Thursday, November 17, 2016

TOWER (2016)

Fifty years ago, on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman positioned himself on the top floor of the University of Texas Tower with an arsenal of weapons and opened fire, holding the Austin campus hostage for 96 minutes. When the gunshots were finally silenced, the toll included 16 dead, three dozen wounded, and a nation irrevocably traumatized by one of the most seemingly senseless and random mass murders in U.S. history.

National traumas now seem to be de rigueur for the U.S. Followed by 9/11, one mass shooting after another and, most recently, by the election of Trump for president, we are a country with a hand to its mouth, either at a loss for words or choking on them, when it is clear that the sense of words, their capacity for reason and persuasion, are being crushed underfoot by forces larger than we can understand or, fearfully, even control. At Tower's consideration screening in San Francisco, filmmaker Keith Maitland was the first to apologize for the weight of his film's topic piled on top of an already oppressive week.

Tower, inspired by Jessica Colloff's article "96 Minutes" published in Texas Monthly, premiered at SXSW, winning Best Documentary Feature, going on to score the Grand Jury Prize at the Dallas International Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Riverrun Film Festival. It's now opening across the country and is a powerful meta-documentary detailing the events of that fateful afternoon, incorporating archival 16mm footage, broadcast radio reports and re-enactments brilliantly visualized through rotoscope animation.

Tower's crowning achievement, however, is to eschew the kneejerk response to psychologize and justify Whitman's actions, opting instead to seek out the voices of those on the ground looking up at the tower witnessing events. Diarist Anaïs Nin once wrote: "Passion is a narrow lens." This is precisely the emotional point of view adopted by Maitland to present the facts as known (yet rarely discussed). A sense of immediacy, alarm and helplessness characterize and strengthen Tower's aesthetic objective.

That objective is further achieved through Maitland's judicious editing, which serves to connect events from 50 years ago to our current moment: specifically the cultural tendency to vilify ethnic groups as violent. Recounting events in Tower, when police officer Ramiro Martinez responded to the scene, he recalled looking up at the many windows of the clock tower and imagining a Black Panther with a rifle behind every window. Martinez gave many interviews after the August 1 event with slight variations in his recollections. In an earlier interview he stated he imagined a terrorist at every window and significantly later his comment about the Black Panthers, which Maitland incorporated into his film. However, the Black Panther Party was not officially formed until October 1966 so it would have been impossible for Officer Martinez to have this fantasy when he approached the tower. Maitland admitted to purposely selecting this recount of events over others to accentuate the ongoing demonization of people of color. He had to clear it through Martinez's family who, at first, were reluctant but who finally granted permission once Maitland made his thematic objective clear.

One of Whitman's first victims was Claire Wilson, an anthropology student eight months pregnant who was shot while crossing the quad with her boyfriend. Both he and her baby did not survive; but, Wilson lived, singlehandedly due to the efforts of a woman named Rita Starpattern who rushed to her aid despite the continued sniper fire from the tower and kept her talking and conscious until help could arrive.

Maitland admitted that it was this moment of bravery that inspired him to make the film. And it is this moment that recalls me to what my mentor Joseph Campbell termed tat tvam asi, a Sanskrit phrase translated as "thou art that." What is it in the human animal, Campbell posed, that causes an individual to risk their lives for another without fear of losing their own life? He implied that the answer was an interconnectedness between human beings, an inseparability, a recognition that—as quantum physics would suggest—we are not separate creatures after all but interdependent at every level. Rita Starpattern, who went on to become a well-known artist and feminist in the Austin scene, later admitted to her partner that this selfless act on her part was one of the stupidest things she had ever done; but, in the moment, she had no choice but to help keep this wounded pregnant woman alive. For me, this is the film's pivot. It also speaks to our need as a nation right now to recognize that we are at an equal pivot. Either we are all here for each other to save each other from the monsters among us, or we are doomed to be picked off randomly one by one.

Recognition and choice and action are all we have left.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

CAMERA OBSCURA (2016): SECOND ANNUAL REPORT

The Second Annual Report of the reconvened CAMERA OBSCURA is scheduled for Thursday, 18-November, to Sunday, 20-November, at the historic Hotel Petaluma. In 1957, shortly after Frank Stauffacher’s like-minded “Art in Cinema” SFMOMA series ended, the original CAMERA OBSCURA Film Society (COFS) was founded by Lawrence Jordan and Bruce Conner together with Willy Werby, Roger Ferragallo, Ben Payne and a handful of others. Their eclectic programs “presented solely in the interests of advancing an appreciation of the cinema and of fostering a vital link with present day filmmakers” continued until the organization ceased to exist in 1962. The First Annual Report of the reconstituted CAMERA OBSCURA occurred with great fanfare over two evenings in December of 2015.

The committee for CAMERA OBSCURA consists of co-directors Amanda Salazar of the San Francisco Film Society and Jonathan Marlow of Kanopy, former colleagues committed to evoking the spirit of the original COFS. The revitalized and expanded event represents a festival of recent and restored narrative and non-fiction works premiering regionally along with several work-in-progress screenings. The aforementioned filmmaker Lawrence Jordan will return to premiere his latest film and introduce a documentary of his selection. Numerous other guests will also be in attendance.

Events are for members-only and presented on behalf of COFS. A half-day membership (for a single screening) is $20. A full-day membership is $50. A one-year membership (including a full pass for all of the weekend events and subsequent Quarterly Report screenings) is $100. Memberships must be purchased prior to the event.

