Tuesday, April 26, 2011

TALENT CAMPUS: KEEPING IT REELThe Evening Class Interview With Dana Shaw

Whereas Dominic Mercurio expressed his respect by listening to offered advice, Art Institute of California senior graduate Dana Shaw caught my attention for his intelligent and respectful profiles of Bay Area creative personalities, including tattoo artist George Campise, artist Greg Gossel, animator Len Lye, sculptor AJ Fosik, and chefs Laurence Jossel, Tanya Holland and Martin Yan (projects available for viewing on Shaw's website). His intuitive sense of the value of artistry's social weave and his ability to spotlight the creativity of others as a form of creative self-expression spoke to me as a film journalist who consciously situates his own voice through and within the voices of others. For me, the weave is everything.

Dana Shaw is a documentary filmmaker, editor and cinematographer with a strong interest in producing media that celebrates non-traditional artists and their work. An artist himself, Shaw works with the latest digital technologies, shoots film and hand paints experimental animations. His forthcoming documentary Keeping It Reel—which I caught at the Art Institute's senior thesis showcase—portrays four legendary San Francisco filmmakers who argue that digital technology interrupts their relationships with the creative process; namely, Craig Baldwin, Rick Prelinger, Rock Ross and John Carlson. Shaw agreed to meet for coffee to discuss
Keeping It Reel and arrived with that touch of the sea that deepens all conversations.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Can you speak to the collaborative ethos so admirably present in Keeping It Reel?

Dana Shaw: The people who helped me make my film, the core crew, we all live in the same neighborhood in the Richmond. Carl Sturgess, who was my assistant director, Nico van den Berg who was my DP, and everyone else who helped out were just in the area. I met them all at school and we've just worked on a lot of projects together, on corporate shoots outside of the creative, and then also inside.

Guillén: Since you're working in a group on each others' films, how do you divvy up duties? How do you know—let's say—who's going to be the camera man on one shoot and the editor on another?

Shaw: The Art Institute curriculum requires that we each produce a thesis film so I chose to make
Keeping It Reel out of my personal experience and I chose the people I felt most comfortable with and trusted the most and who I knew would have good etiquette on set and who I'd mesh with well. For Dominic's projects—where I did titles and credits—I just like doing handmade stuff anyways. You pick by strengths. I like to do a chart of strengths and weaknesses and this was before we even met—I already knew what these guys did well and what they liked to do—but, when we first met, I'd ask, "What do you want to do the most? What do you like to do the most? What do you trust yourself with?"

Guillén: So how are you strategizing your shift from student filmmaker into the larger film community?

Shaw: I'm definitely submitting to Mill Valley. I really want to get a San Francisco premiere, at least Bay Area. Originally I wanted to get into the San Francisco International and last quarter I was submitting rough cuts; but, it wasn't ready yet for this year. I'm planning to submit to several different festivals but it would make sense for me to choose a local festival.

Guillén: Focusing on Keeping It Reel, how did you meet Baldwin, Prelinger, Ross and Carlson and why did you decide to profile them?

Shaw: I grew up surfing and working tactile, lots of things with my hands, stained glass and painting. Early influences were my grandfather who taught me how to draw and paint with oil paints and see the history. So I have a strong sense of history and people who have come before me who have laid down a path that I can follow. I like the idea of passing it down and working with different kinds of equipment, especially older equipment, to achieve something new.

I was influenced by two filmmakers who were surf filmmakers: Bruce Brown who made
The Endless Summer (1964). I liked his voiceover and how witty it was from his point of view. The other was Thomas Campbell, he's an artist who's made several films and is pretty well-known in the contemporary art scene these days. He makes cerebral films that are searching for something.

Nowadays everyone's shooting digitally but they don't have a sense of what came before them and how much that took, so that was one of the things I definitely liked: the idea of taking a step back—to find something that was maybe heavier, funkier, more expensive, more time-consuming—and then have it run into something new. Even 16mm, when that came out, that was interesting and new and light. French filmmakers and all those guys before us in the '50s and '60s, had the advantage of using this lighter equipment.

Therefore, my idea was, "Okay, cool, Canon DSLR cameras—which is a lot like shooting 16mm—and teaching kids how to use f-stops and film stock and image and lenses and synching sound, recording sound separate, not having that luxury. Even having the timing, you can only shoot for 12 minutes a take relates to a 100-foot daylight spool. The idea behind
Keeping It Reel—as with most of the films I make—was generated from a personal experience. I was up at the San Rafael Film Center listening to Walter Murch. He's one of my favorite editors and filmmakers of all time. I wanted to ask him the question: "What do you think is going to happen next with digital media? Is it going to influence people or are we going to make films that are blah and of no influence?" You can tell that Walter Murch was influenced by the earlier French filmmakers. My question didn't get answered because people started yelling out, "It's changing. We don't like it. We don't like this digital medium." No one understands the reality. And I thought, "You know what? I'm going to make a film about this."

So Lexi Leban, who is our faculty advisor and department head, she was like, "Hey, you know you have a good idea, let's research it, I have a friend named Rock Ross: do you want to meet him?" I said, "Sure." So I went and met Rock and enjoyed hanging out with him before I started shooting to get the vibe, to get to know him. Documentaries, when you sit down with someone, the access isn't there if you don't know them and if you don't relate with them. I'd buy him coffee and stop by and say hi and learned something about what he was doing, became really interested, and from here he connected me with Craig Baldwin and also John Carlson.

Guillén: Craig's a character.

