Wednesday, December 01, 2010

MICROCINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Meghan O'Hara and the Students Of Her "Bay Area Film Scene" Course

Filmbud Federico Windhausen recommended me to filmmaker Meghan O'Hara, who teaches a course entitled "Bay Area Film Scene" in the Film and Video Production Department of the Art Institute of California, San Francisco (AIC/SF). She invited me to lecture to her students on the topic and I agreed on the sole condition that—rather than lecture—I could engage the students in informal discussion.

O'Hara explained that her course "Bay Area Film Scene" is a first-time offering at AIC/SF, whose purpose was to get students to think about themselves as being part of the Bay Area film scene; to start to recognize and distinguish different parts of the filmmaking and film viewing communities in the Bay Area; to have some sense of the history of those communities; and to give some thought to how they might participate once they graduate from school.

The course was her idea, which she suggested to AIC/SF when they sent out a call for elective courses. Having recently graduated from Stanford's MFA program, O'Hara recalled that one of her favorite courses while studying at Stanford was one where the instructor brought in filmmakers to discuss their craft. The course gave her a tangible sense of what it took to make films. It was that kind of experience she wanted to offer her AIC/SF students. To that effect, she's invited filmmakers to speak to her students, arranged a study trip to KQED's production facilities, and was appreciative of my willingness to speak about my firsthand experience of attending Bay Area film festivals as a film journalist. Despite being a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, I made it clear that I don't identify myself as a film critic—respectful of the specific skill set required to be a committed film critic—and, instead, am a devoted film enthusiast with a great love for the variety of cinematic experience offered to the moviegoing public in San Francisco and environs.

Another outing she arranged for her students was to attend the first San Francisco Film Society's
Essential SF Awards ceremony held at The Lab. Many of her students were unaware of these honorees. They didn't know Rick Prelinger, Les Blank, or Marlon Riggs but witnessed a community paying its respects. O'Hara's hope is to create "hooks" upon which her students can build their interests.

Her class assignment for our session was to read Rebecca M. Alvin's Cineaste essay
"Cinemas of the Future"; a piece that borrows from Robert C. Allen's research essay "From Exhibition to Reception: Reflections on the Audience in Film History", originally published in Screen 31(4)(Winter 1990):347-356, and later included in a book of collected essays: Hollywood: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies by Thomas Schatz (Editor); Routledge, 2004, pp. 345-354 (available in partial transcript at Google Books).

I was momentarily confused reading Alvin's essay because my understanding of "microcinema" was that it referred to small exhibition digital formats (like watching movies on a handheld device). I've since learned that, according to Wikipedia, "microcinema" can have two meanings. "It can describe low-budget or amateur films shot mostly on digital video, edited on a computer, and then distributed via videotape, disc or over the Internet. Or it can describe a mode of low-budget exhibition—a small theater or screening series operated in order to show small-gauge filmmaking, artists works, shorts, and repertory programming." The latter definition was clearly Alvin's focus, though both definitions worked aptly for students engaged primarily with digital and video production.

O'Hara's AIC/SF class was further instructed to choose a repertory theater or film festival, attend a screening and then respond with a one to two-page composition addressing 1) a description of the theater and their experience watching the film and 2) an explanation of that particular theater's programming mission. By studying the screening calendar, she asked them to describe what kind of films were shown at the theater and—should there be multiple genres of film—to explain how they were arranged and organized. I was pleased that O'Hara recommended the
Film on Film Foundation's calendar to determine current listings and that some of the venues she suggested included the Castro Theatre, the Red Vic Moviehouse, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the San Francisco Cinematheque, Artists Television Access (ATA), the Roxie, Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive (PFA), Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre, Fremont's Niles Film Museum, and The San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema film festival (NICE).

Aware of their assignment and their instructor's recommendations, I took a quick survey of the group for results and determined that only one student attended a film at NICE, and the rest caught screenings at the Roxie and the Sundance Kabuki, one at ATA, and one at a local theater in Palo Alto. Only one student was unable to fulfill the requirement due to a heavy course load and demanding work schedule. My first sense was that the Sundance Kabuki Cinema did not satisfy an experience of a "microcinema" and—if anything—veered in the opposite direction towards elitist exhibition (with which, admittedly, I remain conflicted). More power to those who have the means to pay the price of reserved seating (with attendant service fees) or to those who have the time (if not patience) to schedule in advance. One student agreed that he found it problematic to commit to a screening reservation, preferring to choose and watch a movie on whim. My suggestion was to circumvent the usual protocols of the Sundance Kabuki and experience the space and its variously-sized theaters by attending the San Francisco International Film Festival who screen the majority of their films in that venue.

