Saturday, June 29, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 17

A second day in Santa Cruz. Traffic over the "hill" on 17 was kinda lousy, so I didn't make it anywhere near in time for the 3:00 screening of THE MAYOR. But I still saw three more movies.

First up, horsey girls star in ESCARAMUZA: RIDING FROM THE HEART. I knew nothing about this sport before seeing this. In fact, I knew nothing about charreada--traditional Mexican horse competitions. Escaramuza is an all-female subset of the competition, meant to commemorate the women during the Mexican revolution who rode and kicked up dust as decoys to confuse the Federales. The competition seems to be a combination of kicking up lots of dust and elaborate team riding choreography. Honestly, I don't know how you score it, but the performances were pretty beautiful, and the ladies training and performing together were a lot of fun. They form the Californian team Las Azaleas, as they compete--and win--in local, state, and regional competitions until they make their way to the championships in Mexico. I won't spoil how they do in that competition (although it is quite shocking.) I also thought it was interesting watching them balance their home and professional lives with their passion, and how they raise money by doing shows during the intermission at speedways, etc. It's truly a passion sport, nobody (at least in America) gets into it to become rich and famous. But if you're interested, there is a U.S. Federation.

Next up was CLOSURE, a story about closed adoptions (one form of closure,) opening them up, finding your birth parents, and reaching another form of closure (which, not to give anything away, opens up another search.) The subject in this search is Angela, an African-American woman adopted by a loving white couple in Bellingham, WA. Waitaminit! I grew up (well, as much as I can say I'm a grown up) in Bellingham! Holy cow, it's such a trip to see my old city! Wow.... So after tripping on that for a while, I got back to paying attention to the story, and it was pretty incredible, too. Although it's a closed adoption, they did know some things in the records--like a bit of the story of why she was put up for adoption, the father's first name (and a hint that the redacted last name was short.) That was enough to put them on a search and eventually find him, then the mother. Meeting the father was kinda awesome. Not to give anything away but he's something of a local cult celebrity in Chattanooga, TN. And he always thought he was sterile, and he always wanted children. So he's ready to embrace Angela as a daughter whether tests confirm it or not. The relationship with the birth mother is...more complicated. But even that eventually works to a happy conclusions. A sense of...closure, if you will.

And finally, the last film of Saturday was BETTIE PAGE REVEALS ALL. Let me set this up for you. Back in 2004, Indiefest played a movie called BETTIE PAGE: DARK ANGEL. I was excited, Bettie Page was awesome, and this promised to tell her story in her own words. Well, the movie sucked. Sucked, sucked, sucked, sucked, suuuuuuuucked! It was dull, it was poorly acted, and it didn't tell you anything you couldn't learn from a Wikipedia article (as an aside, a year later when THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE was in theaters, I started seeing the DVD show up in video stores--opportunistic marketing!) Anyway, I kinda digress, but I wanted to set that up by saying Indiefest promised me a great Bettie Page movie 9 years ago, and they finally delivered. Not just a great recap of her career, it featured (audio) interviews from Bettie herself shortly before she passed away, setting everything up. And it has interviews with people who worked with her (including Pauline Klaw, Irving Klaw's sister and business partner,) people inspired by her, and people who were friends with her. It really gives a greater view of her career and life, especially the story of how she disappeared when she "found" religion. It's a bit more complicated--yes, she stopped modeling and joined a church. But she was a believer beforehand, and she never denounced or expressed shame at her former career (although the one incident where she was plied with plum brandy she regretted.) It had as much to do with her getting on in years and wasn't really fit to be a model anymore. But even then...well, I should let Bettie tell you herself, and if you get a chance to see this movie she actually can. One final note, I didn't know that Dave Stevens, who wrote graphic novel of The Rocketeer was a huge Bettie Page fan (and friend) and the female lead was actually supposed to be Bettie Page. They changed her name in the Disney movie, so now I should go back and rewatch that movie--and read the graphic novel.

Total Running Time: 267 minutes
My Total Minutes: 332,423

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 16

A.k.a. "The day after Closing Night," also a.k.a. "The first night of the bonus Santa Cruz weekend."

Anyway, I drove all the way down to Santa Cruz for just one movie, but it was a great one. THE SUMMIT is a breathtaking and tragic story of an expedition to K2. On a beautiful, clear day in August 2008, 18 climbers reached the summit of K2, arguably the toughest mountain in the world (routinely mentioned as slightly shorter, but way more treacherous than Everest.) Over the next 48 hours, 11 of them would die on the mountain. The adage that the descent is way more dangerous than the climb was never more true. And the thing is, in the thin air of the "Dead Zone" your thinking is confused, and it's difficult to remember and piece together everything that happened. A lot of it remains a mystery even to those who survived (and, of course, those who didn't don't get to tell their story.) The movie does a valiant job of trying to explicate everything that happened, in particular with the Irish climber Ger (this is an Irish production, and is very sympathetic to his family, especially when news reports come out about the "inexperienced" or "unprepared" climbers.) What it mostly boils down to is dumb luck--both for the victims and for the survivors. The one guy who comes off looking really bad is the leader of the Korean expedition. He also happens to be the one guy who refused to be interviewed for the movie. Now this could be damning, you could take it as "he's guilty and that's why he didn't want to be interviewed." Or this could be another example of how those who don't speak (or, like the victims, can't speak) end up with a story that shows them in a bad light. Either way, it's fascinating. And the movie as a whole is fascinating and beautiful, and mixes actual footage/pictures from the climb, reenactments of key incidents, and footage of the 1954 Italian team who first conquered K2 (including an interview with a surviving member of the team, although I believe he passed away a few years ago after the interview.)

Running Time: 98 minutes
My Total Minutes: 332,156

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 15

A.k.a, "Closing Night." Which is to say, the last night in San Francisco. Still one more weekend in Santa Cruz.

So the closing night film was TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPLY, which I had already seen in Palo Alto. I feel like I shouldn't press my luck by repeating my review here. I pretty much said it all the first time--at least about the subject. I will say the second time watching it I was more impressed with how Cullen Hoback incorporated scenes from other movies in there. And I'll say that the San Francisco audience laughed waaaaaay more than the Palo Alto one. There were chuckles in Palo Alto, there were guffaws in SF. 

And it was cool to chat with Cullen before and after the movie. He did offer me more insight into exactly why this movie didn't play in Cinequest.'s interesting. But if he and his team has decided not to start a public thing with Cinequest, I won't either. I like Cullen, I like Cinequest, it's a shame they didn't come together on this one, but at least TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPLY should be getting some play in both San Jose (probably at the Camera Cinemas, but nothing is official yet) and in San Francisco (probably at the Roxie, probably in August, but again nothing is official.)

Then we headed right across the street for the after party, where I stayed and got drunk on free Sangria instead of catching a second movie (I was thinking of seeing FUREVER, but it was not to be.) Oh, well. That was fun! 

Running Time: 79 minutes
My Total Minutes: 332,058

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 14

It just keeps going, and going, and going...but the end is in sight. In fact, it is now Sunday morning, last day of Docfest in Santa Cruz, and then it'll all be over but the writing--which I'm way behind on. Anyway, here's what I say last Wednesday:

First up was the short, THE DUDE about Jeffrey Dowd, the real-life inspiration behind The Dude in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. I had known a bit about him, his connection to the Coens, etc. One thing I had never thought about was that the Seattle Seven (The Dude and six other guys) were a real group. So now I have a plan for Lebowski Fest SF--get 5 friends together, put on name tags of the real guys (other than Dowd) and see if anyone can recognize us as the "six other guys" in the Seattle Seven.

And that short was  the lead-in to the feature, COMPLAINTS CHOIR, directed by Ada Bligaard Søby (who also directed PETEY AND GINGER.)  An odd idea by a couple of Finnish artists--to travel the world, gather complaints, and put together local choirs to sing those complaints. A way to learn what the average person is complaining about, and to express it with creativity and humor. We follow them as they put together two complaints choirs--one in Chicago, one in Singapore. Very interesting different dynamics. In America, you're free to complain about anything. And from what I've heard, there's plenty to complain about in Chicago. But this sort of project mostly attracts well-off, white, NPR-listening liberals. And the complaints aren't about crime, drugs, or poverty. Instead they're about parking, how nobody reads, how nobody is doing anything about global warming, etc. In Singapore, the complaints are more along the lines of people falling asleep on the bus and resting on your shoulder. But the interesting dynamic is just getting permission to perform. They have a sort of "Speaker's Corner"--right by the police station. So it's convenient to get a permit to speak there, right? Well, it goes from censoring what you can complain about, to who can complain (only native, ethnic Singaporean, no Malaysian immigrants) to...well they cancel all performances entirely. Oops, sorry for the spoiler. But if you're mad about that, you know how you can complain...?

