Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Adam Hartzell on Kim Longinotto


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The SFIFF is coming up on its midway point, and I've been availing myself of its varied opportunities, whether to stargawk at Factotum's Matt Dillion or to try to wrap my head around the Wayward Cloud. To briefly catch up on the press screenings I've been able to attend, I found Ricardo Benet's SKYY Prize contender News From Afar (which plays Apr. 29 and May 2) to be a very worthy and cinematic drama, constrasting the desolate beauty of a drought-plagued region of rural Mexico against the visual poverty of a gray and oppressive Mexico City. The documentary Favela Rising (plays Apr. 29 and May 1), on the other hand, fails to wade through its own audiovisual disorganization to show us more than snippets of its subject, Rio's socially-constructive musical group AfroReggae. And this morning I caught another doc, Adrian Belic's Beyond the Call (plays Apr. 30 and May 4), which I thought could have benefitted from some context beyond its narrow focus but still successfully parachuted me into the world of these three humanitarian adventurers for 82 minutes.

The SFIFF can't be beat this week and next in terms of variety and in-person appearances, but Frisco theatres have stepped up with some formidable counter-programming. The Red Vic has the City of Lost Children tonight and the Passenger Sunday-Monday. The Lumiere has the Fallen Idol for a week starting Friday. The Castro has booked a Stanley Kubrick series this Saturday-Wednesday. And on Monday night before heading to the Edinburgh Castle for International Remix I dropped in to see Barbary Coast, playing as part of the Balboa's Reel SF series that ends tomorrow.

On Friday the Balboa will be starting a week-long run of Kim Longinotto's latest documentary Sisters in Law. (It's the kickoff of the brand-new Balboa calendar spotted around town, which also includes Mongolian Ping Pong starting May 26, a massive Boris Karloff tribute starting June 2, and Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows starting June 23.) I've never seen a Longinotto film before, but my friend and now three-time contributor to this blog, Adam Hartzell has seen several, thanks to the Pacific Film Archive (which incidentally has released its newest calendar, too). Here's Adam:
The day after booking my recent vacation itinerary, I realized my work had a vacation day the Friday of the week I returned. Immediately I kicked myself, because if I'd have known, I could have scheduled to spend more time in Bangkok visiting the Thai Film Archive under the guidance of my friend Noy Thrupkaew and I could have spent more time at the entire Women's Film Festival in Seoul (WFFIS) rather than just the first half. I eventually felt better when I realized my early return would enable me to see five of the films with Kim Longinotto at the Pacific Film Archives (PFA) that I have yet to see. An added extra was that the jetlag that was keeping me up until 3am came in handy for the 9pm screenings that my up-at-5am work life normally has me struggling to keep my eyes open through. Plus, this enabled me an opportunity to give Longinotto a copy of the WFFIS's program that the film she co-directed with Florence Ayisi, Sisters In Law, opened. Longinotto, much to my appreciation, greatly appreciated this gesture since she hadn't received a program yet from that festival.

As part of their Documentary Voices series at the PFA, curator Kathy Geritz was able to procure films with and attendance of Kim Longinotto as she travels throughout the United States promoting the release of Sisters In Law, the film she directed along with Florence Ayisi. Let me now clarify why I'm using the preposition 'with' rather than 'by', i.e., "films with Kim Longinotto". Longinotto sees her films as collaborations with all involved in the making of the film. More so, when she is working in a language other than English where a translator friend is such an active part of the filmmaking process, she feels uncomfortable in crediting only herself as the director. So she credits as co-directors those who have assisted her in filming via their tireless translation. (In the case of The Day I Will Never Forget (2002), a film I did not see about female circumcision, there were so many women assisting with filming and translating that it became indexically cumbersome to credit each one.) This respect for those working with her carries over to the compassion conveyed towards those individuals who agreed to have these intimate moments of their lives portrayed on screen.

And intimate moments they are when we consider how much about Iran's day to day lives are kept from us, particularly from my fellow U.S. citizens presently as the prophet-complexed administration mis-ruling our country and their complicit media forces seek to justify their desire to bomb Iran because they have the most toys. The powers that corrupt know that if we were to touch on the daily lives of those they fiendishly desire to bomb, we would be even more unwilling to allow such an atrocity to happen than we already are. Both Divorce Iranian Style (1998) and Runaway (2001), each co-directed with Ziba Mir-Hosseini, allow us an opportunity to follow snippets of the lives of Iranian women as they wrestle with limitations in self-definition that the Iranian government imposes upon them. I think I have missed three opportunities to see Divorce Iranian Style and I was thankful to the PFA for providing me yet another chance. Under the Iranian government's interpretation of Islamic Law, a man can divorce his wife without cause, but a woman must have her husband's consent or prove his impotency, insanity, or financial instability. Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini follow the goings on in one particular family courtroom. Unhappy in their marriages for various reasons, we witness several women try to negotiate their way out of these relationships. We witness them plead, demand, haggle, acquiesce, confess and lie to the judges to find liberation from their societal constraints.

