Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jason goes to Docfest--Friday, June 10

Two more, including one of my favorites and one I wish I had missed.

THE TWO DOLLAR BILL DOCUMENTARY was awesome. It's a sharing of stories and history of that amazingly quirky bit of currency. People think $2 bills aren't made anymore (some have even spent some time in jail for trying to spend them.) But in fact they're quite common...sort of. They're not much in circulation, simply because people think they're rare, so if they get one they hold onto it. And they become--to casual collectors, at least--emotionally valuable. You have fond memories of where you got it--even if it's a strip club (oh yeah, I'd heard--but never confirmed--that's a good place to get them. And that does make it into the film.) Another good place to get them in Monticello, since Jefferson enthusiasts have a yen for the $2. We meet people who love spending the $2 bill, and other than the semi-rare moments where the authenticity is questioned, people generally love it. Then we meet the serious collectors. So a regular $2 bill is worth...about $2. But there are some rare ones. Misprints..."star" series...amusing serial numbers...actually, we get a pretty good look at how all our paper money is made, but just focusing on the $2. And then there's the really old, really rare money. Like I had never actually known the difference between a Federal Reserve Note and a United States Note. I even won a $2 bill in the Q&A, for having a sharp eye to notice a 6 1/4 cent (half a "bit"--as in "2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits, a dollar!") note. And guess what--it's a 1963 United States Note, crisp--that might be worth slightly more than $2. But to me, it's priceless, because it contains the memory of this movie.

And then the second show started with a short,

DISAMBIGUATION is seven minutes of experimental film about the BP oil spill of 2010.

And then the feature THE GREAT WALL is a study in borders. As a voice reads Franz Kafka's "The Great Wall of China" we see footage of walls...and fences...and anything else that separates people. And it just goes on and on for 74 freakin' minutes. And with how exhausted I was, and how desperately I wanted a nap, it's like this movie cursed me and wouldn't let me just peacefully drift off. I shoulda left. What the hell?

Total Running Time: 184 minutes
My Total Minutes: 431,793

Jason goes to Docfest--Thursday, June 9

A couple more films last week Thursday.

KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE was the Centerpiece feature about actress Kate Lynn Sheil preparing for and shooting a movie about Florida newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who in 1974 killed herself live on air with a bullet to the back of her head. It shows Sheil's preparation and process, and is pretty interesting. But it really should be called KATE PLAYS KATE PLAYING CHRISTINE, as it becomes clear that the existence of the documentary crew is changing the reality of how she (pretends to) prepare. I'm torn as to whether that's a detriment or not, but moments where she breaks from talking about the role to talking about how she really would prepare end up more interesting than when she's interviewing people who are tangentially connected to the shooting (i.e., people who work at the station now, or people who work at the gun store where she bought her weapon, or psychologists and other experts in suicide.) It picks up emotionally when she actually finds and talks to people who knew Christine, and the final scene is pretty powerful. But mostly I was just kind of exhausted by that time. It's another one of those films that desperately needs some editing.

Then the second program was 3 shorts and a short-ish (60 minute) feature.

JOSHUA TREE: THREATENED WONDERLAND is a gorgeously shot look at Joshua Tree National Park and the trees that give it its name. The trees, the rocks, the landscapes have given inspiration to several artists, but environmentalists warn that with air pollution, fires, and global warming the iconic trees might all be dead in less than a century. They're just not growing back at the rate they're dying, and that's sad.

CALIFORNIA DRYING is a short meditation on the years-long drought that has been affecting California, featuring some excellent aerial photography. I've certainly known the drought and have cut back on water, but honestly where I live in the Bay Area it hasn't really affected me much.

THE CROSSING is the reflections of a crossing guard in Silicon Valley, where the Caltrain tracks are a way too popular choice for teen suicide attempts. Pretty sobering.

And then the feature, EAST LA INTERCHANGE, narrated by Danny Trejo, is the story of urban planning cutting up the poorer neighborhood of Boyle Heights while leaving the more affluent neighborhoods spared. The neighborhood was (and still is, to some extent) home to a mix of Latinos, Jews, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and lower class whites (who admit to being "rednecks.) With no political power, their neighborhoods were carved up to put in the freeway interchange of the 5, 10, 101, and 60. An interesting story of what is done to the politically powerless in the name of "progress." I kinda wish I had been more awake for it.

