“It just ain’t a kegger without Church Mouse.” So says someone at a rager in Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’s controversial Seventeen, and almost 25 years since the movie was first suppressed, my favorite line of movie dialogue in 2006 has arrived. Seventeen isn’t Not Your Average Teen Movie, nor is it your average teen movie. It might be the best movie about teenage life I’ve seen — one that walks high school hallways more convincingly than Frederick Wiseman (let alone Gus Van Sant), and one that makes some of Larry Clark’s underage adventures (certainly his explorations of race) seem trifling.
Complete with a freckled Bobby Brady look-alike chugalugging beer, DeMott and Kreines’s direct-cinema study of students in Muncie, Ind., incited the wrath of Xerox, a corporate sponsor that canceled the film from PBS broadcast and then went on to target it (helped by dronelike journalists) with an effective smear campaign. Basically, Seventeen’s sin was to cut too far into life as it really was (still is?) in the Midwest.
Viewed today, period details in this documentary are 200 proof. In comparison, Hollywood nostalgia is tame and bogus. The filmmakers’ portrait of what they call “high girlishness and boyishness” (emphasis on the high) comes loaded with feathered hair, ’fros, Dorothy Hamill cuts, thin gold necklaces, and jerseys with iron-on letters. The soundtrack is split, with the black kids listening to Smokey Robinson (the magnificent “Being with You”) and Ronald Isley and the white kids largely rocking out to the dreams and nightmares of AOR (where rock ’n’ roll never forgets and you don’t have to live like a refugee if you hold on to me against the wind).
The tension between these sounds matches the human interaction in DeMott and Kreines’s movie, which among other story threads follows a white girl, Lynn Massie, as her romance with a black boy inspires bigots to put a burning cross on her front yard. Critic Armond White once observed that Massie’s life is “the best Debra Winger role that Debra Winger never played,” and if there can be a Searching for Debra Winger, then Massie’s fate also deserves some speculation, because it’s impossible to walk out of Seventeen without wondering what happened to all these teens — and their babies. (Johnny Ray Huston)
Tues/22, 7:30 p.m.
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft, Berk.
“It just ain’t a kegger without Church Mouse.” So says someone at a rager in Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’s controversial Seventeen, and almost 25 years since the movie was first suppressed, my favorite line of movie dialogue in 2006 has arrived. Seventeen isn’t Not Your Average Teen Movie, nor is it your average teen movie. It might be the best movie about teenage life I’ve seen — one that walks high school hallways more convincingly than Frederick Wiseman (let alone Gus Van Sant), and one that makes some of Larry Clark’s underage adventures (certainly his explorations of race) seem trifling.
In its almost 27 minutes, Samantha Reynolds’s Back to Life doesn’t break down the history of taxidermy, but it does prod, stumble, and finesse its way into some memorably off-kilter portraiture, not to mention insight about mortality. Her decision to be on camera initially might seem amateurish (especially after the movie’s opening animation), but as a surrogate viewer, she achieves an uncomfortable intimacy with her subjects. And her subjects are something else. They include one taxidermist who is simply continuing the family business and another whose creative memento mori urges are directly connected to family horror: a father who shot himself and an uncle who committed matricide, for starters. “I put it in her hands before I pushed the button,” the latter taxidermist says, referring to the book I’m OK, You’re OK and another relative, both now in powder form in a glass bottle on her mantle.
There are no Norman Bates types in this doc, just bereaved pet owners, artists dealing with their lot in life, and businesspeople doing their job — a job that just happens to involve sawing off the legs and heads of dead pets to make molds, a task that Reynolds herself joins in on with a grimace. Back to Life is just one of the many byways available in the varied programming of “SF Shorts” — the first San Francisco International Festival of Short Films. Even better is Kim Romano’s Muriel, a profile of a 67-year-old woman in Key West who tosses off one-liners that Woody Allen would covet; Romano has a gift for funny and even poignant framing, and there are more vivid characters in her 19-minute movie than you’d find in a full day of Sundance drama features. Overseen by a jury that includes filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt, the seven programs include sections devoted to documentary and comedy. Festival directors James Kenney and Michael Coyne took in over 900 entries before choosing 56. That last number includes a movie by Melissa Joan Hart, a.k.a. the director formerly known as Sabrina the teenage witch. (Johnny Ray Huston)
See Film listings for venues
Still several entries short of being its own disaster-movie subgenre, the miniwave of Sept. 11 cinema continues with Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. Scrubbed of any JFK-style theorizing, Stone’s respectful take on the tragedy focuses on a pair of Port Authority Police Department officers who were pulled alive from the Twin Towers rubble 12 hours after the buildings collapsed.
The film’s tagline promises “a true story of courage and survival,” and indeed World Trade Center goes for the uplift-amid-tragedy jugular. The 9/11 movies may be here, but it’s clearly still too early to dramatize the events without offering catharsis. Even United 93, Paul Greengrass’s take on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, spun its obviously devastating final moments into a tribute to its hijacker-defeating passengers. World Trade Center stacks the sentimental deck even higher by plopping movie stars (Nicolas Cage, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crash’s Michael Peña) into the disaster. While United 93 had a nearly documentary feel, with nonactors in key roles and gritty handheld camerawork, World Trade Center is classically cinematic, foregoing a sprawling retelling of the 9/11 story in favor of a tightly compacted exploration of human determination.
The day starts like any other, as PAPD cops John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Peña) settle into their routine, tracking runaways and giving directions to tourists. Suddenly there’s a shadow overhead, a terrible sound, and the men are hustling several blocks to aid the evacuation of the first World Trade Center tower to be hit — accidentally, they think — by an airplane. Stone never shows the planes’ impact; within the film’s world, context (and explicit mention of terrorists) feeds in via televisions blaring in the background of nearly every scene that takes place beyond ground zero. Even when the towers collapse, trapping McLoughlin and Jimeno deep within a perilous pile of stone and metal, neither realizes what Stone assumes every viewer will already know about Sept. 11 chronology.
At a certain point, World Trade Center splinters. McLoughlin and Jimeno cling to life, chatting back and forth about pop culture (since the film is drawn from the men’s own recollections, it’s entirely likely the Starsky and Hutch conversation really took place), their intense pain, and their families. Meanwhile, Donna McLoughlin (Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Gyllenhaal) anxiously await news of their missing husbands, with golden-hued flashbacks reminding all partners of happy domestic moments they’ve been taking for granted. There’s a brief the-whole-world-is-watching montage that illustrates grief on an international level. And, of course, there’s President Bush on the news spewing rhetoric, inspiring ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) to don his military gear and head to New York City to help out.
The problem here isn’t in the way Stone and first-time scripter Andrea Berloff characterize these real-life people as almost supernaturally brave under extraordinary circumstances (Jimeno’s personal encounter with Jesus is World Trade Center’s “ride the snake” moment, but it kinda works amid the ongoing theme of faith as a survival tool). And it’s not that the film disregards the people who died that day. The tone here is very, very reverent. But it’s telling that World Trade Center focuses on a success story; unlike the characters in United 93, which built off a few cell phone calls to reconstruct the flight’s last frantic moments, World Trade Center’s heroes lived to share their memories, sickly sweet what-should-we-name-the-baby arguments included.
By focusing so intently on just the McLoughlins and the Jimenos (and to a lesser extent Karnes, a rather one-note concession to Stone’s military fixation) the film leaves the door open for countless Sept. 11–related movies to come. It’s just a question of whether future filmmakers will hew to Greengrass’s example and go raw or create movies like Stone’s World Trade Center: a bit overcooked. SFBG
WORLD TRADE CENTER
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com for theaters and showtimes
Anarchy in Spain
Join AK Press for a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Revolution, including a screening of Durruti, a short 1936 documentary made by the CNT trade union and talks by Lawrence Jarach, of Anarchy magazine, and Barry Pateman, editor of Chomsky on Anarchism, on different aspects of the revolution. (Deborah Giattina)
AK Press Warehouse
674-A 23rd St., Oakl.
(510) 208-1700, www.akpress.org
“How to Impeach a President”
The first administration in history to admit to an impeachable offense – warrentless surveillance by the National Security Agency – seems to be unconcerned that most Americans do not want the man in the White House to stay there. Constitution Summer, the youth-<\h>oriented group behind Berkeley’s recent ballot initiative calling for impeachment, and Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, who called bullshit once before by releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, are giving them a reason to be concerned. Film screenings and teach-ins on the big “I” are happening in cities around the nation. (K. Tighe)
Grand Lake Theater
3200 Grand, Oakl.
$10 donation requested,
no one turned away
“What is the international camp language? It’s beating.” In an instant, a guide at the former concentration camp just outside of Mauthausen, Austria, transforms a group of high schoolers from giggly to terrified. From the looks of the parking lot, Mauthausen is like any other historical attraction. Sightseers roll up in enormous motor coaches, clutching digital cameras loaded only with fun-time Euro-vacation shots — until now.
There’s no narration in KZ, Rex Bloomfield’s layered doc about the Mauthausen camp’s post–World War II transformation into an exceedingly unsettling tourist destination. (KZ is short for the German word Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp.) The film is largely composed of interviews with visitors, guides (“I’ve been taking antidepressants for years,” one remarks woefully), and Mauthausen residents — many too young to remember the camp’s horrors and some too old to realize that Hitler Youth nostalgia isn’t something most folks would want caught on tape. The disconnect between town and camp, past and present, can be breathtaking. “McDonald’s” and “Mauthausen” are painted on the same billboard; a young couple shrug off the fact that their comfy home once belonged to an SS officer; and the local tavern features lederhosen, suds, and a folkie strummer whose sunny lyrics praise “the cider tavern up by the KZ.”
Though Bloomfield doesn’t shape his film with archival footage, talking-head academics, or voice-overs, the way KZ is edited makes it pretty clear he’s just as stunned as we are by the juxtapositions his film uncovers. An elderly Mauthausener remarks that during the war she wasn’t sure what was going on in the camp, just that it was “nothing good”; moments later the camera cuts to a group nervously shuffling into the KZ’s gas chamber, where they hear incredibly graphic descriptions of deaths that happened where they now stand.
For its San Francisco Jewish Film Festival engagement, KZ screens with the short The Holocaust Tourist: Whatever Happened to Never Again?, which examines the off-kilter rebirth of Jewish culture (think faux-Hebrew signage and “Jewish-style” restaurants that serve pork) in Krakow, Poland, owing to the popularity of Schindler’s List. What visitors to Mauthausen or Krakow (the closest big city to Auschwitz) actually get out of their experiences is unclear; some seem deeply moved, while others are simply checking off another stop on, say, their “Highlights of Poland” itinerary. As both films point out, being a tourist is perhaps all most people can — or should — be in places where such evil still lingers.