Several moments stand out during this powerful documentary. When the judge is asked by a 16 year-old who was married as a 14 year-old to a man who looks like he's in his mid-30's, at what age can a girl be legally married, one can see the serious discrepancies between the written, literal law and the law that feels right when he answers by saying she can be married when she reaches puberty, which can be as early as 9. Longinotto elaborated how she found the judge to be a sensitive, kind man who was often in conflict with the literal law and the unique situation each plaintiff presented. This is why Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini included images of him praying in between cases, because the judge would often need such moments of reflection after all the unsettling matters he must settle.

An Iranian friend of mine whom I told about this moment in the film provided a hopeful story that presents an Iran not as beholden to fundamentalism as is often presented to us. When a friend of hers returned to contest a land dispute, he found himself in a courtroom with a plaintiff who decided to simply read from the Koran, regardless of relevance to the case at hand, to demonstrate he is the more faithful Muslim over that of my Westernized friend's equally Westernized friend. The judge, a mullah like the judge in Longinotto's film, responded with utmost diplomacy, calling out the tactics of the plaintiff as insincere while still showing respect for the Koran by saying something along the lines of 'We appreciate your gesture, but in this court we don't trust those who quote the Koran a lot.' If only we saw more of that judge's emerging Iran in the corporatized U.S. media.

Or if only we saw more of the younger Iranian generation coming up, such as the young girl who is the daughter of one of the female clerks who comes to the court after she finishes her school day. There is a powerful moment in the film when she gets up onto the bench, demands silence, and proceeds to hold court by providing the most astute commentary provided throughout the whole film. She questions the make-believe real men in front of her, asking them why they are not kinder and more respectful of their wives. Never has the cliché 'out of the mouths of babes' been more poignant as this moment where a child presents a better understanding of the women's view than the male judges or female plaintiffs seem to at times.

Runaway follows younger women who, like the older women (although some not that much older, some even younger) seeking divorce, have left their homes for various reasons, often because of abuse by parents or siblings. These runaways seek refuge in a shelter run by women where they can avoid the dangers of the street while efforts are made to re-connect these girls with their families. Although there appear to be avenues for the girls to escape from extremely violent or otherwise detrimental homes, the primary mission appears to be to eventually reconnect these girls with their respective families. One of the interventions involves telling the girls boogeyman stories about the violence that can happen to them out on the street. I'm sure these stories have some truth to them, but I would hope for greater feminist advocacy in this women's space than reinforcement of the patriarchy. A particularly harrowing moment is when an obviously drunk (or high) greatly older brother seeks to advocate for his sister's return as the mother and sister stand silent. The child appears quite discomforted by the scene. Later when she engages in a quick turnaround professing excitement to return home, serious doubts arise over this young girl's future. But the shelter workers have no other recourse outside of getting no-violence guarantees signed, since the law is clearly geared toward keeping families together even if detrimental to individual lives within those families.

Kim Longinotto's commentary before and after the screenings was the best I have heard in recent Q&As. I resoundingly concur with Lys Woods at Synoptique who notes Longinotto's "completely winning persona." Longinotto truly added a great deal to the experience of the viewings, offering fascinating asides, such as her respect for the judge and how they captured the powerful moment of the child playing judge in Divorce Iranian Style. Apparently the child was quite precocious, greatly wanting to be filmed. Longinotto and Zir-Hosseini tried to explain that they wanted to capture a moment as it happened, not something planned. Whether or not the young girl planned the moment at the judge's bench, she saw her moment when Longinotto and Zir-Hosseini finally captured the judge leaving. Confidently striding up to the bench, pounding her tiny, opened hand, she held court for future Iranians should they survive the lethal politics of the Cheney/Rove administration, as, if not clear enough already, I very much hope they do.

The first film Longinotto co-directed, Pride of Place (1976, co-directed with Dorothea Gazidis and where Longinotto is credited as 'Kim Longinotto Landseer', 'Landseer' being a name her father attached to falsely claim that they were related to the famous painter), involved returning to her public (what would be called a private school in the U.S.) boarding school in England. Encouraged by financial necessity to film in black and white, the economic resourcefulness brought an appropriate feel to the dingy, dark, hopelessly unnecessary feel of the school. When we see the headmistress yet again get nasty with the 'stupid' girls, telling them how they have wasted 10 or more minutes on locating someone's blazer, I wanted to scream out at the headmistress, 'No, lady, YOU are the one wasting time!' The girls seem to learn more during their chatting sessions around the classes than studying anything in class. In her commentary, Longinotto spoke of how she admired the rebels she found while filming, and it was the smoking in the woods scene that brought the rare smile found on my face while watching this film, my face otherwise resorting to contorting a grimace at how horrible, or a guffaw at how ridiculous, all the scolding was.

An interesting aspect of Longinotto's commentary was that it provided emotional balance for me. After the two Iranian films, I found myself seeing rows of half empty glasses, lacking the hope I saw after the documentaries done in Japan. But Longinotto reassured me and the audience that there were women doing some amazing work within the constraining parameters. Equally, my half-full glasses were toppled somewhat by the additional information Longinotto provided regarding the documentaries made in Japan.

