Max Goldberg



“It’s like he was waiting for someone to find him. It was overwhelming at first because I was just this little person trying to write a dissertation, and here was someone I thought needed to be recognized by history.”

Filmmaker and University of San Francisco professor Melinda Stone is telling me about Sid Laverents, the backyard auteur whose Multiple SIDosis (1970) is unlike any other work enshrined by the National Registry. Laverents died last May, at 100, but not before receiving the Library of Congress honor in 2000 — the result of years of faithful barnstorming by Stone and other enthusiasts (notably filmmaker and preservationist Ross Lipman). The 35mm UCLA restoration of SIDosis screening at a Pacific Film Archive tribute fits with Lipman’s ongoing historiographic missive to refurbish exemplars of Southern California’s “minor cinemas.” Charles Burnett, Kent Mackenzie, John Cassavetes, and Kenneth Anger are heady company, but then Laverents may yet be seen as San Diego’s own Georges Méliès.

So then, what is Multiple SIDosis? Film archivist David Francis’ description of the nine-minute short as a “technical comedy” is apt. The film opens in Laverents’ conservative San Diego spread. It’s Christmas morning, and his wife has given him a reel-to-reel machine. He records a little banjo jaunt and listens to the playback, grabbing a few more instruments. Partly due to Laverents’ straight appearance, we begin to think we’re watching an ordinary demonstration. We’re not. Following a slightly psychedelic title card, Laverents’ trusty metronome is telescoped into a masked, locket-shaped image in the top-left of the frame. His banjo, ukulele, and whistling parts are split into three other miniatures, Brady Bunch style. Then, an amazing geometric panoply of six Sids, nine Sids, 16 Sids; chimes over here, harp over there, Sid, Sid, everywhere.

Laverents created these pre-digital effects with a syncing system of his own devising (he honed his one-man band chops touring the Southern vaudeville circuit in the 1920s and ’30s). Multiple SIDosis is not merely inventive; it is, in some real way, an invention. “It’s so perfectly that confluence of aeronautical engineer and vaudeville performer,” Stone gushes. Local film buffs still drunk on a month’s worth of Jacques Tati screenings at various venues may well note a family resemblance in the way Laverents bends modern technology to his own idiosyncratic vision.

Multiple SIDosis is not your typical home movie, but Laverents didn’t work in a vacuum — he was a proud member of the San Diego Amateur Moviemakers Club (motto: “If it moves, we’ll shoot it”), a once-thriving community group that, like many such organizations, provided encouragement, tech support, and elevated expectations. In proper club fashion, Stone graciously brings out tea and cookies when we meet.

“I really came to believe in the cinema clubs and what they might tell us about the longevity of civic engagement,” she muses. But the number of clubs is dwindling. Even before YouTube presented a virtual forum (but definitely no tea and cookies), film schools attracted the young, would-be filmmakers who might have replenished the clubs’ stocks. Without wanting to disparage university programs, their emphasis on specialization comes at a cost — not to mention that the clubs offered a lifetime membership rather than a two- to four-year shot at community.

The Pacific Film Archive’s “For the Love of It” program features a few recent selections from clubs in Cupertino, San Jose, and Los Angeles, along with one minor masterpiece from the now-defunct, SF-based Westwood Movie Club. Moods of a City (1972) may be the closest San Francisco ever gets to its Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). To make the film, the club split into different teams covering fog, architecture, the sea, public gatherings, and typical San Franciscans.

It’s a patchwork, but one with surprisingly perceptive seams: a perfect graphic match between a gleaming spider’s web and the Golden Gate Bridge’s cables, for instance, or the hard cut between a flock of suits rolling the Financial District and scattered hobos down and out in the urban wilderness. The postcard views all come at a local slant, and the architecture segment, with its minute focus on variations in windows and doorframes, reminds us that the etymological root of amateur is lover. The fog slides off, and we’re treated to a North Beach round of bocce. Better yet are the gestures (spitting, cigarettes held on the lower lip) that have disappeared — like so many buildings, but not so easily memorialized by a plaque.

Moods of a City is a collective work, made during a period when avant-garde circles grappled with questions of authorship and community. Though Stone admits being somewhat resigned about bridging these worlds, she hasn’t stopped trying. When San Jose Movie Club rep Bernard Wood gave her a few rolls of discontinued Kodachrome stock — coincidentally, Nathaniel Dorsky’s last Kodachrome film, Compline (2009), premiers Feb. 23 at PFA — Stone distributed the film to a quartet of top Bay Area experimentalists. Their three-minute rolls will run with the club films at PFA. Refreshments to follow.


Sun/21, 3 p.m.


Feb. 28, 3 p.m.

Both events $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249


Enter night


FILM Hollywood always exploits the space between plausibility and fantasy, but rarely with such fluidity as in the films of the 1940s and ’50s. Some of the era’s darkest refractions of the disquieted American belong to Jerry Lewis, but generally we look to film noir for the cynical postwar imagination.

The canon is not nearly so settled as some might imagine, and San Francisco’s Eddie Muller has done as much anybody to reinvigorate this American trust. His enterprising archival work and affable showmanship have turned the San Francisco Film Noir Festival into that rarest bird in repertory programming: a sure thing. Over the course of a week jammed with 12 double-features, Noir City furnishes a utopic movie universe where the Castro Theatre is always packed and the credits of unsung Hollywood talents like screenwriter Bill Bowers and cinematographer James Wong Howe win spontaneous applause. This year’s theme, “Lust and Larceny,” is sufficiently baggy to accommodate a wide range of rarities, but my early pick is for the one-eyed André de Toth’s Pitfall (1948), a despairing adultery tale that makes serious sport of the fault-lines running through the suburban family unit.

Fortuitously, the Noir City festival opens the same night as a Pacific Film Archive retrospective of producer Val Lewton’s seminal B movies. The 10 films unspooling during January and February date from the same war-frayed years that the noir mood came into its own, and in many ways the Lewton films are the flipside of Noir City’s disillusionment. Instead of the pathology of everyday life, here we have intensely relatable nightmares. In Kent Jones’ 2007 documentary portrait, Val Lewton: The Man in Shadows, a visibly moved Kiyoshi Kurosawa speaks of Lewton’s films bearing the hermetic mark of works made in rapid succession, when inspiration burns brightest.

It is surely one of the great ironies of American film history that RKO’s front office brought on Lewton’s unit to jettison Orson Welles’ long shadow. Boasting dunderheaded populism (“Showmanship in Place of Genius”), they ended up with another great artist. Everything that makes Lewton’s legacy comparatively minor has, paradoxically, made him the more fiercely prized auteur in cinephile circles. James Agee pitched him as one of the three preeminent creative minds in Hollywood, but Lewton still belongs to Manny Farber. One can sense the recently canonized critic honing his taste for lateral movement, character actors, weird symbols, and the effectively out-of-joint in his early writings on Lewton’s unlikely perfection.

As many have remarked, the Russian-born producer’s strategic acceptance of budget constraints purchased a unique degree of creative freedom and formal consistency. And yet, however exact the films’ realization, the melancholy that sets women on slow promenades and objects to mysterious life verges on unbounded irrationalism. The conventional take on Lewton — that he worked tight budgets to his advantage by pressing shadows and sounds to suggestive heights, in stark contrast to Universal’s corny monsters — is right as far as it goes, but the films’ dark tidings cannot be put down to economy. Invisibility always operates on several levels in a Lewton film. Most basically, the inspired chills slaking horror’s thirst do not resolve in the proper genre manner, but rather twist towards deeper, irrevocable anguish.

But what exquisite torment! In spite of the morose overtones — and it’s difficult to think of another Hollywood oeuvre from this period so contently in the grip of death — there is something ecstatic in the films’ animistic apprehension. The violent sway of a ship’s hook, a rustling branch, a voodoo doll, a pool, and a whole world of echo: these things have a talismanic significance that can help explain why Lewton’s cinema simultaneously seems so cluttered and withholding, compressed, and lingering — in a word, loving.