Total Running Time: 200 minutes
My Total Minutes: 431,609

Jason goes to Docfest--Wednesday, June 8

Way behind. Two more. Quickie updates

ART OF THE PRANK is the story of Joey Skaggs, performance artist and professional media hoaxer. Sort of a spiritual successor to Alan Abel but with a more politically-minded bent (also a predecessor of The Yes Men, but with a less political bent.) Skaggs has joyfully trolled the media with a Celebrity Sperm Bank (which happened to get robbed just before the press conference) and a Cathouse for Dogs. He set up a mobile confessional booth on the back of his tricycle as a "Portofess."
The movie serves as a good overview of his career and his methods (he's a big fan of revealing the joke when it goes far enough) and features a good mix of archival hits and new interviews, as he is still working diligently to get his message out in the funniest ways he can.
THE MILLION DOLLAR DUCK is mostly about a different, and more serious, form of art (although of course my favorite guy in it is a prankster.) You might remember a side plot from FARGO about painting a duck for an art contest. That contest is for the Duck Stamp, needed for hunting licenses and used to raise money for U.S. government conservation efforts. And wildlife artists (and one impressive art prankster) compete every year to create the painting that will be featured on that year's Duck Stamp. And these are incredibly talented artists. To my untrained eye, any one of the entries we see could win. But when it gets down to the judging--three rounds of it--it's absolutely brutal. The film follows several artists, and I'm happy to say the person I was rooting for (other than the prankster) won it all. But in the interest of spoilers, I won't tell you who that is.
Total Running Time: 156 minutes
My Total Minutes: 431,409

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Jason goes to Docfest--Tuesday, June 7

Two movies a week ago Tuesday.

First up was IN CALIFORNIA, a ridiculously self-indulgent troubled romance between the director Charles Redon and his ballerina girlfriend / fiancé / wife (sorry, SPOILER ALERT) Mathilde. She's a ballerina, and he opens the movie with their breakup. Then they go back to them meeting, her struggles to make it in ballet, her job offer from San Francisco, and them moving there. Then it gets to him being bored and playing with a selfie stick, while he realizes more and more that she has her life outside of him. So he starts pushing her away and being a jerk. It gets really weird as he gets into some S&M stuff, sees a dominatrix, and buys a leather dog mask. But it doesn't feel like some breakthrough or growth, he's just as unlikeable before and after. In fact, the whole movie feels like something that should be a breakthrough and somehow isn't. So instead it's just a story of an unlikeable person and the woman he successfully stalks.

Then for a little comedy, with EAR BUDS: THE PODCASTING DOCUMENTARY. Comedy Film Nerds Chris Mancini and Graham Elwood created this documentary about podcasts. Specifically (I assume just because that's what they know) about comedy podcasts. And about how the format lets them be a little more raw, a little more experimental, and a lot more direct with fans. That's the heart of this--what makes podcasting so special is the community of fans that keep in contact even between shows, and make connections based on more than just 'I like this comedian.' The film even takes us to Japan in the wake of the tsunami, or to the middle of the Australian outback, just to meet fans and connect. And it's a good deal of fun, but it desperately needed an editor. I swear there were more than half a dozen times when the music was swelling and the narration was making some profound-ish point and I expected that to be the conclusion and credits...but instead it went on to the next story.

Total Running Time: 193 minutes
My Total Minutes: 431,253

Jason goes to Docfest--Monday, June 6

Well, the festival is almost over, so I might as well start writing about it.

I missed the whole first weekend due to Silentfest, but now it's time to hit the documentaries hard. Two programs a week ago Monday.

First up a shorts program, Cool Old Guys. Cool!
ROLLIN' FOR MILES: David Miles Jr. is cool for roller skating, dressing up, and founding the Church of 8 wheels.
A PASSION OF GOLD AND FIRE: This guy is cool for keeping bees. Bees!
BOB SWANN: Bob Swann is cool for...lots of shit. Being a bail bondsman. Having a huge collection of clocks. Shellacking roaches. Anything, really.
BORN FIGHTER: I had previously seen this at Cinequest, But Johnnie Gray is still cool for running his East Palo Alto boxing gym.
DAVID FAIR IS THE KING: David Fair is cool for being the co-founder of the band Half Japanese. Now he's cool for keeping up with art in daily life however he can.
EMORY DOUGLAS: THE ART OF THE BLACK PANTHERS: Emory Douglas is cool for... ummm... being an artist for the Black Panthers. I guess the title gave that away. In fact, he was their Minister of Culture, and the film is a cool look at art as a weapon.
PHIL'S CAMINO: Phil is cool for using walking and faith as a tool in his fight against caner. Not being Catholic, I had actually never known about the Camino de Santiago, but he sets up the equivalent in his backyard, and when his cancer is in remission, he goes on the real thing.
ROBIN BROWN: Robin is cool for being an athlete, a body builder, a model, a darling of the Parisian social classes. Until MS robbed him of all of that. But you know what, he's still cool.

