Friday, October 29, 2021

TREEFORT MUSIC FEST 9 (2021)—The Evening Class Interview With Smokey Brights

Any day that releases two new singles by Seattle band Smokey Brights [Facebook / Twitter / Instagram] is cause for celebration. “Honey Eye” and “Unity”, produced by Andy Park (Death Cab for Cutie, Deftones, Princess Nokia) and engineered by Sam Rosson (Great Grandpa, Sydney Sprague), and released on Freakout Records, are described as “anthems for finding light and protecting joy in the strangest of times.” 

“Unity”, featured as the “Daily Discovery” at American Songwriter, is described by singer and keys player Kim West as “a rally cry against division; an anthem against apathy. We have all seen how much easier it is to divide than unite these days. People are scared, people are angry, people are tired. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s a nightmare out there. But there is still so much love and light left in this world. And it is worth fighting for. Living in the Pacific NW, we have seen smokier and smokier summers. It is easy to look up in the blood red sky in the middle of an August day and just think, whelp that’s it. We’re too far gone for fixing. And it’s true—no single person is going to save us. But if we can find the common ground to work together, we can fix more than we even know.”

  

“Honey Eye”, a Big Takeover exclusive, is described as “a sincere and desperate love letter from one worried lover to the other. As the world seems to crash down around them, their resolve is to live and love as deeply as possible, while they still can.” 

Cobbling from the press release for Smokey Brights: “Fronted by husband and wife duo Ryan Devlin (guitar and vocals) and Kim West (keys and vocals) , Smokey Brights was born during a cash-strapped Christmas when the two approached their first holiday season as a newly-formed couple. They looked at their woefully underfunded bank accounts and their long list of family and friends, and knew that gift cards and baked goods weren’t going to cut it that year. It was right then and there that they decided to combine their mutual love of music and record a few of their favorite songs to create CDs to distribute among friends and family. This lofi collection of covers contained the seeds of what would become the band we know today as Smokey Brights. 


“Now married, their bond continues to permeate their pop songcraft. Pulling from their mutual love of 70s rock, vintage synthesizers, thrift shop treasures, and early MTV, the pair co-writes about the deeply personal aspects of their life together. The early days of their origin story is on full display in songs that speak to their transitions: As young friends to life partners in their beloved city of Seattle. Touring in a van during the Northwest’s notoriously grey winters. Being in love in a deeply uncertain period. And everything in between. 

“West, a barred attorney, and Devlin, who has a background in booking, publishing and punk bands, create songs that are perpetually deep and eminently danceable. Nick Krivchenia (drums), is an Ohio native from a family of musicians, and brings a soulful, classic groove to Smokey Brights’ sound. Luke Logan (bass) grew up singing folk songs with his family in Kodiak, Alaska, and provides melodic bass lines and a crucial third harmony to the band’s vocals. Together, Smokey Brights create a stoney blend of Northwest rock & roll and razor-sharp disco grooves. 

“Musical inspiration is commonly sketched into notebooks in the curiously small, window-less dining room at the center of their home, crowded with a 50s jukebox, a Wurlitzer 200A electric piano, guitar holsters, and the upright piano West grew up learning on, complete with a well worn sticker marking middle C. Only after songs are fleshed out on guitar, piano, and voice, they make their way downstairs to the band’s wood-paneled practice room and take on new shapes and grooves at the hand of the full lineup. 

“Despite the pandemic, Smokey Brights continue to record and release music in and around a constant bustle of songwriting, demo recording, BBQs, bar-tending, co-working, band practice and 18 months no one will soon forget. The band remains best known for their explosive live shows that immerse the listener in warm, harmony rich, and arena rock anthems, and instantly found a hard core fanbase in the US, UK, and Europe, and earned slots at SXSW, Off Beat Festival, and Treefort Music Fest. 

“After more than a decade they have a rabid base of fans to show for it. Gaining momentum with every show, they are a self-made, self-sustaining rock ‘n roll machine that generates maximum joy through musical communion.” 

Thanks have to go out to Dana Robinson Slote, tour manager for Smokey Brights, who first invited me to come listen to the band at Treefort, and then arranged a Zoom interview the week after. 

* * *  

Guillén: I want to congratulate you on your presence at Treefort. I caught your “hot” show at The Hideout, where you were literally dripping with sweat. It looked like you were melting on stage. I’d like to start off with the name of the band—Smokey Brights—because I haven’t read anything anywhere regarding what that name signifies. How did you go about choosing Smokey Brights as the name for your band? 

Ryan Devlin: Originally, before we were Smokey Brights, we were called Colossal Brights. We had a little recording project going—Nick, myself, our original bassist Jim, and Mikey our original lead guitarist. We were making some demos and were thinking, “How are we going to get a name for this?” 

I had the radio down real low when I was driving home one night listening to KEXP and this song where I thought I heard someone say in this song “colossal brights”. I thought that was such a cool phrase. I came back to the band and told them, “I’ve got the band name: Colossal Brights!” Jim looked at me and he goes, “Spell Colossal.” And I couldn’t. So I said to him, “Well, it’s back to the drawing board, I guess.” 

A day later, Jim was like, “Y’know, ‘Brights’ is a cool name. I’ve never heard that attached to a band. It’s kind of cool.” We’ve always straddled some darker, moodier, gloomier elements—being Northwest folks suffering through the cold—but we also love pop, and are trying to find the light of things. So, it felt like ‘Smokey’ Brights embodied the dichotomy that sounded like what we were already doing.  

Guillén: I understand you’ve been to a few of the Treefort festivals, but I’m curious what your experience of this particular edition of Treefort was like? For our community this edition was painfully meaningful. It took such a struggle and effort on the part of the Treefort team to get the festival going that, for myself, it felt triumphant that Treefort actually got back out there for the community. There had been worried concerns that they might have to cancel again when the Delta Variant began spreading in Idaho, which I honestly believed might have spelled the death of this festival. So it was great that the festival got to go, albeit masked and vaxxed and waxed (whatever people had to do). [The band laughs.] 

So I want to know if each of you can give me a feeling you had about what your experience of the festival was? I know you got to play three different stages—the Record Exchange, the El Korah Shrine, and the Hideout—which is lucky. I don’t know many musicians that have had that luck. So, perhaps, in describing your experience, can you comment as well on the variance of the stages? Perhaps on the sound systems? If you felt your music was being presented differently on the different stages? 

Kim West: I’ll go first. You described it perfectly. The experience was triumphant. It was triumphant and surreal to get to play our favorite festival. We played Treefort a couple of times before and the first time we played we came in 20 minutes before our set and had to leave at 7:00AM the next day because we were on tour. All of our friends were like, “What are you doing? You have to be here the whole time!” We were walking around the streets of Boise, freaking out, saying, “What are we doing? We’re messing up! We have to be here the whole time!” Ever since then, we come Wednesday through Sunday and just try to experience so much of it because it’s more music than we get to see in four days.  

Guillén: Who can? It’s a discovery festival. You’ve been here three or four times, as you’ve said, and yet this is the first time I’ve seen you, or even heard of you, because there’s always over 300 bands and it’s tough trying to graph out who to listen to. A person can only do so much. I feel lucky that I got to see you guys this time. A lot of that is due to Dana, who has been doing a remarkable job for you. She reached out and invited me to come hear you. 

I feel your band is on the cusp of something—I sense it, I feel it—and I’m excited for you guys. I’ve been listening to as much of your music as I could get my hands on and have been bopping around the house. I really love the music. But back to the festival, other band and stage experiences? 

Ryan Devlin: I’ll try to be brief but I can speak to that feeling that it might not have happened was really palpable. There was a lot of conflict even within our own immediate community of other musicians and friends, people who come to every Smokey Brights show in Boise, who weren’t so convinced that Treefort should be happening. I was following along. I read Eric Gilbert’s interview in the Idaho NPR affiliate where he said, “We need to prove that this can work. That if we get vaccination cards in hand, and we mask up, we can go ahead and have a really good time together.” 

