Nearly two weeks have passed since the press conference wherein SFFILM revealed the exciting line-up for its 61st festival. In my first post for this year's event I talked about the programs that had been preannounced. That was a simple task given that only three things were revealed in advance: a tribute to Charlize Theron, a Centerpiece screening of Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, and the films competing for the Golden Gate Awards. In this entry, I'll take a look at the considerable roster of programs and events taking place outside the main line-up of films. But first here's an update on the 2018 SFFILM Festival's participating venues.
Two years have passed since the festival left the Sundance (now AMC) Kabuki Cinemas, which had been its home base for nearly three decades (with assistance from Landmark's nearby Clay Theatre and Japantown's New People Cinema). In 2016, the fest relocated its headquarters to the then-new Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre, with the Mission district's Roxie and Victoria Theatres serving as supplemental venues. Last year saw a significantly reduced use of the Alamo, as well as the addition of four downtown venues: the spectacular Dolby Cinema on Market Street, the newly renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA, plus both the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Theater and Screening Room. Two constants amidst all this change have been the Berkeley Art Museum's Pacific Film Archive and of course, San Francisco's beloved jewel, the Castro Theatre.
So what's new for 2018? Well, the Alamo Drafthouse is completely out of the picture, along with the YBCA Theatre. Use of the Dolby Cinema remains roughly the same. There's hardly a better place in SF to see a movie, but the Dolby can be problematic for all-day festival-goers with its strict no-food-or-beverage policy (that includes water bottles; expect bags and backpacks to be searched). Other venue holdovers from recent years include the Roxie, Victoria and PFA. Over in the East Bay, the festival will make good use of Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre for the first time, with programming scheduled for two nights. The only new San Francisco venue added for 2018 is the Creativity Theater at the Children's Creativity Museum, which supplants the YBCA Theater as a third venue operating in the festival hub near Mission and 4th Streets. The 183-seat theater with stadium seating looks pretty nifty in this picture, and I expect to be spending lots of time there. Finally, the happiest venue news for SFFILM Festival 2018 is that once again the Castro will host the fest for 12 consecutive days—from opening night on April 4 to closing night on April 15.
For its opening night slot on April 4, SFFILM Festival has selected Silas Howard's A Kid Like Jake, adapted by Daniel Pearle from his own off-Broadway play. In this very much of-the-moment dramedy, Claire Danes and Jim Parsons play Brooklyn parents of a possibly trans young son, who are encouraged by the boy's preschool teacher (Octavia Spencer) to play up his trans identity as a "diversity" ticket into a competitive private school. A Kid Like Jake premiered at Sundance in January and I believe this will be its first public showing since then. Director Howard, who is trans himself (and has directed episodes of the award-winning Amazon series Transparent) will be on hand at Castro Theatre. This year's opening night party happens at the SF Design Center Galleria.
For a second year running, SFFILM Fest has scheduled its closing night festivities two days before the festival actually ends. I couldn't be more thrilled with the selection of Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot, which plays the Castro Theatre on Sunday, April 15. The movie premiered to positive reviews at Sundance, providing a crucial boost to Van Sant's career following 2015's universally derided Sea of Trees. DWHWGFOF is a partial adaptation of quadriplegic, Portland cartoonist John Callahan's same-titled memoir, focusing on his years in recovery for alcoholism. While Joaquin Phoenix has drawn unanimous praise for his portrayal of Callahan (a role Robin Williams originally hoped to play), the strongest plaudits have been for Jonah Hill, allegedly unrecognizable as a gay, trust-fund kid who becomes Callahan's AA sponsor. The rest of the tantalizing cast includes Jack Black, Rooney Mara, alt-rocking women Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon, and last but not least, Udo Kier. Gus Vant Sant, as well as the film's composer Danny Elfman, are expected to attend. SFFILM Festival's 2018 closing night party will follow at Public Works.
SFFILM Festival's 2018 George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award could hardly go to anyone more deserving than Oscar®-winning Bay Area filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, Celluloid Closet, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt). The award's presentation, which up until last year had always taken place at the private Film Society Awards Night Gala, will occur at the Castro Theatre on April 15. The event will include a screening of End Game, Epstein and Friedman's new 40-minute Netflix documentary short about hospice care.
The Mel Novikoff Award is given each year to "an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public's appreciation of world cinema." For 2018, SFFILM has selected none other than internationally renowned professor, author, film scholar and all-around cinephilic ambassador Annette Insdorf. I first became aware of Insdorf years ago when she co-hosted (along with Roger Ebert) IFC's live red carpet coverage of Cannes' opening and closing ceremonies, and was impressed by her articulate and genial on-screen demeanor. She'll receive her Novikoff Award at SFMOMA on Saturday, April 14, in a program that will include a screening of Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 comedy To Be or Not to Be, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.
Photo: Jerome Hiler
Experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky is the recipient of this year's Persistence of Vision Award, which honors a filmmaker "whose main body of work falls outside of the realm of narrative feature filmmaking." I confess to being a near-philistine when it comes to experimental cinema. I recognize, however, from the revered tones with which my more esoterically inclined cineaste friends speak of Dorsky, that this award comes richly deserved. The director's works are described as "silent short films in which light, nature and everyday surrounds are carefully captured and combined to prismatic, alchemical effect." In an unusual move for the festival, this year's POV program will be presented twice—at SFMOMA on April 6 and at BAMPFA on April 15. Both programs will include screenings of four recent Dorksy works, as well as an on-stage conversation (BAMPFA's will be hosted by Steve Anker, dean of CalArts' School of Film/Video). Presentation of the POV Award itself will only take place at the SFMOMA program.
Photo: Nancy Wong
In addition to actress Charlize Theron, the other film personality receiving a SFFILM Tribute this year is director Wayne Wang. The moviemaker's radically eclectic filmography ranges from early, Bay Area-based indies focused on the Asian American experience (Chan is Missing, Dim Sum, The Joy Luck Club) to crowd-pleasing Hollywood rom-coms (Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez, Last Holiday with Queen Latifah), to edgier experimental works (Center of the World, Life is Cheap…But Toilet Paper is Expensive). Accompanying the tribute at the Dolby Cinema on April 7 will be a screening of 1995's Smoke with Harvey Keitel—arguably Wang's most popular and critically acclaimed work—in a new restoration overseen by the director. Personal fun fact: I had a tiny, non-speaking part in Wang's Dim Sum, which ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.
High atop my list of must-sees for this year's festival is Guy Maddin's State of Cinema address at the Victoria Theatre on April 8. From his 1989 feature debut Tales from the Gimli Hospital to 2015's The Forbidden Room, I can't think of another filmmaker who has had more works exhibited at our festival than Maddin. The iconoclast Canadian director also received the fest's Persistence of Vision of Award in 2006. Regrettably, Maddin had to cancel two in-person gigs at last year's 60th anniversary event—the tribute to Canyon Cinema, for which he had selected the films, and the closing night presentation of his Vertigo mash-up, The Green Fog—making his appearance at this year's SFFILM Festival doubly sweet. Maddin has selected "Cinema as Dream State" as the subject for 2018's State of Cinema address, and I can't think of anyone more qualified to ruminate on that particular topic. Be prepared for 60 minutes of thought provoking hilarity.
Photo: Jeanne Hansen.
Speaking of iconoclasts, the Bay Area lost one of its most beloved last year with the passing of Stephen Parr, so it's entirely fitting the festival offer up A Celebration of Oddball Films at its 2018 edition. Oddball was Parr's baby, a 50,000-plus reel collection of industrial, educational and otherwise uncategorizable films housed floor-to-ceiling in a Mission District warehouse. Watch the end credits of almost any documentary that includes archival footage and you're bound to see the name Oddball Films scroll by. Parr also hosted incredibly fun weekend screenings at the warehouse. The first time I climbed Oddball's steep alleyway staircase and walked through the mysterious door covered by shag carpet was for a 16mm Halloween screening of a doc on actress Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira), which I watched from a beat-up sofa (or was it a beanbag chair?). The SFFILM Oddball/Parr celebration at the Castro on April 9 will include a selection of films from the archive, accompanied with live music by Marc Capelle's Red Room Orchestra.
