Sunday, May 17, 2015


Responding to his first edition at the helm of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Executive Director Noah Cowan asserted, "We are especially proud of the series of dynamic expanded conversations using film as a conduit to discuss the key issues and obsessions of contemporary culture."

Case in point would be the Live & Onstage program "Boomtown: Remaking San Francisco", which addressed the ever-shifting economy of San Francisco through a variety of perspectives. Audiences absorbed Tim Redmond's housing crisis analysis, which was as much a rousing call to awareness and engaged action as it toned the stage for the following presenters, who included chanting transgender Black Lives Matter protestors. After their shameful treatment by entitled white gay male patrons of Toad Hall in San Francisco's Castro district, I was heartened that they were provided access and voice at SFIFF and must give a hearty shout-out to Sean Uyehara and the SFIFF programming team for their commendable solidarity, whose programming efforts this year offered insight into one of our country's most divisive issues through such probing documentaries as What Happened, Miss Simone?, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets.

The Boomtown program likewise included two works in progress: Joseph Talbot's The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Susie Smith and Lauren Tabak's Never a Cover, which chronicled the closure of the Lexington, San Francisco's last lesbian bar. Both projects focus on economic forces diminishing San Francisco's once-rich minority diversity. Also on the program was Elisabeth Spencer's Sutro Tower: From Eyesore to Icon, mounted just a few years before I arrived in San Francisco (I recall heated dinner conversations on the subject) and West is San Francisco: A Symphony in Kodachrome (B. Berzins, Jim Granato, Nicole Minor, Doug Schultz, Anjali Sundaram and Phoebe Tooke), which greeted the audience as they found their seats.

Wrapping up the program were poetic, if nostalgic, elegies to San Francisco's shifting cityscape. Noticeably absent was Dolissa Medina's incandescent The Crow Furnace (2015), whose tagline—"All skylines frame spectacles of loss"—would have been appropriate company for Vero Majano's storytelling over Mission archival footage and Jenni Olson's narrative over San Francisco images in clips from The Royal Road.

The Royal Road (dir. Jenni Olsen, 2015)—Situated in SFIFF's new Vanguard sidebar, Jenni Olson's critically lauded The Royal Road (2015) offered its own take-away tagline: "Self-discovery is a civic value." That line resonated with me for days after seeing Olson's remarkable essay film, which risks the ephemeral with brave mindfulness. Like hundreds of others, I arrived in SF in 1975 and participated in the cultural project of transforming the city through the youthful exploratory process of becoming ourselves. And like so many others, I am disheartened how the city we built is being methodically dismantled by economic forces that have heartlessly turned so many of us into economic exiles (myself included). Like the best of historians, Jenni Olson abstracts the ephemeral into structured moments of observed time and place, relevant to the ongoing practice of witness.

Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents (dir. Don Hardy, Jr., 2015)—Less poetic in its treatment of San Franciscan history, Don Hardy's profile of The Residents nonetheless evokes an anarchic spirit of artistry unfettered from commercial ambitions. If no questions were answered by the documentary, it purposely comports with the art project's obfuscating mission to eschew answers. Despite knowing this, the film was oddly dissatisfying for riddling the purview. Still, it was great to see former Pacific Film Archive curator Steve Seid offer some grounding context.

Cibo Matto New SceneI was absolutely blown away by Cibo Matto's New Scene film and music presentation. Not only my favorite event of this edition of SFIFF, but quite possibly one of my favorites throughout the many years I've been attending. A perfect blend of cutting edge sound matched to such cinema treasures as Marcel Duchamp's Anemic Cinema (1926), Yoko Ono's tickling Fly (1970), Miwa Matreyek's eye-opening Lumerence (2012), and the dazzling modern re-staging of celebrated Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet, whose costumed choreography elevates mise en scène towards hypnotic transfixion. Beautifully energizing. Fantastic programming, Sean Uyehara! You've outdone yourself!

Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad, 2014)—If Cibo Matto's New Scene was my favorite event at SFIFF, Bill Pohlad's marquee presentation of Love & Mercy (2014) emerged from the surf as my favorite film of the festival. I watched it twice and look forward to seeing it again upon its theatrical release. An ingenious revamp of the bio pic genre, Love & Mercy profiles The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson through Oren Moverman's successful device of dividing representation among multiple actors; a device familiar to fans of the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, and just as effective in Love & Mercy. Paul Dano (as the youthful Wilson) and John Cusack (as Wilson in his later years) embody Wilson with ranged experience; but, the real discovery here is the Oscar®-worthy supporting turn of Elizabeth Banks who remedies the film's narrative plight with humor and a fierce heart.

The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt, 2015)—As the celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace, Jason Segel offers his most accomplished performance to date in James Ponsoldt's thoughtful biopic The End of the Tour (2015). Wallace captured the world's attention with his postmodern masterpiece Infinite Jest, prompting Rolling Stone magazine to assign their staff journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) to profile the legend. As much about literary envy as the disconnect between fame and self-image, Ponsoldt conflates the biopic and road movie genres to chart the relationship between two writers at the tail end of a literary tour. Although Lipsky's interview was never published by Rolling Stone, his interaction with Wallace is one for the history books. This fully entertaining film also gave me the grand chance to ask a very important question to Segel. My thanks to Michael Hawley for recording same.

3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets (dir. Marc Silver, 2015)—Along with the documentary treatments of Nina Simone and the Black Panthers, the frustrated response to ongoing racism in the United States is briefly, if soundly, ameliorated in Marc Silver's thorough chronicle of the murder trial of Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white Floridian who in 2012 fired his gun into a car carrying four unarmed African American teens, killing Jordan Davis. At times, Silver's persistent focus on the weeping of Jordan's mother and father seems a bit exploitive, but how else to underscore the human loss deminimized by Florida's dangerous "stand your ground" law, controversial for revealing the legal protection provided a perceived threat as a thinly-guised rationale for racism?

Chef's Table (dirs. Clay Jeter, Brian McGinn, 2015)—One of the great pleasures of having access to a press lounge at an international film festival are chance encounters with filmmakers who can convince you to watch a film that otherwise might not have been on your radar. This year, the affable Clay Jeter steered me towards Chef's Table (2015), whose multi-platform debut at both SFIFF and Netflix Instant Watch intrigued me as a spectatorial trend. Of course, a festival like SFIFF provides value added with talent in attendance. In the case of his segment on Argentine chef Francis Mallman, Jeter provided the scoop that his subject Mallman would be there for the Q&A, so how could I resist? Spotting me in the audience, Jeter came up to shake my hand. "You came!!" he beamed. "Absolutely," I responded. The camaraderie of filmmaker and journalist.

Camaraderie is one thing, of course, but delivery another. And Chef's Table delivers spectacularly with stunning cinematography executed with state-of-the-art equipment and technical prowess. As much a tribute to place as to each segment's subject, Chef's Table is less a cooking show than it is a respectful purview of some of the world's greatest gastronomic hearts and minds. It succeeds as a philosophic treatise on the power of food, its preparation, presentation, and ultimate purpose. I can hardly wait to binge watch the remaining episodes (with snacks at hand). Jeter's particular segment was ravishingly limned with open fire and the generous robust heart of Francis Mallman whose world view matched mine on so many levels. What I would give to sample some of his foraged and charred delicacies!

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