Shaw: Yeah, instantly I loved Craig. He's the greatest guy. He reminds me a lot of my grandpa. My grandpa is an underground subterranean artist working on paintings and Craig's also underground working on films and collecting. Not too many people understand the method of his madness and I wanted to capture that. He's friends with Rick Prelinger, and John's friends with Rick, so they connected me. John was the one who made the call and said, "Hey, this kid Dana is really nice. He has an interest in what we're doing and he wants to make a film about it so maybe give him a call." I had already sent Prelinger a couple of emails because I wanted to talk to him. I had used a lot of his footage for my other films when school was starting, sort of a collage view, ephemeral stuff. He called me back and we started talking.

So I was talking to these guys, maybe a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there, going in person to meet them to say hello, familiarize them with my project, even ask them questions like, "Hey, what do you think about this? Is this too general?" Because we were making a film about a subject that's so big. How do you rope it in?

I had a couple of other filmmakers I talked to, like Katherine Bruens who made the documentary Corner Store (2010). She was originally going to be in the film but she was so busy and ending up not being in the film; but, she led me on the direction of thinking, "Okay, as a digital filmmaker who can I integrate into the story that makes sense?" Then I realized, "Whoa, this is really about
me. It's about me finding roots in filmmaking and wanting to go tactile and wanting to become more grounded in what I'm doing and feeling it. So that's where the film developed.

Guillén: Having been trained at the Institute in digital formats, do you want to shoot on film?

Shaw: I shoot Super8 and 16mm now. My dad handed me an old Contaflex, his still camera, so I've been embracing the happy accidents of that kind of filmmaking. I don't worry anymore about everything being so perfect, or so nice and clean. I like the accidents, and the things that happen sporadically for some reason that you can't explain but are awesome.

A lot of those animations I did for the beginning of the title sequence, Rock scratched the title of the film and I shot it on a camera, so that was not digitally created; that was shot with a camera like you would shoot titles. A lot of things would happen, like maybe the color was weird, or grain was off, and I didn't really care. I thought it kind of added to it.

Guillén: You didn't take advantage of social media to promote your film like Dominic?

Shaw: He was going
crazy, yeah. He really took advantage of that and that's something that I probably should have done.

Guillén: Do you want to continue doing documentary work in the future or do you want to do fiction?

Shaw: I'm mainly a documentarian, that's my interest and always has been. The reason I elected not to do a fiction piece was because of the acting and the actors who were available. It's always hard to get the performance you want and I wanted real people. I'm interested in making shorter pieces that are under the 10-minute range that can be shot DIY and are fun and gritty. Kind of like Gus Van Sant.

Guillén: Would you make films purposely to stream on Vimeo?

Shaw: It depends really. I'm definitely interested in it. It's the future and has a wider audience, which is always good. It'd be nice to have both. I don't know if you know Simone Nelson? She was one of our instructors.

Guillén: Simone and I interacted through the Global Film Initiative when I was on their board and she was in their employ.

Shaw: I love her. She had a big influence on us. Dominic and I had the same class together on distribution and she said hybrid models were where we should be aiming. Taking stuff from festivals that are tactile that people can sit and watch and then also looking towards
YouTube and Vimeo as other distribution avenues. Simone taught us that you have a marketing distribution plan before you even make your film.

The way the Art Institute curriculums are set up, realistically for your senior project it's a three quarter rotation. I chose four because I was shooting doc. But you're writing and directing and doing a lot at the same time as well as writing a business plan, a marketing plan, and a distribution plan. Of course, mine changed a lot because the story changed in the editing room.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Friday, April 22, 2011

TALENT CAMPUS: NUCLEAR FAMILYThe Evening Class Interview With Dominic Mercurio

In recent months I have been invited on three separate occasions to speak to the film classes of respected colleagues. Megan O'Hara invited me to the Art Institute of California / San Francisco (Art Institute) to speak to her "Bay Area Film Scene" students on alternate micocinema venues. Federico Windhausen invited me to talk about contemporary Latin American cinema at California College of the Arts / Oakland (CCA). Most recently, Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid (both affiliated with the Pacific Film Archive) invited me to discuss online film writing at UC Berkeley. The dialogues with each group of students have been unique and distinct. The Art Institute class was composed of filmmakers, the CCA class was an elective for an interdisciplinary group of artists (primarily painters), and UC Berkeley was a curatorial course for doctoral candidates. Underscoring all three campus visits, however, was my personal commitment here at The Evening Class to balance celebrity coverage with commensurate focus on up-and-coming student filmmakers. Many of these students have not yet entered into the festival circuit with a first film.

"Talent Campus" is an
Evening Class sidebar dedicated to exploring the work of student filmmakers within student showcases. I hope my readers will join me in supporting and encouraging the work of these future generations of media makers and storytellers.

First up is Dominic Mercurio, a young filmmaker I met in Megan's O'Hara's course who listened when I recommended that each student filmmaker should try to get a journalist in their pocket as part of their marketing and distribution plan. Whereas the rest of the class appeared to dismiss this as unsolicited advice, Dominic made a point of keeping in touch with me, friending me on Facebook, and inviting me to the sneak peek screening of his graduate thesis film at the Art Institute's student showcase "The Moving Picture Show" venued at VIZ Cinema. Anticipating the event, Dominic engineered a passionate promotion of his film through social media, creating a website for Nuclear Family whereon he posted a series of character profiles and interviews with his main cast, and a few of his crew, all methodically announced on his personal Facebook page, while at the same time setting up a separate Facebook page for his film and another for the student showcase, while the trailer and behind-the-scenes promos for Nuclear Family went up on Vimeo.

