Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Adam Hartzell: SF Shorts Festival

After an August with comparatively few film festivals here on Frisco Bay, September is bringing the beginnings of an Autumn onslaught of them. Though the September staple Madcat Women's Film Festival is transitioning from a Frisco Bay-based event to a national touring program this year, a screening on Sept. 16 of festival favorite filmmakers including Kerry Laitala, Samara Halperin & others carries the tradition of El Rio outdoor music & film forward in 2009. The 2nd Annual Iranian Film Festival runs September 19-20 at the SF Art Institute. In San Rafael, the Global Lens Film Series runs September 25th through October 7th, after which the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center becomes one of the venues for the Mill Valley Film Festival. The 32nd annual program for the latter festival will not be fully revealed for another week, but in the meantime the festival has begun teasing us with announced special guest appearances: Clive Owen will be in Marin for the opening night screening of the Boys are Back, and French New Wave icon Anna Karina will be on hand to present her scarcely-seen recent directorial effort, Victoria on October 16th. Jean-Luc Godard's muse will also be represented at the festival by an October 13th showing of one of their most well-known collaborations, Pierrot Le Fou.

But before all this, the Red Vic is just about to play host to the 4th Annual SF Shorts festival, featuring six programs of short films over the next four days. Arya Ponto has a written brief write-up on the program. Here at Hell On Frisco Bay, Adam Hartzell has also previewed a few of the offerings and provides his take:

There’s a wonderful moment of Deaf storytelling that takes place in Cynthia Mitchell and Robert Arnold’s short All Animals. It goes on at length sans subtitles and is mesmerizing. Just a young Deaf woman (actress Sheena McFeely) sitting on the back of a pick-up truck signing with her whole upper body and the space that surrounds it, including the facial expressions so important to all Sign Languages, and the authentic Deaf voice John S. Schuchman has noted is so important to (Hearing) Children of Deaf Adults (aka CoDAs). It truly takes over the film, levitating the viewer trance-like into a completely different film from the larger short film that surrounds it. All Animals involved one of the California Schools for the Deaf. Perhaps the focus on Deaf storytelling germinated from this collaboration or was the very reason for this collaboration.

This subtitle-less scene reminded me of the screening of Deaf director Peter Wolf’s I Love You But... (1994) at the Deaf Film Festival in February of 2003 at the Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Berkeley, where it was explained that no subtitling or translation via headphones would be provided for Hearing viewers, in order to give Hearing viewers an idea of what it’s like for the Deaf to attend the cinema. Outside of the beauty of signed languages in general, the moment of expressive Deaf storytelling in All Animals is inaccessible to non-ASL fluent viewers just as the dialogue of English-language cinema is inaccessible to Deaf Americans. Rarely are subtitled or close-captioned prints of English-language films available for U.S. theatres and this limits the experience Deaf viewers can have in the cinema. And based on the screener I watched, I’m assuming the spoken dialogue will not be close-captioned at the Red Vic screening, making this film only partially accessible for the Deaf community. Whether or not that’s an oversight or due to limited funding options, I don’t know. But since the Deaf storytelling is so prominent, it appears its inaccessibility to me and other non-ASL fluent viewers is intentional. Yet in spite of that ‘inaccessibility’, I am still deeply affected by it.

Unfortunately All Animals also utilizes what Gallaudet University professor Jane Norman refers to as a ‘gimmick’ of Hearing-centric films where the sound is cut off as a false attempt to lead us into the Deaf character’s experience of the world. As the Hearing character notes when discussing the Opera, Deaf people do not experience the world in total silence, for vibrations are felt through other parts of the body. Such sensation of sound through the vibrations of the body is not the same as through the ear, but such is not total silence either. The sappy (but I love it nonetheless) Japanese Deaf film I Love You (Osawa Yutaka and Yonaiyama Akihiro, 2000) demonstrates this beautifully, but to write how it represents sound as ‘heard’ by Deaf people would be to ruin the tear-jerking moment up to which the film builds, so I’ll leave you to the difficult search to find that film to see how such clichés can be avoided.

Along with being a calling card for directors, actors, and others film industry folk to garner future projects, short films can also be a space for experimentation, which makes All Animals both compelling in its highlighting of Deaf storytelling, and disappointing in its reliance on an overused Hearing trope of Deaf characters. Of the few films I was able to see for the festival, nothing else jumped out at me as ‘experimental’, but the animated films The Mouse That Soared by Kyle T. Bell and Prayers for Peace by Dustin Grella both kept me transfixed by their drawings, Bell’s through digital rendering and Grella’s through the washing on and off of dreamy charcoal images.

Another film I was able to watch was Molly Snyder-Fink and Kiran Goldman’s Fast As She Can. With Usain Bolt dashing through the headlines as of late for his World Record 100 meter time of 9.58 seconds at the recent World Championships in Berlin, it’s nice to see a short film focusing on the amazing female athletes of Jamaica. Although there is some repetitive narration early on, the short serves its subjects and the topic well by showing the constant training in which these women engage and the encouragement and support many provide for these endeavors. The details of their training regimen offer a counterpoint to the speculative ‘reasons’ that are often given to Jamaican track and field success. In this way, we can see the self-serving claims of the yam seller in the film who claims ‘it’s the yams’ just as we doubted Mars Blackmon when he proclaimed ‘It’s gotta be the shoes!’ More disturbingly, but not mentioned in the film, sometimes the hard work that propels the success of black athletes is downplayed by the Pat Buchanan-esque racist assumptions about their bodies. And now these athletes must also confront the constant suspicion of doping, based, as a San Jose Mercury News reporter admits in the documentary, on little evidence outside of the record-breaking record-breaking. Everyone is looking for the secret to their success as if it were one simple thing proving their prejudices, rather than a complex network of things.

