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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Dance Film Fest leaps onto screen—and out of prison yards

Screen Grabs: Dance Film Fest leaps onto screen—and out of prison yards

Plus: Carlos Santana's story, Cambodian cinema showcase, 'North by Northwest' in 35mm, and campy hell on wheels


Laying out a personal philosophy-slash-lifestyle in four words, Prince called for “Dance, music, sex, romance” on “D.M.S.R.,” the extended jam anchoring 1999, a commercial-breakthrough album that’s now inexplicably over forty years old. While this week’s array of special screen events may be short on the last two elements in that formula, there’s plenty of the first duo represented. And if we substitute travel for eros—it’s been done before—all the bases are covered.

Though note should be taken of one new film that doesn’t fit into the equation, Christine Yoo’s 26.2 to Life, which opened SF Docfest in May. It’s an inspiring portrait of inmates at San Quentin who find focus and (emotional) release in training for marathons that they run within the confines of that maximum-security prison. One participant, Markelle “the Gazelle,” eventually gets released for real—and we see him now prepping for the Boston Marathon. The film opens this Fri/22 at theaters including SF’s Roxie, the Rafael Film Center, and the Elmwood in Berkeley, with select shows featuring live Q&A’s with filmmakers and subjects.

But getting back to Prince’s principles, this coming weekend brings the event of the year as far as Terpsichorean cinema is concerned: The opening of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, which runs through October 15. Its 14th edition commences this Fri/22 with a “Spotlight Shorts” program at Lucasfilm Premier Theater in the Presidio. It offers a pretty dazzling array, including LINES dancer Adji Cissoko in a gorgeous solo (What Will They Know About Love?), a Smuinesque retro nightclub fantasia (Lady Be Good), a stirring mix of male athleticism, poetry and nature (The Name of a River), a large-scale orchestration of cityscape and movement ensemble (Circle), surreal spectacle a la Matthew Barney (Wintersweet on the Snow from China) and a documentary about Nigeria’s sole, makeshift yet now internationally-recognized ballet school (Then Comes the Body).

Other programs will highlight Lauren Finerman’s near-wordless Flower, an Oakland-shot narrative with choreography by Alonzo King and Rich + Tone Talauega; and another roughly half-hour local product, Bryan Gibel and Joanna Haigood’s Love, A State of Grace, an record of Zaccho Dance Theatre’s aerial performance in Grace Cathedral last year.

Features to be shown during the festival encompass two documentaries: Dancing In A-Yard, which examines a rehabilitative dance program at a state prison in Los Angeles County; and Call Me Dancer, whose subject Manish is a Mumbai street performer from a family of taxi drivers who makes the unlikely leap to an international pro career. In addition to in-person screenings (also at Brava Theater, Catherine Clark Gallery and ODC Theater), much of the festival’s fare will also be available for streaming Oct. 5-15. Full info here.

As far as music goes, it’s all about the golden oldies this week. The late Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads showcase Stop Making Sense, which many consider the greatest rock concert doc ever, gets a remastered 40th-anniversary re-release that hits IMAX screens this Fri/22 and regular ones a week later. Similarly rolling out in two steps is Rudy Valdez’s new Carlos, a tribute to the guitar-legend Santana frontman.

It’s a primarily first-person autobiographical chronicle from a Tijuana boyhood to the family’s move to mid-60s San Francisco—just in time for our protagonist to get swept up in the first wave of psychedelic rock as one of its prime innovators. He got “adopted” by fabled impresario Bill Graham, who began booking Santana at the Fillmore when no one had heard of them. They got all the way to an ecstatically received Woodstock set before even a debut album was released.

The excesses of too much success, too soon splintered Santana’s band (he’d continue to log a titanic number of ex-personnel in decades to come), prompting a serious turn to the spirituality that had already been reflected in “Cosmic Carlos’” music. In 1999 he cemented his elder statesman status for new generations with an unanticipated massive hit: Supernatural, an album of starry collaborations (finagled by Arista Records mastermind Clive Davis) that won nine Grammys, including Album of the Year.

A still-youthful Santana is the narrator here, with occasional input from siblings and others. But his recollections constitute a familiar highlight reel that sometimes seems less like accurate memory than revisionism born of retrospective wisdom. Admiring “force of nature” musicians like Hendrix, he seems to be describing his own approach when describing their art as “a transformation in the molecular structure through sound and vibration.” Such analysis is rare, though, and no voices here are permitted to discuss a half-century-plus of Santana music in terms of evolution or influence. The typically brief sonic excerpts make that vast body of work seem like one long guitar solo. (Which is, admittedly, sort of true.)

Ergo, Carlos is the kind of career-overview valentine that will function best for knowledgeable fans, rather than as a good introduction for neophytes. Still, its wealth of archival footage and brisk pace are unlikely to bore anyone. The documentary plays various Bay Area venues (including the AMC Metreon, Roxie, and Century 20 Daly City) on Sat/23, Sun/24 and Wed/27 before opening select regular runs on Fri/29. A complete list of locations and showtimes is available here.