One of the most surreal moments to me was when I had a hangout with a friend, a resident of Boise, usually vocal on Twitter about how Treefort shouldn’t happen because Idaho’s health care systems were overloaded, and it was too irresponsible. We went to our first set, we hung out, we had a really long conversation, and then that night he drove home and he passed what he described as a country bar. He looked at it and a lightbulb went off in his head. He thought, “I’ve driven by this bar every night during this pandemic and it’s been packed. These people aren’t wearing masks. And these people aren’t being vaccinated (some might be, who knows?). Treefort’s not the problem.” 

Kim West: Of course not. 

Ryan Devlin: Treefort has been working collectively to create a safe experience. If they don’t do that, as a music community, as promoters, as bands, people are going to find something else to do but it might not be as safe. So that feeling of being right on the edge, everyone was feeling that, but it wasn’t until we got there that we thought, “This has to happen.” 

Kim West: It has to happen, yeah. And I couldn’t have thought of a cooler way to start our experience than to play the Record Exchange for their first in-store appearance in 18 months. The sound was amazing. I wasn’t expecting a stage. I wasn’t expecting a full PA. It was like the whole nine yards. The sound guy was probably one of the more experienced sound guys in Boise. He had worked for everybody and knew that whole system backwards and forwards. We could hear everything. It was a really nice way to ease back into this festival experience.  

Guillén: I was just watching the videos from your performance at the Record Exchange today. They’ve just gone up. 

Kim West: Oh, cool….  

Guillén: And they do sound good. 

Kim West: We’ve played in stores before and it doesn’t usually sound like that.

   

Guillén: How about the El Korah Shrine? 

Nick Krivchenia: I think my audio is gone again. Oh, here I am!!  

Guillén: [Laughs.] Okay, that’s enough feedback out of you. [Band laughs.] 

Luke Logan: The El Korah was massive. We felt really humbled to play it and thankful that we were able to get that slot and that Eric trusted us with that. One of the things that we didn’t have during the pandemic was audiences. They’re a pretty important half of what we do; the people who come to give it back in our faces. We played some shows throughout the summer. We had a couple of ones where it felt like we were getting some energy and pulsing but they were smaller scale. Our El Korah experience was big scale. Talking to what Ryan was saying, knowing that everyone had gone through so much to get to that point too, that it was a very intentional crowd, even moreso than it usually is, made it even more meaningful as they were moving along with the rhythms that Nick was putting out. It made it one of the more special performing experiences I’ve ever had.  

Guillén: Which leads me to the question of what it was like for you guys to be onstage looking out at a masked audience? Normally, you’d be registering smiles, you’d be registering facial reactions to your music; but, suddenly, you’re watching a sea of masked faces. Did that affect you? Other musicians who have answered that question for me have said that it didn’t make a difference, that they still felt the energy of the crowd. But did you miss the facial connection? 

Ryan Devlin: I can speak to that. We had a few practice runs of playing to masked audiences and I have to say that, at first, it was a little disorienting because we are so much depending on the energy put forth from our audience and, yeah, that is usually displayed in cheering, in smiling, in singing along, all those things that we don’t really get to have with a masked audience. But by the time we got to the El Korah Shrine, we had several different performing experiences and I was pretty used to the masked audience. Feeling the energy of those people in that room far transcended any sort of loss of seeing the smiles or anything like that. One thing that the mask does not cover are tears. When we played “I Love You, but Damn”, I looked out and saw at least three friends, dude friends, just crying.  

Guillén: Dudes aren’t the same anymore, are they? [Laughs]. Nick, reaction to the Hideout. How did you like the Hideout? 

Nick Krivchenia: Loved it.  

Guillén: It wasn’t too hot for you? 

 Nick Krivchenia: It was super hot. The sound was great. We got everything we needed. Great crowd.  

Guillén: You guys might not have noticed this, but across the street from the Hideout was a big parking lot, which was where I was parked whenever I came down to the festival, and in the parking lot your music got amplified. It was a huge sound. I couldn’t believe it! There were people actually sitting on the higher levels of the parking lot to watch your set from there. 

Kim West: That would have been a good spot to watch!  

Guillén: I came in to cover Treefort this edition primarily because of my interest in the COVID Interruption—those 18 months of artistic interruption—which almost devasted film and film festival culture because film culture is based so much on production and exhibition, both of which couldn’t be done. Whereas, music differs in that—though you couldn’t have exhibition and concerts—musicians could still make music. Can you speak to how your band kept its musicality together? I’m actually proposing that the COVID Interruption helped many artists focus and get more creative. What happened with you folks? 

Kim West: For us, it was three phases of COVID. We had a record on deck, “I Love You, but Damn”, that was going to come out. We had four tours, national and international, booked. We had a whole year ready to go. We were like, “Here we go!” We were getting ready and then COVID hit. We actually personally weren’t very creative the first couple of months. We were sad. All of a sudden we were free-floating and trying to figure it out. I consider us very lucky in that we were all able to prioritize our time in getting together and practicing and making that something that was important to us. Ryan and I saw these two men [Nick and Luke] and our two other friends and that was it. Those were the only people we saw during the whole pandemic in person without the masks. We made it work. We got through the sadness. We wrote a record that we kind of liked. Then we kind of scrapped that. Then we wrote another record that we really liked and we went and recorded it about a month and a half ago. In two days all the amazing tracks were done. In a week everything was recorded. Then we came into being able to play live shows again. There wasn’t a moment of, “Oh no. Do we know how to do this still?” It was: “Oh yeah, we can!!”  

Guillén: One thing that has always fascinated me about music is the cover song. There were two songs that caught me in your work immediately: “I Love You, but Damn”, of course, but then you had a cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line”, which was just a beautiful cover. And then when Dana sent me the press notes, I discovered there was this wonderful love story behind all of this with the covers and the poor Christmas and the CD that went out with the covers on it as Christmas gifts. I’m interested in knowing what some of those covers were on that CD, because it’s not available is it? 

Kim West: I actually have a picture of it on my phone from a friend’s aunt who just found a copy of that. 

Ryan Devlin: It was just a burnt CD.  

Guillén: That’s what I figured, but I thought it was interesting because I have been arguing with musicians I’ve met in the Boise scene about the importance of covers. I’m an older guy so I’m familiar with music from the ‘60s and the ‘70s, and going even further back. I had a complaint with the Boise music scene when I first arrived because it was so thoroughly saturated with neo-psychedelia. It was like every band I heard was neo-psychedelia and they were copying each other. I could only take so much of that, y’know? I would say, “Can’t you guys learn a traditional? Like even just one traditional? Can’t you go back and sing a song written by a songwriter from the 1970s? Would that be so wrong?” 

For me, the value of a song is that it can be interpreted. If you write a good song, it can be sung in different tempos, different languages, you can do so much with the structure of the song. So you started out with a burnt CD of covers and I’d like to know what some of the titles were on that burnt CD. As I was going through your body of work noting which covers you’d done, there was “Right Down the Line”, there was Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”, and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You.” Are there any others that you’ve actually recorded?

   

Ryan Devlin: That first EP was wintery, holiday-feeling songs for us, but they were not traditional holiday songs. We had Joni Mitchell’s “River”, Kim sang it, and it was really beautiful. 

Guillén: I would love to hear that. You know, of course, that Joni Mitchell’s “River” has since become an official holiday song? 

Ryan Devlin: We did a cover from one of my most formative bands, Idaho’s own Built to Spill. We did “Twin Falls, Idaho.” We did “St. Augustine” by Bob Dylan, again feeling vaguely religious, vaguely holiday. It’s one of my favorite Dylan tunes.

 

Guillén: How autobiographical are your songs? My roommate was listening to “I Love You, but Damn” and he was taken with the lyrics from where you talked about “being taken home to dinner to meet the parents and how are you going to explain me”. Was that about you two? 

Kim West: “You’re back home getting your degree / explain me to your family.”  

Guillén: With the COVID Interruption having tripped up the release of “I Love You, But Damn”, don’t you think it should somehow be re-released? 