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Israel, folks with zero interest in confronting horror head-on can’t avoid it when a suicide bomber targets their hangout, a laid-back watering hole called Mike’s Place. Amazingly, filming for the documentary Blues by the Beach — intended as a feel-good look at “real life in Israel” beyond headline-grabbing violence — had begun before the April 2003 attack. After the project’s primary catalyst, American producer Jack Baxter, was seriously injured in the blast, Joshua Faudem (an Israeli American with a filmmaking background who happened to be a Mike’s Place bartender) carried on with help from his then-girlfriend, Pavla Fleischer, also a filmmaker.
Despite this stunning chain of coincidences, Blues by the Beach unfortunately suffers from lack of focus, shifting from Baxter’s search for a doc subject to Mike’s Place to Faudem’s failing relationship with Fleischer. Though the filmmakers’ post-traumatic stress is well earned, it can get tedious. Far more inspiring is the resilience of Mike’s Place itself. Visit the bar’s Web site (www. mikesplacebars.com) for a striking illustration of how recent tragedy offers just as much opportunity for off-the-wall juxtaposition as anything left over from World War II: a page memorializing the victims of the bombing and another page proudly displaying pics from the bar’s annual “Pimp-n-Ho” costume bash. SFBG
JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
July 20–Aug. 7
See Film listings for showtimes
Valley of the Dolls
(Fox Home Entertainment)
PRESS PLAY My favorite anecdote about Susan Hayward hides in a Nicholas Ray biography. When director Ray first met Hayward before the filming of 1952’s The Lusty Men, he launched into one of his characteristic orations about methods of acting. Hayward knitted. Ray jabbered. After a while she cut him short. “Listen, honey, I’m from Brooklyn,” she said with a trademark from-the-gut growl that could stop a linebacker short. “What’s the story?”
In the case of 1967’s Valley of the Dolls, the story was Jacqueline Susann’s — at least until Mark Robson’s botched-in-so-many-wondrous-ways movie landed like an Evening in Paris smoke bomb in theaters. It’s easy to forget what, um, rich material Val Lewton acolyte Robson was failing to work with here, and you can’t count on today’s Castro clone to point out the protofeminism or the latent and perhaps Ethel Merman–inspired lesbianism in Susann’s novel, a megapopular follow-up to a best seller about her pet poodle. If heterosexual men fuck the way Susann’s book claims they do, no wonder Neely O’Hara was just the dame to prove Ted Casablanca was “not a fag!”
“Finally!” exclaims a sticker affixed to the Valley of the Dolls DVD in the window display of Streetlight Records on Market, and indeed it feels like it has taken longer than forever for Valley of the Dolls to make the transition from VHS to headed-for-obsolescence disc. The wait has brought us some average packaging and a number of extras, including a documentary about Susann that’s no deeper than the biodrama Isn’t She Great? (wasn’t that terrible?) and some mercifully brief clips of Judy Garland’s screen tests for the role of Helen Lawson. But we didn’t buy this thing for an E! network facsimile’s commentary. We bought it for the movie, 200 proof, “straight,” no chaser.
It’s all here. Dionne Warwick’s rendition of the title song, still as cold as New England snow. The other awful musical numbers, copenned by Dory “Midgets” Previn before Mia Farrow gave her a reason to beware of young girls. Sharon Tate’s absurd calls from “Mother” (surely the inspiration for Julianne Moore’s phone chats in Todd Haynes’s Safe) and Lee Grant’s stage-wings glare (ditto Grant’s own performance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive).
There are so many wacky moments to love, like the lingering seconds when a necklace around Patty Duke’s neck assumes a bra shape over what her character would call “boobies” midway through one musical number. There is Duke’s rollicking performance, which careens from cross-eyed lousy to directly — not just campily — wonderful and back again with a fervor matched only by Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls. There are the tossed-off lines — so true — about how bitchy fags can be, and how booze helps dolls work faster. And finally there is Hayward, marching forward through this stinkin’ show, rolling with the below-the-belt punches, with or without a wig, but always with dignity. When Hayward’s Helen Lawson declares that you need a “hard core” to survive — you know, shortly after her yapping former understudy has tried one scheme too many — you better believe it. (Johnny Ray Huston)
SONIC REDUCER Wassup Lauryn Hill? Well apparently she’s been busy morphing into Sun Ra.
A staight-skankin’, massive fro–sportin’, partyin’-with-Method-Man-at-the-Clift-Hotel, “la, la, la, la”-ing Sun Ra.
The lady had about 13 people onstage at Great American Music Hall on June 29 for two last-minute “rehearsal” sets: two drummers, two keyboardists, at least three guitarists, the works. Because the lady clearly wanted to play a bandleader from a galaxy far, far away — and frankly, I haven’t been so interested in Lauryn Hill in years.
She was an artist in her own little world, all right — miming Bitches Brew, turning her unrehearsed Arkestra into an engorged rock-steady big band, and at around 2 a.m., at the end of the second show, launching passionately, stubbornly, into her most popular tunes.
The lights went up. The stage lights flicked off. The power to the mics finally ebbed. And Hill had found her own power trip of a groove — in the dark, where it’s safe — and the audience was in deep doo-doo in love, shouting, “One more! One more! Lau-Ren! Lau-Ren!” At about 2:15 a.m., after much shushing, she began singing “Killing Me Softly” a cappella. Softly. Then she descended into the crowd like an empress to meet her biggest fans.
FISHIN’ MUSICIAN But enough Arkestra-ted diva tripping, we gotta work together, so follow the lead of Aesop Rock and longtime Bay Area artist Jeremy Fish, who have done an ace job in collaborating on a new book playing off those golden children’s record-and-storybook combos. The release of their The Next Best Thing book–7-inch comes with a mini-multimedia promo juggernaut July 6: Fish (who has a load of product in the works, including a new vinyl toy and a board series and short film for Element Skateboards titled Fishtales with a soundtrack by Rock) will show his paintings at Fifty24SF Gallery. And then later that night Aesop Rock will bump up against Rob Sonic, DJ Big Wiz, Murs with Magi, and producer Blockhead at a benefit concert at the Independent for 826 Valencia.
The pair met through a mutual friend and discovered that they’re mutual fans: Rock owned a Fish piece, and the artist had been an avid Rock listener for years. “I saw a lot of his work had cute stuff mixed with evil stuff, which is a lot like what I write about,” says the jovial Rock.
Aesop Rock, of late, has found his work skewing toward the more narrative side of hip-hop: He already has about five “really linear stories” for his next album, expected in 2007. That recording is likely to include more instrumentation by musicians like Parchman Farm, which includes Rock’s wife, Allison “the Jewge” Baker.
Rock moved from New York City to San Francisco to be with her. Romantic — not many superstar underground rap bros will drop everything and uproot for their, um, ho, no? As a result, the music has definitely become “reflective in the sense that I moved out of New York City, turned 30, and got married all in the same year,” he explains. “Those three things all have me doing stories about random childhood stuff, super-folktaley story songs that are almost like the stories you’d read to a child.”
CORE CREW Director Dick Rude was enlisted to make Let’s Rock Again, a documentary of his friend Joe Strummer’s time with the Mescaleros around the time of 2001’s Global a Go-Go. And he captured Strummer in deep working-musician mode. “Having done the Clash and having reached that height of stardom, he was really just consumed with getting his music heard and not reaching that level again, so there was a real humility and passion to his approach on the tour,” says the LA videomaker. “It became about breaking the record so he could have a chance to record another record.”
Rude, who met Strummer while he was working as an assistant to director Alex Cox on Sid and Nancy, calls the film — which will be screened one time in San Francisco and is now out on DVD — more of a “memoir of that time” than a biopic of Strummer. As for Strummer’s posthumously released music on Streetcore, Rude believes, “There are tracks on that record that rival any Clash tune. There is no pretension, nothing to prove, just straight-out passion.” SFBG
Opening Thurs/6, 7 p.m.
248 Fillmore, SF
Thurs/6, 9 p.m.
626 Divisadero, SF
LET’S ROCK AGAIN
Wed/5, 7 p.m.
3125 16th St., SF
OH, MY STARS
Sweetness from the Cape Verdean–Portuguese vocalist. Wed/5, 8 p.m., Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. $25. (415) 771-1421.
Bookish by day at last year’s ArthurFest. Howling and riding seated audience members in performance. Thurs/6, 9:30 p.m., Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. $8. (415) 923-0923.
THEE MORE SHALLOWS
Don’t turn your back on these indie experimentalists. Thurs/6, 9 p.m., Café du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. $8. (415) 861-5016.
LEGENDARY PINK DOTS
Did you eat the Dots — and their glowering psychedelia? Sat/8, 9 p.m., Slim’s, 333 11th St., SF. $16–$18. (415) 522-0333.
GOD OF SHAMISEN
Members of Secret Chiefs 3 and Estradasphere create likely the first metal unit bearing down on the Japanese instrument. Mon/10, 9 p.m., Café du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. $8. (415) 861-5016.
Let’s talk about (((GRRRLS))) — with exploding viz-art mover–rad dude BARR. Mon/10, 6 p.m., Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. $6. (415) 923-0923.
The Road to Guantánamo is the true story of three British citizens who were held without charges for two years at the American detention camps in Guantánamo Bay. Director Michael Winterbottom’s film combines documentary with dramatization in a way that is slightly confusing in the beginning, as we quickly cut between the men who were actually detained (Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, and Rhuhel Ahmed) and the actors who play them (Rizwan Ahmed, Arfan Usman, and Farhud Harun). The performances are first-rate, however, and the illusion of reality is created with harrowing enough detail that the gap between reportage and acting, or between documentary footage and reenactment, quickly seems irrelevant.
The worst thing a film like this can do is leave its audience feeling manipulated into believing something it was inclined to believe anyway. But The Road to Guantánamo consistently lets the story do its own work, and dumps us into the basic situation without too much backstory; it doesn’t make its protagonists overly heroic, paste any love stories over the narrative, or overwhelm its audience with music that tells us what we should be feeling.
For a film loaded with war casualties and torture, it’s disarmingly entertaining. What begins as a buddy-flick road movie quickly becomes a journey into hell. Three friends leave Britain for Pakistan, where a bride is waiting for one of them. A naive side trip to Afghanistan, just as the US bombing is getting under way, quickly carries them beyond the typical budget travel annoyances of gastrointestinal illness and makeshift restrooms and into a war-torn landscape full of the mutilated citizens of a country being indiscriminately bombed. Their final circle, however, is that abyss located both at the center of the American psyche and in Cuba. Rounded up with a batch of suspected Taliban fighters, our heroes come face-to-face with the Bush administration’s love affair with torture, humiliation, and endless detention without charge.
