Thursday, March 15, 2018

TREEFORT 2018 / Bay Area to Boise—Madeline Kenney (Oakland)

Photo: Unknown.
I was quite taken by the strength and confidence of Madeline Kenney's performance when she opened for Dent May at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco back last August. Her voice, at turns halting with emotion, nonetheless communicated clearly, and achieved deft articulations through incorporations of pedal harmonies. As she was breaking down after her set, I made a point of telling her she should try to get into Treefort and am delighted to find her on the line-up. She's in the first wave of performers to open Treefort, playing Wednesday, March 21, 2018, 9:15AM at The Olympic.

Her bio for Treefort reads: "Madeline Kenney is a renaissance woman. She has a degree in neuroscience, is a skilled artist, painter and knitter, was a baker for over 9 years, and makes ends meet by nannying during the day. One might wonder where she finds the time for music, but not only has she been a musician since the age of three, but she also writes and records her own material, currently teaches voice and piano lessons, runs a small record label and is learning how to produce and engineer at the Women’s Audio Mission—the only women-built and run studio in the world.

"Kenney moved to the Bay Area in 2014 to pursue a career in baking, but ultimately found a supportive local arts community that inspired her to return to her musical roots. A chance encounter with Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bear resulted in her debut EP Signals, which was produced by Bear and released on his label Company Records. Immediately after its release, Kenney began working on her debut album. As with Signals, Bear was on hand as producer, but with Kenney as the writer, arranger and key creative force. Kenney also appears on a track on Toro Y Moi’s latest album Boo Boo.

"An accomplished full-length debut, Night Night At The First Landing is a cohesive record balanced by serene beauty, cathartic breakdowns, Kenney’s powerful voice, and masterfully complex and emotional lyrics. Night Night is unavoidably dreamy, dipping into sweet fuzz while sailing through smooth, crystalline production. Though Night Night At The First Landing is technically her first full-length, music has always been a key part of Kenney’s life. Singing came naturally to the bold-voiced Kenney and she was singing loudly before beginning to study piano at the age of five. To call this record a 'debut' is something of a misnomer, as those who know Kenney best might note: she’s always made music. And for the sake of music lovers, she hopefully always will."

More of her music can be sampled at Soundcloud and I'm happy to share these videoclips from her Rickshaw Stop performance.

 Madeline Kenney / Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco, California / Wednesday, August 23, 2017 / No. 1 ("Rita"):


 Madeline Kenney / Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco, California / Wednesday, August 23, 2017 / No. 2 ("John in Irish"):


 Madeline Kenney / Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco, California / Wednesday, August 23, 2017 / No. 3:


 Madeline Kenney / Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco, California / Wednesday, August 23, 2017 / No. 4:


 Madeline Kenney / Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco, California / Wednesday, August 23, 2017 / No. 5:


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

SFFILM FESTIVAL 2018—Michael Hawley Reviews the Early Announcements

SFFILM Festival, which was known for 60 years as the San Francisco International Film Festival, is gearing up to celebrate its 61st edition from April 4 to 17. When the full line-up is revealed at the press conference, SFFILM's programming team will have their work cut out for them. That's because in the dozen years I've blogged about the fest, never has so little been announced in advance. While it might not be easy topping last year's 60th anniversary extravaganza, I'm encouraged by what's been divulged thus far. What follows is a close-up look at what we already know, followed by some just-for-fun speculation and wishful thinking about what the rest of the festival line-up might hold for Bay Area cinephiles.

Out of all the films which premiered at Sundance this year, none aroused more personal anticipatory excitement than Boots Riley's feature filmmaking debut, Sorry to Bother You. Now I'm completely over the moon that it'll be our festival's 2018 Centerpiece, with near-simultaneous screenings happening at both the Castro Theatre and Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre on Thursday, April 12. Oakland-based Riley is best known as one-half of the iconic, revolutionary hip-hop duo The Coup, whose songs include such full-mouth titles as "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Grenada Last Night," "BabyLet'sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethingCrazy" and "5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O." The group gained considerable notoriety for the original cover art of 2001's "Party Music" album, which depicted Riley and Coup co-conspirator DJ Pam the Funkstress (1966–2017 R.I.P.) blowing up the World Trade Center. The cover was created before the events of 9/11 and delayed the album's release by several months.

Sorry to Bother You is a scathing socio-politico satire set in the world of telemarketing, with a dystopic, gentrified Oakland as a backdrop. Rolling Stone magazine simply called it "a hundred thousand watts of fuck you." The plan on April 12 is for Riley to introduce the film at the Castro and then head across the Bay to introduce it at the Grand Lake. Riley and special guests (co-star Armie Hammer perhaps?) will then do a Skype Q&A for the Castro audience, followed by a live, in-person Q&A for the Oakland audience. Not incidentally, Sorry to Bother You received considerable funding and creative support through SFFILM artist development programs, FilmHouse Residency and the SFFILM/Rainin Filmmaking Grant. Be advised that the Grand Lake screening sold out less than 24 hours after tickets went on sale.

Oscar®-winning actress Charlize Theron will be feted with a SFFILM tribute at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, April 8. After an on-stage conversation during which she'll discuss her formidable career (Monster, North Country, and most fabulously in recent years, Max Max: Fury Road), the festival will screen Tully, Theron's new film from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody. Tully is a third-time collaboration between Reitman and Cody, and is their second outing with Theron in the lead, following 2011's Young Adult. Oscar®-nominated writer/director Reitman (Up in the Air) will join Theron for an on-stage Q&A following the screening. The movie is slated for general theatrical release on April 20.

Ten narrative features will compete in the festival's 2018 New Directors Competition. I can highly recommend Rungano Nyoni's I Am Not a Witch, a top favorite amongst the 30 films I caught at this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival. Nyoni's movie premiered in the Director's Fortnight sidebar at Cannes, and is an empathetic, visually striking and acerbically funny satire in which a young village girl is suspected of sorcery and sent off to live in seclusion with other witches. The only other competition film already on my radar is Hlynur Pálmason's Winter Brothers, which won a Best Actor prize at last summer's Locarno Film Festival. This idiosyncratic Danish film is set in the environs of a remote limestone factory and has been compared to the Greek "weird wave" films of Yorgos Lanthimos and others. The eight remaining New Directors Prize entries include works from Cape Verde (Djon África), Sweden (Ravens), Georgia (Scary Mother), France (The Sower), Kyrgyzstan (Suleiman Mountain), Switzerland (Those Who are Fine), Argentina (Tigre) and the USA (Jordana Spiro's Night Comes On).

