Tuesday, March 31, 2015

YBCA—DARK HORSE: Film Noir Westerns

San Franciscan audiences are an especially noir-savvy group. Elliot Lavine and the Roxie Theatre began re-introducing the "genre" (as it were) decades ago and the popularity of Lavine's programs revealed a passionate appetite for these noir films from the post-war years, which has been furthered by the Film Noir Foundation's annual Noir City festival with its concerted focus on film preservation and restoration. Lavine and his collaborator Donald Malcolm (Mid-Century Productions) have now leapfrogged into the digital age to focus on rare international noirs unavailable (or unaffordable) on 35mm and their series—"The French Had A Name For It" and "A Rare Noir Is Good To Find"—have reawakened a sense of discovery.

But there's nothing to match the luster of celluloid and so it was especially heartening to learn from Joel Shepard, curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), his intention to offer a program of double-bill "noir westerns" each Sunday through the month of April, aptly captioned "Dark Horse: Film Noir Westerns." YBCA's program notes follow.

* * *

Prepare to have your horizons expanded as darkness descends upon the plains. We present eight superb "noir westerns"—films which transplant the fatalism and pessimism of the era's crime pictures to this most deeply American of genres. And if you think you don't like westerns, think again buckaroo, because you're dead wrong. This is American cinema of profound depth, multi-layered moral complexity, and exquisite filmmaking craft. In often problematic and disturbing ways, the films embody many issues we continue to struggle with, including race and gender relations, the rights of indigenous peoples, violence, and the individual's responsibility to society. All programs are double features; one ticket includes admission to one or both films. All films are presented on 35mm film, not digitally.

Sunday, April 5, 2:00PM
Blood on the Moon (1948); dir. Robert Wise

Bad boy Robert Mitchum—who once said he had two acting styles, "with and without a horse"— stars in one of the finest noir westerns of them all. Riding into town after a plea from an influential friend, he's drawn into a land dispute and forced to choose between the pal he owes and the girl he loves. Against a background of dreary taverns and rain-soaked darkness, Mitchum delivers a terrific laid-back performance as the reluctant hired gun. (1948, 88 min, 35mm)

—followed by—

Sunday, April 5, 3:45PM
The Tall T (1957); dir. Budd Boetticher

Based on an Elmore Leonard story, this is the high intensity tale of innocent travelers on a stagecoach held hostage by three sadistic killers, as they play out an increasingly desperate waiting game. This film has a unique, strange blend of dark humor, darker violence, and an undercurrent of loneliness and despair. The Library of Congress selected The Tall T for permanent preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Starring Randolph Scott and Maureen O'Sullivan. (1957, 78 min, 35mm)

Sunday, April 12, 2:00PM
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943); dir. William Wellman

"The Ox-Bow Incident is not a picture which will brighten or cheer your day. But it is one which, for sheer, stark drama, is currently hard to beat."—The New York Times (1943 original review).

Two drifters are passing through a western town when news comes in that a local farmer has been murdered and his cattle stolen. This sets in motion a grim, claustrophobic exploration of the motivations of mob violence. Full of deep, looming shadows and an escalating sense of menace, the film stars Henry Fonda in one of his finest roles. (1943, 75 min, 35mm)

—followed by—

Sunday, April 12, 3:40PM
Pursued (1947); dir. Raoul Walsh

Often considered Hollywood's first noir western, Freudian psychodrama comes to the American frontier in Pursued. Robert Mitchum stars as Jeb, a man emotionally scarred by a tragic past and inner demons. Jeb is convinced that people hate him and want him dead, but he doesn't understand why. He seeks to unravel the dark secrets of the past, and resolve his inner trauma. The film features gorgeous cinematography by James Wong Howe, a sweeping musical score by Max Steiner (Casablanca), and pumping, propulsive direction by Raoul Walsh. (1947, 101 min, 35mm)

Sunday, April 19, 2:00PM
Ramrod (1947); dir. Andre de Toth

Dave Kehr at the Chicago Reader described this film better than we can: "Andre de Toth's bizarre Freudian western features Veronica Lake in drag and Joel McCrea as a fading phallic symbol (you thought the title was accidental?), performing a barely sublimated sadomasochistic ritual—she's a lady ranch owner who teams up with her foreman to put her chief competitor, her father, out of business." (1947, 95 min, 35mm)

—followed by—

Sunday, April 19, 4:00PM
The Gunfighter (1950); dir. Henry King

Sporting a thick mustache, Gregory Peck stars as the aging Jimmy Ringo, a notorious killer and the deadliest shot in the old west. Though he now regrets his criminal past, Jimmy is forced to stay on the run by brash young punks determined to shoot him down. Like many of the best noirs, The Gunfighter is a kind of existential nightmare, with an overwhelming sense of inescapable doom hanging over the protagonist. (1950, 85 min, 35mm)

Sunday, April 26, 2:00PM
The Searchers (1956); dir. John Ford

"Every time I watch it—and I've seen it many, many times since its first run in 1956—it haunts and troubles me. The character of Ethan Edwards is one of the most unsettling in American cinema."—Martin Scorsese

"One of my American western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him."—Quentin Tarantino

John Wayne and John Ford forged The Searchers into an indelible portrait of the frontier and the men and women who challenged it. Wayne plays ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards, who believes more in bullets than in words. He's seeking his niece, who has been captured by Comanches who massacred his family. He won't surrender to hunger, thirst, the elements, or loneliness. And in his obsessive, five-year quest, Ethan encounters something he didn't expect to find: his own humanity. (1956, 119 min, 35mm)

—followed by—

Sunday, April 26, 4:40PM
Winchester '73 (1950); dir. Anthony Mann A cowboy's obsession with a stolen rifle leads to a bullet-ridden odyssey through the American West. The ingenious premise follows a Winchester rifle being passed between a drifter seeking revenge (Jimmy Stewart), an Indian trader, an Indian chief (Rock Hudson), an outlaw, and a bank robber. Winchester '73 unites the western, film noir, and Greek tragedy. (1950, 92 min, 35mm)

* * *

VALUE ADDED: David Meuel has recently published The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962 (McFarland and Company, Inc., 2015) and will be introducing the programs on Sunday, April 12 and Sunday, April 19. Copies of his volume will be made available.

Monday, March 30, 2015


The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) is busy gearing up for its 58th edition, with the full line-up set to be announced at a March 31 press conference. Based on press releases emanating from the SF Film Society in recent weeks, I'd say things are already looking pretty sweet.

In addition to being the longest-running film festival in the Western Hemisphere, SFIFF is this Bay Area cinephile's favorite fortnight of the year. As has become a tradition here at The Evening Class, on the eve of the SFIFF58 press conference we offer an overview of what's been announced thus far.

SFIFF58 gets going on April 23 at the Castro Theatre with Alex Gibney's Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which arrives fresh from its SXSW world premiere. The insanely prolific Gibney, whose recent warts n' all docs on James Brown and Scientology aren't even six months old, was inspired to make a film about Apple's co-founder after witnessing the mass public lamentation that followed Job's death. It's a portrait Variety's Justin Chang describes as "deeply unflattering" and "more than willing to speak ill of the dead." Other reviews have dubbed it a "tech-age Citizen Kane." Gibney will of course be in attendance, along with "additional special guests." Those guests will need to be extra special, however, to stem a post-screening exodus to MUNI's F-streetcar line—the most expedient way to reach SFIFF58's opening night party at Madame Tussaud's wax museum at Fisherman's Wharf. There I look forward to an evening of unbridled, faux-celebrity selfie-taking at one of the most fabulously inspired ideas for a party venue ever.

The fest closes 15 days later with a Castro screening of Michael Almereyda's Experimenter, described as a highly stylized biopic about a once controversial social psychologist. Peter Sarsgaard stars as Stanley Milgram, he of the infamous 1963 Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures, as well as later work that was central to formulating the Six Degrees of Separation theory. This will be Almereyda's fifth film to play SFIFF. The most memorable for me were his 1994 post-modern vampire flick Nadja and the NYC update of Hamlet with Ethan Hawke (the latter of which closed the festival in 2000). SFIFF58's Closing night special guests are still TBA and the party will be held at Mezzanine.

