Friday, January 19, 2018

PSIFF 2018: PHANTOM THREAD (2017)—An Evening Class Question For Paul Thomas Anderson

It was such a rapturous experience to view Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread (2017) projected in 70mm on the giant screen at Palm Springs' Camelot Theater with Anderson on hand for a generous, forthcoming Q&A session afterwards, moderated by Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) Lead Programmer David Ansen (Newsweek’s former film critic), wherein Anderson answered each and every question from his PSIFF audience, including my own regarding the film's evocative score (as much a character in the film as any of the actors, much like drifting snow whispers the voice of winter).

As synopsized in PSIFF’s program capsule: “An extraordinary love story that unfolds as a thriller, with a delicious touch of the gothic, Anderson’s film is unpredictable and impeccably tailored.” Vicky Krieps, as Daniel Day-Lewis’s formidable muse, holds her own across Lewis’s purportedly final film appearance.

PSIFF’s Special Presentation preview screening anticipated Phantom Thread’s wide theatrical release. Anderson’s latest is now playing in theaters everywhere, including the AMC Kabuki and Westfield Centre Century 9 theaters in San Francisco (though watching it in 70mm at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission would be my hearty recommendation so that you can fully experience the narrative, down to the needle pricks in your fingertips). Phantom Thread likewise opens today at The Flicks in Boise, Idaho (unfortunately, though understandably, in standard format).

* * * 

Michael Guillén: This is a marvelous watch in 70mm. Thank you so much for that. I’m enchanted by your score and soundtrack. Can you speak to their creation? 

Paul Thomas Anderson: Well, it’s music written by Jonny Greenwood, who I’ve worked with on four or five films now. He’s a member of the band Radiohead but he’s kind of embarrassed to be a rock musician because really he’s a viola player. When he was a kid he was trained as a viola player.

This music is probably much more lush and romantic than anything we’ve ever done. I gave him tons of Nelson Riddle and Billy Strayhorn stuff to listen to. That was my contribution, saying, “Nelson Riddle. Nelson Riddle. Nelson Riddle.” I just thought that would be nice. He came at it from the perspective of what would Reynolds be listening to? And, in his mind, it would be Glenn Gould. The music that Daniel came up with was Vaughan Williams. That was the other inspiration. That was music that Daniel was listening to. So all that stuff came into the pot.

Jonny Greenwood is like a musical faucet that you can turn on and music just comes out of him. So Jonny was involved very early on in the script, and all the research, and he would write music to that. He writes music in two-minute piano demos that he’ll send me. I’ll probably get like eight to ten two-minute piano demos a week and I’ll pick and choose and say, “This is great” or “this is greater” and sometimes things that might not seem exactly right, by the time we were finishing the film were exactly what we needed. But there’s a lot of stuff that he came up with before we started shooting, and that I had in my mind while we were shooting, and then those two-minute piano demos become orchestrated, made larger, and made to fit the film. So it’s a long process but he’s involved from the beginning, like with Daniel, and he’s a great collaborator to work with. Thank you for asking that.


PFA: HARD, FAST & BEAUTIFUL—Frako Loden on Outrage (1950) and The Bigamist (1953)

Back in March 2009, Frako Loden wrote up a profile of Ida Lupino for The Evening Class and I repurpose same to get the word out on “Ida Lupino: Hard, Fast and Beautiful”, the select retrospective currently running at the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) through February 24, 2018. Loden focuses on Outrage (1950) and The Bigamist (1953), two projects made by Lupino’s production company Filmakers, both featured in the PFA series. Outrage screens this coming Saturday, January 20, 2018 at 8:00PM in an imported archival print and The Bigamist screens later on in the series in an archival print on Saturday, February 17, 2018 at 8:00PM.

* * * 

Lately I've been thinking about the lost careers of female directors. Lost in that I don't know them—I never got to know them—and lost in that they have become unmoored from something stable and sure, struggling for footing in a male-dominated world.

Ida Lupino (1918-1995) can't exactly be considered lost as a director—she has a decent body of feature-film work and an impressive television resume. But seeing what she left behind, it's tempting to think how many more films she might have helmed had she the opportunity of, say, a Don Siegel, to whom she's often compared with the condescending "poor man's" prefix.

According to Lupino's biographer William Donati, a conversation with Roberto Rossellini had a profound effect on Lupino. Complaining about Hollywood, he asked her, "When are you going to make pictures about ordinary people, in ordinary situations?" He meant it rhetorically, but perhaps she took it personally.

Lupino's directing career began in her early 30s, when she was starring in Columbia productions like Lust for Gold (with Glenn Ford) and her husband Collier Young was a screenwriter and assistant to Harry Cohn. When Young resigned in a fit of anger, the couple joined up with a B-movie production company named Emerald. A few days before shooting began for Not Wanted (1949), director Elmer Clifton had a heart attack and producer Lupino took over. The film, about an unwed mother, was the first of hers that tackled bold and controversial themes such as polio, bigamy and rape.

