Sam Stander

Year in Film: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ Eclectic 2013 Countdown


16. Oldboy (Spike Lee, US) and Drug War (Johnnie To, China/Hong Kong) Two films from two of the hardest-working filmmakers in the biz. Though close to an hour and 20 minutes were butchered from Lee’s reimagining of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film, it still offered an audacious look at entitlement in America. And To delivered yet another taut gangsters vs. cops drama that ranks up there with The Mission (1999) and PTU (2003).

15. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, US) and Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK) The best psychedelic mindfucks of 2013.

14. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland/Denmark) and Walker and Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, France/Taiwan) Both filmmakers embody the importance of taking one’s time to do it right. And whoever said transcendental cinema is just for the Dardenne brothers?

13. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan) and Mud (Jeff Nichols, US) Masterful, and medicine for my daddy issues.

12. Bastards (Claire Denis, France/Germany) and Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea) Jonas Mekas should be proud … Baudelairean cinema is alive and well. And I can’t get the faces of actors Vincent Lindon and Lee Eun-woo out of my head.

11. The Dirties (Matt Johnson, Canada) and Magic Magic (Sebastián Silva, Chile/US) I’m not sure which was nastier: Johnson’s bravado, Dawson’s Creek-meets-Man Bites Dog debut, or Michael Cera’s treatment of a losing-her-marbles Juno Temple in Silva’s Chilean tale.

10. Beijing Flickers (Zhang Yuan, China) and A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke, China/Japan) “Sixth Generation” Chinese cinema is vibrantly alive and well. Do yourself a favor and get wrapped up in these explosive films.

9. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US) and Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, US) As John Waters says, “Woody Allen makes straight relationships seem interesting.” Not only should both Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins get Oscar nods for Blue Jasmine, but Andrew Dice Clay should actually win. Add to that Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater’s most profound film of their trilogy — I can’t wait for the next three.

8. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, UK) and Sion Sono’s The Land of Hope (Sion Sono, Japan/Taiwan/UK/Germany) Both of these cult directors recognize that the loss of personal relationships are as serious as the end of the world. Multiple viewings are recommended.

7. Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, India) and The Canyons (Paul Schrader, US) Exploitation cinema that practices what it preaches seems to always be misunderstood or disrespected upon its initial release. The fact that India even allowed Miss Lovely to be made is as exciting as Paul Schrader’s decision to cast troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan.

6. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Nepal/US) and Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, France/UK/US) Be patient and rewards will come in these minimalist, deeply moving journeys.

5. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US) and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, US) Don’t stop with Korine’s ode to the ultimate American neon fever dream. I dare you to experience Bay’s pumped-up screwball satire. Added bonus: Dwayne Johnson turns in one of the funniest performances of the year.

4. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, US), plus Aningaaq (Jonás Cuarón, US) Mainstream cinema got it right this year and these Oscar-baiting films deserve more credit than just some awards. They might be changing a whole generation. If you haven’t watched the younger Cuarón’s Greenland-set Gravity companion short, go online ASAP. It’s as good as any feature this year.

3. Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy: Love, Faith, and Hope (Austria/France/Germany) Hands down, the best political-art-porn trilogy of the decade. I can’t choose which one is my favorite.

2. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines) Diaz’s four-hour masterpiece about a group of existentialist 20-somethings encapsulates why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

1. The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, US) I will say it, and I will say it loudly: The Lone Ranger is the most subversive Hollywood film since Starship Troopers (1997). This uncompromising, revisionist Western is surprisingly ruthless with its all-American violence, and is highlighted by offbeat slapstick performances (by both Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer) and action scenes that audiences will get to uncover for decades to come. I’ve watched it four times, and it’s only gotten better with each viewing.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks writes film festival reviews for the SF Bay Guardian, curates Midnites for Maniacs at the Castro and Roxie, and is the Film History Coordinator at Academy of Art University.



1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, US/France)

2. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, US)

3. John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, US)

4. Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, US)

5. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada)

6. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US)

7. The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson, US)

8. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, UK)

9. [tie] Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, US) and You’re Next (Adam Wingard, US)

10. [tie] The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, US/UK/France/Germany/Japan) and Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US)

11. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/UK)

Eternal spring


Chris Marker did not seem to see a hard distinction between cities and their people. The cat-loving leftist documentarian, whose distinctly poetic outlook we sadly lost last year, is probably best known for his experimental sci-fi short La Jetée (1962) and his ethnography-cum fictionalized-travel-memoir Sans Soleil (1983), film-school favorites both available through the Criterion Collection.

But his filmography goes much deeper than that, and often focuses on the inner life of human and political organisms. Restored and screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Le Joli Mai is a 1962 collaboration with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, which traipses geographically and temporally around Paris in May ’62. Much of the movie consists of man-and-woman-on-the-street interviews, with an assortment of more settled chats in people’s homes or workplaces. Framed by a chimera of English and French narration, by Simone Signoret and Yves Montand respectively, the film gives its “biggest roles” to “free people, those who are able to question, to refuse, to undertake, to think, or simply to love.”

Marker investigates these free people’s attitudes toward their professions, their social lives, their home city, the housing problems of Paris, the Algerian War, and numerous other subjects close to their hearts. Some are passionately political, while others think it’s best to keep silent or ignore certain crises — a cross-section of political approaches that echoes throughout modern society, whether in Europe or the United States. Indeed, seeing this movie now with its specificity of time and place, it’s possible to imagine a not-too-different portrait of, say, 2012 Paris, or Los Angeles, or London.

During the mostly casual interviews, Lhomme’s camera wanders, never too committed to its initial subject to notice something more interesting in the background, or even just elsewhere on the subject’s person. Marker and Lhomme’s approach is almost never without levity — people’s opinions on the issues of the day are not to be mocked necessarily, but neither are they to be taken at face value. They’re all just people, and the texture of the film repeatedly reinforces that truth. In one segment, a talkative inventor loses the spotlight to a spider crawling on his suit. In another, as two engineering consultants debate in complex Marxist terms the future of labor, the film cuts away over and over to close-ups on the faces of housecats, serving as both commentary and comic relief for the heated discussion.

Marker and Lhomme strive to represent the true diversity and cultural fabric of ’62 Paris. Their subjects include poets, a painter, an inventor of automotive technology, a pair of teenage stock market assistants, an introverted single theater seamstress and cat-lover, a worker from Algeria, a student from Dahomey, a poor family finally granted more spacious housing, an ex-clergyman turned union militant, and on and on.

In the film’s final act, a montage of city symphony-esque time lapse shots of the city and a litany of statistics about life, death, and resources in the month of May gives way to a glimpse at Paris’ not-so-free inhabitants. Finally, Marker offers a reflective monologue (via Signoret) in a style that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Sans Soleil, and which also prefigures Werner Herzog’s sci-fi-tinged epilogue to his Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). Marker makes a literary text of the human face, offering his interpretations and looking for recurring themes among the wildly diverse denizens of Paris; he imagines how a “Martian just landed on the planet Earth” might read these human documents, and philosophizes about what plagues these haunted-looking faces.

His poetic extrapolation might frustrate some viewers, as it leaps beyond the boundaries of empirical detail to ponder the collective psyche of the people of Paris, but this is Marker’s true gift. He is an imaginative reader of the human face, mind, and heart as they operate in an urban environment, and his critique from 1962 is as valuable as ever today. *


LE JOLI MAI opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters.

They see me rollin’


YEAR IN FILM Two of 2012’s finest, most philosophical, and most frustrating movies share a setting of sorts. Although one film takes place in New York, the other in Paris, both films’ protagonists spend a lot of time in their white stretch limousines. The limo: an ostentatious symbol of status and wealth, a home away from home.

In David Cronenberg’s unsettling Don DeLillo adaptation Cosmopolis, it’s superwealthy magnate Eric Packer (a defanged Robert Pattinson) who eats, fucks, and talks business in a limo, trapped in ever-worsening NYC traffic. For Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, the limousine is also place of business. When I first saw Holy Motors, I noted the “limo-as-liminal-space” — Oscar’s limousine is his dressing room, a place of transformation for the chameleonic arch-performer.

>>Read more from our Year in Film 2012 issue here.

