SF Indiefest (Wed/29-February 13) may not look backward a great deal, but when it does, it has to be the right fit for a festival that has never hewed to conventional criteria about what makes a movie a movie “art,” a “classic,” or anything else that smacks of cinematheque-style thinking. Thus it’s perfect that its sole tribute this year goes to Julien Temple, a filmmaker seemingly made for Indiefest—even if his history does predate its own by quite a stretch.
The London native started out as an early documenter of the Sex Pistols; played a key role in the development of music videos; made a couple relatively mainstream if highly idiosyncratic musical-comedy features (Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy) that were poorly received at first but became instant cult favorites; and has spent recent decades primarily as a prolific and inventive maker of rock documentaries.
Recipient of the Philo T. Farnsworth Award for Innovative Filmmaking this year, Temple will appear at Indiefest’s second weekend in tandem with two features from his now 40+ years behind the camera. On Fri/7 he’ll introduce 1980’s The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, the Sex Pistols post mortem mockumentary whose half-truths and outright fibs he rebutted two decades later with straight-up documentary The Filth and the Fury.
The next night, he’ll offer his latest documentary Ibiza: The Silent Movie. It’s not the EDM-only showcase you might expect (despite having Fatboy Slim as music director), but rather a cheeky history of “the party capital of the world” from that island’s geological formation through Phoenicians, Dadaists, fascists, hippies, mafiosi, ravers, New Agers and oligarchs. This paradise has been lost innumerable times already (even in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin pronounced it “ruined by tourism”), yet the money just keeps rolling in. Temple offers eye candy aplenty by weaving together animation, old movie clips, staged sequences and much more into a caustically effervescent whole.
The opening night of SF Indiefest’s 22nd edition on Wed/29 at the Victoria provides another flashback of sorts, in the form of Todd Thompson’s Woman in Motion—a documentary portrait of Nichelle Nichols. Of course she’s best known as Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek, but Nichols has also been a singer, dancer, Civil Rights activist and NASA spokesperson, among many hats worn in a long, still-active career. Both director and subject will be present at the event.
But mostly, as ever, SF Indiefest is about the present and future of independent filmmaking. Among features of particular local interest are locally-based director and cinematographer (Colma: The Musical) Richard Wong’s Come As You Are, a delightful remake of a 2011 Belgian movie about three disabled men who engineer a road trip to get their virginities professionally disposed of. It’s the opening-night selection at the Roxie, which is the festival’s primary screening venue.
Bay Area talent is also represented by Jonathan Kiefer, whose screenplay for Oliver Krimpas’ U.K.-funded, France-shot Around the Sun mixes elements of Before Sunrise and Certified Copy. In it, a man (Gethin Anthony) and a woman (Cara Theobold) engage in heady discussion and an ever-shifting dynamic while wandering the grounds of a spectacular Normandy chateau.
Kara Herold’s 39 1/2 is an antic mix of animation and live-action as a Mission District filmmaker (author/Porchlight founder Beth Lisick) finds her biological clock ringing a four-alarm fire upon reaching that age. Berkeley documentarian Jason Cohn contributes The First Angry Man, about a fateful California tax initiative that had permanent national consequences, while Mill Valley-based Zio Zeigler and co-director Tania Raymond’s Bad Art is an ensemble comedy about the slippery nature of art (and badness).
As usual, there will be plenty of shorts-only programs, parties, audience-participation screenings (including the annual Big Lebowski and Super Bowl: Men in Tights events), and other special happenings in addition to the nearly 50 features on tap. Here’s a few additional highlights from amongst the latter:
Pariah and Cat Sticks Like the Sundance Film Festival, with which it overlaps this year, SF Indiefest is primarily about American independent filmmaking, but it has room for some international titles. The 2020 program happens to include two remarkable recent Indian films, both strikingly shot in B&W. Especially stunning in visual terms if Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks, a bleak (if often bleakly humorous) series of narrative fragments involving junkies in the slums and outskirts of Calcutta.
More straightforward in its (nonetheless somewhat mysterious) storytelling is another bold directorial debut, Riddhi Majumder’s Pariah. Its hapless protagonist (an unforgettable Guarav Krishnani) is a mute “idiot” clad just in a loincloth, scorned by the residents of a rural village. When he attracts the attention of their pampered, ill-tempered “Lord,” his treatment escalates from shunning to eventually martyrdom-grade abuse.
While challenging, these films both get our highest recommendation. Other nations represented in Indiefest this year include Germany (Effigy: Poison in the City), Brazil (Pacarrete), Japan (Mellow, Vise), Spain (It’s Always Autumn), China (The Wild Goose Lake) and Canada (Entangled, Things I Do For Money).
Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway Miguel Llanso’s film is officially from Estonia, but was also shot in/funded by several other off-the-usual-filmmaking-grid countries (including Ethiopia and Latvia), and in any case might as well be from another planet entirely. Billed quite accurately as “a WTF thriller,” it’s a sort of retro espionage-trash mashup that also manages to throw in elements of vintage kung fu exploitation, lucha libre, Afrofuturist fantasy, and more—all on a delightfully cheesy, obvious budgetary shoestring. Here is a movie that truly defies classification, although not viewer pleasure.
Those looking for other slices of cinematic surrealism at Indiefest might want to take a gander at Gille Klabin’s After Hours-like The Wave, in which Justin Long’s recreational drug trip turns into a hallucinatory time-travel purgatory; Lake Michigan Monster, a B&W fantasy adventure borrowing its aesthetic from Guy Maddin and the Melies; Shoot the Moon Between the Eyes, a slackerish, James Joyce-inspired musical in which characters burst into John Prine songs; and Bob Byington’s latest absurdist comedy Frances Ferguson.
Blood Machines Fall SF Indie offshoot Another Hole in the Head may specialize in horror, sci-fi and other “genre” films, but that doesn’t mean the parent festival doesn’t still claims its share of the same. A particular find this year is this Kickstarter-funded French collaboration between director/VFX designer/animator Seth Ickerman and composer Carpenter Brut that is equal parts Galaxy Quest, Heavy Metal, 80s exploitation-movie homage, video game and category-defying whatsit. When two grizzled male “space hunters” land on a planet defended by warrior women, they find their big-gun machismo ultimately outmatched by the power of psychedelic-erotic femininity. Blood Machines is only 50 minutes long, but believe me, it’s quite enough sensory overload to take in.
Other programs offering outre thrills include Canadian time-travel tale James Vs. His Future Self; 1990s multiplex-set teen horror comedy Porno, in which an old can of 35mm smut unleashes an ancient “sex demon” on the unsuspecting after-hours theater staff; Alex Knappe’s post-apocalyptic world premiere Go/Don’t Go; and Wild Boar, which involves a hidden society of, yes, killer mutant boar-men. If none of this is quite nasty enough for you, hie thee to Teddy Grennan’s Swing Low, an I Spit On Your Grave meets Deliverance exercise whose murder-witnessing wildlife photographer heroine (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) takes a lot of punishment from brutal yokels—but dishes out even more in return.
Non-Fiction Cinema In addition to titles already mentioned above, notable documentaries at Indiefest 22 include ones about taxidermy and the search for Bigfoot (Big Fur); weirdness in the world of film-festival-producing (Narrowsburg); Rio de Janeiro trans sex workers (Queen of Lapa);
skateboarding (both The Tony Alva Story and grrrl-powered Don’t Give a Fox); and competitive pigeon flying in South Central (San Bruno filmmaker Milena Pastreich’s Pigeon Kings).
Alice Indiefest’s closing night selection is a modern Belle du Jour motivated not by curiosity but economic necessity. When the husband (Martin Swabey) of Emilie Piponnier’s titular wife and mother abruptly disappears, having already covertly emptied all their finances, she is bewildered, then panicked, then furious. At immediate risk of losing her (and their toddler child’s) home, she finds herself working for the very escort service where her MIA spouse had squandered much of their money.
Surprisingly funny at times without being unrealistically frivolous about our heroine’s desperate situation, Josephine Mackerras’ French-language feature is one of the better narrative features about sex work in recent years. But it’s also interesting in other ways, not least for the sympathetic portrait of various kinds of male fragility, and for Chloe Boreham’s character as a fellow escort who’s got a great attitude, but also her own set of issues.
SF Indiefest runs Wed/29-Thurs/13 at the Roxie Theater, Victoria Theater and 518 Gallery. Full program and ticket info: www.sfindie.com
No longer jailbait, but surely full of other moral and criminal sandtraps for the unwary protagonist, Noir City(Fri/24-February 2 at the Castro Theatre) hits age 18 with this year’s festival at the Castro Theatre. Themed “It’s a Bitter Little World,” the annual event presented by the SF-based Film Noir Foundation and its author-presenter impresario Eddie Muller is the second to look beyond by now well-worn American terrain in that genre to vintage international cinema similarly focused on high melodrama, dirty deeds and dubious dames.
The 10-day program is a sort of package tour, jumping from one nation to another with each date’s double bill (or in the case of the two Saturdays, quadruple-bills). You’d probably kill yourself doing so in real life, but here in virtual life, you can travel from Argentina to France to South Korea and back to Italy in just four days—with plenty more celluloid tourism yet to come.
The 2020 edition does indeed start this Friday evening with the world premiere of two new FNF-sponsored restorations of classic thrillers from Argentina, neither of which were available for preview: 1952’s vengeance tale The Beast Must Die, and the next year’s The Black Vampire, a reportedly stunning loose remake of Fritz Lang’s M, about the hunt for a pederastic killer.