Jan 22–31, $10

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF


Jan. 22–Feb 13, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk

(510) 642-5249

Raison ritual


YEAR IN FILM “We could live like this forever.” Josephine, the serious young woman in Claire Denis’ gorgeous chamber drama 35 Shots of Rum, whispers this line to her father while they’re camped out on the beach. It’s unclear, however, whether she’s referring to this particular sandy spot or the rituals of home and work that structure the film. As with Chris Chong’s remarkable short, Block B, 35 Shots of Rum (a ritual in the title itself) is set in a superficially unattractive apartment complex. Beyond the concrete is an intricate network of human relations. In the republic of cinema, the Denis film descends from that great poet of routine life, Yasujiro Ozu. Daily rituals dilate exposition and emotion; the safe enclosure of home unfolds in time.

Many of the most indelible, mood-lifting moments of my sporadic year of film-going arrived in the deepened presence of ritual: two shots of espresso, in separate cups; dismantling a bomb; shaving radishes; sheering sheep; the ecstatic sweat of a Lightning Bolt concert; the murderous talk surrounding a stand-up act. The Limits of Control cracks a zen joke out of those scenes that take us to edge of plotlessness; The Hurt Locker posits them at the lip of death. Every genre has its rites, but ritual is roped off by an extraordinary and transformative act of concentration: not so much a slice of life, as the heart of it.

To begin with an imperfect example, take Funny People. The informal joke workshops are the best thing about Judd Apatow’s chef-d’oeuvre by some distance — a romantic plot is deathly flat next to the backstage lollygagging. Likewise, for all The Hurt Locker‘s amazing mappings of harm’s way and its rigorous equation of work and action, Kathryn Bigelow’s film sags in the bland passages earmarked for character development. However momentarily, both movies put the blockbuster through paces.

Rituals, as I’ve described them, give us time to think and feel, and thus crop up with greater frequency in experimental work (ritual makes the documentary-fiction divide matter less). In Heddy Honigmann’s Oblivion, political history flows from her interview subjects’ ingenious livelihoods. Representatives of the service class relay personal and national narratives at work, their gestures embodying resilience and wisdom beyond the bounds of political rhetoric.

A clarifying admiration of labor also animates Sweetgrass, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s near-wordless immersion into a final sheep drive across Montana. Recorded with ethnographic grit and uncommon lyricism, the film counterpoints detailed sound recordings with monumental, temporal landscape photography. A peculiar mix of estrangement (the implacable animal stare) and intimacy (the last cowboys’ muttered curses), Sweetgrass packages a dying way of life as a wayward phenomenological experience — the ritual as haunting.

Rendered as cinema, there is every possibility that ritual will make for a trance. Ben Russell actively cultivates this state in his Black and White Trypps series. Excerpts of all six of these shorts, as well as a 10-minute slice of Russell’s acclaimed feature debut, Let Each One Go Where He May, are available on his Vimeo site, but seeing the third installment in 35mm at the Pacific Film Archive raised the stakes considerably. In it, Russell sends a beam of light into the teenage sprawl of a Lightning Bolt show, creating a visible field barely broad enough for one or two wild faces. The crowd’s pulse makes for an ephemeral, twisting portrait. Projected on the big screen, the baroque expanse of sound and black gave the mined portraits a distinctly transcendent aura. Russell’s Warhol-worthy idea locates solitude in collectivity and authenticity in performance. The 11-minute film also invites us to reconsider the coordinates of that other common ritual that brings us alone together in the dark — cinema.

They were expendable


“Camera movement” doesn’t even begin to describe the orchestral coordination of tracks, pans, tilts, zooms, and compositional dimensionality comprising Miklós Jancsó’s boldly vertiginous 10-minute takes. The Pacific Film Archive screens a quartet of the Hungarian director’s influential but rarely shown films from the late 1960s and early ’70s, each a kinesthetic rumination on the awful coordinates of martial law — and perhaps the closest cinema has ever come to the epic poetry of The Iliad.
Raymond Durgnat’s account of Jancsó’s “calligraphic” camerawork helps distinguish the director’s style from formalist theorizations of the long take. From Touch of Evil (1958) to Children of Men (2006), thrilling tracking shots have come to stand as the summit of cinema’s realist plenitude. With Janscó, like Stanley Kubrick, omniscience itself is held in doubt. In The Round-Up (1966), a distressing parable of interrogation set during an 1848 campaign against insurgent outlaws, Jancsó’s free-floating camera paradoxically registers the blinkered confusion of imprisonment. The volatility of view calls attention to the partiality of witnessing. Simultaneously, the repetitive movements of degradation and violence signal a repertoire of human evil surpassing any single individual, nation, or war.
In Jancsó’s dialectical form, a Marxist apprehension of the enduring structures of power jostles against the individual’s frightened namelessness. As with Jean Renoir, the long take is not at odds with montage’s multiplication of meaning. Take the first scene after the opening titles of The Red and the White (1967). The camera glides after two Bolsheviks in flight from the counterrevolutionaries — slowly, as if in foreknowledge of the coming reversal. As they wade into a narrow river (the geography of the scene bears curious resemblance to one in 2007’s No Country for Old Men), the composition opens up terrain where another band of cavalrymen are mounting a charge. The two men beat a retreat, and now the recessing camera leads them on. One man hides behind a tree, becoming a surrogate for our own position; the other is not so lucky. An ushanka-clad counterrevolutionary soldier bullies the Bolshevik into the shallow water. The shot cues the man’s final movement: like a felled tree he topples into the drink, the first of many searing images worthy of Goya’s The Disasters of War.
Unlike most combat films, time does not bend to the casualties of war in this scene. The shot proceeds after the man is shot, the seconds flowing over crime and banality alike. You can watch one of these films a dozen times having only seen it once.
Jancsó’s durational use of Cinemascope means that actors cover a lot of physical ground in his shots. The cracked Martian expanse of the Hungarian steppe is their mortal stage, a no-place that pictorially undoes the idea of historical setting. Jancsó’s early films are often linked to the crushed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but in truth they offer no such comfort of specificity. To the contrary, the films demonstrate how state-sanctioned violence vanquishes particularization, making them more relevant to our Guantanamo-Abu Ghraib era than anything coming to a theater near you.
It was only while watching Red Psalm (1972) that I realized the utopic possibilities of Jancsó’s reanimation of historical space. The film, composed of 28 shots in Van Gogh color, stages a late 19th century confrontation between peasant socialists and nationalist conservatives as a series of concentric rings in which the Marxist call for an alternative course of history is richly imagined, if still damned. Twelve-minute takes notwithstanding, any talk of “real time” in such film is preposterous. Serge Bozon’s 2007 film La France broached a similarly musical vision of armed struggle, but Jancsó’s swirling analysis of fate, theatre, ritual, song, idealism, God, grain, and horror is something uniquely sublime.

Dec. 5–18, $5.50–$9.50
Pacific Film Archive
2757 Bancroft, Berk.
(510) 642-5249

Serene velocity


MUSIC Blues Control is an instrumental rock band, but don’t hold that against them. The extended compositions and caterwauling guitars and keyboards may suggest post-rock bloat, but unlike many of their voiceless brethren, the duo knows that freedom is found in limits. Their crafty deployment of prerecorded loops and particularized live effects has etched a signature sound that’s at once distinct and nostalgic. They’re one of those mood ring groups that summons a whole lineage of avant-garde rock without exactly adhering to any one dominant influence. Pretty good, considering it started as a lark: needing an alter ego to protect their collaboration as Watersports from overexposure, Russ Waterhouse and Lea Cho fabricated Blues Control. Both projects were born under the sign of kosmische, but the newer songs refocused the drone zone with coaguutf8g tape loops and surprisingly friendly melodies. Hype soon followed.

If the duo’s name comes off as an unfortunate nod to the many non-black blues units over the years (whether Breakers or Brothers, a Project or an Explosion), the smirk stops there. You can find any iteration of psych-rock in their origami structures, but Blues Control is always playing itself. When I talk with Waterhouse on the phone from Ithaca, N.Y., where he and Cho are on tour, he discusses his aversion to the hollow games of genre signification that were in vogue in the 1990s — a significant disclaimer, since their most recent release, Local Flavor (Siltbreeze), is their most ranging yet.

