank goodness, is the latest short from San Francisco filmmaker Vincent Gargiulo (2011’s The Muppetless Movie), which screens as part of IndieFest’s “#feelings” program. Filmed on location in Minnesota, Duluth is Horrible follows a handful of oddballs working through heartbreak via Reddit posts, awkward blind dates, and karaoke. Gargiulo — who told me during last year’s IndieFest that the idea for Duluth came to him in a dream — wields his own brand of bizarre humor with complete confidence. Here’s hoping he channels that into a feature film next.

Two of IndieFest’s genre standouts also hinge on human shortcomings. Joe Begos’ Almost Human follows a trio of friends dealing with the aftereffects when one is, uh, abducted by aliens, then returns a few years later acting mighty strange. The man’s left-behind former fiancée and best friend have just enough time to come to grips with their guilt and paranoia before they have to start fending off creepy offers of “Join me and be reborn!” Yeah, this is a wall-to-wall John Carpenter homage — the lead character appears to have stepped right off the set of 1982’s The Thing — but it’s done exactly right, with some spectacular, blessedly CG-free gore effects to boot.

Also a must-see for horror fans: Zack Parker’s Proxy, a Hitchcockian mindfuck of a movie that offers up so many plot twists it’d be nearly impossible to relay a spoiler-free plot summary — though as soon as you hear the pregnant woman’s last name is Woodhouse, as in Rosemary, it’s made pretty clear that this grieving-mother tale ain’t gonna be what it seems. If you can make it through the brutal attack that happens in Proxy‘s first five minutes (close your eyes if you must), you’ll be richly rewarded.

It feels almost wrong to lump Hank: Five Years From the Brink into this roll-call of sinister neighbors and emotional vampires, but there are certainly many who’d call former Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson worse names. This latest doc from Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy) follows the template favored by Errol Morris in films like 2003’s The Fog of War and last year’s The Unknown Known, surrounding an extended sit-down interview with news footage and home movies reflecting on a political subject’s career.

In Paulson’s case, he walks us through the 2008 financial crisis (Jon Stewart referred to him as “Baron Von Moneypants”) with the benefit of hindsight, and a certain amount of self-effacing humor. Whether or not you agree with the guy’s actions, he’s actually pretty likeable, and Berlinger’s decision to include interviews with Paulson’s no-nonsense wife, Wendy, adds a human angle to the decisions behind the “too big to fail” fiasco.

I hear you sighing. You demand uplift, dammit! Where are the happy movies? Though it’s not without moments of relationship angst, Mexican filmmaker Fernando Frias’ Rezeta just might be the festival’s feel-good breakout. Largely improvised and filmed using handheld cameras and a cast of first-time actors (how do you say “mumblecore” in Spanish?), Rezeta follows a year or so in the life of Albanian model Rezeta (Rezeta Veliu), who arrives in Mexico with a good grasp of English but little knowledge of the local culture.

On her first job, she meets Alex (Roger Mendoza), a metalhead whose friendship becomes the one constant in her breezy life. As they slowly become a couple — the passage of time is marked out by Alex’s changing facial hair and Rezeta’s developing Spanish-language skills — the places where their personalities don’t quite mesh become increasingly apparent. Rezeta picked up a special jury award at the recent Slamdance Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why; the characters feel so real. Don’t we all know that sweet girl who turns into a catty pain when she’s drunk, or that guy who’s too cool to get excited about anything, or that couple who’s fun to be around — until they start screaming at each other on the sidewalk outside the bar? Ah, youth.

Also worth mentioning: wonderful centerpiece pick Teenage, a collage film by Matt Wolf (2008’s Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell) that’s based on Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, spanning the adolescent experience from 1875-1945. First-person narrators (voiced by Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, among others) reflect on the lives of teens from the US, the UK, and Germany, emphasizing both current events (World Wars I and II) as well as dance and music fads.

Finally, I’d be remiss for not calling your attention to A Field in England, easily the single weirdest pick of IndieFest 2014. Fans of Ben Wheatley, a fest vet and one of the most exciting directors to come out of England in years (2011’s Kill List, 2012’s Sightseers), already know what’s up; everyone else, step boldly into this black-and-white slab of insanity set amid a handful of deserters scuttling away from their posts during the English civil war. And then the cape-wearing necromancer shows up, because of course he does. “I think I’ve worked out what God is punishing us for,” one hapless character gasps. “Everything!” *


Feb. 6-20, most shows $12

Various venues, SF and Oakl.



Mann up



FILM Anthony Mann was one of those directors only really appreciated in retrospect — during his life he was considered a solid journeyman rather than an artist. It didn’t help that when he finally graduated to big-budget “prestige” films at the dawn of the 1960s, he was unlucky. He left 1960’s Spartacus after clashing with producer-star Kirk Douglas. (Stanley Kubrick famously replaced him.) He left the 1960 Western epic Cimarron mid-shoot after an argument with its producer, though its poor result was still credited to him, as was A Dandy in Aspic, a 1968 spy drama completed by star Laurence Harvey after Mann died of a heart attack very early on.

He had done very well indeed with 1961’s El Cid, a smash considered one of the few truly good movies resulting from Hollywood’s then-obsession with lavish historical spectaculars. The same judgment is now granted 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, to a more qualified degree. But that film was so titanically expensive it would have stood as the decade’s monument to money-losing excess had 1963’s Cleopatra not already claimed that crown.

Today Mann is probably best regarded for the series of Westerns he made in the 1950s, many starring a more tormented, less aw-shucksy James Stewart. They’ve tended to overshadow the film noirs that in turn preceded them. The Pacific Film Archive is doing its bit to correct that imbalance with “Against the Law: The Crime Films of Anthony Mann,” a three-week retrospective spanning a brief but busy period from 1946 to 1950.

Surprisingly for a talent associated more with action than talk, the San Diego-born Mann first made a modest name for himself as a New York stage director and actor. In 1938 he was invited by Gone With the Wind (1939) producer David O. Selznick to come to Hollywood as a casting scout, then moved up to assistant directing at Paramount (including for Preston Sturges). He was soon deemed fit to direct low-budget features, starting in 1942 — cranking out cheap musicals like Moonlight in Havana (1942) and melodramas like Strangers in the Night (1944) for the bottom half of double bills. His craftsmanship was already strong even if the scripts were weak. To compensate, he began early to concentrate on evocative visual storytelling whose impact could cover the flaws of corny dialogue and situations.

Strangers and first PFA title Strange Impersonation (1946) were proto-noirs that allowed him to up his game. But what really altered his career course was the founding of a new company, Eagle-Lion, that he started working for the following year. There, budgets remained “Poverty Row” low, but more creative freedom was allowed — and he gained a key collaborator in now-revered cinematographer John Alton, who famously said “It’s not what you light, it’s what you don’t light.”

Alton’s often highly stylized, chiaroscuro images lent rich atmosphere and suspense to what were then considered “semi-documentary” shoot-’em-ups. Their first collaboration, 1947’s T-Men, was a highly influential sleeper hit that took its realism seriously enough to start with an audience address from an actual former Treasury Department law enforcement official. The “composite case” ensuing has Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder as undercover feds who infiltrate a counterfeiting ring in Detroit — one losing his life in the process.

O’Keefe returned on the other side of the law for the following year’s Raw Deal, playing an escaped con determined to avenge himself on the crime boss (future Ironside Raymond Burr) who betrayed him. He travels with two women, one adoring (Claire Trevor), one unwilling (Marsha Hunt) … at least at first she is. This is the rare noir narrated by a moll, as Trevor’s faithful doormat comes to terms with losing the man she’s always loved to the “nice girl” he’s taken hostage. There’s a bitter romantic fatalism to her perspective that’s as masochistic as it is hard-boiled.

The PFA offers two features from 1949. Even more “documentary” in its procedural focus than T-Men, He Walked by Night (officially credited to Alfred Werker, though Mann directed most of it) “stars” the LAPD as its personnel hunt a sociopath clever enough to disguise his tracks as he goes on a murder spree. Focusing on the minutiae of investigative procedure (“Police work is not all glamour and excitement and glory!” our narrator gushes), yet full of visual atmosphere, it was widely considered the uncredited inspiration for the subsequent radio and TV serial Dragnet. (Jack Webb even plays a forensics expert.) The then-inventive location work culminates in a deadly chase through LA storm drain tunnels. Border Incident, unavailable for preview, anticipated the Native American rights-centered Devil’s Doorway (1950) in its forward-thinking treatment of racial minorities — here Mexicans caught between smugglers, bandits, and US immigration agents. It was originally entitled Wetbacks, a moniker that would have ensured lasting notoriety, albeit at the cost of obscuring the film’s anti-discriminatory theme.

Director and DP soon parted ways, alas. Their third 1949 collaboration (the next year’s Doorway would be their last) is not in the PFA retrospective, although it ought to be: Reign of Terror, aka The Black Book, is set during the French Revolution, yet it’s as thoroughly, baroquely noir as any movie involving powdered wigs could possibly manage. *


Feb. 7-28, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.



Mumble, mumble, murder



FILM Joe Swanberg’s latest film to play the Roxie, 24 Exposures, isn’t actually his newest. That’d be family drama Happy Christmas, which just premiered at Sundance. Going by festival reviews, Christmas sounds like it’s in the vein of Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies — last year’s Olivia Wilde-starring tiptoe into the mainstream, a departure for the indie writer-director-actor — with a marquee cast that includes Buddies‘ Anna Kendrick and hipster queen Lena Dunham.