I then proposed some alternate venues for experiencing cinema in San Francisco, based upon affordability and sheer fun. Even though their training is in digital and video production, I strongly underscored the value of 16mm and 35mm projections and their opportunity in San Francisco to experience exhibition of such waning film formats. I argued that the film viewing communities in the Bay Area are a literate constituency who have been educated in format discernment through such festivals as Noir City and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, as well as by programs arranged by such archival and museum institutions as PFA, SFMOMA and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). We discussed whether or not such exhibition formats were of importance to them as digital filmmakers and if they created their works with the thought of eventually transferring to 35mm?

Oddball Films—Located in the heart of the Mission at 275 Capp Street, I recommended Oddball Films for the sheer viscerality of the experience. There's something almost "holy" about being surrounded by looming walls of film canisters. As young filmmakers they should also be aware that Oddball licenses film stock for inclusion in larger productions. The producers of Milk, by example, recently licensed vintage footage of San Francisco for their film. As a personality in the Bay Area film scene, Oddball's director Stephen Parr is a true character, rich in experience from both the East and West Coast film scenes. A conversation with Stephen is worth the price of admission! Parr curates singularly unique programming from 16mm films discovered in Oddball's ever-expanding inventory, which has yet to be fully catalogued. One of my favorite Oddball programs in recent years was a compilation of films about monkeys, which included a documentary on Jane Goodall, commercials, and TV clips. My first glimpse of some of the first footage of Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues was at an Oddball program.

Coming up on Friday, December 3, 8:30PM, Oddball is presenting
"Bass on Titles": an evening of films showcasing one of the 20th century's legendary graphic designers, filmmakers and title producers: Saul Bass. Bass was famous for designing brilliant animated sequences for motion pictures. In his 40+ year career he did work for the best Hollywood movie makers including Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and many more. That's certainly a program I plan to catch.

Vortex Room—Located at 1082 Howard Street @ 7th, the Vortex Room is billed as a cult film and cinema lounge, though I tend to think of it as an edgy speakeasy. Administered by Joe Niem and Scott F. Moffett (who in his role as dashing bartender fixes one of the meanest "vortinis" in town), The Vortex Room has public Thursday night screenings and private members-only Tuesday night screenings; both solicit a $5 donation. Usually double-bills, sometimes triple-bills, with the first usually being a 16mm projection culled from the Cosmic Hex archive, the faux-plush Vortex Room truly is an "Embassy to the Stars. A place beyond time, beyond space to experience movies, drinks and cosmic reverberations." It's also a place to have a helluva lot of fun watching cult classics. My favorite night there was when they allowed me to program and watch Del Tenney's The Horror of Party Beach (1964) after five martinis! Shame on me for having too much fun.

The Dark Room—Distinct from the aforementioned 16mm microcinemas are outlets that offer DVD projection within multimedia and educational contexts. Another fun spot in the Mission is The Dark Room located at 2263 Mission Street (between 18th and 19th). Along with featuring comedic and theatrical events, The Dark Room hosts a Sunday night Bad Movie Night for $5; the MST3K-style comic heckling and underdone potatoes are free. Coming up in December are campy Christmas classics A Christmas Carol (2009), It's A Wonderful Life (1946), Santa's Slay (2005), and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000).

Italian Cultural Institute—Complementing instruction in Italian, the Italian Cultural Institute offers DVD screenings of Italian favorites (with English subtitles) through their Cineforum. Their current program Giallo: a Retrospective on Italian-Style Thrillers offers gems from Dario Argento and Tinto Basso.

Alliance Française San Francisco—Again, complementing instruction in French, Alliance Française offers DVD screenings of French favorites through their ongoing classes, each only $5. Coming up in December are holiday-related screenings of Christian Carion's Joyeux Noël (2005), Jean-Marie Poiré's Le père Noël est une ordure (Santa Claus Is A Bastard, 1982), and Christian Gion's J'ai rencontré le père Noël (Here Comes Santa Claus, 1984).

Midnites For Maniacs—Returning to a focus on Bay Area programmers / impresarios who host 35mm revival screenings, mention must be made of Midnites for Maniacs, hosted by the way-too-fun Jesse Hawthorne Ficks. Ficks teaches Film History at San Francisco's Academy of Art University but is, perhaps, best loved for his emphasis on dismissed, underrated and forgotten films from the '80s, which he programs in double-bills and triple-bills at the historic Castro Theatre (though his programs appear here and again at guest venues). His 35mm triple-bills are a steal at $12. Upcoming on December 10's bill, William Lustig (dir., Maniac) will be featured live onstage.