This year's Centerpiece film is James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour, based on Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky's memoir of a days-long encounter with writer David Foster Wallace. Ponsoldt, whose last film was The Spectacular Now, will be on hand for the screening along with star Jason Segel. Full disclosure—I adore Mr. Segel and am beyond enthusiastic over this impending SFIFF appearance. (I mean, I even went to see a friggin' Muppets movie because this guy was in it.) Segel has received near-unanimous raves for his performance as the reticent, yet occasionally garrulous author Wallace, in this his first dramatic feature leading role. The film, which co-stars Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and boasts a screenplay by playwright Donald Margulies, was also one of the best-reviewed movies at Sundance. This all happens on May 2 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

SFIFF58 rolls up its sleeve for an injection of old-school Hollywood glamour when Richard Gere accepts the fest's Peter J. Owens Award for excellence in acting on April 26 at the Castro Theatre. The program will include a career-best clips reel, on-stage interview and a screening of Oren Moverman's Time Out of Mind, in which Gere plays a NYC homeless man. In his rave review for Variety, critic Justin Chang praises Gere's "beautifully judged performance, plain and true, and one for which he appears to have purged every trace of actorly vanity or self-consciousness." The film also features Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Kyra Sedgwick and Ben Vereen in supporting roles. Fun fact—the last time a Richard Gere movie played SFIFF was in 1986, when Days of Heaven screened at a tribute for cinematographer Nestor Almendros.

More than two decades after he first charmed SFIFF audiences with his 1994 debut feature Cronos, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro returns to claim the fest's Irving M. Levin Directing Award (f.k.a. the Founder's Directing Award and before that, the Akira Kurosawa Award) at the Castro Theatre on April 25. From his astonishing filmography the festival has chosen to screen 2001's Spanish Civil War chiller The Devil's Backbone, in a program that will also feature a clips reel, on-stage interview and a promised sneak peak at del Toro's future projects. May the choice of interviewer be as inspired as last year's pairing of Richard Linklater with Parker Posey.

Nine films will compete for this year's New Directors Prize and as usual, it's an intriguing band of contenders. The Tribe boasts the highest profile, having screened in Cannes' Critics Week sidebar where it ultimately took home the Grand Prize. Directed by Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy, this tale of social Darwinism is set in a Ukrainian school for the deaf and told completely in unsubtitled sign language. I've also read excellent things about Laura Bispuri's Sworn Virgin, which recently premiered at Berlin. Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher stars here as an Albanian woman who has lived her life as a man and is now imagining other options. Remaining New Directors Prize hopefuls include filmmakers from Viet Nam, India, Ivory Coast, Chile, Albania, Afghanistan and France.

SFIFF is big on documentaries. Nearly one-third of the line-up has been given over to non-fiction filmmaking in recent years, which isn't surprising given the Bay Area's stature as a doc-producing hotbed. Ten films will battle it out in 2015's Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition, with J.P. Sniadecki's The Iron Ministry at the top of my must-see list. This meditative look at China's railway system comes from the folks at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose revolutionary documentaries such as Manakamana, Leviathan and Sweetgrass have enriched previous SFIFF editions. I'm also excited about two films which won Sundance's Special Jury Prize and Grand Jury Prize. Respectively, Bill and Turner Ross' Western looks at two neighboring cities on opposite sides of the Rio Grande, while Crystal Moselle's bizarre-sounding The Wolfpack observes a family of six teenage shut-ins whose entire worldview is based on the DVDs they watch.

Performance artist-author-movie director Miranda July returns to SFIFF with the west coast premiere of her performance piece New Society, on April 28 and 29 at the Brava Theater Center. Co-presented by SFMOMA, New Society is said to be heavy on audience participation, with some performances witnessing more audience members up on-stage than in their seats. The Boston Globe's Don Aucoin describes it as an "innovative theatrical experiment illustrating the myriad ways societies form, cohere, change, fracture, and maybe persevere over time." Ah, but does it have anything to do with film? Most everyone I know is either a MJ lover or hater. The former have seen to it that both SFIFF performances of New Society are already at RUSH.

* * *

For Michael Hawley's speculations on which films will fill out the remaining SFIFF line-up and his wish list of what he hopes to be announced at tomorrow's press conference, check out the full version of this entry at film-415.

Monday, March 23, 2015

TFF 2015: VIEW FROM A PEDAL BUGGY (2015)—The Evening Class Interview With Zach Voss

Design: Ryan Johnson
Michael Guillén: Zach, you're doing a double-whammy this year with Treefort. Retroscope Media has, of course, produced the "Dance Battle" promotional videos, and your short film View From A Pedal Buggy (2015) has also been included in the Treefort Film Festival (TFF) "Local Gems" showcase.

Let's talk about the promo videos first. Can you talk a little bit about how they came about this year? It seemed to be a welcome embrace of Boise's dance community, which once again reflects that collaborative ethos that I so admire among Boise's artists.

Zach Voss: In regard to Dance Battle, this was the next concept in a growing series of promo videos for Treefort. Each year it's an exercise for me to figure out some way to represent the Treefort identity in the video capacity, while also having continuity in the series, now in its third year. First year was a live action, second year was stop motion, and this year was a mix of green screen, live action, and scaling elements, largely referencing '60s era Japanese tokukatsu techniques, which bascially means camera effects. It was another chance for me to do something fun and different and experiment with a technique that I don't have a lot of experience with.

Treefort 2015: Dance Battle, Round 1 from Zach Voss on Vimeo.

Guillén: In terms of time invested, was this a shorter project than last year's stop-action?

Voss: Absolutely! And that was by design. As much fun as it was to work with Hutt Wigley and do the stop-motion, my schedule has become increasingly more occupied and so this year's episodes were largely able to be produced in a single day, meaning production could occur in a single day where we'd go to a location, shoot the judges' portion, then flip the set, set up a green screen on-site, and shoot the dancing sequences in reverse. We'd do some pick-up shots for exteriors, but otherwise I would also shoot the photos that would serve as the environment plate that day as well. This whole series in total, we probably shot in five days, whereas last week's collaboration with Hutt took probably 30 weeks of shooting per episode.

Treefort 2015: Dance Battle, Round 2 from Zach Voss on Vimeo.

Guillén: How did you turn on to Hutt's work?

Voss: I was looking for an animator because I wanted to do a stop-motion. Chaz Gentry mentioned to me that there was a guy in Boise—he thought his name was Mutt Wiggins—he'd never met him but he heard he was out there. I decided to find Mutt Wiggins and it turned out he was Hutt Wigley. He was a great guy, I pitched him on the Skyship Tour project, and we agreed to work together. It took off from there. This year it was a goal of mine to deliver something of equally high quality but also to make it a little more efficient and realistic for the crew.

Treefort 2015: Dance Battle, Round 3 from Zach Voss on Vimeo.

Guillén: Talk to me about your dancers, who you pulled in, and why? Do they represent the various dance troupes in Boise?

Voss: Certainly. Yurek Hansen was the only dancer who appeared in all three episodes. In the first two he was costumed in different creature outfits. He represents Idaho Dance Theater. Then we had Brecca from Red Light Variety Show (RLVS) who appeared in the last two episodes, as did Ann McDonald in the final episode, and James Sharp, also from Red Light. Dusty is certainly not a member of the dance community but he can get down when he needs to. So we blended the more formal dance group with Yurek with the burlesque style of RLVS.

Guillén: Shifting to View From A Pedal Buggy, I first turned on to that project through Andrew Ellis. Was it his idea and then he hired you? How did this documentary short come about?

Photo: Indieflix

Voss: Both of us had the same idea separately. I introduced Andrew to Gregory Allen as a fellow Boisean, who Andrew then took an interest in. As my friendship with Gregory was developing, and I became more interested in filmmaking, it was something of a natural process to tie those two things together. When Andrew started talking to Gregory about fabricating a tricycle for his family, he thought, "Ah, this would make for a great story to follow the process of this thing." Andrew reached out to me and said, "Hey, I'm going to be working with Greg, he's making me a trike, and I'd like to document it." I said, "Great. I'm planning on making a documentary about Greg." So we teamed up. Andrew was basically the producer on the project for setting the stage and hiring Gregory to make a new tricycle from start to finish, which allowed me to show that process top to bottom.

I applied for a few grants, all of which Andrew wrote a letter of recommendation or was attached to in some capacity and that helped secure funding for the project. I got a grant from the Idaho Film Office and the Boise Department of Arts and History. Pedal Buggy screened at Boise Conservatory Theatre, at the Sun Valley Film Festival, and I just mailed off the Blu-Ray to the Environmental Film Festival at Yale this morning. And then, of course, it will be screening at Treefort, with tweaked improvements. It's as sharp as it's ever been.

Guillén: How was your Sun Valley experience? How was the film accepted there?

Photo: Zach Voss
Voss: Wonderful. Great. I had a smaller screening. I was at the same time slot as the Screenwriters Lab, which is a pretty big event. However, the people that did attend were engaged and a lot of them recognized me throughout the weekend and would take time to talk to me about it. Gregory also got some love from the locals. We were riding his pedal buggy around Ketchum and he was turning heads on people on the street and in their cars, in every direction. He enjoyed that—though removing himself from Boise—there was still this overwhelming interest in his process.