Overkill for a 28-minute short? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. Because it caught my attention and drew me in to "The Moving Picture Show" whose standing room capacity crowd cheered on the five senior thesis films on view. I'm not going to pretend I liked them all—the to-be-predicted navel gazing by way of coming-of-age relationship stories was conspicuously present—but I fully enjoyed Dominic's
Nuclear Family, which revealed an admirable collaborative ethos in its production and a professional level of execution that furthered its wry critique of a family wealthy of means but impoverished and disconnected at heart. This is especially imparted in a scene where the family is all together in the living room, each on their own laptop. A chilling sight gag that reminded me of the dinner scene in Clueless where each family member is having their own cellular conversation at the dinner table. The tools of communication become exactly the wedges that drive people apart. And, as Dominic's film poignantly suggests, music is the communicative tool that brings them back together.

As Dominic himself synopsizes: "Marc Benheimer (Joe Stricker), an introverted 17-year-old boy, is beginning to feel like he doesn't belong. As the emotional distance from his family grows, he finds solitude in music. After tragedy strikes the Benheimer family, Marc's parents buy a comforting distraction: a beautiful limited edition grand piano to decorate their living room. Marc is told he is not allowed to touch the piano, but what's really on Marc's mind is what would happen if he began to deconstruct the walls of his family's values?"

Since Mercurio was attentive and respectful enough of his cast and crew to take the time to individually interview them regarding their participation in his project, it only seemed fair to ask him out for coffee to talk a bit about his education at the Art Institute, his clever film, and his hopes for the future.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Dominic, could you speak to your involvement in the Digital Filmmaking and Video Production program offered by the Art Institute of California?

Dominic Mercurio: I have definitely enjoyed my time at the Art Institute and the main benefit I've received from studying there has been meeting the crew of people I've worked with. I chose the Institute over other options simply because I knew I wanted to study in San Francisco and be in the middle of the city. A couple of friends of mine had gone to the Academy of Art and their impression was that its focus was corporate-based. I knew one friend who had gone to the Art Institute and from what he said it seemed like a better option for me. I wanted to have control over my own films while I was making them and be able to collaborate with people I was interested in working with.

I went directly to the Institute straight out of high school. In retrospect, I probably should have taken a year off to relax; but, I'm graduating in June, so I will have been at the Institute almost four years. It's billed as a three-year program but that's if you're doing five classes every quarter and—though I actually did that for the first few quarters—it became too difficult as my studies ramped up to also hold a part-time job.

Guillén: I admire the collaborative ethos revealed at the Art Institute's recent student showcase. You, among that group, had the most evident social media skills and a keen sense of the importance of getting the word out on your film and creating an audience even before the event. I was intrigued by your multiple interviews of your main cast members and some of your crew—I've never seen so many interviews for a short film in my life!—but it was impressive, and revealed your passion and enthusiasm. Your compatriots, on the other hand, seemed to arrive to all of that much later. Was this a mutual decision on your part? Were you appointed to be the social media guy?

Mercurio: [Laughs.] Oh no, no, no. It was definitely whatever we each wanted to do by way of advertising. It wasn't a requirement by the school, in other words. It was
my choice and that choice was made due to the fact that I use social media a lot to find out about events and to network. I felt it was important to build up to the student showcase. I know for myself, when I'm really excited about a movie, I follow any tidbit I can, so how I chose to promote my own movie was exactly the same way I like films being promoted to me. That's what I kept in the back of my mind when I thought about what I wanted to do with the promotion of my film. I had already set up the website for the film before I launched the Facebook page, which I decided to launch a week before we started filming. I felt that there would be a lot of updates while we were filming.

Guillén: Do you have a sense if your strategy of promoting your film through social media and involving your audience by Facebook updates actually helped to bring the audience in to the showcase? You guys were standing room only!

Mercurio: Yeah, that was great!

Guillén: I've never seen the VIZ Cinema that full.

Mercurio: I'd never seen it that full either. I was humbled by how many people showed up.

Guillén: And as I was sitting there eavesdropping in the audience, you clearly had a sizeable contingent there to support you. Did your strategy of promotion via social media work or do you just have a large body of friends who support your projects?

Mercurio: I'm sure it's a mixture of both. There definitely were close friends who were going to go no matter what.

Guillén: Also admirable in the collaborative ethos among the films in the student showcase was the sense that you were each there—not only with your own film—but with your contributions to the films of your colleagues so that, in effect, you each brought something like five films to the showcase. It was almost funny as the credits were rolling after each film to see your names shifting around between duties. Was that collaboration a natural consequence of moving through the program at approximately the same time?

Mercurio: It's a natural thing. We just all worked together pretty often and it became natural that we would want to work with each other on our own and on each others' projects. For me, all the projects I worked on I believed in and I wanted to help out however I could.

Guillén: So as you're all getting ready to graduate from the program and your thesis films are looming on the horizon, and there's only a handful of you that are going to graduate, is it requisite to work with each other or can you pull people in from outside the program?

Mercurio: It's whoever you want to work with. The Institute is pretty open to that. You have to make your film and you pick the people that you want to work with. Generally, it's people that you've worked with before. When I picked the crew for
Nuclear Family, it was people I had worked with before and trusted and those were the exact people I wanted to work with. They were all first choice people.

Guillén: Do you guys intend to keep working together as a collaborative ensemble?

Mercurio: I definitely want to keep working with everybody I've been working with.

Guillén: Nuclear Family is a wry satire achieved through a mature, finished feel in its production value. I got the sense the script had been worked on for quite a while, the performances were solid, and the editing, pacing and sound were great. Often with student films, those are the key elements that are dead giveaways of amateurs. What particularly came across as a signature touch was the mottling effect in the cinematography during the flashback sequences. Is there a term for what you were doing there?

