Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Yes, the San Francisco International Film Festival program was announced yesterday with tickets going on sale to the general public today, and there's plenty to say about it that hasn't already been covered in Susan Gerhard's sf360 piece. But I'm going to hold off for a bit, other than to mention my three favorites of the eleven films and videos the festival has selected that overlap with what I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall: The Mysteries of Lisbon, A Useful Life and Meek's Cutoff.

What I'm really surfacing to say is that tomorrow evening at SFMOMA I'm participating in an SF Cinematheque screening of all four of the films directed by 1950s San Francisco Beat poet & filmmaker Christopher Maclaine, as well as two films he contributed artistically to, Ettilie Wallace's Moods In Motion and Lawrence Jordan's Trumpit. Maclaine's the Man Who Invented Gold and the absolutely delightful Scotch Hop are particularly rare, not having screened in a Frisco Bay cinema in several years. The program, curated by Brecht Andersch, will also include in-person appearances by both Jordan and Wilder Bentley II, both of whom appeared as actors in Maclaine's films.

Andersch & I, as I have mentioned on this blog before, have spent over a year doing a kind of field research on Maclaine's first film The End, by visiting sites where the film was shot and re-photographing them. Andersch has been documenting some of the results of our research as part of his Fifteen-part analysis of the 1953 masterpiece. Our project has been augmented by tips and comments from other Maclaine-appreciators including Konrad Steiner and Jim Flannery, both of whom are expected to be at tonight's Pacific Film Archive presentation of other great Frisco Bay experimental films (including the superb Permian Strata by Bruce Conner!) On Thursday I'll be involved in presenting a slideshow of images culled from our research. I'm very honored to be involved in a public discourse around Maclaine. If you have any interest in San Francisco geography, architecture, the Beats, experimental film titans, Scottish music & dance, the Atomic Age, poetry, the history of SFMOMA, or what I might look like in person, I highly recommend that you make your way to SFMOMA by 7PM Thursday. But don't take my word for it- take Max Goldberg's; his feature article in today's San Francisco Bay Guardian is an insightful and fresh look at Maclaine's importance.

Another, completely unrelated, event that I'm involved with in the next week or so is Pigeon Dealers, a variety show happening April 8th at the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM), just few minutes walk from the Pacific Film Archive Theatre. Amidst live music and comedy at the event, I've been asked to select a few 16mm prints of unusual animations from the archive collection to screen as part of the evening. A ticket to either of the Claire Denis screenings happening at the PFA that evening will also get you into the BAM for free that night.

And finally, a third, just as completely unrelated event: the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is quite a ways away on the calendar, but has leaked a few of the titles that will be screening at its July 14-17 event: He Who Gets Slapped, stars Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer, and was one of the first Hollywood films directed by Sweden's Victor Sjöström (and the very first Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer film released after that fateful merger). Gunnar Hedes Saga, directed by Mauritz Stiller (who also made Sir Arne's Treasure and mentored Greta Garbo early in her career), will be, after fifteen years of operation, the festival's first showing of a feature film made in Sweden. Both are splendid films that I look forward to re-seeing at the Castro. I have not yet seen the Great White Silence, a documentary about Captain Scott's expedition to find the South Pole, made little over a decade after the event, but word from last fall's London Film Festival screening makes it sound amazing.

All three of these films will be scored at the 2011 Silent Film Festival by the Matti Bye Orchestra, the newest addition to the SFSFF stable of regular musical performers and, judging by their accompaniments for Häxan and L'Heureuse Mort last Summer, a very welcome one. Matti Bye is currently an artist in residence at the Headlands Center For the Arts in Marin, and next Tuesday Bye and his musical partner Kristian Holmgren will perform musical excerpts from these work-in-progress scores, a kind of preview for those who can't wait until July, at a public event at the Center. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it myself to this demonstration, however. I'll be busy doing my own part to prepare for the July festival, researching and writing a 1200-word essay on one of the films set to play, for the program book. Is it one of the three aforementioned films, or another one entirely? I'm afraid I'll have to remain vague for now, but will keep readers posted as soon as I can say more.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Japan, Iran, and Newsmakers On Screen