Dream Girls (co-directed with Jano Williams, 1993) follows the immensely popular Takarazuka Music School and Theater where the Japanese women reverse the Kabuki rule of men playing women characters. Here the women play women and men, and the women playing men are the most avidly followed by women audiences that sell-out most shows. We follow the hazing rituals of the first year that consists of OCD-esque cleaning rituals, walking around the room close to the walls, and opening the door ever so slightly to slip through. I must say that I was a bit prone to find rebellion where others might not in the actors on stage and in the audience watching them. I have been concerned about the recent denigrating commentary about the Japanese housewife fans of "Yonsama", South Korean actor Bae Yong-joon of "Winter Sonata", a South Korean TV serial immensely popular throughout Asia. Rather than showing teenage regression amongst these women fans of both Yonsama and the Takarazuka Theater, I'm wondering, when explored in-depth rather than from tired journalistic frames, if we might find something similar to what Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs found in their essay "Beatlemania: Girls Just Want To Have Fun", arguing convincingly that "Beatlemania" provided a sexual outlet for emerging women whose society placed all responsibility for state-sanctioned chastity on them rather than their male counterparts. The de-individuation of the group permitted a space where a young woman "...who might never have contemplated shoplifting could assault a policeman with her fists, squirm under police barricades, and otherwise invite a disorderly conduct charge" (The Audience Studies Reader, Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn, p. 183). In the case of Dream Girls, might these fans and participants relish this space to expand beyond the gender roles they are confined within, where, for a moment, the women can have the privileges of men and these women as men can both caress and romance the women as they desire to be caressed and romanced? Might these women simply need a space away from men portraying men where they can talk amongst themselves about feelings and thoughts they feel they must hide elsewhere? And to bring this closer to my home, might we find similarities between Japanese housewives and their 'hysteria' for Yonsama and the male players of the Takarazuka Theater and the popularity of "Desperate Housewives", most significantly popular in the States where sexually- and gender-repressing Christian Dominionists have the greatest sway? Repressing people's healthy desires leads to projection on some object and the de-individuation of the mob - so wonderfully outlined in the essay "My Crowd: Or, Phase 5: A report from the inventor of the flash mob" in the March 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine by Bill Wasik - allows for un-self-conscious release of that which is not permitted release elsewhere by society.

Longinotto, and astute audience members, put a bummer on my progressive buzz by reminding me of a few items the film notes. First off, the Takarazuka Music School and Theater was created, choreographed, and overall ruled by men. Second, it is these ruling men who have set the rule that each 'top star' (only a male role-player can be a 'top star') is only permitted a two year reign so as to reign in any feminist ideas she might get in her head from being a he for any longer. Not so ironically, male role-players are mythed within Japanese culture as desirable wives because they 'know' what it's like to be a man. So this most progressively possible of projects still ends up feeding the patriarchy's needs. Still, such spaces won't necessarily stay completely confined within the rules set by others. Gradually women demand similar freedoms men demand from the exhilarations provided by such alternative spaces. Some of them will go back to their home lives and enact positive changes of varying degrees through the inspiration provided by their top star muse.

All this could perhaps better explain the recent cultural shift in Japan that is unnecessarily disparagingly described as para-chan or "parasite singles", (a disparaging moniker chosen by a male sociologist, nonetheless). The phenomenon has been too often discussed as a 'problem' and the focus of this 'problem' has too often been mis-placed on the women alone rather than the political/economic/social factors that make it difficult for a single women to find work, a reasonable rent, and fulfilling relationships in Tokyo. Their only options are either staying with their parents or shacking up with a man to survive. (And in those latter cases, why aren't the men referred to as 'para-chans' since it can be well argued that the men are parasitic in their living off the unpaid labor of their wives? Yeah, we know why male sociologists never think of their fellow men that way.) For those women who want a job and relationship just like men, (or those women who find Japanese society too restrictive to allow for the open Lesbian relationship they desire), staying with their parents seems more palatable than solely tending house for a man they are less than happy with. The dreamspace provided by the Takarazuka Music School and Theater in Japan can't help but seep into our waking worlds as well. Could the phenomenon of Women Alone with Parents - allowing for a non-judgmental, thus more appropriate, term to describe this phenomenon in Japan - be the reasonable depressive response that follows the manic highs of the possible freedoms the Takarazuka Theater envisions? Could this just be the natural slacking when your hopes are squelched for a moment by economic and social inequality?