Mercurio: My friend Wilfred Galila once called it "the cerebral interludes of the main character" and I loved that, so I like to call them cerebral interludes. I collaborated with Dana Shaw on those particular sequences. I knew there were a couple of moments in the film where I wanted to enter his mind and, to me, when you think about things, you don't think about them in a clear sense as you experience them; you think about them as a gestating series of images.

While we were shooting I had Wilfred, my DP, shoot things around the house, the yard especially, the sky and the grass, the hills, and the sunset, so that—throughout the whole filming process—I ended up with these little bits and clips of things that the main character would see and experience. Then I pieced those together by roughly overlaying them. Initially, I didn't know if that was going to be it, if it was just going to be that, but then watching it a few times I felt it was still incomplete. It didn't feel as cohesive as I wanted it to be. So I talked to Dana—especially after seeing some of his work with celluloid film and Super8 on
Keeping It Reel—and I wanted him to do something practical over those sequences. I didn't want to just throw a digital effect on it.

Guillén: It felt like film.

Mercurio: Yeah, exactly. I wanted it to feel like a memory. Memories can feel older and I think people associate "older" with film. Basically I wanted it to have a handmade and smooth feel. Dana added the colorful stuff going on through a filter on top of it.

Guillén: You were shooting digitally, however?

Mercurio: Oh, yeah, yeah. All five films in the student showcase were shot on the Canon 70, an HD DSLR camera.

Guillén: Speak about the genesis of the story.

Mercurio: The story started with the characters. Basically, I outlined the characters back in the Summer of 2009. I wasn't sure if I was going to go further with those ideas or not; but, I did. It started with the Mom character (Keely Dervin) and I was fleshing out this idea that there would be this upper class family that protects everything from their kids. Initially, I just wanted to make a satire about rich people.

Guillén: Thematically, another element I appreciated in your film is something I've discussed now and again with my friend Stephen Parr about how people are so plugged into their iPods that they've lost an understanding of the true meaning of sound. I liked how you contrasted the scene where Marc was looking out over the valley, headphones on, with the scene where he's looking out without them and—as if for the first time—truly listening to the different sounds of the world around him. Do you have any preference towards fiction or documentary work?

Mercurio: I definitely want to stay with fiction. I enjoy writing and directing. I enjoy the whole process. I wrote, directed and edited, which is the lead role in all three stages of pre-production, production, and post-production. I'm kind of a control freak with my own films; even as I want to collaborate.
Nuclear Family was actually the first time where I had a full crew. With my previous film Frank's Mug, there was a crew of five people; but, basically I realized it was me taking on too much. I also produced that film. By comparison, Nuclear Family was nice for being more collaborative. I had a DP for the first time and it was great being able to talk to my DP about the look of the film and to trust him. Wilfred and I have worked a lot together in this last year at the Art Institute and so we have a good understanding of each others' work. We barely had to say anything about each others' project and instantly knew what we were each going for. We had a few meetings initially about the look of Nuclear Family and from there it was smooth sailing. It's so easy to communicate with him.

Guillén: Are you taught guerrilla aesthetics at the Institute? To grab things on the fly?

Mercurio: I think now more than ever it's easy to tell stories in digital short form with HD DSLRs in particular. You can create a story in the beginning of the day and get a lot done and it looks good enough so where people can just enjoy the story and not deal with technical problems. There's so much to watch on YouTube that the second you rise above even a little bit beyond that, people pay attention more, instantly, and they take your stories more to heart. It's actually easier now more than ever to create a quick story like that.

Guillén: You used Vimeo to promote Nuclear Family; but, do you think of it only for promotion? Would you make films purposely to stream on Vimeo?

Mercurio: I would use it, for sure. If
Vimeo were to contact me to include my film in one of their festivals, I would. Vimeo is growing and it feels like the content there is a little bit above YouTube, a bit more crafted.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

SFIFF54—Frako Loden Reviews A Dozen

For this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54), I have yet to go on a screener binge—that starts later today—so I'll be attending festival screenings and, I hope, have more to say in a few days. I did manage to see four of the films at Palm Springs in January, attend some press screenings last week, and don't feel inhibited from praising the two for which I wrote catalogue notes. So here goes, from the least to the best.

Mike Mills's Beginners fits the Opening Night slot perfectly. It has big-name actors (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer) and "addresses" big subjects like fathers coming out of the closet only to be diagnosed with a terminal disease. At the same time it displays traits of the indie film like pensive voiceovers ("This is the sun in 2003. This is the sun in 1955"), cutesy drawings ("The History of Sadness") and a subtitled Jack Russell terrier. Overall these mock-cheery devices can't surmount the mopey gloom of its younger protagonist, and the film's subtly condescending attitude toward gays reflects that of the resentful son before, and not after, his reconciliation.

I have to admit that I didn't take notes during my Palm Springs viewings of Life, Above All and The Light Thief. But I remember coming away a bit let down by both. Each is a humanist celebration of the individualistic spirit against forces of intolerance or greedy developers.
Life, Above All (Oliver Schmitz), Best Foreign Film Oscar® nominee, is about a young South African girl determined to care for her AIDS-infected mother despite social ostracism, and The Light Thief is the moniker of a Kyrgyz man (played by director Aktan Arym Kubat) risking electrocution to steal juice for his fellow villagers. Powerful performances by the principals always trump a predictable plot, and the triumph of the human spirit always makes up for the harsh miserabilism we've had to witness. Black Bread (Agustí Villaronga) shares Fascist villain Sergi López with Guillermo Del Toro's more surreal Pan's Labyrinth, as well as a child protagonist facing evil Franco nationalists in a post-Civil War Catalan forest. The newer film is darker and more austere than its predecessor because the boy has no fantasy universe to flee to when the real world becomes too cruel.

