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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: A wave of women behind the camera

Screen Grabs: A wave of women behind the camera

Two series showcase cinematography and horror. Plus: Cockettes at 50, transgender in Hong Kong, Leonard Cohen's muse, more

SCREEN GRABS Though some aspects of filmmaking have been edging slowly towards gender equity for a while, there’s no question that the #MeToo movement has provided an energizing jolt in that direction. Oh well: If you can’t make people want to change out of the goodness of the hearts, then fear of shaming (or exposure) will have to do the trick. Hopefully the heightened opportunities for women behind the camera will create a long-term sea change, rather than allowing the industry to pay temporary lip service, wait till the storm blows over, then go back to business as usual.

Two major local series starting this week highlight the contributions of women behind the camera—one very literally so, the other in terms of providing source material. The first, View Finders: Women Cinematographers at the PFA, brings together ten features from around the globe to ponder the “female gaze,” as opposed to the male one that has dominated so much of cinematic history. Most of the films included are from the last decade, only one of them going back so far as 1989 (Jacques Rivette’s Gang of Four, shot by Caroline Champetier), testifying to the fact that Director of Photography was almost always considered a “man’s job” until fairly recently.

The work represented otherwise runs a striking gamut, from lyrical fantasia (Manoel de Oliveira and d.p. Sabine Lancelin’s The Strange Case of Angelica) to documentary self-portrait (Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson), encompassing titles from Japan (Tokyo Sonata), Senegal (Today), Peru (The Milk of Sorrow), France (Eastern Boys) and more. The program runs at the Pacific Film Archive, Fri/12-Sat/August 31, PFA. More info here

The other series, comprising SFMOMA’s ninth “Modern Cinema” season, is Haunted! Gothic Tales by Women. This six-week series focuses on dark tales, supernatural or otherwise, drawn from the female imagination. In many cases these are films derived from novels by famous “lady writers,” including Mary Shelley (James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Daphne du Maurier (Don’t Look Now, Rebecca), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting), the Brontes (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights), Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire), Angela Carter (The Company of Wolves), Toni Morrison (the criminally underrated film of Beloved), Carson McCullers (Reflections in a Golden Eye), and so forth.

There are also films conceived by women directors, like Jennifer Kent’s maternal nightmare The Babadook, Kathryn Bigelow’s cult vampire flick Near Dark, Ana Lily Amirpour’s similarly bloodsucking A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Tracey Moffatt’s Australian omnibus beDevil. Although some selections are popular or arthouse favorites, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (derived from Joan Lindsay’s superb novel), Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, or Chan-wook Park’s recent The Handmaiden (a cultural transplant of a Sarah Waters story), there are some notable obscurities dug up here.

They include A Reflection of Fear, an intriguing, seldom-seen 1972 psycho chiller, as well as All About Eve director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1946 Dragonwyck, a full-on period Gothic melodrama complete with Vincent Price as a sinister cousin to Gene Tierney’s heroine. The series runs Thurs/18-Thurs/August 22, SFMOMA. More info here

Don’t worry, though: It’s still a mostly-manly cinematic world out there, as proven by the only two major commercial opening this week. One, Stuber, is a “buddy” action comedy with ex-wrestler Dave Bautista and comedian Kumail Nanjiani (of The Big Sick). The other, Crawl, is a thriller involving killer alligators.

Opening elsewhere (all on Friday July 12, unless otherwise noted) this week:

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
Unlike the active creative role taken by women in the above series, Marianne Ihlen was stuck playing a semi-thankless if time-tested role in someone else’s art-making: That of being a famous man’s “muse.” She was a Norwegian divorcee raising a son alone on a Greek isle of fellow expatriates in 1960 when she met Leonard Cohen, then a little-known Canadian poet. He wrote songs about her (notably “So Long, Marianne”), but his eventual musical fame not only separated them for increasingly long spells, it made him the kind of Lothario who keeps several women stringing along while he dallies with new ones.

This latest documentary by Nick Broomfield (who knew Ihlen) is meant to be a love story, and it sorta is. But it’s the kind of one-sided love story that you wouldn’t really wish on anyone. Marianne was very forgiving, remaining in touch with Cohen to the end of both their lives. But how much time did she waste waiting for him to “return” before he finally got up the nerve to say he wouldn’t? (About a decade, that’s how long.) His fickleness also had a damaging effect on her child. Cohen’s career triumphs are amply recalled in an entertaining flashback that, inevitably, provides less insight into the less-well-chronicled life of his ex-girlfriend (one among many). Even top-billed in a posthumous dual tribute, she somehow ends up still getting short shrift. Embarcadero, Shattuck, Regency 6 (San Rafael). More info here

Hong Kong Cinema
SFFILM’s 9th annual showcase for HK moviemaking offers a weekend of seven recent features from one of the world’s busiest and most influential film industries. The opening night selection at New People is Tracey, about a middle-aged man’s decision to come out as a transgender person, and the impact on his wife and children. Director Jun Li will attend its screenings, as will Lee Cheuk-pan, whose G Affairs also piled up nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards. It’s a fictive expose of corruption as a young musician gets ensnared in some gruesome doings amongst police, prostitutes, and others on both sides of the law.

