Johnny Ray Huston

The Secretary of State


Today is as good a day as any to look at Luc Tuymans‘ much-debated 2005 oil-on-canvas portrait The Secretary of State.


In a 2005 top ten for Artforum, Studio Museum curator Thelma Golden noted that Condoleeza Rice’s mouth is “resolutely shut” in this portrait. This image has also been interpreted as a political critique (in which case, Tuymans’ viewpoint is usually the writer’s), as proof that the painter is turned on by his subject, or simply as one of the latest in a long line of portraits of people who have had Rice’s job. But what would Dave Chappelle’s blind white supremacist character say?

Francoise Hardy, I Love You


Have you heard Francoise Hardy’s If You Listen? First released in 1972, this collection of songs sounds very 2006 — proof positive that Devendra Banhart could uncork some wild worship at Ms. Hardy’s feet just like he does at Vashti Bunyan’s. Last night and this morning, I listened to her takes on compositions by Buffy St. Marie (an exquisite “Until It’s Time for You to Go”) and Randy Newman (“I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today”) and imagined her performing a concert in San Francisco. But what local venue can do her justice?


This isn’t heralded as one of Hardy’s best albums, perhaps because she largely sings in English, and perhaps because it comes near the end of her ye-ye-era popularity. (Today, when she isn’t guesting with Benjamin Biolay, she’s still a handsome solo artist: all young dudes should check her website to be turned on — and to learn how to wear a suit.) But If You Listen is dating so well it’s verging on timeless. Pristine, cool, like the Nico who covered “I’ll Keep it With Mine,” yet with a little lightness of phrasing and a lot more pitch-perfect ability, Hardy lords over the impeccable instrumentation. Her versions of Beverley Martin’s “Ocean” and “Can’t Get the One I Want”? Perfection.

Calling Mr. Ozon


Francois Ozon’s new movie Time to Leave opens in Bay Area theaters this Friday, which means that it’s time to talk to him — about his attractive lead actor, Melvil Poupaud, his legendary supporting actress, Jeanne Moreau, and potentially stupid but fuckable bit players. Oh yeah, there’s some gossipy stuff.


Bay Guardian: My favorite of Melvil Poupaud’s films might be Eric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale, where he has a Jeff Buckley quality. The beach scenes in your movie resonate off of that one, as well as the beach scenes in your past films — would you agree? Had you admired other films of his?
Francois Ozon: I met Melvil a long time ago for Water Drops on Burning Rocks; I’d asked him to do the lead part, but he was afraid to play a gay character — he wasn’t about to kiss a boy in front of the camera. But now he was ready, maybe because the fact the character is gay is not so important. He was touched by Romain’s relationship to his father.
He’s a great actor because he accepts his passivity, his femininity. To be directed by a man was not a problem for him — in fact, at times, working with him is like working with an actress.

The planet of the mutants


It’s been nearly 40 years since Sérgio Dias Baptista of Os Mutantes saw Ten Years After at the Fillmore, but he still has, well, vivid memories of his first visit to San Francisco as a naive 17-year-old. He remembers sitting on a bench at a park in Haight-Ashbury and seeing a man on a faraway hilltop slowly walking toward him, until the man finally arrived — to offer Dias what he claims was his first joint. “I think it was also the first time someone showed me a peace sign, and I didn’t understand what was that,” the ebullient guitarist says. “I thought it stood for ‘Victory.’”
Dias hopes to bring some “nice ‘inner weather’” to a much different United States this week, when the antic victorious peacefulness of Os Mutantes takes over the same venue where he once saw Nottingham’s finest. “It’s going to be, like, ‘Whoa!’” he predicts. “Flashbacks all over the place!”
Imagine if the Monkees or Sonny and Cher were true subversives rather than sedatives and you have a glimmer of Os Mutantes’ initial censor-baiting carnival-esque presence on Brazilian TV shows such as The Small World of Ronnie Von. If fellow tropicalistas Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were the Bahians with bossa nova roots, then Dias, his brother Arnaldo, and Arnaldo’s girlfriend Rita Lee Jones — a vocalist known for her spontaneous raids of network costume wardrobes — were the Tropicália movement’s outrageous São Paulo–based rock ’n’ roll wing. With a pianist-composer for a mother and a tenor singer–poet for a father, the Dias brothers lived and breathed music. “Working 10 or 12 hours a day on songs became a normal thing for us,” says Dias, who wears a cape on the front of the group’s first album and an alien skullcap on the back of their second. “The level of expectation was high, but without any demands. That was very good for our technical development.”
This amazing development, overseen by Karlheinz Stockhausen–influenced producer Rogério Duprat — the George Martin or Phil Spector or Jack Nitzsche or Pierre Henry of Tropicalismo — can be heard on the group’s triple crown of classics, 1968’s Os Mutantes, 1969’s Mutantes, and 1970’s A Divina Comédia, ou Ando Meio Desligado. “There was no psychedelia — Brazil received information in kaleidoscope,” Dias asserts, using a favorite interview metaphor. Whether generated by drugs or by cultural conduits, the kaleidoscopic sound of Os Mutantes’ first three records ranges from Ventures-like guitar riffing (“I have to thank [Ventures guitarist] Nokie Edwards for hours of pleasure,” says Dias) to hallucinatory and surreal choral passages (such as Os Mutantes’ time stopper “O Relógio”) and Janis Joplin–like freak-outs about domestic appliances (the third album’s “Meu Refrigerador Não Funciona,” or “My Refrigerator Doesn’t Work”).
A reaction to international pop culture inspired by modernist poet Oswald de Andrade’s “Cannibalist Manifesto,” the sound of Os Mutantes and their fellow Tropicalistas wasn’t music to the ears of Brazil’s military dictatorship or to those of younger music fans who adhered to post–bossa nova nationalist tradition or derivative Jovem Guarda rock. In October 1967, at TV Records’ Second Festival of Brazilian Popular Music, both Veloso (performing “Alegria, Alegria,” which name-drops Coca-Cola) and Gil (performing “Domingo No Parque” with Os Mutantes) received the type of reaction Bob Dylan had recently gotten for going electric. “It felt good. You pull out your fists and think, ‘OK, they’re against us, so let’s show them the way,’” Dias says when asked about the era’s battles against forces of repression. “When you’re young, you think you’re indestructible or immortal.”
Tropicalismo’s figureheads soon learned otherwise. The following year brought the landmark compilation Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis, recorded the same month as the massive protests in Paris, its title fusing Veloso’s anthem “Tropicália” (which mentions the Brigitte Bardot film Viva Maria) and Os Mutantes’ “Panis et Circensis.” Turning a catchphrase from the May revolts into a song (“É Proibido Proibir”), Veloso soon faced an onslaught of eggs and tomatoes as well as boos during performances. In December 1968, Brazilian president Artur da Costa e Silva imprisoned Veloso and Gil, who were later exiled to England. One could say Os Mutantes got off lucky in comparison, as they were still able to flout the Federal Censorship Department through the gothic-vault morbidity of A Divina Comédia’s cover art and through mocking sound effects on TV. “It was a dark period, but we fought with a smile,” says Dias, who doesn’t miss a chance to compare Brazil’s Fifth Institutional Act with the United States’ Patriot Act. “We were jokers, but we were serious jokers.”
Today, eight years after Beck’s best album, Mutations (featuring the single “Tropicalia”), Os Mutantes and their contemporaries are surfing another deserved cosmic wave of younger-generation wonderment, and it’s more apparent than ever that the movement’s major musical artists covered each other’s tracks in a way that emphasized — rather than hid — their unity and intent. The recent Soul Jazz comp Tropicália: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound begins with Gil’s “Bat Macumba” and closes with the Os Mutantes version. Through moments like Gal Costa’s gorgeous “Baby” (another Veloso composition also covered by Os Mutantes), the lesser-known but perhaps superior collection Tropicália Gold, on Universal, highlights the music’s oft-overlooked links to bossa nova and the ties between Tropicalismo îe-îe-îe and Françoise Hardy’s languid yé-yé. Veloso’s autobiography, Tropical Truth, gives shout-outs to Jean-Luc Godard, but Serge Gainsbourg had to have been just as much an influence on Veloso’s lyrics and the whiz-bang! noises on Os Mutantes recordings such as A Divina Comédia’s “Chão de Estrelas.”
Since he laments that Al Jazeera isn’t readily available in Brazil, Sérgio Dias might be the first to note that Brazilian TV and popular music ain’t always what they used to be, regardless of the fact that Gil is now the country’s Minister of Culture. For example, the ’90s brought the bizarre blond ambition of Playboy playmate–turned–pop star and kids TV host Xuxa — not exactly the girl Os Mutantes had in mind when they “shoo shoo”-ed through Jorge Ben’s “A Minha Menina.” But the Dias brothers still have many reasons to celebrate. Earlier this year, a Tropicália exhibition at the Barbican in London brought the movement’s visual artists, including the late Hélio Oiticica (who coined the term Tropicália), together with their current technicolor children such as Assume Vivid Astro Focus. It also led to a live performance by Os Mutantes with new vocalist Zélia Duncan — the first time the Dias brothers appeared onstage together in over three decades. Devendra Banhart, who had written to the group asking to be their roadie, was the opening act.
“I felt like the guys going into the arena,” says Dias. “It was such a burst of energy — it was outrageous. After the show, the audience stood yelling ‘Mutantes!’ for 10 minutes. It’s such a humbling situation, to think about people wanting this 30 years later. It makes me want to bow to the universe.” SFBG
With Brightback Morning Light
Mon/24, 9 p.m.
1805 Geary, SF
(415) 346-4000

