Tuesday, March 31, 2009

SFIFF 52 Full Program Announced

The San Francisco International Film Festival had the press conference for its 52nd edition (running April 23 - May 7) this morning. Though a number of programs had been announced in the preceding weeks (summarized handily by Michael Hawley), and the program miniguide became available to members (and, perhaps unofficially, to perceptive twitter followers) on Friday, today was the first look I had of the 208-page full program guide, including fuller write-ups, filmmaker micro-bios, print source information, and titles of the short films playing in collected programs. This information is now up on the festival website as well.

For instance, take a look at a program entitled Handle With Care, a set of avant-garde cinema explorations co-programmed by Irina Leimbacher of kino21 and Kathy Geritz of the festival's East Bay venue, the Pacific Film Archive. I always look forward to the SFIFF's sets of experimental film shorts (last year there were two of them, plus a fascinating selection of computer-generated videos), and this year's collection looks quite intriguing, with new work from Kerry Laitala, Charlotte Pryce, Scott Stark, Lewis Klahr, and more.

Another intriguing shorts set is the adult-oriented animation program a Thousand Pictures. Programmer Sean Uyehara singled out Jonas Odell's Lies at the conference as a particular favorite, a follow-up to Odell's previous Golden Gate Award-winner about über-awkward (or worse) first-time sex experiences Never Like the First Time. This one's supposed to be about deception, as its title suggests.

A third set of shorts I'm intrigued by this year is Voices Carry, collecting six diverse films lasting from 7 to 26 minutes in length. One, the Conscience of Nhem En by Steven Okazaki, is a recent Academy Award nominee in the Documentary Short category. Another, Konvex-T, is a science-fiction film from Sweden. A third is one I've already seen and written about, Jenni Olson's 575 Castro St. It's possible to watch this union of archival audio and poignantly re-enacted video online, but it's really the kind of meditative film I'd like to watch in a cinema with friends and strangers, and discuss afterward, so I hope to do so at the festival.

More on the festival (and on other Frisco Bay events) soon...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Parkway is Closed

When a beloved but beleagured second-run theatre finally decides in March 2009 that it no longer has a place in a world of emphasized opening weekends, fiercely territorial bookings, and shortened DVD release windows, It's hard to imagine a more appropriate current film to close out a terrific twleve-year run than Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. Oakland's Parkway Speakeasy Theatre is no broken-down, beat-up piece of meat. In fact it had just recently acquired a new set of plush couches on which its patrons could guzzle beer and nosh pizza. But its line of credit has dried up. I'm not referring to the goodwill of the community of supportive customers (though if lines like the ones found at the theatre on its last weekend of expected operation had been a more consistent presence at the theatre, there'd surely be another end to this story). But to actual creditors- vendors, landlords, etc. These were mentioned by Speakeasy founders Catherine and Kyle Fischer in their video message screened before we in the audience watched Mickey Rourke get pummeled physically and emotionally for an hour and a half while drowning our sorrows in Sierra Nevada and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Living across Frisco Bay, I probably attended the Parkway less than a dozen times myself. Memorable screenings with the Parkway audience include Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, Bong Joon-ho's the Host, and the documentary King of Kong. The only day I've ever spent as a film extra was at the Parkway, when Rob Nilsson shot Go Together. The theatre presciently played itself a few years down the line: a theatre about to close its curtain and shut its doors. But don't watch Go Together just because of the Parkway (or, God forbid, for my nanosecond of screen time); watch it because it's a daring film by an important Frisco Bay filmmaker. It's available as part of a 9-film box set.

According to Jack Tillmany and Jennifer Downing's Theatres of Oakland book, the Parkway was first opened on September 23, 1925. It had an organ, an Egyptian-style decorated proscenium and ram figures at the exit doors. There was even a soundproof-glassed "crying room" for mothers and infants (presumably this was during the silent era), a fascinating precursor to the theatre's innovative "Baby Brigade" series, now being held only at the Cerrito Speakeasy, just like all of the regular Parkway programs, including, for the next week or so anyway, the Wrestler (it also plays at the Castro on Friday on a double-bill with Runaway Train).