"The basic principles and methods of working have basically remained the same since the beginning," says Waterhouse, but Local Flavor benefits from new attention to texture and sequencing. The quartet of songs traverses carefully arranged prog-rock ("Good Morning"), Coltrane-colored mystical jazz ("Rest on Water"), a prismatic dance groove ("Tangier"), and a Bitches Brew-worthy cauldron of ethereal tones, dubby sidesteps and angry guitar ("On Through the Night").

These different encounters with psychedelia are nested within disarmingly crude nuclei of borrowed rhythms and spectral melodies. Throughout, the distinct processes of jamming and collage are placed in productive conversation. It’s drug music without the inflated ego, a structuralist take on the basic rock furniture. When the core heats up, as on "Tangiers," Blues Control is close to perfect. Beginning with a breathy Casio loop, everything about the eight-minute track is percussive. A mashed, pulmonary beat hugs the centrifugal melody, while guitar and keyboard flares illuminate the elastic membrane stretching the song’s surface. Halfway through, after several exuberant plateaus, the rhythm scatters into double and triple-timed graininess, and the Michael Rother-like vapor trails spiral into their own repeating figures. Moment-to-moment, the composition seems unchanging and mantra-like; skipping around reveals a remarkable, covert movement.

Not all of Local Flavor burns so bright. The horn-laden riffage concluding "Good Morning" is particularly Phishy, but it’s a small misstep next to the dreamy gorgeousness of a track like "Paul’s Winter Solstice," from last year’s Christmas single for Sub Pop. I’ll leave it to the historiographers to explain why so many of the most interesting interpretations of rock music have come from duos over the last decade, but Blues Control undoubtedly figures into the argument for a mobile, minimalist muse.

"With this tour, we’re trying to follow through on some opportunities," Waterhouse explains. "A lot of people have told us we should come out to California because we would do well out there." The duo recently relocated from Queens, N.Y., to Virginia, but the people who recommended California were right on: with a group so equitably split between blissed-out drones and garage tactility, how could San Francisco not swoon? *


With Hank IV and Celine Dion

Thurs/5, 9 p.m., $7

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF.

With Sic Alps and Jaws

Fri/6, 9 p.m., $5–$10

Continental Club

1658 12th St., Oakl.

(510) 444-9000

Camera lucida


Film is not really a medium for perfection — too many moving parts, too much equipment. But then, Robert Beavers isn’t your typical filmmaker. For 40 years, he’s done everything by hand, off in the hinterlands of the avant-garde. It’s not every day, or year, that you encounter a retrospective like SF Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archive’s co-presentation of Beavers’ 18-film cycle, made between 1967 and 2002, "My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure." The title is more literal than you might expect.

The evident perfectionism of the films (all blown up from Bolex 16mm to luminous 35mm) and Beavers’ relative obscurity are not coincidental. In 1967, he and Gregory Markopoulos fled the New York scene for Europe, where they could better exact a cinematic language in view of art history. One of the earliest chronological entries in the cycle, "Early Monthly Segments" (1968-70, revised in 2002), dates from these teenage years and threads a beguiling, if fragmentary, ode to love at the limits, filtered through the auburn and aqua scrims of Mediterranean sky and sea, with in-camera effects wavering the eye.

Though most of the "Winged Distance" cycle depends on a uniquely synesthetic coordination of sound and image, the silent "Early Monthly Segments" already demonstrates Beavers’ thrilling capacity for poetic association, mnemonic arrangements, and sensual representations and enactments of the filmmaking apparatus. In later work, the arresting beauty of his cross-fertilized cinematography and field recordings calms the mind; the alliterative rhythms of color, composition, and touch that multiply and encode that beauty make it race.

Besides being, in his words, "protected by solitude and the spirit that came from our dedication to filmmaking" in his life with Markopoulos, Beavers was able to immerse himself in the long trails of European classicism — its painting, music, literature, architecture. Scholar P. Adams Sitney writes of Beavers, "Nothing is more American than [his] fascination with the monuments of European culture." But the elegant still lives of these monuments are endowed with a weirdly interior, hieroglyphic weight that unbinds the visual patterns of tourism, whether aesthetic or geographic. In Beavers’ work, material touch conducts thought, the human body landscape.

Of all Beavers’ inspirations, it is architecture that best helps me begin to grasp his visionary artisanship. As with a cathedral or ruin, his films possess a beauty to behold and one that beholds you: you admire a curving wall, at a distance, and the space itself takes measure of your senses, curving sight and sound.


Thurs/15, 7 p.m.; Sun/18, 2 p.m.; Tues/20, 7:30 p.m.


Pacific Film Archive

2757 Bancroft, Berk

(510) 642-5249

Higher ground


LIT What Susan Sontag wrote about illness in 1978’s Illness as Metaphor and 1989’s AIDS and Its Metaphors holds for disaster as well: all too often, widespread devastation is made to serve moralistic meanings. Perhaps the primary virtue of Rebecca Solnit’s clear-headed new book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Viking, 353 pages, $27.95), is that it does not simply swap one interpretation of disaster — as anticonsumerist reckoning, for instance — for another, such as Jerry Falwell-style damnation. Solnit is interested in how people act in the aftermath, for better and for worse.

By tallying stories from a century’s worth of disasters, Solnit mounts a passionate argument that altruism and solidarity are the norm, no matter what the media or authorities might report. Early in A Paradise Built in Hell, she reflects on the unexpected joy found in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989: "We don’t even have a language for this emotion in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological."

Solnit collects evidence of commonplace resilience from bottom-up accounts of earthquakes in San Francisco and Mexico City, the London Blitz, 9/11, Katrina, and the Halifax Explosion of 1917. She marshals these anecdotes against the Hobbesian view, often taken by those in power, that ordinary people will backslide into chaotic violence without strict social controls. A ruling class’s authority is disrupted in disaster, and this tends to put them in a preemptive, paranoid mood. The helpful term for this displacement is "elite panic." The predictability of warrantless crackdowns is depressing. In Solnit’s history, we see Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco ("These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will") echoing the brutal edict issued by San Francisco’s mayor, Eugene Schmitz, in 1906 ("The Federal Troops, the members of the Regular Police Force, and all Special Police Officers have been authorized by me to KILL any and all persons engaged in looting"). People matter more than property, except when they don’t.

It’s to Solnit’s credit as a journalist that she departs from her script in New Orleans for a harrowing account (with an assist from former Guardian reporter A.C. Thompson) of the murder of several black men by heavily armed white vigilante groups. One wonders, however, if these ragtag brigades—which certainly cannot be called "elite" — aren’t filling a similar vacuum, in their way, as the informal groups that set to feeding the hungry. How does Solnit’s goodness match up with the mass-complicity required of genocide? It’s telling, after all, that Jan T. Gross’ 2001 book about a massacre of Jews in World War II was titled Neighbors.

A Paradise Built in Hell is a little didactic and a lot repetitious in the typical nonfiction style, and for someone obviously concerned with the impact of words, Solnit never really explains the Christian tuning of her title. But these are only chinks in the book’s broad spirit of inquiry. Solnit’s sources include Carnival, Russian anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin, the reactionary politics of disaster movies like Dante’s Peak (1997), and William James, who was visiting Stanford during the ’06 quake. Her most intriguing proposition is that the civic temper — James’ phrase — loosed by disaster represents a kind of desire. We’re so used to thinking of desires, both as they’re expressed and repressed, as a private matter of sexuality and identity that it’s almost shocking to hear the word in this social context.

One can easily think of Solnit’s look at hope regained as a kind of parable of the Bush-Obama transition, but if A Paradise Built in Hell is a product of its time, it’s not because it channels our new president’s good tidings. Instead, Solnit’s work is best read as a sustained critique of the degraded view of ordinary citizens taken by the Bush administration: in its eyes we were craven, greedy, vindictive, and worse. Solnit says no, not when it counts. It takes real imagination to answer the intellectual crisis provoked by the reign of W with a study in altruism. What’s even more surprising, she succeeds.