This common factor, though coincidental, is not accidental. The limousine as symbol and space is crucial to the structure of both films, which I’ve taken half-facetiously to calling “limo operas.” In both, white stretch limos are distinctive cells in the secret circulatory system of late capitalist society. Their passengers have a privileged viewpoint — they can see out, but others can’t see in. When the camera joins the passengers inside the limo, the city becomes an almost unreal backdrop for the private activities within.

In Cosmopolis, there’s an ongoing, ambivalent dialogue about the dispersal of all things into data; everything is getting smaller, faster, swept away by the flow of “cyber-capital.” But Eric Packer, whose vast wealth is about to collapse due to minute changes in the value of the yuan, is obsessed with large, worldly purchases. He has two private elevators with specialized soundtracks, and a Soviet bomber plane that he keeps in a hangar. He’s insistent that he wants to buy the Rothko Chapel, despite its nature as a public artwork. And he describes his limo as a car sawed in half and expanded. He’s had his limo “Prousted” — lined with soundproof cork like Marcel Proust’s bedroom — which he describes as “a gesture … a thing a man does.” The soundproofing doesn’t work, though. His limousine is a performance of his ego, and of its futility.

It’s also an object in the movie’s central dialogue about systems that operate beyond perception. Much like units of encrypted economic information, limos push through the city announcing the self-importance of their passengers. They might be carrying a president or a celebrity, but one of Packer’s employees reminds him that limos also connote “kids on prom night, or some dumb wedding.” And then they go away. Packer asks, “Where do all these limos go at night?” and he finally gets an answer from his limo driver — there are underground garages — they slumber beneath the city. Even his driver’s description of the garages reinforces the weird information-value of the vehicle — “a marketplace of limos.”

Oscar’s limo in Holy Motors is perhaps less of a grand statement to the public, but it’s still a sort of grandiose contradiction on wheels. Oscar is an actor who fulfills “appointments” — enigmatic, prearranged convergences with other lives, where he transmutes into elaborately conceived new beings, for an audience of no one and everyone. When another strange figure, the critic to Oscar’s artist, appears in the limo, Oscar explains his less convincing performances as a result of technological progress: “I miss the cameras. They used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads. Now you can’t see them at all.” And so he prepares for his appointments in an eminently visible, garishly substantial machine. In the world of Holy Motors, white stretch limos are apparently markers of Oscar’s trade — when his limo collides with another, it is coincidentally also carrying a performer, his old flame, en route to her own appointment.

In contrast to Cosmopolis, Carax’s film gives a glimpse inside the occluded space of the garage where limos sleep — literally. In its amusing and crucial final scene, Holy Motors returns to the titular motor pool, and eavesdrops on the after-hours gossiping of an entire fleet of sentient limousines. One laments that they’ll soon all be junked, and another agrees: “Men don’t want visible machines anymore.” But visible machines are precisely what Oscar wants, so he makes his office in a limo.

Both Packer and Oscar are aging, battling obsolescence while stubbornly clinging to old operating procedures. In these two films, deeply entrenched in commenting on the withering progress of postmodern life, the stretch limo is a loud, defiant holdout. You might even call it a relic — it is, after all, a holy motor. *


Read more from Sam Stander at





1. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, US, 2011)

2. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/US, 2011)

3. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada/France/Portugal/Italy)

4. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, US)

5-6. [tie] Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, US, 2011)/The Avengers (Joss Whedon, US)

7-8. [tie] Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, US/Ireland, 2011)/Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, US)

9. Whores’ Glory (Michael Glawogger, Germany/Austria, 2011)

10. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France/Germany)

11. Pina (Wim Wenders, Germany/France/UK, 2011)

12. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)

13. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, US, 2011) 14. This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2011) 15. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK, 2011)

Bucky lives! More from SFIFF 2012


Read Sam Stander’s earlier San Francisco International Film Festival report here.

Sam Green’s The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, which he performed twice on Tuesday, May 1, with live accompaniment from Yo La Tengo, is technically a documentary. But it’s a sort of gonzo documentary, a piece of performance art that emphasizes Green’s enthusiasm for his subject, the bespectacled architect-prophet Bucky Fuller.

On Tue/1, Green stood at the bottom left of the screen with a microphone; the three-piece band was opposite him. This format, which Green developed for his previous “live documentary” Utopia in Four Movements, allows for him to interact in the moment with his audience as well as his footage. In one particularly fun moment, while introducing a filmed interview segment, Green timed his commentary so that the onscreen figure’s face seemed to respond to his words, drawing big laughs.

Yo La Tengo’s score was often unobtrusive, rolling beneath the surface of the recorded sound of video clips to add atmosphere. But at key moments it burst into action, as with the clip of Fuller’s demonstration of his Dymaxion Car, where percussive rumbles highlighted the explosive potential of the invention while also foreshadowing its equally drastic end (the car would crash, killing its test-driver, at a later demonstration). In a Q&A following the performance, the band indicated that Green’s temporary score for the work featured a lot of its recorded music, giving it a sense for what sounds to use in the final live version.

One of the most exciting aspects of the “live documentary” format is the focus it places on Green as storyteller and explorer. He’s infectiously enamored of Fuller’s utopian ideas – something that came across abundantly in my interview with him before the San Francisco International Film Festival, but which might get lost in a static documentary striving to convey objective facts. With Green on the stage, emoting and expressing his thoughts, the inherent subjectivity of any documentary effort is liberated, allowing him to be the voice of Fuller’s ideas in an inspiring twist on the medium.

Bay Area local Green has expressed a desire to continue developing and performing the piece, so catch it if you can.

On the scene: SFIFF, week one!


Guardian film critic Sam Stander was among the crowds this past weekend as the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival kicked off its programming. The festival continues through May 3 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.; SF Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; and Sundance Kabuki Cinema, 1881 Post, SF. Check out additional Guardian coverage here, here, here, and here. Remaining festival playdates (and additional screening info) are noted after each review below.

The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2011) Perhaps the seed was planted by the festival programmer who introduced the screening with a mention of Woody Allen, but this latest black & white film from the South Korean auteur feels akin to Stardust Memories (1980) and 8 1/2 (1963), a cleverly convoluted exploration of an artist’s anxieties. When lapsed filmmaker Sungjoon returns to Seoul to visit a friend, his encounters with compatriots and lovers old and new spiral into repetition and absurdity; the truth of any given situation is essentially inaccessible, leading to often uproarious contradictions, especially with a sympathetic audience like that at the Kabuki Fri/20. This is what one might call a movie-movie, a trip through deception of self and others through the medium of cinematic expression. Mon/23, 9:30pm, Kabuki; April 25, 9pm, PFA. Also plays SF Film Society Cinema May 4-10.

Bonsái (Cristián Jiménez, Chile/France/Argentina/Portugal, 2011) Adapted from Alejandro Zambra’s acclaimed novella, this cleverly structured and sweetly sad film positively wallows in literary allusions. Julio is supposed to transcribe the newest work by novelist Gazmuri, but when he’s passed over for someone cheaper, Julio writes his own manuscript and tells his girlfriend it’s Gazmuri’s. The film flips back and forth between Julio’s college years (the grist for his novel) and his present life, full of anxiety and ennui. He and his lost love, Emilia, used to read every night before bed, and a running joke about Proust serves as a charming framing device. The bonsai tree of the title plays a relatively small role, more a metaphor than a filmic image, but Jiménez’s presentation of how one man tries to shape his own story like a bonsai is touching, if sometimes emotionally simplistic. Tue/24, 6:30pm, PFA.

Oslo, August 31 (Joachim Trier, Norway, 2011) Heroin movies are rarely much fun, and Oslo is no exception, though here the stress lies not in grisly realism but visceral emotional honesty. Following an abortive, Virginia Woolf-esque suicide attempt during evening leave from his rehab center, recovering addict Anders visits Oslo for a job interview. He reconnects bittersweetly with an old friend, tries and fails to meet up with his sister, and eventually submerges himself in the nightlife that once fueled his self-destruction. Expressionistic editing conveys Anders’ sense of detachment and urge for release, with scenes and sounds intercut achronologically and striking sound design which homes in on stray conversations. A late intellectual milieu is signified throughout, quite humorously, by serious discussions of popular television dramas, presumably an update of similar concerns addressed in Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel Le Feu follet, on which the film is based. April 27, 9:15pm, FSC.