Ten films will also compete for the Golden Gate Awards McBaine Documentary Feature Competition. I'm especially looking forward to RaMell Ross' Hale County This Morning, This Evening, a filmic tone-poem centered on an African American community in rural Alabama which garnered terrific reviews when it premiered at Sundance. Two of the doc competition films, Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink's Rescue List and Denali Tiller's Tre Maison Dasan will also be screening as part of SFFILM's "Launch" initiative, which aims to seek out distribution for non-fiction films that are SFFILM Festival world premieres, as well as "represent the values of our city and region" and "advance a culture of change." Rescue List takes on the issue of forced child labor in Ghana, and Tre Maison Dasan follows the lives of three boys who share the common hardship of having incarcerated parents.

* * *

When speculating on which other films might make the SFFILM Fest roster, I first look at what's scheduled to pop up in local cinemas during, or shortly after the festival. This year's batch of April releases with potential for fest inclusion are Aaron Katz' Gemini, Chloé Zhao's The Rider, Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here, Andrew Haigh's Lean On Pete, Ferenc Török's 1945, and last but not least, Sophie Fiennes' Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami. I also suspect that a number of films I saw in Palm Springs could also be making SFFILM Festival appearances, including such likely candidates as Laurent Cantet's The Workshop, Xavier Legrand's Custody, Léa Mysius' Ava and Léonor Serraille's Montparnasse Bienvenue.

Monday, March 12, 2018

TREEFORT 2018—The Evening Class Interview With Field Medic (Kevin Patrick Sullivan)

Photo: Michael Guillén
I first met Kevin Patrick Sullivan (aka Field Medic) when his band Rin Tin Tiger was invited to play Treefort a few years back. I was walking by the Bouquet and the timber of his voice pulled me into the venue to listen to their gig, which enthused me to introduce myself and to ask if we might find some time once back in San Francisco to talk about his music? That opportunity kept eluding us until a few weeks ago when we met for breakfast at Kate's Kitchen on Haight Street. The timing couldn't have been better. Having recently signed with Run for Cover Records, Kevin was about to be sent out on a national tour to promote his first album for them, "Songs From the Sunroom", a compilation of his favorite lo-fi songs released earlier on his self-distributed EPs, in anticipation of his first album of original material for Run for Cover, releasing in late Summer or early Fall.

His tour wraps up at Treefort, where his bio reads: "Field Medic is lo-fi bedroom project of Kevin Patrick. Field Medic began recording songs to cassette in his house in 2013 and has released a handful of EPs and a full length album. Drawing inspiration from Joni Mitchell, Fionn Regan, Nick Drake, and Bob Dylan, Field Medic makes freak folk/post country with emphasis on fingerstyle guitar & lyrics." He plays Treefort on Saturday, 11:00 at The District and again on Sunday at 3:45 at The Linen Building. Over crab benedict and cheddar bacon pancakes, I asked Kevin to recount his transformation from Rin Tin Tiger to Field Medic.

* * *

Photo: Unknown.
Kevin Patrick Sullivan: Rin Tin Tiger used to be called Westwood & Willow when I graduated from high school. It was a solo project. Then my brother joined me. Then we got a drummer. With the addition of the drummer, the sound became more rock and less folk. We became Rin Tin Tiger, for whatever reason; but—when we were changing our name from Westwood & Willow to Rin Tin Tiger, like six years ago—I wanted to call the band Field Medic. They decided it sounded too singular and the purpose of the name change was to make it plural, I guess, for everybody involved. We played for a long time and I had these folk songs that I wanted to put out, but we as a band wanted to be democratic where everyone was involved in choosing every song.

So, instead, I started playing as Field Medic in 2013 slowly on the side. Even by the time we played Treefort as Rin Tin Tiger, I had put out a couple of Field Medic releases. As I kept putting out music, I started my own tape label out of my house when I lived in San Francisco. People became interested in the Field Medic music and I was enjoying more at that time than the band. I don't particularly like to rock. That's just what happened at a certain point because we were a band. I told the boys that I needed to take a break from the band in the middle of 2016. Then, in 2017 I moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of January. So Rin Tin Tiger is on hiatus. We're not officially broken up but I'm focusing more on Field Medic.

I wound up getting really lucky with the people I was meeting at the time. This time last year I did a short living room tour with Evan Stephens Hall from Pinegrove and this girl Alex from Thin Great Grandpa. Then I started hanging out with this band called The Neighborhood and a band called Bad Sons in Los Angeles and they helped me get some cool shows there. Somehow I ended up getting signed with Run For Cover, which is crazy. I got very lucky.

Michael Guillén: Well, luck usually abets talent. I believe you're very talented. 

KPS: Thank you.

Guillén: You're a great wordsmith. You have a little bit of anarchic romanticism in your writing, which I like. Field Medic, however, is still affiliated with the Bay Area? 

Photo: Unknown.
KPS: The Valencia Street song is specifically Bay Area; but, a lot of people don't realize that I've left the Bay Area. I do feel that I am still Bay Area though. It's definitely still where I'm from but I don't always live there. I'm pretty much there half my time.

Guillén: You're being billed as "new folk", and yet you remind me of old folk, a little bit of early Dylan, and there does seem to be a protest element to some of your music. 

KPS: The Valencia Street song got a lot of press because it was super aggressive and relevant....

Guillén: Well, you were talking about slashing tires. 

KPS: That's really one of my only protest songs. Most of my songs are about love and confusion and anxiety. They might be using "new folk" to describe me, but to me they're just songs. Some people have called my music "freak folk" and others say it can't be freak folk because it's not psychedelic enough. It's been called DIY, which it actually is, though it's interesting that DIY is used as a genre to classify a certain type of band. But my music is fully DIY because I write everything, record everything, make my own videos, do all my own shit. My shit is DIY in the literal definition of the word. Though I just call my music songs, there's some weird connotation with the singer-songwriter that's kind of corny.

Guillén: As an older guy, I have a great respect for the singer-songwriter. I don't think it's corny at all. Singer-songwriters created the music that I grew up on. But I understand what you're saying because it does seem to be perceived as a mark against a musician these days. Like no one's supposed to single themselves out. When I first moved to Boise and listening to music in clubs, my first reaction and complaint was that I couldn't understand anything anybody was saying. No one would articulate their lyrics. I'd get excuses that the words were incidental and that they were only in service to sonic texture, which I considered one of the silliest rationalizations I'd ever heard. How would you describe the newest album that you're taking out on tour, "Songs From the Sunroom"? Talk to me about how that was set up.

