Tuesday, December 24, 2013

LISTS: My 10 Favorite Conversations For 2013

Any kind of love transforms over time, especially a love for film. Several elements of that transformation have become clear to me within this past year. I've let go all pretensions of being a film critic, particularly a front line reviewer, as the acumen required for such a task exceeds the irresponsible disregard I prefer as a committed film enthusiast. Silence remains the best critique I have for a film (and I have been silent on oh so many films this year), whereas finding a poetic phrase to capture the pleasurable experience of a film fulfills my spectatorial, if not critical, intent. Critic, enthusiast; one a kind of tough love, and the other an embrace of sorts. I maintain that all reactions, written as well as possible, contribute just what they are to just what this is. Perhaps not more but notably not less.

So just what is this everchanging medium? This so-called seventh art? At a holiday dinner the other night I expressed the lack of pleasure I feel in watching so many of the films that are coming out commercially, released wave after wave in purposeful barrage. I walk out of theaters dazzled, titillated, shocked, and confronted by technical efficiency and wizardry, stunned by effects that render my imagination more and more passive, desirous of performers that become increasingly buffed up and botoxed year after year, appreciative of a narrative twist in the tale here and there. And yet by the time I reach the front door of the theater, whatever catharsis has been manufactured dissipates. Sometimes I don't even make it past the lobby before it's gone. I'm left with a nagging feeling of not having been satisfied by the in-cinema experience, so I'll go home to my streaming services—Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Warner Brothers Archive—and find some effort from the '70s and '80s to satisfy my lingering hunger.

Were the films better made back then? Were the stories more interesting? Were the actors braver in their performance choices? Or is my pleasure simply that I don't have to do anything about watching an older film? Is that it? Is the pleasure that I don't have to argue the merits of a theatrical release with a 1000 other bloggers who want to be the first to foist their opinion, but whose foisted opinions remind me of those attacking antibodies that wrapped themselves around Raquel Welch to smother her in Fantastic Voyage (1966)? Do too many opinions too fast kill the movies we love? Probably not. Does critical consensus calcify our choices? Probably not. Still, I continue to resist year-end lists of the best and worst, only because they are neither, and because they are boring for circulating the same five films ad nauseum. Reduction as a process of achieving the best has long struck me as an overrated alchemical collusion with the studios. I'd rather abandon the best and pursue my favorites in an ever expansive pursuit. Part of my enthusiasm for film insists upon giving props to those projects that won't make it within 20 feet of the duly annointed, like those back-up singers who negotiate stardom (one of my favorite, most pleasurable films of the year, incidentally). For me, escaping consensus is more interesting because, face it, I was never one of the popular kids, their concerns were never mine, and probably never will be.

So whereas the hundreds of movies that come out each year resemble a catch of fish released on the deck of a trawler, a kind of Leviathan horror, with critics keening like seagulls after a bit of blood and gut, I turn and catch my footing to face the personalities that populate this ongoing haul. Because that's where I am truly fascinated. The people behind film—who make them, write them, edit them, star in them, create effects and music and light, who distribute them, program them, beat the drum about them, and stand in line for them—this is, for me, my favorite part of the whole fishing expedition. "Fishing for a good time," says the old Tom Waits tune, "starts with throwing in your line" and that's how I feel each time I approach someone for a conversation. Because that's another distinction that has become clear to me over time. I'm not interested in interviews anymore; but, I pursue conversations. Here are ten of my favorites from 2013.

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Anita Monga. Shifting away from the San Francisco Bay Area brought into focus all the City meant to me in the three decades I lived there, particularly those early years when I answered the beacon sent out over the States to come to the City to create and become myself. Diversions seemed more important than goals back in the mid-'70s, and they were easily found at the multitude of repertory theaters cast around each of San Francisco's neighborhoods. What can I say? I took these movie theaters totally for granted until they started disappearing one by one, such that now I am keenly aware of having participated in something that no longer exists, sentimental and nostalgic by default, and eager to capture that history before it recedes much further. Likewise, inspired by the Film Festival Yearbook publication on archival film festivals, I felt compelled to investigate the transmigration of repertory programming into archival film festivals within San Francisco's cinematic landscape.

