Max Goldberg

Follow that bird


By Max Goldberg

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With so many duos still adhering to the muddied-guitar-and-drums style years after the White Stripes broke, it’s refreshing to see local twosome the Finches reaching back to an earlier, folksier model wherein melody and songwriting win out over bombast and swagger.

"We actually tried to have our friend Justin play drums at the practice space with us once, and none of us really knew what we wanted at that point," guitarist-vocalist Aaron Morgan muses over tea at a noisy café a few blocks west of the UC Berkeley campus. "And it was Justin himself who told us, ‘You know, you guys don’t really need a drummer.’ "

When the boy-girl duo of Morgan and vocalist-guitarist Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs perform, their plain-harmony vocals and soft-spoken stage patter make it a little difficult not to think of A Mighty Wind, but the earnestness is clearly paying off. I’ve seen the group play several times over the last year, and it’s hard to miss all the kids drifting by the merch table to pick up the group’s self-released EP, Six Songs, an endearing batch of tunes topped with a tender Pennypacker Riggs print showing a girl with a finch, riding off into a dreamscape of mountains and night.

That merch table will be a little busier soon with the release of the Finches’ debut, Human Like a House. The full-length feels very much like a natural growth from Six Songs, and while fans will certainly be pleased to hear more of a good thing, there are subtle surprises here too. For starters, the Pennypacker Riggs album art that so catches the eye has expanded to an accompanying book, How I Was Carried Away.

"I like to conflate the visual and the aural," she explains. "They’re kind of the same stories."

For now the duo seem grateful for the support they’ve received on their own merits and are thrilled that they’ve been added to the Revolver Distribution and the Dulc-I-Tone label rosters. "I think the word will spread about them to people who really get it," Matt Lammikins at Revolver says, "and that’s how they have gotten a weird following all over the country [the world, really] that has no rhyme or reason, and my friends still don’t know who they are…. It’s just good honest songwriting." The confidence all this has inspired shows on Human Like a House, especially in Pennypacker Riggs’s increasingly varied singing range. There are several songs here — "Last Favor" and the title track — that elaborate on the Six Songs formula: song-pirouettes in which melodies circle one another, matching up with Pennypacker Riggs’s forlorn lyrics. This balancing tends to work best when the tunes are kept short. In "June Carter Cash," for example, we get a clear-eyed snapshot of love and loss in a few rounds of the stately chord progression. The song is about the way we express our own feelings and experiences in other people’s voices and music. Hence the heartbreaking lyric "June Carter and John have flown / Now I’m ready to let you let me go."

"My favorite songs were the last we wrote," Pennypacker Riggs confesses. It shows: "Step Outside" is ebullient, the sound of the Finches falling in love, singing, "When we stop / It feels as though / We’re rolling backwards" over descending chords. Elsewhere the band leavens its duets with drums, pedal steel, and cello. The last is provided by Vetiver’s Alissa Anderson on the shimmering "Two Ghosts," a song in which Anderson’s drones seem to reel in Pennypacker Riggs’s and Morgan’s conversing guitar lines like something caught at sea.

Guest shots aside, Human Like a House is a homespun affair. The pedal steel is provided by Morgan’s father, David, who also engineered much of the recording in the family’s San Diego garage. "My dad’s just beginning to learn how to engineer recordings," Morgan explains. "This was his learning experience, which, I have to say, I think he did a nice job on." Indeed, the guitars sound a little brighter than on Six Songs, the harmonies delivered with a newfound warmth and clarity. Finishing touches were added in Pennypacker Riggs’s family garage in El Cerrito, with the vocalist’s mother contributing a recorder overdub before the duo closed the book on Human Like a House.

These production choices seem appropriate given the ground the duo treads on this album. "Owning a home [in the Bay Area] is pretty much a fantasy, a domestic fantasy," Pennypacker Riggs says when I ask her about recurrent images of homemaking. "I love this area, but I won’t be able to afford to stay here forever, which bums me out."

It’s a rootlessness all too familiar to many of us and one that Pennypacker Riggs rubs up against on Human Like a House. The album’s centerpiece, "The House under the Hill," crescendos with a chorus fleshed out with vocals by Morgan’s parents in a swelling show of support. But then, moments later, it’s just the guitars and Pennypacker Riggs’s voice again: "Alone I am nameless / And fearless and faceless." Bob Dylan might ask her, "How does it feel?" but by the end of Human Like a House, we have a pretty good idea. *


Sat/27, 2 p.m., free

Amoeba Music

1855 Haight, SF

(415) 831-1200

Also Wed/31, 9 p.m., $8

Cafe du Nord

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016


Czar of noir


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One doesn’t feel far from the dark, stylized universe of classic film noir in Tosca, a long, obliquely angled bar in North Beach. It is where I am to meet Eddie Muller, the man behind San Francisco’s Noir City festival and corresponding Film Noir Foundation, a self-described "writer and cultural archaeologist" with several spry volumes of film history to his credit — alluring, fanatic titles such as Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Dark City Dames, and Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of "Adults Only" Cinema.