Ryan Devlin: We would need to get a bigger label. 

Kim West: We have two singles coming out soon. And we’re going to release a deluxe version of “I Love You, but Damn” on CD with those two. We’ve gotten quite a number of requests for CDs, generally from people not in the U.S., usually people in Asia; but, CD technology is still alive and well in certain parts of the world and in people’s cars.  

Guillén: Tell me the story of “I Love You, but Damn.” 

Ryan: In the briefest sense possible, not all of Smokey Brights’ songs are autobiographical, but the speaker in that song is probably Ryan Devlin, me. When Kim and I first started dating about twelve years ago, I was playing in a couple of punk bands and touring a lot. For the first six months of us dating I was gone easily three months of it. We had an up and down cycle, y’know? We’d get together, we’d break up, we’d get together, we’d break up. That song is literally about love and distance, trying to grow up and figure it out, while being very far away from this person that might be falling in love. If we might be falling in love, we might have to change ourselves, I might have to change how I think about myself.  

Guillén: I’m sure you recognize that in the corpus of your work, it is an important song. As I was reviewing your work, it was the first song that, POW, I was grabbed. “What is this song?!!” And I’ve noticed you’ve chosen to use it to close your sets, so obviously you are aware of its power? So I’m glad it’s getting a CD re-release with your two new singles. 

I’m going to let you go, because you got to go, you have other people to talk to, but thank you so much for your time and I really hope you guys enjoy your ascent. I really think you’re on a cresting wave. 

Smokey Brights: Thank you, Michael.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

THROWBACK THURSDAYThe Evening Class Interview With Cassandra Peterson (All About Evil, 2010)

Eleven years ago, dragstar impresario Joshua Grannell (better known to his fans as Peaches Christ) embarked on his first feature film All About Evil (2010), which featured actress Cassandra Peterson (better known to her legions of fans as horror hostess Elvira: Mistress of the Dark) setting aside her revealing goth lingerie to play it straight as a concerned mother of a troubled teen. The shift in persona revealed Peterson as an actress to be reckoned with. 

Little did I know at the time that the true horrors in Cassandra’s life were not being evoked in Grannell’s film. According to Wikipedia, it wasn’t until the recent publication of Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark (2021) that she admitted being sexually assaulted by Wilt Chamberlain during a party at his Bel Air mansion in the 1970s. Chamberlain allegedly offered to show Peterson his custom-built closet for his NBA jerseys, before he forced her to give him oral sex. Peterson had stated that she had blamed herself and was almost "convinced that I was a very bad person for letting that happen", until the Me Too movement made her rethink the experience. Peterson felt that the assault was "creepier" because Chamberlain had been a personal friend. 

As her publishers Hatchette Books synopsize: “On Good Friday in 1953, at only 18 months old, 25 miles from the nearest hospital in Manhattan, Kansas, Cassandra Peterson reached for a pot on the stove and doused herself in boiling water. Third-degree burns covered 35% of her body, and the prognosis wasn't good. But she survived. Burned and scarred, the impact stayed with her and became an obstacle she was determined to overcome. Feeling like a misfit led to her love of horror. While her sisters played with Barbie dolls, Cassandra built model kits of Frankenstein and Dracula, and idolized Vincent Price.

“Due to a complicated relationship with her mother, Cassandra left home at 14, and by age 17 she was performing at the famed Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. Run-ins with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tom Jones helped her grow up fast. Then a chance encounter with her idol Elvis Presley, changed the course of her life forever, and led her to Europe where she worked in film and traveled Italy as lead singer of an Italian pop band. She eventually made her way to Los Angeles, where she joined the famed comedy improv group, The Groundlings, and worked alongside Phil Hartman and Paul "Pee-wee" Reubens, honing her comedic skills. 

“Nearing age 30, a struggling actress considered past her prime, she auditioned at local LA channel KHJ as hostess for the late night vintage horror movies. Cassandra improvised, made the role her own, and got the job on the spot. Yours Cruelly, Elvira is an unforgettably wild memoir. Cassandra doesn't shy away from revealing exactly who she is and how she overcame seemingly insurmountable odds. Always original and sometimes outrageous, her story is loaded with twists, travails, revelry, and downright shocking experiences. It is the candid, often funny, and sometimes heart-breaking tale of a Midwest farm girl's long strange trip to become the world's sexiest, sassiest Halloween icon.” 

What neither Wikipedia nor Hachette mention, however, is what it took Emily Kirkpatrick writing for Vanity Fair magazine to celebrate: love. In Yours Cruelly, Elvira, Peterson “comes out of the coffin” and reveals she’s been in a relationship with Teresa “T” Wierson for the past 19 years, following the end of a 25-year marriage to Mark Pierson. “For the first time in my life,” Peterson writes, “I’m with someone who makes me feel safe, blessed, and truly loved.” And I think that’s the best memoir anyone can have! But am I the only one who thinks it’s odd that Wierson rhymes with Pierson? Had I known anything about any of this when Cassandra and I sat down to talk during one of Evil's exhausting night shoots, I might have had opportunity to ask her directly. Instead, appropriate to time and place, we talked about her participation in the film; a conversation, incidentally, that ranks as my most popular entry on The Evening Class to date. Not Bela Tarr. Not Hao Hsiao-hsien. Not Andrey Zvyagintsev. And what silly arthouse aficionado claims that genre doesn’t traffic? 

In tribute to finding love and scoring blog megahits, I tip my hat to yesteryear and republish my conversation with Cassandra Peterson, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. 

* * *  

Michael Guillén: Cassandra, I consider you—not only iconic—but probably one of the most intelligent and talented artists of my generation. You've had such a profound effect. As I was surveying your career, I was shocked how many places you pop up. A classic example is you as a strip tease performer on the cover of Tom Waits' album Small Change. 

Cassandra Peterson: People are talking about that so much lately and the very bizarre thing about that is that I don't know if that's me! I don't know. People say it is, it looks like me, but I don't have any recollection of ever doing that. But it was the '70s, so I don't have a recollection of a whole lot that I did then.  

Guillén: I'm very pleased to talk with you as Cassandra Peterson. Not to disrespect Elvira or anything; but, her accomplishments are well-documented, so I wanted to focus instead on the fact that—within All About Evil—you actually get to play a role, to act. How does that differ from playing an icon like Elvira? 

Peterson: Well, it's a lot different because I don't know what I'm doing as an actor in All About Evil. I feel pretty comfortable as Elvira. As myself, I act so rarely that my biggest challenge is not to act like Elvira, y'know? People go, "What are you thinking of while you're acting?" and what I'm thinking is, "Don't roll your eyes and mug."  

Guillén: I respect your humility but I wouldn't deminimize your chops as an actor. The other night I was watching you do multiple takes on a scene, over and over and over, and I was genuinely impressed with your concentration. I knew you were exhausted, it was something like 3:00 in the morning, it was stop and go with the scene, but you kept going back to the same space, in character, focused. 

Peterson: Thank you. I guess I've been around for so damned long that I've finally picked up on it, whether I'm trying or not.  

Guillén: You've had a longstanding friendship with Joshua Grannell and his alter-ego Peaches Christ for at least the last few years, how did you get pulled into this project? 

Peterson: It was obviously through Peaches. She told me she was doing this movie and wanted me to be part of it. I really didn't know if I could act in a role. She had seen this other short film I did called Tomoko's Kitchen (2006) that was apparently screened at the Sundance Film Festival. I had a small role in it (and I don't know how I got dragged into that one either). I never watched it because I didn't want to see what I looked like in it; but, Joshua had seen it and he said, "I thought your acting was really great." I was like, "You're kidding?" Then I actually watched it and I wasn't as bad as I thought. So I thought, "Hmmmm, okay, maybe I can act in All About Evil, I don't know." It had been so long.  

Guillén: Have you grown as an actor as a consequence of committing yourself to performing in Evil? 

Peterson: I guess I have. The hard part about being an actor is not being self-conscious. From being Elvira for so many years I have absolutely no shame or self-consciousness—that's all gone—so I feel very relaxed.  

