Dust to Dust at Gray Area

Above:  Improvised multi-projection by the Trinchera Ensamble

San Francisco Cinematheque‘s Perpetual Motion series opened on Friday night at Gray Area to host a large crowd of live cinema enthusiasts. The series extends through December 7 and features both international and local artists who show up to create work in the moment. A growing arts movement, expanded cinema offers film experiences as live rather than prerecorded events. These may include multiple moving projectors, live manipulation of image and improvised audio tracks.

This premiere installment featured arc, the sentinels of West Oakland’s Black Hole Cinematheque, projecting layers of found film detritus. Jürgen Reble, on a rare visit from Düsseldorf, Germany, and the Trinchera Ensamble, with its eyepopping abstractions, rounded out the show.  These pieces all come from the School of Art as Endurance Test with elongated TRTs (total running times) to form immersive aesthetic experiences.  The chaotic yet repetitive confluences require audience surrender, as they aim for a kind of purifying transcendence. Either they (or you) pass the test or they (or you) don’t.

It was the second piece, Alchemie by Jürgen Reble, that most caught me with its ritualistic fury.  It raised the stakes to fulfill the promise of a true one-off event with a higher level of unpredictability. In this piece, the film loop circled across our consciousness to the point of mania while passing through chemicals and agent-changing solutions.  We saw orphaned, trance-gripped beings change from negative image to positive image to pure grain to obliteration.

The object of art being destroyed by the very act of its presentation isn’t new. Years ago, I witnessed a similar event: a loop of black leader film punctured and eventually destroyed by a sewing machine.  However, this one featured haunted visages that glowed beneath unraveling streams of emulsion, faces of those seemingly lost in time and space under the spell of, or perhaps in communication with, sublime cosmic forms. It was enough to induce a mystical fever in those of us susceptible to such enchantments.

The next Perpetual Motion show takes place on October 11 with Ken Jacobs’ Nervous Magic Lantern.

Grand Concourse at Shotgun Players

On the surface, Grand Concourse tells the story of four individuals at an urban soup kitchen, and their struggles with God, love, and mental stability. Cathleen Riddley plays Shelly, a nun who runs a tight ship providing meals for the homeless, but who struggles to pray even five minutes a day. Enter nineteen year old Emma (Megan Trout), a new volunteer who brings complication to the lives of Shelly, hired help Oscar (Caleb Cabrera), and Frog, one of the regulars, an insightful man on the edge of mental illness. Kevin Clarke portrays Frog with a charming sensitivity, offering a full-rounded treatment of this vulnerable and likeable character.

Grand Concourse

Heidi Schreck‘s play is anything but feel-good, though the dialogue is playful and enjoyably real. In one of my favorite scenes, Emma relishes the features of her makeup kit, then refreshes her eyes and lips to shake off the unsavory feeling of her first night serving soup to the poor. It’s a delicate, yet telling moment. As we move further in, her actions signal a gentrifying, invasive force where forgiveness is simply not an appropriate response, even for a nun.

As such, at its core, Grand Concourse represents a deeply political play, but not in a conspicuous way. Its wider lessons seep in slowly as we witness the emotional wreckage left when privilege meddles with the underclass, unconsciously exploiting the needy, and the sincere. Without giving too much away, let’s just say, some of the best plays are about liars.

Show ends on August 21. Get tickets here.

 

Vagabond by Agnes Varda

The story begins with a corpse, and through this tragic lens, we learn about Mona Bergeron, a lonely vagrant, in a fictionalized investigation, through the eyes of all that crossed her path one winter in the countryside of France. After watching it twice, I am awed to discover such a brilliant and unusual film only now, after over 20 years of studying cinema. It belongs up there with the greatest of the greats, not only as a feminist film, but a masterpiece of storytelling, social commentary, and nuanced character.

Originally named Sans toit ni loi, “Without Roof nor Law”, the film, released in 1986, represents an early cross-genre experiment, mixing fiction and documentary styles, with a startling surrealist scene at the end. Ravishingly well-photographed, paced beautifully, expertly edited, the film is a stunning work. Mona meanders the countryside, small towns and graveyards with nothing but a backpack and a shredded tent.  As we trace her journey in flashback, people in her story turn to address the camera as if being interviewed, to share their varied impressions of her.

Mona confesses to no purpose or worldview, other than her hatred for bosses and her belief that three is a crowd. She possesses a carelessness that allows her into places few others go. She exhibits sexual freedom, she accepts and turns down various invitations for help, she makes friends, and she unearths the long-dormant joy of an elderly woman. She also gets raped. The camera fixes on her every move, yet restrains from psychologizing or sympathizing, and depicts a hardy, unvarnished lifestyle of mere survival.
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The film does, however, reveal plenty about the people who meet her and the worlds through which her movements pass. It adeptly teases out social beliefs that surround her and the self-constructed cages people live in. Yolande, a maid with a criminal no-good boyfriend, envies Mona’s freedom, as well as her fleeting yet tender relationship with a man, when Yolande discovers the two sleeping together in an abandoned chateau. A professor who studies tree disease adopts Mona as a car companion and views her as an aspect of her guilty conscience. An aspiring, wealthy graduate student despises her, simply for her outsiderness, as a potential threat to his status. When a Tunisian field worker takes her in, Mona enters a love relationship that is quickly undermined by circumstances. The Tunisian’s testimony about Mona has no words, delivered only through a heartbroken gaze into the camera.

