Wednesday, May 31, 2006

2006 FRAMELINE XXX—Persistent Vision Conference

The Persistent Vision film conference, presented by Frameline.

Every five years on the anniversary of their film festival Frameline presents Persistent Vision, an international conference that brings together leaders in the field of queer cinema to look at the past, present and future of LGBT media. Michael Lumpkin introduced the "two outstanding talents"—Meg Daly and Matt Florence—who have led and organized the 2006 Persistent Vision Conference.

Matt Florence began the commentary by stating that Frameline is very pleased to present Persistent Vision: Envisioning the future of queer media arts. "The first Persistent Vision was presented back in 2001 at the 25th anniversary of Frameline," he recalled. At that conference the organizers promised to return in five years to let the LGBT community know "where we are" and to chart queer cinema's future. "This year we are celebrating so much that has happened over the last five years including of course—as Michael talked about—Transamerica and Brokeback Mountain. We'll be highlighting three different questions: where are we in terms of queer media arts? Whose images and voices are missing from our representations? And where are we going?"

Addressing these questions will be three wonderful speakers: B. Ruby Rich, the cultural and film critic who addressed Frameline's last conference and who coined the term "new queer cinema"; Keith Boykin, the cultural critic, author, former Clinton official, and now currently BET host; and John Cameron Mitchell, the filmmaker who did Hedvig and the Angry Inch as well as the current controversial, Cannes-premiered Shortbus.

The conference will have 18 panels and workshops spread out over three days, spanning topics of distribution, exhibition, and filmmaker support, in line with Frameline's mission. A few examples of those panels include "Queer Channel Explosion", a panel that will look at the cultural impact of LGBT media arts specific channels. Do these channels help connect people to a larger queer community? Did they help create that community or simply reflect what's already there? And how are consumers engaging with these channels?

There will also be a panel—"Rebels With A Cause"—focusing on niche festivals. Niche festivals representing specific parts of the queer community are popping up all over. Directors from several alternative or niche LGBT film festivals will discuss why they do what they do and why a diversity of festivals is good for queer cinema.

Yet one more panel will be called "We Want Our Dykeback Mountain." Addressing the fact that not many dyke features are being made but that they are also being made with far less money than gay male features. "Nobody wins in this current scenario," Meg Daly cautioned, "audiences, programmers, and filmmakers themselves all want more and better lesbian films. What will it take to make that desire a reality?"

The conference boasts over 60 panelists, including director Angela Robinson, director Cheryl Dunye, actor/writer Guinivere Turner, producer Stephen Israel, director Rodney Evans, director Jamie Babbit, Marcus Hu—founder of Strand Releasing—and director/producer Susan Stryker who just won the Northern California Emmy for Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria, just to mention a few.

Specific details of the remaining conference panels and their topics can be found at the Persistent Visions website which also hosts an ongoing blog site administered by Daly and Florence.

2006 FRAMELINE XXX—Press Conference Announcements


Last week on Tuesday, May 23, Michael Lumpkin, Executive Director of Frameline, and Jennifer Morris, Director of Programming, announced this year's Frameline XXX festival line-up at a press conference held at the Castro Theatre. Meg Daly and Matt Florence were also on hand to profile the Persistent Vision Conference and, after all that was said and done, François Ozon's feature Time To Leave and Freida Lee Mock's documentary on playwright Tony Kushner, Wrestling With Angels, were screened for the press.

Having moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1975, the growth of the Frameline Film Festival has paralleled my own growth in San Francisco. As Frameline celebrates its 30th year, I am effortlessly pulled in to remembrances of festivals past hinged to individual events in my own life. It's amazing to consider how much a part I have been of all this history just by the sheer fact of being in the right place during the right decades.

Michael Lumpkin launched the session by noting that the evolution of queer cinema for the last 30 years has been truly remarkable. "In fact," he stated enthusiastically, "we think it's been revolutionary." Gay men living in the U.S. in 1976 were represented by only a handful of films—Carwash, Next Stop Greenwich Village, Norman Is That You?, The Ritz and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For lesbians there was one lone television production broadcast on PBS. "Not that these all were not good and entertaining films in their own right," Lumpkin qualified, "but that was basically it."

"Luckily for us," he continued, "gay filmmakers in San Francisco were shooting a variety of somewhat crude yet very gay Super8 films" which they brought together in a public screening on February, 1977. That screening would become the world's first gay film festival. "And now 30 years later, and having witnessed a remarkable year of queer cinema with Brokeback Mountain and Transamerica vying for Oscar, this year's San Francisco International LGBT film festival received over 500 entries of new queer films from around the world."

The festival is organized by Frameline and Frameline's mission for the past three decades has been to strengthen the diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and further its visibility by supporting and promoting a broad array of cultural representation and artistic expression in film, video and other media arts. Frameline accomplishes this mission in three program areas: exhibition, distribution and filmmaker support.

Exhibition includes not only their annual film festival but also their monthly free screenings—Frameline at the Center—which takes place at San Francisco's LGBT community center and special screenings throughout the year like last November's premiere of Brokeback Mountain which included an on-stage discussion with the film's director, Ang Lee.

Frameline distribution has had "a banner year", acquiring more films than ever before with queer representation showing on Logo, Sundance Channel and Queer TV. Frameline has expanded its range in the educational market and will soon begin providing queer content for Internet delivery and delivery on mobile devices in Asia and Australia. This summer they are launching a new dvd line in partnership with Strand Releasing. Next month they'll be releasing Is It Really So Strange?, William E. Jones' documentary about Morrissey fans, followed in July by Jenni Olsen's Joy of Life and then Milford Thomas' silent film Claire.

"Filmmaker support is not only about giving much-needed cash directly to filmmakers," Lumpkin explained, "but also providing training to LGBT youth through the Wells Fargo and Frameline Youth Filmmaker Workshop, now in its second year. Direct cash support to filmmakers is provided by the Frameline Completion Fund and this December will be awarding $40,000 directly to queer filmmakers. Filmmakers also receive direct cash support from awards given at the festival each year. In addition to the $10,000 Dockers First Feature award and the $10,000 Michael J. Berg Documentary Award, each of this year's audience awards will be accompanied by a $25,000 cash award."

Recognizing his significant contributions to LGBT cinema, the 2006 Frameline award will be presented to French director François Ozon "whose cinematic trajectory marks him as a major talent on the international scene." Ozon will be presented with the Frameline Award at the Centerpiece screening of his new film Time To Leave on June 20th, at the Castro Theatre.

Jennifer Morris detailed the many films scheduled at the festival, all of which can be explored on the festival's website.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

2006 SF HOLEHEAD—The Evening Class Interview With The Butcher Brothers

butcher brothers_twitch.jpg

Recently I met with Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores, aka The Butcher Brothers, at what I felt was an appropriate venue—Martha Brothers—to savor a double cappuccino and talk about their current feature, The Hamiltons, scheduled to screen at this year's Holehead on Monday, June 12, 7:00 pm, and Thursday, June 15, 2:30 pm at the Roxie Film Center. The Hamiltons was previously previewed both here on The Evening Class and on Twitch.

Today also marks the dvd release of their previous feature, Lurking In Suburbia, available on Amazon, and I hope to have a review of that up soon as well. But for now, the interview.

* * *

The Evening Class: Yesterday I was at an advance screening of X-Men III at the Metreon and there were four kids next to me in line who I ended up talking to because it was almost a three-hour wait to see the movie. They were talking about how they wanted to make films. This made me think about you two. You guys started out as high school friends in South San Francisco, did you always know that you wanted to make movies? My understanding is that you found a camera at a car accident site and shamelessly took it, but, was that the first time you started thinking about making movies, or had you already been writing together?

Phil: We were both writers in high school and happened to meet each other and realized we both really loved storytelling. We connected over that more than anything else. There was no one else in high school like that [who] were avid, passionate storytellers so Mitch and I worked off each other and started to create stories off each other. Of course, working within our own realms but making these stories together. We continued writing since then. We write independently but we write together a lot too.

EC: Because that's what I first noticed—I'm a writer too, right?—and it's the writing that first struck me in The Hamiltons and that was what made me think that it was through writing that you guys got started.