Guillén: That must feel fabulous to be so confident and centered? 

Peterson: It does feel a little bit like, "Oh well, I can do whatever now."  

Guillén: What has it felt to be directed by Joshua, or I guess I should say "Peachua"—Joshua, half in drag? 

Peterson: Peachua's a great name! It's been great because Joshua is just so damn sweet and nice and any suggestions you make, he thinks they're great. He's such an easygoing guy. I love being around him. He's funny and we work great together. I love doing stuff with him.  

Guillén: This moviemaking environment and this experience of late night shoots, multiple takes, how does that differ from your TV experience where you have set skits? 

Peterson: The hardest part for me is not having a teleprompter. Oh no! I'm a teleprompter queen. To actually have to remember lines is stressful because—with TV—I never have to remember any lines ever. So that's the hardest part for me, plus staying up all night. I know I'm "Mistress of the Dark"; but, y'know….  

Guillén: And I imagine that—even after working all night—it's hard to decompress and get to sleep? I did three nights of extras work while recovering from an appendectomy and was doing pretty good until the third night, when I finally had to beg off and go home to sleep and recuperate. I was so exhausted, I thought for sure I was just going to go home and die. But, instead, I couldn't go to sleep. I was so wound up. It took nearly three hours to calm down enough to sleep. 

Peterson: That happens to me too. I go home after filming on set; but, I'm so beyond exhausted that I'm still wired, y'know?  

Guillén: Do you want to do more acting gigs beyond your Elvira persona? 

Peterson: Maybe. But I don't want to start the whole thing of getting an agent and going back out on the calls; I'm too lazy. I've been doing this too long. The thought of going out on interviews is more than I can stand.  

Guillén: All About Evil is more a labor of love, then? 

Peterson: It is. When friends call me and ask me to do something, then I love to be there. But the practical thing of looking for work? That's just too hard.  

Guillén: Tell me about your character Linda. What was it about the role that you felt you could move into? 

Peterson: Well, she's a mom with a teenager and I am a mom with a teenager. Every line that is written in this script for the character of Linda is something I have repeatedly said before to my own kid.  

Guillén: I was observing with interest the manner in which you handle your co-star Thomas Dekker, who plays your son Steven. Dekker is something of a live wire on the set. 

Peterson: Yeah! "Get over here! Where's your coat? Stop smoking!" Face it, being cast in the role of Linda was typecasting.  

Guillén: And you haven't had to do any of the gore effects in the film? 

Peterson: Not really, no. Just what I have on now: a little blood. I get to kill a bad person. That was fun. I never get to kill anyone. I did get to threaten Pee Wee Herman once in Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985); that was good. That was a dream job for any gal: getting to threaten Pee Wee.  

Guillén: You'd worked with Paul Reubens earlier, however? 

Peterson: We'd been in The Groundlings together and we were in a Cheech and Chong movie together [Cheech and Chong's Next Movie, 1980]; but, mostly working at The Groundlings.  

Guillén: I haven't heard much about Paul Reubens lately. 

Peterson: He's around. He's been doing quite a bit of acting and working on a whole bunch of TV projects that he's trying to get out there; but, he does quite a bit of acting as himself.  

Guillén: When I first interviewed Joshua a few years back, you hadn't yet made it up to Peaches Christ's Midnight Mass; but, you were scheduled to make your first appearance and I remember Joshua being all excited about it. How difficult is it to have such a strong alter-ego; Joshua has Peaches and you have Elvira? You mentioned a little earlier that you had trouble getting rid of Elvira acting the role of Linda. 

Peterson: Well, when I see a camera in front of me, like I said I just start mugging, rolling my eyes and stuff, automatically. I play it pretty straight here in All About Evil, I'm Mom, I'm not making jokes or anything and the hardest part for me is, "Don't be Elvira, don't be Elvira." That's all I'm thinking. "Be normal for once for God's sake, woman!"  

Guillén: And how would you describe working with the ensemble on the All About Evil set? 

Peterson: It's great! I love all these actors. Everybody here is just so great. Oh my God, Jack Donner—who plays Mr. Twigs—I think he's stealing the show, damnit! He's such a pro.  

Guillén: You say that with complete love? 

Peterson: I do! I love it! He's such a great actor and such a nice guy; but, everyone in the cast—I feel like they're all little kids; they're all adorable—we've been getting along great. I've been swapping music with them and they've been showing me how to do things on the computer because I'm so computer illiterate. We've been having a lot of fun. Even on our day off we all got together and had dinner. That was nice. 

 Guillén: Your involvement in this project is something of a gift to San Francisco. It certainly has been to the extras involved in the film. They bemoaned the fact that they missed Mink Stole—she shot her scenes before the extras came on board—but, they've been excited to interact with you and delighted to watch you in action. 

Peterson: That's cool! The extras have told me they're very excited and I've been out sitting in the audience with them, talking with them. They seem like real fans. They're great.  

Guillén: Have you always loved genre films? 

Peterson: I have. Ever since I was a kid, I've loved that kind of thing. I've always been into it. For me, All About Evil is a cross between Herschel Gordon Lewis and John Waters. They've melded together. It's a dream job for me.  

Guillén: I was recently watching the YouTube clip of you and Peaches on stage at Midnight Mass. Peaches acknowledged that she was influenced by you and you credited the creation of Elvira to a drag queen… 

  

  

Peterson: Oh yeah, definitely! Lots of drag queens.  

Guillén: I'm intrigued by that sense of continuity. 

Peterson: Isn't it weird? I really do feel that I learned everything—how to walk, talk, dress—from drag queens and now I'm influencing drag queens. It's come full circle. Isn't that weird? I can't tell you how many drag queens have come up to me and said, "Oh, you were my idol growing up." And I'm like, "Well great, I see I've rubbed off on you."  

Guillén: I'm aware that you're holding auditions to find a second Elvira to make appearances that—as I think you've said it—don't pay you enough? 

Peterson: [Laughs.] That's exactly right. Gimme that money! No, actually it was a low budget attempt at doing what I would eventually like to do, which is to franchise the character of Elvira. Not quit Elvira right now—as someday I'm going to have to—but, sort of doing what Bozo the Clown did. I love basing my entire career on a clown. Bozo—for anyone old enough to remember him—was wearing tons of make-up too so that he could go out and get a lot of other actors to play Bozo to make various appearances and do TV shows across the country. I started thinking, "Hmmmmm. Bozo. That sounds like a good gig. Maybe I could do that too."  

Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Getty Images 
Guillén: This is why earlier I was praising your intelligence. You market better than almost anyone I know. Elvira has been a successful "product" for you. 

Peterson: Thanks. Well, I have a lot of help. I get good people and I'm still working on that, believe me. I'd like to say it's much bigger than it is; but, it's been going along pretty well for 28 years.  

Guillén: So your hope is to continue the Elvira franchise but to be behind the scenes? 

Peterson: Exactly! Yes. So I don't have to be schlepping around in this outfit when I'm 85.  

Guillén: As I mentioned earlier, It's been a true pleasure to watch you perform as an actor in a non-Elvira role. 

Peterson: Thank you. It's been fun for me. A nice break.  

Guillén: And I trust that—even though you may not want to go out and actively solicit roles—that when people see your performance in All About Evil it will open a window on a whole new facet of your personality and earn you invitations to act in other films. 

Peterson: It would be nice to be given an opportunity to do something without having to work too hard to get it. [Laughs.] 

Originally published April 10, 2010.

Friday, April 09, 2021

MICHAEL HAWLEY PREVIEWS SFFILM 64

It's been a year since SFFILM's 63rd edition was Covid-cancelled, a hapless victim of its position on the festival calendar year. Unlike Sundance, Berlin and Palm Springs, the fest was unable to squeak through before the world shut down. Unlike festivals soon to follow, SFFILM couldn't just instantly transition to the streaming and drive-in model that soon became our pandemic norm. We learned what a stellar event they had planned after SFFILM, rightfully proud, posted the entire line-up on its website. The whole thing was made doubly sad as SFFILM63 was to be the last assembled by treasured and respected Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. 