“Where’s Osama bin Laden?” the American interrogators ask their clueless victims, a question so ridiculous it is comic. The Americans are so perfectly American and so perfectly piggy that it’s easy to forget these scenes are being acted. Even in other recent films that package their torture as political critique, like Syriana and V for Vendetta, the subjects and objects of the verb “to torture” have been muddled; we’ve watched only white Americans and Brits enduring the worst, at the hands of Muslims, cartoon characters, or — in movies like Hostel, in which the torture is pure entertainment — East European whores and Germanic S-M fags. As in dreams, audiences probably understand that the roles are confused, and that Americans should actually be the ones wielding the clubs and attack dogs. Finally, however, we’ve been presented with a more accurate grammar: The Americans and British are torturing and the Muslims are tortured. For that reason alone, The Road to Guantánamo is an important and necessary film. SFBG
THE ROAD TO GUANT
Before Hedwig was a glimmer in John Cameron Mitchell’s eye, before some Bowie-imitation bathhouse spillage bloomed into Velvet Goldmine’s Brian Slade, before Freddie Mercury was frightened mid-rhapsody by thunderbolts and lightning, there was Jobriath, the first (and the lost) truly out, gay glam rock star. “He’s one of my favorite artists,” the Ark’s Ola Salo enthuses when the stage name of Bruce Wayne Campbell, the man behind epics like “Space Clown,” is mentioned.
The recent compilation Lonely Planet Boy (Sanctuary) takes its title from a New York Dolls tune, but the songs are by the one and only Jobriath, and for every hilarious Ziggy Stardust–inspired misfire there is an odd moment of spine-tingling magic, such as agoraphobe ballad “Inside,” which could give Rufus Wainwright a lesson or two about how to rein in the braying while racing up and down the scales. A street hustler and classically trained pianist, Jobriath was also a self-described schizophrenic, just one of many reasons why his valiant attempt to kick down the closet door and race to the top of 1973’s charts was doomed.
Lonely Planet Boy songs such as “Be Still” and “Ecubyan” prove just how eerily beautiful — if not exactly commercial — Jobriath’s page from the book of glam could be, but he also was no slouch at giving a good quote. The gatefold sleeve of his first album featured a nude Jobriath with a truncated lower torso. “They used a mannequin’s ass and it wasn’t as round as Jobriath’s,” the artist himself told one interviewer. “That’s probably why Jobriath didn’t make it.” It is odd how closely the manic Oz-like titters of Jobriath’s “What a Pretty” resemble some Klaus Nomi songs, because Nomi and Jobriath were two of the earliest casualties of AIDS. A Chelsea Hotel resident who appeared in a BBC documentary about it, Jobriath died there in 1981.
Lonely Planet Boy was reissued thanks to one of Jobriath’s longtime fans, Morrissey. “I’d told the reps from Elektra in Sweden that they should reissue the Jobriath albums or put them out on CD,” says the Ark’s Salo. “So when that comp appeared, I thought that was very nice.” The author of Lonely Planet Boy’s liner notes, Manchester-based Robert Cochrane is working on a Jobriath biography titled Gone Tomorrow, and it’s fair to say that Jobriath, however obscurely, is here today. His follies are now successfully realized in the celebratory sound of the Ark. (Huston)
"Who is going to tell our stories if we don’t?" asks Madeleine Lim, founder and director of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project. She has a point. After wracking my brain to recall queer women or trans people of color who have graced a movie screen this year outside of a film festival, all I could come up with was Alice Wu’s Saving Face — which certainly didn’t play at the multiplex. Lim firmly believes that "as long as we’re not in the studio systems writing, directing, and producing these films, we’re never going to see ourselves on the big screen." Her "little stab" at putting such stories front and center was creating the QWOCMAP program, which offers free digital filmmaking workshops to queer women and trans folks of color.
This weekend brings the Queer Women of Color Film Festival, an official event of the National Queer Arts Festival that Lim organizes and curates along with M??nica Enr??quez and Darshan Elena Campos. "Tender Justice," the first evening’s program (Thurs/8, 7 p.m.), showcases shorts by young women aged 18 to 25. Many deal with issues of violence and assault, some obliquely: In the experimental piece Messages, by Alyssa Contreras, a girl wanders through a surreal red-and-black nightmare listening to hateful cell phone messages left by various family members.
On the second evening, queer Latina filmmakers come together for "En Mi Piel: Borders Redrawn" (Fri/9, 7 p.m.). The event, which includes a panel discussion, is entirely bilingual: "It is political to reclaim spaces that are bilingual, in light of the immigration debate and the backlash and racism that it has generated," says cocurator Enr??quez. There are shorts by Bay Area and Los Angeles filmmakers, as well as a group of Mexican filmmakers who traveled here on a grant from the Global Fund for Women. One highlight is filmmaking collective Mujeres y Cultura Subterranea’s La Dimensi??n del Olvido, a gritty documentary that chronicles the lives of women and startlingly young girls who live on the streets in Mexico. Others include Liliana Hueso’s Las Mujeres de Mi Vida; Aurora Guerrero’s Pura Lengua, which skillfully handles a narrative about a Los Angeles Latina queer woman who deals with a horrific police assault; and Amy André’s En Mi Piel, in which an FTM half-white, half-Chicano trans man named Logan recalls his journey back to Mexico, the search for his roots becoming part of his new identity.
The third evening, "Heart of the Flame" (Sat/10, 7 p.m.), features works by students of Lim’s over the age of 25. One such is Kenya Brigg’s Forgiven, an autobiographical narrative about recognizing her grandmother’s strength of forgiveness, which she observes when the elderly African American woman uses a cake to bury the hatchet with a white neighbor who once signed a petition to keep her from buying a house in their Castro neighborhood. SFBG
QUEER WOMEN OF COLOR
SF LBGT Community Center,
1800 Market, SF
Cracked walls, peeling plaster, empty light sockets, patterns of wallpaper, and scraps of old headlines — devoid of human activity, the shots within poet, novelist, critic, painter, and occasional filmmaker Weldon Kees’s only solo directorial effort, Hotel Apex (1952), convey what biographer James Reidel deemed a fascination with “the pathos of objects.” It’s little wonder Jenni Olson feels a certain kinship with Kees: Her recent ode to San Francisco loneliness, 2005’s The Joy of Life, also mines emotion from urban spaces some might consider empty or left behind. “He’s very quirky about the banal and the mundane, and kind of poetic and melancholy,” notes Olson, when asked about a bond. “He’s a role model.”
Because The Joy of Life‘s soundtrack features Kees’s “The Coastline Rag,” Olson’s exploration of landscape and longing might seem like a direct tribute to Kees’s film work — after all, Olson’s film deals partly with the Golden Gate Bridge and suicide, and Kees was fatally drawn to the landmark. That isn’t the case, though: It turns out Olson only recently learned of Hotel Apex‘s existence, in the process of putting together a film program devoted to Kees, with some help from Reidel.
Such a project couldn’t have been simple. A too-easy source like IMDb.com is definitely not the place to go to learn about Kees’s links with film, as the site only credits his contributions as a composer to The Joy of Life and James Broughton’s Adventures of Jimmy, an oft-hilarious short with ultra-fey narration by Broughton that resonates with the real-life sexual ambiguity of both its director and (perhaps a bit less) its music contributor.
In fact, Kees was involved in more than a handful of short films. Unsettling when one digs beneath its ordinary surface, the Gregory Bateson collaboration Hand-Mouth Coordination (1952) resembles a home movie of a mom and child that includes footage of the father figure — who actually turns out to be Kees — at work behind a Bolex. If the scenario seems a bit like the filmed experiments that distort the protagonist of Michael Powell’s 1960 Peeping Tom as a child, the comparison isn’t completely off base. “The film is meant to be a depiction of a schizopregenic — a cold mother who doesn’t properly bond with her kid,” Olson explains while describing one of a few projects partly derived from Kees’s links to the local Langley Porter Psychiatric Clinic. “Kees was very particular about the idea that the filmmaker should be visible, in a way that — 50 years ago — was new. He was influenced by Helen Levitt.”
An acknowledgement, however unconventional, of the filmmaker’s role — something troublesomely absent from Eric Steel’s controversial, not-yet-released Golden Gate Bridge suicide documentary The Bridge — is something that unites Kees’s and Olson’s movie projects. Kees’s physical presence within a 1955 film by William Heick, also called The Bridge, is the more subtle and historically engaged riddle about life, death, and the Golden Gate Bridge at the core of Olson’s program, which she’s put together in conjunction with San Francisco Cinematheque and the Poetry Center. In The Bridge, Heick and Kees draw upon Hart Crane’s poem of the same name: Although the structure itself is no longer the Brooklyn but rather the Golden Gate span, Crane’s words become an elegy not just for himself but for fellow poet Kees as well.
Beyond the films he was involved in, Kees’s ties to film history are rich ones. Briefly a movie critic at Time, he was close to James Agee, and as Reidel’s bio notes in passing, no less a talent than friend and fellow painter-critic Manny Farber praised Hotel Apex‘s unorthodox camera work for its “crawl” down a steam pipe “at the pace of a half-dead bug.” (Kees also rubbed shoulders and butted heads with Clement Greenberg, Mary McCarthy, Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, and others.) Pauline Kael often cursed herself for not recognizing self-destructive signs in her friend, as she was one of the last people to see Kees with any regularity in the last year of his life. For those who know little about Kees’s ties with Kael, or the role moviegoing plays in one of his most effective and contemporary poems, Olson’s program might bring a surprise or two. SFBG
KEES KINO: THE FILM WORK OF WELDON KEES
Sun/11, 7:30 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
Gary Meyer of the Balboa is at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Here is the second of his reports.
What a day! They’ve moved things around. Problems with my accreditation badge mean I can’t get into the movies. Offices that used to be in the Palais are at the other end of the Croisette, a 20 minute walk. The lines are huge and don’t seem to move. Finally I get my problems cleared up but every screening is full. Even my friends connected with some movies can’t get me in. The day is almost over and I haven’t seen one film yet. BUZZZZ. “Good morning. This is your 7am wake up call. Have a nice day.” Anxiety dreams are the worst here. I am feeling guilty that I only saw four films yesterday, but that was all there was worth seeing.
The morning started promisingly. Ken Loach’s newest, The Wind that Shakes the Barley , is generally well-received. Cillian Murphy proves that his acting turns in Breakfast on Pluto and Red Eye were not flukes. He stars as a young doctor faced with an offer to practice medicine in London — or stay in his village and become increasingly involved in forming a guerilla army to fight the “Black and Tan” army from England, sent to squash Irish independence. Set in the 1920s, the film has contemporary relevance. The first half is exciting, playing like a grand adventure with a political conscience, just as we have come to expect from Loach. The second half slows a bit but still worked for me.
Continuing in the history vein, with sociology and myth thrown in, is Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes. This Dutch director has developed a small but faithful following with his diverse filmography of under-distributed movies including The Quiet Room, Dance Me to My Song, and Alexandra’s Project. Ten Canoes was developed with actor David Gulpilil (most known for starring in Walkabout) who was interested in the stories of his own tribe, the Ramingining people. Gulpilil narrates (in English) simultaneous stories related to forbidden love but separated in time by many generations. There is a certain irreverence in his storytelling that is surprising: What is a flatulence reference doing in a story set hundreds of years ago? But then one realizes people have passed wind as long as they have existed. The guilty warrior is moved to the back of the line as they go through the forest — and more bawdy humor reminds us that dirty jokes aren’t new.
