Matt Sussman

Stormy leather


Cruising for a Bruising By Jason Shamai

FILM William Friedkin, like it or not, has contributed so much to mainstream queer cinema that it’s remarkable his name primarily calls up images of projectile vomiting and Gene Hackman running a lot. The Boys in the Band (1970) and the more high-profile Cruising (1980) are bookends to a decade of comparatively unencumbered gay sex that is legendary to gay men of my generation (I was alive for a gloriously unencumbered two months of it), yet there was almost no mainstream representation of gay men in pop culture between the two films that didn’t involve guest spots on Match Game or The Hollywood Squares.

Last year’s excellent Friedkin offering, Bug, spent its first 15 minutes or so, gratuitously but innocuously, within a lesbian community. And let’s not forget Father Dyer’s gayer-than-gay proclamation in The Exorcist (1973) that “My idea of heaven is a solid white nightclub with me as a headliner for all eternity, and they love me.” Friedkin’s representations of queer people are hardly consistent in their degrees of sophistication, but the venom he’s inspired in so many activists is certainly excessive and arguably not worth the energy. If he can be accused of exploitation, what he’s exploiting is of no mere passing fascination to him. For some reason the man, whether or not he’s welcome, has clearly thrown in his lot with the queers.

Cruising — let’s just get it out of the way — is a pretty terrible movie in most of the major categories: dialogue, acting, and plot all add up to a big fat blecch, and the restored version playing at the Castro Theatre beginning Sept. 7 in anticipation of the DVD release does nothing to remedy the narrative inertia. The murder mystery it purports to be — regarding an undercover cop’s pursuit of a serial killer in the West Village’s leather-clad S-M scene — is a murky and parenthetical excuse for a series of Boschian tableaux of boot licking, fist fucking, and ass ramming. But beyond a frustrating mess of implications about the scene’s negative influence on Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino), Friedkin isn’t guilty of much beyond overexuberance.

The initial vitriolic reaction to Cruising, it seems, had more to do with its depiction, embellished a touch, of a significant chunk of the gay world with its legs up in the air. The flatteringly concentrated sexual activity in the bar scenes may be less of an issue nowadays because of the growing number of politically engaged queer people, unconcerned with assimilation and happy to sign off on anything that makes jittery straight people uncomfortable. But does this say enough about the movie’s sexual proclivities? There isn’t much talk about Cruising as a pageant of eroticized violence or as a film eager in its bloodiness for the titillated approval of its viewers. Were Friedkin’s murder scenes — overt visual associations of anal and violent penetration, blood sprayed across the screen in a porn booth — intended as an extension of his conception of S-M play? Would it be wrong for him to do so, or for the audience to be duly turned on?

I’ve always taken for granted that Cruising‘s two major scenes of police harassment were your garden-variety (though highly effective) critiques of injustice, a risk-minimizing way of approaching an unfamiliar culture. But now I’m wondering if these scenes were intended as an indictment of the police at all (was the unnecessarily long, squirm-inducing raid on an all-black bar in The French Connection intended as an indictment?) or if they were simply elaborate fetish scenarios, artistic expansions of the imagery and dynamics already well integrated into the S-M scene? Mr. Friedkin, are you trying to get us off? ——————- ——————-

Stormy Leather by Matt Sussman

When Cruising (1980) finally arrived in Bay Area theaters Feb. 15, 1980, San Francisco’s gay community had long been up in arms. The 1978 murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone were still fresh in many people’s minds. Gay bashing was still a regular occurrence. Word had spread through the gay press about efforts to disrupt the movie’s filming in New York, and the verdict was clear: Hollywood was profiting from gay murder.

In a December 1979 Oakland Tribune article, Konstantin Berlandt, a member of the group Stop the Movie Cruising and perhaps the film’s most vociferous adversary in local gay rags, called Cruising “a genocidal attack on gay people.” Two months later, the STMC helped organize a demonstration at the Transamerica Pyramid, protesting one of Transamerica’s subsidiaries — the film’s distributor, United Artists. On opening day hundreds of protesters picketed the St. Francis Theatre.

“I don’t remember what I thought of the whole thing other than it was kind of stupid and annoying,” recalls Marc Huestis, one of the cofounders of the city’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (now the SF International LGBT Film Festival). “As long as I’ve been here, there has always been the battle between the respectable gays and the fringe gays,” Huestis continues. “The respectable gays — many of whom I will say probably went to the leather bars to cruise after their protests — were all into showing a positive face.”

The issue of positive representation — and whether or not Cruising‘s problematic yoking of gay sadomasochism and serial murder warranted merely protest or outright censorship — was at the core of much of the debate. One reader wrote to San Francisco’s Sentinel, “It is ironic that we who have long been victims of prejudice and censorship should attempt to use these weapons of oppression against the movie.” In a February 1980 cover story, “The Men of Cruising,” in Mandate (the gay “international magazine of entertainment and Eros”), Rod Morgan, one of the gay extras in the film’s bar scenes, commented, “If the protesters want progay propaganda, let them get the money together and make their own movie.”

“The stakes of gay representation were very different at the time,” reflects Michael Lumpkin, artistic director of LGBT media nonprofit Frameline. “They were much higher because it was, like, ‘Hollywood hasn’t given us anything, and then they give us this?’ ” However, critic Scottie Ferguson, writing in the Advocate in April 1980, found a thrilling frisson in Cruising‘s portrayal of gay men and asked readers, “What Hollywood film has made the sexual electricity of the gay male seem so vibrant and visceral and unnerving?”

By 1995, when the Roxie Film Center revived Cruising, Ferguson’s observations had been somewhat vindicated. Mainstream LGBT film was taking off, and thanks to the risky work of directors like Gregg Araki and Tom Kalin, new queer cinema had confronted audiences with visceral and unnerving representations of violence-prone gay men.

In contrast to the largely positive reevaluations in the local press, David Ehrenstein implied in the Bay Area Reporter that the Roxie’s revival was tantamount to screening the notorious anti-Semitic film The Eternal Jew (1940). Representatives from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation showed up to hand out protest literature. “It was hilarious,” former Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine recalls. “There was a line around the block, and 90 percent of those waiting were in the leather crowd, and these GLAAD folks are trying to persuade them not to see the movie.”