The four French movies on Sat/25 may be familiar to viewers of the Roxie’s own French noir series in recent years. The earliest is Julien Duvivier’s excellent 1947 Panic, with Michel Simon as a misanthropic neighbor whom everyone suspects of killing a local spinster, simply because they dislike him—though we know he’s not the culprit. This caustic portrait of a viciously gossiping, falsely self-righteous society in full vigilante mode is not the self-image France was looking for just after WW2, as it still wrestled with the aftereffects of occupation and collaboration. But even easier to appreciate now than it was angrily rejected then.
The other French titles include two vehicles for the aging Jean Gabin (1955’s Razzia and 1963’s brassy Any Number Can Win, costarring Alain Delon), plus Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1962 Finger Man aka Le Doulos. The latter is a tricky series of underworld double-crosses that has been cited as a personal favorite by both Scorcese and Tarantino. Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, its rueful cool is personified by one character griping “That cost me an almost-new raincoat!” after being inconvenienced by having to push a woman in a car over a cliff to her death. Yet gallantry is re-attained with perhaps the most courteous closing death scene in cinematic history.
The South Korean pair on Sun/26 are both contrastingly focused on female characters: Ki-young Kim’s famous 1960 The Housemaid (which was effectively if very liberally remade a decade ago) is a domestic hellscape of infidelity, blackmail and madness, while 1964’s Black Hair drags similar elements into the ill-starred life of a gangster’s wife.
Monday’s Italian bill provides lesser-seen works by two great directors. MIchelangelo Antonioni was still a decade away from the international breakthrough of L’avventura when he made his feature directorial debut with 1950’s Story of a Love Affair. While his distinctive style may not yet have matured, his familiar themes are already present in this story of two former lovers, reunited in fear over a long-buried scandal, who cannot seem to find happiness either together or apart. Pietro Germi was just on the brink of making the social satires that would prove his own breakthrough (Divorce Italian Style, Seduced and Abandoned, etc.) when he made 1959’s The Facts of Murder, in which he himself starred alongside young Claudia Cardinale as a police detective investigating murkily linked crimes in an apartment building.
Tuesday brings two films from the 60s Czech New Wave, Zbynek Brynych’s classic Holocaust-themed drama …And the Fifth Horseman Is Fear and (also from 1965) Jiri Weiss’ more obscure British co-production 90 Degrees in the Shade, a Prague-set, English-language mix of romance and crime. England itself provides Wednesday’s duo of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang director Ken Hughes’ 1957 The Long Haul, with Yank hunk Victor Mature as an ex-U.S. Army trucker imperiled by (among other things) Brit blonde bombshell Diana Dors; and subsequent The Towering Inferno director John Guillerman’s 1960 Never Let Go, in which a desperate working-class man (Richard Todd) tangles with the syndicate that stole his uninsured car.
Unusually sordid and rough for its era, the latter is notable for having as its principal villain none other than Peter Sellers, in a rare non-comedic role. His sadistic garage owner, who runs an illegal chop-shop operation and keeps a terrified teenage mistress, is actually quite convincingly psychotic.
Humanity looks even darker through the lens of Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 Pale Flower, in which a newly prison-sprung yakuza enforcer (Ryo Ikebe) quickly gets into fresh hot water, including with a gambling-addicted socialite thrill-seeker (Mariko Kaga). Though often strikingly stylized, it’s not primarily action-oriented but more a study in noirish character and atmospherics. Its co-feature on Thursday is another yakuza drama, Toshiro Masuda’s 1958 Rusty Knife.
Noir City’s second weekend bounces between either side of the Atlantic. Fri/31’s West German duo consists of The Devil Strikes at Night, a 1957 serial-killer thriller from Robert Siodmak, who’d just returned from a successful long stint in Hollywood (where he directed many prime noirs); and Helmut Kautner’s 1961 Black Gravel, a look at German life in the Allied-occupied years immediately after WW2 that is said to be arrestingly bleak and cynical.
By contrast, the four Mexican films showing Sat/1 are florid expressions of the hothouse melodrama that flourished in that nation’s film industry during roughly the same period as Hollywood’s original noirera. Julio Bracho’s 1943 Another Dawn and 1945 Twilight are soapy, stylish tales of amour fou. The 1952 Night Falls charts the well-deserved fall of an infamous cad (Pedro Armendariz). Emilio Fernandez’s 1949 Salon Mexico hits an apex of combined suffering “women’s picture” and sordid suspense with Marga Lopez as a “cabaret dancer” who sacrifices her virtue and risks her life for the betterment of a younger sister who has no idea she’s a “fallen woman.”
Finally, Noir City closes with two nationalities in one day, as if you weren’t jet-lagged enough already. They’re a very contrast-y duo. The 1938 A Woman’s Face was native Swede Ingrid Bergman’s next-to-last film there before she made her English language debut with the remake of “Intermezzo,” whose original Gustaf Molander also directed (along with most of her early Swedish vehicles). Based on a play that generated at least four films in four different countries, including a 1941 Joan Crawford film of the same name, it has the 23-year-old star as the vicious leader of a blackmailing ring, her embittered personality determined by a childhood fire that left her facially disfigured. When a surgeon gives her a miraculous fresh start, she finds a new look doesn’t automatically cut ties to the criminal past she’d now like to forget. The plot may be claptrap, but there’s no question why Bergman was already a star at home, and would shortly be one around the world.
The other closing-day film is Polish titan Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 Ashes and Diamonds, which was a big success both for him and his regrettably short-lived star Zbigniew Cybulski. The latter’s charismatically conflicted hero, a Resistance fighter ordered to kill a comrade at the end of WW2, had a cultural impact akin to that of James Dean in much of the Eastern Bloc and beyond. Though few subsequent films captured his lightning in a bottle quite so successfully, Cybulski remains perhaps the most beloved Polish screen actor of all time. No doubt that’s partly due to the high drama of his premature demise: In 1967 he leapt with apparently-typical recklessness onto an already-moving train in a rail station, slipped, and was crushed by the wheels he fell under. It was an exit worthy of Anna Karenina…or a film noir antihero, for that matter.
Noir City: International II, the 18th Annual SF Film Noir Festival runs Fri/24-February 2 at the Castro Theatre. Full program and ticket info: http://www.noircity.com
1. One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada/Inuk)
The secret gem of 2019 is a truly transcendental-styled film (following Paul Schrader’s 1972 thesis to a capitol T). Canadian Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk broke onto the scene in 2001 with his earth shattering first feature film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which is not only the first feature film made entirely in Inuktitut (and made by an Inuk), but was also named as the greatest Canadian film of all time by the 2015 TiFF poll. Great news: Kunuk is back (along with his Igloolik Isuma Production team) and I will genuinely say that One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is monumental.
It’s based on a true 1961 story of an Inuk hunter who was confronted by the Canadian government and “encouraged” to give up the traditional Inuit lifestyle and assimilate into a conventionally modern settlement. Cinematographer Norman Cohn (the only non-indigenous team member) helps slow this “day in the life” with such patient pacing that a humble alchemy is achieved similar to the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Chantal Akerman. While available now on IsumaTV in Canada and on iTunes in the States, I am making a desperate plea to Bay Area film programmers to bring this mini-masterpiece to the big screen.
+ Song X (Pathompon Mont Tesperateep, Thailand) This intimate 20-minute journey exploring “life after death” is a visual poem attempting to “deliver out a message” to the filmmaker’s deceased friend (and band member.) Shooting with deteriorated B&W 16mm and Super 8 film stock, this memorial ritual for the dead feels fully realized in a way that is reminiscent of the haunting visions of Lucrecia Martel and Lav Diaz. As Tesperateep’s camera (shot in Academy ratio 1.33:1) follow these meandering teenagers by quietly floating through forests and combining a stunning sound design (including an unreleased song by the filmmaker’s band The Last Village), I have not stopped thinking about this movie since its US premiere at this year’s SF Cinematheque’s CROSSROADS experimental film festival.
2. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, Australia/Canada/USA)
Following her horror masterpiece debut The Babadook (2014), Jennifer Kent has constructed one of the most confrontational films of 2019. Set in the 1820s in the region of Australia now known as Tasmania, this relentlessly violent Western follows Clare (wildly performed by Aisling Franciosi) as she vengefully tracks down the men who obliterated her family. Kent’s powerful choice to emphasize the outrageously atrocious acts committed by the British colonists (towards women, children and Aboriginal Tasmanians) will undoubtedly jolt audiences beyond belief. Yet, I would argue that Kent’s intentional exacerbation when attempting to disentangle an unabashed or ubiquitous history is quite imperative. Adamant filmmakers making unwavering films are often tough for audiences to swallow at first — see Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) + Abel Ferarra’s Ms. 45 (1981) — but these are the movies that years from now will resonate the strongest. Important to mention Baykali Ganambarr’s stunning performance as Billy, the Aboriginal tracker who brings love and levity to what may feel like a tale of incessant inhumanity, won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Talent at this past year’s Venice Film Festival.