After opening night, the series moves to the Roxie, where other selections include the ghost comedy Hotel Soul Good, bad-taste farce Missbehavior, sports-themed ensemble piece Men on the Dragon, low-key sexuality study The Lady Improper, and suspense drama The Attorney. Fri/12-Sun/14, New People and Roxie. More info here

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
The titular characters in Muayad Alayan’s drama are two married people having an affair—Sarah (Sivan Kerchner) a comfortably situated West Jerusalem cafe owner whose husband is an Israeli Army colonel (Ishai Golan), while Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) is a Palestinian in East Jerusalem struggling to support himself and his pregnant wife (Hanan Hillo) by working at a bakery and in after-hours odd jobs. Lying to their spouses and coworkers, they meet for trysts whenever they can. But that sneaking about ends up attracting the attention of police on both sides, who misinterpret this simple infidelity as something more politically charged, perhaps even related to espionage.

Purportedly based on real events (though it seems to be more a fictive composite than a “true story”), this is forcefully handled tale somewhat compromised by the fact that there’s not a lot of rooting value. Temperamental and selfish, the two protagonists aren’t “in love,” just in lust, already endangering their families’ stability for the sake of furtive fun before the shit hits the fan. Yes, they’re victims of a volatile, racially charged political situation. But it’s hard to feel much sympathy for their plight, easier to feel sorry for the loved ones their actions haplessly pull into a mess of their own making. Still, Reports is ultimately moving. If there’s a lesson to be drawn here, it’s that when a government relies upon repression, even apolitical citizens are at risk of being sucked into peril. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

Tattoo Uprising and Before Stonewall
Two underground cultures gone mainstream are the subjects of these documentaries opening at the Roxie. The art of tattooing has become so over-ground that 2019 has already seen four major local exhibits dedicated to the field: The recently-closed “Lew the Jew and His Circle” at Contemporary Jewish Museum,

“Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin” at the de Young (which opens this weekend), “Tattoos in Japanese Prints” at the Asian Art Museum, and SF Art Institute’s likewise ongoing “In a Flash,” showcasing tattoo-related work by SFAI alumni including Hardy. The latter is also a major figure in Uprising, a new documentary by Alan Govenar that provides both an overview of American tattooing’s history and an appreciation of its current renaissance. More info here.

While the fight for LGBTQ rights goes on, many in the community today never knew a world in which being gay was itself against the law, and any public expression unthinkable. Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg’s newly restored 1984 Before Stonewall (which plays a handful of Roxie dates starting Thurs/18) provides an invaluable overview of that era before “gay pride,” or even “Gay Lib.”

They excavate the well-hidden pockets of gay life that existed a century ago or more, on through the covert outlets that all-male military life provided through two World Wars, the persecution of the McCarthy era, the emergence of early activist groups like the Mattachine Society, and more. Drawing on archival footage as well as interviews with people who’d seen much of the 20th century’s social evolutions first-hand, it’s a must-see for any gay youth you know who think RuPaul is about as historical a figure as they come. More info here.

In the Aisles
Franz Rogowski had a fascinatingly off-kilter presence that helped make Christian Petzold’s enigmatic Transit one of the best films of the year so far. He’s equally compelling as the protagonist of this new German feature, once again playing a somewhat mysterious newcomer—at once damaged and charismatic, a bit dense yet rather soulful.

His Christian gets hired as a night stocker at a Costco-like suburban warehouse store, working in the Beverages department under gruff but kindly Bruno (Peter Kurth). Mastering the challenges of the forklift, shyly flirting with coworker Marion (Sandra Huller from Toni Erdmann), Christian is a perpetually tongue-tied cipher whose backstory we learn very little about. (Though when we do learn a bit, we begin to understand why he’d rather not talk about it.) In the brief glimpses afforded of his lonely home life, there is one conspicuous clue to his troubled past: Hidden under a uniform during work hours, his body is covered with tattoos.

With his slightly cleft lip and modest speech impediment, Rogowski is an offbeat leading actor, but those “flaws” somehow only heighten his slightly edgy yet vulnerable appeal. Director/co-writer Thomas Stuber’s last film Herbert aka A Heavy Heart was was a considerably bleaker character portrait, sort of uplift-free Rocky Balboa with Kurth as an aging asshole of a boxer protagonist. It was impressive, if off-putting. In the Aisles, by contrast, is an insinuatingly low-key seriocomedy that shades darker as it goes on, yet retains a genuine, empathetic warmth at its core—it likes its characters, and we do, too. Vogue. More info here

The Cockettes
Programmed to mark the 50th anniversary of the titular radical SF performance group, David Weissman and Bill Weber’s 2002 documentary remains one of the best movies about Sixties-bred counterculture—gay or otherwise—ever. A polymorphously perverse ensemble of “gender rebels” (some female and/or heterosexual) who took drag into new realms, The Cockettes began staging their exuberantly amateur camp musical extravaganzas as accompaniment to midnight movies for adoring, stoned SF hippie audiences. That underground fame led to an ill-advised, critically panned Broadway debut that this crew shrugged off as one more giddy adventure.

Not even Woodstock captures the era’s sense of wide-open artistic and personal freedom like this indelible chronicle, complete with the sad coda of so many free spirits perishing in the subsequent AIDS epidemic. The directors will be on hand at each screening in this two-day Castro revival, shown in a new 4K restoration. It’s billed with John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch—one latterday musical definitely indebted to The Cockettes’ glitter-trash legacy. Tues/16-Wed/17, Castro. More info here. 

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