And then the second show of the night was TRAINS OF THOUGHT. Now I have to admit I had a bit to drink and didn't quite stay 100% awake through the whole movie. But when I was awake, the footage of subways all over the world, the sweeping, rushing P.O.V. shots of the tracks...was just gorgeous. The cinematography was great, the soundtrack was engaging, and when I was awake and paying attention, the commentary from the riders was kinda fascinating. In fact, it's one of those movies that I'm sure is best appreciated fully awake, but actually passing in and out of consciousness while experiencing this is pretty fuckin' cool, too.

Total Running Time: 157 minutes
My Total Minutes: 331,979

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 13

Another night, another 2 movies, as we're getting down to the final days in San Francisco (still one more weekend in Santa Cruz.)

First up was the short-ish film program Featurettes. Films that are too long to pair with a feature, but too short to be their own feature. But sometimes that 20-30 minutes length is just right for telling your story.

C-ROCK: With a feeling of instant nostalgia, a look at a cliff on the Harlem river with a giant C (for Columbia) painted on it. Or rather, a look at the kids who play on that cliff, and jump off it into the water. Jumps range from 25 to 100 feet in height, and are a test of courage for teenage boys (and a source of entertainment for tourists taking a river sightseeing cruise.) And it's a generational link to their fathers, who similarly jumped from C Rock, and who now are the worried adults who are trying to keep their boys safe. (note, although they do talk about girls jumping from the rock, too, they aren't shown in the movie. Instead, they focus a lot on the proper form for cupping your balls so you don't get hurt when you enter the water.)

STRAIGHT WITH YOU: A movie from The Netherlands about young Melvin from Utrecht. He's 11 years old, is a funny, charming kid. He is friends with a girl who has a crush on him and wrote him a love letter. But he's not into girls. In fact, he learned pretty quickly (after seeing the handsome male star of a soap opera) that he's gay. Even in his progressive country, he's afraid to come out at such a young age. He has come out to his parents and to one friend (so far) who keeps his secret. It could easily get into issues of bullying, family (the scene of his father talking about going from a guy who might have made jokes about "dirty faggots" to someone who would pound your face in for making such a joke is pretty funny,) politics, etc. But instead it just shows a very nice, charming, and likable young man--and that's all for the better.

LIVING INSIDE OUT: "Inside" being inside prison. "Out" being their life once they've served their sentence and get out. "Inside out" has the double meaning that they still have "inside" habits on the outside (like a fear of being touched--nobody touches you casually or for no reason in prison) and how that experience turns them inside-out. Shot in San Francisco, through the eyes of three recently released women. It's an exploration of how incarceration changes a person, and a way to look at the city with new eyes. Even places as close as the 16th Street Mission BART, just a block away (although it was a bit puzzling. It showed a working escalator--I don't remember the last time the escalator from the station to the street worked in the 16th St. BART.)

And then the second show of the night, after a little confusion over what theater I was supposed to be in, I went to the Big Roxie to see the feature PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER. I remember when they were all over the news (although I confess I first learned about it by seeing this meme.) The film is an engagingly straight-forward account of the legal trouble of Nadia, Masha and Katia--three members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot. It doesn't really get into the other members, I assume for their protection. It starts with footage of their infamous performance in Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow. It then tracks back to the founding of the group and their earlier performances. They were founded in response to Putin once again being elected President of Russia. I assume a full explication of their politics would be complicated and require an understanding of the political situation in Russia. Either that or "Anti-patriarchy! anti-Putin! Anti-authoritarian!" is all they've got. That's probably why Western media has focused more on the free speech vs. censorship angle instead of what they actually stand for. They do, however, make a compelling case that while they are serious about their issues the performances are meant to be fun and light-hearted pranks, shocking but not really meant to offend anyone. Whether they accomplish this is another question, but the prosecution's description of their colorful ski masks as "acidic colored" is a laughable example of how the powers that be have to twist themselves around and exaggerate in order to make Pussy Riot seem dangerous. The best example of this is actually when a Russian Orthodox priest tries to explain what the "Pussy" in Pussy Riot means (it's a tricky word, because it can mean "cat" or "uterus." ...or it can mean other things, I guess. The best translation is probably "deranged vagina." Which inspires me to create my own band.) Things get a little more serious in the trial, as they realize their wacky hijinx will have real repercussions. Even then, there's some tension between wanting to be heroic, symbolic jester-martyrs and not really wanting to go to jail. In the appeal, one girl (Katia, I believe) is set free with a suspended sentence, while the other two remain in jail. In some ways, this looked like a betrayal, but we're not given access to their private discussions (maybe they all talked and agreed that if any of them can be freed it's a good thing.) In any case, I don't know how I'd react in their shoes--I'd probably rather be free. And Nadia and Masha have now hired Katia's lawyer to defend them, so I suspect as much as they can make some political points by being imprisoned, they'd also rather be free.

And now we're really getting down to the end of Docfest. Two more days in San Francisco, and then a bonus weekend in Santa Cruz and I'll finally be able to get some rest.

Total Running Time: 160 minutes
My Total Minutes: 331,823

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 12

As my regular readers know, I skipped the weekend shows at Docfest to see The Hitchcock Nine, hence no  posts on days 9, 10, and 11 of Docfest. But now I'm back for another full week, including a final weekend in Santa Cruz. Until then, it's the typical two-movies-a-night grind.

First up was TWO: THE STORY OF ROMAN AND NYRO. There is a moment I hoped would happen in the movie, and the fact that it didn't happen is a little bit of a wasted opportunity. I wanted to see Nyro learn the violin, and I wanted Roman to become a bit of a pyromaniac (not a dangerous arsonist, just a fascination with well-controlled fires.) And then I wanted a scene where Nyro fiddled with Roman burned.* I guess it could still happen in a sequel.

Instead what I got was a portrait of two charming, articulate, and funny young twin boys. And of course, their family--their famous songwriting dad Desmond Child, their other dad Curtis Shaw, their surrogate mother Angela Whittaker, their godfather Jon Bon Jovi, and their various grandparents. The film delves back into home videos and focuses on three main subjects--Desmond and Curtis' friendship with Angela leading to her agreeing to be their surrogate, the reactions of friends and family to Desmond and Curtis' lifestyle (and how they learned from it. I think it was Desmond's father who was surprised he was fertile at all, thinking that homosexuality meant he had insufficient testosterone to conceive,) and how the boys are doing today and what they think of their family. In all, it's an overwhelming positive story (as I'm sure it has been--and continues to be--an overwhelmingly positive experience in their lives,) only punctuated occasionally by the broader political issues. In fact, the absolute normalcy of this family renders the larger political questions kinda...silly and outdated. This family may have been created through extraordinary means, but their love and devotion is the same as any other family.

Oh yeah, the whole family was there for the Q&A, along with the director and DocFest alumna Heather Winters. The big takeaway--Nyro for President 2036! (He said 2035 in the Q&A, but that's not an election year. But at least he knows that's when he'll be old enough to run.)

Then the second film of the night was GIDEON'S ARMY. Before I get to the movie, I have to share a little anecdote. I have a friend who watches almost as many movies as I do. She was there for that screening, and like me she often will pick her festival schedule to maximize the number of movies she can see, without necessarily reading the descriptions in the guide and knowing what the movies are about. After seeing GIDEON'S ARMY, she confessed to me that she hadn't read the guide and assumed it was going to be about those people who put the Bibles in hotel rooms. It's not.

GIDEON'S ARMY refers to the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainright, which established the right to legal counsel in any criminal case (at the state level, counsel in federal criminal court was already guaranteed by the 6th amendment.) The Army referred to in the title are the thousands of public defenders across the country. Tireless, overworked, underpaid, often maligned...but they're an integral part of the justice system. In fact, they're the ones who put the "justice" in the justice system--without them it's just a punishment system. So we follow three young public defenders fighting for justice, and we get a glimpse into the support group that is the Southern Public Defender Training Center (now known as Gideon’s Promise.) They struggle with huge case loads (nobody was handling fewer than 100 cases at a time,) a system that encourages  pleading guilty to something (I knew plea-bargaining was common, I didn't know it was done in as much as 95% of the cases,) and low pay when they have student loans to repay and are seeing their friends make ten times their income working in private firms. It mostly steps around the bigger political issues (e.g., that candidates win elections by being "tough on crime" not "fair on crime" or even "smart on crime"...and I see no way to change that) in favor of worshiping these beleaguered heroes. And that's a good thing. Sometimes you just gotta give respect to the people out there fighting the good fight. I have never (knock on wood) needed a public defender, but I recognize that by making sure everyone gets a fair trial, they are protecting me. By forcing the prosecutors to do their damn job, to prove their damn case, they're making sure some prosecutor won't go after me without some damn good evidence. Which is a good feeling, especially when you're innocent.

Yeah, GIDEON'S ARMY is one of the best of the festival, and it's coming to HBO soon.

