It’s pride week in the Bay Area, between the world champion Giants and the world-class local film and videomakers arrayed in the Cinema by the Bay festival. A fashion tip: Orange and black looks as good in a dark theater as it does at noon in Civic Center Plaza. But pride only goes so far in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately worlds of pro sports and motion pictures. A healthy film scene depends on vitality and creativity, and it’s a plain fact that both are consistently in great supply hereabouts. And they are the signal qualities that Cinema by the Bay spotlights.
From nascent talents like Justin Coupe and Palmer Taylor (Rivers of a Lost Coast) to icons Marlon Riggs and Lynn Hershman Leeson (honored in the debut class of six Essential SF inductees), Cinema by the Bay surveys the breadth of Northern California filmmaking in a single far-ranging weekend at the Roxie Theater (with forays to the Lab and Southern Exposure). The San Francisco Film Society’s second annual showcase of new work covers the waterfront in 11 programs that encompass feature-length and short dramas, documentaries and experimental work.
The festival launches with a pair of fascinating, entertaining feature narratives that cast a baleful eye on the way we live today. Chris Brown’s amusingly painful (or, if you prefer, painfully funny) third feature, Fanny, Annie & Danny, begins with the nyah-nyah bickering of adolescent siblings. Except obsessive-compulsive Fanny (Jill Pixley) and her unseen antagonist are neither kids nor related, but adult residents in a group home. This clever bit of misdirection neatly foreshadows the childish and boorish behavior that Fanny’s family will prove so stunningly adept at.
Fanny, Annie & Danny gives us ample time with every member of the family— slick and slippery band manager Danny, manipulative dental-assistant Annie and her stoner fiancé, their harridan-from-hell mother and dazed Vietnam vet dad—before administering an industrial-strength dose of the domestic dynamic in the excruciating pre-Christmas reunion dinner that comprises the film’s jaw-dropping final third. You’ll laugh, you’ll wince, you’ll revel at Brown’s aggressive cut-on-every-line editing that undercuts both his characters’ sitcom antecedents and any whiff of Cassavetes-style realism. Each member of the oddly endearing ensemble gets a moment to shine, and takes advantage.
A note-perfect cast of astonishingly naturalistic actors, supported by intimate handheld camerawork, propels South Bay writer-director Alejandro Adams’ alluring and menacing Babnik. The Russian-language drama spins around three émigré couples in pursuit of the American (read material) dream—a duo of charming/sleazy entrepreneurs whose business is “modeling” and prostitution, an underemployed husband and his bitterly disappointed spouse, and a short-tempered grocery clerk and his teenage sister. Babnik (which translates as “Womanizer”) draws us close to its characters without letting us warm up to them, creating an oddly delicious tension.
Babnik is a triumph of low-budget filmmaking, relying extensively on interiors but cannily using one-sided cell-phone conversations to evoke off-screen action and expand the world of the film beyond what we see. The net effect is to illuminate the lives of people who are largely invisible to us—especially attractive young women without green cards, options or power—yet cross our paths all the time.
Saturday is devoted to documentaries, beginning with The Stanford Scene, a program of short docs by alumni of Stanford’s top-drawer grad program. Then it’s off to Appalachia, where Jennifer Gilomen and Sally Rubin empathetically explore the hot-button topic of mountaintop removal through two longtime Kentucky neighbors. While most strip-mining docs depict a fight between evil economic interests and enlightened environmentalists, Deep Down takes a more nuanced (and less emotionally cathartic) approach. Health-care worker Beverly May is an old-school populist heroine, an accidental activist roused by threats to her ancestral home and way of life. But her equally impressive yet financially insecure friend Terry Ratcliffe is leaning toward leasing his land to the coal company.
Deep Down is arguably more concerned with community, friendship and legacy than it is with social and ecological factors. The “villains” are kept off-screen and largely out of sight. The one-hour ITVS-funded doc, airing November 23 on KQED as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, is a patient, character-driven piece that hews to its subjects’ viewpoint rather than imposing an outside perspective.
A privileged insider’s view is the overwhelming attraction of Emiko Omori’s affectionate Ed Hardy Tattoo the World—that and a smorgasbord of eye-popping imagery. With its subject serving as candid tour guide, the doc smoothly tracks Hardy’s progression from pre-teen Southern California sketch fiend to star San Francisco Art Institute student to failed Vancouver tattoo artist to Tokyo apprentice to San Francisco master to Hawaii painter and unlikely brand name. Essential SF honoree Les Blank (Burden of Dreams) turns up in a brief cameo getting inked by Hardy, as does the filmmaker herself circa the mid-‘70s. Gracefully photographed and scored with a variety of unusual choices from Hawaiian surf music to opera, Tattoo the World positions Hardy (and his peers and protégés) not as subversives, freaks or fringe players but as respected, mainstream cultural figures. Disappointed? Or do you feel vindicated? Your enjoyment of the film will be unaffected either way.
Saturday concludes with a special screening of 4th & Goal, Nina Gilden Seavey’s years-in-the-making look at half a dozen City College of San Francisco football players with NFL aspirations. Even if you’re not quite ready to let go of the baseball season, this pre-Sundance sneak preview promises to be something special.
Rivers of a Lost Coast, a beautifully crafted work by filmmaker Justin Coupe and sound designer extraordinaire Palmer Taylor, documents the feast and famine postwar history of Northern California fly fishermen. Drawing on the colorful reminiscences of numerous weathered river rats and acres of home movies and archival footage, as well as Coupe’s artfully composed contemporary images, the film is a lush love letter to a vanishing breed of sportsman. The once-teeming bounty of steelhead trout (on the Eel River) and Chinook salmon (on the Smith) are long gone, casualties of floods exacerbated by helter-skelter logging and politically motivated dams. Rivers of a Lost Coast is only incidentally interested in the bigger environmental context, however, and its most appreciative audience is sure to be sport fishermen. (For those who lie awake wondering who’s going to pick up Sam Neill’s voiceover mantle someday, Tom Skerritt lays a claim with his folksy narration.)
Sunday is also brightened by a pair of shorts programs, the wittily titled Baywatch! and Southern Exposure: Cross-Cuts, a compilation of recent work by local experimental film and videomakers at the gallery’s new location on 20th Street at Alabama. Smack between them is Essential SF: Les Blank and Rick Prelinger in Conversation, a sure-to-be irreverent, illuminating and downright inspiring cross-section of clips and chat moderated by the Pacific Film Archive’s droll Steve Seid. If one needs an introduction to the venerable East Bay maker of such seductive and enthralling documentaries as Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, or to the legendary San Francisco collector and archivist, check out the related articles on SF360.org.
Speaking of this redoubtable online magazine, it transmutes from cyberspace to the Lab Monday night with the concluding program in the 2010 edition of Cinema by the Bay. SF360.org Presents: Essential SF offers a full-throated toast to the first group of Bay Area film titans saluted with privileged Essential SF status: Gail Silva, Anne McGuire, the late Marlon Riggs, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Les Blank and Rick Prelinger. Chapeaus will also be doffed to SF360’s recent relaunch, and to the bevy of filmmakers represented in the festival. Then Myles Cooper and his band lay down the grooves, kicking the party into full orange-and-black swing and bringing down the curtain on Cinema by the Bay.
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