For its annual pairing of a classic silent film with live music accompaniment, the festival has chosen Yasujiro Ozu's 1932 familial comedy I Was Born, But… with a score by alternative rock band Blonde Redhead. This is a group I haven't thought about since the late nineties, but apparently they've kept active and at least have a tangential relationship to the world of cinema. Their second album, "La Mia Vita Violenta" was dedicated to Pasolini, and 2016's boxed-set compilation "Masculin Féminin" of course references Godard. It will be interesting to compare their score to that of Stephen Horne, who accompanied I Was Born, But… at the 2011 SF Silent Film Festival.
Two additional programs round out SFFILM Fest's 2018 Live & Onstage sidebar. In A Thousand Thoughts, director Sam Green (The Weather Underground) stages a "live documentary" about the Kronos Quartet at the Castro Theatre on April 10. The formidable string ensemble will play a live musical score while Green provides live narration during the movie, which itself takes place on multiple screens. A Thousand Thoughts is co-directed by Joe Bini, a Bay Area native who has edited over a dozen films for Werner Herzog, as well as works by Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and Nick Broomfield. Then on April 15 at the Victoria Theatre, SFFILM presents Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences, described as an "evening of music, animation and interstellar investigations" by director Cory McAbee (The American Astronaut).
For a second year in a row, SFFILM Festival hosts a trio of free public screenings. On April 5 at SFMOMA the fest presents an episode of the new PBS/BBC series Civilizations: How Do We Look, an updating of Kenneth Clark's landmark 1969 series Civilization. The episode to be shown spotlights China's terra cotta warriors and SF Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu will be on hand to lead a post-screening conversation. A free screening at the Victoria Theatre on April 10 will find acclaimed documentarian Katie Galloway (2011's Golden Gate Award winner Better This World) presenting her new work. The Pushouts takes on the issue of high school dropouts through the story of former Oakland gang member Victor Rios, now a professor at UC Santa Cruz. Jun Stinson's Futbolistas 4 Life will screen at the same program, and it concerns Oakland students raising money for a new soccer field.
The third free screening is of Don Hardy and Dana Nachman's Pick of the Litter, which follows five Labrador Retriever puppies as they train to be guide dogs for the visually impaired. Dogs (as well as masters) are invited to attend the April 7 screening at the Victoria Theatre, with the balcony being set aside as an "animal-free zone." Following last week's dog-friendly screening of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs at the Roxie (which prompted a write-up in the NY Times), this could signal yet another Bay Area-originated trend. Finally, while these screenings are free, registration is required (and The Pushouts is already at RUSH).
Also operating under the umbrella of Special Events are a pair of Creativity Summits, both of which take place at the Creativity Museum on April 7 and are free to the public (registration required). Both panels are focused on discussions of "presence," or "how technology broadly (and VR & AR in particular) are impacting artistic and cultural practice." The first features multi-hyphenate novelist (The Beach), screenwriter (28 Days Later) and director (Ex-Machina, Annihilation) Alex Garland in conversation with USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Tara McPherson. That will be followed by a panel comprised of VR pioneer Jaron Lanier and WIRED magazine's Peter Rubin.
Photo courtesy of HBO
Fans of actor/comedian Bill Hader (SNL, The Skelton Twins) will surely not want to miss the festival's special presentation of his new HBO series, Barry. Hader plays the title character, an ex-Marine turned hitman who travels to L.A. for work and stumbles into an acting class run by a charismatic teacher (Henry Winkler). The series debuted on HBO this past Sunday and SFFILM Festival will show the first three episodes, all of which were helmed by Hader in his directorial debut. Bill Hader, Henry Winkler and writer/producer Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Silicon Valley) are all expected to attend the presentation.
"Dangerous clowns, balancing dreadful and wonderful perceptions they have been handed day by day generations on down."—Joni Mitchell.
The slackened tolerance of the jaundiced eye. One might describe our collective perspective as spectactors weary of watching the shenanigans of our contemporary political circus. The ringmaster is, without question, sociopathic, and at least mentally ill. The clowns are horrifying as they tumble over each other pocketing lobbied bribes. There isn't a single act of daring that isn't buffered by advantageously-situated economic nets and tax cuts. And a good third of the audience under the big top have salted peanuts for brains and sawdust in their ears. What kind of a circus is this anyways? When I was a little boy I dreamt of running away with every circus that came through the small town of Twin Falls, Idaho. Now every town in America finds itself trapped within this insane circus, as if unable to wake from a dark dream, and our impulse has become a concerted effort to escape the impending danger of this three-ring fiasco.
This weekend at San Francisco's Roxie Theater veteran programmer Elliot Lavine (who nearly singlehandedly invigorated interest in pre-Code, maudit and noir films) and his renegade collaborator Donald Malcolm (of Midcentury Productions) have joined forces to present a suite of films grouped under the aegis "The Dark Side of the Dream"—"subversive cinema for subversive times"—kicking off Friday night, March 23, 2018 and continuing for four nights of double-bills that test whether knowing our history will actually keep us from repeating it. San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleague Pam Grady has written up "The Dark Side of the Dream" for the Pink Section of the San Francisco Chronicle, detailing its programming and conversing with Elliot Lavine. I spoke with Donald Malcolm late last year inbetween the fourth edition of his French noir series and his second go at "Agitprop" to discuss the activist impulses shaping Midcentury Productions' programming efforts, which track directly to this weekend's series. Ducking into the Sunflower next to the Roxie we suffered no fools while gobbling down ph'o.
Michael Guillén: I'm impressed with Midcentury Productions and how it has grown since last we talked. Has San Francisco been receptive to your programming?
Donald Malcolm: It's been very gratifying. It's been a little tricky. We had a sweet spot the first couple of years with "The French Had A Name For It" because Mick LaSalle wrote about us for the Chronicle. But I think he had a little trouble with how we expanded the third edition. He couldn't quite get his arms around it to write about it. He was going to write up our fourth edition but a number of things came up, as they often do in that nether world that you know so well.
Guillén: Yet aside from the four editions of "The French Had A Name For It", Midcentury has diversified its programming to initiate "Agitprop", now in its second run. What inspired your sense that it was time for folks to re-watch these films? Anticipating the series, I just watched Peter Watkins' Punishment Park (1971), a movie recommended to me by Bruce Fletcher a few years back, and was stunned by how it held up and how it managed to be a hell of a lot more interesting than most of the new films opening up on Oscar® track. By contrast, Punishment Park is a movie that most concerned citizens should really be watching right now.
Malcolm: It certainly is! How well that turns out is one of the interesting problems. The idea of "Agitprop" first came to me after the election. The election was a calamitous event and could still well turn out to be one of the most tragic events in the history of the world. We might, if we're very lucky, escape the worst effects of it. We have to try to be optimistic. We have to operate on the principle of hope that we can turn this around.
Guillén: Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot's comment that for us there is only the trying and the rest is not our business.
Malcolm: Although I'm not sure which side of this argument T.S. would actually end up being on if he were here with us today, unfortunately; his greatness as a poet notwithstanding.
Guillén: So it was the election then, as I suspected, that gave you the idea to program a series focusing on the effects of propaganda.
Malcolm: That, and because of our noir orientation, there's a whole series of films that don't get shown a lot in that area, one of which was in our first "Agitprop"—Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire (1947). These films were shown but then as we got into this official "reign of error", nobody was stepping up with this material as part of what needs to be done to bring the people to a level of consciousness to resist this stuff and do something about it.
You can ask the question as to how pertinent this material is, but it's pertinent because the history of America has many episodes that are similar to what we're dealing with now, obviously. We need to learn from those earlier episodes. We need to go back and see how other people addressed those issues, how they dealt with them, how things turned out, and all of that. That was the basis of the original "Agitprop."
Malcolm: It was a pretty good program. I wish we could find a way to get the rest of the episodes of The Defenders out because nobody really remembers the show. Nobody except certain exalted individuals.
Guillén: We're just called "old people" these days.
Malcolm: Those people who were very impressionable at a young age and saw the show when it was on in 1961-1965. That would mean you and me and—well, I'm sure there are many others—but it resonated with a small group of people and, unfortunately, due to the vagaries of syndication, The Defenders got lost in the shuffle. If we could see the later episodes of that show, we would have a great framework from which to operate on many issues that continue to be muddled and messed with today.