24 Exposures is the busy artist’s 15th flick to play the Roxie in a year (the list includes Buddies, 2012’s acclaimed All the Light in the Sky, 2007 breakout Hannah Takes the Stairs, and the only public screening to date of short Privacy Settings). In some ways, 24 Exposures marks another departure, being an “erotic thriller” (scare quotes needed, because it’s highly aware of its genre) — though it also incorporates Swanberg’s affection for relationships that aren’t working out, no matter how much the principals talk about their problems. His interest in horror (see: his participation in 2012 anthology film V/H/S and 2011 cult hit You’re Next, etc.) flavors 24 Exposures‘ plot: Parallel lives collide when photographer Billy (Adam Wingard), who snaps cute, topless women posed in gruesome death scenes, meets depressed cop Michael (Simon Barrett), who happens to be investigating the actual murder of a cute, topless woman.

Yep, this film stars director Wingard and writer Barrett of You’re Next and V/H/S fame. That slurping sound you hear is the mumblecore snake eating its tail, and not for the first time. (Is there anyone in that scene who hasn’t appeared in or worked on a peer’s film? The answer is no.) In 24 Exposures, it’s less of an in-joke than expected, since Billy and Michael don’t achieve BFF mode until the film’s coda. The relationships that form the core of the film are between Billy and the various women in his life, including girlfriend Alex (Caroline White), who is totes cool with his artistic pursuits as long as she’s included in the process, and any three-ways that occur after the shoots. Inevitably, there’s tension when she returns from a weekend away and realizes Billy’s been “taking smutty pictures when I’m not here.”

Billy is a sleaze, but otherwise he’s basically a harmless dude in a cardigan. If 24 Exposures had been made in early 1980s Europe, the film would pump out more bloody bodies for Michael to find; there’d be way more POV creeping and probably a chase involving an unseen killer wearing black leather gloves. Despite a sleek credit sequence illustrated with pulpy artwork, this is no lo-fi giallo. A better reference point is one from the script itself: Silk Stalkings, that 1990s epitome of basic-cable sexy thrillerdom. That it’s brought up jokingly (as in, “Do you feel like a character in Silk Stalkings right now?”) only enforces 24 Exposures‘ aspirations toward meta-ness.

The self-consciousness doesn’t end there. The film’s synthy score, which swells knowingly during suspenseful moments, is another obviously obvious choice. But if you’re expecting 24 Exposures to descend into full-on camp, you’ll come away disappointed. Lurid is perhaps a better descriptor, since 24 Exposures is bulging with “boobies” — a word Billy uses moments after explaining to a skeptical model that he practices “dress-up mixed with fine art.” Earlier, he’s described his work as “personal fetish photos,” clarifying that they’re “classy.” (Truly, they’re not.) We never see the results displayed anywhere, yet this is apparently his profession, not a private hobby, since the photo shoots involve makeup artists and assistants.

Clearly, 24 Exposures is poking fun at the erotic-thriller genre, and itself by extension. Any haters who cry “misogyny!” — because Swanberg’s camera ogles just as much as Billy’s does — are answered in a scene that’s been planned with them in mind. Photographing death is “way more interesting than taking a picture of a fuckin’ tree in your front yard,” Billy tells Michael, who counters by asking, “Why is it always dead women? Why not a dead old guy?” It’s not about that, Billy insists. “It’s ridiculous for me to try and explain this, because it’s not something that I even think about. You can’t say, ‘Why am I doing this?’ You just have to say, ‘OK, I’m attracted to this, and that’s what I’m gonna do.'”

That’s vague, and — again — Billy is a sleaze, but Swanberg’s careful to make his underlying point visually. When Michael asks Billy, “Have you ever seen a real dead body?”, it foreshadows the film’s second cute-girl murder. A distinction is made when a character we’ve come to sympathize with is brutally killed, and hers is the only crime scene that doesn’t invite us to leer at the victim.

The film’s last act cuts some months ahead; we see aspiring memoirist Michael receiving feedback from a book agent (played by Swanberg), who advises him to rewrite his manuscript. There are too many loose ends, he says, and not enough strong connections between the cop and the photographer. Oh, and the ending needs work, too. 24 Exposures, you’re talking to yourself — and you know it, and we know it, and you know we know you know.

Up next for the prolific, probably sleep-deprived Swanberg, who’s likely also got a dozen or so new movies in the pipeline: helming an episode of the San Francisco-set HBO series Looking. Wonder if there’ll be a scene set at the Roxie? *


24 EXPOSURES opens Fri/31 at the Roxie.




SF Bay Guardian How’s Sundance?

Joe Swanberg It’s been amazing. [Happy Christmas] is a pretty small, personal movie, so it’s nice that people seem to be liking it.


SFBG When will it be coming out theatrically?

JS We’re probably gonna follow the Drinking Buddies (2013) release pattern of doing VOD and theatrical sometime around July, and then having it come out on DVD around Thanksgiving.


SFBG You’ve had 15 movies screen at the Roxie Theater in the past year, which is a pretty astonishing number.

JS They did a retrospective, which was incredible. Not only was it a great chance to hang out in San Francisco for a week, but it was amazing for me to look back at a lot of movies that I hadn’t seen in a long time. It’s also crazy to think that there’s that much stuff. I sort of forget that I’ve made that many movies.


SFBG Do you not consider yourself prolific?

JS Because I don’t write, I can very quickly jump from one project right into the next. The first six years I was making movies, I was making around one a year, because I had a day job and that was all the time I could spend on it. As soon as I was able to support myself as a filmmaker, I really was making a lot of them [laughs] — there was one year where I made six, which was really too many by anyone’s standards. It made the following year really strange, trying to actually get all of those out into the world. And also, while they’ve all had some form of distribution, there’s really only four or five of my movies that people have heard of. There’s all of these others that only the hardcore cinephiles have checked out.


SFBG When you say you don’t write, do you mean because your films are improvised?

JS Yeah, exactly. I do write, but it’s just an outlining process. I’m working so collaboratively with the actors that it’s not the sort of difficult screenplay process that a lot of filmmakers go through.


SFBG With this long filmography, is it weird for you to be suddenly known as “the director of Drinking Buddies”?

JS It’s totally fine. I tend to like the newest film the best, just because it’s the closest to where my head is at. Drinking Buddies would be the one that I would recommend to people, and talk about as well. And probably Happy Christmas will very quickly become the next center of conversations. I haven’t watched a lot of those early ones in a long time, so I don’t even know if I would like them anymore [laughs]. Hopefully, they’re all leading toward something. Getting better. Let me put it this way: It’s great that people are talking about Drinking Buddies and not some movie I made six years ago.


SFBG You mentioned that Happy Christmas is a personal movie, and obviously Drinking Buddies ties into your much-documented love of beer. So what inspired 24 Exposures?

JS I had been acting in genre movies a lot, especially with Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. I was really interested in what motivated them to make those kinds of movies instead of romantic comedies or something [laughs]. Also, I think a lot of what 24 Exposures is about is the responsibility and ownership of that stuff. I wanted to investigate where the women fit in. Are they passive models who are being exploited, or are they willing participants? Are they co-authors of the art? Is it a little bit of all of those things? It’s something that I’ve made other movies about, too. I’m genuinely interested in the collaborative process. Who ends up taking the credit, and who ends up feeling taken advantage of?  

SFBG The film is very meta.  

JS Definitely. I was reading Richard Brody’s book on Jean-Luc Godard at the time, so meta was very much on my mind. I was interested in the way that Godard played around with genre movies, but very atypical genre movies. They were always much more like Godard movies than they were genre movies. It was fun to sort of dabble in that space. The other thing that was exciting to me was how my generation’s sexuality was informed by late-night Cinemax and very cheesy, soft-focus, heavy-music kind of stuff. (I’m 32.) When all of us were in junior high, that was the most erotic thing we had access to. That aesthetic is such a joke now. It’s so dated. So I wanted to investigate that as well.  

SFBG Do you worry that someone will come across the film and not pick up on that subtext?

JS This is an interesting one for that question. Pretty much all of my movies have existed very squarely in the art-house audience, so I haven’t really thought much beyond that sort of space. But that’s changing these days, especially with Drinking Buddies, and, I’m assuming, with Happy Christmas too. So maybe 24 Exposures will be seen by considerably more people than some of those earlier ones. But I feel like the movie’s sort of subverting the genre at every turn. It never fully gains momentum as a pure exploitation thriller. Every five minutes it reminds you that you’re watching a movie, and puts in some sort of criticism or other unsexy thought into your head.  

SFBG Totally changing gears, but I noticed you directed an episode of HBO’s Looking, which all anyone here can talk about right now.  

JS Yeah! It was one of the most fun things I’ve done as a filmmaker. I really like the show, too, so I’m just happy to have had some little piece of involvement. I live in Chicago, so I have hometown pride, but San Francisco is without a doubt the most beautiful city in America. I spent three weeks trying to find a bad view, and I couldn’t. *

Soft eyes



FILM Chip Lord first came to public attention as a founding member of art collective Ant Farm (1968-78), which allowed him to explore his interest in alternative architecture via projects like the Cadillac Ranch installation in Amarillo, Texas. He later segued into teaching (at UC Santa Cruz) and video art, with works that include a long-running series examining city spaces. A San Francisco resident, he’ll be at the Exploratorium this week screening a trio of urban-themed works.

SF Bay Guardian Before we get into your Exploratorium screening, I wanted to ask about 2010’s Abscam (Framed), a re-creation of the 1981 FBI surveillance operation that exposed a government bribery scandal. Have you seen American Hustle, which dramatizes the same events?

Chip Lord I did! I enjoyed it. Obviously, it takes liberties with the truth of the Abscam events — but it was done in a very clever way.

SFBG Do you think it got the hotel-room surveillance scene right?

CL No, because when I did my re-enactment I went to the actual room where one of the FBI operations took place, at the Travelodge at [New York’s] Kennedy Airport. What was rather ironic was that the art on the wall was the US Capitol building — I think it had to have been added after the fact by an ironic hotel decorator.

SFBG As a nod to the Congressman who was busted there?

CL Yeah. [Laughs.] But I will say, in terms of the way [American Hustle depicted] the appearance of the video surveillance — that scene was very accurate.