Outrage (1950), made by Lupino's production company Filmakers, explores the psychological effect of rape on a young woman (Mala Powers). When office sounds remind her of the assault and the neighbors' perceived stares start to drive her crazy, she runs away. Things may still be bad for rape victims, but to see what they underwent back then—incessant gossiping, names published in the newspaper, having to view a lineup of suspects face to face—is to appreciate the stigmatization that could lead to mental illness. Outrage steps into noir territory in its expressionist depiction of the assault itself, with long shadows on misty streets from high angles tailing a woman clinging to walls plastered with laughing-clown posters, as a blaring truck horn signals the nightmare half of a friendly industrial town.
The Bigamist (1953), another Filmakers production, was made the same year as Lupino's tense, Mexico-set The Hitch-Hiker, often cited as the only true film noir made by a woman. Bigamist (as well as Outrage)'s screenplay was written by Lupino's ex Collier Young, who was currently married to co-star Joan Fontaine. A meld of melodrama and mild procedural driven by an adoption agency investigator, the film has only a superficial noirish resemblance to Double Indemnity in that the confessional male voiceover constantly refers to a "Phyllis" living in Los Angeles. At one point it seems Fontaine's businesswoman wife, "in one of her executive moods," will be blamed for her husband's seeking affection elsewhere. But Lupino manages to keep both her and the second, tougher waitress wife (played by Lupino) sympathetic, while lending some compassion to a husband (Edmond O'Brien) whose traveling-salesman loneliness gets him into one fine mess.

Thursday, January 18, 2018


"I believe that my true vocation has been the documentary. Fiction film, with all the technical paraphernalia and its high costs, has always been a state of exception for me, while the documentary is a state of grace.”—Luis Ospina, Proimagenes Colombia.

At 208 minutes, a dedicated commitment is encouraged to appreciate Luis Ospina’s Todo Comenzo Por El Fin (It All Started At the End, 2015), but this sprawling survey of Colombian cinema from the 1970s onward—particularly among the Cali Group (“Caliwood”) and focusing on Ospina and his creative collaborations with writer Andrés Caicedo and fellow filmmaker Carlos Mayolo—rewards anyone interested in Latin American cinema, as well as anyone fascinated with how collectives of renegade artists impact on national cultures.

Framed within Ospina’s 2014 near-death hospitalization for gastrointestinal stromal cancer (GIST), which provides the film’s prologue and epilogue, the film features fascinating archival footage of the cultural tumult that took place in Colombia in the early ‘70s (roughly concurrent with the youth movements in France and the U.S., confirming the zeitgeist was a global impulse). Comenzo incorporates film clips from the output that revolutionized cinema in Colombia, and provides contextualized recollections by key players within the Cali collective who articulate an emotional inspection of where the years have led them. Whether they were just a gang of like-minded creative spirits, or indicative of their generation, it’s undisputed that these individuals changed cinema in Colombia forever.

That their work has not received the international attention granted their American and French peers speaks to a rigged Western and Eurocentric bias, which is still in the process of being dismantled, prompted by the Oscar nomination of Ciro Guerra’s El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent, 2015) and the Cannes sweep of César Augusto Acevedo’s La tierra y la sombra (Land and Shade, 2015). Great headway has most recently been made with the ambitious multi-venue film series “Ism Ism Ism: Experimental Cinema in Latin America”, co-curated by Jesse Lerner and Luciano Piazza, as part of the larger cultural initiative “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA (Los Angeles / Latin America)”, wherein a selection of Ospina’s short films have been spotlighted in a program entitled “A Rational Act of Faith.” In the San Francisco Bay Area a separate selection of Ospina’s shorts have been featured in BAM/PFA’s “Documentary Voices” program.

As Colombian filmmaking finesses the international stage, Colombia is looking back at its forerunners and maverick pioneers and sagely granting them fair acknowledgment. At the 56th edition of the Cartagena de Indias International Film Festival (FICCI), Luis Ospina was paid tribute with a retrospective of his films (the first time FICCI has spotlighted a Colombian filmmaker) and awarded Best Director in the festival’s Colombian competition with an additional cash prize for Todo Comenzo Por El Fin (Comenzo), which premiered earlier at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where Diana Sanchez detailed in her program capsule: “Ospina uses two of the group's central figures—cult author Andrés Caicedo, who committed suicide at the age of 25, and Ospina's former collaborator Carlos Mayolo, who chose a longer route to death through alcohol and drugs—as the focal points of his narrative, their sad fates representative of the seeds of (self-)destruction within this remarkable creative flowering. ‘You are the last one left that can tell this story,’ a friend says to Ospina during an emotional interview, and it's a task that the filmmaker/historian is determined to complete—even after he is diagnosed with cancer during the film's production, an event that gives the film's theme of mortality an even greater resonance.” But even greater than its value as historical document, Sanchez emphasizes, “is its evocation of the energy, excitement, and bonds of friendship and fidelity that defined the effervescent community of Colombia's ‘Caliwood.’ ”