My country, my country


FILM We go to documentaries to learn about the lives of others, but rarely are we put in touch with the patience, sensitivity, and grit required of listening. Heddy Honigmann’s films privilege the social aspect of these encounters and are the emotionally richer for it — I’d bet her hard-earned humanism would appeal to a wide cross-section of audiences if given the chance, but her documentaries remain woefully under-distributed. Oblivion is her first set in Lima since 1992’s Metal and Melancholy, still my favorite film of hers. Honigmann, who was born in Lima to Holocaust survivors but left the city to study and work in Europe, made that first film to clarify the everyday reality of Peru’s economic ruin. Instead of submitting a top-down exposition of the situation, she interviews taxi drivers. This was an ingenious maneuver for at least two reasons: it admits the contingencies of her inquiry and floats a matter-of-fact portrait of the people’s despair on the motor-mouthed musings of actual people. Their informal testimonies are too flush with colloquial wisecracking, cynical tirades, idiosyncratic performances, amateur ingenuity, and tender confessions to qualify for pity.

In Oblivion, Honigmann reverses angle, following children and adolescents as they flip cartwheels for stopped traffic, the crosswalk their stage. She also zeroes in on the more established service class, from a stunned shoeshine boy up to a dexterous master of the pisco sour. Slowly, we realize Honigmann’s interviews are an exercise in political geography: she talks to people in the near proximity of the presidential palace, the long shadow of Peru’s ignominious political history framing their discreet stories. Oblivion exhibits both class consciousness and formal virtuosity in its coterminous realizations of an Altman-numbered array of characters. As ever, Honigmann’s ability to transform the normally airless interview format into a cohesive band of intimate encounters is simply stunning. History consigned them to oblivion, but as Honigmann adroitly shows by periodic cut-aways to past presidential inaugurations, personal memory often outlasts the official record.

OBLIVION opens Fri/2 at the Sundance Kabuki.

Come of age



FILM A bittersweet tone in movies is an easy thing to flub. The most common culprits are asinine sentimentalism and mock-solemnity, neither of which figures into the graceful cinema of Ermanno Olmi. His early films, Il Posto (1961) and I Fidanzati (1963), still exhibit an impossibly light touch, with a warm humanist core of glances, material texture, and yearning wrapped in a dispassionate view of industrialized alienation.

In Il Posto, a boy’s coming-of-age is rendered a split decision: his entrance into the Milanese workplace is a gloomy premonition of adulthood, but there’s a taste of love for succor. Olmi’s breakthrough would have seemed small even if it hadn’t come on the heels of L’Avventura (1960) and La Dolce Vita (1960). It’s easy to imagine that Il Posto‘s quotidian pleasures might have seemed retrogressive in this context—but with contests for neorealism’s soul laid to rest, it’s easy to appreciate Olmi’s remarkable skill directing amateur actors, his elegant sequencing, and his aching cinematography, as ravishingly revealing as Robert Frank’s contemporaneous photographs. Insofar as the world-weariness of The Exiles (1961) and Killer of Sheep (1977) relate to the Italian style, they travel the Olmi path.

The director has been drawn to simple characters and stories throughout his career, but his own formal means can be surprisingly experimental. In the prolonged opening of I Fidanzati, for instance, Olmi fragments two estranged lovers’ circumnavigation of a dance, stitching together the story of a relationship with a series of elusive encounters plucked from time. The jag echoes Alain Resnais’ early films, but a bookending montage of the lovers reading each other’s letters uses the same technique against the modernist grain, for emotional warmth.

While Olmi’s more highly esteemed cousin in pictorial ennui, Michelangelo Antonioni, absconded with neorealism to the metaphysical realm, Olmi plunged back to earth. To wit: his new film, Terra Madre, is the official documentary of the 2006 Slow Food conference in Turin. A strange hybrid of educational film and poetic reverie, Terra Madre leaves polemics to the conference participants. Olmi’s presence is felt in the digressive close-ups of soil, plants, faces and hands. In a beguiling sequence midway through the film, his camera studies the ramshackle space left behind by a self-sufficient hermit. Does the director see himself in the story of this man who found the world in a small plot of life and tended his own garden for decades? Regardless, the "Life’s Work" retrospective at the PFA is an abundant harvest.


Sept. 25–Oct. 30, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249,



REVIEW Liverpool may belong to the slow club of cinema — long takes, downcast eyes, and monumental landscapes — but the friction between its patient formalism and wild terrain is anything but staid. As with Werner Herzog, Lisandro Alonso sites the existential condition in plainly inhospitable ecologies. But whereas Herzog paradoxically employs grandiloquence to remonstrate the folly of human pomposity, Liverpool‘s withdrawn narration moves with the stealth purpose of a folk tale. The story is unavoidably mythic — a sailor’s return home — but we’re liable to forget this as Alonso’s camera travels to the vanishing point of landscape and labor.

We begin inside a hulking container ship with features indistinguishable from its cargo. Perhaps it’s just the frequent nips of vodka Farrel (Juan Fernandez) takes once he’s left the ship to visit his ailing mother, but non-actor Fernandez imparts a human rawness the hollowed role might not otherwise suggest. After announcing his plans to the captain in a brief strip of exposition, he docks in dirty snow and sets off across mountainous Tierra del Fuego for a home which appears anything but.

Alonso establishes the everyday reality of the sawmill outpost with a few spare strokes, crystallizing a portrait of hardship and taciturnity that outmatches Carlos Reygadas’ similarly remote Silent Light (2007). If that film’s magical realism was self-consciously steeped in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), then perhaps Liverpool is under the sign of John Ford. Farrel echoes John Wayne’s famous Searchers (1956) slouch in the doorway at a crucial moment: a classic outsider pose turns in on itself as the film shifts from portraying the individual solitude to communal isolation. When Farrel disappears into the yonder, Liverpool stays behind. The remainder is both epilogue and revision, with 80 minutes of vast extrication finally condensed into a surprisingly intimate token of distance.

LIVERPOOL runs Thurs/17–Sat/19, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Rialto’s Best of British Noir


PREVIEW That undisputed champ of repertory programming, film noir, is getting a good workout during otherwise sunny September. Elliot Lavine combs the Columbia vaults for a 22-film Roxie bonanza, while the Castro Theatre and Pacific Film Archive look across the pond for a touch of "tea and larceny." Even if it’s disingenuous to label these Anglo entries as noir — the camera angles are right, the mannered scripts not so much — the down-and-out British crime films make for a fascinating mirror image to their American counterparts, not least for the visible evidence of World War II trauma. The rarity-heavy PFA series will better satisfy the buff, but only a fool would pass up a week’s worth of Rialto restoration prints at the Castro. Three of the five films are Graham Greene affairs, including a long-overdue re-release of Brighton Rock (1947). The real discovery of the series, however, is Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), an unusual mélange of kitchen-sink drama, Dostoyevskian moral tale, and on-the-lam thriller. If the steady downpour is pure noir, the film’s narrative is less typical. Instead of concentrating trauma and repression into a single (male) figure, Hamer spreads it around an entire East London neighborhood. There is an escaped convict at the center of the story who looks every bit the seductive part, but in spite of a stylish chase finale, Hamer is more interested in the drab corners of ordinary deceit. His resourceful dramatizations of working class spaces — and specifically their lack of privacy — are consumed with an anxiety far in excess of the film’s serviceable plot.

RIALTO’S BEST OF BRITISH NOIR Sept. 11–16, $10. Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120,




PHOTO ISSUE Take Me to the Water (Dust-to-Digital, 96 pages, $32.50) is an eccentric archive, under the same bewildering sign as Harry Smith’s epochal Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). It comprises both a book (75 sepia plates of full immersion baptism scenes performed in nature) and accompanying CD in the same vein as Dust-to-Digital’s earlier ark of covenants, Goodbye, Babylon (2003). But the beautifully reproduced photographs are what make it worthwhile.

