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Thursday, April 18, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Cauleen Smith's elliptical visions of Afrofuturism

Screen Grabs: Cauleen Smith’s elliptical visions of Afrofuturism

Hers is far from the only far-seeing auteur's screen program this week.

The focus is not so much on art as the artmakers in various screen programs this week, starting with a couple documentaries about fabled late poets connected to SF’s legendary North Beach Beat scene. ruth weiss (she preferred the lower-case spelling of her name) arrived on the scene in the early 1950s, having already led a geographically complicated life in the period after her German Jewish family fled the Nazis. One More Step West Is The Sea, which plays the Roxie on Sun/26, finds her still vigorous many decades later, traveling to perform with jazz musicians until her death in 2020 at age 92.

We see her at home in Mendocino County with later-life companion Karl Schoen; having a reunited Canned Heat as backup band at a Summer of Love anniversary shindig in Golden Gate Park, reminiscing about her sole venture as filmmaker (1961’s The Brink), and so forth. She’s spoken of fondly by her ex-husband, who left the marriage to become a Zen monk. She prefers not to discuss some less pleasant episodes, like when she was purportedly pushed down a flight of stairs in 1965 by Allen Ginsberg. (Literary colleague Michael McClure broke her fall.)

Turquoise-haired and tireless, holding forth on various topics from smoking (good), fame (only in moderation), and luck (she thinks even her ill fortune ultimately worked to her advantage.) She remains true to her art and individuality to the end. Director Thomas Antonic, a Beat historian and poet himself, will appear with weiss’ regular band members Rent Romus and Doug O’Connor, plus Tate Swindell of Unrequired Records (for whom she recorded) at the Roxie’s 3:50pm show.

A contemporary who left us much sooner is the subject of Billy Woodberry’s 2015 And when I die, I won’t stay dead…, which plays Berkeley’s BAMPFA this Wed/22. Bob Kaufman is seen and heard reciting his work only at the very end of this posthumous portrait. In large part that’s because unlike the extroverted weiss, he was not much inclined towards being filmed, giving interviews, or much else of a public nature. Indeed, he famously took a vow of silence that lasted at least a decade.

Still, his life was hardly a Zen retreat. Snaking through the Merchant Marines, New School, bebop scene and Red Scare era, it landed him in North Beach in 1958, where he’d remain both conspicuous and elusive until his death in 1986, at 60. That is, apart from a sojourn to NYC’s Village, where his habitual troubles with the law (mostly of a police-harassment nature) led to involuntary shock treatments.

Idolized by the relatively few who knew his work, Kaufman was his own worst enemy in that he did little to court publication or build alliances in the literary world. As an African American, he’d been somewhat marginalized within the Beat canon, just as his Beat affiliation kept him from being fully embraced as significant figure in Black letters. His is a turbulent, often-unknowable story of genius poking out from amidst arrests, alcoholism, mental illness, and lots of just plain erratic behavior.

Himself a major figure in the “LA Rebellion” school of independent Black filmmaking, Woodberry will deliver the annual Les Blank Lecture on documentary film the same night as his Kaufman screening. The following week, on Wed/29, he’ll show his only narrative feature to date, 1983’s Bless Their Little Hearts. Written by Charles Burnett, it’s a low-key-yet-potent look at the soul-grinding effects of long-term poverty and hopelessness on a Watts family that is slowly but surely falling apart. Though barely seen upon original release, it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry a decade ago. For info on the complete “Out of the Vault: Billy Woodberry in Person” schedule, go here.

Another important if somewhat under-radar African-American artist in the film/video medium is showcased in “Cauleen Smith: The Fullness of Time,” a San Francisco Cinematheque and Variable Density presentation at the 4 Star Theater this Fri/24. A Sacramento-raised, Los Angeles-based maker who teaches at UCLA, Smith has been classified as an Afrofuturist, and the three short works being shown here—dating back as far as 2008—are intricate, provocative assemblages of mostly found materials. They might encompass everything from old travelogue, NASA, and time-lapse nature footage to vintage educational or abstract shorts and an audio interview with white supremacist Richard Spencer.

The 50-minute The Fullness of Time, by contrast, is primarily a staged narrative, if an elliptical one. Shot in post-Katrina New Orleans, its heroine (Troi Bechet) is a woman who claims to be a visitor from a distant galaxy—though her truth may be more traumatically Earth-bound. Though she may yet find peace, the video (a collaboration with local artists and students) indicts the “’New’ New Orleans” in which a city’s historic Blackness is largely erased in a gentrifying rebuild, along with its “poor people.” Smith won’t be present for this program, but reportedly will be when her 1998 feature Drylongso is shown at BAMPFA later this spring.

Working on a drastically different scale from these creatives is a man who nonetheless remains cloaked in mystery nearly a quarter-century after his death, even as his films remain as widely seen as ever. Stanley Kubrick, a Bronx native who moved to England in 1961 and never looked back, was successful enough to indulge a personal abhorrence for being photographed and interviewed, leading some to call him “the Howard Hughes of cinema.” Yet he had a friendly association with French critic Michael Ciment, allowing him a sporadic access denied virtually everyone else.

The resulting interview audiotapes, recorded over the last three decades of the director’s life (he died in 1999 at 70, leaving Eyes Wide Shut to be edited and released posthumously), comprise the main lure in Gregory Monro’s Kubrick by Kubrick, an hour-long 2020 documentary finally getting released to US digital and On Demand platforms this Tue/21 by Level 33 Entertainment. Whatever you expected, his voice comes as a surprise—he just sounds like, you know, a guy, not an enigma-swaddled “master.” But Kubrick’s reluctance to discuss his aesthetic or intentions comes through loud and clear as a simple personal choice. “I don’t know what led me to make any of the films that I’ve made … it’s this very indefinable thing” he says, fairly enough.

On the other hand, his painstaking perfectionism comes through in various ways, from his dismissal of 1953 debut feature Fear and Desire (which he effectively withheld from public view over subsequent decades) as “so incompetently done” to tales of epic production schedules and maddeningly endless takes. Most of the actors heard from here were fulfilling promotional duties at the time, so their comments are limited in insight. But it’s eye-opening when Marisa Berenson says, of the ravishingly period-detailed Barry Lyndon, “There were days when we would just sit and be lit all day,” a massive endeavor’s progress slowing to a crawl in pursuit of some near-impossible ideal.

With its brief running time, Kubrick by Kubrick can say so much about 2001Dr. StrangelovePaths of GloryFull Metal Jacket, A Clockwork OrangeSpartacus, and The Shining (whose making alone is about to be exhaustively analyzed in a new 2,200-page book.) Other films like Lolita and The Killing aren’t addressed at all. But this gracefully crafted miniature still does provide inevitable fascination in shedding any degree of unfamiliar light on its subject.

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