KPS: The new album is not necessarily new. It's a compilation of a bunch of tracks from the EPs that I released when I was unsigned and living in San Francisco. It's called "Songs From the Sun Room" because I lived in a sun room and that was where I recorded everything. We decided to put out a "best of" selection to let people find out about my music before we put out the new album, which should come out in the Summer or the Fall. Right now I'm touring the reissue, I guess you would call it. It's cool. It's a dream of mine. I always loved the lo-fi stuff I was recording and I didn't want to re-record it. The label agreed to put it all together and that's really chill. The tour is going to take me to Washington D.C., New Jersey, then Philadelphia, then New York, and then I have to fly back to San Francisco to play Noise Pop, and the day after Noise Pop I fly back to Chicago. Then I tour for two weeks through all sorts of crazy places, hella places I've never been, I can't even remember where we're going.

Guillén: I presume the label arranged the tour for you? 

Photo: Unknown.
KPS: I have a booking agent now who is actually the one who introduced my music to the label. He found out about me through somebody else. He was excited about the music and sent it to them. I actually have him to thank for all of this. He organized the first part of the tour because we had an offer for a college show in Madison, Wisconsin and then just at a certain point this other band contacted us to be support for the second part of the tour that starts after Chicago. I didn't arrange it. I didn't do anything. I just have to fly around. I'm definitely a little nervous because I'm alone. A lot of bands go out and they have each other, but I'm going to pull up alone.

Guillén: Keep in mind the old traveling proverb: "One meets two; two meets three." You're never really alone. You'll meet people wherever you go. 

KPS: That's true. I'll have friends everywhere. I just don't like flying with guitar. I'm always worried my guitar is going to be broken by the time we land. It's too big to put in overhead. Oftentimes I can store it in the closet, but there have been a couple of times that I've had to check it at the gate.

Guillén: Can you wrap it in bubblewrap?

KPS: I don't wrap it in bubblewrap, I just detune the strings because when the pressure changes it could really break your guitar. Also, if it's under the plane it gets really cold.

Guillén: Are you only playing your guitar on tour? You're not taking your banjo?

KPS: I've never really toured with the banjo because I don't drive. I'm surprised that I'll be covering so much ground without driving.

Guillén: All that matters is to stick to your guns because no matter what decision you make, you will go in and out of fashion. Like, I notice your finger polish doesn't match. But it doesn't matter. It's who you are.

KPS: I just do whatever, y'know? 

Guillén: I like your song about fashion and going into thrift stores.

Photo: Unknown.
KPS: "OTL." That song's funny because I didn't think anybody was going to like it. I wrote it really fast one day. I thought it was just funny.

Guillén: It's funny, but this is where—when I describe your music as protest music—it's more of a romantic protest and less a political one. You're protesting how hard it is to find someone to love.

KPS: It is hard.

Guillén: And it seems to be getting harder all the time. I can't even imagine what it's like for a young guy these days with so many sexual allegations being levied right and left for even looking at someone the wrong way. Don't get me wrong: I think it's great that women are speaking up for themselves and defending themselves, as they should. But I came from a youth culture of free love and loving the one you're with if you're not with the one you love: attitudes that are simply not politically acceptable nowadays it seems. But I enjoy the forlorn romanticism in your writing. I'm glad that you found yourself a girlfriend because I was thinking, "This poor kid...." 

KPS: My experience with women has always been that I've always been able to find people that I liked but—perhaps because I have red hair and weird interests—I've never been that kind of guy where girls are like, "Oh my God, I need to fuck that guy." So no problem with sexual allegations.

Guillén: Let's talk about Treefort. How did Eric Gilbert first find you as Rin Tin Tiger? 

KPS: Through a guy named Greg who has a blog and lives in Boise. He had been reviewing Rin Tin Tiger since the inception of the band. He's the one who put forth our music to Eric. When we first played Treefort, our band was an acoustic-driven folk rock experience and there was more hype about us and people were pumped to see us. I just remember playing Treefort was so much fun! It was at the end of one of our tours as well. I still use the Treefort water bottle that I got in my swag bag for artists that year.

Guillén: When I was listening to your music this morning, I found it melodically diverse. I know it's an intuitive thing and difficult to describe, but how do you hear these melodies? Do they arrive as snippets in your mind which you then try to find on the guitar? Or do you hear a snippet and then try to use your voice against it? Can you speak to your songwriting process?

KPS: What happens for me is that I write all the lyrics first. I don't write a chord progression and then sit there and think, "What should I sing over it?" I write stuff all throughout the day. I write little observations or poems. I write a lot of haiku.

Guillén: So you consider yourself a poet first?

KPS: Yes. I only started writing music so I could make a living doing poetry. I love words. I'm a big fan of lyrics. I listen to a lot of rap music because they're both vocally and lyrically centered. For me, the lyrics themselves tend to write the melodies. I practice guitar. I sit there and finger pick and maybe I'll write a little something but I'll store it away. Then there will come a point when I'm overwhelmed with these lyrics that match a feeling that I'm also overwhelmed with, so I'll sit down with the guitar and maybe cycle through whatever weird things I've just written on the guitar and just start singing them until they match. But I would say, yes, the lyrics write the melodies.

Guillén: Do you play covers? 

KP: Never done them. I've learned a couple—Bob Dylan, John Prine, Joni Mitchell—songs. But I've never done covers, ever, other than for myself. I like to write so much that I would just rather play my own stuff. Some people talk about learning how to play music by playing other people's songs; but, I just taught myself. I needed to sing. I made my own vocabulary musically. My dad bought an acoustic guitar when I was 15 and so I would play with it because it was in the house. Do you remember that song "Collide" by Howie Day? It was a radio hit where he was just strumming. I taught myself to strum that song by ear. I took those chords I learned and wrote a bunch of songs. Then when I moved to San Francisco at 18, I started going to City College. My brother was living with me and he had a job already. He was working at SF State until three in the morning every night. I would go to City College during the days, Sundays I didn't even have class, and I had no friends, I was all alone, and then I bought a book about finger picking because that was my goal. I love Tallest Man on Earth and Fionn Regan, old Bob Dylan, travis picking stuff. Then for an entire six or seven months, I chilled in my room alone and taught myself how to fingerpick. But I've never had official training. I taught myself. For me that's the only way to learn. You do it because you need to.

Photo: Ben Decastro.
Guillén: You also have a strong online visual presence. You have several videos on YouTube that you share freely. Like myself, you seem very persona-driven. One of my favorite photos of you is a gender-fluid pose where you're wearing a dress and looking just this side of delicate.

KPS: Am I wearing a polka-dotted blouse?

