Friday, April 06, 2018

PSIFF 2018 > SFFILM FESTIVAL 2018: JUPITER'S MOON—An Evening Class Question for Kornél Mundruczó

Kornél Mundruczó's Jupiter's Moon (2017) had its U.S. Premiere earlier this year in the World Cinema Now sidebar at the 2018 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) with Mundruczó accompanying the film. As synopsized by PSIFF: "Thoroughly cinematic and replete with images that will take your breath away, iconoclastic Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó's parable-like drama offers up the tale of young Syrian refugee Aryan [Zsombor Jéger] who, after being shot while attempting to cross the border into Hungary, discovers he is possessed of a magical power: he can fly. Aryan wants to use his befuddling new gift to find his missing father. Before he can do that, though, he comes under the influence of unscrupulous refugee-camp doctor Gabor [Merab Ninidze], who sees nothing but dollar signs when considering Aryan's power.

"Mundruczó uses the men's burgeoning relationship and a thriller-like plot to skewer the narrow-minded socio-political attitudes of his fellow citizens, while Aryan's flights provide the director—and his gifted cinematographer, Marcell Rév—with ample opportunity to create some of the most lyrical and, frankly, astonishing visuals to grace cinema screens this year."

Arguably my favorite film from PSIFF's 2018 line-up, I was delighted to see it programmed into the 61st edition of the SFFILM Festival, first on Thursday, April 12, 9:30PM at the Castro Theatre (whose giant screen will best serve the film's exhilarating effects), then next on Tuesday, April 17, 3:30PM at the Roxie. SFFILM encapsulates: "Stepping over and through genres in giant leaps, the transcendent new film by White God's Kornél Mundruczó details the story of a Syrian refugee who discovers he can fly. This ability is not only explored literally, with marvelous long takes of Aryan floating above Budapest, but also metaphorically, as he is identified and exploited as a person to fear and possibly destroy. An extraordinary single-shot car chase provides one of the film's numerous highlights.

" 'The juxtaposition of supernatural thriller tropes and urgent sociopolitical issues in Kornél Mundruczó's latest movie—an original take on the superhero origin story set to the backdrop of the refugee crisis—might prove a delicate one for some viewers to take. Those unperturbed, however, should find much to relish in Jupiter's Moon, a film that somewhat lightly plays with themes of religion and immigration as it rumbles, crashes, and ultimately soars through the streets of the Hungarian capitol.'—Rory O'Connor, TheFilmStage.com."

Mundruczó at the Cannes press conference.  Source: Getty Images
Of Jupiter's Moon, Mundruczó says, "When I was fourteen years old, I read a book called The Flying Boy, and I asked myself, should I believe in this or not? I wanted to create a story that continually makes people ask themselves the same question: 'Should I believe in what I am seeing or not?' "

If genre can be thought of as a mask that both conceals and reveals its subject, then Jupiter's Moon would aptly fit mythologist Joseph Campbell's assertion that certain masks are "transparent to transcendence." Doubt cast into any belief system can either contribute to faith or raise righteous anger to eliminate what it perceives as a threat. Mundruczó is just sly enough not to limit Jupiter's Moon to either a religious parable or a superhero origin story, but confabulates at its heart the very reasons why humans need to believe. Why—in the face of all reason—would we want to believe in the existence of an angel? And what in the world would we do if we encountered one? Granted, I see Aryan as more of an unwitting angel than a superhero and had a specific question for Mundruczó during his PSIFF Q&A.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Jupiter's Moon is an absolutely thrilling piece of filmmaking! Thank you so much. I enjoyed it immensely. Could you speak about the scene where Gabor and Aryan are on the rooftop and it appears that Aryan grants Gabor absolution by touching him on the head?

Kornél Mundruczó: Dramaturgically, that was the end of the second act. For me, Jupiter's Moon is more about Gabor Stern than Aryan. Aryan is more like a silent someone who everyone is talking to; but, Stern is a bastard. He's really a lost soul. He's a loveless alcoholic. He's a strange character who—when he's at his deepest point and has lost his job and is at ground zero—meets Aryan, who (as he becomes a superhero-like figure, an angel) blesses him. That's when Stern's new life begins. That's when he becomes able to love and able to help. That was the logic behind that scene. We needed this key scene of blessing; but, it's not really a religious moment. It's a transcendental moment.

Guillén: Was it also a shift for Aryan? Because it seems that in this scene is the first time he accepts his agency.

Mundruczó: Exactly! Also, he's always saying he doesn't want to be a superhero like Superman who has come from another planet. This scene makes it simple. You have no understanding and no answer for the real miracles. You know they have happened, but as a human, thinking on that level, you cannot imagine what it is that God wants with us, why He is sending anything to our lives? But you have to leave belief open. For us, Aryan's superpower is that he gives exactly what you want. The Nazi boy wanted to be punished. The old woman wanted to die. In those moments he is doing exactly what is being asked for without any huge speeches explaining why. This is his power. At that moment on the rooftop Stern believed deep in his soul, in his heart, that he wanted to be changed. He wanted a new life.

The rest of the PSIFF Q&A

Q: How did you find and cast the remarkable young actor who plays Aryan?

Mundruczó: It's a very strange story because we had only one main conception before starting to cast this movie: I wanted the young man who played Aryan to be a real-life refugee, someone from Syria. That was our aim. As we started the casting, that was exactly the time when the refugee crisis was coming into Hungary. Everyone we cast didn't want to stay in Hungary. They wanted to go more to Western Europe. It was like trying to find gold in sand. It was totally senseless. We could like somebody who the next day wasn't even in the country.

But we were clever and went to Germany because all these refugees wanted to go to Germany, as you probably read in the papers. We did a huge casting there as well and found an amazing boy. I asked him and he said, "Yes, I would like to do this movie with you." Then we tried to make it legal that he would be working in Hungary as a German refugee and, of course, he couldn't be. If he left behind his status as a German refugee, he would have to become a Hungarian refugee and he didn't want that. So we lost him two weeks before shooting.

Yes, I went to the Hungarian drama schools to watch the newcomers and I found Zsombor there. And I determined the casting by the way he would be flying. We did a test with the rig and when I saw Zsombor's body language I knew he was the best choice for the movie. We had planned to use choreographers to stage the flights, but once we saw him, we decided not to because by himself he somehow created the levitation scenes. It was crazy because we were doing everything practically 50 meters high on a wire. But he just created everything and I'm so happy he did.

The only bit of levitation that was not practically done was the final scene at the window where he's alone above the city. You can't do that literally. But the rest of the movie is completely practical. For me, that was a main issue: to make a supernatural hero, a superhero, but as naturalistically as possible, and not playfully remembering the superhero genre. There are some moments in the dialogue where all of the Bibles, all of the holy writings, are filled with these kinds of miracles that are surrounding us somehow, but we wanted to make them real. That was of absolute importance to me. I like movies like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which used practical effects made by a 75-year-old director. I was like, "Wow" because that movie celebrated so much.

Q: Can you speak to the direction of the actors? What's interesting is that the shots are so choreographed but these amazing performances come out of them too.

Mundruczó: For me the main importance was to keep a freedom to dance. On one hand, we used long shots but the actors composed the scenes somehow. I'm not the kind of director who insists that something has to be in a shot because I know already a year ago what I have to create; but, much more to work with the present and creating material that is closer to life, understandable as life, and not just a perspective of a god-like director who knows the truth and tells the truth, blah blah blah. I'm quite tired by that kind of aggression, which is coming even if I shared the truth of the movie. For me, and also as part of the tradition of Hungarian filmmaking, I'm more interested in creating the reality of the present and creating alive material.

You need actors who are open to that and who are adult and responsible for their roles so that I'm left free to move on set, I know the DP will follow me, and I can create the situation, can change words, but at the same time it's not dogmatic. On one hand I would like to create reality, but also blur the reality, which I love. Like in the early films of the Dardenne Brothers where you feel that what you are seeing is happening and you are following the characters into their lives, even if you can't understand. That was the logic to the direction and you need a special group of actors who understand from direction in the past because I have worked with them sometimes.

Q: Can you speak to the cinematography and how the special effects come off so magical?

Mundruczó: All of the effects are practical. We used wires and cranes and riggings. As you can imagine, in a room you have four corners. In front of the character you have the wires going up to the ceiling and then you can deliver everywhere somehow the person who is rigged inside the room. We used the same logic, but just up in the air. We made a metal room. All of the riggers in the corners are also flying up high, as is the camera operator, and the camera and the character are both on wires. We also used a crane and the room can turn. When you lose your perspective in the film, it is because everything is moving, nothing is calculated, nothing is programmed into a computer; but, you can feel the human spirit inside.  The scene where the woman is dying in the glamorous apartment in Budapest was very difficult for us because of the spinning. And actually the most difficult was the first flight in nature.