"There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water. The empty noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain … even in Los Angeles," writer-director Paul Schrader writes in his seminal essay "Notes on Film Noir." Now, as the afternoon darkens, the Columbus Avenue strip is dry, but the Lusty Lady’s neon glows while I wait for the bar to open. Noir’s trademark deep focus would lend itself well to the space inside, filled with the stale smoke of yesterday’s cigarettes and deep red and mahogany: it’s a romantic kind of place, a remembrance of things past. One of the many dizzying plot twists in Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 Out of the Past — perhaps the most knotty and melancholy of the noirs, a preeminent example of the genus — has Robert Mitchum’s heavy chasing after a double-cross in a North Beach bar. I think about this as Muller strides in with an easy gait. We settle in to talk, and the jukebox turns to smoky jazz: "Mood music," he says and then laughs.

Setting the mood is something Muller is exceedingly good at. The first time I met him was at the press conference for last year’s Noir City, staged at the York Hotel’s appropriately named Empire Plush Room — deep red, again, with little flutes of champagne. The nightclub decor of last year’s festival may have been sucked up by the cavernous dimensions of the Palace of Fine Arts, but the attempt to establish a kind of interstitial lobby space was a nice gesture, especially since these films are, if nothing else, about atmosphere.

After two years away, this coming installment of Noir City, the fifth, will be held at the Castro Theatre. Muller’s decision to return to the Castro — made difficult by the theater’s firing of programmer and chief Noir City collaborator Anita Monga — speaks to the emphasis he places on the moviegoing experience, as well as his deep respect for Bay Area audiences. "We struggle to get 200 people to the theater in LA," Muller muses before adding excitedly, "I mean, we get five times that many people out here. The studios can’t believe it…. I always have to be careful when I talk about the numbers." He laughs. "You want it to be great, but you don’t want it to be so great that they’re thinking, ‘Wait a second, why are we giving these guys a break on these old films?’ "

It’s no wonder that studios take note of Muller’s successes. Hollywood’s big players trot out old movies on DVD not so much from altruistic preservation impulses as from an urge to fatten the bottom line, the sense that there’s an extra buck to be made from some old holdings. The studios have a long history of neglecting their archives, but when hundreds of people come out and pay their money for Raw Deal (a tough little 1948 Anthony Mann picture opening this year’s festival), heads turn.

Muller is modest when discussing some of the DVD sets he has helped spark, but this propriety does nothing to disguise his missionary zeal. When he describes a preservation victory, such as an upcoming John Garfield DVD set, he beams. But as he mulls over decaying prints, his countenance turns worried. (Though gussied-up imprints like the Criterion Collection give the sense that the classics are safe, the films they release represent only a small fraction of what’s in the vaults.) Muller details his maneuverings for Joan Crawford films ("She is the force behind these films…. She is the auteur as much as John Waters is an auteur") and how he ended up trading 1952’s This Woman Is Dangerous for 1950’s The Damned Don’t Cry for this year’s fest. The urgency in his voice is from more than just trying to score an outrageous Crawford vehicle. "In these last five or six years," he says, "I’ve learned the possibility is very real that American culture can just decay and slip away."

Muller’s experience runs deep enough that it’s easy to forget Noir City is such a babe. A spree through three venues in five years (the festival has also run at the Balboa Theater) has a way of making a festival grow up fast, though the major renovation to Noir City has taken place behind the scenes. Formed in the autumn of 2005, the Film Noir Foundation was originally conceived of as a means to land the best available prints of rare films, something very much on Muller’s mind after his experience booking Edgar G. Ulmer’s gonzo 1945 B-movie Detour for the second Noir City.

"What I came to realize was that there are prints that are circuutf8g prints and there are prints that are archival prints," Muller says. "When we had [Detour ‘s] Ann Savage as a guest that second year, the only print in circulation of Detour was junk. I knew that the Cinémathèque Française had a print that was good, but they would never ship it to the Castro [a for-profit theater]. So that’s where the San Francisco Film Society stepped in, and they said they’d book it for us…. Altruism wasn’t my initial motivation for doing this. It was about getting the good prints."

In the time since, the Film Noir Foundation has blossomed into a vital preservation group. "It achieved a life of its own," Muller explains, "because it became a viable way to create an entity that presents a united front to the studios to show that there was a reason and a value in saving these films. In the case of The Window [a 1949 film that anticipates Hitchcock’s Rear Window] and Nobody Lives Forever [from 1946, a taut con man picture with a typically strong John Garfield performance], we’ve done the restoration and put them back in circulation, and they show at other festivals, and the film carries the Film Noir Foundation logo. It’s a way of saying [to the studios], ‘Look, if we do this, you’re going to get more bookings out of the film.’ We’re almost like a lobbying group for film noir."