Cruising has, to some extent, been defanged by the passage of time, its campier moments and macho signifiers embraced by a younger generation of queers. Clearly, though, the film still touches nerves: flame wars are being ignited as fast as they are being put out on And even for this gay fan of slasher movies, the film’s murder scenes are incomparably unsettling.

After a recent local media screening of the restored movie’s DVD release — at which director William Friedkin was present — DJ Bus Station John, whose clubs Tubesteak Connection and the Rod evoke the milieu of gay nightlife at the time Cruising was made, commented in an e-mail that “Friedkin’s present claim that contemporary audiences are more ‘sophisticated’ and therefore more receptive to Cruising, if not more friendly [to the film], doesn’t mitigate the damage done to our community at the time [of its release].”


Sept. 7–13, $6–$9

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

For Johnny Ray Huston’s interview with Cruising director William Friedkin, go to Pixel Vision at


Drop hearts


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Is there a more beloved film among critics than Max Ophüls’s The Earrings of Madame de … (1953), the penultimate presentation in the Pacific Film Archive’s retrospective "Max Ophüls: Motion and Emotion"? Yes, there are other films (Citizen Kane, L’Avventura, The Seventh Seal) that routinely top critics’ all-time lists. But rarely has a movie so routinely enchanted cineastes as Ophüls’s glittering belle époque love story that swathes its brutal emotional core in sumptuous period finery, mirrors, diamonds, and the dizzying virtuosity of the director’s constantly moving camera. Only Ophüls, in a bit of borrowed Kabuki stagecraft, would have the shreds of unsent letters tossed from the window of a speeding train become a flurry of snowflakes.

As Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman observed in a recent appraisal, fellow critics "Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris didn’t agree on much, but they did find common ground when it came to [Earrings]." Kael characterized the film as "perfection," while Sarris named it his candidate for "the greatest film of all time."

Hyperbole is the form of praise most befitting Ophüls, given the director’s penchant for cinematic grand gestures — namely, the impossibly complex tracking shots for which he is most famous, which follow characters up and down staircases, through walls, and across stretches of time — and his consistent return to the dazzling surfaces of 19th-century high society, as in La Ronde (1950) and Lola Montès (1955).

The faceted surfaces that dazzle in Earrings belong to the eponymous heroine, Comtesse Louise de … (the incomparable Danielle Darrieux), a wholly narcissistic and equally charming beauty, who sells a pair of drop diamond hearts given to her by her husband, General André de … (Charles Boyer), in order to pay off her debts. The earrings wind up back in the hands of the general, who — going along with Louise’s white lie that she lost them at the opera — then gives them to a mistress en route to Constantinople, where they wind up being purchased in a pawn shop by Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio de Sica). The diamonds’ peregrinations trace a circuit of desire that comes full circle, completing its inevitably tragic course when the baron and Louise strike up a passionate affair.

To borrow the general’s characterization of his and Louise’s marriage, the diamonds — if not the whole of Ophüls’s seemingly bottomless bag of spectacular effects — are only "superficially superficial." With every change of hands, the jewels become more transparent as an index of each suitor’s investment in Louise, until they are symbols of tarnished honor and, finally, a memento mori of Louise herself.

In one of the film’s most celebrated sequences, Ophüls’s waltzing camera follows his paramours in a seemingly endless embrace across several ballrooms and months. It is a beautiful trick, one that predates Alfred Hitchcock’s "uninterrupted" takes in Rope and to which many directors have since paid homage. But Ophüls’s suspended dance also gives Louise and the baron the space they so hopelessly pine for, which they can never find in the hothouse confines of their world. The scene is cinematic in that such a space can only exist in the movies. But it could also be argued that such scenes are why film — in its most romantic capacity — exists. Ophüls’s much-celebrated masterpiece, as brilliant and sharp as the diamonds at its center, provides no better example.<\!s>*


Fri/17, 7 p.m., $4–<\d>$8

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

Candid camera


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Shohei Imamura’s 1961 film Pigs and Battleships opens with the impressive sight of gleaming modern buildings lining the landscape of an industrialized port town. This would-be idyllic image of newfound cooperation between the Japanese and the Americans is swiftly subverted with the upward yank of a crane shot, which ends with a bird’s-eye view of the neighboring area. Our new vantage point reveals the run-down, bustling alleys of the outlying red-light district, conspicuously teeming with carousing American sailors on shore leave and equally garrulous touts who aggressively steer the former at every turn to mob-run brothels, like farmers corralling swine.

Often considered the first real Imamura film, Pigs and Battleships is a wry satire of postoccupation Japan, where MacArthurization had laid the foundations for both a thriving black market and a fledgling democracy. Imamura would continually return to that distant perch arrived at in the film’s opening minutes, to better observe a Japan that lay just outside the established frame. The Brueghelian panorama of black-market profiteers, shopworn bar hostesses, American soldiers behaving badly, and amateur pornographers he captured from the 1960s onward is on full display in the 12 remaining features of the Pacific Film Archive’s current embarrassment of riches "Shohei Imamura’s Japan."

Imamura’s perspective is more akin to that of a child who, having picked up a rock, becomes fascinated with the squirming, dark world that’s thriving underneath than it is to that of a detached anthropologist, which his extended shots and lack of flashy editing sometimes lead critics to take him for. Social critique, while certainly present in Imamura’s films, is always paired with a certain delectation in watching the tawdry and the grotesque.

In early Imamura films like Pigs and Battleships and the black caper comedy Endless Desire (1958), in which five Osaka lowlifes celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Allied victory by plotting to steal a hidden cache of Army-issued morphine, we see a Japan flush with the newfound freedom unleashed and bequeathed by the occupation and emboldened by the collapse of imperial authority.

