Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Femina Potens’ ASKEW Film and Performance Festival

Last Thursday, I tried something different.  Bad Day at Black Rock was playing at the Castro that night.  I've long wanted to see the Spencer Tracy film but instead I chose to go to the YBCA that evening.  The YBCA was kicking off a three day festival titled Femina Potens’ ASKEW Film and Performance Festival.  The name doesn't really tell you much but the description of the Thursday night program is more titillating.

Oriana Small and Lorelei Lee present excerpts from their respective novels and memoirs presented in conjunction with silent short films composed of both moving and still images based on their individual experiences within the adult industry.

Chloe Camilla will present a live video performance.


Dylan Ryan performs a piece related to her experiences as a sex worker.


Hima B will be screening an excerpt from License to Pimp, her feature documentary about the dilemmas that strippers face when they must pay for the privilege to work in strip clubs where management violates their labor rights. Filming in San Francisco, the filmmaker, an ex-stripper, investigates the various factors that enable the strip clubs to pimp their workers and deny them basic rights that workers across America are guaranteed.

Cheryl Dunye presents Mommy is Coming. Set in the international creative melting pot that is Berlin, this raunchy romantic comedy of errors confronts the last lesbian taboo: Mommy. A take on screwball comedies and porn topped off with Dunye's ingenious form of storytelling.


The title of that night's program was "Intersections: LOVE:SEX:PORN:ART: Our Intimate Identity."  The series was curated by Madison Young of Femina Potens Art Gallery.

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I wasn't too keen on the program except for Oriana Small's appearance.  I read about her book on YBCA Film/Video curator Joel Shepherd's blogShepherd named Small's Girlvert: A Porno Memoir, one of his "favorite films and film-related stuff from 2011."  I bought the book based on his recommendation and I can't say I enjoyed it but I did read it non-stop for a few days.  Small's (aka Ashley Blue) memoir is a candid if not self-serving account of her time as a porn actress.  Impressed with the book, I decided to see if Ms. Blue was as fascinating in person.

For the record, I'm not a fan of porn.  I did like S+M Hunter but that was Japanese porn or pinku eiga; a horse of a completely different color than US porn.  With its predictable scenes, rote pacing and slavish devotion the money shot, US made porn is about as sexy as oil change.  The Femina Potens' program looked to focus on "creative" women.  The presence of Small was enough to lean me towards YBCA but in the back of mind, I kept thinking about Black Rock.

The first item was License to Pimp, a documentary about strippers reacting to illegal labor practices.  What was screened was not the film but rather a glorified preview trailer.  It wasn't clear if the main labor violation was coercing prostitution or charging stage fees from the dancers.  It looked like an interesting film.  You can find out more about the film at its website.  All the footage from the preview was set in San Francisco.  I recognized Mitchell Brothers, Crazy Horse and Market Street Cinema.  Coincidentally, Crazy Horse and Market Street Cinema are located in venues which were constructed as legitimate movie houses.  Former SF District Attorney Terence Hallinan was also interviewed with the implication being he allowed labor abuse to occur because he had a cozy relationship with Mitchell Brothers.

Next Chloe Camilla, a former Kink.com actress, gave essentially a spoken word performance.  Set to some music and personal photos, Camilla described the problems she encountered when her family discovered her chosen vocation.  Bubbly, intelligent and giddy in love (with a female director she met while working at kink.com), Camilla's exuberance was at odds with the scenes of bondage being projected behind her.  Camilla was not a plain vanilla porn star but rather a BDSM specialist which seemed to particularly pique her father.  Ultimately, Camilla gave up porn to reconcile with her family.  She referred to that as the "sad part" of her story.

On Camilla's website, there is an April 6 entry linking to a Kickstarter campaign for the film Public Sex, Private Lives.  The film is self-described as "An intimate look at the professional and private lives of porn performers Lorelei Lee..."  Ms. Lee (also an alumni of kink.com) has appropriated the name of Marilyn Monroe's character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1956).  Without knowing it, I have been exposed to Ms. Lee's work.  She is a co-writer of About Cherry which I saw at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (it was just called Cherry back then).  As Ms. Lee mentioned, About Cherry will be playing at 7 PM and 9:30 PM at the Castro Theater on Friday, September 21.  I previously described [About] Cherry as a film "which I enjoyed but had some serious plot deficiencies or I just didn't click with."

Ms. Lee read passages from an unpublished novel while behind-the-scenes footage at kink.com played.  I found Ms. Lee to be stunningly attractive.  Her appearance was not what impressed me but rather her articulate thoughts.  She spoke with clear diction and obvious intelligence.  She was very composed.  Whereas Camilla seemed like a giddy teenager, guest curator Madison Young had a New Age feel and Oriana Small seemed almost shy, Ms. Lee commanded the stage with a sense of confidence and self-assuredness which most likely comes from her career in porn.  I couldn't picture the other women doing anything (even porn) but I could see Ms. Lee as a legitimate actress, businesswoman or heaven forbid, a politician.

With that said, I found the passage she read to be forgetful and the footage she shot to be unremarkable.  For all the talents I imbue her with, perhaps writing fiction is not Ms. Lee's strongest suit or at least, I have not encountered any works by her which impressed me as much as her prepared and extemporaneous remarks.  "Sultry" is a word that I would use to describe her speaking manner. 

After Ms. Lee, they screened another glorified trailer.  This time it was for Mommy is Coming.which is feature length film that screened at this year's Frameline.  An explicit sex farce, Mommy is Coming looks like an accidental love triangle between a bi-sexual, her girlfriend and her girlfriend's mother.  There is a scene in a taxi involving the couple which is doubly deviant for its use of a handgun.  The program said director Cheryl Dunye would be in attendance but it could have been star Papi Coxx who took the stage.