Total Running Time: 167 minutes
My Total Minutes: 331,663

*This, of course, is why I should never become a father--I would only want to have children to make puns. Like my secret plan to find, and date a woman named June. Over a few years our attraction grows and we decide to get married. A few more years of wedded bliss and we decide to increase our family. We might have a few sons (whom I'm sure will be great and make us proud) but we really want to have a girl. We finally get a baby daughter with and name her April. We raise her to be a bright, moral, conscientious, politically active young lady. Then wait for a political rally to be in our hometown during February when she is in school. As the date approaches, her mother and I discuss whether she should be allowed to skip school to go to the rally. I voice my opinion firmly and succinctly by stating, "February march? April may, June!" Then I drop the mic and walk out, making it clear I was only in this multiple-decade-long relationship to make that pun.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Jason watches The Hitchcock 9--part 3

And the finale, 4 more Hitchcock silent films on Sunday.

We jumped right in at noon with THE FARMER'S WIFE (1928), probably the  funniest romantic comedy of the weekend. A widowed farmer (Jameson Thomas) decides he wants to take on a new wife. So he turns to his faithful and lovely housekeeper (Lillian Hall-Davis) and...has her help him write up a list of all the eligible women in town. And then he goes a' courtin'...with hilarious and disastrous results. One rejects him, one is eager to do all the wifely work--except finding "comfort in a man's arms." One just goes loco with hysterics. And besides, none of them are much to look at. Each time he comes home more an more dejected and dispirited. He's almost ready to abandon the whole venture when he realizes what the audience knew from the beginning--that his perfect wife was right there in front of him the whole time. Kinda silly, kinda sappy, but it actually works. And it features a hilarious supporting role by Gordon Harker as the handyman. Harker also showed up this weekend as the father in CHAMPAGNE and Jack's trainer in THE RING.

The amazing one-man-band Stephen Horne accompanied again, and did a great job.

While the misogyny in THE FARMER'S WIFE was funny and absurd (and there was a lovely paragon of womanly goodness in it all), the next feature, EASY VIRTUE (1928) was downright cruel. Based on a Noel Coward play, Hitchcock and scenario writer Eliot Stannard did a great job of visually telling a dialogue-heavy story. Note, I haven't seen the play, so I don't know the technical differences. I can only imagine how it would be different on stage. I do know they start with the courtroom scene that is actually the climactic finale of the play. In it we learn that Mrs. Filton (Isabel Jeans) is in a divorce case with her husband. Although he's a drunkard who beats her, the verdict is against her because she allegedly had an affair with an artist who was painting her portrait (the way it was portrayed, I believe she didn't actually do anything untoward, it was the artist who propositioned her, but his love letter dooms her.) So she runs off to the French Riviera to start a new life. And is successful...for a while. She meets and marries a handsome young man and maybe her life will turn around. Unfortunately, his parents don't like her, and start doing a little snooping. Like I said, downright cruel. And there were Hitchcockian flairs other than the mistreatment of a woman--most notably the opening scene shot through a monocle.

Judith Rosenberg once again did a fantastic job accompanying. She's already a regular at Niles and at the PFA, and I hope she becomes a regular for the Silent Film Festival, too.

Then for the penultimate show we went back to Hitchcock's very first film (at least, his very first finished feature film), THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925.) And from the start females--particularly as the agents or victims of cruelty--are central to the story. Also, from the start he's a master of cinema. He had worked pretty much all jobs on a movie set before sitting in the director's chair, and it's clear he not only soaked up all the knowledge about how to make a film, he also had a keen mind to invent new methods. Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty) is a naive young girl with an invitation to audition for the chorus at the titular nightclub, the Pleasure Garden. But before she even gets into the door, her letter and all her money are snatched by a pickpocket. So she stays with a kind, wiser chorus girl Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli.) The next day Jill pleads her way into an audition, and really wows them, so she's well on her way to being the new star. While she is becoming a star, her fiance Hugh (John Stuart) is sent off to Africa by his company. Hugh's friend Levett (Miles Mander, whom I assume got teased as being the "mild-mannered Miles Mander",) takes a bit of a shine to Patsy, and they get married before he leaves to Africa to join Hugh. While there he, of course, philanders around and has no intention of returning to his wife. Jill, meanwhile, is fooling around with her admirers, especially a prince. Low morals, high decadence, and a bit of the African fever. Hitchcock certainly started with both mastery and flair.

And speaking of mastery and flair, Stephen Horne accompanied again. I'm losing track of how many instruments he plays, but I'm sure at least piano, flute, and accordion were in there.

And finally, we ended the night--and the weekend--with THE LODGER (1927): While this was his third finished feature (after the unfinished NUMBER 13, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, and the lost FEAR O' GOD aka THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE) this is the one that Hitchcock himself described as "the first 'Hitchcock' picture." A lot of the themes he would become famous for are developed here. Sinister men, murder, blonds, red herrings, mistaken suspicion, and of course high suspense. Ivor Novello stars as the titular lodger. We start with reports of a madman murdering blonds in London (the film was based on a book based on the Jack the Ripper murders.) The Avenger--as he calls himself by leaving his triangular note--is known to wear a scarf to cover his face. Soon enough, Ivor Novello shows up wearing a scarf over his face and asking to rent a room right in the middle of where all the murders have been taking place. Immediate suspicion ensues (going against type--another Hitchcock favorite--matinee idol Ivor looks downright creepy as the lodger.) It doesn't help that he hates to even look at portraits of blonds. Or that he's always pacing in his upstairs room (Hitchcock shows some special effects wizardry by having the ceiling dissolve so we can see the soles of his shoes pacing above.) Suspicion only gets worse when he actually becomes kind of friendly with the daughter of the house, Daisy (June Tripp, credited only as "June.") That's especially bad because her boyfriend Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen from THE MANXMAN) is a detective who is put on the Avenger case. Wonderfully suspenseful, and heavily influenced by German expressionism (particularly the  fog and the shadows--like the iconic shadow cross over the lodger's face.)

You know, he had such a long career in talkies that some people forget Hitchcock did silents. And even if you see them, sometimes it's hard to see the hand of Hitchcock in his early works (particularly the romantic comedies.) But this one--even if you took away the credits you could see Hitchcock at work here. Even if you didn't know his career spanned that far back, you could watch THE LODGER and guess that if Hitchcock didn't make it, he was heavily influenced by it. In that way, it's the perfect ending to the Hitchcock 9 weekend. If you're not going to do them chronologically, at least end with the most Hitchcockian one.

And once again, the marvelous Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided the perfect accompaniment. Looking forward to seeing them again (and all the other accompanists) at the SF Silent Film Festival in July.

Total Running Time: 355 minutes
My Total Minutes: 331,496

Jason watches The Hitchcock 9--part 2

Four more movies on Saturday, exploring the master's early years.

First up was CHAMPAGNE (1928). One of the most interesting things about this series is seeing Hitchcock working in genres other than suspense, particularly romantic comedy. I think Hitchcock always had an underrated sense of humor, and it's refreshing to see him working in a more bubbly genre (pun definitely intended.) On a luxury cruise ship, the crew sees a plane go down in the water and quickly send out a lifeboat. They bring a pretty young lady (Betty Balfour) on board, and ask her if her plane had mechanical troubles. No, actually she made an intentional water landing to meet up with the ship. See, she's a frivolous heiress to a champagne fortune, and her fiance happens to be on this cruise. Well, her father is none too pleased, especially when Wall Street ruins him while he's off dealing with her flapper shenanigans. A wild, mostly light-hearted ride that I'd be hard-pressed to guess was Hitchcock's work if I hadn't seen the credits. But knowing it was Hitchcock made little details stand out--character points like the sinister edge to the mysterious man who takes an interest in her, or camera tricks like shooting through a glass to give the POV of a champagne drinker.

Good fun, and accompanied by the marvelous Judith Rosenberg making her SF Silent Film Fest debut! Judith is actually one of the regulars down at the Niles Film Museum, and I ran into her on Muni that morning. We chatted from Embarcadero to Castro, and she mentioned how nervous she was for her debut. I told her she would be great--and for the record I was right.

BTW, if you missed any of the Hitchcock 9 over the weekend, and plan to catch them when they come to the PFA, Judith will be accompanying all of them on the piano.

Then things went in a distinctly non-romantic, non-comedy direction with DOWNHILL (aka WHEN BOYS LEAVE HOME, 1927), starring the matinee idol Ivor Novello (he will return in the weekend's finale, THE LODGER). One thing that struck me while watching all these movies back-to-back is how misogynistic they are. In most of them, either awful things happen to women or they are the direct cause of awful things happening to men--and not always to men who deserve it. This film is the most glaring example of the latter, as Novello's character, Roddy Berwick is repeatedly taken advantage of by evil, scheming women. First he takes the rap for a friend who impregnates the local shopkeeper's daughter. He gets kicked out of school (just as he was becoming the captain of the football team.) He goes and becomes an actor (introduced in a very clever way) and marries the beautiful starlet who takes a shine to him...right after his huge inheritance. After she fleeces him and tosses him aside, a madame in a dance hall pimps him out as a "dance partner" for the lonely ladies. Each further abuse and debasement leads to cleverly shot scenes of descent--on an escalator, an elevator, stairs, etc. as he descends to his next level of hell. Bleak, depressing, kinda shallow (oh, poor son of privilege has to get a god-damned job!) and very misogynistic. It's actually based on a stage play co-written (anonymously) by Novello, and no doubt influenced by his own experiences of having women falling over themselves to have him...despite being gay himself. Which makes the end scene (SPOILER ALERT) of him finally having a happy ending where he can go back to the football field and run around while big, tough guys tackle him (END SPOILER) really interesting.

