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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Andy Warhol's brilliant camp

Screen Grabs: Andy Warhol’s brilliant camp

A notable retrospective at SFMOMA. Plus: Diamantino, Ophelia, Descent into Darkness, Too Late to Die Young, and more in cinemas.

SCREEN GRABS Andy Warhol was the man who sold the world on Pop Art in the 1960s, and much of that success lay in his art being inseparable from his genius for celebrity—despite the fact that he was nothing like celebrities were supposed to be back then. (I.e. Good-looking, heterosexual and charming.) He turned the blank reflection of undiscriminating different realities—from images of movie stars to those of public assassinations—into a new form of artistic commentary, one comingled with the also-new (to most people) concept of “camp.”

Another new-ish art form at the time was movies, which of course weren’t really new, but had grown stagnant, and which seemed newly revitalized by currents in foreign film, experimental cinema, and (eventually) Hollywood itself. Warhol’s own early movies were much more widely discussed than actually seen, but then that was perhaps the point: They were “conceptual” in the extreme, being notoriously an eight-hour shot of a building (1964’s Empire) and a six-hour shot of poet John Giorno sleeping (the same year’s Sleep).

But the “Factory” soon developed “stars”—socialites, hustlers, cross-dressers—who brought more performing entertainment value, and the beginnings of a faint interest in narrative that would solidify with the more commercial “Warhol” films Paul Morrissey made with Joe Dallesandro in the 1970s.

In conjunction with its major, three-floor exhibition Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again, SFMOMA is providing several screenings of his 60s celluloid works, from Empire to Vinyl (a quasi-adaptation of A Clockwork Orange with five minutes of go-go-dancing bliss from Gerard Melanga) to the more “real moviemaking” efforts of My Hustler (a notably caustic look at Fire Island gay life) and Lonesome Cowboys (the 1968 color western whose purported pornographic content drew surveillance from bewildered FBI officials).

That year Warhol nearly died after being shot by aggrieved minor ex-Factory Star Valerie Solanis. As a result, he never finished editing San Diego Surf, another laconic melodrama that has only been seen in recent years. SFMOMA’s film series doesn’t have the most engaging (and commercially successful) ’60s Warhol movie, the dual-projection Chelsea Girls. But it does have his most beautiful: The silent 1964 Blow Job, in which a handsome, anonymous pickup receives the titular servicing from (reportedly) several different parties. But they’re left out of the shot, which focuses on this handsome stranger he goes through the gamut of human emotions, from uneasiness to pleasured abandon to final, acute shame at the camera’s remorseless gaze.

As a further sidelight to the exhibition is a shorter series of Hollywood films that inspired Warhol, and not just as a movie buff turned moviemaker: Each of them provided images that morphed into some of his most famous silkscreen “portraits.” The four features are 1953’s The Wild One, with Marlon Brando unintentionally providing a gay icon as motorcycle rebel in black leather; the same year’s color noir Niagra, Marilyn Monroe’s only femme fatale role; 1960 Elvis Presley western Flaming Star; and that year’s Butterfield 8, a big-screen soap opera that famously won Elizabeth Taylor a purported “sympathy Oscar.” (She had just barely survived a medical emergency.)  From Hollywood to Pop: Sun/30-Fri/August 9, SFMOMA (more info hereFilms By Andy Warhol: Thurs/27- Sun/Sept. 1, SFMOMA (more info here).

Elsewhere in the Bay Area film world this week, there are movies we didn’t see (Wild Rose at the Embarcadero, a U.K. crowdpleaser about a Glasgow gal’s aspiring Nashville country-and-western stardom) and ones we saw but would just rather not talk about. (That would be the Roxie opening Endzeit: Ever After, a German movie purportedly about zombies that really turns out to be about two characters on a walking road trip, and which I didn’t see the point of. But others have praised it.)

Other openings of note, all opening Friday unless otherwise noted:

Too Late to Die Young
Dominga Sotomayor Castillo’s film is set on a rural artists’ commune of both permanent and part-time residents in 1990, when Chile was just beginning to emerge from the long shadow of Pinochet’s long, brutal dictatorship. But any political commentary is buried deep in the subtext of this Locarno Festival prize-winner, at least for foreign audiences.

Out of the initially undifferentiated tangle of characters we meet gradually emerges a protagonist: Slightly androgynous 16-year-old Sofia (Demian Hernandez), whose exploratory romantic interests drift from peer Lucas (Antar Machado) to older neighbor Ignacio (Matias Oviedo) as she’s planning a bigger change, moving from her taciturn instrument-maker father’s local household to the urban one of her famous singer mother. There are other, seemingly random plot elements, including a mysterious flurry of vandalizings, a lost dog, an ongoing water shortage problem. Yet they all culminates in a New Year’s Eve party (amidst balmy dry heat) where everyone is supposed to perform, and Sofia’s surprising choice of song reveals just how immature she remains.

On that eventful night and its aftermath, tensions we’d barely noticed before in the seemingly casual narrative come into sharper focus, to great consequence. It’s a movie that goes from near-aimless to maximally eventful without one even noticing the gradual transition, so subtly does Sotomayor manage it. A major plus is the unique fleshy-pink look of Inti Briones’ cinematography, as if aping slightly color-faded old Polaroids. Roxie. More info here. 

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Morrison is one of the great American novelists of the last 50 years, a stylist sometimes as poetically (and challengingly) dense as Faulkner. This documentary portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders examines her life and works over a now 88-year course that has included one Nobel Prize as well as numerous other significant events.