The Source (Jodi Wille and Maria Demopolous, USA, 2012) Remembered for its health food restaurant and musical recordings, the early-’70s cult known as the Source Family was at once an archetypal utopian post-hippy community and a bizarre, unique twist on the notorious subcultures of that era. Charismatic leader Jim Baker, a.k.a. Father Yod, experimented with various branches of mysticism and philosophy, and surrounded himself with over 100 followers at the society’s peak. Eventually casting himself as a god on earth, Yod’s relationship with his “family” became increasingly complex and problematic, but some of his followers still subscribe to his teachings. Among them is family historian Isis Aquarian, whose photos and footage provide the backbone of this engrossing documentary, along with the images taken by other family members. The filmmakers successfully present Yod as an exceptionally powerful personality without valorizing him unduly – a great feat, presenting a not-too-worshipful biography of a self-proclaimed deity. April 27, 3pm, Kabuki; April 29, 6:15pm, FSC.

The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA/Denmark, 2012) Photographer Lauren Greenfield set out to document the life of the Siegel family, a timeshare dynasty in the process of building the biggest house in America, a palatial edifice inspired by Versailles. But what she stumbled upon was a much richer story, as Westgate Resorts founder David Siegel and his wife, former computer engineer and beauty queen Jackie Siegel, fell on hard times when the economy crashed in 2008. Their maddeningly luxurious lifestyle has suddenly become a strain on their resources; the lives of their seven children and one niece, as well as their domestic staff, change drastically as they struggle to adjust. David’s financial turmoil over the megalithic PH Towers in Las Vegas provides a backdrop to their tumultuous family life, but what emerges is a mix of ironic humor and biting tragedy, and a surprisingly persistent familial bond. Theatrical release, summer 2012.

A hundred visions and revisions


SFIFF R. Buckminster Fuller was born before the turn of the last century, and died before the start of this one. But place his philosophical and practical output next to any contemporary thinker, and something seems a bit off.

“He was totally out of sync with his time,” says SF-based documentarian Sam Green (2004’s The Weather Underground). “He was talking about green building in the 1930s or ’40s.”

You might know Fuller as the designer of the geodesic dome or the namesake of buckyball molecules, but Green, in conjunction with a new exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is working to establish his reputation as a precursor to modern progressive-tech culture. On May 1, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Green will regale audiences at the SFMOMA with a “live documentary” presentation, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, featuring a live score by Yo La Tengo.

The exhibit, “The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area,” is already open, and features an installation called Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area: A Relationship in 12 Fragments (inspired by the Dymaxion Chronofile), a collaboration between Green and SF projection-design firm Obscura Digital. The installation is a collage-like film projected on a sculpture inspired by Fuller’s “Dymaxion Map” of the world; the film is an exploration of Fuller’s maddeningly comprehensive personal archive, acquired by Stanford University in 1999.

“Fuller never built anything in the Bay Area, although he proposed a couple projects, and he never lived in the Bay Area, but his influence actually is pretty profound,” notes Green. “Especially on the counterculture, and specifically on the part of the counterculture that eventually morphed into early computer and Silicon Valley culture.” His drive to create efficient, waste-free systems through design and architecture inspired information technology as much as it foreshadowed the green movement.

So what makes Fuller anything more than just a fascinating mad scientist? “We’re not driving the [Dymaxion Car], and most of us are not living in domes or the Dymaxion House. So in some sense you could say he didn’t succeed,” admits Green. “But to me, what’s most relevant and most valuable about him really is that he was inspired to do everything he did by a belief that, through [better design], one could solve the problems of the world.”

“At the heart of all of his activities was a really simple idea, and he was saying this since the ’20s: there’s more than enough resources in the world so that everybody on the planet could have a very comfortable life,” Green muses. “And he really passionately believed that was possible. In some ways, to me, that’s the love song of R. Buckminster Fuller — love of humanity — which sounds a little corny but I really do feel like that was what drove him. He was a person of incredible energy and was on a mission for 50 years, and at the heart of it, I think, was that.”

This is Green’s second foray into the format he innovated with Utopia in Four Movements for SFIFF in 2010, which featured music by Brooklyn band the Quavers and is still touring around the world. “I’m charmed by the format and feel like there’s a lot of potential, a lot more I want to try with it,” Green says of this return to live documentary. “It also seems very appropriate for Fuller; he was somebody who was just a phenomenal speaker. So there seemed to be something about him that fit with this idea of a live documentary, the performative aspects of who he was.”

“It’s only through doing a live piece that you learn what works and what doesn’t. It’s almost like a comedy routine,” Green observes. “You do it and you feel that people respond to certain parts, they don’t respond to other parts, and you grow it and edit it and shape it based on that.”

As to whether or not he thinks there’s more to explore in the world of Bucky Fuller, he says, “With this I’m doing a live piece and an installation, and I may at some point do just a regular documentary about Fuller. I’m open. I’m certainly not done with him yet.”


The necessity of images


FILM Jafar Panahi is no longer allowed to make films in Iran. So, with the help of documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, he made This Is Not a Film.

After arrests in 2009 and 2010, Panahi was sentenced to a 20-year ban from filmmaking and a six-year prison term for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” as reported by the Green Voice of Freedom, a human rights website. He is also barred from leaving the country or giving interviews.

This Is Not a Film, an “effort” credited to him and Mirtahmasb, was smuggled from Iran for its premiere at Cannes in 2011. Its title is an obvious provocation, and in translation a nod to Magritte’s ubiquitous painting of (not) a pipe, The Treachery of Images. Its content seems simple: Panahi eats breakfast and gets dressed in long, self-shot takes. Then, after Mirtahmasb arrives to take over the camera, he talks to his lawyer, begins to narrate and reconstruct the last film he was working on, explores memories of filmmaking, and interacts with his neighbors. The editing becomes more complex, more cinematic, and more problematic as the day progresses.

Panahi (2006’s Offside, 2000’s The Circle) is an established filmmaker, a contemporary and collaborator of the renowned Abbas Kiarostami, if slightly less internationally well-known. But as he revisits his past work on a TV in his living room, it is clear that this not-a-film is hardly his first flirtation with metanarrative experimentation. He discusses a sequence in his second film, The Mirror (1997), where the lead actress, a young child, refuses to continue participating in what — up to that point — had been a contained fictional narrative. Her character’s arm is in a cast, but she takes off the cast and walks off the set — and Panahi says he, too, must throw away his cast. This cryptic prescription for his predicament is just the first of an increasingly tortuous set of philosophical considerations he tackles.

As he proceeds to read and describe his last screenplay, which he was banned from filming, he maps out the film’s set on his carpet with tape. These shots have more than a little resonance with Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), in which a space for creative performance is inscribed within a real, lived-in space.

In some slower and more willfully meta moments, Panahi and Mirtahmasb banter about the filmic potential of the footage they are producing. This could never be part of a film, they say, but documentation is an end in itself. And yet this isn’t pure document — it is edited, and often at strikingly emotional moments, to create cinematic effects. One beat, where Panahi halts his narration and looks suddenly overcome with frustration, is suspiciously preceded by a change of camera angle. But then, Panahi and Mirtahmasb even discuss the possibility of editing their footage, so even that aspect is a performative extension of the “documentary” content. Furthermore, the notion that Panahi is not directing is repeatedly challenged by the fact that he can’t stop telling Mirtahmasb when to cut.

But the work is not nearly as dry as all this analytical babble might imply. It is also deeply funny, in the parts where the camera follows Igi, Panahi’s daughter’s pet iguana. And then, in a startling final sequence, it becomes weirdly claustrophobic and suspenseful as Panahi joins his building’s custodian on a longish elevator ride.

There’s a cliché in criticism that certain technically accomplished movies are “pure cinema,” and in a sense, if this is not a film, it’s pure filmmaking. It presents itself as a document, but its authenticity is questionable, and for a man who is banned from filmmaking, so is its legitimacy. But it is a process in action and in dialogue with itself. It is an act of defiance, and the product of an artist’s self-effacing need to express himself. Whether or not this is a film, it is a profound artistic howl.