Mitch: We feel that one of our strong points is the writing because number one, as Phil said, we both are into different things but, since we grew up together, we pull off the same experiences, same kind of neighborhoods, growing up in South City, very blue collar style neighborhood. The things that influence us and the things that we like, the things that made us grow creatively as writers are the same things even though we have different approaches. When you put it together it's not like we need to sit there and argue over things. We have a very nice balance. The writing really works when we write together.

EC: So you had been collaborating on writing even before you picked up that camera?

Phil: It all happened around the same time, to tell you the truth. To answer your question, yeah, I think we both wanted to be filmmakers. It's a little different now than it was when we were growing up in high school. It's not too different, but…. Now, everything's so accessible. Video cameras, editing, it all can be done on the computer, so that when a 12 or 13-year-old kid says he wants to make films, it can actually happen. He can make a great film. But at our age we had crappy VHS/Beta stuff—I don't want to date ourselves—but, for us, to put a film together was a big deal. We ended up making something that got some notoriety, the first stuff that we did won a local Bay Area award.

EC: Which film was that?

Mitch: King's River.

EC: Because I know that you, Phil, had done one called The Little Thing?

Phil: Yeah, just a couple of shorts.

EC: And White Trash also?

Phil: Mitch and I both did White Trash.

EC: The guy down in Montecito that interviewed you two for their local newspaper was saying that "The Butcher Brothers"—the aegis of "The Butcher Brothers"—is to represent your darker side. Because actually, The Hamiltons isn't your first feature together. You've done other features using your individual names.

Mitch: Exactly.

EC: So what is the concept behind The Butcher Brothers? What are you going to be doing with The Butcher Brothers?

Mitch: It was stuff for our darker side. We want to create something where we go to this place where we can become very different writers. Where Lurking in Suburbia is a very fun, wild film—even though it's very deep; the things they say about Lurking is that it's a wild party movie but with a lot of heart—it's not like Animal House where the climax of the film is this wild thing where they have to take out a parade, or something that's so outrageous. Lurking in Suburbia pulls into the heart and reflects the human side of things. I think we've always had that. I think when we created The Butcher Brothers we wanted to bring that same thing but into a very dark side. It's like the idea of when you go out wearing a mask you feel like a whole different person or if you wear a different outfit you feel you can really hide. I think that's what The Butcher Brothers made for us.

EC: Masks hide and conceal, but they also reveal, and what they reveal is often fascinating. Are you guys going to get schizy now though? You're still going to be doing other projects, right?

Phil: You never know! We have offshoots of The Butcher Brothers too, it depends on the content I think, y'know? The Butcher Brothers is meant to create dark content and to allow us to channel some of the stuff that we didn't want necessarily to put into the other films. It's not that we're not willing to but it's more like we can really go to that dark place.

EC: So you're experimenting a little bit? You're testing the waters so that, if this doesn't work, you don't ruin your names?

Phil: Yes. Exactly. That's kind of the genesis where The Butcher Brothers came from a little bit. We want to do horror but we thought we could use an alter ego so that way we have separation of our different types of [work].

EC: I understand because I do that kind of persona shifting stuff myself. I think a lot of people do.

Phil: Cool.

Mitch: A lot of writers do.

EC: Yeah. The good news being that the experiment appears to have worked! The Hamiltons is a successful fun movie. I wanted to talk a little bit about how you define it. When I was talking to you, Mitch, on the phone, I mentioned to you that for me it kind of came off as a black comedy, that it was funny.

Mitch: A lot of people say that.

EC: It didn't seem like that was what you intended it to be.

Phil: I think it's inherent in our writing. Going back to Lurking, it's a complete comedy so I think we automatically have that in us and we're also dramatic writers as well. I think that—probably not knowing it—we brought that into the story. We wanted to write something that was unique. We didn't want to make a cookie cutter film. There's no reason for us to go into that genre at all. When the idea of The Hamiltons came up, we decided that if we were going to do a horror film, we have to do something completely different, something that we can say, "Look, we like this. You can't compare it to anything else." And I think we've succeeded in doing so.

EC: Unfortunately, no matter what, you're going to be compared to other people. Some of those comparisons include David Lynch and David Cronenberg, which in your instance, I can understand. With Lynch, what I always remember about Blue Velvet is that white picket fence through which you enter the movie and then the camera pans down into the grass to expose the bugs. That was an effective understanding of a darkness that's underlying the veneer of suburbia. Which appears to be something you guys are interested in, if not the darkness, then the depth of appearances.

Phil: [Which is] one of the themes that we work with, not just as The Butcher Brothers but in all of the other stories too. We grew up in South City, which I would say is the New Jersey of the Bay Area, it's real blue collar, real suburban, and growing up in that kind of atmosphere you get this skewed vision of it. I think we brought a little bit of that suburbia to The Hamiltons and wanted to create that American façade. One of the characters tries to make everything normal but everything is not normal. The deeper you go the darker the secrets get.

EC: The truth is suburbia is terrifying! I come from the country and made the transition directly from the country to the city and all the middle region—suburbia—terrifies me. I remember recently being in Mill Valley and sensing violence everywhere. What you're tapping into is a very intriguing reality. Cronenberg, on the other hand, is also dealing with appearances but is using the body as the liminal space so that the horror is within. Are you also playing with that?

Phil: Yeah. You kind of summed it up right there.

EC: Just testing my own instincts. Returning to the Brothers concept of you guys working together, you cast yourself as the McQuade Brothers in Long Cut, one of your earlier pieces.

Phil: Where'd you find that out?

EC: I try to do my research.

Phil: No kidding. That's funny. Yeah. It comes from the high school drama background. That's where Mitch and I met, was in drama actually. It's like any kid emulating the big screen. You want to be that. Sometimes acting is your first desire and then from there you realize acting might not be your niche but storytelling might be, directing might be, and we kind of evolved from that point. So in our first film we had a couple of characters who we loved a lot, these two Latinos, but they're white Latinos, y'know? Guys who grew up in Latino culture and adopted the Latino culture and they were the McQuade Brothers.

EC: Asimilados I call them.

Phil: Okay, asimilados. That's who the McQuade Brothers were. And after we did that, our first experience of acting, we're like, "That's enough! That's enough casting of ourselves." Although we did make a cameo in Lurking.

EC: Why I bring it up is because, again, I'm thinking of these kids I met in line yesterday. Obviously, your friendship has helped you further your individual goals. Is there any advice you would give to young kids like that? You mentioned already that the tools are more accessible but I feel you also represent an inspiring collaborative work ethic.

Mitch: Oh yeah, it helps. It definitely keeps you on your toes. Especially working outside of Los Angeles, which is a lot harder, you enter your own little vacuum where you're going, "Okay, I think this is great" but who knows how it's going to relate to the real world? When you're collaborating, it's easier because you're bouncing ideas off and you're getting more things coming into it and it really helps. You see them a lot more now. There's a lot more teams of filmmakers. It's definitely a hard thing to do because obviously directing a film, making a film, is definitely a vision. But if you get good enough people who can see that vision at once, it really helps, because—as we all know—making an independent film is probably one of the hardest things to do on the face of the planet. So teams are good as long as you're not resisting. I read up on so many teams and people working together now. You even can see the bigger directors and people that have been in the system for a long time are joining forces, like Clooney and Soderbergh. All of a sudden they're always collaborating on stuff. You start pulling your team together.

Phil: Like Rodriguez and Frank Miller.

Mitch: And Rodriguez and Tarantino. How many things have they done?

EC: And Rodriguez's loyalty to Miller, to actually drop out of the Directors Guild in protest on Miller's behalf, which I found impressive.

Phil: It worked to his benefit.

EC: Long Cut. This early short feature looked interesting. Is it available? These earlier pieces, are they available?

Mitch: They're locked away. We really consider Lurking our first piece. Long Cut, maybe in time perhaps we can do something with it. We consider it more of a thesis film. It really helped us get to where we're at now. I love the film itself.

EC: It looks beautiful.

Mitch: It's beautifully shot and it's very well done and things like that. But it's one of those films where it's our out-of-college film, it's very artistic, and we're really going for just what we wanted, and then you slowly start to realize that, no, there's a whole business and a whole audience that you need to ….

EC: Damn!

Mitch: Yeah! But it's a beautiful film.