Rourke's Randy the Ram, feeling abandoned by his few remaining human connections outside the world of still-barely-professional wrestling, the remnants of a scene where he was once a lead actor, decides to forsake it all and follow the desires of his cheering fans. Aronofsky deprives the audience of a clear message as to whether or not this was the right decision, but his choice is certainly an emotional, not a rational, one. Mountains of words have been arranged to describe the way the film's arc mirrors the biography of its refurbished star. Not nearly as many have described how The Wrestler's themes might resonate to many of us in this last portion of this first decade of this millennium. The questions I asked myself were, how many of my facebook friends (hypothetical here- I'm still a holdout on that particular platform) would really care if I caused myself to become hospitalized through my own poor decision-making? Is it worth even lifting a finger to satisfy the desires of strangers who will never really know me, if it means I have less time to spend with loved ones? As those of us living in information-age societies become ever more comfortable expending our emotional energy in virtual communities where it's possible for just about anyone to achieve a semi-celebrity status, isn't it inevitable that "irl" communities will lose some of their vitality? These questions have been elicited by other films, books, articles, etc. But never as poignantly for me as the Wrestler in that particular theatre on that particular weekend. I left the theatre with a vow to myself not to check my twitter account until I'd written a letter to my grandmother first. Not the reaction I expected to take away from a film featuring men jumping around in spandex.

Catherine Fischer, speaking on KQED about as candidly as I've heard on the topic of the Parkway's closing, showed no hint of bitterness toward audiences who have grown out of the habit of frequenting the Parkway once or twice a week. "They need to take care of their families," she says. There are a couple ways of interpreting the word 'family' however. It might mean the kind of connection Mickey Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood are play-acting in the Wrestler. But a community space like a theatre can be a home for another kind of family- that family of movie lovers that, if you've gotten this far, you and I both belong to, and that I hope can continue to congregate in real, physical spaces and not only virtual ones.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Adam Hartzell: The Mosque in Morgantown

Seventy-five words is not much description of a film. And a particularly high proportion of the programs at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (which begins this Thursday and runs for a week and a half at multiple Frisco Bay venues) are marked at "hold review" status this year, requiring no more than that be used in festival articles by accredited press. For all the hand-wringing about the state of independent and foreign film distribution, I take the high percentage of "hold review" films as a healthy sign. The SFIAAFF's program seems as strong and uncompromising as ever, yet a significant portion of these films are either slated for a commercial release, or else deigned to have a good chance of securing one.

When my friend Adam Hartzell sent me a piece on SFIAAFF competition documentary The Mosque in Morgantown I was so excited to get a set of thoughtful, personal paragraphs about a festival program that was essentially (and, I'm now convinced, undeservedly) off my own radar screen, that I forgot to check to see whether it was among the "hold review" entries in the festival. Once I realized it was, as it's slated for PBS broadcast June 17th, the piece was already edited and ready to go. And certainly more than 75 words long. But I realized that much of Adam's writing was really about his anticipation of the film and the external connections it evoked in him. After cutting his remarks on the film itself to fewer than 75 words, it still provides a multi-layered, personally-inflected context for a viewing. Perhaps it's not as creative a solution as Michael Guillen's 75-word "article" on Jia Zhang-Ke's Still Life in advance of last April's SFIFF, but hopefully it will be taken well by the festival publicists and enjoyed by readers and viewers of the film. It plays the festival March 15, 17, and 22. And now, here's Adam:

Regardless of its critical acclaim, Brilliante Mendoza’s Serbis is the film that proves the rule of what is too often required for Asian films to get a U.S. release: lots and lots of sex. When was the last time a film from the Philippines got a release in the States? It’s been awhile, if it has ever been. The sex affirms it. The sex has it.

Part of why I’m disillusioned by this is because a film as touching and pertinent to the world financial crisis as Jade Castro’s Endo couldn’t find a similar release or international push. Endo is a reference to the contract work that enables limited employment for many working in retail and service industries in the Philippines. Castro’s film portrayal of people struggling from contract to contract, their employment forever in a delicate balance of being discontinued when the contract ends, is exactly the kind of cinematic stimulus we need right now. I’ve mentioned this film here before, but I’ll refer readers to Francis Cruz’s blog for a fuller discussion of Endo than I can afford at this time.