— CAMERA OBSCURA day I : Friday, 18-November —

OPENING NIGHT: 7:00pm | Friday, 18-November
Cameraperson (2016), dir. Kirsten Johnson
- preceded by the short film -
Speaking Is Difficult (2016), dir. AJ Schnack
[feature courtesy of Janus Films | short courtesy of the filmmaker and Field of Vision]

— followed by — opening night reception [Hotel Petaluma ballroom] —

CAMERA OBSCURA day II : Saturday, 19-November —

12:00pm | Saturday, 19-November [introduced by Canyon Cinema Director Antonella Bonfanti]
La Region Centrale (1971), dir. Michael Snow
- preceded by the short film -
The Watershow Extravaganza (2016) [U.S. premiere], dir. Sophie Michael
[feature courtesy of Canyon Cinema | short courtesy of the filmmaker]

— followed by —

4:00pm | Saturday, 19-November [introduced by Camera Obscura Film Society co-founder Lawrence Jordan]
Lessons of Darkness (1992), dir. Werner Herzog
- preceded by the short films -
Night Light (2016) [world premiere], dir. Lawrence Jordan [in attendance]
+
Edge of Alchemy (2016) [work-in-progress screening], dir. Stacey Steers
[feature courtesy of WHF GmbH | shorts courtesy of the respective filmmakers]

— followed by —

7:00pm | Saturday, 19-November
The Son of Joseph [Le Fils de Joseph] (2016) [regional premiere], dir. Eugene Green
- preceded by the short film -
Oh What A Wonderful Feeling (2016) [regional premiere], dir. Francois Jaros
[feature courtesy of Kino Lorber | short courtesy of La Boîte à Fanny]

— followed by —

10:00pm | Saturday, 19-November [introduced by Alamo Drafthouse SF Creative Manager Mike Keegan]
The Astrologer (1975), dir. Craig Denny
- preceded by the short film -
Plena Stellarum (2016) [regional premiere], dir. Matthew Wade
[feature courtesy of AGFA | short courtesy the filmmaker]

— CAMERA OBSCURA day III : Sunday, 20-November —

1:00pm | Sunday, 20-November
In Pursuit of Silence (2015), dir. Patrick Shen [prod. Brandon Vedder in attendance]
- preceded by the short film -
Flowers in the Sky (2016) [regional premiere], dir. Janie Geiser
[feature courtesy of the Cinema Guild | short courtesy the filmmaker]

— followed by —

4:00pm | Sunday, 20-November
Sea to Shining Sea (2016) [work-in-progress screening], dir. Maximon Monihan [in attendance]
- preceded by the short film -
Exile Exotic (2015) [regional premiere], dir. Sasha Litvintseva
[feature courtesy of Bricolagista | short courtesy the filmmaker]

— followed by —

CLOSING NIGHT: 7:00pm | Sunday, 20-November
Dark Night (2016) [regional premiere], dir. Tim Sutton
- preceded by the short film - [TBA] (2016) [work-in-progress screening] dir. -------- [in attendance]
[feature courtesy of Cinelicious Pics | short courtesy of the filmmaker]

— followed by —

Closing night party [secret location TBA].

For further information: All screenings occur within a pop-up cinema in the historic Hotel Petaluma, located at 106 Washington Street in downtown Petaluma, California, approximately 45 minutes north of San Francisco.  www.cameraobscurafilmsociety.com

Friday, August 05, 2016

THE HEART OF ART: LLÉVATE MIS AMORES (ALL OF ME, 2014) / MUJERES LUZThe Evening Class Interview With Claudio Talavera-Ballón

As part of their developing RoxCine programming curated by Isabel Fondevila, and co-presented by Galería de la Raza, Cine+Mas SF Latino Film Festival, and the Latino Community Foundation, the Roxie presents a special presentation of All of Me / Llévate mis amores (2014), directed by Mexican documentarian Arturo González Villaseñor, Friday, August 5 through Monday, August 8, continuing on to the Galería de La Raza, where All of Me will play Wednesday, August 10 through Monday, September 17.

As synopsized, Mexico and the United States share the greatest border between the first and the third world. That makes it a bridge for thousands of migrants who expose themselves to every danger as they travel through the country on a train called La Bestia ("The Beast"). That's where they meet the Patronas, a group of Mexican women who, every day since 1995, make food and toss it to the helpless as the train rushes by. This documentary is an intimate approach, a personal diary that draws a border between the life they were given and the life they chose. In a world where all hope seems lost, the Patronas breathe life into a human value that seems to be fading with each day: love for one another.

All of Me's festival pedigree includes awards for Best Movie, México Primero at Los Cabos International Film Festival; Best Documentary and Audience Award at Mostra de Cinema Latinoamericà de Catalunya, Lleida; Telesur Best Documentary and Jury Special Mention at Festival de Cine Pobre de Gibara, Cuba, among others.

Arturo González Villaseñor is from Mexico City and studied Social Communication at the UAM-Xochimilco. In 2013, he founded Acanto Films, a production company for films and artistic events. At the moment, he writes film reviews for the magazine Revista Proceso. His first film All of Me participated in over 60 film festivals around the world including the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), DocsDF, Guanajuato International Film Festival, among others. Iñaki Fdez. de Retana seized the opportunity to talk with Villaseñor during the film's April 2015 screening at SFIFF.

Patrona Guadalupe González Herrera, Director Arturo González Villaseñor and Director of Photography Antonio Mecalco will be present for a Q&A on Friday and Saturday, August 5 and August 6 after the 7:00PM shows.