Well, that was then and this is now. SFFILM's 64th iteration will most assuredly take place from April 9 to 18, with a promising roster of live events and online screenings. The festival is roughly half its normal size, at least in terms of feature films (43), with an impressive 57 percent of all films being directed by women filmmakers and an identical percentage by BIPOC. With few exceptions, SFFILM64 will be available to stream from anywhere in the USA and at any time during its 10-day run. I've previewed 13 selections, and will touch on others I hope to catch during the festival proper.

Where else to begin but with Big Nights? This year's Opening Night boasts the world premiere of Chase Palmer's Naked Singularity, a heist thriller starring John Boyega (Star Wars, Small Axe). The Closing Night attraction will be Marilyn Agrelo's Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, an origin-story documentary about public television's long-running, esteemed children's show. For Centerpiece Film the fest has selected Bo McGuire's Socks on Fire, an autobiographical docu-drama about an inheritance battle between the Southern director's homophobic aunt and cross-dressing uncle. The film won the Best Documentary prize at last year's Tribeca Film Festival. Naked Singularity and Street Gang will have live showings at Fort Mason drive-in and be available for all to stream. Socks on Fire can only be streamed by festival passholders and its drive-in option will be supersized with a live drag show. A late addition to Big Nights is a drive-in only appearance by Bay Area Grammy-winning musician Fantastic Negrito, who'll perform a live score to the collage film Lost Landscapes of Oakland.

Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney's retro-dystopian fantasy Strawberry Mansion emerged the clear favorite of the films I previewed. Audley, a longtime fixture of sub-indie U.S. cinema, directs himself in the role of a humorless tax auditor who monetizes individual elements of people's dreams (as in, if you dream about a buffalo, you'll get taxed 50 cents.) His ordered world is capsized upon entering the secluded home of aging eccentric Arabella, whose nightscape he traverses by watching her dreams on VHS while wearing some kind of electric welding helmet. What follows is an astonishingly inventive psycho-adventure fraught with danger, romance and plain weirdness. The directors also wrote the screenplay, wherein they've miraculously juggled Maddin, Lynch, Sendak, Gondry, Gilliam and Pee Wee's Playhouse, not to mention their own waggish sensibility, all without resorting to pastiche.

I was also taken by two upcoming releases from distributor Magnolia Pictures. Cryptozoo is the latest boundary-pushing animated escapade from director Dash Shaw, who expands on the promise shown in his 2016 debut, the underseen My Entire High School, Sinking into the Sea. Employing an eye-popping mix of crude and sophisticated animation styles, Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski weave a wild tale about the world's endangered cryptids (think unicorn, Kracken, Gorgon, et al.) and one woman's efforts to protect them from nefarious U.S. military schemes. Voicework is provided by an eclectic mix of actors ranging from Michael Cera to Twin Peaks' Grace Zabriski. Dash Shaw will be the recipient of the festival's 2021 Persistence of Vision Award, given each year to a director whose "main body of work falls outside the realm of traditional narrative filmmaking." He'll also participate in a live Cryptozoo "Making Of" talk on Friday, April 16.

Magnolia is also distributing the superb UK genre flick Censor. Director Prano Bailey-Bond's debut feature is set in a Thatcher-era England where gruesome exploitation movies are being blamed for real-life crimes. That becomes a problem for mousy censor board member Enid, who's recently approved a movie where a man eats his wife's face. Her subsequent dive into the depths of a shady director's filmography reveals a possible connection between an actress and Enid's long lost sister, who disappeared as a child while under Enid's care. The resulting denouement will have viewers either howling in delight or disgust. I was among the former. Although intensely unnerving at times, Censor also has just the right amount of sardonic shadings to take some of the edge off. I was reminded somewhat of fellow UK director Peter Strickland's work (Berberian Sound System, In Fabric). Appropriately, Censor and Cryptozoo will have drive-in screenings in addition to online presentations. 

Three favorites from the Narratives: International section depict lives of not-so-quiet desperation as experienced from disparate points on the planet. In her follow-up to 2012's Oscar-nominated Wadjda, Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour's The Perfect Candidate concerns a female doctor's frustrations with getting a paved road to her clinic. She finds herself running for municipal council almost by accident, which the film uses to unveil the small and large humiliations experienced by Saudi women. Nigerian directors Arie and Chuko Esiri's masterful This is My Desire uses a bifurcated structure to render the lives of two Lagos residents dreaming of emigration: a solemn middle-aged printing plant engineer fed up with crumbling infrastructure and his needy family, and a bright female bartender whose life is weighted down by mercantile relationships with men. This is My Desire represents intimate, social issue filmmaking at its best, and stands in sharp contrast to the Nigeria portrayed in noisy Nollywood melodramas. Colombian director Nicolás Rincón Gille employs an episodic approach in Valley of Souls, tracing the aquatic odyssey of a fisherman as he searches a river for two sons murdered by paramilitaries. Elegiac, heartbreaking and enhanced by gorgeous widescreen cinematography, Valley of Soul's languorous 137 minutes are never less than captivating. Side note: it helps to know that Colombian cyclist Egon Bernal won the Tour de France in July, 2019. 

Fans of Latin American cinema should be pleased by SFFILM64's Cine Mexicano spotlight. From among its six offerings I previewed Alexis Gambis's Son of Monarchs, winner of Sundance's Alfred P. Sloan Prize for depiction of science or technology in a narrative feature. The film's main character Mendel (Tenoch Huerta, Gueros, Sin Nombre) is a Mexican biologist whose youth was spent amongst the monarch butterflies in Michoacán's forests. Son of Monarchs alternates between scenes of childhood and Mendel's adulthood in NYC, where he works mapping out butterfly DNA structure while navigating personal existential crises. Not least of the movie's appeal is the refreshing experience of watching a Mexican immigration narrative that doesn't concern the undocumented. Son of Monarchs features a nice supporting role for Gabino Rodríguez, the smoky-eyed, pointy-jawed actor who's the most recognizable face in Mexican independent cinema. Rodríguez also turns up in SFFILM64's Fauna, the actor's tenth collaboration with Mexican indie filmmaker Nicolás Pereda. Fauna nears the top of my list of films to catch during the festival, along with Dance of the 41, a historical LGBT period piece about an early 20th century scandal in Mexican high society. I also hope to see The Spokeswoman, a documentary about the first indigenous woman to run for Mexico's presidency. 

I previewed two additional works from the Narratives: US section. Home is a tough and touching redemption story about an ex-con returning home after a 17-year prison stint for murder. For the most part, the movie effectively conveys a certain type of American underclass without resorting to reductive white-trash miserablism (although some of the sets are art-directed to distraction). Jake McLaughlin delivers an edgy, sympathetic lead performance. He's joined by Kathy Bates as his ornery cancer-afflicted mother, as well as Lil Red Howry (the best friend in Get Out) as Bates' wise homecare giver. Home isn't the type of film I'd ordinarily seek out, but I was fascinated that it's both written and directed by German actress Franka Potente (Run Lola Run, a pair of Bourne movies). I'd love to know what drew her to this project, apart from its providing a juicy supporting role for her husband, actor Derek Richardson, as the protagonist's junkie best friend.

Supercool is another kind of American movie I wouldn't ordinarily watch, but I was curious why SFFILM might program a "teens gone wild comedy." The first thing that struck me was the Finnish subtitles on the festival-provided screener. It turns out that filmmaker Teppo Airaksinen's main body of work lies in Finnish TV (180-plus episodes worth), so how he came to this project is no doubt a story worth hearing. At age 67, I'm clearly not the intended audience for a film like this. I'll therefore reserve judgment except to say it seemed very well made, left me exhausted, didn't make me laugh, had an almost creepy surfeit of queer content and an incongruous retro soundtrack (Huey Lewis & the News!?). Oh, and Damon Wayans Jr. is in it. Supercool is having its world premiere at SFFILM64.