And then a feature, THE DWARVENAUT. Stefan Pokorny is an artist, entrepreneur, and D&D (Dungeons and Dragons, in case anyone didn't know) enthusiast. He builds exquisitely detailed models of dungeons and cities for his fellow gamers to enjoy (at a cost, of course.) It probably helps to be a D&D fan, but it's definitely not necessary to enjoy this movie. It's more the story of a hungry artist living his dream and trying to make a living off his passion. It also gets a bit into some of the trauma in his childhood, but steers away from that before it gets too dark, focusing instead on a fairly anticlimactic Kickstarter campaign and his life at conventions (particularly drinking too much with Gary Gygax's son.)

Total Running Time: 161 minutes
My Total Minutes: 431,060

Friday, June 10, 2016

Jason goes to Silentfest--The Finale

And I've fallen about a week behind, all while I've been attending Docfest. So I hate doing this, but this'll be a super-quick abbreviated update.

The first program, bright and early, was on Fantasia of Color in Early Films. I'm not going to describe all of the movies, but for the record they were:
THE MILLS (1913)

And it was a beautiful program, reveling in the fact that color was around from the very beginning of film. Even well before Technicolor and other photo-realistic color systems, the art of hand painting, stencils, tinting (soaking the developed positive prints in a color bath, so the whites got colored,) and toning (a chemical process during developing the negatives, to give color to the black parts of the black and white film) brought the joys of color to the earliest films. And it's really cool to see, and to hear Donald Sosin playing for it.

Next up was a cool gender-bending double feature listed in the program as Girls Will Be Boys

I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN (1918): Ernst Lubitsch makes a delightful comedy in which Ossi Oswalda is a young woman who likes to smoke, drink, and play cards. But her gender keeps her from going to the coolest clubs. But not if she dresses up like a man. And she passes pretty well as a clean shaven dandy-ish young man. And she learns how rough men are, and how rude women are. And she makes a new best friend. In fact, the film features their "bromance" blossoming into something really special (she kisses him, as a man.) Excellent.

WHAT'S THE WORLD COMING TO? (1926): A Hal Roach production, starring Jim Finlayson as a husband 100 years in the future, when women wield all the power and men are the weaker, meeker sex. Featuring "blushing grooms" and handsome, tuxedoed brides.

And featuring the music of Maud Nelissen and Frank Bockius accompanying.

Then I finally got a chance to check out a movie I've always heard of, but never actually seen, NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922): The first "documentary" despite its questionable claims of authenticity, is still an engaging story with a likeable character and his family. That it plays fast and loose with the facts is both undeniable and important. But also the fact that it's a sensitive portrayal of a way of life that used to be, even if it's long gone by the time the movie was made, is also important. As is the fact that this movie kind of set the mold for how documentaries are done--for good or for bad.

And of course, if it's set in a cold environment, the Matti Bye Ensemble has to provide the music. And they were fantastic.

And then one of the great revelations of the festival, DESTINY (DER MÜDE TOD) (1921): Fritz Lang's grand, epic battle of Love vs. Death. A mysterious stranger moves to town, buys up the land by the cemetery, and builds a giant wall with no doors or gates. This is death, and only he can take you through the walls--and no one can come back out. But when he robs a young bride of her groom, she attempts suicide to join him. The sympathetic portrayal of death--a spirit hated by all, just for doing God's will--is very powerful. And in his sympathy he makes her a deal. 4 candles are about to go out--the candles representing the life of a person. If she can keep just one of them from going out, he will let her live and give her her husband back. And so the story travels to ancient Persia. And to Venice. And to Imperial China. And is exquisite and daring and bold and powerful each and every time. But no (spoiler alert) Love cannot conquer Death. But it can willingly join it.

And the Stephen Horne Ensemble--Stephen Horne, Frank Bockius, Guenter Buchwald, and Brian Collins (of the Mont Alto Orchestra)--were magnificent in providing the music.