+ Joker (Todd Philips, USA)
Without a doubt, Joker is the biggest surprise of 2019. Showcasing yet another outrageously unique performance by one of our era’s greatest actors, Joaquin Phoenix, director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) has crafted a darker-than-dark anti-hero that is more relatable than many would want to admit. With obvious and direct nods to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) as well as Lynne Ramsay’s stunningly overlooked You Were Never Really Here (2017), the film’s deeper influences still have me hypnotized, months after experiencing (and re-experiencing) it. In the post Q&A after its North American Premiere in Toronto, Philips spoke of how “capturing New York in the late 1970s/’80s was a major characteristic of the film’s experience.” He most excitingly referenced Chantal Akerman’s poetic documentary News From Home (1977) as a major reference he had the cast and crew study. Akerman’s 90-minute autobiographical essay film is a series of static shots on 1970s New York street corners combined with the narration of her lonely mother’s letters wishing she would come back home. I would argue that Philips isn’t just creating pivotal costumes (Mark Bridges) and set/production design (Mark Friedberg) from Akerman’s film, but incorporating the maudlin yet empowering melancholy of her films as well.
Trading-in the obvious CGI of usual super hero films for improvised magical moments (the now infamous Bathroom Scene) is something audiences and critics seem to be taking for granted. Unreliable narration permeates throughout, creating multiple interpretations towards Arthur Fleck’s meticulous economic and racially divided descent. As in, anytime Arthur Fleck is watching television, I’m not sure if the sequence that follows is actually happening anywhere other than inside this fractured fool’s psyche. The film has many other Kubrick-esque discrepancies: How many bullets does he shoot in the subway? Why does his movie usher costume disappear from the sink when confronting Thomas Wayne in the bathroom? Hell, is Arthur Fleck actually committing any crimes? I would argue that this is revolutionary mainstream cinema not just for its inspired (borderline irresponsible) philosophy of attempting to understand a society made sociopath, i.e. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and the Coen Bothers’ No Country For Old Men (2007); it’s also “a call to arms” to tear down a broken modern society, which literally culminates in a full blown riot, i.e. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995). Quite simply, Joker is one of the most exciting Hollywood films of the decade and like other crossover movies, has the power to inspire a younger generation in seeking out even more potent and radical cinema.
3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, USA)
A genuine masterpiece that both celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the 1960s as well as this current decade of the 2010s. But most surprisingly, this extensively nostalgic, allegorical fairy tale finds its writer/director baring his most personal and heavyhearted feelings of his career. Let’s start with the memorable friendship between an aging stuntman who never “made it”, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and a mediocre, bi-polar, TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Their subtly sweet, masculine moments of crying in public parking garages, watching Action films together at home with a pizza, privately eating mac and cheese late at night (straight out the pan) or yelling at yourself in the mirror for drinking eight whiskey sours (the evening before) is elegantly summed up by Kurt Russell’s narrating Randy character with the line “When you come to the end of the line with a buddy who is more than a brother, and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.” The princess of this mythological memoir: Sharon Tate, is encapsulated in what I feel is one of the most romantically mesmerizing sequences of watching cinema… in all of cinema. Capturing Margot Robbie who is playing Sharon Tate on a movie screen, as she watches the real Sharon Tate on a movie screen, while we, the audience, are watching Sharon Tate (being played by Margot Robbie watching Sharon Tate) on a movie screen is quite simply, the magic of movies.
But what really brings me back; again and again (and again) to this 161-minute magnum opus are the endless amounts of unreliable narration resulting in multiple interpretations. The results are often a shockingly amount of sincere and even profound points, proving that Tarantino’s esoteric Hollywood homages are more than just well researched. Just after Brad Pitt’s character Cliff traverses up a house and takes off his shirt (simultaneously taking away the breath of every single audience I saw the film with), one of the most debated sequences of the film occurs when Cliff reminisces fighting Bruce Lee. What I find most poignant about the controversial fisticuff is that if this aging stuntman is supposedly having flashback to a Green Hornet‘s episode (cancelled in 1967), where do all the crew members disappear to and why is there a billboard for Richard Fleischer & Kinji Fukasaku’s Tora, Tora, Tora (released in Sept of 1970) in the background? These anachronisms or sleight-of-hand tricks have a purpose. Cliff is consistently imagining himself winning matches throughout the film, especially while being intoxicated, to perhaps overcompensate for his feelings of inadequacy and obsolescence to the industry/era? In fact, the motif of “obselidia” is infused in almost every part of the Tarantino’s production. And just as the end of the 1960s leaves the film’s characters in a phantasmagorical state of uncertainty, I have found my own cinematic solace here, as we transition into an unforeseeable decade.
+ Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,Pedro Almodovar’s career culminating classic is so personal about the importance of cinema, that one watching the film is forced to confront moments of their life that perhaps they had hoped they could just pack away in the basement. Connecting to two of Almodovar’s earliest films Labyrinth of Passion (1982) and Law of Gravity (1987), Antonio Banderas is back to give one of the greatest performances of his unbelievable career. Familial favorites Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz help flesh out a wistful-journey that combines the greatest films by Federico Fellini and Theo Angelopoulos and yet somehow this feels like the kind of movie no one else alive could achieve. At the Toronto International Film Festival premiere, Almodovar said, “This may not be the movie you deserve, but it’s the one we made.” This one is for the ages.
4. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)
Winner of the Golden Leopard (Best Film) and Best Actress at this year’s 71st Locarno Film Festival, Pedro Costa’s stunningly formalist approach to documenting real people, framed gorgeously within a purposefully contrived Hollywood mise en scène, had me glued to the screen for all 124 soothing minutes. In fact, this is the most rewarding Pedro Costa experience I have had, evoking a strong desire to go back and re-visit his intimidating career. Director of Photography Leonardo Samos helps transfix the audience on its real life subject Vitalina Varela, an actor from his previous film Horse Money (2014). Reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s journey through his Koker Trilogy, Costa too, seems to be digging into his country’s historical and political struggles utilizing neorealist tactics such as real locations and casting non-actors. I could have watched 2 more hours of this meaningful, eloquent and ultimately devastating portrait.
+ Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov, Republic of Macedonia)
Quite easily my favorite documentary of 2019, it delicately follows a middle-aged woman (named Hatidze) who lives in a deserted Macedonian village and taking care of her aging mother while making honey from cliff dwelling beehives. This immersive vérité undertaking has as many layers to it as the beehives that she cultivates, while the peaceful story doesn’t just slow your blood flow down; it seeps into your entire bloodstream. No narration, no talking heads, no explanations, Honeyland is a sensitively structured allegory within a hidden neo-realistic experience. This is the kind of cinema cinephiles wait years for, patiently. An absolute must see on a big screen.
5. A Rainy Day in New York (Woody Allen, USA)
Being Woody Allen’s first film to not be released theatrically (or otherwise) in the United States in 50+ years, one may need to find creative ways to track down yet another irresistibly romantic romp through the streets of New York’s Upper East Side. Elle Fanning steals the show with an unstoppably hilarious performance as a young journalist who entrances three floundering filmmakers played perfectly by Liev Schreiber, Jude Law, and Diego Luna, all played with beguiling charm. While Timothée Chalamet (whose name Gatsby Welles speaks nicely to the film’s influences) and Selena Gomez achieve genuine romantic sparks in this Vittorio Storaro photographed escapade. But the real surprises of this overlooked gem is Cherry Jones (Emmy Award winner of The Handmaid’s Tale) whose performance as Gatsby’s misunderstood mother could have garnered an Oscar nod had the film been released theatrically, and Conal Fowkes’ score is easily one of the most enjoyable soundtracks of the year!While the film has the occasional clunky camera set-up (seemingly due to Woody wanting to finish early to watch the Knicks game as opposed to shooting another take) these later-era entries are some of the best work of his career (Cafe Society, Irrational Man, Blue Jasmine, Midnight in Paris) and are long over-due for cinematic discussions.
+ The Last Blackman in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, USA)
While you’ve perhaps read more reviews and think-pieces about this Bay Area sensation (even deciding how you feel about the film before having even watched it), Joe Talbot & Jimmie Fails loving tribute to San Francisco is well worth all the hullabaloo. This spirited, highly stylized, if not lovingly messy quest, exploring the rapid transformation of our unique communities, was in fact, surprisingly, quite heartwrenching. Many of the most powerful scenes in the 120-minute film come from newcomer Jonathan Majors (who is an absolute revelation on every acting level) and Jimmie Fails (who literally plays himself) as they talk sensitively and sincerely to one another. With the Bay Area being the living metaphor for “gentrification in America”, Talbot seems to be attempting a near impossible task of speaking up (and to) all people gentrification is harming. No matter how passionate your feelings are towards this modern day American “land grab”, make sure to actually watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco and then after, we can have a vigorous discussion as to how to push things even further.
6. The Mountain (Rick Alverson, USA)
Rick Alverson’s fifth feature (The Comedy, Entertainment) was so purposefully perplexing, I had to watch it four times this year. Showcasing absolutely hypnotic performances by Jeff Goldblum, Tye Sheridan, and Denis Lavant, The Mountain does more than just polarize its audiences with its disturbing content; the movie bravely creates space for a transcendental discomfort. The careful procedure of unraveling endless unpleasantness (based roughly on Walter Freeman, the man who invented the lobotomy) was explained by the director to be a “counterweight” to the typical narrative that often follows characters who have “unlimited potential and boundless opportunities.” In fact, this “very beige,” deeply melancholy pilgrimage is consciously framed through an Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1) perhaps reinforcing a stifled, suffocating 1950s America. Fans of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018) and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), take note.
+ Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, USA)
For 25 years, Noah Baumbach has been making movies on par with the era’s best American filmmakers but some reason he’s been hovering just left of center. His latest, Marriage Story pits “twogether” Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in two of the most jaw dropping performances of the year. Baumbach’s movies have always been laced with an understanding of film history, but this 130-minute masterpiece may finally be the one that conjures up some major recognition. Channeling the romantic humor of Stanley Donen’s Two For the Road (1967), the structural horror of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973), the guttural sadness of Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and the autobiographical immediacy of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992). Based partially on Baumbach’s own experience of divorce (with Jennifer Jason Leigh), he had no clue that Johansson was going through her own divorce when he cast her. Needless to say, both leading actors give the kind of performances that can define a generation, not to mention the Best Supporting Cast of the year: Alan Alda, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta.
As I have grown up and older, Baumbach’s films have mirrored life in a certain sense. Every audience member has particular artists that they perhaps turn to, seeing somewhat of their own life reflected; Baumbach has been that for me. I’ve often pondered why his seemingly unsympathetic characters seem to rub folks a bit too abrasively. For me, it is exactly these kind of flawed features that make his stories so powerful, so personal. In fact, much like the characters within his movies, one doesn’t always want to admit to one’s self his heightened kind of honesty. Baumbach’s steady and sincere cinema has finally reached a peaking point with Marriage Story. And once you have been obliterated by this greatest work, you have an unbelievably poignant career to work your way back through.
7. Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie, USA)
The Safdie Brothers’ remarkable follow-up to their previous manic adventure Good Time (2017), positions Adam Sandler not only within what could be referred to as an “anxiety-core” genre, but as a front runner for some major acting awards this year. As a fan of Adam Sandler’s early screwball comedies, I have been patiently waiting for contemporary filmmakers to utilize him in a more unique manner, or rather how Paul Thomas Anderson did things in Punch Drunk Love (2002). Noah Baumbach wrote a wonderful character for him in 2017 with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and now Josh and Bennie Safdie (along with their acting/writing partner Ronald Bronstein) have done “The Sandman” right again. In fact these maniacs have known how to keep their audiences engaged for over a decade now with their persistently perilous philosophy, paving their own particular preferences into their purposefully more popular productions.
Playing out like an unofficial remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), complete with Adam Sandler giving his best Harvey Keitel “hands and knees” performance, this deep dive into New York’s Jewish community, has extraordinary tempo and pacing, perhaps similar to what Sean Baker achieved in Los Angeles with Tangerine (2015). Meta-portrayals by New York City influencer Julia Fox (who is an absolute revelation in the film) as well as musician The Weeknd and retired Minnesota Timberwolves center Kevin Garnett, combined with an exemplary soundtrack by musician Oneohtrix Point Never who is back again this time credited as himself Daniel Lopatin, help create an intensity that never lets you go until the last credit of this 130 minute extravaganza scrolls off screen.
+ Jallikattu (Lijo Jose Pellissery, India)
Within the first 30 seconds of this mesmerizing, unstoppable, tour de force, I knew it would be my favorite film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. In fact, I loved it so much I watched it twice! Malayalam cinema (aka “Mollywood”) is the fourth biggest film industry in India and is based in the southern state of Kerala. It is supposedly known for remarkable cinematography and realistic story-driven plots. This being my first “Mollywood” experience, I was struck with the film’s hyper-kinetic camerawork and editing tempo. Following a runaway water buffalo as it literally (as well as metaphorically) upends society is the wildest cinematic ride you will take this year! Laced with an absolutely pulsating soundtrack by Prashant Pillai, a second viewing is recommended for anyone who wants to unwrap the jam-packed social and political undercurrents lingering around every corner and yet unnecessary if one wants to just get caught in the primal madness of it all. Comparable to pulse pounding flicks like James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and John McTiernan’s Predator (1987), this is smart Action cinema at its finest.
8. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, USA)
BEWARE: there will be much ruined in regards to Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his debut feature The VVitch (2015) if you decide to read spoiler reviews. What I would like to safely say is that this mythological, experimental, Horror film was hauntingly shot (and surprisingly nominated for an Oscar) by Jarin Blaschke in 35mm black and white photography combined with a mid-century 1.19:1 aspect ratio. Simply put, this is one of the most interesting looking films of the year. With Willem Dafoe’s Popeye-esque performance as a seafaring madman combined with Robert Pattinson letting all his marbles hang out (see Cosmopolis, The Rover, The Lost City of Z, Good Time and High Life), I could watch these two actors for hours on end, as they clean the lighthouse, chase seagulls, get drunk, give each other a soliloquy, wrestle, make up, dance together and then start it all over again. On the other hand, I’ve met more than a few folks who could barely sit through ten minutes of this.
+ Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (Lukas Feigelfeld, Germany/Austria)
Feeling like an unofficial sequel to Robert Egger’s The VVitch (2015), this absolutely terrifying excursion into a remote mountain village towards the end of the medieval period of the 15th-century, delivers the kind of grotesque, bodily fluid-filled, nightmare-inducing imagery that will stick with you for years to come. Filmed in the Austrian and German Alps, and based on pagan folktales, it follows a neglected goat-herder who finds herself brutally mistreated by superstitious townsfolk and whose religious prosecution horrifically help construct her delusional disorder. Brace yourself for a slow-burning, disturbingly abstract journey. This deserves to be seen on a big screen with the sound design/score by “dark ambient” band MMMD swallowing your soul whole.
9. Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler, USA) S. Craig Zahler’s 159-minute decidedly didactic drama is as harsh and violent as its title insinuates and yet its auteur opts for slow-burning drama instead of high-speed thrills. Writer/director Zahler’s previous genre treats Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)now seem like the perfect primers for this politically charged cop thriller. Directly confronting issues of race and class, both Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn seem to trigger many of my peers from even considering watching the film, but I would argue that Zahler knows exactly how to use their polarizing personas perfectly, while also giving them both some of the best characters that they’ve had in years. Meanwhile Tory Kittles (True Detective: Season 1) and Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter) hold their own, stealing the show whenever they grace the screen, while Zahler hired the seminal 1960s soul band The O’Jays to concoct one of the year’s best and catchiest soundtracks.
+ Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood, USA)
Trying to get my peers to watch a Clint Eastwood is nearly impossible and yet Eastwood continues to prove this decade that at the age of almost 90 he knows how to make small, classic Hollywood films (The Mule, The 15:17 to Paris, Sully). Kathy Bates’ heartwarming portrayal as Richard’s mother will linger with me for many years to come while both Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser’s remarkably neo-sincere performances are made to combat the cynically challenged.
10. High Life (Claire Denis, France/Germany/UK/Poland/USA) + Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany)
11. Midsommar: Director’s Cut (Ari Aster, Sweden/Hungary/USA) + Doctor Sleep: Director’s Cut (Mike Flanagan, USA)
12. Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India) + Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, France)
13. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (USA) + Ad Astra (James Gray, USA)
14. Charlie Says (Mary Harron, USA) + Hail Satan? (Penny Lane, USA)
15. Detective Pikachu (Rob Letterman, USA/Japan) + Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too (Anne Sewitsky, USA)
16. Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack. USA) + The Cotton Club Encore (Francis Ford Coppola, USA)
17. Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley, USA) + I Lost My Body (Jérémy Clapin, France)
18. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea) + Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell, USA)
19. Apricity (Nathaniel Dorsky, USA) “The title Apricity refers to the warmth of the sun in winter. It is an homage to the writer Jane (Brakhage) Wodening. In speaking to her I mused, ‘perhaps your age is the winter and you are the warmth of the sun.’” –Nathaniel Dorsky
+ A Leaf is the Sea is the Theater (Jonathan Schwartz, USA) This follow-up to one of favorite films from last year (The Crack Up) is a breathtaking meditation on endings inspired by Emily Dickinson and is especially fragile to experience being the Bay Area premiere and final film by director Jonathan Schwartz who left the physical world this past year.
+ Vever (For Barbara) (Deborah Stratman, USA)
Showcasing 10-minutes of unused 16mm color footage that Barbara Hammer shot on a road trip down in Guatemala in 1975, this gorgeously haunting film feels like a lost ethnographic study by Chick Strand. Add to that the re-contextualization of Teiji Ito’s score for Maya Deren’s seminal experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943/59), and Stratman has beautifully connected a powerful history of experimental female filmmaking.
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series at Bay Area movie theaters. He is also member of the San Francisco Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills (SF Bay Guardian.)
You’ve heard of several kinds of cat And my opinion now is that You should need to interpreter to understand our character You’ve learned enough to take the view That cats are very much like you
Unlike you, my cat does not care about the movie Cats. Likewise, she would not have cared about the rise of the celebrity internet cat in 2013, when I wrote a cover story for the Bay Guardian on the subject. (The article will be remembered by its iconic original artwork, depicting the cats in the poker dog stance by Jen Oaks.) In the interest of stoking her interest in her fellow felines, I tried to get her to look at photos of Lil Bub on my smart phone. She went back to sleep.
In contrast, cat culture weighs on me heavily. For years I have had a plug-in called Make America Kittens Again installed on my laptop. It changes all photos of Donald Trump to photos of smol cats, a far better image to repeat endlessly in one’s subconsciousness. Others have gone further with such attempts at catification, bettering koala bears, chonky seals, and even baguettes with pleasing kitty faces.
Felines both on-screen and -off were balm for our whipsawed 2010s psyches. A cat running across a football field in a crowded stadium elicited endless playback and contented fist pumps. Julian Assange’s cat Michi reminded us of the suffering borne by those close to powerful men. The internet is made of cats, one for every emotion and life situation, their glistening, tear-filled meme eyes a reflection of even our most dolorous moments.