THIS IS NOT A FILM opens Fri/6 at SF Film Society Cinema.

Image Comic Expo showcases new stars and the old guard


Comic cons serve a variety of functions. They can be press junkets, costume parties, swap meets, social retreats, even museums. Comics writer Warren Ellis has a habit of referring to San Diego’s huge Comic Con as “nerd prom,” which perfectly captures the glow of excitement for mass socialization in funny costumes. By contrast, this year’s Image Comic Expo was more like a nerd Sadie Hawkins dance – a deliberate reversal of the standard hierarchy, where creator-owned books are championed over the widely beloved DC and Marvel franchises that sometimes seem to oversaturate the comics market. It was also a little less garish and hectic than some larger cons, but the sense of community and pride was still richly evident.

The event coincided with two historic peculiarities – the twentieth anniversary of Berkeley-based Image Comics and the migration of San Francisco’s WonderCon to Anaheim this year. And, fittingly, there was no shortage of Image worship over the con’s three days. In the center of the convention floor like a hub was the main Image vendor, which sold books, distributed tickets to panels and workshops, and hosted signings, all in the shadow of a massive edifice with Image book covers on one side and images from Robert Kirkman’s Skybound imprint on the other.

Local vendors were well-represented on the con floor, with Berkeley’s Fantastic Comics (shout-out to my hometown comic book guys and gals) and Escapist Comic Bookstore, and San Francisco’s Two Cats Comic Book Store, among others. The “artist alley” was rife with independent artists and creators selling their wares and producing sketches, while several Image creators, including Jonathan Hickman (Red Wing), Nick Spencer (Morning Glories), and the MAN OF ACTION gents, got their own booths around the con.

As for the sort of crowd the Image Expo attracted, based entirely on my casual observations, there was a notable diversity of age, gender, and ethnicity. There were strikingly few cosplayers, though I spotted one full-blown Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender, a group of ladies in anime-inspired dress (I made out one Sailor suit), and two young’uns dressed as Batgirl (or a female Batman) and Captain America. Among con guests, the Skybound booth featured an Atom Eve cosplayer, and the comedians of Dipstick Swagger sported a variety of disguises including their own mascot, Luchacat.

By virtue of the con’s Image-centric organization, the panels which ran through Saturday and Sunday were occasionally redundant, with guests like Kirkman, Joe Casey, and Brian K. Vaughan each appearing in multiple places. But breaking announcements and a sense of fan enthusiasm for these beloved creators’ upcoming work kept it all going. Among the exciting announcements at Friday night’s keynote speech by Image publisher Eric Stephenson: the long-awaited sequel to Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss, a third volume of Phonogram from Gillen/McKelvie, a collaboration between Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson called Happy, and several other new titles.

The most enjoyable panels were the ones that featured folks with a less-established fanbase, who were in a position to introduce new readers to their ideas. The inaugural Saturday panel, moderated by G4’s Blair Butler, focused on the forthcoming Kickstarter-funded collection Womanthology, a showcase for comics by female creators. The panel featured Trina Robbins, Mariah Huehner, Nicole Sixx, Fiona Staples, and Bonnie Burton, all of who contributed in various capacities. The audience, though smallish, was enthusiastic about both the cause and the content, and discussions of such exasperating issues as the “brokeback pose” (slightly NSFW tumblr here) drew applause and thoughtful questions.

Also engrossing was Sunday’s “Image Introduces…” panel, with a slate of recently recognized creators whose series are still in their early issues, including Joe Keatinge (Glory, Hell Yeah), S. Steven Struble and Sina Grace (Li’l Depressed Boy), Daniel Corey (Moriarty), Jim Zub (Skullkickers), Brandon Seifert (Witch Doctor), and Kurtis J. Wiebe (Peter Panzerfaust). It was a joy to see their pride in their creations and their genuine pleasure at getting to share their work with potential new fans.

But let us not forget the old guard: at the “Twenty Years of Independence” panel, the founders of Image told their story and the audience got a chance to witness controversial icons like Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld; the “Stories and Scripts: Writing Comics” panel featured Image’s hottest properties, including Jonathan Hickman, Ed Brubaker, Nick Spencer, John Layman, Joe Casey, Steven T. Seagle, and Brian K. Vaughan, who basically all teased each other and had a grand old time.

Since it was an Image-minded convention, creators came first, which is always refreshing, especially for less iconic newcomers with a lot to offer, but the apotheosis of one publisher might wear thin if the convention continues in subsequent years. With a bit of expansion, though, an East Bay comics event might differ enough from WonderCon to hold an audience.

All photos by Taryn Erhardt


The brawn identity


YEAR IN FILM How did the tiger get its stripes? Or, more pertinently, how did the superman get his tights? This has been the thrust of most big-budget superhero movies since the genre’s big boom a decade ago — a strict adherence to monomythic convention, with modern action movie trappings to make the material accessible to newcomers.

But these titans from Marvel and DC’s pages weren’t born yesterday. Indeed, many are inextricable from the historical contexts that birthed them. Recent adaptations often seek contemporary relevance or fresh spins on old characters. Sure, some of these superfolks need an upgrade, but when new interpretations have the integrity to treat the source comics as stories worth telling on their own terms, the results can far surpass convoluted attempts to “improve” upon the originals.

The heroes finally returned to their roots in 2011, with two major productions taking up specific historical periods. Matthew Vaughn’s sleek if slightly smarmy X-Men: First Class flashes back to the merry mutants’ rise during the swingin’ sixties, while Joe Johnston forges a thrilling wartime adventure in Captain America: The First Avenger. But not all period superhero movies are created equal.

First Class is, for all its potential, a mishmash of sub-Mad Men costuming and mortifyingly ham-fisted social messages. Inspired casting doesn’t salvage the film from its central flaw: it’s a standard-issue superhero blockbuster masquerading as something savvier. It plays fast and loose with genre but never to its advantage, and mishandles the source material’s anti-prejudice themes. It also warps real history, revising the Cuban Missile Crisis in order to force a historical context. But its mawkish civil rights rhetoric and Cold War paranoia can’t conceal the fact that the film feels essentially contemporary.

Captain America, conversely, hits all the right beats. Others have noted that Johnston previously helmed 1991’s The Rocketeer, so it’s no surprise he knows how to put on a good pulpy show. But the movie blends Nazi occult weirdness with a grounded, convincing patriotism that reinforces the World War II setting. It has its problems as a historical film — for one thing, it never directly treats the Holocaust. But it doesn’t feel like the same origin story we’ve repeatedly seen; instead it feels like a superhero movie successfully taking on a different genre. It’s just this sort of adventurousness we can hope for as the studios continue to mine the funnybooks for ideas — comics have a rich history, so why not explore it instead of update it?

The man, the myth, the legend


LIT To comics cognoscenti, Grant Morrison is something of a superhero himself. He is the scribe behind such subversions of comics convention as the avant-garde super team adventures of Doom Patrol and the confoundingly, sinisterly cartoonish Seaguy. But he’s also taken on the heavy hitters, from Batman to the X-Men, winning new fans and pissing off purists in the process.

In his new venture into prose nonfiction, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, Morrison presents what he calls “a personal overview of the superhero concept from 1938 until the present day.” In some ways, it’s a mystifying text, tumbling as it does between cultish history, autobiography, and the pop philosophy suggested by its title. Undoubtedly a labor born of immense passion, Supergods gives the impression of a transcribed walking tour through the Hall of Justice, narrated by an obsessively knowledgeable fanboy-made-good.

The work is founded on the conceit that superheroes are manifestations not only of mythic principles (shades of Joseph Campbell) but of thoroughly utopian humans. Morrison posits this as a reason that the superhero genre has endured decades of changing public sentiment, and he furthermore wholeheartedly endorses it as a metaphysical truth. Stories are real in themselves, he concludes — “the paper skin of the next dimension down from our own.”