A present from the past


One of us is wearing green short-sleeved Lacoste, the other blue short-sleeved Sergio Tacchini. We’ve looked around his apartment, where he’s leaving behind one shoebox-size tranquil bedroom — he’s now restlessly moving his belongings between two larger sun-drenched spaces. He jokingly calls one a massage room and the other a museum and talks about the patterns of shadows through his windows — how there’s a shadow that looks like a dancing lady, and how the window that faces a church is both peaceful and a passage to a fantasy about priests. Then we walk down the 37-step staircase onto 23rd Street, and Colter Jacobsen and I start talking about his art.
One of Jacobsen’s first shows took place in the exact spot we’ve just left behind. “Woods in the Watchers,” featuring pencil renderings of nudes and seminude photos Jacobsen found at the shop known as the Magazine (on Larkin), was presented in and around his bedroom. “The funny thing is what instigated the whole project was Friendster,” he says as we begin an uphill trek. “I was obsessed with it for two weeks and just started seeing everybody as a personal page — as if when they were looking at you, they were clicking on you. It was kind of fucked up. My response was that I wanted something more tactile. The idea eventually came to be one-hour timed drawings of guys wearing watches.”
We pass a couple on a stairway taking pictures of each other — the man is shooting video, the woman taking digital snapshots. Jacobsen remarks that one irony of the “Watchers” drawings, which uncover a bygone snail mail universe of intimate connections, is that they’re back on the Internet, via the Web site of local press Suspect Thoughts. I say they remind me a bit of the late artist and writer Joe Brainard’s casually hot drawings for the book gAy BCs. “[Brainard’s] stuff is amazing, it’s intimidating to me,” says Jacobsen. “It’s gestural and quick. I use a mechanical pencil and just thinking about approaching a piece of paper without a pencil scares me a little.”
If so, he has little reason for apprehension. In “Watchers” and especially in a recent group exhibition at White Columns in New York (where New York Times critic Roberta Smith singled him out for praise), and now in “Your Future,” a show at Four Star Video’s attic space, Jacobsen displays a talent for drawing images in a low-key way that can still saturate the banal with potent emotion — a truly rare ability these days.
A Mormon upbringing and contemplative community college time in San Diego, where he took a single class on color, light, and theory three times, are a few extreme shorthand examples of what led Jacobsen to San Francisco and his current work. He counts fellow artist Donal Mosher and the writers Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian as friendly influences; in fact, he’s created a gridlike piece charting Bellamy’s and Killian’s use of color in their fiction. “From reading their writing and not knowing what’s fiction and what’s real, I’ve gone on all these mind trips,” Jacobsen admits, as we cross paths with a woman using her cell phone like a loudspeaker. “One time on the Fourth of July I totally thought they were going to kill me.”
Jacobsen’s favorite course at the SF Art Institute was a creative writing class taught by Bellamy. There, he wrote a story — O Rings, about a blind girl obsessed with the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion — that has somewhat eerily prefigured his current art and life. He’s worked at Lighthouse for the Blind and currently is a caregiver and driver for the blind and disabled.
The walk up 24th Street has led us to Grand View Avenue, where the view is indeed grand. As we climb the coiled freeway overpass, Jacobsen talks about the “memory drawings” featured in both the show at White Columns and in the current Four Star Video show in San Francisco. “When I try to find a photo to draw from — which takes a long time — it’s like me trying to predict what I’ll be meditating on for the next couple of weeks,” he says. “I don’t take it lightly, and it’s often related to something personal.”
The element of prediction might be what Jacobsen is referring to when he says that these drawings stemming from old photos “are about the future.” In Four Star Video’s attic, Jacobsen has painted the titular words of the show over a newspaper obit page and fixed it to the corner of a wall so it can also read “Our Future.” This melancholy verging on morbidity spills from some drawings, especially a truly great one of a waterfront snapshot that uses a film-frame crosscutting technique to convey romantic heartbreak.
The show’s staircase climb to a heavenly Four Star “Future” is typical of Jacobsen’s casual yet concise use of place, and there are many elements at play, some so understated that a viewer who isn’t attentive might not even notice. Two papier-mâché teardrops hide in a corner, near the store’s rare DVDs of Salo and Lilya 4-Ever. (Images are often presented in twos and fours and eights: “Eight is my favorite number,” says Jacobsen. “It’s like two circles or two eyes.”) A pair of found-object mock columns stand next to the store’s shelving units. In a practice that updates pop art chestnuts to the current moment, Jacobsen — who first used the technique while reeling from being “totally blind” about a guy he was in love with — uses Wite-Out to cover up most of Peanuts and other strips (including his least favorite, Family Circus) in a way that reveals the wartime aggression and tension seething beneath.
Though he uses newspaper “funnies,” Jacobsen refers to these works as his “Saddies.” “I just wanted to show what I was seeing,” he says as we travel back down 24th Street past some children. Another irony: This newspaper is a space to discuss the deathly element within Jacobsen’s use of newspapers as found material. “My friend Tariq [Alvi] sees paper as death, because he once saw a mummy and the quality of its skin was like paper,” Jacobsen says when I mention the current bicoastal interest in works — especially drawings — on found or old documents.
As we near the end of our stroll, I ask Jacobsen about another walk, one in which he led a group of people — half of them blindfolded and the other half accompanying those wearing blindfolds — during a Sunday evening this June. The walk spanned from one Mission laundromat to another and included Jacobsen’s discussion of the visual theories of physicist Joseph Plateau, who went blind from staring at the sun. The choice of the event’s landmarks stemmed partly from the laundry lectures of Portland-based artist Sam Gould of Red76 and partly from Plateau’s interest in bubbles. “Does that all relate somehow?” Jacobsen asks as he explains it. “I have trouble figuring out how one thing connects to the next.”
“Usually, where I start [with a project] is where I’m stupid or ignorant — which can be anywhere, really,” he admits with a laugh, after saying that he even counted the number of steps — 313 and 168 — between the two laundromats and the walk’s starting point. Right around then, we reach those 37 steps that lead back up to his apartment, the same staircase that Jacobsen’s friend and musical collaborator Tomo (of Hey Willpower and Tussle) climbs, carrying a column, in a drawing within the Four Star Video show. When I say that the staircase’s red steps are just two short of matching a certain famous 39 Steps, Jacobsen says Alfred Hitchcock is one of his favorite filmmakers. It’s funny how one thing connects to the next — and often beautiful when Jacobsen renders the connections. SFBG
Through July 31
Daily, noon to 10 p.m.
Attic, Four Star Video
1521 18th St., SF
(415) 826-2900

Polly wanna rob ya!