EC: So I don't get to see the McQuade Brothers?

Mitch: In time.

Phil: Maybe for a 20-year retrospective, it might be good.

Mitch: In time.

EC: Okay, okay, then I'll leave you alone about that one. Do you consider The Hamiltons to be a genre mash-up?

Phil: Yeah, a lot of times it's pitched as a coming-of-age horror film, or horror with a heart. There aren't many films like that. Even though you say it's a black comedy, I think it's definitely subjective. We didn't necessarily realize that even as we were writing it because, like I said, we have a dramatic and comedic background so this is our version of a horror film, but we knew we wanted to make a good horror film, something that we would actually like to watch. So it came out to this mash-up, using our backgrounds. We love coming-of-age stories, we love family dramas. But we also love exploitive films too. We kind of put it together. That's kind of what happened I think.

EC: Because some of the criticism I've read is that it isn't enough horror.

Phil: Right, sure. It's not.

EC: But like you, that's what I liked. It wasn't that I necessarily wanted to watch a lot of gore. You handled the gore quickly. Your editing was swiftly paced when it came to the gore.

Mitch: It's funny because some people say that but other people go, "This film really freaked me out. I've been thinking about it for days and days." It sticks in your head. It's not buckets of blood and machetes slashing everybody. The good side of The Hamiltons is that it will get you four days later. It sticks within your head. You get things and symbols that we've put in there that you think, "Oh! I get it now!" and things like that. We're slow—like Novocane—slow but it will get to you in the end.

EC: I'm looking forward to seeing the film again because I think what you're saying is accurate. One of the things that bothered me about The Hamiltons was David cooking for the family. It really bothered me when I thought about it afterwards. And how nobody really seemed to like the food.

Mitch: Right. The first time we ever showed it in Santa Barbara, we won the Gold Vision award….

EC: Congratulations!

Mitch: Thank you.

EC: Thirty grand.

Mitch: Thirty grand, you can't go wrong with that. It was for the most unique, groundbreaking vision, things like that.

Phil: Innovative.

Mitch: Innovative. A lot of people were stunned because—if it's not a genre festival, if it's a straight out festival, we were competing against some politically-charged films, some big films, and for us to walk away with an award as a horror film, said a lot to us. Our first comparison, the first write-up that we got in the Santa Barbara News Press, they automatically compared us to Scream. The first thing they did was they compared us to Kevin Williamson about redefining the genre, about bringing something new to it and that was what was really exciting. Then we turned around and we won in Malibu as well. One of the things that's really fun about making The Hamiltons is that you're seeing something new. It's a horror film that's out there winning awards at festivals that is competing with straight-out Indie dramas, with a lot of fire behind it. And then they start comparing it to Tobe Hooper and things like that. That was really great. And to be compared to Scream, people are saying we're redefining the genres, very very good, and a lot of horror fans have come up to us and said, "It's so nice to see a fresh view on the genre." Because you get a lot of people who are hardcore horror fans and horror fan directors they love to stick to their thing, but we've seen that a lot. With Phil and I coming in as The Butcher Brothers and making a fresh take, not being horror guys, bringing that in, that's very gratifying.

EC: With the success of it then, I read this rumor that there possibly might be a follow-up, The Thompsons?

Mitch: Well, if there is a follow-up, it would be The Thompsons.

EC: But that's not definite?

Mitch: It all depends.

Phil: No comment. Can't talk about it.

Mitch: It would be fun to work on. We could definitely see a franchise bursting out from the story because there's a lot of more room to grow. A little secret—it's definitely in the back of our minds, it's poking out—I'll say that.

EC: It would be great to see a follow-up.

Phil: Yeah, it'd be a lot of fun.

Mitch: A lot of people want to see it so that's really great.

EC: I want to be in it! [Laughter.] Anyways, comparison-wise, you've also been compared—along with Kevin Williamson and Tobe Hooper—to the Coen Brothers. Do you find that comparison apt? Or relevant? Or do you care?

Mitch: I think they're incredible. For me, being compared to them, is incredible. We grew up loving their work and their stuff is just incredible and so being comedic and dramatic writers too—that's a really big thing for us. And trying to bring their flavor into what we do as well. To me it's an honor being compared to them.

EC: I think that's what satisfies people too, don't you? It's not that we just want to go see a comedy. It's not that we just want to see something serious. It's really the blend that approximates life as we know it?

Phil: Yeah, I think that's the model we use for all our stories. Talking about mash-ups, it's a popular word right now, but, I think film is a mash-up. It combines just those aspects, and the Coen Brothers actually do a good job of that too. Even though they're labeled comedy, some of their stuff is the most serious content you've ever seen.

EC: Very dark, yeah.

Phil: So, yeah, I think we're in the same category. I hope so at least.

EC: Speaking of influences, we've talked about Lynch and Cronenberg who I think are obvious for The Hamiltons, but Truffaut?

Phil: We just threw that in for the coming-of-age films. Though I love Truffaut.

EC: I love Truffaut too.

Mitch: I'm a big Lynch fan; I love Lynch. Phil is a big Lynch fan. To look at him I think he's one of the greatest American directors ever.

Phil: Plus he still tackles—you talk about that grey area between the city and country, suburbia—Lynch always tackles suburbia in his own aspect as well. I think that's a theme you'll keep seeing from The Butcher Brothers.

EC: Because suburbia really is America.

Phil: And it's frightening!

EC: Lynch has a searing edge; it's like he brands your psyche with images.

Phil: More than anyone else can, I agree, definitely. You see things that you don't want to happen.

EC: On your website you offer two visual novels—Mexican Porn and Angel. Is that something you're going to further?

Mitch: Yeah, definitely! We work with a great photographer out of San Francisco, his name is Michael Jang. His stuff's in SFMoma in the permanent collection. He's been around for a great while in San Francisco. Through the years we've collaborated with him, doing a lot of photography work and writing, Phil and I both write for it. Unfortunately, film making just takes up so much of your time. [The visual novels are] like side pockets that we have, we have a bunch of stuff going on constantly, but once a film is greenlit, two years of your life, bye-bye, gone. We rarely get time to even socialize.

EC: Well, what was refreshing about the visual novels was, again, their collaborative spirit.

Phil: It might just be our generation, all us latchkey kids. Mitch and I are only children too. In an odd way it's like ironic I guess two only children come together and work together harmoniously. I think, like you said, there's a lot of brother teams, a lot of people are collaborating because we kind of grew up by ourselves and we want more, we want to reach out. You start to see that materialize.

EC: Speaking of reaching out, who are you imagining as your audience?

Phil: That's interesting, man. I don't know necessarily but I guess, imagining, the people who are going to like The Hamiltons would be an artistic crowd, a little bit of an indie crowd.

Mitch: The horror crowd.

Phil: But at the same time, you get that and then you get these people who want to see a good movie but they want to see something besides someone dying of cancer, something horrible that's really going to bring them down, they want some entertainment too. I think we bring that crowd in but also the horror crowd. We have 16-year-old kids and 80-year-old women coming to our screenings and saying they love it.

EC: The Hamiltons has been picked up by Lions Gate?

Mitch: Yeah.

EC: Do we know when it's going to be distributed?

Phil: No, no.

Mitch: We're still in negotiations with everything but we're wrapping things up.

EC: As a self-identified gay male I was naturally intrigued by the character of David Hamilton. He struck me as a Clark Kent type with the slicked-back hair and the buttoned-up collar and the almost desperate attempt to be normative, hiding a big secret. It was an intriguing underlayer to then have his evil twin siblings telling him, "You're not that. You're not that no matter how much you pretend you're that." You incorporated several diverse minority representations, people on the fringe. I think that's what's going to be one of the appeals of The Hamiltons. It's going to talk to a lot of people who are marginalized one way or the other.

Phil: Right. I think we're character-heavy. That's one of our strengths. That's what we love about storytelling, are the characters. When you watch our films you'll see that's what stands out the most. Concerning David, I think, since growing up in the Bay Area, a gay person is probably an archetype of the palette that you work with. It's almost indigenous to the work that you do. There's a character in Lurking who's gay too. It's not that all of our films have to have a gay person in them but it's part of our make-up of archetypes.

Mitch: Just growing up in the Bay Area, we're a little bit more familiar with it as well.