Q: To achieve the look of the film, then, did you storyboard a lot with your DP?

Mundruczó: There was some storyboarding, but it was very primitive. As I mentioned already, we were more concerned with creating material that was alive. We did a lot of pre-shots with a primitive 5D camera and we rented a large hall to learn how we could do those shots. My conception was very straight. I didn't want to cut the shots. I wanted to make the miracles appear as miracles, even though we didn't have the money to do so. Also, I wanted to combine the horizontal and the vertical axis so that you're walking, fly up, then walking again. Literally, that was the idea and that was super difficult to create. I believe in my little camera. I don't believe so much in drawings. I'm not a video director.

Q: The credits say this movie was blessed by a rabbi? Can you explain that?

Mundruczó: Actually, my producer-husband is a rabbi. He watches me make all my movies and watches to see if they fit with his religion or not. We show him the movies and he blesses them because he can bless them, like he blesses a house or a door. He can bless art pieces as well.

Q: Is there a deep meaning to why the characters often lapse into speaking English?

Mundruczó: There's no deep meaning. As we say in Hungary, it's not even English, it's Globish. Which means that a Syrian refugee coming to see a Hungarian doctor, they speak English, even if it's Tarzan English, or Globish. It's also just close to reality and using this low-quality English between them somehow.

Q: Did making this film meet your expectations?

Mundruczó: That's a big question, and I have to say that it met my expectations, and even a little more because—though I was working with a fantastic team—I wasn't sure if we could create those moments. But everyone gave everything for this movie. We did it for $3.5 million dollars, which is really low for a movie like this, so we started to cut corners. When we came to the chase scene, we thought, "Let's cut out the chase scene." But then the stuntmen came and said we could do it all in one shot and save costs. Also, I'm close to this kind of style of filmmaking. It's less and less popular but still exists. I'm so proud that I'm on this side creating scenes like that. When I was growing up, that was the style of the Soviet sci-fi movies and Eastern European movies. They were always more blurry. That's my tradition and I quite like to do that.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

SFFILM FESTIVAL 2018—Michael Hawley's Preview Of Spotlight on Space, Dark Wave, French Cinema

Spotlight on Space
 
Every year the festival gathers a few films with a common theme and places them under a "Spotlight" umbrella. This year's designated leitmotif is "Into the Great Beyond" and I was able to preview two of the three films. Klim Shipenko's Salyut-7 is a thoroughly satisfying outer space thriller that won Best Picture at last year's Golden Eagle Awards (Russia's Oscar® equivalent). Based on actual events, the Salyut-7 episode is sometimes referred to as Russia's Apollo 13. In 1985, two U.S.S.R. cosmonauts were sent to rescue a damaged, unmanned space station before it was captured by Americans. Shipenko's retelling of their close call with oblivion is nerve-wracking, humanist, frequently comic and of course, just a little nationalistic. It also boasts special effects that rival Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. My only complaint is the ending seems a bit unsettled for those not familiar with the actual events. Salyut-7 is already available to stream on Amazon Prime, but you'll want to see it on the biggest screen possible. Which I'm sure is why SFFILM chose the Castro Theatre for its single festival screening on April 8. Sometimes it's great fun to experience another country's big-budget blockbuster. This is such an occasion.

Austrian director Johann Lurf's ★ (Star) screens in the festival's experimental Vanguard section. It is essentially a 99-minute representational compilation film in which movie scenes of star-spangled nighttime skies are viewed in succession, with their original music scores, aspect ratio and unsubtitled dialogue left intact. Clips from 550 films are experienced in chronological order, beginning with 1905's Rêve de la lune running all the way up to 2017's Girls Trip. A few are easily recognizable—Night of the Hunter, 2001, various stars of Bethlehem, Star Wars and Star Trek. But the hundreds of others? I had no clue I'd just watched the likes of Wayne's World, Antichrist, Stromboli, The Big Lebowski, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Howard the Duck and I Walked With a Zombie. Numerous Japanese clips (Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi) get screen time, as well as experimental works from Man Ray and Maya Deren. The credits end with a year-by-year listing of all 550 films, which would be more beneficial to viewers if presented at the beginning. All the more reason to watch the film again, I suppose. One caveat—given the subject matter, you might be imagining ★ (Star) as a relaxing and dreamy viewing experience. It isn't. Many clips run just a second or two, and the constantly shifting aspect ratios and audio render it more akin to watching a schizoid astronomer channel-surf.

Dark Wave

I'm not much of a genre film fan, but that hasn't stopped me from being very excited about the films in this year's Dark Wave section. All four, incidentally, hail from outside the U.S. Robin Aubert's French-Canadian zombie flick Ravenous is already streaming on Netflix, but I've resisted having a look in favor of screaming bloody murder with a live festival audience. The movie scores big bonus points for starring Monia Chokri, the actress who played Xavier Dolan's droll competitor for the attentions of a blond Adonis in 2010's highly underrated Heartbeats. France's Dark Wave entry is Revenge, a female-directed (Coralie Fargeat) rape revenge thriller that's promising to crank the gruesome sub-genres' tropes up to 11, while remaining distinctive and smart. Fargeat's film garnered near-unanimous raves on the festival circuit, with The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney proclaiming it a "pop art carnage opera" that is "nothing if not relentless." SFFILM Fest's own description boasts that "one could paint a mansion with the amount of blood that gushes" from Revenge. Color me eager to be nauseated.

The other two Dark Wave entries are from the UK and both have secured considerable critical praise. Michael Pearce's Beast is a piece of intense arthouse horror that premiered at Toronto. Set on the remote isle of Jersey, Beast concerns a young woman whose struggle against her controlling family intensifies after meeting a sexy stranger—one who may or may not be a serial killer. The film's trailer is downright unnerving. Jean-Stepháne Sauvaire's A Prayer Before Dawn is a UK/France co-production that premiered as a Cannes midnight screening. Based on true events, the film stars Joe Cole as Billy Moore, a fighter and heroin addict who's arrested and thrown in Thai prison. While there he trains in the art of Muay Thai boxing, eventually becoming a champion who's permitted to earn his release. (The film was shot in an actual Thai prison). Boxing movies are decidedly not my thing, but I'm giving this one a shot.

French Cinema

Bay Area exhibition of French-language films suffered a real blow when SFFILM discontinued its French Cinema Now series two years ago. Couple that with fewer French films than ever achieving local theatrical release (even ones with U.S. distribution), and we're left with general interest festivals like SFFILM and Mill Valley to pick up the slack. The good news is that this year's SFFILM Festival has programmed three films that were a significant part of the conversation surrounding French cinema in 2017. The not so good news is that a dozen or two other noteworthy works will remain elusive to us, at least for the time being.

I strongly recommend catching Laurent Cantet's The Workshop at the festival. It was one of the best things I saw at this year's Palm Springs International Film Fest and it appears distributor Strand Releasing might no longer be planning a local release. The Workshop premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar and was immediately hailed as the director's best work since 2008's Palme d'or winner The Class. Writer/director Robin Campillo (last year's French Oscar® submission BPM) is back on board as co-screenwriter, a position he's assumed on all Cantet's best films. Actress Marina Foïs (never better) plays a renowned author conducting a student summer writing workshop in a depressed coastal town near Marseilles. The goal is to collectively write a locally-set murder mystery. Things take a dark turn when a taciturn student (a brilliant debut by Matthieu Lucci) who's swayed by right-wing Nationalist politics becomes a threat to both his multi-culti classmates and especially the author herself. Not to be missed.

The other two films I referenced were Cannes premieres, as well as the first movies I made sure to work into my festival schedule. Following the disappointment of 2014's turgid The Search, Oscar®-winning filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) came back last year with Godard, Mon Amour, a combination spoof and homage to the revolutionary French New Wave director circa 1968. In this crucial year for politics around the globe, Godard was newly married and in love (with actress Anne Wiazemsky, the girl in Bresson's Au hazard Balthazar, who co-wrote the screenplay and is played by Stacy Martin). He was also breaking new ground as a political filmmaker. The impossibly handsome Louis Garrel has been appropriately uglied-up and nerdified to play the lead, and judging from the trailer, he's hilariously spot-on in his inhabitation of M. Jean-Luc. Godard, Mon Amour opens at local Landmark Theatres on April 27. But you'll certainly want to catch the film at its two festival screenings with director Michel Hazanavicius in person. The filmmaker last appeared at a SFFILM event when he attended 2009's French Cinema Now with OSS 117: Lost in Rio.