Hear ye! Hear ye! Step right up to the Castro Theatre. Behold a bizarre trio of crooks. One an expert ventriloquist in old lady drag. Another a Goliath whose fickle heart is bigger than his brain. The third a pint-size schemer, who thinks nothing of pretending to be a baby in a stroller in order to case a high-class joint for jewels. Witness these three sell counterfeit parrots — you heard right, counterfeit parrots! — to unsuspecting mugs in order to visit their homes and rob them blind. Watch 1925’s The Unholy Three, just one of director Tod Browning’s circus-influenced nightmares.
The treats at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival include Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and Madonna muse Dita Parlo in Au Bonheur des Dames with live music by the Hot Club. But all of this city’s imps of the perverse will be gathering for The Unholy Three (screening Sun/16 at 5 p.m.), if only to pay homage to Browning, “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney, and mein liebchen, the one and only Harry Earles (real name: Kurt Schneider), who later approached Browning with the idea of turning the Tod Robbins story “Spurs” into what became 1932’s nightmarish and unforgettable Freaks. Also based on a Robbins story, The Unholy Three might contain Earles’ best performance, especially since, as Danny Peary notes in an entry within his book Cult Movie Stars, Earles’ high-pitched voice was often “unintelligible” when transmitted through the primitive sound technology of early talkies.
He may be a dead ringer for tear sprayer extraordinaire Ricky Schroder in The Champ, but don’t cross him: Peary incisively observes that Earles’ face “was doll-like and seemed harmless until you looked closely and saw it was hard and quite eerie.” The Unholy Three mines this effectively. Earles’ character, Tweedledee, is introduced performing on a sideshow stage. When the audience within the film mocks him, it doesn’t take long for him to lose his temper and kick a laughing little boy in the face. Soon afterward he’s in infant disguise, whether locked in a stroller and acting as if ruby necklaces are mere baby beads or half in and half out of masquerade, smoking a cigarette while wearing a jumper. According to Browning biographer David Skal’s Dark Carnival, this type of outrageousness reached its apex in a child-killing Christmas Eve scene by a tree that doubtless would have given Dawn Davenport at the start of Female Trouble a run for her murderous money — if it wasn’t censored.
Though Browning’s astute biographer verges on going too far in comparing it to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s shadow play, The Unholy Three humorously and kinetically uses comic strip speech bubbles in a way that prefigures pop art and Batman on TV. Also, as writers such as Skal, David Thomson, and Carlos Clarens have observed, it exemplifies early-20th-century horror’s interest in reconfiguring common romantic and sexual aggravation into fantastic stories of vengeance. Himself forced to perform as an infant and a circus runaway who made an early living as “The Living Hypnotic Corpse,” Browning no doubt related to Earles and to Chaney (whose pantomime abilities stemmed partly from childhood communication with his deaf parents).
The Unholy Three’s titular characters form a perverse trinity of sorts, with Earles’ Tweedledee a modern child of mythical Leprechaun figures and a less lusty uncle of Cousin Lymon from Carson McCullers’ Sad Café. You don’t have to be Leslie Fiedler to recognize that both Earles and Chaney present an interested viewer with a mythic image of his or her secret self. SFBG
Castro Theatre
429 Castro, SF
(925) 866-9530

But I love it!


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)



“My basic photography lesson is this: You frame the perfect composition, exactly like you want it, and then you step forward,” says Larry Clark. “What that does is screw things up a little bit, so they’ll become more real, more like the way you see.”
We’re at a restaurant South of Market, and the man behind the monographs Tulsa and Teenage Lust and the films Kids, Bully, and the new Wassup Rockers is talking when he should be eating. I’m glad, because he has a lot to say. On the car ride to Zuppa, he reminisced about a brief late-1960s spell in San Francisco after an Army stint in Vietnam — once here, Clark’s time included a few Janis Joplin encounters. Once we’ve sat down at the table, when I mention the ties between Wassup Rockers and the underrated 1968 Burt Lancaster vehicle The Swimmer, Clark agrees that Lancaster’s performance is “extremely brave” and then serves up a real whopper: A film publicist once told him that Lancaster had a love affair with Luchino Visconti during the filming of 1963’s The Leopard, and that Lancaster was left an emotional wreck when Visconti dumped him.
Well, when in Rome …
It’s an interesting, clichéd truism to apply to Clark’s work, which doesn’t fit the tired modern sense of gay by any stretch of the imagination but is certainly appreciative of male as well as female allure. In the silly and energetic Wassup Rockers, his distinctive eye rolls with a band of Guatemalan and Salvadoran skateboarders as they travel through Beverly Hills, a gated community that starts to seem more and more like a prison. Wassup is often like a 21st-century version of a Bowery Boys comedy, with Clark (in his words) “riffing off of white people” and “riffing off of pop culture.” Before one of the title characters shares a bubble bath with Janice Dickinson, he and a friend — whose jeans and bulge would make Peter Berlin envious — have a tender tête-à-tête with some Hilton types. “Paris and Nicky were too old for me [when the film started shooting],” Clark jokes.
Born in Oklahoma but sporting a huggable Brooklynese accent and looking surprisingly healthy and sweet (if worn) at 63, Clark is still very much a child at heart, the nonsnarky and better-dressed real-life answer to Strangers With Candy’s former smack user and permanent high schooler Jerri Blank. Wassup Rockers is his third collaboration with cinematographer Steve Gainer, who picked up tricks of the trade working under Roger Corman in the 1990s. The link is an apt one because Clark is still working with genre in the Corman teensploitation or celebration-of-youth-culture sense.
Does Clark think his one-step-forward approach to camerawork dates back to the early 1970s and the speed-shooting and baby-death days of Tulsa? “It was a little more formal then,” he says, adding that he was more influenced by Robert Frank imitators — and by “the best,” Walker Evans — than by Frank, whom he knew little about when he made the book. “Tulsa is really about rooms. We’re in very small rooms, and we’re very close.”
Going back to those rooms means going down with Janis again; as the fellow Clark enthusiast with me observantly notes, a Joplin poster appears on the wall of one of those dark spaces. “The first time I met her it was early in the morning and we were walking across that big park in Haight Ashbury,” Clark recalls. “She was with someone from Big Brother [and the Holding Company] and I was with someone who knew him. I remember she was smoking a cigarette and she was holding it like this” — he imitates a loose gesture — “and her fingers were all yellow, and she said, ‘I really like these Pall Malls because you smoke them right down to the end like a junkie.’”
Clark hasn’t gone right down to the end like a junkie, though Tulsa certainly pictures exactly that type of fate with a void-gazing ferocity that no television episode of Intervention will match. It’s crazy, really, how many ways mass media — fashion and advertising and “indie” film in particular — have both copped and watered down or misinterpreted Clark’s aesthetics (a bit similar to what’s happened with John Waters, though perhaps even more subtly pervasive). The producers of MTV’s Laguna Beach and The Hills, original offender Calvin Klein, and now American Apparel owe him a mint’s worth of royalties for their third-rate rip-offs. At least the latter recently threw a huge party for the cast members of Wassup Rockers and their families, complete with live performances by the band featured in the movie.
If Clark is still thriving in art and life today, some credit should be given to his girlfriend, Tiffany Limos, whose candid criticism of Clark’s past movies doubtless informed his approach to Wassup Rockers. Limos is too young to be responsible for the genius choice of soundtracking Clark’s recent mammoth Manhattan gallery show, “Punk Picasso,” with Nancy Wilson’s But Beautiful, but she did tell him to place a hilarious video installation of her beyond-hyper bichon frise near the show’s end, an element that is echoed in a funny dog-attack scene within Wassup Rockers.
“That video is like the real Larry Clark,” Clark says with a laugh. “Tiff was coming home, and when she would leave I would always tell her that I could not say her name while she was gone because the dog would go crazy. I thought, ‘I’m going to show Tiffany what happens when I say her name.’ But when I made the video, never in my wildest imagination did I think I would use it. It’s funny because I’m talking to this dog like it’s a human being. Sammy runs into the street and I scold him — ‘You’re going to get killed!’ — just like I was talking to a kid.”
Limos also got her friend the fashion designer Jeremy Scott cast in Wassup Rockers as a lascivious gay photographer who looks like Perry Farrell and has a mansion full of horrendous steroidy physique shots (actual work by Tom Bianchi). “Tiffany would bring these photos of Jeremy home,” says Clark. “We had this private joke about him that if you pointed a camera at him he would always do something incredible. Then we would see photos of him at parties in magazines, and true to form, he would always be making some flamboyant pose.”
As the interview winds down, the man who began with a photography tip says he now prefers making films. Then Clark makes a final distinction. “I was never really a photographer,” he says. “I was an artist and a storyteller [when I started out with Tulsa], and I was using photography because that’s what I had.” (Johnny Ray Huston)
Opens Fri/7
Lumiere Theatre
1572 California, SF
(415) 267-4893
Shattuck Cinemas
2230 Shattuck, Berk.
(510) 464-5980
See Movie Clock at
for showtimes

