Maria Kommodore

Hurting herders


REVIEW Set in Inner Mongolia’s dry and inhospitable plains, Tuya’s Marriage comments on capitalism’s suffocating ability to suppress other ways of living. Tuya (Yu Nan — last seen in Speed Racer, of all places) is a Mongolian sheep herder struggling to make ends meet. China’s growing economy has made it almost impossible for herders to survive — not only has it forced them to leave their lands, it has created industries that exploit the natural resources herders traditionally have taken advantage of. So when Tuya’s husband Bater (played by a real Mongolian herder) is incapacitated while digging a well, things become even harder. Tuya is left in charge of their two toddlers, the flock, and securing their daily supply of water. When the strained woman suffers a physical breakdown that warns of graver consequences if she keeps exhausting herself, everyone advises her to divorce Bater and marry another man. Unable to deal with the hardships surrounding her, Tuya starts looking for a groom on the outrageous condition that whoever agrees to take her for his wife must also be willing to provide for Bater. Having glimpsed the potential outcome of marrying a Mongolian oil tycoon and living in the city, Tuya chooses to continue the life she knows — at a high price. Aesthetically beautiful and emotionally complex, the film records the customs and mores of a culture that’s slowly disappearing, and the sadness of a people who have become marginalized.

TUYA’S MARRIAGE opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.

Frameline 32: Sex changes


TAKE ONE In Iranian director Tanaz Eshagian’s Be Like Others, fear hovers over a whole nation, leading to schizophrenic behavior. By concentrating on three different individuals before and after they went through sexual reassignment operations in Iran, Eshagian reveals an incredibly sad and asphyxiating society — one where homosexuality is banned and punishable by death but changing one’s sex is legal.

No matter how progressive the act of changing one’s sex might sound, Be Like Others proves that it has conservative and oppressive connotations in Iran. Most of the people considering surgery in Eshagian’s film do so because they feel that it’s their only alternative to a gay male or lesbian identity that involves disrespect, harassment, and the possibility of a horrible death. Yet instead of finding acceptance post-operation, many are even more alienated.

The reason for this insanity, as explained by one official: being gay or a cross-dresser allegedly disrupts the “social order.” In other words, gender-bending blurs the distinctions between the sexes, making Iranian social role-assignment — largely determined by sex — a confusing task.

Mind-boggling and utterly scary, Be Like Others is a great comment on people’s obsessive need to label and compartmentalize, and a statement about our disgusting fear of anything that lacks clear delineation. At first, Eshagian’s documentary might make you feel lucky to live in a country where measures against homosexuality are not as extreme. But as it sinks in, it will make you question how far removed the situation in Iran really is from that in the United States. (Maria Komodore)

TAKE TWO At first the Iranian laws that make Tanaz Eshagian’s movie necessary seem not just cruel, but absurdly and arbitrarily so. How could homosexuality be illegal and punishable by death, while the government not only sanctions sexual-reassignment surgery but acts as its facilitator?

In Be Like Others, the answer comes from Cleric Kariminiya, a so-called Theological Expert on Transexuality, during an information session for prospective patients and their families. While Islamic law explicitly forbids homosexuality, he explains, there is no such explicit restriction on changing one’s gender.

In other words, the binary sexual politics of Iranian authority are undermined by the existence of queer citizens, whose mannerisms or predilections suggest a continuum. Eshagian’s powerful film follows a few citizens who, too visibly close to the middle of that continuum, are forced to decide between the suffering and danger of their current lot and an abrupt surgical introduction into social legitimacy.

The decision-making process these individuals face is extremely difficult viewing. Those people who successfully transition often have no other option but sex work to survive. Suicide is rampant.

Eshagian’s project is exceptional because it leaves the viewer enlighteningly confused about Iranian attitudes toward gender and law. The most fascinating character in the film is a transgender woman dedicated to the care of patients in transition. She is supportive, devoted to her patients’ well-being, and fully entrenched in the traditional Iranian views of men and women. (Jason Shamai)


Mon/23, 7 p.m., Victoria

Frameline 32: Anti-pity party


Films about people dealing with serious diseases are often hard to watch and frequently difficult to criticize. They make for rough viewing because of the empathy a viewer has for the suffering subject. Perhaps due to this same sense of compassion, admitting that such movies are cheesy — as they sometimes are — is sort of taboo.

Feminist and experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer bypasses such niceties and constraints with A Horse Is Not a Metaphor. The title of Hammer’s movie might have ties to Susan Sontag’s writings on illness, but it also connects to the dreamlike imagery of horses that she mixes with footage of her stay in a hospital. Structurally, A Horse Is Not a Metaphor‘s chapters correspond to the stages of ovarian cancer treatment. Hammer reinforces all these elements with the magnificently strange music of Meredith Monk to create a very personal retelling of her experience. Her movie is a highly relatable testimony of feelings that rage from sheer darkness to happiness and hope.

Horse‘s visceral quality makes it a different and almost cathartic response to the subject of disease. Each ingredient conveys a desire to connect with the physical and emotional world on a basic sensory level. In doing so, Hammer and her movie relinquish pity and fear.


June 27, 7 p.m.




REVIEW Norwegian helmer Joachim Trier may or may not be Lars von Trier’s distant relative. Let me back up a bit: according to several sources, the two directors are kin — but the former’s feature debut, Reprise, pleasantly reassures us that even if Joachim had the misfortune of sharing the same genes with Lars, at least he doesn’t share his bad sense of filmmaking. Nevertheless, the younger Dane did grow up in an environment where cinema was greatly appreciated (he first used an 8mm camera at age 4), which probably explains why his first attempt at full-length moviemaking is governed by such refreshing and refined ideas about the cinematic language. Trier is also a national skateboarding champion — something that might seem unrelated but may, on the other hand, account for Reprise‘s playful, edgy approach. Set in contemporary Oslo, the film follows friends Erik (Espen Klouman-Hoiner) and Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie), who have dreams and aspirations about becoming great cult authors. Casting mainly nonactors and employing a slew of unannounced flashbacks and flash-forwards, Trier creates a fluid chronology where happiness and sadness coexist, and potentials are imagined, shattered, and rediscovered all at once. Like its 20-year-old protagonists, Reprise is disorderly, hazy, adventurous, and inquisitive, thus adequately reutf8g the agony of youth.