Incendies was more than just disappointing—it even angered me a little. Canadian Denis Villeneuve's Polytechnique, about the 1989 Montreal university massacre of 14 women, was one of my favorite films of 2009, so I eagerly anticipated his next, which was nominated for a 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar®.
Incendies' plot involves a young woman fulfilling her late mother's will, which stipulates delivery of letters to a father she didn't know was still alive and another brother she didn't know existed. First she has to travel to an unnamed Middle Eastern country (Jordan doubling for Lebanon) to discover the secret of her mother's past. The difficulty of learning the truth is compounded by her not knowing Arabic, a problem that is usually tossed aside in more facile films. The daughter revisits key locations in her mother's life and, later joined by her twin brother and their notary, uncovers a shattering revelation that explains her mother's final wish.

What I liked about
Polytechnique is that it didn't try to explain the motives of a young man who would target so many women for termination. What I didn't like about Incendies was its over-explanation and plot contrivance. It strained unnecessarily for Greek-tragic significance in showing the senselessness of religious conflict, and I could see the stretch marks too easily.

Yves Saint Laurent L'Amour Fou (Pierre Thoretton) tells the life and career of the French couturier from the point of view of his husband and business partner of 50 years, Pierre Bergé. Like Bergé, the film is haughty and tightly controlled with occasional bursts of color and emotion. The designer remains the pathologically shy, mysterious enigma who brilliantly succeeded Christian Dior in his early 20s and led haute couture into the middle class despite personal demons and substance abuse. A major tranche of the documentary involves the 2008 sale of the couple's art collection, which allows us peeks into several of their palatial residences, including one containing rooms devoted to the characters in Proust's novels.

The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi) explores the role that cell-phone cameras,
Twitter feeds and blogging played in the days before and after the 2009 election campaign in Iran, when the rigged re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triggered a youthful populist anger that exploded in massive street revolts. Young people who had idealistically gotten out the vote now documented paramilitary-squad beatings and shootings by the minute, witnessing a revolution that failed but always threatens to return. It's an exciting combination of traditional documentary, animation and street dispatches that put the viewer in the middle of history.

Unhappily, I dozed through bits of Göran Hugo Olsson's Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which may be why I thought the film was disjointed. But a better reason in its favor is that the documentary is made up of segments from Swedish television reportage, whose cumulative effect is to show us what American mainstream media was never willing to reveal: the intellectual foundations of the Black Power movement. The occasional naïveté of the Scandinavian journalists even enhances the material, forcing us to look at domestic activists in a new and more respectful way. The opening footage of Stokely Carmichael speaking on nonviolence, and then interviewing his mother to extract the desired answers, are particular highlights. They're cause for regret that our own national discourse didn't allow for thinkers like Carmichael and Angela Davis, even today, to speak for themselves.

The South Korean End of Animal (Jo Sung-hee), whose title I still don't understand (a dog does figure in the plot), remains terribly gripping in my memory even though I saw it on screener. A slight letdown at the end doesn't erase the intense suspense of earlier scenes in which we wait along with the heavily pregnant teenage heroine for the repercussions of some kind of apocalypse. We're inclined, as in any ordinary horror film, to yell "Stay in the car!" at her, but the consequence of her wanderings steers us away from our expectations like a map that tells lies.

Also against my expectations—how could a road trip with two middle-aged guys eating at English country inns be funny?—Michael Winterbottom's The Trip had me howling with laughter all the way through. I treated the unsatirical presentation of trendy cuisine, and the fairly unfunny cell-phone conversations they have with their womenfolk, as brief breaks so I could catch my breath. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's competitive impressions of Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins and especially an irate Michael Caine are hilarious, yet at the same time show how solipsistic and anachronistic the men sound to the younger women they think they're entertaining. As Steve Seid says it may be "a foodie version of
Sideways," but this one is drier, subtler and feels no need for a pat resolution.

Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is probably the only 3-D film you need to watch this year. The postscript involving mutant albino alligator doppelgangers is a bit forced even for Herzog, but it only comes at the end of an enthralling exploration of hitherto unseen art that will change your notion of humans who painted on cave walls over 30,000 years ago. The images of woolly mammoths, cave lions, rhinos, horses, bulls and a woman's torso among the lovely formations of the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc caves of southern France evoke a romanticism and modernism that Herzog thinks must have existed in the minds of our prehistoric ancestors. The 3-D feels exactly right for the subject—it follows the convex contours of the art and helps extend the filmic space in claustrophobic interiors—and Herzog does have occasional fun with the technology, but not as a special effect.

Finally, Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino) is an ineffable journey through the elements, an allegory of reincarnation in a rural Italian landscape that will evoke wonder for the viewer who isn’t expecting a call or needs to get to another screening real soon. It may even have the power to banish those thoughts in a simple story of an old man, his irritable dog, his goats, his snails and the tree that towers over them all. I loved this film and will carry the memory of it through the seasons.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

ROXIE / ATA: PLAYBACK (2006-2010)—An Evening Class Question For Three "Personal" Filmmakers

Invited by curators Isabel Fondevila and Shae Green to attend ATA: Playback (2006-2010)—their retrospective screening celebrating the first five years of the ATA Annual Film & Video Festival—I was pleased to join an enthusiastic crowd at the Roxie Theater. Overall, Fondevila and Green engaged their audience by infusing the program with a selection of films that expressed considerable humor; a wise choice for a two-part program profiling 14 films.

