Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Adam Hartzell on Three Upcoming Documentaries

I'm slowly recovering from the busiest time of my year, Halloween. I haven't blogged in weeks, haven't tweeted in days, and am just about to get back into my cinephile swing. Today's the right timing, as tonight the new November-December Pacific Film Archive calendar launches with The Unstable Object, the first of four Alternative Visions screenings Wednesdays this month. The Castro Theatre screens four masterpieces in a Nick Ray centennial mini-fest today and tomorrow, and the Roxie chimes in with a fifth Ray (Johnny Guitar) Sunday as part of its Not Necessarily Noir 2 series. And the SF Film Society closes French Cinema Now tonight and opens Cinema By The Bay tomorrow; I'm intrigued by the screening of the 1926 silent The Bat and the films by Lawrence Jordan, Carolee Schneeman, etc. playing the Canyon Cinema spotlight. But my friend Adam Hartzell has just added three more upcoming films to my to-see list, each sampled at the Mill Valley Film Festival last month. Here, Adam writes on the discoveries made in his cinemagoing travels:

In order avoid adding to both our financial and carbon footprint debt, my wife and I have been limiting our plane-dependent vacations to one a year. And we never travel by car anymore. But we still long to 'get-away'. So we've been venturing around the Bay Area, to places that can be reached by ferry, train, or bus. And many of these advanced 'stay-cations' have been for film festivals. We've taken Amtrak to Sacramento for the French Film Festival where we got to see Alex Deliporte's Angèle & Tony and the Audrey Tatou vehicle Beautiful Lies before San Francisco French Cinema Now attendees did this past week. It was also in Sacramento that we got to see the wonderful scene where Je t'aime . . . moi non plus is first heard by Serge Gainsbourg's record company in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life that opened at the Embarcadero this past weekend. We've also made the Tiburon International Film Festival an annual trip since it's such a green convenience to walk off the ferry right smack dab into the festival.
The Mill Valley Film Festival makes it a bit more difficult to travel to on a green stream. They do provide a shuttle from the San Rafael and Mill Valley venues, but we chose films showing in Mill Valley and there wasn't a direct bus from the Larkspur Ferry as far as we could tell, so we grabbed a cab to get to Mill Valley for our overnight stay. (We did take the shuttle to San Rafael in order to take Golden Gate Bus back, however.)
Although we didn't plan it this way, all three of the films we caught at MVFF will be released in San Francisco before the year is out. Coming to the Balboa December 2nd will be Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey's Eames: The Architect and The Painter. I had heard about the Charles and Ray Eames's marriage and professional partnership in a past podcast (the name of which escapes me), so I was ready for the most revealing aspect of Cohn and Jersey's documentary; that is, how important Ray Eames's work was to the success of their designs. They were a couple speeding past the Zeitgeist of the 50's, having to negotiate the respect Ray wanted and Charles wanted for Ray within the patriarchal narratives demanded of the times. The television clip where the hostess can't seem to integrate the female half of this couple is a very valuable moment of archival retrieval. Eames: The Architect and The Painter is an example of the value and necessity of what is often called 'revisionist history', a term sadly intended negatively by too many mindless talking heads. Much history is 'revisionist history' in that it is the applying of recently excavated information to create a new narrative that is hopefully more representative of what actually happened and why. In this way, Eames: The Architect and The Painter brings a lathe to refine the record of the impact of the Eames studio. It's no longer just Charles who gets a seat at the table since he wasn't alone in the creation of those seats and tables.

Our Saturday morning show, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, was disappointingly lacking in the young folk hoped for as part of the DocFest just past or the Lumiere in SF or Rafael Film Center in San Rafael come December 16th. Or, as my wife suggested, perhaps the kids didn't want the magic of Elmo ruined by seeing the man behind him. The man that brought a voice and aesthetic to Elmo that no other puppeteers were able to bring, Kevin Clash, definitely makes an effort to move his body away whenever he meets kids in real life, as if his contortions are abracadabra gesticulations maintaining the magic. The film is about a dreamer, a geek picked on at school, who works hard at his craft and eventually makes his way to the big leagues as well as the respect of his peers. His parents support is endearing and tantamount to Clash's success, as is the public funding that contributed to Clash's career trajectory. Besides the public television funding that made Sesame Street successful along with the massive research and talent that was part of the Children's Television Workshop that Clash became a part of, military research has a place to play in a particularly puzzling aspect of professional puppetry for young Clash. (I'm going to be vague about it to allow for the pleasure of that reveal.) The public money behind Elmo provided opportunities for artists and researchers to leverage their interests, skills, talents and dreams, resulting in tremendous benefit for individuals, communities and economies. If you're cynical to the joy Elmo has brought to so many children, Elmo did, after all, do more than tickle the economy in all the ancillary products sold.
As much as I enjoyed the Eames and Clash documentaries, the best film I saw at MVFF will possibly be the best film I see all year. Judy Lief's Deaf Jam is a celebration of American Sign Language poetry that doubles as a primer of Deaf Culture, triples as a personal story of Israeli and Palestinian friendship, quadruples as a snapshot of the economic impact of our immigration law, and multiplies as many, many other things. This is truly a beautiful, powerful film, providing a mesmerizing experience that I have not had in a theatre for a long time. Lief's dance background is clearly on display in her framing of the hand, body and facial movements that make up the ASL equivalents of phonemes, words, and sentences. She gives us a precise primer on ASL Poetry and thrusts us into the world of ASL Poetry performance by taking the text of subtitles and swirling them around in the translation with such vibrancy that it truly works, rather than coming off as a gimmick. This effort to struggle with how to demonstrate the vitality of ASL through translation even includes a segment where the piece is left respectfully un-translated.
Deaf Jam's main subject Aneta Brodski is that charismatic individual many documentarians hope to capture. When we hear the immigration issues she runs up against, you can't help but see how the obstacles financially imposed upon Deaf folks will hit her even harder. Hopefully she will be able to negotiate the college education and later employment she deserves in spite of these obstacles, but you do worry that such a vibrant spirit might be hardened, if not squelched, considering what she will be forced to maneuver around in the future.
Screening in a truncated form as part of the Independent Lens series on PBS networks on Thursday November 3rd, Deaf Jam is an example of the tremendous value film festivals can provide through the different lenses they focus onto the world. (And Deaf Jam is another example of the huge benefits provided by public funding - thank you, ITVS!) Even with the chain of transit options we have to step on to get there, MVFF has consistently been a festival worth the journey.

UPDATE 11/3/11: I've just learned from Adam that Eames: The Architect and the Painter will also be opening at the Elmwood in Berkeley and the Rafael in Marin on December 2nd, the same day it comes to the Balboa. I'm glad this documentary is going to be spreading out to various Frisco Bay venues. Is it too much to dream that one or more of them might track down a print of one of Charles & Ray's own wonderful short films (Powers of Ten, Atlas, Blacktop, etc.) to screen prior to the documentary feature?

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