Though festival pedigree gave Embrace of the Serpent a strong theatrical run—Land and Shade less so (though both are now available for streaming on Amazon, whereas Comenzo is not)—I wasn’t sure at first when I caught Ospina’s documentary at FICCI how Comenzo would traffic. I was concerned that Western cinephilia, unfamiliar with the stars of “Caliwood”, might not be receptive even though (at the very least) I was convinced Western audiences would be thoroughly intrigued by the sequence where Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski film Cobra Verde (1987) in Colombia. My reservations were unfounded. Comenzo received considerable media attention, largely through the Latin American press and in some key English-speaking articles, particularly with its U.S. premiere at New York’s Lincoln Center, where it was viewed as “essential viewing for anyone looking for darkly comic, anarchic inspiration.” Highlights from his Q&A with his Lincoln Center audience have been transcribed by Andrew S. Vargas for ReMezcla.

“With the Paris protests of 1968 still wet on the tongue,” Samuel T. Adams wrote in his overview of Ospina’s films for Brooklyn magazine, “the 70s saw a creative revolution in Cali, Colombia. At the center of this visionary surge was Luis Ospina, a founding member of the Grupo de Cali, a collective of filmmakers, artists, and writers dedicated to capturing the social reality in their country. Ospina and founding members of the group sought to unveil the corruption and hypocrisy of the Colombian government, often by presenting ‘counter information,’ almost as if conceptually sneaking in through the back door. Questioning the conditions and presumptions of political cinema, the group traversed their own path, reflecting not only on documentary film histories, but also on popular cinema, including genres of horror and noir. By negotiating the political while including questions of the popular, the group re-evaluated cinema’s role in society, and changed the face of Latin American filmmaking.”

“May 1968 arrived in Colombia in 1971,” Ospina remarked in a City Paper interview with Richard Emblin, “and like a poet once said ‘everything arrives late in Colombia, even death.’ ” Ospina’s interview with Emblin is notable for articulating how “Caliwood” came under siege in the late 1980s by “narco culture”, which imposed “laws, gaudy architecture, and new-money aesthetics upon the 1 million inhabitants of the city. For many, including Ospina, ‘Cali was disappearing for the worse.’ A ‘diaspora’ of artists began to flee ‘narco culture’ and seek creative refuge in the capital of Bogotá.”

In his conversation with Valentina Valencia Bernal for El Spectador, Ospina discusses his role as the Director of the Cali International Film Festival and asserts that Cali is a city intimately and historically associated with filmmaking. During his onstage conversation with Kathy Geritz at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, Ospina affirmed that Colombia’s first fiction film Maria (1922), was a silent produced in Cali (and the subject of his 1985 documentary short En busca de ‘María’ (In Search of 'Maria')). He and his associates launched “Caliwood” and—as he assured Bernal in his El Spectador interview—Colombia’s national cinema is going through its most prolific moment with Cali, to a large extent, being one of the cities responsible for this happening “because it is the cradle of several impeccable new directors who are giving something to talk about.”

Other conversations of note are Ospina's ruminations with Marcela Vargas for Gatopardo, a tribute by his friend Sandro Romero Rey (wherein he categorizes Comenzo as “a profile of a man who decided to prolong his agony to make way for the ecstasy of recognition”), and an earlier 2008 La Fuga interview with Juan E. Murillo conducted at the Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente (BAFICI).

Spanish Video Interviews (indexed by length)

Conversan Dos (55:36)
Corporación Cultural El Barco (54:49); 2012
Expresión Visual (25:21); 2016
En Filme (24:40)
Perro Que Ladra (17:24); 2013
“Pensar/Clasificar” (15:51); 2011
Esquire (15:00); 2016
Cinema 23 (14:47)
Ambulante (10:05)
Punto de Vista / Pamplona (09:31)
VICE (09:30)
La Desazón Suprema (09:29)
El Espectador / “10 pasos para hacer una película (07:49); 2016
FICM (07:38)
EDOC15 (06:32); 2016
“On Caliwood” (05:49); 2012
Tele Aragua (04:28); 2015
RFI Espanol (04:04); 2016
Cines Gurú (02:58); 2016
NCI Noticios (02:23); 2015
Un Tigre de Papel (02:08); 2007
Vivir Rodando (01:03)

TCPEF International Trailer March2016 from Luis Ospina on Vimeo.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

PFA: DOCUMENTARY VOICES—The Short Films of Luis Ospina

Photo: Juan Cristobal Cobo
Launching the 2018 edition of “Documentary Voices”—the Pacific Film Archive’s annual series of recent and historical documentary films—is a visit from Luis Ospina, who has flown in from Colombia to Berkeley to present a rarely-projected selection of his radical short works, gleaned from the Archivo Luis Ospina. Ospina was a founding member of the collective Grupo de Cali who—as noted by Samuel T. Adams in his Brooklyn overview “Pure Fictions: The Films of Luis Ospina”—“by negotiating the political while including questions of the popular, the group re-evaluated cinema’s role in society, and changed the face of Latin American filmmaking.”