The art exhibit "Mujeres Luz", a painting series by Claudio Talavera-Ballón inspired by the film, opens August 5 at 518 Valencia Street (The Eric Quezada Center for Culture and Politics) in conjunction with All of Me's opening reception with the filmmakers and Patrona Lupe as special guests. "Mujeres Luz" will then move to the Galería de la Raza on Thursday, August 11 for All of Me's Closing Reception with filmmakers and Patrona Lupe as special guests.

A Panel Discussion moderated by radio host and producer Chelis López (Radio Bilingue & KPOO) with Patrona Guadalupe González Herrera, director of photography Antonio Mecalco and Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of Carecen SF, will take place after the 7:00PM Galería screening on Wednesday, August 10.

"Mujeres Luz" is an art exhibit dedicated to Las Patronas and migrants who travel on La Bestia inspired by the film All of Me (Llevate mis Amores). When Talavera-Ballón saw the movie at the San Francisco Film Festival last year, he was so moved that he traveled to Veracruz, Mexico to meet and paint these incredible women. Claudio and I took time during my last visit to San Francisco to sit down to talk about his development as an artist and the genesis of the "Mujeres Luz" series.

* * *

Claudio Talavera-Ballón is a Peruvian-born painter based in San Francisco, California. His work highlights the lives and struggles of farm workers, indigenous people and immigrants throughout Latin America and the U.S. He has exhibited in museums, universities and embassies internationally and in the U.S, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cusco and the Peruvian Embassy in Washington DC. He has been selected for the SF Arts Commission 2015-2016 Artist Pool, has participated in Friday Nights at the de Young Museum and is currently a member of ArtSpan Open Studios committee.

Hailing from Arequipa, Peru, one can only describe Claudio Talavera-Ballón as blessed. Most of the cities in Peru are named in Quechua, usually as a description of the place, and Arequipa comes from the Quechua words ari (which means volcano) and qhipaya (which means valley), so Arequipa refers to the valley at the base of a nearby volcano. Arequipa is surrounded by three volcanoes. It's in the mountains, an hour and a half from the coast.

As Claudio was growing up in Arequipa, everyone around him wanted to grow up to be managers, economists, and anyone who wanted to make art was considered a devil. He couldn't stand the social judgment and pressure. Every time he told someone he was a painter, they would respond, "You don't work?" His family was the same way.

When he was six years old, his mother took him to visit his grandparents. His mother worked in the afternoons so when he got home from school he was left to run free in the nearby fields and to visit the river. He'd return to his home fifteen minutes before his mother was scheduled to return from work, and would start in on his homework. His mother noticed, of course, that he couldn't have possibly spent all afternoon working on homework and realized he was doing something else inbetween school and her coming home.

One time he went out to play in the countryside, crossed the river, had a conversation with a farmer, and played with a dog and played with a cow. But this time when he returned home, his mother was waiting for him. She asked him where he had been. He told her, "Well, I have been in the country." She asked, "All afternoon you've been in the country? In the fields, all afternoon?" Yes, he answered. "Okay," she said, "what did you learn?" "Learn?" he responded, "I go to the school to learn. I don't learn in my free time so I don't know what you mean." She continued, "So you passed all afternoon in the country, in the fields, you crossed the river twice, you played with a dog, you played with a cow, you talked with a farmer, and you didn't learn anything?" He said, "No. I didn't learn anything." His mother said, "Okay, then let's try something. Tomorrow when you get home from school and go out to play in the fields, cross the river twice, look for the dog, look for the cow, look for the farmer. Duplicate everything you did today but this time learn something. And if you don't want to learn anything, then you have to paint what you see."

He had already started painting when he was really young so his mother knew that—even though he was just a child—he had talent. So he did what she said and returned to the field and began drawing what he was seeing. He frequently walked with his mother in the countryside through the fields. They traveled a lot. And when they came back each night, his mother would encourage him to draw what he had seen during the day. So he started drawing mountains and people. He began drawing in the spirit of play; it was a game for him.

He started studying graphic design when he was 19. At that time computers weren't yet used for graphic design. He learned everything by hand. Once, after finishing his homework, he turned off the light to get some sleep and realized it was already morning and the sun was coming up. So he had to jump in the shower and get ready for the next day of school. It was really hard. He carried on like this for three years. In his third year, and all in one year, he was taught various techniques of painting: oil, water color, charcoal, air brush, pastel. The moment he started to paint, he realized how much he really loved it and that it was for him.

His parents had divorced when Claudio was two years old. He began asking his mother about his father's whereabouts? But his mother didn't know. She responded instead by telling him stories about a Peruvian painter, Luis Palao Berastain, who had been a boyfriend of her's when she was younger. So when he asked about his father, she answered that she didn't know where he was, but there was this painter in Cusco who painted indigenous people. So he began to ask less about his father, and more about this painter from Cusco. He lived all his life, in fact, with his mother's stories of this painter ever in the background; like an inherited ancestor, an antepasado. Palao came up frequently in conversation because he was a famous watercolorist who had been born in Arequipa. He had acquired a reputation as overly emotional and ill-tempered with a bad humor. When people would visit and knock on the door, he would open and tell them gruffly, "I'm not here" and close the door. He became known as a misanthropic hermit.

Once when he was older, 21, Claudio was walking around Arequipa and spotted Palao in the street. Claudio realized it was his opportunity to finally meet him. So he walked up to him and presented himself as his mother Gabby's son. "Oh really?" Palao enthused, "You are Gabby's son?" They struck a swift friendship in the moment. They walked around together and talked about art. Palao asked him what he did in life and Claudio revealed that he wanted to paint; that he had finished his degree in graphic design, but didn't know how to proceed. Palao asked after his mother and Claudio told him that she had been really sick but that she would love to see him if he had time. So they exchanged phone numbers. One year later his phone rang and it was Palao asking if he could stop by for a visit. Palao talked with his mother, they cried some, and after two or three hours he said to Claudio, "I want to look at your work. Show me your work." So Claudio showed him a few pieces he had painted at the Institute.