What I really want to talk about here is how the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is important for this very reason. Of all the many wonderful things the SFIAAFF does for us here in San Francisco, I’m particularly reminded of how the folks at CAAM (Center for Asian American Media and the people responsible for this gift of a festival) seek to expand the impressions and expressions of Asian Americans through Asian American and Asian cinema. Although SFIAAFF will show the occasional sexy film, its goal is not to get us hot and bothered, but to get us thinking and talking. Set to begin its 27th run on March 12th, it carries on for ten more days (until March 22nd) and is yet again chockfull of fascinating takes on the varied experiences of Americans of Asian ancestry along with films from various Asian countries.

This year the festival conflicts with family duties I have, so I won’t be in attendance. But when I was asked if there was anything I might want to check out from the available screeners, The Mosque in Morgantown leapt from my lips.

Those who know me know I’m a bit of a Canadaphile, so of course my primary interest in The Mosque in Morgantown is fueled by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s successful sitcom, Little Mosque on the Prairie. Taking place in the made up town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, (actually filmed in Regina which, for those not hip to British Commonwealth pronunciations, rhymes with, eh-hem, vagina), the sitcom approaches the conflicts that come from ignorance and cross-cultural confusion with the light-handed touch of humor. Although not a brilliant series, I do appreciate the show’s earnestness, something I don’t see as immediately deserving of ridicule as the contemporary deluge of snark artists feel I should. (Have you read The New Yorker magazine film critic David Denby’s treatise against snark? It’s exactly the mirror that pop culture needs to look into right now.) Although it has its critics, much of the problems are genre, not topic, related. This is a sitcom. So it takes a light-hearted look at a mosque and demands pat resolutions. It is a vision of a mosque progressives hope for, not a representation of how a mosque actually is. The show’s creator, Zarqa Nawaz, acknowledges this. As reported by Guy Ruddy in the Fifth Anniversary issue of Canada’s The Walrus magazine, “Nawaz softened a few edges for Little Mosque. Mercy hosts one lone fundamentalist...,” when from her experience “he’d be, like, 90 percent of a mosque.” Still, Little Mosque on the Prairie is the little show that could. It demonstrates the public good of public programming since broadcast media would demand evidence of success before putting their private money at stake.

But my appreciation of my northern neighbors is not the only aspect of The Mosque in Morgantown that intrigued me. My late father’s late cousin went to the University of West Virginia in Morgantown, where her roommate was a woman who grew up down the street from famed Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. Plus, my Aunt and Uncle live at the tip of the nose that situates West Virginia between Pennsylvania and Ohio. So unbeknownst to director Brittany Huckabee, I was her most specific demographic.

Unlike Little Mosque, The Mosque in Morgantown contains very little comedy. It’s mostly nervous laughter that runs through this film. Everyone comes off as experiencing discomfort in confronting or avoiding the internal politics of this little mosque. Sadly, after submitting my final draft to Brian, he found out there was a ‘hold review’ request on this documentary. I sit in an ethical dilemma. My free speech self knows you can’t prohibit people from talking about what they want to talk about. However, if a friend requests me to hold off on talking to someone about something, I respect that request by a friend. I consider films conversations, often conversations with friends. So I will respect the ‘spirit’ of the ‘hold review’ and not reveal any major plot points or story arcs. (What I will reveal is that I learned from this film that the University of West Virginia has a fun looking mass transit rail system for its students!)

What is so compelling about many documentaries, especially on the festival circuit, is that they are conversation starters. And The Mosque in Morgantown definitely got a wonderful, enlightening, holistically-discomforting conversation going between myself and a co-worker who has also seen it. A Muslim herself, she had a very experiential perspective to add to what I saw. Ironically, the dialogue we had with each other is exactly what is missing amongst the people in this film. Dialogue happens around this film, not within it.

Witnessing this talking at (not with) each other on screen enables a test run for our own confrontations later in equally discomforting spaces. We watch and listen and sort out the problematic tactics of our own approaches through our observations of the tactics of others. Although the issues addressed in The Mosque in Morgantown relate specifically to the American Muslim community, they are paralleled in other religious communities and non-religious communities across the U.S., Canada, and the world. Cue Pogo – “We have met the enemy and he is us”. For a recent example in the U.S., “The Enemy Islam” that former Senator Rick Santorum and others are boogeymanning with across the country is mistakenly applied to Islam as a whole, rather than properly applied to the particular applications of particular practitioners. (Just as the problem is not “The Enemy Christianity” but Santorum’s application of it.) In this way, Santorum’s discourse is more disruptive than helpful because it doesn’t ameliorate tensions but seeks to fuel his cohorts’ prejudices. Santorum is not engaging in dialogue. He’s engaging in demagoguery, exactly what one risks when not seeking to connect in dialogue.