SFBG You have three films screening at the Exploratorium, one of which, Venice Underwater, is making its local debut. You’ve been making city-centric films for over 20 years. What drew you to Venice, Italy, as your latest subject?

CL I had a residency in Venice at the Emily Harvey Foundation in 2008. I’d never been there before, and I was attracted to it as a city where there are no cars — and, of course, knowing that it’s a prime tourist destination. At the time, I didn’t have a high definition camera. I shot a lot of footage in standard definition video, and then I realized that I had to go back and reshoot some of it in HD.

It’s largely an observed film. It has some voice-over, but it’s very minimal. I wanted it to be in the style of Frederick Wiseman, which gives the viewer more responsibility in arriving at its meaning. Not being specifically guided as much.

SFBG When the voice-over happens, it’s like the viewer becomes a tourist for a few minutes. But most of the time, the viewer is observing the tourists. And there are so many of them!

CL The title refers metaphorically to the flood of tourists, which has gone up every year over the past 10 or 15 years. Meanwhile, the residential population is diminishing. Most of the people who work in the tourist industry don’t live in the city; they’re commuting in every day. And the city has been cooperative in allowing more and more buildings to be converted into hotels. It reaches a point at which you wonder: Is it becoming a Disneyland version of itself?

SFBG Did the sheer number of tourists allow you to blend in and film discreetly?

CL That was an advantage, especially on the Rialto Bridge, where everybody has a camera. You can be filming a subject, and they’re not aware of it because it’s just another camera. There’s one sequence with a Japanese couple, and I was kind of stalking them for awhile — intentionally trying to construct a sequence where you would see them wandering and taking pictures and interacting. I think that was a more substantive portrait of the tourist experience in a way.

They did become aware, but they didn’t say anything; a couple of shots, I couldn’t use because the young woman was looking at the camera and sort of giving me a dirty look. At that point, I stopped [filming them].

This type of shooting is a form of people-watching. If you introduce a camera into that equation, it’s very challenging. You want to get close to people, but without changing their normative behavior, and you don’t want to be invading somebody’s privacy. It’s a kind of complicated ethical situation.

SFBG Another film in the program is Une Ville de l’Avenir (2011), which uses clips from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). This recontextualizing technique is one you’ve used previously. What do you think it helps achieve?

CL What’s wonderful about Godard’s film is that it’s set in the future and has a very archetypical sci-fi plot, with a Big Brother character. But he shot it in present-day Paris, which was a brilliant idea. He found very good locations. I love that film, but I thought, “Now we’re in the future that was imagined in that film, in a way. It would be interesting to go back and re-imagine some of the locations.” That’s the basic idea. I also book ended it as an airplane movie. So what you’re seeing of Alphaville, you’re seeing on an airplane.

I’m more interested in defining these kinds of public spaces than sticking to the narrative plot of his original film, although I did use music from Alphaville as well — such an evocative score.

SFBG Air travel is a recurring theme in your films, including the final Exploratorium film, In Transit (2011). Have you encountered any post-9/11 artistic challenges?

CL I’ve been told to stop filming many times. [Laughs.] I happened to make the unfortunate choice of spending some time at Kennedy Airport right after the “shoe bomber” had been apprehended. At that point, anybody who took out a camera in an airport was kind of suspect.

But from a larger perspective, air travel is an activity that has become so boring and routine — but it’s still kind of miraculous. I always try to get a window seat, because it can be just amazing to look out the window for an extended period of time. For In Transit, I wanted to capture both of those elements. *


Thu/16, 7pm, free with museum admission ($19-$25)


Pier 15, SF



Bee true



FILM It’s January, and our premiere German language film festival, Berlin and Beyond, is back to its rightful place on the cinematic calendar after a year off for regrouping, kicking off the neues Jahr with films from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland — as well as Turkey and France.

It’s not a bad way to begin 2014, unless your resolutions happen to be cutting back on bier and weltschmertz. Even though the B&B selections feel a bit dated — thanks, perhaps, to that one-year hiatus — there are still a few solid picks, including the Oscar-shortlisted Two Lives (2012). The documentary slate also holds plenty of appeal, with films that explore the globally human instincts to interfere, to intervene, and to seek atonement.

Swiss-German-Austrian documentary More Than Honey (2012) offers an alarmingly frank exposé of the ongoing demise of the domesticated honeybee from California to China, and the implications that this population implosion holds for the future of food production. Honey bumbles onscreen like a bee in flight, seemingly directionless yet always with purpose. Director Markus Imhoof weaves his family’s own history of beekeeping with that of modern-day bee husbandry, comparing the techniques of his ancestors with the equally old-school methods employed by elderly Swiss beekeep Fred Jaggi; the industrial-scale beekeeping of “nomadic” John Miller, who transports his bees cross-country each year to pollinate crops from Northern California to North Dakota; and the renegade experimentation with fearsome “killer bees” employed by Arizona-based Fred Terry, who equates Americans’ fear of Africanized bees to our more generalized fear of invasion.

Squeamish masses beware, you will be subjected to extreme close-ups of larval chambers, mid-air bee sex, and ruthless varroa mite infestations, while getting more information about queening, foulbrood, hand pollination, and bee-whispering than you probably realized existed. Like raw honey, the film is both sweet and murky, and the prospects for peaceful cohabitation with a creature driven to possible extinction thanks to our careless treatment of its preferred habitats, which also happen to be where all of our food is grown, don’t appear to be weighted on the side of good news.

One documentary with no less a fascinating premise, albeit a less polished presentation, is Miles and War (2013), which highlights the working life of professional conflict mediators. A side project filmed and directed by Anna Thoma — who has worked as a videographer for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and therefore had privileged access to three of the Centre’s top mediators — Miles dives into conflict regions, where mediators arrange meetings between warlords or rebel factions and hammer out agreements between them in painstakingly slow increments. Or, as Centre co-founder and former Executive Director Martin Griffiths observes halfway through a negotiation so secret even Anna is not allowed to be in the room, “You need to be a lot more patient than you want to be, because everything is going to take so much longer than it needs to.”

In truth, because mediation is a confidential process, Thoma’s film winds up on the sidelines more often than not, a so-close-yet-so-far teaser of the tense, often solitary downtime between mediations, seemingly composed of endless one-sided phone calls, plane flights, and scheduling blips.

“It’s a life controlled by others,” Griffiths tells Thoma almost ruefully, before slipping away to his secret meeting. “[Waiting] for someone to say yes.”

Another love letter to an institution is Redemption Impossible, aka Unter Menschen (2012), a layered portrait of a group of “retired” lab chimps at Gut Aiderbichl, an Austrian animal sanctuary. After being infected with HIV and hepatitis, the chimps were isolated and experimented on by pharmaceutical company Immuno-AG, for several years, in a bid to discover an AIDS vaccine. When Immuno was taken over by Baxter in 2002, the vaccination trials ended, but the issue of where to send the infected, unsocialized lab chimps became an open controversy. After the chimps were shuffled around in various states of limbo, championed by their self-effacing caretaker Renate Foidl and her small staff of bright-eyed, ponytailed assistants, their care was taken on by GA in 2009, and their conditions increasingly improved upon.

Though the first half-hour of the film is a bit slow going — with real-time footage of the laborious, day-to-day care of the chimps, some of whom still live in isolation, too traumatized to be in the same room with their peers — the tale of the cloak-and-dagger intrigue surrounding their illegal importation into Europe adds a crime thriller dimension to the primates’ unfortunate plight. Money and influence, of course, is the root of this evil, and the implicated players represent a broad spectrum of political figures, big pharma, game poachers, and even wildlife conservation organizations.

But ultimately it’s the gradual rehabilitation of the chimps themselves that provides the documentary’s real human interest, and watching them step into the sunlight for the first time in 30 years is a triumphal catharsis.

“To me this does not really ‘make up for things’,” Foidl explains emotionally as she watches the outdoor play space being built after years in the planning stages. “It’s awful what was done to them. It can’t be undone … I don’t think there can be any talk of ‘redemption’.” Perhaps not, but compassion, it would appear, can still command a central role. *


Wed/15-Sun/19, $7-$20

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

Mon/20-Tue/21, $10


530 Bush, SF



A tale of two




FILM No one reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin today — Harriet Beecher Stowe’s enormously popular novel that almost single-handedly tilted public opinion against slavery enough to support the Civil War — for anything but historical-footnote interest. Yet fellow 19th-century celebrity author Charles Dickens, who had nearly as direct and significant a reformist influence across the Atlantic, is still ubiquitous.

Dickens fairs and staged versions of A Christmas Carol are annual rituals; even people who’ve never read the books or seen the umpteen movie versions recognize the titles Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. As with (the very different) Jane Austen, Dickens still delights in the realms of rich characterization, absorbing narratives, and re-readability — qualities that are very much the same ones his original readers adored.

The thread of social critique to his work comes through less strongly today, when we’re more accustomed to brute realism. Indeed, Dickens can seem too genteel in his descriptions of squalor and suffering — like Stowe, he wrote in an era when an author could be dismissed as “vulgar” for rendering unpleasant matters too vividly unpleasant. (God forbid he or she should do more than faintly imply the existence of prostitution, for instance.) Dickens was a regular scold of the British class system and its repercussions, particularly the gentry’s general acceptance that poverty was something the bottom rung of society was suited for, perhaps even deserved. Beyond expressing indignation in fiction, he lectured, petitioned Parliament, sponsored charities, and personally co-founded a home for the rehabilitation of “fallen women.”

Given how many in positions of power would have preferred such issues go ignored, it was all the more important their highest-profile advocate be of unimpeachable “moral character” — which in the Victorian era meant a very high standard of conduct indeed. So it remains remarkable that in long married middle-age he heedlessly risked scandal and possible career-ruin by taking on a much younger mistress. Both she and he eventually burned all their mutual correspondence, so Claire Tomalin’s biography The Invisible Woman is partly a speculative work. But it and now Ralph Fiennes’ film of the same name are fascinating glimpses into the clash between public life and private passion in that most judgmentally prudish of epochs.