Deadly cure


He may have the world’s largest collection of Kim Wilde posters on his apartment walls, but caterpillar-browed Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is no kid in America: He’s an aging drunk in Romania with a ruined liver and a rupturing brain. And Bucharest on a Saturday night is no place to be when you’ve got the headache and stomachache from hell — in fact, its medical system is a many-leveled modern day approximation of exactly that infernal pit, which is probably why the first name of the title character in Christi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is Dante.
Overtly labeled an anti-ER by its maker, and about as far away from Superman Returns as you can get inside a movie theater this week, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu doesn’t exactly sound like fun: The film follows the booze-pickled Lazarescu out of his fleabag apartment as gruff but ultimately sympathetic paramedic Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) wheels this supposed GOMER — get out of my emergency room — from one hospital to another, while both are verbally abused by sluggish doctors and nurses. Yet Puiu’s movie is primarily a sharp and multifaceted black comedy, from slow-coder Lazarescu’s mouthiness early in the journey to the off-the-cuff yet detailed portraits of his eccentric neighbors and the successive “caregivers

Calleth he, calleth I



When I reach the Ark’s rock idol Ola Salo on the phone at his apartment in Malmö, Sweden, he’s getting ready to meet friends to watch his country’s team take on Paraguay in the World Cup. Sheer lack of time calls for forward gestures, so I ask him to describe his boudoir, a CD- and book-strewn “one and a half” room apartment. “It looks like a pretty storage room,” he says, amusedly. “I have a plastic chandelier. I’ve got my big black piano and my black angel wings. I have art and furniture that friends of mine have made, such as a big purple lamp made out of ladies’ stockings. The apartment is a color explosion of chlorophyll green and bright yellow and pink and black and white. That’s the scheme — and purple. It’s harmonic but playful and energetic.”
Sort of like the Ark’s music, as showcased on State of the Ark (Virgin), the band’s first US album and third to date. In the recent glam sweepstakes, Salo and his four bandmates trump the Darkness with greater songcraft and less falsetto gimmickry — they also have more chops than any prefab pseudo-punk American loogie hocked up by the MTV machine in the last decade. Basically, the Ark prove a 21st-century band can honor the likes of the New York Dolls, Bowie, Queen, and company while still being relevant. On songs like the fabulous handclap stomper “Calleth You, Calleth I” (from the 2002 Virgin import In Lust We Trust) they are capable of turning a banal gesture — in this case, the fleeting impulse to reach out to phone an ex — into an act of ludicrously glorious, wide-screen, Bic-waving grandeur.
Perhaps it’s fate that gave Salo a last name that echoes the subtitle of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s filmic revision of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Because he’s the son of a priest, it’s tempting to think of him as a real-life rock version of bishop’s stepson Alexander from Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, rebelling against punishing strictures. But it’s a bit more complicated — Salo taps into and adds a twist to his religious roots, embracing the Bible’s (and rock’s) messianic outcast aspects and imagining his own miracles. One example is In Lust We Trust’s “Father of a Son,” which hit big in Sweden at the precise moment that a law preventing homosexuals from adopting children was banished. The song doesn’t just refer to queer parenthood, it drapes an ascendant Salo in choral hallelujahs.
“The Book of Revelations was the coolest part of the Bible to me because of all the parts about smoke and fire and demons,” Salo says. “It’s very heavy metal. Growing up in a Christian family gives you this kind of stigma of being a pussy. People think that Christians are … forget pussy, they’re Ned Flanders–like. I wanted to do something of Biblical proportions, something magical or sensational, something with power and joy, something that if people thought it was silly or uncool or ludicrous I wouldn’t mind.”
The Ark’s new State of the Ark might not contain anything quite as spine-tingling and sublime as “It Takes a Fool to Remain Sane,” the gauntlet-throwing leadoff hit from their 2000 debut We are the Ark. (That track has the “Hand in Glove” urgency of someone who has waited years to sing their life, and in pledging allegiance to the queer kids, the weird kids, and the fat kids, Salo’s probably saved some lives.) But it has some great moments, such as the single “One of Us Is Gonna Die Young,” an anthem to the joy of life rather than the allure of death. On State of the Ark, as on the Ark’s previous album, Salo called upon Velvet Goldmine soundtracker and ex–Shudder to Think member Nathan Larson (whose girlfriend Nina Persson fronts Malmö’s other top group, the underrated Cardigans) to help him recognize the difference between “stupid strange” and “creative strange” English lyrics.
Nonetheless, Salo agrees that one billion ABBA fans can’t be wrong in noting that a Swedish band’s approach to the English language as an “artifact” yields special interpretive appeal. He’s also more than willing to discuss the country’s past and current role in the musical landscape, lauding Göteburg-based Sarah Assbring’s el Perro del Mar project for making “probably last year’s best debut album” and playfully admonishing me for ignoring ’60s garage instrumentalists the Sputniks when I race through a shorthand version of the country’s pop history. “Sweden has a very good social welfare system and people have good living standards and we haven’t had any wars,” he pointedly observes. “We have had a lot of time to do luxurious peacetime things like making pop music.”
Perhaps because Salo is “too egocentric” to be a fan of the past rock stars he admires, the Ark’s brand of performance is exactly the type designed to incite maniacal worship. Such fan-demonium hasn’t kicked in all over the United States, but it has in other countries. “Fans are crazy in Italy, which you know if you’ve ever watched Italian television,” says Salo. “And the paparazzi — there’s a reason why that’s an Italian word.” He goes on to tell the story of a girl who was paid by an Italian tabloid to sleep with him. “I was not interested at all,” he concludes, with a dry laugh. “She got drunk and failed at her goal — miserably.”
As opposed to Salo, who is more than ready to seduce at any time. All those who saw or read about the Ark’s springtime South by Southwest shows know that he has no qualms about treating an industry barbecue like a stadium gig — he’ll bump and grind in his boots and tighty whities right on past the most jaded zombie. Something tells me that sort of attitude and behavior mean this city will love him even more frenziedly than he might love it. What might he wear, or not wear, for his first visit to San Francisco? “Some flowers in my hair, I guess,” he deadpans. “I’ve heard that’s obligatory. Actually I’m getting a new suit, or dress, for the SF shows. I hope it’s a smash.”
That said, it’s World Cup time, and who is Salo’s favorite player on the Swedish team? “Zlatan Ibrahimovic,” he answers, in a tone suggesting that looks might have something or everything to do with it. “Now I’m going to go watch him do his thing.” SFBG
With Mon Cousin Belge
Fri/23, 9 p.m.
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF
(415) 861-5016
SF Pride Festival
Sun/25, 3:30 p.m. (Shadowplay stage) and 5:15 p.m. (main stage)
Civic Center, SF
(415) 864-3733

Meth-y behavior


Perhaps a good indicator of a social problem’s gravity is the number of documentaries it inspires. This year crystal meth addiction, specifically in gay urban communities, brings us two, Meth (Todd Ahlberg, 2005; Fri/16, 3 p.m., Castro) and Rock Bottom: Gay Men and Meth (Jay Corcoran, 2006; Sat/17, 1:15 p.m., Victoria). Watching two treatments certainly seems like a good way to get to the truth — what might be downplayed in one can achieve its rightful resonance with reiteration in the other. And the irony of cautionary tales is that because they admonish by example, they’re inherently fun.
Still, the two films, while stylistically dissimilar, are enough in accordance with one another detail-wise that only one ticket need be purchased. Even the ambivalence in the two, where it shows up, is similar. Another commonality is high quality. When the interviewees in either film aren’t perceptive and articulate about their own predicaments, which is rarely, their evasions and delusions are just as revealing.
The one you decide to see may come down to a packaging preference. Meth is a sleek number whose visuals and soundtrack slyly evoke the circuit parties that took meth abuse under their wing and add the appropriate energy to rapturous accounts of nine-hour sex marathons and wholesale exterminations of self-doubts before serving as an effectively creepy counterpoint to descriptions of the drug’s eventual toll. The film relies solely on interviews with users, however, and though they’re surely an important source for information on the subject, it can feel a little claustrophobic with regard to perspective. Rock Bottom: Gay Men and Meth’s editing will appeal to those who like fewer hospital corners; it also offers more voices, from health care professionals, family, and friends, without skimping on first-hand accounts and without ever sliding into brochure-speak. Either choice is quite an education. (Jason Shamai)

Light after darkness



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 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


Sun/11, 7:30 p.m.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

Honeycomb hideout



Cast a spell that is what movies (at least nondocumentary ones) are or were supposed to do, and yet how often do they achieve that aim today? V??ctor Erice’s original feature, 1973’s The Spirit of the Beehive, is partly about the spell a masterful movie can cast, and also is a many-shaded masterpiece that casts an unforgettable spell, a waking dream that disperses in a way that seems to infect the world outside the darkened rooms in which it breathes and lives.