Luis Ospina is among the most influential and prolific filmmakers in Colombia. Although influenced by the militant cinema that became prevalent across much of Latin America in the 1960s, collaborators Carlos Mayolo and Ospina incorporated political critique, a sense of aesthetics, and perhaps most importantly, humor. Their iconic Vampires of Poverty, a fictional documentary, satirized what Mayolo and Ospina described as pornomiseria (poverty porn), a type of documentary film funded by the Colombian state to satiate the demand abroad for images of poverty and underdevelopment. Eye / Sight is a later meta-reflection on this landmark film. (Adapted from a note by Michèle Faguet, via BAMPFA.)

The Vampires of Poverty (Agarrando pueblo), dirs. Luis Ospina, Carlos Mayolo, Colombia (1978). Spanish with English subtitles. B&W/Color 16mm, 27 mins—I feel sorry for anyone unable to take advantage of the rare opportunity to see The Vampires of Poverty (Agarrando pueblo) projected in 16mm with Ospina present to field questions. For those unfortunates, this short is available to view on YouTube with English subtitles.

Eye / Sight (Ojo y vista: Peligra la vida del artista), dir. Luis Ospina, Colombia (1987). Spanish with English e-titling. Color 3/4" video, 26 mins—Ten years after Agarrando Pueblo (The Vampires of Poverty), there is a reunion with one of its protagonists, a street fakir who continues doing the same show. The vision of this film produces in him reflections on his life, his work and his image. For those who don’t require the English e-titling that will be provided by PFA, Ojo y vista: Peligra la vida del artista is available in Spanish on Vimeo.

In Search of Maria (En busca de "María"), dirs. Luis Ospina, Jorge Nieto, Colombia (1985). Spanish with English e-titling. B&W/Color 35mm, 15 mins.

PFA’s program is presented in conjunction with Natalia Brizuela’s UC Berkeley course on documentary film. Luis Ospina’s visit is made possible by the Los Angeles Filmforum series “Ism Ism Ism: Experimental Cinema in Latin America”, supported by the Getty Foundation, the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and presented at BAMPFA with the support of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Ospina’s presentation at PFA prefaces his program “A Rational Act of Faith” on January 20, 2018 at the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

SFFILM—The Art & Craft of Planet of the Apes with Andy Serkis and Joe Letteri

Photo courtesy SFFILM
Each time I return to San Francisco I can rest assured that SFFILM has been busy maintaining and building upon their signature creative programming throughout the Bay Area. For starters, I’ve been invited this weekend to head down to San Francisco’s historic movie palace the Castro Theatre to join SFFILM and the great minds behind one of the major visual effects accomplishments of the year for a special onstage conversation with actor Andy Serkis and VFX wizard Joe Letteri as they reveal the secrets behind the groundbreaking Planet of the Apes films. Delving deeply into acting and the innovative technology involved in cutting-edge contemporary performance capture techniques, Serkis and Letteri will illuminate what it actually takes to bring characters like Gollum, King Kong, and Caesar to life.

12:00 pm – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (105 min)
2:00 pm – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (130 min)
5:00 pm – Reception on Castro Theatre mezzanine for SFFILM supporters and special guests
6:00 pm – Onstage conversation with Andy Serkis and Joe Letteri
7:00 pm – Screening of War of the Planet of the Apes

Each $15 general admission ticket is valid for the full day of screenings and the talk. That is 3 film screenings and the talk with in-and-out privileges for audiences to self-select what parts of the day they would like to attend. You couldn’t ask for a more affordable Sunday outing, with chances to rush across the street to Rossi’s Deli for the best egg salad sandwich in San Francisco and/or up the street to get more punches in your Hot Cookies punch card. A wonderful weekend re-entry to San Francisco.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


The first order of business at last week's press conference for the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) was addressing the issue of rebranding. There were hints of impending change in some of the graphics used during last year's festival and now it's become official. Henceforth, the festival's parent organization, the San Francisco Film Society, will be officially known as SFFILM, and the preferred name for its annual festival is the SFFILM Festival (SFFF). According to Executive Director Noah Cowan, the change "provides a new kind of flexibility" to the organization and better "reflects the reality and breadth of our programming." Cowan also clarified that the festival's move to an earlier timeframe was meant to create distance with Cannes and therefore better engage the international film industry.

The press conference was held at the new Dolby Cinema on Market Street, and it was my first visit. Boasting a gargantuan screen and ultra-plush stadium seating—and I imagine the best sound found anywhere—the Dolby joins the pantheon of great Bay Area venues to watch a movie and I can't wait to experience it during the festival. In addition to the new Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA, this year's festival makes extensive use of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) for the first time, both its main theater and screening room, creating a mini festival hub around the area of 4th and Mission Streets. Given that I live a quick 15-minute walk away, this suits me perfectly. In all, SFFILM Festival 60 (SFFF60) incorporates eight main venues, not including the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, making this the most spread-out fest in the many decades I've been attending.