Porn actress Dylan Ryan next took the stage and performed what I would call agitprop.  Starting out by riffing on a recent syphilis scare in the Los Angeles porn community, Ryan described how she couldn't go to her favorite STD testing clinic because she was recognized by her favorite phlebotomist or perhaps because of snide comments the receptionist said in passing.  Regardless, Ryan then pantomimes her next blood testing experience.  A woman came on stage and silently drew blood from Ryan's arm.  The silence and her stares represented the contempt that Ryan felt from her actual phlebotomist.  After all was done, Ryan then fingerpainted the word "dirty" on an easel pad with her own blood.  It left me blah.  While watching it, I was drawn to how this exact performance could have resonated with gay audiences during the 1980s HIV/AIDS scare.

Finally, Oriana Small took the stage.  I've never seen an Ashley Blue performance so I wasn't sure what to expect.  In her book, she was quite open about her experiences.  I was expecting someone with more presence but Small was almost meek.  She read an excerpt from her book.  I don't think there was any video playing while she read.  When she finished, she stepped off stage and the lights lowered.  They projected a scene which I was familiar with from having read Girlvert.  In it, Ashley Blue is choked out as part of a pornographic film.  Small described in vivid detail the feelings she had during the incident.  While the footage was playing, Small must have prerecorded her narration which I assume was verbatim reading of that chapter from Girlvert.  Oddly, I found the scene more powerful when I read it initially without having the footage accompanying the words.

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When it was all done, I'm not sure how I felt.  I would have liked to have seen more of  License to Pimp.  Oriana was vaguely bland for a porn actress.  Lorelei Lee was definitely the highlight of the evening but I left wondering if I have a female voice fetish.  If I had to do it over again, I would have gone to the Castro to see Bad Day in Black Rock.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Makes the Wall Street Journal

Earlier this year, I read about the Alamo Drafthouse taking over the New Mission Theater.  I hadn't heard much about the project and it had slipped my mind.  I was surprised to read about the project in the Wall Street Journal recently.

I noticed a few changes from a February report in Mission Local.  The size has been scaled down.  MissionLoc reported 5 screens that would "accommodate about 900 people."  The WSJ reports "The five-screen venue will have a total of 556 seats."  Approximately 300 or a third of the seats have been lost in the past 7 months.  I'm not sure if that represents lowered attendance estimates.

Also new is a target date.  The WSJ reports "Mr. League [founder and chief executive of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema] says he is targeting the end of 2013 for completion."  I'm not sure about that.  It is reported that the project is scheduled for a hearing at the Historic Preservation Commission on December 5, 2012.  If Alamo and Commission had everything lined up before the meeting, I could believe they would finish construction by the end of 2013.

However, Alamo has semi-partnered with Oyster Development Corp.  Oyster wants to develop a 114 unit condo next door to the New Mission.   According to the WSJ, "As part of its plans, Oyster would contribute $1 million toward the restoration of the New Mission theater, $750,000 in grants to 15 neighborhood community groups and give the city some land in the neighborhood for affordable housing."

In a place like the Mission District, in a city like San Francisco, I don't know if Oyster's involvement helps or hinders the Alamo project.  Oyster acquired the property in March 2011 and has not been able to develop it yet.  That's 18 months Oyster has sat on the property which may indicate Oyster has had trouble getting through the planning and permitting process.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The 3rd Coming of the Viz?

Just when I was beginning to call it the Film Society Cinema (FSC), they shut it down.  I am referring to the New People World Cinema which I still refer to as the Viz which was the film distribution arm of New People World.  The FSC is what the San Francisco Film Society called the Viz when they leased it out...an arrangement which lasted one year.  I can't say I'm surprised given the sparse attendance at the screenings I attended.  I can only wonder what this means for the direction of SFFS.  Prior to the FSC, SFFS programmed a screen at the Kabuki.  The long term plan is for SFFS to have two dedicated screens in the Presidio.  If they couldn't make a go of one screen a block off the heavily trafficked Geary Blvd. corridor, I'm not sure how successful two screens in the comparatively isolated Presidio are going to be.

I don't know what will become of the Viz either.  This is the second time the Viz has faced dire circumstances.  At the end of 2010, it appeared the Viz was closing but after a brief shutdown for "maintenance," the Viz reopened to weekly programming and festivals.  This schedule continued until SFFS began daily programming in September 2011.

Once again, the Viz's future seems imperiled.  That's too bad because the programming (both under New People and SFFS) has been to my liking.  We'll have to wait and see what happens.

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Armed with the knowledge of its impending end, I watched quite a few of the final SFFS programs at the Viz.  In addition to Pelotero, I saw the following films at the FSC in July and August.

Sacrifice starring You Ge, Xueqi Wang & Xiaoming Huang; directed by Kaige Chen; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
The Devil, Probably; directed by Robert Bresson; French with subtitles; (1977)
The Moth Diaries starring Lily Cole & Sarah Bolger; directed by Mary Harron; (2011) - Official Website
Battle Royale starring Chiaki Kuriyama & Takeshi Kitano; directed by Kinji Fukasaku; Japanese with subtitles; (2000)
Love in the City; directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Carlo Lizzani, Francesco Maselli, Dino Risi & Cesare Zavattini; Italian with subtitles; (1953)

Battle Royale is the same film I saw in April at Midnites for Maniacs.  There was an epilogue set during a basketball game which I don't recall from the April screening.  The scene nicely encapsulated the social dynamics of the students prior to the Battle Royale.  The film more than held up to a second viewing.  The classical music soundtrack was more noticeable on the second viewing and enhanced the film.