And might not that hope be found again in ones later years? Such as the hope I found in The Good Wife of Tokyo (co-directed with Claire Hunt, 1993). Kazuko Hohki is a Japanese woman living in Tottenham, England for over 15 years who has returned to her home with her three-person, art rock band Frank Chicken. (Recall David Byrne of the Talking Heads in his oversized suit chopping his forearm with his other hand while commenting on how this is not his beautiful house and tell him this is not his oversized suit either, take it off of him, and then put him in a skyscraper costume and make him sing and chant about the Rockefeller Tower being purchased by the Japanese. That is Frank Chicken.) Turns out Hohki's mother is quite an alternative performer as well, being a leader (with limits, which I'll get to later) in the House of Development, a Japanese mélange of Shinto, Buddhist, Christian, and Tony Robbinsist religions, a congregation of which she runs from her home. We see Hohki's mother minister to her disciples through their laughter and pain as her retired husband reads upstairs and Hohki remembers why she left Japan. I found both Hohki and her mother resilient souls who negotiated different spaces for similar needs to express themselves. Longinotto somewhat tempered the hope I found by adding that the House of Development is run by men and they are the ones who put a stop to Hohki's mother's special leaflet dance displayed during the credits. Plus, Longinotto underscored the moments in the film where Hohki's mother advocates acceptance of a women's plight advised by much of the House of Development's tenets that raze the more fulfilling houses that would otherwise develop were we left to negotiate homes that allowed for more gender equality.

What Longinotto's commentary on both perspectives of the quintessential glass of half water underscores is that each of her films are full of more than we think, positively and negatively. So when those of us in San Francisco head out to see Sisters In Law at the Balboa after eating the fabulous food at the Shanghai Dumpling King and then contemplating the rulings of the Cameroonian Judge Beatrice Ntuba and what they mean for women, men, Muslims, Africa, and the world over coffee at Cafe Zephyr across the street afterwards, keep in mind there is so much more to this story than we will ever know. (Just as there's so much more to enjoy about The Richmond District than the three establishment shoutouts I've made.) We just can't stop with this documentary in hearing, seeing, and experiencing more about our mutual worlds. Longinotto isn't going to stop making these films with women, and I don't see myself ever getting tired of watching them.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Ten Decades of Frisco in Film


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In preparation for tomorrow's launch of the Balboa Theatre's Second Annual Reel San Francisco series of films from a diverse range of genres and time periods, all made in and/or about Frisco, as well as the Celluloid San Francisco book event at the Public Library next week, I present a list of some of the titles I think of first when I think of Frisco and film.

The post title is a bit of a misnomer, as Frisco Bay has been a motion picture hotbed for more than ten decades. It all began when Edward Muybridge first successfully photographed a horse's gallop for Leland Stanford in 1878. I've seen interesting Frisco films made in every decade since the Lumiere Brothers invented film exhibition in 1895, starting with 1897's Return of Lifeboat and including 1905's a Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, which was shown at the PFA last weekend and I suspect might be among the films shown this Tuesday at 7PM as part of the Balboa's "City Quakes" earthquake centennial commemoration program. But I will start this list formally with the decade where films first grew to running times similar to those we expect today:

the 1910s: The Tong Man (William Worthington, 1919)
Japanese-American screen idol Sessue Hayakawa played a Chinese anti-hero in this studio set-bound and somewhat sensationalistic depiction of the Frisco Chinatown underworld. It's no masterpiece and I wonder if there was even a single ethnically Chinese actor or crewman on set (most or all the Chinese parts were played by Japanese or white actors, which was customary for the time period) who could speak up against the film's stereotyping. Still, it's a fascinating curio and Hayakawa gives a typically strong performance.
On my to-see wish list: the Chaplin Essanay film a Jitney Elopement.

the 1920s: Greed (Erich Von Stroheim, 1924)
Von Stroheim gained a reputation as one of the first advocates for film realism in large part through his desire to shoot his version of Frank Norris's novel McTeague in the Frisco where Norris had lived and, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, "scouted locations" for his story of a love triangle doomed by the sudden appearance of wealth. A masterpiece in its own right, Greed also feels like a primer on making Frisco locations (in this case the corner of Hayes and Laguna, the Cliff House, and dozens more) work to the advantage of a great film, one that surely influenced future directors trying the same trick like Orson Welles (see below). The studio cut (not Stroheim's original 47-reel version now lost, or Rick Schmidlin's digital "recreation") played the Balboa series last year.
On my to-see wish list: Lon Chaney surviving the Great Quake in the Shock.

the 1930s: San Francisco (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936)
I had never seen the most famous film about the 1906 Earthquake until the Balboa played it last April for the 99th anniversary of the event. Now it's being brought back April 16-18 for the 100th, and if you live in the area and have never seen it before you really ought to. Though this film, directed by Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke (aka "One Take Woody"), has a not wholly undeserved reputation for stodgily moralizing, it really is a grand entertainment nonetheless. I like to think of it as the movie that represents to Frisco what Gone With the Wind is for Atlanta: It's a big-budget, star-laden special effects extravaganza that distorts history through a potentially worrying lens, but it also treats The City as the center of the Universe. If you, like me, think of Frisco as a better candidate for that honor than Ted Turner's town, you'll almost certainly like San Francisco better than the even more famous picture Clark Gable made three years later. And perhaps this film's conservative reputation has been overblown too; the Terry Diggs piece I linked to convincingly argues that the film was covertly packed by screenwriter Anita Loos with pro-labor jabs against the MGM hegemony.
On my to-see wish list: the Howard Hawks Barbary Coast, which plays the Balboa on a bill with Pal Joey April 23-24.