Ten Canoes is an impressive accomplishment on many levels. Though its austerity may be off-putting for some audiences, the fascinating stories, stunning visual delights, and truly unique experiences make it worthy of distribution.
The next two films shouldn’t be watched on a full stomach … but a viewer might not want to eat afterwards either. Taxidermia is the second feature from Hungarian director György Pálfi, after his astonishing Hukkle. Like Ten Canoes — another film dealing with several generations in a family — Taxidermia opens with a story of an orderly masturbating while observing his master’s young daughters, and servicing the man’s rather large wife on a monthly basis. The accidental offspring grows up to become a champion eater, winning contests while becoming a national, very fat, hero. Just as the sexual escapades of his father were graphically portrayed, we are shown huge amounts of vomit following the son’s competitions. The absurdity of it generates nervous laughter from those who haven’t turned away from the screen. He grows older, and becomes so large he cannot move. When he explodes, his son, a taxidermist, does what you might expect — and then what you won’t expect.
In some ways Taxidermia is a brilliant piece, with incredible cinematography, black humor, and a couple of visual treats. A brief sequence in a pop-up storybook and one exploring the myriad of uses for a bathtub are moments I should like to see again. But this is a hard movie to recommend to most; the gross outs just keep coming, each topping the previous one. Obviously, it’s only for those who can stomach it.
If one hasn’t lost his or her appetite after Taxidermia, the fiction film adapted from Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book Fast Food Nation could move anyone in that direction. The author developed the screenplay with director Richard Linklater (whose animated science fiction film, A Scanner Darkly, screens here next week). The story centers around an executive at a thinly disguised hamburger chain — “Mickey’s” — who is sent to Colorado to investigate reports concerning fecal matter in beef. Along the way he encounters a number of characters working at the slaughterhouse and at the chain’s local burger joint.
In trying to cover as many controversial bases as he can, Schlosser may have taken on too many issues (the treatment of illegal aliens, sexual harassment, America’s poor dietary habits, the lack of sanitary conditions in both the meat-processing plant and the retail outlets, corporate neglect for bigger profits, etc). But the over-ambitious narrative rarely makes the impact these issues deserve. Following Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, Schlosser’s investigative book confirmed that things aren’t much better in the 21st century. Though trying to reach a wider audience with a narrative film is a noble idea, it doesn’t succeed as either entertainment or piece of muckraking. The French seemed to generally like Fast Food Nation, probably because it makes for an easy anti-American target. But they also eat fast-food burgers in huge numbers.
The Marche is a massive film market that happens simultaneously with the film festival. More junk that you ever imagined is produced all over the world, and thousands of films are being sold here. Some are finished and others are in development. Many will never be finished.
We can always expect ripoffs of Hollywood blockbusters. There is no description for Sacrament Code or Stealing the Mona Lisa in the ads because the makers are probably hoping for some down and dirty direct-to-international video and cable sales. I’ve seen ads for at least three pirate movies, each looking very much like the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean II, with supernatural elements floating through the art work and featuring casts of total unknowns who look a lot like Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley.
One of my favorite things at Cannes is seeking out the most ridiculous titles for movies selling in Marche. Are you ready for a horror film about “hair extensions that attack the women that wear them?” Japan’s Toei is selling it here. Exte will star Chiaki Kuriyama, the crazy chain-swinging schoolgirl in Kill Bill.
And how about Motor Home Massacre? No description offered and none is needed.
The masses gathered at Cannes rarely refer to upcoming Festival movies by their title. We are asked, “Are you going to see the new Almodovar?” or “Did you see the Turkish movie?”
We say: “I liked the first feature from the director of that short Wasp,” and “Don’t miss the Indonesian documentary about the tsunami aftermath.”
This puts the film in a context that is easier to explain than “Are you going to see Volver? Iklimler? Red Road? Serambi?”
What do those titles mean? Until enough people have seen or heard about them, they are merely strange words or odd phrases. Volver is the new film from Pedro Almodovar; it’s a bit more subdued than some of his over-the-top recent entertainments. Penelope Cruz, who returns to her roots in Spanish cinema, plays a mother dealing with a teenaged daughter, a lonely sister, and an aging aunt. When the aunt dies, her dead mother appears, first as what the women assume is a ghost — but, maybe she never died in the fire that took their father? Initially the filmmaker continues his homage to Hitchcock with a surprise murder (and Bernard Herrmann-like music) before moving more to melodrama. While not a great film, Volver is wonderfully entertaining, full of surprises, and features a performance by Cruz that made me an instant fan. The buzz is great.
Iklimler has an English title of Climates, an appropriate description of the hot and cold relationship between a man and a woman who break up during a beach vacation and meet again in the snow. Like director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous film Uzak (Distant), the Cannes Grand Prix winner in 2003, this film could be best described as contemplative. On the surface it is a simple story of a relationship, but the emotions and motivations dig much deeper. The characters are believable, the emotions real, and the performances powerful. With virtually no camera movement, the filmmaker beautifully composes each shot; so impressed with his work, the camera stays in that one position for long sequences. Some raved about this “work of art,” but gorgeously composed images don’t make a movie. For me, this slowed too much midway. I stayed with it and appreciated the ending, but as with so much at the festival, Iklimler is an acquired taste. No doubt I will be damned for my comments.
Red Road is another story. Scottish director Andrea Arnold’s first feature is a tense and original thriller. Working from a concept proposed by Lars Von Trier’s team, three different filmmakers set out to create original stories based on the same main characters. Each were given notes; the same two actors will star. Red Road is the first to be made. A woman works for a security company watching various video monitors for possible troublemakers in a rough neighborhood. She concentrates on a man recently released from prison for a crime obviously committed against someone close to her. This variation on Hitchcock’s Rear Window grows increasing more tense as details are carefully revealed. Despite a few missteps, the film works well and Arnold is a talent to watch (her Oscar-winning short, Wasp, was a knockout).
In a given day there will rarely be a logical pattern to the order of film-watching — and the segue from one to the next can be very strange. Following Red Road with Serambi was such a radical shift. This documentary explores the aftermath of the tsunami, following children, young adults, and adults who search for their friends and relatives while coming to the realization they must rebuild their lives and city.
Another documentary, Boffo! Tinsletown’s Bombs and Blockbusters proved a good way to end a day that also included a program of shorts and a long Korean film about young soldiers that left me cold (The Unforgiven). Boffo! is by onetime Bay Area director Bill Couturie. Packed with film clips and great interviews, it tries to help us figure out why a movie is a hit or flop — even if people from filmmakers to studio heads come back to writer William Goldman’s quote: “Nobody knows nothing.”
“This is so stupid looking, it’s great!” the diminutive architect exclaims early on in Sketches of Frank Gehry, thrusting his hands in the air like a five-year-old, the exuberance of inspiration plastered all over a face so cheek-pinchingly cute and Tom Bosley–ish you want to call him “Mr. G.” Gehry’s designs may indeed often be stupid (“Some of his buildings are extremely ugly,” notes one persnickety critic), but despite all the grotesque, garish fun houses of titanium and glass, his work also radiates a peculiar warmth and friendliness. Unlike, say, Freedom Tower overlord Daniel Libeskind, whose attempts at sentiment come off about as soft and subtle as the rigid rectangles of his horn-rim glasses, Gehry can be intimidating in scope yet warm and fuzzy in feeling. His shiny, unduutf8g surfaces at times seem downright … feminine.
That mix of abrupt showman’s flash and pacifying softness is probably what has made the Toronto-born, LA-based Gehry the world’s most famous and popular living architect. The 77-year-old celebrity magnet (Brad Pitt is obsessed) is so in demand, he’s even started designing jewelry. Yes, Frank Gehry is the People’s Architect, so it’s no surprise an admitted architecture novice has created the first filmic retrospective of his work.
Actually, Sydney Pollack probably knows more than he lets on — he and Gehry have been close friends for decades, after all. Both men admitted to each other early in the friendship that they felt they were “faking it” in their respective careers. Gehry, however, is much more forthright about a professional rivalry between the two. “We’re in a different business, but I probably still compete with you,” he tells Pollack with a matter-of-fact chuckle. Pollack’s egomania, like his art, is much more demure: He asserts that the key to his success is finding a suitable niche within the confines of crass Hollywood commercialism. In other words, playing by the rules.
Clearly Gehry is the maverick (compare The Interpreter to the Vitra Furniture Museum, for instance). The relationship between the two men — their professional jealousies, the push-pull of commerce in their respective muddied art forms, and how that tension has been realized in their work — is probably the most interesting aspect of Sketches of Frank Gehry. Unfortunately, it’s barely explored, perhaps because the incessantly safe Pollack refuses to insert himself into the narrative in any meaningful way.
Instead, we’re subjected to various experts and other talking heads arguing the merits of Gehry’s work — the impossible claptrap of “What is art?” and “What is good art?” If it weren’t for the obnoxious, self-congratulatory, bathrobe-and-snifter-sporting Julian Schnabel, there’d be no end to the self-serious babble. When asked about the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Schnabel crudely snorts that it makes him want to “stick [his] stuff in there.”
Gehry’s sketches — fluid, Matisse-like squiggles that stand in stark contrast to the imposing final products — make for effective intertitles, but the montages of pretty buildings set to classical music become downright coma inducing after a while. Better are the passages featuring Gehry’s close friend and analyst of 35 years, Milton Wexler, and Gehry himself discussing his relationship with cuckolding first wife Berta. It was Berta who talked him into changing his name, and for many years he was so bereft he still introduced himself by saying, “I’m Frank Gehry. It used to be Goldberg.” (Gehry does, however, admit that anti-Semitism probably caused much of his initial struggle in the business.)
If Pollack really wanted to focus on Gehry’s artistic process, why not follow one project through from inception to completion rather than offer circumspect glimpses — the titular sketches — of Gehry’s work? Surely the filmmaker, although a documentary neophyte, understands that drama is the essence of nonfiction storytelling too? It’s hard to believe it took him a reported five years to cobble together this underwhelming footage. (Easier to believe: The stuffy Sketches was coproduced by New York PBS affiliate WNET.) Sketches of Frank Gehry isn’t necessarily a bad film — it more or less meets the requisite documentary building codes. But no one is going to stop and marvel at its sheer audacity or be moved by its form. Perhaps next time the architect himself should design his own doc. He could call it Fully Realized Frank Gehry, and it would be unafraid to look stupid. And wouldn’t that be great. SFBG
SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY
Embarcadero Center Cinema
1 Embarcadero Center, promenade level, SF
1115 Solano, Albany
For showtimes, go to www.sfbg.com
There are some serious-minded films on the program of this year’s San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, like Cracked Not Broken, about a stockbroker turned crack addict, and The Chances of the World Changing, about one man’s crusade to save endangered turtles. But when there’s an option in life to sample something called Pizza! The Movie, there’s really no way around it. You have to go for the pie.