Following his opening remarks, Cowan and the SFFILM programming team got down to the business of revealing the 2017 line-up. In my previous post I talked about the programs revealed prior to the press conference, including this year's greatly expanded Live & On Stage section. It turns out that was just the iceberg's tip. The fest has whipped up enough 60th edition specialty events to program a decade's worth of festivals. Here are my thoughts. (An overview of SFFILM Festival's roster of narrative and documentary features will appear before the festival's April 5 start date).

Big Nights

Having previously announced The Green Fog for Closing Night plus the Centerpiece film Patti Cake$, the only Big Night left to reveal at the press conference was Gillian Robespierre's Landline as the fest's Opening Night selection. While I perhaps expected something more grandiose to kick off SFFILM's 60th birthday, I admit to seriously loving Obvious Child, the 2014 "abortion rom-com" that marked the first collaboration between Robespierre and actress/comedian Jenny Slate. SNL alum Slate now returns to star in Landline, a NYC 1995-set dramedy that premiered to solid reviews at Sundance and co-stars Jay Duplass, Edie Falco and John Turturro. Robespierre, Slate and co-writer/producer Elizabeth Holm are the evening's expected guests and the Opening Night party happens at the Regency Center on Van Ness Avenue.

Awards & Tributes

Photo: Dabboo Ratnani
As if having Ethan Hawke at the festival wasn't spectacular enough, SFFF60 will also pay a Tribute to Shah Rukh Khan (SRK). Expect a mob scene at the Castro Theatre on April 14 when the biggest movie star in the world takes the stage for a conversation with Rush Hour director Brett Ratner. I've been a SRK acolyte since seeing 1995's Ram Jaane at Berkeley's now defunct Fine Arts Theatre on Shattuck, which exclusively exhibited Bollywood product in the '90s. I thrilled to the sight of his train-top dance in 1998's Dil Se and our love affair peaked at a riotous screening of Om Shanti Om at the 2008 SF Asian American Film Fest (now CAAMFest). The SFIFF screened his historical epic Asoka in 2002. While I'm elated to finally experience SRK live, I wish a movie other than 2010's My Name is Khan had been chosen to accompany this tribute. Yes, the film remains a timely rebuke of American anti-Muslim sentiment, but it also queasily portrays African Americans in a manner most politely described as "quaint."

Photo: Mikki Ansin / Getty Images
While it appears the festival has discontinued its Founders Directing Award, it still honors one of the world's most beloved filmmakers this year with A Tribute to James Ivory. Berkeley-born Ivory is of course the director of such high-brow classics as A Room with a View (1985), Howard's End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993), and his 44-year production partnership with Ismail Merchant entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest in independent cinema history. Ivory is also getting considerable attention this year for his screenplay of Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, perhaps the most rave-reviewed movie of 2017 thus far. As part of this tribute on April 14 at SFMOMA, the festival will screen a 30th anniversary 4K restoration of Ivory's 1987 LGBT milestone, Maurice.

Photo: Victoria Stevens / Interview
I've been a fan of multimedia-installation-performance-conceptual artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson's films ever since catching her brilliant biopic Conceiving Ada at the 1998 SFIFF. Ensuing festivals brought out equally compelling works like the Tilda Swinton-starring Teknolust (2002) and the documentaries Strange Culture (2007) and !Women Art Revolution (2010). This year's SFFF60 finally honors Hershman-Leeson with its 2017 Persistence of Vision Award, which celebrates a "filmmaker whose main body of work falls outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking." Following an on-stage conversation, there will be a screening of Tania Libre, the filmmaker's new doc about radical Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. This all takes place on April 11 at the YBCA Theatre. Festival-goers are encouraged to visit the nearby YBCA museum whose first-floor gallery currently houses her major exhibition Civic Radar (on display through May 21).

Photo: Unknown
The festival's Mel Novikoff Award is presented each year to an "individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public's appreciation of world cinema." This year's long overdue recipient is the Bay Area's own Tom Luddy, whose many accomplishments include co-founding the Telluride Film Festival. An on-stage conversation at the Castro Theatre on April 9 will precede two screenings: Une bonne à faire, an extremely rare eight-minute Jean-Luc Godard short that was filmed on the set of Coppola's One from the Heart at Zoetrope Studios, followed by A Long Happy Life. Released in 1966, this little-seen classic Russian road movie and "Chekhovian drama about the solipsism and narcissism of modern characters" would be the only film directed by Gennady Shpalikov, who committed suicide at age 37.