The third film isn't even really French. It's included here because its star is France's most acclaimed screen performer and Cannes is the film's setting. Hong Sang-soo's Claire's Camera was just one of three new features released by Asia's most prolific arthouse filmmaker last year. Isabelle Huppert returns for a second Hong collaboration, building on the artistic success of 2012's In Another Country. This time Huppert plays a teacher attending Cannes because a friend has a film screening there. While wandering the streets she strikes up a friendship with a South Korean film sales assistant who's just been fired from her job (frequent Hong star and real-life main squeeze, Kim Min-hee.) Claire believes her Polaroid camera has a mystical power to change lives, a dabble in magic realism that may be a first for the director. Running a brisk 68 minutes, Claire's Camera was appreciated by critics for its melancholic slightness. The title is a hat's tip to Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee), the revered French director whose conversation-laden explorations of male/female dynamics Hong's films are frequently compared.

Following the glorious one-two punch of Hong's sublime Hill of Freedom (2014) and Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), I was left completely cold by his next two films, Yourself and Yours (2016) and On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). I fully expect Claire's Camera will bring me back into the fold. As for Huppert, Claire's Camera is only one of nine works released since her Oscar®-nominated performance in Elle. In the Bay Area we've only been privy to two of them, Michael Haneke's Happy End and the made-for-TV movie False Confessions. At the very least I'm hoping we eventually see Serge Bozon's Madame Hyde, for which Huppert won Best Actress at last summer's Locarno Film Festival. SFFILM Festival has been a past champion of Bozon's work (La France, Tip Top), making Madame Hyde one of the more eye-raising omissions from this year's festival.

As someone who obsessively follows contemporary French cinema, I was surprised to draw a near-complete blank when it came to the rest of this year's SFFILM Fest French line-up. I knew that Janus Films had done a new 4K restoration of Olivier Assayas's fifth feature, Cold Water (1994), so that was nice to see. If you can't make the fest's one-time screening (like me) I'm sure Janus partner Criterion Collection will be releasing it soon enough. I was also clueless that actor Vincent Cassel had made a Gauguin biopic (Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti). I'll basically see anything this actor appears in, especially when it has a South Seas setting and is screening in our fabulous Dolby Theatre. It turns out the film was put into French cinemas last fall without the benefit of any festival exposure. The few reviews out there praise Cassel's performance, but come down hard on its toying with biographical facts. Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti is slated for a local Landmark Theatres release on July 27.

Animation fans will no doubt be excited to see The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales, a new cartoon feature from Oscar®-nominated director Benjamin Renner (Ernest & Celestine). Based on the trailer alone, Marine Francen's The Sower comes off as a pastoral bodice-ripper, but her New Director's Prize from the San Sebastian Film Festival is a hopeful indicator of it being better than that. Out of all these unknown French entities, I'm most looking forward to My Life with James Dean, Dominque Choisy's slapstick valentine to the passion of cinema. Johnny Rasse stars as a gay experimental filmmaker who has a number of amusing encounters as he exhibits his latest film along France's Northern coast. SFFILM Festival will host the movie's North American premiere, with director Choisy expected to attend.

Cross-published at film-415.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

SFFILM FESTIVAL 2018—Michael Hawley Previews the U.S. Cinema Programming

As someone whose passion for cinema lies primarily with foreign language movies, it has been slightly discomforting to watch U.S. indies and documentaries carve out an increasingly larger slice of the total SFFILM Festival pie. To witness, all three of this year's Big Nights are U.S. indies that premiered at Sundance, and 38 of the festival's 99 feature films also hail from Sundance. When one looks closely at the U.S. films selected, however, it becomes impossible to grouse when there are more terrific-sounding films than a person could possibly watch over the course of a two-week festival. Here's a subjective survey of the U.S. narrative and documentary features I'm intrigued by at this year's SFFILM Fest.

Narrative Features

The only U.S. narrative feature I had the opportunity to preview is a film I can't imagine not being on my 2018 top ten list. Chloé Zhao's The Rider premiered at Cannes last year, winning the top prize in the Director's Fortnight sidebar. It's about as close to a documentary as a narrative film can get, with non-professional actors playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. The Rider's aching heart is the character of Brady (Brady Jandreau), a young Lakota rodeo rider and horse trainer who has sustained a massive head injury. The film transports us alongside Brady's personal journey as he struggles to find another way to live while remaining true to himself. It's a transcendent tale of wounded masculinity, guided by Zhao's sure-handed direction and Jandreau's revelatory, intuitive lead performance. The Rider opens in theaters on April 20, but believe me, you won't want to miss SFFILM Festival's April 7 screening with director Zhao and Brady Jandreau in person.

Sometimes a festival's most tantalizing options are scheduled in tandem. For me, 2018's toughest film choice occurs on Friday, April 6 when Paul Schrader's First Reformed is slotted up against John Cameron Mitchell's How to Talk to Girls at Parties, both with their respective directors in attendance. Touted as a "grindhouse art film," Schrader's First Reformed achieved ecstatic reviews when it toured last autumn's fest circuit (Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York), with many calling it his best work since 2002's Autofocus. The film stars 2017 SFFILM Fest tributee Ethan Hawke as a dying, guilt-ridden New England church minister who suddenly finds comfort in the idea of becoming a suicide bomber. Distributor A24 will release First Reformed in cinemas next month.

In contrast, Mitchell's film (technically a USA/UK co-production) premiered to some seriously scathing reviews when it played out-of-competition at Cannes nearly a year ago. The film has its defenders, however (and the trailer does look pretty fabulous, particularly Sandy Powell's costume designs.) What's kind of shocking is that despite Mitchell's reputation (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) and the presence of Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning in the cast, no film festival north of the Rio Grande has wanted to touch it (San Francisco will be its "North American" premiere and it appears distributor A24 has no immediate plans for theatrical release). Based on an award-winning 2006 sci-fi short story by Neil Gaiman (who will also attend the screening), How to Talk to Girls at Parties stars Tony® Award winner Alex Sharp as a 70's London punk who goes to a party and hooks up with a lady space alien. In the end, my evening's film selection could be determined by venue, with Mitchell's movie getting a boost by virtue of its screening at the Castro.

For many years, new LGBT cinema was pretty much the provenance of San Francisco's Frameline festival. More recently, SFFILM Fest has upped its LGBT roster, possibly because there's so much more product available. (Frameline has also begun programming many of the same films that appear at SFFILM, realizing the two festival's audiences don't necessarily cross over). The LGBT section at this year's fest contains a record nine films, with all but two being of U.S. origin. The one I'm most looking forward to is Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals, a familial drama about three mixed-race brothers whose laconic existence in upstate New York is tempered by their parents' volatile relationship. The focus is on the youngest of the three who's realizing he's somehow "different" from his siblings, which has led some critics to proclaim We the Animals as "this year's Moonlight." A major reason I'm excited to see this film is the casting of Raúl Castillo as the father. The Mexican-American actor first caught my attention in Aaron Katz' idiosyncratic indie mystery Cold Weather, several years before he achieved minor fame playing the character Richie in HBO's Looking. I'm also intrigued by the casting of Sheila Vand as the mother (she was the Iranian vampire girl in A Girl Walks Home at Night Alone), as well as this being the narrative feature debut of documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar. In a Dream, the director's excellent 2008 doc about his father, Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar, won the audience award at SF DocFest and was shortlisted for the Oscar®.

Photo: Chris Waggoner, courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Another critically acclaimed LGBT film focused on POC is Jordana Spiro's Night Comes On, which stars Dominique Fishback. This is the actress's first lead role since her breakout as prostitute Darlene in the HBO series The Deuce. Here she plays an 18-year-old lesbian recently released from juvie who must resist falling back into the criminal life. Two other promising LGBT youth-focused features in the fest line-up are The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Alex Strangelove. The former stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a teen sent to a Christian "gay conversion" camp after being caught making out with the prom queen. Miseducation director Desiree Akhavan was awarded the Grand Jury Prize (dramatic competition) at this year's Sundance. Alex Strangelove is a Netflix-bound coming-of-age comedy directed by Craig Johnson (The Skelton Twins).