Guillén: I enjoyed its playful, carefree attitude. Do you have any particular image, or persona, that you feel Field Medic is trying to fit?

KPS: My whole life I've always liked to dress weird or to have a weird inclination. I got in trouble at the old school for having orange shoelaces because we had a uniform. But I had to wear orange shoe laces for some reason. I've always been inclined to dress weird and I don't know why. When I moved to San Francisco during the Rin Tin Tiger years we had a cowboy aesthetic. We were wearing bolo ties on denim shirts or pearl button western shirts. I do like that cowboy aesthetic as well. But then when I started to hang out with a few friends in L.A., I was noticing their fashion sense. These guys dress hella crazy and they don't give a fuck. I'm a big thrift shopper and I had all these crazy pieces already so that when I embraced my Field Medic project, I embraced these crazy fashions. Part of my bit early on was looking super crazy—I would have, like, tons of layers, super tight pants, wearing lipstick, earrings, hairspray—because I wanted to roll up to the songwriter show and have people be, "Who the fuck is this guy dressed like a crazy rock star?" I like being ridiculous. It's not about being fashionable. It's more about people reacting,"Who does he think he is? Why would he do that?" When I started wearing exactly what I wanted to wear, I felt empowered. I felt really good going as redic as I wanted to go.

Guillén: You want to be noticed.

KPS: Yeah, I want to pop. In L.A. I crash on my friend's couch and in SF I live at my girlfriend's house so I had to destroy a lot of my fashion when I moved out of SF. That's been a major blow to my speed. I have a very limited closet now because I live out of a suitcase. Especially on this tour to the East Coast, all my suit case is full of merch. All I have is one extra pair of pants, two shirts, socks and underwear. Fashion is taking a back seat for these winter tours. I keep telling myself that once I "make it" or get to a comfortable place, I'll have all the fashion I want.

Guillén: You don't feel that you've made it yet? 

KPS: I do feel that I've made it in a lot of ways, yeah. The only thing I'm missing is financial security.

Guillén: You and five million others, brother.

KPS: Yeah, right? But I want to get to a place where I can afford to rent a room of my own. Although it's great that I have people to stay with, I do miss my own personal space.

Guillén: I'm aware that busking has been an important aspect of your music. Can you speak to that?  Why you did that? Did you have to? Was it the only way you could get your music out there?

KPS: We started busking with the band in 2011. It was the drummer's idea. He said, "We should go busk on Market Street." We started doing it and it was going well. We'd sell a lot of CDs and make a lot of fans, honestly. A lot of the gigs that we got early on were because people saw us busking and all of a sudden we were getting paid gigs to play at people's parties or larger outdoor events in San Francisco. When we first did it, it was because we had to. My brother and I were both unemployed so we were busking five days a week and that money was paying the rent. At a certain point we both got jobs. We'd still busk but the police were cracking down harder than before and we started getting shut down. We'd lug all of our shit, set up, play for like 20 minutes, and then have to leave, which was a bummer.

Guillén: They wanted you to have a license to perform? Is it illegal in San Francisco to busk on the street?

Photo: Unknown.
KPS: Most of the time you can get away with it; but, for whatever reason, we were just hitting a lot of bad luck with that. We would busk on Powell Street at Market. We had tiny amps so we could break through the noise. But then we slowed down from busking. I started busking alone in the BART station because if you're in the tunnel it's chill for the acoustics. I did it to supplement my income because I only worked three days a week. I made maybe $120 a week in busking, so it paid off. But also, I just really liked it. I never played any cover songs so it was a good way to see if people responded to my own songs. If I was playing a new song and somebody turned and smiled, or put in a dollar or whatever, it was sort of good way to gauge that. The mantra I always told myself while I was busking was that I was the benevolent friend to all. People were coming off work and they were tired and angry and I just wanted to sing songs to them and connect with them, but in a non-committal way. It's not like they're at a concert where they're expected to listen. They can just walk by or they can choose to stand and listen or they can put in a dollar or maybe just give me a quick smile. A ten-second interaction. For me, it was a good energy to put out there, to just be chilling. Nobody hates a busker. I feel everyone appreciates when they see somebody making music. Busking is great that way.

Guillén: Would you ever busk in unfamiliar cities on tour?

KPS: I've definitely thought about it. I've always had a dream of being super successful and secretly showing up to busk at a BART station. Let's say I was as big as Prince, and everyone recognized me. I'd show up and cause a scene. But I would do that even without being that successful or recognizable. I busked as recently as a couple of months ago. What I learned with the Field Medic stuff was that it important for everything to be free. Everything on Bandcamp is still free. That's what I learned with poetry and songwriting too. People get caught up with, "Oh, this poem is so good. If I put it out, someone's going to steal it." But if they stole it, that would actually be chill. I feel that you honestly have to give everything away for free all the time. You have to. If it's that good that someone's going to steal it, it will get back to you.

Guillén: It's what I would call mutual indebtedness. We all owe each other what is the most creative within ourselves. If I can give you a good breakfast, I'll do that. You need fuel in your belly to be creative. For me it's important to bless the young, to feed them, to encourage their creativities and that draws me into the domain of love, which I believe is unconditional. I'm not buying you breakfast today because I'm trying to get something from you. I'm doing this because I want to know that at least at one point in our lives we can intersect and I can bless you and tell you your music is strong and beautiful. I'm excited for you that you're going on your first national tour and I hope you send us notes from the field.

KPS: Yeah. I get spooked out about getting "big" because it's what I've always wanted but now that I'm on the cusp of it—it may be happening? Who knows if it does or it doesn't?—but, it's making me a little afraid now.

Guillén: You have to watch out. You have to not want fame. Fame will happen to you. It's like fashion. Fame will happen and then it goes away. But with or without it, you remain who you are. The singer-songwriters who I have admired since I was young are those who have gone through, and often been robbed by, agents and recording labels, but ultimately found their own source of production, grabbed the creative reins of their careers, and continue to do the music they are meant to do whether they are famous for it or not. If there is true poetry, it will always persevere.

KPS: I just want make a living, dude. That's my goal. If things go well, I think music can allow that. But it's also the only course that I have now. I better hope that it allows it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

PSIFF 2018: LOVELESS (NELYUBOV, 2017)—Q&A with Andrey Zvyagintsev

In an early scene of Loveless (2017)Andrey Zvyagintsev's Oscar®-nominated follow-up to Leviathan (which was likewise nominated when it came out)— Zhenya and Boris argue viciously over who will end up having to take care of their 12-year-old son Alyosha once they divorce, both impatiently revealing how neither want to take on the responsibility as both are anxious to embark on new lives with new partners. The camera slides to the boy listening and hiding behind a door weeping his heart out. It is one of the most devastating scenes ever committed to film. After overhearing his parents, Alyosha runs away and goes missing before his parents even notice.