This unspoken, unconditional love represents the feminist voice in the film, the one that allows Mona a space to exist outside the codes and strictures of society. Many of the town folk in the film reflect on the rarity of a sole woman wanderer. Indeed, with so few cultural prototypes of the female drifter, we can barely frame Mona, as she floats through the world, inured to overdetermined roles. While leaving her unframable, the film also shows us how precarious and short-lived this zoneless space can be.

Dogtown Redemption

Dogtown Redemption tells the story of the West Oakland residents who subsist recycling other people’s garbage. Specifically, it exposes the impoverished community that revolves around Alliance Recycling on Peralta Street. Many, if not most, of the recyclers are homeless, but the recycling center offers a regular, meager income and a binding sense of purpose to the most industrious among them.

Filmmakers Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush created the film over seven years. It reveals a complex picture of a delicate economic system that sustains an entire community, providing work opportunity to over 1000 people in the neighborhood. While it acknowledges a power imbalance between Alliance’s wealthy owner, Jay Anast, and the people who supply a constant flow of scrap material, it paints a picture of a friendly and productive relationship between them, and the foundation of a functional community. It also highlights dire repercussions when the business gets sued by the City of Oakland, in a political vendetta to shut the place down due to unconfirmed criminal activity.

Most importantly, the film investigates the lives of individual recyclers, their histories, their relationships, and their somewhat chosen lifestyles, to illustrate the problem of poverty as both individual and systemic. Jason Witt, a warm-hearted recycling high-achiever, lives in a tent on the edge of Highway 80 with wife Heather Holloman, has a seven year old boy who lives with grandparents, and practices karate as a black belt. Hayok Kay, former drummer in a punk band, moves in and out of shelters, and suffers grief over the recent death of her partner. Charismatic Landon Goodwin climbs out of his life on the street, develops a ministry and gets married.

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We gain intimate access to their struggles with drugs, their heartbreaks, successes and failures. We learn that not only does poverty transcend race, but so does love. The lives of these collectors are multidimensional and relations between them are dedicated and intimate.

AMC Theaters Bay Street sponsored this free screening in Emeryville which was organized by local online journal The E’ville Eye and John Bauters’ campaign for city council. John Bauters brings specialized knowledge and experience to issues of homelessness. If elected, he promises to be an informed and caring advocate for the poor in Emeryville.

Dogtown Redemption screens again tomorrow, June 18 at the West Oakland Youth Center at 3:00pm, a valuable opportunity for locals to meet the filmmakers, and to discuss these issues with the community in which the film takes place.

Clown School

Clown School of San Francisco led by instructor Christina Lewis presented The Game of Life on Sunday afternoon at Theatre of Yugen, a tiny theatre space in the Mission. A better title would have been “A Bag of Laughs”, as almost every act introduced various objects going in or out of a large bag or suitcase. A delightful showcase of clown trainees, it knitted together short autobiographical scenes, each one centered on a solitary struggle:  love, identity, poverty, marriage, neurosis. The best acts were simple, with minimal props, one or two characters, and almost no words.

Clowning requires delicacy and vulnerability, and playing the fool for all to see. Each mini-tale felt deeply revealing, often sad. Michele Salami’s impoverished bag lady uncloaked exquisite pathos as she explored the contents of a grocery bag, sobbing with joy upon discovery of an empty cornflakes box. When she attempted to embrace another clown, her armful of bags and garbage cans made it an impossible gesture. I identified with the excess metaphorical ‘baggage’.

Bob Reis’ character had him dancing with a rubber band, while being watched by an anonymous shifting telescope. Using the simplest of devices, he expressed a desire to play, to be oneself, under the intimidating gaze of a disembodied Other. Society? The feeling was familiar. Only one act, however, evoked outright belly laughs. Performed by Shuly Goldman and Jeroen Van Acker, this sharing-a-bed-too-small gag deftly built on itself, an apt commentary on the difficulties of relationship.

I would love to see these student clowns push further to the heights of giddiness. They are well on their way with their refreshing, authentic material.

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.

Cutting Ball Open Rehearsal

Above:  From the 2011 production of Pelleas & Melisande.  Melisande (Caitlyn Louchard) lets her long hair fall out of the tower down to Pelleas (Joshua Schell).  Photo by Annie Paladino

Cutting Ball Theater opened a rehearsal to the public last week for its upcoming A Dreamplay by August Strindberg. I was fortunate enough to attend this event and be a fly on the wall in a miniature, but spellbound audience. Cutting Ball’s 2011 shimmering production of Pelleas and Melisande, also directed by Rob Melrose, made me fall in love with this tiny theater and its free-associative avant garde style. A Dreamplay unfolds in a similar vein where movements speak more than words, dream imagery prevails, and soulful acting anchors non sequiturs.

The cast and crew have been rehearsing only a couple weeks, and still “on book” (holding scripts). Paul Walsh, a lifelong Strindberg scholar and translator, along with the director, made their introductions. It was a rare opportunity to observe director, cast, and sound designer work their way through raw material in the early stages of development. We glimpsed the fine fabric of choices considered and made, such as: What motivates this stage crossing? Who holds the bucket?

We observed actors gradually engaging more deeply with their environment with poetic prompts by Melrose:  “Put your hand on the window when you look out it.”  “Hold the bucket lovingly and rock it in your arms back and forth.”  “Trace the clover design on the door before knocking on it.”  Thank you, Cutting Ball, for inviting us in! A Dreamplay runs May 20-June 19. Don’t miss it!