The long hangover that carried into the late-’60s economic boom, exacerbated by the demands of the revitalized radical left for the government to come clean about the World War II skeletons still in its closet, also was not lost on Imamura’s camera. He was, after all, a member of the nuberu bagu (taken from the French nouvelle vague) rat pack, the iconoclastic children of Jean-Luc Godard and Coca-Cola who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, chomping at the bit of a weakening studio system. His documentaries from the ’70s might be more soft-spoken than Oshima Nagisa’s fiery cinematic indictments against the government (Oshima’s 1968 Death by Hanging is necessary viewing), but they are no less damning.

A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess (1970) is, as its title indicates, a prostitute’s narration of a chronicle from which she and those in her profession were largely occluded. The gradually widening distance between Akaza Etsuko’s tale and the official version Imamura contrasts it with via historical footage makes the truism that history is written by the winners feel depressingly deeper than a platitude, despite the director’s clearly felt empathy for the bruised woman speaking before him.

In Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute, made three years later, Imamura interviews Zendo Kikuyo, a former karayuki-san, or "comfort woman," living in Malaysia who was forced to sexually service Japanese soldiers on the East Asian front. Much as Akaza’s recounting in History of her experiences with American soldiers parallels Japan’s submission to the United States, so Imamura here makes it clear that Zendo’s prostituted body became a tool of Japan’s colonial and imperial ambitions. However, the shaming silence that greets her as she attempts to reunite with relatives in Hiroshima later in the film seems far more painful than many of the wartime indignities she recounts with such unnerving calm.

That a Japanese filmmaker would so candidly take on an issue that many feel the Japanese government, even to this day, has not sufficiently redressed — as evidenced by last month’s US-Japan diplomatic tête-à-tête on the matter — let alone more than 30 years ago, is remarkable. In Akaza and Zendo, Imamura found real-life equivalents of Tome, the country girl turned prostitute and antihero of his 1963 classic The Insect Woman. These women who had no choice but to use and be used by the system in order to survive. Imamura may have viewed postwar Japan as something of a carnival, but in his long view we catch sight of his subjects’ humanity, shining through like the glint from an old coin, and sometimes we can even catch glimpses of grace. *


Through June 30; $4–$8

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-1124

A horse is a horse?


HANDS OFF A professor of mine was fond of posing a certain thought experiment. As Martian anthropologists, free from any earthbound cultural conceptions, his students had to come up with a baseline definition of sex. First he’d field their not wholly impartial attempts. Then he’d coolly roll out his description: it’s an involuntary muscle spasm caused by applied friction.

Writer Charles Mudede and director Robinson Devor attempt a similar thought experiment with their beautifully lensed but frustratingly airy documentary, Zoo. Only, in the case of their subject, the applied friction is generated by an Arabian stallion, which brings about not an involuntary muscle spasm but the accidental death of the man whose colon the stud has perforated in flagrante.

Perhaps no one would have known of Kenneth Pinyan, a divorced Boeing engineer initially identified only by his online moniker Mr. Hands, had he and a circle of fellow “zoos” (short for “zoophiles”) who occasionally got together on a remote farm in rural Enumclaw, Wash., to express their erotic attraction to animals not routinely filmed themselves. But in our culture, nothing stirs up a media shit storm like a leaked sex tape, especially when it’s of the interspecies variety.

Whereas my professor tried to get his students to see how inseparable sex is from culture by forcing us to think outside cultural lines, Mudede and Devor attempt to divorce the “horse sex case,” as it was jokingly dubbed, from the tabloid sensationalism that accrued to it. While Zoo gives the now disbanded and publicly shamed circle of men associated with the incident a space in which to explain their desires, they still emerge as ciphers for a yearning beyond the pale.

Indeed, the oblique strategies Devor favors — talk radio snippets and loose reenactments, off-camera interviews with the zoos and with an animal-rights activist and a cop who made calls to the farm — cast his subject in an almost mythological light. Sean Kirby’s lush cinematography certainly does its part to transform Enumclaw into a rustic Eden; the zoos’ slow-motion ambling toward the barns is swathed in the dusty violet blanket of a blooming tree or silhouetted against the ocher smudge of dawn. We could be in a Ford commercial or in an establishing shot from that other American pastoral of unmentionable vices, Brokeback Mountain.

If the link between bestiality and homosexuality seems specious, or worse yet, part and parcel of the kind of relativism frequently trotted out by the religious right, let’s not forget (thanks, Michel Foucault!) that until roughly the 19th century, be it with horse or man, all nonprocreative sex was considered sodomy. There are echoes of this genealogy in the anxiety voiced among Zoo‘s disembodied Greek chorus over the issue of consent (or its absence). In particular, the animal-rights activist’s likening of the horse to “a violated child” is uncannily reminiscent of conservative rhetoric surrounding homosexuals, supposed predators who, pre-Stonewall, were forced to inhabit a twilight world not unlike that of the clandestine community of zoophiles.

These contradictions and similarities point to some recurrent stumbling blocks in our thinking about sex. The most perverse act in Zoo, it could be argued, is the gelding of the offending stallion “for its own protection,” so that it can no longer be a potential object of desire.

Zoo raises such issues with far more frequency than it discusses them. Unlike Werner Herzog, who tersely evaluated his subject Timothy Treadwell in 2005’s Grizzly Man, Mudede and Devor avoid commentary. Zoo is far more fascinated by this supposed limit case of sexuality than interested in fleshing out Pinyan and his world beyond the details already enumerated in what was surely a very curious obituary. (Matt Sussman)

MY RECTUM FOR A HORSE I suspect there will be a lot of walkouts from Robinson Devor’s documentary about the 2005 Enumclaw horse incident, in which an airplane engineer referred to as Mr. Hands sustained fatal injuries while bottoming for a horse. But it won’t be the easily offended who run from their seats.

The revenue that small theaters are surely losing to senior discounts on Away From Her‘s ticket sales will easily be recouped from ill-informed frat boy field trips to what they think will be Internet Horse-Schtupping: The Movie. Barebacking jokes during the trailers will give way to a disappointed silence during a mesmerizing opening shot of what looks like a pixie flying in a field of blackness, slowly expanding and revealing itself to be the light at the end of a tunnel.