REPRISE opens Fri/23 in Bay Area theaters.

Cross-cultural cosmology


REVIEW There are many films about Asian immigrants and their cross-cultural experiences after they come to America in hope of a better future. But none of them are like Dark Matter, the feature debut of China-born and New York–based Chen Shi-zheng. Chen is an established opera actor and opera and theater director who left China for the United States in 1987 in search of artistic freedom. Although his innovative staging of the 19-hour-long Ming Dynasty–era play The Peony Pavilion (1999) received international critical acclaim, whether Chen found what he was looking for in the States is debatable — particularly if Dark Matter contains even the slightest hint of autobiography. Starring prominent Chinese actor Liu Ye (2006’s The Curse of the Golden Flower) and the great Meryl Streep, Dark Matter is loosely based on a 1991 incident at Iowa University when a Chinese graduate student picked up a gun and started firing. Chen’s tale about a Chinese PhD candidate at an American university whose initial enthusiasm gives way to frustration and helplessness when his professor turns against him for questioning his cosmology addresses many issues, including the claustrophobic world of academia and where goals and aspirations can lead if violently crushed — revealing how misleading the idea of the "American dream" can be.

DARK MATTER opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters.

SFIFF: Fierce perm


SFIFF Robert Towne has accomplished something rare: in an industry that paradoxically singles out the director of a movie as if he or she were the sole creator of what is actually a collaborative effort, he has tasted fame, received recognition, and secured his place in the history of cinema for writing scripts.

Having started his career penning B-movies like Last Woman on Earth (1960) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), and working as a script doctor for impressive projects such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Drive, He Said (1971), and The Godfather (1972), Towne truly rose to stardom with Chinatown (1974). This dark, pessimistic tale about power struggles and government corruption in Los Angeles, which garnered Towne an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, not only stands up to such noir classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946), but also redefines the whole genre. In J.J. Gittes — as embodied by Jack Nicholson — Towne introduces his own version of a Phillip Marlowe character, tough but hopeless, into a world where crime is hard to detect and impossible to punish, even when committed in broad daylight.

Shampoo (1975) features a Towne screenplay that’s as complex and intriguing as the one he wrote for Chinatown. Yet it takes a secondary role on Towne’s résumé, despite the fact that it yielded an Academy Award nomination. Perhaps this is because Warren Beatty shares Shampoo‘s writing credit with Towne, whereas Chinatown was presented as solely Towne’s creation. (Of course, it’s an open secret today that Towne wrote a different, happy, ending for Chinatown, which director Roman Polanski replaced — fortunately — with a devastating one.) In any case, it’s a pleasant and unexpected surprise that the San Francisco Film Society has chosen to showcase Shampoo while presenting Towne with this year’s Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting.

As the critic and teacher Elaine Lennon points out in a 2005 piece for Senses of Cinema, the true complexity of Shampoo‘s script stems from the same element the film has been derided for — its superficially silly comic spirit. Lennon suggests that the many influences detectable in Shampoo include ancient Greek tragedy, the restoration comedies of 17th- and early 18th-century England, and the plays of Molière. All of the above construct poignant social critiques while providing comic relief.

Indeed, Shampoo uses the sexuality that permeates its turbulent and intricately woven Beverly Hills microcosm to farcically comment on the United States of the late 1960s. George (Beatty), the restless hairdresser with a soft spot for his customers, his girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn), his ex-girlfriend and lover Jackie (Julie Christie), his other lover Felicia (Lee Grant), and Felicia’s husband and Jackie’s sugar daddy Lester (Jack Warden) not only share the same lovers, they share the same anxiety — a feeling produced by an ever-changing, unstable society. To put it differently, their sexual misbehavior is a manifestation of the fluidity and uncertainty of their lives.

In comparing Shampoo to Chinatown, Pauline Kael perceptively wrote, "Towne’s heroes are like the heroes of hard-boiled fiction: they don’t ask much of life, but they are also romantic damn fools who just ask for what they can’t get." As Kael implies, George is the only character in the film who acts out of a desire for sheer pleasure and lives for the moment. All the others amorally float wherever the wind blows, compromising their true desires in a quest for the seemingly safe environment — the peaceful period of supposed law and order — that President Nixon has promised them.

Shampoo also presents some unconventional, multifaceted perspectives concerning gender issues. George is the poor innocent guy stunning rich women exploit for thrills and then promptly dump. Jill, Jackie, and Felicia are visibly weighing their options and waiting for the best offer, while Lester, although adulterous and money-grubbing, is somewhat sympathetic and humane.

Juxtaposed with the questionable career choices Towne has made over the last couple of decades, Shampoo shines like a bright gem. After 1996’s Mission: Impossible, and 2000’s Mission: Impossible II, one can’t help but wonder whether his rewrite of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) — which he also will be directing — marks a return to more intimate projects such as 1973’s The Last Detail, or furthers his spiralling descent into Hollywood blockbuster hell.
AN AFTERNOON WITH ROBERT TOWNE (includes a screening of Shampoo), Sat/3, 4 p.m., Sundance Kabuki

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide

Wong takes wrong turn


Whether his focus is on a gangster who falls for his cousin (As Tears Go By, 1989), or a lovesick cop getting over a breakup (Chungking Express, 1994), or two men who move to Argentina seeking a fresh start (Happy Together, 1997), the world of Wong Kar Wai is always populated by heartbroken people whose unresolved emotions render them romantically challenged. The fluid cinematography, evocative music, and sublime use of slow-motion that accompanies these tales of unrequited love make Wong’s attractive cosmos all the more moving and melancholy.