For every victory like those films’ restoration — or, for that matter, bringing celebrity writers such as Denis Lehane and James Ellroy on to the foundation’s board — there are many grueling and perhaps futile battles. The foundation, for example, has located the elements and "contacted the people we need to contact," Muller says, to restore 1951’s The Prowler, an edgy feature about a sociopathic cop. The film might be a key noir, but the Film Noir Foundation hasn’t been able to fund the process (which Muller quotes at $40,000). The ultimate trick would be to get the studios to realize the potential and take on these costs themselves, and that is happening but not necessarily fast enough to keep many prints from disappearing. "Even films by major filmmakers," Muller adds. "There are Billy Wilder ones that are questionable…. [1942’s] The Major and the Minor — is anyone preserving that film?"

Muller relishes talking shop about forgotten films (this year 12 of 20 films in the Noir City program guide are marked, in red type, "RARITY!!! Never on VHS or DVD!" with one, 1949’s Abandoned, emphasized as being "RARE AS THEY COME!!!"). But it’s important to note that his programming is also deeply inclusive. Noir, like any singular, involved body of work, has its cult, but Muller’s aims are broad enough to keep the festival from feeling too much like a Trekkie convention. More important to him than his specific love of noir is his audience’s moviegoing experience.

"This is something that Anita really taught me," Muller explains. "When I was first programming, I’d try to load the program with all these rare, obscure things, and she said, ‘No, what you have to understand is that you appeal to people who get it, but they want to bring their friends and say, ‘You gotta see this! " He continues, "She was absolutely right. Show the traditional thing but book it with something obscure. Right out of the gate … [Noir City] showed The Lady from Shanghai with [the 1950 Ann Sheridan vehicle] Woman on the Run, and Woman on the Run was the rarest of the rare. No one had seen that. We filled the Castro that night, and people went nuts for that film, and that’s still the greatest moment we’ve had doing the festival."

Given Noir City’s emphasis on the big-screen experience, it might be surprising to learn that Muller himself first experienced many of the classic film noirs on late-night television. "I saw Detour for the first time at 3 a.m. on Movies ‘ Til Dawn," he reminisces. "You’re hallucinating these films. It’s great…. To have that be your first experience of Ann Savage: 3 a.m. when you’re 14 years old. You’re, like, ‘Who is this woman? ‘ "

It didn’t take long for Muller to graduate to the burgeoning rep scene in ’70s San Francisco, an era he reflects on in an aching piece ("Noir City, Our City") for Julie Lindow and R.A. McBride’s upcoming essay and photo collection about San Francisco’s dwindling movie theaters, Left in the Dark. "Theaters, as much as movies themselves, were landmarks of my early life," his contribution begins. "Films offered wishes and warnings about the life I could lead, the person I could be, but it was the movie houses that guided me through the streets and neighborhoods of San Francisco, introducing me to every nook and cranny of my 49-square-mile hometown."

It was noir that gave shape to Muller’s passion, and he’s hardly alone in this. I’ve often thought that the way the classic femme fatale seduces her doomed prey is the onscreen equivalent of the way films draw in — and obsess — their audiences. A great many movies are stylish and smart to the point of irresistibility; how many times has the promise of hard shadows and unrepentant fatalism at the theater won out over a sunny afternoon in the real world?

Famous for being vaguely defined as a species — as with folk music or modernism, there are common landmarks, but everyone seems to have their own criteria — the dark crime dramas of the ’40s were first christened film noir by French critics when the films flooded Paris en masse following the close of World War II. This was 1946 and, as it turns out, only the beginning. The grittiest, most whacked-out instances of noir, startling films such as D.O.A. and Gun Crazy (both released in 1950), Pickup on South Street (1953), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), arrived as Americans wrestled postwar demons and Hollywood entered an identity crisis that hinged on both Communism and television.

Most experts close noir’s door at the end of the ’50s, classifying related films following 1958’s Touch of Evil as neonoir (e.g., Chinatown, Mullholland Drive). A college professor of mine considered noir less a genre than a virus: a stylish, fatalistic streak infecting normal melodramas, gangster pictures, and even westerns and comedies. This jibes with the different ways noir announces itself: sometimes in the overall tone of a film, other times in a single character or lighting setup. Definitions aside, one emergent truth is a high benchmark of quality for films under the rubric. This film species has survived the decades better than most, especially those born of Hollywood. Schrader put it this way: "Picked at random, a film noir is likely to be a better-made film than a randomly selected silent comedy, musical, western, and so on."