EC: Well, it's appreciated.

Mitch: It's our ode to the Bay Area as well. Phil and I are not gay but just growing up here, for us, it's San Francisco, it's the Bay Area, this is like our ode. The other thing with David's character I would say that—I wonder how to say this without giving away the story or anything ….

EC: Be careful!

Mitch: It's also like, as you said, when the twins are saying, "Look, this is what you are." Him just trying to be normal. It's like saying, "Be who you are." There's a duality to it. So with Francis, and David, those characters, really had to face things other than just the horror aspects of it, but also just in general life.

Phil: I think that's kind of the whole thing about our story, the horror is not the thing that they do, the horror is the family, the dysfunction.

EC: And also the layerings. Because some people have double shadows. David's is unique. The others' are unique. They each have their own personal shadow on top of this family shadow. Within the genre of horror, another place where I thought you were skillful, is that David's particular horror is never seen, it's only heard, which just makes the imagination go all over the place. We'll just leave that there. But I just want to say that if you do film The Thompsons and you need a gay victim, I'm happy to be killed off in the first two minutes! [Laughter.]

Phil: We've got plans for David.

EC: Samuel Child, who played David Hamilton, you've worked with him before?

Mitch: He's one of the leads in Lurking In Suburbia as well.

EC: I'm really looking forward to seeing Lurking In Suburbia.

Mitch: Tuesday, May 30, it's coming out on dvd, and you get to see Samuel Child play a completely different character. He plays like a stockbroker wild guy who's gone through two divorces and just wants to have a great time. In Lurking In Suburbia he's happy to be who he is. He says, "I don't want to grow up. I just want to be who I am." I can't say enough about him. You're going to see him. He's on his way. He's done so many independent films. He's well-know in the independent film world. Film Threat has already quoted him as one of the hot up-and-comers. He's just a joy to work with.

EC: Your actors, you started pulling them from people you knew in the Bay Area?

Phil: We ran the regular routes. We have good stories behind all of them really. We became close to a few of the actors in Lurking and we brought them over, crossed over into The Hamiltons, and they knew people who knew people and it became a family of actors and then we talked to a few of them, didn't even audition a few of them because we knew they'd be good for the part.

Mitch: Like Mackenzie Firgens, she's a big Bay Area celebrity.

EC: The goth girl….

Mitch: Yeah, the goth girl! She got her start in Groove, which was a big Bay Area film.

EC: And she was in Rent too.

Mitch: Yeah, she was in Rent too. With her, we knew we wanted to work with her and, again, going back to our Bay Area ties just felt great. A lot of the actors did come up from L.A. but we really liked the idea that she was here, that she was a celebrity here. We also have Brittany Daniel in the film too who's been in Joe Dirt, That 70's Show and Dawson's Creek.

EC: Going back to appearances and playing with appearances, the movie looks good partly because everyone looks good in this movie. You have lovely young actresses and handsome young actors and, when I was looking at the trailer for Lurking, it seems to be the same there. Are you conscious of the goodlooking part of this?

Phil: That's kind of strange. It's not like we can necessarily answer the question by saying we just hire models. I think we want characters who reflect the characters we see in our heads. Obviously it helps the film. But it's not like we're necessarily going after actors who are just goodlooking….

EC: Then I have a chance!! [Laughter.]

Phil: It's characters who are real. Actually, it seems like a lot of the time we go for people who are—usually it's never based on looks, it's based on talent.

Mitch: Very much, yes. Talent always comes first.

Phil: Yeah, and then the looks are important but it's more about the film characters in your head.

Mitch: And also getting the three brothers to look alike, that was a big thing. A lot of that, we had restrictions on that as well. We had to make sure that they looked like brothers. And I think the other thing is that their being a goodlooking family made it even a little bit more scary. It's not only Joseph McKelheer, who was just incredible in the film. Some of our female audiences will come up and say, "Oh my god, he's so scary, but I'd still hang out with him." I think you wrote something about that.

EC: I've been there, done that!! [Laughter.] One thing I like to enquire when film makers are relatively new to the festival circuit is what their experience of the circuit has been. You're wrapping it up for The Hamiltons here in San Francisco at Hole in the Head….

Mitch: Yeah, back home.

Phil: Nice.

EC: How has this festival run been?

Phil: It's been great! It's everything you could want really. I think it's a pleasure to travel with your film and introduce it to new audiences. What's great about The Hamiltons—as you've surmised—is it's a different breed of film. People recognize that. And people really want to see that. They want something new. We've been given such good energy from people. We weren't expecting an 80-year-old woman to love the film who comes up to us to say, "I want my husband to see this film."

Mitch: It was a very fast run. Our first premiere was in February and we're finishing our run in June. It was a very fast run, and we did a lot, and the film just kind of took off. But every single festival that we went to was just great. At our first showing of the film, so many people were turned away at the door just to see the first screening. We had no idea. We showed up. We had no idea what the reception of the film was going to be or how people were going to take it, if people were even going to like it. Just the first minute of it, when we saw the lines around the block, people were walking in, the stars of the film were walking in, and after them they closed off the rope, they said, "We can't even take it." They had to bump our film up and brought the film back to show it because it was in such demand. All of a sudden we're just going from festival to festival to festival and we're winning the awards. At the end of the day you feel very satisfied, you go, "Look, this is our first attempt at horror and we did good."

EC: I know Bruce Fletcher is impressed with the film and excited about screening it at this year's Hole in the Head. Did he approach you or did you submit?

Mitch: I think he approached us. Ever since Santa Barbara people have been calling asking for the film; we haven't really done much.

Phil: It helps winning an award at your first screening ever.

Mitch: The other thing too with Bruce Fletcher and the Hole in the Head, it's incredible just to be back home in San Francisco and to end the run here.

Phil: It couldn't be a better place. It's the perfect festival for this film.

Mitch: Just to be back home. We love San Francisco.

EC: And you'll be at the screenings I imagine for Q&A?

Mitch: Yeah, we'll be there. I think Cory Knauf will be there, who plays Francis.

Phil: Mackenzie will probably be there too.

EC: Great! Maybe I'll get a chance to talk to them both?

Mitch: That would be great. That would be awesome.

Phil: They'd probably love it. They're both very well-spoken.

EC: Well, I want to thank you two for taking the time to talk with me and, again, congratulations on The Hamiltons.

Mitch/Phil: Thank you!

Friday, May 26, 2006

2006 SF HOLEHEAD—Room 6


At a time when most people are terrified that they will not be able to afford hospital care, Michael Hurst's Room 6 cautions that hospital care might actually be the ultimate horror! Like Jacob's Ladder, Room 6 ruminates upon a bardo state, setting it in a haunted hospital—St. Rosemary's—where ambulances deliver accident victims who are never heard from again! I'm not the only one who's made that comparison. Room 6 has been described as "Jacob's Ladder meets The Sixth Sense." Which is to admit that it's somewhat derivative but competent enough to engage, largely through a capable acting ensemble and startling make-up effects. Besides, Bruce Fletcher is providing a rare opportunity to see the world premiere of this movie projected onto a big screen since it's going directly to dvd next month. That opportunity alone is worth the price of admission!

Staci Layne Wilson details the dvd release and interviews Christine Taylor who plays Amy Roberts, "a young woman troubled by visions which torment her dreams and cloud her waking judgment." If Amy's not bolting upright in bed startled by a dream within a dream, she's gasping at briefly-glimpsed horrors behind the surface of things. As a trivia tidbit, Wilson notes that Linda Vista—the hospital used in Room 6 and allegedly truly haunted—was also the location of Freddy Kruger's boiler room, and is the site of the upcoming ghost flick, Boo.

Married to comedic actor Ben Stiller and 5½ months pregnant during the 18-day shoot, Taylor cornered the role of Amy, who she describes as "completely confused throughout the movie", not knowing how much of what is happening to her is real and how much is fake but trying to find a balance. As the trailer attests, what begins as an accident becomes a mystery and who can Amy trust when she can't trust herself? Her hallucinatory quest for answers allows for lesbian zombie nurse orgies and Twilight Zone-style timeloops where you keep ending up where you started; the anxious repetitions of nightmares.