Although My Blueberry Nights, the director’s first US production, has all of the above ingredients, it isn’t what one expects from Wong. Unnecessary explanatory voice-over and Hallmark-card dialogue destroys the subtlety that permeates most of his films.

During a recent phone interview, Wong attributed this lack of subtlety to the "straightforward" way he believes Americans express their feelings. But I suggest a lot of it has to do with Norah Jones being the film’s star. Although the director admitted the singer was the reason he made the film in the first place, her performance isn’t nearly as nuanced as that of Maggie Cheung’s in In the Mood for Love (2000). An equally plausible explanation might be that well-known mystery novelist Lawrence Block was Wong’s unlikely script collaborator.

Anyone familiar with Wong’s films will be disappointed by the cheery conclusion of My Blueberry Nights. But according to the filmmaker, what we witness is not actually a happy ending. Instead, we’re given what he calls "the happy beginning of another story," one whose ending is as open as it is inevitable.


Opens Fri/18 at Bay Area theaters

See Movie Clock at“>”>



REVIEW To a certain extent, almost all surfing flicks carry undercurrents of homoeroticism — but rarely do those vibes take center stage. With Shelter, that’s not the case. Starring Trevor Wright (a TV vet making his big-screen debut) and Brad Rowe (Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss), the movie is about two young surfer dudes whose practice of spending endless hours together either half-naked in the water or bonding over neverending six-packs of beer leads to a passionate love affair. So don’t expect to see any radical wave-riding here. Instead, you should count on a sweet and tender rendering of innocent flirtation (and the awkwardness, playfulness, and silliness that come with it), and of the complex deeper emotional phases that a person falling in love goes through. Although Shelter doesn’t avoid being a bit sappy every now and then — and at times the acting feels a bit forced — the truly amazing chemistry between the two protagonists overshadows many of the film’s imperfections. The first movie to be produced under the here! Films Independent Film Initiative (which helps thematically edgy and thus noncommercial projects with all aspects of production), Shelter also marks director Jonah Markowitz’s first attempt at feature filmmaking. If you missed it at Frameline last summer, here’s a chance to make amends.

SHELTER opens Fri/28 in San Francisco.

Positive space


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In 2003, filmmaker and CalArts professor Thom Andersen completed Los Angeles Plays Itself, an ambitious and inventive undertaking that combines clips from a library’s worth of different movies set in Los Angeles into a long, discursive, highly opinionated film. Divided into three parts, this treatise presents an intriguing account of the numerous ways Los Angeles has been cinematically conceived, represented, and perceived. Through the cameras of thousands of filmmakers, Hollywood’s neighbor has been viewed either in accordance with or (more often) at odds with its particular geography and range of architectural styles.

The German artist-filmmaker Heinz Emigholz is attempting a similar spatial exploration — one that started long before Andersen’s, in 1993, and one that continues today. The five films in the Pacific Film Archive’s Heinz Emigholz: Architecture as Autobiography are part of a larger "Photography and Beyond" project Emigholz has been working on for the last 24 years. This handful of works captures constructions by important but somewhat neglected architects of the 20th century. One aim of Emigholz’s endeavor is to provide an alternative kind of biography: a biography in which knowledge about the architect is derived directly from his or her creations.

All five of the cinematic explorations of space in "Architecture as Autobiography" are presented starkly, so that, as Emigholz explained to Siegfried Zelinski in an interview, "The eye reverts back to what it always was: an extension and interface to the brain, and one that needs no codes. It thinks and feels at the same time."

In Emigholz’s movies, there is no voice-over narration to share background facts about architects, their aesthetics, and the reasons for their historical importance. Instead, intertitles on the screen inform the viewer about the names of the buildings, their locations, when they were built, and when they were photographed. This information is juxtaposed with long, medium, and close static shots of the buildings, accompanied by sound from the locations.

Described this plainly, Emigholz’s films might sound boring. But watching them proves to be a surprising and fascinating experience. In Sullivan’s Banks (1993-2000), the long succession of shots depicting banks that the American architect Louis H. Sullivan was commissioned to build from 1906 to 1920 slowly allows us, the viewers, to make certain connections. Through observing Sullivan’s banks in their surroundings (from various exterior angles) and in the context of their use, we come to understand his intention of harmoniously uniting function and form. Upon entering one of Sullivan’s imposing, cathedral-like buildings, you feel like you’re in a serious institution — one where your finances are absolutely secure.

Similarly, in Maillart’s Bridges (2001), the quiet repetition of photographs featuring bridges designed and built between 1910 and 1935 by the Swiss civil engineer Robert Maillart points to his obsessive experimentation with arches. In looking at Maillart’s curved constructions, one can’t help but marvel at their flowing shapes and forms, and also at the discrete ways in which they mingle with their natural environs.

This concern is even more evident in Goff in the Desert (2002-2003), where the filmmaker unobtrusively records — repeatedly — buildings that American architect Bruce Goff created from the 1920s through the 1970s. Goff’s attempts at simuutf8g the environments around his buildings yield imaginative constructions. Multilevel room divisions and novel uses of circle formations are two characteristics of his unique approach to spatial perception.

The residences in Schindler’s Houses (2007) — including one owned and occupied by none other than Los Angeles Plays Itself filmmaker Thom Andersen — are less preoccupied with fitting within a broader physical environment and more concerned with the harmony of their interiors. In the process of observing the ornament-free constructions that the Austrian American architect Rudolph Schindler built in Los Angeles from 1921 to 1952, Emigholz reveals the architect’s insistence on creating spacious, breezy, and minimal interiors for outwardly bulky houses.

The relative freedom Emigholz allows the viewer in terms of contemplation is one major reason among many that give his unusual films intrigue. Emigholz’s filmmaking technique moves several steps beyond — or in a different direction from — Los Angeles Plays Itself‘s concerns regarding spatial conception, representation, and perception. It does so while remaining true to one filmmaker’s particular perspective of how we experience and understand space.

