Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Adam Hartzell on Curling

Two weeks ago I took a two-day jaunt away from Frisco Bay, down to Hollywood to watch six films at the AFI Fest. I got to see Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas introduce my favorite of their collaborations, Law Of Desire at the famous Grauman's Chinese (digitally- the only dint on my first trip inside this genuine movie palace), and see five films new enough not to have reached Frisco Bay yet, including the latest films by Chantal Akerman, Alexander Sokurov, Hong Sangsoo, and Béla Tarr. All four of these were excellent (Sokurov's Faust less decidedly so than the other three) and I hope and expect to get chances to re-watch them with local audiences some time next year, assuming local film programmers are wise enough to bring them to town.

I also saw the California premiere of
Silver Bullets, one of the half-dozen features the prolific young director Joe Swanberg has completed since his third one Hannah Takes The Stairs played here nearly four years ago. If Silver Bullets (my own first encounter with his directing work) is at all typical, I can understand why he polarizes audiences (and perhaps programmers as well); though there's evidence of conceptual brilliance, it's overshadowed by a half-heartedness of execution that asserts itself as a visual style. Or perhaps in place of one.

I believe I keep track of the Frisco Bay screening scene well enough to assert that Canadian DIY director Denis Côté's exhibition history here is on track to becoming the mirror image of Swanberg's. If the latter's work has been absent from local screens after seeing his first three films brought to town, Côté has had a steady increase in global acclaim for his first five films, none of which have shown locally. Finally, he broke through when his fascinating short
Les Lignes Ennemies screened earlier this year at Yerba Buena Center For The Arts (which has a terrific December-January lineup by the way). And this week (for only one and a half more days, "thanks" to the holiday Thursday) his latest feature Curling is playing New People Cinema. I saw it in Toronto last Fall, and can highly recommend it, but my friend Adam Hartzell is much more attuned to particulars of the cinema of Canada, so I'm proud to host his review here on my blog. Adam:

In my continuing project to companion books with films, I found reason to read André Loiselle's Cinema as History: Michel Brault and Modern Quebec before the San Francisco Film Society's week long run of Denis Côté's Curling at their new home in the New People theatre. The retrospective of director and director of photography Michel Brault's work at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in March of 2006 made me a huge fan of Brault specifically and solidified my interest in French-Canadian cinema generally. Loiselle's book would have been required reading for that retrospective, but since it was published in 2007 by the Toronto International Film Festival Group, adding it to my personal syllabus was impossible without breaking laws of physics. So Loiselle’s excellent book on Quebec’s history and Quebec Cinema’s history as told through the work of Michel Brault became the reading rock I slid towards the house of the wider cinematic sheet that is Cote’s Curling.
Loiselle's argument is that Brault has "never ceased to reflect, and reflect on, Quebec society" (page 182) as consistently, prominently, and for as long as any other Quebec filmmakers. With a couple exceptions (which Loiselle notes being the topics of queer culture and the media panopticon that made themselves present in Quebec cinema of the 80's and 90's), Brault was involved in echoing and projecting every major aspect of Quebec history activating during his time behind the camera - from early commercial cinema (Little Aurore, the Martyr Child, on which Brault was assistant director to Jean-Yves Bigras) to the emerging direct cinema (Les Raquetteurs with Gilles Groulx and the classic Of Whales, the Moon and Men, with Pierre Perrault); onward to auteur cinema (Mon Oncle Antoine, directed by Claude Jutra); to the rise of feminist cinema (Scream from Silence, directed by Anne Claire Poirier); to delayed acknowledgment of non-Quebec, francophone populations in Canada 9Éloge du Chiac) and Quebecois minorities (Les Noces de papier, Paper Wedding); and finally to the shift from film to digital cinema (his 2002 film La Manic). Denis Côté's Curling reflects what appears to be a recent evolution of Quebec Cinema that Brault would possibly have touched on himself were he still making films - the sadness of the suburban, exurban enclaves of Quebec in the age of the post-peak oil slide, something that can resonate throughout similar establishments in North America.
Curling follows the claustrophobic and creepy disturbing life of Jean-François that he imposes on his 12-year-old daughter Julyvonne (played by the real-life father-daughter team of Emmanuel and Philomene Bilodeau). We are first exposed to the prison around both our characters when Julyvonne is told she has astigmatism and that she must have realized something was wrong by not seeing the chalkboard at school. It is here we learn she doesn’t attend school. And it is here that her father is brought into the frame and focus is retained on him while Julyvonne, in the center of the image, becomes slightly blurry, offering a wonderful moment of breaking the fourth wall so we can better identify with Julyvonne’s plight while metaphorically visualizing through an astigmatic image the askew view her father nests Julyvonne within. The rest of the film develops this dysfunctional world Jean-François has created for himself and his daughter while other individuals, such as his bosses and co-workers, try to pull him out of his paranoia and open up the world to him and his daughter. The title of the film relates to the brief moments in a curling club where Jean-François finally gets, as Côté puts it in an interview with Jason Anderson in the Fall 2010 issue of Cinemascope, “a spark in his eye”. Curling the movie extends the arguments in the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community where Robert D. Putnam describes the decline in ‘social capital’ or the active civil engagement that makes for strong democracies, by having Jean-François working in a bowling alley and later discovering a brighter social world in the heavily lit dome of a curling club. “People ask me,” says Côté in that same interview, “’Why curling?’ Well, first of all, curling is a collective sport, so he could get closer to his community if he would curl.” Côté clutters this cinematic curling house with several stones obstructing Jean-François from making better choices for himself and his daughter, but it’s a different type of curling that finally further feeds the initial spark in Jean-François‘ eyes.
There is a striking similarity in the winter scenes of the abandoned economy of this Quebec town to the one we found in the excellent debut film The Salesman by Sébastien Pilote at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, where it deservedly won the FIPRESCI Prize. Both these films highlight the ennui and socially-distant communities we have created through our cheap-oil-fueled, car-dependent housing developments beyond our denser, socially-networking urban centers. Marcel Lévesque (played powerfully by Gilbert Sicotte), as a successful car salesman, represents the person who thinks he’s benefited from this community that cheap oil built in The Salesman, whereas Jean-François is, from the very beginning, the self-perpetuating victim of this development of isolated housing. (After the visit to the eye doctor, Jean-François is actually ‘pulled over’ by a cop for not driving, as if being without a car is suspect. Whereas part of the plot of The Salesman is Lévesque pushing greater car dependency and financial ruin on a soon to be laid-off factory worker.) This is one of the developments in Quebec cinema that can resonate with those of us outside of Quebec who are experiencing the social isolation our suburbs and exurbs cause, either for ourselves, or for our elders who have retired within these cul-de-sac-ing mazes that falsely pass for community. And this is one of the developments in Quebec cinema Brault may have touched on were he still behind the camera in some way in the same way he chronicled the history of Quebec in the era of cheap oil.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Feast Your Eyes