Guillén: That must have been fun for him to notice. As I mentioned in my review of Pedal Buggy, the message that best surfaced for me from the film was its critique of a modern world that's moving too fast to notice its surroundings. As someone who doesn't drive and who mainly gets around by walking, such a seeming inconvenience has actually strengthened my powers of observation, which over time has become one of my main aesthetic practices. The aesthetics of observation are equally an ecological politic of which I'm further keenly aware. Those themes surfaced in Pedal Buggy and spoke to me.

Voss: Good, I'm glad to hear that. There's a lot that Gregory covered in that 10 minutes that people can connect to in different ways.

Guillén: How do you feel about being included in TFF's "Local Gems" showcase?

Voss: I feel great! It's interesting to be as involved with both Sun Valley and Treefort as I am. On one front, my company Retroscope Media is producing commercial work for them and on the other front I'm participating as a featured artist, which is a good description of what I do and where I'm at in my career walking this line between running a company, doing commercial work, but also aspiring to be a filmmaker and pursuing that. I love the fact that there are these forums for me to do both.

View From A Pedal Buggy screens at 12:40PM on Saturday, March 28, 2015, at The Flicks.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

TFF 2015: MAX HELMS: CURSE OF THE RELIC (2015)—The Evening Class Interview With Hutt Wigley

Hutt Wigley catapuled into visibility with his collaboration on last year's "Skyship Tour" ramp-up videos to Treefort 2014 (parts one, two and three) produced by Retroscope Media. He follows up this year with his contribution to Treefort Film Festival's "Local Gems" showcase: Max Helms: Curse of the Relic (2015), screening at 12:40PM on Saturday, March 28, 2015, at The Flicks.

An homage to the crime films and film noirs of the '40s and '50s, Hutt Wigley's B&W stop-action animated short is hands on, frame-by-frame, a tour-de-force of set design, costuming and period detail. It recently won Best Animated Feature at The Joelanta and Great Atlanta Toy Convention Film Festival.

As synopsized at IMDb: "Set in San Francisco, 1938, the exhumed corpses of deceased street-level criminals are being discovered all over the city ... weeks after they've died! But who's digging up dead criminals? And why? Max Helms is a rough and tumble private-eye with his thumb on the pulse of San Francisco's low-rent criminals. Polly Bixby is Max's sassy-but-resourceful secretary. When a mugger unwittingly drops a stolen African relic right in Max and Polly's laps, they discover an underworld of occultists lead by German mobster Gustov Heinrich. Max and Polly uncover Heinrich's devious plot to take over San Francisco using an undead criminal army, but can they stop his evil plans in time?"

I'm grateful to Hutt for taking the time to sit down to talk to The Evening Class about his latest effort.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Hutt, could you give me some back story on how you approached the field of stop-action animation? What's been your training and schooling?

Hutt Wigley: I was into stop-action animation when I was younger, about eight or nine years old. My parents had a Super 8 movie camera and I tried it then by just hitting the shutter button; but, film processing was pretty expensive for an eight-year-old so I gave up on it because my efforts at the time weren't worth the expense.

Guillén: Were you inspired by something you had seen? Or did it come about by your playing around with your parents' camera?

Wigley: I learned to do it as a kid by watching a documentary on Ray Harryhausen. I also liked the Rankin / Bass stop-motion holiday specials, The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974), that kind of stuff. When I learned how it was done by watching the documentary on Ray Harryhausen, I wanted to try it. It didn't go so well at first—when you're eight or nine years old, you have the attention of a goldfish—so I gave up.

But the seed was there. I knew how to do it. I just never got to practice because practicing was too expensive. Fast forward: I was probably in my late thirties and taking college courses through Westwood online and one of the classes I took was Intro to Animation. There was a chapter in our text book about stop motion. I'd been collecting action figures—mainly G.I. Joes—since I was a kid, so that was a big catalyst. I read that chapter in the text book and it said that I would need a digital camera and Windows Moviemaker.

Guillén: About how many G.I. Joe action figures have you collected?

Wigley: At one point I had about 300. But I'm not so much a collector anymore. I mainly use my collection for stop motion now.

Guillén: What intrigues me—I noticed it last year in the Skyship Tour videos and even moreso in your Max Helms piece—is how individual the faces are on these action figures. I had a couple of G.I. Joes, but they both looked alike. So I'm interested in how you find the differentiation in character so that you can use them in your stop-action films? Do you make them?

Wigley: I wish I could make them. If I were a sculptor and could do that, I would. There are a lot of different manufacturers of that kind of action figure who provide a lot of differentiation in faces and head sculpts. I find one and I think, "Oh! He'd be a good character in a movie."

Guillén: So you're, in effect, casting action figures?

Wigley: Yeah. I pretty much use the same G.I. Joe body but I swap out the heads to make different characters.

Guillén: So before the Skyship Tour ship project with Retroscope Media for Treefort, had you made other stop action films?

Wigley: I did a couple of music videos. I did a short film for a writer named Anthony Ilacqua. He wrote a script called Resort to Ice (2011). I wasn't familiar with all the video editing software so that project didn't turn out as well as I would have liked; but, for me, the animation is pretty good for early work. I'm proud of it.

Guillén: All necessary groundwork leading up to your current project Max Helms: Curse of the Relic, which is visually engaging. I was impressed with your black and white mise en scène, and your period detail (the cars, the costumes, the sets). Can you speak to how Max Helms developed and why you wanted to go in this direction with your craft?

Wigley: Well, talking about the different head sculpts, I had the head sculpt from that G.I. Joe character and I dressed him up as this film noir detective. Then I thought, "Man, I have to make a story around this guy." My problem is writing scripts for animation because I tend to write them around what I have; but, I have a friend Greg Bray who's a writer—he writes children's books—and I'd been talking to him about it. He said, "Well, let me write a script for you." I wanted somebody else to write it because I wanted to get outside of my own limitations.

Guillén: In terms of genre, Max Helms struck me more as a crime film from the 1940s than a true film noir, which for me requires the classic femme fatale. In your cache of action figures, do you have female characters?

Wigley: Well, I have the character of Polly Bixby, Max's sassy-but-resourceful secretary, voiced by Kelli Stone. In Max Helms, we didn't really get outside that whole damsel-in-distress storyline. Greg is actually working on a sequel to Max Helms and I think he has a femme fatale in that, so....

Guillén: Wonderful. Now, Max Helms is on festival track?

Wigley: This weekend there is an action figure convention in Atlanta, Georgia, the Joelanta and Great Atlanta Toy Convention Film Festival, which has a film festival component and Max Helms is screening there.

Guillén: That's intriguing. There's a community of action figure aficionados? Are you a member of that community?

Wigley: Not as much as I used to be. As I said, I'm not collecting them as much as I used to and am more interested in using them as tools.

Guillén: I was likewise intrigued by the sound design for your film, which has an understated low-key delivery that I feel is true to grade B 1940s crime films.

Wigley: That's what I was going for. A lot of people don't get that.

Guillén: Talk to me about your set design. Max Helms is full of little details, down to the charmingly oversized coffee cups. Do you make all your props? Do you find them? Do you use dollhouse props?

Wigley: A lot of times, yes, I do. There's the Barbie-scaled stuff that I can use since it conforms to the scale that I'm working with. I use a lot of that. A lot of hobbyists make things like that and sell them on Ebay.

Guillén: Do you make your own costumes?

Wigley: No.

Guillén: Who makes your costumes?

Wigley: A lot of times I can find things that work for what I want.

Guillén: You found all those suits and fedoras already made?!!

Wigley: Yeah.

Guillén: Impressive. So, though you're not the tailor, you are the dresser and find the costumes you need?

Wigley: Suits are made on that scale.

Guillén: I didn't realize that. So, along with the costumes, the phones, the desks, all of that you find?

Wigley: I actually have a friend who I call my toy wrangler. I email him and I'll say, "Hey, I need one of these." He'll find someone who's selling it on Ebay and buy it for me. All the sets and much of the furniture I do make myself.

Guillén: Where did the character of Max Helms come from? Who is he patterned on? Who is Max Helms?

Wigley: I didn't really think of a back story for the guy. I was kind of thinking he was a WWI vet, an older grizzled guy.

Guillén: How long did it take to create Max Helms: Curse of the Relic?

Wigley: About two years.

Guillén: Oh my God! This is why I like being a film journalist. I get interested in a project and within a week I've written what I have to say and I move on. After Joelanta, will you be submitting elsewhere?

Wigley: I've been submitting to other festivals but haven't had any takers.

Guillén: But Treefort had the good sense to include you in their "Local Gems" showcase! How's that feel for you?