There was also a multimedial dimension to the event, with Tommy Becker providing vocals for his piece
Animal, Animal, and Paul Clipson projecting his Bump Past Cut Up Through Windows on his personal 8mm projector. Becker, who has described himself as "a poet trapped in a camcorder " on his website—which, incidentally, is well worth a leisurely browse—evoked the oral cadences of a poetry scene quite popular in the Bay Area in the late '60s-early '70s and, for me, it felt nostalgic to hear his style of delivery. Clipson's 8mm short was a propulsive paean to chlorophyl with superimposed swashes of clover leaves and grass blades evincing a kinetic, Spring-like intensity; its constant movement mesmerizing (music by Tarentel, of which he's a member).

Equally hypnotic and beautiful was the balletic slo-mo violence of Federico Campanale's Kogel Vogel where the camera caresses the angularity of a gun before a bullet shatters sheets of glass in rhythmic, repetitive sequences. In Campanale's own words,
Kogel Vogel "explores the ideas of force, resistance and evolution using high-speed video, time remapping and dynamic's aesthetic."

John Palmer's
Who's Afraid cleverly employed four split screen frames allowing one actor to hilariously enact all four roles in one of the key scenes of Albee's notorious play. Guy Maddin's Sissy Boy Slap Party remains a timeless homoerotic chuckle. More laughs abound from Rachel Manera's I, A Director; a zany send-up of George Kuchar's I, An Actress.

Martha Colburn's animated Myth Labs warrants repeated viewings to appreciate its multilayered critique of meth addiction, colonial conquest and religious intervention; a truly disturbing piece masterfully executed.

Zachary Epcar's
A Time Shared Unlimited combines architectural branding from Prague (the amazing Zizkov television tower) with a narrative set in a near future that—as the Rotterdam International phrased it—"extols life's little joys, consumed alone or together." The film's ironies are delicious.

On hand to discuss their films after the program were Tommy Becker (
Animal, Animal), Douglas Katelus (the cinematographer for I, A Director), and Zachary Epcar (A Time Shared Unlimited). I asked a group question.

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Michael Guillén: Of all the different ways that you can approach film and media making, what is it about the experimental format that has caught your creativity and motivated you to work within this format?

Tommy Becker: For me it's the ability for video to be this hybrid medium that allows me to bring in elements of sound and writing and—in other videos I do—prop making and performance. Video just seems to have the ability to bring in all these mediums together for me. It's perfect for me for that.

Douglas Katelus: I prefer to use the term—and I heard it first from Bruce Baille—"personal cinema". I think the term "experimental cinema" is narrow-minded in a way. Personal cinema opens the borders to endless possibilities. There's no story structure or characters you have to deal with.

Zachary Epcar: I would second that. It's the lack of constraints, no rules, but—within personal cinema—you can still pretty much have a message there. What experimental, or personal, cinema does is that you can say that message formally as well within the structure and the way you organize the images. It's a step further for me. It's a way to explore with the formal possibilities as well as content and the subject matter.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

SFIFF54—Jackson Scarlett Flirts With French Films

[Allow me to introduce the most recent intern for The Evening Class, Jackson Scarlett, known to local cinephiles through his efforts for the Global Film Initiative and as publicity coordinator for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. We welcome his contributed focus on some of the French films programmed into the 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54).]

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My excitement over SFIFF54's announcement of Tindersticks: Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009—tempered by my disappointment that Denis herself was not expected to attend this year's festival—led to the soothing observation that in their 54th edition SFIFF's vision of French cinema intriguingly comports with Denis's own: evoking her vigilant attention to inequalities of race and class, and her ongoing preoccupation—both obscure and direct—with issues of alienation, motherhood, and genealogical quests for personal identity and meaning.

Incendies (dir. Denis Villeneuve, Canada / France, 2010)—I caught Villeneuve's latest Oscar®-nominated film in 35mm at a press screening, which was a treat. This time-spanning narrative drives its central conflict forward through an unnamed country in the Middle East, touching upon the honor of the notary code, the dislocations of religious terrorism, and family reconciliation through the revelation of long-buried secrets. It sweeps across its vast landscapes and thematic scope with seeming effortlessness. In its tale of a mother's quest to secure meaning in her own life, and her children's quest to understand their mother's deathbed instructions and—thereby—the truth of their own origins, Incendies elevates a woman's arduous individuation to adventurous heights. Already a festival highlight in my book, I'm eager to re-watch it when Sony Classics brings it out in wider release.

The Place In Between (Sarah Bouyain, France / Burkina Faso, 2010)—Presented in association with the Museum of the African Diaspora and a New Directors Prize Contender, The Place In Between treads similar territory to Incendies but through a distinct voice, humanizing the search for self-actualization through family history. The film connects the lives of two women: one who supplements her earnings as a cleaning woman by teaching Dioula in her spare time—thereby, tentatively revisiting a culture she had once abandoned—and the other who searches in a foreign land for a mother she has never known. Where conversational misunderstandings in Incendies provided grist for the mill of its roiling narrative, The Place In Between situates its most poignant moments in the spaces where language fails altogether, creating a realistic and ethnographic feel to the film that befits Bouyain's background as a documentary filmmaker. This documentary impulse, along with the film's excellent soundtrack, is where The Place In Between is at its most evocative.

The Sleeping Beauty / La Belle Endormie (Catherine Breillat, France, 2010)—Breillat's latest costumed commentary on femininity nearly obliterates the mother as it beckons a young princess—played by the undeniably talented newcomer Carla Besnaïnou—into adulthood through a string of fantastical encounters. Using a cast mostly comprised of children, the film weaves an interesting tale of adventure but fails to exercise the kind of care that elevated her last film, Bluebeard (Barbe Bleue, 2009), to headier territory. Instead, Sleeping Beauty flounders—oscillating wildly between Jan Švankmajer's sublimely surreal Alice (Něco z Alenky, 1988) and 1985's imbalanced, surreal-for-entirely-different-reasons televised version of Alice In Wonderland—until it awakens awkwardly in the present day, shedding its fairy-tale trappings for a facsimile of the harsh didacticism that made Anatomy of Hell (Anatomie de l'enfer, 2004) such a treat.