Such is my respect for cats that I took the backlash to director Tom Hooper’s “digital fur technology”-roiled film adaptation of Cats personally. Every snide review, every stupidly dramatic Twitter gasp over the low realism of the movie’s visuals made me all the more loyal to a movie I’d never seen.
This is harsh. But the worst were those who admitted their ignorance of the film’s theatrical source material. You think mediocre productions run for 36 consecutive years in Japan? You think bad songs get covered by Barry Manilow and Barbara Streisand? You thought you could handle drugs and DFT at the same time? Did you even consider that the cat heaven Heaviside layer is an actual place? You thought, you thought.
Granted, in the movie theater I wanted nothing so much as for Cats to be over. There is no dramatic arc to the movie. The protagonist is named Victoria the White Cat, she is played by lovely, wide-eyed, British ballet dancer Francesca Hayward, who is dull as hell. Cats features hundreds of cockroaches who are spurred into a dance routine by Rebel Wilson’s character. Those cockroaches have the face of a single actress, whose name is Abigayle Honeywill.
I realize now that I will see Catsagain and again. It is too wonderfully disrespectful of good cinema, too thrillingly cavalier with the career of Abigayle Honeywell. It was famously finished at the last minute with tons of hilarious tech and consistency errors, leaving many to wonder if Judi Dench’s Deuteronomy had not married another cat. They shipped another copy of the movie to theaters days after it was premiered! A glorious mess. I look forward to its midnight showings at $5 movie houses in 10 years.
Everyone moans and groans about originality and when something truly freakish, some real bizarre CGI cat people come along, they cannot hang. How does Judi Dench feel? Did you know that some think she faked an Achilles tendon injury to excuse herself from playing Grizabella and Jennyadots in the original 1981 West End production, before making her triumphant return as a trans cat?
Now me, I thought the way ears and tails swayed impishly were a real crutch for a cast that seemed terrified to admit to what their agents had signed them onto.
I realize that we do not love cats because they are freakish. We love them because we see ourselves in their glamorous, lovable, minute pursuits. The monstrous 2019 Cats attempts to capitalize on our silliness in this respect and the obsession that drives our constant clicks in search of meow. In so doing, Cats causes us to feel our stupidity far too sharply. If an errant view of Macavity aka Idris Alba’s CGI posterior elicits a shudder, what dignity can be hoped for among the rest of us?
Years ago, I went to a feline-themed sex party. In a room full of moaning human beings in cat drag, I felt lost. At what I had previously felt to be height of my moroseness, a few people started meowing. Like wildfire, it spread quickly to every corner of the mat-covered room. We are not cats, I whispered, frantically putting on my coat, we are not cats.
The Cat Pack has begun to die. This year, the terminus of Lil Bub and Grumpy Cat reminded us that the reason we loved them in the first place had to do with severe physical conditions that made them unlikely to live as long as our wild affection for their tiny furry bodies. The robust, bellicose Colonel Meow preceded them in 2014. His owner ghoulishly continued to run his social media for years in the first person, perhaps unwilling to let us bear the full brunt of Meow’s passing.
As time marches on, we will need to find more cat heroines, if only due to our widely variant life expectancies. Smudge the Cat is our current favorite, snarling over a plate of greens with a face of startling resistance.
Those of us who are honest about our cat fixation, cognizant and appreciative of the profound havoc that feline-carried Toxoplasmosis gondiihas wrecked on our priorities, may live to find bravery in the 2019 Cats. Every cat has three names and if you are lucky, you may know one of them. Those who aren’t ready to see humanity inserted into their cat videos should go sit with men who only watch POV porn because seeing another dude’s face while jacking it makes you gay.
Look this uncanny meld of cat and human in its furry face, the mincing paw-feet steps and neck nuzzling supplantation of the kiss. The Heaviside Layer has all the logistical clarity of the concept of the beyond in many a two-footed religion, and Judi Dench’s closing lines provide as much emotional conclusion as we are likely to get from the end of the 20-teens. Before you lies the hard-to-unsee embodiment of humanity’s 21st century internet cat mind meld. Here we have a film whose sloppy, Hollywood and market-driven reflection of felinity may be more ugly and honest than any thought powered by too much time on the internet, alone. We are not cats, but we may well be Cats.
Filmmaker and educator Christopher Coppola believes in completing every project that he undertakes. The Associate Professor of Film and Film Department Chair at San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) makes a point of imparting that to each of his new students.
“The most important thing to do is to finish what you start because regardless, it’s a baby and has its own life,” the Deadfall, Sacred Blood, and Torch director told 48 Hills. “You nurture it, and when you look at it 20 years from now, you might say, ‘Wow, it has a voice.’”
So when Coppola’s friend, programmer George Kaskanlian Jr. asked him if he had a new film to present at this year’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, he jumped at the opportunity to complete an existing feature — a line-by-line enactment of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” — he had begun two-and-a-half years ago with his SFAI students but quickly shelved.
Coppola had originally been tapped to direct a “Macbeth” movie by Byron Haigh, a local theatre producer-actor, who had just completed a six-week run of the 17th-century play at The Phoenix Theater.
Haigh also played the role of the title character, a once noble general who murders his way up the royal ladder after receiving a prophecy from three witches that he’ll one day be King of Scotland. Coppola’s son Dexter played the role of the ghost of one of Macbeth’s victims in the same production.
Haigh had initially wanted Coppola to shoot the actors in front of a green screen, but the moviemaker convinced the theatre producer to instead let him shoot them on the SFAI campus and in hard black and white, in the style of Peter Brook’s iconic 1971 film King Lear.
Still, the filmmaker wasn’t satisfied with the finished product — the casting wasn’t right and there were plenty of technical problems due to the movie’s limited budget and fast-and-furious shooting schedule — so he only delivered selected scenes to Haigh.
For the new feature, Coppola added a parallel story about a San Francisco-based B-movie maker and film professor, hailing from Hollywood royalty, who descends into madness after being told by a palm reader that he’ll eventually direct a new “Macbeth” film and become the most famous member of his family.
As the filmmaker character (loosely based on and played by Coppola) begins directing the film, his ego quickly inflates till he becomes even “bigger than Hollywood” in his own deranged mind.
In one particularly funny scene, he calls his friend and colleague Nick Vallelonga (who appears in the film along with George Kaskanlian Jr. and several other Coppola associates) from Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe in North Beach and takes credit for the acclaimed producer’s two Green Book Oscars.
Coppola, who calls himself the most “accessible” member of his legendary family, which includes his uncle Francis Ford Coppola, aunt Talia Shire, cousins Sofia Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, and brother Nicolas Cage, says it was cathartic to get to play a puffed-up version of himself in The Macbeth Syndrome.
“The idea is what it’s like to be a film teacher and someone from a famous family and being told that people are going to ask Francis, ‘Are you related to Christopher Coppola or Nicholas Cage?’” he said.
“It’s a twist on people always asking me, ‘Hey, can I get a script to Nicholas Cage?’ I’m used to it and I get it because it’s just what you do. But that was the way I was able to incorporate something we’d done two-and-a-half years ago into this new project.”
THE MACBETH SYNDROME Sun/15 7pm, $15 New People Cinema, SF. More info here.
The central question in 63 UP— award-winning auteur Michael Apted’s ongoing documentary anthology, following the changing lives of 14 British subjects over the course of five decades — is whether their socio-economic backgrounds determine their futures.
As Apted, best known for directing such films as Gorillas in the Mist, The World Is Not Enough, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, re-interviews the film’s participants for the ninth installment of the Up series, it’s clear from his line of questioning that he, himself has evolved, as he’s forced to confront some of his previous biases.
In one scene, Tony, once a wild-child from London’s East End, who dreamt of becoming a jockey, reminds Apted that he once told him that he’s more likely to end up in the nick (slang for a prison cell). Later in the film, the director is confronted by Jackie, from a working-class neighborhood of East London, about how for decades he only questioned her about marriage and men.
In flashbacks to 1977’s 21 Up, Apted is heard asking Jackie, who married for the first time at 19: “Do you think you’ve settled down too quickly?” and “Did you meet enough men before you decided to marry?”
“When I was 21, you asked if I had enough experience with men before I got married and I thought that was an insulting question and got very angry about it and actually stopped filming because of it,” Jackie, now 63, says in the latest installment. “You wouldn’t have asked some of the other people in the program that question. I just didn’t feel that you had any idea about the changing roles of women in the UK at that point.”
It also seems now like a missed opportunity that Apted didn’t ask the film’s only non-white participant, Symon, who grew up in a charity-based boarding school about how race, as well as class, impacted his life’s trajectory.
I spoke to Apted, whose 63 Up opens Friday at Landmark Clay Theatre, about the appeal of the documentary series, whether his subjects’ fates were, in fact, determined by class, and evolving beyond racist and sexist biases.
48 HILLSWhat was it that drew you to the Up series, back in 1964, first as a researcher, culling subjects from the nation’s schools for the Paul Almond-helmed Seven Up! film and later, as director of the six sequels?
MICHAEL APTED It seemed the best possible way to plot the journey of class and how the upper class, on the whole, seem to make things work for themselves at the expense of others. If we’re bringing solid proof of this that would be acceptable and marketable, then we’re doing ourselves a big favor.
48 HILLSThe film was meant to capture the generation of people that would be running our world by the year 2000. Were you optimistic about what the future held for your subjects in the new millennium?