The Mosque in Morgantown’s call to prayer is a call to dialogue. The connections that are difficult to establish amongst the various members of the mosque in Morgantown are similar to the connections I fail to make with the Christian Dominionists at the churches in my hometown in Ohio or Neo-conservatives or Neo-Liberals yelling at me on the TV. My experience is not the same as the folks featured in the film, but their experience helps me rethink my own.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Diamond Head

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival always has enticing "Out of the Vaults" programs, which revive films that remind modern viewers how images of Asian Americans were portrayed in bygone decades of film history. This year's choice is Diamond Head, and it plays at noon at the Castro Theatre this Sunday, March 15th.

This Panavision, Eastmancolor drama was released by Columbia Pictures near the tail end of the classic Hollywood "Studio System" era when producers were looking for new ways to close the generation gap in movie attendance patterns. Which is why we have Charlton Heston, a star for over a decade by then, and James Darren, at the time still best known for Gidget, in a movie together, playing a white planter and his sister's Native Hawaiian suitor, respectively. If it seemed timely to make Diamond Head in 1963 in the midst of the Civil Rights Era and shortly after Hawaiian statehood, it may be even more timely to show it now in the context of this festival, while a multiracial President, born in Honolulu, is newly in the White House.

One might think of Diamond Head as a precursor to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, released four years later. It's not as widely-remembered as the latter film, perhaps because its star wattage is lower, or perhaps because most of the principals are played by white actors (France Nuyen in the role of Heston's mistress excepted); those playing Polynesian characters are wearing a "Max Factor tan". There are differences and similarities between the two films' approaches to miscegenation. In Diamond Head, conflict is less over inter-cultural misunderstanding than over racial superiority and a sense of Manifest Destiny that dies hard. But like in Stanley Kramer's film, white characters' motivations for entering interracial relationships may in fact reflect their own sense of self more than they genuinely express love- just as the films themselves look at issues of prejudice from their own Hollywood perspective.

Nonetheless, this promises to be a fun screening on a screen as large as the Castro's. The film's director Guy Green cut his teeth as a cinematographer for David Lean, so it's no surprise that island vistas are prominent. There's plenty of music (the score composed by John Williams), romance, and a bit of action in the film. And the cast is rounded out by beautiful Yvette Mimeux as the planter's sister, George Chakiris as James Darren's half-brother, Aline MacMahon in one of her last film roles as their mother, and even Philip Ahn in a small but crucial role.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

March (and April) of the Women Filmmakers

A week ago Thursday I passed a major milestone in my cinephilia: I saw Chantel Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles for the first time ever. It was screened in a newly-struck 35mm print from Janus, although reel two was sadly misplaced by another institution showing the film, and had to be sourced from a PAL DVD. The transition between film and video provided a fine lesson in the virtues of celluloid over everyday digital projection; though Jeanne Dielman is more of a narrative film than I had been led to believe, it's singularity derives from the way the narrative "events" of the film are conveyed through the subtle variance of repetition. Some of these subtleties are undoubtedly clouded over by the digital haze of even a superb DVD transfer. What's more, the way the film works as a light & motion study as well as a "story" is undeniably altered when the medium shifts. I don't think I have to tell you which of the two I found more visually glorious. For more about the film, I would like to call attention to a piece on the film written by SFMOMA projectionist Brecht Andersch, who was instrumental in facilitating the mid-screening media switches.

Andersch is also board chair of the Film on Film Foundation, which in addition to having a great blog on local film screenings that almost makes Hell On Frisco Bay feel obsolete (luckily this beat's big enough for more than one interest-drummer to cover), also presents screenings. As mentioned here before, their next event is this Sunday's Ida Lupino double-bill at the Pacific Film Archive, part of a series of actor-turned-auteur programs entitled the Film Gods Shot Back. The case of Ida Lupino is seemingly unique; if there was another woman directing feature films for Hollywood studios in the early 1950s, I'd love to learn her name because I'm certain I've never heard of her before. And it just so happens that this pairing of the Outrage in 16mm and the Bigamist in 35mm is occuring on International Women's Day. Check out Frako Loden's article on these two films at the Evening Class.