R. L. Shaffer reviews the dvd's production values and details its extras for, as does Rees Savidis for Arrow In the Head. So what's Savidis' last call? "At the end of the day if it's a perfectly entertaining (albeit instantly forgettable) little demon-infused time-waster you're after, you could do a hell-of-a-lot worse than Room 6."

Though I really wanted Room 6 to be a wry genre skewer of the horrific state of American health care, it's really just a director's phobia as Hurst admitted to Patrick Lee, News Editor for "How many buildings are there in society where you go in and you might not come out? Not many. So hospitals, like, they f--king freak me out. So . . . the whole thing's based on my incredible fear of hospitals. That's where the whole idea started from."

The world premiere of Room 6 takes place at Holehead on Sunday, June 11, 2006, 2:30 at the Roxie Film Center.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

MALAYSIAN CINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Amir Muhammad

Michael Guillén: Amir, thank you for allowing me to be the opportunist I am, taking advantage of the fact you've lost your voice and luring you into an email interview. First of all, congratulations on the favorable reviews that your most recent documentary The Last Communist has been receiving on the international festival circuit! I've gathered together a smidgeon of them for The Evening Class, with more to come I'm sure.

Amir Muhammad: Is that all there is? I want more!

Guillén: Well, I couldn't possibly outdo Fathi Aris Omar's incredible coverage so I'll concede to him! Allow me to express, however, my solidarity with all those within the world's film community at the recent ban of The Last Communist in your home country. Your initial refutation on the film's blogsite skewered the hypocrisy of the situation and categorically stressed the danger of having a newspaper like Berita Harian wield so much power. Can you name the columnist who has been giving you and Yasmin so much flak? What do you predict? Will the ban be lifted? Or is this the beginning of a long haul for Malaysian filmmakers? Can you briefly profile Berita Harian for American/Canadian readers unfamiliar with their editorial policy?

Muhammad: Berita Harian is one of the two best-selling newspapers in the country, the other being Utusan Malaysia. It's read by about 20% of the population. It's owned by a large conglomerate called Media Prima that also runs other newspapers, TV stations and a film production company. Like many large enterprises in Malaysia, it is closely linked with the ruling party UMNO (United Malay National Organisation). Berita Harian is simply (at this moment) the mouthpiece for the more conservative, reactionary segment of this party. If it didn't exist something else would take its place. The columnist is also fulfilling his function as the mouthpiece du jour for this conservative faction. He was indeed named in my blog. So it's not like one newspaper per se has so much power, but that it reflects certain tendencies within the ruling elite.

We are currently appealing against the ban. Most of the articles in the mainstream media (including the other newspapers in the Media Prima stable) have been supportive of us, so we hope for the best.

Guillén: Brian Darr has opined that the ban is "seemingly another example of the trend of censorship or denunciation of a film making it all the more viable in the marketplace. In the case of censorship, the neighboring country's marketplace, and probably the black marketplace too." Has that proven to be the case? Is it true that there is no such thing as bad publicity? Does this hinder financing of your future projects? Is your horror musical still in the pipeline?

Muhammad: Actually the pirates might be reluctant to take it because it's a local product that is banned, and so the pirates who sell it will be likelier subjects for police raids. Local films aren't pirated nearly as heavily as foreign ones.

My horror movie Susuk is now being edited. Here is irony number 1: The company that is funding it, Grand Brilliance, is owned by Media Prima too.

I haven't started looking for funding for the next project so I wouldn't know if it's going to be difficult.

Guillén: Let's hope not! Obviously censorship has been an ongoing issue in Malaysia, giving birth to a lucrative black market for pirated dvds. I recall when you were here in San Francisco that you quipped that pirated dvds were Malaysia's best film school. I imagine that a financial return on your investment would have to come from movie house screenings and dvd sales and that you won't see a red cent (so to speak) from any black market traffic, if any? How do you feel about that? Can you recover any of your costs on the festival circuit?

Muhammad: It's a pretty low-budget documentary (US$20,000) and part of it was covered by a grant from the Jan Vrijman Fund, so I wouldn't be a pariah if it loses money. The Singapore box-office might help a bit. There is interest to market the dvd in Singapore but this entails getting a separate Singapore censorship clearance, which we are looking into now.

Speaking of piracy: There is an upcoming independent Malaysian comedy called Ciplak that revolves around a dvd pirate. I haven't seen it, though.

Guillén: Thanks for the heads-up on Ciplak. Over at Twitch, Gommorahizer has been recently profiling a batch of Malaysian horror features—including Susuk—along with Osman Ali's Puaka Tebing Biru and Michael Chuah's Chinese-language (Cantonese and Mandarin) Malaysian horror movie Nephesh Seed. Have you seen either of those? Any dirt on Osman Ali or Michael Chuah? Sounds like M-horror is just about to carry on Asia's alphabetical thirst for the genre!

Muhammad: Osman is a terrific director whose debut feature Bukak Api remains one of the best Malaysian films ever made. It started off as an HIV educational tool for transvestite prostitutes (although I am sure you in San Francisco would call them sex-workers) but he developed it as a strong melodrama about community. I know Michael only slightly; he always looks somewhat shifty, which might be a good thing. I have not seen either film.

Guillén: What drew you to the horror genre? And where did this idea of the susuk originate? It seems so local and unique!

Muhammad: It wasn't my idea to do a horror film. I was approached by the production company. "I've never been so insulted in my life!" I said. But actually, I have: all my other movies had been "festival favorites", which is a euphemism for "flop." So I figured on laughing to the bank for a change. Susuk is a practice in Indonesia and Malaysia. Since it's unIslamic, of course it's taboo. No other local film had been made on it. So it fit well with my motto: It's not important to be the best, but it's important to be the first.

Guillén: I think it's great that Yasmin Ahmad is in it!

Muhammad: She wears a kinky nurse uniform.

Guillén: Ooooooooh!! If you ever do another horror film, will you set it in San Francisco and allow me to be killed off in the first scene? That's a dream of mine!!

Muhammad: Vertigo is already the ultimate San Francisco horror film.

Guillén: Will you be starting up a blog site for Susuk as you did for The Last Communist?

Muhammad: We shall see . . . .

Guillén: For those of us a little rusty on our Malay can you synopsize what's being said in those video diaries? Or offer any up-to-date scoop on the film or anecdotes from the filming?

Muhammad: Oh, the video diaries are basically people pretending to know what they're doing. The shoot itself was not smooth; it was supposed to last six weeks but dragged on for three months. One of our locations was a terrific house that had no roof but unfortunately the weather was atypically rainy. There were so many other delays as well. People kept threatening to walk off the set. The co-director Naeim Ghalili says his next film will be a comedy about the making of Susuk. Needless to say, I enjoyed the process tremendously.

Guillén: As ever, the brilliance of your intellect shines through your wry acerbic humor. Recently on the Twitch Forum someone shared an article they had found that was about the Malaysian censors' upset with The DaVinci Code. They didn't provide a working url so I couldn't confirm it, but, I'm convinced you wrote this. Did you? I've seen other pieces where you are spoofing the censors (one regarding a Harry Potter movie that hasn't even been made or named yet and another about dangling participles). This is not only brave, but effective of you to shift this "debate" away from false censorship issues into a satirical send-up of bureaucratic ineptitude. You use humor as a weapon and an educational tool, don't you? Where can we find these columns?

Muhammad: Using humor as an educational tool sounds way too dour and deterministic. I use humor because that's the way I like to write most of the time. I've been writing columns, on and off, since the age of 14. I am trying to bully a publisher into compiling these new spoof columns into a book next year. It might need footnotes as some of the references are really local. Here's irony number 2: The newspaper I contribute to—The New Straits Times—is owned by Media Prima too.

Guillén: A collection of those spoof columns would be fantastic!! What would you call it?

Muhammad: Not Strictly True, since the paper they appeared in is called NST.

Guillén: What, if anything, can non-Malaysians do to counter the ban? What are Malaysians doing? You've received considerable online support at the film's blogsite, has this mobilized into any effective campaign against the ban?

Muhammad: The online commentaries have been transmuted into articles in the print media, which will more likely be read by those in power. So of course we hope these will be considered when we appeal against the ban.

People in North America can show solidarity by buying a dvd of my landmark 2003 work The Big Durian. After all, words of support can only do so much; putting cash into my account proves that you really love me.