The magnificent one man band Stephen Horne accompanied on the grand piano...and flute...and accordion...and I don't know what else. The man plays a lot of instruments, and he's amazing at them all.

Next up was THE RING (1927), a boxing picture and--surprisingly enough--the only film in with Hitchcock has sole writing credit (although he could turn one hell of a phrase, he wasn't a fan of writing dialogue and left that to his writing partners.) A fairly simple boxing picture and love triangle. "One Round" Jack Sander (Carl Brisson) is engaged to Mabel (Lilian Hall Davis), who sells tickets to his show at the circus. It's one of those shows where Jack takes on all comers, and is used to knocking them out immediately. But one day a stranger comes in, takes Jack into the 4th round, and actually knocks him out. It's a little unfair, because that man, Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) is actually the Australian heavyweight champion. But it's all good, Bob was actually there scouting Jack as a potential sparring partner. And when he gets the job, Jack quickly marries Mabel (in a very funny scene featuring all of the circus freaks in attendance.) But Bob has his eyes on Mabel, too, so as Jack works his way up the rankings, it looks like he won't just be fighting for the championship, he'll be fighting for his wife. The titular ring can refer to the boxing ring, the wedding ring, and the bracelet that Bob gives Mabel as a gift. Coiled around her arm like a snake (sinister, sexual, and Biblical allusions, there) it serves as a symbol of her infidelity--a very Hitchcockian element.

The excellent Mont Alto Orchestra provided accompaniment, along with a Foley artist to provide the ringside bell. They were, of course, magnificent as always.

Carl Brisson again competed with a friend for the affections of a woman in THE MANXMAN (1929). This time he plays Pete Quilliam a humble fisherman on the Isle of Man (Manxman is the term of a resident of the Isle. And I though it was "Mannonite.") His best friend is Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen,) a lawyer who is being groomed to be a Deemster (i.e., Judge.) Pete is in love with Kate (Anny Ondra from BLACKMAIL) but her father refuses because Pete is poor. So Pete sets off to find his fortune, and asks Philip to take care of Kate while he's gone. Well, when word comes back that Pete has been killed, he does more than take care of her--he starts planning to marry her. But before he can get around to it, Pete returns. Not only was the news of his death greatly exaggerated, he's now a very wealthy man and ready to marry Kate. So Kate and Philip just sort of keep their brief romance a secret, Kate marries Pete, they have a baby, and Philip starts his job as the new Deemster. But Kate is still in love with Philip and that all gets pretty awkward and convoluted when she ends up in front of Philips' court for trying to run away and commit suicide with her baby (whom she reveals is not Pete's.) Beautiful and tragic, with great performances, stunning natural cinematography (the  village of Polperro in Cornwall stood in for the Isle of Man,) and of course more than a little Hitchcockian misogyny, as this time the woman is not only the cause of suffering, but has a great deal of it heaped on her as well.

Stephen Horne accompanied, and was excellent as always. And he finally found an instrument he couldn't work into his one-man-band, so Diana Rowan helped him out on the Celtic harp. 

And that was Saturday at the Hitchcock 9. Just over halfway through.

Total Running Time: 415 minutes
My Total Minutes: 331,141

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Jason watches the Hitchcock 9--Part 1

The SF Silent Film Festival presented all the (surviving) silent films Hitchcock made--all 9 of them--over the weekend at the beautiful Castro Theatre. I'm cheating on Docfest to see them. If you missed them, I'm sorry I didn't get this posted sooner. But there is a second chance, at the PFA in August.

Friday was one movie, Hitchcock's final silent, BLACKMAIL (1929.) Silent Film Festival Artistic Director Anita Monga assured us that when we see his first (credited) turn in the director's chair with PLEASURE GARDEN (1925) we'll see that he was a master from the beginning. For now, I can tell you that he was a master by 1929. Hitchcock, like many others, bemoaned how talkies led to a decline in visual storytelling, and BLACKMAIL visually is a master class on montage. From the very start with a sequence showing the cops tracking down and arresting a career criminal, we see a fluidity and inventiveness that's rare in cinema from any generation. Narrative-wise, that sequence serves to introduce our protagonist cop, who then goes out on the town with his best gal, where we learn (but he doesn't, in a very funny scene) that she has another fella on the side. Like in many Hitchcock films, the men are helpless in their desire for the female, and the masculine action is actually moved along by feminine wiles. I'll avoid spoiling too much by revealing who ends up blackmailing whom over what (in fact, it changes) but I will say it culminates in an exciting chase through the British Museum, which features some pretty seamless trick shots (look up the Shüfftan process for some delicious cine-geekitude.)

And oh yeah, if you play the spot-the-Hithcock-cameo game, he makes it way too easy, he's on screen for several seconds as a passenger on a train being pestered by a kid. He made his cameos briefer in his later films.)

And finally, lest I forget, silent films rely on the work of their musical accompaniment, and the Mont Alto Orchestra did a perfect job of it. I don't know if it was their own composition or the original score, but there was something about it that just felt Hitchcockian.

And that was Friday. Now I'm looking forward to a full weekend of silent Hitchcock at the Castro.

Running Time: 75 minutes
My Total Minutes: 330,726

Friday, June 14, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 8

Another night, another two movies. What a great life! Wait, that's not how you spell "I'm so fucking exhausted!"

First up, THE NEW PUBLIC, showcasing the efforts of creating a new public "small school" in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Community Arts and Media Public High School (BCAM for short.) Founder and principal James O'brien has an enthusiasm that's matched by (most of) the rest of his teachers, and by (most of) the incoming freshman class. The movie follows them in their freshman year, and then again in their senior year--the school's first graduating class. We start with the opening months of giddy optimism (More one-on-one communication! Dialogue! Support groups! Let the kids lead the way!) to the realization by the end of the year that maybe a little more structure is needed to actually A) keep the kids from straying, and B) actually meet the state standards and be on track to graduate. We also get an excellent look of how important it is to work closely with involved parents. An emergency PTA meeting decides not to go to full-time metal scanners (interestingly enough, the parents were unanimous, the kids were more conflicted. I don't know if this is kids adjusting to the new normal, or kids answering what they think the adults want to hear.) Anyway, we skip over the Sophomore and Junior years (interesting choice, and I think it ultimately works for the good of the pacing) and see how many things have changed. The staff of 8 in their first year is now up to ~40-50. The kids have grown up quite a bit--some have moved away, some have dropped out, some are dealing with new struggles, and some are doing just fine. Pretty much all the featured kids get enough screen time to shine at least a little bit, but by a wide margin the star of the film is John Dargan. As a freshman, he's a brave, smart, sensitive kid who when asked to make a PSA makes one about not bullying gay kids. He insists over and over again he just thinks it's an important issue even though he's not gay himself. Well, SPOILER ALERT: come senior year he's talking about how he came out the previous year, marched in the pride parade, and how all his teachers came and supported him. He's clearly so likable I'm sure he was the Teacher's Pet in every class he took (even if they didn't show favoritism, he had to be among their favorites.) And a big part of senior year is applying to college and hoping for that thick envelope of acceptance. I think the film actually teases us a bit, showing him picking up the thick envelope and then going through numerous rejections before he finally gets into Connecticut College (where he's studying film, so I expect to see great things from him in the future.)

Then the next show started with the short BRUTE FORCE, a look at the irreverent and hilarious musician who was going to be a star with Apple Records (yes, the Beatle's label.) But he couldn't get his album released, something about censorship over his song The King of Fuh (I think it's because the repeated line "all hail!" kinda sounds like "aw, hell!") Well, he's kinda being rediscovered now, thanks to his Confections of Love being recognized as one of the "best" bad, lost albums of 60s and 70s. Now he's playing again, accompanied by his daughter, Daughter of Force. A really funny guy.

And then the feature, PETEY AND GINGER, a personal work by director Ada Bligaard Søby (who also did COMPLAINT'S CHOIR, playing in this same festival) about her two American friends. Petey Dammitt plays for the Oh Sees (whose music is on the soundtrack) and works in a porn warehouse, where he and his boss package and ship dildos and wonder aloud about who the heck goes on the Internet to buy one single, solitary condom. (I mean, it's weird enough to use the Internet to buy a box of condoms, but to buy one? When they're available...everywhere?) Ginger (who has never met Petey) lives in New York, is a former stripper and a part-time psychic. She does tarot card readings. They're both living the American drea...nightmare, kinda. Selling fantasies, without a nickel to buy their own. It's a look at an alternative way of surviving in America (this is coming from an upper-middle class Silicon Valley engineer) that's as interesting as the people are. Which is important. I found them pretty interesting (Petey more than Ginger, but I think that's just more familiarity with the San Francisco setting), but I can easily understand people who find them annoying. So go into the movie as if you're going to meet some new people, and prepare to either meet some new friends or have a story to tell about the weird people you met.