Wigley: Feels pretty good.

Guillén: So what's your dream? Where do you want your stop-action work to go?

Wigley: It would be cool to find a job where I could tell Max Helms's story. A TV series?

Guillén: I look forward to that. I found your first installment thoroughly enjoyable.

Saturday, March 21, 2015


Mike Ott's Lake Los Angeles (2014) is not about Southern California's City of Broken Dreams and Fallen Angels, but is situated instead deep in the Antelope Valley on the western tip of the Mojave Desert, north of the city. Ott's fourth film and the third in his proposed Antelope Valley Trilogy—preceded by Littlerock (2010) and Pearblossom Highway (2012)Lake Los Angeles concerns itself nonetheless with the broken dreams of angels who have fallen into Antelope Valley's desolate landscape of scrub oak, creosote, and joshua trees under—as Oscar Moralde phrases it at The House Next Door—"the withering weight of open sky." Our fallen angels are two exiles struggling to find their footing while holding onto their humanity in an America that no longer honors its immigrants, and articulates their struggle through a braided structure of voiceovers that frame the narrative.

The first voiceover is the story that 10-year-old Cecilia (Johanna Trujillo, in a spellbinding performance) whispers to herself and to the old man seated within a snow globe, her most valued possession. Sent from Mexico across the border to allegedly meet a father who never shows up to claim her, Cecilia is left to fend for herself. Withdrawn and sullen, she negotiates her compromised existence with an imaginative, interior life that informs and motivates her survival. She speaks only to the old man in the snow globe who, oddly enough, is a sailor. Why should a sailor be in a snow storm? And why should that snow storm be carried around in a desert? These are facts incidental to Cecilia's world and the movie starts us out in that snow storm to signal that her inner life is the real story.

Children-in-peril narratives harbor their own particular poetry and I'm quick to admit that I love these lyrical tales of survival. Cecilia runs away into the desert, scavenges and gets by through the sheer innocence of will, befriending a dog to keep her love alive, and alert to monsters in the darkness. As she weakens, her hallucinations strengthen. She hears beckoning voices in the dusk wind that keep leading her forward. A sketched cactus becomes her signpost guide to safety. And like the mythic template familiar to all orphans, she seeks atonement with an absent father. In his review for Twitch, Ben Umstead astutely compares Lake Los Angeles with the work of Victor Erice, specifically Spirit of the Beehive (1973), which naturally invites comparison to Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006), Agustí Villaronga's Black Bread (2010), and the granddaddy of children-in-peril films: Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955).

The second voiceover is the regretful remembrances of Francisco (Roberto 'Sanz' Sanchez) who left his wife and children behind in his native Cuba in hopes of securing a better life for them in the U.S. He clings to the belief that he has done the right thing, even as time steals any semblance of certainty from him. He survives as a brasero working odd jobs and by managing a holding house for illegal aliens, who he sees as "hurt animals" in his care, especially Cecilia who touches his heart in unexpected ways and who he affectionately nicknames "kitten." She is, indeed, at times, as feral as a cat.

The third voiceover is brief and epistolary, but instrumental in bringing the story to its conclusion. It belongs to Francisco's wife who he has left behind in Havana, who cautions that his dreams for a better life have robbed them of the life they could have shared.

Between these three voices Mike Ott creates a compelling portrait of displaced souls lonely for family and suggests that where one is lost another can be found. Mike Gioulakis's light-saturated and flaring camera work softly melds landscape with inscape, reading hopeful lyricism into the harshest of realities. María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir's score accentuates a spiritual quest for resolution with the buzzing drone of desert heat.

Benjamin Morgan's line-up for this year's Treefort Film Festival is strong, but I would say that without question Lake Los Angeles is the film that should not be missed. Boise is lucky, indeed, to be added to the film's robust film festival trajectory, where it has garnered favorable reviews and multiple awards on the circuit, including Best Feature Film, Best Actor and Best Cinematography at the Las Vegas International Film Festival, Best Actress at the Flathead Lake International Cinemafest, Best Narrative Feature at Mexico's Festival Sayulita, Best Feature Film at the Urbanworld Film Festival, Best Cinematography at the Bend Film Festival, and the Someone to Watch Award for Mike Ott at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Lake Los Angeles was also awarded $40,000 in post-production funds from the US-in-Progress organization in Wroclaw Poland.

Lake Los Angeles screens at 8:00PM on Saturday, March 28, 2015 at The Flicks and will be followed by a Q&A session with producer Alex Gioulakis and DP Mike Gioulakis.


"Idaho's state gem is the star garnet," Treefort Film Festival (TFF) states in their program notes, "but lesser known yet equally brilliant Treasure Valley gems fill this slate of films."

Runaway (dir. Maxwell Moser, 2014)—With a tip of the hat to Carson McCullers's debut novel The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, a plaintive self-reflective voiceover initiates writer / director / editor Maxell Moser's short film Runaway and echoes the novelist's focus on giving voice to those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated or oppressed. The voiceover's desultory self-reflection is set against inarticulate events in this predominantly visual and laconic tale of Jess (Jordan Hazen), a young woman holed up in an empty farmhouse with Saul (Matthew Cooley), a man succumbing to tuberculosis. The lean narrative is atmospheric with unanswered questions. What is the relationship between the two? Are they father and daughter? Sister and brother? Why do they refrain from turning the lights on at night? Why does Saul insist that Jess not visit their neighbors?

Jesse Rayborn's cinematography and Marcus Eugene's score evoke a forlorn late-winter countryside anticipating the release of spring. The trees are as barren as Jess feels inside. Saul spends his idle time whittling a small bird. It's a bit of beauty, a suggestion of flight, in their claustrophobic insular world. As the film's opening quote by Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heshel suggests, Jess has cultivated many burdens in order to gain the strength to carry out one act of freedom. Will she remain loyal to Saul or—as in her slow motion dream of childhood's abandon—run free?

Max Helms: Curse of the Relic (dir. Hutt Wigley, 2015)—An homage to the crime films and film noirs of the '40s and '50s, Hutt Wigley's B&W stop-action animated short is hands on, frame-by-frame, a tour-de-force of set design, costuming and period detail. It recently won Best Animated Feature at The Joelanta and Great Atlanta Toy Convention Film Festival. Set in San Francisco, 1938, the exhumed corpses of deceased street-level criminals are being discovered all over the city ... weeks after they've died! But who's digging up dead criminals? And why? Max Helms is a rough and tumble private-eye with his thumb on the pulse of San Francisco's low-rent criminals. Polly Bixby is Max's sassy-but-resourceful secretary. When a mugger unwittingly drops a stolen African relic right in Max and Polly's laps, they discover an underworld of occultists lead by German mobster Gustov Heinrich. Max and Polly uncover Heinrich's devious plot to take over San Francisco using an undead criminal army, but can they stop his evil plans in time?

Sector 6 (dir. Damon Ridgeway, 2014)—A nuisance is better than nothing when you're adrift in space on standby without a mission counting the seconds on the clock and crossing off days on the calendar. Damon Ridgeway's animated short Sector 6 is lo-fi sci-fi that's clever enough to cite 2001: A Space Odyssey and E.T. within minutes of each other.

Warbird Pilot: Behind the Visor (dir. Rob W. Scribner, 2014)—Rob W. Scribner's documentary short Warbird Pilot: Behind the Visor gives voice to John Curtiss Paul, P-40, P-51 and Reno Air Race Pilot, and his lifelong passion for flying planes. Poignantly shuffled with re-enactments of a young red-headed tyke using cardboard and tempura paint to convert his bicycle into a plane, Warbird Pilot traces how the dream of a child can become the soaring passion of an adult.

View From A Pedal Buggy (dir. Zach Voss, 2015)—Another documentary short about an equally impassioned subject is Zach Voss's award-winning View From A Pedal Buggy, a cyclist's valentine to Boise's own Gregory Allen. This was written up earlier here on The Evening Class.

TFF's Local Gems slate of short films will screen at 12:40PM on Saturday, March 28, 2015 at The Flicks and will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. Tickets are $8.00 and available at the Flicks Box Office.

Friday, March 20, 2015

TRANSGENDER COMEDY—The Evening Class Interview With Ian Harvie

Photo: Austin Young
After the demoralizing setback (I won't call it defeat) at Boise, Idaho's Add the Words hearing on Thursday, January 9, 2015, the prescience of filmmakers Cammie Pavesic and Michael Gough to invite Ian Harvie to open their back-to-Boise screening of Add the Words: The Movie (2014) felt like a strategic gift of levity to assuage an injured community.