Zoo, intriguingly, never really crawls out of that tunnel. The movie, which is about the horse-loving men in Mr. Hands’ community as much as it’s about his death, presents an impressionistic collage of nature images, reenactments, voice-overs, and media samplings. (Turns out Rush Limbaugh and I see eye to eye on some things.) It’s also a collage of emotional cues: some scenes allow the music to suggest sinister qualities in the men’s activities, but there are also images that look like mood lighting was added to Harry Potter’s photo shoot for Equus, hinting at a level of intimacy that boring old queer and straight folks couldn’t possibly understand.

Devor isn’t just allowing for more than one response to the facts — he appears to be courting them all, creating a sort of controlled chaos that, of course, frees him from the restraints of his own opinion. The result is a coolly aestheticized yin to the snickering yang of the online frenzy in 2005.

This may come off as a cop-out to partisans on either side of the debate, inasmuch as it exists, about zoophilia and bestiality (after all, Edward Albee’s 2002 play The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? lost no artistic integrity in more directly addressing the implications of interspecies hanky-panky). Devor shouldn’t be criticized for undertaking a detached aesthetic exercise, it seems to me, yet to follow this tack with such a flammable subject can’t help but be a comment in some way. But in what way?

Zoo could reasonably be accused of either acquitting the Enumclaw zoophiles by their mere association with the film’s artsy ambivalence or, a more insidious possibility, fostering a hyperawareness of what is downplayed, implying disgust via a kind of negative-space sensationalism. Whatever the stunt, the film isn’t stunted. While some of the reenactments feel a bit too literal for the tenor of the rest of the film and the actors often seem poorly directed, there is an undeniable harmony to the whole. Zoo emits a quiet, narcotic hum that the gross-out contingent in the audience won’t likely stick around to tap into.


Opens Fri/25 in Bay Area theaters

See Movie Clock at

Magic stars


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"When we use magical in a positive sense," filmmaker Lawrence Jordan explains, parsing an adjective that is frequently brought up in discussions of his work, "it really means my eye is fresh at this moment and what I’m seeing is a discovery." Jordan’s films — in particular, the animated collages composed of Victorian magazine illustrations, Gustave Doré engravings, and flashing stars and orbs for which he is most famous — are the visual records of such moments of discovery.

The more than 40 experimental short (as well as three feature-length) films Jordan has made over his 40 years in the Bay Area are as much documents of the fanciful flight paths of his free associations — what he calls his "inner world" — as they are fleeting glimpses of a precinematic visual culture that has long since vanished. Thanks to an upcoming program put on by the San Francisco Cinematheque as part of its Bay Area Roots series, audiences will get the chance to discover — or perhaps rediscover with fresh eyes — the work of a filmmaker and advocate (Jordan helped found Canyon Cinema) who truly deserves to be called a Fog City maverick.

Like the cryptically beautiful boxes of Joseph Cornell, Jordan’s films exude a certain innocent surrealism. His poetic assemblages of fantastic fauna, romantic vistas, and hermetic symbols seem aimed at enchanting rather than disturbing the viewer through the kind of sexual shock tactics that were more the métier of Max Ernst. "That part of surrealism we don’t qualify for," Jordan says, referring to himself and Cornell, for whom he worked as an assistant in 1965, filming over the course of his stay at Utopia Parkway in Queens the only extant footage we have of the notoriously reclusive artist and his fabled workspace.

Jordan’s choice of the inclusive pronoun reveals both the slight reserve and matter-of-factness with which he speaks of his work and the strong sense of kinship he projects when talking about the artists — such as Cornell and collagist Jess Collins, who worked under his first name only — who became colleagues, served as inspiration, and, more often the case in a career filled with notable collaborators (Watts Tower sculptor Simon Rodia and Orson Welles), functioned in both capacities.

Following his high school friend and early collaborator Stan Brakhage to San Francisco from New York, Jordan moved into a basement flat below the poet Robert Duncan and his partner, Jess, whose baroque collages of finely crosshatched renderings of his source material shared affinities with Jordan’s then-still-developing aesthetic of assemblage. "[Jess] was the high priest of art magic in the time that I knew him," Jordan says.

Magic, as it turns out, keeps coming up in our conversation, whether in a passing reference to The Wizard of Oz (Jordan owns a complete set of the Oz books) or when Jordan cites that magician of silent cinema, Georges Méliès, as a major influence. Blue Skies beyond the Looking Glass, completed last year and one of the highlights of the cinematheque’s program, is very much an homage to the evocative power of early cinema.

A jubilant séance, Blue Skies resurrects silent-era stars such as Lon Chaney Sr., Lillian Gish, and Mary Pickford via some amazing screen test footage and invites them to tango with intercut animated segments. The film offers a nice summary of Jordan’s cinema of attractions, in which old signs are transmuted into wonders once more, restoring some of their mystery. "I don’t know about alchemy academically," Jordan reflects, "but I am a practicing alchemist in my own way." *


Sun/13, 7:30 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

Full of Zizek


Despite Sigmund Freud’s strong distrust of cinema ("I do not consider it possible to represent our abstractions graphically in any respectable manner," he firmly wrote in a letter to an inquiring film producer), Freudian psychoanalytic theory – primarily as reread by the French analyst Jacques Lacan – has come to form the bedrock of much academic film criticism and theory since the 1960s. Anyone who has had a brush with a film class in college has probably gotten an earful of 50-cent concepts such as scopohilia, suture, fantasy, and everyone’s favorite chew toy of power, the phallus.

If you didn’t take notes the first time around, you might want to while watching Sophie Fiennes’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a veritable crash course on what film can tell us about psychoanalysis and what psychoanalysis can (and sometimes can’t) tell us about film. Fiennes may be listed as the director and producer, but this monster of a clip reel is really the baby of its host and our tour guide, the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek.

Ursine in stature and always slightly disheveled, Zizek is no stranger to the camera. In Astra Taylor’s somewhat worshipful documentary, Zizek! (2005), he delivered his mile-a-minute thought trains, encompassing everything from ethnic jokes to Hegel, with a brusqueness befitting a football coach and the on-the-fly reflexes of a standup comic. Zizek is in similar form in Pervert’s Guide, which isn’t so much a guide as a meandering recapitulation of some of his major talking points, first laid down in books such as Looking Awry and Enjoy Your Sinthome!