"I believe that everyone perceives space differently, and that art and structure arise out of the perception of these nuances," Emigholz has said. In his films, this idea takes a number of different forms. Through his own understanding of space, Emigholz interacts with and presents other people’s conceptions and perceptions of it. In the process, he also creates his own artful cinematic structures — films that stimulate our understanding of space while in a sense simultaneously creating and navigating a visual maze. Mind boggling, isn’t it?


Through April 17


Pacific Film Archive Theater

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

Deja vu, times two


TAKE ONE With his short film Night and Fog (1955), Alain Resnais introduced the world to his idiosyncratic and esoteric filmmaking, while offering an initial glance at his obsessions with memory, time, and space. He would further elaborate on this trio of fixations in his extraordinary debut feature, Hiroshima mon Amour (1959). But his second feature, Last Year in Marienbad (1961), is where Resnais truly allowed himself to grapple with these issues, as well as with cinematic form.

Because of its enigmatic plot, mysterious characters, and various peculiarities, Marienbad has inspired a wide variety of discussions about the nature of time and memory, and about the divisions and links between reality and fantasy. Although such explorations are totally valid, the most striking — and perhaps somewhat neglected — of Marienbad‘s many wonderfully bizarre features is its treatment of space.

Resnais’ choice and use of locations is very imposing. Marienbad‘s two protagonists — including Delphine Seyrig in only her second feature role — encounter each other at a hotel, and try to figure out whether they had met and fallen in love at that same place a year ago. The hotel is actually composed from the interiors and exteriors of various grandiose chateaux in Germany. Impressive scales, strictly geometric gardens, and an exhaustive array of rooms immediately give the impression of a sumptuous maze in which one can get trapped and become lost.

Employing repetitive long pans and dolly shots throughout most of the film, Resnais painstakingly observes the hotel’s interiors, emphasizing their excessive ornamentation. Endless corridors give way to doorways that yield yet more hallways and living rooms. All of them are decorated to perfection; all of them feel terribly empty, cold, still, and asphyxiating. These images are juxtaposed with shots that similarly observe the hotel’s occupants. Clad in their flamboyant Coco Chanel dresses, members of the bourgeoisie are shown aimlessly wondering around the hotel, engaging in commonplace activities and conversations.

By complimenting this visual pattern with eerie organ music, Resnais achieves a striking effect. As film professor and writer Laura Rascaroli puts it: “The [film recalls] one of the main features of baroque architecture, the use of a superabundance of details and decorative elements as a means of filling up the void and repressing the fear of nothingness, of oblivion, of death.”

Few filmmakers manage to treat space as more than mere background. Michelangelo Antonioni is one obvious example. In Marienbad, Resnais moves beyond an exploration of the creative possibilities that a film’s space has to offer. He goes so far as to use space to actually produce meaning. That idea, perhaps more than anything else, is what this ageless masterpiece is all about. (Maria Komodore)

TAKE TWO To begin, a word for Sylvette Baudrot, “script girl” for Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s arch postmodernist plaything, Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Film critics are often guilty of underplaying contributions by screenwriters and cinematographers, but script girls? You’d better believe it with a film as rigorously mathematical as Marienbad. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet’s creation defies continuity, but it rests heavily on bridges and echoes, its staging directions endowed with interlocking, psychic value — all impossible, one assumes, without Baudrot’s attentive supervision. Resnais goofily nods to his obsessive predecessor Alfred Hitchcock when he places a cardboard cutout of the master of suspense in an early shot. But Baudrot provides the direct link: she was the script supervisor on Hitchcock’s 1955 Riviera dalliance, To Catch a Thief.

Credentials aside, Last Year at Marienbad is an elegant whirlpool, all the more notable for being made amid the fuck-all bluster of the early French new wave. At a sodden grand hotel, “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi) implores “A” (Delphine Seyrig) that they met the previous year and agreed to reconvene away from the watchful eye of A’s husband “M” (Sacha Pitoëff). Some of the aspects surrounding these characters seem hopelessly musty, encrusted by decades of swollen undergraduate debate. There is the flattening score, and the famous strategy game that M always wins. Try not to giggle at those scenes in which a character’s bulging eyes conjure so many Universal B-movies — indeed, Pitoëff seems to have been cast for his gaunt shape, evocative as it is of Karloffs and Lugosis past.

And yet, Marienbad‘s distancing front-line of attack remains a radical proposition: erotic obsession defanged of the eros, and further soused in sounds and images that seem, if not deceitful, then at least unverifiable. At the center of this opaque sphere is Seyrig who, as A, has the unenviable task of making something of being more than a marionette. The film is most symphonic — and terrifying — in those moments when Resnais’ camera movements collude with Albertazzi’s direct address, simultaneously conjecturing and ensnaring the imagined A.

Marienbad‘s chilly core endures despite the extent to which its formalist shock tactics have been assimilated into mainstream productions. In stretching cinematic space-time like so much chewing gum, the film provides a direct link between Louis Feuillade’s shape-shifting serials (1913’s Fantômas, 1915’s Les Vampires), Stanley Kubrick’s gliding horror (1980’s The Shining, in particular) and latter-day brainteasers like Memento (2000), Being John Malkovich and The Matrix (both 1999). If this is Resnais’ unexpected lineage, Seyrig’s A keeps a different company. She’s still lost in Marienbad‘s hall-of-mirrors (the last line, like a curse: “Losing your way in the still night, alone with me”). But while there, she might catch a reflection of some kindred spirits: Kim Novak, of course, but also Rita Hayworth, Laura Dern, and least suspecting of them all, Rose in Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936). (Max Goldberg)


Through March 27

Opens Fri/21; $7–$9.50

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120


Ode to Jean-Pierre Léaud


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The critic Philippa Hawker once offered an amazingly accurate and concise definition of the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud’s unique performing style: "He is himself, he is his character Antoine Doinel, he is New Wave incarnate, he is the past-in-the-present, the past remembered and re-evaluated."

As Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (1959), perhaps the best movie François Truffaut ever made, Léaud brought to life a character so engaging and so complex that it’s hard to believe a person so young — he was 15 at the time — was capable of such an extraordinary performance. It’s harder, maybe even pointless, to decipher how much of Doinel’s disarmingly timid and shy rebellion — which borders on cowardliness, or the mere desire to avoid punishment — reflects Léaud himself and how much of it is skillful acting.

Léaud’s beautiful rendering of a character who goes through a turbulent and harsh adolescence while managing to remain innocent and possibly a little naive earned him a series of films with Truffaut. In Antoine et Colette (part of L’Amour à Vingt Ans, 1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970), and finally, Love on the Run (1979), Doinel struggles to find his way in society but remains an outsider. While the Doinel movies dip in quality, Léaud remains as captivating as he is in his first cinematic appearance, maintaining the sensitivity or vulnerability that distinguishes him from rougher rogue contemporaries such as Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Unlike Belmondo’s restless yet supercool, smooth Michel in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), Léaud’s Doinel is hyperactive and tense, his hands repeating certain movements, his articulation closer to punctuated reciting than to normal speech, his gaze surprised, intense, and inquiring. He is torn in two by conflicting forces, wanting to stay and wanting to go at the same time. Doinel would like to explore the world around him and accumulate experiences, but he’s always ready to make his exit running.

Léaud also made a number of movies with Godard. In films like La Chinoise (1967), Weekend (1967), and most notably Masculine Feminine (1966), the actor retains his insatiable desire to flirt and go crazy over love, and his childlike enthusiasm. But he trades physical intensity for increased political or ideological sophistication and reflection. In Godard’s visions of a Marx-and-Coca-Cola era, the reasons Léaud’s characters fail to fit in are a lot clearer than they ever were with Truffaut. Léaud’s misfits can be ill-fated: in this regard, Masculine Feminine foreshadows Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973). They also can be wise tricksters, as in both versions (1971 and 1972) of Jacques Rivette’s gargantuan Out 1.

After Léaud immersed himself in the character of Antoine Doinel, connecting his name and acting persona so closely to the French new wave, his appearance as Alexandre in Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore seems natural and adds some interesting metatextual effects. As Hawker puts it, "Léaud’s performance — in which his character gradually finds himself out of his depth, devastated, in which a carefully constructed masculinity proves insufficient to the messy demands and challenges placed on it by two women — is painful to watch, but it’s also fascinating to see him going quietly, as it were." Considering the film’s theme — the death of a liberated era, as exemplified by the impossibility of a healthy love triangle — one cannot avoid feeling that the end of Léaud’s character signifies the conclusion of one of recent European history’s most volatile and important periods.

Léaud’s iconic status figures as an undercurrent in his more recent appearances in films such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), Aki Kaurismäki’s La Vie de Bohème (1992), and especially Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996). In casting Léaud as an old French director whose heyday is long past and who is hopelessly trying to create a remake of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915), Assayas joins the actor in winking sympathetically at the now-idolized and perhaps idealized past he represents — a time of general excitement and experimentation, when everything seemed possible and cinema was daring.


Jan. 18–Feb. 19, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-1412

Thinking big with Vig



All of my prior attempts to write about The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun came to a screeching halt on describing the physical presence of the man at the documentary’s center, Jørgen Lauersen Vig. The sullenness of Vig’s features (accentuated by long white hair that, together with an outrageously wild-looking beard, forms a halo of sorts around his face) and his tall, slender, and raggedy-clothed figure cause him to resemble a hero from a novel by Nikolay Gogol. But unlike the Russian writer’s characters, Vig is very much real. His harsh, imposing appearance is hard to overlook.

The enigmatic Vig’s attachment to the run-down castle he’s determined to convert into a monastery only adds to his mystique. The Monastery‘s basic scenario suits its crude aesthetics. As if the presentation of a hard-boiled, aged man who spends his days alone in his slowly decaying shelter weren’t enough, the documentary’s rough human and physical landscape is completed by Sister Amvrosija, the leader of a delegation of nuns that the Russian Patriarchate sends to Denmark in order to evaluate the castle and help with its renovation.

Clad in her long black gown and immersed in her ascetic ways, Sister Amvrosija is as stubborn and opinionated as Vig. Filming their difficult coexistence with a sometimes unobtrusive and other times questioning camera, Danish filmmaker Pernille Rose Grønkjær clearly intends to add a bit of lyricism to this true story. She observes as the childlike energy and enthusiasm that the octogenarian initially brings to all of the bureaucratic and material needs of his estate give way to stronger displays of frustration. It’s clear that the numerous confrontations Vig has with Sister Amvrosija are gradually wearing him down.

Although Vig’s initial motives for forming a monastery are hard to comprehend (at one point it’s even suggested that he turned to the church as a source of free labor), it becomes evident that he urgently wants to create something enduring. Grønkjær’s film reveals a sensitive person in great distress. Faced with the revelation that fighting his mortality is hopeless, he reevaluates (and sometimes even shows signs of regretting) his past and is under the painful and somewhat false impression that he’s emotionally crippled. This man — fierce looking, socially awkward, romantically immature, with the temperament of a little boy — is one of the most fascinating and inspiring characters to emerge from a film in some time.


Oct. 26–31

Roxie Film Center

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 431-3611

See Movie Clock at

Who wrote the book of love?


At first glance, For the Bible Tells Me So comes across as a fairly conservative film. Technically and aesthetically speaking, there are no surprises: interviews, found footage, a cute short cartoon, and familiar traditional documentary techniques are mixed with a certain amount of predictability and sentimental cheesiness. But is cinematic form all that defines whether a movie is conventional or groundbreaking? In terms of content, Daniel G. Karslake’s first feature is anything but unchallenging.

In fact, no better word than challenge comes to mind when thinking about For the Bible Tells Me So. First, there’s the film’s questioning of the widely held belief that spirituality and same-sex attraction are mutually exclusive. The many different acclaimed and respected theologians featured in the documentary make it clear that popular literalist interpretations of the Bible, according to which homosexuality is an abomination, show complete disregard for the historical and social context in which it was written (a time when the concept of homosexuality wasn’t even existent).

