Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Many Thousands Gone (2015)

WHO: New York filmmaker Ephraim Asili made this.

WHAT: This 8-minute short opens with a title card explaining a bit of context  for what we're about to see:
The original 1861 Customs House was partially destroyed in a fire in 1986. After reconstruction, it was transformed into a tourist market, the Mercado Modelo. When shipments of new slaves arrived into port, they were stored in the watery depths of this building while awaiting auction. Night guards report all sorts of phantasmic activity after closing hours...
The text is about a structure in the Brazilian port city of Santiago, which the San Francisco International Film Festival website takes care to note was the last city in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. The next image is of a group of people dancing, drumming, and otherwise congregating on the veranda of the Mercado Modelo, facing the Bay of All Saints, for which the state that Salvador is the capital of, Bahia, got its name. On the soundtrack we hear what we think might be quiet drumming, and then we see a cut to another title card, this one attributed to the Patron Saint of Cinema St. Tula, a key figure at Bard College, where Asili teaches: "Love the Scratch. Love the Grain. Love the Lightleak too. They are the lines, the freckles, and the suntan upon the face of cinema." This film was shot on 16mm film stock and transferred to video without trying to hide that fact whatsoever. Grain, Lightleaks, and even a Scratch or two are indeed evident and indeed contribute rather than detract from the textural beauty of the image.

With another cut we're elsewhere, although we may not realize it yet; we see water against a curb and we may think we're looking at the edge of the Bahia. The camera makes a hand-held tilt to reveal this was the water from a Harlem street hydrant. But with another cut we're back in the Brazilian bay (the above image, which I shamelessly grabbed from a Facebook event page), on a boat. By now we're starting to realize that the "drumming" sound in fact emitted from a wind instrument being played as percussion. Air is blown through a the tube (my guess is that it's a trumpet) and keys are tapped in rhythm, but never enough to produce what might be called a "note". It's a virtuoso performance of beautifully "non-musical" sound that continues throughout the piece, and that we in the end learn was created by a multi-instrumentalist named Joe McPhee. The images, alternating between street and sea scenes, Harlem and Salvador, dancers and musicians and the natural world around them, are perfectly accompanied by McPhee's emittances, which are summed up perfectly from a quote from Alice Walker's The Color Purple follow-up The Temple of My Familiar, which I will leave a surprise for the viewer.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens as part of the SFIFF's Shorts 4: New Visions program, 8:45 PM at the Roxie tonight.

WHY: Many Thousands Gone has screened a couple times already in Frisco Bay cinemas. It was part of a one-person show Asili attended at Oakland's Black Hole Cinematheque last December, and I caught it when it screened last month on the first night of SF Cinematheque's annual Crossroads experimental film & video festival, on a program also including Helen Levitt, et. al.'s In the Street and Khalik Allah's stunning Field Niggas. Crossroads programmer Steve Polta's very tightly thematically-focused programming may have done a small disservice to Many Thousands Gone; its formalist traits seemed a bit swallowed up sandwiched between two powerful experimental documentaries. So I'm thankful to SFIFF for giving it another big-screen chance to shine.

Specifically I'm thankful to Chi-Hui Yang, former director of the SF International Asian American Film Festival (now CAAMfest), who filled in to put together the SFIFF New Visions program in the absence of Sean Uyehara, who had for over a decade taken the lead in making selections for this annual showcase/Golden Gate Awards category as well as the Animated Shorts program, the annual match-ups (or should I say mash-ups) between indie rockers and silent films, and more. Uyehara's deep knowledge of both the film and art worlds (not to mention the music world) helped him create New Visions programs that consistently placed some of the most formally-focused short films and videos together with the most conceptually-oriented festival selections. His touch is missed as he moves on to new pastures at the Headlands Center For the Arts in Marin. (although he came back to interview Peter Lord on-stage at the Castro last weekend).

But Chi-Hui has put together a very compelling program this year as well. If it doesn't exhibit quite the diversity in range of approach that we usually saw under Uyehara's guidance, it does a better job at putting the "I" in "SFIFF" than Sean's programs did, or than perhaps any other section of this year's program, period. (runner-up: Cameraperson). Every film in the program takes us to at least one corner of the globe underrepresented on US screens of all sort: we see images of Morocco, South Africa, Turkey, and Lebanon. Syria, Bangladesh, the Netherlands and more factor in as well. In a way Many Thousands Gone is the odd one out, with its time divided between Brazil and New York, but making a connection that has implications for a more universal African diaspora.