Next up was LES DEUX TIMIDES (1928): René Clair with another of his unique little comedies. We start with a bumbling, timid young lawyer bungling his very first case and getting his client sentenced to the maximum for (allegedly) beating his wife (the flashback scenes of both the prosecution and defense describing his domestic behavior is pretty fantastic.) Later, he and his client are rivals for the hand of a beautiful young lady. She loves him, but he's too timid to even talk to her father. Her father is likewise timid, and gives in to the ruffians demands to marry his daughter against her will, unless the timid young man can save the day. The middle part starts to drag a lot--since it's the story of timid people, much of the action is hemming and hawing and refusing to take action. But the ending is excellent as all hell breaks loose.

And the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was likewise excellent providing the score.

And then the grand finale, WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1919): Douglas Fairbanks, in one of his social comedies before becoming a swashbuckler (although he still finds plenty of opportunity to show off his athletic talents.) He also wrote the story, about a mad scientist who is intent on driving a person crazy to prove he can drive him to kill himself. His poor victim is Fairbanks himself, a pleasant but superstitious young man, who always seems to screw up. His butler (in the employ of the scientist) feeds him disagreeable food late at night, giving him nightmares. That makes him late for work, where his uncle has to fire him. But things turn around when he meets a nice, equally superstitious girl and falls in love. But the scientist just ups his evil plot with this new wrinkle, and an oil land swindle that's...not worth sweating the details. The most powerful part of it--and something I've been thinking about ever since--is near the end. And I have to get a bit spoiler-y about that. Fairbanks is driven to the brink, and we get a look inside his mind as the queen of reason is shaken off her throne by paranoia, fear, despair... And just at the critical moment, it's the heroic jester--sense of humor--who defeats the evil forces and returns reason to her throne. And that idea--that a sense of humor is our most powerful weapon to protect our sanity--is still true, and still profound today. I love it.

And Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius sent us off in style. And finally, Silentfest 2016 is in the books.

Total Running Time: 458 minutes
My Total Minutes: 430,899

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

Another huge day at SFSFF, starting with a show of Comedy restorations courtesy of Lobster Films.

BATTLE OF THE CENTURY (1927): This was the headliner, discovered recently by Jon Mirsalis (who also accompanied all the films on the piano) the famous lost second reel of this legendary Laurel and Hardy film, featuring an epic pie fight. The two reels oddly pretty much stand on their own as separate films, with Stan as a prize fighter and Ollie as his coach in the first reel, and the second reel starting with them walking down the street after buying some accident insurance. Then some hijinx with a banana peel, and we're off to the pie fights. You'd think the gag of hitting people with pies would grow old...and you'd be wrong. It was fantastic.

COPS (1922): A Keaton classic. Buster accidentally steals a wallet (from a cop) and "buys" a truckload of furniture to prove he's a good businessman and win his girl. But wacky hijinx ensue (including a particularly famous boxing glove gag, and a reference to "goat glands" treatments.) And it culminates in all of the L.A.P.D. chasing him all over town. Hilarious.

THE BALLOONATIC (1923): Buster Keaton again, with the sort of wacky hijinx only possible in cartoons (or in Buster Keaton's world.) Surprisingly, very little ballooning occurs in the movie, mostly serving to transport Buster from his crazy mishaps in an amusement park to the wilderness where he tries to survive and romance Phyllis Haver. Then it shows up again in a gag at the very end. It's not a very coherent story, even by silent short comedy standards, but it's a good collection of gags that makes your head spin.

THE DANCING PIG (1907): Completely bizarre. A pig invites a girl to dance. She strips him naked and dances with him. And then it gets weird. Those eyes...that tongue...that mouth.

Okay, I needed a break and a palate cleanser after that pig, so it was time to go to Sweden with THE STRONGEST (DEN STARKASTE) (1929.) The stark nature vistas are a character in themselves in this film. Skipper Olsen of the hunting ship Viking has a beautiful daughter, and a farmhand Ole who's sweet on her. But his son-in-law must be strong enough to take over as captain of the Viking some day. So next spring, he takes on with a rival ship, Maud, and becomes their best gunner, hunting seals. But an accident leaves him stranded on an ice floe where the Viking picks him up and rescues him. It turns out his rival for the daughter is there, and he must prove he's not just the strongest but also an honorable, good man to win the hunt and win the daughter. Some scenes of hunting (seals and polar bears) which appear to feature real animal kills tend to upset modern audiences, but I thought overall the film was magnificent and amazing.

Matti Bye Ensemble provided the soundtrack, which played as the tense heartbeat of the film. I'm running out of superlatives for the musicians.