Documentaries traditionally make up a large chunk of SFFILM's line-up and this year is no exception. The one I'm most anticipating is Peter Nicks' Homeroom, which hones in on the triumphs and travails of Oakland High School's 2020 graduating class. The film marks the final installment of Nicks' "Oakland Trilogy," which began with 2012's sublime The Waiting Room about Oakland's Highland Hospital, and continued with his 2017 study of the city's police department, The Force. SFFILM is also honoring Nicks with the festival's George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, given for "distinguished service to cinema as an art form." Another much-awaited Bay Area-related doc is Mariem Pérez Riera's Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, which honors the soon-to-be 90-year-old Berkeley resident and EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner. The film drew raves at Sundance and following its spring festival rounds, will open theatrically in June. It's worth noting this is one of the few SFFILM64 selections with a limited viewing window (April 9 to 12), and one of only two that are geo-blocked for California residents only (the other being Street Gang). 

A majority of the festival's 18 documentaries are biographical or autobiographical in nature, including four I previewed. In keeping with a Bay Area groove, there's David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg's We Are As Gods, which surveys the visionary life of Stewart Brand. Tagged as the "Intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the Counter Culture" and then later the "Da Vinci of Cyber Culture," Brand is most recognized as creator of "The Whole Earth Catalog." The documentary switches between a chronological retelling of his exploits and accomplishments, and a critical examination of his current interest in "de-extinction." Brand is a leading proponent of this highly controversial science, which seeks to genetically reintroduce extinct species such as the American chestnut tree, the North American passenger pigeon and more ominously, the woolly mammoth. We spend a lot of time with Brand at Siberia's Pleistocene Park, where an entire ecosystem is being prepped for the mammoth's return. One curious omission from We Are As Gods is Brand's creation of The WELL, regarded as the world's first significant virtual community. Brian Eno composed the film's fitting music score. 

Two women directors have made docs focused on their problematic mothers. Co-directed by Paul Sng, Celeste Bell's Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché honors one of punk music's pioneers. With her anti-fashion sense and mouthful of braces, the "half-caste" Styrene (née Marion Elliott) blasted on the scene with her band X-Ray Spex at age 19, an anomaly in a music genre dominated by white males. Musicians Thurston Moore, Kathleen Hanna and Neneh Cherry are among the talking heads who discuss her influence. She'd dissolve the band three years later at their height of popularity, which was followed by a decades long struggle with mental health issues. Director Bell was born in 1981 and spent much of her childhood living on a Hare Krishna commune, until social services stepped in and she was put in her grandmother's care. Bell narrates her mother's story and often appears on camera, visiting places of significance in Styrene's life. This is sometimes effective (bringing her Mom's ashes to be scattered in an Indian river) and sometimes not (Bell aimlessly wandering around a nocturnal Times Square). 

In contrast, Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani narrates but never appears (except in photos) in a documentary about her mother. Radiograph of a Family employs generic archival footage, family photos and movies, love letters, and imagined dialogue to uniquely depict the grossly mismatched marriage between her secular doctor father, and a mother who'd transform from docile bride to a machinegun-wielding religious fanatic during Iran's revolution. It's an eerie and melancholy tale. The final doc I previewed was Oskar Alegria's Zumiriki. The title means "island in the middle of a river" in Basque, and anyone who saw Alegria's The Search for Emak Bakia at the festival in 2013 knows to expect something singularly enigmatic. The river in question is the Arga in northeastern Spain, along whose banks stood Alegria's family home. Zumiriki consists entirely of Alegria building a camouflaged cabin perched on the Arga's banks, and then once built, spending months submerged in the lore and natural surroundings of his childhood stomping grounds. It's charmingly indulgent and a delightful way to spend two hours. 

Now to wrap up with a few odds and ends. On Saturday, April 17 SFFILM will host a virtual tribute to white-hot actress Vanessa Kirby, wherein she'll be presented with the festival's Impact Award. Kirby has been seen nearly everywhere in recent years, from The Crown to three Mission Impossible movies to 2019's $730M blockbuster Fast and Furious Present Hobbs and Shaw, and now of course her gritty, Oscar-nominated performance in Pieces of a Woman

For the first time ever, the festival presents a separate section of Mid-Length Films. Defined as ranging between 30 to 50 minutes in length, each of the five programs will present one such film paired with one or two shorts. I'm particularly intrigued by Tales of the Accidental City, which finds a group of Nairobi residents gathered over Zoom for a court-ordered anger management class. Speaking of shorts, SFFILM64 of course has an entire section devoted to them, 56 to be exact, spread out over seven programs. 

Finally, in addition to aforementioned Socks on Fire and Dance of the 41, there are a half dozen more films of LGBTQ interest scattered throughout the program. I'm most intent on catching Romania's Poppy Field, whose protagonist is a closeted policeman called to quell unrest at a Bucharest cinema showing a film with queer content. I'd also love to see the sneak preview of Language Lessons, but unfortunately (for me) it's only showing at the drive-in. The film recently earned raves at Berlin and SXSW and is about a friendship that develops over Zoom between an Oakland gay widower (Mark Duplass) and the Costa Rican woman (Natalie Morales, who also directs) from whom he takes Spanish lessons. I've also heard excellent things about Tove, a biopic about bisexual Finnish children's book author Tove Jansson. The documentary Seyran Ates: Sex, Revolution and Islam profiles a reformist Muslim lawyer who, among other things, is a champion for LGBTQ Muslim youth. Ma Belle, My Beauty and Nudo Mixteco round out SFFILM64's queer offerings. 

 Cross-published at Film-415.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

NOW STREAMING / NETFLIX—REVIEW OF THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (2020)

As synopsized, Jeff Orlowski’s Netflix original documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) “explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.” 

In the 1970s, as one of the “heads” coming out of Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls, Idaho, I leaned into the poetry of Richard Brautigan and remember being particularly enthused about his poem “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace”—what has since become his most frequently reprinted poem—for its utopian vision of a world where machines would improve and protect the lives of humans, leaving them free to commune with nature.

Needless to say, 50 years later, one has to ask: “What’s love got to do with it?”

Very little, unfortunately. It’s perhaps not surprising at all that documentarian Adam Curtis contributed three episodes to the television mini-series documentary named after Brautigan’s poem, and followed-up with his hard-hitting Hypernormalisation (2016)—which should have had some influence in the 2016 presidential election, but which was mysteriously (not-so-mysteriously?) thwarted in distribution (though generously awarded by Jonathan Marlow to participants of Camera Obscura). In Hypernormalisation Curtis proposed that the greatest blow to an informed citizenry protesting government policies was when—after the failure of the national protest against the Gulf War—everyone went online, thereby siphoning off the spirit of physical resistance, and instating a culture of barbershop mirror-gazing.

It has not only been their physical verve that adherents to social media have lost. Collective will has gone anemic in the age of surveillance capitalism. Orlowski (whose previous credits include the equally powerful documentaries Chasing Ice (2012) and Chasing Coral (2017) employs straightforward talking-head interviews with tech luminaries Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier, among others, but reinforces their talking points with chilling animations that articulate visually how hands on a computer keyboard are equivocal to hands on the strings manipulating marionettes. Dramatized scenarios further illustrate the hazards presented on the screen. Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) especially does a grand job (in triplicate) of representing the A.I. algorithims of engagement, growth and revenue that have served as the business model effectively steering social media platforms. With disinformation for profit becoming a lucrative endeavor, the role of social media in bringing the experiment of democracy to "a crisis of confidence" is laid out clearly, let alone the statistical success of technology overwhelming human weakness in a grand strategic checkmate move.

Indeed, strategic manipulations abound. Orlowski cleverly uses the theatrical poster for Chasing Ice as set dressing in one of the film's dramatized episodes, making me want to watch it again. The Social Dilemma is available for streaming on Netflix. I’ve already watched it twice. We’re all in danger of having our attention spans usurped, but I can vouch for this film and hope I can steer your attention to where it might do you some good. If you're a Facebook friend, however, I won’t know if you’ve even read these thoughts as I’m turning off notifications once and for all. Imagine if we all did.

