Mar 23, 2017
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Roll Camera, Action, SFAI Film!
by Doniphan Blair
The tower of the San Francisco Art Institute's old monastery sure looks mysterious at sunset. photo: D. Blair
AFTER A SERIES OF SERIOUS PROBLEMS,
the San Francisco Art Institute’s film department, as well as the school itself, is under new leadership and headed in a new direction. The new interim president is Rachel Schreiber, more on her later, but the former is now headed by Christopher Coppola, who came on three years ago.
A hardworking filmmaker—he just released his tenth feature, "Sacred Blood" (see
), Coppola is not just from a famous film family (Uncle Francis, Brother Nicholas Cage, Cousin Sophia plus dozens more, or so it seems), he also attended SFAI film and is dedicated to restoring—albeit with a fully digital, modern edge—its laurelled past—which, as it happened, this author had the honor of enjoying.
When I first staggered into SFAI, in 1974, covered in dust and dragging my hitchhiking bud, Craig “Crazyman” Karp (now a state department official in the Caribbean), it appeared nothing less than a mirage from our earlier travels in India.
The Moorish courtyard replete with tiled fountain; the closed-off tower teleported in from “Vertigo”; the breathtaking views of the bay and the world-class café—I can still taste that first sandwich Crazyman and I split, the artisanal bread, the snapping-fresh sprouts—not to mention the high art, actual and in attitude, everywhere.
The film department was one the best in the country, I had come to believe, after having spent my last high school year excused from class and hitching the East to assess Antioch, Oberlin, NYU, RISD, The School of the Museum (Boston), Harvard’s Carpenter Center, Goddard, Bennington and Hampshire, among others.
The current student show in SFAI's front gallery features this fabulous re-imagining of Diego Rivera's classic mural. photo: D. Blair
I only applied to one. Not only did SFAI have a bunch of Eclair cameras, Nagra recorders, KEM and Movieola flatbed editors, and let first-year students use them, they had the varsity art filmmaker team: Lawrence Jordan, George Kuchar, James Broughton, Gunvor and Rob Nelson and, later, Al Wong and Ernie Gehr.
The only missing were the two Bruces, Connor and Baillie, and Stan Brakhage (out of Colorado) but they were frequent guest lecturers.
In short, it was filmmaker’s heaven, anything goes: drugs, sex and politics, of course, but also narrative, art and foreign-language—even surf films, as one student my first year proved handily.
Alas, this arcadia evaporated ten years later, starting with the students themselves. Intoxicated by post-modernism, the philosophical flavor-of-the-month before the fall of the Berlin Wall suggested Marxism might have inherent aesthetic contradictions, they loved to argue.
They supported the IDEA of "art film" but, in reality, those old beatnik teachers were far too freewheeling. Inevitably, it was me and James (Broughton) or me and Lawrence (Jordan—George Kuchar didn’t like to argue) against the rest of the class, who would rail incessantly against “rich art,” “Hollywood” and even “third-world film.”
“Those are JUST travelogues,” one wag shouted at me, when I expressed an interest in Brazilian film, at an assembly discussing the school’s future (umm, how ‘bout Jodorowsky, Kurasawa, Ray?).
“Why would we want a Hollywood hack like Haskell Wexler up here?” another student shrieked when I suggested we bring him up to teach a master class in cinematography (umm, how ‘bout “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”, 1975, or “Medium Cool”, 1969, which Wexler not only shot but wrote and directed cinéma vérité-style?).
SFAI’s dean, during those heady times, was Steven Goldstein, “one of the smartest men I have ever met—on paper,” according to August Coppola, Dean of Creative Arts at SF State (raised $20 million for their media building), and Christopher’s father, who encouraged him to study in SFAI’s film department.
From SFAI's back terrace, the stars come out over Coit Tower—which also has murals by Diego Rivera. photo: D. Blair
I knew Goldstein from sharing joints when he headed San Francisco’s nationally-known Community Arts Program, and found him both brilliant and humble, a rare combination in the arts.
After the film department succumbed in the mid-‘80s to the post-modern “film-talkers” (few made anything of note), it was one complex catastrophe after another.
First, the old-school teachers declined to hop on the digital bandwagon until the mid-‘90s; second, the Academy of Art and California College of Art (and Crafts, back then) started siphoning off students; third, they replaced Goldstein with bunch of bad fits.
The most notable was Ella King Torrey, a lanky, blond AND brilliant scholar on everything from modern art to Barbie dolls and Southern quilts, who actually fit pretty damn well after she came west in 1995, age 38, from the Pew Charitable Trust, to helm the declining Institute.
“There was no one like Ella King Torrey,’ said David Ross, the former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.”