HOW: The entire New Visions shorts program screens as DCP.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the last chance to see French-Canadian documentarian Philippe Lesage's narrative debut The Demons, at 3PM at the Roxie, or L.A. Rebellion alumnus Billy Woodberry's new doc about San Francisco Beat poet Bob Kaufman, And when I die, I won't stay dead 6:30PM at BAMPFA. It's also the next-to-last screening of Hong Sangsoo's Right Now, Wrong Then, 9:30 PM at the New Mission.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: A 35mm print of Mikio Naruse's 1960 masterpiece When a Woman Ascends the Stairs shows along with a lecture at 3:10 PM at BAMPFA today.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Mountain (2015)

A scene from Yaelle Kayam's MOUNTAIN will play at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, on April 21 - May 5,2016. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
WHO: This was written and directed by Israeli director Yaelle Kayam. It's her first feature-length film.

WHAT: Shani Klein, who played the ambitious officer in the military comedy Zero Motivation does an about-face here, carrying the drama as Tzvia, an Orthodox Jewish wife and mother awakening to her increasing alienation from her familial roles, and doing something about it. She lives a fairly isolated existence from everyone other than her Yeshiva teacher husband and their four children, as they make their home in a very unusual location: in the middle of Jerusalem's Mount of Olives cemetery, surrounded on all sides by white graves and stunning views of the surrounding hillsides. As she explains to a pair of cemetery visitors from far-off, exotic Tel Aviv, who have knocked on her door asking to use the bathroom, she's there to provide a "Jewish presence" on the sacred site, although she also jokes that her family is called "the petting zoo". When the visitors describe Orthodox life in Israel's largest city as having "everything a community needs", Kayam allows their words to settle in, as a community is precisely what Tzvia lacks.

In its absence, she occupies herself in her few housework-free moments by sneaking tastes of jelly and smoking (it's been a long time since I've seen a new film that allowed its heroine to derive such satisfaction from nicotine- a metaphorical foreshadowing of the death that will soon come from Tzvia's little rebellions.) She makes innocent small talk with a Palestinian gravedigger and then lies about it to her husband. She communes with a South Korean tourist visiting the grave of the famous Hebrew poet Zelda, who recites a translation of her poem "A Drunk, Embroiled Will" in Korean (left unsubtitled in the film, which is an interesting choice as it's clear Tzvia has it memorized in Hebrew; audience members who don't know it, or Korean, are excluded from what's in her mind as she hears him speak.) Meanwhile her husband grows increasingly distant, siding against her when she tries to discipline their eldest, taking on new responsibilities outside the home and finding excuses to avoid his duties in the bedroom.

So when Tzvia stumbles upon people copulating atop a one of the tombs on one of her evening cigarette breaks, she's primed to be curious. It's the last thing she or the audience expects to see, but it turns out to be a functioning community (albeit a sacreligous one) of prostitutes, pimps and johns regularly making use of Tzvia's "backyard" as an open-air substitute for an hourly-rate hotel. Chased away after she's discovered observing this surreal sex mart, she returns subsequent evenings with a pot of specially-prepared sustenance- her contribution to a community that may be the complete opposite of the Orthodox Judiaism she's used to, but which is the ultimately more welcoming one? How our protagonist answers that question is the hinge for one of the more wickedly delicious (as soon as I could see it coming a big grin came upon my face) open-endings I've had the pleasure of viewing.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, at 6:30 PM, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: I have a half-baked (no, that's too generous; quarter-baked is more like it) notion that Mountain forms a kind of unintentioned trilogy with a pair of other features I've recently seen set within religious communities: each of the three major Abrahamic groups is represented here: this one involves Judaism, Under the Shadow (which I just saw at SFIFF the night before watching Mountain) is Islam, and The Witch (not a SFIFF film but one I saw at the Alamo Drafthouse a couple months ago) is Christianity. All three rely on an immediate high-definition video aesthetic that somehow makes them feel very current, even though the latter two are period pieces. Nobody, least of all yours truly, is trying to sell Mountain as a horror movie like the other two are, but each of the three films involve questions of faith and community, and end with life-or-death stakes considerably raised. I wouldn't want to say much more without giving each film a rewatch (especially The Witch, since it's least fresh in my mind).

HOW: digital projection.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: As much as I liked Mountain the SFIFF screening I'd most like to recommend today is the remarkably one-of-a-kind Cameraperson, directed by Kirsten Johnson, my new idol after seeing her documentary Sunday. But its final festival screening tonight, at the New Mission, is at RUSH status (a.k.a. no guarantee of any available tickets), and I wouldn't be able to write more than 100 words on it anyway due to press restrictions in place until its expected theatrical release later this year. Another alternative is the Animated Shorts program happening at the Roxie tonight; I saw its first screening and although it's not the strongest such set I've seen programmed at SFIFF, it definitely includes plenty of worthy work including Caveh Zahedi's self-perpetuating Bob Dylan Hates Me, Max Hattler's abstract, post-industrial All Rot, Chenglin Xie's brutal, honest Life Smartphone, Dan McHale's lovely Splotch and Kazue Monno and Takeshi Nagata's unique Track.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Witch screens tonight at the New Parkway in Oakland. This is the last Frisco Bay cinema screening of it that I am aware of.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sledgehammer (1986)

Screen capture from Rhino DVD
WHO: Nick Park, Peter Lord, Richard Starzak and the Brothers Quay animated this under the direction of Steven J. Johnson.