Framed by scenes of its now-married, still-secretive heroine several years after the central events, the movie introduces us to a Dickens (Fiennes) who at mid-career is already the most famous and popular man in the UK, with an enormous readership well beyond its shores. In his lesser-remembered capacity as a playwright and director, at age 45 (in 1857) he hired 18-year-old actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) for an ingénue role. He was instantly smitten; she was, at the least, awed by this great man’s attention. Their professional association permitted some further contact without generating much gossip. But eventually Dickens chafed at the restraints necessary to avoid scandal — no matter the consequences to himself, let alone his wife, his 10 (!) children, or Ternan herself.

Fiennes, by all accounts an exceptional Shakespearean actor on stage, made a strong directorial debut a couple years ago with that guy’s war play Coriolanus (2011) — a movie that, like this one, wasn’t enough of a conventional prestige film or crowd-pleaser to surf the awards-season waves very long. But they’re both films of straightforward confidence, great intelligence, and unshowy good taste that extends to avoiding any vanity project whiff.

By the standards of most modern movies set in this era, Invisible Woman is perhaps a little too measured, melancholy, not “romantic” or sumptuous enough. It’s not a feel-good costume drama, despite having most of the ingredients for that (famous people, star-crossed love, etc.) Like Coriolanus, it’s a bit somber, thinky, and vigorously unsentimental.

Fiennes (who purportedly only took the role after another actor he’d cast dropped out) is very good as usual. You could put together an extraordinary retrospective of roles he’s played onscreen so far (and a dismaying smaller one of the few he was flat-out wrong in, mostly incongruous mainstream duds like 2002’s Maid in Manhattan and 1998’s non-Marvel Avengers), yet few major actors have done so good a job of circumventing the attention they’ve earned. Jones is also fine, though the jury remains out on whether she’ll turn out an actress as interesting as she is polished (and pretty). She’s a little stiff here, a deliberate choice that nonetheless makes the film a few degrees less emotionally engaging.

The entire cast (also including Kristin Scott Thomas as Ternan’s cautiously approving actress mother, and Tom Hollander as the author Wilkie Collins) is impeccable. But in a quiet way the movie is almost stolen by Joanna Scanlan’s Mrs. Dickens — a great squat, stolid lump of a woman, like Queen Victoria herself, but painfully aware of her social and physical lacks.

One sequence that might seem invented and improbable is based on fact: Dickens cruelly made his by-now-wised-up wife deliver a present to his mistress, a means of asserting his ersatz blamelessness that could only acutely humiliate the two women who best knew otherwise. Even today, large women are so seldom portrayed as anything but nasty and/or comedic that Scanlan makes a striking impression simply for taking an important, non-stereotypical role here. But beyond that, her wounded dignity in the few scenes allowed her is heartbreaking. *

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN opens Fri/10 in San Francisco.

Super Tramp



FILM Was ever an actor so closely associated with his signature character than Charlie Chaplin and his Little Tramp? (The best second-place I could come up with: Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman.) The San Francisco Silent Film Festival honors the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s creation with “The Little Tramp at 100: A Charlie Chaplin Centennial Celebration.” Naturally, the 11-minute Kid Auto Races at Venice, which introduced the character to audiences Feb. 7, 1914, is on the bill. (For sticklers: Mabel’s Strange Predicament, the actual debut of the Tramp, was filmed prior to Venice, but released a few days later.)

In Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography, he wrote about assembling the character in the wardrobe room. “I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small, and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering [producer Mack] Sennett had expected me to be a much older man [Chaplin was around 25 at the time of filming], I added a small mustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. By the time I walked on stage he was fully born.”

You know the rest: Moviegoers couldn’t get enough, and — apologies to Team Buster Keaton — the Tramp became the silent era’s most popular figure, and remains its most iconic symbol. This tribute screens Venice with 1921’s The Kid, which begins as a destitute young mother (Chaplin’s frequent co-star and sometimes girlfriend Edna Purviance) tearfully places her newborn in the back seat of a fancy car with a note: “Please love and care for this orphan child.” Her desperate scheme is foiled when the auto is stolen by a pair of heavies; fortunately, the baby is soon scooped up by the Tramp, whose initial reluctance to play Daddy melts away with reassuring speed.

The action jumps ahead five years, with Jackie Coogan — one of the first child stars, and the reason there’s a California law protecting the earnings of underage performers from their greedy guardians — playing the ovary-rattlingly adorable title character. He and his adoptive father may live in squalor, and earn their dough a few shades on the wrong side of the law, but they make a surprisingly tight family unit, sharing comically huge stacks of pancakes, battling the local bullies, etc. Meanwhile, the tyke’s mother has become wealthy, and there’s a happy ending in store — but not before a rooftop chase, a trippy dream sequence, and deliverance on the film’s opening promise to supply “a picture with a smile, and perhaps a tear.” This screening features accompaniment by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (with Timothy Brock conducting Chaplin’s score), plus a Chaplin look-alike contest before the show — so get that mustache correct!

The Kid was Chaplin’s first full-length after nearly a decade of shorts, a trio of which are grouped together in a program dubbed “Our Mutual Friend.” The title references the Mutual Film Corporation, which signed Chaplin to a $670,000-per-year contract in 1916. (Not too shabby a figure today, it was a mind-blowing amount at the time.) He immediately got to work justifying his huge salary, cranking out hit after hit. These three share similar casts, with Purviance playing “the girl” and favorite Chaplin foil Eric Campbell (who stood a foot taller, and from some angles a foot wider, than the diminutive Chaplin) playing “the baddie.”

The Vagabond (1916) is the most melodramatic of the bunch; it follows a violin-playing hobo who encounters a waif being held captive by what the glossary of unfortunate movie stereotypes would call “gypsies.” (Campbell plays a whip-cracking patriarch.) The Tramp rescues her, but not before a passing artist paints her portrait and helps her reunite with her (rich) family — like The Kid, The Vagabond contains themes of economic disparity, a favorite Chaplin topic. Far more lighthearted are Easy Street (1917), in which the Tramp finds religion (thanks to an angelic church worker) and a backbone, after becoming a cop and defeating the local heavy (Campbell, adorned with spectacularly “evil” eyebrows); and The Cure (1917), in which an wobbly “inebriate” checks into a health spa, toting a huge suitcase full of booze. His fellow patients include a comely lass and an angry, towering brute.

The simple stories of all three shorts are elevated by flamboyant comedy set pieces, so effortless-seeming they mask what had to have been elaborate preparations and choreography. Any time there’s a bucket of water, or a hole in the ground, Chaplin is bound to fall in eventually — but there’s great delight in watching him teeter around and prolong disaster as long as possible. He also never met a revolving door he could pass through just once. And there’s never a stretch without some little moment of subtle hilarity, to counteract all the broad slapstick: Watch as Chaplin pretends to share his hymnal with an infant in Easy Street, then shrugs when he’s ignored. (That film also contains one of the oddest moments in Chaplin’s filmography, when the tramp accidentally sits on a heroin addict’s needle and leaps up, infused with drug-fueled super strength — pre-Production Code sordid humor at its finest.) All three films feature accompaniment by Jon Mirsalis on piano.

The final program is 1925’s The Gold Rush — like The Kid, an essential feature that no Chaplin fan minds revisiting, and an ideal vehicle for newbies to make his acquaintance. As a prospector seeking his fortune in the frozen Yukon, the Tramp fights a hungry bully and falls in love with a pretty girl (of course), but he also performs the oft-imitated tableside “roll dance” — and gnaws on his own boot. Priceless. And since lively music is a huge part of the experience: Timothy Brock once again conducts the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, playing Chaplin’s own score. *


Sat/11, “Our Mutual Friend,” 1pm; The Kid, 4pm; The Gold Rush, 7:30pm, $10-$22

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF



Bad company



FILM Considering the relative infrequency of theater-to-film translations today, it’s a bit of a surprise that Tracy Letts had two movies made from his plays before he even got to Broadway. Bug and Killer Joe proved a snug fit for director William Friedkin (in 2006 and 2011, respectively), who well past age 70 experienced something of a career resurgence from them. Those modern Grand Guignols got around, but were too outré for the kind of mainstream success accorded 2007’s August: Osage County, which won the Pulitzer, ran 18 months on Broadway (an eternity for a non-musical at present), and toured the nation.

As a result, August was destined — perhaps doomed — to be a big movie, the kind that shoehorns a distracting array of stars into an ensemble piece, playing jes’ plain folk. On stage, this Long Day’s Journey Into Fuck All Y’All was a juicy-steak drama meal, chockablock with family dysfunction, colorful cussin’, shocking revelations, and ghoulish as well as broad humor. It was like a vintage Sam Shepard text crossed with an old-school three-act “well-made play.” It was also three and a half hours long.

To his credit, Letts’ own screenplay adaptation clocks in at almost exactly two hours, a considerable reduction that nonetheless doesn’t feel gutted. Whether it feels like a movie, though, is another question. What seemed bracingly rude as well as somewhat traditional under the proscenium lights just looks like a lot of reheated Country Gothic hash, and the possibility of profundity you might’ve been willing to consider before is now completely off the menu. If you haven’t seen August before (or even if you have), there may be sufficient fun watching stellar actors chew the scenery with varying degrees of panache. But the play exposes itself in a medium it might have been most suitable for 50 years before it was written. (Not that the censors would have allowed it then.)

Gorgon matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep, who else) is dying of cancer, albeit not fast enough — she’s still quite capable of driving long-suffering, shot-pounding spouse Beverly (Shepard) to distraction, and all other “loved ones” to a safe geographic distance away. Nonetheless, when Bev simply exits their rambling rural Oklahoma home with no apparent intention of returning, the scattered troops are called in for reinforcement.