Zvyagintsev's loveless realm is aligned with the harsh beauty of winter—barren trees and ice-limned rivers—as he examines a world where Eros, especially the Divine Eros, has been forsaken, and only the Earthly Eros of extramarital affairs offers relief. Loveless is as much a fairy tale for adults as “Cinderella”, which in essence is a story about lost parenting and the hazard and harm of false marriages.

As the boy goes missing, the film tracks the methodical and volunteer procedures involved in hunting for the child; necessary when law enforcement proves ineffective. This slow laborious process is made suspenseful, absorbing, even gripping through Zvyagintsev's sure grasp of the deep truths involved. Though reluctant to unpack any allegories or symbols from the film to his enquiring audience, one can't help but read into a world where women want nothing to do with the responsibilities of motherhood and men don't want children. What kind of future is to be had in such a loveless realm?

Zvyagintsev is most astute in not providing a resolution or happy ending. Instead he shows how—eschewing such cinematic conceits and leaning more into the nature of truth—nothing changes, no one changes, and life continues in as much lovelessness as it begins. Loveless is a haunting, harrowing examination of the failure of the family unit betrayed by the hearts involved.

Loveless screened at the 2018 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) whose program note synopsized: “Russian master Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the powerful, Oscar®-nominated Leviathan (PSIFF 2015), takes another devastating look at the soul of contemporary Russia. It begins at the tail end of a failed marriage. Boris and Zhenya still share a Moscow apartment as they await their divorce, but they have both taken up with new partners: he with a young and already pregnant lover, she with a wealthy middle-aged man. They are so absorbed in their own enmity that they at first fail to notice that their unhappy 12-year-old son has gone missing. Has he run away, or been kidnapped? Loveless may take the form of a police procedural, but its scope expands to paint a lacerating portrait of a wealth- and status-obsessed society, mired in cynicism and divorced from empathy. Infused with suspense and dread, the movie, as critic Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian, ‘has a hypnotic intensity, which is maintained until the very end.’ ” Loveless won a Jury Prize in Cannes and Best International Film in Munich.

Zvyagintsev accompanied his film to PSIFF to, first, sit on a panel of the foreign language directors nominated for an Academy Award® and then, immediately after, to introduce Loveless and engage with his PSIFF audience through the apt translative assistance of Roman Skryabin.

* * * 

Zvyagintsev thanked PSIFF for inviting him and his film to beautiful Palm Springs. He first came to PSIFF three years ago with Leviathan so, for him, it was a great honor and pleasure to return with Loveless. Despite all the cultural differences between Russia and the United States, Zvyagintsev believes the themes of his film are universal and that American audiences will be able to understand the film and hold it close to their hearts.

Gauging the role of film festivals to help launch films to the public, Variety’s Peter Debruge—who moderated the foreign language panel—noted the social critique of Russia embedded in Loveless, and wondered how much that necessitated disguise? Like much of Iranian cinema, Loveless is a critique that is at the same time a veiled dance—how much can a filmmaker say? How much can he trust his audience to interpret?—and Debruge wondered how Loveless was received on its home turf and how that compared to its reception abroad?

Zvyagintsev assured Debruge that—when he was making the film—he never set out to win a Jury Prize at Cannes nor an Oscar® nomination or anything of the sort, because he was trying to remain true to himself and what he and his team were hoping to achieve. He would have defeated his own purpose if he were aiming, instead, for success and recognition. His primary task, as he saw it, was to try and put all his ideas and thoughts—“the protest, if you like”—into the movie, and not necessarily target festivals for awards or anything like that.

His previous film Leviathan backfired back home. It received negative reviews from critics and deterrents who disagreed with the political stance portrayed in the film. In that regard, people were expecting to confront Loveless based on how Leviathan had backfired. Even still, the vast majority of the Russian audiences who saw the film accepted it as something that had evolved from his previous film and so, generally, Loveless had a positive reaction from home audiences. Going back to Leviathan, there was "a well-known public figure" who during a speech on national television suggested Zvyagintsev should walk up to the Red Square, kneel, and ask for forgiveness nationwide. Of course, he didn’t; but, that was the general climate under which Loveless came out. Fortunately, the positive reviews prevailed, which Debruge interpereted as some kind of forgiveness for the film to have been selected and submitted on Russia’s behalf.

[Ed. Note: In his on-film interview for Tatiana Brandup’s Cinema: A Public Affair (2015), Zvyagintsev details how the erosion of Russian freedoms of thought and expression under Putin’s rise to power directly impacted Leviathan. The government passed a law outlawing the public exhibition of any film with cursing in it, which kept most Russians from being able to see his film.]

In the post-film discussion, PSIFF Artistic Director Michael Lerman noted that Loveless was as visually stimulating as all of Zvyagintsev’s films, yet notedly more urban than previous ventures. Lerman asked Zvyagintsev how he scouted for and found his locations, particularly the beautiful apartment shown in the film with its incredible light?  Zvyagintsev explained that he used an actual set for the film and not a functioning apartment. He had three sets built, which he used throughout the film. In the scene where the search team first enters the apartment, he had to re-create a sunset. The lighting technician had to lower the lights outside the window to give the impression that the sun was setting. So there really weren’t locations used in the film; there were sets.

Lerman commented that the scene in the morgue was incredible and asked how Zvyagintsev achieved it? Again, Zvyagintsev qualified, it was not an actual morgue but another built set. Though he ordinarily tends to shoot multiple takes, the scene of the parents’ melt-down in the morgue was an exception. That scene was shot in one take because the actors would not have been able to endure the scene’s emotional intensity take after take.

Photo courtesy of Sony Classics
Lerman asked if Zvyagintsev could talk about the organizations that help look for missing children? They are an actual search organization, Zvyagintsev responded, that have been operating in Moscow since 2010. He has known of them and their amazing work for seven years and has been working with them in close collaboration. Fortunately, they are not state-run and are staffed completely with volunteers so that the state cannot aim to turn the service into a business. They’re strictly non-profit. Since starting out in Moscow seven years ago, they have now branched off into 25 locations throughout Russia and have been nothing short of amazing because, again, they are staffed by volunteers who invest their own time and money. They do this work for free to help other people in their times of need. If broken down into figures, in 2016 alone out of 6,150 people who had gone missing, they managed to find 89% of them without any help from the state or the police. In the majority of cases where people are declared missing, if the families go to the police nothing is done. 