Schrader follows this with the observation that "film noir seemed to bring out the best in everyone: directors, cameramen, screenwriters, actors." In other words, film noirs are creditable examples of what the esteemed critic André Bazin referred to as the "genius of the system," that strange mix of artistry, economics, and streamlined collaboration that helped to define the studio era. It’s a point not lost on Muller. "There are business factors as well as artistic factors that are brought to bear," he says. "You can’t look at one without the other." During our conversation an implicit criticism of auteurism (the mode of movie critique that is interested in films in terms of their directors) begins to emerge.

Muller has his favorite directors, of course, but he’s more interested in untangling a film’s production history — the messy business of sorting out who did what — than in pontificating about why one director’s style is better than another’s. (Indeed, auteurist debates often have the quality of those childhood arguments over whether Superman would beat Batman in a fight.) There are, of course, those directors who really did shape their own work, exerting an unusual degree of control, but far more typical is someone like Robert Wise, a by-assignment director who turned in salty noirs such as 1947’s Born to Kill and 1949’s The Set-Up (a superior boxing picture that runs circles around Raging Bull ) in addition to better-known schlock like The Sound of Music.

Considering the fact that so many of noir’s characters are fallen (the forgotten man and the spurned woman), it seems all too appropriate that the achievements of many of the form’s major contributors remain unsung. To take a sterling example, cinematographer John Alton is as responsible for the noir look as any director, doing for the city landscape what John Ford did for the open West. "We always have a John Alton night [at Noir City]," Muller says. "The guy is the uncredited director of some of those pictures…. Every director’s best film is with John Alton." Accordingly, this year’s Noir City will double-feature a pair of Alton-shot films, Joseph Lewis’s top-notch late noir The Big Combo (1955) and a new 35mm print of The Spiritualist (1948).

With Noir City showing additional programs spotlighting other little-known noir luminaries such as screenwriter William Bowers (1951’s Cry Danger and 1949’s Abandoned ) and actor Charles McGraw (1949’s The Threat and 1951’s Roadblock), as well as beefcake-era Burt Lancaster (1948’s I Walk Alone and, from the same year and costarring Joan Fontaine, Kiss the Blood off My Hands), it’s clear that Muller’s emphasis on a broadened sense of film production isn’t an abstract philosophy. It’s about recognizing real people and contributions, something crystallized by the fest’s guest appearances. Actress Marsha Hunt (Raw Deal) and actor Richard Erdman (Cry Danger) will appear this year, and past festivals have featured actors Farley Granger, Sean Penn, Coleen Grey (Nightmare Alley), and, of course, Detour‘s amazing Savage.

"The greatest thing to me about having done these festivals with the original people is that it gives audiences a view of noir that is very blue-collar, on the ground," Muller muses. "They never attached the name ‘film noir’ to it, but [it’s important] to talk with the actresses and to hear firsthand what they thought they were doing, and to get the writers’ point of view, which was by and large more politicized … much more so than the directors or the producers, who are a riot because they always say, ‘We shot it that way because we didn’t have a cent.’ "

When I ask Muller how the old-school talent responds to all this attention decades after the fact, he says plainly, "I can tell you in Ann’s case, it was the greatest night of her life. I mean, she has not stopped talking about it since. In some cases, it’s almost overwhelming." Such events are increasingly a challenge to put together; 60 years outside noir’s prime, it’s not getting any easier to find the genre’s original contributors. Robert Altman, who directed one of the first key neonoirs (1976’s The Long Goodbye), died the day before my meeting with Muller. If he’s gone, one wonders, how many of the original lot can be left?

The talent, of course, isn’t the only thing disappearing. DVDs are a wonderful auxiliary format for digesting cinema, but in the case of studio films from the classical era, it seems silly to contend that something isn’t lost without the full theatrical experience. A couple of weeks ago I went to the Castro to see Casablanca, a classical classic, not an extraordinary one like, say, Citizen Kane. I’d seen the film several times but never on a screen like the Castro’s. The moments when I felt its size most acutely were the most intimate ones: those interminable close-ups on Ingrid Bergman that so revel in the star’s introspective glamour. One cannot really grasp what these close-ups were designed to do without experiencing them on this scale. Everything comes into sharper relief in the theater: the close-ups are more wrenching, the dialogue funnier, the fantasy more complete.

Toward the end of his "Noir City, Our City" essay, Muller reflects on programming Noir City: "We tried to connect the audience, in a sort of cinematic séance, with 1940s era filmmakers and filmgoers," he writes. "San Francisco theaters appropriate to such a concept comprised a short list: the Castro and Balboa were the only ones still standing with even a trace of the old-style panache that once was commonplace." According to Muller, we ought to count ourselves lucky for those two. "It doesn’t really happen anyplace else," he says, referring to the electricity of a capacity crowd at the Castro. "New York has nothing like this. The best they can do is the Film Forum…. The Film Forum fills a need, but New York does not have a venue like the Castro. It does not have audiences like this, honestly."