“‘She brought energy to a wonderful school, which had become a little bit sleepy. Within a month or two of her arrival, she had made the Art Institute a rival to any of the great art schools in the country,’” (LA Times, 5/03/2003).
Indeed, Torrey was terrific, tripling endowment in a few years—she came from the Pew, of course—and helping expand the graduate school to its South-of-Market location. Alas, her incredibleness obscured other issues and, seven years later, she tragically committed suicide.
Within a few months of her arrival, Ella King Torrey transformed the Art Institute into a great art school, according to renown museum director, David Ross. photo: SF Chronicle Penni Gladstone
Although nothing was reported then, before or after, in any of the dozens of papers which ran her obit, from the NY to the LA Times, there were rumors of hundreds of thousands embezzled and a taste for cocaine and alcohol.
Torrey was succeeded by Okwui Enwezor, an internationally-known curator and writer from Nigeria and a fascinating figure in his own right but "a bad fit for the Art Institute," I was informed by Jeremey Menzies in 2010, an SFAI filmmaker who graduated that year.
"He is not invested in the students and he is rarely on campus,” Menzies explained. “He was hired as a figurehead,” by the school’s chief administrator Chris Bratton, formally of the Chicago Art Institute, who continued Torrey’s expansion, notably with a new School of Design.
Alas, with the other local art schools eating their lunch, expansion simply couldn’t continue. Bratton announced layoffs of nine tenured teachers, including three from the film department, halving its tenured faculty. By March, 2010, not just the students but the film community was up in arms.
The current interim president, Rachel Schreiber, arrived in 2013. With an undergraduate degree from RISD, an MFA in Art and Writing from the California Institute of the Arts, AND a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins, she is quite the polymath. Not to mention, she also worked at CCA for seven years and the Maryland Institute College of Art for eight and is a visual artist. No surprise, things seem to be improving.
Film department ex-head Lynn Hershman Leeson is a fine artist, performance artist and maker of features like '!Women Art Revolution' (2011) and 'Teknolust” (2002). photo: courtesy L. Hershman Leeson
Lynn Hershman Leeson, the film department director before Coppola (2007-2012), is also a hard working and fascinating artist, in fine art and performance as well as film.
In 2011, her "!Women Art Revolution", with a smoking score by Carrie Brownstein and a premiere at Sundance, documented the 1970s storming of the museums, galleries and other institutions by long-denied women artists, including Hershman Leeson herself.
As a performance artist, she once invented a personality and stayed in character for nine years!
She also directed features, notably “Teknolust” (2002), a surreal sex-fantasy, starring Tilda Swinton, and “Strange Culture,” (2007), a docu-fiction about Steve Kurtz, an artist accused of bioterrorism, also starring Swinton, as his wife, in the re-enactments.
“Work of all one type, even if it is called ‘experimental,’ isn’t really experimental," she told me in an interview in 2012.
Given this and her energy, it seemed like Hershman Leeson was the perfect candidate to lead SFAI film back to glory but she may have been pre-occupied with other projects, as was SFAI’s admin. Indeed, the film department’s allocations remained parsimonious.
After meeting with Hershman Leeson, I toured the once vibrant cinema center and it seemed a shadow of its former, 100-student, self. The mix room, one of the marvels which drew me and Crazyman west three decades earlier, featured one lonely laptop, on a crate in the corner.
Today the film department is still small, only 40 students, but it is regrouping and rebuilding under Christopher Coppola, who exudes the “high-low” aesthetic reminiscent of SFAI in the ‘70s, who attended SFAI in the ‘80s and who is a time management master, indeed he just released his tenth feature, “Sacred Blood”, a vampire film.
Although from a famous 'commercial' film family, Christopher Coppola is a force of nature for alt-film. photo: D. Blair
“A and B [film] worked for George [Kuchar],” I was told by Christopher, an affable bear of guy, looking like a cross between a beatnik and a biker, when we met at Sweeties Bar, not far from SFAI, owned by an alum and now the “teacher’s lounge.”
In fact, Christopher and I first met five years ago, on the threshold of the Kuchar Brother’s apartment, two years before George passed from prostrate cancer at 69 (see
“I love his films—but there is only so much you can take after awhile, kinda like a rich food—but I really loved his personality,” Christopher enthused. “He was always joyful and you could never stop him. He made 600 movies and never stopped.”
Coppola was criticized for his professional work and family connections, both as a student at SFAI and when he became department head, but he has unimpeachable indie street cred, considering he started as a composer (both classical and avant) and he is one of the hardest working cine-activists around.
“As a student, I did bring Michael Powell to speak about his war films, as well as ‘Peeping Tom’  and ‘The Red Shoes’ , and a lot of the faculty boycotted it. ‘You can’t be an artist and do feature films,’ [they said]. I got such bullshit.”