Photo: Christopher Gabello / Interview
Another SFIFF accolade that seems to have fallen by the wayside is the Kanbar Screenwriting Award. In its stead, this year's SFFF60 offers up A Tribute to John Ridley, who most recently won an Oscar® for penning 12 Years a Slave (2013). Ridley is also recognized for writing the story that became David O. Russell's Three Kings (1999), for writing and directing the Jimi Hendrix biopic All is By My Side (2013), as well as writing the novel Stray Dogs, which became Oliver Stone's U Turn in 1997. (More importantly to me, he wrote and executive-produced all 21 episodes of The Wanda Sykes Show.) To accompany this special program on April 12 at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, the fest will screen the first episode of Guerrilla, Ridley's upcoming Showtime series about black radical activism in early 1970's London, starring Freida Pinto, Babou Ceesay and Idris Elba.

The 2017 George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, traditionally handed out at the ritzy SF Film Society's Award Night Gala, will be presented for the first time in public on April 10 at SFMOMA. The recipient is filmmaker, artist and writer Eleanor Coppola. The evening will feature a screening of Paris Can Wait, her first feature film since the 1991 award-winning documentary Hearts of Darkness. This comic road movie stars Diane Lane as the wife of a high-profile movie producer (Alec Baldwin) who goes on a Cannes-to-Paris adventure with a seductive Frenchman (Arnaud Viard). Paris Can Wait had its Bay Area premiere in the "Culinary Cinema" sidebar of last autumn's Mill Valley Film Festival and will open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 19.

Special Events

One of the most ingenious happenings at this year's festival has to be film historian David Thomson interviewing William R. Hearst III about Citizen Kane, whose protagonist Charles Foster Kane is based on Hearst's grandfather. Their conversation at the YBCA Theater on April 6 will be followed by a screening of Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece, long considered the greatest film ever made until its position was usurped by Hitchcock's Vertigo in 2012. Speaking of both David Thomson and Vertigo, he conducts a master class at SFMOMA on April 16 entitled Two or Three Things That Frighten Me in Vertigo. (Two additional SFFF60 master classes are Finding Characters in Unlikely Places with Pixar's Newest Short, Lou and We Are All Storytellers: A Pixar in a Box Workshop for Girls, both to be held at the Walt Disney Family Museum).

Short on funds? SFFF60 has your back with a trio of free screenings. On April 8 at the Vogue Theatre the fest presents Rivers and Tides–Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, the acclaimed documentary which had its international premiere at SFIFF in 2002. The film is being shown as a ramp-up to the world premiere of Thomas Riedelsheimer's Leaning Into the Wind, his latest collaboration with the nature-driven artist. Among other things, Leaning observes Goldsworthy as he creates Tree Fall, one of four artworks found in San Francisco's Presidio park.

The next free screening takes place on April 14 when Hayes Valley's outdoor Proxy space hosts a presentation of Whose Streets?, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis' documentary about the outsized militaristic police response to the 2014 events in Ferguson, MO. Then on April 15 the Castro Theatre will free-screen Defender, Jim Chai's new documentary about Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's heroic Public Defender and sometime film director (The Slanted Screen, You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story).

SFFF60 isn't the only local arts organization celebrating an important anniversary this year. At Canyon Cinema 50: Guy Maddin Presents The Great Blondino and Other Delights, the fest pays tribute to one of the world's most important distributors of avant-garde and experimental cinema. First released in 1967, Robert Nelson and William T. Wiley's 42-minute Blondino is considered one of the early masterworks of American independent filmmaking. I'm far from a fervent devotee of this strain of cinema, but the fact that Guy Maddin will curate and introduce the selections renders this April 15 event at SFMOMA a personal must-see.

Another Bay Area commemoration of note is Disposable Film Festival 10th Anniversary Retrospective. Founded the same year as the iPhone, the festival was created to exclusively showcase people telling stories with DIY personal technology. Disposable co-founder Carlton Evans will be on hand at the Roxie Theater on April 13 to introduce a dozen of the best shorts culled from the festival's first decade.

For the second year running, the festival will host a VR Days program. When I attended last year's one-day event, the only thing I knew about VR was that it stood for Virtual Reality. Now that I'm a bit more seasoned, I look forward to seeing how the technology has advanced in the past 12 months. This year's VR Days takes place at YBCA Forum on April 9 and 10, with tickets being sold for one-hour timeslots between noon and 7:00 p.m. The line-up of VR experiences will include the Oscar®-nominated short Pearl, interactive re-enactments of historic battles (My Brother's Keeper) and cinematic dance on camera (Through You).

This year's annual State of Cinema Address will be given by Dr. Ed Catmull at the Dolby Cinema on April 8. The co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and five-time Academy Award® winner is expected to speak on "the importance of skepticism when exploring new technology," after which several Pixar artists will take the stage for a conversation hosted by Wired magazine.

Cross-published on film-415.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


Evening Class contributor Michael Hawley began blogging about the San Francisco International Film Festival on its 50th anniversary in 2006. A decade-plus later it has become something of a tradition that on the eve of the festival's opening press conference, Michael recaps the announcements to date. The Evening Class is grateful for his enthused anticipation.