When a foreign nation is in the news, do we find ourselves more drawn to the cinema of that nation than we had been before? I'm not sure that those of us who normally avoid subtitled cinema are much likelier to suddenly seek out the cinematic traditions of a country that, thanks to natural disaster or political events or anything else, is now on the "front burner" of our brains. But those of us who regularly watch foreign films anyway may be prompted by news-making events to choose a film made in a topical country, whether out of curiousity or in a gesture of solidarity with its suffering citizens. The latter is the motivation for next Saturday's Viz Cinema benefit screenings of Hula Girls, a cheery film about a 1960s dance craze, set in the region of Japan most severely affected by the recent earthquake. Though the VIZ is no longer in daily operation, it continues to hold more frequent screenings of Japanese films than any other Frisco Bay venue, mostly as special events. Its screen will be in use for more of April than it has in recent months.

In a recent conversation with Michael Guillén, scholar Thomas Elsaesser advises, "If you want to invest your money right now in a festival idea, get to know Egyptian cinema." He's referring to the fact that we Western cinephiles almost uniformly know little to nothing of Egypt's vast cinematic heritage. The imdb lists 2052 film titles with Egypt as a country of origin, surely an undercount. Compare against the eleven titles from Libyan cinema history - quite possibly not much of an undercount. I'm unaware of any locally planned Egyptian or Libyan screenings on the horizon- perhaps it's "too soon" from, at minimuim, an organizational standpoint. I suspect it's luck rather than intentional synergy with current events that brings a Tunisian documentary At The Bottom Of The Ladder to the Tiburon International Film Festival next month.

No, these kinds of programming maneuvers usually are the result of months of pre-planning, which is why I was so impressed that Yerba Buene Center for the Arts was able to announce a short series of Iranian films so soon after Tehran filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to prison for his "crime" of putting into production a film presumed to be sympathetic to the "Green Revolution". That The White Meadows, by Panahi's filmmaking compadre Mohammad Rasoulof was added to the program belatedly is a tribute to YBCA programmer Joel Shepard's commitment to making this as current and multi-faceted as a small series can be. The White Meadows was one of the gems of last Spring's San Francisco International Film Festival, and Frisco Bay audiences should be eager for next Sunday's chance to see this beautifully-shot film in a cinema.

The inclusion in the YBCA series of Close-Up, the meta-cinematic masterpiece by Abbas Kiarostami provides context and counterpoint. After Close-Up secured his spot as Iran's most internationally-known director, Kiarostami contributed the screenplay to Panahi's first feature film The White Balloon. But Kiarostami's recent response to his country's suppression of filmmakers has been to work outside of Iran. His latest film, Certified Copy, is a thoroughly European production, and I saw it at last year's French Cinema Now festival hosted by the San Francisco Film Society. It's every bit the masterpiece that Close-Up is, in part because of the way it transplants Kiarostami's usual concerns into an entirely new environment for him. It's now playing at the Clay and other Frisco Bay venues, and should be a high priority for any cinephile to see on the big screen.

Panahi, by contrast, insists that he does not want to make films outside of Iran. Though his films are made with formal rigor, their social critique seems inextricable from the society he knows first and best, although proposed readings of Offside, for example, which plays at 2PM today at YBCA, have also suggested he may be commenting on restrictions he's encountered trying to bring his films to an international audience as well as restrictions in his homeland. Three of Panahi's films will play this YBCA series. I recently revisited Offside, and found it to be even more stunning than I'd remembered it. the technical feat of shooting documentary-style at a live sporting event is jaw-dropping on its own terms, and that leaves aside the panoply of social observations the film makes. Crimson Gold, his previous feature, is probably his most critically beloved, although it's the one I've seen least recently in this series and will therefore withhold personal comment.