Zizek’s central thesis is that film is our most perverted art form, since it doesn’t really tell us what to desire but rather how to desire. Using an array of snippets from The Exorcist to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Charlie Chaplin films to vintage Disney cartoons – Zizek illustrates how cinema is the ultimate fantasy machine (which sometimes produces films about fantasy machines. See: Tarkovsky). We project our desires onto the events and characters we watch, Zizek explains, inasmuch as those desires are already psychically inscribed long before they are played out onscreen. Film often literalizes these psychic structures or, at the very least, sets them into relief.

As in his books, here Zizek will often take a basic question or proposition (such as "Why is the only good woman a dead woman?" – when discussing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo), and turn it inside out, revealing the hidden issue that was actually being addressed or occluded all along ("Because men contain the threat of desire by mortifying their objects of desire: women").

Hitchcock and Lacan make many appearances, being that they are two of Zizek’s favorite bedfellows – the man wrote a book about both. (Zizek has a go at David Lynch now and then, but his readings of Lynch’s "primal scenes" and "terrorizing, clownish father figures" are a little pat.) It is not surprising, then, that some of his most brilliant insights and close readings are delivered on his many return trips to Bodega Bay, the decrepit Bates’s manse, and Judy Barton’s neon-illuminated room at the York Hotel in Vertigo.

Fiennes’s one trick (and granted, it’s an effective one) is to do this literally, casually placing Zizek within mock-ups of the scenes that he has discussed. We see Zizek in Melanie Daniels’s skiff puttering across Bodega Bay; next he’s alongside Regan’s bed from The Exorcist; later he’s speaking from the fruit cellar of Norman Bates’s house, or Dorothy Vallens’s apartment in Blue Velvet, or the dimensionless white field where Neo instantaneously summons weapons in The Matrix. This playful technique helps cut through some of the density of Zizek’s more arcane points, and occasionally, we catch the man off guard, cracking cheesy Freudian one-liners about the inherent obscenity of tulips (while watering a garden a la the opening scene of Blue Velvet).

It is not just that Zizek is as well-versed in Lacan as he is in Hitchcock – or that he casts his critical eye toward topics both high and low – that has made him such a popular figure, even with nonacademics. (Zizek is, as far as I know, the only intellectual to be interviewed for Abercrombie and Fitch’s now-defunct Quarterly). This intellectually challenging, often entertaining, and at times draining lecture-posing-as-a-documentary proves at least one thing: Zizek’s combination of disarming charisma and utter seriousness makes him as entrancing as his arguments are compelling.


Thurs/3-Fri/4, 7 p.m.; Sat/5, 2 and 7 p.m.; Sun/6, 2 p.m.; $6-$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

There’s no place like home


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In his recent book Poor People, William T. Vollmann writes, "For me, poverty is not mere deprivation; for people may possess fewer things than I and be richer; poverty is wretchedness. It must then be an experience more than an economic state. It therefore remains somewhat immeasurable." Despite the enormity of such a disclaimer, Vollmann attempts to calibrate a calculus of misery. Portuguese director Pedro Costa seems motivated by a similarly conflicted impetus. Over the past decade, Costa has made a trilogy of films with the working poor of Fontainhas, a sprawling slum outside Lisbon. Trading Vollmann’s pained self-consciousness for a meticulous formalism that favors rehearsal over reportage, Costa’s remove sets into relief the humanity of his subjects, rather than objectifying or patronizing them.

Many of Fontainhas’s residents are of Cape Verdean descent. That country’s wretched history – as an exploited colony and the center of the Portuguese slave trade – looms large in the collective memory of Fontainhas, as if stained into the walls of its dilapidated tenements and etched across the beaten visages of its inhabitants. It is a legacy of continual disenfranchisement, displacement, and enforced invisibility, which tentatively approaches a terminus with the trilogy’s final installment, Colossal Youth.

Whittled down from roughly 300 hours of footage to just over two, Colossal Youth is a desultory, snail-paced compilation of everyday interactions and fragmentary conversations that skirts the edges of documentary. Costa’s long, static shots mirror the rhythms of the characters’ daily lives – getting high (or taking drugs to get off drugs), scavenging, day laboring, and speaking in perpetuum of possibilities that will forever remain unfulfilled. It is an existence made all the more precarious by the fact that Fontainhas is being razed and its inhabitants relocated to a new, antiseptic public housing complex that’s even farther removed from Lisbon, a process that was happening as Costa filmed.

At the center of this dispossessed community is Ventura, a retired laborer who, like many of Costa’s leads, is presumably playing a variation of himself. Recently abandoned by his wife – an event that forms Colossal Youth‘s haunting, elliptical two-shot prologue – Ventura spends the rest of the film alternately airing his grief and acting as a father figure to a succession of interlopers: old neighborhood friends, former colleagues, acquaintances, and extended family members both biological and adopted.

These include Vanda, a recovering drug addict (the titular character of Costa’s 2000 film, In Vanda’s Room) who ambivalently calls Ventura "Papa" and awkwardly approaches her new role as mother with a fidgety uncertainty; an estranged daughter still living amid the rubble of Fontainhas; a government housing agent equally amused and annoyed by Ventura’s vague requirements for his new home (when asked how many children will be accompanying him, Ventura replies, "I don’t know yet"); and an illiterate migrant worker who enlists Ventura to write a letter to his beloved, which he continually recites as though it were scripture.

With his shock of gray hair, threadbare suit, and stoic gaze that seems perpetually transfixed by something beyond our vantage point, Ventura shuffles between the crepuscular ruins of Fontainhas and the blindingly white interiors of his future residence like an ineffectual ghost, reluctant to admit that he has to some extent become a spectral remainder of the very past that haunts him.

Costa’s architectonic framing of Ventura – which favors low angles and makes startling use of the play of natural light across the film’s many mottled surfaces – no less contributes to this impression. Costa fully exploits digital video’s ability to capture extremes of contrast, flattening exterior landscapes and the people within them into intersecting planes of light and shadow and discovering new inky variegations of black within the darkest of interiors. Some of the film’s most stunning moments come when Costa lets more vivid hues intrude on the mostly washed-out palette of sickly greens and dirtied off-whites, as in a scene in which Ventura seeks a moment of respite amid the cloistered cool of a gallery hung with the paintings of Spanish old master Diego Velazquez.