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In the interest in time, I'm going to gloss over Sacrifice and The Devil, Probably.  I didn't really enjoy either.  Sacrifice was a big budget, Chinese historical epic.  I'm always hoping for another Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but I'm repeatedly disappointed.  Director Kaige Chen made Farewell My Concubine 20 years ago, but Sacrifice is no Concubine.  Sacrifice is a variation of the familiar "babies switched at birth" plot device.  Not a terrible film, just a little rambling at just over 2 hours.  There wasn't much to distinguish Sacrifice from any number of other Chinese films I've seen in the past few years.  The "switched at birth" premise may well have more powerful resonance in modern, Chinese, society with its one-child policy but it seemed tired and unimaginative to me.

Director Robert Bresson cast non-actors as the leads in The Devil, Probably.  I'm rarely a fan of this technique but my issue with The Devil was the languid (if not soporific) pacing of the film.  I thought the characters' musings were inane and the film was definitely a product of its time - 1970s Paris.  A young man is found dead with a gunshot wound.  Murder, suicide, political statement?  The rest of the film retraces his life in his final days.  Disenchanted the young man tries religion, drugs, sex, psychoanalysis, etc. with no improvement of his bleak outlook on the moral decay of society.  As much a political statement in the politically supercharged 1970s, the film lost my attention several times which wasn't too bad because the narrative structure was episodic.

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The Moth Diaries was a surprisingly effective vampire tale set among an upscale girls boarding school.  Fashion model Lily Cole plays Ernessa, the vampire.  Sarah Bolger plays Rebecca, the only person at the school who suspects the true nature of Ernessa.  Sarah Gadon plays Lucie, Rebecca's best friend and the object of Ernessa's bloodlust.

Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) does a nice job melding the angst and intense emotions of teenagers with the vampire story.  All the actresses played their roles well.  The Moth Diaries is not a great film but it achieved the necessary mood for a vampire film without resorting to gratuitous scenes involving the young women's sexuality.  The song that played over the credits (Marina and The Diamonds' Numb) is still in my memory two months later.

Love in the City was allegedly the Italian Neorealists response to William Wyler's Roman Holiday.  Unable to recognize the hardscrabble streets of Rome that Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn tooled around on with that Vespa, a group of Italian directors decided to make Love, Italian Style.  They pulled the anti-Bresson.  Instead of casting non-actors in fictitious roles, the Italians cast actors as real people and called their film a documentary.  The result was impressive.

Love in the City consists of six unrelated vignettes.  Paid Love (directed by Lizzani), Attempted Suicide (Antonioni), Paradise for Three Hours (Risi), Marriage Agency (Fellini), Story of Caterina (Zavattini and Maselli) & Italians Stare (Lattuada).

Paid Love was essentially an interview of various prostitutes.  This segment may not have used actors.  Using a detached approach, Lizzani films these women telling their powerful stories.  Attempted Suicide uses a similar documentarian approach in telling the sad stories of three failed suicides.  Story of Caterina is a heartbreaking tale of a young mother forced by circumstances to abandon her baby.  Those three were my favorites

Paradise for Three Hours  is nearly free of dialogue and concerns itself with the rituals and gestures at a weekly Saturday night dance.  Italians Stare essentially follows attractive women around the streets and records their movements and men's response to them.  Playing up the stereotype of Italian men as leering lechers with a jazzy soundtrack.  These two I liked but not as much as the first three.

That leaves Marriage Agency - Fellini's segment.  It has a nice setup.  A man approaches a marriage agency on behalf of his friend who suffers from a rare medical condition which he later reveals to the potential wife as werewolfism (is that a word?).  There are quite a few ways to take this story; none of which seems to fit with the general theme of urban grittiness and Italian masculinity.  Fellini wrote the screenplay for this segment as well.  I guess this can be explained as part of his tendency towards the absurd.  Utlimately, the segment fell flat.  We never see the werewolf and I can't recall how the story ended.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

2012 United Film Festival

During the first week in September, I went to two screenings at the United Film Festival which screened at the Little Roxie.

Salad Days starring Emily Yoshida, David Horwitz & Anthony Kuan; directed by Hiram Chan, Jeff Mizushima & Emily Yoshida; (2011) - Official Website
GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling; directed by Brett Whitcomb; documentary; (2012) - Official Website

Salad Days was preceded by the short film Crime School (11 minutes).  GLOW was preceded by two short films: Raceway (5 minutes) and Walk Tall (11 minutes). 

Crime School starring Dani Hendry & Jaime Nocher; directed by Maria Valentina Bove; (2011)
Raceway; directed by Brett Whitcomb; documentary
Walk Tall; directed by Kate Sullivan; documentary; (2011) - Official Website

I'm still not 100% sure the United Film Festival is about.   I guess it's about screening small, independent films.  Their website trumpets their venues - New York, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and...Tulsa.  As the old Sesame Street song goes, one of these doesn't belong.  Apparently Tulsa is the hometown of Jason Connell, the festival founder.  Connell is better known as a film producer and I've seen many of the films he has produced:  Cleanflix, Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians and Gabi on the Roof in July.  Although Gabi played at Indiefest and Cinequest, I caught it at last year's United Film Festival.  I also see that Connell has producer credits on GLOW and Salad Days.  I think I'm beginning to see a pattern here...

Regardless of the potential conflict of interest, I'm glad the United screens the films it does.

Salad Days is a micro-budget looking film about three dissociated youths in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  There is the quirky Caitlin (Emily Yoshida), the jerk Alex (David Horwitz) and the shy Anthony (Anthony Kuan).  Their live intersect through social networking which seemed the main impediment to their happiness.