 

Thursday, September 03, 2020

FANTASIA 2020—REVIEW: THE BLOCK ISLAND SOUND (2020)

Consistency is a quality I respect in the Fantasia International Film Festival. They are consistent in their commitment to inviting and supporting new talent in genre films—grooming them with the most enthusiastic audiences imaginable at a film festival—and they are consistent in their loyalty to the filmmakers they have introduced, allowing fans to follow the careers of their chosen favorites film after film. It was through Fantasia that I first experienced the particular genius of the McManus Brothers—Kevin and Matthew—when they attended the festival in 2010 for the international premiere of their directorial feature debut Funeral Kings, which screened to considerable acclaim. In stark contrast to a solemn backdrop of grieving mourners, foul-mouthed teens—thinly guised as altar boys—pilfered the communion wine, stealthily smoked cigarettes, and hungered to get to first base with girls way more mature than themselves. The film’s "wonderful vulgarity" (Scott Weinberg) shifted into poignance when the boys experienced the grief of becoming young men sooner than they intended. 

In 2015 the McManus Brothers upped their game by becoming producers for newcomer Victor Zarcoff's Slumlord, which had its world premiere at Fantasia. Slumlord focused on the jaundiced eyes of Gerald (the titular slumlord whose perverse voyeurism was creepily portrayed by Neville Archambault). Archambault’s intensity, as noted by Fantasia programmer Simon Laperrière, instilled fear from his very first appearance on screen. It was an honor and a thrill to subsequently program Slumlord (since re-named 13 Cameras) in San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head, and I remain forever grateful to the McManus Brothers for their generosity. 

Continuing in production, the McManus Brothers then steered two television series—American Vandal: Clean-up (2017) for Netflix (which earned them an Emmy nomination), and Cobra Kai (2019) for YouTube (and now available for streaming on Amazon Prime)—but then returned to their director chairs for The Block Island Sound (2020), wherein Neville Archambault once again set the bar for creepiness in his portrayal of fisherman Tom Lynch, father of protagonist Harry (Chris Sheffield). Harry’s concerned sister Audry (Michaela McManus, real-life sister of the McManus Brothers), returns home to Block Island where tons of dead fish are mysteriously washing up on shore, and dead birds are dropping out of the sky. Audry finds out that their father is suffering from hallucinations and blackouts and—when he goes missing—she and brother Harry embark on a horrifying discovery of a strange overlord force that has possessed their father and begins to threaten Harry similarly. As the emotionally volatile, often argumentative (yet vulnerable) Harry, Sheffield colors his characterization with multiple tones and hues, ranging from paranoic belligerence to mounting bewildered fear. 

As an admitted genre fan—and as much as I can appreciate predictable zombie rom-coms or yet another vampire squeezing blood from a stone—I am always hoping for a storyline or effect that is different than anything I’ve ever seen before, and The Block Island Sound turns all expectations upside down and delivers a sinister force that is never fully explained and, sagely, never actually seen nor personified. Only demonstrations of its force are experienced, by way of possession, electro-magnetic disturbances, radio static and mindblowing gravitations. Strengthened by this commanding quality of the unknown, the scares in The Block Island Sound are heightened by a spine-tingling collaboration between Paul Koch, whose music for the film coupled with sound design and editing by Shawn Duffy and Andrey Randovski create the unsettling sound of The Block Island Sound, which will have you gripping your seat, gritting your teeth, and fearing the worst. Of the 16 films I had a chance to screen at this year’s virtual edition of Fantasia, The Block Island Sound was the most unnerving. The film’s tense ambiguity is offset by commendable comic relief by Jim Cummings as Dale, the resident ride-bumming conspiracy theorist.

  

On their YouTube channel, Fantasia offers the virtual Q&A session following the film’s world premiere, moderated by Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis and featuring the McManus Brothers, sister Michaela McManus, and long-time associate Chris Sheffield. 

 

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

FANTASIA 2020—REVIEW OF LA DOSIS / THE DOSE (2020)

NOT FOR THE SPOILER-WARY!!!

How do you envision an angel of death? Is the angel gendered male or female, robed in religiosity? If male, is he young, handsome and kind, like Robert Redford in his role as wounded police officer Harold Beldin in the 1962 Twilight Zone episode “Nothing In the Dark”? Or is he burly and rotund, a seasoned male nurse in a palliative care ward named Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi), an Argentine Raymond Burr hiding in plain sight? 

 Like apples and oranges, I’m referencing two wholly different angels of death. Redford as Beldin is an angel of death whose responsibility as a psychopomp is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. His role is not to judge the elderly Gladys Cooper—so afraid of dying—but simply to guide her out of the apartment that she has refused to leave, to allow “the old to make room for the new.”

 Marcos, on the other hand, is a secular angel of death comporting with the euphemism used by criminologists to describe hospital employees who—for one reason or another—take it upon themselves to euthanize the elderly and chronically ill. Likewise branded as “angels of mercy”, Marcos administers “mercy” out of empathic pity; he feels for the suffering of the terminally ill. As arguably delusional as his empathy might be, it motivates him to behave as a casebook “malignant hero” when in an opening sequence he breaks protocol and takes it upon himself to revive a patient that the doctors have pronounced dead. He wants to be seen as selflessly making an effort even if he is criticized for overreaching bounds and his “heroism” allows him to judge and criticize his superiors who he believes care nothing about the suffering of their patients. His logic is circular. If the doctors will do nothing to relieve the suffering of the terminally ill—in effect, allowing them to die as animals—then he has the right to use their trust in him to schedule himself for late night shifts where he can put these poor souls out of their misery by giving them a special “dose” to edge matters along. 

Enter Gabriel, a new nurse on rounds, who—discovering Marcos’ secret—feels emboldened to mimic Marcos; motivated more, however, by pleasure than pity. Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers)—a dead ringer for Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock’s Psycho—shares Marcos’ eye about what should be done with the terminally ill, but begins to loosen the definition of terminal and escalates the practice to include the treatable, thereby personifying a true angel of death and less an angel of mercy. He’s not really practicing euthanasia—which requires a certain level of compassion—but murder, plain and simple, front and center, perhaps because he can and unquestionably because he enjoys it.  The film’s theatrical poster visually synopsizes how the two nurses share a perspective (a shared eye), albeit at risk of a conflict of interest. More accurately, however, theirs is not a conflict of interest at all, but a conflation of interest, articulated by the film’s theatrical poster. 

Argentine helmer Martín Kraut’s debut feature La Dosis [official website], in its North American premiere at Fantasia, is an effective psychological thriller that ramps up tension between the two angels of mercy and provocatively stages their tension as a merciless cat-and-mouse romance. Not since Baran Bo Odar’s The Silence (2010) have two men, compelled by a shared desire outside the realm of normalcy, been so passionately drawn to each other (though equally repelled). Kraut’s complicated script (he’s also the film’s producer) is strengthened by its exploration of how an empath falls under the thrall and manipulation of a narcissistic sociopath; an all too common dyad in today’s world. Suspensefully directed, palpably acted, and sensually portrayed on screen, this unpleasant subject is a slow burn narrative as chilling as a morphine drip, but rendered evocative through a blue and green color palette engineered by Juan Giribaldi’s art direction and Gustavo Biazzi’s beautiful cinematography. The screen capture at left is a compelling sample of their combined efforts.

Friday, August 28, 2020

FANTASIA 2020—REVIEW OF UNEARTH (2020)

“A querencia is a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring, a preferred locality... It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home. It does not usually show at once, but develops in his brain as the fight goes on. In this place he feels that he has his back against the wall and in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.”—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (1932). 

NOT FOR THE SPOILER-WARY!!