After seeing his drawings, Palao told him he was off to a good start but that he needed to go to art school, but Claudio protested that he didn't want to go to art school because he didn't believe in it. Respecting his point of view, Palao then offered: "Do you want to return to Calca with me?" Palao lived in Calca, which was about an hour and a half outside of Cusco. Claudio asked, "What for?" "To be my student," Palao asserted. For Claudio it was as if Picasso had asked him to be his student. He said yes. At the time, he was working as a drawing teacher at two institutes, and had 42 clients as a graphic designer, so he began disengaging from his clients, insuring his accounts were clear, and then he moved to Calca, where he began to study painting with Palao, now his master.

The first day that he went to his teacher's home, Palao told him: "These are the rules. We serve breakfast at 8:30 in the morning. If you want to have breakfast, come at 8:00 in the morning. At 9:00, you have to go outside and study the light. You have to try to paint the same image during the day as an exercise. At 12:00 we serve lunch and, so, if you want lunch, come at 12:00 and show me your watercolors. If your watercolors are good, you can have lunch; but, if they're not good, you don't get lunch. Lunch is served until 2:00 in the afternoon. At 2:00 you have to go back outside to paint the afternoon light. At 5:00, we serve light snacks. If you want to have snacks at 5:00, show up with a painting. If you don't have a painting, you won't have snacks. Then it's back outside at 5:30 to paint the sunset. At 7:00, dinner is served. If you want to have dinner, you have to have a painting. If you don't have a painting, you won't have dinner. After the dinner maybe, maybe, we'll want to paint something together." That schedule (buttressed by dining rules) was how Palao and Claudio worked together for years.

He studied four years with Palao, although "studying" would stretch the term. He simply practiced his art. Adhering to Picasso's celebrated statement that "painting is 90% work and 10% inspiration", Claudio learned from Palao how to live as a painter; how to wake up every morning as a painter. Everyone knows a painter doesn't earn much money so Claudio learned from Palao how to live as an artist on limited means; how to let go of things, expenses, that weren't really necessary. Truthfully, Palao taught him more about how to live as an artist in the world than about painting in particular. He taught him not to be afraid of the blank paper because a little fear always surfaces when the artist faces blank paper. Palao taught him that fear does not exist in the paper itself, or in art itself. Fear resides in the artist and must be tempered.

Palao's relationship with Claudio was as a paternal mentor, compensating for Claudio's poor relationship with his father. Palao never criticized his work; he mainly expressed interest in seeing it. Palao himself painted indigenous people, granting them credibility, dignity and sovereignty. His portraiture influenced Claudio's portraiture.

Claudio moved to Cusco partly to get away from the social constrictions of Arequipa and partly to be with Palao; but, even under Palao's guidance, even as he became centered as an artist, Claudio was still not receiving the support he needed to make a go of it in Cusco. But ever since realizing that he wanted to live his life as an artist, Claudio began learning how to make a living to support his love for art. For a long while he made tourist maps for one of Peru's most-visited tourist destination, the Colca Canyon. He was paid good money for those. He decided to move to Calca, which was only four hours away from Arequipa, where the cost of living was so low that he didn't need a lot of money to live comfortably. He could return to Arequipa whenever he needed to earn money and he would earn just enough to last him a year or a year and a half in Calca. When he was in Calca, he would paint all day long.

Musing on how loneliness was often deemed dangerous in society, Claudio didn't understand the fear of loneliness because being alone was the best thing that ever happened to him. For him, being alone was the only time he had to think about himself, what his goals were, and what he was doing on the planet. It was by being alone in Calca, undistracted, focusing on his thoughts and fears, that Claudio learned to confront and conquer them.

The first day he arrived in Calca, after organizing his home, he went to the main square near the cathedral and began sketching the church. He started at 8:30 in the morning, and then at 2:00 in the afternoon a child offered him a plate of food sent by his mother who had noticed that Claudio had been working since 8:30 in the morning without taking any time to eat. At that moment he immediately realized the difference between Arequipa and Calca. While he was living in Arequipa, he took a trip to Australia, and was surprised that it wasn't as much of a cultural shock as he had expected; whereas, when he moved to Cusco, which was in the same country and only a few hours away, he felt a dramatic change. He grew closer to his own soul and the soul of the people he wanted to paint.

The woman who had sent him the food became like a mother to him. She, in a sense, adopted him. When he finally met her, she asked him, "What do you do for a living?" He answered shyly, "I'm an artist." He was reluctant to answer because in Arequipa every time he answered he was an artist, all the girls would say, "You don't work?! You have to think about working. Art is very nice, but....." But this woman—when he revealed he was an artist—responded, "Really? You're an artist?!" "I'm trying to be," he said. "Well then," she said, "here is the refrigerator. When you're hungry, come and get food out of the refrigerator. Take anything that you need because I know the life of an artist, and they're often hungry and cold." She offered her home as his own if ever he was cold and / or hungry. She offered food and blankets. There were even many times when he was in his own home at 8:00 in the morning and there would be a knock on the door. He would open it and there would be this woman offering half of the jam she had just bought in Cusco for her children. He would protest but she would insist, "Take it. You don't have any, so take it."