Guillén: It was a cultural moment when the mediation of television entered our homes and became essential for the ways that information was disseminated.
Guillén: Now there might be more of a struggle with the essential nature of television, other than for HBO (which I believe has truly great programming), because there is too much programming, a viewer is stymied by complete overchoice, and the cellphone (I suspect) has replaced the television as the main device of disseminating information because of the illusion that it is somehow under our control and determined by our choice; an issue I've become concerned about these days as I meet more and more young people who do not have a solid understanding of direct experience and instead have been raised on the idea of aggregated experience or accessed experience.
Malcolm: That's what happens when consumerism runs rampant and becomes an 800 pound gorilla, which is what has happened to us. Although that was obviously in the works at the time we were growing up and watching three networks, this is the perfect storm model of it, if you will. I think you're absolutely right. Having so much choice makes it harder to get people to focus, which is why we're trying to get people back into the theaters to watch these films, because it's a collective experience that makes a difference. As horrible as the fate that occurs to the protagonists of Punishment Park, individuals have no chance compared to a group of people who might actually have a set of strategies or ideas of how to proceed only to discover that they're outgunned by Big Brother. Punishment Park is a cautionary tale but it needs to be seen in the light of what do we do about that? And how do we address that? So that when we move forward we might have a society that doesn't have that element in it.
Guillén: Punishment Park when it came out proposed an uchronie, or alternate history....
Guillén: But actually it has ended up being not so much an alternate history but a current perspective of history.
Malcolm: Yes. I think that the films that we're showing in "Agitprop 2" deal with prescient politics in film.
Guillén: Television, being the medium that it was when it was, admittedly helped people like you and I learn how to think about some of the pressing social issues of the time. Mom used TV as a babysitter but—once she sat me down in front of the television set and walked away—it was my viewing habits that helped to make a composite image of that babysitter. What I chose to watch were films and made-for-television programming that I realize now, in retrospect, were either catering to a spirit of resistance characteristic of the time, or to a fledgling sexuality I didn't even know I had.
Malcolm: They sure as heck wouldn't let that happen today, now would they?
Guillén: No, in fact "they" are trying to do the opposite. They're trying to not only remove pieces of art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art but trying to reconfigure an appreciation of art. I found it astonishing that "they" secured 10,000 signatures to have certain paintings removed for violating new standards of decency. I want to believe that this is impossible and yet 10,000 people agreed that these paintings should be removed. Punishment Park is so full of provocative ideas. Its script is rich with definitions. I never knew where the word "chauvinism" came from and yet here is a film that tosses its definition out as part of its dialogue. Perhaps this only strikes me as remarkable because we have been effectively dumbed down as a society, so that the progressive ideas that could have led us to a purposeful resistance are now difficult to comprehend and grasp, let alone implement. Per my earlier argument, the critical thinking born from trial and error and direct experience has been diluted by the technological allure of easy access. Nowadays you don't really have to know how to think critically, you just have to know how to Google. And the really astounding thing is that I can't say that Punishment Park is dated. It's 40 years old, and yet it's not. It's the most relevant piece of film I've seen this season. Despite its similar premise, Hunger Games was pallid by comparison, clothed in special effects and costumes to, in effect, encourage passivity.
Malcolm: And, moreover, was determined, which has become my favorite word for the way we live, which is that all these new TV shows have extended the narrative to allow hours and hours of binge watching. All of those characters in all of those stories are over-determined in order to be able to keep you in a certain mode of emotion that doesn't end up leading you anywhere. As if Aristotle had decided that drama could be something that just stopped without catharsis. These shows induce determined emotions that never get resolved, let alone never having any real purpose.
Guillén: I get your point, or your caution, but I'm more of a psychological person so I'm not as concerned with dramatic catharsis as I am with the idea that narrative seriality allows a character to flesh out into someone more recognizably human.
Malcolm: Well, they can; but, that form often obviates that and makes it something less or puts it into a particular track where there's no real surprise as to what's going to happen except it's going to be worse. This is part of the undercurrent of a world that has probably internalized too much noir and—rather than seeing noir as a cautionary momentum—see it as an entertainment. I can't disparage noir completely because I've spent so much time with it. I do have to say that when Chris Fujiwara talked about the adolescent undercurrents of noir, he's got a real point. You have to step away from it and not be so captured by it.
Guillén: You have to recognize its style, yet discern the substance within its style. Your programming gives audiences an opportunity to make that distinction. You provide not only a context, but a broadened context, which points out that noir has been thought of as this, but it can also be thought of as that. You show not only what noir can alternately be, but what it alternately is.
Malcolm: What we discovered was that French noir was actually the first noir. It certainly begins accidentally when Jean Renoir decides he wants to adapt a Georges Simenon Maigret novel (La Nuit du carrefour, 1932) and sort of stumbles into everything that everybody now considers to be the attributes of film noir. Of course, it's something different because it was an accident, but it's all there. The interesting thing is that he looked at it and said, "Now, that was fun. Let's go do something else." He left it alone and never went back to it. But other people like Jean Grémillon, Julien Duvivier and Pierre Chenal—who is probably the key missing link in that early period—they were captivated by that tone and the whole combination of style, substance and the undercurrent of decadence that had been looked at from a different angle than maybe it had been in previous literature. In other words, we're not taking the fin de siècles and making noirs out of them. We're bringing it forward into a world where decadence is more mundane, but more prevalent. And not as an aesthetic statement, but just a fact of life.
That's basically where noir began and, interestingly enough, because of the unique historical events that happened in France, they ended up creating more sub-genres that are different than anything we see in noir anywhere else. During the occupation period, you have to take noir out of the city and take it into a small town in order to place the story in an allegorical way. That's exactly what they did. They created a subgenre that certain of the critics knew and called "provincial gothic". The richness of the expanded idea of noir that has started to develop in the last 10 years comes from the fact that the French were doing that first. A lot of other people picked up on that and brought those elements in and combined it all into this stew, this bouillabaisse of dark film, whether it was melodrama, hard-boiled or gothic fantasy, whatever genre. These things would work. They would resonate within that structure.
France has more subgenres that are more interesting and lead you into some very strange worlds. There's of course the fact that they believed in their writers more. One of the charts that we put up in the fourth edition of "The French Have A Name For It" that we just did in November (2017) was what we called the writer-director matrix. On one plane you have the directors stand out on the X axis. The writers are on the Y axis and the chart shows how many of those guys worked together. You can see some who were consistent collaborators, as opposed to the Hollywood system where they would put three or four writers on something and it would turn into a different kind of a stew.
Guillén: Noir by committee?
Malcolm: That was very seldom the case in France. There was much more of an artisanal approach in France that involved the writer having that kind of respect of being one of the key elements. Obviously, one of the great examples of that is Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné, but there are dozens more that just aren't well-known because the material—as we've said before—was mothballed for various reasons that we've already discussed.
Guillén: Recently, Joel Shepard of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts advised me that YBCA was running a program of Chinese Noir. It doesn't sound right somehow, yet I'm intrigued how this appellation "noir" is being applied to national cinemas, nation by nation. Is this an urban phenomenon? The process of modernization? Imitation being the best form of flattery? I don't know if anyone has done a chart that shows how noir has developed sequentially in national cinemas?
Malcolm: I don't think we're far enough along to be able to do that.
Guillén: In some ways your programming is helping to expand the definition of noir, which strikes me as, perhaps, a necessary impulse. As an umbrella term "noir" is becoming a more expansive term.
Malcolm: One of the things that happened as I was editing the Noir City Magazine for eight years was that access to all kinds of different people ended up taking things in very unusual directions. It wasn't so much finding good writers—which there are many and we were fortunate to find many of them and bring them in—but it was finding the people who were finding these films who opened up this path to films that had simply been lost. The internet might have helped with that because there were people on IMDb in France who were way ahead of anybody on this and were providing material information to us. The ways that the films were being found and brought to cinephiles, making them available with subtitles, all just mushroomed. It was just so interesting that at the time that I left the magazine, Eddie Muller did his international festival, which was actually the greatest hits of the mostly-known universe. There's an exception and I want to make sure that I credit Eddie: the Argentine area was a great area of discovery. Pierre Chenal, of course, was down there and was part of creating that; but, still, there's no good history of that. We've seen maybe seven or eight of those films but there are many more.
