Monday, June 30, 2014

Frameline: Futuro Beach

The line was around the corner & the energy was high for the Friday night showing of Futuro Beach at the Frameline film festival this weekend. The artsy movie, set in Brazil & Germany, shows a series of isolated moments from a relationship between 2 men, both reticent ex-military types. The scenario consists entirely of ellipses, & scenes run on without providing any additional information past the first seconds. Unfortunately, the movie is boring, & I heard men around me sighing throughout. The screening was preceded by a slick public service announcement from Gilead which caused an angry outburst from someone who does not like the pharmaceutical company.

§ Praia Do Futuro (Futuro Beach)
Dir: Karim Aïnouz, 2013, Brazil, 97 mins.

San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival 2014
Friday, June 27, 9:30 PM, Castro Theatre

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Eric Owens Master Class

Thursday evening Merola Opera presented bass-baritone Eric Owens in a master class for an audience of Merola members. Mr. Owens was cheerfully avuncular, & he focused on refining the sound of all 4 singers in the class. His suggestions were fairly technical & were confusing to me, but I am not a singer. He often demonstrated what he wanted by singing it himself.

Baritone Alexander Elliott sang "O du mein holder Abendstern" from Tannhäuser with a beautiful, open, resonant sound, & Mr. Owens worked to smooth out his line & German diction. Soprano Talya Lieberman sang "Oh! Quante volte" from Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Mr. Owens was an exacting listener as he coached her to soften her voice on the aria's long first note.

Mezzo Nian Wang sang remarkably clear & effortless triplets in the coloratura aria "Parto, parto" from La clemenza di Tito, & Mr. Owens aimed at brightening her sound. When he asked her to sing in an exaggerated nasal voice, her gutsy attempt caused the audience to laugh & applaud. Mr. Owens frequently put his index finger on the bridge of his nose to demonstrate a point, & Ms. Wang somehow started imitating him by singing with an upraised index finger in front of her face.

Bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot, nattily dressed in a pink shirt & bow tie, portrayed a suave devil in an aria from Gounod's Faust. He was an expressive actor, & his stage laughs were wonderfully insinuating. Mr. Owens worked to make his big voice more legato. Apprentice coach Edoardo Barsotti accompanied Mr. Talbot adroitly.

The master class ran for 2 hours without a break. I did not eat dinner beforehand, so I was grateful for the reception afterward, which was attended by Mr. Owens & the Merolini & had substantial food offerings.

§ Master Class & Reception With Eric Owens
Merola Opera Program 2014

"Wie Todesahnung ... O du mein holder Abendstern" from Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner
Alexander Elliott, baritone
Sahar Nouri, piano

"Oh! Quante volte" from I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini
Talya Lieberman, soprano
Sahar Nouri, piano

"Parto, parto" from La clemenza di Tito by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Nian Wang, Mezzo-soprano
Kirill Kuzmin, piano

"Vous qui faites l'endormie" from Faust by Charles Gounod
Rhys Lloyd Talbot, bass-baritone
Edoardo Barsotti, piano

Thursday, June 26, 2014, 7:00 - 9:00 PM
San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Saturday, June 28, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

I enjoyed the 1st How to Train Your Dragon, so I was happy to catch How to Train Your Dragon 2, in 3D, no less. The action-driven story combines elements of Star Wars, Harry Potter & Godzilla & pairs vikings with dragons that function as pets, personal aircraft & weapons of mass destruction. Dreamworks revamped its animation technology for this sequel, & the characters look far less puppet-like than they do in the 1st movie. The dragons exhibit traits of dogs, cats, horses, birds, reptiles & social insects, & they are better actors than most humans. Thankfully, the writers avoided winking, smart-alecky humor aimed at adults.

I got the feeling that the filmmakers were proud of the end result. The movie has the longest list of credits I've ever seen. It includes employees in the marketing, merchandising & franchising departments. There is also a big collection of Indian names under a Dreamworks technology partner in India.

§ How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
Dir: Dean DeBlois, USA, 102 mins

Movement in Paper

The small art gallery in the Student Center on the SF State campus currently has an exhibition of origami models, & it's one of the best organized origami exhibits I've seen. The selections posit origami as a sculptural art form, & the models are displayed so that you can walk completely around them.

The works fall into 3 categories. Tessellations are represented by Goran Konjevod's rippling, pleated forms.

Some of the animals figures are arranged in charmingly animated poses. Their detail is simply astonishing.

The modular examples cover a variety of designs & techniques.

The labels helpfully indicate the designer, the folder & the type of paper. I would also like to know the dimensions of the unfolded sheet of paper, information always omitted in these shows.

§ Movement in Paper: The Evolving form of Origami
May 1st - July 15th, 2014
CCSC Art Gallery, SF State

Friday, June 27, 2014


Last weekend I saw the last of 3 performances by Opera Parallèle of Anya17, a British opera written explicitly to raise awareness of human sex trafficking. The dismayingly bald libretto by Ben Kaye tells the story of a young woman, presumably from Eastern Europe, who is smuggled into a western country where she is brutalized & forced into prostitution. Adam Gorb's music, for a band of about a dozen musicians, ranges from ugly modernism to seductive jazz. The uniformly fine cast all give admirably sincere & committed performances, but I wish the opera itself had been rewarding.