Ian Harvie began his stand-up comedy career in his home state Maine in 2002, then migrated to Los Angeles in 2006 when he began touring with Margaret Cho as her opening act. He began his solo headlining career in 2009, and has had his act memorialized in the documentary Ian Harvie Superhero (2013). More recent credits include episodic turns in the Golden Globe®-winning television series Transparent (2014). He's currently shooting the short film Upended (2016).

* * *

Michael Guillén: It's a great honor to talk to you today, Ian. Congratulations on being a rising star on the comedy circuit. You're probably the first transgender stand-up comic hit that I've heard of.

Ian Harvie: Well, thank you! Thank you very much.

Guillén: That must feel good?

Harvie: There are so many transgender comics out there doing stand-up.

Guillén: Is that true?

Harvie: There are now. I was the only transgender person I knew doing stand-up when I started. There were definitely performers, artists, actors, lots of theater people, but I was the only stand-up I knew that was traveling around 13 years ago trying to tell people who I was through humor. It's amazing to see a lot of people out there now, but to have people lift me up and let me be seen and heard and to have someone like you say that what I'm doing means something to you is really beautiful to me. So thank you. Thank you so much.

Photo: Austin Young
Guillén: Watching your documentary Ian Harvie Superhero this morning reminded me that humor is often at its best when it's transgressive. Can you speak to that?

Harvie: One of the things I don't do is self-hate. I'm not a self-loathing comic. I endear myself to the crowd before I lay who I am on them. By the time I lay who I am on them, if they're incensed by it for some dumb reason, then they're clearly assholes because they've already liked me. My plan is always to make you like me before we ever get to the stuff about my identity and sexual politics, being trans and that experience.

But here's the other thing: the rule in comedy is that if it's your story, if you're telling your story—and that's the rule of any storytelling at all—your story is inarguable. I just get up and tell my story and nobody can come up to me afterwards and say, "No, suh. That's not true." Yes, it is. It happened to me and that's how I speak of it. That's how I share my story. Also at the end, without their really knowing it, they've probably learned something. They laugh, but they're also thinking, "I didn't know that."

Guillén: Absolutely. As an elder gay male who's experienced queer activism from the '70s on, the transgender voice is, perhaps, the most complicated story to tell and the most difficult to communicate and incorporate.

Harvie: Let me make it real easy. You know what? Everybody around us right now, everybody on this campus, everybody outside this campus throughout Boise, all the way to San Francisco, especially the gay men in San Francisco, feel uncomfortable about their bodies in direct relation to their masculinity or their femininity, their gender specifically. No one feels 100% okay about their bodies. If they do, then they're the weirdo.

When I first came out I thought, "Oh, I'm the only one that's ever felt this way." That's silly. I met other guys like me and started to feel more comfortable, but then I started to look around at people who—even if they're comfortable with the gender they were born with, their gender assignment—I began to realize that they are also modifying their bodies. Women are getting breast implantations to feel more feminine in their bodies. I took mine off to feel more masculine. It's the same motivation. We're all the same. We're all doing the same things and all feeling the same way but what we choose to do with it is different person to person. So, for me, everybody's trans. You are. They are. We don't stop to take a beat and a breath to think, "I wonder what that would be like to have discomfort with my body?" You already know what that's like.

If you take a moment to think about it, how many times in a week while you're getting dressed do you think about how you want to present yourself that day? "Today I'm feeling a little butch. I'm going to put on my flannel shirt, and my boots, and I'm going to go down to the store and get a coffee and I'll get the paper." Some days I'm a little bit more in my skinny jeans and my Oxford shoes and my fitted shirt and I pass as a gay guy. On the spectrum of masculinity and femininity, I land somewhere different every day. But I think that's everybody's thing. I know you do it. I know people think about it. Even straight people are thinking about it.

Guillén: And yet—in thinking about it—that's precisely what makes so many people uncomfortable. I'm pleased that you're here to host Add the Words: The Movie in Boise, Idaho. Have you seen the documentary?

Photo: The Idaho Statesman
Harvie: I have not. I've seen the trailer for it and that made me teary. I was struck by former state senator Nicole LaFavour practicing civil disobedience with other LGBTQA members of the community here and they wouldn't arrest her. Is that accurate?

Guillén: My understanding is they had a hearing behind closed doors to change state policy so that they could arrest her.

Harvie: And she wanted to be arrested?

Guillén: Nicole LaFavour is a valiant champion of LGBT rights in Idaho and, I believe, will go down in history for her efforts, in the same way that Harvey Milk is remembered for his efforts in San Francisco.

Harvie: Anyway, I saw that clip with her co-representatives walking by her and you could see that some of them wanted to help but couldn't, while others held her in disdain. That clip really impressed me.

Guillén: How did you end up being in Boise for this event?

Harvie: Cammie Pavesic got my information from a mutual friend who knew I was a comic and told her, "You should have Ian come and help raise money to get the word out about this film and to get the film out to other festivals." Cammie wrote to me last Fall and I wrote back saying, "Yeah, I would love to." She offered to pay for my flight and hotel and I said, "No problem. I'll just come up and do it." She said, "Are you sure?" So I'm not taking a dime on this. But what I did was I had my booker book Portland and Bend. I flew to Portland and did a show on Sunday night, Bend last night, drove here today, and so I'll do the show here tonight. So I made my money there in Portland and Bend to cover my expenses. I got this invitation first and built those gigs around it.

Guillén: This might seem obvious, but why did you want to help us out here in Idaho?

Harvie: You know what? This is one of the states that's being left behind. I'm originally from the state of Maine, though I live in Los Angeles now and, as you know, California is so modern. But Idaho is being left behind. That's something Cammie and I talked about on the phone. There are states out there that have not passed these laws yet to protect LGBT people. It's not special rights; it's equal rights. There are people within states like Idaho that still don't understand that. Idaho is one of those states that's—forgive me—in a time warp.

I lived here for 14 months 20 years ago and I worked at the one gay club in the state. People used to come in the parking lot with shotguns and fire them off to scare the LGBT people walking into the club. I don't think it's like that today, but I do think that there is still a lot of education to be done here, obviously. That these laws haven't been passed to add sexual orientation and gender to Idaho's human rights amendments for LGBT people is just crazy to me: it's 2015! I have a huge special place in my heart for Boise, and Idaho, because I lived here at such a developmental time in my life and I met such incredible people here and I can't bear to think of my friends and their families not being protected. It drives me nuts! Cammie reminded me that a lot of states have equality marriage and equal rights and don't know that their neighboring states don't.

Guillén: Don't get me started on solidarity issues. Even with "modern" California, I reached out to many queer film writers and activists to try to get them involved in supporting the Add the Words movement in Idaho, and Cammie and Michael's film on the movement, and their response has been silence. It embarrasses me that—once San Franciscan queers secured their rights—they appear to have lost interest in helping others secure their's in embattled states like Idaho.

Harvie: I am one of these people who cannot bear the thought of anybody being left behind. Let's say we're out at a restaurant after a club and there's a really quiet guy in the group, I'm the one who will say, "Get in here." I can't stand the idea of anybody ever being left out. So that was my urge. I said, "Yeah, I'll come up and do some stand-up and—if that helps—great."

Guillén: Well as one Californian to another, thank you for rallying. Now, here's a somewhat difficult question. I've talked to other transgender artists about it. It's an issue I want to understand. The issue here in Idaho—as testimony revealed at the hearing before our legislature—is something of a false heirarchy of need. There's some struggle but a willingness to accept sexual orientation within the human rights amendment, and yet a complete confusion about gender. The transgender individuals who stepped up to give testimony became the excuse to justify fear.

Harvie: Why do they frighten them?

Guillén: I don't know, but let's explore this. It came home to me when one of my best friends—a good-hearted friend of mine from high school who is adamantly in favor of the Add the Words movement—said to me over dinner after the disappointing results of the hearing: "If only the transgender people could be quiet for now and allow lesbians and gays to win their rights first, then the Add the Words amendment could pass in Idaho." I didn't even have the words to express how misguided I felt she was and how offensive such a strategy would prove to be.

Harvie: It is offensive.

Guillén: Can you speak to that argument?

Harvie: If that person were in front of me, I would ask them if they remember Stonewall? Stonewall was trans women and butches throwing punches with the police. They were the people on the front line.

Guillén: As they were even earlier at San Francisco's Compton's Cafeteria riots.

Harvie: We are one family, period. It's a hard thing to speak to because I don't want to get angry about it. I just want to explain to that person that's not how civil rights movements move forward. You don't concede. You don't leave someone behind. You don't say, "No, no, no, you'll be fine. We'll come back for you later." Meanwhile, trans people have the highest rate of murders. If you want to talk facts and numbers and statistics, trans women of color in particular need these protections more than anybody else. Eight trans women this year were murdered by the end of February. It wasn't eight gay men. It wasn't eight lesbians. It wasn't eight trans men. It was eight trans women.