The tagline on the film poster is "a comedy of tragic proportions."  I'm not sure I would use "tragic" to describe these people.  More misfit than dysfunctional, the three of them float though life with little motivation and seemingly no jobs.  Caitlin seems to be in serious denial that her best friend has a lesbian crush on her.  Alex, with a broken leg resulting from a car crash, is trying to score with his sister's roommate.  He also has serious stalker tendencies.  Anthony, whose delivery reminded me of Seung-Hui Cho (the VA Tech shooter), is obsessed with Caitlin's weird YouTube puppet videos and spends most of the film looking for an internet connection.  Throughout the film, several women flirt with Anthony but his weird obsession with finding an internet connection is all he can think about.

In the end, they are all left alone with various social networking mistakes and gaffes leaving them further isolated.  It's a rather bleak critique on youth and modern society.  With few laughs, the film gets bogged down with its own seriousness.  Director Jeff Mizushima took questions from the sparse audience aftewards and mentioned the script underwent several rewrites which I felt explained some of the disjointedness of the film.

Far from a great (or even good) film, Salad Days hopefully presages better things from the principals.  I sensed a better script or idea than what was eventually filmed.  Marketed to Asian film festivals, Salad Days is less about ethnicity and more about a generation's social isolation despite the technology intended to interconnect us.  This is not new ground but far from being tragic, the characters soldier on in isolation - a perennial theme of self-absorbed youth of any era.

As much as director Brett Whitcombe tries to elevate his subjects, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling comes off as lightweight.  GLOW was an all women wrestling league in the late 1980s.  Pro wrestling is campy to start with but GLOW elevated it to high camp - corny set pieces, girls in skimpy costumes and each wrestler had her own rap set to the beat of the Super Bowl Shuffle, the anthem of the 1985 Chicago Bears.  It's silly and fun but I wasn't quite sure how it empowered women, no matter how many young girls told the wrestlers they wanted to grow up to be like them.

From its murky beginnings as a partnership between Jayne Mansfield's son and Pia Zadora's husband, GLOW looked and felt like a poor cousin to WWE (or WWWF as it was known back then).  One wrestler summed it up best when she said she heard GLOW was a tax writeoff which was never expected to make money.  It is also hinted that some of the girls performed sexual favors at times.

Regardless, most of the women of GLOW seem none the worse for wear.  They uniformly looked back at their time with GLOW with fondness and nostalgia more fitting a college sorority which is what one girl compared it to.  Two of the larger wrestlers (Mountain Fiji and Matilda the Hun) suffer physical ailments which seemed more to do with their excess weight as opposed to wrestling injuries.  Mt. Fiji's (Emily Dole) story was the most affecting and could probably be the topic of a stand alone documentary.

GLOW is a nice little film.  There is nothing about it to set it apart unless you are a wrestling fan.  I went because the screening fit my schedule and I recall the GLOW commercials from my youth.

Crime School is a love story set in an alternate reality where criminals to to university to learn how to commit crimes.  Nice concept, weak plot left me bored.

Raceway is about a guy who runs a slot car racetrack in Texas.  At 5 minutes, there wasn't much to like or dislike.

Walk Tall was the best film of the five I saw at the festival.  A biography of George Weedon, a member of the 1948 British Olympic gymnastic team, Walk Tall uses animation, archival photos and interviews to tell his story.  Still spry at 92 years, Weedon seemingly has made it his purpose in life to correct poor posture wherever and whenever he sees it.  Funny and uplifting, Walk Tall packs quite a bit into 11 minutes.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What Becomes a Legend Most?

Closing out my run of posts on great documentaries was a screening at the Roxie in late July.  For the past few years, Johnny Legend has programmed film series or parts of film series at the Roxie.  Elliot Lavine has used some of his personal collection of videos, DVDs and 16 mm prints for his various noir series.

Speaking of which, Not Necessarily Noir III runs from October 19 to 31 at the Roxie.  The schedule is posted.  I don't know if I influenced Lavine but at his 1980s themed noir series last year, I chatted with him briefly and mentioned how there were two neo-noir films from the 1980s which I loved at the time and hadn't seen for years.  I urged him to screen them.  I won't take credit but will note that both films are being screened during the upcoming series.  The films are Brian DePalma's Body Double (1984) and Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986).  Both films star Melanie Griffith before she became something of a joke.  Having seen these films as a teenager, I'm curious how they hold up to my middle-aged sensibilities.

Going back to Legend, he programs some wild stuff befitting his experience as a musician, concert promoter, wrestling manager, Andy Kaufman collaborator (he co-directed My Breakfast with Blassie whose lobbycard graces the men's restroom wall at the Roxie) and if I recall correctly, pornographer.  Legend programmed a multi-day series at the Roxie but I was only able to catch one screening.

The Big T.N.T. Show; directed by Larry Peerce; concert film; (1966)

Legend had many stories of the filming as he was in the audience as a teenage boy.  The filming took two nights and was free to high school students in the Los Angeles area.  He pointed out that Terri Garr was one of the go go dancers.  The film was Phil's Spector's attempt to capitalize on the successful The T.A.M.I. Show (1964) although T.N.T. was not nearly as commercially successful.  I found that surprising because the line-up was quite strong.  Among the performers were Ray Charles, Bo Didley, Joan Baez, Ike & Tina Turner, The Byrds, The Lovin' Spoonful, Donovan, Petula Clark and The Ronettes.  Six weeks after seeing the film, I can still remember the performances of Charles, Didley (with a female guitarist/backup singer), Ike & Tina and Joan Baez (singing a cover of The Righteous Brothers'  You've Lost That Loving Feeling).