Preceding both today's and next Sunday's screenings of Panahi's last two features will be the last film he was able to complete before his sentencing, The Accordion. Made as part of an omnibus film Then And Now: Beyond Borders and Differences, which just had its world premiere in Geneva, this piece is so short (under six minutes, not inlcuding titles and credits) that to say almost anything about it seems to constitute a spoiler. I was able to preview a screener copy of it, and I can say that it's brilliantly Panahi for its entire running time. It particularly showcases one of the filmmaker's great stregnths: his ability to shoot characters moving naturally through a crowd. There's a tempatation, as might be expected, to read the Accordion at more than just face value as a grander political statement, and I'm not sure the title card "Any reference to real facts or real people is purely accidental" is likely to diffuse this tendency (it might in fact exacerbate it!) Anyway, if you can make it to either of the Panahi screenings, don't be late because you won't want to miss this short!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Surrogate Valentine

As promised in my previous post, a video of me discssing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives on the new cinema program "Look Of The Week" was posted on Friday. Check it out and tell me what you think. What I didn't know at the time was, the film would be extended for at least another week in San Francisco; it currently screens at the Presidio Theatre in the Marina. Meanwhile, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is well under way. I'll be heading to the Pacific Film Archive this evening to attend the award-winning Vietnamese film Bi, Don't Be Afraid, preceded by CAAM director Stephen Gong's discussion with Yunte Huang, author of a fascinating new cultural history/biography of Chang Apana, the real-life inspiration for the Charlie Chan character. A screening of a rare 35mm print of the 1937 film (not discussed in the book, so I'm excited to hear Huang's comments) Charlie Chan At The Olympics is the centerpiece of that talk.

The SFIAAFF is, quite commendably, probably the most conscientious of all Frisco Bay festivals when it comes to placing information about screening formats in their program guide, but there are almost inevitably a few changes that occur after the guide is printed. The Film On Film Foundation calendar has the most up-to-date information on which SFIAAFF (and other locally screening) films are projected on film rather than video. A good 35mm print can help make a mediocre film worth watching, as I remembered Friday night when I watched When Love Comes Friday at the Clay. Although I wouldn't advocate a festival itinerary that totally avoids digital screenings, as that would mean missing out on the terrific festival closer Surrogate Valentine, which would be a shame. It's my favorite of the (admittedly few compared to, say, Michael Hawley) SFIAAFF selctions I've seen so far.

Surrogate Vaentine is named after a song by local acoustic rock up-and-comer Goh Nakamura, who plays an up-and-coming acoustic rocker and guitar teacher named Goh in the movie. The meta-cinematic layering doesn't end there though, as the on-screen Goh is hired to play a "technical consultant" on a feature film made from a friend's screenplay, loosely based on incidents from his own life. Initially, he's asked to teach guitar-playing basics to the film's star, a well-known TV actor named Danny Turner (played by Chad Stoops, making his feature film debut). It soon becomes apparent that Danny is less interested in music lessons than in hanging out and finding clues to playing his Goh-inspired character. He accompanies the performer on a short West Coast tour, getting recognized everywhere for his hospital-soap character, and playing over-eager wingman when he recognizes Goh's attraction to a former flame met on the road.

The morass of plot detail I just recounted only scratches the surface, yet may obscure the fact that, though Surrogate Valentine never lacks a dramatic motor, it's really not a plot-heavy film, but a modern (musical) comedy and a character portrait. As writer-director Dave Boyle plays it out in its brisk 75 minute running time, there's nothing arch about the multi-leveled biographical blurring; rather the stark contrast between Goh and his would-be doppelgänger provides opportunities for a steady stream of satirical humor and pathos. Stoops makes Danny an ingratiating figure as if on excursion from a Todd Phillips bro-fest, while Nakamura portrays himself as the kind of almost stereotypically sensitive, aloof but endearing hipster seen on San Francisco streets more commonly than on San Francisco screens. His romantic interest Rachel (played by Lynn Chen of Saving Face and White On Rice, the latter also directed by Boyle) stands out as the best of a mostly-excellent supporting cast. Goh's world includes the orbits of many varieties of satellites -- from starstruck groupies to aging ex-rockers to the friends who "knew you back when".

