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.

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.

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.

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 deliverance.cdn.indiewire.psdops.com

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