There were a few miscues.  Roger Miller, who didn't seem to appeal to the teenagers in the audience, showed up seeming a bit antagonistic.  At one point, he called someone in the audience a hippie. David McCallum (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) looked ridiculous with his exaggerated movements while conducting the house orchestra.  Donovan (apparently pre-Sunshine Superman) brought the show to a screeching halt with an endless sequence of slow, downbeat songs.

I enjoyed the film enough that I bought a DVD of it from Legend in the lobby on my way out.  It looks like he burned the DVD himself and wrote the title with a Sharpie on the disc.  I hope my purchase didn't help facilitate a copyright violation.

The Big T.N.T. Show was a nice sampling of the music of the era.  I was tapping my feet and reciting the lyrics throughout the film.  My only complaint were some damn chatty women in the back of the house who treated the screening as if it were Mystery Science Theater 3000.  They kept commenting with each other about the clothing and hairstyles of the audience in the film.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Who is Rodriguez?

I saw an amazing story at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinemas in the form of a documentary.

Searching for Sugar Man; documentary; directed by Malik Bendjelloul; (2012) - Official Website

Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of the musician known as Rodriguez, aka Sixto Rodriguez, aka Jesus Rodriguez.  The Detroit based Rodriguez released two albums in the early 1970s; neither of which sold well.  After that, he faded away to obscurity although rumors circulated that he committed suicide while performing on stage.  Unbeknownst to him and almost everyone in the US, Rodriguez's albums became best sellers in South Africa.  At the time, South Africa was isolated from the rest of the world in response to their policy of apartheid.  Against this backdrop, Rodriguez's Dylanesque songs became anthems for anti-apartheid and anti-government groups of primarily young, white people (presumably not Afrikaners).  His voice even sounded a little like Bob Dylan circa Lay Lady Lay.

Generations of South Africans listened to Rodriguez's music without him receiving royalties due to a shady record producer.  Convinced he was dead, his fans treated him more like a legend than a singer until two of his South African fans decided to research his death.  Record store owner and Rodriguez expert Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom set out to untangle fact from fiction in the mysterious life and death of Rodriguez.

What they discovered was that Rodriguez was not dead at all.  He was alive and working construction in Detroit.  He had given up music to make a living and support his daughters (two or three, I can't recall).  No mention was made of their mother(s).  After word of his existence spread, Rodriguez was brought to the RSA in 1998 for a series of sold-out concerts.  Since then, Rodriguez has returned periodically to South Africa for concerts...each time returning to hs construction job in Detroit. 

As improbable and uplifting as Rodriguez's life story is, I thought the movie was uneven.  Despite being a trim 86 minutes, the film lost my interest at times.  Yet at other times, I was almost moved to tears.  Rodriguez himself is an enigmatic person which hampers the narrative thread of the film.  Modest, inscrutable and self-effacing, the audience doesn't really get a sense of where the man's songwriting talents and inspirations came from.  He dismisses his years in the wilderness with admirable aplomb.  In short, Rodriguez seems like a man to admire but not necessarily a good man to build a documentary around.  As a result, we are left with virtual strangers, adoring fans and Rodriguez's daughters to speak for him.  The story they tell is quite fascinating but I kept wanting to hear more from the man himself.

When younger, Rodriguez looked like he had the Roy Orbison thing going on.  As he let his hair grow out, Rodriguez bore a distinct resemblance to Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker.  Speaking infrequently and constantly wearing dark sunglasses, Rodriguez continues to cultivate an air of mystery which is oddly incongruous with his songs.

As for the title, it refers to Rodriguez's signature song - Sugar Man.  Segerman self-selected the nickname Sugar because of his appreciation of Rodriguez's music and the similarities between his surname and Rodriguez's song.

Rodriguez's music has been re-released.  You can download his songs from his website although I cannot vouch for the site and am always suspicious of malware when I'm offered "free" downloads.  His songs can also be purchased on Amazon and iTunes.  Visit his other website for his tour dates.  He'll be at Bimbo's in San Francisco on September 29. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Imposter

Continuing my string of engrossing documentaries, I saw The Imposter at the Landmark Lumiere in August.

The Imposter; directed by Bart Layton; documentary; English & Spanish with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website

Going into the film, I thought it was fiction and it was a few minutes before I realized it was not a fauxumentary.  The story was improbable enough to be fiction but was based on a true story.

Nicholas Barclay, a 13 year old boy from San Antonio, disappeared in 1994.  Three years later, he re-appeared in Spain.  He told incredible tales of being kidnapped and sexually abused by military personnel.  More incredibly, he spoke English with a French accent and had different colored eyes.  He claimed he was not allowed to speak English while in captivity and developed his accent because he was not used to speaking English.  The military personnel tortured him by injecting chemicals into his eye which changed his eye color.  If it seems to outlandish to be true, it is because it was lie.  Frédéric Bourdin, a French Algerian con artist who specialized in impersonating teenagers, hit the jackpot when he ran across the case of Barclay.  Bourdin convinced the Spanish police, the US State Department, the FBI and Barclay's family that he was Nicholas Barclay.

According to the film, a suspicious private investigator unraveled the case.  Language experts opined that an extended period of not speaking one's native language would not result in speaking it with a foreign accent.  DNA tests proved Bourdin was not Barclay and his fingerprints identified him as being wanted by Interpol for a litany of crimes involving fraud and impersonations.  Bourdin's motivation was a mix of self-preservation, mental diseases and sociopathy.  Bourdin's cooperation with the filmmakers was surprisingly candid at times.

The most fascinating part of the story is why the family accepted Bourdin as Nicholas Barclay given the evidence of his impersonation.  The film posits that Barclay's step-brother killed him and that his mother and sister were aware of or suspected the crime.  Their acceptance of Bourdin as Nicholas is to cover their crime and/or assuage their guilt.  Although a search for the body is conducted, the film ends without it turning up.