Morrison’s text is organized chronologically, taking as its starting point the blistering novelty of Superman’s first appearance in 1938’s Action Comics No. 1. Morrison dissects the subliminal symbolism of its cover with shamanic wisdom, and goes on to contrast Superman with his eternal counterpart, Batman. From there, he embarks upon a whirlwind of descriptions of the editors, artists, and writers who shaped the form, from the rough visionary mythos of Jack Kirby to the psychoanalytic preoccupations of Superman editor Mort Weisinger. Morrison’s accounts of their works are ecstatic, often deconstructing the minutiae of the comics page to get at the effects these sacred texts had on young contemporary readers; the descriptions become weirdly, repetitiously formal as Morrison details each creator’s transcendent improvement over his predecessors.

Woven throughout this historical review are anecdotal references to Morrison’s youthful encounters with superhero comics, as a child of Scottish pacifists living in constant fear of the bomb. But as the narrative catches up to his earliest work as a comics writer and artist, the content resolutely shifts towards his feverish autobiographical account of adolescent displacement and punk-influenced experimentation. Suddenly Supergods is about Grant Morrison, the writer-as-superhero-as-human. From here on out, he is inextricably bound to even the historical portions, as he becomes a major player in DC and Marvel superhero comics.

After Morrison experiences visions in Kathmandu that reveals to him the 5D nature of reality, and writes himself into a comic to become “semifictional,” his perspective changes radically. Morrison definitely gets that each reader’s mileage may vary as to the real source of his “magical” visions, but he insists on their symbolic usefulness in understanding that fictional universes are just as real as ours, and can translate into inspiration for real change.

Morrison makes no effort to separate his personal philosophy from his narration of comics history, tending towards polemic in the book’s second half. The observations about superheroes are generally brilliant, as one would expect from Morrison’s fantastic comics output, but the book’s structural inconsistency and forced New Age-y conclusions are a bit disappointing. The book works as yet another profession of Morrison’s love for superheroes as a form of life-changing magic, but it’s neither a complete history nor a coherent statement of how to make superheroes work for you, self-help style. But it makes you desperately want to read the books he describes, and perhaps that’s enough. 



Fri/5, 7 p.m.
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera

All-ages signing, Sat/6, 2-5 p.m., $28 (includes copy of Supergods) 

Supergods celebration, Sat/6, 8 p.m.-midnight, $40 (includes copy of Supergods)


326 Fell, S.F.

Edgar Wright vs. the World


Go here to read Sam Stander’s review of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in this week’s Guardian. What follows is Stander’s complete interview with director Edgar Wright.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: What is your favorite visual effect or sight gag in all of Scott Pilgrim?

Edgar Wright: Oh my god. There’s so much … I probably have to pick, off the top of my head, I like watching the twins scene because it was only very recently finished, so I’d have to pick that.
SFBG: How did you originally get involved in adapting Scott Pilgrim?

EW: I was given the book six years ago, when the first volume came out, by … the producers who had kind of leapt on the rights to it before it was even in bookstores. And I really loved the book, and I thought it would be a really interesting thing to try and adapt. At that point there was only the one book. [We] began a five-year process of working on it as [author Bryan Lee O’Malley] continued to develop the books, so the development of the film and the books kind of went in tandem in places. So it’s kind of been, six years ago I was given the book, and now the final book just was released, and the film is coming out, too.
SFBG: How many books were there when the film was in production? Were there four?

EW: By the time we started filming, there were five and the sixth book had been kind of half-written. But over the course of the production, I’m thinking of various stages where we stalled for time as much as we could, so that we could get as much material as possible. But there was a decision made early on that the two things would have to be different beasts, and Bryan was certainly aware of that, and understood that that would be the case. In a way, I think he actually preferred there being two different versions, that the film could be an alternate-reality version of the comic.
SFBG: But you still definitely kept a lot of the details of the comic. I was curious what inspired the choice to visually represent sound effects.

EW: I kind of figured that, you know, it’s a huge part of comics that most people completely jettison, because usually comic book adaptations are striving for reality. I thought, as well, it made sense within Scott Pilgrim that the character would choose to live his life like that, that Scott Pilgrim, as a character who’s grown up on a diet of Saturday morning cartoons and gaming, would actually choose to live his life that way if he could, and have points pop up and sound effects pop out when the doorbell rings. Because the books are funny and imaginative, it was just a way of embracing that kind of imagination within the artwork. It wasn’t a film where we had to strive for absolute realism like The Dark Knight. We had a chance to embrace the bubblegum, pop art nature of the artwork.

SFBG: It reminded me in places of the opening titles to ’60s Batman, which I enjoyed.

EW: Oh, I was always a fan of that show as a kid. I like some of those ’60s comic book adaptations that would embrace the form of the comics a little more. I guess, you know, in the ’80s, with the Tim Burton Batman, comic book movies started to strive for legitimacy, but we didn’t really have to do that with this. It was something where we could actually have fun with the form.
SFBG: I was wondering if the characters of Shaun from Shaun of the Dead or Tim from Spaced — how you see them in relation to Scott as a protagonist, or even Ramona?

EW: I think Scott Pilgrim has some things in common with Shaun and Tim Bisley. Tim Bisley and Shaun are both older than Scott Pilgrim, and I think maybe, you know, Tim is in his mid-20s, so he’s a bit more frustrated than Scott Pilgrim is. I think Scott Pilgrim is still in that sort of stage in his life where he’s powered by blind optimism, and I don’t think he’s necessarily a character who’s been worn down by the harsh realities of life yet, and that kind of effects everything he does, in terms of — the way that he pursues Ramona is like the way you pursue a shiny object in a videogame. I don’t think he’s really had his hard knocks yet, and this film is slightly about him getting his karmic comeuppance. I think Shaun is Scott Pilgrim plus about ten years, where he’s kind of settled into a slightly more lazy, depressed state. He’s kind of given up, slightly.
SFBG: I was curious, who came first: Gideon or Jason Schwartzman?

EW: Gideon came first. There was a drawing of Gideon back in 2004. I remember when I first read the first book, there was the first book and the script for the second book, but then there were also sketches of all the other exes and their stats that Bryan had drawn. So he’d drawn all of them way back in 2004. But the Gideon sketch back in 2004 looks uncannily like Jason and what he eventually drew for the sixth book.
SFBG: In light of having just made a movie entirely referencing videogames, what do you have to say to Roger Ebert’s constant claim that videogames aren’t a form of art?

EW: I think that the film shows both the good and the bad, in a way, in terms of, there’s elements of Scott Pilgrim’s character as maybe a slightly thoughtless person in the way that he powers through life and doesn’t necessarily think about the feelings of the people around him, and even treating them sometimes like bit players on his quest, that that shows maybe a downside to being lost in the world of gaming, and he’s forced to face the consequences later in the film. But then, I think sometimes the criticism about videogames stems from games that are pretty generic, because there is art and brilliant design and amazing ideas at work in gaming and game design, and I think that that would be difficult to deny, in a sense, that there are artists as good as the people working at Pixar working in games today.

But I think that some of the negative articles that are written about games are usually referring to games that are more generic and just concentrate on violence and destruction, that are kind of Xeroxes of films. So I think sometimes there are probably some games that undo the good work done by others, maybe. I’m sure that’s part of it. And then you get videogame adaptations … that are Xeroxes of a Xerox. I can see where that criticism comes from, I don’t necessarily agree with it, because I feel like … on a design level, Nintendo has become sort of the Walt Disney for our era, in a way. I mean, the characters are so identifiable and so beloved. And you get some games that are just works of beauty and interaction, so I can see it go both ways, you know. I would hope Roger Ebert would enjoy this film on the basis that we namechecked Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, so I would hope we could score brownie points even if he didn’t like the videogame stuff in it.
SFBG: With the development of the characters, certainly a lot of the comedy of the characters in the comics comes from playing with various stereotypes — of the way people behave in relationships, also jokes about Knives’ Chinese heritage and Wallace being gay, and different characters coming from different contexts like that. I was curious what level of depth do you perceive these characters having, as opposed to being sort of absurd caricatures?

