Mar 28, 2017
Please contact us
or breaking news
Opposites Attract? Coming to an Art House Near You
by Doniphan Blair
'Tangerine''s Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez try to reconcile after a tough Christmas on Hollywood Blvd. photo: S. Baker
FIVE GREAT BUT VERY DIFFERENT
Californian indies, nar and doc, plus three related, if utterly opposing, out-of-staters, really grabbed me at the recent SF International Film Festival, which closed its doors and heavenly press café—site of willowy Italian producers, visionary East Bay poets and FREE BEER!—in San Francisco’s jazz-club and restaurant-filled Fillmore District on May 7th.
The one that really shook me and threw me to the ground was “Tangerine”, though the others were excellent, if in entirely different ways.
A riot of color, character and catastrophe, utterly undiminished by being shot on an iPhone, “
” follows the travails of two transvestite prostitutes of color who live, work and try to play on or around Hollywood Blvd—talk about cinema symbolism!
Not to mention it’s Christmas, one has just gotten out of prison, heard that her beloved (also her pimp) has been cheating and is absolutely furious.
Depraved, perverted and crazed, “Tangerine” is in fact a loving film, both the characters with each other AND the filmmakers with their characters! They treat them like adults, smartly and sensuously—not pornographically, cutting back to even walk-ons for reaction shots—except the evil frats boys, as pointed out to me by Sean Baker, who directed, co-wrote and did some cinematography.
Opening July 17th in SF's Landmark’s Embarcadero, “Tangerine” stars "amateurs" Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, whom Baker and Chris Bergoch (his creative partner from NYU film school and the film's co-writer/co-producer) met at a Hollywood LGBT community center and who also did research and script consulting. Not completely budget, "Tangerine" has some pros—James Ransone (Nick from “Treme”, 2012-13) as the loverboy pimp and three Armenians, A Listers back home who like to moonlight in LA—plus great music of every genre imaginable.
'Wolfpack''s (lf-rt) Krsna Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, director Crystal Moselle, Sundance director of programming Trevor Groth, Bhagavan Angulo, Narayana Angulo and Govinda Angulo at the 2015 Sundance premiere. photo: C. Moselle
Shot on a 5S iPhone, using Moondog Labs' anamorphic clip-on lens and an $8 app from FiLMiC Pro, “Tangerine” looked fine, especially when flaring psychedelically, but the sound, by Irin Strauss, was prestine, essential for enjoying every bon mot when “Tangerine”’s three plots—including the Armenian cab driver with a taste for transgender AND his mother-in-law— mashup in the big fight scene, soon turned cinematic love fest.
Despite their shared depravity, sex and crime, “Tangerine” is almost the exact opposite of “
”, another a festival audience hit (though neither took awards), with no need for stellar sound since NOT a word is spoken! Set in a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf and nicknamed “silent porn” by festival staff—a fascinating tribe of “cinema sluts” who often junket from fest to fest and are indispensable for hot tips, it follows its teen anti-heroes as they bully, steal from, pimp out and full-frontal each other.
Tempered by phenomenal acting and long, real-time tableau shots, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Yasujirô Ozu or Andy Warhol, there's almost no character love or loving of characters here—save the protagonist for the willowy blond. Brutal but masterful—"The Tribe" took Cannes' Critics' Week Grand Prix—first-time director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy is a name to watch, silently, since we can't pronounce it.
Coincidentally, the film could have been called “Wolfpack”, the title of another excellent entry in our octagon of opposites, which, in turn, could have been called “The Tribe”, although—yet again—they couldn’t be more diametrically different.
Crystal Moselle Q&Aing at the Clay Theater, with SFIFF's director of programming Rachel Rosen. photo: D. Blair
A documentary, first of all, "
" is by Crystal Moselle, a bright-eyed young cineaste (with a pronouncable name and surprising amount of experience—this is her sophomore doc), who is well-served by her editor, Enat Sidi (“Jesus Camp”, 2006), as well as her subjects, the six teenage brothers she happened to meet on the street, shortly after their “escape.”
"Our first interaction was the love of cinema," Ms Moselle told me. "I learned just as much from them as they learned from me—they are like little [film] encyclopedias. It was inspiring to see youngsters so impassioned about one thing."
Gradually, she also learned that the brothers were from a family which tried to immigrate to Sweden from Peru but got stuck in Manhattan’s sometimes dangerous Lower East Side. Dad’s solution: Never let them out. While his American wife home-schools, cooks and cleans (she was also a prisoner), the boys essentially re-invent civilization, from elaborate rituals to re-enacting of movies, which they’re allowed to watch, notably “Reservoir Dogs” (1988).
"Because I was friends with them,” Ms Moselle continued, “I could find an intimacy with them which is hard when you are standing back."
Also soon delivered to your local art house by the premier indie distributors
, “Wolfpack” starts as a sequester story, goes coming-of-age (as the boys defy dad and go outside), and ends meta with one of the most beautiful art film scenes I’ve seen since Paul Schrader’s “Mishima” (1985), which, coincidentally, the festival also showed on the occasion of his acceptance of their Maurice Kanbar Award.
Given its subjects were restricted from the street, “Wolfpack” is also the antithesis of “Tangerine”, whose stars are entirely of it, though both films feature adoration of their characters.
'The Black Panthers''s director Stanley Nelson with one of his subjects, Panther central committee member and law professor, Kathleen Cleaver. photo: courtesy S. Nelson
Yet another unsimilar film, although also a doc about liberation from tyranny, was “
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
” a topic of timely importance, both to the current national crisis of police killings and the many Bay Areans who were once involved with or wondered what happened to the Panthers.