Here's what it's going to take to deal with trans hate crimes. It's going to take as much passion and funding as the equality of marriage movement to stop people from murdering trans people, trans women in particular. You don't move a civil rights movement forward by separating the group. That's exactly what our opponents would want us to do. It weakens the movement.

Guillén: Yet the capacity to be divided remains a real danger. Just recently in San Francisco there was a physical confrontation between transgender activists and young gay men in the Castro over an attempt to protest the mainstream gay community's complicity with white supremacy and transphobia. This is something that I've had my eye on for some time. I already knew that some lesbians feel threatened by trans women and gay men by trans men and I don't understand why.

Harvie: I haven't seen that as much. But I will say that—as a trans guy—we have so much privilege. This is just to make a point, but—if I were walking down the street and we'd never met and you knew nothing about me—how would...?

Guillén: [Jokingly, I make a clicking catcall.]

Harvie: [Laughs.] Okay. There's that. But, would you have even thought twice about what I was assigned at birth? That's a privilege that I have and it's a privilege that you have. The numbers are so opposite as to what trans guys have to go through in comparison to what trans women have to go through. There's a great book out there—I don't know if you've read it?—called Whipping Girl by Julia Serrano. She talks about how everybody fears femininity, especially when it comes from someone who was assigned male at birth and then later transitioned. She says there's a deep hatred for someone who wants to give up their male privilege. Why would you want that? It's misogynist. It's trans-misogynist. Whipping Girl speaks a lot about that, which is at the core of why gay men, cisgender men, are so fearful in particular and also why a few select separatist lesbians who—maybe of a certain age—are really adamant about not letting trans women into their spaces.

Guillén: I'm not really asking for an answer to this question. I'm simply seeking out multiple voices on the issue because I suspect it is a divisive one within our community, within our family, that is not acknowledged enough.

Harvie: Absolutely. It's a big problem.

Guillén: As a trans male, can you speak to gender parity within your own community? Is there communication between all of you?

Harvie: Yeah, everybody knows everybody.

Guillén: Do you know Jed Bell?

Harvie: I do. I know Jed Bell from Maine, 26 years ago.

Guillén: Jed was the first trans male I talked to. I realized I was afraid of trans men and I didn't want to be afraid.

Harvie: Were you afraid or you just didn't understand?

Guillén: I just didn't understand and I wanted to understand. I invited him over and told him, "I want to talk to you because I want to understand who you are, what you're about, and what your problems are within the gay community." What came out of that conversation was the realization that his transition to becoming a man was exactly comparable to my experience of becoming a man within the gay scene. He told me that what hurt him the most was the lack of acceptance, tolerance and understanding from gay males. He said he thought of himself as a gay male and looked to us for guidance. He thought he would be included but, at that time, didn't feel he was being included. I haven't talked to him in recent years so I'm not sure how he feels about those things now.

Harvie: Like many things, that tide is changing. What happens to guys who are attracted to guys who may still have female anatomy, but they're masculine? What does it say about them? They experience a shift around that process. Maybe, at first, they're confused and experience self-hate about it, but the tide is changing. For trans guys it is now becoming—I would say—even sometimes fashionable for top gay guys to have a trans male partner. A hole's a hole, whatever, bring it. Hot is hot, bring it. I've gotten that from a few guys. It's like, "Oh, right." It's becoming less important. It's easier for guys to let that go for trans guys than cisgender guys are for women.

Here's the thing: realness—of people being passable either as female or male—is way fucking overrated. It's something that people place intense importance on. When you were talking about the legislative people being scared of trans people, I'm guessing that's what this references. These are people who have not necessarily seen a trans person. And the media has done a terrible job at depicting who trans people are so that—when someone steps up—they use these frames of reference from the media that have been incorrect, such as that being transgender is a mental illness or that it's associated with pedophilia.

Guillén: This misunderstanding also supports the fulcrum of the argument that then politicizes space, specifically the reductive argument I'm hearing again and again ad nauseum about access to the contested space of the bathroom.

Harvie: Again, as a trans male, not a thing I have to deal with. I get fearful in the men's restroom because I'm afraid I'm going to be found out, but I absolutely without a doubt know that's not an issue for me walking into the bathroom, but I know it is for trans women. If a trans woman is living her life as her true self and she goes out and has to use the restroom, she's probably suffering some serious anxiety.

Guillén: I don't know how accurate this is, but I was told the other day that in the process of transitioning from male to female one of the prerequisites is that they have to go to a women's restroom even before they have transitioned?

Harvie: That's really old information. They don't require any of that stuff anymore. They used to require that you live a year as a woman before you transitioned, which was so fucking dangerous. "Go out and see if you can handle it first and risk your life for a year living your life as a woman before you really commit to this whole thing." They got rid of that and decided, "You know what? We believe people when they tell us who they are so we're no longer requiring that in the standards of care to make people do this crazy fucking thing." When someone tells me who they are, I believe them. I'm like, "Absolutely, yes, you are."

Guillén: I agree, and then I just seek to discover who you are on top of that.

Harvie: So, no, they don't require that anymore. Some really brilliant people advocated to have that removed; it was so insane.

Guillén: Shifting to tonight's screening of Add the Words: The Movie, I'm struck by how the Add the Words movement is distinguished as an ally-supported movement. It's such a different movement than the gay male movement of the '70s and '80s and it's something I can't quite get across to queers who have already earned their rights. Here in Idaho, if you're GLBT, it's dangerous to come out and be part of this movement. Not to say that there aren't brave souls who will do so, but primarily the fight is being fought by straight allies who see this—not as a gay rights movement—but a human rights movement. If you come out as a gay or lesbian or transgender person to support the movement you take an incredible risk of losing your job or losing your housing or being physically harmed. That's the point. I find this straight ally support astounding and incredibly moving.

Harvie: I'm so glad you've said that. When I was driving here today from Bend, I was thinking to myself that an ally-supported movement is exactly what is going to effect change in Idaho. Obviously, it will include GLBT people, but true change is going to have to come from families and friends of these loved ones and employers who embrace their hard-working employees. It's going to take those people who aren't at risk to bravely step up to support those who are, to open their mouths and say, "You know what? We love these people and we support them. You should do the same."

Here's the other thing: nothing ever gets done by wagging your finger in somebody's face and telling them they're a fat, bloated, white, potato-farming Republican. Nothing's going to get done that way. People are going to have to blow a little smoke up these people's ass and tell them that they have to do the right thing. But it will have to be nuanced in such a way by these allies to make it clear that this is the right thing to do. That's sometimes the only way to get that shit done.

Guillén: And I've always been a proponent of that saying Confucius had that if you want to change a culture, change its language. That's where I feel you help out as a comic. You're playing with the language by which we understand ourselves and tweaking it, by maybe even making us a little uncomfortable.

Harvie: Here's what I do. I talk more about feelings and my story and stay away from specific language that people don't yet wrap their heads around. I try to stick to feelings, like how I feel about my body. That way someone in the crowd thinks, "Hey, that's how I feel about my body too." Leaving the labels off sometimes feels subversive to me. The labels are important, but when you talk about feelings, you find more shared space. I wish I could do a show for those people at the state house and let their shoulders relax around all this information.

Guillén: Well, my feeling is that I'm so grateful that you are here, and that you accepted Cammie's invitation to come help us fight this fight. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

Harvie: Thank you.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

THROWBACK THURSDAY: PAN'S LABYRINTH (2006)—The Evening Class Interview With Guillermo Del Toro

With today's welcome announcement that Guillermo del Toro will be the recipient of the Irving M. Levin Directing Award at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival (April 23-May 7, 2015), my conversation with del Toro regarding Pan's Labyrinth (2006)—originally published December 14, 2006 on The Evening Class—seemed like the best candidate for today's Throwback Thursday entry.

As outlined by the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS), the Irving M. Levin Directing Award honors the Mexican director's expansive body of work and celebrates his unique contributions to the art of cinema. The tribute will acknowledge del Toro's exceptional versatility in film. His mastery of building fantastic yet familiar worlds, populating them with disorienting and heroic monsters, brings audiences deep inside the living, oozing heart of his rich world of ideas and images. The award will be presented to del Toro at Film Society Awards Night, Monday April 27 at The Armory (1799 Mission St.).

Del Toro will also be honored at An Evening with Guillermo del Toro at the Castro Theatre, Saturday April 25, 8:00PM. An onstage interview, accompanied by a selection of clips from his notable directing career and a sneak peek at his upcoming projects, will be followed by a screening of The Devil's Backbone (2001).