Three formidable entities of American indie filmmaking have new films in this year's festival. Ten years after Debra Granik's Winter's Bone scored four Oscar® nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay, the writer/director has finally made a follow-up feature. Leave No Trace stars Ben Foster and Dale Dickey as a father and daughter forced to move on after their idyllic years of living off the grid in an Oregon state park come to an end. Zellner brothers David and Nathan made a big splash in 2014 with Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Now they're back with a post-modern Western, Damsel, starring Robert Pattinson (following-up on his astounding performance in last year's Safdie Brothers film, Good Time) and Mia Wasikowska. The film is a late addition to the SFFILM Festival line-up and the Zellners are expected to attend its only screening on April 14. Lastly, director Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Computer Chess) creates further distance from his mumblecore roots with Support the Girls, a comedy starring Regina Hall as the stressed-out manager of a Hooters-like sports bar.

If indie movies about cranky geezers going on road trips is your thing, SFFILM Fest has a pair of options. In Shana Feste's Boundaries, Vera Farmiga is a put-upon single mom who's forced to transport her thorny father (Christopher Plummer) after he's kicked out of yet another nursing home for pot dealing. Bobby Canavale, Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda co-star. The curmudgeon in Mark Raso's Kodachrome is played by Ed Harris, a renowned photographer who must get to Kansas before the very last developer of Kodachrome film closes its door. Naturally, he can't drive himself, so his estranged son (Jason Sudeikis) and nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) get dragged along for the ride. Kodachrome premiered at Toronto last September and hits Netflix on April 20 without getting a theatrical release. Director Raso, writer Jonathan Tropper and actor Jason Sudeikis are expected to attend the film's single screening on April 7.
 
Documentary Features

Docs make up roughly 40 percent of all feature films in this year's festival. Contained within the U.S. selection are a dozen which examine some aspect of "the arts." The one I'm most excited to see is Mantangi/Maya/M.I.A., Steve Loveridge's profile of UK/Sri Lankan hip hop star M.I.A. Amongst non-fans she's best known for the infamous "bird" flipped on live TV during Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl show (for which the NFL is still trying to sue for $16.6 million). Casual fans know her for "Paper Planes," the ubiquitous 2008 hit single with beats punctuated by gun shots and a cash register's ka-ching. Loveridge is a personal friend of the performer and his documentary is said to be full of warts-and-all footage shot over the course of 20-plus years. The film won the Special Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance and was announced as the prestigious opening night film for this year's New Directors/New Films series in NYC. A second SFFILM bio-doc about a bad-ass woman musician is Kevin Kerslake's Bad Reputation, which takes on the storied career of iconic punk rocker Joan Jett. It was recently confirmed that Jett herself will attend the festival's lone screening of Bad Reputation at the Castro Theatre on April 14.

Two of the most beloved American media figures of all time are also subjects of SFFILM Fest documentaries. Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is the latest from director Marina Zenowich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired). She uses obscure performance clips and never-before-seen outtakes to tell the story of the brilliant Bay Area actor and comedian. The film will have one screening only, at the Castro Theatre on April 7. Both festival screenings of Morgan Neville's Sundance hit Won't You Be My Neighbor, his portrait of TV's Mr. Rogers, are already at RUSH. The Oscar®-winning filmmaker (Twenty Feet from Stardom) is expected to be in attendance.

The cinematic arts are represented at the festival by two non-fiction features. Amy Scott's Hal is a profile of revered director Hal Ashby, the Oscar®-winning film editor (In the Heat of the Night) best known for directing a string of socially conscious 1970's masterpieces that include Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Being There, Coming Home and The Last Detail. Scott's film boasts interviews with such Ashby alumni as Jeff Bridges, Jane Fonda, Lee Grant and Jon Voight. Then in Half the Picture, director Amy Adrion takes on Hollywood's dismal record of advocating for women filmmakers, featuring interviews with Ava DuVernay (Selma), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) and others. Following the April 9 screening, the fest presents a conversation between director Adrion and Esther Pearl, Executive Director of Camp Reel Stories–A Media Camp for Girls.

Documentaries about photographers have been a popular subject for filmmakers and audiences alike in the past decade, with shutterbugs Robert Frank, Bill Cunningham, Vivian Meier, Annie Leibovitz, Sebastião Salgado and others receiving motion picture tributes. Now we can add Garry Winogrand and James Balog to the list. Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable examines the life and career of the controversial "snapshot aesthetic" street photographer who took over one million photos before his untimely 1984 death at age 56. Winogrand left behind thousands of rolls of undeveloped film, 8mm home movies and audio recordings, all of which director Sasha Waters Freyer employs to tell his story. Following the film's SFMOMA screening on April 14, Freyer will be joined in conversation by author Geoff Dyer, whose new book on the photographer was released last month. The second doc about a famed photographer is Matthew Testa's The Human Element, which profiles James Balog. The environmental photographer is best known for visually documenting the devastating effects of man-made climate change, particularly the rapid disappearance of the world's glaciers (his work was featured in the 2012 film Chasing Ice). Balog and director Testa are expected to attend the festival.

It has been 15 years since Nathaniel Kahn received an Oscar® nomination for My Architect, the filmmaker's bittersweet ode to his famous architect father, Louis Kahn. Following several made-for-TV science documentaries, Kahn finally returns with a new feature this year, The Price of Everything. Using a Sotheby's modern art auction as backdrop, Kahn examines the commodification of art and reflects on how artists lose control of their own creations in today's white-hot art market. Among the artists profiled in the film are Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and Larry Poons. I'd be shocked if The Price of Everything doesn't mention last year's $110.5 million sale of a 1982 Basquiat work, which set a record for an American artist at auction. The graffiti artist turned painter happens to be the subject of another SFFILM Festival documentary, Sara Driver's Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Amongst the score of non-arts related U.S. docs showing at the festival, I had the chance to preview and highly recommend Bing Liu's Sundance Special Jury Prize winner, Minding the Gap. This empathetic and intimate look at young manhood in the economically depressed city of Rockford, IL is entirely composed of footage shot by the Asian-American director over the course of a decade. Liu's focus is on himself and two close friends, one Caucasian and one African American, who all share a passion for skateboarding as well as dark relationships with past father figures. Their collective self-awareness and articulate fervency is especially impressive considering the challenges of their environment. The festival's Hold Review policy limits me from saying more, but I guarantee this is a doc you won't want to miss. Liu is expected to attend the film's screenings on April 13 and 14.

Three documentaries I highly anticipate watching during the festival proper are Bisbee '17, Three Identical Strangers, and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Bisbee '17 is the latest from Robert Greene (Actress, Kate Plays Christine) who once again employs his meta-docu-fiction storytelling techniques to reflect on a century-old Arizona strike in which 1,200 miners, most of them Mexican immigrants, were marched into the desert at gunpoint and left to die. Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers recounts the incredibly strange tale of male triplets who were separated at birth and then reunited at age 19 in 1980, briefly becoming media celebrities who hung out at Studio 54 and appeared in the film Desperately Seeking Susan. Lastly, RaMell Ross' Hale County This Morning, This Evening has been described as a lyric tone poem in documentary guise, which lovingly captures African American life in rural Alabama. Like the bulk of non-fiction films in the festival, all three of these acclaimed works had their world premiere at Sundance, with Three Identical Strangers winning a Special Jury Prize for Storytelling and Hale County This Morning, This Evening bringing home a Special Jury Prize for Creative Vision.

The above-mentioned movies represent just an iceberg's tip of the 39 documentary features appearing in SFFILM Festival 2018, so let's glance at a few others of possible interest. Mercury 13 will have its world premiere here prior to hitting Netflix on April 20. David Singleton and Heather Walsh's film recalls the dashed dreams of a group of would-be women astronauts in the early 60's. (I can imagine the pitch meeting: "It's a white women's Hidden Figures!") Fans of Laura Greenfield's Queen of Versailles will no doubt want to catch her latest glimpse at the lives of the hideously rich, Generation Wealth. Although RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West's bio-doc on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 4, I imagine it would be great fun seeing it at the Castro Theatre with the directors present on April 14 (this screening is now at RUSH). Two docs with an eye toward the future profile a budding young chef (Chef Flynn) and aspiring scientists (Inventing Tomorrow). Last but not least, I really hope not to miss the festival's late-addition screening of This One's for the Ladies, Gene Graham's look at an African American male strip joint in Newark, NJ. (that doubles as a kids' karate school by day).

Cross-published at film-415.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

SFFILM FESTIVAL 2018—Michael Hawley Reviews the Big Nights, Awards & Tributes, Live & Onstage, Special Events

Nearly two weeks have passed since the press conference wherein SFFILM revealed the exciting line-up for its 61st festival. In my first post for this year's event I talked about the programs that had been preannounced. That was a simple task given that only three things were revealed in advance: a tribute to Charlize Theron, a Centerpiece screening of Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, and the films competing for the Golden Gate Awards. In this entry, I'll take a look at the considerable roster of programs and events taking place outside the main line-up of films. But first here's an update on the 2018 SFFILM Festival's participating venues.