the 1940s: the Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)
You may need to be automatically predisposed to Welles to be able to get over his silly brogue and fully enjoy this film, the only one he made with his then-wife Rita Hayworth, but there's no denying the power of the scenes that make use of some of the eeriest Frisco locations imaginable, now all the eerier because these places are no longer with us. I'm speaking particularly of Playland at the Beach, where this loopy noir ends in an especially bizarre fashion, and the murkily-lit halls of the recently demolished Steinhart Aquarium, where the (by this point in the Welles-Hayworth marriage) fictional-only lovers rendezvous and talk about a doubly-impossible future together. If the story doesn't totally hang together it certainly doesn't matter when Welles is making use of such dream-logic images as moray eels and funhouse mirrors to make an end run around the glib symbology often found in Hollywood classicism. I didn't see this film when it played in last year's Balboa series, but I've seen it several times, most memorably a few years ago at an outdoor screening in New York City's Bryant Park; admittedly this film is just as much a New York movie as a Frisco movie, but Frisco gets the last word.
On my to-see wish list: I Remember Mama, based on the book I remember my mama reading to me as a kid.

the 1950s: Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
What to say about this film I often consider the greatest of all time? I've seen it too many times to be surprised by its basic plot structure like I was the first four or five times I saw it, always suckered in by the false first climax. But each time I'm still surprised by another Hitchcockian touch I notice, little things like how Pop Liebel's nostalgia for "the power and the freedom" associated with manhood helps Scottie give himself permission to resist the post-war modernization of gender relations and throw himself into an old-fashioned romantic melodrama. And I'm always struck by another glimpse of the Frisco that existed before I was born but am slowly trying to understand. I've had this site on my sidebar since starting this blog, and if you've never taken the time to lose yourself in it for a while, how about now?
On my to-see wish list: the National Film Registry-selected D.O.A., which plays at the Balboa with another noir, the Bigamist, April 25th.

the 1960s: the White Rose (Bruce Conner, 1967)
I first planned this list to be entirely made of feature films, but once I thought of this experimental documentary short, I had to bump the Birds (at the Balboa April 21-22) or Take the Money and Run (April 26-27) or whatever else I was considering for this decade. It's the first Bruce Conner film I ever saw, back in 1996 at the old DeYoung Museum when it was showcasing art of the Beats. The centerpiece of the exhibit was Jay DeFeo's painting/sculpture the Rose, which she applied 2,300 pounds of oil paint to over the course of eight years before removing it by forklift from her apartment at the Pacific Heights section of Fillmore Street. Conner lived nearby and was on hand to film the extraction, which he edited into this beautiful seven minute piece accompanied by music from Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain.
On my to-see wish list: Experiment in Terror, the classic Blake Edwards thriller I missed when the Balboa showed it last year.

the 1970s: the Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
This is another one of those films that I've seen so many times that it's seemingly seeped into my DNA, but that doesn't mean it's easy to know where to begin to talk about it. I might as well start where the film does, with Union Square, which in a single extended zoom shot morphs from a picturesque cityscape into a paranoia-inducing intrusion. The transformation seems oddly paralleled in the history of the location since Coppola's film was released; gradually the public square has felt more and more encroached upon by the neon-lit signs of the corporations that surround it, culminating in a recent remodel that has shifted the focus of the space toward the Macy's on its South side. I don't know all the locations used in the Conversation but I'm not sure I want to know either; the Cathedral Hill Hotel, which I pass nearly every day on the way to work, has felt just a little creepier since I realized it used to be called the Jack Tar Hotel and was the site of the film's most disturbing scene.
On my to-see wish list: Time After Time starring Malcolm McDowell as HG Wells.

the 1980s: a View to a Kill (John Glen, 1985)
I never said these were "the best" films shot in Frisco, just the ones that for me feel the "Frisco"-est. But honestly the last of the many times I saw this film, probably when I was in ninth grade, I still loved it. I was just the right age for James Bond when it came out in '85, and I can't begin to convey the sense of civic pride I felt when I learned that the international playboy and super-spy was going to be coming to my town, which meant that I obviously lived in a location as exciting and exotic as India or the Bahamas. Opening weekend fell near my twelfth birthday, and my dad took me and a dozen buddies across the Golden Gate to the theatre in Corte Madera he liked to avoid the Frisco crowds at. This was my last birthday party at which I felt no sense of inadequacy for not feeling cool enough to invite girls. I was outwardly resisting my looming teenager-hood as strongly as I could (I didn't even really know who Duran Duran was, but I did like their theme song) and a View to a Kill was the perfect preadolescent fantasy to allow me to do that for another two hours, plus get a glimpse of Grace Jones's naked bum. But probably my favorite scene was the fire engine chase scene culminating in the nail-biter at the "Lefty" O'Doul Drawbridge. The insanity of Christopher Walken's Zorin dueling against Bond on top of the area's most famous bridge was just good gravy. Since my middle-school-age days of intense study of Bondology, I've come to learn that a View to a Kill is considered by most to be one of the worst films in the series. I suspect it's at least in part because it's the film which let Roger Moore beat David Niven in Casino Royale as the oldest actor ever to play James Bond (he turned 57 during filming). One of these days I'd like to revisit it and see what I think, but in the meantime I don't mind reliving the memories.
On my to-see wish list: Chan is Missing, another National Film Registry selection.