Colossal Youth is at times as interminable (Vanda’s extensive improvised monologue about giving birth) as it is bleak and oblique. Above all, though, it is brave. Although the word might seem odd, I put it out there not simply because Costa’s film so flagrantly tests the patience of its audience (since its divisive premiere at Cannes last year, walkouts have become a routine part of its screenings) but because it never solicits our pity or invites our disapproval of the people whose lives it so doggedly follows.

For Costa, the aesthetic’s promise of succor – whether found in the rough-hewn lines of a love poem that will never reach its intended addressee, the supposedly democratized space of a museum, or that other dimly lit image reservoir, the movie theater, in which we yearn to be relieved of ourselves – is an illusion, which, however sustaining, can never be made good on.

There is simply no rest for the weary or for the filmmaker who trails alongside them. On the razed grounds of a home that was never really one to begin with, Costa clears a place for the impoverished to testify about their lives. It is a space that, as Vollmann’s problematic volume attests, can perhaps only be realized on film – an expanded freeze-frame on the pause between the two halves of Samuel Beckett’s famous couplet: "I can’t go on, I’ll go on." *

COLOSSAL YOUTH (Pedro Costa, Portugal/France/Switzerland) Sat/28, 1:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/1, 3:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 5, 8:15 p.m., PFA

Writing the book on cinematic sound


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Where to start with the work of Ennio Morricone? The composer and musician has scored more than 400 films, so the task for the curious listener, let alone for the intrepid film curator, can be daunting. His most famous soundtracks have become a kind of enduring synecdoche, capable of summoning not just a particular title but an entire genre — think of the evocative power of the ocarina flourish in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Countless others, unearthed from the vaults every few years, are often the only artifacts we have of titles — mostly sexy thrillers and low-budget police procedurals — long since forgotten (see Dagored’s impressive reissue catalog of Morricone’s more obscure Italian scores). The Castro Theatre has assembled a decent pocket guide — Il Maestro for Dummies, if you will — which includes chestnuts such as 1986’s The Mission (his biggest Oscar snub and crossover success) and the more rarely screened and heard, such as Sam Fuller’s 1982 tale of a racist canine, White Dog.

Morricone first garnered international attention for his collaborations with Sergio Leone, in which he underscored the rugged beauty of the director’s lawless western mesas by adding ethereal choirs, noble strings, lilting harpsichord, and fuzz guitars that dart like rattlesnakes across the landscape. It’s an approach perhaps best encapsulated in his gorgeous theme for 1968’s Once upon a Time in the West, also included in the Castro’s lineup.

By that time Morricone had already proven himself to be a protean asset to directors regardless of genre, given his ear for unusual timbres and sensitivity to emotional coloring. He could sum up the tragic cost of liberation in a simple martial tattoo, as he did in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), or use his extensive compositional training to achieve twisted, discordant ends, as heard in his score for the 1968 psychological thriller A Quiet Day in the Country.

It is the darker, freakier side of Morricone, deliciously showcased on the 2005 Mike Patton–curated compilation Crime and Dissonance (Ipecac), that has most consistently entranced this listener and could provide enough entries for its own film festival. The Doors-esque theme for Dario Argento’s 1971 giallo Four Flies on Grey Velvet — kicked off with a chaotic drum roll worthy of the Muppets’ Animal — only hints at the bleating, echo-laden trumpet (often played by Morricone himself), cackling snippets of wah-wah guitar, frantic free jazz drumming, and creaking gongs that would later accompany the supernatural goings-on and criminal activities in films such as The Antichrist (1974) and The Cold Eyes of Fear (1971). The score for the latter was the only one Morricone ever performed with his avant-garde orchestral ensemble, Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza.

His work on these pulpy flicks, like his celebrated spaghetti western scores, are only one facet of the embarrassment of riches constituting Morricone’s oeuvre. To call the honorary Oscar he received at this year’s Academy Awards long overdue is a gross understatement. Hollywood’s acknowledgement seemed almost too little too late for someone who has so profoundly shaped how we hear, and in turn how we see, movies. *


April 20–25

See Rep Clock for show info


Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120


Apichatpong Weerasethakul on disasters and black magic


Whereas David Lynch at times uses all the excesses of a bad rock video to give form to the dream logic that structures his films, Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul creates quietly evocative reveries. Pierced by moments of sharp humor and unexpected beauty, Apichatpong’s movies are imbued with a sense of openness, a responsive flexibility that allows their course to be redirected by serendipitous forces: a song, memories, folk tales. On the eve of the theatrical premiere of his new Syndromes and a Century, I called him on the phone.

SFBG What sort of movies did you watch growing up?

APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL In the ’70s I watched a lot of old Thai films and American films. At the time there were all the catastrophe movies, like Earthquake or Towering Inferno — I love those movies! And then there were [Steven] Spielberg’s and [George] Lucas’s films. I was really into their special effects.

SFBG In an interview you did with the Web site Criticine, you said movies are a form of black magic. I was really taken with that quote.

AW I don’t know if there’s a message there. But for me the power of film is not just to hypnotize. It’s a kind of magic for living as well. I have to be able to express [myself] as a filmmaker, otherwise it’s very hard to share my ideas or feelings. [Film is] like medicine, but it’s not. So maybe that’s a way in which there is some magic going on. (Matt Sussman)

To read a longer Q&A with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, go to the Pixel Vision blog at

SFIAAFF: These monsters are real


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"Even though it’s difficult to be human, let’s not turn into monsters." This is said as a reprimand to Gyung-soo (Kim Sang-kyung), a mildly successful stage actor, by one of his colleagues early in South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s Turning Gate (2002). Gyung-soo repeats the words twice more in the film — first to make amends with his old friend Sung-woo after a liquor-soaked spat and then over the phone in a failed attempt to shame the woman, Myung-sook (Ye Ji-won), who eventually leaves him for Sung-woo.