As with any thriving cultural scene, there were key players, Anita Monga being foremost among them. I had been wanting to sit down to converse with Anita for a long time but she's been fairly evasive over the years. Thus, I was delighted that Karen Larsen arranged our conversation to discuss the Silent Film Festival's "Silent Winter" program. And am even more delighted, after the fact, to congratulate Anita for being inducted this year into the San Francisco Film Society's "Essential SF" roster of honorees. Well-deserved and long overdue.

My favorite quote of Anita's from our conversation: "My approach was to put together the most interesting programs and plumb the kind of history of films for ones that I felt people needed to see to be—I never thought of this as an educational process, but—there are films that people need to see. Everyone needs to see Citizen Kane. To be a well-rounded human being, and to understand Western culture, you need to see certain films, as well as read certain books. So I guess that was my approach. I don't mean to sound like I was thinking didactically at the time; but, definitely for me it was a process of sharing films with people."

Elliot Lavine. Is there a year that goes by where a conversation with Elliot Lavine is not one of my favorite conversations of the year? This gregarious raconteur has kept me entertained over a cup of coffee hours at a time. Eager to include him in my research on repertory programming and archival film festivals, and to discuss his most recent pre-Code program at the Roxie Theater--"Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darker, Nastier!!"--Elliot and I met at Valencia's Four Barrel. My thanks to Susie Gerhard and Fandor's Keyframe for promoting our conversation.

My favorite quote of Elliot's: "In terms of the archival festival and its obligation to its audience, it's a strong obligation. Yet it's not a fundamentally necessary obligation. I'm of the belief that people should be willing to discover these films. They shouldn't necessarily be led to them, as if to say, 'This is good for you and you must come to take notes and study it and think about it and discuss it with your friends afterwards.' I would rather avoid that. Even though I teach film classes, what I try to impress upon my students is, 'Let your eyes do the work for you. Don't worry about meaning and subtext until later after you've had a chance to absorb your experience of the film. Some of these films will have no meaning for you whatsoever. And some of the least suspecting films are going to change your lives. Some little B-movie from 1939 is going to make you reappraise everything you've thought about art, whereas you're going to sit through some acknowledged classic and fall asleep.' So I would rather not be put in the position of educating audiences about film."

Joel Shepard. Champion of the thriving film scene in the Philippines, Joel Shepard has brought the best from that country two years running and with a third edition on the horizon. Ever interested in national cinemas, I welcomed the opportunity to talk to Joel about his latest programming coup.

My favorite quote of Joel's: "I've always been a little bit uncomfortable with the term 'curator', which seems to me to be a term that comes more from the visual arts of the museum and gallery worlds. I've never been sure exactly how it fits in to film. To be honest, it's always struck me as a little pretentious."

Rola Nashef. I had several excellent conversations at the second annual International Film Festival in Panama: most notably, with the festival's fêted guest Geraldine Chaplin; Ben Lewin, director of The Sessions; and Rodrigo H. Vila and Fabian Matus for Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America. Those have all been pitched and are awaiting publication; but, one of my favorite conversations was with first-time filmmaker Rola Nashef who brought Detroit Unleaded to Panama and, in the process, became a friend. Charming, hilarious, and a bright brave spirit, I transcribed our conversation to time with the film's L.A. premiere.

My favorite quote of Rola's: "I've been receiving emails from young Arab American women who have only seen the trailer and tell me, 'I can't believe this movie exists.' I know that when I was growing up, I never saw anyone that looked like me, or any family that looked like mine, or representation of any of the issues I was dealing with, and—if they were—the representations were completely racist. It was a twofold phenomenon: we were either completely missing or completely bombarded with negative and racist imagery. So where was everybody inbetween? My absolute 'favorite' is the apologetic explanation for terrorist images. 'No, no, no, we're perfect. We are pious and religious and perfect people.' That's boring! Nobody's perfect."