MICHAEL APTED Yes, I thought it would be a much more healthy, collaborative, and open society than when we started in the ‘60s. As doors were beginning to open to people, more people had opportunities to get certain jobs that in the ‘60s weren’t available to them, and I think that’s true of most of the free countries in the world.
48 HILLSAfter following your subjects for over six decades, do you believe that people’s earliest environments, influences, and social classes determine their future?
MICHAEL APTED You’re speaking of class as if it’s something that’s perfect. Class means that different people have different values. But they want those values, they like those values. The class system that I talk about, what they have in Russia or whatever, means that everybody has to behave the same way. Or the class system in Victorian Britain was that everybody had to be rich and do that and everybody else had to work in the factories to create the stuff that kept the rich people happy.
It’s not a good thing and my version of the class system is meaning that not everybody has the same opportunities. Not everybody is as clever as everybody else. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, but to have a class system where you are speaking about those things and imposing them on people, it doesn’t mean anything at all.
You have to let people do what they can do and accommodate what they can do and that’s how you run a society. You don’t have a society run by a load of people with a load of money who have all the best schools, food, or whatever. That’s what I regard as a bad society — like in the early 19th century and onwards, England was in a mess.
48 HILLSWould you say that class distinction is less important in England today?
MICHAEL APTED You’re throwing these words around as if they mean whatever you want them to mean. The fact is that in Great Britain, there were much bigger differences between the rich and the poor because there weren’t enough opportunities as there were in bigger countries like America.
But now, the class system is changing, so more people are getting a better chance at the jobs they want to do and the jobs they could do well. That’s my definition of class. That you can get a job that you’re equal to. Not everybody can be a law professor in a large university or a brain surgeon. Everybody’s got certain talents or certain means in life and a classist society that makes everything about where you’re born and how much money your friends got — that’s the class system that destroys us.
48 HILLSOne of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when Jackie confronts you about how you insisted on asking her and her female friends questions about marriage and children instead of politics. What did you learn from that conversation about your own biases?
MICHAEL APTED Well, I was aware of it — that I was brought up in a middle-class environment where in some ways, women were scorned until much later on. So personally, I felt a certain amount of guilt when talking to her in the latter days that I certainly had a different attitude to the male ones than to the female ones. That’s certainly true.
I learned my lessons as I grew up and became deeper involved in the country and saw more abroad and all that. But definitely my attitude changed over these 50 years that I’ve been doing it.
48 HILLSIn chronicling the challenges that Symon faced in his life, you don’t really examine the role of race.
MICHAEL APTED England was much more racist, which is why I think we were slower to get rid of it. Not that you ever get rid of something like that. I certainly, when I was younger, was racist.
As I grew older and went to a big school and went to a big university and got a job at a big company, I began to rethink all that. I reckon that until 1954, I’d never really spoken to a Black man, that the Black community was kept to one side. That was definitely true and then it sort of changed.
Because it’s a much smaller country, I suppose, it was more obvious that people were kept in certain corners and kept away from other people and all that, and there was a stiffness between Black and white and Indian and white or whatever.
48 HILLSWith the world being more inclusive in 2019, it struck me, when viewing the film, that I was watching mostly straight white men and women discussing their experiences. If you started the project today, do you think you’d have included a more diverse pool of people?
MICHAEL APTED Of course, if we started 20 or 30 years later, it would be different. You can only do it in the society that you’re living in, working in, and trying to illustrate. You can’t be 50 years ahead of yourself when you’re doing it. You have to do it as what it is.
I’m a citizen as well as a filmmaker, so I’m not someone who has a tremendously over-modern, brilliant view of the world. I’m a regular bloke. So the whole point of it was to make the film with regular people, not do it with people who are trained journalists or broadcasters, but people who give out the information to people. Who are they, what are they, and what do the people think of them?
The holiday season tends to induce nostalgia, and while Hollywood is always very interested in directing your leisure dollars towards big new commercial movies, sometimes you feel like watching an oldie—one that isn’t even It’s A Wonderful Life or Sing-a-Long Sound of Music, both of which will duly be back at the Castro Theatre later this month. As it happens, this week features a range of individual programs and series that run virtually the gamut of the history of cinema, from silents to 60s experimentalism to the Romanian New Wave.
The gamut of local history—well, at least since the invention of the movie camera—will again be on display in the latest edition of Lost Landscapes of San Francisco. That ever-changing compendium of home movies, promotional clips and other audiovisual errata from the city’s past has grown so popular that this 14th edition inhabits the Castro for two days, Tues/10-Wed/11. More info here.
Another event of particular local note is this Thurs/5’s SFMOMA event 30/30 Vision: Three Decades of Strand Releasing, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the arthouse distributor whose cofounder Marcus Hu still lives in his native SF. (The company is officially based in Culver City.) For that occasion, 30 filmmakers were commissioned to create two-minute films on i-Phones, a starry lot that includes past and current locals (Jon Moritsugu, Lynn Hershman, Jenny Olson, John Waters) as well as a globe-spanning array of artists whose work has also frequently been represented by Strand, including Fatih Akin, Catherine Breillat, Isaac Julien, Guy Madden, Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Ira Sachs, Cindy Sherman, Lulu Wang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
They’ll all be shown at this honorary evening, as well as at other arts institutions across the nation. We’re also promised a “surprise film from the Strand catalogue.” It’s a free event, but an RSVP is required. More info here.
A Day of Silents SF Silent Film Festival’s main annual event won’t be until late spring, but because no one wants to wait that long, it will inhabit the Castro for one full day of programming this Saturday. While devotees may be used to the fact that many films from the silent era still feel very fresh indeed, you might nonetheless be surprised that two of the main attractions here are at least partly in color: Early, two-strip Technicolor, that is. It looks particularly good in the Southwest setting of 1929’s Redskin, which was the last silent film Paramount produced.
Richard Dix plays a Navajo chief’s son dragged off to “the white man’s school,” where he experiences both track stardom and ingrained prejudice before returning home—only to face a different kind of culture-clash. Though it eventually goes in a conventionally melodramatic direction, this contemporary western is surprisingly nuanced in its portrait of racial biases and the price of assimilation. Though it was apparently a budgetary rather than artistic decision, it’s metaphorically vivid that the reservation scenes are in color, while the “mainstream society” sequences are in (tinted) B&W.
While Redskin has essentially been rescued from obscurity, Universal’s 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera remains one of the most famous silent films—though it’s seldom been seen since with the full original array of elaborate tinting and Technicolor sequences. Berklee Silent Film Orchestra will provide the live accompaniment for this screening, which no doubt will make you jump when Lon Chaney’s titular character reveals his hideously deformed face at the climax.
Those are the most serious-minded attractions of a day that otherwise affords a lot of humor, starting with a late-morning program devoted to the shorts collaborations between Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. Before he began directing his own stellar 1920s vehicles, Buster was a VIP in movies starring and directed by Arbuckle, the most popular comedian of the day until his career was sadly derailed by a 1921 scandal. You’ll see a more rambunctious, impudent Keaton than the familiar “Great Stoneface” in these boisterous 1918-19 exercises in slapstick.
Conspicuously aimed at a more adult audience was Ernst Lubitsch’s 1925 The Marriage Circle, the newly arrived German director’s first American comedy—a genre he’d seldom stray from afterward. It’s a “sophisticatedly” cynical, bittersweet look at infidelities real and imagined amongst upper-class Viennese couples.
Then there’s a program devoted to the work of Alice Guy-Blache, the first woman filmmaker, and a major force in the new industry (both in France and the U.S.) until various factors basically ended her career by 1920. She lived another half-century, however, and is finally being widely credited with the stature due her in early film history, thanks in part to this year’s documentary feature Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache. The Castro “Woman With a Movie Camera” tribute reaches back as far as 1902 to include several sight-gag-driven shorts, satirical gender-role-flipping The Results of Feminism (1906), and a partially-preserved later feature melodrama, The Ocean Waif (1916). Sat/7, Castro Theatre. More info here.
Mr. Klein The 1970s are now lionized as a pocket of mainstream filmmaking adventurousness before everything turned to franchises and CGI. Still, some jewels from that period remain under-appreciated. A case in point is this 1976 French production by Joseph Losey, an American victim of the 1950s “Red Scare” blacklist who re-invented himself successfully by directing some of the most interesting British films of the 1960s—which is really saying something. Mr. Klein was not a particular success at the time, but it’s since risen in critical estimation, which the current release of a restored print will no doubt enhance.
Alain Delon plays the titular figure, a blandly bourgeoise Parisian art dealer who considers himself apolitical—which allows him to guiltlessly profit from the desperation of Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied France by buying their valuables at fire-sale rates. He thinks himself above suspicion, let alone persecution. Yet he will soon discover that in this highly politicized atmosphere of “racial purity” and back-stabbing, even he can get caught up in the wave of anti-Semitic hysteria. Jeanne Moreau also figures amongst the cast for this terse parable of morality and complacency, whose escalating nightmare becomes ever more Kafka-esque. Opens Fri/6, Roxie (More info here) and also plays Wed/4, Sat/14 & Wed/18 at the Pacific Film Archive (More info here).
Perspectives on History: Romanian Cinema since 1989 The discomfiting moral compromises of a recent past and their lingering impact have also tended to dominate Romania’s New Wave, which slowly came to fruition after longtime dictator Nicolae Ceacescu was overthrown (and executed) in the popular revolt of 1989. Unsurprisingly, many of the filmmakers who’ve come to the fore in recent years have focused on events and issues that couldn’t have been discussed under the old, Soviet-sponsored system—let alone in the propagandizing movies it produced.