the 1990s: Chalk (Rob Nilsson, 1996)
Like the Tong Man and San Francisco, I've only seen this film (actually shot on video) once but it left a powerful impression and turned me into a real Rob Nilsson admirer. Nilsson's Cassavetes-influenced filmmaking style cuts through the extraneous baggage of ego and image that he sees clogging up the independent film scene in this country. Probably his most crucial departure from the norm comes through the way he works with actors to develop their characters and stories. In the case of the Tenderloin-birthed poolhall drama Chalk he brought nonprofessional actors like Earl Watson and Johnny Reese together with local pros like Kelvin Han Yee and longtime Nilsson collaborator Don Bajema. It worked extremely well, and not surprisingly created a story that feels oh-so-Frisco in its composition.
On my to-see wish list: Crumb, another of the titles I missed last year.

the 2000s: In the Bathtub of the World (Caveh Zahedi, 2001)
This week Zahedi's hybridized documentary I Am a Sex Addict is playing the Balboa's other screen, but it would fit right into the series, as it was partially set in Frisco and uses local locations to stand in for Paris and elsewhere. But his earlier In the Bathtub of the World is a Frisco film (video again, really) with an even more radical approach. It proposes that a filmmaker does not need to go out and capture or create a particular story, but can make an important, inspiring film capturing some of the very essence of life just by turning a camera back on himself or herself. If a View to a Kill, Vertigo and even Greed use Frisco as the backdrop of the director's vacation film, In the Bathtub of the World turns the home movie of a Frisco resident into something at least as large and profound. Here's a fascinating thing I found that helps to explain why not everybody's heard of it.
On my to-see wish list: the Bridge, Eric Steele's controversial new doc on the topic of Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Another consideration of the subject, the Joy of Life by Jenni Olson, was a highlight of last year's SFIFF (and plays again at the PFA this Tuesday) I expect Steele's film to be of a completely different sort, but my expectations are still high. It's playing at three screenings in this year's edition of the festival, on April 30-May 2.

Friday, April 7, 2006

Adam Hartzell on Michel Brault


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Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive serves many functions for a cinephile like me. It's a venue for film festivals such as the increasingly vital African Film Festival and the upcoming SFIFF (and while I usually stay on this side of the bridge during the SFIFF, I often use the festival's PFA line-up to help me pick which unknown quantities to see at the Kabuki and the Castro, as I've noticed over the years that Berkeley bookings usually include the "artier" films, just as the Penninsula venue, this year the Aquarius, usually tends to avoid the "artier" films.) It plays host to touring retrospectives for the world cinema's great feature filmmakers, like Naruse's recent retro (with a reprise of Wife! Be Like a Rose this Sunday, April 9) and the complete Kieslowski retrospective in June, including a Three Colors marathon on the 17th. It provides the East Bay stop for restored revival prints other bookers pass on with its A Theater Near You programs (on the horizon: a pairing of Bresson's Mouchette and Sautet's Classe Tous Risques May 26-27.)

One of the more excting things the PFA does is bring world-class documentary filmmakers to Berkeley in brief residencies through its Documentary Voices program. In the past couple years guests have included Anand Patwardhan, Thom Anderson, and Marina Goldovskaya. Next week brings Kim Longinotto as she tours the film she made with co-director Florence Ayisi, Sisters in Law (which will begin a run at the Balboa April 28). And last month brought a chance to be exposed to the work of a Canadian filmmaker I was embarrassed never to have heard of before, Michel Brault. I was only able to squeeze in a single program, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's radical investigation of the documentary form Chronicle of a Summer, on which Brault was a key cinematographer, preceded by the short that got Brault that job, Les Raquetteurs. But my friend Adam Hartzell, who shared his 2005 top ten list in this space in between his writings for other websites, caught two of the programs Brault actually appeared at, and was generous enough to write about the experience as a Hell on Frisco Bay exclusive. I'm honored to turn this blog over to Adam now:
A friend of mine once told me that the most provincial of people he'd ever met were born and raised and still living in Brooklyn. As ironic as this may seem, when you think about how the world comes to New York, and Brooklyn being a hot borough for those trying to make it there, if you're growing in Brooklyn, there isn't much reason to travel anywhere else. The San Francisco equivalent are young adults from the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods whom I've met who have told me their first trip over to the East Bay was when they began their first year at UC Berkeley. After over eight years living in San Francisco, I know what they mean. I rarely go over to the East Bay anymore. When I do, it's the usually the same street, Bancroft Way in Berkeley where both University Press Books and the Pacific Film Archives reside.

Books and cinema are my intellectual and spiritual Prozac. I will always find another thoroughly engaging book to read at UPB - my most recent visit had me discovering Martin Kevorkian's (yeah, bummer on the last name, huh?) analysis of the recent habit of placing African-American movie characters in front of computers, Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America and Jamie L. Mullaney's title-grabbing, sociological study Everyone Is NOT Doing It: Abstinence and Personal Identity, looking at the vegans, celibates, and others amongst us who forgo things to find themselves - and there will always be wonderful works by fascinating directors that I knew nothing about until the PFA's well-rounded program gets hammered into my poorly-squared mail-box.