Guillén: Ka-CHING!! Just ordered mine. Can you feel the love? Would you ever consider working in exile if the climate becomes too oppressive? Or have you developed a style of working through such oppression?

Muhammad: I don't think I could ever live anywhere else. For starters, we have the best food. I'd probably get some international media coverage out of coming across like a helpless victim of a tyrannical regime but the truth isn't nearly so severe. I feel very comfortable here and don't suffer any harassment. Most intelligent Malaysians have a healthily skeptical view of authority anyway.

Guillén: Food determines all my major life-changing decisions also. I have long said that eating is my spiritual path. Knowing that discussion of communism is taboo in Malaysia, are you guilty of poking the hornet's nest with a stick somewhat?

Muhammad: In a free country, one should be free to poke one's stick anywhere.

Guillén: Heh! What is the best case scenario you can see coming out of this unfortunate situation? What about a worst case scenario?

Muhammad: The best-case scenario is it persuades other Malaysians to take up the documentary form. The Last Communist would have been the first to get a theatrical release. I wanted potential filmmakers to look at it and say, "Is that all? I can do better" and then go ahead and indeed do better. The worst-case scenario is that it will scare people away from any remotely unorthodox subject. Oh, and that I will be unemployable.

Guillén: How has the Malaysian filmmaking community rallied, if at all? As a maker of independent and experimental films, do you receive support from your peers? Has there been support from the international film community?

Muhammad: Malaysian directors, even the really mainstream ones, have either openly supported me or refused to say anything against me. But the head of the Producers' Association and the head of the Film Workers' Association were baited into criticizing me. But this too shall pass.

Guillén: How have festival audience Q&As been reacting to the ban?

Muhammad: The ban occurred while I was attending Toronto's Hot Docs, in between my two screenings in fact. I told the second crowd: "You really got your money's worth. The first crowd wasn't watching a banned film but you are." Needless to say, they were quite curious as to the reasons. Some people found my Q&A more entertaining than the documentary but I am quite used to this by now.

Guillén: There are stand-up comics who would kill for what you throw away. How has the ban affected your day-to-day operations? Have you been distracted into necessary debate? Or are you moving on to your next project? If so, can you tell us a little about that and what your hopes are?

Muhammad: Never has Googling myself been such a fruitful enterprise. But other than that, nothing has changed. We are still doing the post for Susuk.

I've got a few other documentary and feature ideas but these will depend on which gets the necessary funding first. I'd like to shoot something in Peru at the end of the year. Because Peru is the antipodes of Malaysia so I'm curious to see what it's like.

I'd also like to do something about a murder that occurred in Kuala Lumpur in 1911 which became the basis for the Bette Davis movie The Letter . . . but my take might be closer to early Fassbinder than good old Willie Wyler's.

Guillén: That sounds fascinating!! And a touch of Fassbinder always brightens a melodrama, don't you think? Anyways, thanks so much for taking the time to "talk" with me. I hope you feel better soon. Keep me posted on your projects! I look forward to watching The Big Durian.

AM: Thank you!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

2006 SF HOLEHEAD—The Hamiltons


What Hitchock's Shadow Of A Doubt did for Santa Rosa, the Butcher Brothers' The Hamiltons has done for Petaluma. But whereas Charlie's uncle was essentially unsympathetic in Shadow Of A Doubt, your heart bleeds for The Hamiltons, this poor little family trying to make ends meat in northern California. Har har.

As the Holehead program notes advise: "The Hamiltons is the twisted tale of a picture-perfect American family. David, Wendell, Darlene and Francis Hamilton are siblings who have recently moved to a quaint town in Northern California. They are struggling to settle in and adjust to the new area, while still grieving the recent (and mysterious) death of their parents. They are hardworking community members; giving to their local charities, attending Town Hall meetings, and always respectful to their neighbors . . . except the ones that end up chained in the basement." There's some talk that a sequel to The Hamiltons—tentatively entitled The Thompsons—will reveal what happened to the parents.

But for now, I admire the polymorphous perversity of The Hamiltons. Its gore is uncomfortably sexy: rape, incest, lesbianism, ménage a tois, and a new bite in some offscreen gay cocksucking. Ouch! All this mixed with the family dysfunction that most of us have come to recognize and love.

The notion that family is a kind of claustrophobic horror is certainly not anything new but is engagingly inflected in The Hamiltons. From the moment Adam and Eve had their first offspring, sibling rivalries have led to one kind of murder or another. But underappreciated elder brother David Hamilton (Samuel Child) really has his hands full stepping into his recently-deceased father's shoes, trying to keep the family together, trying to keep food on the table, while his dark twin siblings—Wendell Hamilton (hunk Joseph McKelheer, the kind of bad boy you want to fuck around with) and Darlene Hamilton (charismatic Mackenzie Firgens, the kind of bad goth girl you want to fuck around with)—thwart his good intentions at every turn, perhaps more comfortable with who they really are than David, who is carrying a double shadow. Meanwhile, Francis (in a striking debut performance by Cory Knauf)—whose narrative voiceovers solicit sympathy and understanding—is going through something of a teen identity crisis, not fitting in at school, and really fed up with his wacko family. Who couldn't relate? His coming-of-age and coming to terms with his family's murderous habits is what makes The Hamiltons wry and edgy.

The Butcher Brothers grew up in San Francisco. They're brothers from different mothers, of course, The Butcher Brothers being "an alter ego for [their] darker material." They're actually Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores, friends of 18 years. They made their first film after finding a damaged camera near a car accident. Their influences include Truffaut, Cronenberg, and Lynch. The Hamiltons is their debut feature film and is returning triumphantly home to Holehead, which is the end of the line for the film's festival circuit. It won the Golden Vision award and $30,000 in distribution funds at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival ("For the most innovative and unique film with an inspiring and groundbreaking vision") and the Jury Award at the Malibu Film Festival and has been picked up by Lions Gate Films, distribution details to follow.

Variety's Robert Koehler reviewed The Hamiltons at the Santa Barbara International. "What appears to be a suburban Donner Party becomes something even more disturbing," Koehler writes and describes "cheeky horror" as the tone "for this archly surreal telling of how a family of peculiar siblings manages to raise themselves without their late parents." Koehler summarizes: "For about as long as it can, The Hamiltons refuses to play by most of the genre rules, and is best experienced as a ghoulish comedic take on the post-modern American family, in which the chain of command is up for grabs."

Don R. Lewis, writing for Film Threat, asserts The Hamiltons is "one of the best indie horror films in a great long while" and claims it separates "the wheat from the chaff" in a market "flooded with self-described B movies that are more like C or D movies." He culls out the Six Feet Under influence which The Butcher Brothers readily admit. David Hamilton, in fact, is consciously named after the character David in the HBO series, just as they both happen to be gay. If I have any exception to the David Hamilton character it's that no self-respecting gay would wear his hair that way. But maybe that's the point? Secrets within secrets never hazard fashion.

In an interview with the Butcher Brothers for The Montecito Journal (unfortunately not available on-line) Guillaume Doane states the obvious: "[W]ithin the next couple years, the Butcher Brothers will likely be a household name at any movie house, synonymous with the Farrelly Brothers, Coen Brothers, or any other bigwig cinema sibling team." Let's hope so. And let's hope they continue to craft horror film mash-ups that mess with your mind.

The Hamiltons will be screening at Holehead on Monday, June 12, 2006, at 7:00 pm and Thursday, June 15, 2006, at 2:30 p.m., both at the Roxie Film Center.

Friday, May 19, 2006

2006 SF HOLEHEAD—The Ghost of Mae Nak


It's absolutely appropriate that the (Yet) Another Hole in the Head Festival has included Mark Duffield's The Ghost of Mae Nak in this year's line-up since the ghost has a big ol' hole in her head! How much more relevant could this movie possibly be?

Just before today's press screening, filmbud Brian Darr—who lived for a while in Thailand—advised me that Duffield's film is only the latest incarnation of the Thai folk legend of Mae Naak Phra Khanong. A little research reveals that it's about the 20th incarnation, the most popular of which has been Nonzee Nimibutr's mega hit Nang Nak (1999). As I understand it, Ghost of Mae Nak kind of takes up where Nang Nak leaves off, shifting the story into a modern setting and doing Nang Nak one better through computer graphics that have improved much since 1999.