Despite authentic location shooting (in Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles), it's easy to lose track of exactly what leg of the physical journey the wandering characters are on at a given moment, but any such confusion surely mirrors the discombobulation a touring musician experiences while on the road. The essence of the film comes not from its road-movie exoskeleton but from the interior journeys of Goh and Danny, though this is expressed without resorting to the screenwriter-guru-approved clichés. The open ending makes for a more aesthetically satisfying conclusion than found in a typical studio product. The penultimate shot, a close-up of Goh foregrounded against an out-of-focus but entirely static Portrero Hill panorama, provides an example of digital cinematography underlining an emotional state perhaps even more precisely than 35mm film stock could. Ultimately Surrogate Valentine earns more heft through its understatement than one might expect from a fun comedy. And its oblique, never finger-wagging, underlying critique of the shameful Hollywood trend of erasing Asian faces from the stories it wants to repurpose as mass-market entertainments comes off as more effective than a hundred disproportionately bilious critical pans of the Last Airbender could ever be.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On The Air

Yesterday I went to San Jose, where I taped a segment for a new film discussion series hosted by Sara Vizcarrondo of Box Office Magazine and Rotten Tomatoes. Honored to follow in the footsteps of the terrific Slant Magazine critic Fernando F. Croce, who discussed the Hollywood films of Fritz Lang on the first episode of the series, I was recruited to speak about Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, presumably because I can pronounce his name without butchering it (having taught English in Chiang Mai for a year and a half has resume applications after all!) I watched his new film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives twice at the Kabuki last Friday in preparation, and hope to see it again at least once more before it departs from the San Francisco Film Society Screen this Thursday. It will open for a week at the Elmwood Theatre in Berkeley on Friday. I don't want to give away anything I might have mentioned on the program, but I will say this: if you haven't already, you should see Uncle Boonmee too! Watching this on a computer or even a large television screen is simply not going to do justice to Apichatpong's visual strategies, which I feel are so important to the film as a whole.

Another guest interviewd by Vizcarrondo on this episode was local filmmaker Jarrod Whaley, whose new picture The Glass Slipper is part of San Jose's Cinequest Film Festival line-up this year; it plays March 9th and again on March 12th. I have not yet seen The Glass Slipper, but I was impressed by Whaley's feature-length debut Hell Is Other People, as I wrote last year. The episode with Whaley and I in it should be edited and posted by the end of the week; keep an eye on my Twitter feed for a link as soon as it's ready for viewing.

I'm actually not too familiar with much of this year's Cinequest program, in fact, but there are a couple of noteworthy films I've seen that will be playing the last few days of fest. F. W. Murnau's silent Nosferatu, of course, is always a treat on the big screen, and sure to be particularly so at the California Theatre March 11 with Dennis James performing at the organ to a color tinted 35mm print. I know I'm not the only one to feel that Nosferatu is particularly necessary in today's vampire movie landscape; people need to be reminded to feel frightened when they encounter the undead, not lustful.

Another Cinequest film I've had a chance to preview is Raavanan starring India's most famous actres Aishwara Ray Bachchan. She plays Ragini, the wife of a law enforcement official named Dev (played by Prithviraj) who falls into the clutches of his arch-nemesis Veera (played by Vikram), who takes her as a hostage while he mounts a popular insurrection against the government authorities. Of course Ragnini develops a Stockholm-Syndrome-like attachment to her rugged and powerful captor, which raises the stakes on the inevitable confrontation between law-maker and law-breaker. Bound by conventions of Indian popular cinema (plenty of action, musical numbers that stand in for love scenes, an anything-goes approach to filming technique, etc.), Raavanan nonetheless surprised me on more than one occasion, thanks to its toying with audience sympathies for its various characters. It helped that, if I had learned its classical source material prior to viewing, I had forgotten it (i.e., don't look it up unless you're completely unfamiliar with ancient Indian literature or else don't mind missing out on the surprises I was pleased to experience.)

After playing Cinequest, Raavanan will also play at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which opens this Thursday with a screening of West Is West. After 29 years of operations, more than a decade of it under the sure stewardship of former festival director Chi-hui Yang, the programming team for the SFIAAFF now has new faces of leadership in Masashi Niwano and Christine Kwon, who have brought together a set of 108 films and videos, most of them from young Asian and Asian American filmmakers. Though the lineup may include fewer "known-quantity" directors than I've come to espect from this festival, there are a number of new films by relatively established artists that I've admired, leading off with China's critically-acclaimed master Jia Zhang-Ke, whose controversial I Wish I Knew plays twice at the festival, on March 12th at the Kabuki and on the 15th at the Pacific Film Archive. Other filmmakers I'm personally excited for the opportunity to follow are Zhang Lu, whose Grain In Ear impressed me at the 2006 SFIAAFF, and Chang Tso-Chi, whose The Best Of Times was a favorite at the 2003 San Francisco International Film Festival. Their new films are Dooman River and When Love Comes, respectively. Add in new documentaries on Anna May Wong and Mongolian film history, and archival screenings of Charlie Chan At The Olympics (with author Yunte Huang on hand to contextualize that film's complex racial issues) and Nonzee Nimibutr's 1999 hit Nang Nak (the first Thai film I ever saw, and part of a three-film focus on South-East Asian horror), and there's plenty of attractions to fill a film lover's viewing schedule.