Lerman then opened it up for questions from the audience and I was quick to seize my opportunity. “Loveless stands alone as a gripping family tragedy,” I ventured, “but I’m intrigued by the comment Peter Debruge made during the foreign language Oscar® panel referencing the film as an allegory. Was this your intention to have this family drama be an allegory for a larger statement about Russia?”

Once my question was translated, Andrey tilted his head and grinned, saying in English, “Maybe…..” Trying to be as sincere and honest as possible, he continued in translation, he tried to reach deep down into the core of human being to reach the essence of being human; an ultimate honesty. Maybe you could extrapolate that to include something larger about humankind, he suggested, and maybe that would be in part the allegory being referenced; but, basing the film on the certain family drama reveals the questions of love and family values, if you will, on a bigger scale or for the whole of mankind. “You could consider that an allegory of sorts,” he offered.

Photo courtesy of Sony Classics.
Zvyagintsev was asked about the scene early in the film where the boy is playing in the woods with the streamer. Was that meant to be a symbol of his happiness and his hopefulness foreshadowing what he would soon witness and experience at home? Interpreting allegories and symbolism is totally up to the audience, Zvyagintsev made clear, and—not to reveal any kind of secrets—initially, the idea was that the little boy is shown playing with the streamer by himself so as to convey the idea of his loneliness and his interaction with nature, only to reveal at the end of the movie some kind of closure through this same exact inanimate element—a weathered streamer stuck in the branches of a tree—after the boy is no longer with us. But, again Zvyagintsev emphasized, it is up to the audience to interpet the symbolism.

[Ed. Note: In one of the film’s alternate theatrical posters the boy is shown in the branches of the tree, substituting for the streamer.]

Zvyagintsev was asked if there was any discussion regarding the potential of alternate endings to the film? “No,” Zvyagintsev responded without hesitation. The ending as filmed was pretty much how he started working with the ending, how he wanted the story to end, because what he wanted to show was that—after a couple of years have passed since the initial events took place and after the disappearance of the boy—everything pretty much remains the same. Without closure of ever finding the boy or his body, there was not enough fuel, so to speak, to help the main characters change. They remain the same. It’s frightening and disheartening to see the father act resentfully towards his new child. But that’s the ending he wanted to work with from the get-go. It’s also a bit of a joke: everybody’s trying to start a new life on Monday but by Thursday they find themselves at the same place they started, whether they were planning a new physical fitness regime or whatever. There is no happy ending. If he had gone the way of a happy ending and shown that the characters had miraculously changed and learned their lesson from this tragedy, that would have defeated the whole purpose and message of the movie about how we basically remain the same despite tragedy. A happy ending was not necessarily an option here.

In one of the film’s final scenes Zhenya is running on a treadmill and wearing an outfit that reads “Russia”. Zvyagintsev was asked if there was a deeper meaning to that? He conceded that, yes, there was a deeper, if allegorical, meaning intended. It bore a certain poetic connotation because it was in reference to the classic Russian author Nikolai Gogol who in his earlier work addressed Russia as a wild horse with the question, “Russia, where are you heading off to?” He showed Zhenya on this treadmill suddenly slowing down and stopping, as if she has lost a sense of where she is running to. This literary reference to Gogol is one that every Russian would know.

[Ed. Note: The specific reference is to Dead Souls written in 1842. Gogol writes: “Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake? The flying road turns into smoke under you, bridges thunder and pass, all fall back and is left behind!... And what does this awesome motion mean? What is the passing strange steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your manes? ...Rus, whither are you speeding to? Answer me. No answer. The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy; the roaring air is torn to pieces and becomes wind; all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give her the right of way.” A troika is a Russian vehicle pulled by a team of three horses abreast.]

At the same time, it’s to be understood that this is the winter following the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and that the particular jogging outfit Zhenya is wearing was very much in fashion. You saw it everywhere; but, only the wealthy could afford it (yet another indication of the character’s social status). That year if you were flying business class, all the fine-looking ladies of the upper echelon were wearing this costume, as if they were on the Olympics team for Russia.

One audience member wanted to know Zvyagintsev’s inspiration for the film and if it was based on any personal experience? Fortunately, Zvyagintsev answered, the experience of escaping or even having a troubled childhood was not personal. He had a happy childhood. Inspiration for the film developed in later years, especially regarding the marital relationship, from observing friends and families he knew. Another source of inspiration were the ideas expressed in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, a film from the ‘70s. For four years straight Zvyagintsev had tried to acquire the rights to create a remake, which he couldn’t. However, upon finding the rescue organization profiled in Loveless, he decided to combine the two elements together. Another excellent quote comes from Leo Tolstoy who once said that—since most novels end up in marriage—it would be great to have one that described what happens afterwards.

Loveless opens in San Francisco on Friday, February 23, at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema.

Monday, February 19, 2018

PSIFF 2018: NOSTALGIA (2018)—Q&A With Mark Pellington and Jon Hamm

Nostalgia (2018), directed and co-written by Mark Pellington (with Alex Ross Perry), and starring Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn, Catherine Keener, Bruce Dern and John Ortiz boasted its world premiere at the 2018 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), accompanied by Pellington and Hamm, who introduced the film to an enthused audience and fielded questions from a sobered one.

As synopsized by PSIFF in their program capsule: “Emotional performances from a stellar cast led by Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn and Catherine Keener come together to stirring effect in co-writer/director Mark Pellington’s bittersweet reflection on the complicated nature of family, loss and the things we leave behind. Intricately structured as a chain of individual narratives linked by characters and themes, Nostalgia’s throughline is a considerate insurance man who patiently witnesses his clients’ stories as he assesses the physical artifacts of their lives. What is the value of a piece of jewelry if it once belonged to Grandma, a baseball if it was signed by one of the greats? How is the value of an object changed by the hands that once held it? Long takes and thoughtful framing highlight the nuanced script, which explores the changing attitudes of generations through both monologue and conversation. Woven throughout is the film’s unifying principle, urging us to live—and love—in the here and now.”

Pellington emphasized that—at a time when making movies is becoming harder and harder, especially meaningful movies—Nostalgia could only have come into being as the labor of love it really truly is. His time on the PSIFF stage seemed intent on acknowledging his collaborators on the film, several in the audience who stood in turns to take their bows. Shot in 18 days for a minimum amount of money (by today’s standards), he believes the film looks like a lot more money was spent on it than their allotted budget, attributable to artistry that comes from the heart, including a dedicated, spiritual and psychological commitment from his ensemble of actors. Pellington also shouted out to Alex Ross Perry who he provided notes, ideas and sketches in hopes that Perry could help him shape them into the script for a film, which Perry accomplished. Pellington has no doubts that it was Perry’s script that drew the attention of such great actors as Jon Hamm who—once he accepted the role—provided key leadership in securing the remaining cast.