WHAT: I'm pretty sure I've never written about a music video on this blog before, but why not break the mold today with the video that turns up on nearly every list of the greatest music videos of all time, and that as recently as 2011 still reigned as the most-played video ever on MTV (and I'm guessing it would remain so if someone updated the tally today).

My family never paid for MTV when I was growing up, however, so I didn't see Sledgehammer until November 1989, when we had a month-long free cable-box trial that coincided with MTV's countdown of the Top 100 videos of the 1980s. I actually saw and was blown away by Johnson's other Peter Gabriel video Big Time first thanks to a friend who lent me a VHS he'd recorded it onto at one point. So when I saw Sledgehammer out of order from most of the rest of my generation it couldn't quite match the reputation I'd expected for it after more than three years of build-up.

But going back and watching the pair on the DVD Peter Gabriel: Play The Videos, it's clear that Sledgehammer is the more thoroughly creative and impressive piece. It involves so many varying techniques, from the opening manipulation of scientific footage, to Norman McLaren-esque pixilation, to Jan Svankmajer-esque stop motion, to things I'm not quite sure how to describe (the ice-sculpture sequence, for instance). Johnson developed a technique for lipsynch animation that had apparently never been tried before. And the shoot involved the musician far more thoroughly in its creation, particularly in capturing the white clouds in a blue sky frame-by-frame repainted over his face. And it integrates the creative sensibilities of some of my favorite animators despite their diversity: the sequence created for the second iteration of the chorus, in which the singer is covered over by a confining wooden structure from the Street of Crocodiles universe and then emerges as an oh-so-Aardman clay figure (complete with hammer-hands) that then goes through a series of quick transformations leading up to the famous "chicken dance", is one of my favorite half-minutes of animation of all time.

WHERE/WHEN: Sledgehammer screens as part of a program happening at 5PM today, at the Castro Theatre, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: I don't know if the Sledgehammer video, obviously made-for-television, has ever been shown on a cinema screen as large as the Castro's before, but it certainly gets me excited just thinking about it. It screens as part of a score of films, videos, advertisements and episodes displaying the full range of short-form creativity at the Aardman studios. Yes, the wonderful Oscar-winners Creature Comforts and The Wrong Trousers will be among them, but so will the bizarre and disturbing The Pearce Sisters and a good number of early rarities. Oh, and Aardman co-founder Peter Lord will be on hand to receive an award from the festival and talk about his company's impact on the international moving image scene (most recently with the feature-length Oscar nominee Shaun the Sheep Movie).

The Castro is the only major SFIFF venue I haven't yet talked about this year. It's not only by far the largest 2016 festival venue, it's also the only one that has now been in use by SFIFF on an annual basis for more than two years. In fact the festival has been using the theatre since the early eighties, at least (does any long-time festgoer want to chime in and tell me if its use goes back to the 1970s or earlier?) Which is why seeing High Rise with an absolutely rabid audience of J.G. Ballard fans there last night, my first Castro event at this year's SFIFF, felt like such a heartening, traditional San Francisco event, even if I'm not quite sure what I think of the film twelve hours later. (I hope to see it again sometime, preferably after reading the book this time.) If you haven't been to the Castro for a SFIFF event yet you have a few more chances, including today's Aardman tribute and a 2PM showing of queer cinema classic The Watermelon Woman with director Cheryl Dunye in person, tomorrow's showing of Carl Dreyer's Vampyr with a live improvised music score by members of Mercury Rev and the Cocteau Twins (I'm skeptical of this one but may have to see it for myself anyway), and Thursday night's closing film The Bandit, a documentary about the making of the famous Burt Reynolds star vehicle directed by the man behind The Overnighters.

HOW: All the Aardman shorts including Sledgehammer are expected to screen digitally.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Unfortunately forking The Watermelon Woman's sole festival screening, today is the first screening of Kirsten Johnson's highly-buzzed Cameraperson at the Victoria (Tuesday's Alamo Drafthouse showing has long been at RUSH status). Today is also the final showing of any of the Drafthouse Dark Wave selections, the Iran-set horror movie Under the Shadow, screening 10PM at the New Mission.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: It's the final day to see 35mm prints of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront at the Stanford Theatre. This Friday (the day after the SFIFF ends) the Palo Alto venue begins a 9-week centennial tribute to Olivia de Havilland.