Yesterday Variety reported that one bit of business that's taken place at this year's Cannes Film Festival has been Tartan Film's acquisition of North American and U.K. rights to Ghost of Mae Nak. Tartan Films' Asia Extreme line is well-known to aficionados of Asian horror. Ghost of Mae Nak, which reached No. 3 at the box office in Thailand and No. 2 in Malaysia, now seems poised to give Nang Nak a run for its international money! It's already done quite well on the festival circuit.

Watching Ghost of Mae Nak reminded me of comments made by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien at a December 2002 seminar and published in Rouge. His concern was about finding new directions and new genres for Taiwan's film industry and he approached that issue from various angles. One such angle was the effect of J-horror on Asian cinema. He stated: "We can now approach the issue from another direction after the success of the Japanese film Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1988), which was the ignition point that brought about an explosion of ghost movies. Just like Shiri was the ignition point of Korean cinema, Ring started the Asian frenzy for making ghost movies. The crucial element of their success lies in the use of local elements. The films are firmly rooted in local culture." He offered by way of example the fact that the Taiwanese often pray to the god of house foundations. "If we come to think about this god," Hsiao-hsien proposed, "he is in fact quite terrifying, for he protects you by staying in your house and constantly watching you high up there. He has his own biography. So if you want to tell a story about him there will be plenty."

What struck me about that statement was how the alphabetical momentum of Asian horror has shifted from J-horror to K-horror and now to T-horror in an enthused appropriation of, as Hsiao-hsien states it, "local elements."

I had never heard of the legend of Mae Nak before. There are various versions where the details differ, but in gist, Mae Nak was a beautiful young woman from the Phrakhanong district who married a handsome man named Mak. Some sources state that the couple were childhood sweethearts who grew up together. While she was pregnant with their first child, Mak was conscripted into the army and—during his absence—Mae Nak died with her baby still inside her. Although they were buried instantly according to local tradition, her strong spirit refused to perish so that when Mak returned from the war, he found them waiting for him. When they embraced he was shocked to feel her unusually cold and thin body but thought nothing of it. In most versions it is while she is preparing him dinner that she reveals herself to be supernatural. Some say a sudden gust of cold wind made Mak drop his spoon, some say a knife, others say Mae Nak dropped a lemon, the point being that traditional Thai houses were elevated on piles and whatever fell went two meters below the floor. Mae Nak lengthened her arm through the floorboards to reach it and it was then Mak realized his wife and child were ghosts.

In other versions—more in line with the current story in Ghost of Mae Nak—it is Mak's neighbors who inform him that he is living with a ghost. This is where the supernatural romance transforms into a macabre horror. Mak, terrified, runs away from his ghostly wife and she relentlessly pursues him, enraged that her neighbors have exposed her. She takes her anger out on them for interfering and kills them. Eventually an exorcism has to be performed in order for the community to be freed of Mae Nak's vengeful spirit. In one version an exorcist (mhor phi) puts the ghosts in a pot or a bottle and throws it into the water. But in this movie's version trepination is performed upon the skull of Mae Nak and the medallion of bone is configured into a broach. This accounts for the hole in her head.

Ghost of Mae Nak is not really a scary movie as much as it is a haunting love story. If you're expecting to jump out of your seat, it's not going to happen. Variety describes the film as "unhurried without dragging its heels." Where it will appeal to horror buffs is in its gory, gruesome deaths, which are reminiscent of The Omen, Final Destination, and 13 Ghosts. The ghost herself resembles that of The Grudge. Though there's not really a lot that's new in Ghost of Mae Nak, its blend of gothic modernity has a certain appeal, though I imagine not to all.

Ghost of Mae Nak will be screening at the Roxie Film Center on Sunday, June 11, 2006, at 7:00 and Tuesday, June 13, 2006, at 2:30.

2006 SF HOLEHEAD—Press Conference Line-Up!


Hot on the heels of DocFest, San Francisco's Indie Film Festival officially announced their program line-up at today's press conference for (Yet) Another Hole In the Head Festival (aka Holehead)—eight nights of Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror, June 8-15, 2006, at the Roxie Film Center—though Fangoria humped the bones and posted their line-up earlier this month. Programmer Bruce Fletcher enthusiastically previewed the creeps, jitters and gross-outs San Franciscans can soon expect!!

A few have already been previewed by the Twitch team, such as Todd's initial review of HeadFest's opening night U.S. premiere of Rampo Jigoku / Rampo Noir, and the subsequent updates helpfully grouped together by Gommorahizer, who has faithfully done the same for Yûdai Yamaguchi & Jun'ichi Yamamoto's Meatball Machine, Jay Lee's The Slaughter (announced as well at, and Mark Savage's Defenceless: A Blood Symphony.

So which are the ones you would want to see? And which should I absolutely not miss?!

MALAYSIAN CINEMA—Censorship in Malaysia

When Dave Hudson alerted via the Greencine Daily that Amir Muhammad's latest film The Last Communist was banned in Malaysia, I was disconcerted and meant to write an entry, but was overtaken by reportage from 2006 SFIFF.

The Last Communist had its world premiere at last February's Berlinale. Russell Edwards reviewed it favorably for Variety, complimenting Amir for blending "humor, humanism and sleight of hand . . . to create something out of virtually nothing." Greencine's Berlinale correspondent David D'Arcy described it as "an odd mix" and noted: "The documentary is not alone in raising the issue of just how one goes about making a documentary today. At the core of this film is an absence." Ekkehard Knörer, reporting to Die Tageszeitung, conjectured that Amir had broken the rules of documentary films, "to save its heart and soul", thereby creating "something completely different." Tony Rayns, reporting to Sight and Sound, claimed The Last Communist was by far the "smartest and wittiest" from the Berlin Forum and called it an "essayistic delight" that confirms Amir "as the only visible heir to the Chris Marker tradition." Further favorable reviews came from Christoph Mayer at Sign and Sight, Thomas Hadjuk of Film Kritiken, and only a couple of weeks ago Ben Slater—reporting from the Singapore International Film Festival to the Greencine Daily—found The Last Communist, despite some reservations, to be "a truly fascinating tale", adding that "Amir deftly uses this 'lost history' to raise pertinent questions about modern 'Malaysia' and the post-9/11 specter of the terrorist."

So in the face of such international acclaim, why then censorship? Amir has commented from the frontlines on his blogsite for the film and has received considerable online support.

This morning The Great Swifty forwarded Yasmin Ahmad's New Straits Times article likewise protesting the censorship of The Last Communist and recent backlash criticism against her own work (Sepet, Gubra), both allegedly engineered by the Malaysian newspaper Berita Harian, whose editorial policy relishes in its reactionary racism. Ahmad quotes George Bernard Shaw: "Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."

I wish Amir and Yasmin and all future Malaysian filmmakers strength and fortitude in the years of censorship to come.

05/21/06 ADDENDUM: For continuing updates on the Malaysian censorship issue, Fathi Aris Omar has taken it upon himself to keep everyone abreast of developments on his blogsite Patah Balek. His first update went up on May 11 and his second (which includes this entry) went up today (Malaysian time). Of course, Amir tracks the life of the documentary on his own blogsite.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Liza Minnelli—An Appreciation

In Tenterfield Saddler—his autobiographical tribute to his Australian grandfather—Peter Allen sang: "The grandson of George has traveled all around the world and lives no special place / he changed his last name and he married a girl with an interesting face…."

That girl with an interesting face was none other than Liza Minnelli, who was introduced to Peter through her mother, Judy Garland, when Peter was Garland's opening act. Liza and Peter eventually parted ways, of course, when Liza found Peter in bed with another man.

Allegedly, the only existing print of Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon—which had originally been scheduled with The Sterile Cuckoo as part of the Castro's mini-Minnelli retrospective—was discovered to be unscreenable and was replaced at the last minute by a repeat screening of Cabaret. I don't know which is more sad: that Liza's early films are already falling into disrepair or her recent "outbursts" on Larry King.

I've never seen Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, but was long intrigued by a comment Liza made about having to do the role after seeing Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. Now lord knows when I'll ever get to see it. It's not on dvd.