Pissed-off prodigal daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) returns in the company of a husband (Ewan McGregor) and teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) she’s well on her way to alienating just like mommy did. Middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis) is a man-crazy ninny entering another bad marriage, this one to a Master of the Universe, Florida-style (Dermot Mulroney). Family doormat Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the third sister, stuck around to masochistically endure Violet’s ingratitude and caustic pity but might be plotting her escape at last. Last and least, there’s Auntie Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), a viperous chatterbox whose husband (Chris Cooper) self-medicates with beer and TV, while their son (Benedict Cumberbatch) is treated like an even bigger loser than he is.

You know the beats: Late-night confessions, drunken hijinks, disastrous dinners, secrets (infidelity, etc.) spilling out everywhere like loose change from moth-eaten trousers. Even at its much greater stage length, August was overstuffed, though what seemed excessive in a mostly good way then now simply plays as a pileup of clichés and contrivances enlivened by some good lines and snappy performances. Of course the dialogue sounds ornately “theatrical” in this more naturalistic presentation. But director John Wells, a veteran TV writer-producer whose prior feature was 2010’s decent corporate-downsizing drama The Company Men, doesn’t make anything seem very natural. (If Nebraska lives and breathes its locations, this movie might as well have been shot on a studio back lot for all the authenticity earned.)

Nor can he magically weld this cast into a credible “family.” Lewis and Martindale get a lot out of their comically vulgar characters, but are ultimately too one-note. Mulroney delivers a very sharp caricature with less visible effort; Cumberbatch and Nicholson are OK as wallflowers amid invasive stinkweeds. Cooper is the kind of actor who can manage a great deal while seemingly doing very little, while McGregor is the type who can sometimes look like he’s working awfully hard to make absolutely no impression whatsoever. The film’s success story, I suppose, is Roberts: She seems very comfortable with her character’s bitter anger, and the four-letter words tumble past those jumbo lips like familiar friends.

On the downside, there’s Streep, who’s a wizard and a wonder as usual yet also in that mode supporting the naysayers’ view that such conspicuous technique prevents our getting lost in her characters. In the national touring stage production, octogenarian Estelle Parsons was manifestly a cranky old lady — you worried for her going up and down those three flights of stairs, and gasped at her not-at-all-cute potty mouth. Streep acts the shit out of being cranky and old; one suspects between takes she’s probably running triathalons and saving whales. She pulls out the stops, but maybe they should have been left in. If Streep can do anything, then logic decrees that include being miscast.

Still, she’s a lucky woman alongside Misty Upham, who plays that eternal most-thankless role: The largely mute, ever-observant “ethnic” (here, Native American) domestic-nurse-helper who graces all these yelling white people with her quiet compassion, swooping in to save the innocent and comfort the comfortless when necessary. (She also cooks so well you half expect magical Like Water for Chocolate-style dishes to heal all wounds.) Among the things August has lost in translation is the pretense of unsentimentality. When Gustavo Santaolalla’s schmaltzy score drips like molasses over Upham’s payoff moments, you know it’s gone way too far in the other direction. *


AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY opens January 10 in San Francisco.

Back in Burgundy



FILM The return of Ron Burgundy — the boorish, quotable Will Ferrell character immortalized in 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — has been heralded for months, thanks to an extravagant marketing campaign that has included car commercials, a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor, and Burgundy-branded Scotch.

But before you claim Burgundy fatigue, there’s the actual sequel to consider. And Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is quite hilarious, as it turns out. Director, co-writer, and longtime Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay — formerly of Saturday Night Life, he’s the co-founder of Funny or Die, and has directed such Ferrell hits as Anchorman and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) — came to town to discuss his new comedy.

SF Bay Guardian I know you’re here to talk about Anchorman 2, but first I have to express my deep love for Step Brothers (2008).

Adam McKay We were just talking about how that’s the one movie we have that’s super-polarizing. People either loved it or hated it. Roger Ebert wrote one of my favorite reviews that we’ve ever had, where he said that the movie was a symbol of the downfall of Western civilization. [Ed. note: the exact quote is “In its own tiny way, it lowers the civility of our civilization.”] Will Ferrell and I loved that. It read like the Richard Jenkins character in the movie wrote the review! But it might be my favorite movie we’ve done. I think it makes me laugh the hardest.

SFBG Will you ever make Step Brothers 2?

AM We were actually on our way to making Step Brothers 2. The problem was, everyone I told said, “Why? Cause you can’t do Anchorman 2?” I said to Will, “Are we gonna make this movie and the whole response is gonna be, ‘[They made this because] they couldn’t do Anchorman 2‘?” I just didn’t want to deal with that. Fortunately, we love Anchorman as well. But yeah, we had a whole idea. We’d outlined it. John C. Reilly was in. So it still may happen.

SFBG A lot of Anchorman 2‘s humor comes from its cameos. Were you flooded with calls from actors who wanted in?

AM We did have a little bit of that, actually, which is unusual. Fortunately, they were people we loved. I heard right away that Tina [Fey] was up for a cameo, and I’m like, “Yes!” I bumped into Sacha [Baron Cohen], and I was like, “Hey, would you wanna…” “Yeah, I’ll do it!” It was weird to get those kind of effusive responses. It was kind of crazy.

SFBG The first film was PG-13. I’m surprised the sequel is, too. While watching it, I assumed it would get an R for language.

AM We actually had a long battle with the MPAA over it, and we had to trim down quite a few things. It’s all, like, sexual innuendo, and if you say this word you can’t say that word. But meanwhile, if you kill 100 people they don’t care. We were kind of pulling our hair out. But at the end of the day, I think we did pretty well with it. It was always meant to be PG-13. It’s a silly, kind of living cartoon movie. It’s not a hard, dirty movie.

The crack scene was a big, big [sticking point]. Originally it was much longer. But you’ll get to see that on the DVD. There’s a whole other version of the movie where we replaced all of the jokes, since we did so much improv. So it’s the exact same physical movie, but almost every joke is different.

SFBG A lot of the jokes might be perceived as racist or sexist if they were taken out of context. How do you ensure that viewers don’t receive those the wrong way?

AM That was really tricky. We had to calibrate that through all the screenings that we did. The first screening had too much of that in it, and it felt a little uncomfortable, so we’d kind of pull it back. But the whole premise is, these guys are idiots. And they don’t understand anything about multiculturalism, women’s lib — they don’t get any of it. So as long as that premise is clear, you’re OK. They’re not mean guys — except for Champ Kind, who probably is a Tea Party right-winger. But the rest of them are just idiots.

So long as the racial jokes were more just ignorance, it was OK. But if it ever became like a pointed slam, that’s when it would cross the line. So we stayed away from all that kind of stuff, and just had them sort of live in ignorance.

SFBG Like the first Anchorman, the film layers its silliness over cultural commentary. Here, it’s how ridiculous 24 hour news has become.

AM That was always the inspiration. In the first movie, we had women breaking into the newsroom, and these avuncular anchormen just being shits, basically. And that’s hilarious and awful at the same time, and significant enough that you have stakes that you can tell the story.

So for this one, the central idea was 24-hour news, and when the news became what it is today. Really, we knew we had the movie when we were like, “Let’s have Burgundy be the guy who ruins it all.” [Laughs.] And we decided to pin it all on him: the birth of infotainment, the birth of ratings-driven, corporate-owned news, and the idea that Burgundy would be really good at it.


ANCHORMAN 2 opens Wed/18 in Bay Area theaters.

All that glitters



FILM If longer were better, this would be the platinum era of movies. Never before have so many mainstream releases staggered toward or beyond the two-and-a-half-hour mark once reserved for the truly epic — in storytelling breadth, not just in fight scenes, expensive CGI effects, or simple directorial inability to say “when.”

David O. Russell’s American Hustle is about that long, and it’s like a lot of things you’ve seen before — put in a blender, so the results are too smooth to feel blatantly derivative, though here and there you taste a little Boogie Nights (1997), Goodfellas (1990), or whatever. Normally that would not be a particularly promising combination, but in the current climate perhaps no praise could be higher than to say there isn’t a minute among Hustle‘s 138 when it’s safe to run to the bathroom. This isn’t necessarily the best film of the year, let alone the most original, but it’s quite possibly 2013’s most enjoyable major-studio release — at least if you’re over 15 and not over-enamored with superheroes or elves.

Loosely based on the Abscam FBI sting-scandal of the late 1970s and early ’80s (an opening title snarks, “Some of this actually happened”), Hustle is a screwball crime caper almost entirely populated by petty schemers with big ideas almost certain to blow up in their faces. It’s love, or something, at first sight for Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who meet at a Long Island party circa 1977 and instantly fall for each other — or rather for the idealized selves they’ve both strained to concoct.

He’s a none-too-classy but savvy operator who’s built up a mini-empire of variably legal businesses while honing a ’70s swinger suavity à la Bob Guccione. She’s a nobody from nowhere who crawled upward, gave herself a bombshell makeover (Adams is almost exclusively costumed J. Lo-style, inner side boobs on full display), and like Barbara Stanwyck in 1941’s The Lady Eve specializes in posing as British aristocracy — the Lady Edith, to be precise. They’re upwardly mobile con artists who know their limits.

The hiccup in this slightly tacky yet perfect match is Irving’s neglected, crazy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s not about to let him go — nor can he bring himself to leave their son, even if the kid isn’t his biologically. At least she’s their main problem until they meet Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who entraps the two while posing as a client in desperate need of loan-sharking services. Their only way out of a long prison haul, he says, is to cooperate in an elaborate Atlantic City redevelopment scheme he’s concocted to bring down a slew of mafioso and presumably corrupt politicians. Even if they have to fabricate crimes to hustle the not-yet-guilty into — notably a beloved Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) whose nose is as clean as can be given a constituency riddled with tough customers and backdoor deals.