Soprano Anna Noggle is a controlled & solid singer & actor in the title role. Mezzo Catherine Cook is persuasive as a strutting, self-justifying trafficker. I enjoyed hearing Laura Krumm's rich mezzo voice in a part she sings mostly from the floor. I liked baritone Victor Benedetti's warm sound & smooth singing, even though his character mostly beats up women onstage. Soprano Shawnette Sulker convincingly conveys youth & innocence, & tenor Andres Ramirez sings lightly & pleasingly in a very odd role as a kindhearted john, bringing flowers for his favorite prostitute.

The production's visual design works well. The stage is a dingy, cage-like environment, with vivid but discrete video projections enhancing the action. 2 dancers, in glittery make-up, act as stage hands. The orchestra was onstage & partly behind a fence. Nicole Paiement's conducting was tight. The performance ran an intermissionless 90 minutes, & the audience seemed as serious about the material as the performers.

§ Anya17 (2012)
Music by Adam Gorb and libretto by Ben Kaye

Opera Parallèle
Nicole Paiement, conductor
Brian Staufenbiel, director

Catherine Cook: Carole/Natalia
Anna Noggle: Anya
Andres Ramirez: Uri/Gabriel
Victor Benedetti: Viktor
Shawnette Sulker: Mila
Laura Krumm: Elena

Jane Das, Quilet Rarang

Marines’ Memorial Theater
4 p.m. June 22, 2014

Origami Palooza

Last Sunday afternoon, Japantown hosted Origami Palooza, a cute event where anyone is invited to pull up a chair & learn how to fold simple & not so simple origami models. It was nice to see that the activity appeals to people of all ages

A girl scout taught me to make a talking crow, & I folded a crane for the World Tree of Hope, which is displayed in City Hall at Christmas.

I was a bit awestruck to see origami phenomenon Goran Konjevod (the bald fellow on the right) patiently showing people how to fold intricate tessellations.

There was also a small exhibit.

A paper airplane contest was held outdoors in the Peace Plaza, where the wind was allowed to be a major factor in determining outcomes.

§ Origami Palooza
June 22, 2014, 1-5pm
East Japan Center Mall

Ojai North

Last weekend I was glad to make it to the last performance of the Ojai North Music Festival at Cal Performances. The fun program featured pianist Jeremy Denk in the Ligeti Etudes & Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. Mr. Denk mentioned chaos theory in his introductory remarks before launching into Books I & II of Ligeti's cruelly difficult piano etudes (minus Book II's "Columna Infinită"). He played with impressive agility, freedom & a sense of fun. The audience gasped at the speed with which he took the opening "Désordre." The runs of "Fanfares" flowed incredibly smoothly & the different dynamic levels were very clear. He communicated a jaunty humor in "Fem" & made "En Suspens" sound like Debussy. His playing was loose enough that he sometimes seemed to be looking around while playing, & he had good communication with his page-turner. Someone shouted "Bravo" at the conclusion of Book I, & the audience gave a standing ovation at the end of Book II & recalled Mr. Denk several times.

A chorus of about 30 sang Ives's solemn Psalm 90, & their performance was quiet & soothing. The percussion was in the upper back of the auditorium, giving the chimes an other-worldly feeling. Mr. Denk played the solos in the Choral Fantasy with a slight rubato that felt relaxed but not slack. The Knights, a New York-based chamber orchestra of around 30 musicians, looked like they were having fun with the Beethoven as well. The chorus sounded even & displayed nice dynamic range. I liked the brief trio of male soloists. The festival audience was appreciative & attentive though not as full as I would have expected. On the other hand, performances had been going on since 11am that day. I had a major Choral Fantasy earworm for the next couple of days.

§ Ojai North Music Festival
Jeremy Denk, piano
The Knights
Eric Jacobsen, conductor

Ojai Festival Singers
Kevin Fox, conductor

LIGETI: Piano Études Books I & II
IVES: Psalm 90
BEETHOVEN: Fantasy for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op.80

Sat, June 21, 8 pm
Hertz Hall

Frameline: The Circle

Last weekend at Frameline I saw The Circle, a delightful Swiss docudrama about Der Kreis, a tastefully naughty gay magazine published in Zurich from WWII through the 1960s. The story is told through the lives of Röbi Rapp & Ernst Ostertag, a drag performer & a school teacher who meet in 1956 through their association with the magazine & its famous annual ball. The movie neatly combines slick dramatic recreations of the 1950s & 60s with interviews with Messrs. Rapp & Ostertag, now a cute couple in their 80s. There are nicely constructed moments when a scene cuts seamlessly between now & then. Both the real-life gentlemen & the actors portraying them are warm & engaging. I felt like I got a lot of information about the magazine & post-war Switzerland. Homosexuality was not illegal, but there was still plenty of social stigma & police persecution. The movie is a love story as well as a history lesson, & the audience applauded footage of Messrs. Rapp & Ostertag becoming the 1st same sex couple to marry in Switzerland. The film's dialogue is in cute-sounding Swiss German.

The Saturday afternoon screening at the Castro was so packed that I & my 2 movie companions had to find seats in the upper balcony. The director Stefan Haupt was in attendance & received a standing ovation. Unfortunately I did not have time to stay for his Q&A.