Through interviews with figures such as Rev. Peter Gomes, Rev. Irene Monroe, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the film makes it clear that religion and the church are two different things — and that scripture is used to promote and justify hatred toward homosexuality in the same way that it can be used to defend racism and sexism.

In the process of critiquing church authority, For the Bible Tells Me suggests that one revisit one’s system of belief. This suggestion extends from and connects to the families interviewed in the movie. Focusing on five religious couples who grew up being told that homosexuality is a sin but who later discovered that their children are gay, Karslake portrays people struggling between their love for their offspring and their idea of faith as a guide to truth in life. Some parents get involved in fighting prejudice, while others discover that they can at least try to understand their children. Because Karslake approaches all of his interview subjects with respect and affection, For the Bible Tells Me So‘s plea for tolerance is almost omnipotent. (Maria Komodore)


Opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters

It goes to 11 (and beyond)


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The MadCat Women’s International Film Festival is back for its 11th consecutive year, with 11 fascinating film programs (two features and nine shorts series). It’s hard to describe the broad variety of themes and filmmaking styles explored in this year’s lineup. Identity issues, life at the fringes of society, the desire to break free from safe but unchallenging environments, and struggles for independence through unconventional means are only some of MadCat’s topics. One unifying factor: these ideas are addressed with equal amounts of sincerity, subtlety, and creativity.

Benidorm, one of the shorts contained in the "ID Docs" program, stands out not only for the respectful and attentive approach it takes to its subjects but also because it focuses on a social group that is wildly neglected in cinema and many other art forms: the elderly. German Carolyn Schmitz visits Benidorm, Spain, which during the off-season becomes a great attraction for retired people who seek to enjoy the sea and the sun. The bittersweet feeling that permeates the whole film is partly created by the confessions some of the people make in front of the camera: that they dislike being old and that they’re afraid of death. This uncomfortable feeling is most effectively complemented by the sadness of a landscape that reminds us how marginalized old people are today and how deprived they often are of taking pleasure in their age.

Elderly people are also featured, though in a lesser extent, in Boreas, a Turkish film that’s part of the "Close to Home" presentation. This time the focus is placed on how they are perceived by a young child. With her mainly stationary camera and her beautiful framing, filmmaker Belam Bas is very successful in reutf8g to the audience all that happens inside a youngster who is growing up in a rural area with no people around who are his age. The child silently but playfully observes the world, imaginatively satisfying his innate curiosity about life.

In 4 Elements, one of the festival’s features, attention is switched from people to the natural environment and how we interact with it. A Dutch-German-Russian-Siberian coproduction, the film references Greek philosopher Empedokles’ cosmogony theory, in which everything in the universe is created by the interplay of fire, water, earth, and air. Filming firemen, fishermen, mineworkers, and astronauts on and off the job, director Jiska Rickels documents the daily efforts of people whose occupations relate immediately to those elements. The outcome is an imposing, mesmerizing, almost mystical movie that reveals not only how dependent we are on nature but also what a struggle it is to exploit our planet’s natural wealth.

On a completely different note, the word fun most adequately describes the retrospective MadCat has prepared for innovative filmmaker Helen Hill, who sadly was murdered six months ago. In her films, Hill mixed home movies, animation, paper figures, drawings, animals, and people demonstrating an unbound resourcefulness and an incredible kindness. In Hill’s world, making films is presented as an enjoyable and potentially inexpensive endeavor that one can undertake in his or her kitchen — an instantly relatable means to self-expression.<\!s>*


Sept 11–<\d>26

See film listings for info

Domestic disturbance


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When Argentine director Jorge Gaggero’s first feature opened theatrically in New York about a month ago, East Coast film critics responded very enthusiastically. Of course, that didn’t come as much of a surprise; after Live-In Maid‘s initial release in 2005, it not only earned many distinctions at the Argentinean Film Critics Association Awards but also won numerous prizes in the various film festivals it traveled around the world, including the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize.

Celebrated Argentine actress Norma Aleandro, one of the film’s protagonists, is at the center of most discussions surrounding the film. Aleandro became known in the United States after taking one of the leading parts in The Official Story, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1985, and has acted in many movies and plays since. But while Argentine cinema’s grande dame does a wonderful, graceful job as Beba — a formerly famous and wealthy woman in decline — Live-in Maid‘s most revealing performance is by Norma Argentina, who plays Dora, Beba’s maid for 28 years.

During casting, Gaggero chose Argentina from thousands of real maids he met all over the country. "[Dora is] a physical role, in a way, without many words, and it [is] told a lot with her expressions and her physique. To work as a live-in maid all your life, it has a special posture and a special thing I wanted to achieve," the director explained over the phone from his home country. Indeed, Argentina’s physical presence in the film is imposing and laden with meaning. A glance, a touch, or the slightest of movements is enough to reveal all we need to know about Dora and her emotional struggle: she’s fighting between the affection she feels for Beba and the resentment she stores for her, as Beba hasn’t paid her for seven months.

The whole film relies heavily on a very exact choreography between the two characters. "I had a very precise idea of the space," Gaggero admitted. "It was all written: ‘[Dora] had to take two steps to the kitchen and get that glass.’ So there was a timing that was already in the script." The characters’ dance-like exchange lends Live-In Maid a feeling that is almost corporeal and creates a very subtle account of the two women’s relationship. It calls close attention to detail and calls for an intuitive response on the viewer’s part — you recognize the characters’ emotions because you can feel them under your skin.