Among the lesser-known biographical tidbits here (at least among those readers who found her post-Oprah embrace) are that Morrison spent long years working as a publishing-house editor and as a teacher, in both roles mentoring other young African-American writers to success—in the process shifting the racial makeup of U.S. literary fiction and academia. Russell Banks, Angela Davis, Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz and others pay tribute in this Sundance-premiered tribute. Embarcadero. More info here.  

Do the Right Thing 30th Anniversary
Though some might pick The BlackKklansman or Malcolm X, DTRT remains probably Spike Lee’s best movie, the one in which his cinematic high style and focus on American racial relations were most dynamically in-synch. But it was considered pretty incendiary stuff in 1989—branded “racially inciting,” and similar terms that always seem to get used when black people have legitimate cause to be angry.

As a result, it was pretty well shortchanged by the skittish major awards bodies. This naturally infuriated the perpetually irked filmmaker and, well, he was right. (Adding insult to injury, Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture Oscar that year.) Now 30 years old—I originally saw it at one of the many SF theaters that don’t exist anymore—it plays the Castro with the recently deceased John Singelton’s breakout 1991 film Boyz in the Hood. Mon/1, Castro Theatre. More info here

There is something to be said for a comedy willing to go broke for surrealism, and that is precisely the thing to be said for this eccentric feature by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt. The titular figure is the world’s greatest soccer player (Carloto Cotta), a fabulously successful complete naif who is close to a complete idiot, but whose sheer magic on the field gets him adored. Little do the public realize that such prowess is due to the fact that, while playing, he is guided to victory by adorable giant long-haired puppies in a landscape of pink bubbles.

When this miracle suddenly ceases to function, he blows a World Cup final in a way spectacular enough to end his career. But somehow that catastrophe sets him on a new path involving far-right political manipulations, lesbian IRS investigators, evil relatives, scientific cloning plots, and other farcical nonsense. This amiable candy-colored fantasy is very silly, but the glue that holds it together is Cotta, who makes our almost imbecilic hero an endearingly pure soul. Opera Plaza. More info here

Jean Pierre Leaud at 75
Leaud was the 14 year-old who answered an ad and wound up playing Antoine Doinel in the movie that basically kicked off the Nouvelle Vague, Truffaut’s 1959 The 400 Blows—as well as four other features in which he played the same character, a goofily idealized version of their writer-director. He seemed a fine example of inspired “amateur” talent, albeit one perhaps not so ideally suited to adult professional acting opportunities.

However, I’ve come around on that: Leaud has a knack for self-deprecating comedy that attracted other major international directors, from Bertolucci, Pasolini and Catherine Breillat to Olivier Assayas and Aki Kaurismaki. This PFA retrospective features some of his “greatest hits,” from Godard’s Masculine-Feminine to Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and Albert Serra’s recent The Death of Louis XIV. Plus, of course, plenty of Truffaut and Godard. Thurs/4-Friday/August 4, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.

There is much innocent blood (as well as some of the guilty kind) spilt in Hamlet, none more poignant than that of the Prince’s kinda-sorta girlfriend, whom he drives over the brink of madness as he grows increasingly mistrustful of everyone around him. In movies alone, she has been portrayed by everyone from Jean Simmons and Marianne Faithfull to Helena Bonham Carter and Kate Winslet.

(As a sidenote, let us take the opportunity here to remind that the utterly distinct psych-pop-rock quartet The Ophelias were one of the greatest San Francisco bands of the 1980s, underappreciated then and nearly forgotten now.)

Naturally there have been some attempts in recent years at a “revisionist” Ophelia who’s more than just a passive victim of mechanizations beyond her understanding. Claire McCarthy’s new British film is an adaptation of a 2006 novel in that vein by Lisa Klein. Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley plays the titular figure, who here is (of course) a headstrong, tomboyish type who rebels against the limits of her gender, yet gets sucked into Danish court intrigue anyway—as well as the troubled arms of newly father-deprived Hamlet (George McKay).

This is a plush, handsome  costume piece with a solid-enough cast (also including Naomi Watts and Clive Owen) as well as further concessions to current mainstream audiences, like multicultural casting and modern-ish language. Not to mention that at one point Ophelia actually knees someone in the groin. It’s fine for what it is…but that’s more Girl Power-infused teen romance fantasy than anything Shakespeare might recognize. If you’re expecting fidelity of any sort, be prepared to wince (or howl) almost as much as you did at Demi Moore’s sexed-up wiccan “feminist” The Scarlet Letter. 4-Star.

Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare
Did you enjoy Borat but think it needed more (OK, any) brutal violence? Well, here ya go. This 2013 French film stars director Rafael Cherkaski as “Sorgoi Prakov,” a tourist from a fictitious Eastern European nation spending three months in pursuit of “my European dream.” Wearing goofy camera-and-mic headgear, he’s filming it all for an alleged documentary. But after various Parisian blunders that result in loss of funds and passport, he begins to unravel–though there are intimidations that perhaps he was rather loosely wound to begin with. We’re informed straight off that he eventually suffered a “psychotic break” and committed “horrific” acts.

Still, the creepier content takes a while coming, and when it arrives, it is rather more alarming than you might expect, providing a few new wrinkles in the found-footage horror subgenre. (Though some elements may ring bells, including ones familiar from everything from Man Bites Dog to Hannibal.) A film that has apparently existed in various edits, its scenes of credibly “real” depravity have purportedly led to some instances of online censorship and suspicion of actual criminality.

This single Roxie screening, presented by the Unnamed Footage Festival, is billed as “the world premiere of the final cut.” It promises a post-screening Skype interview with the director-star—assuming he is currently separating art from life enough to be capable. Sat/29, Roxie. More info here

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