Yes, it’s difficult to be human, especially in a Hong film, given that his characters’ attempts to satiate their own emotional needs often devolve into cruel and childish displays of selfishness. With each repetition Gyung-soo seems to be reassuring himself that he understands the significance of his friend’s words, but with each successive film, Hong seems to suggest that maybe no one really does understand.

Hong writes in his director’s statement for his most recent feature, Woman on the Beach (2006), "Repetition is a great framework and basis for filmmaking. On the other hand, if repetition is part of a person’s behavior, we can take that as an indication of obsession. I wanted to see through repetition, but also to reduce repetition." Like Sung-woo in Turning Gate or Woody Allen throughout his messily imbricated career, Hong’s films grapple with the question of seeing through repetition: can we ever do something over as an intervention rather than a symptom? It is the problem many of the characters in Hong’s films — particularly the men — struggle with, stumble over, deny, and often by movie’s end, are unexpectedly forced to confront.

Indeed, Hong’s entire oeuvre seems like evidence of a repetition compulsion to tell variations of the same story. It’s a tale that goes something like this: an unexpected reunion between two middle-aged buddies gradually sours when old insecurities and jealousies are played out in a pathetic rivalry over a woman, resulting in innumerably consumed bottles of soju (real), some of the most spectacularly uncomfortable sex scenes ever committed to film (fake), and damaged egos all around.

In The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) we revisit the popular vacation locale twice in two subtly interlocking narratives told from the perspectives of a college professor and his student who recently ended their affair. Later in the aforementioned Turning Gate, Gyung-soo falls in love with a stranger on a train, though he’s clearly trying to regain his crushed pride after Myung-sook uses and drops him. Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) focuses on two old friends reuniting to see the woman they both once loved. It’s a meeting that leaves all parties disappointed. In 2005’s Tale of Cinema (Hong at his most meta) a sad-sack filmmaker attempts to re-create the courtship portrayed in his rival director’s film — which he claims was inspired by events from his own life — with its lead actress to predictably lukewarm effect.

Watching Hong’s films back-to-back is a bit like experiencing one of the protracted drinking jags his characters frequently undertake. You emerge bleary-eyed with a hangover from the desperation and ugliness you’ve witnessed. Exactly what happened and who got fucked (over) remain a blur, but the mundane conversations and chance encounters that incrementally and elliptically contributed to the general unpleasantness are strangely crystal clear. Such a viewing binge sets into relief the careful orchestration behind the happenstance realism often attributed to Hong’s matter-of-fact style of filmmaking. The conversations no longer seem mundane, encounters are only chance for the characters involved but not for the viewer, and the deadpan humor of many of the films’ situations becomes more apparent, as does Hong’s subtle skewering of romantic comedy and buddy movie clichés (such maudlin scores!).

What then can we make of all the women who are both objects of and obstacles to the men’s internal returns? While it’s tempting to read Woman Is the Future of Man‘s title as a neon arrow pointing toward the way out, Woman on the Beach suggests a necessary detour through another popular excursion destination: Shinduri Beach. Gray and lifeless in the off-season, this small town on Korea’s west coast serves as the natural backdrop (much like the breathtaking scenery of Mount Odae in Power) for two overlapping love triangles, which in typical Hong fashion form as quickly as they dissolve and neatly bisect the narrative.

Film director and lech Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) is trying to hammer out a new script but seems more interested in putting the moves on the headstrong girlfriend, Moon-sook (Ko Hyeon-gang), of his friend Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo). Chang-wook, clearly aware that he has been dishonored, drives back to Seoul with Moon-sook. Two days later Joong-rae randomly interviews (and later sleeps with) a woman named Sun-hee (Song Seon-mi), whom he repeatedly compares to Moon-sook. Sun-hee eventually crosses paths with the woman she resembles, despite her and Joong-rae’s slapstick precautionary measures to avoid such an encounter. The women’s claws are soon retracted as the soju hits their bloodstreams, and Moon-sook calls it like it is: "Two women shouldn’t be fighting dirty over a man. It’s boring. This is why hell is boring."

Not all of Hong’s characters are such astute, self-critical observers. Their rapacious appetites — for sex and booze (often in combination); for love (often hastily declared while drunkenly having sex); for recognition from their peers and families; in short, for a balm to ease the atrophying routine of middle age — brings to mind another Korean monster currently stalking theaters, whose own indiscriminate satisfaction of its needs also invariably damages those closest to it.

At the same time, to call them monsters, however loutishly or cruelly they treat each other, would be to resolutely condemn them. Hong’s meticulous direction and his actors’ extremely nuanced (even when under the influence) performances refrain from going so far. Much in the same way that a competitive skater or gymnast repeatedly watches footage of their falls to pinpoint the exact moment and cause of mechanical error, Hong’s films let us see up close, again and again, the ways in which the veracity of our needs and desires causes us to fumble our relationships — with lovers, with friends, with strangers — regardless of our intentions. In the words of Aaliyah, "If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again." Hong is willing to grant his characters, however confused or outright pathetic, at least that much. *


March 16–25

For schedule, call or see Web site

(415) 865-1588


Axis power


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It has been noted in the mostly laudatory press surrounding their collection of 10-inch EPs, Transparent Things (Tirk/Word and Sound), that Fujiya & Miyagi aren’t Japanese. Nor are they a duo. They are in fact three white friends from Brighton, England, whose openly acknowledged obsession with Neu’s motornik pulse and Can’s subdued funk has resulted in some very infectious, kraut-tinged electronic pop songs as well as gentle speculation about whether Fujiya & Miyagi are simply derivative or being cheekily open about their influences.

Anticipating their critics, the band even declare at one point as a chorus, "We’re only pretending to be Japanese!" But Fujiya & Miyagi seem too polite to be doing all this as a piss-take, yet too self-conscious to claim sui generis innocence by way of a strange musical synchronicity. After all, I don’t think I am the only person who thought they were Japanese when I first heard them.