The story is so incredulous that it felt like a thriller.  At many points throughout the film, I thought the twists and turns became too much to believe.  I kept wondering if I was watching a true story or was I being Blair Witched?  The FBI looked amateurish and the Barclays looked like PWT.  Bourdin, a professional liar, minimized his culpability and deflected his guilt with his accusations of Barclay's murder.  The circumstantial evidence supports the murder theory but when dealing with a con man like Bourdin, it pays to be skeptical.

At times, The Imposter veered towards Behind the Music territory. There were a several reenactments which I thought generally detracted from the film.  The film had a tabloid feel which was probably deliberate due to the subject matter.  Not in the mood to quibble, I accepted and enjoyed The Imposter on its terms.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

I watched more than my usual share of documentaries in July and August.  I'm not a big fan of documentaries.  I prefer my documentaries to be more of the Victory at Sea variety.  The line between documentary and reality show has become blurred.  I think too many audience members accept the documentarian's work as "fact" when in fact it is frequently "fact filtered through a subjective prism"...as opposed to my blog where I state unassailable facts.  Still, when I view a documentary in the same manner as a narrative, I can be entertained and even enlightened.

The Queen of Versailles played at the 2012 SF International Film Festival and has enjoyed an extended run at the local Landmark Theaters.  I saw it at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

The Queen of Versailles; directed by Lauren Greenfield; documentary; (2012) - Official Website

The Queen of Versailles was certainly entertaining.  Directed Lauren Greenfield started the project with the goal of following David & Jackie Siegel as they build the largest single family dwelling in the United States.  Outgrowing their 26,000 square foot house near Orlando, the Siegels plan a 90,000 sq. ft. structure to house their belongings, 8 children and household staff.  However, construction is ground to a halt as the Great Recession derails their financing.

Filmed over two years, Queen of Versailles showcases the opulent lifestyle of the Siegels, the stress their marriage faces as their fortunes reverse and unexpectedly draws a parallel to the financial hardships many families find themselves in.  Septuagenarian David Siegel is a time share mogul (Westgate Resorts) who married his trophy wife Jackie, 31 years his junior.  As the film begins, the billionaires are riding high with private jets and Jackie's million dollar shoe & purse collection.  The film implies that Dave is an asshole who hints that he may have committed election improprieties in Florida during the 2000 Presidential race.  Jackie is presented as a vacuous woman who spends her days spending her husband's money.

They start off with grand plans for their new mansion.  The film's title comes from the Palace of Versailles, the design inspiration for the Siegel mansion.  As the economy tanks, the Siegels are forced to halt construction and eventually scale back their lifestyle.  David hunkers down as he seems more interested in making money than spending it.  Jackie however seems to have trouble adjusting to her new circumstances.  We witness the Siegel children as they are forced to fly commercial for the first time in their lives and later go to public school.  We laugh as Jackie asks the rental car agency clerk for the name of her driver thinking it is more akin to a limo service.  Towards the end we see Jackie going downscale as she shops for Xmas gifts at Walmart (she buys multiple shopping carts full of stocking stuffers).  Greenfield skillfully depicts the conspicuous consumption that most of the audience likely expected going into the film.

More interesting for me is the change which occurs in the Siegel's relationship.  Jackie was a Mrs. Florida winner when she met David which gives the impression she lacked intelligence.  Her behavior through most of the flim reinforces that impression.  However, glimpses into her past reveal some surprising history.  Siegel graduated with a computer engineering degree from Rochester Institute of Technology and went on to be hired by IBM.  A few years younger than Jackie and with an engineering degree of my own, I can attest that IBM was a very prestigious company for engineers to be hired in the late 1980s.  Jackie says she left IBM soon after starting because her boss had a computer program which counted down the seconds until he could retire and "really start living his life."  This was too depressing a future for Jackie to contemplate so she left IBM...to get married...to a wife-beater...and model swimsuits...and compete in beauty pageants.  Her career choices is more damning of our society than necessarily Jackie.

As the film progresses, Jackie shows quite a bit of patience for her husband's loutish behavior; more so than her children who begin to resent their father as he verbally mistreats their mother and works longer and longer hours.  Jackie even displays some self-awareness and an understanding that she and her marriage are not being portrayed positively.  After the film was shot, the Siegels complained they were being portrayed inaccurately and that some of the scenes were staged.  I wonder why they allowed themselves to be filmed at all; especially as the economy faltered and their relationship became strained.  As his finances deteriorate, David treats his wife as if she is his ninth child and Jackie clearly recognizes his patronizing behavior. 

The third aspect which I found fascinating is how David Siegel explains his predicament.  He uses some of the same catchphrases as the Occupy Movement.  He paints himself as a victim of easy credit and predatory bankers who won't temporarily extend additional credit which would allow him to ride out his financial storm.  Amazingly, Greenfield was able to invoke some sympathy from me towards the Siegels.

Since the limited release of Queen of Versailles, the Siegels have launched their own media counterattack. I read that the Siegels are about to restart construction on their Versailles.  At the end of the movie, I thought the Siegels would be divorced by now but they are still together.  In the film, David joked (half-joked?) that he was going to trade Jackie in for two 20 year olds.  Jackie may even get a new career out of the film - she claims to have been offered a role on a reality television series.  Ironically, this thoroughly enjoyable documentary confirmed all that I don't like about modern documentaries or perhaps more accurately, all that I don't like about modern society.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pelotero

An article in yesterday's SF Chronicle prompted me to write about Pelotero.  Although the article was essentially a DVD review and written by film critic G. Allen Johnson, it appeared in the Sporting Green section.