At least I finally got a chance to see The Sterile Cuckoo. I was in my mid-teens when this movie came out and—I'll admit it—heavily into Rod McKuen at the time. Even then I knew I wanted to live in San Francisco, just so I could experience Stanyan Street and other sorrows. So what I remember very clearly about The Sterile Cuckoo was not only the Sandpipers singing "Come Saturday Morning" but the trailer to the film. If I remember correctly it went something like this: "First love is beautiful. First love is hurt. First love is beautiful hurt." Steeped a little too long in McKuen, I just couldn't help being impressed with that, even if I wasn't impressed enough to see the movie when it was first released. I sure did want to go away with my Saturday friend, though, and Saturday spend til the end of the day.

So here it is nearly 40 years later and I finally got around to seeing The Sterile Cuckoo, with maybe about five other people in the audience. And you know what? I actually enjoyed it. Partly because of that interesting face, which like Streisand's nose and Ali McGraw's crooked tooth, signified the idiosyncracies of individuality that were all the rage in the late 60s and early 70s, reconfiguring our cultural notions of beauty into heightened appreciations of visible nonconformity. But mainly I liked The Sterile Cuckoo out of a nostalgic appreciation of a time period when this young actress was first testing her chops and I was first thinking about going out into the world.

Liza had a powerful vulnerability that looped back to but through her mother's career. Her "absolutely wacky" portrayal of Pookie Adams (a role first offered to but refused by Patty Duke) established a template for Liza of characters whose bravado barely guised their insecurity and their deeprooted fears of inferiority. Cabaret's Sally Bowles was actually not that different than Pookie, likewise estranged from her father, and likewise overcompensating, with divinely decadent green fingernails no less. Both waved goodbye as a gesture over the shoulder. Both operated off of ancient instincts lacking worldly wisdom.

I had just graduated from high school a year before when Cabaret came out. I was living in Twin Falls, Idaho, all my former high school friends were taking off to college, and I had no money to go to college, and didn't know what I wanted to do even if I could go. I remember watching Cabaret seven times in a row at the Idaho Theater on Main Street. I couldn't get enough of it. Because it told me that even if I didn't know what to do, even if I didn't know who I was, or what I specifically wanted out of life, I did want life, I wanted experience, I wanted lovers and cities and Cabaret confirmed for me that a little theatrical energy—especially in Twin Falls, Idaho—could go a long ways. Afterall, what good was sitting alone in your room?

And though it took a little while, another year or two, I finally did make it here to where the music plays. I have found myself and lost myself all in the searching and the longing and am curiously back to where I started, unsure, not knowing quite what I want to do with my life, but knowing that I want life, and I never tire of experience, even if experiences have tired me out. I'm not so keen on lovers anymore and am even a little weary of cities but, what can I tell you? A little theatrical energy still goes a long ways.

Friday, May 12, 2006

2006 SF DOCFEST—Diameter Of the Bomb

Steven Silver and Andrew Quigley's Diameter of the Bomb takes its title from a 1972 poem by Yehuda Amichai (translated by Chana Bloch & Stephen Mitchell):

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won't even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making
a circle with no end and no God.

The structure of Amichai's eponymous poem compares a bomb to a stone dropped into a pond, with concentric circles of impact—from the center of the blast to the bomb's furthest point of grief. Amichai's poem asks the reader to think about just how much damage a bomb can do, and how the violence of the act is not just physical, but metaphysical. It considers "the figurative diameter of the bomb and its trajectory of human suffering." But being asked to think about something as horrific as a suicide bombing and its physical and/or metaphysical impact is not quite the same as being asked to witness the forensic evidence of such a tragedy. Eschewing poetry in an effort not to sugarcoats facts, filmmakers Silver and Quigley offer a pill that is almost too bitter to digest.

There have been over 75 Palestinian suicide bombings since the renewed Intifada began in September of 2000. Diameter of the Bomb tells the story of one: the bombing of Bus 32A in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem on June 18, 2002, which killed 20 people (including the bomber) and injured 50 more. This bus traveled near the border of Palestinian and Israeli territory, and its passengers held a diverse mix of political and religious affiliations.

When Paul Goldin and Georgina Townsley of Rainmaker Films began conducting their initial research on the Bus 32A bombing, they soon discovered that the impact of the bomb was life-changing not just for those on the bus, but for scores of people, if not hundreds of people, indirectly connected to it. Providing names for five of the numbered bodies—Michal, Galila, Shani, Aiman, and Mohammed (the bomber)—the filmmakers then structure a collage of impressions from family members, forensic specialists, hospital trauma staff, and almost everyone else you can possibly think of associated in any way with this tragic event. They do this through one-on-one interviews with family members, forensic footage released by the Israeli army, Hamas military training videos, home movies by the bomber, and location filming, with unprecedented access into Israeli prisons, commando units, Palestinian refugee camps and hospital trauma wards.

What searingly comes across in Diameter Of the Bomb is how we all inevitably dalliance with cubic centimeters of chance. Had a husband driven his wife where she needed to go instead of dropping her off at the fated bus stop, had a flatmate encouraged his friend to not be in such a hurry to get to the bus stop and to wait for him until he took a shower, had a bus driver not swapped shifts with another, had a man not been such a gentleman in allowing a young woman to be the last allowed on the bus before him, had a mother said a true good-bye to her daughter instead of just a flippant "see you"—all attest to how ruthlessly fate demands its due.

Comparable to the recent Paradise Now, which was criticized for taking sides in favor of the Palestinians, Diameter of The Bomb skirts such obvious polemics. As Kurt at Twitch opines: "If there is a strength to this film, it is how the film-makers managed to take a subject and region where everything is political and tell the human story without the politics. If you think about it, this is no easy feat. This is one of the very few documentaries which manages to come as close to the ideal of 'unbiased' as I've here seen." As has elsewhere been written, Diameter Of the Bomb "won't be upsetting anyone with its politics, just its depiction of the brutality of the reality of terrorism."

Describing that "depiction of the brutality" in his capsule for the Toronto International Film Festival, Steve Gravestock observes: "Reminiscences and regrets give way in Silver and Quigley's documentary to the discourses of a chilling new science, one peculiar to our age. Forensics experts explain the ways they can identify bombers and victims in the destructive wake they leave behind. Firemen detail the minutiae of how a bomb blast actually kills you." Kobi Levy—the fireman who was one of the first to report to the scene of the Bus 32A bombing, and whose own brother Yoni was killed in a 1999 bus bombing—recounts in grisly, graphic detail what he witnessed, how hair is always the first to burn, even before clothing. But do I really need to know that? Does that make the horror of this event any more palatable or does it simply overburden and fatigue compassion?

How inured can we become to color photos of atrocities? I ask that even as with unerring prurience I find myself anthropologically fascinated with the bearded Zaka volunteers, who bike between the bombsites in order to sponge up with large rolls of paper every last drop of blood from the roadside. Their task is spiritual. Like many cultures of the world—including the Maya of Central America who recognize the chul'el or vital life force inherent in blood—these unpaid caretakers of the dead commit themselves to providing proper burial for this "forensic evidence", insuring that all parts of the body can be buried as one.

This heightened focus on the forensic evidence, however, "unbalances" the film according to Adrian Hennigan of the BBC, who likewise finds such a clinical focus overly "cold" and "difficult to watch." Hennigan concludes: "Laudable but ultimately unsuccessful, Diameter just doesn't aim wide enough."

Gravestock continues: "Emphasizing the effects of war and strife on a neighborhood, on families, on frightened survivors and mourning mothers, the film takes the classic definition of terrorism—spreading fear and suspicion among the civilian populace—and brings it home in the most direct way possible." I couldn't help thinking while watching this documentary what it would be like to hazard San Francisco's MUNI or BART systems cognizant of terrorist threats.

"Instead of hope or resolution," Xan Brooks writes for The Guardian, "Diameter of the Bomb spotlights an endless flow of despair, waste and bewilderment. It suggests that the 2002 ripple is still in motion and that there are plenty of others close behind."

Diameter Of the Bomb is screening this evening, Friday, May 12, at the Roxie Cinema at 9:00 pm; and on Monday, May 15, at the Little Roxie at 9:00 pm, as part of the 5th annual SF DocFest.