Total Running Time: 159 minutes
My Total Minutes: 330,651

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

The Palo Alto days at Docfest are done, so it's back at the Roxie for a week and a half before a final weekend in Santa Cruz. Two more programs last night, starting with a shorts program of Local Docs, taking us through all the stages of life in the Bay Area (or at least through the lens of Bay Area filmmakers):
THE SCENES: As children, we invent games and play. These children, all natural performers, invent a game where they essentially workshop weird, funny scenes all week and perform them during recess on Friday. Lots of fun, and it's great to remember what kids think is funny.
AWARDWINNINGGIR: Made in 4 days as part of the Doc Challenge, we follow our hero into the scary world of dating, especially online dating (the title comes from her screen name, which was cut short because of the character limit.) Interesting, but I'd like to have known how it turned out in the long run. Part of the limitation of the Doc Challenge format. For what it's worth, in the Q&A we learned that no, it didn't lead to a long-term relationship.
BETWEEN LAND AND SEA: Now we look at the life of a married couple (see, we're kinda going through a lifetime with these films.) Specifically, the life of a married couple of innkeepers on tiny East Brother Island, home to a lighthouse and a tiny bed and breakfast with unique views of San Francisco. But this isn't the romantic story of a couple who lived there their whole life and only needed each other and their guests. This is the story of a couple who met when they were working on a boat together, were innkeepers for a year or so, and then finally moved to the mainland and got real jobs.
THE HJEMKOMST: THIRTY YEARS LATER: Well, let's see, we've had childhood, dating, marriage, how about now we do something monumental. And what could be more monumental than building a homemade Viking ship and sailing from Minnesota (via the Great Lakes) to Norway? The original dreamer died of leukemia before his dream became a reality. But his friends, children, and just people who were inspired by the dream made it a reality. And that was thirty years ago. This movie is them looking back on their crazy adventure. It was my favorite one of the bunch, despite not having an obvious San Francisco connection (director J. Christian Jensen is local. That's it.)
THE SUM TOTAL OF OUR MEMORY: And finally, we look near the end of life, as we meet couples who are dealing with the onset of Alzheimer's with a surprising amount of grace and humor. Beautiful shot, and does a great job of evoking the "holes" in a swiss-cheese memory.

And then the second show of the night was MY WAY TO OLYMPIA. In the opening scene, director Niko von Glasow is talking to boccia champion Greg Polychronidis from Greece, and mentions straight-up that he thinks sports "suck." That's a shame, because Niko will be meeting and following the lives of many more athletes in their unique Olympic quests: Table tennis player Aida Husic Dahlen from Norway, archer Matt Stutzman from the USA, swimmer Christiane Reppe from Germany, and an entire volleyball team from Rwanda. Niko approaches it all with charm, grace, and a disarming sense of humor.... Oh, wait, that last joke doesn't work unless you know that Niko is a paraplegic, a Thalidomide child with stubby flipper arms. And all the athletes are paraplegics of some sort, and their Olympic Dream is for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. Greg is paralyzed from the neck down and has helpers set up and position the ramp for his boccia throws (he nudges the ball down the ramp using a fixture attached to his head.) Aida has one arm, but could tear me apart at table tennis. Matt is short-armed, like Niko, and holds his bow in his feet. Christiane has only one leg, but is beautiful and buff as hell. A one-legged woman who could kick my ass. And that Rwandan team--they play sitting volleyball, scooting around using only their arms (the net is shorter, of course). The stories are inspiring, and the cinematography is breath-taking. Particularly the super-slow-motion shots of the most critical points of competition. Greg landing his ball just right. Or Christiane diving into the water. Or Aida...actually, most of her climactic match is shown through the reaction of her parents, which is an interesting choice that works greatly to capture not just what she's feeling, but what the people who care about her are feeling. But still, the glue of it all is Niko and his charm and humor. He talks candidly with his athlete friends about some of the same struggles, and how it's hard for him to get a job as a director. And he does warm up to sport, even playing a little forbidden boccia on the site of the original Olympics, in Olympia, Greece (before they're shooed away by a security guard.) Really a fantastic film, possibly my favorite of the festival so far (I have a feeling I've said that about too many movies already. But this time I really, really mean it!)

Total Running Time: 157 minutes
My Total Minutes: 330,492

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 6

Three more movies last Tuesday, the last night of Docfest in Palo Alto. I'm not sure how successful they were there--some shows seemed to have a pretty good audience, some were kind of empty. But as a South Bay guy who works in Palo Alto, I'm hoping they did well enough to keep coming here.

The first movie of the night was THE END OF TIME, about...well, ostensibly about the very concept of time, but what I got out of it was some awesome cinematography and sense of wonder, mystery, and curiosity about a very tricky subject. We get to see into the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and ruminate not just the amazing technology/engineering achievement, but what it means to explore the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang. For that matter, if time is inherently tied to space as 4-dimensional space-time, and space was created in the Big Bang, does it even make sense to talk about "before" and "after" the Big Bang? (well, maybe "after" makes sense but "before" doesn't.) We get to see the ravages of time, in decaying Detroit or in a Hindu funeral ceremony. Or just the never ending changes of time, as we visit the one home remaining on the south side of the Big Island, after all the rest have been washed away by lava flows. We look into the stars, realizing that the further away we look the further back in time we see. And we look into ourselves. It's more of a meditative art film than a typical information/opinion-delivering documentary, and that's all to the strength of it. If it actually answered the question "What is Time?" then it probably didn't understand the question to begin with. Which reminds me, the end scene with director Peter Mettler's mother Julia might just be my favorite. At least, she gives the most human answer to the question.

And then I saw the film I was personally most eager to see in the entire festival, TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPLY. It's not that I'm particularly interested in the topic of online privacy. I am interested in it, but I'm interested in a lot of other things. And as far as Internet privacy, I seem to have a higher level of tolerance for looking like a fool on the Internet than most of my fans, so it's always been more of a theoretical concern for me. And I'm not doing anything too illegal, so...

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What really interested me is the director, Cullen Hoback, whom I have met and I've been a fan of for years, entirely from all of his previous features playing at Cinequest. But then this one didn't. So I was a little curious why. And I happened to hear a rumor (and maybe irresponsibly repeated it, in person but not online) that it didn't play at Cinequest because it was too critical of some sponsors (or more broadly, the industry that many Silicon Valley sponsors are in.) So I was ready to write something about that, but in a rare flash of journalistic integrity, I decided to ask Cinequest Director of Programming Michael Rabehl about it. He assured me (and I believe him) that sponsor influence had nothing to do with any of his programming decisions, as the sponsors aren't even aware of what films are submitted (at least not from him.) He did provide me this statement, which I'm happy to repeat:
“Cullen is an amazing filmmaker, and we have enjoyed time and again having him involved in Cinequest, and hope to again with his future films.  With the reviews of hundreds and hundreds of films every year, I personally have to make incredibly painful choices when putting together the program.  This year alone, I turned away a long list of films I really would have loved to be a part of Cinequest, solely because we don’t have the space to program all of the great films we see.  Unfortunately, that also means I am turning away films that are perfect for our audience, from filmmakers we adore, and that is one of the most painful things to do.”
The only thing I'll add is how happy I am to live in the SF Bay Area where we have so many film festivals (some might say too many, but those people are wusses) that if a great film can't be fit into one festival's schedule, there's a good chance it'll pop up at another local festival.

Well, with that out of the way, on to the actual film. Cullen has the kind of sense of humor I enjoy, and that's on display in the opening scenes, an animated comparison of going to a foot doctor in the real world vs. what it would be like in the online world (full of everything from annoying ads to snooping cameras and higher insurance premiums as a result of your activities.) It also quickly gets into the 'OMG, this is amazingly timely!' territory with revelations about NSA wiretapping and snooping on your online activities. Of course, these were the revelations from 2006, the first time the media got spun up about it...and then forgot. I have a dull, aching feeling that we're going to keep "revealing" this every 5-10 years until that's the new normal. More interesting in some ways is how the private companies--Google and Facebook are most prominently featured--have used the increased tracking "required" by law enforcement to track you for their own business purposes. It's an interesting point to think about what if Google was a $500/year service, since that's the estimated value of the data the average user supplies to them. Even more interesting is how Google's privacy policy from, say August of 2000 is different on the Wayback Machine and Google's own archive (take a look at how Google removed mention of how cookies 'cannot tell us, "This person is Joe Smith" or even, "This person lives in the United States."') Facebook's legendary changing of privacy policy defaults is better known and well documented here. The closing sidewalk interview with Mark Zuckerberg is an excellent punctuation to everything brought up in the movie.