I saw Pelotero (alternate title Ballplayer: Pelotero) in July at the SF Film Society (SFFS) Cinema which no longer exists.  The SF Film Society ended their relationship with New People World after one year.  I don't know what will become of the cinema (aka Viz) although they are listing the North American premiere of Tiger & Bunny - The Beginning on September 29.  The SFFS Hong Kong Cinema series runs September 21 to 23 at the Viz so their relationship is not completely asunder.

Pelotero; documentary; directed by Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin & Jonathan Paley; narrated by John Leguizamo; (2011) - Official Website

Pelotero is a documentary about young baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic.  With a population of under 10 million, the DR produces an oversized 11% of the MLB players.  Among the more well known DR players are Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz and the Oakland A that never was, Manny Ramirez.

MLB has some unique rules regarding the signing of prospects from the DR.  Rather than a draft, it's more like those movies where homesteaders are lined up in covered wagons, some guy fires a pistol and they all race to stake their claim.  For reasons which were left unexplained, July 2 is the magic date in the DR.  On that day, MLB teams can sign players who are at least 16 years old.  Why July 2 and why 16 years old?  I don't know.  For the populace of a poor country like the DR, signing an MLB contract (with associated signing bonus) is a ticket to prosperity.  To hear Leguizamo tell it, families invest their dreams and hopes into their teenage sons with the goal of them signing with the MLB.

Pelotero follows two such young men - Miguel Angel Sano and Jean Carlos Batista.  Both of the boys have come up through baseball academies which are essentially full-time baseball training facilities where the boys learn their craft in exchange for handing over part of their future signing bonuses.  This seems like a situation ripe for abuse but the film portrays the academy coaches in positive lights.  Both boys refer to their coaches as second fathers.

Whenever there is a lot of money flowing into a poor country, greed (or more charitably, the will to survive) kicks in.  MLB teams were originally attracted to the DR because they could sign players cheaply.  As the signing bonuses have climbed into the 7 digit range, the DR isn't as cheap as it used to be.  On the supply side, kids (and their families) will do just about anything for a million dollar payout.

One curious side effect of 9-11 was that the US State Department became more strict with issuing work visas.  In the years since 9-11, many MLB players from the DR have returned to spring training with earlier birthdates and in some cases, different names.  The kids lie about their age in order to get larger signing bonuses although MLB has instituted a number of rules to guard against it.  It seems awfully risky to bet millions of dollars on a 16 year old boy's ability to continue improving.  It would seem to be safer to sign older players who are more mature and disciplined and farther along in their baseball development.  Regardless, the film makes clear that July 2 is the high water mark in terms of signing bonuses and the longer a player waits to be signed, the smaller his bonus will be.

Both Sano's and Batista's ages are questioned.  In one case, it appears the Pittsburgh Pirates scout in the DR starts a whisper campaign in order to scare away competition and drive down Sano's signing bonus. In Batista's case, it looks as though he and his family lied and forged documents to make him appear younger than he is.  Although his motivation is understandable, I could empathize with the sense of betrayal Batista's coach felt.

Ostensibly about baseball, Pelotero really examines the chasm between rich and poor.  In the pursuit of money, the poor sacrifice their self-respect and the rich sacrifice the poor.  I found Pelotero to be a fascinating film.  It was an "inside baseball" look at baseball with a liberal dose of populist melodrama added for good measure.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Klown

I saw Klown at the Roxie in August.  If memory serves me correctly, Klown played at the 2012 San Francisco Independent Film Festival where I missed it.

Klown starring Frank Hvam & Casper Christensen; directed by Mikkel Nørgaard; Danish with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

To call Klown a raunchy sex comedy would be an understatement.  In general, I'm not a fan of American sex comedies but for some reason, foreign sex comedies frequently make me laugh.  This is certainly the case with Klown which pushes the limits of good taste and an R rating if it had been submitted to the MPAA.

Most of the characters are named after the actor who plays them which makes me think the cast is part of a comedy or improv troupe.  Also the film's alternate title is Klown - The Movie because it is based on Klown, a Danish television series with the same characters and actors.  I wonder if the TV series is as outrageous as the film.

The most obvious comparison is to The Hangover but Klown kicks it up a couple of notches.  Just recounting the felonies depicted in film would include statutory rape, child sexual assault, child pornography and armed robbery.  The pièce de résistance involves the main character giving a "pearl necklace" to his girlfriend as an apology and demonstration of his love.  However, it is a dark room and case of mistaken identity ...it turns out the woman is his girlfriend's mother and she complains that "some got into my eye."  She is saddled with an eyepatch for the rest of the film.

Frank is an irresponsible man whose girlfriend withholds the fact that she is pregnant because she is unsure if he is "father material."  Frank's best friend is Casper, a married man who wants to take a "Tour de Pussy" with Frank.  His plan is to canoe up a river with Frank as they make their way to a high-end brothel that a mutual friend operates one evening a year.  Along the way, the plan is to have as much sex as they can.  Their respective relationship status only serve as an nuisance; especially for Casper.

Frank's pearl necklace gift falls flat so his only option to prove he has paternal potential is to kidnap Bo, his girlfriend's shy, 13 year old, nephew and take him along on the Tour de Pussy.  From that outlandish premise, all sorts of sexual mishaps occur.  Recounting all of them would not do justice to the film.  Hvam, Christensen and Marcuz Jess Petersen as Bo, show considerable comedic skills playing off each other.  Hvam's Frank is clueless and susceptible to Casper's outrageous suggestions.  Casper has one goal - sex with any available man, woman or child and is willing to drag Frank & Bo to hell and back in his quest.  Petersen is possibly most impressive as Bo who plays straight man and at times, the butt of the jokes.