And so, in the end, it’s about sitting alone together in the dark. Noir films possess the dream logic and stylization that make the theater necessary and, as an added bonus, a cynical sting that disintegrates any of the sloppy moralism or cheesy gentility that might otherwise taint our experience of classical Hollywood cinema (Schrader again: they are "an uneasy, exhilarating combination of realism and expressionism"). The work Muller does with Noir City strives toward many ends, but its most important function is also its most basic — strange and seductive, the films of Noir City often remind us why we fell for the movies in the first place. *


Jan. 26–Feb. 4, $10 per show, $35 for opening night program and reception, $100 for full series passport

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

New generation, old joy


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Once upon a time movie men were expected to be all action — confidence, whether in the form of a swagger or saunter, being the mark of the leading man. Such virility was served up uncooked by method actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, but it wasn’t until the baby boom generation ushered in unlikely stars such as Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson that the archetype really turned over. Realism was the new fantasy, and these actors went to great lengths to convey hurt. This tendency reached a peak during the indie cinema boom of the ’90s, with male leads wearing their wounds with newfound openness, flailing — or as writer-director Noah Baumbach would have it, kicking and screaming — at posteverything angst and political correctness. Several of this year’s most indelible male characters were racked with similar inaction but were also fleshed out with an altogether tougher skin than were their ’90s predecessors. They still struggled to come to terms with the present tense but in a more reserved, reflective kind of way.

Even with the Zach Braff vehicle The Last Kiss failing to stir Garden State fans, 2006 was a good year for boy-men. The fact that Keanu Reeves (A Scanner Darkly) continues to win parts is surely proof enough, but there were three American indies — Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson, Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy — that most poignantly located ambiguity (and cultural malaise) in the troubled expressions of their male leads. Is it telling that women had a major hand in making two of these films, with director Reichardt adapting Jon Raymond’s story for Old Joy and Anna Boden teaming with director Fleck to pen the script for Half Nelson? Probably so, especially when you consider that it’s the male-helmed Mutual Appreciation (written, directed, and costarring Bujalski) that most resembles the talky Generation X pictures made 10 years ago, albeit realized with a formal tact and thematic subtlety largely missing in those now-dated chronicles of ennui.

The fact that each of these films frames its character studies in a different way — Half Nelson is a social drama, Mutual Appreciation a relationship movie, and Old Joy the closest thing to lyric poetry we’re likely to get from American narrative cinema — makes their overlaps all the more striking. All the central characters are, to be sure, of the same milieu (Half Nelson and Mutual Appreciation even share a Brooklyn setting), and one imagines they would get along fine at the right party — a conclusion we can draw from their record collections. It’s clear enough from Half Nelson‘s Broken Social Scene soundtrack and Old Joy‘s Yo La Tengo score but even more embedded in the casting of Will Oldham in Old Joy and as-yet-unknown rocker Justin Rice in Mutual Appreciation: a nod to ’70s cinema, when art directors like Monte Hellman found muses in musician-actors like Kris Kristofferson, Warren Oates, and yup, James Taylor.

These singer-songwriters are known for suggesting emotion without resorting to histrionic literalism, so it’s natural that filmmakers aiming for opaque characterizations took an interest in them. If casting provides clay to mold (even Half Nelson‘s Ryan Gosling — an established actor — is enough of a blank slate for these purposes), it’s the filmmakers who supply the films’ crucial senses of diffusion and displacement. All these films are, at base, about characters fundamentally unsure of their place in the world, so it makes sense that they share a common focus on environment and mise-en-scène. Old Joy ‘s overcast Oregon woods function in much the same way as Mutual Appreciation‘s crummy, minimalist flats and protagonist Dan Dunne’s shut-in apartment in Half Nelson. The two estranged friends in Old Joy take a camping trip to get away from their lives but end up considerably more cloistered, with the trash-strewn, damp woods hanging over their heads as much as their past-tense relationship does. One especially lyrical shot shows the woods’ reflection rotating in their car’s window as they U-turn, lost in more than one sense. Meanwhile, in several of Mutual Appreciation‘s key scenes, the figures involved in the central ménage à trois listlessly rock back and forth, the thrift furniture and frameless mattresses an extension of their essential fear of commitment. And then there’s Half Nelson‘s Dan, an anguished hero split between a passion for teaching and a drug addiction, his shuttered, bookish flat betraying self-entrapment and lapsed idealism.