Director Michael Dorian is good-natured enough to include a clip from "the other" Pizza: The Movie — a low-budget 2004 comedy about a lovelorn delivery dude — in his doc; he’s also clever enough to wrap his film around the theme that pizza is, by nature, a competitive sport. Rivalries lurk in all aspects of the business. The simple question of whose pizza tastes the best is paramount; dozens of parlors, from New York to Los Angeles to an Ohio spot famed for its meat-laden "butcher shop" special, are visited, and many friendly opinions are shared. But other points of contention run deeper than Chicago-style crust, including which trade magazine can claim superiority (bad blood runs twixt upstart PMQ and old-school Pizza Today); mass-market (i.e., Pizza Hut) versus artisan-style pies; and who invented which new twist when, exemplified by a chef who claims he created all of California Pizza Kitchen’s original recipes.
So, clearly, the pizza industry attracts strong personalities. But the absolute highlight of Pizza! The Movie is the Bay Area’s own Tony Gemignani, a champion acrobatic pizza tosser whose skill with dough is as awe-inspiring as his deadly serious approach to his craft. Frankly, I can’t believe Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell hasn’t starred in a feature film based on this guy; the entire 90 minutes of Pizza! The Movie are worth watching just to see Tony’s take on The Matrix, complete with bullet-time dough-throwing. Good thing DocFest goes down in the Mission, where pizza is plentiful — after the movie, there’s no way you won’t be in the mood for a slice.
Another DocFest film with a tempting title is Muskrat Lovely, Amy Nicholson’s affectionate study of a small-town Maryland beauty pageant. The specter of Corky St. Clair looms over the proceedings, which transpire during a festival with twin highlights: the crowning of Miss Outdoors, of course, and a muskrat-skinning contest. (In a tidy display of synergy, one of the pageant girls skins a muskrat as her talent.) The importance of glamour — even when one is a teenager living in an isolated Chesapeake Bay community — is addressed, as is the importance of removing the muskrat’s musk gland before you cook it.
A less triumphant tale unfolds in The Future of Pinball, local filmmaker Greg Maletic’s ironically titled work-in-progress doc about pinball’s painful decline. He focuses on a 1999 invention optimistically dubbed Pinball 2000, a wondrous machine dreamed up by the industry’s most talented (and increasingly desperate) pinball designers, a dedicated group whose job titles were made nearly extinct by the video game boom. Despite a groovy lounge music soundtrack, Pinball weaves a sad tale of creativity being stamped out by big business; also, as it turns out, the eventual fate of the Pinball 2000 happens to be one more thing we can blame on Jar Jar Binks.
The hour-long Pinball plays with Natasha Schull’s 30-minute ode to gluttony, Buffet: All You Can Eat Las Vegas. Drawn in by such gimmicks as the $2.99 shrimp cocktail, self-proclaimed buffet connoisseurs arrange incredible and unlikely food combinations on enormous plates; casino employees, used to dealing with gob-smacking amounts of consumption, ponder how a horseshoe-shaped restaurant really allows for "more flow." Meanwhile, Sin City pigs grunt on a farm outside town, eagerly awaiting the leftovers. After all, as the farmer’s wife points out, humans and pigs have nearly identical digestive tracts. SFBG
SAN FRANCISCO DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF
Also Women’s Building
3543 18th St., SF
The last few days of the San Francisco International Film Festival usually have a calmer quality, perhaps even more so this year, in the wake of a second weekend “Super Saturday” that bounced from big events such as talks with Jean-Claude Carriere and Tilda Swinton to the wild ’round-midnight screening of the cave-expedition-gone-horribly-wrong nightmare The Descent. (Scariest movie I’ve seen in years, and the characterizations, such as Natalie Mendoza’s Juno, are evocative.)
Yet early on Monday the SFIFF intensity level was high, as The Bridge screened to a packed house at the Kabuki. While I haven’t sorted out the intense emotions and serious ethical issues triggered by Eric Steel’s controversial movie – aspects of the post-screening discussion and some of his decisions as a filmmaker really troubled me, for a start – I can say that there is no film quite like it. Jenni Olson’s The Joy of Life has other roots in relation to the subject, but a recent song on Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods, much of the revived interest in the art and life of Golden Gate suicide Weldon Kees, and now Steel’s documentary all attest to the lingering potency of Tad Friend’s late 2003 New Yorker piece “Jumpers.”
Those with unmatched pain thresholds could have followed up an early Monday Bridge viewing with the second Descent screening. I saw A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (or The Prolonged Sorrow of Filipinos) and was struck by the film’s daring and often exquisite shifts in tone, as well as a very particular approach to late 19th century Filipino history. An early diegetic sound scene brings across the experience of insomnia like no movie I’ve seen, before young director Raya Martin makes a sudden jump into a wholly different (or is it?) realm of black-and-white silent pictorial storytelling. I’m hoping to interview Martin here later this week.
Other SFIFF quick hits or misses…“I hated it!” was one local filmmaker’s immediate response to Deerhoof’s live score for Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic. But a few days later, a different SF moviemaker testified their eternal love for the band when that program was mentioned. I fell between those two responses, sometimes enjoying the band’s approach but just as often wondering if the sound was trapped in mannerism rather than the alchemical realm Smith deserves. As for Werner Herzog in interview the night previous, truer words about Anna Nicole and the “mainstream” have never been spoken.
*Art School Confidential (Terry Zwigoff, USA, 2005). Pulpy with a deep noirish cast, this second collabo between Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff and cartoonist Daniel Clowes jumps off the artist’s scathingly on-target Eightball strip of the same name, taking aim at misbegotten would-be genius Jerome (Max Minghella), on campus with a serial killer on the loose, and painting Clowes’s comic exposé even blacker. Jerome’s hilarious and progressively unsettling trajectory through the art school con is studded with such delicious characters as condescending, failed-artist instructor John Malkovich, haughty art history teacher Anjelica Huston, wiseacre friend Joel David Moore, and graduate burnout/washout "guru" Jim Broadbent. 6:30 p.m., Kabuki (Kimberly Chun)
*The Wild Blue Yonder (Werner Herzog, Germany/England/France, 2005). Herzog’s latest dispatch from the reaches of inner and outer space orbits around found footage from NASA, mesmerizing underwater-camera work by Bay Area Grizzly Man player Henry Kaiser, and supposed space oddity Brad Dourif, furrowing his brow with all his might and telling tales of aquatic constellations elsewhere and environmental devastation on his adopted planet Earth. This elegiac, doomsaying — and at times pixieish — riff on Herzogian themes of hell- and heaven-bent exploration, vision quests, survival, and a certain rootlessness finds the auteur delving further into his Grizzly technique of piecing together a compelling narrative from whatever he can find in his cupboard. 7:30 p.m., Castro (as part of "An Evening with Werner Herzog") (Chun)
See You in Space (J??zsef Pacskovsky, Hungary, 2005). Hungarian writer-director Pacskovsky’s latest is another whimsical contraption of crisscrossing multiple story lines that sigh and shrug over the human condition. An astronaut stuck in orbit grows desperate as (back on Earth) his wife leaves him for a suave magician; a macrobiologist stalks, woos, and wins a virginal African refugee; a young hairdresser edges toward romance with an elderly client; a criminal psychologist finds herself attracted to a jailed murder suspect. Sprawling cross the globe, these alternately sardonic, fantastical, and silly threads are united by a sense that obsessive love is as unavoidable as it is inevitably disappointing. 4 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/2, 8:45 p.m., and May 4, 5:45 p.m., Kabuki (Dennis Harvey)
*The Shutka Book of Records (Aleksandar Manic, Czech Republic, 2005). A Roma town in Macedonia stuffed with self-proclaimed champions is the setting for this weirdly joyful film, which is far too bizarre to be anything but a doc. Here’s some of what you’ll see: the "most powerful dervish in the world"; Mondo Cane–ish interludes (one word: circumcisions!); a woman known as "The Terminator" whose stock-in-trade is exorcising evil genies; break-dancers and boxers; exceedingly competitive Turkish music fanatics; and a young butcher named Elvis. My head was about to explode after I saw this film … but in a good way. 1:45 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/30, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki (Cheryl Eddy)
The Sun (Alexander Sokurov, Russia/Italy/France/Switzerland, 2005). Third in a planned quartet of features about figureheads of 20th-century totalitarianism — earlier ones focused on Hitler and Lenin; the fourth is yet to be announced — this latest by Sokurov (Mother and Son, Russian Ark) focuses on Emperor Hirohito (Issey Ogata) at World War II’s end. The first half is as claustrophobic and tedious as the emperor’s underground bunker. Things get more interesting when he emerges to meet with the occupying forces’ General MacArthur (Robert Dawson) and sheds his age-old status as a living god — a move that lets the Japanese people off the hook while allowing a bookish, mild-mannered monarch to finally live like a human being. This is a fascinating situation as well as a key historic and cultural moment. But The Sun is heavy going; seldom has a subject generated so little of Sokurov’s trademark metaphysical poetry, despite some striking moments. 9:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sat/29, 3:15 p.m., Kabuki; and May 3, 7 p.m., PFA (Harvey)
Executive Koala (Minoru Kawasaki, Japan, 2005). It all starts so promisingly: An overworked koala, who is a celebrated executive in a pickle company, spends his time away from the office in bed with his doting human girlfriend. When she turns up dead, the cops come after him, causing our marsupial hero to question his assumed gentleness and his past. But this ridiculous Japanese comedy fails to build upon its initial setup; once the novelty of a guy in a koala suit wears off, so does the enjoyment. 10:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/2, 4:15 p.m., Kabuki (Jonathan L. Knapp)
*The Descent (Neil Marshall, England, 2005). What’s worse than being trapped underground? How about being trapped underground with creepy cave dwellers — creepy, hungry cave dwellers? And maybe, just maybe, losing your mind at the same time? Believe the hype: British import The Descent is the scariest movie since The Blair Witch Project, thanks to a killer premise, flawless pacing and casting, and Dog Soldiers writer-director Neil Marshall’s unconcealed love for the horror genre. 11:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/1, 4 p.m., Kabuki (Eddy)
*Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Stanley Nelson, USA, 2006). Nearly 30 years after the deaths of more than 900 people in the Guyanese jungle, Nelson’s deeply affecting documentary replays Jim Jones’s final, twisted address: "We didn’t commit suicide — we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world." That speech sets in motion what the doc tabs "the largest mass ‘suicide’ in modern history." Using a remarkable cache of vintage footage, as well as candid interviews with Peoples Temple survivors, relatives, and other eyewitnesses, Nelson examines the massacre with a journalist’s eye. Why the tragedy happened may never be explained, but seldom before has the how of Jonestown been so clearly delineated. 6:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/30, 7 p.m., Intersection for the Arts; Mon/1, 7 p.m., PFA; and Tues/2, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki (Eddy)
*Wide Awake (Alan Berliner, USA, 2005). Documentary filmmaker Berliner (Nobody’s Business, The Sweetest Sound) takes his celebrated self-scrutiny to dizzying heights in this portrait of the artist as an insomniac. The subject is specific, but it’s readily apparent how sleeplessness touches Berliner’s life and work. As his trademark virtuosic montage editing flashes by (like many heralded avant-garde filmmakers before him, Berliner meticulously constructs scenes and meaning from the detritus of film history), we realize the extent to which artistry can be tied to neurosis — a message unusual in its candor and transparency. 5:45 p.m., PFA. Also Sun/30, 4:15 p.m., Aquarius; and Tues/2, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki (Max Goldberg)
Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, USA, 2005). Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is both an inspiring, idealistic teacher of history and a long-suffering addict of crack and cocaine in this challenging character study. Aside from a laughable reliance on stroking his scruff to convey existential angst, Gosling is largely up to the task of playing the bipolar lead, but the swaying narration of his character’s downward spiral feels shapeless. Still, the scenes in which Dan and a knowing student (Shareeka Epps) guardedly discuss immobility, race, and life in Brooklyn avoid the histrionics that mar typical teacher films, making Half Nelson a powerful, if overly ambitious first feature for writer-director Fleck and writer-producer Anna Boden. 6:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/2, 9 p.m., Kabuki (Goldberg)
*Backstage (Emmanuelle Bercot, France, 2005). Emmanuelle Seigner convincingly plays — and sings as — sexily imperious Euro-pop goddess Lauren in this headlong remix of All about Eve, Persona, and the psycho-stalker genre. She commands hysterical worship from her fans, few being more hysterical than suburban teenager Lucie (Isild Le Besco). Improbably, the latter manages to insinuate herself into the spoiled, neurotic, rather awful pop princess’s inner circle as new confidante, servant, and toy. But if Lauren is a mess, Lucie might well turn out to be the much sicker puppy. Nasty fun, smartly directed. 7 p.m., Kabuki (also with Zoom! party at Roe, 9:30 p.m.) (Harvey) SFBG
Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey reaches far beyond the black T-shirt crowd, offering a fan’s-eye view of heavy metal music from a fan, Sam Dunn, who also happens to be an anthropologist. Dunn — who codirected, along with Scot McFadyen and Jessica Joy Wise — narrates this witty, educational ride through metal’s history. Rockin’ topics include the technical aspects of the music (“What makes metal sound … evil?”), fiercely devoted fans, and issues swirling around gender and religion. In one of Metal‘s most fascinating chapters, the filmmakers travel to Norway to investigate the genre’s extreme, church-burning contingent. The doc’s many famous faces include Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, and the singular Ronnie James Dio, who discusses at length his invention of the devil-horns hand gesture, as well as his friendly rivalry with Gene Simmons.