I thought Klown was hilarious but is definitely not for those who are easily offended.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Why Can't They Successfully Adapt Tennessee Williams on Film?

I've been on a great run of film in the past six weeks.  It's essentially been an uninterrupted string of enjoyment.  Usually, I see several less than enjoyable films but no so in July & August.

The least enjoyable film was Night of the Iguana which I saw at the Castro last week.

Night of the Iguana starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr & Sue Lyon; directed by John Huston; (1964)

Night of the Iguana was part of the Castro's John Huston series.  I missed all of the films in the series except Iguana.  I had seen almost all of the films in the series before.  The notable exception is Fat City which I have not seen and was not able to attend.

I am too lazy to search but if I have not written about it before, I am always disappointed in films adapted from Tennessee Williams' works.  I am specifically thinking of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo, Suddenly, Last Summer and now Night of the Iguana.  I leave A Streetcar Named Desire off the list because of Brando's ferocious performance.  I will note that Brando first played Stanley Kowalski on Broadway.  In fact, three of the four principal actors from Broadway stage version went to star in the film (Vivien Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy).

Having seen several stage productions of Williams' plays, I can say that Hays Code neutered his films.  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire dealt with the impacts of married men having homosexual relationsSuddenly, Last Summer was a little vague about the age of the "young men" but I interpreted the pivotal character to be a pederast and Night of the Iguana dealt with statutory rape.  All his plays (at least the ones I've seen) put sexuality or some deviation of it as the centerpiece.  I chose the word "deviation" purposely because the Williams' plays treat anything other than a heterosexual couple as deviant - deviating from the societal norm and considered unnatural by the mainstream.  These topics were difficult ones to address in the 1950s and 1960s Hollywood but I always wonder why theater audiences could handle it but concomitant movie audiences could not.

That's a long way to say that I prefer stage productions of Williams' work.  I am surprised that 50 to 60 years after their premieres, the subject matter of the plays is still shocking - rape, cannibalism, women's sexuality and men on the "down low" are still provocative.

In true Williams' fashion, I had a few stiff drinks before Night of the Iguana.  Far from a teetotaler, I'm usually stone-cold sober when I go to the movies.  In this case, I went for drinks after work and several Moscow Mules got the better of me.  I can usually have one with no problem and two will instill a mild sense  of euphoria ("a buzz") but as I reconfirmed last week, 3½ is too much to concentrate on a film; especially one as heavy with dialog as Iguana.

The plot is readily available so I will focus more on the performances.  Burton was adequate as the defrocked priest with a weakness for women and alcohol; that's not much a stretch for the Welsh actor if gossip columns are to be believed.  If Burton's Reverend Shannon is the locus, its the women in his orbit who propel the plot.  They run the gamut - the sexually precocious teenager (Lyon), the sexually avaricious hotel owner (Ava Gardner), the sexually chaste painter (Deborah Kerr) and for good measure, a bitchy lesbian (Grayson Hall in a nice performance).

Of the four, Gardner had the juiciest role.  Iguana was Gardner last hurrah as a fully sexualized leading actress.  Coming off 55 Days at Peking and Seven Days in May, Gardner was still making A picture but Huston must have seen what I saw when watching Gardner on screen.  Unlike Rita Hayworth in The Money Trap (which I saw at Noir City earlier this year), Gardner was still an attractive woman.  Hayworth looked used up and worn out in The Money Trap whereas Gardner's Maxine looks hardened by life (which was probably not much of a stretch for the former Mrs. Frank Sinatra).  Gardner drank and smoke to excess.  She was 40 years old during filming; 16 years after The Killers (1946) which is the earliest film I can remember her in.  I can't say how old Gardner looked in Iguana but it was hard to recognize her if one is familiar with The Killers.  Undoubtedly this resonated with audiences of the day and Houston used the difference to the advantage of the film.  Still, there is an unmistakable sexuality to Gardner's Maxine which only a Hollywood Golden Age movie star like Gardner could have pulled off.

Similarly, Kerr was a far sight different than Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity but not so different than Anna in The King and I.  What a shoot that must have been in Puerto Vallarta - both Kerr and Gardner having made films (and more) with Burt Lancaster and Gardner so instrumental in getting Sinatra (her then husband) his Academy Award winning role on From Here to Eternity.  Burton was accompanied by Elizabeth Taylor despite both being married to other people at the time.  Houston's ex-wife was Evelyn Keyes who was with Mike Todd until he dumped her for...Elizabeth Taylor.  The set was like a real-life La Ronde.

I thought the plot had several shortcomings but that may have been the effects of alcohol.  After hitting rock bottom, Shannon is literally restrained and ministered to by Kerr's Hannah with "poppy seed tea" and tales of her modest sex life.  It didn't seem too life altering to me but an evening of that combined with Hannah's grandfather's death makes a new man of Shannon.  He is so grateful that he decides to go into partnership with Maxine.  I couldn't help but think how miserable that relationship would be - an alcoholic defrocked priest with a roving eye (and possible statutory rape charge hanging over his head) and a past-her-prime harpy with a taste for young men.  Far from ideal but they wrapped a bow on it and called it a happy ending.

Although I started the post by saying Night of the Iguana was the least enjoyable film I've seen in several weeks, that is more in praise for the films I have yet to chronicle as opposed to an indictment of Iguana.  I'd be interested in seeing a stage production of Iguana as a point of comparison.  As far as Williams' film adaptations go, Iguana is better than most I've seen.  Also, I'll try to lay off the hard stuff before seeing a Williams film again.