They were made at a time when photography was reserved for occasion (one shudders to think of the contemporaneous rage for photographs of lynching scenes). A photograph, like a baptism, was something you dressed up for. In many images here, figures stare down the camera, distracted from the spectacle at hand. One atypical shot looks as if it was snapped under cover of trees: we peer through shrubs at a minister and convert, rippling the water alone.

There is always a danger of mystifying the past with ephemeral evidence this gorgeous, but it would be foolhardy to think the invocatory power of these photographs is purely the invention of contemporary eyes — if anything, the images restore the spiritual sense in which photography is called a medium. The believers are transfigured by God’s light, the photograph by the world’s.

The cameraperson typically shoots from an opposite bank, offering a broad scene. Crowds are in the dozens, if not hundreds, draping bridges and packing every jut of land. The principle pictorial advantage of this framing is the emphasis it places on the water’s reflection. The reverse image coasting the water’s surface rhymes with the one produced by the camera’s lens. More immediately, this reflection gives the impression of ghosts. In his introduction, Luc Sante makes the point that many of these sites were so used for generations, and therefore "accrued layers of association and sentiment." Ghosts were to be expected.

Because the scope of the photographs frequently exceed the camera’s depth of field, surrounding space buckles to the distant baptism’s sharp focus. Time itself seems to bend around this point of clarity and calm. The person being baptized is most deeply submerged, making their reflections the clearest ones. Much of what the photographs communicate, then, is the way these baptisms were both public events and private passages. The individual is simultaneously a part of and apart from the community, in the same way death is to life.

Nearly all those pictured in Take Me to the Water have since crossed to the other side — the passage of time is there in the splotches and creases. The poignancy of these imperfections is that they remind us that the photographs belonged to people, as mementos. In one, a pen marking indicates one of many figures in the water — someone’s relation. Beauty balancing the ordinary and sublime is a strange gift indeed. The wonder isn’t that these photographs survived, but that they existed in the first place.

Variety lights



If Jean-Luc Godard is right that film history is the history of the 20th century, the film preservationist surely occupies a privileged seat of knowledge. Steve Erickson implied as much in 2007’s Zeroville, his surrealist novel centering on a "cineautistic" film editor who gives new meaning to Freud’s concept of "screen memories." But by and large the preservationist’s labor is beyond public view. UCLA’s prestigious moving image archive is trying to change that with a touring program of highlights from its biannual Festival of Preservation. In an e-mail exchange with Jan-Christopher Horak, the archive director wrote that "When I became director 19 months ago, it seemed that all the work was wasted if we only showed the films in our theatre in Los Angeles."

The Pacific Film Archive screens 14 of these restorations during August, one of which showed at the Castro Theatre in May. Head archivist Ross Lipman reintroduced the eager crowd to John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), veering comfortably between technological details and dishy anecdotes. Several of Cassavetes’ original collaborators were in attendance, and it was clear that Lipman had joined their ranks in his material intimacy with the film. I was fully expecting to be wowed by seeing Mabel and Nick Longhetti’s tumult splayed across the big screen, but the revelation was in the soundtrack: the dynamic see-sawing between nonsense whispers and splitting screams made the film a physical experience.

Restorations can bring our attention to previously unseen (or unheard) aspects of a film, making it more complex than we first realized. Dial the formal elements up too much, though, and you have the aesthetic equivalent of a juiced ballplayer — many critics felt this line was crossed in the brightening of R.W. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and the soundtrack facelift performed on Orson Welles’s Othello (1952). Nitrate is time-sensitive and costly to preserve, and since the number of titles is so great, the choice of which film to preserve is bound to be polemical.

"While UCLA has traditionally focused on Hollywood films, given our geographic location, we have become increasingly interested in independent and avant-garde work," Horak explained. This shift has resulted in its tremendous success with restorations of Killer of Sheep (1977), The Exiles (1961) and the early films of Kenneth Anger — a set of work that, when taken together, brings wider attention to Los Angeles’ rich tradition of what scholar David E. James calls "minor cinemas."

The PFA picks are delightfully eclectic, but the common thread of this mostly American set is independence. From early avatars like Edward Curtis (1914’s In the Land of the Head Hunters) to Poverty Row auteurs like Edgar Ulmer (1948’s Ruthless), political outliers like Joseph Losey (1951’s The Prowler) to those filmmakers who gave indie cinema a name of its own (Cassavetes and John Sayles), "Secrets Beyond the Door" weaves a multitude of independent traditions. *


Aug. 7–30, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249,

The deep end


Lucrecia Martel’s three mischievous films scramble normal narrative hierarchies, privileging sensation to exposition, desire to explanation, and intuition to realism. Thunder-clapped fairy tales of unknowing, they have an adolescent’s sensitivity to the strangeness of the adult world. Outside of Tsai Ming-liang, it’s difficult to think of another working director with such a productive obsession with water. Martel is attracted to locations where her characters can sink, like pools and beds, and she arranges her multiplanar compositions so that these figures appear as floating heads and torsos.

The apprehensive tilt of Martel’s stories is left undefined, just on the cusp of horror, but the director’s formal coordination of sound and image is anything but imprecise. Her humid aesthetic popped out fully formed in the opening minutes of 2001’s La Ciénaga ("The Swamp"), in which the sloshing reds of blood and wine, a padded sound design, and viscous handheld camera movements conduct an atrophying bourgeois scene with the heavy-lidded amplitude of a Caravaggio. The Holy Girl (2004) further demonstrated Martel’s skill at playing for senses other than reason. Her new work, The Headless Woman, is her most expressly psychological yet, and thus entails a newly concentrated application of her unusual narration style — a kind of intimate, hooded third person in which neurosis and desire register as phenomenology.

The woman of the title (which doesn’t translate literally) is another of Martel’s dislodged bourgeoisie women. Driving home from a gabby gathering, she runs over something while absentmindedly reaching for her cell phone; after this, her mind absents her. Perhaps amnesiac, but at the least traumatized, Veronica (Maria Onetto) reenters her everyday life in a fog. Her weak smiles and mute replies will irritate some viewers, especially those who reflexively despise the withholding ambiguity of Antonioni films like 1964’s Red Desert (Martel’s characters, like Antonioni’s, often put on sunglasses at odd moments, as if to shield their wanting souls). What’s remarkable about The Headless Woman in comparison to so many art house pretenders, however, is that Martel is able to maintain this high level of uncertainty without letting the story go slack. As much as Veronica seems to drift, the film’s carefully calibrated ruptures make it so she cannot keep the world at bay.


July 14–15 and 23, 7:30 p.m. (Martel in person July 14–15), $8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787,

Domestic disturbance



Equal parts Antonio Gramsci and Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Dillinger is Dead (1969) is cultural critique masquerading as a one-man show. Michel Piccoli plays Glauco, with his forehead mostly: the fleeting pleasures of food and gadgetry are registered in satisfied wrinkles, though the slack glaze of boredom is never far off. The film opens with Glauco touring a factory using a gas mask of his design. In case we somehow miss this as a marker of alienation, the factory guide waxes Society of the Spectacle: "The introjections of these obsessive, hallucinatory needs do not produce an adaptation to reality, but mimesis, standardization: the cancellation of individuality."

Subtly may not be Italian auteur Marco Ferreri’s strong suit, but he achieves a weirdly frantic stasis once Dillinger settles in to Glauco’s chintzy bourgeois palace, a masterpiece of set design. Glauco tucks in his lolling girlfriend (Rolling Stones ingénue Anita Pallenberg, mostly naked here), snivels at the meal she’s left him and gets to cooking. Looking for something in the closet, he finds an old gun wrapped in a newspaper covering John Dillinger’s death. The film’s unforthcoming slowness reaches its apotheosis as he painstakingly cleans the revolver, keeping a close eye on the sauce.

Not satiated by his feast for one (Ferreri would later direct 1973’s La Grande Bouffe, a film about four men eating themselves to death), Glauco licks honey off the maid’s bare back, gives his firearm a Pop Art makeover, and finally endeavors to see if it still goes bang. Ferreri’s listless deadpan can’t help but pale after countless Coen brothers knockoffs, but Dillinger is saved from obsolescence by its prescient observations of technology’s ascendance in the domestic sphere. Glauco is ever fiddling with a machine, at one point documenting his sleeping wife with a tape recorder (this guy would be a nightmare with an iPhone).