There are people who are interested in monetizing these films, companies like Rialto and Cohen Media bring over films from foreign countries and masterpiece them, put ribbons around them, and send them out into the world of repertory cinemas around the country. That's all well and good, I guess, but I've come to not like that model much. I like the model of the festival approach where you get as much of this material as possible out in front of the people so that they can understand how much there is. This unitary one-by-one thing seems to me to end up defending the known canon against the possibility that we really don't understand the full nature of film history yet, which to me is the exciting possibility. Especially within the bailiwick of French film, we have all this material that has simply been kicked to the curb that has not been analyzed, evaluated or even seen or experienced for 50 years.
Guillén: That's one of the things I admire most about your programming: you're getting these films back out in front of audiences by way of curated festival exhibition. As obscure films surface to my attention, I can be at home watching them on my curved 70" TV screen and I actually love watching movies that way. As a critic it's a great way to watch a movie because you can interrupt it to take notes. But if I've seen a movie I've really liked on one of the myriad streaming platforms now available, my first honest impulse is: "Where can I see this movie projected as it was originally meant to be seen? Where can I see it with other people?" For me, there's a paracinematic quality that happens within an audience watching a projected film that lends to the film's appropriate expression. The group response of the audience is like a vibration that feeds back into the film. That's one of the reasons I'm so excited to watch Punishment Park in your "Agitprop 2" series, because as I was watching it at home it kept startling me, and I want to feel how an audience will be startled.
Malcolm: To get back to the impetus of "Agitprop" for a second because that's a good way to segue into it, I would like to have seen social justice noirs shown on inauguration weekend. We made a few efforts to do that in the context of a very famous film noir festival, but it didn't happen. I spent some time looking back at the history of political filmmaking and seeing how it had changed. As you know, Midcentury Productions was set up because I discovered that there were so many great films in what is the most explosive, creative and concentrated period of filmmaking. There's much more filmmaking going on now, but in terms of what people were doing and the ways they were going about it, you can't beat that time frame in my mind. The problem is that—because we didn't do a good job at collating and putting those films away so that they would be easy to find—we lost a lot of the films that were truly startling and interesting. Obviously, Punishment Park has been around but it has never achieved the platform where it could have the most influence. Originally my thought was that I just wanted to show these social justice noirs but I'm not really in the position, given my niche in this odd little subworld of programming, to be doing that without it creating too many ripples as it is. There are too many other people who have turf issues in that area.
The one that I really wanted to show, however, the most important one to me in that group of social justice noirs, is Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil (1948), both because of the commentary within the film and the idea that it was describing something about our country entering recklessly into a zone of evil. The film should have been shown on June 14 because that's Trump's birthday and, ironically, Flag Day; but, there were no takers.
I didn't want to show the film in April at the first "Agitprop" because I wanted to focus on different issues. I also got the idea that I wanted to do the thing with The Defenders and get people to sign a petition and see if we could get Shout Factory and the others to put DVDs of the series out. I feel that once those episodes get into the zeitgeist people will understand what an amazing show that was. The first year is not the best year of that show. It's the second, third and fourth years that had so many gems that would be astonishing for people to watch in good quality or, again, within a group. It's one of those odd things where you could actually have a TV show that worked in a collective setting because of the time frame and because of the passage of time. It would take on a different dimension because of that.
Anyways, Force of Evil was the one I really wanted to get out there. Then I started realizing that there's a theme here and the theme—and it's obviously something that's been talked about in literature ever since we've been dealing with totalitarian states—is the tendency of the state to take away the rights of its citizens. It just sort of naturally moves in this direction. It's almost like a law of physics that, hopefully, we can stop at the pass. So with thinking on that, I had a great allegory for capitalism, for the numbers game, for coercion, for all the things that can stop freedom in that way, ironically in this so-called world of laissez faire capitalism, an oxymoron in my mind when you see how it progresses and devolves over time.
The theme needed to be elaborated and that's when Punishment Park and Karel Kachyna's Ucho (The Ear, 1970) came to mind. I wanted to show coercion, I wanted to show surveillance, but I also needed to show what happens when you're already on the other side down the rabbit hole. Ucho was the perfect film to show what that would be like. I also wanted to show mind games; that you can basically twist reality around to the point where you don't even know what's real anymore. That was the strategy that ultimately is deployed in Punishment Park. The state can change reality on people and subvert their ability to resist. You can stifle dissent by that mechanism. That's a very scary point that gets us back to what you were saying about the loss of critical thinking. It is paramount that an individual has the ability to resist so that you don't wind up in a scenario like Punishment Park, which is that film's great, prescient, cautionary aspect. That's what the progression of that film is. The audience member needs to think, "Okay. Now I need to know that I need to have more tools. I don't just need a lower case bs detector. I need one that is in upper case and has flashing lights and that is going to work for me almost instantaneously."
Guillén: Wasn't Punishment Park only exhibited for four days before being pulled from theaters?
Malcolm: That's right. In 1971. They said, "Peter Watkins, you've gone too far this time."
Guillén: I was literally shocked by Punishment Park, because of the believability leant by its documentary approach. What I found most relevant and current about the film was—as events are unfolding in the narrative—in the background you hear radio transmissions and news reports of totalitarian tactics that are being implemented around the world. It reminded me how addicted and inured we are to broadcast news and how it is woven into the everyday sonic texture of our lives. I hardly need to make an effort to read the news because the news will always come to me by way of others who more faithfully attend to it, by glimpses of headlines, by overheard conversations. Punishment Park is a must-see film.
Malcolm: I wish we could show it to hundreds of thousands of people. Again, I don't know if a third of this nation hasn't been permanently ruined and brainwashed by everything that has been done to them; but, I tend to think not. It's what you said before: the dumbing down is the key strategy that has been employed here.
Guillén: One final thing I want to stress is how much I admire that "Agitprop 2" is a program whose proceeds benefit the ACLU.
Malcolm: That's why we hope that we'll have lots of people there because it helps the ACLU help us.
Guillén: Of all the organizations you could have chosen, why the ACLU?
Malcolm: I felt it was the most elemental one that we have to deal with. Resources are being bestowed upon them by lots of people at this point for a reason. We need to concentrate our fire and make sure that—no matter what happens in those areas—the ACLU has the budget and the capability of being there on behalf of individual citizens. To me that was the simplest decision. Rather than try to get more arcane or more specific for particular things at this point. It seemed like the way to go because I wasn't sure how far this would go. That's the interesting question: can programs like "Agitprop 2" become part of the film landscape? The ACLU may be needed for a long time. We may be all shut down. The uncertainty of what is happening is still with us.
At this point I'm grateful that the Roxie is willing to devote some time out of their schedule. Obviously, they're pressured to do particular things as a business but they continue to show that side of things. Hopefully, we can make this viable enough that they'll want to do it on a regular basis. We'll just have to see.
Guillén: Your programming places film in the domain of activism. "Agitprop 2" is an activist festival.
Malcolm: There's no doubt about it.
Guillén: I'm ambivalent about movies these days. Do I like them? Do I not like them? I like them when they work. Fundamentally, I believe modern people need more primers for activism and I respect how you place the lineage of film alongside the lineage of activism. I want to believe in the potential of film. I constantly question whether film can really change anything. I want to believe that when audiences watch Punishment Park, it will make them want to resist, as you said earlier. But will they resist? Does film provide the will to resist? Lawrence Durrell once wrote, "understanding does not constitute a cure." I've long wrestled with that. Are you better off knowing what's going on when you can't change anything? Or feel you can't change anything? How do you think film provides hope?
Malcolm: Well, I'll try to answer that question as best I can, because it's imponderable, because the direction of society since the midcentury moment (so to speak) ends with a film like Punishment Park. This is a line of demarcation because there is a principle of hope floating around in the world after WWII, even in the midst of a lot of darkness and chaos; that they are going to build something good and valid and proper. Obviously, there's a Cold War going on, and there's a heavy moralistic idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be destroyed because it wasn't real Communism (but they didn't know that). You had the seeds of something amazing going on everywhere because there was this push toward something that had an eschatological concept.