This PFA series features some of the most famous works from those directors, including such festival/arthouse hits as Cristi Puiu’s 2005 collapsed-healthcare-system black comedy The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Cristian Mungiu’s harrowing abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, as well as looks at the prior regime’s collapse both fictive (12:08 East of Bucharest) and non- (documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu). But there are also some films as yet little-known abroad, like Stere Gulea’s 1995 State of Things—in which a nurse pays a terrible price for refusing to lie about military violence during the ’89 revolution—and some notable recent titles.
Among the latter are Ivana Mladenovic’s bemusedly cranky middle-aged gay love story Soldiers: A Story from Ferentari, Radu Jade’s Godardian polemic “I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians” (in which a willful female theater director meets resistance in staging a project about Romania’s WW2 Nazi collaboration and persecution of Jews), and Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose, a sardonic drama with one of the most vividly nasty mother-son relationships in cinematic history. Fri/6-Thurs/Feb. 27, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.
Celebrating Jonas Mekas 2: Walden A Lithuanian war refugee who wound up being one of the greatest champions for American avant-garde cinema in its greatest era—not just as a filmmaker, but as an exhibitor, teacher, distributor and print chronicler of the movement—Jonas Mekas died early this year at age 96. His creative output had seriously slowed down only quite recently, but probably his best-known screen work remains from the 1960s through the early 1970s, when celluloid experimentation enjoyed its greatest surge in both innovation and popularity.
He played no small role in that trend, in part by championing the notion of “diary film,” which form Walden—also known as the more literal-minded Diaries, Notes and Sketches—exemplified. Shot between 1964 and 1968, its three hours (in six sections) are a freewheeling collage of 16mm visual, audio and textual elements. There’s no interest in narrative (let alone a “narrative arc”) here, or even in synch sound. Instead, we get a whirlwind compilation of personal experience: Travel, weddings, a visit to the circus, antiwar protests, the Velvet Underground’s first performance, friends’ children and pets, construction workers on site, oft-wintry NYC street life, parties, forest hikes, John & Yoko’s “bed-in,” hangtime with fellow filmmakers (Barbet Schroeder, Marie Menken, Gregory Markopoulos, Stan Brakhage), etc.
We catch glimpses of even more famous figures, from Warhol to Timothy Leary. Yet it’s the ordinary busy-ness and warmth of a full life that comes through, as heightened by Mekas’ jittery hand-held camera and frenetic editing. The 60s were famously a blur in retrospect for many who lived through it. Walden puts you right there, and it’s still a blur—a time of joyful energy in which child-rearing and gallery openings might be accorded the same fond, time-rushing-by regard. This rare revival screening is the second in SF Cinematheque’s Mekas tribute programs. Sun/8, YBCA. More info here.
Are imminent global environmental and current national political catastrophes getting you down? Do you frequently wish perceived foes would “just die screaming”? Are you an essentially nonviolent person who nonetheless can understand the appeal of a cathartic bloodbath at present? Then you might be in just the mood for Another Hole in the Head, the San Francisco genre film festival that returns for its 16th annual program this Sunday, December 1 through Sunday, December 15. Heavy on the horror, fantasy, action, and reassuringly fictive monsters as usual, it provides a healthy two-week dose of violent mayhem that will harm neither your health nor democracy in general.
Programs of particular Bay Area interest include three separate bills of “Strictly Local” Shorts, as well as an opening night feature starring a slew of SF stand-up and sketch comedy talent: Michael Meehan’s long-aborning Hey Monster, Hands Off My City, which stars Jonny and Reggie Steele as SFPD detectives investigating a series of beverage-related homicides. There’s also Scott J. Ramsey’s X, a lengthy drama of duplicitous intrigue amongst people involved in a monthly, invitation-only masked erotic ball.
Local filmmakers should be in the house en masse for three events with SF Art Institute film department head Christopher Coppola. On Thu/5 he’ll host programs of both his students’ films and his own 2000 feature Bel Air, a tongue-in-cheek riff on Sunset Boulevard. On closing night he’ll world-premiere The Macbeth Syndrome, an autobiographical-sounding fantasia about a film prof/B-moviemaker from a famous filmmaking family.
While the majority of films here are US (or Canadian) independent productions, a smattering come from farther afield. From South Africa comes 8, a handsomely shot tale of a handyman (and possible supernatural avenger) wreaking havoc on the lives of a family that’s just inherited a farmstead with, natch, a dark Apartheid past. The Mexican 1974 is a found-footage fiction that requires you believe someone in the titular year would have a whoooooole lot of Super 8 film on hand to record a spouse’s apparent spiritual possession.
Globe-trotting Spanish director Adrian Garcia Bogliano sojourned to Sweden for Black Circle, in which a vintage “magnetic hypnosis” LP creates usurping doubles for its unlucky listeners. Starring as the hypnotist (and subsequent exorcist) is Christina Lindberg, who’s well-remembered amongst psychotronic cinema fans for her early 1970s run of softcore Swedish sexploitation films like The Swinging Co-Eds and Love in 3D. The Australian The Furies is an outback take on The Most Dangerous Game, as a group of captive women discover they’re being hunted for “sport” by masked men.
There are also a few revival goodies, served up variably straight. A unique double bill on Sat/7 pairs Brian De Palma’s 1974 rock musical Phantom of the Paradise with the documentary Phantom of Winnipeg, which chronicles how the now cult-beloved feature bombed everywhere on initial release—except in Manitoba, of all places, where it inexplicably gained a large, immediate following. Drone/doom ensemble Sleepbomb will provide a live soundtrack on Sun/8 to John Milius’ original 1982 Conan the Barbarian, starring The Ahnold. And Jorge Torres-Torres’ Friday the 13th “Revision” (on Fri/13) is an ultimate-fan-edit version of the entire slasher series that promises all “83 Jason kills in 85 minutes.”
Elsewhere on the schedule, there’s the usual ton of horror-comedy (Eat Brains Love, Dead Dicks, Housesitter: The Night They Saved Siegfried’s Brain!, etc.), plus a bit of sci-fi noir (The Tangle), two wilderness thrillers (Range Runners, Stay Out Stay Alive), a Christian horror (Beneath the Black Veil), retro doofus-buddy yoks (Easy Does It), feature animation (To Your Last Death), and something called Senior Love Triangle.
Here’s a few previewed highlights:
Perhaps the best movie to premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival this July, the Pierce Brothers’ supernatural thriller recalls 80s supernatural teen flicks like The Lost Boys and Fright Night with its tale of a summer vacation that goes to hell. 17-year-old Ben’s (John-Paul Howard) seasonal job working with his harbormaster father in a lakeside resort community takes a turn when a malevolent tree wraith takes possession of the (formerly) nice people next door. What can I say?: It’s a lot better than that sounds.
THE DEEPER YOU DIG
Another Fantasia find was this latest from an offscreen husband and wife team who, with their daughters, have created and starred in several shoestring features to date. Professional psychic Ivy (Toby Poser) and her Goth-styled teen Echo (Zelda Adams) are an unusually simpatico mother-and-daughter duo. So naturally it’s very disturbing when Echo disappears one night—and Ivy’s suspicion soon falls on the newly arrived house-flipping stranger (John Adams) we already know accidentally ran over the girl, then hid her corpse in a panic. This low-key yet macabre tale of haunting and vengeance recalls 1970s drive-in favorites like Let’s Scare Jessica To Death in its offbeat, atmospheric economy.
SHE NEVER DIED
Jason Krawczyk’s 2015 He Never Died was a not-very-good black comedy horror that got some attention for the theoretically intriguing hook of having Henry Rollins as an immortal cannibal zombie vampire living in Bukowski-esque reclusive squalor. Audrey Cummings’ roundabout sequel (which Krawczyk wrote, but Rollins does not appear in) is enough of an improvement to make you think there might be a franchise here after all.
This time our protagonist is Olunike Adeliyi as an immortal homeless woman (or, er, something) with a taste for human flesh. Though on the antisocial side, she hooks up with a police detective and a young near-victim to bust up a snuff-video-producing human trafficking operation. The mix of hardboiled humor, hardcore violence and fantasy doesn’t always completely work, but it gets pretty close.
Two of the better films in Hole Head this year happen to star a young actor who’s been in a number of recent genre films, including Siren, John Dies at the End and The Guest. He’s the clean-cut if increasingly frantic hero of Graham Denman’s Greenlight, a fresh-outta-film-school newbie who’s thrilled to get hired to direct his first feature—until he realizes what dastardly collusion the producer (Chris Browning) expects in return.
In Tom Botchii’s Artik, Williamson is grunge’d up to play a loner auto mechanic and Al-Anon attendee who befriends a strange child, only to discover the boy is part of a murderous cult-leader-type man’s (Jerry G. Angelo) isolationist clan. It’s an effectively terse violent melodrama.
THE MAN WITH THE SILVER CASE
Not everything at Hole Head is horror- or fantasy-related. This first directorial feature by Colin Best starts out as a sort of exquisite-corpsedistillation of espionage movies in the James Bond mode, as one outlandish, chase-driven crisis in an exotic location follows another, sans any character or plot explication.
