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.
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!
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: http://www.stencilarchive.org
Above: Healing Spirit by Robert Beier
Oakland Art Murmur offers a free guided Saturday Stroll each month, third Saturday, through a different gallery district of the city. This month’s Stroll, themed Luminosity, explored gallery-rich Uptown along 23rd and 25th Streets, capping off at the uniquely fun Classic Cars West, a vintage car showcase/art gallery/vegan beer garden on 26th.
Curator Donna Napper began the tour at Chandra Cerrito Contemporary where she serves as Artistic Director. Cathy Cunningham-Little‘s glass LED sculptures refract colorful, layered, geometric light beams. They hung on the walls like enchanted jewels, a highlight of the walk. Next door at Johansson Projects, we enjoyed two slow-moving light works by Craig Dorety. Influenced by light artists James Turrell and Jim Campbell, Dorety creates electronic flower bud-like sculptures whose hues transform over time. Dorety’s work belongs to the growing influence of LED and technology-based artwork in the Bay Area and abroad.
Pictured: Field of Tulips and Green Forest by Craig Dorety
Further aligned with this theme of “luminosity”, Krowswork Gallery presented Divine Invasions: Six Male Artists Allying with the Divine Feminine. I found Robert Beier’s pieces especially enjoyable. His saturated digital drawings, primitive in style, belie a pleasing knack for composition and an authentic communication of spiritual states.
The day included visits to Mercury20 and Manna Gallery where several artists and curators discussed their work in person and gave us a deeper understanding of their motives and sources. Overall, we experienced a wide variety of art in this fulfilling tour of Uptown Oakland’s gallery scene.
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.
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 deliverance.
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!
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
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.
Photo by Gilbert Guerrero
Above: Photo by Bojana Rankovic