Today, with consumerism, there is none of that. What's happened over this period of time is that we've become cynical about that. Not every individual, but collectively. We have lost that sense that we can make a difference. But we are seeing things that are making differences today popping up in the midst of the kinds of resistance that are going on: the women that are resisting sexual harassment and sexual abuse. These things may not turn things around immediately; but, it's the actions of these women that start doing something about the harassment and abuse that is significant. It's a hopeful sign in my mind. More of this will happen and more of us will be pushing back.
Hopefully, we'll have places like the Roxie who are willing to show these films to people and, over time, those historical films will bring out a desire in the people who watch them; a desire to be more creative. Film may bring them back. It might start moving the needle back in that direction. That's our best hope. That's my lantern in the window. That's one of the reasons that I wanted to show the films. This is a theme that people need to internalize. They need to understand it. They may not be able to change it immediately, but if they're not aware of it they can't change anything. The more people that are aware, the more chance something can happen.
Meanwhile, from that "other" city in California, Treefort has booked 32 musical acts for this year's festival. I figured I could recommend at least 10 of them so here goes, alphabetically.
* * *
Jherek Bischoff / L.A.—And now for something completely different, or at least what might not be expected at the Treefort Music Festival: the alternative compositions of Jherek Bischoff whose music at times seems effortlessly beautiful and downright jubilant. Rather than leaning into the discordant with experimental excess, Bischoff remains an accessible classicist whose melodies are lifting and harmonic. In his 2012 release Composed, his melodies were sung by the likes of David Byrne and Caetano Veloso, amongst many other noted vocalists. I can only imagine how perfect his compositions will fly around the interior of the First Presbyterian Church: unexpected, unusual birds in flight.
Photo: Unknown, courtesy of the artist.
Treefort bio: Jherek Bischoff is a Los Angeles-based composer, arranger, producer and multi-instrumental performer. In his 30-odd years, he has collaborated with the likes of Kronos Quartet, David Byrne, Neil Gaiman and Robert Wilson and has performed in venues and festivals around the globe, including Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Adelaide Festival and Tasmania’s MONA FOMA. His work as a composer has garnered commissions from Kronos Quartet, Lincoln Center, and St Ann's Warehouse and has been performed by Seattle Symphony, Adelaide Art Orchestra, Wordless Music, Stargaze and yMusic.
His critically-acclaimed releases include Cistern, Composed, and a co-release with Amanda Palmer—Strung Out In Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute. In August of 2016, Bischoff was the artist in residence for Times Square’s Midnight Moment, where his video for "Cistern" was broadcast every night on Times Square's electronic billboards, culminating in two live performances in the middle of Times Square.
Bischoff’s work for film and television includes the documentary Thank You For Coming, Starz' Blunt Talk and Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Bischoff’s theater work includes Robert Wilson’s "Der Sandmann", "Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer" for Theater Basel and "Johnny Breitwieser" for Vienna’s Schauspielhaus. Currently, Bischoff is developing two theater productions, working on a collaborative release with Kronos Quartet, and is releasing new music via Patreon. He plays Treefort on Thursday, March 22, 2018, 8:20PM at the First Presbyterian Church. Bischoff’s compositions can be listened to on his Bandcamp page.
Dark Rooms / L.A.—Dramatic, at times frantic, music obsessed with haunting themes lends Dark Rooms' music a cinematic overlay that plays to the spectatorial mind. The songs are certainly written, performed and choreographed with the eye through a lens. Lead vocals are petlulant, sexy, and often soulfully forlorn and the beats offer opportunity for spiteful if spirited resistance.
Treefort bio: Dark Rooms is the name that Daniel Hart conjured up after years of touring and recording with bands like St. Vincent, Other Lives, The Rosebuds, Broken Social Scene, John Vanderslice, and The Polyphonic Spree. He became obsessed with photography, and wrote songs honoring that obsession. The band formed in Dallas, Texas, and now resides in Los Angeles, California.
Dark Rooms makes music influenced by their heroes, from Sigur Rós, to Four Tet, to Zapp, to The Delfonics.
Distraction Sickness is their newest album, following up their 2013 debut self-titled release. Distraction Sickness features “I Get Overwhelmed” from A24’s A Ghost Story. Their songs have been played on KCRW, KXT, The Adventure Club and various other radio stations and programs around the world. Dark Rooms play Treefort on Thursday, March 22, 2018, 10:00PM at the Neurolux. Distraction Sickness can be heard on Bandcamp.
De Lux / L.A.—As a child of the disco era, it's heartening to remember that some things—whether in or out of fashion—continue to exist despite critical or popular opinion. Such as, for example, young blood needing to hit a dance floor to work it all out. That never seems to get old, even though the young do. Even so, most of the songs on the latest album by De Lux, More Disco Songs About Love, get me up to dance and party smart. Forever.
Treefort bio: After establishing a sound on their debut Voyage and establishing an identity with the revelatory Generation, L.A. disco-not-disco duo De Lux took a moment to re-center and come back leaner, sharper, clearer and deeper on their new More Disco Songs About Love. Now that co-founders Sean Guerin and Isaac Franco know how to play and what to say, they’re ready to just get lost in the music. As the band puts it: “We like to say Voyage was our baby, Generation was our baby all grown up and More Disco Songs About Love thinks growing up sucks and just wants to party smart."
Their 2014 debut Voyage revealed De Lux as an outfit matching post-punk sentiment and the-sociopolitical-is-personal perspective to joyfully indulgent analog synthesizer soundscapes and a deliriously transportive musical joy. 2015’s Generation added an almost-documentary aspect to their dance music, delivering clearly personal stories of anxiety and aspiration. And 2015 also saw their first major festival appearance at Bonnaroo, the prelude to their hotly tipped Coachella debut in 2016 and then sharing a bill with Arcade Fire at New York City’s Panorama fest.
Now More Disco Songs is a stream-of-consciousness tour through De Lux’s reality. (With New York City dance-punk legend Sal P. of Liquid Liquid and the Pop Group’s maniacal Mark Stewart as guests, of course.) Though the title might seem like some kind of clever reference, it’s really simple and direct. The disco is the sound—in the most innovative way, of course—and the love is the sentiment: “It's all literal to us but we realize that it might not be for others,” they say. “We like the idea of giving listeners something to question. But there's love in there.” De Lux plays Treefort on Saturday, March 24, 10:00PM at El Korah Shrine. Their music can be listened to at Bandcamp.
Photo: Marc Ollivier
Hanni El Khatib / L.A.—Even though I know myself pretty well, Hanni El Khatib's music still makes me want to act out. Raucous, driven, mordant, Hanni El Khatib's songs make me laugh and cringe, often at the same time. His undeniably catchy drum rhythms give me a chance to dance and figure it all fucking out. Particularly infectious is his "Paralyzed" from his latest album Savage Times.
Treefort bio: On his 2011 debut Will The Guns Come Out, Hanni El Khatib tried something he'd never tried before—making a bedroom-style recording of his then stripped-to-the-skeleton guitar-and-drums rock 'n' roll mostly for the sheer joy of making it. For his ferocious 2013 follow-up Head In The Dirt, he tried something new again, showing up at producer Dan Auerbach's analog-dreamland Nashville studio with nothing but the clothes on his back and an open mind.
But after Head In The Dirt's release and almost a year of relentless touring, Hanni knew he needed to go past "unpredictable" all the way to "unprecedented." He needed isolation, time and the chance to experiment. So after 30 days locked in hand-picked L.A. studio The Lair, the result is the album Moonlight—the rarest and most welcome kind of album, made at that perfect point in life where confidence, experience, and technique unite to help an artist do anything they want.
That's why it starts with a song that sounds like a Mobb Deep beat under a Suicide-style synth drone and ends with an ESG-meets-LCD Soundsystem gone italo-disco song about life and death. That's why it collides crushing crate-digger drumbeats that'd be right at home on a Can LP or an Eddie Bo 45 with bleeding distorto guitar, bent and broken barroom piano and hallucinatory analog flourishes. (In fact, some smart producer is going to sample the drums from this album and complete the circle of life.) And that's also why Moonlight feels like the album he's always wanted to make: "What would it sound like if RZA got in the studio with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits?" he asks. "I don't know! That was my approach on everything."