"Guillermo del Toro's remarkable ability to shift between intimate political drama and blockbuster action is shared with only a very few select filmmakers at the top of the field," said Noah Cowan, Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society. "This award is a tribute to his boundless imagination and to his deep understanding of cinema history. Del Toro is both a great teacher and a boisterous communicator of why movies matter; we are going to have a very fun night with him here indeed."

As synopsized by SFFS: "Del Toro burst onto the international scene with Cronos (1993), winner of nine Ariel Awards® from the Mexican Academy of Film Arts and Sciences and the Cannes' International Critics Week prize. The Devil's Backbone solidified his reputation as a masterful storyteller, while Pan's Labyrinth (2006) opened to worldwide acclaim, winning three Oscars® and garnering Academy Award® nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film. Del Toro continued to develop his unique directorial style with fan favorites Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004) and Pacific Rim (2013), which was one of the highest grossing live action films that year, topping $400 million at the box office worldwide. The Strain, his 2009 vampire novel co-authored with Chuck Hogan, was recently adapted for television and developed into an FX series, and audiences eagerly await his upcoming gothic thriller Crimson Peak, set to release in October 2015.

"Del Toro is notable for multi-faceted projects and collaborations with the cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, actors Ron Perlman and Doug Jones, and for his influential friendships with fellow Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Beyond his contributions to directing, del Toro works as an activist, author and film historian, and has screenwriting and production credits on over 30 films. From the fairytale friendships of Pan's Labyrinth to the haunting coastlines of Pacific Rim, he is responsible for numerous stories, characters and landscapes sparking the imagination of fresh and seasoned audiences alike.

Irving M. Levin with Harold Zellerbach
"The Irving M. Levin Directing Award (previously the Founder's Directing Award) is presented each year to a master of world cinema and is given in memory of Irving M. Levin, visionary founder of the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1957. The award is made possible by Irving's son and current SFFS board member Fred M. Levin and Fred's wife Nancy Livingston. It was first bestowed in 1986 on iconic filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and for many years carried his name."

I first saw Pan's Labyrinth when it premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I was just starting out with film coverage, TIFF was my first major film festival away from home, and—though I didn't yet have enough clout to score an interview with del Toro in Toronto—that opportunity arrived on the home front when del Toro accompanied Pan's Labyrinth to San Francisco. Affable, down-to-earth, and amazingly affectionate, I was absolutely charmed by his expressive penchant for cussing a blue streak when we met at the Ritz Carlton. The following transcript is not for the prudish nor the spoiler-wary (if there's actually anyone left who hasn't seen Pan's Labyrinth by now).

* * *

Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on winning the San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for Best Foreign Language film earlier this week.

Guillermo Del Toro: I love it.

Guillén: As well as comparable accolades and nominations across the board, including the recently-announced Golden Globe® nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Del Toro: It's just fantastic.

Guillén:  …and well-deserved. Pan's Labyrinth is certainly my favorite movie of the year.

Del Toro: Fuckin' A!

Guillén: Foreign-language, whatever, it is my favorite movie of the year; a truly visionary piece.

Del Toro: Thank you.

Guillén: I first saw Pan's Labyrinth at the Elgin Theater during the Toronto International where you and Ivana Baquero introduced the film, then again here in San Francisco, and will be seeing it again this evening at the San Francisco Film Society screening.

Del Toro: You're going to see it again tonight?

Guillén: Yes.

Del Toro: That's great. Because I think one of the things the movie has, hopefully, is every time you see it there's little details that surface.

Guillén: That's what I've noticed so far; it's rich in detail. Pan's Labyrinth is textured with redemptive transgression. Can you speak to why doing the wrong thing ends up being so right?

Del Toro: I love the way you put it. There's a song by Rufus Wainwright—"Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk" it's called, I think—and it says, "Why is it that everything I like is a little bad for me?" Instinct will guide you more than intellect towards what's right for you and actually more naturally right. Disobedience is one of the strongest signals of your conscience of what is right and what is wrong. When you disobey in an intelligent way, you disobey in a natural way, it turns out to be more beneficial than blind obedience. Blind obedience castrates, negates, hides, and destroys what makes us human. On the other hand, instinct and disobedience will always point you in a direction that should be natural, should be organic to the world. So I think that disobedience is a virtue and blind obedience is a sin.

Guillén: Why do you eroticize cruelty? Your villains are thrillingly virile. First, Eduardo Noriega in The Devil's Backbone; now, Sergi López in Pan's Labyrinth. You've made it near to impossible for me—a queer-identified male—to trust a handsome stud! [Guillermo laughs.] At the least you have revealed to me that—if I'm going to go out on the town tonight—I really would rather leave Dr. Jekyll in the lab and go out with fucking Mr. Hyde! [Guillermo laughs again.]

Del Toro: Well, it's the revenge of the guy who grew up being a chubby, not-very-attractive guy. That's the revenge of the nerd. One of the dangers of fascism and one of the dangers of true evil in our world—which I believe exists—is that it's very attractive. That it is incredibly attractive in a way that most people negate. Most people make their villains ugly and nasty and I think, no, fascism has a whole concept of design, and a whole concept of uniforms and set design that made it attractive to the weak-willed.

I tried to make Sergi López like all politicians that are truly evil—well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken, gets up from his chair when a lady enters the room, gets up from his chair when a lady leaves the room. I'd much rather be with a slob that is cool. It's very rarely that when somebody is that worried about the outward appearance, there's something truly truly wrong within. The opposite is often true. When people aren't comfortable just being in their normal level, just being—I don't have a cool pair of shoes, I don't have a cool pair of pants, but I'm all right—that's actually a sign of comfort, that something's at peace within. Extremes are incredibly powerful in cinema and the fact that this 11-year-old girl is much more comfortable in her skin than this fascist that hates himself so much that he slits his own throat in the mirror and negates his father's watch and does these crazy things, that gives the girl power and gives the other guy the illusion of power and the choice of cruelty. Choice is key in what we are. You choose to be destructive or you choose to be all encompassing and love-giving. Each choice defines who we are, no matter what the reason behind it is, because everybody values the reason behind the act, or the idea behind the act more than the reason. The idea behind the act, they value it more than the act these days.

Guillén: The contrast between the two is profound in this film. In your fantastic Guardian interview with Mark Kermode you contrasted the curvilinear, uterine design and the fallopian color palette of Ofelia's fantasy world against the colorless right angles of the fascist world. That comment reminded me of the Austrian painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser who has a line I've long loved: "The straight line is godless."

Del Toro: I agree. What a great line! Who said that?

Guillén: Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Del Toro: Oh fuck. Can you write it down for me?

Guillén: Sure.  [Later, at the evening screening, I brought del Toro a volume of Hundertwasser's artwork.  He was delighted and gave me a huge bear hug.]

Del Toro: Thank you. The straight lines are an obsession with perfection and perfection is unattainable. Perfection is a conceit. Perfection actually lies in fully loving the defect. I think that's perfection. It's like what the guy says in Hellboy, he says, "We like people for their qualities; we love them for their defects." It's true in life. It's the same.

I remember that one of the first reactions that the critics had to Edvard Munch's paintings was that they were technically flawed and "ugly to look at." They were saying, "He not only is a bad painter, he chooses to paint only disgusting subjects." And you go, "What the hell are you talking about?" Humanity is like that. Humanity should be flawed and imperfect and fucked up and loved because of that, not in spite of that, because of that.

I remember also the Marquis de Sade who used to say a beautiful line; he said, "I understand murder for passion." He said, "I not only understand it, but I condone it. What I don't understand is murder for an idea. Or for a law. That is perverse." To kill somebody because he broke an idea or he broke a law? I agree with him. When we send somebody to the electric chair because he killed one person but we give a purple heart to somebody because he killed dozens for the "right" idea—patriotism, liberty, democracy, whatever the fuck you want to invent—I find it completely perverse.

Guillén: It borders on the insane. All of your previous films have a fairly prevalent and overt use of Catholic imagery, but Pan's Labyrinth almost completely avoids it, and yet your friend Iñarrítu said this is probably your most Catholic film.

Del Toro: He said that, yes.

Guillén: Is the omission of visible Catholic detail just a coincidence? Or was the church's position and sympathies with the Francoists during the civil war something you considered as you planned out the symbolic strategy of the film?

Del Toro: When I was researching the movie The Devil's Backbone, I found the absolutely horrifying—not only complicity—but participation of the Church in the entire fascist movement in Spain. The words that the priest speaks at the table in Pan's Labyrinth are taken verbatim from a speech a priest used to give to the Republican prisoners in a fascist concentration camp. He would come to give them communion and he would say before he left, "Remember, my sons, you should confess what you know because God doesn't care what happens to your bodies; he already saved your souls." This is taken verbatim from that speech.