By New Yorker Stanley Nelson, who also did the local story “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006), it is the first big screen, exhaustive doc about the nation-wide movement led by Oakland radicals with cinematic sensibilities, from their gun-toting "police monitoring" to their media-managed spectacles and Hollywood buddies. They were also sabotaged and slaughtered by the FBI.
Nelson does the material great justice, caressing his characters with close-focus interviews, elucidating their story with excellent archival material, often color, and making the film much more accessible than previous Panther docs, (see
CineSource feature article
Romeo is Bleeding
”, in turn, is so different it essentially inverts “The Black Panthers”'s primary premise, in that it concerns struggling to save ones community through words not weapons (although Eldridge Cleaver and other Panthers wrote important, bestselling books). The central focus, in fact, is a poetry class, Raw Talent, taught by the innovative young educator Molly Raynor in Richmond, California, a town plagued for decades by a turf war between its north and south sections, which cost dozens of lives.
Jason Zeldes, who happens to be Raynor’s cousin, as well as one of the editors of the Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet from Stardom” (2013), heard about what she was achieving and came up from LA to start a year of filming, including her class's production of an updated Shakespeare play.
Dónde Clark, the premier poet in 'Romeo is Bleeding' enjoying the Elysian Fields of the festival's press cafe. photo: D. Blair
“I first read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in high school and wasn’t that interested,” noted Dónde Clark, the twenty-something poet who emerges as the film's hero, although he wouldn't call himself that, “but then I realized this is the story of our lives.” Amazingly innocent in spirit, Clarke has endured a lot and appears to have accepted the challenge of reinventing his locale's culture and leading it away from the patriarchal proclivity for violence.
"The thing about being a leader," said one of Clarke's colleague poets, at the showing of the film at El Cerrito high school (five miles from Richmond, which the festival considerately arranged), "is someone is always watching you and you have to watch yourself very carefully!"
Very different from all the above—indeed, from almost every feature I have ever seen, save "Koyaanisqatsi" (1982)—is "
The Royal Road
", an Art film with a capital “A,” shot on 16mm by San Franciscan Jenny Olsen. Like "The Tribe", it features Oso-esque tableaus, this time of houses, hillsides, and the occasional alley, and not a SINGLE word spoken onscreen, although not a single person appears either! Despite years of film school, force-fed “Scratch On/Off” (1975) and other cinema crimes, I almost walked out.
But as with almost anything fresh, it takes time to sink in. With such a plethora of avant-indies, the festival selection committee led by Rachel Rosen has to be commended for going wild, as it were, with “The Royal Road”, which the festival also supported with funding, as it did with "Romeo Bleeding".
Indeed, “Royal Road"'s absence of onscreen action is more than balanced by its lively narration, starting with Olsen's queer crushes (generally unrequited), including the elusive beauty who moved to LA, hence the roadtrip and her segue into California and then film history, as she drives by the Mission San Baptista where Hitchcock filmed “Vertigo” (1958).
The Residents an SF avant-garde film, then music, group is finally captured in a great doc by Dan Hardy. photo: courtesy D. Hardy
If you could select any film to conjure the absolute opposite of "Royal Road"'s hushed and slow majesty, it would probably be "
The Theory of Obscurity: A Film about The Residents
", directed by first-timer Dan Hardy, although the central characters' faces are also hidden. A band of do-it-yourself filmmakers and performance artists who donned surrealist outfits and engaged in manic onstage action before teaching themselves instruments and sophisticated post-pop, The Residents eschewed celebrity, always wore masks and have maintained their anonymity almost 'til now (you can kind of figure it out and the old SF hipsters all know).
Beloved by Simpsons-creator Matt Groening and magician Penn Jillette, who can't stop raving about them—or is it just raving in general?, The Residents prove that Bay Area rock progressed far beyond the Dead and the Airplane—indeed, the fabulous Snakefinger was one of their early collaborators before he up and died in '87, at only 38. Although now elderly, as you can see by their creased chins below their masks, the film follows them on one last world-tour, probably out of a tiny van, performing their "hits" and shaking things up with their absurd sounds and sensibilities.
Finally, you guessed it, another contradiction of ALL SEVEN of the above films, certainly in terms of budget—indeed, it could afford B-list stars like Kieran Culkin, Macaulay's younger brother, and a much larger camera than an iPhone. By freshman Noah Pritzker, who co-wrote with Ben Tarnoff, “
” is well -acted, -plotted and -shot, in and around San Francisco, as it happens. But it’s all grey, middleclass ennui and pampering, highlighting the trouble with a town which exploded with light and sound fifty years ago but has since been stepped on by its NIMBY-ite elite—Culkin, as the English teacher at the private school, is the only free spirit on screen.
Although girls usually have the upperhand in high school, sometimes a boy is born so conniving, like 'Quitters'' character played by Konigsberg, he lays them to waste. photo: N. Pritzker
“Quitters” star, if you can call him that, is a teenage boy, masterfully smirked by Ben Konigsberg (who had one appearance on "Orange is the New Black"). He easily manipulates his parents, his girlfriend—his girlfriend's parents—driving his dad to such distraction the only succor is a good hit of weed—his wife is already at an institution, and he can see that isn't helping.
Although Konigsberg's character probably won’t get his comeuppance until his first BJ on Hollywood Blvd, Pritzker likes his characters enough to bring them back from that fully insane edge of divorce, sex-outting and romantic brutality, suggesting that it's always possible to stumble towards full humanity.
There were other great Bay Area and Bay Area-esque films, like Leah Wolchok’s professional look at The New Yorker's cartoonists, "Semi-Serious", which took the festival's Golden Gate award for best documentary, but I will leave it to this octet of interlocking opposites, especially "Tangerine" which rises up from the gutter, to prove that guts gets you what money can't: love, if not for each other, at least our characters!
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on May 19, 2015 - 02:43 PM