On the phone from Toronto, Dunn — who relayed a tale about the film inspiring a man to buy his first Black Sabbath album, and noted “That’s the kind of evangelical conversion we’re totally looking for!” — and McFadyen shared their Metal mania.
SFBG What was the most difficult part of making the film? Were there memorable moments that didn’t make it into the final cut?
SCOT MCFADYEN We drank a lot of Jägermeister [laughs]. A lot of ridiculous stuff that didn’t make it into the film will be on the DVD. And the section on Norway and black metal was a really difficult part to edit down, so on the DVD we’ll have another documentary all about Norwegian black metal.
SAM DUNN It’s a fascinating subject: Arguably the most extreme music ever produced comes out of one of the wealthiest, safest, most progressive countries in the world. From an anthropology perspective, especially, looking at the relationship between music and culture.
SFBG So are those guys really evil, or what? It seems like Dio has a sense of humor, but I’m not so sure about those Norwegians.
SM In the case of Mayhem [who come across as particularly hostile in the film], they were just really drunk. But they were generally friendly guys.
SFBG Were people in the music biz pretty open to being included in the film? Anyone you wish you could have talked to?
SM People were initially a bit apprehensive. Most things that have been made about heavy metal were like, mockumentaries, not taking it seriously. But once we got through to the artists, they were really excited. We wanted to talk to Gene Simmons, Rob Halford — Sharon Osbourne shut us down from day one. She didn’t want to be part of the film. We had to go around her to get to Tony Iommi.
SD We definitely had our battles. But we just recently got an e-mail from Rob [Halford], and he really loved the film — he called it the best thing that’s been done about heavy metal. SFBG
METAL: A HEADBANGER’S JOURNEY
(Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, and Jessica Joy Wise, Canada, 2005)
Fri/21, 10:30 p.m., Kabuki
Mon/24, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki
If you have any interest in seeing Philippe Garrel’s latest feature on the big screen, its three San Francisco International Film Festival screenings may be your only chance. While Regular Lovers is a major film by an important director associated with the French new wave, it’s hard to fathom a distributor gambling on a three-hour foray into French history with more emphasis on philosophy than on plot. In its reconsideration of the chaos that was 1968, the film is, in part, a response to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers; there was a time when European art cinema mattered enough for this kind of exchange to turn heads, but such is not the case in today’s film culture.
If that seems too gloomy an opening, it should be said that Garrel’s disillusioned movie is all about things coming to an end. Whereas Bertolucci’s last film builds to epochal May ’68, Regular Lovers opens with fighting in the streets. Our protagonist, a young poet-radical named François (played by Louis Garrel, who also starred in The Dreamers and just happens to be Garrel’s son), skirts through the Latin Quarter as unorganized bands of freedom fighters overturn cars and toss Molotov cocktails. Garrel has said that this ghostly hour-long sequence attempts to re-create the documentary footage he himself shot during 1968, and, indeed, the perspective is almost journalistic in its distance. In one long shot, a man and woman embrace in the corner of the frame while cars burn a few meters away. If he had filmed the same scene, Bertolucci would have stylistically emphasized the kissing because, for him, this was a time when sex and politics were inextricably linked. Garrel’s vision is colder but makes more sense with 40 years of hindsight. For him, the romance and sexual liberation come after the revolution, or, more precisely, these elements (along with other distractions like opium and music) shift the revolution’s focus away from the political and toward the personal
And so it is that François falls in love with Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), a pensive girl-with-bangs who is a sculptor and goes to all the right parties. Young François trades his idealistic politics and poetry for romance and an increasingly nihilistic take on bohemianism, moving from the action of the Latin Quarter to the inertia of opium dens and artists’ lofts. By the film’s end, the events of May ’68 seem like more of a head trip (at one point François wonders whether it’s possible to "make the revolution for the working class despite the working class") than a true revolution.
Throughout Regular Lovers, there’s an obvious tension in the way Garrel uses ’60s-era new wave conventions (handheld camera, location shooting, etc.) to undercut that same decade’s mythos. But careful, the Paris of this film isn’t that of Breathless. Gone are the exhilarated long shots of boulevards and canals; Garrel pictures the city as a series of shadowy, bare interiors and geometric exteriors — more along the lines of Fritz Lang’s nightmarish visions of Berlin than, say, Cléo from 5 to 7.
Now that we’re seeing the return of the repressed in French culture and cinema (France’s postcolonial legacy haunts Michael Haneke’s Caché as well as at least three films playing at this year’s SFIFF: The Betrayal, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, and October 17, 1961), the entropy of Garrel’s narrative arc seems that much more dark and, as Paris burns once again, tragic. Although overlong and sometimes didactic, Regular Lovers reveals a filmmaker impressively responsive to change. SFBG
(Philippe Garrel, France, 2005)
Fri/21, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki
Sun/23, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki
April 29, 8:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Perhaps Love (Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Hong Kong, 2005). The pan in pan-Asian here stands for panic: This meta–love story within a metamusical tries to please everyone and runs with damn near everything, except sparkly red shoes, and fails at almost all it attempts. Hong Kong director Peter Ho-Sun Chan (Comrades: Almost a Love Story) oversees players like Chinese actress Zhou Xun (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress), Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers), Bollywood choreographer Farah Khan, and cocinematographer Christopher Doyle, but is he really to blame? Only Kaneshiro manages to project a glimmer of real emotion in this pointless East-kowtows-to-West, torture-by-style exercise, glaringly poisoned by contempo-musicals like Chicago and Moulin Rouge. 7 p.m., Castro (Kimberly Chun)
Sa-kwa (Kang Yi-kwan, South Korea, 2005). In Oasis and A Good Lawyer’s Wife, Moon So-ri took on emotionally and physically daring roles, playing characters who flouted convention. She confirms her rep in Sa-kwa as a woman torn between a boyfriend who drops her while they are at a great height (a gesture she repays) and a husband who treats her like an acquisition. Director Kang Yi-kwan keeps the handheld camera up in Moon’s face, and she more than delivers, though the symbiosis between director and performer doesn’t quite match that between Lee Yoon-ki and Kim Ji-su in 2004’s less conventional This Charming Girl. 4:45 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 1, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki; and May 4, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki (Johnny Ray Huston)
*Circles of Confusion (various). This vaguely defined and stylistically varied program of shorts contains at least one first-rate local work, Cathy Begien’s Relative Distance, which expertly mines the humor and pain within family ties through a direct-address approach. There is absolutely no doubt which of the 10 movies here is the virtuoso mindblower: a strobing, percussive blast from start to finish — even if it stutters, stops, and restarts like a machine possessed by a wild spirit — Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine takes The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and makes it better, badder, and so ugly it’s gorgeous. 3:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/24, 4:15 p.m. Kabuki (Huston)
*Factotum (Bent Hamer, Norway, 2005). Unfortunately titled but cleverly plotted, director Bent Hamer’s paean to Charles Bukowski revels in the boozy textures of the author’s work. The movie’s meandering vignettes draw from various novels, which makes sense since old Chuck’s work can fairly be said to comprise one sprawling, bawdy picaresque. Matt Dillon is fine as the author’s fictionalized self, but Lili Taylor makes it — she uses her throaty whisper to excellent effect as the antihero’s sometimes lover. Beyond the performances, Factotum gives pause to the way Bukowski’s episodic, prose-poetry narration style has influenced indie cinema conventions, especially of the sort practiced by screenwriter Jim Stark’s longtime collaborator, Jim Jarmusch. 9 p.m., Kabuki. Also April 30, 3 p.m., Kabuki (Max Goldberg)
The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (Mitsuru Meike, Japan, 2004). A hooker who titillates clients by acting like a naughty teacher winds down her workday with a froofy coffee drink. Suddenly, a pair of baddies exchange gunfire right in the middle of the café. Though she’s pegged between the eyes, the lass somehow survives; in short order, she’s humped by a cop, demonstrates Will Hunting–<\d>style math prowess, and quotes Descartes. So what’s up with that weird little object she’s got rattling around in her enormous handbag? This pink film’s weirdly unflattering sex scenes raise a different question: So who cares? 11:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/25, 1:15 p.m., Kabuki (Cheryl Eddy)
*Heart of the Game (Ward Serrill, USA, 2005). "Sink your teeth in their necks! Draw blood!" That’s no vampire, just Bill Relser, the tax professor turned girls’ basketball coach, rallying his team. Documentary filmmaker Ward Serrill clearly absorbed the lesson, grabbing us by the necks with his extraordinary saga of the Roosevelt High Roughriders. Over six seasons the team wins and loses, soaring to unimaginable victories and crashing into heartbreak. Serrill pays close attention, on court and off, and ultimately delivers a smartly paced chronicle that nails the socialization of girls, the costs of playing ball, and the perils of female adolescence. The spectacular basketball is an added bonus. Hoop Dreams, move over! Noon, Castro. Also Tues/25, 4 p.m., Kabuki (B. Ruby Rich)
In Bed (Mat??as Bize, Chile/Germany, 2005). Over the course of a single night, strangers Daniela (Blanca Lewin) and Bruno (Gonzalo Valenzuela) reveal themselves to one another in guarded conversation and periodic bouts of lovemaking. Director Mat??as Bize and writer Julio Rojas have trouble stirring up enough genuinely surprising (or moving) drama to break down the fourth wall of this dual portrait; unlike the similar but superior Before Sunrise, In Bed never transcends its own dramatic construct. 9:15 p.m., Castro. Also Mon/24, 3:15 p.m., Kabuki (Goldberg)