Lapses are another common denominator here — many of these films’ most affecting images are the silent beats in which we see the actors registering a sense of loss, be it nostalgia (the pause in Old Joy following Mark and Kurt’s conversation about a favorite record store going out of business) or regret (Dan’s hollowed expression when caught smoking crack by a knowing student). Mutual Appreciation‘s characters have hardly started their adult lives, but when rocker Alan looks at himself in the mirror, in drag after a drunken odyssey, the seed is already there; 10 years down the line, his problems will be Mark’s and Kurt’s. Politics hang in the air like weather (Mark listens to Air America with a blank expression; Dan is distant while his parents discuss their bygone activism) as if preemptively remembering the present. Kicking and screaming, no: instead, as Kurt’s Old Joy tag goes, "Sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy." It’s hardly a sentiment to stake a straightforward portrait of a generation on, but while these films probably lose something in box office terms for not having the cachet of Reality Bites or, for that matter, The Graduate, they more than make up for it with their uncloying characterizations. Even Brando might find the roles opaque, but for these films it would be a mistake to confuse ambiguity with aimlessness. *


Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, US)

L’Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)

Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski, US)

The Intruder (Claire Denis, France)

Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, US/Iraq)

Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, US)

Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, US)

The Proposition (John Hillcoat, Australia/UK)

Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, France/Taiwan)

A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, US)

Embedded: A Q&A with Iraq in Fragments director James Longley


It only takes a few minutes of watching Iraq in Fragments to recognize that the film stands apart from the Iraqumentary pack: dazzling cinematography in place of the dull visuals of the evening news, slice-of-life narration instead of talking heads. Divided into three sections, director James Longley’s reportage shows us the everyday chaos in Baghdad and beyond with dramatic vividness — a vividness that, if nothing else, makes us realize how degraded most of the imagery we receive from Iraq is at the moment. Longley’s style owes as much to neorealism as it does to vérité documentary, with an emphasis on rhythm, ritual (school, shaving, washing feet), and — somewhat tiresomely — child perspectives. The director doesn’t explicate politics and often drops us into complex situations without explanation — he expects a lot from his audience but at the same time knows that the tangled human emotions cast before us will give the film meaning. It’s the kind of ambitious work one imagines a director like Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers) would have made if he’d had access to digital technology.
Though the film nabbed a couple of major awards at Sundance, it’s taken months for Iraq in Fragments to get a proper theatrical release here. Fortunately for Longley, the film’s material is evergreen, not tied to specific events, and still wholly relevant to the unfolding devastation. I spoke with the director during last spring’s San Francisco International Film Festival.
SFBG: How did you decide to make a documentary about Iraq?
JAMES LONGLEY: In 2002 I premiered Gaza Strip [his first feature-length documentary] up in Seattle, and someone asked me what I was going to do next. By then it was already clear that we were going to invade Iraq … and I just said I was going to make a film about Iraq. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, I didn’t know what to expect, but I just decided [to] dive in no matter what.
SFBG: After getting kicked out of the country in the immediate buildup to the US invasion, when and how did you return to Baghdad?
JL: I waited for [the war] to end in Cairo. The last two weeks in April, the war was running down, the statue fell, and I flew immediately from Cairo to Amman, Jordan, and then drove across the border, which was totally open. I just kind of settled in. I had my camera and found an apartment. I found people to work with as translators and started filming.
SFBG: It’s striking how comfortable the film’s subjects seem around your camera, especially since you’re an American. How do you go about getting embedded in this way?
JL: Mostly it’s just a matter of making friends with people and hanging out…. It was a conscious choice to have that feeling of being a fly on the wall. When you make that choice, you do whatever it takes … and really, what it takes is a lot of patience. I went through 12 different translators. The difficult thing for them was when I would go out to a farm or wherever I was filming and just stay there from morning until night, just hanging out. Most people demand some kind of action, but in this case the work was really in action, punctuated by really fast decision making. You’re going to be a fixture in this place. Everyone’s going to know who you are, and you’re going to have to say hi to everyone and drink tea with everyone day after day…. If you’re willing to do that, after a while people won’t think it’s such a big deal when you’re filming.
SFBG: Given the on-the-fly nature of the scenes, Iraq in Fragments is also a powerfully cinematic documentary. How does this level of film style factor into your direction?
JL: When I was shooting the film, I was definitely thinking of cinema, not of television. I grew up hating TV and never actually had one…. Conceptualizing the movie while shooting it, I was always thinking, “What’s this shot going to look like on the big screen?” Having that in your mind the whole time changes the way you imagine it, changes the way you shoot; it changes everything. I want to shoot the next film in high-def 3-D [laughs]. (Max Goldberg)
Opens Nov. 10 in Bay Area theaters