Boasting its world premiere at the 2020 virtual edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival (“Fantasia”), Unearth [official website / Facebook] is an American independent from Lyons Den Productions that gains traction as an eco-thriller in its first three quarters, then ramps up to full-on squicky horror in its final sequences. Billed as a “fracking horror story”, and co-directed by John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies, Unearth shuffles genre veterans Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape From New York, Swamp Thing), Marc Blucas (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, the TV series) and P.J. Marshall (American Horror Story, Luke Cage, Mindhunter) with newcomers Brooke Sorensen and Rachel McKeon to effectively nuance the tensions between two neighboring families in rural Silverthorn, Pennsylvania whose relationships become strained when one of them leases their land to a natural gas company. 

Sweeping aerial drone shots to connote emotional distance and a seemingly objective detachment are now nearly de rigueur for genre filmmakers to situate threats which, inversely, are frighteningly near at hand. From high above, cornfields appear green and geometrically ordered, but Unearth wastes no time joining the ranks of films that convert isolated American cornfields into sites of horror: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981), The Children of the Corn (1984) and its numerous sequels, Signs (2002), The Messengers (2007), etc.—I’m sure each horror fan has their own list—Unearth, however, eschews the supernatural underpinnings of horror to reveal more relevant monstrous forces ripped from the headlines: environmental degradation, corporate manipulation and the psychological trauma of heartland farmers facing bankruptcy and the collapse of their way of life. 

"It’s so uncommon to see the plights of rural farming families depicted in cinema,” cites Fantasia Artistic Director Mitch Davis, “let alone in genre film.” Davis admires how Unearth addresses farmers’ vulnerabilities to being exploited. He opines that Unearth is “beautifully put together, vivid and compelling, with genuinely startling bursts of shock and atypical horror, and of course, the cast is just fantastic." Jenn Adams at Consequence of Sound adds: “Unearth is a timely metaphor in the midst of a pandemic which has crippled the US economy ... showing no difference between the threat lurking within the earth and the one that knocks on the door with a friendly smile and a clipboard." At Filmmaker, Jim Hemphill interviews the filmmakers and asserts unequivocally that Unearth is “one of the best films of 2020 in any genre.” 

As George Lomack, Marc Blucas portrays a farmer / mechanic, estranged from his wife and raising his two daughters on his own, down on his luck struggling to keep his farm and family afloat against a crumbling economy; but, despite his best intentions, he is failing them. The failure of presumed traits ascribed to gender is in itself a form of horror as men become demasculated by forces beyond their control. Equally, women who are complicit in the failures of men who are meant to protect and provide for them, enable that horror. It’s telling that Christopher Shy’s (Studio Ronin) theatrical poster design emphasizes three generations of women in this narrative whose beings are intimately connected to the land they live on. It is reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s 1905 painting “The Three Ages of Woman.” 

Lomack’s neighbor, Kathryn Dolan (Adrienne Barbeau), is the residing no-nonsense recently-widowed matriarch of the two neighboring families and is keenly aware that the remaining men in her clan are weak. Her son-in-law Tom (P.J. Marshall) is hostile to her daughters and ready to jettison the hard work necessary to maintain their farm. Kathryn likewise knows that Lomack is thinking of leasing his land to the fracking firm “Patriot Exploration” as a quick remedy to his financial woes. Once identified with her buxom sexiness, Barbeau has admirably evolved as an actor, delivering a sharply-chiseled characterization of a matriarch whose natural beauty is her fierce agency. It’s one of her best performances to date. Unable to convince Lomack to hold onto his land, and critical of his thinly-veiled affair with her daughter Christina (Allison McAtee), Kathryn can only watch in dismay as nearby drilling poisons the water table, pollutes the air and introduces parasites into the soil. 

Suggested in this tension between George Lomack and Kathryn Dolan is what might, arguably, be considered one of the United States’ growing horrors: the collapse of the common good (whether through the use of land, or in the ways people treat each other). As the current administration seeks to do away with Social Security and Medicare by eliminating the payroll tax, the Dolans and Lomacks reflect in microcosm the discontent, desperation, greed and shortsightedness of our nation and demonstrate yet again how social and political issues can find expression and come to catharsis through genre. 

Though Kathryn attempts to keep her family together by adherence to the land, emphasizing a collective partnership with her neighbors, individual needs undo her efforts to strengthen their community and commitment to each other. George entangles himself in a contract with Patriot Exploration and thoughtlessly threatens the livelihood of both families; Tom stumbles under the weight of his chores and rankles at his masculinity rendered ineffective by the independence of Kathryn’s daughter Christina; Christina, in turn, believes herself separate and superior to their farming lifestyle and—as evident from the film’s opening scene—fantasizes leaving the farm to become a professional photographer; George’s daughter Heather (Rachel McKeon) struggles with her illicit feelings for Christina, while her younger sister Kim (Brooke Sorenson) seethes in resentment at the personal sacrifices necessary to save family expenses. Offering the metaphor of the querencia (defined by the Hemingway quote above), no one takes heed of Kathryn’s warnings and weaken themselves through selfishness. 

By referencing the querencia—a metaphysical concept in the Spanish language related to the bullfighting arena—Kathryn stakes out what she foresees as the families’ last stand (and, by extension, America’s last stand). The term querencia comes from the Spanish verb querer, which means "to desire." In bullfighting, the term refers to how a bull may stake out his querencia, a certain part of the bull ring where he feels strong and safe. Kathryn argues that—if the families stick together and fight the fracking company—they might be able to save their farms; i.e., their querencia. It’s a strong metaphor in an already bracing script co-written by Lyons and Kelsey Goldberg that uses smart character development to advance the narrative. If—as Kathryn suggests to Christina—that her aptitude for photography is intimately connected to the land of her upbringing, the intrinsic critique is that she might lose the fount of her creativity by moving away. 

Further, staging a scene at a demolition derby, the writers create a tense sense that a collision is about to happen, exactly like a broadside car accident; but—as Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano has poignantly proposed—there is no such thing as a car “accident.” Instead, Galeano suggests they be called “consequences”. Concomitantly, it is no “accident” that vehicular emissions are ushering in global warming; that environmental disaster is yet another consequence of our culture’s misguided reliance on fossil fuels. 

Integrated naturalistic performances by the ensemble enhance the script and demonstrate that disaster does, indeed, ride on fear. A year after George leases his farmland to fracking, the land shifts—seeping poisons and a parasitic hazard into the water table—and the water becomes the transformative agent that provides the horror of the film’s final quarter. Earlier, I mentioned how Adrienne Barbeau’s performance revealed a maturation of her craft, but—allegiant to the excesses of genre—Barbeau bravely satisfies her fans by being the member of the cast who we witness transform into something that looks like a potato that has been left in a root cellar too long. This horrid physical transformation coupled with (or, again, as the consequence of) hallucinatory psychosis induced by the parasitic water and polluted air introduce a vagueness to this cautionary tale. Are these physical transformations actually happening or are they being imagined? I’m not sure it really matters. The horror is visualized. Through cross-cut edits certainties are unmoored in Unearth and physical trauma is layered upon and conflated with psychological trauma, compounding both. 

Although scholars of folklore discount as baseless the speculation that the childhood rhyme “Ring Around the Roses” references the Great Plague of England (1665), it is a presumption that has gained popularity since after World War II. Monica Wyche’s character Aubrey Dolan mutters the jingle several times under her breath as water poisoned by fracking begins to sicken the two families. In a scene where Aubrey is rinsing an infected wound on her hand, she begins to sing the jingle. It’s perhaps no more than a curious coincidence that—in March of this year, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom—the British current affairs news magazine Private Eye jokingly proposed that the traditional rhyme was the "ideal choice" of song to accompany hand-washing in order to ward off infection. It’s scriptural touches like this that make Unearth such an interesting film, leaving viewers with questions and thoughts hovering like gas fumes over poisoned cornfields, and adding menace to the simple act of harvested produce being transported to market. The film’s final shadow-dappled image proves disquieting.  

Unearth has an encore live screening at Fantasia on Sunday, August 30, before serving as the Opening Night film for Germany's Hard:line Film Festival on September 23. With its first screening at Fantasia, Unearth secured international representation by the Paris-based sales company Reel Suspects. The filmmakers retain domestic rights. Photos courtesy of Unearth Film LLC.