The subtle treatment of the film’s protagonists befits Live-In Maid‘s delicate subject matter. And although many critics have brought attention to the way Beba and Dora’s relationship reflects the economic crisis Argentina faced in 2001, the filmmaker actually intended to make a broader statement. "I try to believe that it’s wider than the crisis," Gaggero revealed. "I think that it has something to do with a cultural crisis. People always want to escape and justify their miseries and challenges in a social way. [Beba] is a very particular kind of character that is specific to an upper middle class in Argentina, perhaps in all countries, but [she exposes a] particular way of thinking and feeling. Perhaps the crisis makes her go a step down, but in a way it’s not the crisis. She never learned something more. She was very comfortable in a world that was easy."<\!s>*


Opens Fri/31 in San Francisco

See Movie Clock at

Faithfully unfaithful


The world of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (a.k.a. The Stoolie, 1963) is an incredibly complicated one. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that its inhabitants are ex-cons, petty thieves, snitches, and ambiguous lovers, all of whom are as loyal as they’re unfaithful. Or maybe the complexity emerges from the strong sense of honor and morality that these underground characters share.

Maurice (Serge Reggiani), a robber, is sent to prison because somebody snitches on him. He’s willing to believe that it was his best friend, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who betrayed him. But Silien, a small-time crook who we know almost immediately is also a police informant, proves to be the only person Maurice should have trusted.

The film’s aesthetic adds to its layers. Borrowing elements from the gangster movie and film noir and combining them in a way that resembles a low-budget B flick, Melville creates a personal response to the French new wave. His characters and story are mere starting points from which to present a highly stylized, detached contemplation of the circumstances under which we can each become the most devoted or the most disloyal of people. All this might be inspired by Melville’s experience with the World War II French Resistance, which the director most overtly examined in his acclaimed 1969 film Army of Shadows. (Maria Komodore)


Aug. 17–23, $6–$9

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

The closer you get


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How does one begin to write about Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), a film as layered as an onion? I remember that when I first watched it, I felt touched by what I then perceived to be its affectionate ending. Later viewings not only changed my feelings toward the movie’s conclusion but also left me utterly perplexed.

About 17 years ago, when Hossein Sabzian misled a Tehran family into believing that he was acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami was intrigued by the story and set out to make a film about it — or, to be more precise, he set out not to make a film about it.

Part of Close-Up‘s complexity arises from the way Kiarostami blends his material. Casting all the parties involved in the fraud as themselves, the filmmaker mixes commentary and footage of Sabzian’s trial with reenactments of Sabzian meeting the Ahankhah family and persuading them that he is Makhmalbaf. We see Sabzian explaining himself to the judge and performing in the reenactments. To complicate matters further, Kiarostami, while filming the trial, sets up a camera that is constantly focused on the accused and instructs Sabzian to address it anytime he feels like it. Through these devices, Sabzian gradually unfolds his acting talent, making it harder and harder for us to understand when he is performing and when he isn’t.

But Close-Up‘s motivation — beyond questioning Sabzian’s credibility — is more complicated than a desire to convince us of his guilt. In fact, the only thing we’re sure of is that the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred, if not rendered indistinguishable — a theme particularly dear to Kiarostami.

Things get even more convoluted in two films the director made after Close-Up; along with Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), they form a trilogy. In And Life Goes On (1992), Kiarostami returns to Koker, a village in northern Iran, after a big earthquake practically destroyed it, in order to search for the protagonist of Friend’s Home. Using as his main character a director with the same mission, Kiarostami films his surroundings in a cinéma vérité manner, making us think that what we’re watching is a documentation of the earthquake’s aftermaths.

After And Life Goes On, Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994), a film set in the same earthquake-devastated town, feels akin to a slap in the face. In it, he directs a filmmaker whose attempt to make a movie falls apart when two of his actors refuse to get along. Surprisingly, Through the Olive Trees concentrates on a scene that should feel familiar to anyone who has seen And Life Goes On. The suggestion is that perhaps the film the Through the Olive Trees director is making is none other than And Life Goes On. At least parts, if not everything, of what we’ve watched in the latter are revealed to be fiction. In Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami has made a film about a director who is filming a movie about a filmmaker who returns to the village he once made a film in.

One might justifiably wonder, why all these self-referential layers? The answer comes in Taste of Cherry (1997), for which Kiarostami won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Throughout the film we follow a Mr. Badii in his desperate search to find someone willing to help him execute his suicide plan. At Taste of Cherry‘s most crucial moment, just as we are about to discover whether Badii actually committed suicide or not, Kiarostami cuts into footage taken from the making of the film. This footage presents him and the rest of the crew in an idyllic atmosphere while a tune that sounds very much like "Saint James Infirmary" plays in the background.

It is as if Kiarostami were constantly trying to remind us that what we are watching is only a film, that unlike Sabzian we should be able to separate fiction from reality, that unlike the Ahankhahs we should not allow ourselves to be deceived by some skillful manipulation of the boundaries between truth and imagination.<\!s>*


Through Aug. 30, $4–<\d>$8

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

Give a hoot (or else)


WILD WILDLIFE Had director Davis Guggenheim attempted to explore all the creative possibilities that lie behind such a name as Al Gore (get it?), An Inconvenient Truth would have been a much more interesting and way scarier film. Not that turning a pressingly threatening environmental issue into unforgettably blatant propaganda isn’t frightening. It’s just that if the former vice president had played some kind of freakish, global-warming-afflicted mutant — roaming the world, secretly planning to take his revenge by literally boring people to death with his clip show — the movie would have been closer to the truth and a lot more alarming.

Fortunately, the curators at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive have created a film series that gives environmental concerns the exact twist that Truth lacks and the depth that it persistently avoided. The major theme shared by all the earth-friendly flicks in "Eco-Amok! An Inconvenient Film Fest": the antagonistic relationship between science and nature, with the latter always the triumphant victor. Science is responsible for the destruction of the environment and the birth of many mutations, but it’s also the means by which people try to save the ecosystem.