Broken social scene


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Brooklyn, like Oakland and the Mission District, has swelled in the last decade with postadolescents: beards and black hoodies wandering streets on the verge of gentrification. This intermediary space is the setting and premise for indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski’s latest, Mutual Appreciation. Bujalski first made a splash with Boston-based Funny Ha Ha (2002), an unassuming feature made in the tradition of talky indie forbearers John Cassavetes, Eric Rohmer, and Richard Linklater. Mutual Appreciation again collects a group of guarded postgraduates for its cast, but the film is no angsty trifle. Bujalski pulls off that impossible trick — always surprising no matter the influences — of affecting a naturalistic, improvisational flow while maintaining a clear authorial voice. It’s a dynamic that picks up steam with each exquisitely staged scene, making Mutual Appreciation as absorbing as anything you’re likely to see at the movies this year.
How then do we account for this guided freewheel? Cinematography is, as always, at least part of the answer. The grainy 16mm black-and-white film stock isn’t mere affectation but rather a functional stylistic element, underscoring the drab reality of the movie’s unsettled spaces: apartments with everything secondhand and mismatched, unmade beds on nicked hardwood floors, and rooms that are either too big (making one fret over the lack of proper furniture) or too small (making one crouch). Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky court these challenging spaces, always coming up with a revealing composition that frames characters in depth — splayed against walls or hunched in makeshift chairs.
While Bujalski has clearly done his homework on no-budget cinematography, his narration style seems more instinctual and basic to the film’s shape. Like exemplar François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Mutual Appreciation pivots on a youthful, untested ménage à trois: boyfriend-girlfriend Lawrence (Bujalski) and Ellie (Rachel Clift) have lived in Brooklyn for some time, while Lawrence’s old friend Alan (Justin Rice) is new in town, lost in an existential quandary over his life and music (“It’s like pop”). Like so many of his progenitors, Bujalski has an innate sense for particular rhythms of talk. This isn’t just a matter of dialogue (“If you kiss me now, my breath’s going to be all beery and burrito-y”) but also of editing — knowing, for example, how to exit a scene, convey a relationship with an unevenly paced phone conversation, and let the camera run on a given close-up to register a character’s unguarded reactions.
More impressive is the way Bujalski subtly orchestrates little one-acts to achieve genuine drama. The principle instance of such narrative structuring is in the many scenes between Lawrence and Ellie, and Alan and Ellie, but none between the old friends in question (until the closing minutes anyhow). If Mutual Appreciation’s narrative seems accidental, it’s a testament to Bujalski’s understated technique. There is certainly method here, from repetitions of dialogue (“That’s flattering”) and theme (gender confusion) to the patient unveiling of character, the apotheosis of which is a sequence of scenes tracing Alan from one Warholian party to another, no better for the omnipresent tallboys of beer.
What begins as nonchalant talk blooms into compelling drama by movie’s end. It seems no coincidence that one of Mutual Appreciation’s three main characters is an indie rocker. Bujalski, after all, registers the fear and trembling that twentysomethings expect from music (middlebrow Indiewood being as unlikely to produce something relatable as the French “cinema of quality” from which the New Wave broke away). But Mutual Appreciation is more than an outlet; in its illuminating narration, many will see a mirror, an ode to these transitional places in which one blusters toward adulthood, talking all the way. SFBG
Opens Fri/29
Red Vic Movie House
1727 Haight, SF
(415) 668-3994
For an interview with Mutual Appreciation director Andrew Bujalski, go to

After the Revolution


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If you have any interest in seeing Philippe Garrel’s latest feature on the big screen, its three San Francisco International Film Festival screenings may be your only chance. While Regular Lovers is a major film by an important director associated with the French new wave, it’s hard to fathom a distributor gambling on a three-hour foray into French history with more emphasis on philosophy than on plot. In its reconsideration of the chaos that was 1968, the film is, in part, a response to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers; there was a time when European art cinema mattered enough for this kind of exchange to turn heads, but such is not the case in today’s film culture.

If that seems too gloomy an opening, it should be said that Garrel’s disillusioned movie is all about things coming to an end. Whereas Bertolucci’s last film builds to epochal May ’68, Regular Lovers opens with fighting in the streets. Our protagonist, a young poet-radical named François (played by Louis Garrel, who also starred in The Dreamers and just happens to be Garrel’s son), skirts through the Latin Quarter as unorganized bands of freedom fighters overturn cars and toss Molotov cocktails. Garrel has said that this ghostly hour-long sequence attempts to re-create the documentary footage he himself shot during 1968, and, indeed, the perspective is almost journalistic in its distance. In one long shot, a man and woman embrace in the corner of the frame while cars burn a few meters away. If he had filmed the same scene, Bertolucci would have stylistically emphasized the kissing because, for him, this was a time when sex and politics were inextricably linked. Garrel’s vision is colder but makes more sense with 40 years of hindsight. For him, the romance and sexual liberation come after the revolution, or, more precisely, these elements (along with other distractions like opium and music) shift the revolution’s focus away from the political and toward the personal

And so it is that François falls in love with Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), a pensive girl-with-bangs who is a sculptor and goes to all the right parties. Young François trades his idealistic politics and poetry for romance and an increasingly nihilistic take on bohemianism, moving from the action of the Latin Quarter to the inertia of opium dens and artists’ lofts. By the film’s end, the events of May ’68 seem like more of a head trip (at one point François wonders whether it’s possible to "make the revolution for the working class despite the working class") than a true revolution.