After living for a while in Calca, he came to realize that—though it was a beautiful affordable place where he could create his art—life, the outside world and its opportunities, was passing him by. He didn't want to become 50 years old living his whole life in Calca. So he relocated to Cusco. More accurately, for two years he shifted between Calca, Cusco, Arequipa and the Colca Canyon. When his mother passed away, he moved full-time to Cusco, where he began to have exhibitions of his work, with one opportunity dovetailing into the next. But eventually he became bored with Cusco and moved to Lima, where he lived for three different stays. He never liked Lima; it was not a beautiful city. But he was able to stay there for a year and a half during an exhibition of his paintings. He earned money as a teacher and rented a house cheap for $50. It was going to be demolished and his rent was reduced because he served as something of a watchman for the property.

Eventually the owners gave him one day's notice to leave so they could demolish the house. He didn't have any money—Lima was very expensive—and he didn't have any place to go. So he phoned friends in Cusco who encouraged him to move there, which he did the next day, passing en route through Arequipa on the bus. He had his paintings, and sold five of them to a collector in Arequipa, which at the time was a lot of money for him. It allowed him to rent a home in Cusco where he was invited to exhibit in their beautiful Museum of Contemporary Art. It was at that exhibit that he met his creative partner-to-be, Mariela.

Mariela was supposed to have gone on a tour to the Sacred Valley, but it was the tail end of her trip and she was suffering from a mixture of altitude sickness and food poisoning. She had fainted and cut her head, requiring stitches. She opted out of the tour and decided to visit the museum to lift her spirits with art. She was deciding which gallery to visit when she spotted Claudio's name—Talavera-Ballón—and its musicality lodged in her mind. She found herself rehearsing his name over and over. It was as if the name had called to her. She wondered idly if Talavera was a first name?

This was the second time Claudio had exhibited at Cusco's Museum of Contemporary Art and—after his first experience there—he had learned that in order to sell his paintings, someone had to be present at the museum to negotiate deals. Many people had asked for his paintings during his first exhibit but—because there had been no one there to effect sales—he didn't sell anything.  This time, in an effort to sell his paintings, he elected to sit in the Museum all day long. For the first week of the exhibit, he stayed in the museum from 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening. He'd sit in a chair watching the people watch his paintings. That was his entire life for a week. By the time Friday came around, he had his fill and decided, "No more." It felt too much like a waste of time and he reconciled that—if he sold paintings, fine; if he didn't sell paintings, fine—but, he preferred to be home, painting.

On Monday he was organizing his home when the phone rang. It was the Museum advising that there was a woman interested in buying one of his paintings. They needed him to come down where the prospective buyer had agreed to meet him at 12:30. On the way to the museum he met a friend on the street and was delayed by conversation, making him five minutes late for his appointment. The prospective buyer had already left, saying she would be back later in the afternoon, so—hoping to sell the painting—he decided to wait for her. First, he had lunch, then returned to the museum, and after 15 minutes Mariela arrived (whereas the woman who allegedly wanted to buy the painting never showed up). It was a fortuitous encounter, meant to happen. Believing in destiny, Claudio committed himself to the notion that everything that has happened to him in his life has been for a reason, right to the current moment.

Fast forward and Claudio had found a way to live in San Francisco, where one of his first collaborations was "The Bird Song", an Art Span mural on the side of a building at the corner of Van Ness and Market. The building, soon to be demolished, was acquired by Art Span to offer studios to displaced artists and the wall to paint on until the building was scheduled to be demolished. Nearly 25 volunteers worked on "The Bird Song" but Claudio was the only one who arrived every day, working two shifts, from 9:00 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening, assisting Joshua Coffy, who had designed the mural. It was an amazing experience for him to collaborate on the mural with Joshua.

As his experience in San Francisco evolved, Claudio became committed to painting portraits of the Mission's "real", if beleaguered, community. When he lived in Peru, he had painted portraits of farmers and fishermen who lived in the small villages. He considered them wise, unknown people who he felt compelled to paint. When he first moved to San Francisco, he missed Peru and its people. Besides painting portraits, Claudio likewise painted houses, buildings, considering himself something of a preservationist in his effort to paint and preserve these things before irrational progress; but, much of that work had already been done in San Francisco by the time he reached the city, where several old buildings had already been restored and many more replaced by modern condos for San Francisco's increasing tech demographic.

One day he was walking in the Mission and realized that the people he had been painting in Peru might just be the same people who have migrated to the United States and were making a living in the Mission in San Francisco. He realized they could easily be the children or the grandchildren of the elders he painted in Peru, whose portraits he painted to relate their struggle, how they were farmers without land, or laborers who were segregated away from the upper classes, considered subhuman. That was part of his enthusiasm for painting them: he wanted to save them and their way of life, much as he wanted to restore old buildings. In San Francisco, he came to the weighty insight that immigrants in San Francisco faced the same social issues as people in Peru, though complicated by immigration, ICE, and displacement.

Claudio went out to meet these people on the streets of the Mission. He took photos. He realized they shared the same problems as the people he had painted back home in Peru—they didn't have work, they didn't have money, and they were always relegated to positions behind the scenes. He started to paint these people in big-size format (4'x4') because he wanted them to be seen and noticed, often utilizing an intimate focus on faces to achieve recognition. He wanted to say to the ruling classes of San Francisco: "These people are here. They're part of the system, whether you like it or not." At the time of our conversation, Claudio had already painted eleven portraits for this immigrant series.