Midnight Mass—As I once joked to Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ), "I've heard so much about you." "No doubt from me," Joshua retorted. Largely responsible for reviving midnight movies in San Francisco, drag impresario Peaches Christ hosts cult programs at the Bridge Theater with spectacular pre-shows. Upcoming on December 11, Peaches is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Christmas Evil with director Lewis Jackson in person, $15.

VIZ Cinema—If the "fancy schmancy" atmosphere of the Sundance Kabuki is just not your thing, I advised O'Hara's students, then walk across the street and up the block to the VIZ Cinema whose gem of a theater programs Asian fare, both classic, cult and contemporary. With Blue Bottle coffee offered at their café and strange merchandise on sale upstairs at New People, the VIZ is one of the hippest venues in Japantown. Coming up in December is the 8x8x8 Film Festival (a program of shorts curated by San Francisco's Jewish Film Festival), the "China Underground" film series showcasing acclaimed documentary films directly from China, which were made outside the system—"Unauthorized, uncensored, underground, totally independent, and from a new generation of filmmakers in China!"—followed by an encore presentation of Katsuhito Ishii's racing anime Redline; seven Akira Kurosawa films featuring Toshiro Mifune; a week-long engagement of Atsushi Ogata's Cast Me If You Can (2010) and one-off screenings of SORI's Ping Pong (2002) and Jun Ichi-Mori's anime The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (2010).

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA)—Within its museum setting, the film program at YBCA is bravely curious, offering artist residences and mini-retrospectives, cult fare, film maudit, and many other delights. Programmer Joel Shepard has a taste for the psychosexual and is unfraid, for example, to celebrate the Christmas season with his series "Go to Hell For the Holidays: Horror in December". Who else is honest enough to admit how horrific the Yuletide season can be? I truly consider the Serbian genre piece Life and Death Of A Porno Gang to be a gift left under the tree just for me! But don't panic if you're not a gorehound, stay calm, breathe in and out, and attend YBCA's alternate December program: the "International Buddhist Film Festival Showcase 2010".

Recommendations to these students in digital and video production would be remiss not to recognize what I consider to be true microcinema, the digital or digitalized films available on streaming formats from handheld devices, laptops, computer screens and (by way of PS3 players and other apparatus) direct-to-home entertainment systems on demand screening. Netflix Instant Play has definitely changed the way I process movies. Two weeks after HULU Plus shifted out of BETA and set an affordable fee structure, Netflix zoomed in and lowered theirs to compete, initiating incentives to do away with the "old" way of renting DVDs by mail and opting instead for streaming-only subscription plans. There's still some wrinkles on this garment. At some point thought has to be given to the unattractive practice of not offering DVD extras and commentaries (which one student advised might be offered in the future by iTunes Live Stream) and also to the sometimes sketchy selection offered on Instant Play (which I imagine in the future is destined to be expanded). MUBI is already well-known for offering films online with attendant commentary, though their targeted audience appears to be everywhere else but the United States (many of their films are not available to US members). My vote is for FANDOR, the recently-launched San Francisco site that curates service for exceptional independent films on demand. Their curatorial team has been scouring and continues to scour the globe for the best narrative features, documentaries and shorts, to bring them to US homes. FANDOR provides a destination for film-lovers who want to look past the multiplex to a world of inspired, beautiful and surprising film. Fresh out of BETA, they are currently offering an introductory free one-month subscription.

After two hours of discussing many elements of the San Francisco Bay Area film scene, I wanted to hear from each student what they craved as a cinematic experience? And—if they could reach the ear of Bay Area programmers—what types of films they would like to see?

MYLES—Just MYLES, all caps, no last name. Roughly my age and cognizant of the value of having grown up through the countercultural 1970s in San Francisco, MYLES came to AIC/SF precisely to learn digital and video. He felt compelled to find a media that could inform the struggling masses in the Black community, which have been ground down to 7% of the city's demographic through San Francisco's regentrification initiatives. A born-and-raised SF native, MYLES feels a new perspective is needed in the media to highlight African Americans in film and to redirect focus away from the chronic stereotype of Blacks as violent criminals predisposed to breaking the law. He wants to be a filmmaker who changes that chronic perspective. I asked MYLES if he knew Barry Jenkins and was familiar with Barry's film
Medicine for Melancholy (2008)? He was just about to bring that film up as the only recent depiction of the effects of the African American exodus from San Francisco, but argued that Barry—originally from Florida and despite the value of his film—was looking from the outside in. MYLES grew up in the Fillmore and wants to creatively express his wealth of experience and information. I look forward to watching his work.