Travel is a pleasure and a curse in various notable screenings this week. Presumably landing more on the positive side of that scale is Other Cinema’s “Personal Road Movies” program at ATA Gallery this Sat/23 (more info here). It will celebrate the release of Kornelia Boczkowska’s book Lost Highways, Embodied Travels: The Road Movie in American Experimental Film and Video in the first of two consecutive “psycho-geo” surveys. Curated by the author herself, this evening will include relevant works by Bill Morrison, Sky Hopinka, Jessica Bardsley, Ken Kopland, Peter Rose, and others.

The road is fraught with peril elsewhere, such as in Hitchcock’s classic 1959 thriller North by Northwest. It has hapless Cary Grant, as a Madison Ave. type mistaken for an elite government agent, “touring” America by such unusual means as being chased through a midwestern cornfield by a malevolent crop-dusting plane, and hanging from the granite faces of Mount Rushmore. It was a precursor for the kind of jet-setting, debonair intrigue that would become ubiquitous after the screen arrival of 007 three years later. (Perhaps Hitch was exhausted by the logistics required, since his next feature would be the contrastingly B&W, small-scale, low-budget yet even more influential Psycho.) Movies for Maniacs is presenting this splashy adventure in a 35mm print from MGM at the Roxie this Sat/23 and Sun/24 (more info here).

Even more injurious to your health are the aggro autos in a gas-guzzling double bill at the Balboa this Wed/20 (more info here). Presented by The Super Shangri-La Show, this “Night of Demonic Wheels” offers vehicular homicide of a supernatural nature several years before Stephen King published Christine. 1977’s The Car is a southwestern chiller with James Brolin and others menaced by a mysterious, apparently driverless (how prescient!) black Lincoln Continental that kills and kills again, just cuz. This Universal release got universally panned at the time. But I liked it then, and it’s slowly acquired a cult fanbase since.

Unseen by this genre junkie is 1980’s The Hearse, in which Trish Van Devere is a San Francisco schoolteacher who moves north after some personal setbacks, only to discover the late aunt whose small-town home she’s inherited was a Satanist. As if that weren’t bad news enough, the titular “phantom on wheels”—another ominous black car, this one a ’51 Packward Funeral Coach—begins stalking her, complete with a creepy chauffeur straight outta Burnt Offerings.

Travel to Cambodia has always been on my personal bucket list, given the fabled beauty of its landscapes and temples. But while the West was enjoying such escapist sillinesses as The Car, that nation was undergoing one of the 20th century’s most hideous scourges, a scarring span still within the living memory of many. (Of course, their number does not include the estimated two million killed during that period.) Unsurprisingly, the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign shadows much of the BAMPFA series Cambodian Cinema: Rising from the Ashes, even though it celebrates recent activity. Programmed in collaboration with UC Berkeley’s South and Southeast Asian Studies Department and the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, this short series looks forward, yet inevitably that view also includes a haunted past.

It opens Sun/24 with Kavich Neang’s 2021 White Building, an impressionistic drama about gentrification in today’s Phnom Penh that we covered last week as a new US streaming release. (It also plays on Sat/30.) On Fri/6, the program “Cambodia: Developing the Next Generation” provides screening and live discussion of eight shorts by emerging directors over the last decade or so.

But other titles here provide lamentations over a bitter, none-too-distant history. Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy is an hour-long 1996 French television documentary by Rithy Panh, probably his homeland’s most famous director. He’s best known for 2013’s The Missing Picture (not in the BAMPFA series), a very personal chronicle of what happened to his own family during the genocidal Pol Pot era, as re-created through the unusual—yet highly effective—medium of stop-motion clay animation. It won an Oscar nomination, as well as many international prizes.

This earlier work commemorates a married couple who are among the better-known casualties of that period: Hout Bophana, who survived the first wave of civil war violence to work for a humanitarian agency, and Ly Sitha, a Buddhist monk who’d joined the Khymer Rouge to fight the prior regime’s corruption. Nonetheless both ended up arrested, tortured and murdered by the same forces whose alleged political ideals they’d demonstrated some sympathy with.

The very idea of “Cambodian cinema” is poignant, because quite possibly no other industry of that ilk ever suffered such a concerted effort to wipe it from existence. In the fifteen years before Pot came to power in 1975, over 400 films were produced locally, running a wide gamut from costume melodramas to musicals to supernatural thrillers. But that briefly flourishing creative community and its output was almost completely eradicated in the “cleansing” fanaticism of the Khymer Rouge: Most of its participants executed as decadents and subversives, the fruit of their labors systematically destroyed.

Only a fraction of those movies remain, albeit in poor-quality VHS dupes and such that escaped annihilation. Davy Chou’s 2011 Golden Slumbers provides a memento of their lost screen renaissance, mostly by interviewing those lucky (but still pained) survivors whose once-popular works now only exist in recollection. It’s the documentary equivalent of a ghost town: A bittersweet monument to something once vividly alive, now dead and gone. For full program and schedule information on the BAMPFA series (which runs through Oct. 6), go here.

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