§ Der Kreis (The Circle)
Dir: Stefan Haupt, Switzerland, 2014, 102 mins.

San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival 2014
Saturday, June 21, 4:15 PM, Castro Theatre

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Frameline: Stand

Last week at Frameline I saw Stand, the 1st of 4 programs about gay life in contemporary Russia being presented by the festival. Though set in Moscow, Stand is actually a French production, shot in the Ukraine. The story is a slow, deliberate wind-up to a graphic & brutal beating. The film's earnest message is that homophobia is evil, but I did not get much more out of it than that. Many of the scenes are shot with a shaky hand-held camera following close behind an actor's head. On the Castro's big screen, these scenes gave me motion sickness, so I ended up having to close my eyes during them. The prominent use of Wagner's music at the end is an unhappy choice, given the film's fascist context.

The Castro Theatre was impressively packed for this afternoon screening, & the director Jonathan Taieb was in attendance with lead actors Andrey Kurganov and Renat Shuteev, who do give appealing performances in the film. I was not able to stay for their Q&A.

§ Stand
dir: Jonathan Taieb
France, 2014, 87 mins.

San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival 2014
Friday, June 20, 4:00 PM, Castro Theatre
Sunday, June 29, 4:15 PM, Castro Theatre

SFO: Show Boat

I hadn't planned on seeing the musical Show Boat done by the San Francisco Opera, but I was lured to the show last week by the opportunity to attend with a group of friends. It's a grand & lively production. The large cast mixes opera singers with Broadway performers & includes a black chorus, a white chorus, a black corps de ballet, a white corps de ballet, several children & supers. The costumes are brilliantly attractive. A moveable wall the height of the stage allows for rapid scene changes. The audience applauded the 1st appearance of the multi-story show boat set. The staging so wants to dazzle that confetti cannons are used twice.

The cast was convincing all around. Soprano Angela Renée Simpson has an out-going stage presence & is a vibrant Queenie. Bass Morris Robinson as Joe makes a wonderfully stable & comfy sound, & his "Ol' Man River" received extended applause. Soprano Heidi Stober gives a fine singing & acting performance as Magnolia, her voice controlled & clean. Soprano Patricia Racette's Julie is a class act, & I liked her boozy rendition of "Bill" in the 2nd act. Baritone Michael Todd Simpson looks the part of the debonair but caddish Gaylord Ravenal, & he sang with an open & smooth sound. Kirsten Wyatt was entertaining as a comical, high-voiced Ellie, & the rubber-limbed Bill Irwin got a round of applause for his slapstick routine in act 1. The black chorus made a cohesive, spirited sound. The performance was miked, with some performers requiring more amplification than others. I found the constantly changing levels of miking distracting.

Conductor John DeMain's lilting, comfortable tempos made it easy to sit through the long 1st act. The orchestra's playing was lithe. It was fun to hear the banjo & the interpolated Sousa marches. Knowing almost nothing about musicals, I recognized only 2 songs. While the 1st act tells a coherent, self-contained story, I found the 2nd act, which maps the characters' diverging paths over decades, a muddle. I loved the hiliarously bad melodrama performed on the Cotton Blossom, which is nothing but overacting accompanied by an off-key violin.

The Opera House looked full, & the audience laughed at all the jokes & paid close attention to the entire performance. Orchestra level patrons gave it a standing ovation. On this evening, the curtain was left up during intermission for the audience to view the set changeover. I was required to drink champagne in the North Box Bar, though, & missed this.

Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II

Conductor: John DeMain

Pete, Emcee: James Asher
Foreman: Joe Giammarco
Steve Baker, Max Greene: Patrick Cummings
Cap'n Andy Hawks: Bill Irwin
Parthy Ann Hawks: Harriet Harris
Ellie Mae Chipley: Kirsten Wyatt
Frank Schultz: John Bolton
Julie La Verne: Patricia Racette
Natchez Girl, Young Kim: Carmen Steele
Magnolia Hawks: Heidi Stober
Gaylord Ravenal: Michael Todd Simpson
Sheriff Vallon, Maitre d': Kevin Blackton
Drunk, Dealer: Phillip Pickens
Queenie's Friend, Woman: Simone Paulwell
Queenie's Friend, Lady on the Levee: Tracy Camp
Queenie's Friend: Samantha McElhaney
Queenie's Friend: Rachelle Perry
Girls: Kathleen Bayler, Sally Mouzon
Backwoodsman: Christopher Jackson
Mrs. O'Brien: Sharon McNight
Mother Superior: Mary Finch
Jake: Matthew Piatt
Lottie: Erin Neff

Thu 06/19/14 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House

Friday, June 20, 2014

NCCO: From A to Z

Last month the New Century Chamber Orchestra released a CD of 4 violin concertos, all world premieres & all commissioned for soloist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg & the ensemble. These concertos by Clarice Assad, William Bolcom, Michael Daughtery & Ellen Zwilich resulted from the composers' residencies with the orchestra. The works are pithy & share a feeling of restlessness perhaps inspired by Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg's jumpy performing style. Her solos have a nervous energy, & Assad's Dreamscapes feels anxious & searching. Daughtery's architecture-inspired suite is picturesque, & the stomping rhythms of the final movement of Bolcom's Romanza sound like a ragtime hoe-down. The music is virtuosic for both soloist & orchestra, & everyone's playing is consistently emphatic. There are nice cello & double bass solos scattered throughout, & members of the ensemble clearly had fun doubling on percussion in Zwilich's Commedia Dell’ Arte. Violinist Dawn Harms's drumming is particularly zestful. The CD was recorded live at concerts in the Bay Area & captures the impetuosity of NCCO's performances. The audience can be heard applauding & even whooping at the end of each piece.