The festival's closing night selection should appeal not only to cinephiles but to Frisco Bay's many indie music enthusiasts. It's called Surrogate Valentine, and it's a comedy about a musician performing in coffee houses and other small West Coast venues, and though I must admit I had low expectations going into the press screening (perhaps leftover from the bland taste I had in my mouth from the last SFIAAFF gala presentation I saw, last year's opening night film Today's Special), these were very pleasantly upended. I will publish a full review of Surrogate Valentine after a press embargo lifts this Saturday, when it makes its world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, but for now I'll just recommend it. It plays the last SFIAAFF night in San Francisco on March 17th, and the festival's last day in San Jose on March 20.

Fans of Surrogate Valentine's star Goh Nakamura who are intrigued by his prominence in one of the highlighted features might find themselves checking out other SFIAAFF programs as well. Music and film are often seen as competing forms of entertainment, but Frisco Bay's festivals have become saavy about finding ways to involve passionate seekers of out-of-the-ordinary music in their events. In a particularly brilliant move, the San Francisco International Film Festival has announced (among a few other early SFIFF program indications) that the Castro Theatre stage will play host to the Tindersticks on May 2nd, where the group will perform live under a screen showing excerpts from six of the Claire Denis films they've provided the musical score to. This makes attendance at the Pacific Film Archive's current Denis retrospective all the more imperative as preparation for this one-of-a-kind film/music event. Of the six films to be excerpted for this performance, only White Material has already had its PFA screening. Nénette et Boni plays March 25, Trouble Every Day on April 2nd, L'Intrus on April 8th & 9th, Friday Night on April 15, and 35 Shots of Rum on April 16th.

It wasn't so long ago that I considered myself much more of a music aficionado than a cinephile myself. The first film I tried to buy a ticket for at the SFIFF was Iara Lee's electronic music documentary, Modulations. It was sold out, and I ended up seeing it during its theatrical run, and waiting another year before actually attending SFIFF. I've recently been reminded that my first excursions to truly independent movie theatres the Red Vic and the Roxie were facilitated by frequent ticket giveaways from my favorite radio station I've ever regularly listened to, 90.3 KUSF-FM. Without my interest in keeping on top of exciting independent music curated by the KUSF DJs, I might never have gotten into the habit of attending these alternative screening venues. Even after my attention to music became eclipsed by my attention to movies, I became a loyal listener to the Movie Magazine International radio program produced by Monica Sullivan out of the station. It was a great way to keep on top of festivals, revivals, new releases, etc. And yes, they had ticket giveaways on that weekly program as well.

In case you haven't heard about the University of San Francisco's decision to sell off the 90.3 frequency earlier this year, here's a good primer. At the end of last month, I was one of many who sent a letter to the Federal Communcations Commission in Washington, D.C., asking that they deny the premature transfer of the frequency the public had entrusted the University to operate in the interest of the local community (which KUSF had, with great panache, as it hosted over a dozen foreign-language broadcasts and partnered with countless local businesses and non-profit organizations to get the word out on important activities.) While KUSF supporters wait to hear what will happen next on the legal front, they continue to rally support for their cause by organizing events to benefit the cost of fighting the transfer. Tomorrow night, a special screening of the punk rock documentary A History Lesson, part 1 will be held at the 9th Street Independent Film Center, and this Saturday at midnight, a screening of a surprise film (perhaps you can figure it out from this blurb) will be presented at the Red Vic (whose March and April calendars are as strong as any two months at that venue as I can remember). Proceeds from both screenings will go to the Save KUSF campaign. Of course, if you can't make it to either screening, the fight to keep San Francisco airwaves locally-controlled in the face of media consolidation can also be aided with a direct donation.