Two years have passed since the festival left the Sundance (now AMC) Kabuki Cinemas, which had been its home base for nearly three decades (with assistance from Landmark's nearby Clay Theatre and Japantown's New People Cinema). In 2016, the fest relocated its headquarters to the then-new Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre, with the Mission district's Roxie and Victoria Theatres serving as supplemental venues. Last year saw a significantly reduced use of the Alamo, as well as the addition of four downtown venues: the spectacular Dolby Cinema on Market Street, the newly renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA, plus both the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Theater and Screening Room. Two constants amidst all this change have been the Berkeley Art Museum's Pacific Film Archive and of course, San Francisco's beloved jewel, the Castro Theatre.

So what's new for 2018? Well, the Alamo Drafthouse is completely out of the picture, along with the YBCA Theatre. Use of the Dolby Cinema remains roughly the same. There's hardly a better place in SF to see a movie, but the Dolby can be problematic for all-day festival-goers with its strict no-food-or-beverage policy (that includes water bottles; expect bags and backpacks to be searched). Other venue holdovers from recent years include the Roxie, Victoria and PFA. Over in the East Bay, the festival will make good use of Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre for the first time, with programming scheduled for two nights. The only new San Francisco venue added for 2018 is the Creativity Theater at the Children's Creativity Museum, which supplants the YBCA Theater as a third venue operating in the festival hub near Mission and 4th Streets. The 183-seat theater with stadium seating looks pretty nifty in this picture, and I expect to be spending lots of time there. Finally, the happiest venue news for SFFILM Festival 2018 is that once again the Castro will host the fest for 12 consecutive days—from opening night on April 4 to closing night on April 15.


For its opening night slot on April 4, SFFILM Festival has selected Silas Howard's A Kid Like Jake, adapted by Daniel Pearle from his own off-Broadway play. In this very much of-the-moment dramedy, Claire Danes and Jim Parsons play Brooklyn parents of a possibly trans young son, who are encouraged by the boy's preschool teacher (Octavia Spencer) to play up his trans identity as a "diversity" ticket into a competitive private school. A Kid Like Jake premiered at Sundance in January and I believe this will be its first public showing since then. Director Howard, who is trans himself (and has directed episodes of the award-winning Amazon series Transparent) will be on hand at Castro Theatre. This year's opening night party happens at the SF Design Center Galleria.

For a second year running, SFFILM Fest has scheduled its closing night festivities two days before the festival actually ends. I couldn't be more thrilled with the selection of Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot, which plays the Castro Theatre on Sunday, April 15. The movie premiered to positive reviews at Sundance, providing a crucial boost to Van Sant's career following 2015's universally derided Sea of Trees. DWHWGFOF is a partial adaptation of quadriplegic, Portland cartoonist John Callahan's same-titled memoir, focusing on his years in recovery for alcoholism. While Joaquin Phoenix has drawn unanimous praise for his portrayal of Callahan (a role Robin Williams originally hoped to play), the strongest plaudits have been for Jonah Hill, allegedly unrecognizable as a gay, trust-fund kid who becomes Callahan's AA sponsor. The rest of the tantalizing cast includes Jack Black, Rooney Mara, alt-rocking women Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon, and last but not least, Udo Kier. Gus Vant Sant, as well as the film's composer Danny Elfman, are expected to attend. SFFILM Festival's 2018 closing night party will follow at Public Works.


Photo: Getty / Paul Archuleta
SFFILM Festival's 2018 George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award could hardly go to anyone more deserving than Oscar®-winning Bay Area filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, Celluloid Closet, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt). The award's presentation, which up until last year had always taken place at the private Film Society Awards Night Gala, will occur at the Castro Theatre on April 15. The event will include a screening of End Game, Epstein and Friedman's new 40-minute Netflix documentary short about hospice care.

Photo: Unknown.
The Mel Novikoff Award is given each year to "an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public's appreciation of world cinema." For 2018, SFFILM has selected none other than internationally renowned professor, author, film scholar and all-around cinephilic ambassador Annette Insdorf. I first became aware of Insdorf years ago when she co-hosted (along with Roger Ebert) IFC's live red carpet coverage of Cannes' opening and closing ceremonies, and was impressed by her articulate and genial on-screen demeanor. She'll receive her Novikoff Award at SFMOMA on Saturday, April 14, in a program that will include a screening of Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 comedy To Be or Not to Be, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.

Photo: Jerome Hiler




Experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky is the recipient of this year's Persistence of Vision Award, which honors a filmmaker "whose main body of work falls outside of the realm of narrative feature filmmaking."  I confess to being a near-philistine when it comes to experimental cinema.  I recognize, however, from the revered tones with which my more esoterically inclined cineaste friends speak of Dorsky, that this award comes richly deserved.  The director's works are described as "silent short films in which light, nature and everyday surrounds are carefully captured and combined to prismatic, alchemical effect."  In an unusual move for the festival, this year's POV program will be presented twiceat SFMOMA on April 6 and at BAMPFA on April 15.  Both programs will include screenings of four recent Dorksy works, as well as an on-stage conversation (BAMPFA's will be hosted by Steve Anker, dean of CalArts' School of Film/Video).  Presentation of the POV Award itself will only take place at the SFMOMA program.
Photo: Nancy Wong
In addition to actress Charlize Theron, the other film personality receiving a SFFILM Tribute this year is director Wayne Wang. The moviemaker's radically eclectic filmography ranges from early, Bay Area-based indies focused on the Asian American experience (Chan is Missing, Dim Sum, The Joy Luck Club) to crowd-pleasing Hollywood rom-coms (Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez, Last Holiday with Queen Latifah), to edgier experimental works (Center of the World, Life is Cheap…But Toilet Paper is Expensive). Accompanying the tribute at the Dolby Cinema on April 7 will be a screening of 1995's Smoke with Harvey Keitel—arguably Wang's most popular and critically acclaimed work—in a new restoration overseen by the director. Personal fun fact: I had a tiny, non-speaking part in Wang's Dim Sum, which ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.


Photo: Courtesy of the Artist.
High atop my list of must-sees for this year's festival is Guy Maddin's State of Cinema address at the Victoria Theatre on April 8. From his 1989 feature debut Tales from the Gimli Hospital to 2015's The Forbidden Room, I can't think of another filmmaker who has had more works exhibited at our festival than Maddin. The iconoclast Canadian director also received the fest's Persistence of Vision of Award in 2006. Regrettably, Maddin had to cancel two in-person gigs at last year's 60th anniversary event—the tribute to Canyon Cinema, for which he had selected the films, and the closing night presentation of his Vertigo mash-up, The Green Fog—making his appearance at this year's SFFILM Festival doubly sweet. Maddin has selected "Cinema as Dream State" as the subject for 2018's State of Cinema address, and I can't think of anyone more qualified to ruminate on that particular topic. Be prepared for 60 minutes of thought provoking hilarity.

Photo: Jeanne Hansen.
Speaking of iconoclasts, the Bay Area lost one of its most beloved last year with the passing of Stephen Parr, so it's entirely fitting the festival offer up A Celebration of Oddball Films at its 2018 edition. Oddball was Parr's baby, a 50,000-plus reel collection of industrial, educational and otherwise uncategorizable films housed floor-to-ceiling in a Mission District warehouse. Watch the end credits of almost any documentary that includes archival footage and you're bound to see the name Oddball Films scroll by. Parr also hosted incredibly fun weekend screenings at the warehouse. The first time I climbed Oddball's steep alleyway staircase and walked through the mysterious door covered by shag carpet was for a 16mm Halloween screening of a doc on actress Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira), which I watched from a beat-up sofa (or was it a beanbag chair?). The SFFILM Oddball/Parr celebration at the Castro on April 9 will include a selection of films from the archive, accompanied with live music by Marc Capelle's Red Room Orchestra.

For its annual pairing of a classic silent film with live music accompaniment, the festival has chosen Yasujiro Ozu's 1932 familial comedy I Was Born, But… with a score by alternative rock band Blonde Redhead. This is a group I haven't thought about since the late nineties, but apparently they've kept active and at least have a tangential relationship to the world of cinema. Their second album, "La Mia Vita Violenta" was dedicated to Pasolini, and 2016's boxed-set compilation "Masculin Féminin" of course references Godard. It will be interesting to compare their score to that of Stephen Horne, who accompanied I Was Born, But… at the 2011 SF Silent Film Festival.