§ From A to Z
21st New Century Concertos
New Century Chamber Orchestra
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin soloist & leader

Clarice Assad
Dreamscapes for Solo Violin & String Orchestra (2008)

William Bolcom
Romanza for Solo Violin & String Orchestra (2009)

Michael Daugherty
Fallingwater for Solo Violin & String Orchestra (2013)

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Commedia Dell’ Arte for Solo Violin & String Orchestra (2011)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Up-coming: ABS Festival & Academy 2014

The American Bach Soloists' summer festival runs July 11 - 20 at the SF Conservatory of Music & presents students & young professionals alongside ABS musicians, as well as master classes & lectures. It opens with a 2-night program exploring composers who influenced Bach, such as Buxtehude, Johann Kuhnau, Melchior Hoffmann & Frederick the Great. Part I ends with Bach's transcription of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, & part II includes Brandenburg No. 2 & the Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering. Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is this summer's major dramatic work. Soprano Mary Wilson, who sang gorgeously with ABS last year, sings arias by Bach, Vivaldi & Handel in the Distinguished Artist Recital. And of course there are the customary 2 performances of the B Minor Mass, which are popular & often sell out.

§ Festival Site | Schedule | Brochure

2014 ABS Festival & Academy at a Glance
July 11 8:00p | Bach's Inspiration - Part I
July 12 2:30p | FREE | Public Colloquium: "Baroque Instruments and Performers, Then and Now"
July 12 8:00p | Bach's Inspiration - Part II
July 13 7:00p | Bach's Mass in B Minor
July 14 8:00p | Academy-in-Action: Bach’s Concerto for Three Harpsichords in C Major
July 15 3:00p | FREE | Master Class: Harpsichord
July 15 5:00p | FREE | Lecture: Kenneth Slowik
July 15 8:00p | Academy-in-Action: Telemann’s Völker Ouverture in B-flat Major
July 16 3:00p | FREE | Master Class: Violin & Viola
July 16 5:00p | FREE | Lecture: Robert Mealy
July 16 8:00p | Academy-in-Action: Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major
July 17 3:00p | FREE | Master Class: Violoncello, Viola da gamba, Violone, & Contrabass
July 17 5:00p | FREE | Lecture: Corey Jamason
July 18 3:00p | FREE | Master Class: Winds & Brass
July 18 5:00p | FREE | Lecture: Jeffrey Thomas
July 18 8:00p | Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato
July 19 3:00p | FREE | Master Class: Voice
July 19 5:00p | FREE | Lecture: Debra Nagy
July 19 8:00p | Distinguished Artist Series: Mary Wilson, soprano
July 20 2:00p | Bach's Mass in B Minor

§ 2014 American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy
July 11 - 20, 2014
San Francisco Conservatory Of Music

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Merola Opera: A Streetcar Named Desire

Julie Adams & Thomas Gunther
Photo credit: Kristen Loken
The Merola Opera Program has announced the cast for its 2 performances next month of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire. The fully staged production is conducted by Mark Morash & directed by Jose Maria Condemi. This is the first of Merola's public programs this summer, which also include a free outdoor concert in Yerba Buena Gardens, a production of Don Giovanni & a gala-style performance in the War Memorial Opera House. Additional events, such as master classes with soprano Jane Eaglen & bass-baritone Eric Owens, are accessible to Merola Members.

Merola Summer Festival 2014

§ A Streetcar Named Desire
André Previn
Thursday, July 10, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 12, 2 p.m.
Everett Middle School Auditorium

Conductor: Mark Morash
Director: Jose Maria Condemi

Blanche DuBois: Julie Adams
Harold “Mitch” Mitchell: Casey Candebat
Stella Kowalski: Adelaide Boedecker
Stanley Kowalski: Thomas Gunther
Eunice Hubbell: Eliza Bonet
Steve Hubbell: Benjamin Werley
Mexican Woman: Shirin Eskandani
A Young Collector: Mingjie Lei

§ Schwabacher Summer Concert
Thursday, July 17, 7:30 p.m. at Everett Middle School Auditorium
Saturday, July 19, 2 p.m. at Yerba Buena Gardens, FREE

§ Don Giovanni
W.A. Mozart
Thursday, July 31, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, August 2, 2 pm
Everett Middle School Auditorium

§ Merola Grand Finale and Reception
Saturday, August 16, 7:30 p.m.
War Memorial Opera House

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

SF DocFest: An Honest Liar

The Roxie Theatre was packed Sunday night for the SF DocFest screening of An Honest Liar, an entertaining & provocative profile of magician & paranormal skeptic The Amazing Randi. The 85-year-old Randi has had serious medical problems in the past few years, so it was exciting to notice him taking a seat in the row behind me shortly before the movie began. The film tells the story of his career, with a particular focus on his notoriety as a debunker of pyschic claims. We see many clips of his TV appearances, as well as present day interviews with him & his colleagues. Footage of faith healer Peter Popoff, exposed by Randi here in San Francisco, is intense. Also fascinating are the hoaxes Randi perpetrated on scientists studying psychic phenomena. Surprisingly, the filmmakers got an interview with Uri Geller, who boasts how Randi has been unable to destroy his career. The film's other thread touches on his life with Deyvi Peña, his partner for over 25 years. The audience applauded a scene showing their wedding last year. In a twist that's almost too good to be true, the relationship turns out to harbor a deception at its core.