All this mechanical action has a masturbatory quality to it, especially when Glauco watches his Super 8 home movies. He greedily reaches out for the breasts of a woman he’s filmed and tries to swim in a projection of the sea (a significant image given the film’s nautical conclusion). When a halved watermelon broaches sex, viewers may wonder if Tsai Ming-Liang knew of Dillinger before making The Wayward Cloud (2005). This fleshy interlude is the closest thing to life in Ferreri’s film; even murder, it seems, cannot bring these people back from the dead.


Thurs/11–Sat/13, 7:30 p.m.; Sun/14, 2 p.m., $8–$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787,

The Lemonheads


REVIEW For a brief time in the early 1990s, Evan Dando was an It boy. He wore great jeans and hid behind his hair — the shaggy pop songs didn’t hurt either. His band, the Lemonheads, coasted to success with an easy cover of "Mrs. Robinson," and then Atlantic took a bath on Come On Feel the Lemonheads (Atlantic, 1993), an album that’s likely still haunting remainder bins. These are the facts, but the melodies that snag your adolescence are destined to boggle any attempt at objectivity.

I still remember picking It’s a Shame About the Ray (Atlantic, 1992) off the rack after spotting it in an older friend’s collection — I must have been 11 or 12. Soon, I went the extra mile for a couple of bootleg cassettes I then listened to in ritualistic isolation. In Dando, I heard the sympathetic reticence of a dropout. I beached my shyness on his languid refrains; he was good company. I wouldn’t say I wanted to trade places (Ben Lee took up this mantle on "I Wish I Was Him"), but the Lemonheads furnished my imagination with yearning and ennui — sensing those things without knowing them was sublime. I loved the band for coming from Boston; their stoned melodies padded the lonely stretches of Memorial Drive and sandy dunes of Cape Cod where I moved into my feelings. Nearly all Lemonheads songs are letters, and I imagined I too would come to know a "you."

Trying to sort out how memory imprints my continued weakness for these melodies would require a novel rather than a capsule review, but I like to think the Lemonheads albums still hold up because I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I don’t put them on very often, but I can easily lose a whole afternoon when I do.

THE LEMONHEADS With Kim Vermillion. Wed/10, 8 p.m., $21. Slim’s, 333 11th St, SF (415) 255-0333.




"Explosive action" may be the stuff of soppy pullquotes, but the term takes on fresh life watching the 1950s noirs of Phil Karlson. All action movies give us men and violence, but Karlson’s pictures, to a rare degree, are about men living with violence. Punches aren’t redemptive, they just hurt — the one throwing them too. Take the clenched former prizefighter in 99 River Street (1953), Ernie Driscoll (played by Karlson’s preferred actor, the aggressively nondescript John Payne). "I’m so burned up, I take it out on everyone I see," Driscoll mutters to his loyal friend after tossing him against a car in the white heat of rage. When he finally does have reasonable cause, his maelstrom of punches exceeds the pleasure principle of vengeance by a wide margin.

If this sounds like Scorsese territory, it’s probably worth mentioning that Driscoll isn’t just a broken heavyweight — he also drives a taxi. Karlson’s movies are tightly-coiled enough to make the decades slip just like that: 99 River Street has enough weird transferences and reversals to make me wonder if it’s not a worm-hole to David Lynch’s films as well. The fabulous streaks of paranoia running through the PFA selections are Cold War to the core, but the films hurdle us so quickly and illogically towards the edge of abnegation that the reactionary myth of the vigilante isn’t given time to flourish.

Karlson recouped the debt owed by Dirty Harry and The French Connection (both 1971) with his 1973 hit, Walking Tall, but the ’50s films are more eloquent by far. In them, brutality is simply a fact, like cigarettes or hats. The most severe scenes are sometimes the quietest, as is the case when Eddie Rico (Richard Conte) has to wait out his brother’s death after unwittingly acting as a crime syndicate’s bloodhound in The Brothers Rico (1957, based on a story by Georges Simenon).

Other set-ups — nearly the entire second half of the remarkable semi-documentary The Phenix City Story (1955), cowritten by Daniel Mainwaring (1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), with the same basic premise as Walking Tall — hardly give us room to breathe. The film’s corrupt Alabama police look the other way as local "vice peddlers" terrorize citizens, rig an election, and — remember this is 1955 — murder the children of a black man with reformist sympathies in broad daylight. The smug veneer of cordiality does nothing to disguise the constant threat of violence. To the contrary, it serves as an extra taunt, a superfluous flexing of power as enraging here as it is in Barbara Kopple’s documentary, Harlan County USA (1976). A trinity of resistance fighters (one of them a lawyer freshly returned from Nuremberg, an encounter with evil that still leaves him unprepared for Phenix City) can and do fight back, but resist administering the final coup de grace. They do so in deference to due process, but we’re long past a constitutional triumph, à la Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). The dark truth lurking just under The Phenix City Story‘s roiling surface is that the noble ideal these republicans embody may not actually exist.


June 5–26, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk

(510) 642-5249,

It takes two



Whether one thinks of them as a dreamy drone duo who happen to be married or a married couple who happens to make dreamy drone music, Windy & Carl endure. Their first release, the Instrumentals EP (Burnt Hair), dates back to 1994; while most American guitars were tuned down for grunge’s payday, Windy & Carl waxed celestial.

Spacey drones are now in fashion, but Windy & Carl’s influence remains relatively unsung, in spite of their being one of the Kranky label’s flagship acts. Perhaps it’s the duo’s Michigan roots, since ambient music fans are often swayed by Eurocentric cravings. Whatever the case, their prodigious oeuvre now swells with several earthily-titled monolithic albums (1995’s Portal on Ba Da Bing; 1997’s Antarctica on Darla; 1998’s Depths and 2001’s Consciousness on Kranky) and enough compilation appearances and singles to supply a triple-CD set (2002’s Introspection on Blue Flea).

I first plunged in with Depths, though it took me the better part of a year to make it through its viscous 70 minutes in one sitting. Windy & Carl’s music is like a mood ring: its timbre is responsive to emotional currents, some of them hidden. More often than not, dark thoughts surface after 30 or 40 minutes. This makes me suspect that many of those critics who fling adjectives like "blissful" and "glittering" at their records have only dipped their toes in the maelstrom. At the very least, these seem overly simplistic adjectives for music that tilts towards tumult as it limns stillness.

There is a common misconception that ambient music is intrinsically passive or inert: this, in fact, is only true of bad ambient music, of which there is plenty (unsurprisingly, it often accompanies tactless interior design). Windy & Carl, like the kosmische innovators before them, realign one’s sense of space rather than simply flattering it. This process occurs at the periphery of consciousness — trying to put it to words tests the limits of music writing. It’s clear, however, that much of the Michigan duo’s mastery comes down to a well-honed understanding of texture and scale. In a typical jam, the gigantic crest of a thousand distortion pedals curls around the intimate pluck of a lonely guitar in an arresting, Rothko-like frieze. Time is adjourned; foreground and background drift by one another in the fog.

The durational aspect of Windy & Carl’s music has two aspects: lost in the length of any one given piece, we also feel ourselves afloat on the broader body of work, a 16-year drone. This superimposed condition, with every conversation dissolving into all other conversations, should be familiar to anyone who has been inside a long-term relationship. Ambient music implies a porous self, and thus has interesting applications for a couple. Watching A Woman Under the Influence (1974) a few weeks ago, I was struck by the way John Cassavetes draws us into Nick (Peter Falk) and Mabel Longhetti’s (Gena Rowlands) nonverbal communication: the nonsense utterances, whispers, and cries. Something similar happens in Windy & Carl’s echo chamber of tone, feedback and voice.