Things get a little more conventional as our nameless courier-assassin (Stuart Reid, furry, worried and antic like Steve Carrell) retreats to a snowbound cabin. But hitmen pursue him there, and the bodies pile up as everybody wants the briefcase he’s handcuffed to. Strikingly shot in widescreen B&W on Swiss Alpine locations, with a highly eclectic soundtrack (The Cure, Conway Twitty, Grateful Dead, Grizzly Bear), this stylish oddity can be taken as an absurdist black comedy, a stripped-down action thriller, or both.
THE CHANGIN’ TIMES OF IKE WHITE
Another detour from typical Hole Head terrain is this documentary about an obscure figure of 70s music. A multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, White was considered by some a major funk-soul talent ripe for discovery—the only problem being, he was serving a life sentence for murder. Somehow permission was gained for him to record a 1974 album (with full cadre of visiting session players, engineers, etc.) while in prison, and with the help of celebrity supporter Stevie Wonder, he got paroled in 1978.
Yet soon after, he disappeared. A less upbeat parallel to Searching for Sugar Man, Dan Veron’s film is a bit of cinematic sleuthing that eventually unearths the man himself—as well as a fiendishly complicated trail of discarded women, children, identities and lies that the charismatic, sociopathic White left behind him. It’s a fascinating portrait, albeit one that gets darker and darker.
Martin Scorsese loves San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. So much so that the legendary Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino director opened his latest gangster epic, The Irishman, there on Nov. 5.
At the sold-out SFFILM premiere, Scorsese traced his love of the historic movie palace back to his first visit in 1971 to see a screening of the latest restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. With its sizeable screen (measuring 25 feet tall and 45 feet wide), the theatre was well equipped to show the 1927 silent epic in all its cinematic glory.
So the Oscar-winning auteur is confident that the Castro Theatre is the perfect setting to showcase his latest cinematic jewel.
“This has always been a place that’s very special for cinema and it still has great projection and wonderful audience capacity,” Scorsese said on the red carpet.
Based on former lawman Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, the mob movie chronicles the many alleged crimes perpetrated by larger-than-life mafia hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), including the murder of polarizing labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
The sweeping three-and-a-half-hour film reunites Scorsese with De Niro and Joe Pesci (who came out of retirement to play the role of mob boss Russell Bufalino) for the first time since 1995’s Casino. Harvey Keitel, who made his name with Scorsese’s 1973 classic Mean Streets and last worked with the director on 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, returns to the fold to take on the supporting role of mobster Angelo Bruno.
I spoke to Scorsese about his longtime bond with De Niro, why the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran excited him, and whether he ever takes the time to appreciate his immense body of work.
48 HILLS How did it feel to have three of your veteran actors — Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel — back on a Scorsese production?
MARTIN SCORSESE This is something we’ve been trying to do for a while. The last time I worked with De Niro and Joe Pesci was Casino, in 1995, so we’ve been trying to find a project to do together for 22 years. So once we found the time to work together, including Pacino, it was really a dream come true.
48 HILLS How did the experience of making The Irishman differ from your other gangster films?
MARTIN SCORSESE It was in the works for 10 years. For many different reasons, we didn’t do it right away, so it afforded us, I think, time to think about ourselves and our own lives.
I think I shot it when I was 75 and I’m 77 and De Niro is a similar age. Pacino and Joe, I don’t know what ages they are, but they’re in their 70’s.
So the thing about it is it found its way into a kind of reflective state and we just felt confident in it and we knew that we could enrich our work. I didn’t know if it would be successful or not, but we knew it deserved a try.
48 HILLS You and De Niro have such a special director-actor relationship. How did you first meet and what made you decide to keep working with him for decades?
MARTIN SCORSESE Well, not counting when we knew each other on the Lower East Side when we were 16 years old and he wasn’t an actor and I wasn’t a filmmaker, I met him again when we were about 27 or 28.
Brian De Palma introduced us because he had worked with him on Hi, Mom! and De Niro actually knew many of the characters that I knew. All the people I grew up with, he knew them and he knew how they were reflected in Mean Streets, for example.
So pretty much he’s the only person left around who knows where I come from and who I knew, so that was the beginning of the bond of trust.
48 HILLS What was it about the book I Heard You Paint Houses that made you want to turn it into a feature film?
MARTIN SCORSESE Well, it was really De Niro reading the book and relating to the character of Frank and the moral conflict of Frank. Whether one believes everything in the book doesn’t matter. It’s about the human dilemma, the conflict between the good and the bad in everybody. So he had such a strong reaction to that character.
When I read the book, I thought I figured out how to bring that character into the forefront and make everything else the backdrop of the milieu of the underworld. Beyond that, making the backdrop of the history of America at that time a passing parade, and what stays in the front is the human condition.
48 HILLS You’ve produced such an exceptional body of work over so many decades. Do you ever take the time to appreciate the fruits of your labors?
MARTIN SCORSESE The reflection comes within the work, really and in particular the people you’re working with. In a case like this, it’s so natural between Bob, Joe, and me, and then you add Al to that, and all the actors in this picture had that sense. They felt it on the set, that sense of reflection — with humor, with action, but still reflective.
Visibility has always been a guiding principle of queer liberation. From Harvey Milk’s “Come out, come out, wherever you are” to the debates over cis/het actors cast in queer or trans roles, centering the lived experiences of LGBTQ people is foundational to the struggle.
But for many transgender people, visibility can cut both ways. Being out can demonstrate resilience and strength, but it can also put one’s life at risk — as the epidemic of murders of trans women of color attests. Then there are fights in US schools over trans-inclusive restroom policies, like a district in Georgia that backed away from doing the right thing over death threats to faculty and students.
This is the ambiguous political backdrop against which the SF Transgender Film Festival opens on Thursday, November 7, at the Roxie Theater.
“I would say there’s been an explosion of trans representation in film,” artistic director Shawna Virago says. “That being said, we still have a long way to go to where trans and gender-nonconforming people are telling their own stories.”
Since its inception in 1997, the festival has played at numerous venues in the Bay Area, with highlights including the 2015 screening of Major! at the Castro, which legendary trans activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy attended (shortly before she relocated to Arkansas).
That evening had “a lot of symbolic resonance,” Virago says, observing how Miss Major is one of the most important figures in the history of queer liberation yet she’s unlikely to be invited on Rachel Maddow — and 2019’s opening night is sure to do the same.
“This year, we are just as proud to screen what we consider a feature film, Transfinite,” she adds. “The program will be ASL-interpreted, and we hope to have a good Q&A after the film with the director [Neelu Bhuman], some of the stars, and our community.”
Described as a “sci-fi omnibus feature film composed of seven standalone magical short stories where supernatural trans and queer people from various cultures use their powers to protect, love, teach, fight and thrive,” Transfinite makes use of tropes familiar to may queer people of all stripes — namely, superheroes and superpowers.
There’s been pushback to this from within the world of film. Martin Scorcese recently remarked that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is “not cinema,” and while it would be a stretch to describe such an observation as transphobic per se, it certainly has delegitimizing undertones for a genre that many LGBTQ people flock to to help make sense of their place in the world.
Virago cites the example of Rachel Pollack, who wrote for DC Comics in the 1980s and ’90s, as “an important example of a trans writer finding space in the fantasy realm,” but also of the importance of trans people taking the helm of trans stories. (Pollack created Doom Patrol’s Kate Godwin, aka Coagula, the first trans protagonist in mainstream comics.)
This remains an important point, even in 2019. Possibly to many people’s surprise — or not — the festival gets a lot of submissions by cisgender directors casting cisgender actors.
“The content is usually stereotypical,” Virago says. “Either it has the big reveal scene or it always ends in tragedy for the trans person.”
That’s not unlike gay and lesbian art from decades past — and it underscores the rationale behind SF Transgender Film Festival’s curatorial vision, which tends toward the experimental, the non-linear, the intersectional, and other stories even Hollywood’s more trans-aware quarters aren’t interested in telling.
“I always think our film festival is more of a 1980s punk label, sort of like SST Records,” Virago says, citing the label that was home to Black Flag, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. “In some ways, we are consciously holding space for more films that maybe expose white supremacy or expose police abuse or the prison-industrial abuse against trans communities — and so content matters a lot for us.”
This helps account for the inclusion of Malic Amalya’s Run!, which Virago likes because it’s not an identity-based film but an exploration of the history of nuclear technology, pesticides, and other militarized horrors that complicate the question of just how progressive it is for openly transgender Americans to sign up for military service.
Then there’s To Be With You, about a Latinx trans man in L.A. who reconnects with an old flame while reclaiming his father’s ashes.
“It’s kind of a love letter to overlooked communities in Los Angeles,” Virago says. “What I liked about this movie — and I haven’t said this to the director yet, but I hope to have the chance — is I’m interested in the character of Alex, the protagonist, I want to know where he goes next. It reminded me of Francois Truffaut and his series of films about [Antoine Doinel]. You get a depth of this one character you don’t normally get in film.”
Not to be overlooked is Tender, which concerns itself with the day-to-day lives of Black trans women in the Tenderloin, now the site of the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District. In spite of having been shot right here in San Francisco, it came to Virago’s attention through the festival’s ordinary call for submissions. She likes it as a response to the city’s reputation as a “progressive jewel box,” that has all the answers.
“Now we’ve become another neolberal city that’s fast becoming the whitest city in California,” she says. “So people overlook the fact that in the Tenderloin, there’s still many strong trans connections and lives that are happening within this hyper-gentrification and displacement — and it’s beautifully filmed.”
“I think people enjoy the festival and have a good time and it might be because our aesthetic might be a little more edgy than some festivals,” she adds. “But it’s still a really warm and welcoming environment.”