Pixilation Prodigies at Other Cinema

ATA Gallery was stuffed to the gills last night with an audience eager to injest a program of high caliber, mostly local animation work. Politically-tinged experimental shorts introduced the show, then Jeremy Rourke transported us through dreamy ruminations of his shifting studio coordinates in Goodbye Cole/Hello Tunnel. Cutouts of vintage imagery, postcards springing into action, and layers of clay, video, and pencil peeled off into nested realities. Adding spoken word, song, and guitar, Rourke jumped on and off a podium to interact with the projections in surprising ways. With exuberant splash, his inventions brought the audience to cheers. I highly recommend you look out for more performances of Jeremy Rourke, possibly next season at Other Cinema!

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Facing West Shadow Opera then performed an ode to Walt Whitman, celebrating links between opera and nature in the settling of the Wild West. Two opera singers and a cello gave a flawless classical performance. However, music outpaced the visuals. Delicate and beautiful shadow puppets required surer hands and precise direction. At times their movements felt more awkward than graceful. The narrative, with bulky intertitles, fell flat.

The Academy Award nominated short Last Day of Freedom, directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, concluded the program with a somber note. It told the story of Manny Babbitt, a traumatized Vietnam war veteran who ended up on death row through a tragic miscarriage of justice. The pencil drawn animation and rotoscoping of the veteran’s brother sensitively expressed this disturbing story.

Photos by Kristin Cato

Timeless Motion at Shapeshifters

Shapeshifters Cinema, an important East Bay meeting ground for local experimental filmmakers, takes place at Temescal Arts Center on the second Sunday of each month at 8pm.  This series celebrates live cinema performance with a gratifying bias toward old-fashioned celluloid and the technology that accompanies it.

Last night, six artists from the SOMArts Gallery Timeless Motion exhibition collaborated for an evening of multi-screen projection with live audio mix.  I counted at least seven devices – Super8, 16mm, live video feed, and a couple overhead projectors from my 1970s days in elementary school.  Media machinery occupied half the seating space offering every spectator a unique eyeline with clunky silhouettes of technical sprawl.  Artists moved in and out of the space for contiguous and overlapping performances, unified by the sounds of DJ Cyrus Tabar who stepped in last minute with an enjoyable mix of rapidly composed audio when the original sound designer cancelled due to a car accident.

While the spirit of experimentation created an energized space for play, I would have loved more thematic coherence, or perhaps more demarcations between artistic voices.  Visual juxtapositions were hit-or-miss.  Keith Evans’ abstract live video feed of jellyfish skins attached to a rotating Super8 reel provided the most curious invention.


Timeless Motion 3

Photo by Gilbert Guerrero

Above: Photo by Bojana Rankovic

MacBeth featuring Frances McDormand

Shakespeare’s MacBeth plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through April 10, with limited tickets still available. A supernatural horror play, populated by witches, ghosts and a King’s conscience that seesaws between treachery and guilt, this production deliciously delivers, steeped in haunted atmospherics. Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design keeps the audience on edge as Alex V. Nichols’ eerie video projections fall upon tall, textured sets designed by Douglas W. Schmidt.  Most of the play takes place at night, where adversaries gallop through old growth forest and Lady MacBeth sleepwalks her torment. The plot chronicles the unraveling of a kingdom, whose corrupt underpinnings and accursed chase for power reflect our own society’s political struggles in odd and discomforting ways.

This MacBeth offers a traditional interpretation, yet Berkeley flavored, with a bearded witch and a diverse cast. Daniel Sullivan directs it with a well-paced, deliberate hand and stages stunning large cast tableaus straight out of a 17th century painting. Frances McDormand brings an earthiness to Lady MacBeth but never quite rises to the fiendishness of the character. My personal favorite performances were the drunken porter, and the doctor who puzzles over Lady MacBeth’s “Out, out, damn spot!” trance, both small bits played by James Carpenter.

Photo by Kevin Berne

Ex Nihilo at Octopus Literary Salon

Above:  Genevieve Perdue as Decima, Colleen Egan as Nona, Alexaendrai Bond as Morta.  

