Mothers of Men at the Silent Film Festival

One of the most fascinating things about watching silent film is how the movies reveal cultural values, exposing fears and preoccupations of the era, so different from those of today. Mothers of Men stands squarely unapologetic, and exceptionally bold in its imaginings of a future of women leaders from the vantage point of 1917. Fictional Judge Clara Madison accepts the pleas of the Women’s Party to become their candidate for governor. Not only does she sentence criminals to death without appeal, she excels fully in the domestic realm as a loving wife, seamstress, and mother-to-be, pictured in gentle bedroom scenes wearing a flowing nightgown. Actress Dorothy Davenport harmonizes these two portrayals, and plays the role with a detached softness.  Her diffident disposition appears unusual to a modern eye accustomed to more assertive women heroes.

In an act of revenge against a unwanted verdict, Judge Madson’s adversaries hatch a plot to frame her husband in the murder of a newspaper editor, which leads to his condemnation to hanging. The melodrama posits her loyalty toward her husband against duties as the newly-elected first female governor, where the prospect of pardoning her husband (and father of her child), jeopardizes the entire future of women leadership. She must choose intellect over emotionalism and the professional over the personal, to ensure the aspirations of her political party. This clever plot paints a glimpse of the high stakes and urgency of the women’s political movement of the time, two years before women won the right to vote nationally by passage of the 19th amendment.

Silent Film Festival ends tomorrow Sunday, June 5, after a full day of programs.

Banksy Does New York

Above:  Everything But the Kitchen Sphynx

“A 1/36 scale replica of the great Sphinx of Giza made from smashed cinderblocks. You’re advised not to drink the replica Arab spring water.”  ~Banksy

Other Cinema presented Street Art Saturday night, a program beginning with shorts and a lecture, anchored with Banksy Does New York, a documentary of the anonymous artist’s month long “residency” in the streets of New York.  Banksy sparked a daily treasure hunt by creating an original work each day in October 2013, presenting each piece on his website with no location. Check out the trailer here.

I lived through this event, waking up each October morning to experience daily reveals of brilliant wit and prank, and watched the phenomena unfold on social media in real time. It’s an experience hard to replicate in retrospect, but the documentary captures the thrill and frenzy. It follows Banksy-hunters around Manhattan and its boroughs and records the social fallout of exorbitantly-priced artist acts publicly abandoned in obscure corners. The film provides followup on the fate of the artworks, and offers interpretations by cultural theorists and participants. Mayhem ensues as public response becomes performance, where the pieces get variously defined:  valuable loot by opportunists, crime by the police, precious “cultural currency” by connoisseurs, and irrelevant by gallery owners.

The film was preceded by a slide lecture by Russell Howze, author of Stencil Nation.  Howze, an expert in all things stencil, presented the history of stencil art from Indonesian cave art to Banksy and beyond, with a focus on Banksy’s 2010 six-day tagging of  San Francisco. I am eager to hunt for what survives of these works, locations listed here.

With Banksy/Not Bansky comparisons, the slideshow illustrated Banksy precursors and influencers, fakes, and Banksy-esque conspirators worldwide, such as Hanksy and Bambi. It was a fascinating report of the fluid and unregulated world of street art where influences move quickly, artist brands shift to ephemera, and stencil culture extends to war zones. Check out Russell Howze’s website:

Field Niggas at Crossroads 2016

The San Francisco Cinematheque presents Crossroads 2016 this weekend, its annual festival of artist-made film and video. The festival celebrates abstract works that fall far outside mainstream cinema, and which include non-traditional documentary, and genre-defying gems of artistic expression. Field Niggas by Khalik Allah, an unflinching observational testimony of the drug-induced street community in Harlem, New York, arguably marks this year’s most significant inclusion.

Pointing a camera at this intoxicated group immediately raises questions of exploitation, but the long takes, tight close-ups, and extensive recordings communicate the consent and respect of its subjects. The relationship gets further complicated by its presentation to the artist-elite at the Crossroads festival, a position from which my own commentary emerges here, but is also testament to the festival’s willingness to accept the challenge of that complexity. Sociological revelations, exposed humanity and the tone of engagement make this video a work of exceptional value.