Personally, I share more of my shenanigans online than a person with a normal amount of shame should. I sympathize with people who want privacy even though I willingly share my fondness for class 4 handheld lasers or delicious chocolate buttholes. But after watching this movie, what I'm really afraid of is the simple law enforcement misunderstandings. Like the Irish tourist who tweeted about how he's going to "destroy America" (meaning drink a lot, get wild & crazy, party, etc. What I call "BARmageddon.") He ends up being stopped at the airport and held for over a day before he is allowed to enter the country. Or the junior high school kid who tweeted concern that Obama should be afraid of a suicide bomber attack after killing Bin Laden. He got a visit from the Secret Service over that. I guess he's lucky he didn't write something like, "Obama better watch out. I have concrete plans to travel to Washington, D.C. on June 31st for the express purpose of taking a shot at him." Now, it's pretty clear in context that I  have no such plans, and I'm presenting an example of how free speech can get you into legal trouble. Eagle-eyed readers might notice that I offered up a non-existent date for my non-existent plans. I sure hope any law enforcement officer reading this takes a few minutes to note the obvious context. I suppose I'll find out soon if that's not the case. Hell, I write a lot here, and on topics as diverse as the movies I watch. In the early days of my blog I had a bit of fun noting what odd search terms led people here. That's all fun, and part of my penchant for sharing too much here. But I can only imagine what horrible misunderstand could happen if I accidentally reviewed these three movies too close together.

Okay, I think I've pressed my luck far enough. I will simply point out that the movie's website, is a funny resource on the movie, and includes links to privacy tools, which is a topic the movie doesn't even get into (perhaps for a sequel, or DVD extras? Do people still do DVD's?)

And finally, I ended the night with FALL AND WINTER. A beautiful and sprawling exploration of everything that's wrong with the modern world, starting with agriculture. Not modern agribusiness, not GMOs, but the act of planting, growing, and harvesting crops in and of itself. This is "back to nature" at it's extreme--not back to the farm, back to hunter-gatherer lifestyle (actually, I'm pretty sure many of the subjects were vegetarians, so back to gatherer lifestyle.) I should stop right now and say I respectfully disagree. I like modern life, and while I think the connection to nature is often lost, it's not too hard to find again, and it doesn't require demolishing all the technological advancements we've made and living like cavemen (for those who choose to do that, more power to 'em, just don't expect me to join in.) So I won't really focus on the argument the film makes, other than to say it is made persuasively (just not persuasively enough to get me to change.) Instead I'll point out how beautiful the cinematography is. Or how lyrical and flowing the tone is. And how many fascinating people director Matt Anderson meets and interviews. And actually, along those lines I should mention that maybe it was just an isolated one or two who made the "agriculture is bad" argument--it's just the argument that sticks in my mind way too much. Come to think of it, the guy building houses in Haiti out of discarded tires and bottles--he's freakin' cool. The Native American speaking to the (unfortunately, mostly empty) United Nations--he's cool. Grace Lee Boggs (whom I first saw in the documentary THE GRACE LEE PROJECT) is cool. A lot of them are cool. And you know what, the guys arguing for a return to primitivism are cool, too. I guess it's a shame that I started approaching the film, and this review, with a rejection of the anti-agriculture, hunter/gatherer philosophy. Because I think that really hampered my opening up to the film (well, that and my extreme exhaustion. I can't believe the festival isn't even half over yet.)

Total Running Time: 295 minutes
My Total Minutes: 330,335

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 5

Docfest has added a lot of new venues this year. Sunday I was at the Balboa, and last night I was at the Aquarius in Palo Alto, which is pretty close to my work (the Cinearts Palo Alto Square would be even closer--walking distance even--but this is close enough.) for three movies.

First up was WILLIAM AND THE WINDMILL, the story of William Kamkwamba. William lives in a small village in Malawi. Years back there was a drought and his family couldn't pay for both food and his education, so he was devastated to be pulled out of school. But he educated himself, reading books in the library. And when he came across a book on energy, he got inspired to build his own windmill to provide electricity to his home. It's a charmingly crude contraption that totally works, and got him his own TED talk. The movie sort of picks up from there, as his fame grows and he's invited to share his story all over the world. The focus is on his friend and mentor Tom Rielly, who expresses some White Guilt about the history of white people coming to Africa and "helping" for about a year before they move on to some other cause. So he promises William 7 years of his life, and shepherds him into America, through writing a book, through the book tour and several talks, through his intense 2-year program in the African Leadership Academy, through the work of building a school in his village (powered, of course, by a windmill) and even into enrolling at Dartmouth (that's kind of where the movie ends, although of course there's bound to be more to his story over the years.) Through it all, Tom comes of as a worried but proud paternal figure (the talk about drinking at school is particularly funny and touching,) and William is a charming guy with a wonderful smile who is a little overwhelmed by everything that's happening. He comes of as shy and humble quite a lot (even humble about saying he's humble--if people say he's humble I guess he's humble.) Even when he views an exhibit about him at a science museum, he can only smile and laugh shyly, he can't talk about how he feels. It all makes him even more likable and amazing, and time will only tell how far he can go with changing the world for the better.

Then I saw a short and feature about animals and their unique relationships with humans. First up the 9 minute short PULLING TEETH. John Baker, equestrian dentist, has never sedated a horse to work on its teeth. FYI, that's incredibly unusual. Instead he communicates with them, understands them, works with them. Although I don't recall them using the term "horse whisperer" the similarity is obvious. He's the horse whisperer of dentists, and a really cool guy.

And then the feature, LIFE WITH ALEX. A little birdie told me this is the most amazing thing I've seen in the festival (so far.) Dr. Irene Pepperberg was interested in the studies of animals using language--chimps using sign language, dolphins communicating, etc. But she realized no one was studying birds, and birds (at least parrots) can actually talk! So she bought Alex at a pet store, and over a 30 year study completely changed the way we understand intelligence. He learned his numbers (at least up to 6.) He learned shapes (in terms of  Number + "corner," so instead of "triangle" he would say "three corner.") He learned colors (although parrots see in the ultra-violet, so yellow, orange and red he called "orange.") He learned foods like "nut," "wheat," "banana," "cherry," and "banerry." Wait, what's that last one? When trying to teach him "apple" he kept calling it "banerry" which a linguist pointed out was his way of combining the ideas of "banana" and "cherry." That's not the first mind-blowing bit in here--just wait until he demonstrates not only a concept of numbers, but the concept of "none." But this movie isn't just about Alex. It's also about Dr. Pepperberg and her lab, the struggles they've had with funding, with publishing, with getting anyone to take them seriously. There was a time in her research that the whole field of animal communication fell out of favor, and the Clever Hans Effect hypothesis ruled the conventional wisdom. It's also about the birds they added to their studies, Griffin and Wart (full name Arthur, but everyone called him Wart.) And it's about the beautiful relationship between Dr. Pepperberg and Alex. Spoiler Alert (available to anyone with Google): Alex has passed away, and the scene about that is one of the most beautiful and touching things I've ever seen on screen. For more information, check out the Alex Foundation or read The Alex Studies.

Then there was a bit of a break between movies, so I went next door to The Patio for a beer...and a bite to eat...and two more beers.

Then the movie, BILL W. is the story of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (Ha! See what I did there? I got drunk before watching a movie about AA! No, I guess it's not very funny....) Anyway, the movie is very well done, and was appropriately programmed for both Palo Alto and San Francisco on the date that AA was founded. The film is breezy and fast moving for a 1 hour, 45 minute running length, and uses recordings, pictures, and reenactments to tell his life story pretty exhaustively. And more than anything, it's a very sad story. A story of failure after failure (both in business and in staying sober) with one emphatic success--the twelve principles of AA, which brought together the physical, spiritual (though not specific to any religion) and emotional aspects of treating the disease of alcoholism. But even after that success, there was still more failure. He became the focus of a cult of personality. He could no longer go to meetings as an alcoholic, he had to be there as the founder. Ironically, he was the one person who couldn't be anonymous in AA. Then there were his experiments with using LSD to treat alcoholism (the premise was that he had a religious "flash" that set him on his right path, and LSD could trigger a similar flash in others.) In a way, the two best things that ever happened to AA--and hence to recovering alcoholics--was Bill Wilson (oops, spoiler alert!) founding the organization and Bill Wilson passing away so it could finally be about the anonymous alcoholics instead of about him.

Oh, and I won't get into the episode of Bill asking for whiskey on his deathbed. I'm not sure if the movie got into that, because I kinda dozed off at the end. Maybe that third beer was a bit too much.

Anyway, three more movies tonight, including my most anticipated film, Cullen Hoback's TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPLY.

Total Running Time: 256 minutes
My Total Minutes: 330,041

Monday, June 10, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 4

Four more movies yesterday (Sunday), including my first visit to the Balboa Theater. I know, there's a theater in the Bay Area I haven't visited yet? Yeah, it's a bit out of my way, but still (don't tell anyone I've never been to the Vogue or 4-Star either)...