*Le Petit Lieutenant (Xavier Beauvois, France, 2005). Skinned of pop songs and even a score, decorated in grays and blues, and populated by more realistic gendarmes than one is likely to see outside le station, this clear-eyed, no-merde look at the career of an eager, recent police academy graduate (Jalil Lespert), his fellow cops, and his tough but vulnerable recovering alcoholic of a chief investigator (Nathalie Baye) is less a policier than an anthropologically minded character study. A student of Baye’s Detective commandant Jean-Luc Godard as well as Spielberg and Tarantino, director Xavier Beauvois mixes an almost clinical attention to detail with a genuine warmth for his characters and has a knack for tackling the knotty racial dynamics in today’s Paris. 3:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/25, 6:45 p.m., Kabuki; and April 26, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki (Chun)
*The Life I Want (Giuseppe Piccioni, Italy, 2005). Here is the engrossing meta–<\d>love story that fest opener Perhaps Love wants, or rather needs — though that film’s clumsy kitsch pageantry would have completely spoiled this refreshingly mature romance, which delicately references both Camille and Day for Night, Visconti and Laura Antonelli. At a screen test, all-too-established actor Stefano (Luigi Lo Cascio) is drawn in by the tremulous magnetism and churning emotions of the troubled, unknown actress Laura (Sandra Ceccarelli). Director Giuseppe Piccioni brings an elegant, hothouse intensity to the on-again, off-again, on-again tryst while speaking eloquently about the actor’s life, the hazards of the Method, and the pitfalls of professional jealousy — and giving both actors, particularly the impressive Ceccarelli, a layered mise-en-scène with which to work. 9:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/24, 8:30 p.m., Kabuki; April 27, 6 p.m., Kabuki; and April 30, 7 p.m., Aquarius (Chun)
Perpetual Motion (Ning Ying, China, 2005). Ning Ying explores the changes Western-style capitalism has brought to Chinese society in a gathering of four privileged, affluent, fictional ladies — played by some of the real-life republic’s best-known media personalities and businesswomen. They’ve assembled for tea at the posh home of Niuniu (Hung Huang), who’s got a hidden agenda — she’s invited these "friends" over to figure out which one is secretly boinking her husband. There’s some interesting political-cultural commentary around the edges here. But it’s disappointing that a female director would do what Ning soon does, reducing her characters to campy, bitch-quipping, weeping-inside gorgons in a pocket-sized variation on hoary catfight classic The Women. 6:45 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/24, 9:25 p.m., PFA; April 26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; and May 1, 9:30 p.m., Aquarius (Harvey)
*Taking Father Home (Ying Liang, China, 2005). In Ying Liang’s engrossing debut, urban decay and an impending flood follow protagonist Xu Yun (Xu Yun) around every turn of his doomed search for his absent father. The film — shot on video without the funding, or the approval, of the Chinese government — takes a no-frills approach, its only indulgences being Ying’s dark, quirky humor and obvious love of the long shot. Much of his action unfolds from afar, allowing the countryside and industrial wasteland of the Sichuan province to create a surprisingly rich atmosphere for this simple, effective story. 1:30 p.m., PFA. Also April 30, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; and May 3, 6:15 p.m., Kabuki (Jonathan L. Knapp)
*Turnabout (Hal Roach, USA, 1940). Each convinced they’re on the low end of a marital totem pole, Carole Landis and John Hubbard say some hasty words in front of a Hindu deity’s statue. Voila! Husband and wife find themselves swapping bodies. This Freaky Friday precursor was a risqué surprise in the censorious climate of 1940 Hollywood and for that reason was denounced by the Catholic Legion of Decency as "dangerous to morality, wholesome concepts of human relationships, and the dignity of man." Why? ’Cause the guy acts femme and the girl acts butch, that’s why. Directed by comedy veteran Hal Roach, this seldom revived curiosity is too hit-and-miss to rate as a neglected classic, but it’s vintage fun nonetheless. 3 p.m., Castro. Also Sun/23, 6:15 p.m., PFA (Harvey)
*Workingman’s Death (Michael Glawogger, Austria/Germany, 2005). This five(-and-a-half)-chapter documentary examines manual labor of the most backbreaking variety: Ukrainian coal miners scraping out a dangerous living; Indonesian sulfur miners pausing from their toxic-looking quarry to pose for tourist cameras; Pakistani workers philosophically approaching the task of tearing apart an oil tanker ("Of course, this is a shitty job, but even so we get along well"); and, in the film’s most graphic segment, Nigerian butchers slogging through an open-air slaughterhouse. A Chinese factory and a factory-turned-park in Germany are also on the tour. Without narration, the film places emphasis on its images, which are often surprisingly striking. 3:45 p.m., PFA. Also April 30, 9 p.m., Kabuki; and May 4, 5:30 p.m., Kabuki (Eddy)
All about Love (Daniel Yu, Hong Kong, 2005). If you’ve got the fever for the flavor of Andy Lau, you can’t miss this melodrama, with the HK hunk in two roles: the clean-shaven doctor grieving over his dead wife, and the goateed fashion designer who realizes his true feelings after abandoning his sick wife, a heart-transplant patient. That the story lines intersect, bringing forth slo-mo shots of breaking glass and dripping tears, should surprise no one; Lau, of course, emerges as swoon-worthy as ever. 4:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also April 26, 5:15 p.m., Kabuki (Eddy)
*The Eagle (Clarence Brown, USA, 1927). Originally released in 1925, The Eagle is a spry star-vehicle for heartthrob Rudolph Valentino (that name!). Despite being set in decidedly unsexy 18th-century Russia, Valentino prances through as Vladimir, a dashing Cossack guard who disguises himself as the Black Eagle (as well as a French tutor) to exact justice upon a plundering landlord. In the process he finds romance with that same landlord’s daughter (Vilma Banky) and trouble with Russia’s queen (played with Garbo cool by Louise Dresser). The Alloy Orchestra performs a new score for this classic adventure story. 7 p.m., Castro (Goldberg)
*Live ’n’ Learn (various). You’ll find two excellent Bay Area–<\d>made movies in this program of short works. Tracing a heart-wrenching path away from — and yet toward — the stabbing at the end of Gimme Shelter, Sam Green’s painfully perceptive tribute to Meredith Hunter, Lot 63, Grave C is one of the best films at this year’s festival, period. The brightness of the cinematography in Natalija Vekic’s Lost and Found is as unique as its object-obsessed dive into memories of one Schwinn banana-seat summer — any kinks in the dialogue or narrative are trumped by the atmospheric potency of the visuals. 1 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 2, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki (Huston)
*Waiting (Rashid Masharawi, Palestine/France, 2005). A burnt-out Palestinian film director, an ex–TV journalist returned from abroad, and an unworldly local cameraman set out to audition actors at refugee camps in Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon on behalf of the National Palestinian Theatre (which promises, with relentless optimism, to open soon). "How can we really make films in this situation?" the director asks — a serious question when military occupation, dispossession, closed borders, broken families, and deferred dreams confront the impulses of human hearts and an art form premised on action. Filmmaker Rashid Masharawi (himself born in Gaza’s Shati camp) doesn’t always avoid staginess, but his acute sense of irony and his generous lens — opening onto a landscape of ordinary Palestinian faces — manage a persuasive emotional and thematic complexity. 3:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/25, 4 p.m., Kabuki (Robert Avila)
House of Himiko (Isshin Inudo, Japan, 2005). Young Saori (Kou Shibasaki) can’t afford to pass up a part-time job at a private old-age home. But she doesn’t have to like it: The residents are all gay men, and they include the father (Min Tanaka) whose abandonment long ago left Saori a grudge-keeping homophobe. But her prejudices eventually melt amid these aging queens’ wacky and poignant antics. This is the kind of movie that does soften up mainstream audiences’ attitudes, if only because it panders to them so carefully — the ol’ ’mos here are all cuddly, harmless, and postsexual, despite their occasional trash talk. For more sophisticated viewers, the cutesy stereotypes and maudlin moments may outweigh director Isshin Inudo’s good intentions and passages of low-key charm. 6:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also April 27, 5:45 p.m., Castro (Harvey)
*Runners High (Justine Jacob and Alex da Silva, USA, 2006). Inspirational sports movies are hard to beat, and this doc about Students Run Oakland, a group that trains high schoolers for the Los Angeles marathon, is particularly potent. Rough neighborhoods, unstable home lives, and plain old out-of-shapeness provide obstacles for the dedicated kids profiled here, but the training benefits nearly all who stick with it. "If you can accomplish a marathon, you can accomplish anything" would be a clichéd thing for a coach to say in a narrative film; in the context of this doc, the words feel truly sincere. 7 p.m., Kabuki. Also April 27, 10 a.m., Kabuki; April 29, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; and May 2, 8:30 p.m., El Rio (Eddy)
Looking for Madonna (John de Rantau, Indonesia, 2005). Part potboiler romance, part quirky street-level character study, and part gritty message-movie about the fears that continue to surround HIV/AIDS — Looking for Madonna plays it multiple ways. In this, the gangly, freewheeling, and well-meaning feature debut of Indonesian director John de Rantau, Madonna is a pop star singing, "Don’t Cry for Me, Indonesia," as well as a local prostitute prized for her fair skin. The Virgin Mother, however, is nowhere to be found — although AIDS-infected Papua teen Joseph tries his best to reach a state of grace, aided by his cheeky, bawdy chum Minus. 7:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also April 29, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki (Chun)
*News from Afar (Ricardo Benet, Mexico, 2005). Just as Carlos Reygadas’s Japon gave viewers ample time to contemplate its maker’s talent and ponder his pretense, so does Ricardo Benet’s first feature as it turns a man’s relationship to landscape into an existential equation. When that landscape is as broke as a nameless saltpeter town or as forbidding as Mexico City, can it be anything else? Whether Benet will follow this movie with something as sublime and ridiculous as Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven is unclear, but there is no doubt that he is talented, and that News from Afar can slap a drowsy viewer upside the head with the full weight of fate gone bad. 7 p.m., PFA. Also April 29, 6 p.m., Kabuki; and May 2, 3 p.m., Kabuki (Huston)
The first time I heard Daniel Johnston’s music, I’d ordered a tape from K Records, having little idea what to expect. What arrived in the mail was something very different from Let’s Kiss and Let’s Together and other happy home- and handmade cassettes distributed by the label. Yip/Jump Music presented a more tortured brand of raw expression.