Jon Hamm.  Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Media.
Jon Hamm, dressed in a khaki-colored suit, joked that he loves Palm Springs so much that he dressed up as a sand trap. He praised Nostalgia as being an emotional and meaningful story.

After the movie when they returned to the stage, Mark Pellington joked that Jon Hamm got all the laughs in the film. “There were three of them,” Hamm quipped quickly, aiming to lighten the auditorium’s somber air. Undeniably meaningful, Nostalgia was nonetheless a rough and unrelenting film to watch. Whereas most audiences predictably attend films to be taken out of their quotidian reality, Nostalgia can make no claim to do so. Its purpose is oppositional to such distraction, mining a deeper everlasting truth that informs everyday reality. Its belief in cinema is as a mirror to better understand, unflinchingly, the human condition. Pellington was humbled and happy to have shared the world premiere with his PSIFF audience and glad, at the same time, to finally “let go” and let the film be whatever it is going to be. He remained convinced that anyone from 8-80 could find themselves somewhere in the spectrum of the movie; child, parent.

When he approached Alex Ross Perry with instructions to shape meaning from his many ideas concerning loss, grief and memorabilia, hoping the film could explore same, Nostalgia’s form took on a weird momentum. It is not a plot-driven movie. Although it is being billed as a “mosaic”, Pellington more accurately described it as a record album placed on a turntable with one song leading to the next and the next. When you’ve finished listening to the album, you can put it back in its sleeve, or not. Or you take it out again and experience it all over. This musicality, this structure, was confirmed by the abstracted segues between the film’s episodes that sounded like a scratchy record, albeit blurred through half-shut eyes. At first, I wasn’t sure what this was but now understood it as the necessary break, if anticipation, of the next song.

Ellen Burstyn.  Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Media.
Some characters enter the film’s narrative for a short period of time while others—allegiant to the film’s structure as a record album—come into being with songs later on. Certain characters, such as Jon Hamm’s Will, unfold in purpose and meaning. Will is a character who comes in with one function then opens up in many different ways.

As Helen, a widow whose house has burnt down to the ground, Ellen Burstyn delivers simple lines strangled with emotion as she ponders the moment in which we all might conceivably find ourselves: of what to save from a burning building? Given less than a minute before she is forcibly removed from the house by policemen, Helen chooses her husband’s autographed softball, not because it meant anything to her, but because it meant so much to him, and it was the meaning he had ascribed to it that announced itself as the meaning she wanted to preserve, even though afterwards it means little to her. She sells it to Will who trafficks in the marketability of such things. Helen’s story empties into Will’s when she travels to Las Vegas to meet him.

The movie as all about endings and beginnings, Pellington explained. You can’t have a beginning without an end. But this wasn’t something he had to direct his actors to understand. When filming the scene where Ellen and Jon’s characters meet for the first time, his job was to step back and just let great artists do their thing.

Due to budgetary and time restraints, Hamm added, there wasn’t much time for he and Burstyn, or any of the actors for that matter, to workshop and rehearse. When he and Pellington first shared a restaurant booth in L.A. to discuss the possibility of making the movie, they just rambled about memory, loss, grief, things they had already experienced in their relatively young lives. There was a working script that Pellington hadn’t yet run by Perry that expressed a progression of ideas about grief, about how people process grief, and how it’s different to lose a house than it is to lose a parent or a child, to lose a spouse against losing a physical thing that may have had emotional resonance for a spouse.

As Donna, Catherine Keener’s scenes towards the end of the film compound the difficulty she is having getting rid of her parents’ things with intensified loss. To film all of that in one day was hard and, for Hamm, complicated because Keener looked exactly like his half-sister. As actors, it was a trying sequence of events to get through, all the more for having already touched their lives and, eventually, being something each of us has to deal with.

Asked if making a movie like Nostalgia changed his life and if he now finds more meaning in objects than before, Hamm paused momentarily and then smiled, “No. The importance of objects is lost on me. What this film actually does to me as a person rather than as an actor playing a role is that it gives me so much more perspective on other people’s pain. The ability to look at someone and not just judge them for whatever they might be going through that moment or that day and understand that there’s a root cause for a lot of the trouble we find ourselves in is, I think, an important part of being a highly functional human being. A lot of time it’s easy to dismiss people who are going through stuff without really taking a minute and understanding that that’s coming from something. To reach out and connect on a human level and try to appreciate at least—you might not be able to help in the moment—but, just the act of connecting with another person and basically saying, ‘I understand’ is incredibly therapeutic.”

Though he and his half-sister have both lost each of their parents, Hamm detailed, life goes on. “When something tragic happens to someone you care about,” he added, “all you can do is say, ‘I’m here. Take my hand, if you want. Don’t, if you don’t. But I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.’ That’s what families do. That’s what friends do. It’s certainly what parents do. That’s a major theme of this film.”

Distributed by Bleeker Street Media, Nostalgia opens in select theaters in San Francisco on Friday, February 23.


Sunday, February 18, 2018


Don't you know that I can tell 
Whenever I look at you 
That you think that I'm untrue 
'Cause I say that I love two? 
But I really really do 
'Cause you're a split personality (personality) 
And in reality (reality) 
Both of them are you baby (they both are you) 
Well, I've got two lovers and I ain't ashamed 
Two lovers, and I love them both the same.—Mary Wells, “Two Lovers”

In a perverse stroke of humor, François Ozon’s Double Lover (L'amant double, 2017) opened theatrically on Valentines Day and—not having read any reviews—I presumed it was going to be a frothy if sexy French love story. Little did I know it would be a French extremist psychosexual thriller comparable to the horror flicks with which I frequently frighten myself. But as psychosexual thrillers go, Ozon’s Double Lover makes 40 Shades of Grey look like white-on-white mother’s milk. And with an increasingly provocative “me too” climate of recriminatory perspectives, Double Lover seems even more subversive and transgressive than it admittedly already is.

From the onset the viewer is incriminated—seduced?—by Chloé’s (Marine Vacth’s) direct address while she is having her long tresses mercilessly shortened. Instantly, we know she is in a state of transformation and we are to bear witness. Her “cat ate the canary” half-smile seems to ask, “Don’t you want to bear witness? Aren’t you curious to know how I’m going to change?” Is she, for starters, a young woman fashioning herself into a young man? Arguably, the film insists on being mesmeric, manipulating the viewer through the self-hypnosis of expectation.

