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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Another vital public film program axed—for what?

Screen Grabs: Another vital public film program axed—for what?

SFMOMA's hatchet job. Plus reviews of Blood Red Sky, Old, Charlatan, Mandibles, and more

Last week brought news that in response to a purported attendance decrease, SFMOMA was terminating its entire film program, as well as several other important forums and staff positions. The immediate reaction was “What?!?,” mingled with disgust in some quarters that this seemed to reflect a public institution further caving to the desires of its board/donor elite, while sacrificing things of value and outreach to the actual public it purportedly serves. (Also: We’ve barely begun to “re-open.” Isn’t it a little premature to make permanent major cuts on the basis of attendance figures that haven’t had time to fully rebound yet?)

You may well be experiencing deja vu here, remembering that not so long ago Yerba Buena Center for the Arts across the street also announced it was terminating its film program and staff, as well as other esteemed elements, in favor of…uh…er….Well, over three years later, we still don’t know. While several of its remaining administrators retain rather astronomical salaries within an impressive overall non-profit institutional budget, and god knows the donor solicitations have never let up, what YBCA actually does has been something of a puzzle since it basically fired or chased away all its arts curators, while adding a couple crony hires with extremely nebulous duties. Of course it hasn’t been able to do much during the pandemic. But why it wasn’t doing anything very tangible (beyond renting out performance spaces, hosting touring exhibits, and extending the departed gallery curator’s final Bay Area Now show) during the couple years prior is less explicable.

The indefensibility of SFMOMA’s axe-wielding is articulated better than I could possibly manage in this statement from the city’s own venerable experimental-film distributor Canyon Cinema, which calls the institution’s move a “stunning disavowal of its own history.” While a Board of Trustees meeting at which many patrons expressed their anger (via Zoom) has already passed, options for protest include this petition, and/or attending a planned protest in front of the museum next week, Thu/5, 6pm-8pm.

As for YBCA, past experience has suggested it does not respond to (or possibly even look at) its online public comment options, so no point throwing pennies down that well. However, it is indeed having a free, all-day “Reopening Celebration” Sat/7, at which we are promised “talks on the future” of the institution from chief staff, among other events. It’ll be well worth hearing just what that future entails, given that the recent past of this once- treasured “cultural anchor” and “center for art and progress” has provided a whole lot of such self- promotional rhetoric, but almost zip in terms of tangible… you know, art.

Offering a tonic to all this bad institutional behavior is Tom Hurwitz and Rosalynde LeBlanc’s documentary about an artist whose work has always been about community—in practice, not just empty theory. In 1982, the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company was formed by creative and domestic partners who’d already been together for a decade. But soon the “family” of their troupe, as well as the dance world in general, was being decimated by the AIDS epidemic, which claimed Zane’s life in 1988. The next year Jones created “D-Man In the Waters,” possibly his most popular and enduring single work, its title a nod to another company member (Damian Acquavella) then dying of the disease. Very athletic, spiritual and celebratory, it reflected the constant comingling of grief and resiliency in the NYC (as well as nearly every other) gay and arts scenes at the time.

Thirty-plus years later, the dance remains not just in Jones’ company repertoire, but has been performed by other groups all over the world, including university dance departments. While archival footage and interviews with surviving original dancers chronicle the work’s backstory, much time here is spent on rehearsals for a new staging fitted to collegiate dancers who weren’t even born when the US AIDS era had more or less run its course.

It’s a little painful at times to see their director (a former Jones collaborator) insist “the stakes have to be as high” for these kids as it was in 1989—a nice idea, but as they search their limited histories for comparable pain, it’s clear they’ve never experienced any such adversity. (All their collective calamities are in the vague future.) Still, a few moments of drama-therapy excess aside, this documentary provides both a poignant flashback and a thrilling glimpse of still-great art. It’s currently playing virtual cinemas including the Roxie and Rafael Film Center’s.

Another time of tribulation is recalled in the latest feature by Agnieszka Holland, her third US release within the last year (though the films have dated back as far as 2017), and further proof that well past official retirement age, her work is more consistently strong than ever. Jan Miklolasek (played by Josef Trojan) was a famed Czech herbalist who was dismissed by Communist authorities as a quack profiteer. But some of them, too, secretly sought his treatments or were awed by his ability to diagnose from looking at urine samples.