Two additional programs round out SFFILM Fest's 2018 Live & Onstage sidebar. In A Thousand Thoughts, director Sam Green (The Weather Underground) stages a "live documentary" about the Kronos Quartet at the Castro Theatre on April 10. The formidable string ensemble will play a live musical score while Green provides live narration during the movie, which itself takes place on multiple screens. A Thousand Thoughts is co-directed by Joe Bini, a Bay Area native who has edited over a dozen films for Werner Herzog, as well as works by Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and Nick Broomfield. Then on April 15 at the Victoria Theatre, SFFILM presents Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences, described as an "evening of music, animation and interstellar investigations" by director Cory McAbee (The American Astronaut).


Photo courtesy of PBS/BBC
For a second year in a row, SFFILM Festival hosts a trio of free public screenings. On April 5 at SFMOMA the fest presents an episode of the new PBS/BBC series Civilizations: How Do We Look, an updating of Kenneth Clark's landmark 1969 series Civilization. The episode to be shown spotlights China's terra cotta warriors and SF Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu will be on hand to lead a post-screening conversation. A free screening at the Victoria Theatre on April 10 will find acclaimed documentarian Katie Galloway (2011's Golden Gate Award winner Better This World) presenting her new work. The Pushouts takes on the issue of high school dropouts through the story of former Oakland gang member Victor Rios, now a professor at UC Santa Cruz. Jun Stinson's Futbolistas 4 Life will screen at the same program, and it concerns Oakland students raising money for a new soccer field.

The third free screening is of Don Hardy and Dana Nachman's Pick of the Litter, which follows five Labrador Retriever puppies as they train to be guide dogs for the visually impaired. Dogs (as well as masters) are invited to attend the April 7 screening at the Victoria Theatre, with the balcony being set aside as an "animal-free zone." Following last week's dog-friendly screening of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs at the Roxie (which prompted a write-up in the NY Times), this could signal yet another Bay Area-originated trend. Finally, while these screenings are free, registration is required (and The Pushouts is already at RUSH).

Also operating under the umbrella of Special Events are a pair of Creativity Summits, both of which take place at the Creativity Museum on April 7 and are free to the public (registration required). Both panels are focused on discussions of "presence," or "how technology broadly (and VR & AR in particular) are impacting artistic and cultural practice." The first features multi-hyphenate novelist (The Beach), screenwriter (28 Days Later) and director (Ex-Machina, Annihilation) Alex Garland in conversation with USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Tara McPherson. That will be followed by a panel comprised of VR pioneer Jaron Lanier and WIRED magazine's Peter Rubin.

Photo courtesy of HBO
Fans of actor/comedian Bill Hader (SNL, The Skelton Twins) will surely not want to miss the festival's special presentation of his new HBO series, Barry. Hader plays the title character, an ex-Marine turned hitman who travels to L.A. for work and stumbles into an acting class run by a charismatic teacher (Henry Winkler). The series debuted on HBO this past Sunday and SFFILM Festival will show the first three episodes, all of which were helmed by Hader in his directorial debut. Bill Hader, Henry Winkler and writer/producer Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Silicon Valley) are all expected to attend the presentation.

Cross-published at film-415.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

THE DARK SIDE OF THE DREAM—A Conversation with Donald Malcolm

Courtesy of Midcentury Productions
"Dangerous clowns, balancing dreadful and wonderful perceptions they have been handed day by day generations on down."—Joni Mitchell.

The slackened tolerance of the jaundiced eye. One might describe our collective perspective as spectactors weary of watching the shenanigans of our contemporary political circus. The ringmaster is, without question, sociopathic, and at least mentally ill. The clowns are horrifying as they tumble over each other pocketing lobbied bribes. There isn't a single act of daring that isn't buffered by advantageously-situated economic nets and tax cuts. And a good third of the audience under the big top have salted peanuts for brains and sawdust in their ears. What kind of a circus is this anyways? When I was a little boy I dreamt of running away with every circus that came through the small town of Twin Falls, Idaho. Now every town in America finds itself trapped within this insane circus, as if unable to wake from a dark dream, and our impulse has become a concerted effort to escape the impending danger of this three-ring fiasco.

This weekend at San Francisco's Roxie Theater veteran programmer Elliot Lavine (who nearly singlehandedly invigorated interest in pre-Code, maudit and noir films) and his renegade collaborator Donald Malcolm (of Midcentury Productions) have joined forces to present a suite of films grouped under the aegis "The Dark Side of the Dream"—"subversive cinema for subversive times"—kicking off Friday night, March 23, 2018 and continuing for four nights of double-bills that test whether knowing our history will actually keep us from repeating it. San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleague Pam Grady has written up "The Dark Side of the Dream" for the Pink Section of the San Francisco Chronicle, detailing its programming and conversing with Elliot Lavine. I spoke with Donald Malcolm late last year inbetween the fourth edition of his French noir series and his second go at "Agitprop" to discuss the activist impulses shaping Midcentury Productions' programming efforts, which track directly to this weekend's series. Ducking into the Sunflower next to the Roxie we suffered no fools while gobbling down ph'o.

* * *

Photo: © Michael Guillén.  All rights reserved.
Michael Guillén: I'm impressed with Midcentury Productions and how it has grown since last we talked. Has San Francisco been receptive to your programming?

Donald Malcolm: It's been very gratifying. It's been a little tricky. We had a sweet spot the first couple of years with "The French Had A Name For It" because Mick LaSalle wrote about us for the Chronicle. But I think he had a little trouble with how we expanded the third edition. He couldn't quite get his arms around it to write about it. He was going to write up our fourth edition but a number of things came up, as they often do in that nether world that you know so well.

Guillén: Yet aside from the four editions of "The French Had A Name For It", Midcentury has diversified its programming to initiate "Agitprop", now in its second run. What inspired your sense that it was time for folks to re-watch these films? Anticipating the series, I just watched Peter Watkins' Punishment Park (1971), a movie recommended to me by Bruce Fletcher a few years back, and was stunned by how it held up and how it managed to be a hell of a lot more interesting than most of the new films opening up on Oscar® track. By contrast, Punishment Park is a movie that most concerned citizens should really be watching right now. 

Malcolm: It certainly is! How well that turns out is one of the interesting problems. The idea of "Agitprop" first came to me after the election. The election was a calamitous event and could still well turn out to be one of the most tragic events in the history of the world. We might, if we're very lucky, escape the worst effects of it. We have to try to be optimistic. We have to operate on the principle of hope that we can turn this around.

Guillén: Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot's comment that for us there is only the trying and the rest is not our business.

Malcolm: Although I'm not sure which side of this argument T.S. would actually end up being on if he were here with us today, unfortunately; his greatness as a poet notwithstanding.

Guillén: So it was the election then, as I suspected, that gave you the idea to program a series focusing on the effects of propaganda.

Malcolm: That, and because of our noir orientation, there's a whole series of films that don't get shown a lot in that area, one of which was in our first "Agitprop"—Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire (1947). These films were shown but then as we got into this official "reign of error", nobody was stepping up with this material as part of what needs to be done to bring the people to a level of consciousness to resist this stuff and do something about it.

You can ask the question as to how pertinent this material is, but it's pertinent because the history of America has many episodes that are similar to what we're dealing with now, obviously. We need to learn from those earlier episodes. We need to go back and see how other people addressed those issues, how they dealt with them, how things turned out, and all of that. That was the basis of the original "Agitprop."

Guillén: In the inaugural edition of "Agitprop" you screened Crossfire, John Reinhardt's Open Secret (1948), and an episode from the television series The Defenders

Malcolm: It was a pretty good program. I wish we could find a way to get the rest of the episodes of The Defenders out because nobody really remembers the show. Nobody except certain exalted individuals.

Guillén: We're just called "old people" these days. 

Malcolm: Those people who were very impressionable at a young age and saw the show when it was on in 1961-1965. That would mean you and me and—well, I'm sure there are many others—but it resonated with a small group of people and, unfortunately, due to the vagaries of syndication, The Defenders got lost in the shuffle. If we could see the later episodes of that show, we would have a great framework from which to operate on many issues that continue to be muddled and messed with today.

Guillén: It was a cultural moment when the mediation of television entered our homes and became essential for the ways that information was disseminated. 

Malcolm: True.