Stephanie Miller—Stephanie and I spoke briefly before the class started. She has gravitated towards being the producer of student films at the Institute because of her commitment to detail and her willingness to wear that usually-shunned hat. A fellow student commented, "She's just good at it." Stephanie told me about a project she and some of the other students had completed that was a filmic study of the karaoke scene at The Mint in San Francisco. That amused me because I'm old enough to remember when The Mint was a piano bar where gays came to drink and sing along with the piano player, which she recalled the owner of The Mint mentioning. Stephanie would be interested in seeing what other student filmmakers are doing and learning in the Bay Area and thereby creating a stronger support network between student filmmakers to "connect, converse and even collaborate." She wants to know what students are experiencing at USC, UC Berkeley or the Academy of Art, not only to break out of the insulated bubble of her small social circle at AIC/SF but also to see who's doing what in the Bay Area and who might actually be up-and-coming. She's not so sure if she's thinking of a Student Film Festival per se, but I told her that—given her administrative skills—there might be no better way for her to find out what she wants to know than to program such a film festival, though I suggested she not call it a Student Film Festival; but, something more like Up-and-Coming Voices, New Visions. I want to see her do it and I want to cover it for The Evening Class.

Carl Sturgess—Carl has an interest in directing, cinematography and editing specifically. He would like to see more emphasis on graphic design- and architecture-related films with a focus on social issues, which he feels would speak to the large design community in San Francisco. Carl exalts the benefit of being able to walk around in San Francisco and encountering nicely-designed advertisements, well-architected buildings, aware of design sensibilities catering to sustainable housing, etc. In other words, he is convinced of the value added by creative design. He's aware that the
First Annual Architecture and Design Film Festival just ran in New York for four days with a program consisting of 40 films. Some were about architecture in general, some about specific architects, some about generational variance in architecture, and he would like to see that festival travel to the Bay Area. If, as he suggests, San Francisco has a vibrant design community, such a festival might easily achieve financial and community support. It's an idea to suggest to PFA, SFMOMA or YBCA: institutions accustomed to sharing curated programs.

Wayne Narruhn—Wayne's emphasis is on directing, cinematography and editing and he is scheduled to graduate in no less than two weeks. What he would like to see are films that reflect local stories that either use the Bay Area as a backdrop or the culture of the Bay Area as a huge component of the work. Like MYLES, Wayne was born and raised in San Francisco and has enjoyed films like La Missión that—not only use San Francisco as a backdrop—but evoke the community of the '60-'80s; a community that is drawn back to such movies, as if to see themselves in a mirror. Even television shows like
Bay Area Backroads or Eye on the Bay, Wayne argues, harbor value in letting people know the stories that are going on in the Bay Area. Wayne was unfamiliar, however, with the San Francisco Film Society's Cinema By the Bay series, which just presented its second edition at the Roxie. Curiously, the class outing to the Essential SF Awards ceremony was in conjunction with Cinema By the Bay. I recommended he keep his eye on that festival and consider submitting his own work to them when the time comes.

Vlad Korishev—Vlad is interested in seeing work similar to his own: avante-garde, experimental, mixing different media within the same frame—claymation, animation, along with digital—and films which are also sound-design heavy or which use a lot of post-production editing. He's a huge promoter of the post-production aspect of filmmaking and believes that's where the movie comes together for the most part. He'd like to see scary films that are shocking and in-your-face. Surprisingly, Vlad has not taken much advantage of venues like Other Cinema, the San Francisco Cinematheque or the current retrospective Radical Light being presented throughout the Bay Area so I strongly encouraged him to do same.

Matt West—Matt primarily writes and directs and hopes to graduate from AIC/SF come June 2011. Gauging that most folks were responding to my question by focusing on the genres or types of films they hoped to eventually make themselves, Matt followed suit and said he would like to see more underground and independent comedy. Heavily influenced by John Waters, he has to believe that filmmakers are still making films like his. I asked him if he'd caught All About Evil (2010)? Matt had, and considered it the first SF underground comedy he's seen in recent years; hopefully the first of many. The last he remembered was Josh Kornbluth's Haiku Tunnel (2001), which he didn't find that funny, by contrast to All About Evil, which he admittedly enjoyed. When I asked him to provide an example of who makes avant-garde comedy, he mentioned the Kuchar Brothers, and said he'd like to see more of that kind of filmmaking. Matt mentioned that some television programming, such as Adult Swim, are offering experimental pieces that exhibit an artisanship to the jokes they're telling; he can tell these films have been created by artists and not just comedy writers.

