This week would be more than sufficiently busy with special film events if limited to the Latino and African Film Festivals, which we previewed here. But those are just the tip of a wee iceberg. Disregarding for the most part regular new theatrical releases—we’ll get to some of those later, though probably not this weekend’s big commercial releases Saw X, PAW Patrol ,or sci-fi The Creator—there’s still a wealth of activity, including yet another festival, a couple series, two new documentaries of particular local interest, and some cinematic flashbacks.
Deadly Programming Duel: Scum Vs. Streep Vs. Sea
You cannot be in three places at once. This Friday, you will have to decide what really matters to you: The outre pleasures of psychotronic cinema? The performer who’s been nominated for more Oscars than any other? Or will you simply flee in favor of a cruise (w/movies, natch)? A trio of notable local screen happenings all commence that night, though they will proceed on very different timetables.
Making its San Francisco debut after several years’ residency in Reno-Sparks is Scumdance, a celebration of “the best (and worst) of low-brow culture” via films “made by mutants, freaks, weirdos, and generally good people from every corner of the globe.” The three micro-budget features and 27 shorts to be shown over at The Lost Church in North Beach this Fri/29 (start time 6:30 pm) and Sat/30 (5:30 pm) will encompass everything from Japanese extreme horror to Kafkaesque Iranian drama and Filipino video art, plus documentaries, comedies, and much more. More info is available here.
On the highbrow end of mainstream culture lies the entire career of Meryl Streep. who is now 74 years old—but as ever, can play much younger, or just about anything else for that matter. The 4Star is launching a three-day Merylthon of four double bills (benefitting Queer LifeSpace counseling services) that is heavy on her lighter side, embracing musicals (Into the Woods, Mamma Mia), comedies (Death Becomes Her, The Devil Wears Prada), a thriller (The River Wild), humorous biopic (Julie & Julia) and one drama (Doubt) in which she is nonetheless mostly funny. It’s a fair testament to her breadth of changeling talent as demonstrated in nearly 100 film and TV roles (we’re not counting the stage appearances) to date. Running Fri/29-Sun/1. You can find the full schedule here.
Of course, you may simply be bored to tears by the prospect of yet more projected entertainment on dry, stable land (barring the possibility of an earthquake). Fortunately, relief is nigh in the form of Floating Features, “the world’s only sailing movie theater,” held abroad the Red and White Fleet’s hybrid electric vessel Enhydra on the Bay. This year featuring celluloid fare curated by Roxie staff, the fall series commences this Friday with what-else-but Jaws. Subsequent weekends bring two San Francisco-set favorites (’90s action blowout The Rock, Mike Myers’ So I Married An Axe Murderer), then campy 1986 Broadway musical adaptation The Little Shop of Horrors. Each film plays Friday and Saturday night (the first two titles at 9pm, the second two at 8pm). Full info is here.
Local Docs: ‘Cold Refuge,’ ‘The Art of Eating’
Two new documentary features of local origin and interest will get their world theatrical premieres in the area starting this weekend. Speaking of the Bay, the Roxie will be showing Cold Refuge, the latest from Judy Irving, whose nonfiction sleeper hit The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Here she turns to the phenomenon of swimmers in the none-too-welcoming waters that surround our city, whose tides, temperatures, currents and critters (sharks, sea lions) all pose significant challenges. But she is primarily interested in those drawn to that athletic pursuit as a “great stress reliever,” among other psychological factors, her subjects including people dealing with grief, physical disability, racism, illness, and so forth. Filmmakers and several key interviewees will be present for a Q&A following the Roxie’s first show on Sat/30. More info here.
Is it true that you shouldn’t go swimming on a full stomach? Opinions differ, but in any case you probably wouldn’t want to dive into the Bay after chowing down like the late protagonist in SF-based Gregory Bazat’s The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F.K. Fisher. That renowned author, who spent fair chunks of her life in No. Cal. (including the last twenty years in Sonoma County) became interested in cooking at an early age, her eyes and taste buds opened further by stints living in France and elsewhere.
Fisher was less a creator of recipe tomes than an appreciator and philosopher of food, weaving it into a world view beautifully articulated in myriad books that leaned towards memoir. Though she’s been gone over thirty years now, her influence lives on, as the film’s interviews with Alice Waters, Jacques Pepin, Anne Lamott and others attest. The Art of Eating debuts in its final version (following work-in-progress screenings) this Sun/1 with two benefit shows at SF’s Vogue, then plays the Smith Rafael Film Center (Oct. 2-4), Oakland’s Grand Lake (Oct. 16) and Berkeley’s Elmwood (Oct. 18), with more dates and venues to come. More info is available here.
Arthouse Archival: Chen Kaige, Victor Gaviria, Jeremy Thomas
A couple resurfaced world classics, and a documentary about a still-active producer who made quite a few films deserving that status, are worth noting among arrivals.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine, the three-hour epic that won a slew of awards around the globe and remains as important as any mainland Chinese film made since. Nonetheless, it was censored by government authorities (who thought an outright ban would make them look bad), and released by Miramax in the US with 20 minutes cut.