It was the immigrant series that creatively segued into his next suite of paintings inspired by Las Patronas. He and Mariela had met Arturo González Villaseñor when his film Llevate Mis Amores (All of Me) screened at SFIFF. Claudio was deeply moved by the film and invited Arturo to look at his paintings. Arturo loved them, and he suggested to Claudio that he paint Las Patronas because—attendant to Claudio's commitment to capturing the immigrant experience in the U.S.—the sad fact was that so many of these immigrants began their journey North on the train by passing through Las Patronas. Many of them had been helped by Las Patronas. Claudio accepted the cue and traveled twice to Las Patronas where he began to paint portraits that he folded into his series on the immigrants, resulting in his current exhibition "Mujeres Luz", which—as stated above—opens August 5.

Of related interest: Hans-Maximo Musielik's photo essay of Las Patronas for Remezcla.

 
All of me / Llévate mis amores - English Trailer from Arturo González Villaseñor on Vimeo.
 
Mujeres Luz. Painting Series by Talavera-Ballón - Trailer from Izote Studio on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

FANTASIA 2016—3 QUESTIONS FOR GUILLERMO DEL TORO

For its 20th edition, the Fantasia International Film Festival (Fantasia) presented leading genre filmmaker Guillermo del Toro with its prestigious Cheval Noir Award, which del Toro accepted in person in his first-ever Montreal appearance.

As contextualized on the festival's website: "A childhood in Guadalajara, Mexico ripe with ghosts (real and imagined), comic books, Edgar Allan Poe stories, Santo mash-ups and classic Universal monster movies has led to one of the most fertile careers in genre films for 51-year-old master of the dark fantastique, Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro first introduced us to his cinematic uniqueness with the newfangled vampire movie Cronos in 1993, and he has bounced back and forth between big studio films (the Hellboy duo, Pacific Rim) and more personalized independent features (The Devil's Backbone and the Oscar®-winning Pan's Labyrinth) ever since. Common themes and images weave their ways through all of del Toro's movies, and his personal stamp can be found on every frame."

Del Toro hosted the Canadian premiere of Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet's Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex (2015), a fascinating documentary on the history of movie monster makers, in which he is featured prominently. As was to be expected, he could not accommodate individual requests for interview, but generously provided an afternoon press conference and an expanded Q&A "master class" after the screening of Creature Designers. Seizing those two opportunites, I asked the following.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Guillermo, welcome to Fantasia.

Guillermo del Toro: Thank you! I'm very happy to be here.

Guillén: I've been thoroughly enjoying The Strain on television. I'm interested in what the difference has been for you to present The Strain on television rather than as a feature film? And could you speak about the character of The Master and the creation of the Master for the television series?

Del Toro: After the first season, The Strain is Carlton Cuse. It's Carlton's baby. Having co-written the books with Chuck Hogan, I'm too close to the books. I suffer a lot when there's a change and there have been a lot of changes. They kill people that we don't kill in the book—they kill them in the second season—and people that we killed in the first book live forever. So, you know? There are many many changes. What I think is interesting is we went through adapting The Strain for comics, for Dark Horse, and it was a seamless experience. On TV you learn quick that the dynamics of a TV show are very different.

The great thing about The Master for me is that he changes bodies. And that you don't have a single actor playing him. The first time The Master is shown on the screen was not well-lit. I was doing my day job—I was shooting—and I was not on the set that day. I don't like the way it's lit. I think it's lit flat. There's no make-up that can look great. The next episode, I was there and I made sure that The Master was lit nicely. What I love about him—and it's revealed season by season, and in the books—is that he's a creature of pure hunger. Now, the TV show and the books sort of divert enough for the second season, and I think the series is going to have a different finale than the books.

I remember Mike Mignola telling me during Hellboy how weird it was for him because it was not his Hellboy. His Hellboy would never have fallen in love with Liz. Now I understand what he meant. It does feel strange to see something you did transform.

Guillén: You've asserted your belief in monsters and their capacity to save your soul; but—in consideration of last night's massacre in Nice and the 84 dead there—how does the imagination in monsters in any way address or redress the monstrosity of human nature?

Del Toro: In all my movies I always think about real monsters that are human. If you watch my movies—Crimson's Peak, Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth—the monsters are the humans; not really the monsters. That's real, saddening. We live in a brutal world. We address it by making the monsters creatures that serve a more symbolic function and that illuminate the human tale. Do you know what I'm saying?

Guillén: Yes.

Del Toro: As I say verbatim in Crimson's Peak: "It's not a ghost story. It's a story with a ghost in it." The ghost illuminates the human condition. The Faun and the Paleman illuminate the human condition in Pan's Labyrinth. But the scariest thing in Pan's Labyrinth is not the Faun or the Paleman; it's the Captain, y'know?

I don't address it. You talk about what you feel, like any other artist. The only important thing in art is to be yourself. Don't try to be anybody else. You can imitate, when you're young, but you should not try to impose a different range of your voice. That's why I don't try my hand at anything other than what I do. I'm not trying to do a drama about a violin player—I don't give a fuck!—to me reality can only be reached through these things. I address reality through them.

Guillén: I love listening to you because you're so funny....

Del Toro: It's the accent.

Guillén: ...which makes me curious about humor and terror and how you use humor to supplement and articulate terror?

Del Toro: Well, I think they are very close, you see? For example, the audience that saw Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein, 30 years later those movies were funny to a separate generation. I have watched some horror movies from the '70s with an audience and people laugh. I realized that horror and terror are always on the verge of being funny—sometimes they're funny the first time—but that's my line: you always have to go close to ridicule. Because, if you don't risk it, the image doesn't have the power. You can fail or succeed. It depends on who you're connecting with.