A male even more aspirationally alpha than Irving, Richie is in over his head with this Machiavellian plan — which eventually ropes in terrifying, seldom-seen mob legend Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro) — as his oft exasperated superiors are well aware. But as the sting rolls heedlessly forward, the conspirators’ Achilles’ heel turns out to be Rosalyn, who can’t be kept entirely out of the loop and certainly can’t be counted on not to blurt exactly the wrong thing at the worst possible time.

Scored to a K-Tel double-album-full of greatest hits from earlier in the Me Decade (these people aren’t on the cutting edge, musically or otherwise), American Hustle is a giddy tale of Horatio Alger-style all-American gumption headed toward a train wreck. Russell’s filmmaking is at a peak of populist confidence it would have been hard to imagine before 2010’s The Fighter, and the casting is perfect down to the smallest roles. But beyond all clever plotting, amusing period trappings, and general high energy, the film’s ace is its four leads, who ingeniously juggle the caricatured surfaces and pathetic depths of self-identified “winners” primarily driven by profound insecurity.

Our first view of Irving (or anything) is a camera spin around his ample middle-aged gut and up to the gaping bald spot he’s in the process of concealing. Bale retains his handsome features, but the physical transformation he’s undertaken here extends to a schlemiel-in-camouflage slouch whose roots you can feel in Irving’s very thought processes. More recognizable despite his curly locks and disco shirts is Cooper, who after this and Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012) has clearly found his niche: playing control-freak rageaholism for manic comedy.

Lawrence’s Judy Holliday-meets-Valerie Perrine turn has justly been praised enough elsewhere. She’s spectacular, but the stealth heart of the movie belongs to Adams in a role that might easily have been played as merely “hot.” Sydney is brighter and more coolly rational than those around her; but life has taught her that a girl’s best bet is to look good and make the man think he’s doing the thinking for both of them.

Adams is a natural comedian, yet here she’s also the presence onscreen most alert to everything that’s going on, making Sydney the most thoughtful character and hers the most subtle performance. Without her, American Hustle would be great fun but a little hollow. With her, it almost seems genius, as if Preston Sturges had remade 1997’s Donnie Brascoe.

Big fantasy films have grown repetitious, yet they grow ever longer despite the fact that short-attention-span cinema really, really benefits from reining in the runtime. Prestige movies, too, seem to be under some sort of pressure to streeeeetch it out. Would Captain Phillips, The Butler, or even (sue me) Blue is the Warmest Color have been better with a tighter length and focus? Of course they would. But the sheer bulk seems to confer importance, like those literary magnum opuses each year that command attention not because they’re an author’s best, but because they weigh as if they ought to be. *


AMERICAN HUSTLE opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.

Gore to the world



FILM Consider the giants of ho-ho-horror. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) boasted an above-average cast (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon). Christmas Evil (1980) was dubbed “the greatest Christmas movie ever made” by no less an authority than John Waters, who recorded an audio commentary for its 2006 special-edition DVD.

And then there’s Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), which borrows several of Christmas Evil‘s plot points: a kid suffering mental damage from a Santa-related trauma grows up, unwisely takes a job working with toys, become obsessed with the concepts of “naughty” and “nice,” and eventually snaps. Christmas Evil may have the better last shot (you’ll believe a van can fly!), but Silent Night, Deadly Night is not without its sleazy charms.

Directed by Charles Sellier Jr. — best-known for creating TV’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, he later segued into Christian-themed entertainment — Silent Night, Deadly Night contains scream queen Linnea Quigley, a year before her signature role as the naked, grave-dancing “Trash” in Return of the Living Dead. Though she’s only onscreen for a few minutes, her death scene (shrieking, flailing, topless, wearing jorts, piercing antlers) is Z-grade slasher gold.

Beyond Quigley’s rack (and the other boobs showcased eagerly and gratuitously herein) and some gorgeous Utah location shots, Silent Night, Deadly Night‘s memorable moments come courtesy of its creepy soundtrack. The Internet proves that least one dance remix exists of “Santa’s Watching,” a nightmarish ditty which reprises throughout the film. In the film’s opening credits, it’s a sing-songy lullaby; it plays in full-cheese form on a car radio shortly before unfortunate tot Billy Chapman sees his parents slaughtered by a baddie in a Kris Kringle costume; and it’s sung drunkenly by grown-up Billy’s co-workers at the toy store where he works.

And Santa is, indeed, watching. Early on, wee Billy’s catatonic grandfather snaps to when nobody’s looking, which is one of the film’s few genuinely frightening bits. “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year!” he croaks with cruel glee. “If you see Santa Claus tonight, you better run for your life!” Point taken, Gramps.

A few years later, Billy and baby brother Ricky are marking time at a Catholic orphanage. Billy’s still traumatized by what he witnessed (exhibit A: he punches the benevolent Santa that comes to visit the kids on Christmas), but the bitchy Mother Superior believes her punishments will set the naughty (ahem) boy right. When the film jumps ahead a few more years, Billy (played as an adult by Robert Brian Wilson) is a strapping lad employed at a dingy toy shop. He’s happy for the first time, therefore we get a peppy montage (more original music!) that spirals into darkness as soon as we realize what month it is.

Guess who’s pressed into Santa-clad service, with predictably messy results? (Not Billy’s boss, who kicks off the store’s after-hours party by announcing “Time to get shitfaced!”) Like Christmas Evil, Silent Night, Deadly Night is novel amid the 1980s slasher wave in that it follows the killer’s story, rather than empowering whatever Jamie Lee Curtis character is left standing at the end. Frankly, by the last reel, it’s a relief when put-upon weirdo Billy goes full psycho, meting out punishment among the naughty (and sparing the very few he deems “nice”).

And what about little Ricky? Oh, he survives to cause his own jingle-bell rampage in the sublimely campy, meme-spawning Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987) and the less-notable Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989). The series continued with the Clint Howard-starring, witch-themed Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 (1990); and Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991), featuring Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney as the titular craftsman. Spoiler alert: He’s evil. Just like Santa. *


Sat/14, 10pm, $10

Balboa Theatre

3630 Balboa, SF



3-2-1 contact



FILM El Cajon — between balmy coastal San Diego and arid desert mountains to the east — is just the sort of place where the dream of California living came true for a lot of industrious working-class people in the post-World War II boom years. It’s also where their boomer children and generation-next grandkids are currently seeing that dream slowly expire.

It exploded in the original golden age of suburban planning, by 1960 going from podunk burg to major ‘burb with 25 times the population it had had two decades earlier. Such rapid growth is seldom pretty, and today El Cajon mostly looks like a rusty old conglomeration of strip malls, ranch-style homes, and motel-like apartment complexes that probably were a little tacky to begin with. It’s certainly not the first place that might come to mind when pondering where groundwork might be laid for the coming landing of space vessels from the 32 worlds of the Interplanetary Confederation, who will arrive at last to save we holdout “Eartheans” from our endless cycles of self-destruction.

But that is exactly what El Cajon has been for nearly a half century, since Norman and Ruth Norman settled upon this place to headquarter their Unarius Academy of Science. While the Normans are long gone — from this crude mortal plane of existence, at least — their philosophy (or “UFO religion,” as some put it) lives on in a center that still ministers to and teaches an increasingly elderly community of devotees.

It also attracts a certain number of gawkers, as Unarius (Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science) has accidentally generated its own spin-off “cult” of worshippers at the altar of camp. In the 1980s, public access stations across the nation began airing the nonprofit organization’s self-produced films and videos portraying aspects of their mythology, notably the many past incarnations of Uriel née Ruth Norman — female, male, and otherwise. (These include myriad famed emperors, prophets, geniuses, and the Statue of Liberty.) Enacted by Unarius “students” in elaborate costumes with fanciful sets and FX, these are among the most flabbergastingly wonderful “home movies” ever made — crazy narratives with the aging Ruth decked out in enough wigs, chiffon, costume jewelry, and miscellaneous spangles to float an entire convention of drag queens. If you visit the El Cajon facility, expect its keepers to be polite but wary: They’re happy to spread the gospel, but know you’re probably there for the kitsch value.

Everybody can be happy with Bill Perrine’s Children of the Stars, the centerpiece of Other Cinema’s latest “Incredibly Strange Religion” program at Artists’ Television Access this Saturday. It has scads of footage from such Unarius superproductions as A Visit to the Underground City of Mars, which if you haven’t seen such before will make you want to immediately track down their complete original versions. But it also cannily limits itself almost exclusively to interviews only with the remaining faithful. They unfailingly seem very nice, ordinary, good-humored, and not prone to hyperbole (let alone insanity), even as they testify to the occasional outlandish doctrine or personal experience.

Born at the turn of the last century, Ruth Nields was a restless, lively soul who went through a number of professions (and several husbands) before 1954, when she met electrical engineer Ernest Norman, whose past lives apparently included that of Jesus Christ. He passed away in 1971, at which point the church these “two great beings of celestial consciousness” had established started heading in (even) more fanciful directions, to the dismay of some earlier converts but the delight of many new ones. Ruth assumed the primary identity of Uriel, “Queen of Archangels,” a fourth dimension channeler who’d already materialized on as Yuda of Yu, Poseid of Atlantis, Peter the Great, Quetzalcoatl, Zoroaster, King Arthur, and JFK.

Several such lives, and prophesies of imminent extraterrestrial arrivals, were elaborately portrayed in such sci-fi spectaculars as The Arrival and Roots of the Earthmen. There were also historical epics, including one in which Norman — as a Scarlett O’Hara-like belle of the Old South — cavorts on a plantation, surrounded by what appear to be many enthusiastic young white gay men in blackface drag gushing about how beautiful and kind she is. These extravaganzas endeared Unarius to a larger audience via cable airings, though eventually shrinking inspiration or funding curtailed their production.