To some extent, all bands wear their record collections on their sleeves early on. Some simply loathe admitting it. Initial Stereolab singles were basically remakes of Neu’s "Hallo Gallo" (although so were Neu’s subsequent albums) with vocal window dressing snatched from ’60s French yé-yé pop. It was the unexpected synthesis of the two that made them sound so fresh. By now Fujiya & Miyagi’s warm-cold instrumentation — guitars compressed into brittle chirps, warm analog synth washes, percoutf8g drum machines — is a familiar palette (again, think Stereolab or some DFA productions), but David Best’s vocal style fogs up the transparency of the homage.

Best’s clipped, affectless approach works well to underscore his distanced lyrics, whether he’s detachedly recounting the scuffs incurred while falling in and out of love ("Collarbone" and "Sucking Punch," respectively) or cataloging the commodities around him ("Transparent Things"). His rolled r‘s and staccato delivery also uncannily invoke the quieter Damo Suzuki of Can’s 1972 album, Ege Bamyasi, or the 1973 disc Future Days (both Mute).

Granted, James Murphy stands accused of swagger-jacking Mark E. Smith’s extra syllables (Smith, appropriately enough, donned Suzuki vocal drag for the Fall’s "I Am Damo Suzuki" — perhaps Fujiya & Miyagi’s chief precedent). And Beck’s skinny-white-boy take on Prince circa Midnite Vultures (Interscope, 1999) is no more or less suspect than Justin Timberlake’s Off the Wall falsetto.

Appropriation is an old and often circular debate in music, one inflected by racial politics as much as the vagaries and entitlements enabled by whatever strength so-called postmodernism still holds as a position. The earnest love of kraut Fujiya & Miyagi see reflected in their music may come off as a studied imitation to some, but when "Collarbone" hits its breakdown, and Best breathily beatboxes the old "knee bone connected to the shin bone" nursery rhyme like he wants to rock your body, Fujiya & Miyagi momentarily sidestep the anxiety of influence and become simply a great pop group. *

“Christmas on Earth” in February


The pull quote snagged by most critics from John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus was Justin Bond’s quip "It’s like the ’60s, only with less hope," delivered while surveying the myriad sexual couplings and groupings in his salon’s back room. Bond’s pithy line encapsulated the film’s ideal of community through polymorphous perversity, even if that vision is tempered by an awareness of the initial sexual revolution’s blind spots and a hangover from the 20 years of sexual-identity politicking in its wake. Yet Mitchell’s film is neither jaded nor self-serious and never pimps out its graphic sex scenes for purposes of cynical titillation. Reflecting the loose, workshop methods with which Mitchell and his cast developed the film, sex in Shortbus is for the most part something revelatory, experimental, and at times quite playful. But Mitchell draws the narrative parallels a little too neatly: when else could the film’s sex therapist finally achieve orgasm but at the story’s, uh, climax?

As the centerpiece of the inaugural screening of San Francisco Cinematheque’s four-part "Oppositional and Stigmatized" series of iconoclastic, taboo-confronting cinema, Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth — one of the most sexually explicit and formally innovative works of ’60s underground film — offers a historic correlative to Mitchell’s degree zero approach to filming real-time sex. Made the same year as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, Rubin’s joyously anarchic 1963 record of an orgy held in a New York City apartment is remarkable not simply because Rubin was 19 when she made it but because it porously images and imagines sex in ways Mitchell’s uptight narrative only partially succeeds at pulling off. Christmas presents sex as something messy, spontaneous, and ongoing, not as an existential telos.

Comprising two superimposed projections, one nestled inside the other, the film both abstracts and renders in extreme close-up the bodies and activities of its four male and sole female participants. The projectionist is encouraged to add to the kaleidoscopic effect by continually changing color slides in front of the two reels. The dual-screen presentation, coupled with Rubin’s prescribed soundtrack of live rock ‘n’ roll radio, creates a striking and often humorous image interplay. Penises flit about the outer projection like fat cherubs, while at other times, a vagina becomes the curvilinear landscape within which the inner projection’s extended sequences of man-on-man action take place. There are money shots, yet there is nothing hardcore about Rubin’s film. Instead, it revels in a kind of ecstatic innocence, gleefully and willfully flaunting its disregard for categories such as gay and straight, reportage and assemblage, skin flick and art flick.

Despite the singularity of its vision, Christmas wasn’t created in a vacuum. As Andrew Belasco’s recent illuminating portrait of Rubin and her work in Art in America reveals, the film came out of a mid-’60s New York creative milieu, set on shaking up an aesthetically and sexually uptight America, in which Rubin played an active part. Whether as a filmmaker, organizer, agitator, or all three at once, Rubin was a connective node for many countercultural figures. The creative collaborations and events that arose from her catalytic networking are as much a testament to her involvement with the scene as the small body of cinematic work she left behind.

Rubin’s misdiagnosed depression led to a stint at the Silver Hill rehab clinic in Connecticut, where she supposedly gave Edie Sedgwick bulimia tips. After being bailed out, she hooked up with Jonas Mekas and his Film-Maker’s Cooperative. Rubin became Mekas’s indispensable right hand; he was her mentor and greatest champion. Her list of associates and friends included Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, and the Velvet Underground (whom she took Warhol to see for the first time in 1965). She also participated in Warhol and the Velvets’ traveling multimedia onslaught, the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable," and served as one of the Factory’s many informal staff photographers. By the end of the decade, though, she’d become a devoted student of Jewish mysticism and distanced herself from her younger, rabble-rousing persona. Entrusting the cinematic artifacts of her earlier life to Mekas, Rubin moved to France. Over the years she gradually severed her New York contacts, eventually dying in isolation in 1980. She was only 35.

Given our historic hindsight, Christmas might seem quaint or naive, its dialectic vision of guiltless sexual pleasure clearly the product of an earlier time. While not necessarily hopeful in the sense that Bond characterizes the 1960s in Shortbus, Rubin’s best-known film is very much suffused with a belief in the potential for new cinematic, sexual, and interpersonal possibilities. It is a belief deliciously put into practice by the contingency built into the screening experience. It is a belief not too distant from the aims of Mitchell’s own Lower East Side story. (Matt Sussman)


Sun/18, 7:30 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, screening room, SF

(415) 978-2787