Film Movement’s 4K restoration adds back that missing footage, which will no doubt accentuate the grandeur and daring of a movie whose decades-spanning chronicle of a Peking opera troupe pushed the envelope in several ways: Particularly depicting gay characters and relationships, but perhaps even more in its critical dramatization of the toll taken by rigid Communist Party ideology, not least during the scourge of the Cultural Revolution. Farewell opens at the Roxie in SF on Fri/29, more info here.
Likely to be far less familiar even to avid arthouse aficionados is 1998’s The Rose Seller aka La vendedora de rosas by Victor Gaviria, the first (and for years only) Colombian filmmaker to be invited to Cannes. Ostensibly an update of a Hans Christian Andersen tale, this shocking narrative is closer to the likes of Los Olvidados and Pixote in its unflinching portrait of runaway and abandoned children on the streets of Medellin.
As was the writer-director’s wont, he cast non-professionals for the sake of heightened realism, including leads Lady Tabares (as 13-year-old Monica) and Mileider Gil (10-year-old Andrea). Purportedly a majority of them subsequently died violent deaths, their real lives failing to transcend the drugs, crime, and abuse depicted here. While frequently decked out in the colorful neon of a city at night, this is a relentless dive into the gutter, with discomfiting scenes of strung-out kids, predatory adults, and battering parents.
Co-presented by RoxCine and Cine+Mas within the SF Latino Fest, its rare local screening at the Roxie this Sun/1 (more info here) will be hosted by the director’s daughter Mercedes Gaviria. She’ll also show as a co-feature her own 2020 documentary The Calm After the Storm, which chronicles an ambivalent personal experience working on a later, equally brutal fact-based project of her father’s.
Born to a family associated with some of Britain’s most popular films (including the Doctor and Carry On comedies), though exercising much more rarified taste in his own career, Jeremy Thomas has produced an extraordinary number of films that are among my all-time favorites. (Those would include The Sheltering Sky, Sexy Beast, Insignificance, Bad Timing, and The Shout.) He swept the Oscars with a rare major popular success, Bertolucci’s 1987 The Last Emperor.
Even his failures are almost always unusually interesting. How could they not be, when the directors he’s worked with (often repeatedly) include Wim Wenders, Skolimowski, Julien Temple, Nicolas Roeg, Oshima, Stephen Frears, Cronenberg, Agnes Varda, Bob Rafelson, Jonathan Glazer, Terry Gilliam, Richard Linklater, Takashi Miike, Ben Wheatley, Volker Schlondorff, Philip Noyce, Khyentse Norbu, Harmony Korine, Karel Reisz, Takeshi Kitano, Matteo Garrone, and Jim Jarmusch?
So I was very interested indeed in The Storms of Jeremy Thomas, a feature appreciation of this now 74-year-old “movie prince”—particularly as his next project (Wenders’ 3D documentary Anselm, about the artist Kiefer) may be my most eagerly-awaited film in 2023’s remaining months. He’s huzzah’d here by performers Debra Winger (from Sky) and Tilda Swinton (much more articulate, but as usual rather windbaggy about the sacred role of the artist), as well as a few other collaborators. There are plenty of clips, many highlighting his penchant for films that push the psychosexual envelope (like Cronenberg’s Crash, Roeg’s Bad Timing, or Bertolucci’s The Dreamers). Indifferent towards major studios, allergic to franchises, he is a “producer’s producer” who’s seemed magically able to conjure funds for the riskiest endeavors.
What makes him tick? Well, you won’t get much insight from Storms, which represents the downside of Irish documentarian Mark Cousins’ way of making films about film history. The very first-person, essayistic, digressive approach that has worked for many of his past endeavors (The Story of Film, The Eyes of Orson Welles et al.) turns indulgent and annoying here, when he’s got a real live subject in front of him but seems largely focused on his own wandering mind. Do we really need to see Cousins filming himself skinning dipping in Thomas’ pool? Montages of random film history barely or un-related to Thomas?
Yes, yes, we get that the portraitist is terribly flattered to hang out with an idol. But that doesn’t mean Cousins should ask such insipid, off-the-top-of-his-head “questions” (at one point they actually play a word association game), let alone that Thomas should never be asked why he chose to work with certain directors. He does comment in passing about a few. But why would you make a 94-minute film about the man and not probe his long-term collaborations with Bertolucci, Skolimowski, Temple and Roeg, for starters?
One gets the sense that Jeremy Thomas is not about to surrender any secrets too easily, or let a journalist know him too well. Still, Cousins doesn’t appear to try—he’s living the dream of a gushing fanboy in the presence of a Great One, and we’re meant to be honored by being allowed to observe his basking in the reflected light. OK, I expected different things from this movie. But I definitely did not expect to walk away feeling quite so embarrassed at the opportunity wasted, and the oblivious vanity displayed. The Storms of Jeremy Thomas opens 10/13 (delayed from this week) at the Opera Plaza Cinemas.