The Octopus Literary Salon offers a colorful space in uptown Oakland for “living room” gatherings of poets, playwrights, musicians and more.  Last night featured the third episode of Terra Incognita, a live serial audio drama, created by Ex Nihilo, a playwright collective that stages its own grass roots productions.  In the story, three bickering sisters find themselves on a spooky road trip whose trajectory gets determined by a cursed dartboard.  An evocative script, magically real, psychologically familiar, though rough around the edges, kept the audience chortling, and included live foley effects and musical interludes.  Brian Vouglas as the “unreliable narrator” added some polish with his perfectly projected vocals.  The next episode takes place on April 21 at 7pm.   IMG_0914.JPG

Photos by Kristin Cato

Black Spirituals at Other Cinema

The Black Spirituals, a two-man band made up of Zachary James Watkins and Marshall Trammell, opened the “Black Lives Matter” program at Other Cinema last night.  Serving as a benefit for NOW!, an online zine that marries experimental form with radical politics, the night’s programming showed off Black activist video and artful deconstructions of historical crimes against African Americans.

The Black Spirituals set the tone with their radical post-rock urgencies:  improvisational, cacophonous and sophisticated.  Incorporating textures of free jazz, hard rock, and electronica, their elongated sounds crashed over the audience like slow motion tsunamis.  Percussive tidepools swelled into ecstatic gutteral rage, exerting more visceral protest than Peter Menchini’s Waking Up Chief Suhr, the video document showing Black Lives Matters activists outside the San Francisco police chief’s bedroom window at 4am.  The root-tails of the Black Spirituals reach deep, tapping historical torments, which unleash sheer musical explosion, with audio levels assaulting the ears before ebbing back to ripples.   I have long believed no instrument expresses raw suffering rubbed up with anger better than a grinding electric guitar, and this group proves it so.

Here is an interview of the Black Spirituals about their collaboration and process:  http://alibi.com/music/47491/Postmodern-Black-Spirituals.html



Alan Berliner at the Pacific Film Archive

Alan Berliner presented his latest film First Cousin Once Removed at the brand new Pacific Film Archive on Wednesday night.  The film was preceded by a short lecture about his filmmaking process, as one in a series of lectures on documentary film, funded posthumously by filmmaker Les Blank.

An audience of UC Berkeley students and fans of the filmmaker listened to Berliner compare his process to putting together a puzzle.  “Start from the pieces themselves,” he suggested.  He described a puzzle that grows outward from associations, rather than from the edges in.  As a result, an Alan Berliner film feels organic and complex, moving from psychological investigation to mystical questions regarding the human soul.

Like Berliner’s classic, Nobody’s Business, a story of his relationship with his father, First Cousin dives fearlessly into vulnerable territory as the camera watches his cousin, poet and retired Brown University professor Edwin Honig, descend into Alzheimer’s.  The film unravels past hurts, as Berliner interviews estranged sons of the poet, and explores questions of self-identity from a life that arguably benefits from memory loss.  It treats its subject with wit and carefulness, through a masterful editing style that incorporates home movies, found footage and various cinematic tropes. Text from Edwin’s poems appears between and upon images throughout.

While documenting the reality of Alzheimer’s Disease, Berliner personalizes it, describing his cousin’s version as a “poet’s Alzheimer’s”.   As Edwin loses his vocabulary, his words still astonish with original beauty and wisdom.  We are lead to infer an inner world that alternates between terror and peace.

For better or worse, Berliner fills that existential empty space for us.  The yawning ‘nothingness’ of Edwin watching trees change outside his window gets repopulated with Berliner’s active ingredients.  This conflict between living and dying, the cascading images and memories to describe the departure of such, reaches a head when Edwin finally scolds:  “For one minute, one hour, one year, just let me be. I am, and that is that!”


Photo of Edwin Honig from First Cousin Once Removed


Miwa Matreyek at New Strands Festival

The first annual New Strands Festival took place this weekend over four days at A.C.T.’s renovated Strand Theater near Civic Center.  The festival brings in works-in-progress and invites innovative media work that crosses disciplines. I saw only one hour-long program:  The World Made Itself and Myth and Infrastructure, by Miwa Matreyek. The event was free and the audience small, but it stunned me enough to affirm this space offers Bay Area theater an exciting new platform for experimental artists.

Matreyek performs her animations by literally stepping into them, behind a film screen.  Her silhouette interacts with a flow of outrageously gorgeous imagery.  This graceful shadow dance depends on precision and timing, as it must match the movements on screen.  She uses a unique technique combining rear screen and frontal projection so her form passes between planes of the image.  She appears to stumble between buildings, or to reach an arm into a forest of trees.  The animations become three dimensional, popping out around her shadow.  At one moment, the shadow wraps its arms around a baby,  amid ruins of the World Trade Center, a scene that reasserts the theme of perpetual creation, yet a remembrance of the motherless children who survived.