EW: Well, I think a lot of those people came from friends and colleagues of Bryan Lee O’Malley, because Toronto is a very multicultural society, and Bryan himself is half Irish and half Japanese. The two characters you just mentioned, I know Knives and Wallace are based on real people. In the books at least, and certainly in the film, it’s an attempt to show actually a very ethnic community. We tried, in terms of the gay characters in the film to kind of, in hopefully a progressive way, not make a big deal about it. I’m actually quite proud that we have a PG-13 rating when sometimes that has been, you know — depicting homosexual relationships is sometimes frowned upon by the MPAA, or given a more restrictive rating. So it’s actually nice in a studio comedy to have characters who are gay and out, and there’s no stigma about it whatsoever.
SFBG: Definitely, in the United States, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are really seen as archetypally very English comedies. Were you trying to work as a Canadian comedy director with Scott Pilgrim, or how do you see it relating to that?

EW: I don’t know, I’ve always found that question difficult to answer because I don’t really know how my sense of humor or what I find funny particularly relates to Britain, because I grew up on comedy from all around the world. Obviously, I really like a lot of British comedy, but a lot of my favorite comedy films are American. I wouldn’t like to thing that my sense of humor is completely defined by where I’m from. So I didn’t try and put a Canadian hat on to direct Scott Pilgrim. I tried to just be myself.
SFBG: I was curious about the music in the movie. I thought it was really interesting that you got some of the bands that it seemed like Bryan Lee O’Malley was sort of lampooning in the comic to do the actual music, and I was wondering what the process was for picking those bands and getting them involved.

EW: Basically, we had an embarrassment of riches in terms of the people that came on to collaborate. I know that Bryan had drawn Envy Adams based on a live shot of Metric in performance … but I think that most of the bands are a mélange of bands that he played with when he was in a band himself. I think some of the bands in Scott Pilgrim are kind of lampooning his own efforts, and other bands that were doing that circuit at the time. But, you know, in terms of the artists coming on board, everybody was really excited to be a part of it. And I think in the case of the bands, they got to also play a part, they’re sort of almost cast as characters in the film. I mean, Broken Social Scene’s songs in the film don’t sound anything like Broken Social Scene, and Beck was channeling his earlier, fuzzier roots. So I think people had fun playing a part rather than playing themselves. Even the Metric track that’s in the film is them almost doing a pastiche of themselves. In that case, with the track “Black Sheep,” [Metric frontwoman] Emily Haines had said it was a track they left off the last album because they thought it maybe sounded like somebody doing an impression of Metric. And so when I heard that, I said, ‘Well, that’s the song that we want!’”
SFBG: You also worked on the screenplay for the upcoming Tintin film, right?
EW: I did. Not for very long, sadly, because I got busy on Scott Pilgrim, but I worked on a couple of drafts, and it was very exciting to work on.
SFBG: Was that adaptation-of-a-comic experience similar to Scott Pilgrim or notably different?

EW: Well, different in the sense that [Tintin creator] Hergé is dead, so you don’t get a chance to — in that case, radically different, because you’re only going on his work and his life, rather than actually being able to talk to the creator himself. Unlike with Scott Pilgrim, I couldn’t call Hergé every day, so I could only go on reading those books and trying to recapture how I felt about them when I was eight when I read them.
SFBG: All right, anything else you want to say about the film?

EW: Go and see it in theaters.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.

Geek love


FILM For fans of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s just-completed comics saga Scott Pilgrim, the announcement that Edgar Wright (2004’s Shaun of the Dead, 2007’s Hot Fuzz) would direct a film version was utterly surreal. Geeks get promises like this all the time, all too often empty (Guillermo del Toro’s Hobbit, anyone?). But miraculously, Wright indeed spent the past five years crafting the winning and astoundingly faithful (if slightly divergent plot-wise) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The film follows hapless Toronto 20-something Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), bassist for crappy band Sex Bob-omb, as he falls for delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), only to find he must defeat her seven evil exes — like so many videogame bosses — before he can comfortably date her. As it happens, he’s already dating a high-schooler, Knives (Ellen Wong), who’s not coping well with Scott moving on.

To address a primary concern up front, Cera plays a good feckless twerp. His performance isn’t groundbreaking, but it dodges the Cera-playing-his-precious-self phenomenon so many have lamented. Scott is the protagonist, surely, but he’s not exactly a hero. He’s a puny human, which makes his (mostly) unstoppable fighting technique all the more impressive. He’s battling larger-than-life foes imbued with real-life superpowers like self-confidence and cultural cache. The film’s ensemble cast maintains a sardonic tone, with excellent turns by Alison Pill, Aubrey Plaza, and newcomer Wong. Jason Schwartzman is perfectly cast as the ultimate evil ex-boyfriend, hipster asshole Gideon Graves — there’s really no one slimier, at least under 35.

Some of Pilgrim‘s characters operate on winking stereotypes, most notably the pronouncedly Chinese Knives and Scott’s “totally gay” roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin). The comics’ light gags can seem a tad tasteless when applied to “real” people. But for all Wallace’s comically exaggerated promiscuity, hetero Scott cheats on his partner in a truly reprehensible manner. Says Wright, speaking over the phone, “We tried, in terms of the gay characters in the film to kind of, in hopefully a progressive way, not make a big deal about it.”

The film brilliantly cops the comics’ visual language, including snarky captions and onomatopoetic sound effects, reminiscent onscreen of 1960s TV Batman. Sometimes this tends toward sensory overload, but it’s all so stylistically distinctive and appropriate that excess is easily forgiven. “It wasn’t a film where we had to strive for absolute realism like [2008’s] The Dark Knight,” Wright explains. “We had a chance to embrace the bubblegum, Pop art nature of the artwork.”

All the action in the movie is videogame-derived, with pixel-drenched effects and 8-bit bleats galore; call it the film’s mise-en-Sega. It’s hard to think of another movie that has hewed this aesthetically close to videogames as a form — maybe Tron (1982) — since game-to-film adaptations often try to mine the source material for other genre signifiers. Besides comics and games, Pilgrim finds a third frame of reference in indie rock. The characters’ bands seem like riffs on certain Canadian acts, but Wright says they’re more “a mélange of bands that [O’Malley] played with when he was in a band himself.” Among the contributors to the diegetic soundtrack are Broken Social Scene, Metric, and Beck, who are, as Wright says, “playing a part rather than playing themselves.”

If Pilgrim is a hit, steel yourself for a whole wave of candy-coated imitators. But for now, revel in the fact that we have a film that so intuitively understands its characters and its audience. It’s a killer action film, a charming rom-com, and a weirdo cult rock movie all rolled into one. As the back cover of the first volume of the comic reads, “This is Scott Pilgrim. This is your life.”

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.

MORE AT SFBG.COM Pixel Vision blog: Sam Stander’s complete Edgar Wright interview.


Coilhouse rules


Founded by three brilliant renaissance women with roots in L.A. and the Bay, the alt-everything institution known as Coilhouse exists both as a fantastic groupblog and a quasi-quarterly magazine. According to the mission statement on their website, “Coilhouse is a love letter to alternative culture, written in an era when alternative culture no longer exists.” They cover everything from fashion to visual art to film to comics, with a wealth of youtube clips and beautiful images in all their posts. These ladies — Zoetica Ebb, Meredith Yayanos, and Nadya Lev — and their various collaborators are down with Klaus Nomi and at home with esoteric Russian literature, and more than happy to share with you what made them weird.

The print incarnation of Coilhouse is on its fifth issue, released just under a month ago and already sold out online, but still available at a variety of real-world retailers. Each incarnation of the magazine has brought new experiments in design, ranging from the subtle and inspired (eerie silver foil accents on the cover of Issue 4) to the endearingly goofy (candy-colored section frontispieces in the latest issue). This issue incorporates bonus items — a pull-out poster of Chet Zar art and two trading cards featuring images from the magazine’s Dorian Gray photoshoot. The pages of the issue itself are frantically crowded with original art, photography, and outrageous pull-quotes, but in a way that ultimately suggests raw, genuine enthusiasm.

The content of the magazine is divided between interviews, photo spreads, and primer-style features. Oh, and paper dolls. The new issue features interviews with geek luminaries like horror writer Clive Barker and power-couple Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. Former- Star-Trek -teen-turned-celebrity-blogger Wil Wheaton contributes a non-fiction piece excerpted from his recent book The Happiest Days of Our Lives, and Jess Nevins chronicles the history and highlights of Chinese pulp fiction as a formidable counterpart to the western version. Zoetica Ebb compiles attitudes on “shoe lust,” and Angeliska Polacheck provides a photo-heavy history of the dance part Gadjo Disko

Photography in the issue includes a tribute to the late fashion designer Tiffa Novoa as well as the aforementioned Dorian Gray concept series of photos. The images range from glamorous to grotesque, with an attractive post-goth pall over the whole affair.