Throughout Regular Lovers, there’s an obvious tension in the way Garrel uses ’60s-era new wave conventions (handheld camera, location shooting, etc.) to undercut that same decade’s mythos. But careful, the Paris of this film isn’t that of Breathless. Gone are the exhilarated long shots of boulevards and canals; Garrel pictures the city as a series of shadowy, bare interiors and geometric exteriors — more along the lines of Fritz Lang’s nightmarish visions of Berlin than, say, Cléo from 5 to 7.

Now that we’re seeing the return of the repressed in French culture and cinema (France’s postcolonial legacy haunts Michael Haneke’s Caché as well as at least three films playing at this year’s SFIFF: The Betrayal, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, and October 17, 1961), the entropy of Garrel’s narrative arc seems that much more dark and, as Paris burns once again, tragic. Although overlong and sometimes didactic, Regular Lovers reveals a filmmaker impressively responsive to change. SFBG


(Philippe Garrel, France, 2005)

Fri/21, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki

Sun/23, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki

April 29, 8:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

Native son


The John Smith-Pocahontas romance has long been a cornerstone of America’s mythical landscape. He being the original Man Who Knows Indians (an archetype sealed by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans), and she standing in for the land itself: Embodying equal parts purity and promise, Pocahontas represents an ideal, a paradise. The myth of their doomed love speaks to how this paradise was won and then lost. It is a story that Terrence Malick – a writer-director whose work has always sloped toward myth and, in The Thin Red Line, epic poetry – has wanted to tap for decades and finally does in his strange new film, The New World.

The New World is the departure and even, perhaps, the failure that many critics were expecting from Malick’s comeback film, The Thin Red Line. Despite Line’s 170-minute running time, the writer-director’s take on James Jones’s panoramic World War II novel was every bit as entrancing as his revered earlier films (Badlands, Days of Heaven). The New World runs 135 minutes (the version I saw was actually 150 minutes: The movie was recut after already screening across the country), and, this time, Malick does seem to have sacrificed clarity and control for the sake of spectacle. Still, the movie is certainly an important addition to a powerfully coherent filmography. He retains his formidable talent for grounding his characters in a specific geography, and he remains refreshingly concerned with their interiority: Few movie characters have souls as deep as Malick’s.

The writer-director’s movies are all marked by a stark tension between hyperrealism and voice-over-laden stylization (a muted style being no less a style than a flashy one). Much has been made of Malick’s heavily researched, no-artificial-lighting depiction of Jonestown, and, indeed, the naturalistic, cinema verité rendering of America’s first colony is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s lightning-bolt Aguirre: The Wrath of God (though Colin Farrell’s John Smith doesn’t have a hundredth the intensity of Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre). The film’s opening, which conveys the initial landing with Wagner-fueled bombast, is suitably revelatory and exemplary of Malick’s talent for lyricism.

With that said, there can, of course, be too much of a good thing. The depiction of Pocahontas and Smith’s courtship is almost insane in its unrelenting camera movements, flashes of elegiac sunlight, and impressionistic footage of plants – the scenes almost seem a parody of lyricism. The real problem here is that Malick’s aesthetic isn’t reigned in by a tight narrative construction (despite its expansive running time, The Thin Red Line never erred from a carefully plotted narrative mechanism). This Pocahontas is more human than her Disney counterpart (both because of Q’Orianka Kilcher’s performance and because the character receives a voice-over), but not enough to direct Malick’s labored gaze. By the time the story moves her to England with eventual husband John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and picks up some melodramatic heft from the heroine’s tragic arc, our attention has wavered too far for too long; the film’s many digressive passages fail to materialize into a whole.

Given how slippery The New World is, the film is set to solicit strong critical reactions. It’s indulgent and difficult to classify and will therefore push critics to extremes. In actuality, The New World really is what it seems: a fascinating failure with brilliant flourishes weighing against strained seriousness and muddled lyricism. As far as mythic American lovers in recent movies go, I think I’ll take Johnny and June over John and Pocahontas, but Malick’s vision still makes The New World worth a trip to the big screen. If the writer-director has finally stumbled, it proves what one might have guessed all along: that a Terrence Malick failure is many times more interesting than an average filmmaker’s success. While Malick might be misguided in trying to coax poetry out of a form – prestige Hollywood filmmaking – hardly known for being uncompromised, it’s difficult not to admire the ambition.

THE NEW WORLD  Opens Fri/20  Selected Bay Area theaters  For theater and show time info, go to