At other times, her meandering form represents the Creatrix exploring all corners of Her world, who then swims bewilderedly through it.  She coaxes exquisite ferns into existence, liberates the amphibians, and measures millennia with a yardstick.  Cities sparkle with electric twinkling.  Yet both films question the future, and humanity’s out-of-proportion tendency to raze all that came before it, a victim of its own escalation and machinery.

The experience was a true find, exceeding expectations.  Check out her work here which includes glimpses of her performing behind the screen.

Peet’s Theatre

Helen Meyer of Meyer Sound and Susie Medak, Managing Director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, ceremoniously demonstrated a lightning storm to an invited audience today in their newly renovated thrust theatre.  This beloved 35-year-old stage, renamed Peet’s Theatre to honor an almost 50 year relationship with Peet’s Coffee, doesn’t look so different as much as it sounds different.  It now features the first North American installation of Meyer Sound’s Constellation Acoustic System for live, unamplified theatre.  Made up of 84 speakers, the new system creates a genius map of sound that can literally change the acoustics of the space instantaneously.

I look forward to their upcoming production of Aubergine, a Berkeley Rep commission, and how future sound designers use a system that can pan sounds through the room in intricate ways, as well as simulate the acoustics of the Grace Cathedral, as we heard today.  Other renovations include a skylight in the lobby, a larger box office, and a courtyard cafe with a mini-stage for after-show musical acts.

Peet’s Theatre Grand Opening is free and open to the public on Saturday, January 9, 2016 at noon-3pm.


Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

Jewel City at De Young Museum

Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition at the De Young Museum closes January 10th!  This historical exhibit celebrates the 100th anniversary of the World’s Fair in San Francisco by displaying key artworks included in its international exposition a hundred years ago.  “International” refers to American and European art only, in this case.  The exhibit explores the pivotal era between late 19th century impressionism and the early stages of modernism, as seen through a more conservative American bias at the time.  Impressionism clearly flourished, having reached a state of mastery in surprisingly diverse styles.  Sheer skies, glinting flower fields, and porcelain nudes populate scenes of natural beauty and repose.

But the paint strokes were getting broader and more unkempt by 1915 and European radicalism was beginning to interrupt the quiet delicacy of the previous era.  The exhibit encompasses this tension.  A wall of more modernist American works, slandered at the time because of their unconventional styles, appear unremarkable to our eye today.  But the final room of Italian Futurists shows just how far ahead the Europeans were conceptually.  Their more angst-filled fare expressed movement, time, fragmentation and abstraction in new ways that rocked the art world of 1915.

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Gino Severini, ‘Spherical Expansion of Light, Centripetal,’ 1913–1914.

Above:  Nikolay Fechin, ‘Lady in Pink (Portrait of Natalia Podbelskaya), 1912

Bikes vs Cars

Bikes vs Cars, directed by Fredrik Gertten, investigates global parallels, as well as differences, in transportation policy, crosscutting between Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Copenhagen.  The title oddly affirms a false dichotomy which the film itself decries.  Interviewee Raquel Rolnik, a professor in urban planning at the University of Sao Paulo, passionately demands a “shift in paradigm” arguing that even electric, non-fossil fueled automobiles reinforce the disastrous impacts of a car-based economy.

The documentary wrings its hands and all too frequently pulls on the heart strings to further its sympathies.  It dwells on one bike rider’s gruesome story of dismemberment, circles back to forlorn scenes of ghost bicycles, then hammers these images in with a dirge-like soundtrack, just in case we don’t get the message.  I would have preferred a deeper investigation based on facts, of the long term effects of climate change caused by carbon emissions and the plausible end of the human race if the car economy continues to run rampant.

Instead, a truer poignancy occurs in breathtaking images of the former Los Angeles Railway, the largest public transportation network of its time, as it was systematically dismantled and then closed in 1946.   And again with the California Cycleway, a long-distance elevated bike freeway built in 1900.  Toronto’s removal of bike lanes in 2012 at the cost of $300,000 to taxpayers also rankles, as part of then-mayor Rob Ford’s mission to “end the war on cars”.  If such imbalance in power between cars and bikes could even be called a war, rather than, say, a massacre, then the film articulates how cars are winning, with their numbers due to multiply in the next decades.

bike freeway

The analysis is effective, but Bikes vs Cars implies that gridlock is our worst fate.  The film carefully paints a future of routine four hour traffic jams in most major cities.  Instead, it could have more potently linked car emissions to climate change.  The continued path of car dependence is literally unsustainable, not just unpleasant.  The world currently creates eight times more carbon than can be absorbed back by the planet, and any study of global warming points to repercussions far more severe than the inconvenience of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.