Ted Hope. His short-lived term as Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society nonetheless produced one of my favorite events of the year: the A2E (Artist to Entrepeneur) Direct Distribution Lab, held during the 56th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival.  I'm grateful to Bill Proctor for setting up this conversation and to Susie Gerhard for promoting the piece on Fandor's Keyframe.

My favorite quote of Ted's: "The important thing for creative people to recognize is that the business of filmmaking is one of relationship with their community. Previously, we saw our business as that work product, generally the feature film, not the relationship of it. As a result, we reinvented the wheel time and time again. We built up the same audience each time that we did it, whether it was our own films, or films of a similar nature. We did not maintain—or even give room to participate—for folks from the outside world; but, the goal I think is that ultimately communities take responsibility for the things that they want. What that means is we move from being a passive consumer culture to an active participatory culture where part of being a community is also being a patron of the things that you care about, whether it's in the film space or any other cultural / societal / social enterprise. We have to make the things that we want happen. We can't wait for them to arrive. The beauty of the era we're living in is that we actually now have the tools, the connectability, to actually make what we want happen. If you want this movie that you love to be seen in Thailand, your enthusiasm and passion with a little bit of effort can make that happen. That bridge that you built now can be reinforced and used by a whole bunch of folks. Soon those friends of yours in Thailand are seeing a flow of the movies they were denied before."

Rama Burshstein and Hadas Yaron. I met with both Rama Burshstein and Hadas Yaron in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel during the 56th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival where Burshstein's film Fill the Void was featured in the festival's New Directors sidebar. Fill the Void was an intimate glimpse into an unfamiliar culture, which remains one of the main reasons I watch film. My thanks to Karen Larsen for facilitating our conversation.

My favorite quote of Rama's: "I'll speak freely, having sex with someone is about that specific time you're having sex with someone. But having sex is a lifetime thing. Sometimes it's nothing and it doesn't work. Sometimes it's beautiful. The way it works doesn't necessarily have to be beautiful and then it doesn't work. Sometimes it doesn't work in the beginning and it becomes beautiful. When you commit, it's not about now. That commitment is to the road, and that road has so many things that nobody's leaving. Nobody's going. Nobody's wondering, 'Oh, will he call me tomorrow after we've had bad sex?' No. You have bad sex and then you work on it until you have good sex. Commitment revives love, but not in just a romantic way. Commitment doesn't let love go. You work at it. You understand it. You make it better. Imagine you're stranded on an island until the day you die and no one is ever going to rescue you, and you're there with someone. It doesn't matter who that someone is. They will be lover and friend for your life, you and him, that's it. Even the genders don't really matter—you could be homosexual: a man with a man, a woman with a woman—or a man with a woman, but that's the person you have to work with. And it will work, right? Because that's the power of commitment. But I can understand the fear of commitment."

Ulrich Seidl. My conversation with the fascinating Ulrich Seidl was brought to me by Marcus Hu of Strand Releasing who invited me to speak with Seidl. Nothing confirms my worth as a writer more than having a champion like Marcus who believes in my work, and I am grateful to him for his trust. I was excited by the opportunity because I had long wanted to pursue a line of inquiry with Seidl regarding the painterly in film composition.

My favorite quote of Ulrich's: "My visual style was present from the very beginning with my first film. At the same time, my interest in film developed only after my initial interest in painting and photography. The environment is important to me and that's why it's so present in my films because the environment says a lot about the protagonists moving through it. Over the years I've been able to perfect my tableau images to create a more concise answer to the questions I have about the world. My films are a product of two different elements. The first is so-called documentary film, which remains for me the way you capture things as they happen, but which also allows a lot of room for chance. The other element is a more artificial and artistic element. Much like a painter composing a painting, I am able to make choices about the decoration and the lighting."

