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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Rare queer films, from the dawn of...

Screen Grabs: Rare queer films, from the dawn of Gay Lib to the onset of AIDS

Plus: 'Taste of Things,' 'Totem,' 'Perfect Days,' and a mad dash through 10,000 years of history from a sex worker’s perspective

Valentine’s Day may have just passed, but if you still have sex on the brain, a couple special film programs this weekend will help scratch that itch. On Fri/16, SF Cinematheque and CounterPulse co-present (at the latter’s Turk St. venue) “Queering the Wreckage,” a collection of works by and about the NYC period of steep economic decline that nonetheless helped enable a renaissance of outsider and LGBTQ art between the dawn of Gay Lib and the onset of the AIDS epidemic.

The centerpiece is Marion Scemama’s “lost” 1983 film (it was only completed for exhibition last year) Relax Be Cruel, a 40-minute loose narrative primarily showcasing the transformation of Pier 34, whose derelict buildings became a notorious cruising ground, then a vast installation gallery space orchestrated by David Wojnarowicz and others just before the city bulldozers arrived. The evening will also include Ken Jacobs’ 1961 The Whirled (featuring Flaming Creatures’ Jack Smith), James Krell’s 1975 Wolverine Kills T.V., Wojnarowicz’s own 1982 Heroin (with music by his band 3 Teens Kill 4), and Mike Hoolboom’s 2021 The Guy on the Bed, a glimpse of edgy Manhattan life decades prior.

The next evening, Sat/17, Other Cinema at ATA Gallery offers decriminalization activist Kaytlin Bailey’s multimedia performance Whore’s Eye View, a quippy “mad dash through 10,000 years of history from a sex worker’s perspective.” She will be joined afterward by ecosexual duo Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens for a Q&A session. This benefit show is purportedly already sold out, but hope springs eternal for those who show up patient and early.

Opening regular theatrical runs this Friday are three acclaimed imports that each made it to the shortlist of fifteen candidates for the Best International Feature Oscar—though only one graduated to the final nominated five. All are worth seeing.

The Taste of Things

Most apt for belated Valentine’s Day viewing is this period piece, whose 145 minutes are the screen equivalent of that ultimate old-school date experience, the long leisurely dinner at a French restaurant. Indeed, the entire first half hour here is devoted to the preparation and consumption of one meal—a stupendous meal, not so much in terms of fussy presentation but sheer gastronomical allure.

It is a labor of love for Eugenie (Juliette Binoche), who rules the kitchen of country gentleman Dodin Bouffant (Benoit Magimel), even though he is known as “the Napoleon of the culinary arts.” An esteemed gourmand and chef in his own right, he bows to her unerring instincts, just as he also defers to her judgment in their more secretive association as sometime lovers. Lest you think “master” is exploiting “servant,” in fact Dodin has proposed marriage many times—but Eugenie prefers the independence that being an employee rather than spouse affords her.

There isn’t much plot to speak of here, more a series of incidents involving Dodin’s genial rivalries with fellow gourmands—their attempts at one-upmanship producing ever-more lavish repasts—Eugenie’s worrying bouts of a mystery illness, and their adoption of a very determined, precocious little girl (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire) as apprentice. In other hands, Taste might just be pretty foodie porn, with its handsome late-19th-century trappings and salivation-inducing spreads equally pleasant to look at. But Vietnamese director Ahn Hung Tran (who made a splash with The Scent of Green Papaya three decades ago) knows how to lend surface sensual pleasures a depth that extends from characters who don’t need to speak much—they express themselves in other ways, such as via food. It’s hard to think of a movie more occupied by people eating, let alone one in which that activity feels suffused with such meaning.

With Binoche given a perfect showcase for the kind of quiet radiance that is her speciality, and Magimel just as persuasive in his own brand of emotional restraint, this is a grownup romance whose power sneaks up on you. The characters are so resistant to sentimental display, we’re taken aback when it turns out they’ve laid full claim to our own sympathies. Already playing Alamo Drafthouse, The Taste of Things expands Fri/14 to SF’s Opera Plaza, the Elmwood in Berkeley, Mill Valley’s Sequoia, and other greater Bay Area theaters.

Totem 

The various social and culinary gatherings in Taste are mostly attended by people who have all the time in the world to savor what llfe has to offer. This latest by Mexican writer-director Lila Aviles confines itself to one very different kind of occasion, whose celebratory air thinly masks anticipatory grief. Our primary viewpoint here is that of 7-year-old Sol (Naima Senties), who is being brought by her mother Nuria (Montserrat Maranon) to her grandmother’s house for the birthday party of her father Tona (Mateo Garcia). All this is at once exciting and bewildering to Sol. She doesn’t fully understand why she hasn’t seen dad of late—let alone why, upon arrival, he seems reluctant to see her, or anyone else for that matter.

When we do see him, the reasons are clear enough: This thirtysomething artist is terminally ill, from a cancer he is refusing further chemotherapy treatment for. Any interaction is painful for him, both emotionally and physically. Nonetheless, rousted for what’s obviously meant to be a farewell party, he briefly summons his old esprit to greet family and friends one last time.

Just as Aviles revealed much indirectly in the straightforward hotel-as-workplace observation of her prior feature, 2018’s The Chambermaid, so here she deepens our grasp on a tragic situation by filtering it through the character least equipped to comprehend. Sol has been sheltered from the truth by older relatives. Those peers present are oblivious brats, while the various adults who’ve come to pay homage are by turns hysterical, superstitious, flamboyant and otherwise baffling to a child.

All taking place in one day, Totem is a touching little sketch of a film, its seemingly random progress actually a mosaic that finally adds up to something near a complete picture—though still we wonder how long it will take Sol to piece it together. It opens at the Roxie this Fri/16.

Perfect Days

Though he has remained relevant in his increasing focus on documentaries (most recently Anselm), it is not easy to remember the last time Wim Wenders made a narrative feature anyone wanted to see, or even could see. The deserved popular phenomenon of 1987’s Wings of Desire seemed to untether an already perilously vague storytelling sensibility, resulting in projects that grew more and more self-indulgent, till they seemed made solely for the filmmaker and his (often starry) friends. Thus there may be a little overcompensation in the praise for Days—his best fiction in many years, though still as slight as it is charming.

A pleasantly dutiful loner so close-mouthed that for a while we assume he’s mute, sixtyish Hirayama makes his living cleaning public bathrooms, with the unreliable sometime assistance of a flaky younger coworker (Tokio Emoto). This off-putting labor suits him just fine, as he seems inclined to keep other people at a polite distance. His real companion is hipster cultural Americana, as he is frequently seen reading Faulkner and such, listening to vintage R&B or rock ’n’ roll. Tooling around Tokyo in his van, he recalls the terminally cool heroes of this director’s 1976 road-movie masterpiece Kings of the Road.

Eventually a niece (Arisa Nakano) shows up out of the blue, causing our protagonist to open up a bit, but also raising the specter of unpleasant past family ties. This amiable seriocomedy, which gains little from brief abstract B&W sequences scattered throughout, has a Chaplinesque appeal. But it’s awfully slender (particularly at 123 minutes), suggesting that its Oscar nomination—scoring above not just the aforementioned films, but The Teacher’s LoungeThe Monk and the GunThe Promised Land, and other substantial efforts—is more a gesture of respect to a veteran talent than anything else. Perfect Days opens Fri/16 at SF’s Kabuki, then Fri/23 at the Rafael Film Center.

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