The festival audience gave Randi an enthusiastic standing ovation when he went to the front of the auditorium for the Q&A. Also present were co-director Tyler Measom, editor Greg O'Toole, interviewees Alec Jason & Adam Savage, & Mr. Peña. Randi was as quick & funny as he appears in the film, & he was happy to share with us how Uri Geller manages to bend spoons. He also stayed after the event, happily posing for fans outside the Roxie. The film plays once more at the festival tonight.

§ An Honest Liar
Dirs: Tyler Measom & Justin Weinstein, 2014, USA, 90 mins.

SF DocFest 2014
OSA, Sat, Jun 7, 7:15 PM
Roxie Theatre, Sun, Jun 15, 7:00 PM
Roxie Theatre, Tue, Jun 17, 7:00 PM

Monday, June 16, 2014

SF DocFest: Wicker Kittens

On Saturday afternoon I saw an SF DocFest program of 3 light & enjoyable films about unlikely obsessions. The feature Wicker Kittens tracks 4 teams entering the Jigsaw Puzzle Contest at the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, the largest such competition in the country. Teams of 4 race to complete a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, winning bragging rights & an award shaped like a puzzle piece. It's not quite a spectator sport, but it's a bracing social activity for the mostly female participants. We see team members showing off their puzzle collections & gathering at each other's homes for strategic practice sessions. They're all good Mid-westerners by refusing to acknowledge being hard-core competitors. We also get a behind-the-scenes look at the hapless competition organizer's not-quite-adequate preparations. For some reason there are no post-game debriefings, & the camera operator sometimes zooms in & out repeatedly, causing motion sickness.

Wicker Kittens was preceded by 2 shorts also involving unusual contests. Cherry Pop tells the story of a fabulous show cat of 80s & 90s, in an exuberant style befitting her era. This red Persian with a small grouchy face lived better than you do. Strike profiles Bill Fong, a league bowler in Texas whom even his colleagues describe as an obsessive bowling machine. One night in 2010 it looks like he's on his way to bowling 3 perfect games in a row, & it becomes a turning point in his life. The film has a tight visual style & includes a cool tracking shot of a bowling ball rolling down the lane.

The festival audience was sparse. Perhaps all the sports fan were busy with the World Cup or the Giants. The program repeats Tuesday night at the Roxie.

§ Wicker Kittens
Dir: Amy Elliot, 2014, USA, 52 mins.

Cherry Pop: The Story of the World’s Fanciest Cat
Dir: Kareem Tabsch, 2014, USA, 11 mins.

Strike: The Greatest Bowling Story Ever Told
Dir: Joey Daoud, 2014, USA, 13 mins.

SF DocFest 2014
OSA, Sun, Jun 8, 12:30 PM
Roxie Theatre, Sat, Jun 14, 2:30 PM
Roxie Theatre, Tue, Jun 17, 7:00 PM

Sunday, June 15, 2014

SF DocFest: Jingle Bell Rocks!

Friday night at SF DocFest, I saw Jingle Bell Rocks!, an unexpectedly sincere look at record collectors & musicians lovingly obsessed with Christmas music. It starts with Canadian filmmaker Mitchell Kezin himself, seen at the top of the film manically tearing through bins of Christmas CD & LPs at the Los Angeles Amoeba. He has no interest in parodies or songs that mock the holiday. He's in pursuit of the genuinely earnest, be it about the sadness & disappointment of the season, the Vietnam War & racism, or UFOs & nuclear missiles.

We see Mr. Kezin crossing the United States & Canada, interviewing collectors, producers, radio personalities & musicians, all of whom sound like they are talking comfortably with an old friend. John Waters points out to his visitors the Christmas decorations adorning his electric chair, & Run DMC describes sampling Clarence Carter's naughty "Back Door Santa" for "Christmas in Hollis." I found musician Wayne Coyne to be a strangely captivating speaker. It's delightful to see Mr. Kezin give his interviewees a wrapped Christmas present at the end of his visits.

Festival programmer Jennifer Morris advised the audience to wait for an outtake placed at the end of the closing credits. Mr. Kezin attended the screening, & about a dozen people remained for the Q&A afterward. We learned that the film took 8 years from conception to completion, partly because Mr. Kezin realized that he got the best interviews when talking with his subjects during the holiday season, so he would sometimes have to wait a whole year to film them. As I entered the theater, I was randomly selected to receive a poster for the movie, which the genial Mr. Kezin signed for me after the show. The movie plays again at the festival on Monday night.