Photo: Matthew Wordell
Joel Nagle and Amadeus Serafini. As I like to balance international film making with regional film making, living part-time in Idaho affords the opportunity to discover local projects with national and/or international potential. One of those would be Smoke, a short film directed by Cody Gittings and Stephen Heleker adapted from Alan Heathcock's short story of the same name. The film was shot this summer in Idaho and I am grateful to Heathcock for inviting me to the wrap party to have the chance to converse with the film's two lead actors. Smoke is currently submitting to film festivals and I'm crossing my fingers that the project is recognized and sent on circuit.

A favorite quote from Amadeus: "You have to be able to feel for the character and understand what they're going through to feel it yourself and to recreate it. Then, of course, being in the location or forcing the physicality upon yourself that the character experiences pushes you. It might sound silly to people who aren't in film, but a lot of arbitrary action gets you there. You may not be sad but try to cry. Once you start crying and start thinking about the character and about their back story, you can invent anything you want about their life to get there."

A favorite quote from Joel: "You're always going to have bumps and things that happen; but, what kept me coming back—after I'd walked away from things that had gone a little off—was the passion. Everyone was so genuine and supportive. They felt it. When people don't have that passion, when they don't feel that, and there are mishaps or miscommunications, that's when it gets really discouraging as an actor because you go, 'Wow. There's not even passion.' Passion helps you through miscommunication or rocky times."

Shirley Jones and Ben Mankiewicz. Because of my resistance to the whole publicity machine that surrounds films, an initial conversation I have with someone—as with Shirley Jones and Ben Mankiewicz—might be delayed in the press of events and miss its original (if intended) window. Then it becomes an exercise in finding the next window of opportunity to transcribe and place the piece. I spoke with Shirley and Ben back in April 2011 when Turner Classic Movies (TCM) was promoting their "Road to Hollywood" series in anticipation of the Turner Classic Film Festival. Missing my first window, I then waited, and waited, and suddenly this summer Shirley Jones wrote an autobiography and TCM featured her during its "Summer Under the Stars" program. Aha!! I leapt.

A favorite quote from Shirley: "I was in San Francisco doing my nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy when Burt Lancaster called me. He said, 'Hello, is this Shirley Jones?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'This is Burt Lancaster' and I said, 'Sure it is' and I hung up. Fortunately, he called back and he said, 'Shirley, this is Burt Lancaster. We're doing the film Elmer Gantry. Go get the Sinclair Lewis novel and read it. I want you for the role of Lulu Bains. I would like you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard Brooks. I'm co-producing with him and I'm playing Elmer Gantry.' He said, 'I think you'd be wonderful in the part.' Well, I ran out and got the novel and read it that day. I couldn't believe he was thinking of me for this role. I was thrilled to pieces, you know? Because, as I said, being a singer, I was never thought of as an actress and my career was virtually over at that point."

Ninetto Davoli. When Jonathan Marlow asked me if I would be willing to talk to Ninetto Davoli during the Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective in the Bay Area, I said yes as a favor to him because Jonathan has long been one of my champions and one of my best friends. But I didn't know anything about Davoli and I had watched very few Pasolini films. But, as ever, Jonathan steered me right. Preparing for this conversation was one of the most pleasurable cinephilic experiences ever as I massaged Pasolini's work and culled out the resonant value of his relationship with Ninetto Davoli. Pasolini swiftly rose in my appreciation as I found his films beautiful. And Ninetto's vivacity and charm provided a wonderful morning in the Italian Cultural Institute. My thanks to Marlow, Fandor, Keyframe, Karen Larsen, and Amelia Antonucci of the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco for offering me this gift.

A favorite quote of Ninetto's: "Pasolini was not a cheerful person. Quite the opposite. He was, for instance, very shy. When he met me, it was like meeting himself as a younger person, as a boy. He saw in me the joy that he would have liked to have had, but hadn't had. He saw the cheerful boy that he would have wanted to be but now could no longer be. He suffered a lot as a child. He was the son of a school teacher and a colonel in the Army. He had a conflicted relationship with his father Carlo and this traumatized him; it stayed with him. His father had a commanding air. He was authoritarian, strict and austere. It was from his mother Susanna that he received tenderness, understanding and compassion. She was all that he loved. He adored her his entire life. In meeting me, he encountered the joy of living."

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