"Eco-Amok!" ‘s selections also display admirably artistic inventiveness. Frogs (1972), Prophecy (1979), and Meet the Applegates (1991) all present the unstoppable power of nature, but they also reveal the reasons why we stay so apathetic to the danger we are facing. In Frogs the members of a wealthy family whose greed overcomes their environmental sensitivities are picked off, one by one, by the croaking (and hissing, and creepy-crawling) inhabitants of the abused swamp on their estate. In Prophecy the cheapskate owner of a lumber company uses mercury to process wood; as a result, the tainted water supply spawns a nasty-looking mutant bear that devours kids while they dream in their sleeping bags. And in Meet the Applegates, Brazilian cockroaches disguise themselves as a middle-class American family to carry out a nuclear explosion but are corrupted by capitalism’s lure.

Phase IV (1974), a film with extraordinary insect photography and many avant-garde qualities, presents nature’s revenge on a whole different level. Instead of getting rid of humans, hardworking and devoted-to-their-cause ants create a new Adam and Eve — a comment on the mutations that might take place in us if the ecosystem keeps changing at a rapid pace.

But even more troublesome is the obsession with creation that’s present in The Mutations (1974), Silent Running (1972), and Habitat (1997). In these three films, mad scientists are credited with the ability to create life. In The Mutations crazed Dr. Nolter (Donald Pleasence) forges humans from plants. In Silent Running delusional botanist Lowell (Bruce Dern) produces forests while floating in space. The wackiest of them all, Habitat‘s microbiologist Hank (Tchéky Karyo), turns into a higher form of energy after he transforms his house into a living "accelerated evolution" rain forest with the ability to kill.

What those three movies make crystal clear is the same thing that all the other films in the series more or less imply: science, even when used with the best of intentions, can only bring into existence abominable forms of life. Luckily, some of the time, no matter how horrid and gruesome these creations are, nature has better plans, including them in its survival scheme. But in a less fortunate and more frequent variation, these grim new species’ sole objective is to spread mayhem and introduce humans to their messy and abhorrent deaths — which some may argue isn’t so bad either.


Through Aug. 29

Wed., 7:30 p.m., $4–$8

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-1124

Night of 1,000 sexploits


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Sexually repressed nuns, naughty prisoners, lustful wardens, and love-thirsty vampires are the celebrated heroines of Triple X Selects: The Best of Lezsploitation, Michelle Johnson’s effort to reappropriate 1960s and 1970s sexploitation flicks. Intrigued by these films’ soundtracks, the Los Angeles DJ, musician, and cult-film enthusiast hunted for the genre’s most precious gems and compiled them into a 47-minute metafilm. We exchanged e-mails about this unconventional history lesson, which Johnson will be presenting in person at the Victoria Theatre on June 16.

SFBG When were you introduced to sexploitation films, and what attracted you to them?

MICHELLE JOHNSON I think my first introduction to sexploitation films began when I was about 9 or 10 years old! I used to stay up late and watch cable television. My earliest memory of a sexploitation film that struck me was [1974’s] Emmanuelle, starring Sylvia Kristel. I remember it was very sexy, though I had no concept of what sexy was! I knew I shouldn’t be watching it and that it was for adults; it seemed forbidden but terribly exciting. I would also see adverts in the local paper for strange films showing downtown, which in my small Texas city meant the dirty, sleazy part of town. I so wanted to go to these films.

SFBG Why did you decide to make Triple X Selects, and how did you select your clips?

MJ I was approached by two friends who were curating Homo a Go Go [a queer music, art, film, and spoken word festival] in Olympia, Wash., last year. They knew I had a large amount of cult erotic films and many of them had crazy lesbian scenes. They asked if I would consider editing together a film montage from the genre — the crazier and the sexier, the better.

I tried to select film clips the average lesbian might have never seen. Something vastly more sexy than is in your average lesbian film. I really wanted people to laugh as well.

I heard a comment from someone who couldn’t understand how you can reclaim films that were made by men for men and present them as queer. To me, what is sexy and what is erotic is in the eye of the beholder. [These films] certainly functioned as fantasy for me way back when I first discovered Emmanuelle. As a kid growing up in a small town, I had no notion of what was queer or lesbian, but these films transported me to a really exciting fantasy world. Sure, it was a trashy, sleazy, over-the-top world populated by powerful, sexed-up women. But really, what’s wrong with that?


Oh Mickey, you’re so lame


In 1938, 13 years before a cinematic Alice visited Wonderland, Porky Pig flew to Wackyland, a Salvador Dalí painting come to life. Determined to find the last dodo bird on earth, he wandered through this surrealist landscape to the rhythm of the marijuana ditty "Feeling High and Happy." In 1931’s One More Time, Mickey Mouse’s ears grew bigger and his tail bushier as he transformed into Foxy, a police officer who then chased the Prohibition-era villains who had kidnapped his girlfriend. In 1943’s A Corny Concerto, Elmer Fudd tried his luck as an orchestra conductor, only to be defeated by his tuxedo, which left him practically naked while he tried to introduce two Johann Strauss Jr. waltzes.

If all this sounds good to you and you’re tired of Walt Disney’s plethora of unimaginative, didactic, and patronizing cartoons, then you’re in for a treat. For more than 25 years, Portland, Ore., film archivist, historian, professor, and writer Dennis Nyback has been searching for rare films in the catalog The Big Reel as well as in thrift stores and flea markets. "F@ck Mickey Mouse" is the title of a 16mm film program Nyback has assembled to showcase, as he puts it, "rare cartoon precursors that beat Disney to the punch, imitators that ripped him off, and parodies that made vicious fun of some of Disney’s greatest animation shorts."

Nyback’s program reveals a world that is funny, bold, and completely out of control. A world that isn’t afraid to turn Little Red Riding Hood into Red, a hot dancer, or Snow White into Coal Black, a maid in 1940s Harlem. It also includes perhaps the most daunting example of Disney’s God-bless-America approach, Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942), in which Donald Duck dreams that he is a Nazi. I don’t want to give away the cartoon’s disturbing ending, so I will just quote Nyback: "It does suggest mindless jingoism."


Sat/9, 8 p.m., $10 (limited seating; RSVPs preferred)

Oddball Film and Video

275 Capp, SF

(415) 558-8117