To make a movie voluntarily scary and funny like Joe Dante, that's a separate art. It's truly an art. It requires that that is your voice. That is what you do well. I'm not good at that. I don't do that often. I love humor and I put humor in most of my movies—even something like Crimson's Peak has moments of humor in it—but, it's always close. If you watch The Exorcist, there are moments that are so enormously risky and yet they provoke horror. If you think about a prat fall by Chaplin, if that prat fall happened and his head cracked open and half an inch of brain popped out of his head, it ends up being not funny anymore. It's so close.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

FANTASIA 2016—BED OF THE DEAD (2016)

The team aesthetic of the Black Fawn production group impressed me (and inspired me to develop my own creative team) when—at last year’s edition of Fantasia—I had the opportunity to talk to Chad Archibald about his entry BITE, whose gooey allure I was able to program into San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival. As a business and creative strategy, the Black Fawn stable of talent work on and promote each others’ films so that each, in turn, can have their moment in the spotlight. At this year’s 20th edition of Fantasia, it’s Jeff Maher’s turn with the World Premiere of his directorial feature debut Bed of the Dead (2016). Maher served as cinematographer on BITE, Antisocial and Hellmouth, and has co-written Bed of the Dead with Cody Calahan, who earlier directed and co-wrote Antisocial (and its sequel), as well as co-writing The Drownsman.

Walking the talk of Black Fawn’s team aesthetic, it amused me to no end to see Chad Archibald in Bed of the Dead’s opening sequence in a cameo performance as a carpenter who takes wood from an accursed gallows tree, which he planes down to craft into a bed. The dispirited souls of all those who have been hung from the limbs of this tree inhabit the bed with its ornately sculptured headboard and wreak havoc on four swingers hoping to have a little fun at a sex club where the bed has ended up.

One of my mother’s favorite guilt trips was always to say, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” Bed of the Dead tweaks that truism: “You’ve made your bed; now die in it.”

Black Fawn makes no pretense at elevated genre. They’re creating content for balls-out gorehounds and cleverly re-work and assemble tropes they know will satisfy their audiences. Hunky dudes are going to get eviscerated and lovely young women will be bathed in blood. That’s what Black Fawn promises and that’s what Black Fawn delivers. After all, as Stephen Sondheim has penned, “Who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights are low?” Onto the expected sequence of being dragged under the bed or, for that matter, dragged onto the ceiling, Maher and Calahan have written some commendable flourishes worth noting, however. Two in particular.

First, the fabric of space and time is bent by cell phone texting. To hell with the roaming charges, police investigator Virgil (Colin Price) is trying to determine how five victims of a fire ended up in such a fate. The audience is told straight off that everyone is going to die and so, spectatorially, it’s a process of appreciating the choreographed kills. But when Virgil contacts one of the young women—“final girl”, in effect—fate seems less formidable.

More importantly, and with a deeper cogency, Virgil represents every white police officer who has killed an innocent black teenager. It seems obvious that nothing is more horrifying than real life, especially these days in the United States of America where the Black Lives Matter movement has brought into searing focus an institutionalized racism enforced by an increasingly militarized police force. Leave it to Canadian filmmakers to incorporate this American social issue into a genre format and this reviewer thanks them for their bravery in approaching the subject, albeit indirectly.

FANTASIA 2016—THE UNSEEN (2016)

The narrative theme of the absent father is leant a startling new visibility in Geoff Redknap’s feature debut The Unseen (2016), screening as a World Premiere at Fantasia’s 20th edition. Redknap would be the first to admit that The Unseen, which he wrote as well as directed, was greenlit due to his well-earned cred as a master special effects and make-up artist (on such films as Deadpool, Watchmen, The Cabin in the Woods, the Final Destination and X-Men series, and such TV series as Fear the Walking Dead, Masters of Horror and—as Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis phrased it—“back in the day” X-Files. Quite the resume!

Adding to that impressive roster of credits, Redknap offers a brooding subdued re-visioning of the Invisible Man story. Mill worker Bob Langmore (in a taciturn performance by Aden Young, who has cornered the market on troubled masculinities, most recently on the TV series Rectify) is beleaguered by debt and regret. He abandoned his wife Darlene (Camille Sutherland) and daughter Eva (Julia Sarah Stone) eight years earlier. Eva is acting out and Darlene, unable to handle her, calls Bob for help. “She needs her father,” she pleads. Langmore comes out of his self-imposed isolation to do his part.

What first appears as an oft-told tale of parental estrangement and a struggle for reconciliation takes a shocking turn when it is revealed that Bob suffers from a hereditary illness that is causing him to vanish, chunk by chunk. Redknap has rounded up some of the best make-up, special effects and animatronic specialists to depict this malady, first hinted at when Bob stands in front of a television set and its blue light is seen shining through his body.

Folded into this taut narrative is an incisive critique of the harvesting of wild bear organs for Asian herbal cures and the shady characters who traffic same, with whom Langmore becomes inadvertently involved. But most compelling is the idea that we each must come to terms with the self-isolation we impose upon ourselves in response to an emotional suspicion that we have been abandoned by the generations before us. The Unseen suggests that blood is, indeed, thicker than water and that we are informed and guided by our fathers before us and their fathers before them by the articulation of abiding presence, even when—by all visible accounts—we seemingly stand alone.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

FANTASIA 2016—RUPTURE (2016)

After a 10-year hiatus from filmmaking, Steven Shainberg returns to the fray with a disturbingly original study of abduction, Rupture (2016), a genre exercise boasting its World Premiere in Fantasia’s 20th edition. It’s a bit unsettling to consider that it’s been a full decade since I spoke with Shainberg for Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006): I was just starting out as a film journalist while he was, presumably, just about to discover how difficult it is these days to get a film financed. Kudos to the film’s production team—including Andrew Lazar and Bruno Rosato, accompanying Shainberg at Fantasia—whose tenacity helped Shainberg realize his unique vision. Shainberg should not be absent from the scene as long as he has been.