This weekend is the SF Film Society's annual Cinema By The Bay festival, a smörgåsbord of film screenings showing off the quality and diversity of Frisco Bay filmmaking, and culminating in an awards ceremony tomorrow honoring documentarians Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Allie Light and Irving Saraf, impresario/filmmaker Joshua Grannell, writer/editor Susan Gerhard, publicist Karen Larsen, and the 50-year-old distribution institution Canyon Cinema. All exceedingly worthy honorees, and I wish I were available to attend the event tomorrow evening.

Not long ago I sat down for an interview with one of last year's honorees, the amazing, undervalued chronicler of music, cuisine, and the cultures encircling and encircled by them both, Les Blank. The interview was for an article to be published in the next issue of First Person Magazine, entitled "Radical Foods". When editor Betty Nguyen told me of this theme, Blank came to mind immediately as an ideal person to get involved. One of the most unique aspects of his filmmaking is his integration of food into the presentation of his films, as I experienced several years ago at a screening of his 1980 film Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers. Here's Blank's response to my question about the difference between "Smell-O-Vision" and "Aromaround":

Well, I've never used Smell-O-Vision. I use Smell-Around. Smell-O-Vision was, I believe, a patented system. When they first brought this concept out in the theatres I think they piped in smells. One theatre I think even had them under the seat. They had an exhaust fan to get 'em out, but they had trouble getting one smell out in order to make room for the next one.

John Waters had scratch and sniff cards. I didn't care for that myself. No one I know has the actual food being cooked in the actual theatre. When I'd screen Always For Pleasure and cook red beans and rice, I'd call that Smell-Around. If I was showing Yum Yum Yum or Spend It All, which has gumbo in it, I would call it Smell-Around too. But the garlic film, I'd always call Aromaround.

An elaborate version would be to take the pot of beans that hasn't been completely cooked yet. They're still in the small-making phase. Once you start cooking they let off their aromas and then, the aromas dwindle down, so the cooking beans don't really smell that much towards the end of the cooking period, but if you take a portion of the beans you're gonna be serving the public, and hold them back, then get 'em going to the point where they make the most smell, then you take that into the theatre, and one person carries the pot, one person stirs the pot, and the other person has a fan and they fan the fumes into the audience. You walk all the way around the theatre so everyone sees this whole operation. during the part of the film, where the film is being cooked or served, or in the cajun films, there's the gumbo.

With the garlic film you put toaster ovens in the front or the rear of the theatre, and then you turn on the oven to 350 degrees. If you turn it on in the beginning, the smell will be full strength about halfway through, about 20-25 minutes in. I like it best when it hits its peak when Alice Waters says "can you smell the garlic?" The audience might yell back. It might laugh, or sigh.
To read more from my interview with Blank, you'll have to find a copy of the magazine. I'm not sure of all the locations where it will be sold as yet, but it will certainly be available at the issue launch event this Thursday night at St. John's Church. The ticket price includes a dinner prepared by issue co-editor and artist chef Leif Hedendal, an edible sculpture presented by artist Leah Rosenberg, and Les Blank in attendance with a screening of Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers. Hope to see you there!

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?