Chloé suffers from a continuous and mysterious stomach ailment and sets an appointment to visit analyst Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renier) who might “cure” her, succumbing to the feigned conceit that the understandings lured from psychoanalysis might constitute a cure. Philippe Rombi’s score—evoking Bernard Herrmann’s obsessive leitmotifs for Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Marnie—accompany Chloé’s ascent up a spiraling staircase that feels, at the same time, as if we are whorling into her psyche. Within her first analytic session, Chloé aligns the ache in her stomach with the feeling she gets when judged by her mother. Marnie, especially, lends precedent as it’s not long before analyst and analysand fall in love and into bed, psychoanalysis melding with the “applied techniques” of sex therapy to melt the frigidity of our pretty doe-eyed Chloé who, true to common practice, lies to seduce. Chloé’s frigidity surfaces as her main symptom and points to deeper, repressed motivations, enough so to quote William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.”

Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse has a field day texturing the film’s mise en scène with doublings, twinnings, mirrorings, replications, reflections, inversions, refractions; the deflections of shiny surfaces that steer the film’s tense narrative traction and fuel spectatorial voyeurism. Often the camera captures bodies in action duplicated in mirrors and—as much as this reveals by way of angles of intention—it likewise tantalizes for not revealing enough; for supplying a surfeit of visual surface that, though ample and naked, remains impenetrable and inscrutable.

To further this barrage of doubled images, Ozon peppers the plot of his twisted case study with two cats—in some circles, a psychological shorthand for split personalities—and introduces Danton, a tortoiseshell cat who is a rarity for being male. We learn that most tortoiseshells are female with two colors, but 1% are male with three colors (Danton=Three Muskateers?). Male tortoiseshell cats are a “genetic eccentricity” that start out as twins in utero but end up as one when the dominant twin “absorbs” the weaker. This “trisomy of the chromosome” is interpreted as parasitic or cannibalistic, and might be extended to the premise of what happens to a perception of reality when it encounters a more dominant fantasy of reality?

Of course, Ozon is not content to leave scientific fact alone. He introduces a gift in a jewel box that is, at first, a brooch in the shape of a cat, then later the pumping heart of a cat. On whose lapel this jeweled brooch ends up reveals all!

One never quite knows if the fantasies projected on the screen are indicative of Chloe’s psyche—fractured fantasies in service to her characterization—or more decidely auteurial, characterizing the filmmaker’s narrative intent. One thing is for sure: there’s never a dull moment as Ozon startles the viewer again and again—right to the final image—inducing significant, if sensorial, headscratching.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

DIVERGE (2016)

Following a year long festival tour including awards at Lund International, Julien Dubuque International, Tallgrass, and the Barbados Independent Film Festivals, Gravitas Ventures has acquired worldwide rights to James Morrison's feature directorial debut, the independent science fiction thriller Diverge, now available on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.

As synopsized by Gravitas Ventures: “In the aftermath of a mysterious pandemic that’s turned cities into wastelands, a man desperately searches for a way to cure his ailing wife as she battles a deadly virus. When he is captured by a cryptic stranger, he is offered the chance to save not only his wife but the world. Equal parts science fiction and morality tale, Diverge tells the story of how the choices of one can have dire consequences for all.”

If chance is our fate, then the choices we make determine our destiny. This all-too-human scenario has concerned such noted poets as Robert Frost with his choice in the “yellow wood” where “two roads diverged”, no less than it has been a prime narrative device for time travel scenarios, which Diverge deftly employs. As if to honor Frost, the typography of the capital “V” in the film’s opening titles signifies the divergent path of two directions posed to the film’s protagonist, Chris Towne (Ivan Sandimore).

Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
In its wordless introductory sequence that sets the scene, Chris discovers dead animals and people while scouting the desolate salt flats outside the quarantined zones of a dystopian near-future. Impressive horizontal compositional cinematography by Darin Quan captures the bleak terrains of a dessicated world. His ailing wife Anna (Erin Cunningham) is suffering from a viral disease, detectable by a rash along her neck, that was first observed in livestock, and then spread to humankind, causing a devastating decimation.

A stranger, cryptically named “Leader” (Jamie Jackson), appears in the middle of the night with proffered supplies as barter for the warmth of a fire and human company, plus a mysterious offer, which at first Chris soundly opposes; but, which later—persuaded by grief once Anna dies—motivates him to become a reluctant accomplice assigned to return to the past to stop the virus that “was never meant to happen.”

With a well-publicized flu outbreak this year resistant to this year’s flu shot, it is becoming more and more tenable that our own human bodies and their susceptibility to viral and bacterial agents will most likely be our undoing. This is a body horror not as amplified as in the imagined fictions of David Cronenberg, but rendered poetic and thoughtfully restrained in Morrison’s vision of an imminent, if horrific, biological disaster. 

Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
A well-mounted sci-fi thriller of prescient perplexity—nodding to the plight of the homeless as a poignantly placed sociopolitical reminder that Death honors no class—Diverge is a doppelganger doublefuck and a cautionary near-future tale in a suspenseful race against split time and the split agendas of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, the Tyrell Corporation. It’s difficult not to infer a citation to Blade Runner, not only in the corporate name but in the frequent appearance of an origami crane, representing in Diverge—as in Blade Runner—the future’s uncertainty, particularly when the past intervenes.

In its encounters with the past, each time-travel narrative lays out its own rules and internal logic. In Diverge, contact with the past creates an alternate history; i.e., an alternate outcome, which complicates the capacity for choice.

This reviewer was particularly impressed with Morrison’s apt usage of mementos as the emotional markers of time. A music box plays the “Blue Danube” theme to put a child to sleep and, likewise, puts a mother to sleep when she has lost her child. A hand-hewn doll in a lifeless hand recalls the life that hand once held, and a conch shell—itself the ocean’s concretization of the whorl of time—holds the sound and memory of the ocean on the cracked silt-bed of salt flats.

Gravitas Ventures, a Red Arrow Entertainment Group company, is a leading all rights distributor of independent feature films and documentaries. Founded in 2006, Gravitas connects independent filmmakers and producers with distribution opportunities across the globe. Working with talented directors and producers, Gravitas Ventures has distributed thousands of films into over a hundred million homes in North America and over one billion homes worldwide. Recent releases include some of my favorites: Score: A Film Music Documentary, California Typewriter, and For The Love of Spock.