Anyway, the first show at the Balboa was MAGIC CAMP, a documentary about (duh!) a summer camp for kids learning magic. But Tannen’s Magic Camp isn't just any little camp where novice kids learn a few card tricks, this is where some really talented young magicians hone their craft. And it's the camp that graduated David Copperfield, David Blaine, and Criss Angel. There are some very young kids just starting out, but the focus (of the documentary, if not the camp) is the competition among the more experienced kids. Actually, check that, the focus is really on kids dealing with all the ordinary stuff of growing--social awkwardness, homesickness, trying to impress friends, etc. But the audience draw is magic, and the narrative structure is built around the big competition. The defending champ has mad skills but a not-very well worked out stage routine. Contrast that with the young upstart whose technique needs refinement but his stage presence is pretty good (he's a big fan of the elegance of a magic act.) Then there's the female contestant (at least, the only one to crack the top 4) who has a pretty good Wonder Woman act that features jokes about bending forks with her Psychic Metal Skills (think about those initials for a second...) And one of the most interesting guys has Tourette Syndrome and talks rather openly about how he uses magic to escape from his troubles and focus his mind (when he's deep in practice on a new trick, his ticks disappear.) He even talks about a medication overdose that wasn't really but maybe kinda-sorta was a not really sincere suicide attempt. That's actually something that comes up a lot--not suicide, but the idea that a lot of these kids use magic as an escape from the unhappiness in their lives. It actually reminds me of the Ricky Jay documentary I saw at SFIFF, and how he talks a bit about his not-very-happy childhood and the frequent unhappiness in his life. It seems that maybe there's something about the people that are drawn to magic--or at least the people who stick with it. That it's often an escape for some very unhappy people...or that it takes a certain kind of unhappiness to prefer to practice a card move until your hands are bloody with paper-cuts rather than going out and facing the world without magic. I don't want to say that all magicians are kinda screwed up in the head. But I do want to say that if being a little screwed up in the head turns people into great magicians, then good for them and good for all of us in the audience.

Then I saw a short and a feature about time-honored technologies that are too quickly being replaced by new technology. First the short, HOW TO SHARPEN PENCILS. Artisanal pencil sharpener David Rees takes us through the hilarious process of sharpening a standard yellow #2 pencil. From selecting the right tool and the right pencil, to filing the graphite (there's no lead in a pencil "lead," dammit!) to a fine point. This guy knows what he's talking about. He sharpens over 1,000 pencils a year, and has literally written the book on it.

I specifically linked to the hardcover printed version of David Rees' book to tie in with the feature film, OUT OF PRINT, a short-ish (55 minutes) feature about the glorious history and complicated present of the printed word. From the scrolls, to the codex, to movable type and the printing press, and now to e-readers... The movie quickly and breezily ties this in with world history and how humans evolve along with our tools. Books (i.e., the codex--cutting up the scroll into pages and binding the pages together) coincided with the rise of Christianity. Movable type with the spread of the Reformation. There's a reason that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to "freedom of the [printing] press" (as opposed to wording it as something like "the freedom to disseminate information.")  Where it goes from here...that's a tougher question. Not just for publishers, who are dealing with the technical issues of e-books and proper compensation for the creators of copyrighted works. But for society as a whole--are we reading differently than we were before? Do people sit and read an entire e-book the same way they read paper books? At first impression, the content is the same. But when it's so easy to search the book for the passage you want, or click from the book to online content, is the process of in-depth reading disappearing? The movie makes a compelling case that while access to information is at an all-time high, we've become a population that reads one interesting fact after another without the focus to analyze the facts and formulate them into a coherent idea. And this "short form" reading is damaging to our collective intelligence. Interesting...I guess I should tweet that.

Then I booked it (ha! get it? Booked it! Because I had just seen a movie about books!) over to the Roxie for two more movies.

First up, the most experimental and artistic documentary I've seen so far, ELENA. While most documentaries try to give you information, this one is about creating a mood. It's more like a 82 minute audio-visual poem than what you'd think of as a documentary. But it is based on a true (and very personal) story, so I guess it counts. Elena Costa traveled from Brazil to New York twenty-some years ago, looking to become an actress. He little sister Petra (the director of the movie) was just seven at the time. Her mother always told her she can live anywhere--except New York. And she can be anything--except an actress. So this movie opens with Petra ruminating on that as she arrives at Columbia University to study theater. She talks about how she expects to magically run into Elena on the street, but as their stories blur we learn some shocking things about what happened to Elena. I'm tempted to spoil it...but I won't. I'm not sure that it matters since (as I said) it's not a movie about exposing the facts as much as it is about creating a mood. Me revealing the facts still wouldn't create the mood of melancholy, mystery, and longing. But it's still a pretty powerful reveal, so I'll hold on to it and just encourage you to find it yourself. It's one of those movies where I hate the audience award ballot, because I can't really process my emotional response quickly enough to vote fairly. I should be able to vote based on what I feel the next day, or next week, or even months later if it's one of those movies that sticks with me (feels like it might) instead of voting on my immediate 'I don't know what to make of that' response.

And finally, I ended the night with FUCK FOR FOREST. Yeah, it's kinda exactly what it sounds like. A bizarre Berlin-based charity that raises money to protect Amazon rainforests by selling homemade porn online. I'd include a link, but the corporate IT at work blocked access to the Balboa Theater website, so I assume I'll be fired if I click on any link after googling their name. Anyway...yeah, these are some extreme people, and a pretty extreme movie. You will see naked people. You will see sex. You will (if you're anything like me) get a creepy Manson-family vibe from them. And that's before one guy licks a mixture of menstrual blood and semen off his hands while ranting about how we shouldn't be so uptight about life-giving-fluids. Oops, I mean, !!!SPOILER ALERT!!! on that last sentence. But honestly, I had to balance the disappointment of knowing that in advance with the shock of finding that out, and decided it would be more responsible to let potential audiences knew what they were getting into first.

Anyway, that's what I had to think about on my way home last night, then I had to try to sleep with that image in my head.

Total Running Time: 318 minutes
My Total Minutes: 329,785

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Jason goes to Midnites 4 Maniacs for Johnny Depp's Birthday

That is, Johnny Depp's 50th Birthday! If that surprises you, consider this tidbit I learned last night, the guy who first convinced him to pursue acting (instead of being a rock star) is one year younger--and that guy is Nicolas Cage! (get ready for his 50th Birthday celebration in January) Who would've guessed that Nicolas Cage is younger than Johnny Depp? That's more surprising than remembering that Cage has won an Oscar and Depp hasn't.

Okay, on to the movies. I think this is the first M4M I've been to where I've seen all the movies before--multiple times. And I love them all.

BENNY & JOON: Quite possibly the most romantic movie I've ever seen, and now that I've seen a lot more silent films I better appreciate the homages in all the bits Johnny Depp does as Sam. But that part (which is what I loved in the movie the first half-dozen times I saw it) is now just the icing on the cake. The meet-crazy-cute romance between him and Mary Stuart Masterson's as Joon is certainly central. But this time I see more in the pulled-in-every-direction overly responsible Aidan Quinn as Benny. It makes perfect sense that his name is first in the title. Without him there's no drama, just a couple of crazy people falling in love, and that happens all the time. Benny not only brings the "normal" person's perspective, but he brings the conflict that's essential for drama.

WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE: What a great movie. I remember seeing it and wondering if Leonardo DiCaprio really was disabled. And then I remember when he became the biggest pretty-boy heartthrob star in the universe and I kept making that joke. But damn, he's a great actor, and it's interesting learning about how when he became a such a heartthrob star he turned to none other than Johnny Depp for advice. And, of course, watching this back to back with BENNY & JOON it's impossible not to think about the mental illness connection. But here are other connections I noticed:

  • Fire
  • Captain Crunch
  • Climbing
  • And my favorite one--BENNY & JOON has a bit about how raisins are sad because they are grapes with the life force sucked out of them, and WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE is about Grapes who are sad and have the life force sucked out of them.

I think there are others, but those are the ones I remember now.

CRY-BABY: And John Waters did not show up. Neither did Johnny Depp, although apparently there's a rumor that he did show up at one years ago. Juvenile delinquents, singing, and drapes vs. squares (yeah, I've never heard the term "drape" before...or after...but all you gotta know is they're the opposite of squares.) And the most important thing--as in all John Waters movies--is unconditional love for the non-conformists. This was Johnny Depp's first real starring role and during John Waters' PG-13 period, when his PINK FLAMINGOS fans abandoned him. So it kinda bombed when it was first released, but I still love it.

The next Midnites 4 Maniacs is July 5th, a musical triple bill of JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS, VELVET GOLDMINE, and WILD IN THE STREETS.

Total Running Time: 301 minutes
My Total Minutes: 329,234

Friday, June 7, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--Opening Night

It's time to celebrate real life for 2 1/2 weeks in the best way I know how--by watching movies about it. The SF Documentary Film Festival kicked off last night, and for those who have paid attention to the calendar for the past few years, yes, this is a new season for it. For a long time it has been in the fall (October or November) and now it's in the summer. I think that's where it's going to stay? You also might notice that they've added several venues. In addition to the two Roxie screens, it's up in the Balboa, the New Parkway in Oakland, the Aquarius down in Palo Alto (conveniently near my work), and all the way down in Santa Cruz for a bonus weekend at the Rio. Check it out yourself here.