His brusque and officious ways were gratefully tolerated by a constant line of hopeful patients said to have totaled in the millions over his entire career. But in the post-Stalinist, still sharply repressive climate of the late 1950s, when most of Charlatan takes place, his fame and wealth attracted increasing censure from the Communist regime. Bound up in that fear of persecution, as portrayed here, is his secret romantic relationship with younger assistant Frantisek (Juraj Loj).

Marek Epstein’s screenplay takes its still-controversial protagonist’s side, assuming that his gifts were genuine (if a bit mysterious) and that the charges eventually laid against him were either trumped-up or irrelevant. While this is not quite as potent a drama as Holland’s recent Mr. Jones or Spoor, it’s still a powerfully well-crafted and well- acted story. Charlatan is also currently streaming in the Roxie and Rafael’s virtual cinemas.

Moving from the tragic to the ridiculous, there’s the latest by French absurdist Quentin Dupieux, another director who’s had no less than three backlogged features released in the US during the pandemic. This one has David Marsais and Gregoire Ludig as two very dim bulbs on some vague criminal errand that is interrupted when they realize the car they’ve stolen has something strange in the trunk: A tame fly inexplicably the size of an air conditioner. They decide they will “train” it to somehow make their fortune, a quest that leads from some poor hermit’s RV (which they accidentally destroy) to a villa being rented by some rich youths. Among them is Adele Exarchopoulos from Blue Is The Warmest Color as a woman whose behavior has got a bit extreme since a ski accident, and who as a result is disbelieved when she is the only person to suspect our protagonists are hiding something.

This is basically a Dumb & Dumber-type buddy comedy, and at first the characters’ incessant stupidities aren’t that funny. But these bozos do grow on you, and even at its least, Dupieux’s surreal humor is a significant cut above what you’d get in a typical Hollywood raunchfest with similar basic ingredients. Mandibles may not be his best, but it’s a good introduction, as well as good enough to satisfy his cult fanbase—and its silliness does lead to a big climactic payoff characteristically rich in ironic injustice. It’s currently playing theaters including the Embarcadero, Shattuck, Rafael, in addition to On Demand availability.

Blood Red Sky
The creature dominating this new German thriller on Netflix is even more unlikely than a giant fly—something not just improbable but mythological. It takes us a while to suss this is that kind of movie, though. It begins at the end, with the emergency landing of a commercial plane that had been hijacked by terrorists. Though the memories of the little boy who’s the sole passenger to disembark, we see what happened: He (Carl Anton Koch as Elias) and his mother Nadja (Peri Baumeister) were crossing the Atlantic to seek treatment for her serious health problem when their flight was hijacked. Nadja may be gravely ill, but it’s a sort of affliction that can actually come in handy in a situation like this—to the grave misfortune of their captors.

Yes, this “Stakes on a Plane” sets wicked men against the kind of nemesis one used to associate with performers like Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. The pure of heart may ultimately triumph over such a supernatural predator, but terrorists? Not a chance. A high-concept contraption done well, Sky may be overlong (at 121 minutes) and silly, but is what it is—and it is fun.

Blood Red Sky knows it’s ultimately just a genre film, and doesn’t take itself all that seriously. That is something no one will ever accuse M. Night Shyamalan of. In fact his latest is so self-important that the writer-director-producer naturally had to cast himself in a “small but key” role, despite having zero presence as an actor. This is his worst movie since Lady in the Water (in which he wrote himself a bigger part), and if you’ve been paying attention, that is really saying something. After all, this is the filmmaker who last made a good ‘un (The Sixth Sense) 22 years ago, and since has been running a gamut from meh to crap to WTF. Old occupies the extreme end of that scale.

Involving a bunch of rich vacationers who find themselves stuck on a beach where the aging process is drastically accelerated, this frequently laughable stab at suspense and (worse) sociopolitical commentary has so many problems one doesn’t know where to begin enumerating them. There are some very bad performances from actors who are normally very good (among them Gael Garcia Bernal, Rufus Sewell and Alex Wolff), while less-experienced others who clearly need directorial guidance are left embarrassingly stranded.

Clumsy and outlandish without actually being any fun, Old (currently playing theaters nationwide) nonetheless has moments that stir a kind of awe: It’s not just that the Shyamalan’s situations are absurd or his characters one-dimensional caricatures, it’s that his dialogue suggests the genius in charge somehow doesn’t know how fellow human beings talk. Unless Madonna makes a screen comeback or there’s a Cats 2 in the works, this year’s Razzie Awards are already a lock.

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