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Filmed at the crosshairs of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, this video bears witness to a confluence of diverse outsiders, including children and pregnant women, who appear to be drifting in and out of a dangerous sea without life jackets. It generously allows us entry, and makes it impossible to avert our eyes from the difficult realities it represents, a world infected by the use of K2, a rock-bottom-cheap synthetic marijuana that poses severe health risks.

The slow motion portraiture separates voice from bodies, with untethered interviews vaguely associated with faces on screen. This technique disorients the viewer, but also draws us in, demands active listening and forces questions. The words from its multitude of characters vacillate from indecipherable to deluded to spiritually enlightened to intellectually critical. Requiring active viewer participation, it builds a bridge for those willing to cross. For this community accepts anyone and everyone willing to enter, even the police who lurk like familiar uncles. With luscious photography, Field Niggas beautifies and humanizes, accomplishing a most sacred intervention simply by its

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.


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Photo by Gilbert Guerrero

Above: Photo by Bojana Rankovic

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.

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.

The Grim Game

The one extant copy of The Grim Game (1919) starring Harry Houdini has at last been restored into glistening silver glory and brought to the public eye, presented yesterday by the San Francisco Silent Film Society as part of a December Day of Silents at the Castro Theater.  I recently attended the Official Houdini Seance at the Brava Theater on Halloween, which was an exciting opportunity to renew my lifelong interest in the illusionist that began in elementary school.  So watching him perform onscreen was a rare and awesome treat.

An obvious showman, Houdini exudes absolute confidence before the camera and plays himself more than he plays character Harvey Hanford, a newspaper reporter caught in a far-fetched plot to thwart villains who are after his uncle’s fortune.   The film finds, through an otherwise mediocre storyline, every excuse to incorporate many of his classic escape acts:  handcuffs, ball and chain, prison cell, straight jacket, and underwater.  The cinematic medium, an illusion itself, removes most of the inherent suspense that his live stunts must have had, which drew thousands of spectators.  However, Houdini on film still astounds, untangling himself from an adrenalized obstacle course, an early blueprint for Indiana Jones.  One cannot deny the sheer bravery and risk of the climax where he hangs by rope off the wing of a flying airplane and jumps into another airplane below.  Thank you to Rick Schmidlin and Turner Movie Classics for preserving this film for modern audiences to study and enjoy.


Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

Playing now at the San Rafael Film Center, this documentary celebrates a fully liberated woman and art collector of the 20th century whose enormous influence on the art world dominates to this day.  Obviously, Peggy Guggenheim’s life cannot be contained by a 97 minute film, and the film’s earnestness to pay her tribute gets bogged down in details.  The film is so chock full of names, faces, and art objects, it leaves one rather dazed by the end, and its rapid survey requires a conversant familiarity with key figures of the 20th Century avant garde.  Yet it fascinates, describing her friendships and liaisons with the likes of Marcel DuChamp, Jackson Pollock, Samuel Beckett, and Max Ernst, to name a few.

More significantly, the film chronicles Guggenheim’s escape as a Jew from Europe in World War II on the brink of Germany’s invasion of Paris.   Risking her own life, she amassed an entire museum’s worth of artwork for the sum of $40,000, even retrieving works off the walls of the Louvre deemed “not worth saving” under the encroaching attack of Hitler.  She went on to establish The Art of This Century in New York City, a radical museum concept that allowed visitors to spin paintings around.

Most of the film winds around a set of audiotapes found in a basement by the filmmaker.  These tapes held Peggy Guggenheim’s last interview, and she answers the most probing  questions with unfettered honesty.  She freely describes a troubled family, multiple marriages, and an unmatched commitment to art collecting.  Art Addict paints a paradoxical life of a woman highly social yet isolated, sexually liberated but often unwanted, and an outsider who placed herself at the epicenter of the modern art world.