There was a huge crowd crammed into the Roxi for the opening night film, SPARK: A BURNING MAN STORY. Most were Burners themselves (as am I. In fact, a little secret, I've been Burning longer than I've been going to film festivals) and it seems as though most of them were actually in the movie. I was not, and that's probably a good thing. But it is part of what frustrates me about nearly every Burning Man documentary I've ever seen--the event they capture is very, very different from my Burning Man experience. Now that's not necessarily bad, nor is it necessarily avoidable. Everyone has a different experience out there. I just feel sorry for someone who watches one of these glowing 'everything is awesome out there!' movies and thinks 'that looks like fun, I wanna do that!' but instead ends up going to Burning Man.

Major elements laughably missing from the documentary:

  • Nudity--there is some, but not a whole lot. In the Q&A, the filmmakers pointed out that since they were mostly following builders around, there just aren't a lot of people wielding a nail gun or welding torch while naked. They claim they are actually big fans of public nudity.
  • Drugs. Really? Really!!? I have no explanation for how they can just ignore drugs entirely. I remember my first year thinking 'This is cool! Why would anyone take mind-altering substances when reality is already so altered out here?' But you know what's even more fun than not doing drugs at Burning Man? Doing drugs at Burning Man*.

What SPARK does have more of than any other Burning Man documentary is solid production values, thrilling cinematography, a soaring soundtrack. It actually looks like a professional movie rather than someone's vacation video. And it emphasizes the "built" nature of it all, and the process of building it. It follows three general groups of builders--first the staff that organizes it all (where we get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes work, including the turmoil of the 2012 ticket fiasco,) then the art builders, and then the large theme camp builders. We see the creation (and destruction) of Burning Wall Street (the creator, Otto Von Danger, is easily my favorite person in the movie, and got a big cheer for pointing out that he doesn't welcome the fucking hippies who show up with nothing and expect the community to provide them with everything.) We see the creation of Playa Skool which has maybe grown too big to manage and is in the center of the "Plug n' Play" camps debate. And most of all we see the organizers, working hard, complaining about how hard they work, debating the future of the event, and looking over the angry e-mails they got over the ticket fiasco (at one point humorously commenting on the number of u's in "Fuuuuuuuuuck Youuuuuuuu!")

I have to step back for a moment. This year will be my 16th Burn in a row, and I'm a little too close to the subject to be able to review this as a movie. I will say it's a movie by True Believers, for True Believers. While it shows some conflict (even interviewing estranged co-founder John Law) it doesn't offer any critical look at the conflict. John Law left because he saw that for Burning Man to keep growing they would need to bring in more societal infrastructure than he was comfortable with. But was John Law right? The movie doesn't even ask the question, much less answer it. We see the angry e-mails about the ticket fiasco, but were people right to be angry? Instead, we get self-aggrandizing statements about how they solve the problems that other people walk away from. Or worse yet, Larry Harvey talking about how the ticket kerfuffle was a good thing, because now people know that if they want to go they should be prepared to actually build something. And that's the ethos this film (and apparently the current leadership of Burning Man) embrace--that building something is good, be it community, art, or a camp. And that building something bigger is automatically better.

Well, let me offer a counterpoint. As I said, this year will be my 16th Burn. I think I'm pretty much a certifiable jaded old-timer. For all the anger and bitterness leading up to last year's burn, I still had  a great time once I was there. But let me tell you about my favorite thing from that Burn (ummm...other than the nice pretty lady I had sexy fun-times with.) That was a guy walking by my camp holding a sign that read, "FREE SHRUGS." I yelled at him that he was the best thing I saw all week, and he turned to me and shrugged. It was awesome. But according to Larry Harvey, he needs to learn that when you go to the playa you should really build something there. Apparently it's not enough to just be the best thing I saw all week, you have to build a big, grandiose monument to...whatever the hell you're out there to monumentalize. Otherwise you're not participating as much as you could/should be. Well...fuck that.

Good movie, though.

Running Time: 112 minutes
My Total Minutes: 328,933

*Alcohol. Alcohol is a drug, and it's perfectly legal. That's all I mean, I drink a lot at Burning Man. Ask anyone.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Jason goes to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum for Charlie Chaplin Days

Last weekend was a big one in Niles, and I was there helping out in the museum gift shop both days. Tiring, but worth it for the great business we did. And Saturday night I was a regular paying customer there to watch and enjoy the movies, which of course were all Chaplin.

MAKING A LIVING (1914): Chaplin's first movie, made for Keystone. He hadn't invented the Tramp character yet (that came later the same year, when as legend has it he grabbed a pair of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's pants from wardrobe and the ill-fitting clothes became the basis of the character more than even the bowler hat and cane.) But he has some nascent tramp-ish qualities, particularly the rude, cheating qualities. He begs a ring from a gentleman, only to use it to woo a wealthy woman whom the gentleman was also planning to woo. But Charlie still has no money, so he looks to get a job as a reporter. To that end, he rushes off to a car crash where he steals the camera with all the great crash photos from...the same gentleman as before. Kind of rude and not very sympathetic (I much prefer the pathos he developed in his later films) but still pretty funny.

A NIGHT AT THE SHOW (1915): A Chaplin Essanay short he made in Los Angeles, with Charlie in a dual role as Mr. Rude and Mr. Rowdy. While Mr. Rude (sometimes called Mr. Pest) makes trouble in the orchestra, Mr. Rowdy (who is clearly drunk) makes trouble in the balcony, including dumping drinks and spraying a fire hose at Mr. Rude below. Meanwhile the parade of acts try to do their thing while both Chaplins and other audience members (including a fat kid who likes to throw pies) make it all a disaster. Barely structured at all, but very funny.

EASY STREET (1916): Chaplin with his famous leading lady Edna Purviance and famous giant foil (who died tragically in a car crash) Eric Campbell. Chaplin is in full Tramp character at the start. But when he goes to the local Mission, run by the beautiful Edna Purviance, he is reformed and goes to get a job as a policeman (he is so often chased by cops, it's a little weird to see him in a policeman's uniform.) His job is to clean up the ironically-named Easy Street, which is dominated by the bully Eric Campbell. But through cleverness and more than a little luck he turns it into a thriving and peaceful community. Pure comedy. It also showcases some pioneering use of the oft-repeated T-intersection set--a view looking down the street with buildings on both sides and buildings behind on the T-intersection cross street. Also, if you can believe the educational materials that came with one copy of this film, it features a "diabetic" thief with an "insulin" needle. Because that couldn't possibly be illegal drugs in that syringe, could it? And insulin makes a non-diabetic person run around like a maniac on drugs, right?

Anyway, then there was a brief intermission and finally our feature, which for the first time in a few years was not THE KID (don't read me wrong, THE KID is an adorable film, but it's nice to see something else, too.)

SHOULDER ARMS (1918): Chaplin's shortish feature (~45 minutes) about WWI. Yup, Chaplin is just the kind of comic genius that could make WWI funny while it was still going on. In Boot Camp he's in the "awkward squad" and the bit about his walk (with the pointed-out toes) while trying to march in formation are hilariously self-referential (reminds me of the bit in a Buster Keaton movie when he was told he "...better smile when you say that.") He gets shipped off to the front where he uses Limburger cheese as chemical warfare and captures 13 Germans by surrounding them. And he has a romance with beautiful French country girl Edna Purviance. There's also a great extended bit of him in camouflage as a tree, and a part for his brother (and business manager) Syd Chaplin. All around hilarious, and the whole series of the night really showcases his evolving comedic chops. Of course, some of his best work was still in the future--THE KID, THE GOLD RUSH, MODERN TIMES, THE GREAT DICTATOR, etc. But it's always great to see how he started out.

Total Running Time (approximate): 112 minutes
My Total Minutes: 328,821

Every Saturday night there are silent films with live piano accompaniment in Niles, and the end of the month is the big Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival--the biggest weekend of the year at the museum. More information can be found here.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Jason watches the Thrillpeddlers' TINSEL TARTS IN A HOT COMA

Have I mentioned I love the Thrillpeddlers? Well, I do, and while I got hooked on their Grand Guignol Shocktoberfest shows I also love their absurd, bawdy, and outrageous revivals of the Cockettes musicals. This time they do a bit of a riff on the Cockettes cult fame in SF, their glowing review by Rex Reed, and their disastrous show in New York, where they were mocked for--among other things--cardboard sets. They play well to the crowd here, claiming their show in NY was fine, they just forgot to bring an SF audience, and the audience is everything (as the star of several audiences, I'd like to agree--I am the most important part of the show.)

Anyway, it's a hilarious, musical, cross-country-and-back show about fame, the desire for it, and the trouble with it. And by the end there's quite a bit of glittery nakedness. Quite a show indeed, and a lot of fun if you're into that sort of thing.
And it's held over until June 29th. Tickets are available here.