* * *

The San Francisco International Film Festival—recently rebranded as the San Francisco Film Festival (SFFF)—celebrates its 60th edition next month, marking an impressive milestone for the oldest continuously-operating film festival in the Western Hemisphere. This year's event arrives and departs two weeks earlier than usual—from April 5 to 19—and finds itself centered in the city's Mission District for a second year running. SFMOMA's newly renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater—where the SF Film Society has already co-presented two impressive Modern Cinema series—serves as an additional venue for SFIFF60.

In addition to taking place a fortnight earlier than usual, this year's festival begins and ends on a Wednesday rather than a Thursday. Another change finds 2017's Closing Night festivities occurring 72 hours before the festival's official end date. On Sunday, April 16 at the Castro Theatre, SFFF60 therefore "concludes" with The Green Fog—A San Francisco Fantasia with Kronos Quartet. For this special collaborative event, Kronos will perform a Jacob Garchik score to a re-imagining of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), as constructed by iconoclast Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin and his The Forbidden Room (2015) co-directors Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson. Without using a single frame of Hitchcock's original, Maddin's "parallel-universe version" will employ "Bay Area-based footage from a variety of sources—studio classics, '50s noir, documentary, experimental films, and '70s prime-time TV." With a live Foley element added to the mix, this promises to be a major highlight of SFFF60. as well as one of the festival's most inspired finales.

Photo: Diego Uchitel.
SFFF60 will honor actor-writer-filmmaker Ethan Hawke with a special tribute on Saturday, April 8 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Following an on-stage conversation, there will be a screening of Aisling Walsh's Maudie, which co-stars Sally Hawkins as renowned Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. It's unclear at this point whether this tribute supplements or supplants the festival's annual Peter J. Owens Award for Acting, which was presented last year to Ellen Burstyn [The Evening Class transcript is here]. For those unable to attend this event, Maudie is scheduled to open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on June 23.

SFIFF is usually the Bay Area's first chance to catch the big hits from Sundance. This year's Centerpiece event spotlights Patti Cake$, Geremy Jasper's ultra-rave-reviewed debut feature which shockingly failed to win a single Sundance prize. The film revolves around a plus-sized, white lower middle class, aspiring teen rapper from New Jersey who enlists the help of her South Asian best friend and an African American lone-rocker musician to achieve her dreams. Think Welcome to the Dollhouse meets Precious meets 8-Mile? Variety critic Peter Debruge called Patti Cake$ "the kind of movie where the energy builds to such levels that a packed-house audience can hardly resist bursting into applause." To that end, SFFF60 wisely places 2017's Centerpiece film at the enormous Castro Theatre on Wednesday, April 12.

As has been the case for several years now, the festival pre-announced the films competing for the Golden Gate Awards' New Directors Prize and Documentary Feature Prize. Among the ten narrative feature contenders, there are three I'm particularly excited about. In Ralitza Petrova's Godless, a morphine-addicted Bulgarian nurse steals senior citizens' ID cards and sells them on the black market. According to Variety's Jay Weissberg, the film "goes to great lengths to rub the viewer's face in the joylessness of life in a post-Communist world." Sounds like a "festival" flick if ever there was one! The jury at last summer's Locarno Film Festival saw fit to award Godless its top prize (the Golden Leopard) as well as its Best Actress accolade to lead player Irena Ivanova. Another film laying claim to a pair of Locarno prizes was Eduardo Williams' The Human Surge. Shot in Buenos Aires, Mozambique and the Philippines, this "adventurously formalist" debut loosely concerns three young men and their relationship to technology.

The third New Director's Prize nominee I'm anticipating is Francis Lee's God's Own Country, which won Sundance's Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Set amidst the Yorkshire moors, this romance between a hard-drinking young sheep farmer and an itinerant Romanian migrant worker has drawn comparisons to Brokeback Mountain. The remaining competition entries hail from Iran (Duet), Mexico (Everything Else), Lebanon (Heaven Sent), USA (The House of Tomorrow), China (Life After Life), Greece (Park) and Niger (The Wedding Ring).

Over in the Golden Gate Award (GGA) documentary feature competition, only one film has surfaced on my radar and that's Peter Nicks' The Force. Nicks' previous work was The Waiting Room, a beautifully empathetic portrait of Oakland's Highland Hospital which the fest screened to great acclaim in 2012. The Force marks the second part of a trilogy on the relationship between public institutions and the communities they serve, with this new film setting its gaze upon Oakland's police department. For his work on The Force, Nicks won the Best Director prize in the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance. Other SFFF60 films competing for the GGA Doc Award span a range of interests from Mexico's National Pyrotechnic Festival (Brimstone & Glory) to falconry in Qatar (The Challenge) to India's movie caravans (The Cinema Travellers).