At first glance the story seems so simple, and after all, it is set "Once upon a time …," as an intertitle announces, just after a credit sequence featuring objects relevant to the story a beekeeper’s mask, a train, a well, a mushroom, and that surrealist standby, a clock drawn by the film’s lead actors. But more specifically, it takes place somewhere on the Castilian plateau of Spain around 1940, as Frankenstein comes to town. Ana (Ana Torrent) and older sister Isabel (Isabel Teller??a) are among the children who race through the barren rural landscape to a movie barn to see James Whale’s classic chiller, but it is only Ana who cranes like a lunar flower under the projected light, ignoring a prelude from the film’s producers that warns viewers not to take what they see too seriously. Before Ana and her sister emerge playfully shrieking from the darkened building, Erice has already allowed Frankenstein‘s influence to seep outside, into the seemingly oblivious existences of the girls’ mutually alienated parents, a beekeeper (Fernando Fern?

My crones sleep alone



Drop Marina (Marina Vochenko), one of the three main characters in Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4, into Eli Roth’s Hostel, and she’d be a Nameless Evil Whore, instead of a leather trench-coated weary Moscow hooker with a wryly crude sense of humor. It’s all a matter of perspective, and Roth’s even if lampooning American xenophobia is his excuse is boring.

Marina is the kind of woman whose night begins with an escape from a bed tangled with nude bodies, and ends with a trip to a desultory Edward Hopper’snightmare bar, where she trades bullshit stories with the only other customers, telling pretend cloning agent and real-life piano tuner Vladimir (Yuri Laguta) and phony KGB drone and real-life meat man Oleg (Konstantin Murzenko) that she works as an ad rep for a device that uses ions to make office workers think they’re happy.

If Marina’s next night began the same way, Khrzhanovsky’s movie would occupy a Russia not far from theatrical tradition, though a hell of a lot ruder and slapstick-happy than Chekhov’s. Screenwriter Vladimir Sorokin is notorious for pinpricking patriotic Soviets and gaseous political tyrants, and the Putins don’t escape his barroom monologues unscathed. But 4 sets its roving, raving sights on a societal vision far beyond if connected to some bleary-eyed urban rumination from the bottom of a vodka bottle. All it takes is one cell phone call informing Marina that her twin sister Zoya has died, and the previously stock-still or slowly creeping camera is soon accompanying her shoulder-side on a nightmarish train ride (another inversion of Roth’s Hostel, which 4 predates) and marathon walk through bombed-out, muddy industrial wastelands to Shutilovo. What awaits her there is home sour hell: a mondo bizarro village of raving boozy crones whose sole income stems from the creation of Hans Bellmerstyle dolls made up of "chewies" masticated chunks of moldy bread shaped like noses, dicks, and other body parts.

Turns out Marina’s sister died by choking on a chewy — a little fact we learn when Khrzhanovsky isn’t watching grannies sprint across the landscape to swig absinthe-green moonshine and wake up the few remaining youngsters for another round of graveside wailing. Marina happens to have two other sisters, also twins, which adds up to a foursome that backs up Vladimir’s supposed tall tales about whole towns populated by clones.

Motifs and metaphors run rampant through Sorokin’s screenplay, from its many animalist strains — dogs and pigs, bloody or ceramic — and its talk of a post-humanist Russia where cloning is an open secret, to its numerical obsession, which alternately affirms and subverts the titular figure, described as "the number the world rests on" by Vladimir. At times, this symbolism verges on overbearing, but Khrzhanovsky’s direction takes Sorokin’s playful written ideas into wholly bizarre visual realms. You could say these two are overjoyed to leap off the end of Russia together, and that the event takes place around the time that their heroine starts talking about using grenade launchers as a recreational drug or a psychiatric cure. SFBG


Open Fri/26

7 and 9:30 p.m. (also 2 and 4:30 p.m., Wed., Sat., and Sun.; no 7 p.m. show on Wed/31)

Roxie Film Center

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087

Doing the Cannes-Cannes


Gary Meyer of the Balboa is at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Here is the first of his reports from the Croisette and the theater trenches:

Getting there — No snakes on the plane
The trip to Cannes always starts when I board the plane in San Francisco, looking to see if anyone I know is aboard. The 747 was huge but full exploration didn’t reveal any obvious candidates for the Festival.
Once in Paris things change. On the transfer to Nice I always run into several friends making the final leg of our journey to the south of France and 10 days of movies, morning till dawn. We compare stories about how much sleep we did or didn’t get before leaving and on the plane. And the inevitable jokes about being jet-lagged and surely taking naps in films.
Each year I also spot someone famous getting on my plane. One year I chatted with French superstar Jeanne Moreau. I had been involved in distributing a movie she directed, L’Adolescente. Another time Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) was nervous about the trip. It was his first time in France and he was appearing at the premiere of the movie Unstrung Heroes. He was a nervous wreck. He couldn’t figure out how to use the pay phones, scared of the security and certain he would never find his way to the airport gate at DeGaulle (a reasonable worry). I befriended him and showed the way.
This year as the long line waited to board our flight, Snakes on a Plane‘s Samuel L. Jackson was escorted to the front of the line. A member of the Cannes Jury, he had a hat pulled down so he’d only be half recognized. Someone in the line called out, “I’ll see you in Cannes,” to make sure we all knew where they were both headed.

Opening night
Arriving a day early has it benefits. The crowds haven’t assembled. One can take care of accreditation, press orientation and study the various program books. A press screening of The Da Vinci Code was the only scheduled event. I had already seen it and chose to have dinner with friends.
Film festivals like to open with a high profile movie that is sure to attract big stars, tons of media attention and a major post-screening party that will last all-night. Allowing a film to open a festival, especially Cannes, is taking a big chance. The movie will come under extra heavy scrutiny from critics. The Da Vinci Code is a logical choice to open the 59th Cannes International Film Festival. It is based on a huge best-selling book and largely set in France. Starring a major American movie star, Tom Hanks, and one of France’s most popular actresses, Audrey Tautou, it also features numerous important European actors. As I write this, over my left shoulder I can see them walking up the red carpet for the opening night ceremonies. Thousands of people jam the streets in front of the Palais. TV cameras and photographers catch the face of every person who ascends the steps to make certain they don’t miss anyone of importance.
The press has now seen The Da Vinci Code. The response isn’t too good. But despite the criticism you will read, Columbia Pictures made the correct choice. Director Ron Howard’s last film, Cinderella Man, was invited in 2005 but the producers passed. And the film failed at the box office. This time they aren’t about to miss out on the glitzy stamp of approval that comes with opening the world’s most famous film festival.

Day one
I’ve seen three films the first day of the Festival — all official selections caught at press screenings. I’ll catch a few more tonight.
A good way to start off the morning is with something not too demanding. Paris je t’aime is a collection of 20 five-minute films by an eclectic group of international directors including Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuaron, Alexander Payne, Gurinda Chadha, Tom Twyker, Wes Craven and many more guiding a superstar cast from Natalie Portman to Gena Rowlands, Gerard Depardieu to Fanny Ardant. (Ben Gazzara, Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, and Bob Hoskins also are featured.) Anthology films inevitably are a mixed bag. Each piece is about love in Paris. They are like simple short stories; the best ones aren’t overly ambitious. Paris looks lovely of course and I enjoyed most of it.
Next came a film from Paraguay, Hamaca Paraguaya. At only 78 minutes, this is the kind of movie not to see when still jet lagged. It is all voice-over dialogue (subtitled) with stagnant camera shots. When the lights went up, I asked my neighbor, author Phillip Lopate, if I snored. He said I was a very considerate napper and wanted to know how he did. Just fine, I guess, as he didn’t wake me up. I have no doubt it will be hailed as a work of art by someone.
Much better was Summer Palace, the first competition film. Director Lou Ye (Suzhou River, Purple Butterfly) has constructed a complex film of relationships starting in 1989 China. A student leaves her small town and boyfriend to attend university in Beijing. She discovers both friendship and sex, with the pleasures and confusion they can bring. We journey through the political changes in China and Germany (where some of the characters go) over the next 15 years as the group of friends separate and rejoin. The film is often powerful, vibrant and involving, if a bit difficult to follow at times. It overstays its welcome at 140 minutes; some careful editing would help it become even better.
Summer Palace is the only Asian film in the Competition. It arrives amidst controversy. The Chinese government has complained that the producers didn’t get censorship approval and have broken the law by submitting it to Cannes. But the filmmakers claimed they didn’t submit it to Cannes. (Must have been the sales agent in France.) The Chinese censors turned the film down. Some suspect it is for the highly erotic nature and political reasons. There have been reports that the film has been withdrawn and the director has returned to China. This won’t be the first time claims of censorship by China have garnered attention here. The highest profile case was Zhang Yimou’s To Live.