“I was the one person doing narrative,” he continued, sipping his beer. “There was some flack because of the simple fact that I was related to [the Coppola] family. George [Kuchar] was more narrative; I loved watching him at work.”
“I also liked how he took people off the street and made them feel like Marilyn Monroe-movie stars. I like Ed Wood [the godfather of B films], too, but for me George had more of a style. I like B movies because they are not pretentious.”
“George hated pretension. He would always say, ‘The non-pretentious artists, we are the real people, we are the glamorous Hollywood people.’”
Indeed, Christopher has essentially doubled-down on Kuchar’s sensibilities, expressing them as low-budget genre features. Although he has directed his brother Nicholas, Martin Sheen, Robert Goulet and many other A-listers, he is best known for B titles like “Cult of the Evil Geezers” (2007), starring Lynda Carter, who was Wonder Woman (on the TV show, 1975–1979), or “Palmer's Pick Up” (1999).
The Kuchar Twins, Mike (standing) and George, in their crowded but not cluttered Mission District apartment, two years before George died in 2011. photo: D. Blair
Perhaps his best known, “Palmer's”, concerns two truckers hauling the devil across country in a box for a “special” millennial celebration. It features his Aunt Talia Shire (Francis’s wellknown actor sister, albeit in drag), Morton Downey, Jr., Rosanna Arquette and, most incredibly, Grace Jones, as a black Siamese twin (the other half is a white man) and completely but believably insane—see her scenes on
His latest, “Sacred Blood”, premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October and kicks off with a family of circus sharpshooters. They include the talented Georgian actress Anna Biani, who shoots “on” candles on her sister’s head, but is forced to flee due to “what she has become.”
“You have to know why she left her family. I love the circus,” Christopher said, recalling his shoot in Georgia, by the Black Sea.
“There is no way to do a low-budget film [stateside] with a circus. If I get a bear on a scooter, the animal rights [people] would go nuts and [there’d be] tons of insurance issues. It would cost a hundred grand alone—that’s half the budget.“
Eventually, arriving in San Francisco, Anna Biani’s character runs into Chinese and Scottish opponents of the same ilk, the former played by the gorgeous Bai Ling, a mainland-born, Chinese actress who has been wowing Hollywood since appearing opposite Richard Gere in “Red Corner” (1997), and the latter the renown indie improv director Rob Nilsson.
Rounding out the stellar cast is Michael Madsen, of “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) fame, as the lush detective assigned to investigate the trail of murders vampires inevitably leave.
More interesting then the classical B story line is the intertwining family tales: the Russian sisters, Madsen and his son, played by Christopher’s son Bailey (b. 1995), already well-along in the family business (parts in “The Bling Ring”, directed by second cuz Sophia, and “Palo Alto”, by second cuz Gia Coppola, both 2013).
“I don’t like exclusivity of the art world. I hate it, with a passion,” Christopher explained. “Everything I do, maybe, comes out of my annoyance with growing up [with it], watching exclusivity and seeing how it’s worshipped.”
'It’s all changing,' said Christopher Coppola about the future of film. 'I like the idea of a 360 degree [filmed] narrative because you can experience the film a million times differently.' photo: D. Blair
“Maybe I have a chip on my shoulder about that but I created a world where everybody has a story to tell; everybody has an artist within; everybody has a cinematic way of looking at things. It just takes work.”
And work he does. Over the years, Christopher has done:
• Project Accessible Hollywood (started 2006), a nonprofit, which equips underserved individuals worldwide and has mounted almost 50 PAH-Fests across the U.S. and the world
• The reality shows “The DigiVangelist,” focusing on new technology, and “Biker Chef”, featuring him and his cat motorcycling cross-country to check out various cuisines
• Five episodes each of the TV series “Deeds for Eddie McDowd” (2000-02) and “Bone Chillers” (1996)
• The children's fantasy “Clockmaker” (1998), in Romania
To achieve this, he is both an expert at time-management and employs a personal assistant, a professional trick he undoubtedly learned “en famille.”
In point of fact, “I’ve raised more money for that school than any alum over the past ten years and it has nothing to do with my family—every dime I raised was from my sources,” he said.
'If you don’t learn how to evolve, how to tell your stories," Christopher exclaimed, 'the kids will never get it. And you owe it to them!' photo: D. Blair
Considering how hard he works, and how the admin should be kicking down some of those donations to the film department , SFAI will soon be sparkling silver screens with some fresh visions—not to mention work by Christopher himself.
Indeed, he is already casting his next, low-budget feature while casting about for a high-brow teacher, with a masters degree and a back-of-the-hand familiarity with Sergei Eisenstein and French New Wave.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 09, 2015 - 10:09 PM