Unarius hardly lacked drama in its daily operations. A student turned “sub-channeler” named Louis Spiegel was cast as official “fallen angel,” a Lucifer whose bitchy ways and power plays irked many until Uriel pronounced him “totally healed” in 1984, at which point he abruptly turned into “the sweetest man.” Others jostled for the Queen’s favor, recalling their envy and arrogance now as lingering repercussions of past lives in which some presided over Uriel’s beheading in ancient Egypt or led Jews to Nazi gas chambers. Everyone was woven into the ever-evolving narrative, which sometimes closely resembled popular fantasy series like Star Trek or Star Wars. (Perrine cleverly uses old sci-fi clips to illustrate Unarius concepts.)

Ruth Norman died in 1993. The last announced date for the “Space Brothers” to visit, 2001, came and went because clearly Eartheans weren’t ready in the wake of 9/11. But Unarius survives, despite its mythology of negative energy phenomena over millennia remaining a small beacon of utopian benevolence in a world of gloating religious apocalypticists. El Cajon may turn out to be the very portal to paradise yet. *


Sat/14, 8:30pm, $6.66

Artists’ Television Access

Riot acts



FILM It was strange when Kathleen Hanna — riot grrrl activist, iconic Bikini Kill battle cry leader, electro-popping Le Tigre singer — went silent.

Though she was not entirely absent from the public eye, she did not make any new music or tour for nearly a decade. Beat down by a mysterious illness, she seemingly tumbled into hardcore self-preservation mode, contributing her personal files of zines, show flyers, and lyrics to the “Riot Grrrl Collection” at New York University’s Fales Library.

This archival material would prove key to Sini Anderson’s new documentary about Hanna, The Punk Singer. The film includes many lesser-seen clips from the early days of Bikini Kill, the band’s tours through Europe, and rare early moments with Hanna’s husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz.

“There’s some unfortunate and there’s some fortunate in this,” says Anderson, speaking to me in a hotel in San Francisco ahead of the film’s Bay Area premiere at the Oakland Underground Film Festival in September. “The unfortunate is that Kathleen started getting incredibly sick, and she was getting worse and worse. [But then] she decided to pull all her materials together and start archiving them. So she had a few interns and for a couple of years they just pulled all this stuff from all over the place, so by the time we started the film project, a lot of this was in one place.”

Anderson is a Portland, Ore.-based feminist artist who co-founded Sister Spit while living in SF and has worked in film for a decade, though this is her first documentary. She suggested the idea to Hanna while Le Tigre was making 2011 doc Who Took The Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour. While Hanna became the reluctant face of the riot grrrl movement in the ’90s, she’d never granted the media access to her whole story, at least partially because she didn’t want to be misunderstood.

“She had been out of music for six years at that point, and in [the realms of feminism and politics], there just didn’t seem to be any kind of action going on. Things seemed complacent,” Anderson says. “I said, ‘Kathleen, people need to hear your story, and they need to hear it now.'”

Using archival footage and present-day interviews, the doc covers Hanna’s childhood, the beginning of the riot grrrl movement, Le Tigre, and the resurrection of her post-Bikini Kill solo project, the Julie Ruin. Anderson interviewed Hanna in a series of intimate, enlightening sit-downs at her lake house, which are delicately spliced throughout the film between older clips and interviews with Hanna’s contemporaries: Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, Billy Karren, and Kathi Wilcox (now of the Julie Ruin); Kim Gordon; Joan Jett; Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker; and teenage Rookie Magazine editor Tavi Gevinson, who wears the colorful “Feminist” sweater gifted to her by Hanna.

The main bulk of filming was done over the course of a year — and it was a momentous one. Countless doctors had misdiagnosed Hanna by the time Anderson began filming, without an end in sight. Halfway through filming, she finally had a name for her illness: late-stage neurological Lyme disease. When she began treatments, filmmaker and subject decided not to shy away from the vulnerability of moments like Hanna taking her meds and experiencing their uncomfortable after-effects.

“Once she started treatment, it was a roller coaster — she got worse, and then she got better, then she got worse. We had to plan the interviews around when she was up for it,” — explains Anderson, who, incredibly, was also diagnosed with Lyme disease during filming, from an unrelated incident. “I really believe there’s so much power and strength in that vulnerability. It really is important for other women to see that we can tell our truth, we can let people see what’s going on — that doesn’t make us weak, that makes us stronger.” Anderson is now working on another documentary specifically about Lyme disease.

During filming for The Punk Singer, Hanna decided to put together the Julie Ruin, her first new musical act since the end of Le Tigre. This year, the band released its full-length, Run Fast, on Dischord Records.

“She says it really eloquently in the film: when she realized that she may never again be able to do this thing she loves, she realized she wanted it more than ever,” Anderson says.

For the director, one of the biggest moments during filming came from this realization. Hanna sits by her fireplace, surprising herself as she talks about why she quit music — why it was easier to just say she’d already said everything she’d needed to sing. She didn’t want to admit to anyone, including herself, that she was quitting because she was sick. In the doc, Hanna seems taken aback and tears up a bit, but gives the go-ahead to keep filming.

The Punk Singer‘s other epiphany comes at the very end, on the last day of filming, in what became the last scene of the film. Hanna asks, “What is my story? I have no idea,” and begins mentioning moments from her life. “I thought, who is going to believe me? Other women will believe me.”

Says Anderson, “It was about being believed, and being heard, and having her truth be validated. That’s [her] story.” *


THE PUNK SINGER opens Fri/6 in San Francisco.

School gaze



FILM At Berkeley, the latest documentary from the great Frederick Wiseman, runs 244 minutes — a time commitment intimidating enough to deter any casual viewer. But viewers intrigued by Wiseman’s long tradition of filming institutions (a small sampling: 1968’s High School; 1973’s Juvenile Court; 1985’s Racetrack; 2011’s Crazy Horse — the latter about a Parisian nude-dancing establishment) with fly-on-the-wall curiosity will want to carve out an afternoon for At Berkeley, as will those interested in 21st century educational issues, California’s financial crisis, and the care and maintenance of UC Berkeley’s free-spirited image, among other topics.

UC Berkeley students and grads also seem like a built-in audience, which means the film’s local screenings are likely to be more populated than they would be elsewhere. Folks who attended while Wiseman was filming (he shot 250 hours of footage over 12 weeks in what appears to be mid- to late-2011) might even catch a glimpse of themselves in crowd scenes and shots of casual moments on campus, which comprise the smallest portion of At Berkeley‘s divided interests. But the local-color moments do much to flesh out what’s not seen in the classroom and administrative-meeting sequences: the fading-hippie glow of Telegraph Avenue; two men with impressive yo-yo skills; a student tussling with his bicycle; a couple napping on a grassy expanse.


We’re also shown what goes into the maintenance of that postcard-perfect campus. Berkeley’s landscaping starts looking especially impressive when — during a retreat of school bigwigs that Wiseman had apparent free rein to shoot — one administrator points out that budget cuts mean the school employs just one person to mow all of its lawns. “Well, he’s doing a good job!” interjects Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of the school 2004-2013. At the time of filming, UC Berkeley was weathering a series of painful fee increases, staff furloughs and layoffs, and widespread budget cutbacks, with Birgeneau serving as its pragmatic, stern-yet-sympathetic eye of the storm.

Birgeneau, like everyone else in the film (including probably the most recognizable figure: former Clinton cabinet member Robert Reich, now a Berkeley prof), is never identified by name. At first, this feels disorienting; most docs strive to hook the viewer with first-act exposition, but At Berkeley simply plunges in with a woman (a teacher? a student?) regaling (a class? an extracurricular club?) with a myth about Berkeley’s origins (spoiler alert: it wasn’t founded by gamblers) that leads into a broader rumination on what the school represents. “A sense of imagination, of diversity,” she says. “An ideal.”

Before long, it’s obvious that we don’t need to know the back stories of everyone who appears in the film. This portrait of UC Berkeley — as a complex place, not without unrest, but also not without spontaneous a capella performances — emerges with all of its subjects sharing equal footing, their experiences and points of view presented with equal interest. Some of the most compelling scenes take place in classrooms, with remarkably articulate students (though, yes, Wiseman’s camera does catch a few looking sleepy and bored) discussing subjects as wildly diverse as poverty in America, advancements in robotics, Thoreau, and racism. There are also fascinating snippets of lectures, including an amusing, anecdote-heavy treatise from Reich on the importance of self-evaluation.

“The film has to work on both a literal level and a metaphoric, or abstract, level,” Wiseman writes in his At Berkeley director’s note. Filmgoers grasping for a through line will pick up on the financial stress that permeates every corner of the school. A student who describes herself as middle-class weeps at the financial burden she’s imposing on her parents. A professor advises a pair of eager students that their engineering dreams will require raising funds from government entities. Another professor expresses her concerns that increasing student fees will encourage new grads to seek out big paychecks to pay off their debts, rather than lower-paying jobs that might be more socially conscious.

The unrest percolating throughout the film culminates in coverage of a late-2011 Occupy Cal demonstration, in which the main campus library is overtaken by passionate protestors. The focus shifts away from the chanting students to UC Berkeley’s behind-the-scenes response, or rather, the phone calls and meetings that decide what the response should be (a “generic acknowledgement” is met by jeers from the protestors; a heavy police presence is suggested, but not visually documented).

In the library, a young man grasps the bullhorn and advises his fellow students that they need to organize their guiding principles more efficiently — an observation echoed later by Birgeneau. Unlike the headline-grabbing demonstrations that fill UC Berkeley’s storied past — its rabble-rousing legacy gets surprisingly few mentions here — there’s no underlying philosophy, he points out. A few moments later, we’re in a classroom, listening to students grumble about how the protests disrupted their midterms.

As its fourth hour draws to a close, At Berkeley‘s final sequence leaps from a discussion of one of John Donne’s sexier poems into a science class discussing interplanetary space travel. Sure, it’s possible, the affably geeky instructor says — but the practical concerns (like building a vessel with incredibly robust power sources that could sustain life for generations upon generations) tend to get in the way of one’s brilliant ideas and imagination. Here Wiseman’s affection for metaphor is made abundantly clear. *


AT BERKELEY opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters.