Guillén: Now there might be more of a struggle with the essential nature of television, other than for HBO (which I believe has truly great programming), because there is too much programming, a viewer is stymied by complete overchoice, and the cellphone (I suspect) has replaced the television as the main device of disseminating information because of the illusion that it is somehow under our control and determined by our choice; an issue I've become concerned about these days as I meet more and more young people who do not have a solid understanding of direct experience and instead have been raised on the idea of aggregated experience or accessed experience.

Malcolm: That's what happens when consumerism runs rampant and becomes an 800 pound gorilla, which is what has happened to us. Although that was obviously in the works at the time we were growing up and watching three networks, this is the perfect storm model of it, if you will. I think you're absolutely right. Having so much choice makes it harder to get people to focus, which is why we're trying to get people back into the theaters to watch these films, because it's a collective experience that makes a difference. As horrible as the fate that occurs to the protagonists of Punishment Park, individuals have no chance compared to a group of people who might actually have a set of strategies or ideas of how to proceed only to discover that they're outgunned by Big Brother. Punishment Park is a cautionary tale but it needs to be seen in the light of what do we do about that? And how do we address that? So that when we move forward we might have a society that doesn't have that element in it.

Guillén: Punishment Park when it came out proposed an uchronie, or alternate history.... 

Malcolm: Yes.

Guillén: But actually it has ended up being not so much an alternate history but a current perspective of history.

Malcolm: Yes. I think that the films that we're showing in "Agitprop 2" deal with prescient politics in film.

Guillén: Television, being the medium that it was when it was, admittedly helped people like you and I learn how to think about some of the pressing social issues of the time. Mom used TV as a babysitter but—once she sat me down in front of the television set and walked away—it was my viewing habits that helped to make a composite image of that babysitter. What I chose to watch were films and made-for-television programming that I realize now, in retrospect, were either catering to a spirit of resistance characteristic of the time, or to a fledgling sexuality I didn't even know I had. 

Malcolm: They sure as heck wouldn't let that happen today, now would they?

Guillén: No, in fact "they" are trying to do the opposite. They're trying to not only remove pieces of art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art but trying to reconfigure an appreciation of art. I found it astonishing that "they" secured 10,000 signatures to have certain paintings removed for violating new standards of decency. I want to believe that this is impossible and yet 10,000 people agreed that these paintings should be removed. 

Punishment Park is so full of provocative ideas. Its script is rich with definitions. I never knew where the word "chauvinism" came from and yet here is a film that tosses its definition out as part of its dialogue. Perhaps this only strikes me as remarkable because we have been effectively dumbed down as a society, so that the progressive ideas that could have led us to a purposeful resistance are now difficult to comprehend and grasp, let alone implement. Per my earlier argument, the critical thinking born from trial and error and direct experience has been diluted by the technological allure of easy access. Nowadays you don't really have to know how to think critically, you just have to know how to Google. And the really astounding thing is that I can't say that Punishment Park is dated. It's 40 years old, and yet it's not. It's the most relevant piece of film I've seen this season. Despite its similar premise, Hunger Games was pallid by comparison, clothed in special effects and costumes to, in effect, encourage passivity. 

Malcolm: And, moreover, was determined, which has become my favorite word for the way we live, which is that all these new TV shows have extended the narrative to allow hours and hours of binge watching. All of those characters in all of those stories are over-determined in order to be able to keep you in a certain mode of emotion that doesn't end up leading you anywhere. As if Aristotle had decided that drama could be something that just stopped without catharsis. These shows induce determined emotions that never get resolved, let alone never having any real purpose.

Guillén: I get your point, or your caution, but I'm more of a psychological person so I'm not as concerned with dramatic catharsis as I am with the idea that narrative seriality allows a character to flesh out into someone more recognizably human.

Malcolm: Well, they can; but, that form often obviates that and makes it something less or puts it into a particular track where there's no real surprise as to what's going to happen except it's going to be worse. This is part of the undercurrent of a world that has probably internalized too much noir and—rather than seeing noir as a cautionary momentum—see it as an entertainment. I can't disparage noir completely because I've spent so much time with it. I do have to say that when Chris Fujiwara talked about the adolescent undercurrents of noir, he's got a real point. You have to step away from it and not be so captured by it.

Guillén: You have to recognize its style, yet discern the substance within its style. Your programming gives audiences an opportunity to make that distinction. You provide not only a context, but a broadened context, which points out that noir has been thought of as this, but it can also be thought of as that. You show not only what noir can alternately be, but what it alternately is

Malcolm: What we discovered was that French noir was actually the first noir. It certainly begins accidentally when Jean Renoir decides he wants to adapt a Georges Simenon Maigret novel (La Nuit du carrefour, 1932) and sort of stumbles into everything that everybody now considers to be the attributes of film noir. Of course, it's something different because it was an accident, but it's all there. The interesting thing is that he looked at it and said, "Now, that was fun. Let's go do something else." He left it alone and never went back to it. But other people like Jean Grémillon, Julien Duvivier and Pierre Chenal—who is probably the key missing link in that early period—they were captivated by that tone and the whole combination of style, substance and the undercurrent of decadence that had been looked at from a different angle than maybe it had been in previous literature. In other words, we're not taking the fin de siècles and making noirs out of them. We're bringing it forward into a world where decadence is more mundane, but more prevalent. And not as an aesthetic statement, but just a fact of life.

That's basically where noir began and, interestingly enough, because of the unique historical events that happened in France, they ended up creating more sub-genres that are different than anything we see in noir anywhere else. During the occupation period, you have to take noir out of the city and take it into a small town in order to place the story in an allegorical way. That's exactly what they did. They created a subgenre that certain of the critics knew and called "provincial gothic". The richness of the expanded idea of noir that has started to develop in the last 10 years comes from the fact that the French were doing that first. A lot of other people picked up on that and brought those elements in and combined it all into this stew, this bouillabaisse of dark film, whether it was melodrama, hard-boiled or gothic fantasy, whatever genre. These things would work. They would resonate within that structure.

France has more subgenres that are more interesting and lead you into some very strange worlds. There's of course the fact that they believed in their writers more. One of the charts that we put up in the fourth edition of "The French Have A Name For It" that we just did in November (2017) was what we called the writer-director matrix. On one plane you have the directors stand out on the X axis. The writers are on the Y axis and the chart shows how many of those guys worked together. You can see some who were consistent collaborators, as opposed to the Hollywood system where they would put three or four writers on something and it would turn into a different kind of a stew. 

Guillén: Noir by committee? 

Malcolm: That was very seldom the case in France. There was much more of an artisanal approach in France that involved the writer having that kind of respect of being one of the key elements. Obviously, one of the great examples of that is Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné, but there are dozens more that just aren't well-known because the material—as we've said before—was mothballed for various reasons that we've already discussed.

Guillén: Recently, Joel Shepard of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts advised me that YBCA was running a program of Chinese Noir. It doesn't sound right somehow, yet I'm intrigued how this appellation "noir" is being applied to national cinemas, nation by nation. Is this an urban phenomenon? The process of modernization? Imitation being the best form of flattery? I don't know if anyone has done a chart that shows how noir has developed sequentially in national cinemas? 

Malcolm: I don't think we're far enough along to be able to do that.

Guillén: In some ways your programming is helping to expand the definition of noir, which strikes me as, perhaps, a necessary impulse. As an umbrella term "noir" is becoming a more expansive term. 

Malcolm: One of the things that happened as I was editing the Noir City Magazine for eight years was that access to all kinds of different people ended up taking things in very unusual directions. It wasn't so much finding good writers—which there are many and we were fortunate to find many of them and bring them in—but it was finding the people who were finding these films who opened up this path to films that had simply been lost. The internet might have helped with that because there were people on IMDb in France who were way ahead of anybody on this and were providing material information to us. The ways that the films were being found and brought to cinephiles, making them available with subtitles, all just mushroomed. It was just so interesting that at the time that I left the magazine, Eddie Muller did his international festival, which was actually the greatest hits of the mostly-known universe. There's an exception and I want to make sure that I credit Eddie: the Argentine area was a great area of discovery. Pierre Chenal, of course, was down there and was part of creating that; but, still, there's no good history of that. We've seen maybe seven or eight of those films but there are many more.

There are people who are interested in monetizing these films, companies like Rialto and Cohen Media bring over films from foreign countries and masterpiece them, put ribbons around them, and send them out into the world of repertory cinemas around the country. That's all well and good, I guess, but I've come to not like that model much. I like the model of the festival approach where you get as much of this material as possible out in front of the people so that they can understand how much there is. This unitary one-by-one thing seems to me to end up defending the known canon against the possibility that we really don't understand the full nature of film history yet, which to me is the exciting possibility. Especially within the bailiwick of French film, we have all this material that has simply been kicked to the curb that has not been analyzed, evaluated or even seen or experienced for 50 years.