The Pale Man represents the Church for me, y'know? He represents fascism and the Church eating the children when they have a perversely abundant banquet in front of them. There is almost a hunger to eat innocence. A hunger to eat purity.

I didn't want to avoid it, but I did not seek Catholic imagery. Nevertheless, I understand that redemption by blood and the rebirth by sacrifice is a Catholic conceit. So I accept it without any problems because I think that sexuality and religion come from your imprint in an early age. Whatever arouses your spirit or arouses your body at an early age, that's what is going to arouse it the rest of your life. Everything will be subordinate to that. It's a personal choice and it's a personal experience. I don't shame myself about being a lapsed Catholic and so if that cosmology appears in my movies, I'm fine with it.

Guillén: When I was a student of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, he taught me that it was—in some ways—inappropriate the way kids in the '60s went gaga over Eastern mysticism. They could learn from it. They could enjoy it. But it wasn't really their path no matter how much they wanted it to be and they would always deep down at heart be Christians needing to resolve spiritual issues in a Christian way.  Their template—or as you say imprint—had been set.

Del Toro: They will always be a Western man looking at the East. Where your feet stand does not limit your gaze but it does limit what perspective you judge it from.

Guillén: Your orientation.

Del Toro: I can read all the fucking books about Taoism I want; I'll still be a Catholic boy reading them. There's no way of avoiding that.

Guillén: Another thematic image that I kept picking up from Pan's Labyrinth involves the relationship between Ofelia and Mercedes. First, you have the stelae in the middle of the labyrinth with the sculpted image of the faun / father, the girl and the baby; then you have Ofelia holding her baby brother; then Ofelia is killed and you have Mercedes holding Ofelia's baby brother. These three images were equivalent for me and served as symbolic substitutes for each other, insinuating a parallel structure between Ofelia and Mercedes. Moreso than between Ofelia and her mother.

Del Toro: You're absofuckinglutely right!! I'm amazed and happy. You win the prize. You're the only fucking guy that has noticed that! I thank you very much.

The idea for me is that you're born with a mother and then you find another on the way. You are born with a brother and you find another one on your way. You fabricate your family as you grow up. Mercedes is the future of Ofelia if Ofelia chose to stop believing. Ofelia asks Mercedes, "Do you believe in fairies?" and Mercedes says, "I used to when I was a child. I used to believe many things that I don't believe in any more." That's why the attraction is so strong. They see each other in each other. They see their strength. Mercedes loves the purity of this girl and Ofelia instinctively knows the nature of this woman. They form a mother and daughter bond.

That's why it's so tragic for me that Mercedes cries for Ofelia at the end because for Mercedes the girl died but we know she didn't. That is very Catholic. Ofelia is in a better place within herself. She may objectively cease to exist but this is where I think the epilog of the movie is incredibly important and moving. If you die and your legacy is one little flower blooming in a dry tree, that's enough of a legacy (for me). And that's a magical legacy. If she had not done the things she did, the tree would have never bloomed, but, because she did them, there is a little flower blooming.

On the other hand, she dies at peace. She dies at peace with what she did. She's the only character in the film who decides not to enact any violence. Not to take any lives. Even the doctor takes a life. But the only one who chooses "I will not take any life because I own only mine", that's the character that survives, spiritually. The fascist dies the loneliest death you could ever experience and the girl … I'm reminded of the quote by Kierkegaard that said, "The tyrant's rule ends with his death. The martyr's rule begins with it." It is the legacy—no matter how small it is—that makes Ofelia survive that episode.

The movie is like a Rorschach test where, if you view it and you don't believe, you'll view the movie as, "Oh, it was all in her head." If you view it as a believer, you'll see clearly where I stand, which is: it is real. My last image in the movie is an objective little white flower blooming in a dead tree with the bug watching it. So….

Guillén: I'm glad to hear you say that. This is the dispute going on among people who have seen your film. Was Ofelia in her fantasy world? Was it a real world? I keep saying such questions pose a false dichotomy.

Del Toro: Yes, of course. And it's intimate. If the movie works as a piece of storytelling, as a piece of artistic creation, it should tell something different to everyone. It should be a matter of personal discussion. Now objectively, the way I structured it, there are three clues in the movie that tell you where I stand. I stand in that it's real. The most important clues are the flower at the end, and the fact that there's no way other than the chalk door to get from the attic to the Captain's office.

Guillén: Yes, and again referring back to the dynamic of their dyad, Mercedes notices the chalk door; it's not just in Ofelia's imagination.

Del Toro: Objectively, those two clues tell you it's real. The third clue is she's running away from her stepfather, she reaches a dead end, but by the time he shows up she's not there because the walls open for her. So sorry, there are clues that tell you where I stand and I stand by the fantasy. Those are objective things if you want. The film is a Rorschach test of where people stand.

Guillén: In your interview with Will Lawrence for The Telegraph you stated: "There is a moment in everyone's life when they have the chance to be immortal, not literally, but like at the moment they don't give a fuck about death—then they're immortal." Could you talk a little more about that? I thought that was a fascinating comment.

Del Toro: Here's the deal. My father was kidnapped in 1997. He was objectively kept hostage for 72 days, right? The first day you think you're going to die. The second day you're absolutely certain you won't survive. The third day you cry at the drop of a hat because you think this is hell and this and that. And then there comes a point in which you realize that you are made prisoner along with him. You are also a hostage of the hostage situation. There is a moment in which you have to will yourself to be free because you are. You say, "If it is true that he is a prisoner, it is also true I am not." There's a moment where you start functioning again. You have to will it.

People think that when they talk about immortality, they talk about immortality in the most pejorative terms. A guy who lives 180 years or 1000 years, that's immortality? It isn't. It's physically impossible. I don't believe in it. But I believe in a form of immortality which is: if you think of your life as a long laundry list of things to do—which is: I have to wipe my ass, brush my teeth, change my clothes, get laid, experience oral sex, all this stuff—you have to do it. You have to go through your check list, right? One of them, it says: dying. Why should one of them be more important than the rest? The moment it ceases to be important—your death, not other people's death; I really have a tough time with somebody dying because of the love I feel for them—but in my personal life dying is as unimportant as changing my shoes and my socks or brushing my teeth. It's just another thing I have to do. It's part of the laundry list. So at that moment you become somewhat immortal, which means you're immune to death.

That is in Pan's Labyrinth actually. If people watch it carefully, the precise wording of the faun's words to the girl is: "You have to pass three tests before the full moon shines in the sky. We have to make sure that your spirit is intact and not become mortal." That's the real purpose of the tests. It's not if she gets the dagger and she gets the key, those are the mechanics of the test, mechanics which she can then proceed to fault. She can flunk the tests. The mechanics of the test she succeeds in. She believes in herself. She does what she thinks is right. She fucks up here and there but—when the real test come, when she is cornered with no other options but to either kill or give her own life—she chooses to put her own life at risk rather than the kid's. That's a real test. That's what makes her immortal. That's what makes her that she has not become a mortal.

So in the movie all the tests are a misdirection and you actually go back and watch the movie and realize that my thesis is that the Faun is the Pale Man in another guise. He's the trickster in another guise. So is the Faun. And the proof of that in the movie is that at the end when she goes and rejoins her father and her mother and the baby in the other world, the fairies that the Pale Man ate are all around her. The same fairies. I coded them in three colors—green, blue and red—so when they reappear you could know, "Oh, those are the green, blue and red fairies."

Guillén: I'll watch for that tonight.

Del Toro: Watch for it tonight! The great thing about the movie, the beauty about the movie is that you can watch it many many times and every time you'll find a new little layer and a new little detail.

Guillén: Well, I wish I had the chance for multiple interviews like I've had the chance for multiple viewings of Pan's Labyrinth. But I need to wrap up. Thank you so much.

Del Toro: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

12/20/06 UPDATE: SF Bay Guardian's Johnny Ray Huston understands that "children mean resistance" in Del Toro's films and, in an insightful comparison to Bong Joon-Ho's The Host, notes: "Both Bong and Del Toro measure the sins of the world against a girl's heroism, and while they've learned about the power of spectacle from Steven Spielberg, they haven't swallowed his saccharine formulas—or pursued his nationalist and reactionary political tendencies."

02/23/07 UPDATE: I'm beginning to wonder if there's anyone who hasn't interviewed Guillermo del Toro? Or more importantly, if he will ever exhaust the wealth of stories that he seems to possess? Part one of Dave Canfield's interview at Twitch is of particular note because of its mention of a book that Guillermo wrote on Alfred Hitchcock, allegedly published in Spanish by the University of Guadalajara Press, and never translated into English. I would love to read what he says about Hitch!