Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Arts + Culture Culture Screen Grabs: Lesbian filmmakers who destroyed stereotypes
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Screen Grabs: Lesbian filmmakers who destroyed stereotypes

Plus: Peter Sellers' disastrous lost film, Tom Berenger back in the lead, and how to keep supporting local cinemas.

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While there’s still no ETA on when movie exhibition spaces will be back open in California, there’s still plenty of ways to support those venues to support local venues and watch movies at the same time. The Pacific Film Archive’s “BAMPFA From Home” is currently offering documentaries Spaceship Earth (which we wrote about last week) and What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Bela Tarr’s eight-hour 1994 Hungarian maxi-minimalist opus Satantango, Ken Loach’s latest Sorry We Missed You, recent Russian drama Beanpole, classics by Jules Dassin and Jean-Luc Godard, and more.

CinemaSF of Vogue and Balboa fame has documentaries Other Music, Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint and New Orleans music survey Up From the Streets, plus absurdist Jean Dusjardin vehicle Deerskin, just for starters. We recently wrote about 5 Blocks, The Wolf House, On a Magical Night, Straight Up and Capital in the 21st Century, all of which are (along with two new films detailed below, plus others) available through Roxie Virtual Cinema.

All the above-listed can be rented for home streaming, with a hefty percentage of proceeds going to the designated local theater. Similar options (including some of the same titles) are also available from the Rafael Film Center and Alamo Drafthouse.

New arrivals this week run a gamut from two cinema-centric nonfictions to two indie thrillers:

Dykes, Camera, Action!
Caroline Berier’s hour-long documentary skims past the Celluloid Closet terrain of exploitative, negative mainstream old LGBTQ depictions to focus on the lesbian filmmakers who set out to destroy those stereotypes. We get clips and commentary from such experimentalists as the pioneering late Barbara Hammer, Su Friedrich and Jenni Olson, indie-to-mainstream talents like Rose Troche (Go Fish), Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman) and Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, The Kids Are Alright). There’s also room for appreciation of films by male directors that nonetheless helped bolster positive lesbian screen visibility (Robert Towne’s Personal Best, the Wachowskis’ Bound, Todd Haynes’ more recent Carol), and notice taken of important new-ish directors like Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and documentarian Vicky Du.

Among a number of Bay Area voices featured, we get much input from critic B. Ruby Rich, who joined the phrase “New Queer Cinema” to encapsulate a particularly liberating breakthrough period. With attention paid to such favorites as Desert Hearts and But I’m a Cheerleader, this trip down memory lane will appeal to many—even if one wishes Berier had devoted a little more space (or any) to foreign films, which have been a major source of lesbian storytelling for decades. You can rent Dykes! from Roxie Virtual Cinema to benefit the shuttered local movie house and Frameline. More info here. 

The Ghost of Peter Sellers
Another movie about movies that’s available through the Roxie (as of Fri/22) is this fascinating document. In it, Hungarian-born British director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class, The Krays) relates his disastrous experience making an unreleased 1973 pirate farce starring the mentally unstable comic genius Sellers—who became so impossible that at one point he faked a heart attack simply to take a break from production.

The film was called Ghost of the Noonday Sun, and Medak (who’d just had a hit with 1972’s wild satire The Ruling Class) was so flattered by the comic genius’ recruiting attentions that he chose to overlook the very weak script by Sellers’ old Goon Show comrade Spike Milligan. (Hint of its quality: Sellers’ character was named “Dick Scratcher.”) There ensued “67 days of nightmare” in which shooting a period nautical film on the water in Cyprus generated no end of logistical problems.

But every other disaster paled besides Sellers himself, who after a triumphant 1960s (in movies like the Pink Panther series and Dr. Strangelove) was busy destroying his career amidst escalating mental illness and substance abuse issues. Even his most-loyal director Blake Edwards, who shortly would successfully revive the Panther franchise, admitted his star was “certifiable” at this point. (He’d also just torpedoed the third of his four marriages, and had a fling with Liza Minnelli besides, which didn’t help.) Sellers did manage to go out with a bang via 1979’s acclaimed Being There before dying of a heart attack, at just 54 years’ age.

The mother of all movie disaster stories, with plenty of surviving footage from the film (which was deemed unreleasable) and its production, Ghost is driven by the reminiscences of its still-grieving director. Medak kept working, particularly on television. But he considered that this fiasco did permanent damage to his career and psyche, lending the documentary a curious tenor of mixed bemusement, nostalgia and acute distress. More info here.

Blood and Money
After stabbing Diane Keaton to death as her last pickup in 1977’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Tom Berenger ascended a slow ladder to stardom, a status in which he more or less spent the 1980s and a bit beyond. He proved himself a solid, versatile actor, albeit maybe not a distinctive enough personality or flamboyant enough performer to join the top ranks despite roles in hits like Platoon and The Big Chill. His parts gradually turned to supporting ones, and of late he’s mostly toiled in films you haven’t heard of because no one did. (Though he made a significant appearance in the very big sci-fi mindtwister Inception a decade ago.)

This indie directorial-debut feature by John Barr provides him with a welcome lead role as Jim Reed, a 70-ish man apparently estranged from his family, living alone in a camper mounted on his pickup truckbed. He’s entirely self-sufficient, scraping by on game he hunts. But he’s also aging and ailing, his environment (rural Maine in the dead of winter) a strenuous one even for someone at the peak of health. Blood’s first half hour is a simple, unadorned, interesting character study of this loner. Then it turns into a crime thriller, when Jim’s stalking of a buck leads him to accidentally stumble upon loot from a bloody casino robbery, with its perpetrators not far behind.

Not particularly adept in the suspense or action departments, Barr’s film is actually less interesting as a violent melodrama than it had been as a study of an old guy living in his car. Still, even if Ray’s behavior grows less credible (and sympathetic) as the story becomes a long shootout chase, Berenger plays him with considerable agonized conviction. Another plus is the woodsy, snowbound Maine scenery, which looks gorgeous here even if it must have been a pain during the coldest times of the year.

Point Defiance
More successful as a thriller, if perhaps less interesting in other ways, is this similarly small-scale but well-crafted indie feature by Justin Foia. Derek Phillips plays protagonist Peter, who lives alone in a spacious rural Washington house that he never leaves—doing all his business online or on the phone, having groceries delivered. It takes a while before we realize that he’s wearing an ankle bracelet and is under apparent house arrest, for reasons he’d rather not dwell on.

But his problems only escalate when he gets unexpected company in the form of brother Alex (Josh Crotty), a bro-ish bruiser seemingly on leave from the military. Never mind that Peter is sober, even self-administering breathalizer tests—in short order Alex has not only restocked the liquor cabinet, but invited a prostitute (Lauren Elaine) to come over and bring some drugs with her too, in order to “party.” Did we mention that a woman recently went missing in this area? Or that the police are soon sniffing around Peter’s door, raising his worst suspicions about the no-longer-little brother with whom he shares a traumatic family past?

Though you might guess the big twist well before it arrives, this is nonetheless a decent slow-burn psychological thriller, albeit one more simply unpleasant than enjoyably tense. It’s like The Man Who Came To Dinner (and wouldn’t leave), only instead of a pompous moocher, the unwanted guest here is a possibly psychotic Alpha Male with PTSD. If nothing else, Point Defianceteaches the quarantine-friendly lesson that really, you’re better off living alone than with hugely troubled loved ones. Although as the saying goes, “You’re never alone with a schizophrenic,” either. The film is available on DVD and most streaming platforms as of Tues/19.

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