And like that journalist, I will proclaim on the little evidence of these four shorts that it looks as if the Red Vic will have much on offer for those with the heavily-concentrated attention spans and precise mental-compartmentalizing that short film watching requires.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Miyazaki Midnights & Matinees (and more)

One of my favorite films of the year so far is the latest animated feature from Hayao Miyazaki, Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea, also know as just Ponyo. Made by a near-septuagenarian, and perhaps aimed primarily for children just barely old enough to sit still for a movie, this Japanese re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen holds the power to captivate a childless 30-something willing to be awash in Miyazaki's visuals, whether depicting the crashing of furious waves as a Hokusai woodcut come to life, or the simple process of serving a bowl of ramen to a little girl who has never eaten noodles before. Miyazaki's inked lines are more robust than ever, and his gentle-handed ecological message perfectly apropos for his pre-school protagonist Sosuke, who understands the import of the chain of events he has set off less completely than audiences of any age will, yet it better able to make a crucial narrative leap of faith than a more world-weary individual might. He provides an inspirational model for us all.

Some Miyazaki fans seem to be, at least mildly, disappointed in Ponyo in comparison to the master's other animated films. I can't understand almost any of their arguments, and I can't help but wonder if some are registering disagreement less with the film itself than with the Disney Corporation's decision to release the film only in a dubbed version, in contrast to their making Howl's Moving Castle available to theatres both an English-dubbed and a Japanese-language version with English subtitles. Sprited Away, too, was sent on the festival circuit in a Japanese version before its theatrical release with American voice artists providing the soundtrack.

I've watched both versions of Ponyo. First I saw a 35mm print of the Disney-dubbed version; though I was mildly bothered by Liam Neeson's distinctive tones, and Cate Blanchett's essential reprisal of her Galadriel role, their Ponyo characters are relatively minor and I was so overwhelmed by Miyazaki's fluid animation and florid imagination that they couldn't mar the experience in any meaningful way. The other voice actors submerged their star personae and were unrecognizable to me until the end credits. In sum it was a terrific dub job; nothing like the distracting celebrity voice-fest of the Miramax Princess Mononke dub. Watching a friend's Japanese Ponyo DVD import with English subtitles shortly afterward was nearly as wonderful, but I'm glad it was not my first experience with the film. In fact the dub translation was slightly superior in a few instances, as I confirmed with a native Japanese speaker. The only major improvement was the end-title song, which Disney turned from a sweet farewell to the film into a groan-worthy techno remix involving its stable of pop singers.

In any language, Ponyo is absolutely something to see on the big screen if you can, and if you live in Frisco that's still possible, at least for another week, as it continues to play at the Balboa Theatre until Thursday. Miyazaki fans holding out for the subtitled DVD, you'll thank yourself for taking the opportunity to see it in a cinema. If you want to display your original-version-purist credentials, take the rare opportunity to watch the Japanese-language version of Miyazaki's Spirited Away this November when it plays four midnight shows and a matinee in Frisco Bay theatres. Both the Clay here in Frisco and the Piedmont in Oakland have included the 45th San Francisco International Film Festival's audience award-winning film in their autumn lineup of cult favorite screenings. The Clay shows it November 6th & 7th, and the Piedmont on November 13th & 14th, with an additional 10 AM screening on the 15th.

Other midnight movies coming to Landmark theatres this season include This is Spinal Tap, the Wiz (featuring Michael Jackson as the scarecrow, of course) the original release cut of Donnie Darko, the Graduate, the Shining, and more. Check the Landmark After Dark website. And though the Bridge will no longer be the site for full summer seasons of Peaches Christ's Midnight Mass series, the horror hostess will present a one-off screening of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 there on October 24th.

Meanwhile, the Red Vic on Haight Street has a midnight hit on its hands as well these days. The Room, Tommy Wiseau's enigmatically awful, but clearly rather expensive passion project, has been packing in viewers and solidifying screen-talkback rituals the last Saturday of every month all summer. The tradition, as revealed in the latest Red Vic calendar, is planned to continue this fall with shows on September 26th and October 31st (come in costume as one of the characters for additional fun.)

Finally, my friend Jesse Ficks has been hard at work putting together his season of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS shows at the Castro. Tonight he's playing Risky Business, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the Last American Virgin in a set entitled "Cocky White Guys". October 2 is "Bite Nite", pairing the Santa Cruz-set the Lost Boys with Katheryn Bigelow's Near Dark, which I've never seen (for shame!) And November 6th is called "Love Kills", with True Romance, Natural Born Killers and a midnight MiDNiTE screening to be determined. Looking at the thematic pattern, I bet it'll be something written by Quentin Tarantino. Though Jesse has been known to have unexpected surprises up his sleeve.