Sitting in front of a sandwich stand a young British woman told her companion that film sales have been tough and that the DVD market has slowed to practically nothing: “We are looking for Video In Demand, computer downloading — anything where people don’t have to leave their homes.”

Brilliant corners


› In the last year of the 20th century, Kodwo Eshun charted musical forms of Afrofuturism in the book More Brilliant than the Sun. Six years into the 21st century, I wonder what Eshun would think of Chelonis R. Jones.

"Camera! Lights! Action!" The words at the very beginning of Jones’s debut Dislocated Genius herald an ambivalent performance. "I didn’t want to burn it now, burn cork to dance and sing," he soon recites with lack of affect over a marching beat. The detached attitude and robotic melody outdo Pete Shelley’s "Homosapien." In the company of this lyric, and Jones’s cover painting for Dislocated Genius, the first utterance in the next song "Life is hardly ever fair," probably sung by New YorktoEurope voyager Jones, but treated to sound like a sample from an old record player arrives with vital irony.

The eight-minute track that follows, "Middle Finger Music," moves through menaced verses and curses over the type of automaton beat that Kraftwerk would factory stamp with approval before being overtaken by abstract daydreams and nightmares. Crying gulls and King Tubbylike dub motifs flicker through the song’s lonely, vast inner and outer space as Jones near-whispers the titular words to himself, his voice multitracked into a self-harassing chorus. Here, and on the gloomily humorous next song, "Vultures" (sample lines: "They circle-dive inside my dome … They never leave my ass alone"), paranoia pervades the atmosphere, which Jones renders like the imaginative painter he happens to be when he isn’t making music.

As a writer and singer, Jones possesses many voices, and if on "Middle Finger Music" he both listens to them and claims they’ll lead him to his doom, there and elsewhere on Dislocated Genius they yield extraordinary results. This recording’s avant-reaches have bewildered some club music writers who know of Jones strictly as the name behind a pair of sublime and relatively straightforward if poetic soulful house-inflected singles, "I Don’t Know" and "One and One." On those tracks (as well as another mathematics-of-love number, "49 Percent," recorded with Röyksopp), Jones’s voice trembles and swoons like that of Off the Wallera Michael Jackson that is, when he isn’t more freely vamping like a diva. Describing a movie-ready tearful good-bye by train tracks, "I Don’t Know”’s vocal outdoes some of the sensational male testifying of early Chicago house: Jones laughs bitterly to himself and seems to cradle his own pain while reaching deep into his chest for low notes as he feels a that word again "burn" in describing his crushed passion. He can also do butch swagger witness the quarrelsome and smart (rather than daft) punk of "L.A. Mattress."

Jones’s talent is exciting because it reaches from pop melody to stranger realms; time and time again, the unique perspective of his songs dissolves into embattled technological chatter. The chorus of "The Hair" is as memorable as the one to Wire’s "I Am the Fly," and even more layered in its critique of a certain greed, and yet it’s sung in a tone that’s a sly update on Smokey Robinson. In More Brilliant than the Sun, Eshun explored "Myth Science" through written or typed words; Jones’s "Mythologies (Myths I and II)" does so in sound, with skepticism his voice is processed in a way that brings the sweet but stinging theoretical distance of Scritti Politti’s honeybee R&B to mind. A motif from "Mythologies" returns in "Deer in the Headlights," further proving the formidable post-Baldwin, post-Basquiat methods within his fractured madness.

By the end of Dislocated Genius, as "Debaser" forms an abstract contemporary take on the stripped-down funk of very early Prince, Jones has made it clear that blackface is only the surface and the start of a defiant creative imagination just as comfortable being mauve, olive green, or "ho-ish pink." In the final minutes of this extraordinary album, he’s turned Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat into a love song dedicated to someone who "defecate(s) words like Molly Bloom," and managed to make the vocal melody float like a spectral ship on an ocean at night.

He may be a "laughingstock since the age of 13," but this self-described "gaudy cross of Streisand and Curtis Mayfield" is still traveling. Where is he headed next? A place I’d like to hear. SFBG

Arctic vessels



The significance of a different numeral is noted near the finale, but the number in the title of Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9 makes it clear that the film is but one chapter within a gargantuan project that Barney has been working on for close to two decades, the first seven entries an array of vitrines and video installations predating and possibly even anticipating his Cremaster cycle. Barney has stated that this ninth chapter signals a shift away from the libidinal restraints and hypertrophy (a persistent muscular motif) of earlier installments, into a condition of atrophy. Got that?

A skeptic could view all of the above as a deflective shield used to ward off any criticism that is rooted in basic cinematic practice. How can Drawing Restraint 9‘s ponderously juxtaposed ceremonies and abundant array of symbols from the many variations of the artist’s signature bisected ovular "field emblem" to the multiple manifestations of whales and other sea creatures be analyzed if they are mere parts of a broader cosmology that the filmgoer isn’t taking into consideration? The worlds of Barney tend to be epically expansive in scope, making even Wagnerian opera seem smallish in terms of narrative configuration (though not in terms of emotional currency). Yet for all their majestic dives into goopy baths and slippery slides through lubricated passages, they remain clinically hermetic.

Perhaps the most expensive wedding video ever made, Drawing Restraint 9 isn’t short on spectacle. Origami-wrapped fossils, an "Ambergris March" street parade, women in white cooing as they dive for pearls, citrus-scented baths, and an enormous petroleum Jell-O mold are just a handful of the first half’s ingredients. Most of these somehow relate to the "Occidental Guests" (Barney and real-life mate Björk), who are bathed and shaved and, in Björk’s case, given hair extensions that incorporate objects from the ocean and forest floors before being adorned in furry variants of Shinto marriage garments. Ultimately, the couple meet, mute, at the end of one chilly hall in the Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru before joining a tea master in a ceremony that gives way to an aquatic mating dance. Then out come the flensing knives.

Barney and Björk might be exploring a kinship between Japan’s and Iceland’s cultures. Is the result expensive indulgence? Yes. While the discourse around Barney’s museum exhibitions tends toward solemnity, his ventures into film have met with some irreverence that, however knee-jerk, might also be deserved. In a 2005 interview conducted by Glen Helfand for the local film publication Release Print, J. Hoberman clearly elucidated a film-focused critique of Barney, labeling his "big-budget avant-garde" movies "deeply uninteresting" in relation to the "crazy, quasi-narrative" (though usually more concise) works made in the ’60s and ’70s by underground filmmakers such as Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, and Bruce Conner. Certainly, any spellbinding aspects of Barney’s visuals seem schematic in relation to Kenneth Anger’s or Maya Deren’s alchemy.

One could perhaps unfairly make a case that Drawing Restraint 9 is an act of class war against similar, barely funded efforts on film or video today, but more tellingly, it also comes up wanting in relation to similarly expensive efforts, whether they be "experimental" short works the stunning aerial photography in Olivo Barbieri’s San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award New Visions winner site specific_LAS VEGAS 05 makes Barney’s seem clumsy and unimaginative or the type of contemporary "art" film that lives primarily on the festival circuit. Both Tsai Ming-liang and Barney have created interlinked cinematic works that spotlight masculinity, but Tsai’s delve into the psyche more acutely than Barney’s phallic drag routines. Tsai’s work is also superior in cinematic terms: Both the editing and the mise-en-scène in his films deliver comic punch lines and emotional sucker punches. At the moment, at least, those are two things that Barney just can’t buy. SFBG


Opens Fri/12

Bridge Theatre

3010 Geary, SF

(415) 267-4893

Festival decompress


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.

Lesley’s turn to talk


Lesley Gore is in town this weekend, singing at Brava Theater Center. I recently had the chance to call the ‘60s teen queen who is forever linked to classic pop hits such as “It’s My Party” and the proto-feminist “You Don’t Own Me.” Today, the richness of Gore’s voice is a bit duskier, as evidenced by the new CD Ever Since. Whether reminiscing about a certain mega-producer or discussing fictional movie imitations of herself, this lesbian icon – a heroine to queer zine-maker and artist G.B. Jones, amongst others – is refreshingly honest.

Bay Guardian: Can you tell me a bit about meeting and working with Quincy Jones?

Lesley Gore: It’s extraordinary that a man of his distinction – even at that point in his career he was well accomplished – could put himself in the shoes of a 16-year-old kid. That is his art in a way, knowing how to make people comfortable and get the best from them. There may have been a 14-year difference between us, but he never talked down to me.