Guillén: That's one of the things I admire most about your programming: you're getting these films back out in front of audiences by way of curated festival exhibition. As obscure films surface to my attention, I can be at home watching them on my curved 70" TV screen and I actually love watching movies that way. As a critic it's a great way to watch a movie because you can interrupt it to take notes. But if I've seen a movie I've really liked on one of the myriad streaming platforms now available, my first honest impulse is: "Where can I see this movie projected as it was originally meant to be seen? Where can I see it with other people?" For me, there's a paracinematic quality that happens within an audience watching a projected film that lends to the film's appropriate expression. The group response of the audience is like a vibration that feeds back into the film. That's one of the reasons I'm so excited to watch Punishment Park in your "Agitprop 2" series, because as I was watching it at home it kept startling me, and I want to feel how an audience will be startled.

Malcolm: To get back to the impetus of "Agitprop" for a second because that's a good way to segue into it, I would like to have seen social justice noirs shown on inauguration weekend. We made a few efforts to do that in the context of a very famous film noir festival, but it didn't happen. I spent some time looking back at the history of political filmmaking and seeing how it had changed. As you know, Midcentury Productions was set up because I discovered that there were so many great films in what is the most explosive, creative and concentrated period of filmmaking. There's much more filmmaking going on now, but in terms of what people were doing and the ways they were going about it, you can't beat that time frame in my mind. The problem is that—because we didn't do a good job at collating and putting those films away so that they would be easy to find—we lost a lot of the films that were truly startling and interesting. Obviously, Punishment Park has been around but it has never achieved the platform where it could have the most influence. Originally my thought was that I just wanted to show these social justice noirs but I'm not really in the position, given my niche in this odd little subworld of programming, to be doing that without it creating too many ripples as it is. There are too many other people who have turf issues in that area.

The one that I really wanted to show, however, the most important one to me in that group of social justice noirs, is Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil (1948), both because of the commentary within the film and the idea that it was describing something about our country entering recklessly into a zone of evil. The film should have been shown on June 14 because that's Trump's birthday and, ironically, Flag Day; but, there were no takers.

I didn't want to show the film in April at the first "Agitprop" because I wanted to focus on different issues. I also got the idea that I wanted to do the thing with The Defenders and get people to sign a petition and see if we could get Shout Factory and the others to put DVDs of the series out. I feel that once those episodes get into the zeitgeist people will understand what an amazing show that was. The first year is not the best year of that show. It's the second, third and fourth years that had so many gems that would be astonishing for people to watch in good quality or, again, within a group. It's one of those odd things where you could actually have a TV show that worked in a collective setting because of the time frame and because of the passage of time. It would take on a different dimension because of that.

Anyways, Force of Evil was the one I really wanted to get out there. Then I started realizing that there's a theme here and the theme—and it's obviously something that's been talked about in literature ever since we've been dealing with totalitarian states—is the tendency of the state to take away the rights of its citizens. It just sort of naturally moves in this direction. It's almost like a law of physics that, hopefully, we can stop at the pass. So with thinking on that, I had a great allegory for capitalism, for the numbers game, for coercion, for all the things that can stop freedom in that way, ironically in this so-called world of laissez faire capitalism, an oxymoron in my mind when you see how it progresses and devolves over time.

The theme needed to be elaborated and that's when Punishment Park and Karel Kachyna's Ucho (The Ear, 1970) came to mind. I wanted to show coercion, I wanted to show surveillance, but I also needed to show what happens when you're already on the other side down the rabbit hole. Ucho was the perfect film to show what that would be like. I also wanted to show mind games; that you can basically twist reality around to the point where you don't even know what's real anymore. That was the strategy that ultimately is deployed in Punishment Park. The state can change reality on people and subvert their ability to resist. You can stifle dissent by that mechanism. That's a very scary point that gets us back to what you were saying about the loss of critical thinking. It is paramount that an individual has the ability to resist so that you don't wind up in a scenario like Punishment Park, which is that film's great, prescient, cautionary aspect. That's what the progression of that film is. The audience member needs to think, "Okay. Now I need to know that I need to have more tools. I don't just need a lower case bs detector. I need one that is in upper case and has flashing lights and that is going to work for me almost instantaneously."

Guillén: Wasn't Punishment Park only exhibited for four days before being pulled from theaters? 

Malcolm: That's right. In 1971. They said, "Peter Watkins, you've gone too far this time."

Guillén: I was literally shocked by Punishment Park, because of the believability leant by its documentary approach. What I found most relevant and current about the film was—as events are unfolding in the narrative—in the background you hear radio transmissions and news reports of totalitarian tactics that are being implemented around the world. It reminded me how addicted and inured we are to broadcast news and how it is woven into the everyday sonic texture of our lives. I hardly need to make an effort to read the news because the news will always come to me by way of others who more faithfully attend to it, by glimpses of headlines, by overheard conversations. Punishment Park is a must-see film. 

Malcolm: I wish we could show it to hundreds of thousands of people. Again, I don't know if a third of this nation hasn't been permanently ruined and brainwashed by everything that has been done to them; but, I tend to think not. It's what you said before: the dumbing down is the key strategy that has been employed here.

Guillén: One final thing I want to stress is how much I admire that "Agitprop 2" is a program whose proceeds benefit the ACLU.

Malcolm: That's why we hope that we'll have lots of people there because it helps the ACLU help us. 

Guillén: Of all the organizations you could have chosen, why the ACLU? 

Malcolm: I felt it was the most elemental one that we have to deal with. Resources are being bestowed upon them by lots of people at this point for a reason. We need to concentrate our fire and make sure that—no matter what happens in those areas—the ACLU has the budget and the capability of being there on behalf of individual citizens. To me that was the simplest decision. Rather than try to get more arcane or more specific for particular things at this point. It seemed like the way to go because I wasn't sure how far this would go. That's the interesting question: can programs like "Agitprop 2" become part of the film landscape? The ACLU may be needed for a long time. We may be all shut down. The uncertainty of what is happening is still with us.

At this point I'm grateful that the Roxie is willing to devote some time out of their schedule. Obviously, they're pressured to do particular things as a business but they continue to show that side of things. Hopefully, we can make this viable enough that they'll want to do it on a regular basis. We'll just have to see.

Guillén: Your programming places film in the domain of activism. "Agitprop 2" is an activist festival.

Malcolm: There's no doubt about it.

Guillén: I'm ambivalent about movies these days. Do I like them? Do I not like them? I like them when they work. Fundamentally, I believe modern people need more primers for activism and I respect how you place the lineage of film alongside the lineage of activism. I want to believe in the potential of film. I constantly question whether film can really change anything. I want to believe that when audiences watch Punishment Park, it will make them want to resist, as you said earlier. But will they resist? Does film provide the will to resist? Lawrence Durrell once wrote, "understanding does not constitute a cure." I've long wrestled with that. Are you better off knowing what's going on when you can't change anything? Or feel you can't change anything? How do you think film provides hope?

Malcolm: Well, I'll try to answer that question as best I can, because it's imponderable, because the direction of society since the midcentury moment (so to speak) ends with a film like Punishment Park. This is a line of demarcation because there is a principle of hope floating around in the world after WWII, even in the midst of a lot of darkness and chaos; that they are going to build something good and valid and proper. Obviously, there's a Cold War going on, and there's a heavy moralistic idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be destroyed because it wasn't real Communism (but they didn't know that). You had the seeds of something amazing going on everywhere because there was this push toward something that had an eschatological concept.

Today, with consumerism, there is none of that. What's happened over this period of time is that we've become cynical about that. Not every individual, but collectively. We have lost that sense that we can make a difference. But we are seeing things that are making differences today popping up in the midst of the kinds of resistance that are going on: the women that are resisting sexual harassment and sexual abuse. These things may not turn things around immediately; but, it's the actions of these women that start doing something about the harassment and abuse that is significant. It's a hopeful sign in my mind. More of this will happen and more of us will be pushing back.

Hopefully, we'll have places like the Roxie who are willing to show these films to people and, over time, those historical films will bring out a desire in the people who watch them; a desire to be more creative. Film may bring them back. It might start moving the needle back in that direction. That's our best hope. That's my lantern in the window. That's one of the reasons that I wanted to show the films. This is a theme that people need to internalize. They need to understand it. They may not be able to change it immediately, but if they're not aware of it they can't change anything. The more people that are aware, the more chance something can happen.