Special-interest magazines have taken a huge hit in the past several years, as the Internet has expanded to cater to any and every niche curiosity, so one of the few ways to grab a wide community of readers (for a blog as well as a magazine) is to express a weird, specific aesthetic that crosses subcultural lines. The fact that Coilhouse is essentially a blog that congeals into a magazine a handful of times each year makes it squarely a product of Internet culture. Perhaps that accounts for why it’s so mad and overwhelming, but it also accounts for why it feels so fresh and energetic, and so engaged in the benefits of the magazine as a form of communication distinct from blogging.

The king is dead, love live SF Theater Pub


SF Theater Pub’s one-night-only presentation of Alfred Jarry’s bawdy classic Ubu Roi this past Monday felt like nothing so much as a group of dedicated friends putting on a show because they thought it just might turn out awesome. The staged reading took place at SF lounge Café Royale, a pleasant venue with couches and balcony seats as well as standing room that rendered the production all the more intimate.

The play is a deliberately sick-and-twisted piss-take on Macbeth, eviscerated of all its pathos and stuffed full of crap, and the Theater Pub performers, as well as director Bennett Fisher’s new translation, seemed entirely tuned in to its irreverence. Greedy, grubby protagonist Pere Ubu was played with alternating witlessness and pomposity by Sam Leichter, but the most successful comic performer on display was Catherine Lardas, who delivered a positively Oliver Hardy-esque Mere Ubu. The herald Pile (Warden Lawlor) stood above the other actors on the balcony, reciting increasingly complicated titles for Pere Ubu as he continued to murder and annex the positions of several other noblemen.

Music and sound effects from DJ Wait What were evocative of old radio plays, and the minimal use of props such as a giant plastic sword generated a few laughs. The show certainly felt like a one-off event, with all the actors reading their lines from music stands, but this only added to the sense of comeraderie and fun.

Besides the fact that SF Theater Pub’s events are free (a donation at the door will get you a raffle ticket!), their most attractive feature is their apparent modernist sensibility when selecting plays. They’ve already put on Václav Havel’s Audience and an assortment of Greek tragedies. They’re following up Ubu with a collection of short local plays under the heading “The Pint Sized Plays.” Their blog then announces a series of Beckett shorts for September, though on Monday night they claimed September would hold some Oscar Wilde performances.

Most fascinatingly to this reporter, they’ll be celebrating Halloween with a series of radio play-style adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories. There’s nothing I love more than hearing people say “eldritch” and “gibbous” out loud, so those should be jolly good fun. This diverse roster of plays, as well as a genuine sense of joy, means SF Theater Pub are ones to watch in the coming months. Especially since watching them is totally free!

Against nostalgia


VISUAL ART/MUSIC Whether through the distorted visual crackle of old videotape or the gauzy gaze of a photograph, there is a class of artwork that challenges the spectator to engage with something not immediately present. It’s as if there is something floating behind the image at hand, which the mind is desperately hungry to grasp, but cannot perceive. This effect we call “haunting,” and often leave it at that. But 17 years ago, French philosopher Jacques Derrida developed a way of thinking about the concept of the ghost in terms of its symbolic relevance to our experience of history, and his “hauntological” approach continues to inform strains of art and music criticism as well as political philosophy.

Inspired by Derrida along with a recent spate of hauntologically inclined British electronic music, the Berkeley Art Museum’s “Hauntology” exhibit assembles an array of such unsettling works across several media. Curated by local artist/musician Scott Hewicker and BAM director Lawrence Rinder, the small but affecting gallery is composed mostly of selections from BAM’s collection that fit in one way or another into the rubric of hauntology.

Working, with a few exceptions, from within the museum’s existing collection was ultimately liberating, according to Hewicker. “I think we wanted to take it another step further in some other open direction, and kind of be very poetic about it, and not be in this defined realm that doesn’t really have a very strict … defined realm,” Hewicker laughingly explains, on the opening day of the exhibit.

Besides that circumstantial constraint, the idea of a hauntology show presents a couple other interesting conundrums. For one thing, hauntology is not a genre of art; it’s an I-know-it-when-I-see-it affair at best, more of a critical framework than a set of conventions. For another thing, there is no defined hauntological movement in visual art (though there is arguably one in music), now or at any point in the past.

What defines hauntological art is loosely derived from Derrida’s idea, as quoted in the exhibit’s manifesto, of “the persistence of a present past,” a past not immediately perceptible but always exerting itself on the present. Hewicker and Rinder interpret this in a number of ways through their selections. The 1820 painting by an unknown artist View of Providence, Rhode Island invites questions of context — who painted this? and why? — and its ominous black grids of windows necessitate a similar curiosity: what’s behind them? In Roger Ballen’s Twirling Wires (2001), on the other hand, the question has more to do with what is actually transpiring in the photograph of a blanket-swaddled man seemingly menaced by a floating mass of wires.

Besides Derrida’s foundational 1993 book Specters of Marx, the curators point to British music journalist Simon Reynolds’ writings on electronic musicians such as Burial and the various artists on the Ghost Box label. Reynolds seems to have opened up the field for discussing hauntological aesthetics in modern popular culture. Another acknowledged inspiration is Adam Harper’s blog, Rouge’s Foam (, which treats music and visual art from a hauntological perspective. Hewicker elaborates: “He was sort of the motivation for the show in the sense that he called for kind of a nonstylistic approach to art in a hauntological sense — that it wasn’t just about spooky images, necessarily, but … these things that have these layered meanings beneath them.”

Perhaps the most exciting issue raised by the show is that of medium — what it communicates (i.e. artistic medium as spirit medium), and what it means to make the medium the subject of a piece. Much of the exhibit consists of two-dimensional visual art, but the few deviations stand out. On the inclusion of video, audio, and sculpture, Rinder muses over e-mail, “People don’t think in as clearly material or disciplinary categories as they used to. So it felt natural to select from this broad range of works.”

Despite the fundamental role music plays in the exhibit’s conception, only one audio piece was incorporated into the exhibit, Ivan Seal’s Stuttering Piano (2007). Seal has produced cover art for such releases as the 2008 reissue of Persistent Repetition of Phrases by hauntological ambient project the Caretaker, but none of his visual art was in the collection. His audio works often accompany his paintings, so the curators saw this as an intriguing “solution” to that unavailability.

Lutz Bacher’s video piece Olympiad (1997) is a silent stuttering image, the deteriorated quality of which makes it disorienting to watch; many works in the exhibit similarly hound the viewer via their chosen medium. Paul Sietsema’s 2009 diptych Ship Drawing, oriented as the gallery’s centerpiece, is as concerned with medium as any piece in the show. One side depicts a drawing of a ship — note, specifically a drawing of one, since the weathered paper it appears on is also rendered in ink. The other half simply shows a blank bit of the same paper. Thus, the medium becomes the subject. In this way, even the nature of their own production is part of the past that haunts these works.

So all this art, spanning centuries, cultures, and movements, brought together at BAM — why now? Hewicker cites “ghosts that people are not addressing” as evidenced by the “Tea Party movement, the sort of revisionist nostalgia, the rewriting of textbooks in Texas.” Derrida’s ideas are still relevant to today’s political world, and that resonates in how this art affects us, whether it was created in 1658 or 2008.

As one would hope from a thoughtfully curated show, motifs emerge among the included works. There are myriad obscured faces, indecipherable objects, and artworks within artworks, as well as subtler commonalities. This conspires to reinforce the sense of hauntedness in the exhibit, as if something has come down through the ages to inspire art that not only, as Rinder puts it, “[evokes] futuristic ruins, displaced subjectivities, and uncanny silences,” but more important, leaves us ill at ease.