§ Jingle Bell Rocks!
Dir: Mitchell Kezin, 2013, Canada, 93 mins.

SF DocFest 2014
OSA, Sun, Jun 8, 7:15p
Roxie Theatre, Fri, Jun 13 9:15 PM
Roxie Theatre, Mon, Jun 16 9:15 PM

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ben Tarnoff at Arion Press

Wednesday evening I heard local author Ben Tarnoff give an illustrated lecture about the history of counterfeiting in America, based on his 2012 book A Counterfeiter's Paradise. Mr. Tarnoff appears quite studious, & his 45 minute talk covered the Colonial Period through the end of the 19th century. Because of early America's bewildering array of paper currencies, he called this "The Golden Age of American Counterfeiting." The audience was very polite & looked quite well-heeled. An elderly couple with a dog sat behind me, & at times I wasn't sure whether the woman was talking to her dog or to her husband.

The event was at Arion Press in the Presidio, & I enjoyed the chance to see the exhibits of their handmade art books afterward. A deluxe libretto of Porgy & Bess with illustrations by Kara Walker is currently on display. The typography on my hoodie attracted the attention of several attendees, one of whom took a picture of one of the patches. I was briefly introduced to David Goines, who said he was at the talk because, "All printers are interested in counterfeiting."

§ Moneymakers: The History of Counterfeiting in America
Illustrated talk by Ben Tarnoff
June 11, 2014, 6pm
Arion Press

SF DocFest: Ivory Tower

Monday night at SF DocFest I saw Andrew Rossi's Ivory Tower, a wide-ranging critique of higher education in the US. It's a sound bite documentary, containing snippets of inteviews with academics, students, parents, administrators & politicians. The film covers a lot of of stories, including the history of public education, the rise in tuition & student debt, the shift of education from a public good to a consumer good & the emergence of online courses, to name just a few. It adds up to a compendium of urgent issues rather than a specific argument.

Footage of students in luxury accommodations & at notorious party schools makes going to university look like a holiday cruise, while the study hall for Harvard's freshman computer science class looks like a sinister hive mind. The film's most dramatic storyline tracks students at Cooper Union who take over the president's office to protest the end of the school's tuition-free policy. I liked seeing alternatives to the 4-year university, such as Deep Springs College, whose curriculum is split between student-directed academics & manual farm labor. The uncollege movement refashions school as a tech startup.

One angry audience member could not refrain from uttering his opinions aloud & had to be sushed early on. The film may have left the DocFest audience depressed, since its ending was met with dead silence. Festival founder Jeff Ross & David Sapp of the ACLU led a discussion about some the film's issues afterward. Ivory Tower plays again at the Oakland School for the Arts on Sunday, June 15th at 5p. It also opens theatrically in the Bay Area starting June 20th.

§ Ivory Tower
dir: Andrew Rossi, 2014, USA, 97 mins.

SF DocFest 2014
Roxie Theatre, June 9, 9:15p
OSA, June 15, 5p

SF DocFest: Don’t Call It Frisco!

Monday night I was at the Roxie Theatre to see Don't Call It Frisco!, an SF DocFest program of short subjects about the Bay Area. There was an impressive turn-out, & we saw 11 films, with many of the filmmakers in attendance. The subject matter is appropriately wide-ranging. In Demolition: Troll, we get a glimpse of the troll statue once welded to the old span of the Bay Bridge to ward off earthquakes. I was a bit unnerved by Last Stop Santa Rosa, a peek into an animal hospice full of severely sick & disabled pets. In Sunnydale Kids, children from Visitacion Valley who have never seen the ocean spend a day at the beach learning to surf. The filmmaker probably has enough here for a much longer film.

Piano Heights does a nice job capturing the spontaneous joy generated when a piano is pushed to the top of Bernal Heights for a flash mob concert. It was disappointing to learn during the Q&A that the event ended when the police confiscated the piano. Filmmaker Meg Smaker impressively refuses to sensationalize or dehumanize the subjects of her documentary Methel Island, about the drug user community of Bethel Island. The compilation ended with a jolting history of MLB player Glenn Burke & the invention of the High Five. I'm not a sports fan, so I was startled to learn its connection with gay history.

The enthusiastic festival audience applauded each film & even cheered occasionally. A few minutes into Ahh.... San Francisco the film stopped & had to re-started. The young nephew of one of the filmmakers was the most eager questioner during the Q&A, though his guardian made him leave the theater during Pistols to Porn, a look at's residency in the San Francisco Armory.