Over the years Johnston has played solo and with bands, and recorded for a major label as well as several indies. He’s inspired an excellent tribute album (Dead Dog’s Eyeball, on Bar None) by Kathy McCarty, and now, Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a winner of the 2005 Director’s Award at the Sundance Film Festival. As Feuerzeig’s movie begins a local run at the Lumiere Theatre, producer Henry S. Rosenthal – who some may also know as the drummer of Crime — agreed to talk about it.
Bay Guardian: The Devil and Daniel Johnston begins with some uncanny self-recorded footage of Johnston from 1985, in which he introduces himself as “the ghost” of Daniel Johnston and refers to “the other world.” How did you and [director] Jeff Feuerzeig get that footage?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Part of Daniel’s mania is his obsession with self-documentation, and as you can tell from his early Super-8 films he’s funny and creative. He loves comic books — that’s his world. As for the footage, it’s as if Daniel was creating this voluminous archive knowing that someday someone would put it all together. Clearly that task is beyond him, but creating the source material is something he’s devoted much of his life to. Was he doing it consciously? Certainly — but it’s part and parcel with his illness.
Daniel has a sense of posterity that is uncanny. He recorded all of his phone conversations with Radio Shack equipment. All of that was there for us to go through.
We didn’t understand the magnitude of the archive until we went to the house and found Hefty bags filled with hundreds of tapes. He’s kept a cassette recorder going for every second he was awake for 15 years.
BG: I was surprised at the wealth of early footage of Johnston – his home movies are a hoot. Did Feuerzeig do anything to treat or restore that footage? Also, is Johnston still as interested in self-documentation today as he was while growing up?
HR: All of the texture that you see in the early films — the snowflakes as we call them – stems from mold eating the films. When we found the films they were in a shoebox in a closet being eaten by mold. We sent them to the same restoration facility that Martin Scorsese sends things to. We transferred them twice over two years, and when we went back to watch the footage, the snowflakes or mold had advanced considerably. Those films will eventually be consumed. The fact we could preserve [some of] them means they’ll exist in the future.
Daniel no longer walks around with a cassette recorder. That was part of his manic phase, and he isn’t theoretically having manic phases anymore — he is under the influence of psychotropic medication. Now he puts that manic energy into his music and his art.
BG: His devotion to recording is very Warhol-like.
HR: It reminds me of Warhol’s filing system with the boxes. Warhol just kept those empty cardboard boxes that he’d put anything in. Then they’d be taped up, numbered, and sent to storage. Later, they found so many important documents mixed in with his junk mail. I can’t say it’s effective, but it’s good for posterity. At least you know things are chronological.
BG: Feuerzeig’s rock docs – both this and Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King – allow the parents of the “rock stars” to have their say. Is that something you like about his approach? Obviously in Johnston’s case it’s necessary to have his mom in the film since she plays such a major role in his early recordings.
HR: The Mabel of the movie is a mellowed Mabel. She’s not the Mabel of Daniel’s youth. She’s also not the Mabel of today because she’s unfortunately deteriorated considerably. She’s blind and has had hip replacements and has trouble walking. She’s in frail condition.
The parents are great. Both Jeff and I like old people. There aren’t enough old people on the screen in general. In Jeff’s films, the parents play a key role in the lives of the artists. Jad and David [Fair, of Half Japanese] lived at home during their early creative years. There’s that great scene in The Band That Would Be King where the parents talk about Half Japanese’s first record negotiations at the family home, and about Jad going downstairs and getting Coke – the drink, not the drug.
These people lived at home and the parents are a big part of the story. In Daniel’s case, they’re an even bigger part in terms of decisions they’ve made for him.
Different people view [Daniel’s parents in the movie] differently. We showed the film to an audience of psychologists, and many saw the parents as heroic for choosing not to institutionalize Daniel. Many others saw them as making a big mistake.
BG: The movie talks about aspects of Johnston’s art, such as the eyeball imagery that dominates his drawings. I’m wondering about his early identification with Joe Louis and also the recurrent references to Casper the Friendly Ghost in his lyrics. Has he said much about any of that?
HR: Casper’s always occupied a central role in Daniel’s life. You may recall the sequence [in the film] where Daniel is sent to Texas to live with his brother and he turns his brother’s weight bench into a recording studio. Sitting right next to that “recording studio” was a Casper glass. In one of Daniel’s audio letters he talked about how lonely he was in Texas and that his only friend in the world was his Casper glass.
We found an identical glass on eBay; [Daniel] helped us art direct many of the recreations in the film.
I liked Casper as a kid, but I never thought about it until Daniel asked — “How did Casper die?”
BG: Can you tell me a bit about the decision to not have Johnston interviewed in the movie? It seems as if others talk about him, but he rarely directly addresses the viewer.
HR: We filmed hours and hours of interviews with Daniel, and the sad fact is this: Daniel is not able to host his own film. He’s sick and he can’t tell these stories. He doesn’t remember them, and when he does, he doesn’t tell them right. You can’t draw Daniel out. He says what he wants to say when he wants to say it. He can’t host the movie like R. Crumb hosts Crumb.
When journalists travel all the way to Texas to interview Daniel, they are shocked and frustrated to discover that he’s a mental patient. People want to believe that it’s an act, or that he’s putting people on.
If we had relied on Daniel’s interviews to drive the film, there would be no film. It wasn’t until we unearthed the archive that we realized that Daniel narrated the film, but in real time, as it happened. We don’t have to have Daniel reminisce – [because of his self-documentation] we can be there during his manic phases and see him babbling to Gibby Haynes, or swimming in the creek while talking about baptizing people.
BG: How and when did you become a Daniel Johnston fan? Do you have a favorite song or album? I know you’ve referred to this movie as a 6-year labor of sorts, so could you also give me a bit of background in terms of its creation?
HR: I think I came to Daniel through Half Japanese, whom I met through my friendship with Bruce Conner. Bruce was on Jad [Fair]’s mailing list. Jad would send Bruce packages of records — when you get something from Jad, it’s mail art. Then Bruce had a party in the late ‘70s and brought them [Half Japanese] out and I met them.
My favorite album of Daniel’s is the Jad Fair-Daniel collaboration, which has been reissued under the name It’s Spooky [originally on 50 Skidillion Watts records; now available on Jagjaguwar]. It just doesn’t get better.
Jeff and I met in Berlin [at the Berlin Film Festival] in 1993, when he was there with his film about Half Japanese. I felt like he had made that film just for me. I knew I was the only person in the room who knew who the band was. Everyone was convinced this was Spinal Tap. We talked about our love of Daniel and how there should be a Daniel Johnston film. It seemed impossible. He [Daniel] was dormant at the time. It wasn’t until 2000 that he began emerging again. That’s when we seized the moment.
BG: You are producing Bruce Conner’s sole feature-length film, a years-in-the-making documentary about the Soul Stirrers. Can you tell me a bit about that movie, and about your other involvements with Bruce via the film and his Mabuhay Gardens photos of your band Crime?
HR: We met during the punk rock years and became friends then. Bruce asked me if I could produce a reunion concert of the original Soul Stirrers. I knew nothing about filmmaking at that time. We decided the event was so important it should be documented. We looked for people to film, and that’s kind of how I got tricked into being a movie producer. Twenty years later, that movie is still the albatross around my neck. We are making slow progress on it, believe it or not. It’s not dormant and it’ll emerge one day.
It’s priceless archive footage that we’ve shot, because all of our protagonists are dead.
Bruce definitely got me started in this profession – though I hesitate to call it that, I don’t know what it is – and as I sharpen my skills with other filmmakers on other projects we’ve continued to collaborate.
BG: Do you see any links between Devil and Daniel Johnston and documentaries such as Tarnation and Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt?
HR: The movies that most often get mentioned in relation to ours are Capturing the Friedmans and Crumb. Those are either stylistic or content pairings that people are making. There’s validity to all of them.
Tarnation I enjoyed, though I didn’t think it was a great film. It bogged down, but it was interesting. The high point of the movie for me was the early footage where he [Jonathan Caouette] was impersonating his mother — that’s what stands out in my mind. When Tarnation came out, we were done with this film, so Tarnation exerted no influence. We were curious to track it because it relied heavily on a person’s obsessive self-documentation. But I think that the materials are handled with a completely different sensibility.
Crumb deals with an artist who you could say has interesting personality disorders. I’m not going to say Crumb is mentally ill — he’s nowhere near where Daniel is. But like Devil and Daniel Johnston, Crumb is a monograph about an artist.
Capturing the Friedmans will forever remain the most astounding archive of found footage ever stumbled across.
BG: A review of Devil and Daniel Johnston in Film Comment claims the movie makes a virtue of Johnston’s “self-defeating” eccentricity, and asserts that the movie fuels “mad genius” myths while ignoring Johnston’s influences. What do you think of that kind of criticism?
HR: I completely disagree. Daniel’s influences are discussed throughout the film. They’re all over the walls of his garage – comic books, Marilyn, the Beatles, he’s a sponge of pop culture and everything else. He has art books devoted to da Vinci and Van Gogh. He sucks from everything and it gets spewed out through his filter. He doesn’t assign value to things – to him, everything’s the greatest. He has the biggest collection of Beatles bootlegs I’ve ever seen. To Daniel, Ringo’s solo albums are as great as Sgt. Pepper’s. Wings albums are as great as Beatles albums.
He listens to Journey, Rush – whatever garbage, he processes it. And yet when you engage Daniel on a topic when he’s conversant and catch him in a lucid moment you can have the most erudite discussion. He can critique every panel Jack Kirby ever drew.
There’s that shot [in the film] when you’re in a basement and seeing his work materials, and you’re seeing Warhol’s Marilyns. I wonder how many other teenagers in Westchester at the time were cutting out Warhols – probably none. Daniel’s always been plugged in and sought out the most interesting things going on.
BG: What does Daniel think of the movie?
HR: You can imagine what this movie would mean to a narcissist of Daniel’s proportion. Of course, he likes the film — but he’s very funny. He told Jeff when he saw it that he liked the colors.
We did take the time to shoot 16mm film and we took hours to light and compose shots.
The aesthetic of the film is a huge part of it. If we had this movie with a camcorder it wouldn’t have given the subject the weight it deserved. That’s why this movie cost a million dollars.