Next up was SHOOTING STARS, a back-lot comedy-drama from England. Mae Feather (Annette Benson) and Julian Gordon (Brian Aherne) are a married acting team. Andy Wilkes (Donald Calthrop) is the studio's bushy-mustached comedy star. Unbeknownst to Julian, Mae no longer loves him and has been having an affair with Andy. So when they all get invited to make films in America, she is eager to go there with Andy, but not as much with Julian. The middle part drags somewhat...or maybe it was just me succumbing to exhaustion. But it ends with a surprising shift in tone, as the more comic tone of the first half gives way to a deadly serious dramatic turn, and a post-script that's a downright depressing statement on the fickleness of fame.

Stephen Horne was a one-man band on piano, flute, and accordion providing an excellent score for the film.

Next up was WITHIN OUR GATES (1920,) the oldest known surviving film made by an African American director (Oscar Micheaux) and something of a direct reaction to BIRTH OF A NATION (1915.) A complex and unflinching look at race in both the American south and the north, where the hatred isn't as prevalent but lynchings are not unheard of. It's a complicated plot going back and forth from the north to the small southern town of Piney Woods, where Sylvia tries to help a reverend keep his school for black children open. Actually, that part of the story is pretty straightforward. But it's complicated by her mysterious past, an anti-negro politician, his Uncle-Tom servant, a philanthropist, a murder, a frame-up, a lynching, etc. I need to watch this again with a little more rest, so I can follow all the threads. It's a smart, multi-layered movie with good and bad characters of all skin tones.

The excellent accompaniment was courtesy of a new score by Adolphus Hailstork, performed by Oakland Symphony musicians and members of the Oakland Symphony Chorus, conducted by Michael Morgan. The music was beautiful, and I was most impressed with the frequent use of silence, like the music made you feel, but this is a film that also requires some quiet moments to think, as well.

And then it was time for a comedy masterpiece, THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT (1928.) Building comedy layer-upon-layer based mostly on how articles of clothing can fail you. Cravats slip, shoes are too tight, pins stick in your back, an ear trumpet gets clogged, and then there's the business of the titular hat. A groom is on his way home to get married, when he drops his riding crop. While he fetches it, his horse wanders off and takes a big bite out of a rare hat made of Italian straw hanging from a nearby tree. It turns out that belongs to a woman who is just off in the woods with her boyfriend...who is not her husband. And if she comes home with the straw hat destroyed, her husband will know something is up. And the boyfriend--who is also a soldier--will do what it takes to make sure that doesn't happen. So the groom has to sneak away from his own wedding and find a replacement hat. And wacky hijinx ensue. What's so wonderful about this is the setup is ripe for slapstick zaniness, but director René Clair imbues it with subtle playfulness instead, with little side jokes that whimsically build on each other, so that it all feels like a perfectly natural, elegant comedy of errors and manners.

And the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble did a fantastic job complementing the comedy, after Guenter himself introduced the film.

And finally, we ended the night with THE LAST WARNING (1929.) I was tempted to skip this, as I had seen it recently back in Niles, but was intrigued by the new restoration by Universal. Here's what I wrong when I saw it last Halloween:
THE LAST WARNING (1929): Paul Leni's funny/scary backstage murder mystery, and much like his CAT AND THE CANARY established all the clichés for haunted house movies, this does the same for backstage murders (well, I guess Phantom of the Opera did a lot of that first, but still...) The opening scenes set the stage (pun intended) brilliantly. Famous actor John Woodford dies on stage during a performance of his play "The Snare." Chloroform poisoning seems to be the cause, murder is suspected, and the leading lady Miss Doris Terry (Laura La Plante) is the prime suspect. And then...the body mysteriously disappears before the coroner can conduct his autopsy. Flash forward five years, the theater has been closed, the cast has gone their separate ways. And now a new producer wants to open it up, putting on a new production of "The Snare" with the original cast (minus, of course, Woodford.) And soon after a phantom-like character appears to torment the cast with warnings and more. A nice mix of humor and suspense that Paul Leni was great at (too bad he died shortly after making this film) and an effective reveal at the end. Good film.
All still true, and still a great film. And the restoration is pretty clean, although I have it on good authority there was more source material (including a little color) that they could've used. Still, a great way to end a great and exhausting day at the festival.

Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius were the fantastic accompanists for the film.

Total Running Time: 535 minutes
My Total Minutes: 430,442