Children of the Princess of Cleves / Nous, princesses de Clèves (Régis Sauder, France, 2009)—A princess of a different sort emerges in the American premiere of this class-act documentary: an unforced inspection of a lower-tier school in Marseille whose students are studying the literary classic La Princesse de Clèves—recently revived in the French public consciousness by disparaging remarks made by President Nicolas Sarkozy—in preparation for their baccalaureate exam. In a surprisingly inspired bit of filmmaking, passages from the novel act as a formal device, sectioning the film into metaphorical frameworks for director Sauder and his subjects to organize their thoughts on school, sex, and sociality within not only the subjective context of their teenage years but also within the wide swath of France's marginalized ethnic communities. Suggestions that the all-or-nothing approach of the bac—and by extension France itself—endangers these nascent adults are left mostly to the audience, but such a connection is heavily implied in this rough but right-hearted effort.

Living on Love Alone / D'amour et d'eau fraîche (Isabelle Czajka, France, 2010)—An ugly duckling in this year's lineup, Living on Love Alone plays out typical "French" cinematic clichés: namely smoking, sex, and ennui. As it slickly switches from the tale of a rootless, promiscuous young woman to a sweet Bonnie & Clyde romance, Living On Love Alone takes pains to maintain a light tone suitable for viewing in mixed company, even as at times the quotidian criminality of George Sluizer's 1988 classic The Vanishing crept to mind.

Hands Up / Les mains en l'air (Romain Goupil, France, 2010)—Though it's the only film to directly moralize on the running themes of SFIFF's French selections this year—alienation, motherhood, and the legitimization of foreign nationals as part of French Culture—Hands Up keeps it date-night light, focusing on the reminiscence of young love and childhood's magic while infantilizing the political strife backgrounding its story as a conflict between kid-aligned mom Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi and her "evil" husband. Rich in its nostalgic mood, and sparkling with talented and adorably cute children, the kid in me wasn't satisfied with the limited payoffs of the film's clever contrivances, which ultimately fails to make hay with its innovative framing (it's narrated from the year 2067).

A Cat In Paris / Une vie de chat (Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli, France / Belgium / Netherlands / Switzerland, 2010)—Dino, the cat of record, splits his time between Nico, a skilled cat burglar, and Zoe, a young girl who—in classic cartoon tradition—wisely remains mute so that we can project only the best characteristics upon her. While there's a good deal to like, between the rather adult police thriller in which Zoe and crew find themselves embroiled, and the film's zippy chase sequences, I found myself mesmerized by Cat's lovely storybook-like animation and Nico's delightful serpentine mode of motion; wondrous to behold. Screening Out of Competition in SFIFF's New Directors sidebar.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, April 18, 2011

SFIFF54—Michael Hawley Reviews 10 Screeners

The 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54) gets underway this Thursday, April 21 and runs until May 5. Since the Opening Press Conference three weeks ago, the fest has announced that Oliver Stone will receive the 2011 Founder's Directing Award, in a program that will include an onstage interview, clips reel and screening of 1986's Salvador starring James Woods. It has also been revealed that actors Zoe Saldana (Avatar's Na'vi princess) and Clifton Collins Jr. (Perry Smith in Capote) will accept this year's Midnight Awards, in a late-night talk show-styled ceremony hosted by Beth Lisick at the W Hotel. Still waiting to be announced is the recipient of SFIFF54's Peter J. Owens Acting Award. Since posting my two-part overview of the full line-up, I've previewed 10 films on DVD screener. Here are some impressions.

The SFIFF54 Latin American selections were mostly a field of unknowns (at least to me), so priority #1 was checking out some of those. I had little interest in Tatiana Huezo's The Tiniest Place, until I read Robert Koehler's rave in an indieWire report from the recent Guadalajara Film Festival. Indeed, the film is a revelation. It's one of those documentaries that does more than cogently impart information and exists as a work of art. This is the story of Ciquera, an El Salvador mountain village that was bombed into non-existence during the country's civil war. The director starts us off in the present day, rendering a tranquil, thriving village and the quotidian goings-on of its inhabitants. Just as you become impatient and start wondering if the film is merely an innocuous ode to rurality, the villagers begin to speak—both on camera and in voiceover—of their experiences during the civil war years (1980-1992). Captivating storytellers all, their personal tales escalate in horror as the film progresses, until it becomes nearly unbearable. No archival footage is used, just some faded photographs and the villagers' words disconcertingly contrasted against the idyll of contemporary Ciquera. Miraculously, Huezo manages to end her film in a place of hope. Huezo, whom Koehler called "one of the bright new talents of Latin American cinema," will be at the festival to present her film.
The Tiniest Place is beautifully shot and will be screened in 35mm, a rarity for documentaries these days. Don't miss it.

I was also impressed by Ulysses, Oscar Godoy's fictive portrait of a Peruvian immigrant establishing a new life in Santiago, Chile. Before the opening credits, we see Julio wake up on a busy sidewalk with his head resting in a pool of blood. How this came about is never really explained, and it's the first of several nice touches of ambiguity in Godoy's screenplay.
Ulysses is more than another grim case study of a downtrodden immigrant, although there are certainly elements of that. Julio's story is more complex—a former history professor whose reasons for immigrating seem born more of escape from personal tragedy than fiscal necessity. We observe as he battles loneliness, first with prostitutes and then in a promising relationship with a music store clerk, and watch as he gradually improves his economic lot. The result is a quietly heartbreaking, but ultimately optimistic film that achieves its full power cumulatively.