Four ambitious programs have thus far been announced as part of the festival's Live & Onstage sidebar. For starters, the UK band Asian Dub Foundation will perform a Live Score of George Lucas' THX:1138 at the Castro Theatre on April 11. Then two nights later on April 13, the Denver-based music/vocal ensemble DeVotchKa will accompany Dziga Vertov's 1929 silent masterpiece The Man With a Movie Camera at the Castro. DeVotchKa is possibly best known for their film score to Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and it will be interesting to see how their Movie Camera score compares to that of the Alloy Orchestra, which was performed most recently at the 2010 SF Silent Film Festival.

Two additional Live & Onstage presentations have connections to Marin's Headlands Center for the Arts, whose current Director of Programs, Sean Uyehara, served as SFIFF's chief Live & Onstage programmer for a number of years. On April 10 at the Castro, Parallel Spaces: Bonnie Prince Billy and Bitchin Bajas with Jerome Hiler will find actor/musician (and 2008 Headlands Artist in Residence) Will Oldham performing alongside three works by Bay Area experimental filmmaker Jerome Hiler. Headlands' 2014 Artist in Residence, artist and filmmaker Terence Nance, will present the interactive live program 18 Black Girls Aged 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines at the Victoria Theatre on April 16, with a separate program focused on 18 Black Boys taking place the following evening.

Cross-published on film-415.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

TOWER (2016)

Fifty years ago, on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman positioned himself on the top floor of the University of Texas Tower with an arsenal of weapons and opened fire, holding the Austin campus hostage for 96 minutes. When the gunshots were finally silenced, the toll included 16 dead, three dozen wounded, and a nation irrevocably traumatized by one of the most seemingly senseless and random mass murders in U.S. history.

National traumas now seem to be de rigueur for the U.S. Followed by 9/11, one mass shooting after another and, most recently, by the election of Trump for president, we are a country with a hand to its mouth, either at a loss for words or choking on them, when it is clear that the sense of words, their capacity for reason and persuasion, are being crushed underfoot by forces larger than we can understand or, fearfully, even control. At Tower's consideration screening in San Francisco, filmmaker Keith Maitland was the first to apologize for the weight of his film's topic piled on top of an already oppressive week.

Tower, inspired by Jessica Colloff's article "96 Minutes" published in Texas Monthly, premiered at SXSW, winning Best Documentary Feature, going on to score the Grand Jury Prize at the Dallas International Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Riverrun Film Festival. It's now opening across the country and is a powerful meta-documentary detailing the events of that fateful afternoon, incorporating archival 16mm footage, broadcast radio reports and re-enactments brilliantly visualized through rotoscope animation.

Tower's crowning achievement, however, is to eschew the kneejerk response to psychologize and justify Whitman's actions, opting instead to seek out the voices of those on the ground looking up at the tower witnessing events. Diarist Anaïs Nin once wrote: "Passion is a narrow lens." This is precisely the emotional point of view adopted by Maitland to present the facts as known (yet rarely discussed). A sense of immediacy, alarm and helplessness characterize and strengthen Tower's aesthetic objective.

That objective is further achieved through Maitland's judicious editing, which serves to connect events from 50 years ago to our current moment: specifically the cultural tendency to vilify ethnic groups as violent. Recounting events in Tower, when police officer Ramiro Martinez responded to the scene, he recalled looking up at the many windows of the clock tower and imagining a Black Panther with a rifle behind every window. Martinez gave many interviews after the August 1 event with slight variations in his recollections. In an earlier interview he stated he imagined a terrorist at every window and significantly later his comment about the Black Panthers, which Maitland incorporated into his film. However, the Black Panther Party was not officially formed until October 1966 so it would have been impossible for Officer Martinez to have this fantasy when he approached the tower. Maitland admitted to purposely selecting this recount of events over others to accentuate the ongoing demonization of people of color. He had to clear it through Martinez's family who, at first, were reluctant but who finally granted permission once Maitland made his thematic objective clear.

One of Whitman's first victims was Claire Wilson, an anthropology student eight months pregnant who was shot while crossing the quad with her boyfriend. Both he and her baby did not survive; but, Wilson lived, singlehandedly due to the efforts of a woman named Rita Starpattern who rushed to her aid despite the continued sniper fire from the tower and kept her talking and conscious until help could arrive.

Maitland admitted that it was this moment of bravery that inspired him to make the film. And it is this moment that recalls me to what my mentor Joseph Campbell termed tat tvam asi, a Sanskrit phrase translated as "thou art that." What is it in the human animal, Campbell posed, that causes an individual to risk their lives for another without fear of losing their own life? He implied that the answer was an interconnectedness between human beings, an inseparability, a recognition that—as quantum physics would suggest—we are not separate creatures after all but interdependent at every level. Rita Starpattern, who went on to become a well-known artist and feminist in the Austin scene, later admitted to her partner that this selfless act on her part was one of the stupidest things she had ever done; but, in the moment, she had no choice but to help keep this wounded pregnant woman alive. For me, this is the film's pivot. It also speaks to our need as a nation right now to recognize that we are at an equal pivot. Either we are all here for each other to save each other from the monsters among us, or we are doomed to be picked off randomly one by one.

Recognition and choice and action are all we have left.