The Bay Area is widely regarded as the seat of rebellion in his country or, to put it in more “patriotic” terms, where America’s conscience resides. So although dozens of passionate documentaries have been made here, it’s a mystery why the list of locally produced features with political themes is so short. At long last, Miles Matthew Montalbano has broken the silence with “Revolution Summer,” an evocative and empathetic portrait of Bush-era dissatisfaction among the post-collegiate set opening this Friday at the Roxie New College Film Center. As socially conscious dramas go, it’s circumspect about the state’s crimes, sparing us a harangue. A gentle poke of a napping buddy rather than a call to arms — the soundtrack consists of Jonathan Richman’s low-key picking, not Jefferson’s Airplane’s window-rattling “Volunteers” — Montalbano’s low-budget debut counts the awakening of a single citizen as a blow against the empire. “The politics I’m interested in are much more personal, how it affects [people] as individuals, their relationships with other people, with their lovers, with their families, with strangers,” Montalbano explained in a phone interview last week from San Francisco.
The plot — such as it is, for Montalbano does not supply a surfeit of incident — revolves around a trio of young adults with varying levels of disquiet. Hope (Mackenzie Firgens) is an introspective sort with a vague longing to make more of her life and do something about the direction of the country. But what? One “inspiration” is her friend Francine (Lauren Fox), a stripper interested only in sex, drink and drugs. Then there’s this new guy, Frankie (Samuel Child), who’s involved in planning and executing a dangerous act of sabotage.
“I had been feeling very frustrated with the ways of the world [and] what was going on in the world,” the 41-year-old Montalbano recalled. “It was the start of the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, 9/11, all of these things were at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. I don’t feel like I have any answers politically, or that that’s the filmmaker’s place, but it came from a personal place of feeling so angry some days and frustrated other days. ‘Why aren’t we all out in the streets right now? Why aren’t we throwing bricks and bottles? No one cares, this is always the way things are. Let’s just go get a beer and have a good time.’ I was trying to reconcile those feelings in myself, and wondering what should we be doing now.”
It boiled down to one question, said Montalbano. How do you live in an imperfect world? That’s not the usual dilemma that occupies young filmmakers, but then his path to the directing chair wasn’t typical. Montalbano was born in Oakland and raised in Chico; he moved back to San Francisco to play music. In his late 20s, after the break-up of his last band, Sister Double Happiness, he enrolled at S.F. State to study film.
“I had this idea about college where I thought I’d find all these hip people to hang out and talk about Godard films with, and it seemed most people I met were interested in moving to Hollywood and working on the next ‘Star Wars’ film,” Montalbano recounted. “I was discouraged by film school, and after my third year I felt like I couldn’t justify my student loans anymore and I decided I needed to make films.”
His frustration may have stemmed from the realization that making music is a more immediate and intuitive process than making movies. Indeed, Montalbano makes it sound as if “Revolution Summer” is the result of an evolution in which he had to alter his approach while also tailoring the standard filmmaking model to his taste. In other words, writing, production, and postproduction were stages in which Montalbano grappled with how to reconcile his oblique storytelling style with an audience’s expectations.
“To me, it was an experimental film, because I don’t know what I’m doing,” he confided. “I knew what kind of films interested me and what kind of film I wanted to make. But I had no idea if it was going to work. Ultimately, that’s kind of how I watch films. I’m not a person who studies film. I never got into dissecting them. I usually watch a film and let it wash over me and do its trip. Godard, Antonioni, who are supposed to be cerebral, I watch them on a gut, emotional level. ‘This rings true to me, this rings false to me.’ Through the heart, not the head.”
Fortunately for his long-term mental health, Montalbano realized that “Revolution Summer” was not destined to be a commercial blockbuster or even a critics’ darling.
“I knew from the beginning that I was making a film probably for a minority audience,” he said. “First and foremost, I was making a film for myself. I had enough confidence to know there would be other people who’d be interested in that. I knew it wouldn’t it would be a Sundance film, it wasn’t ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ it wasn’t a calling-card film. I just had hope that it would find its audience. And I think everybody involved with it, coming into it knew that, and it was the film we wanted to make. This could have been my student film, and I could shove it under my bed and no one will ever see it again. But I stand by it, and we accomplished a lot of what we were trying to make.”
Montalbano is working on ideas for his next film, although he’s a ways from rolling camera. Much as he enjoyed the DIY strategies and aesthetic of “Revolution Summer,” he now recognizes that a bigger budget would make production and post much easier. But there’s little danger of him going the way of too many indie filmmakers, and gravitating to vapid romantic comedies or hit-and-run heist movies.
“I’m still interested in how you live in a world that oppresses and alienates people,” he said, “living in this modern world that we’ve been born into, and the spiritual needs that are maybe not being addressed for a lot of people, and how hard communication between men and women is.”
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