For all the songs about love, how many actually document its dormant time and space? John and Yoko, Nelson Angelo and Joyce, and Mimi and Richard Fariña’s works spring to mind. Windy & Carl’s latest, Songs for the Broken Hearted (Kranky, 2008), belongs in any such pantheon. Their albums have always been "home recordings," but Dedications to Flea (Brainwashed Recordings, 2005), the duo’s disc-long contemplation of their dog’s death, marked a new degree of intimacy. Field recordings of Flea on a walk and Windy’s explanatory linear notes thickened the mise-en-scène of private loss, making for an album occupying the unknown zone between home movie and séance.

The last few years seem to have been a dark time for the couple (under her full name Windy Weber, Windy released a solo album for Blue Flea last year called, no joke, I Hate People). But one doesn’t require the details of estrangement to immerse into its recesses of fear and forgiveness. There’s more of Windy’s Nico-ish purr than before, and the lyrics are newly decipherable ("You already know so much of what I keep /From the rest of the world /But you did not shy away from me"). The album’s sequencing is distinct too, fluttering between vast passages of oblivion and brief statements of bare, shorn beauty. Whether the broken-hearted of the album’s title refers to Windy & Carl themselves or an imagined listener, Songs for finds fierce beauty in the hide-and-seek of cohabitation.


With Jonas Reinhardt and Nudge

Wed/27, 8 p.m., $10

The Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

Natural light


REVIEW The abundant drama of natural light is reason enough to see Summer Hours, a family drama by Olivier Assayas aspiring to Proustian profundity and Chekhovian chambering. I prefer Les Destinées Sentimentales (2000) for Assayas’ novelistic mode, but the new film still has plenty to like. This will be especially true for Antiques Roadshow fans, who will have a field day with all the Musée D’Orsay-approved furnishings, even if the characters themselves don’t seem quite so sturdy. The film opens with an annual reunion at the beautiful country estate where matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob, the daughter in Georges Franju’s 1960 classic Eyes Without a Face) has tended the reputation and archive of a long-dead artist relation. When Hélène dies, the question of the house and all those beautiful objects falls to the three adult children. Being an Oliver Assayas film, this a globalization issue. Frédéric (Charles Berling) is the only one who remains in Paris (an economist who doesn’t believe in economics, he’s more susceptible to sentimentality than the other two). Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) has gone after the art market in New York, while brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) covers the financial sector in China. A clear opposition — perhaps too clear — is erected between the memory of provincial France and the dislocated pulse of the contemporary, but to Assayas’ credit, Summer Hours doesn’t feel like it has its mind made up between the two: the darting camera courts the promise of speed and movement, while the luxurious play of light nurses what’s been lost. The characters are never more than their scenes, but there are a few breathtaking ones, including two bookending portraits of footloose youth that recoup Summer Hours‘ air of inconsequence.

SUMMER HOURS opens Fri/22 in Bay Area theaters.

SFIFF: In the realms of the real



Michael Moore may have paved the way for documentary gold, but the most structurally adventurous, ethically demanding nonfictions still reside on the festival block, where they frequently outshine their fictional counterparts for formal rigor and breadth of imagination. If the 2009 SFIFF field doesn’t have a marquee attraction like Standard Operating Procedure, all the better — a year later, I still haven’t lost the bad taste of Errol Morris’s hi-def moral confusion.

A corrective to Standard‘s self-serving auteurism might be gleaned from Avi Mograbi’s Z32. In this case the troubling testimony belongs to an Israeli soldier who participated in a senseless revenge killing of Palestinian innocents, but Mograbi handcrafts the layers of remorse that elude Morris’s smug "interrotron." We never see the ex-soldier’s face, though the digital application of masks produces an uncanny effect in tune with the film’s sliding scale of memory and performance, responsibility and displacement. Mograbi’s willingness to bring the war home (much of the film is set in his living room) is unusual for an investigative reporter, but then most investigative reporters do not narrate their mediating role in song.

Cameroonian-French filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno’s documentary Sacred Places seems more conventional in its blend of interview and ethnographic reflections, but the calm manner in which ideas flow from these encounters makes for a first-rate essay-film. Set in a poor district of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, Sacred Places centers on two eloquent men: Jules Cesar Bamouni, a djembe maker who makes some of the same linkages between film and the traditional storytelling forms that first incited griot-auteurs like Ousmane Sembène; and Nanema Boubacar, a hopeful entrepreneur who runs a neighborhood film club. The scenes in which Boubacar rifles through DVD deliveries offer an overlapping portrait of community-oriented cinephilia ("When there are spots on the DVD, it’s not good for the film fans") and the vicissitudes of distribution (even in Burkina Faso, African titles are harder to procure than a Jackie Chan vehicle). Sacred Places is light enough on its feet to pass itself as a slice of life, but Téno’s quiet approach constitutes a major revaluation of the aims of African cinema.

Another illuminating interviewer, Heddy Honigmann, returns with Oblivion, her first film set in Lima since 1994’s mobile portrait Metal and Melancholy. There’s also a double-shot of alternative histories from Lee Anne Schmidt (California Company Town) and Travis Wilkerson (Proving Ground), who are both associated with CalArts, an institutional hotbed for hybridized docs. Wilkerson’s An Injury to One (2003) remains one of the great American political films; his live performance of military footage promises more shots from the avant-garde of documentary. Also on SFIFF’s doc-centric slate: 2009 Persistence of Vision winner Lourdes Portillo, art-historical conspiracy theories courtesy of Peter Greenway (Rembrandt J’Accuse), and reality-bending fictions like John Cassavetes’ still-potent unraveling of the domestic melodrama, A Woman Under the Influence (1974).


Fri/24, 8:40 p.m., PFA

Sun/25, 5 p.m.; April 29, 3:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki


May 3, 9:15 p.m.; May 5, 8:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki

May 4, 8:30 p.m., PFA

The passion of Agnes


Director commentaries are de rigueur in the DVD age, but few filmmakers possess the élan to warrant a feature length auto-exegesis. Agnès Varda is one, and her most recent memory piece — she claims it’s her last — cheerfully dissolves the boundaries between memoir, retrospective, and installation. The film caps the Pacific Film Archive’s month-long series, "Agnès Varda: Cinécriture," and faithful attendees will be rewarded by its recollections of earlier works from La Pointe Courte (1954) to The Gleaners and I (2000). The Beaches of Agnès begins with the 80-year old Varda spryly instructing her devoted assistants. These are people willing to enter a reverie on the placement of various mirrors. "If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes," she explains of her motivation for filmmaking, before setting off on an unclassifiable daisy chain of reenactment and reminiscence. The film moves at the leisurely pace of the flaneur’s walk, the better to relish Varda’s joie de vivre and sweet bawdiness. Where to begin? With her color-bending bowl cut or Chris Marker’s grinning cat cameos? With the ephemera of Varda’s innumerable home movies or her defense of the so-called "Manifesto of the 343 Bitches"? With the many things she adores — blurry foregrounds, ancient frescoes, heart-shaped potatoes, neighbors — or her W.G. Sebald-like resuscitation of photographs? "All the dead lead me back to Jacques," she says, referring to her great love, Jacques Demy. Their life together loops Beaches with enough beautiful images to warrant several viewings. A must.


Fri/10, 8:40 p.m.; Sat/11, 6 p.m., $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk

(510) 642-5249,

Made in U.S.A.


REVIEW Rialto Pictures founder Bruce Goldstein will scoop up the Mel Novikoff award at this year’s San Francisco Film Festival, but local audiences have a chance to sample his good work before then during the Castro Theatre’s run of Rialto’s freshly struck 35–mm print of Jean-Luc Godard’s widescreen, red-white-and-blue firecracker Made in U.S.A. (1967). If the picture seems a helter-skelter jumble of contingencies, it’s important to remember it was but one of four Godard movies to wash up on these shores during the otherwise turbulent 12-month period slicing through 1967 and 1968 (the other three were 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, La Chinoise, and Week End). Of these, Made in U.S.A. gives the fullest demonstration of Godard’s aim to create a cinema that could take part in the jagged incongruities of modern life. Listing the film’s tangled referents — its confluence of aesthetics, politics, and violence crucially hinges on American hardboiled pulp and the real-life murder of Moroccan leftist Ben Barka — doesn’t begin to describe Made in U.S.A.‘s unexpected pathos. For all its agitprop overtures and modernist complications, the film is also a reflective, conflicted goodbye to the writer-director’s formative romances with American culture and Anna Karina. The porcelain actress, already divorced from Godard by the time the picture was made, gives a fragmented, emotional performance almost entirely in close-up. As the long day closes on Made in U.S.A., an old confidante tells Karina’s Bogart-like investigator that obsolete categories of Right and Left cannot adequately address political problems, to which she responds, "Then how?" That broken question, the neutron star of Godard’s career, shows no sign of letting up.