It's a personal album in the most primal sense, put together in any way that worked. Iggy Pop and David Bowie did this kind of thing on The Idiot, the Wu-Tang Clan did it on 36 Chambers and the Clash did it three times over on Sandinista. And now it's Hanni's turn, across 11 new lightning-struck songs, each written and recorded in its own flash of inspiration. It sounds like an album made by an endless list of collaborators, but really Moonlight was more like the first do-it-almost-all-yourself music Hanni ever made, except after six years recording and touring, he'd learned to do so much more. Hanni El Khatib performs at Treefort on Friday, March 23, 2018, 10:15PM at El Korah Shrine. His EP Savage Fix is available for listening at Bandcamp.
KOLARS / L.A.—Incorporating the novelty of a drummer tapdancing on her bass drum, KOLARS goes above and beyond in satisfying a need to comport one's body with the beat. As such, they are probably the main act in the Treefort line-up whose music will make me swing, sway and/or even swirl. Please, lay no bets. I am super excited, though, about hearing them play "One More Thrill" live.
Treefort bio: KOLARS is a band of two members. Rob Kolar sings and strums his rollicking guitar, Lauren Brown uses her whole body as a percussive instrument. KOLARS has created a sonic world that straddles self-described genres such as Desert Disco, R&Beyond, Space Blues, and Glam-a-billy. Rob produces, mixes, and writes the material. His studio experimentation is incorporated into the live show. Lauren has invented her own drumming style. She tap dances rhythms with her feet atop a bass drum while simultaneously playing a stand-up kit. She uses this dance to transform beats into natural extensions of her movement. The two perform with energy, sweat, and excitement, thrilling audiences with their unabashed exuberance.
As members of glam-folk band He's My Brother She's My Sister, Rob and Lauren toured the U.S. and Europe extensively and sold out venues in every major city across the states, playing Bonnaroo, Summerfest, Voodoo, Firefly, Secret Garden Party, and Austin City Limits, and performed on late night television (Craig Ferguson). The band has taken their influences and experiences into a new futuristic realm with KOLARS. KOLARS plays Treefort on Friday night, March 23, 2018, 'round midnight. KOLARS can be listened to on Bandcamp.
La Louma / L.A.—Queer solidarity has just entered the room. I'm one of those gay guys who has listened to lesbian music since my early twenties, beginning with Holly Near. So I'm always excited by strong advances in representation. There's a strong First Nation vibe to La Louma, hinting at a warrior standing her feminine ground.
Treefort bio: For Lauren Ross, it took multiple breakdowns, lots of physical therapy, anti-depressants, and a move across the country before the clouds began to part, the music began to come, and La Louma emerged. On her debut, Let The World Be Flooded Out, she explores heavy subject matter in an upbeat atmosphere, merging her classical training with her DIY queer punk ethos.
Meticulously handcrafted over hundreds of hours of solitude, La Louma’s palette includes thickly melodic woodwinds and brass, electric guitar and bass, impatient drums, tremolo vocal undercurrents, and metaphor-laden lyrics. The LP’s tone repeatedly shifts unexpectedly from dramatic desperation to quiet contemplation, from a determined sprint to utter immobilization. Musically mirroring La Louma’s vagabond mind, each of the album’s richly transportive scenes are colored by carefully chosen modalities, timbres, instrumentations, and arrangements.
The opening track “The Decline of Nations” crashes through as a fist-raising call to “stay until you try to make things right”. As La Louma’s voice wails and breaks into a pointed and beautiful howl, it feels as though she could be singing to government officials, movement leaders, or even herself. Falling drum sticks and a slinking clarinet introduce "Candy", a mythology-driven song in which she vows to protect a narcissist from drowning in their own reflection—no matter the cost—while the more straightforward storytelling of the subtly Middle Eastern tinged "Just Wanna Love You" culminates in symphonic catharsis. The album's sonic anchor, "Tin Roof Now", makes use of nearly every instrument in La Louma's studio as she pleads for the simple sound of a heavy rain to "drown out [her] senses" and "let the world be flooded out". This album is a thematic whirlwind with a musical hurricane to match, but isn’t that what life often feels like? La Louma plays Treefort on Friday, March 23, 2018, 9:00PM at Boise All-ages Movement Project. La Louma's debut Let The World Be Flooded Out is available for listening on Bandcamp.
raener / L.A.—It's vocals front and center for me with raener. These young men's high voices are committed to desultory tunes that seem at times ambient and other times like very sophisticated jazz.
Treefort bio: raener is Daniel Fox, Will van Boldrik, Zach Bilson, and Daniel Vanchieri. raener began in 2015 as an experiment in a dewey garage in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles when the boys decided to make music with their hands and voices. Drawing on a number of influences across genres, raener puts their foot in the door of uncharted sonic territory. raener plays Treefort on Sunday, March 25, 2018, 9:00PM at Boise All-ages Movement Project. raener's music can be listened to at Bandcamp.
The Regrettes / L.A.—This mainly all-girl (+ 1 guy) punk group deliver sass, spite, and admirable punches of reflexive humor. They banter with sexual expectation, and play out the fantasies they don't feel compelled to fulfill. Most of all, they rock!
Treefort bio: Perfectly imperfect—that’s one way to describe LA based punk act, The Regrettes. Writing songs that proudly bear a brazen and unabashed attitude in the vein of acts Courtney Barnett or Karen O—with a pop aesthetic reminiscent of 50’s and 60’s acts a la the Temptations or Buddy Holly—the LA based four piece create infectious, punk driven tracks.
Lead by outspoken frontwoman, Lydia Night, and comprised of Genessa Gariano on guitar, Sage Chavis on bass and drummer Maxx Morando, the group have left the LA rock scene floored, managing to capture the hearts of jaded rock critics while opening for acts like Kate Nash, Jack Off Jill, Bleached, Pins, Deep Vally and more. With nothing but demos available online, the group are already beginning to generate hype, from outlets like NPR, and with NYLON already heralding them them as a “punk act you should be listening to”.
From the opening moments on a track by The Regrettes, we’re greeted with a wall of guitars, infectious melodies and a wistful nostalgia that continues right until the final notes. Taking cues from acts like Hinds and Hole, there’s a wistful sense of youth and vulnerability that lies at the heart of each song.
A song by The Regrettes is, essentially, a diary entry into Lydia’s life. “My music is a spectrum of every emotion that I have felt in the last year, and you can hear that when you hear the songs. Everything that is happening in my life influences me. It’s everything from boys, to friends, to being pissed off at people, to being really sad. Just everything.”
The most intoxicating draw of The Regrettes is their bashful, heart-on-your-sleeve temperament—writing urgent and fast-paced pop songs with a punk rock mentality. “The way that we write, it’s all based on honesty,” muses Lydia on the group’s punk aesthetic. “If I finish a song, I’ll just leave it—I won’t really go back to it. I like things to feel in the moment and I don’t want it to be perfect. If I work on something too much I lose it and get bored and I want to do the next one.”
Lydia’s not afraid to have her feelings on display. “I am not scared of anyone judging me, I don’t care. I don’t give a fuck if someone doesn’t like what I have to say. For every person that likes you, there’s a person that doesn’t like you. No matter what, if people can relate to the music then it’s worth it. That’s what is cool for me.” And at the end of the day, isn’t that what punk music is all about? The Regrettes play Treefort on Friday, March 23, 2018, 11:00PM, at Boise All-ages Movement Project. You can listen to The Regrettes on Soundcloud.
Sego / L.A.—I really dig the slack, bad-boy vibe in Sego's infectiously pop songs. Their last three singles alone have risen right up to my listening queues, especially last September's "Whatever Forever" and it's truly sexy video (offered below). Hearing that tune live will be a Treefort dream come true.
Treefort bio: Sego's Spencer Petersen and Thomas Carroll were both birthed in the burgeoning Provo, Utah music scene. However, finding inspiration in the dissonance that the towering structures and bustling city offers over the mountains and relative quiet of Provo, both relocated to an old pasta factory in downtown LA. Through various projects together, both founding members uncovered their distinct sound: lazy, grungy guitars with digital overlays and refreshingly honest lyrics. The band’s debut album surprises with angular guitars, complex arrangements and musings from an 80’s kid contemplating the void left from the misguided hope of our youth. Sego plays Treefort on Friday, March 23, 2018, 8:20PM at The Knitting Factory (Main Room). You can listen to Sego's music at their Bandcamp page.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
Dave Stringer / L.A.—Of course music is not always about driving beats, catchy riffs or angry vocals. Stringer's music incorporates Eastern modalities to complicate his songs of spiritual belief, which come across sincere, heartfelt and often soothing.