Quincy not only thought it was important to do well in the studio, he thought it was important to perform well onstage. He’d often call me on a Friday and say, “Lil’ Bits, meet me at Basin Street [in New York] at 8.” We’d go see Peggy or Ella or Dinah Washington. He’d say, “Listen to this opening number – this is what an opening number should do.” He took mentoring seriously. He wanted me to understand.

The bar was set high for me. I worked with some great producers, such as Quincy and Bob Crewe [the astrology-obsessed mastermind behind the Four Seasons, Music to Watch Girls By, Disco Tex and His Sex-o-Lettes, and Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade”].

BG: One little-known Quincy production that I love is The Amazing Timi Yuro.

LG: Timi Yuro was on the very first tour I did in England — Timi and Trini Lopez and Brooke Benton and Dion [DiMucci] without the Belmonts. I fell madly in love with “What’s a Matter Baby.”

BG: Joan Jett and others have covered “You Don’t Own Me.” Are there any particular versions you enjoy?

LG: I rather liked Joan’s interpretation. Dusty [Springfield] covered that record almost minutes after it came out.

We could put a song in the key of G and it would be comfortable, but if Quincy didn’t see the veins popping in my neck he wouldn’t be happy. He’d raise it to the key of A so I’d sound younger. That’s why my [early] recordings are so poppy and bop-y.

This [new] album [Ever Since] is letting my voice do what it does without forcing into a range where I have to bleat all the time. That’s how the combination of old and new can make wonderful sense.

BG: Did you feel a kinship with or especially admire any other singers from the era of your biggest hits? I’m a Dusty Springfield fan.

LG: Who wouldn’t be? I did actually come to know Dusty when I was living in LA during the ‘70s. She did a song of mine called “Love Me By Name.” But she didn’t just do a song – she annihilated it. She invited me to the [recording] session; Joe Sample was the piano player.

They are doing a musical [Dusty] of Dusty’s life. Vicki Wickham, who was Dusty’s manager, is a dear friend of mine, and they consulted her.

BG: A favorite song of mine by you from that era that hints at what you do now is “What Am I Gonna Do With You.” Would you agree with that?

LG: Isn’t that a great song? That was co-written by Russ Titelman, who worked with [Eric] Clapton. When I get to expand my show, songs like that, and “All of My Life,” and “The Old Crowd” – which was written for me by Carole King and Gerry Goffin – are the songs that I’m looking at including within it.

We’ve stripped the songs in the show down to rhythm section and voice, and it’s clear what holds up and what doesn’t. It’s fascinating. “Judy’s Turn to Cry” has completely erupted for me as a new song after taking out those strings and horns and bop-y things. Without horns, “Maybe I Know” has a groove. It’s like re-singing them [the older songs] all over again.

BG: How did the writing of “Out Here on My Own” [sung by Irene Cara on the Fame soundtrack] come about?

LG: When my brother [Michael] started working on Fame he asked me for lyric writers. Much to my shame right now, I didn’t consider myself one. I was friendly with Peter Allen, and through that, Dean Pitchford and Michael got together. My brother was living in Manhattan and one afternoon I was up at his apartment and he played me the melody to “Out Here” and described the scene. When he first played it for me I knew what the title was. I was at my friends Carole Hall’s and Leonard Majzlin’s flat — I stayed indoors for 48 hours and knocked out the lyrics and became part of the Fame family. It was a very liberating step. It means a lot to me in that sense.

BG: What did you think of the movie Grace of My Heart, and of the character played by Bridget Fonda [a Gore facsimile]? Did they wholly miss the mark? Did they have the right spirit?

LG: Actually, nothing rang absolutely true in that movie. I think they were trying to exploit my character. The actual history is that I didn’t know I was gay until after college. So whatever they put in the movie was more of a projected scenario than a reality. Certainly, the [Fonda character’s] affair with the PR person is their own storyline.

They asked me to write a song [for the movie], and it wasn’t a completely pleasant experience, to be totally honest. I realized they asked me to do it so they could exploit my name. They sent me a track that had pretty much already been written. I felt the need to doctor it, and the changes made it better. Then they had the lack of decency to pretty much not invite to the [movie’s] opening.

I love musical movies and I’d like to see more of them made. But it took a lot of people’s lives and distorted them. They glued together scenarios — I think the lead [male] character is supposed to be Brian Wilson? Still, I’d rather have a bad version of a movie musical than no movie musical. And I think the idea of pairing different people [in the story] could have been a good one.

BG: Any hints about what you have in store for San Francisco?

LG: I’ll hit the stage with the band that helped me create the new album. You’re gonna get a show we’ve been doing steadily for 4 or 5 months – it’s grown in dimension, and everyone is going to have a great time. I expect they’ll go from laughter to tears as well. People may have to turn their hearing aids up — but that’s what friends are for.

BG: As someone once wrote –

LG: [Laughs] Exactly.

The 49er



All it took was one great glass elevator ride to know that the San Francisco International Film Festival had changed — a ride up to the top floor of a downtown hotel, where the press conference for the 49th SFIFF took place. In recent years, the nation’s oldest film festival put on conferences that had the stultifying air of the type of garden country club lecture presented as a grotesquerie in the original Manchurian Candidate. This year, new executive director Graham Leggat surveyed the room and a 360-degree view of the city while announcing the arrival of a new film-focused Web site, If the lofty heights of the setting and Leggat’s many ambitions could be said to induce vertigo, his pep talk showed he’s considerably more connected with the film community in San Francisco than those who’d recently come before him.

Landing just before Cannes on the calendar, SFIFF has long had to glean the best from the festivals of the previous 12-plus months. The 49th SFIFF has done a better than usual job of shopping for nonstodgy items at Toronto, Sundance, and other fests, landing films such as The Descent, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, James Longley’s unembedded doc Iraq in Fragments, and Half Nelson, which features a Ryan Gosling performance that will probably figure in the Oscars next spring. Recently snubbed by the Academy, the oft-brilliant Werner Herzog more than deserves the Film Society Directing Award, and it’s great to have Guy Maddin in town. Deerhoof and Heaven and Earth Magic seem like an inspired pairing. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros and A Short Film about the Indio Nacional may be the tip of a fresh, unconventional wave of Filipino cinema, or they may be the wave itself. The Bridge and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple are dialogue-sparking films about suicide that belong to the Bay Area, even if the rival Tribeca Film Festival seems to have swooped in and landed them as premieres just a few days earlier.

This year’s fest could be accused of being overly besotted with gadgetry. Only time will tell whether the festival’s Kinotek section, devoted to "new platforms, new work, new audiences" honors gimmicks over content. Yes, it’s great that Tilda Swinton is an actor with intelligence. But the idea of projecting a Big Tilda upon the city seems more than a bit silly. And I wonder about a selection of seven Japanese films that includes some painful conceits while leaving out the latest film by Akihiko Shiota, and Shunichi Nagasaki’s sequel to his own Heart, Beating in the Dark.

The SFIFF has gotten a bum rap lately — scrape away the public image of a fest like last year’s and you’d find an excellent, deep, if sometimes overly solemn, array of movies. San Francisco suffers from no shortage of film festivals, but it’s oldest still has a depth and breadth others can scarcely match, and Leggat’s arrival gives SFIFF a much-needed boost of energetic, idea-driven intelligence. Now, when it turns 50, perhaps it can go toe-to-toe with the near simultaneous Tribeca fest helmed by ex–SFIFF executive director Peter Scarlet. Programming wars ain’t pretty, but they’re sure to yield some drama. SFBG

Tsai me up, Tsai me down


I could have sworn that the late Susan Sontag had labeled Tsai Ming-liang a fraud. I even looked up Sontag’s New York Times piece "The Decay of Cinema," as well as the longer essay "A Century of Cinema" that was published in the 2001 collection Where the Stress Falls, for proof. But no such dismissal was to be found. And here I had formed a whole argument: "How ironic," I thought, "that an essay by Sontag about the demise of cinema disapproved of Tsai, and that around the time of her own passing Tsai would unveil perhaps the greatest film about the decay of cinema to date, 2003’s Good Bye, Dragon Inn."


It turned out I misattributed the remark — in fact, it was a film historian who dismissed Tsai as "your archetypal pretentious festival fraud." Yet I wonder if Sontag cared as much for Tsai as she did, say, Hou Hsiao-hsien, since Tsai has participated in the very "internationalizing of financing" that she laments in A Century of Cinema, noting its destructive effect on her beloved Andrei Tarkovksy. Tsai’s Taiwan-France coproduction What Time Is It There? (2001) might be the weakest of his works, yet there’s still something to be loved about its presentation of Paris as a tourist’s hell, even if Sontag might not have cared for such a treatment of that city.