MADE IN U.S.A. opens Wed/1 at the Castro. See Rep Clock.

Cat’s cradle


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Independent, slyly defiant, and given to zigzags, the cat is the spirit animal for a certain breed of cinematic gleaners. The films of Warren Sonbert and Chris Marker are packed with the feline kind. A kitty or two shows through the lucid abstractions of Nathaniel Dorsky’s recent work, and Agnès Varda’s La Pointe-Courte (1954) uses the animal as a structural device. Accordingly, Ben Rivers’ This is My Land (2006) opens with a lithe creature snapping its head to face the camera. There are several other such mysterious cameos across the 14-minute film, one of several bricolage studies Rivers has composed of off-the-grid settlers who are themselves catlike in both appearance (the whiskers and quick smile) and manner (gentle wildness).

Rivers must appreciate the cat’s association with the gothic, given his propensity to label his shorts as either horrors or portraits. The London-based filmmaker and programmer comes to town this week for two rare programs split along these lines, though it isn’t as stark a divide as it might first sound. The films are all exquisite documents of overgrown spaces, the kind in which the past is made palimpsest, audible in the creak of floorboards and everywhere apparent in the makeshift and ajar.

There are traces of Murnau, Dreyer, and Herzog in Rivers’ work; the films are welcome demonstrations that Expressionism is nothing so much as a feeling for how the physical world relates to the spiritual one, though musical references are equally revealing. The beards, spirits, and foliage evoke the deep English folk of the Incredible String Band and Roy Harper. In addition, the field recording quilt-work done by Lucky Dragons and the Books provides a useful analogue to Rivers non-sync style. Shot with a wind-up Bolex, Rivers processes the film stock himself, leaving grain and light flecks unpolished, with sound and image each representing an autonomous, well-portioned montage. The films open the same rich interstices of avant-garde, documentary, and ethnography as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, but with an intense intimacy that makes them seem like home movies of the highest order.

The old dark house imagery of Rivers’ gothic curios strike a particularly English chord, but the back-to-the-land portraiture has a special resonance in California. We too know these beards, this tumble of wilderness, this particular migration. If these figures seem to age differently, it’s because their living choices represent a decisive approach to both space and time, something Rivers represents with great cinematic adroitness. The specter of global warming and natural disaster thickens these reclusive reliefs. Rivers has admitted his fondness for ’70s postapocalypse moves, a ripe genre rearticulated in the lunar landscapes and scrapyard play of Ah, Liberty! (2008). Horror, in this context, is a kind of awe. It is inseparable from nature — it is, in fact, nature reclaiming civilization.

"[There are] all kind of wild animals [here], and it’s only because I let it get wild. And that’s my point, but nobody will get it," the central figure of Astrika (2006) explains. Rivers, of course, does get it. The homesteaders’ scattered debris suggests Rivers’ own secondhand materials, improvised objects like a birdfeeder made from a milk container reflect his films construction, and the ethos of self-sufficiency is admired and enacted. The human warmth of his filmmaking emanates from these affinities, which go beyond sympathy to touch the elusive nerve of experience. Rivers’ wind-up camera means that no single shot can exceed 30 seconds. But when the pitter-patter of his images settles on something strange and moving, like a distant view of a horse rolling in the snow, it reminds us that beauty is often a humbling drama of the glimpse.


Sat/28, 8:30 p.m., $6

Other Cinema at Artists’ Television Access

992 Valencia, SF

(415) 824-3890,


Sun/29, 7:30 p.m., $10

San Francisco Cinematheque at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787,

Talk about the passion


There’s an argument to be made that record love really begins when you start noticing the labels. Slumberland was one of my earliest such epiphanies. I was bit by one of the label’s groups, Velocity Girl, because, as much as anything, I felt I had come to them on my own. This secret knowledge kept me satisfied until an older friend made me a cassette mix heavy on the Slumberland set: pastel guitar music by Rocketship, the Softies, Lilys, Black Tambourine, the Ropers, and Amy Linton’s much-missed Bay Area groups, Henry’s Dress and the Aislers Set. I started paying more attention to the sleeve.

Slumberland has been a byword for the more melodic runoff of post-punk since 1989, when its premier release — a three-band 7-inch titled What Kind of Heaven Do You Want? — closed the gap between New York noise and English indie-pop. This is an area of music subject to quarrelsome subdivisions (see shoegaze, C86, dream pop), but Slumberland’s common denominator is the taste and passion of Mike Schulman, former member of Black Tambourine, Powderburns, and the underrated Whorl.

Though still associated with its initial crop of D.C.-area groups, Schulman has run Slumberland from the East Bay since 1992. After a dry spell in the early aughts, the label is disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quip about second acts with a much-buzzed-about round of releases by Brooklyn pop stylists Crystal Stilts, Cause Co-Motion, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart — an impressive slate that puts Schulman in the unusual position of encountering his own footsteps.

“I look at what we’re doing now, and I could easily imagine any of these bands being on Slumberland 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago,” Schulman tells me between sips of coffee on a gray Sunday morning in Oakland. He’s expansive about the joys of record collecting and vicissitudes of music press in spite of having been up since 4 a.m. with his new baby. Schulman’s tastes are eclectic — he ran the dance record store/label Drop Beat in Oakland’s Rockridge District from 1996 to 2000 and is happy to gab about doo-wop or Japanese noise — but Slumberland was dedicated to scruffy pop from the start. It was an obvious niche, though striking for its proximity to D.C.’s thriving hardcore scene. “I used to go see Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, and I loved those bands, but there were tons of hardcore labels,” Schulman reflects. “I couldn’t have named three labels in America that would do stuff by HoneyBunch or Small Factory. That music just seemed underserved.”

The Slumberland aesthetic was also a romance with a format. Schulman traces his own 45 rpm fixation back to his father’s R&B collection as well as a life-altering experience with the Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1985 A-side “Never Understand” (Blanco y Negro). “It just makes so much sense — the one great song on the one great side, something that fits in your hand. You can pick it up and carry it around. You can have a little box to take it to your friends to play it for people…. Historically, it was a very economical way to transmit the most amazing three minutes of music you’ve ever heard.”

This kind of object-oriented pleasure, along with visual aesthetics and the relative gender equity of the Slumberland bands, tends to get short shrift from blog critics who take the label to task for “playing it safe” with unabashedly melodic music. “I just think rock music is inherently conservative,” Schulman weighs in. “Everyone goes back to the same 15 references. I love the Siltbreeze stuff — those are great records — but you can’t tell me that there’s something shocking or new about them.”

Of course, a credible brand has the upshot of generating its own ancestry. The Brooklyn bands are all well-versed in the Slumberland back catalog — easily navigable on the label’s smartly designed Web site — though the Pains of Being Pure at Heart earn extra points for tapping Archie Moore (Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine) to mix their eponymous debut. Listening to the first 10 declarative seconds of every song on the album is a humbling refresher course in the elevating art of the single.

The Crystal Stilts don’t play for the same caffeinated high, but their 2008 full-length, Alight of Night, is addictive nonetheless. The disc’s zoned out, organ-laced stomps pull off the neat trick of making New York City post-disco punk sound good again. The creamiest song on the album, “Prismatic Room,” lights up the same pleasure zones in my brain as those early Velocity Girl tracks. I find myself going for seconds as soon it finishes — something I didn’t think I did anymore