Treefort bio: Dave Stringer is a Grammy®-nominated producer, singer, composer, writer, and teacher who has been widely profiled as one of the most innovative artists of the modern Yoga movement. Stringer’s sound connects the transcendent mysticism of traditional Indian instruments with the exuberant, groove-oriented sensibility of American Gospel and the ringing harmonies of Appalachia. His work engages the traditions of yoga philosophy, chanting, and meditation with the language and methods of neuroscience, translating them into modern participatory theatre, open to a multiplicity of interpretations and accessible to all. Dave is an articulate and inspiring public speaker, and is featured in the upcoming film Mantra: Sounds Into Silence. He has toured extensively, leading concerts, workshops and retreats all over the world. Dave Stringer plays Treefort on Thursday, March 22, 2018, 5:30PM at the First Presbyterian Church. His music is available on Bandcamp.
The musical corridor between the Bay Area and Boise strengthens with succeeding editions of Treefort. This year there are no less than 21 musical acts represented from San Francisco and Oakland, with an added handful from nearby locales. I've already profiled Field Medic and Madeline Kenney, but here are ten more favorites; five from SF, and five from Oakland.
Let's start with the East Bay and Oakland's thriving independent creative scene, whose population has increased in recent years due to corporate encroachment and co-option in San Francisco proper that has forced artists of all stripes to relocate for affordable housing and creative community.
Photo: Andrew Zhou
La Misa Negra / Oakland—What kind of representation would come out of the Bay Area if it didn't joyfully express San Francisco and Oakland's ethnic diversity? Oakland's La Misa Negra joyfully insists that Treeforters shake the dust off their cumbia moves and sweat it all out in rivulets of pure gold, lime green and tangerine.
Treefort bio: La Misa Negra is a 7-piece band from Oakland, California, known for their unique blend of heavyweight cumbia and high-energy, Afro-Latin music. On stage, they deliver an electrifying performance that explodes with infectious dance grooves and punk rock energy, powered by horn and accordion-driven riffs, a fierce rhythm section, and a vintage-inspired sound. Since their live debut in the fall of 2011, La Misa Negra has toured the country, sharing stages and festival bills with the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, Thievery Corporation, SZA, Mon Laferte, Julieta Venegas, Ana Tijoux, Bomba Estereo, George Clinton, Antibalas, Budos Band, and Ozomatli. On the strength of their wild and one-of-a-kind shows, they have gained a reputation as one of the most exciting live bands to emerge from the Bay Area in recent years, garnering a diverse fan base that transcends musical, cultural, and generational divides. They play Friday, March 23, 2018, 6:50PM at the El Korah Shrine, and then again on Saturday, March 24, 2018, 10:10PM at Hannahs. You can sample their music on Bandcamp.
Photo: Emalyn Lopez
The Seshen / Oakland—Accompanying La Misa Negra in satisfying Boise's readiness for ethnic multiplicity (plus a shot of Afrofuturism) is The Seshen.
Treefort Bio: The Seshen is a San Francisco Bay Area-based six-piece led by singer/lyricist Lalin St. Juste and bassist/producer Akiyoshi Ehara. Their forward-thinking sound combines synthesizers, drum machines, live percussion, and entrancing harmonies to create an unmistakable fusion of R&B, synth-pop, and electronic music. St. Juste and Ehara are joined by four remarkable bandmates to create their multidimensional music: drummer Chris Thalmann, keyboard/synth player Mahesh Rao, percussionist Mirza Kopelman, and sampler Kumar Butler. They take inspiration from across the musical spectrum; their individual influences range from recognizable artists (Erykah Badu, Jai Paul, James Blake, Radiohead, and Broadcast) to genres and eras that don’t initially appear to fit together (hip hop, indie rock, early electronica, and 70’s dub). Their unique alchemy of seemingly disparate sounds has led fans and critics alike to describe the band as defying categorization. They play Friday, March 23, 11:30PM at Hannah's, with a repeat performance on Saturday, March 24, 3:10PM on the Main Stage (which will provide plenty of room to carry on). You can sample their music on Soundcloud.
Photo: Natalie Somekh
Mt. Eddy / Oakland—Mt. Eddy's ten-track debut album Chroma (on Uncool Records and available for listening on Spotify) is a rousing introduction to the considerable talent among these kids—there I've said it—who have been rightfully included in Treefort's prescient All Ages Movement Project. There's not a single track on Chroma that doesn't physically involve me with rebellious inspiration.
Treefort Bio: "Hailing from Oakland California, Mt. Eddy features brothers Chris and Enzo Malaspina on drums and guitar, Jakob Armstrong on guitar and vocals, while Kevin Judd plays bass. Armstrong's older brother Joey plays drums in SWMRS and had previously assisted with the early releases from Jakob Danger. Aside from helping launch Mt. Eddy's new label, the older Armstrong served as assistant engineer on their first release, Chroma." They play on Friday, March 23, 7:00PM at Boise All-ages Movement Project.
Photo: Cara Robbins
Dick Stusso / Oakland—Stusso's act strikes me as hypnotically persona-driven. Now and again he reminds me of Treefort Alumni Alex Cameron. His are songs I would sing outloud when drunk out in the middle of nowhere with no money in my pocket for a cab ride home. What do you do? Sing louder and stumble forward. Philosophy in search of a dawn.
Treefort bio: That old blues hound dog Bonnie Raitt probably sang it best and most lucid in her timeless, pedestrian hit "Nick of Time": "Life gets mighty precious when there's less of it to waste." And so now, her wise lyrical turn seems to be ringing true for Oakland muso Dick Stusso. When we last caught up with this Bay Area BBQ gaucho on his debut, Nashville Dreams, he'd hit that special zen layer of loserdom. He'd thrown up his hands into the folly of failure. He was the affable, bumbling red-cheeked drunk lurking around the edges of the cookout—bumming smokes, putting down all the white wine and cocktail shrimp he could get away with. But now, a couple years on, that early-30s existential dread has crept its way into Dick's purview. With his sophomore long-player In Heaven, Stusso's numbered human days are on his mind. Without stumbling into pomposity, Dick has taken back the wheel on his life and is doing a bit of hotdogging. In Heaven is available for listening at Napster. Stusso brings his world-worn tales to Treefort on Wednesday, 10:15PM at The Olympic, following Madeline Kenney, which is a lovely bit of pairing.
Photo: Unknown, courtesy of Battlehooch.
Battlehooch / SF—George Harrison would have been proud of his thumbprint on Battlehooch's "Carry Me Upstream", off their 2014 Wink EP. While their earlier music reminded of hectic if celebratory street music for an unspecified ethnicity, their sound has developed into a more fluid, harmonic and mellow mindtrip.
Treefort bio: Battlehooch is the kind of band you thought went extinct with landline phones & cassette tapes. In one sense they’re a band from another, sturdier era: a band that releases consistently quality material on a consistent basis, a band that doesn’t sacrifice creative drive for commercial interest, a band that grows and evolves with each successive release. From the beautiful madcap mess of debut LP Piecechow to the more refined yet still quite zany jams on Hot Lungs to a cool, polished psych-rock sheen on 2014’s Wink EP, Battlehooch has proven itself as a band built to last. They may possess an old-school mindset, but their music is weird & diverse enough to fit into this wild new century.
Formed in San Francisco, the birthplace of psychedelia, it’s fitting that the six-piece collective echoes the city’s tie-dyed past in its own compositions. However, the group isn’t content with becoming a mere tribute to a time period they never lived through. Instead, Battlehooch updates the sound of psychedelia for a new generation, one that can now access dozens of genres & millions of songs with a few clicks on their iPhones. Battlehooch reflects this modern trend of manic music consumption: on any of their many releases, the listener will be treated to a sonic smorgasbord, bouncing from hard rock to dance-pop to cartoony head trips to flirtations with electronica & jazz & Afrobeat & everything else in between within the span of a few minutes, sometimes even seconds. Battlehooch plays Treefort on Saturday, March 24, 2018, 7:30PM at The Olympic. You can sample their music on Soundcloud.
