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.

Winnipeg Handshake

Other Cinema, gnarly underground film enclave in the Mission District, welcomed a hardy troupe of Winnipeggers last Saturday night.  The array of 16 films showed a commitment to experimentation as well as to core materials: 16mm, super8, and film projectors kicking up corn dust.  Influences were drawn from a wide range of the cinema history spectrum: from docucomedy to structuralist video to rapid fire animation to silent film.  The highlight was Aaron Zeghers’ Holland, MAN, an expanded cinema showpiece featuring five finely choreographed projectors.  This moving mosaic of farmland, skies, and snowfields beautifully celebrated and mourned the retirement of the filmmaker’s family farm in Southern Manitoba.


Photo by Aaron Zeghers