La ho-hum vita



FILM Paolo Sorrentino has only been directing features for 12 years, so perhaps it’s premature to expect a masterpiece from him — although he probably doesn’t think so. Amid generally tepid post-millennium Italian cinema, he’s been consistently ambitious and bold, from 2001’s One Man Up onward. That facility has won a lot of acclaim (most notably for 2008’s Il Divo), but also attracted a certain amount of skepticism: Is he more style than substance? What does he have to say?

The Great Beauty, aka La Grande Bellezza, arrives as a high-profile contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, already anointed a masterpiece in some quarters, and duly announcing itself as such in nearly every grandiose, aesthetically engorged moment. Yes, it seems to say, you are in the presence of this auteur’s masterpiece. But it’s somebody else’s, too. The problem isn’t just that Fellini got there first, but that there’s room for doubt whether Sorrentino’s homage actually builds on or simply imitates its model.

La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963) are themselves swaying, jerry-built monuments, exhilaratingly messy and debatably profound rather than “perfect” works of art. But nothing quite like them had been seen before, and they did define a time of cultural upheaval — when traditional ways of life were being plowed under by a loud, moneyed, heedless modernity that for a while chose Rome as its global capital. The mood there was giddy and alienating, magnetizing celebrities (especially as the Italian film industry found itself hosting myriad international productions), virtually creating “paparazzi” — a term introduced in 1960 by Fellini to describe the ambushing photographers buzzing like flies around movie stars and pop idols.

The films were so striking and influential that even (or most of all) Fellini himself couldn’t escape them. For the most part his later works were increasingly pale imitations, risking self-parody even as other artists waxed “Fellini-esque” on their own terms.

Sorrentino announces his intention to out-Fellini Fellini in an opening sequence so strenuously flamboyant it’s like a never-ending pirouette performed by a prima dancer with a hernia. There’s statuary, a women’s choral ensemble, an on-screen audience applauding the director’s baffled muse Toni Servillo, standing in for Marcello Mastroianni — all this and more in manic tracking shots and frantic intercutting, as if sheer speed alone could supply contemporary relevancy. Eventually The Great Beauty calms down a bit, but still its reason for being remains vague behind the heavy curtain of “style.”

Servillo’s dapper Jep Gambardella is turning 65, a never-married playboy who once wrote a well-regarded novel, then ever since has done nothing but interview other famous people and stay at the center of the Eternal City’s uppermost social whirl. Somehow he’s remained rich and famous himself, bearing the bored-with-it-all air that precludes discussion of what (if anything) he ever did to become either. He’s still invited everywhere, still occasionally beds the requisite younger women attracted by power. But it’s all getting old — not that Jep seems like someone to whom it was ever new, or who’d be able to find fulfillment elsewhere now that he’s drunk his fill of privileged excess.

As if to externalize the emptiness he feels, Beauty‘s Rome is all exquisitely framed but (aside from several lavish-party set pieces) underpopulated elegant rooms and grand exteriors. Has he simply forgotten the city’s teeming everyday life, or has Sorrentino? The supporting cast of available (albeit troubled) women, backbiting colleagues, and miscellaneous grotesques are right out of the Fellini handbook of “fabulous” faces. Yet when Jep (let alone the director) was coming of age, the “dolce vita” had already ended, degenerating into the political chaos of the 1970s, the tacky coke binges of the ’80s, then the crass, tawdry conspicuous consumption of Berlusconi and company — a decadence no longer divine but merely depressing. So why does this hangdog-faced protagonist’s world seem so little changed from the ones Mastroianni inhabited half a century ago?

Even the “shocking” novelties Jep is unimpressed by feel old-hat: a child artist whose violent tantrums create Pollock-like action paintings; a Marina Abramovic-type performance artist who solemnly bangs her head against a pillar for suitably worshipful patrons. We grok his superiority to such nonsense, but just what does he have to offer that’s any better? In a notably cruel sequence, Jep demolishes the pride of a prolific, idealistic female writer, calling her a fraud in both private life (she’s married to a closeted homosexual) and artistic endeavors (she’s acclaimed only by fellow Communist Party sympathizers). His smug satisfaction in doing so seems to be shared by the film itself. Yet when the film finally gets around to offering up what Jep can grasp as a core redemptive truth, it’s ye olden mother/whore equation: a sequence cutting between a 104-year-old Mother Teresa-like “modern saint” crawling up a staircase to a Madonna painting, and a flashback to the moment when his first love exposed her boobs to Young Jep. Seriously, 142 minutes of pretentious bravado leads to that?

Servillo is a chameleon, far more than Mastroianni was, but the latter had a soulfulness both contemporary actor and film sorely lack. (Admittedly, some of the latter’s layers may be inaccessible for foreign viewers, just as the equally over-amped but more focused Il Divo required familiarity with the never-ending scandalousness of Italy’s political circus to be fully grasped.) As for Sorrentino, he’s such a natural filmmaker on the surface that at times even the most skeptical will be seduced into The Great Beauty‘s sweeping gestures. But for all their panache, it’s reasonable to worry the movie’s “statement” may be no more than (to quote Jep’s favorite all-purpose dismissal) “Blah, blah, blah.” *


THE GREAT BEAUTY opens Fri/29 in Bay Area theaters.

Born to lose


By Dennis Harvey


FILM Alexander Payne may be unique at this point in that he’s in a position — which, of course, could easily be changed by a flop or two — of being able to make nothing but small, human, and humorous films with major-studio money on his own terms (re: casting and final cut). As he’s said, in a better world this would be the norm rather than a singular achievement. It’s hazardous to make too much of a movie like Nebraska, because it is small — despite the wide Great Plains landscapes shot in a wide screen format — and shouldn’t be entered into with overinflated or otherwise wrong-headed expectations.

Still, a certain gratitude is called for. As usual, most of the year’s better films have been ones (too indie, too foreign) that won’t get the big drumbeat of awards-consideration thumping. And notably this year, most of the ones that will have been American movies made by foreign directors (i.e. Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, Prisoners, etc.) Nebraska is, finally, a win by the home team.

It is also the first time Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor weren’t involved in the script, and the first one since their 1996 Citizen Ruth that isn’t based on someone else’s novel. (Hitherto little-known Bob Nelson’s original screenplay apparently first came to Payne’s notice a decade ago, but got put off in favor of other projects.) It could easily have been a novel, though, as the things it does very well (internal thought, sense of place, character nuance) and the things it doesn’t much bother with (plot, action, dialogue) are more in line with literary fiction than commercial cinema.

Elderly Woody T. Grant (Bruce Dern) keeps being found grimly trudging through snow and whatnot on the outskirts of Billings, Mont., bound on foot (he’s no longer allowed to drive) to Lincoln, Neb., 900 miles away. Brain no doubt fuzzed by age, not to mention decades of drinking and tuning out the Mrs. (June Squibb as Kate, who in a moment of restraint greets his latest forcible return with “You dumb cluck!”), he’s convinced he needs to collect the million dollars waiting for him there. After all, he got a notice he’d won that amount in the mail. Never mind that it was just some Publishers Clearing House-type flier in fact promising nothing while attempting to sell magazine subscriptions. Woody didn’t read the fine print, and won’t be dissuaded. Something bigger than reality — or senility, even — is compelling him to make this trek. Finally, long-suffering younger son David (Will Forte), a stereo salesman whose girlfriend of two years just moved out, agrees to drive him in order to simply put the matter to rest. None of this will be particularly easy or pleasant, even if David is used to dad being problematic (or as Bob Odenkirk as older brother Ross puts it, “[He] never gave a shit about us”). Perhaps selectively deaf, Woody is no conversationalist, and claims that he’s sobered up are quickly dashed when he stumbles into their first-night motel room and bashes his head in the dark, requiring stitches. This fool’s mission acquires a whole extended family-full of other fools when father and son detour to the former’s podunk farming hometown.

There, a slew of Grants — the men all close-mouthed, the women all gabby — prove eager to believe Woody has struck gold, coming up with variably imaginary reasons why they should share in his newfound wealth. Likewise greeting this reunion with eyes full of dollar signs is Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), a former business partner who by Woody’s reckoning has actually owed him money for 40-odd years.

Nebraska has no moments so funny or dramatic they’d look outstanding in excerpt; low-key as they were, 2009’s Sideways and 2011’s The Descendants had bigger set pieces and narrative stakes. But like those movies, this one just ambles along until you realize you’re completely hooked, all positive emotional responses on full alert. There are minor things to quibble about (mother Kate could be less of a shrew — it’s always a bit bothersome when the only significant female role in a movie evokes the “b” word), but so much that’s so deeply satisfying you hardly want to get out of your seat at the end.

Having apparently considered and bypassed bigger names (like Jack Nicholson, who for my money was too snarky — too Jack Nicholson — for 2002’s About Schmidt), Payne has a perfect cast, from 1970s almost-stars Dern and Keach to pliant-faced comedians playing straight Forte and Odenkirk. Forte (who also does good dramatic work in another upcoming seriocomedy, the Irish Run & Jump) in particular does the kind of ballasting act that attracts little attention to itself but perfectly harmonizes with other actors’ higher notes. We can feel how David has probably always undervalued himself, as well as how his wishing the people around him were kinder just might, eventually, make them so.

It’s a great pleasure just to watch the timeless flat vistas — timeless because these characters stayed behind in towns everybody else has been leaving for decades — of Phedon Papamichael’s photography, which recalls other great black and white rural movies of the color era like Hud (1963) and Paper Moon (1973). Nor should anyone overlook the soundtrack by Mark Orton of SF’s own Tin Hat, whose other members also contributed to an acoustic score that at an unusual moment of high-profile movies dominated by American roots music — neotraditionalist 1960s folk in Inside Llewyn Davis, bluegrass in the Belgian Broken Circle Breakdown — feels at once the most modest, effective, and emotionally authentic derivation of the lot.


NEBRASKA opens Fri/22 in Bay Area theaters.