March and April might be considered International Women's Season at the PFA. Not only do we have the Lupino twofer, but a major retrospective by the so-called "grandmother of the French New Wave" Agnès Varda. For those like me who have seen landmark films like Vagabond and the Gleaners & I on DVD but never on the big screen, and/or have huge gaps in our experience with Varda's filmography, this series is a godsend. It began last night with La Pointe Courte and her most well-known film Cleo From 5 To 7, but thankfully most of the titles in the series play twice so there's another chance to see them both. Her latest documentary, the Beaches of Agnès, plays April 10th and 11th. I tried to see it at the Portland International Film Festival last month but was turned away for lack of available seats.

If that weren't enough, the PFA also is in the midst of a series entitled Women’s Cinema from Tangiers to Tehran, spotlighting filmmakers from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Islamic countries. It covers relatively well-known names like Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and Marziyeh Meshkini (the Day I Became a Woman - a must-see in case you didn't already know that) to little-known figures like Moufida Tlatli (the Silences of the Palace) and the recently-departed Randa Chahal Sabbag (the Kite). The series on essay films the Way of the Termite, curated by Jean-Pierre Gorin continues through the months and includes a trove of rarities, including two directed or co-directed by women, Akerman's Jeanne Dielman-prefiguring Je tu il elle and From Today Until Tomorrow by Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub. A set of Argentine Experimental Films that includes work by women and men was recently reported on by Jennifer MacMillan, who caught the touring program on its New York stop.

And of course, both the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (Mar. 12-22) and the San Francisco International Film Festival (April 23-May 7) both use the PFA as a venue this Spring and include women-directed films in their lineups. The SFIAAFF's full program is known and includes Jennifer Phang's lo-fi sci-fi Half-Life and Heiward Mak's Hong Kong delinquent film High Noon among others. The SFIFF has started announcing titles as well, though few as yet attached to venues. Its relaunched website has information on competition films, including new directors and documentary features. In the meantime a documentary on philosophers called Examined Life is currently playing on the SFFS Screen at the Kabuki Theatre. It's director Astra Taylor's follow-up to her 2005 film Zizek! (not to be confused with the following year's the Pervert's Guide to Cinema by Sophie Fiennes)

Though I move out out talking about PFA events, I'm going to hang on to the "women filmmakers" thread, as a number of Frisco Bay screening venues which have recently revealed new calendars have films directed by women among the more intriguing and/or recommendable upcoming options.

For instance, the program I'm most interested in catching at the Tiburon Film Festival (Mar. 19-26) is unquestionably Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues, an animated riff on both a tale from the Ramayana and songs from Annette Hanshaw. When last this film played publicly in Frisco (at the SF Film Society's animation festival in November) I hadn't yet been following Paley's blog and was still unaware that this particular intercultural mash-up was causing copyright consternation and that the film would almost certainly be blocked from a "normal" distribution. You have to find it at a film festival or another non-traditional screening venue if you want to see it projected in a big dark room with a bunch of strangers. March 20th provides such a chance in Marin County.

The Red Vic shows Jennifer Baichwal's terrific documentary that considers the aesthetic value of ecological devastation, Manufactured Landscapes, on March 15 & 16. Read my 2007 interview with Baichwal here.

The latest updates to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts calendar include four screenings of Chiara Clemente's Our City Dreams, focusing on five women artists working in New York. That's April 9-12.

The Castro Theatre's March calendar has the dead white male auteurs we know and love on it (Truffaut, Hawks, Fosse) but what of Martha Coolidge, first and thus-far only female president of the Directors Guild of America? She may not be quite as much of a cinephile household name but she's represented at the Castro too, by a MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS-presented screening of Real Genius March 20th. I haven't seen Real Genius since its initial theatrical release back when I was in junior high school, perhaps the perfect demographic for a Val Kilmer college comedy. I loved it then, so why not now? I hope to find out March 20th.

More midnight movies come courtesy of the Landmark After Dark series at the Clay here in Frisco and the Piedmont over in Oakland. The latter will show Mary Harron's American Psycho April 17th and 18th at 11:59 PM.

And then there's the San Francisco Women's Film Festival, running April 1-5. It has just announced its program at its blog.

Finally, Artists' Television Access is celebrating International Women's Day it's own way - slightly belatedly- with a March 12th screening of Under the Same Moon. The venue also hosts two evenings of films by local filmmaker Kerry Laitala on March 13 and March 20.