Photo: Sam Yang
Tino Drima / SF—Following their EP Smoking with their first official album Her Kind of Man on the Friendship Fever label, Tino Drima has rapidly become one of my favorite sounds. Their vocals are on an eerily veering detour from Martha Davis, Chrissie Hynde and Amy Winehouse.
Treefort bio: Tino Drima is a cauldron of then, now, and what will be. There is grease, there is friction, there is high harmony, there are ripping beats, there are charmed humans parading onstage and in studio. There is a radio playing on the other side of the wall and Old Man Cooper has not left his apartment in over a month and it stinks. But this music does not, this music exudes class and classicism, and lifts you up and places you smack dab in the middle of newly decorated living room filled with Hummel figurines, a comfy couch, and the sound of dishes clinking and clanking in the kitchen sink just past the dining room. You want to stay, and you want to listen to the music, and you want to hang out, and you will stay up for as long as it lasts and maybe even longer, because it sounds so good and it smells like bacon over in that room now.
Tino Drima consists of Gregory DiMartino, Rob Mills, Mackenzie Bunch, Henry Baker, and Scott Huerta. Their names sound oddly like items of food.
Like most of us, they are fascinated by metadata. That is why the music they perform has been called Psyche Doo-Wop Hell Croon. It is a genre they respect, that they have pioneered, that will only get bigger and broader with time. Sort of like people. Tino Drima plays Treefort on Friday, March 23, 2018, 7:00PM at The Olympic. You can sample Tino Drima on Bandcamp.
Photo: Unknown, courtesy of The Foxxtones
Foxxtones / SF—Sometimes you have to go away to come back. Sometimes you're forced to leave and then receive an invitation to return. There was never any question in my mind that Cassie Lewis was Boise's best female vocalist with a range that allowed her to sing anything from jazz to country and western and so it was with great sadness that I saw her leave after Boise's indiscriminate hive stung her one time too many. Jealous, envious bees. She belonged to the universe anyways. And we're blessed to have her back with her den for a night.
Treefort bio: The Foxxtones has been aptly described as Cosmic Americana delivering a swirl of dulcet velvet heartache, personal hell and a hot mess of truth...
Simple, strong storytelling written from the life and mind of Cass, the proprietary member and mother of the den, reveals intricate experiences, deep feels, wailing pain, and self actualization...
"The muse meanders like smoke through a keyhole. I follow her where ever she grows. The lens she holds transforms my eyes into kaleidoscopes, observing the sweet moment between silence and sound, birth and decay, and all of the beauty therein... Waiting to be seen." The Foxxtones play Treefort Thursday, March 22, 2018, 6:00PM at Pengilly's Saloon. You can listen to The Foxxtones on Bandcamp.
Photo: Unknown, courtesy of Treefort.
Killer Whale / SF—As synopsized by Do the Bay, San Francisco: "Killer Whale is a project undertaken by Thomas Johnson, a Baton Rouge, LA native, that mixes the histories and melodies of the South with the Bay and the result is something surprisingly reminiscent of the 60’s and 70’s, complete with drawbar organs, introspective lyrics, and guitar riffs that soar above a churning rhythm section."
Treefort bio: The music I make is just a reflection of what I've soaked in throughout my years of moving back and forth from Louisiana to California and other spots along the south. It's a reflection of my love hate relationship with where I'm from and where I might go. It's a reflection of being raised by a mother who played piano in Mississippi Baptist Churches and a father who's main connection with me was a deep love for the blues. It’s the conflict of running away from your roots but finding a deeper love for them far away from home, and in the end learning so much more than I had ever dreamed of. It’s about laughing about all the dumbass shit that’s thrown your way all the damn time.
I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn't hooked on music and the way it made me feel. It has always been a medium to express my search for some peace, connection, humor and beauty within the constant fluctuations of life. In the end…..it’s just really fun. Killer Whale plays Saturday, March 24, 2018, 9:30PM at Grainey's Basement. Johnson's project can be listened to on Bandcamp.
Photo: Unknown, courtesy of the artist.
Ill.Gates / SF—If I had my way, it would be me, a man or a woman on a guitar, some songs we sing together and that would suit me fine. But the musical world is much too diverse to be so self-limited. Ill.Gates fascinates me for the recognizable signature he adds to dubstep, electronica and hiphop sets. A good set to catch just as you're coming on.
Treefort Bio: ill.Gates is a San Francisco-based composer, performer and educator. Over the past 16 years, he has established a global fanbase and a reputation as one of the most dynamic electronic music artists around. He regularly tours across North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Gates has headlined at such festivals as Burning Man, Shambhala, the World Electronic Music Festival and the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
His first full-length release, Autopirate (Muti Music, 2008) charted and continues to sell strongly. His groundbreaking triple album, The ill.Methodology and accompanying online course are highly received. Gates was recently selected as one of the Next 100 by URB Magazine.
Many of his contemporaries cite ill.Gates as a key artistic influence and inspiration in their music. While on tour, Gates frequently teaches workshops to grateful and attentive audiences, in which he shares his highly effective approach to producing quality finished music as well as insights into the mentality and strategies necessary to succeed in the music business. ill.Gates appears on: Muti Music, Amorphous Music/Child’s Play/Om Records, Addictech, Noodles, Innerflight, Low Motion, Made In Glitch, Tube10 & Chi & Recordings. He plays Treefort on Friday night through to Saturday morning, 12:30AM, at Fatty's. ill.Gates work can be heard on Soundcloud.
Sonny Smith / SF—Treefort bio: For years, Sonny Smith has built his own brand of indie-folk and rock & roll, growing into a cult favorite along the way. To those who know his work, he's an incredibly prolific creator, with a dozen albums to his name and a handful of related projects—including multiple stage plays, a full-length musical and his nationally-recognized art installation, "100 Bands"—under his belt. A longtime fixture of San Francisco's arts scene, he's managed to fly just beneath the mainstream's radar for decades, while still releasing a string of acclaimed records with labels like Fat Possum and Polyvinyl.
On his newest record, Rod For Your Love, he gets back to basics. Produced by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach and recorded in Nashville, Rod For Your Love roots itself in old-school, guitar-fueled rock & roll. These are love songs built for the garage and the dance floor, with big-hearted melodies and thick harmonies. It's the stuff you might've heard in the 1960s, back when groups like the Kinks and the Velvet Underground were making left-field pop songs that celebrated the form while still bending the rules. With stacked vocal harmonies that sweep their way throughout the track list, Rod For Your Love nods to the past while still moving forward. It's a classic-sounding album that still belongs to the 21st century.
Released on Auerbach's new label, Easy Eye Sound, Rod For Your Love was recorded at the end of a cross-country tour. Smith and his band were firing on all cylinders, their rough edges sanded down by weeks of nightly shows. Meanwhile, 10 new songs had been written. Smith, who'd fallen in love all over again with his roles as a bandleader and frontman, didn't want to produce the tunes himself in a home studio. He wanted to focus on the music. Having heard that the Arcs, Auerbach's side-project, had covered one of his own songs during their own tour, Smith reached out to the Black Keys singer. Connections were made, studio time was booked, and Smith wound up finishing that countrywide tour in Nashville, where he and his road band tracked the album at Auerbach's studio.
The goal? To shine a light on the songs and the band, without many overdubs or assorted clutter.
"I think a lot of albums are made in reaction to the one that came directly before," says Smith. "My last record, Moods Baby Moods, was very layered and used a lot of drum machines. I was making weird sounds with synths. By the time we got to Nashville and began working with Dan, I was thinking 'Let's just make a fun, guitar-driven record. I don't want to have any extracurricular stuff here. I just want it to be really pure.' "
The lyrics follow suit. A personal album filled with heart-of-sleeve songwriting, Rod For Your Love looks inward. It's autobiographical. Fittingly, it's also Sonny Smith's first solo album in years, following a string of records billed under his band's name, Sonny and the Sunsets. "I'm writing about myself now, and not the people around me," he explains. "It felt right to make it a solo record." Sonny Smith plays Treefort on Sunday night, March 25 into Monday morning, March 26, 2018 at the Linen Building. You can listen to his work (as Sonny & The Sunsets) on Bandcamp.