Two other Latin American films are recommended as well. Alejandro Chomski's Asleep in the Sun plays like a sumptuously art-directed
Twilight Zone episode involving dogs, trepanation and the migration of "diseased" souls. Then in Carlos César Arbeláez' straightforward but affecting The Colors of the Mountain, a Colombian boy's new soccer ball gets booted into a minefield, an apt metaphor for a place where adults navigate the treacherous choice between allegiance to guerrillas and government soldiers. Young actor Hernán Mauricio Ocampo is unforgettable in the lead role.

Every year the SFIFF line-up includes a few movies—about the movies. And Mila Turajlic's Cinema Komunisto is "the story of a country that no longer exists, except in the movies." In 1948, Marshal Tito's slightly more benevolent brand of Yugoslav communism caused a rift with the USSR. The Soviets stopped the flow of Russian films to the renegade republic, and of course, Hollywood happily filled the void. Soon Yugoslavia developed its own successful homegrown industry of WWII "partisan" films, which helped kickstart an era of international co-productions. Starting with Jack Cardiff's
The Long Ships in 1962, these epics brought in western currency and jet-setting movie stars. Tito himself was a movie buff, handpicking Richard Burton to star in The Battle of Sutjeska, a hagiographic biopic about Tito's WWII exploits. Providing a nifty frame of reference in Cinema Komunisto is Levic Konstantinovic, Tito's personal projectionist for 32 years who asserts that he screened 8,801 films for the leader between 1949 and 1980. His personal recollections, combined with choice movie clips and archival materials, make this a breezy examination of one nation's brief cinematic legacy.

If you've seen the films of Wong Kar-wai, Hirokazu Koreeda, Tran Anh Hung, Jian Wen and especially Hou Hsiou-hsien, you've no doubt exalted in the visual aesthetics of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin. In Kwan Pun-leung and Chang Hsiu-chiung's documentary Let the Wind Carry Me, they seek insight into the Taiwanese DP's artistry, which Lee himself ascribes to a balance between "visual poetry and realism." All the aforementioned directors go on camera to discuss Lee's artistry and work methods, praising his use of natural and household light, and his adaptability to fickle weather conditions. Actors Shu Qi and Romain Duris speak of his ability to accommodate his camera to their movements, which Mark claims is unintentional and unconscious. For me, it was a pleasure to finally see the man who's given me so many moments of cinematic ecstasy, like for starters, the opening scene of Hou's
Millennium Mambo with Shu Qi's trance-inducing strut along a neon-lit urban skywalk. Lee, it turns out, is a long-haired, bearded man with a rugged frame and deep voice who speaks about how pottery taught him color and how his chosen profession is a lonely one (he has an American wife and young son who live in L.A.). Unfortunately for a film about someone as visionary as Lee, this documentary is somewhat perfunctory and artless, filled with static talking heads, awkward edits, ill-fitting music cues and moments of superfluousness. Also, many of the clips are of poor quality, at least on the DVD screener I watched (but verified by Russell Edwards in his Variety review from the Tokyo Film Festival).

Of the 10 films I previewed, the biggest surprise was Hong Sang-soo's Hahaha. I am not a fan of this Korean director's work. For me, they have an exasperating sameness—full of immature, narcissistic, sexist, alcoholic intellectuals and their codependent female counterparts, all rampaging through fractured narrative structures. Hahaha has all of that, but it's been dialed way down. There's almost—dare I say—a sweetness to it, making this the first Hong film I've enjoyed without reservations. Here's the set-up. Two friends, an unemployed wannabe film director who's about to emigrate to Canada, and a depressed, married film critic meet for drinks to reminisce about their summer holidays in the port city of Tongyeong. This reunion is only heard in voiceover, and only seen via B&W snapshots. The bulk of the film consists of their separate tales being dramatized on-screen. It's a bit confounding how the two narrative strands connect until Hong slips in a revelatory a-ha moment and then runs with it for the film's duration. If you've never seen a Hong Sang-soo film, this would make as good an entry point as any.

I previewed two more documentaries and one narrative feature. From French actor/director Romain Goupil comes Hands Up, a timely tale of 5th graders plotting to prevent the capture and deportation of a Chechen classmate. It's like a classic caper film as conceived by the minds of stealthy children, with coded text messages and ring tones only kids can hear. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is wonderful as always, playing the cool Mom who's in on it. Also from France is the documentary Detroit Wild City, an outsider's portrait of a city that's lost 25 percent of its population in the last decade and where nature is reclaiming its stake. Director / cinematographer Florent Tillon has a tremendous skill for photographing the city's once-majestic buildings now in ruin, as well as an eye for the absurd (a bus whose sign alternately flashes "Have a nice day" and "Not in service"). The film's profiles of Detroit's remaining denizens, however, vary greatly in interest and relevance—a major exception being a poetic young urban explorer whose observations and laments perfectly compliment Tillon's visuals.

And finally there's The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, Marie Losier's oddly touching documentary about industrial music pioneer Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV). While the film begins with a nifty overview of his music career, the greater part is given to P-Orridge's all-consuming relationship with Lady Jaye, a nurse / dominatrix almost half his age who died in 2007. "You know how it is. You fall in love madly with someone and there's this moment when you just want consume each other and not be individuals anymore. We wanted to pursue that. Not just talk about it, but live it." And "living it" involved extensive plastic surgery, matching breast implants and beauty mark tattoos, not to mention identical hairdos and wardrobes. Losier effectively uses a mix of home movies, interviews and concert footage to recount this strange tale in a completely non-judgmental way.

Cross-published on Twitch.