This time around, the PFA decided to school me on Michel Brault. I had no knowledge of this Quebecois director and cinematographer prior to the retrospective of his work that the PFA brought to their screens the second weekend of March. Chris Gehman is quoted in the program notes as arguing that ". . . Brault achieved what many documentarians were striving for throughout the fifties: a form of documentary filmmaking not reliant on scripts, dramatic re-creations, staged events, and literary devices, but deriving its form from material gathered in contact with the real events and people portrayed . . ."

And all well and good for me to learn, but what really drew me to Brault's screenings were not these historical footnotes in cinema's history, but the fact that the films were about Canada, a country whose cinemas, politics and cultures I've been interested in for some time. I had this interest well before I fell in love with a Vancouverite years ago and maintain this interest through the cœur brisé ("broken heart") caused by a wonderful woman from Montreal this summer. To educate myself about all things Canada, I regularly read Maisonneuve and The Walrus and often listen to the CBC and RCI online. Since my Anglophonic self limits my access to Canada's Francophone culture, I took BART over twice to the exotic East Bay to catch two of Brault's shorts, one documentary work, and one fictional work based on real life events and interviews with those individuals who lived through the events on screen. It is this latter work that resonates most prominently since similar actions are being shamefully enacted by Canada's southern neighbors presently.

As with the cinema, first the shorts. A late addition to the screenings was the inclusion of Les Raquetteurs (1958). Les Raquetteurs is French for Snowshoers and a Snowshoe festival somewhere in Quebec province (I didn't write down the actual city's name) was the site of Brault's first directorial effort (which he co-directed with Gilles Groulx). The Canadian Film Encyclopedia notes that this short was ". . . heralded as a sort of manifesto for the National Film Board of Canada's francophone filmmakers." Adding an extra zero to the cashiers check he received to make the film afforded Brault the opportunity to extend this piece beyond the original 3-4 minutes of film he was officially allotted. (Yes, Canadian taxpayers, Brault admitted to this at the screening.) The result was one of the least propagandistic newsreels I have scene from this period. Brault and his collaborators strip the festival down to its essence of disorder and overreach without condescending to his audience or subjects. Scenes of a sparsely attended stadium hosting a snowshoe sprint come back to us when an announcer later asks the crowd not to come onto the field to 'assist' the women sprinters. We are left wondering which of the two or three people we saw justified such a warning from the announcer.

From snowshoers to Wrestling (La Lutte, 1961), another collaborative short about a professional wrestling match in Montreal. Even though Brault stripped away the artifice by showing the wrestlers coached to fake punches and taught by the coach's pre-teen assistant to throw opponents, I still found myself riveted by the performance in and around the ring. Close-ups on intertwined bodies locked in a wrestling hold are coupled with equally close views of contorted faces witnessing the action. Later we will see more parallels, such as a man holding back his girlfriend's (wife's?) body just like a referee holding back an illegally entering tag team member. The staged performance in the ring results in an un-staged performance outside in the audience. Brault demonstrates that the wrestling auditorium has executed a smackdown of the fourth wall of theatre. I found myself thinking that Roland Barthes had to be involved in this somehow and the credits soon confirmed this.

Onward to the longest of the longer works I caught, Of Whales, the Moon, and Men (Pour la Suite du Monde, 1963) has Brault working with another director I'm supposed to know something about but don't - Pierre Perrault. For this film, Brault and Perrault ventured out to Ile-aux-Coudres, or "Isle of Hazelnuts", to stimulate a return to a previously big part of the local economy, whale-trapping. (Key word "trapping". I had to calm the cringes that came from people who appeared to have visions of seal-beating in their heads when I mentioned what the film was about. No metal-toothed traps were involved in what appears to be the most "humane" way of trapping a mammal. And the trapped whale is eventually taken to an aquarium in New York rather than slaughtered.) This big part of the local economy became a big waste of resources so the practice died out many decades ago. However, the younger adult generation is interested in jumpstarting the tradition after Brault and Perrault's instigation. What follows are efforts from the enthusiastic younger to extract the traditions from ambivalent elders, slowly watching the trap set up in low tide without much exposition. The comfortable performances of the islanders whom we presume are acting as they would everyday provide the most endearing moments in this film.

The wonderful mood of Of Whales, the Moon, and Men had me excited for the next film I was to catch in the Brault retrospective, Orders (Les Ordres, 1974), a film about Canada's "October Crisis" of 1970. After the kidnapping of a British Trade Commissioner and the kidnapping (and later murder) of the Vice Premier of Quebec, Pierre Laporte, by the FLQ (Front de Liberation due Quebec - a violent, militant Quebec nationalist group), Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act. Only the third time ever enacted, the other two times during the two World Wars, this Act permitted such actions as warrant-less searches and arrests. The film was based on interviews with 50 of the 497 people rounded up and jailed for over two weeks. Those who were interviewed for the film were amongst the 88% of those who were never charged with a single crime.