As Renee, Noomi Rapace comes off as an everyday single mother raising her young son Evan (in a fresh-faced turn by Percy Hynes White). At odds with her ex, she tries to shake off her troubled marriage by accepting an invitation to skydive. En route, she is abducted and taken to a remote undisclosed facility where she is subjected to bizarre tests that capitalize on her arachnophobia. Where is she? Who are her abductors? What do they want? Why is bringing subjects to the brink of terror so essential for their genetic research?

Though the edges of the script Shainberg has crafted with Brian Nelson (Hard Candy) are, perhaps, tucked in a bit too neatly—folding vagueness in upon itself like origami to achieve form—there’s no question that considerable thought has been exercised in keeping events as mysterious as possible until the narrative’s reveal. This responsible effort elevates Rupture with an art house intensity that offers the viewer a rewarding engagement with the film’s aesthetic tone and rhythm. The latter, especially, drives the film forward with a tantalizing momentum that allows you to know only as much as you are meant to know. Clear answers remain apples out of reach.

Rupture's narrative uncertainty is augmented by a lurid and lustrous palette of deep reds and purples effected by cinematographer Karim Hussain (who worked on my favorite horror film of last year, We Are Still Here). Hussain is rapidly rising through the ranks, and rightfully so, as one of the most adventurous and imaginative DPs in the business. Combined with Jeremy Reed's immersive production design, Sean Breaugh’s art direction and Shayne Fox’s labyrinthine set design, replete with honeycomb motifs throughout (and a tip of the hat to Kubrick’s The Shining), Shainberg’s production team has created a claustrophobic crawl through what is gradually perceived as a hive. From thereon, the film avidly embraces its sci-fi underpinnings as Renee intuits her role in a new world order.

Smart with its questions, less so with its answers, Rupture will cater to an audience somewhere between diehard genre fans and arthouse enthusiasts.

Friday, July 15, 2016

FANTASIA 2016—OUTLAWS AND ANGELS (2016)

What first attracted me to the Fantasia International Film Festival was its unbridled passion for genre—not only horror, sci-fi, and martial arts—but, all genres. I’ve seen remarkable police procedurals, psychological thrillers, race car adventures, epic disasters and ride alone westerns emerge out of Fantasia’s annual program to traffic the international genre circuit and, often—as with last year’s Goodnight, Mommy—advance to Oscar consideration.

For their 20th edition, Fantasia opened with two World Premieres—Daniel Grou [Prodz]’s King Dave (2016) and John Stockwell’s Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016). My flight into Montreal arrived a bit too late to take advantage of either of those, though I did manage to rush down to the J.A. DeSeve to catch the Canadian premiere of JT Mollner’s debut feature Outlaws and Angels (2016), which premiered earlier this year in the Midnight Section at Sundance.

For me, it was perfect to start the festival out with what San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleague Dennis Harvey deemed “a Grand Guignol nod to spaghetti Westerns.” Something of a family affair, the film’s female lead Francesca Eastwood is not only Clint’s daughter, but also Frances Fisher’s (Fisher plays an ill-fated cameo as Esther). It’s all in the eyes, isn’t it? Francesca’s baby blues take after her mom, but here and again they narrow to the steely vengeance of her dad’s iconic countenance in Sergio Leone’s cult westerns.

The outlaws of the film’s title identify themselves early on as they kill innocent passers-by shooting their way out of a bank heist while wearing white hooded masks (that reminded me of Karen O’s concert persona where she painted on a face over a white hood), though real-life outlaw and highway robber William (“Brazen Bill”) Brazelton is allegedly the true inspiration for their get-up. A posse takes after the robbers, headed by bounty hunter Josiah (Luke Wilson) whose character provides a pensive, philosophical voiceover on the loss of innocence and the origins of violence.

And this movie is violent, no bones about it, and equally perverse. As women get slapped around, the kneejerk response is to deem Outlaws and Angels misogynistic, even as Eastwood’s character Flo surfaces as the narrative’s switchback protagonist. Mollner purposely treads a fine line and pushes boundaries here. When the robber gang lands at the remote home of the Tildon family, the film enters suggestive softcore territory as the story becomes a prolonged rape fantasy. That indiscretion is indulged through the casting of Chad Michael Murray as gangleader Henry. Murray harkens to the physical beauty of Franco Nero and Terrence Stamp in their own turns as spaghetti western anti-heroes. Stripped down, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept his forlorn position that he’s just too old to be an outlaw.

My favorite performance, however, was Teri Polo as Flo’s Bible-thumping mother Ada whose reliance on Jesus as savior demarcates her unhinged denial of all the glossed-over darkness swirling between her husband and her daughters. Each time she’s forced to consciousness, she lets out a banshee wail both pathetic and comic. As she succumbs to the probing fingers of one of the outlaws, she reveals a woman deeply conflicted about her own sexual needs.

Comparisons to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight are unavoidable, right down to the shift from panoramic landscapes to widescreen interiors and—even though Outlaws and Angels is arguably a lesser film—Mollner stamps his own promising signature on every derivative turn and it will be interesting to see what he does in the future freed from the grip of homage. The lensing by Matthew Irving is allegiant to the genre, costuming by Liz Pecos is grimy and believable, but the score by Colin Stetson is distractingly indecisive: one moment electronic, the next all piano arpeggios. All in all, a bloody violent ride, now available for streaming on multiple platforms.