Through Dec. 5, $5–$8 (free for students and children)

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-0808

Seasick cinema


An inspired idea for a film series if ever there was one — the SF Maritime National Historical Park is showing nautically themed films onboard the ferryboat Eureka at Hyde Street Pier. They began last month with 2003’s Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and they’re picking up Thurs/15 with Lifeboat (1944), Alfred Hitchcock’s production of a John Steinbeck story, starring Tallulah Bankhead. Next month, step aboard the Eureka for Jaws (1975) — that is, if they don’t end up needing a bigger boat. Teasers and show info after the jump:

8 p.m., $5 donation
Hyde Street Pier
Hyde & Jefferson, SF
(415) 561-6662


Docs! More Another Hole in the Head reviews


More bloodthirsty coverage of the San Francisco IndieFest’s horror-fest offshoot, Another Hole in the Head, in this week’s Guardian.

Another Hole in the Head’s two documentary offerings concern themselves with the distinctly American roots of two related strains of genre filmmaking. Elijah Drenner’s American Grindhouse traces the history of exploitation film, with a particular focus on the grindhouse theater as a cultural institution. Narrator Robert Forster recounts the tendency of even the earliest films to cater to prurient interests, and how the establishment and eventual dissolution of the Motion Picture Production Code stimulated the development of exploitation subgenres. The featured film clips are impeccably selected, mixing titillation and shock with a healthy sense of humor about the over-the-top absurdity of films like Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975). Surprisingly candid interviews with gore luminary Herschell Gordon Lewis and blaxploitation director Larry Cohen prevent the film from taking on a too-self-important tone — these folks knew they were making b-pictures, and were damn proud of it. One of the most charming aspects of the documentary is the juxtaposition of different attitudes, wherein one interviewee will sing the praises of a classic, followed in quick succession by another talking head declaring it to be trash. It feels like John Landis gets the most screen time of any subject, but his charisma as well as the breadth of his oeuvre make it seem appropriate.

Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue, on the other hand, focuses specifically on horror, and director Andrew Monument in turn delivers a harsher, more self-serious take on shocking cinema. Some interviewees cross over, but standouts here include John Carpenter and modern torture porn auteur Darren Lynn Bousman. The editing here is less edifying and more irritating, though since we’re dealing with horror films, sometimes the heavy-handedness works — case in point, a lengthy montage of nudity and sex from slasher films effectively communicates both the puerile interests and blunt moralizing of much of the genre. Nightmares is also more explicitly concerned with how horror films relate to America, with many interview subjects noting how each decade’s horror trends mirrored its political issues, hence the title’s direct allusion to the perversion of the American dream.

Both films provide a historical framework for films that, as Grindhouse insists, have become part of our modern mythology and mindset. Grindhouse is more watchable, but both are worth seeing for anyone who didn’t live through the long history of genre madness and brilliance.

July 8–29, $11
Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF
Viz Cinema, New People, 1746 Post, SF



FILM FESTIVAL Now in its seventh year, San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival aims to draw fans of fantastical and shocking cinema into the Roxie and Viz theaters for its slate of 32 films. Spanning horror, science fiction, and fantasy, Hole Head features films from Singapore to Serbia, including 10 flicks from Japan.

Despite this cultural eclecticism, there is one theme that seems to crop up throughout the program: homage. A surprising number of these films are primarily interested in referencing or commenting on formative genre pictures that came before.

Of course, such an approach to genre filmmaking need not be retrograde. When it works, as in the hilarious kaiju pastiche Death Kappa, there’s no question about why someone would want to both mock and commemorate the storied run of man-in-suit monster movies. Kappa brings out the humor in an already existing template, mixing shades of H.P. Lovecraft and E.T. (1982) with Japanese folklore but ultimately ending up in the same place: city-smashing mayhem.

Among the Japanese selections is an assortment of gore films, weird fantasy-action movies entirely predicated on opportunities for spouting blood. These often feel like they’re in dialogue with themselves, lampooning older forms but also riffing on their own ridiculousness. RoboGeisha plays like a live-action cartoon, where laws of logic and good taste don’t apply and the best way to deal with a terrorist is two tempura shrimp to the eyes. Not gory but similarly frenetic is shock auteur Takashi Miike’s latest, an unexpectedly light adaptation of a children’s anime series called Yatterman, which is literally a live-action cartoon as well as a 1970s throwback.

Sometimes, though, the tribute-obsession can seem like wallowing. Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre, blessed with an absurd title and the exotic appeal of being an Icelandic horror film, is basically a by-the-numbers slasher that retreads The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and others to the point that its shocks are predictable.

Many other subgenres are represented, from torture porn to luchador action, but one of the festival’s highlights dwells outside any such bracket. Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto’s metaphysical fantasy Symbol documents the travails of a man inexplicably trapped in a mysteriously interactive white room. It sometimes feels like a feature-length comedy sketch, governed by certain rules or patterns that drive its simple but ultimately cosmic plot. Constrained though it may be, it makes no concessions to genre and feels inspiringly new as a result.

Regardless of a few staid entries, such a forum for genre cinema is absolutely crucial, particularly on such an international scale. Even if we need another zombie reinterpretation like we need a hole in the head, Another Hole in the Head will hopefully be with us well into the future.


July 8–29, $11

Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF

Viz Cinema, New People, 1746 Post, SF


Fisher-priced cinema that isn’t Pixelvision at SFMOMA


This week SFMOMA inaugurates a film series called “A Portrait of the Artist, or Fisher-Inspired Films” with Dreams That Money Can Buy (1946), a surrealist collaboration directed by Hans Richter and featuring contributions by Max Ernst, Man Ray, and others. The series is constructed around the collection of Doris and Donald Fisher, featuring cinematic work by artists including Andy Warhol and Agnes Martin.
Here’s an excerpt from the Alexander Calder portion of Dreams That Money Can Buy:

Next week, Chelsea Girls (1965):



Through August 26
Dreams That Money Can Buy: Thurs/1, 7 p.m., free-$5
151 Third St, SF
(415) 357-4000

Can do: Malcolm Mooney discovers a Tenth Planet in SF


Since recording debut album Monster Movie with seminal Krautrock band Can back in 1969, vocalist and visual artist Malcolm Mooney has mostly made his home in the States. More recently, he has recorded with San Francisco-based band Tenth Planet, with whom he takes the stage Thurs/1 at Bottom of the Hill.

Mooney is up there in years (though the Internet fails to provide me with his actual age), and in some ways a relic of a very odd moment in musical history — the birth of Can — but his broad artistic pursuits suggest he’ll have something new and different to offer.

With Stephen Kent, Extra!
9 p.m., $10
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St, SF
(415) 621-4455

REELing against the tide


In a world of relative cinema-watching convenience, with Netflix and Blockbuster By Mail, the quirky neighborhood video rental store is going the way of the record store and the dodo. However, the East Bay still houses at least one fantastic holdout, REEL Video, located on Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley. But perhaps not for long — despite REEL’s unique stock and organization, it is in fact owned by Hollywood Video, which recently filed for bankruptcy and announced the liquidation of all its stores. Over the past few weeks, REEL was suddenly plastered with fliers addressing frequently-asked questions about the store’s imminent closure, and calling for customer input on the store’s uncertain future.

Thanks to its impressive Netflix-besting selection (a VHS copy of 1965’s Chimes at Midnight!) and its invitingly idiosyncratic shelving categories (e.g. “Your Mom,”” “So Bad It’s Half Off,” “One Man Army,” “British Television,” “Werner Herzog,” “Bromance”), REEL is a staple of the Berkeley film-buff/geek/cultist community. With a section devoted specifically to the beloved Criterion Collection, and a broad array of international cinema, it’s a great resource for UC Berkeley students studying film or just looking for a crazy popcorn movie on a Friday night (Black Gestapo, anyone?).

The latest press release from REEL details a proposed future for the store, wherein it would become “ a community movie education and gathering place in addition to its on-going video rental business.” REEL’s employees and other champions are seeking “angel investors” to help purchase the video collection and lease the store grounds, in preparation for their newly conceived “potentially non-profit” status.

On or around Wednesday, June 23, REEL launched; they’ve also set up for interested customers to communicate with the store’s management.

Get on this, people! A genuine outpost of cultural weirdness and passion is about to be subsumed by the tide. It seems these are slowly dissipating, at least in the non-virtual world, so we have to save what we can.