This program will be repeated at the Roxie Theatre on Sunday June 15th at 4:45p

§ SF DocFest 2014
Don’t Call It Frisco!
(Shorts Program)
Monday, June 9, 7p
Roxie Theatre

Demolition: Troll
Dir: Megan McHugh, 2014, USA, 10 minutes

Ahh… San Francisco
Dir: Barrett Edmonds, 2014, USA, 12 minutes

Driving BART
Dir: Ethan Bresnick, 2014, USA, 5 minutes

Last Stop Santa Rosa
Dir: Elizabeth Lo, 2014, USA, 5 minutes

Sunnydale Kids
Dir: Adam Warmington, 2014, USA, 4 minutes

Jackie Jones and Her Dancing Cat
Dir: Jean Pesce, 2014, USA, 7 minutes

Piano Heights
Dir: Darryl Kirchner, 2014, USA, 6 minutes

Methel Island
Dir: Meg Smaker,  2014, USA, 12 minutes

Pistols to Porn
Dir: Meg Smaker,  2014, USA, 6 minutes

Rules of the House: Burning Man Gift Culture
Dir: Dan Porras, 2014, USA, 9 minutes

The High Five
Dir: Michael Jacobs, 2014, USA, 10 minutes

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

SF Silent Film Festival: Day 4

The morning of the last day of the SF Silent Film Festival, I saw the Max Linder comedies Max Wants a Divorce & Seven Years Bad Luck. I'd never seen a complete Linder film before. He's handsome, scampish & fun to watch. It was interesting to see how he develops each gag into its own complete episode. Though Linder was never popular in the US, he was an influence on Chaplin. Watching Linder, I easily imagined him playing the wealthy drunk in City Lights.

Pianist Donald Sosin & percussionist Frank Bockius performed a lively, jazzy accompaniment that fit the films' joyful mood. When the characters in Seven Years Bad Luck danced to a record of Hawaiian music, we heard an old recording of Hawaiian music coming from the screen. Serge Bromberg introduced the films & breezily reminded the audience of the decidedly unfunny real lives of Linder & his co-star Martha Mansfield.

In the afternoon I saw The Sign of the Four, a Sherlock Holmes movie from 1923. Film historian Russell Merritt introduced the program & told us about the film's star, Eille Norwood, who, though rarely seen by US audiences, has been in more Sherlock Holmes films than any other actor & was admired by Conan Doyle himself. The Sign of the Four was his last film, & Prof. Merritt accurately described his screen presence as "the great stone face."

It's standard adventure fare, & the plot is only loosely tied to the original story. A climactic boat race on the Thames is an opportunity to exhibit proud views of famous London landmarks. Donald Sosin on piano & Günter Buchwald on violin provided an improvised accompaniment. Mr. Sosin's playing was very chordal, & he was particularly effective in the movie's chase scenes. The duo warmed up with Beethoven sonatas before the movie started, & Mr. Buchwald played a few notes of Humorseque in the closing moments of the film.

Later that night, the final show of the festival had a packed house. There was a lengthy delay, & at 20 minutes past the scheduled start time the audience began rhythmic clapping, & there was a shout of "Let's get this show on the road!" Ron Lynch, the Voice of the Festival, uncharacteristically introduced the program from the podium. Buster Keaton's granddaughter was pointed out in the audience, the winner of the festival's raffle was selected, & Fred Buxton & Leonard Maltin gave a brief appreciation of Buster Keaton.

We first saw an animated short for children by the Soviet book illustrator Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy. The film uses a wide variety of animation techniques & is strikingly formalist at times, but running for almost 20 minutes it probably outstayed its welcome. Günter Buchwald provided a fittingly pointillistic & modernist-sounding accompaniment on the piano.

The main feature was Buster Keaton's The Navigator, with the Matti Bye Ensemble accompanying on piano, cello, banjo, electronics & percussion. They vamped on a handful of spooky, trance-like themes that dampened the urgency of Keaton's nimble & surprising comedy. The percussionist punctuated the action with sound effects, though these were inconsistently applied. The appreciative festival audience gave the musicians a standing ovation.

§ San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Castro Theatre

10:00 am
Seven Years Bad Luck
Max Linder, USA, 1921 • 62 minutes
Accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano and Frank Bockius on percussion
Introduced by Serge Bromberg

5:00 pm
The Sign of Four
Maurice Elvey, UK, 1923 • 83 minutes
Accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano with Günter Buchwald on violin
Introduced by Russell Merritt

9:00 pm
The Navigator
Buster Keaton, Donald Crisp, USA, 1924 • 60 minutes
Accompanied by Matti Bye Ensemble
Introduced by Frank Buxton & Leonard Maltin

Preceded by POCHTA
Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy, USSR, 1929 • 18 minutes
Accompanied by Günter Buchwald on piano

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

SF Silent Film Festival: Day 3

I started my 3rd day at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival with delightfully exuberant film collector Serge Bromberg, who bounded on stage as if he just couldn't wait to start sharing his discoveries with us. He demonstrated one reason why there are so many lost films by setting a strip of celluloid on fire, creating a spectacular flame.
He presented 2 newly restored shorts by Charlie Chaplin & Fatty Arbuckle & then was joined by famed Argentine film collector Fernando Peña, who told the story of how he discovered a previously unknown alternate version of Keaton's The Blacksmith, which we then saw. Amusingly, this version was once in Mr. Bromberg's own collection, but he never noticed it. Mr. Bromberg ended the presentation with the almost unbelievable story of how he recently purchased a lost film by animation pioneer Emile Cohl off eBay for $7. We got to be the 1st public audience to see this surreal, 3-minute film from 1908. Mr. Bromberg accompanied all the films himself, playing cheery jazz & ragtime tunes on the piano. The entire show was great fun.