Carlos Rodriguez—Carlos wants to be a cinematographer and found it difficult to think of anything he might suggest programmers add to SF's cinematic landscape because he's convinced it's pretty much available and all you have to do is look for it. I appreciated his confidence in the scene that has been created for San Franciscan audiences by our local programmers, impresarios and cultural institutions.

Dominic Mercurio—Dominic's focus in the AIC/SF program is also writing and directing but he likewise enjoys cinematography. He would like to see more modern stories; stories that can only be told right now that focus on modern themes, such as the effect of the digital age on human behavior. Naturally, this leans into my current exploration of what constitutes a contemporary film. There are those who have told me that they consider a contemporary film to be a film whose themes concern modernity and I would situate Phil's desire within that definition. I asked him what he thought of David Fincher's The Social Network (2010)? If that satisfied what he was hoping to see? Phil thought Fincher's film was amazing and that's exactly what he wants to see; films that discuss what we're going through as a civilization. I commented that the ability to tell those stories through filmmaking has increased with the advent of digital filmmaking which shortens the time from initial idea to execution. In the old days it might take three or four years to bring a film to the screen, by which time its topics might already be out of sync. Digital provides for a more immediate storytelling.

Delaney Howard—Though an interior design student and not a film student, Delaney is interested in eventually doing set design. Modest to a fault, Delaney doesn't feel she knows as much about film as her classmates even though she watches a lot of movies. Yet she knows what she relates to and she gravitates towards those films. Again, films about topical subjects going on now or situations in which she can see herself, rather than over-the-top romances or vampire films. Though I agreed with her disfavor of romance films ("I'm too old," I moaned, "it never happened. They lied to me"), I mimed twisting a knife in my heart when it came to her dissing genre films, since I love my monster movies and could spend entire afternoons watching one after the other; but, I could definitely understand and respect her love for small films set in an apartment building that reveal the lives of one or two people she can identify with or documentaries that allow you to take something away from the viewing. This was another opportunity to stress the importance of attending film festivals whose curated selections cater to various interests and where she could locate the human-scale dramas and informative documentaries relevant to her tastes and interests.

Nikkia Adams—Nikkia wants to see more films that reveal the history of San Francisco. For example, she's interested in the history of the Clift House and how it was built. Her mother and grandmother have spoken to her about Playland, the carnival by the beach, and she would like to know more about that. And she would like to know about the San Francisco Zoo and its history. I encouraged her interests. As far as I'm concerned, any corner of San Francisco holds the world's attention. And as young filmmakers who live in the Bay Area, there are countless histories to explore and locations to film, either by permit or through guerrilla filmmaking. It's a vast, historic resource just asking to be tapped.

Cross-published on


Michael Hawley said...

Michael, thanks for sharing this experience and especially for the overview of alternative Bay Area movie venues. I had no idea about the Alliance Francaise' film series, where they undoubtedly screen things that don't show up in our theaters or festivals (albeit on DVD and without English subtitles -- which I can live with).

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for stopping by to comment, Michael. Just to be clear, however, I doublechecked and the DVD film series at Alliance Francaise are shown with English subtitles, as they are at the Italian Cultural Institute.

Lau said...


thanks for sharing your knowledge about alternative film series in the city. There are some I never heard of myself. I'd also like to point out that I'm the curator of Cineforum at the Italian Cultural Institute and indeed the movies are always subtitled and often, but not always hard to find.

Thanks for the mention,

Laura Costantino

Michael Hawley said...

Oh...even better with subtitles! Thanks.

Unknown said...

Michael, Thank you so much for coming to lead a conversation about watching film in the Bay Area. It was a such a great experience and you brought such great information and stories! Thank you also for this wonderful and detailed article! Hopefully, someday soon you will be interviewing these students on their festival junkets! Hope to have you back!

Michael Guillen said...

Laura, thanks for the comment and your continuing work to bring the best of Italian cinema not only to the Institute but in coordinated efforts with the SF Film Society and PFA.

And Meghan, surely you realize the pleasure was all mine. What a bright, articulate crew of young mediamakers you have in your course. I definitely hope to help promote their fare in years to come.

Lau said...

Thank you again Michael.

Anonymous said...

Great overview Michael. See you soon I hope! - Bruce