Screenings of films like these allow for wonderful examples of the education and mis-education that film can provide. If I had taken for complete accuracy what I learned from the screening (including the Q&A after), I would have left thinking that no one had been charged with a crime after the civil-liberties-be-damned dragnet. But after venturing over to the online historical community at Wikipedia, I was informed such was not the case since 62 people were charged, 32 without bail. (Although whether their charges were anything related to domestic terrorism, I do not know.) Of course, Wikipedia as a community represents history as a subject; further revisits to the incidents in question may reveal more frightening or comforting aspects across the political spectrum around which each of us orbits. But trusting Wikipedia's reliability - and a recent article in the respected science journal Nature supports me in this trust, finding Wikipedia to be as accurate a source as the hallowed Encyclopedia Britannica - doesn't mean I find this addendum to the information in Orders comforting. The fact that 62 people were charged with something doesn't justify the response. Proper police procedures for a democratic society could have brought just as many charges, if not more, without having to falsely arrest and terrify so many citizens.

That said, I appreciate the way each character comes into Orders. Brault was encouraged by a National Film Board of Canada reviewer to bring the verisimilitude to light at the very beginning. Each actor introduces themselves as themselves, as actors, and then tells us who of the never accused they are going to play. This had the effect of conveying a certain reverence to the real life people played and the real life issues of civil rights, terrorism, and our response to terrorism that this film explores.

Particularly striking about Orders, considering its topic, is its lack of physical striking. No one is shown physically beaten up neither in the rounding-up of citizens nor in the prisons, although the scenario is no less horrifying since psychological torture can dig just as deep. There is a mental terror here, especially when one falsely accused citizen is led to believe he is about to be executed, that bleeds throughout the screen, ever more vivid when the black and white of Montreal's snowy streets becomes the color of the prison cells. I wondered if financial issues were the motivation behind this intermittent use of color since I've heard such explanations from other directors of this time period working with limited funds. Later, in the question and answer, Brault would confirm this when asked by another person in the audience. This use of black and white for the outside world and color for the 'inside' of jail is 'counter-intuitive' because it's counter the cliché of how prisons are often portrayed, as dreary and drab. I'm sure they are dreary and drab and warrant such filters on the camera lens, but going against the grain here, Brault underscores the intensity of bewilderment, confusion, and psychological devastation of each character.

As much as I know I have so much more to learn about all the countries of the world, I was surprised to find out something like this happened in Canada. I shared the reaction to Orders of my fellow attendees as a dis-ordering of some of the stereotypes some of us State-siders have about Canada. Sure, the Cheney/Rove Administration is evidence that the United States is vulnerable to the totalitarian it happening here in the United States, but not in Canada? Unfortunately, civil liberties many of us find sacred to our democracies were suspended up North in the October of the year of my birth. Slowly, my innocent belief in Canada's complete moral superiority to the United States has been challenged by some less than stellar moments in Canada's history, such as the incident involving the ship the Komagata Maru. Although I continually stumble over the name of this ship, whenever I mention it to Sikhs I know they immediately pronounce the name for me. Although a bit of hidden Canadian history, the Komagata Maru is firmly etched in the collective memories of Sikh communities everywhere. The Komagata Maru carried 376 citizens of the British Empire, most of whom were Sikhs, into the Vancouver Bay in 1914. The Canadian government denied the ship from docking and disembarking for over two months, limiting access to food and fresh water for the passengers, due to Canadian immigration policies that privileged Whites, and to a lesser extent Japanese, over those from the Indian continent. This stalled moment in Canada's history was revealed to me by another Canadian film, a powerful documentary by Ali Kazimi entitled Continuous Journey that played at both the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival and the 3rd-I International South Asian Film Festival in 2005.

As for the October Crisis, Canadians will have a chance to again revisit this tumultuous moment in their history with the upcoming TV mini-series October, 1970 scheduled for a September airing this year. If only NAFTA worked both ways culturally. Because it is Canada's Southern neighbors, with their Guantanamos, Abu Ghraibs, illegal wiretapping, and (too ordinary) extraordinary renditions, who could learn the most about their shameful present from Canada's history lessons.

But let me finish on a more hopeful note, by mentioning my pleasant surprise when I slid my recent GreenCine DVD selection, Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, 1971), into my DVD player. I was delighted to see that Brault had lens-ed this film as well. This film about the relationship between a young boy growing up with his aunt and uncle includes a lovely scene reminiscent of Of Whales, the Moon, and Men as well as The Snowshoers and Wrestling (and, thankfully, none of Orders). It is Christmas Eve and a mass of recently pay-checked factory workers head down the road as a pack of recently Christmas-vacationed school kids march towards them. When they meet, playful wrestling in the car-trodden sludge commences. It is a sincerely touching, small town moment that Brault captures consistently in the few films I've caught of which he's been a part. Such respect and dignity for the people and communities he films gives me hope even when the subject matter might seem hopeless.