I stayed for the following film, The Epic of Everest, a 1924 documentary recording the ill-fated Everest expedition that killed climbers George Mallory & Andrew Irvine. The film contains majestic, tinted shots of the Himalayas as well as tantalizing glimpses of the Tibetan people. Footage of tiny figures hiking up the desolate landscape, shot with telescopic lenses, highlight the inhuman scale of the mountain. Despite the ominous intertitles, the film is narratively dry. Pianist Stephen Horne & percussionist Frank Bockius created an eerie, minimalist soundscape to match the aridity of the images. We heard gong, flute, a Tibetan singing bowl, accordion &, in one spooky scene, the sound of slow breathing.

Immediately before the screening, Bryony Dixon, Senior Curator of Silent Film at the BFI, received the SF Silent Fim Festival Award on behalf of the BFI Nation Archive. Noting the avid festival audience, she told us that the enthusiasm of Americans is our greatest contribution to world culture.

I was back at the festival for the late night showing of The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, a Soviet comedy satirizing both anti-Soviet propaganda & Hollywood films. The American Mr. West, looking suspiciously like Harold Lloyd, comes to the USSR, accompanied by his cowboy bodyguard. Mr. West is immediately ensnared by a gang of thieves, & slapstick adventures ensue. The film is frankly weird & employs a deliberately artificial acting style that is acrobatic & cartoony. Four members of the Matti Bye Ensemble accompanied on various instruments, including, piano, cello, balalaika, percussion & electronics. They vamped on a handful of hypnotically repeating themes. Their spacey, dream-like music drained energy from the madcap spirit of the movie.

§ San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014
Saturday, May 31, 2014
Castro Theatre

Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove

2:00 pm
The Epic of Everest
John Noel, UK, 1924 • 87 minutes
Accompanied by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius

10:00 pm
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks
(Neobychaynyye Priklyucheniya Mistera Vesta v Strane Bol’shevikov)

Lev Kuleshov, USSR. 1924 • 74 minutes
Accompanied by Matti Bye Ensemble

Preceded by German-language trailer for Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (Ottol-Film, 1927)
No musical accompaniment

Sunday, June 08, 2014

SF Silent Film Festival: Day 2

Besides seeing the morning's informational presentation, I had a full 2nd day at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. Midday I saw Song of the Fisherman, a 1936 feature made by the Shanghai-based Lianhua Film Company. The sketchy storyline follows the contrasting lives of a poor girl & a rich boy, first as children in remote fishing village, then as young adults in Shanghai. The harsh realities of poverty loom large, & the film is sentimental without being a love story. Landscapes are beautifully photographed, but there were big gaps, perhaps due to continuity issues with the restoration.

Film historian Richard J. Meyer introduced the screening & explained how the Chinese market for silent films lasted well into the 1930s. Donald Sosin provided a simple & melodic accompaniment on the piano. Song of the Fisherman was made as a silent & then re-made with a soundtrack, so we heard a recording of lead actress Wang Ranmei singing the title song at appropropriate points in the film.

 In the afternoon I saw The Parson's Widow, a droll comedy by Carl Dreyer about a poor seminarian with a long-suffering fiancée. The young man gets a job as a pastor in a small rural village, but only on the condition that he marry the previous pastor's elderly window. The storytelling is beautifully controlled & drew me in more & more as the film progressed. The cast give archetypal performances, especially Hildur Carlberg, a majestic 76-year-old stage actress, in the title role.

Matti Bye accompanied on the piano with a quiet score whose uncanny mood was disconnected from the film's humor. His playing was precious & brittle & often reminded me of a music box. He did a good job remaining unfazed when the film broke 3 times during the show. Barbro S. Osher, the Consul General of Sweden, introduced the film & demonstrated the correct pronunciation of Matti Bye's name.

At the late night show I saw Cosmic Voyage, a giddy Soviet science fiction film made for children. An older scientist, his beautiful female assistant & a plucky teenager make a spontaneous rescue mission to the moon in a giant rocket ship. The fanciful special effects include animated shots of the characters bounding weightlessly across the moon. Stalin makes a cameo appearance.

The movie was accompanied by Günter Buchwald on piano & Frank Bockius on percussion. Their vigorous improvisations matched the movie's manic action, & they incorporated the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra & The Internationale. Frank Buxton spiritedly read translations of the Russian intertitles, which included the best intertitle of the festival: "You collect the atmosphere. I'll collect the cat." The show was introduced by experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin, who selected this film & whose enthusiasm was rather frantic itself.

§ San Francisco Silent Film Festival 
Friday, May 30
Castro Theatre 

1:00 pm
The Song of the Fishermen (Yu Guang Qu)
Cai Chusheng, China, 1934 • 60 minutes
Accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano
Introduced by Richard J. Meyer

5:00 pm
The Parson’s Widow (Prästänkan)
Carl Th. Dreyer, Sweden, 1920 • 88 minutes
Accompanied by Matti Bye on piano
Introduced by Barbro S. Osher.

10:00 pm
Cosmic Voyage (Kosmicheskiy Reys)
Vasili Zhuravlyov, USSR, 1936 • 70 minutes
Accompanied by Günter Buchwald on piano & Frank Bockius on percussion 

Preceded by animated short advertising Niemeyer Pijptabac
Directed by George Debels, 1923, The Netherlands
No musical accompaniment