But enough of Craig Seligman<\d>style routines: I’ve come to praise Tsai, not to answer Sontag’s erudition with casual conversation. Creating a follow-up to the majestic loneliness of Good Bye Dragon Inn could not have been an easy task, and yet Tsai has done just that with another Taiwan-France coproduction, The Wayward Cloud, a work that is as glaringly vulgar as Dragon was cavernous and shadowy, as sexually graphic as Dragon was furtive, as contemporary as Dragon was nostalgic, as disturbing as Dragon was melancholic, and as hilarious as Dragon was … hilarious.

One of the first thoughts I had while watching The Wayward Cloud was this: Matthew Barney can eat Tsai’s shorts.

A few weeks ago, a Guardian writer fantasized about a DVD box issue devoted to a pair of contemporary directors, and I thought, "It really has come to this: A devoted young movie lover can’t even realistically imagine a rep house program devoted to the career of one of his current favorite filmmakers." The Wayward Cloud is about to play the palatial Castro — not the TV at the local video store or the flat-screen in someone’s apartment — and I can’t wait to be there. In fact, I will fantasize about a film series devoted to all of Tsai’s movies to date, the kind that places like the Castro used to give to directors like Fassbinder. The type of event where a certain breed of celluloid-loving maniac could meet up every night and become friends over shared dark laughter, drugs, you name it.

I can’t think of another contemporary director whose work would flourish so well with that type of presentation. Take Tsai’s relationship to his muse, Lee Kang-sheng, who has starred in every one of his features to date as the character Hsiao-kang. In The Wayward Cloud, Hsiao-kang is dissolute, and there is something really disturbing and honest about his look, and the way Tsai in turn looks at it. There is something deep — not fraudulent — in the way Tsai has tracked this young man through passages of his life, in the way What Time Is It There? was built from Lee’s grief and loss, for instance. There is something awesome I can’t yet pinpoint about the way The Wayward Cloud, with its jaw-dropping (anti-) climax, manages to rhyme off of the crying-jag final shot of Tsai’s Vive l’Amour (1994), the harsh porn appraisal of his follow-up The River (1997), and the musical, apocalyptic rains of the Tsai movie after that, 1998’s The Hole.

Tsai’s seven features may be a cup-and-ball game stretched over 12-plus hours. But you could say life is a cup-and-ball game too, and the harsh truth is that The Wayward Cloud, a major work by one of the best filmmakers on the planet today, does not have a distributor. It might not play anywhere in the Bay Area after it screens at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Tsai’s movies sell tickets at festivals, but in commercial runs they result in the kind of empty house that he explored so tellingly in Dragon. Yes, Tsai Ming-liang is "the quintessential festival" genius, all right. See his movies while you can.<\!s><z5><h110>SFBG<h$><z$>


(Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2005)


Sun/23, 9:30 p.m., Castro

Tues/25, 10:15 p.m., Kabuki

April 26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki

April 28, 9:15 p.m., PFA

The L word: Lesley


I hear car horns behind the voice of Lesley Gore on the phone, which makes sense, since the woman who sang "It’s My Party" and "You Don’t Own Me" is in New York. The Big Apple is also where Gore first learned how to hit the charts, with no less a tutor than producer and arranger Quincy Jones. "It’s extraordinary that a man of his distinction could put himself in the shoes of a 16-year-old kid," Gore says. "That was his art, in a way. There may have been a 14-year difference between us, but he never talked down to me."

Anecdotes about Q figure in Gore’s current live performances, which also makes sense, since the girl who sang "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" and "Judy’s Turn to Cry" in the key of A "If Quincy didn’t see the veins popping in my neck, he wouldn’t be happy" is now a smoky-voiced woman working in jazzier, Jones-ier realms on the new CD Ever Since (Engine Company). "Quincy would often call me on a Friday and say, "Lil Bits, meet me at Basin Street at 8"," Gore remembers. "We’d go see Peggy [Lee] or Ella [Fitzgerald] or Dinah Washington. He’d say, "Listen to this opening number this is what an opening number should do." He took mentoring seriously. He wanted me to understand."

To understand Lesley Gore, you could check out Susan J. Douglas’s excellent Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, a rumination on pop culture that makes it easy to place 60s girl pop records by Gore and others on a continuum that led to the feminist revolution. Or you could just check out the music. Far from a crybaby, Gore paved the way for the rebellious likes of Joan Jett. "I rather liked Joan’s interpretation [of "You Don’t Own Me"]," ‘]," Gore says. "Dusty [Springfield] also covered that record almost minutes after it came out."

Ah, Dusty. Gore and Springfield had things besides talent in common, even if it’s taken decades for the news to come out in print. "I did actually come to know Dusty when I was living in LA during the 70s," Gore recalls. "They are doing a musical [Dusty] of Dusty’s life. Dusty’s manager, Vicki Wickham, is a dear friend of mine, and they consulted her."

One musical has already drawn material from Gore’s life for material, though her thoughts about Allison Anders’s 1996 movie Grace of My Heart aren’t fond ones.  "Actually, nothing rang absolutely true in that movie," she says. "The actual history is that I didn’t know I was gay until after college," she says.. "So whatever they put in [the movie] was more of a projected scenario than a reality. They asked me to write a song [for the movie], and it wasn’t a completely pleasant experience. I realized they asked so they could exploit my name. Then they had the lack of decency to pretty much not invite me to the [movie’s] opening." Needless to say, Gore’s memories of working with what she calls "the Fame family" and copenning Irene Cara’s "Out Here oOn My Own" are happier.

As for today, the woman who has recently helped soundtrack The L Word and host In the Life is ready to hit the road for San Francisco with her band. ""Judy’s Turn to Cry" has completely erupted for me as new song, after taking out those horn and strings and boppy things," she says, discussing the "stripped-down" approach she takes to new tunes and classic hits. "You’re gonna get a show we’ve been doing steadily for 4 or 5 months for months it’s grown in dimension, width, and height, and everyone is going to have a great time. Some people may have to turn their hearing aids up, but that’s what friends are for." (Johnny Ray Huston)


Sat/22Sun/23, 8 p.m.

Brava Theater Center

2781 24th St., SF

$35$40 ($60 with includes Gala afterparty)

(415) 647-2822

For a Q&A with Lesley Gore, go to Noise, the music blog. 

Daniel in the lion’s den


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.

daniel2 -- small.jpg

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.

No one steps to Kitchen Stadium!



Taking over Project Runway’s time slot, Top Chef has some big shoes to fill. No, I don’t mean Santino’s (or his friend Tony Ward’s) or creepy Heidi Klum’s. How in the hell does this show even think it can approximate the greatness of Iron Chef? (Not the US version — I’d sooner flay Bobby Flay than pledge allegiance to any culinary competitor other than the huggable Hiroyuki Sakai.)

Needless to say, there is no one as funny or smart as culinary critic Asako Kishi (or master filmmaker and onetime Iron Chef judge Nagisa Oshima) among Top Chef’s decision makers. "Where is Chairman Kaga?!" I demand, as I bite into a vegetable and grin maniacally à la Kaga.

What Bravo’s latest prize battle does have so far, unsurprisingly, is a villain: Stephen, the flush-faced blond so snotty he’d serve wine to children and expect them to react like connoisseurs. Since aged Marianne Faithfull type Cynthia has already left in a blizzard of Kleenex, it’s hard to say how much character is left. Mostly, I see brownnosers and grumps — and blink-and-miss shots of San Francisco. Last week’s episode hyped Aqua. (Johnny Ray Huston)

Not that Carrington woman


Just typing the name Pumkin fills me with a kind of flesh-crawling dread that even a thousand soapy baths couldn’t wash clean. Yes, the fact that the Flavor of Love finale was VH1’s highest-rated show of all time does register as the one million and third piece of evidence that this country is headed toward a pit somewhere just a little below the fire-flurries of hell. Thank somebody, anybody, that Alexis Arquette has arrived. Yes, she’s trapped on the beyond-wack Surreal Life, but in a wonderful turnabout from her Last Exit to Brooklyn screen debut, Rosanna and Patricia’s sister is more than ready to kick frat- and straight-boy ass on behalf of trannies everywhere. She’ll probably prove she’s the second funniest queen (after Vaginal Davis) in LA as well. (Huston)