Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Useful Life

Before this afternoon's showing of A Useful Life at the San Francisco International Film Festival, programmer Sean Uyehara noted that this is the point in the festival where audience fatigue sets in, & he urged us to pace ourselves. This was good advice for my movie companion, who was trying to figure out how to see 5 movies on Sunday.

The program opened with Protoparticles, a black-and-white short from Spain depicting a man in a space suit going about mundane activities, such as throwing the trash or working as a supermarket checker. A dry voice-over informs us how he got there & what is to be his fate.

The main feature was A Useful Life, a gentle comedy from Uruguay running just over an hour. It follows the misadventures of a dowdy, affectless, middle-aged man working in a small art-house cinema. Halfway through the film, his insular existence comes to an end when the cinema is closed down. The joke of the film — I think — is how it mimics art movies of the 40s & 50s. The film is in grainy black-and-white, & the pacing is slow & obvious. The soundtrack seems borrowed from some classic film of the period. When our hero got a haircut to the strains of the serene ballet music from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, I began to suspect the whole thing of being a parody, only I'm not sure what of.

§ La Vida Útil
Uruguay, 2010, 67 min
director, Federico Veiroj

Spain, 7 min
director, Chema García Ibarra

San Francisco International Film Festival 54
Sun, Apr 24 12:00 / New People
Mon, Apr 25 7:00 / PFA
Sat, Apr 30 3:45 / Kabuki

Detroit Wild City

Conscientious ushers at the San Francisco International Film Festival made sure there were no empty seats at the rush-only screening of Detroit Wild City last night. This French documentary by Florent Tillon is a gorgeous photographic portrait of summertime in Detroit. Buildings & cloudy skies are combined into beautifully composed images. God-like aerial shots & crane shots sweep across a landscape that is half civilization & half nature. Back on the ground, various Detroit residents provide commentary. A soulful hipster gives us a tour of the apocalyptic ruins of abandoned buildings. An animal control specialist wrangles pitbulls & confesses to feeling more comfortable in the forest than he does with people. The leader of a charity called Blight Busters is unsettling as he cheers on sledgehammer-wielding teenagers to tear down a home. A segment focusing on urban farming includes glimpses of goats, chickens, rabbits & geese & gave me the impression that Detroit is regressing into a post-industrial Eden. The film is very quiet, & the festival audience was respectfully silent throughout.

Festival programmer Rod Armstrong introduced the film, & his own cell phone rang just as he was about to tell us to turn off ours. The woman seated next to me disarmed me when she asked if I was from Detroit. As we waited for the movie to begin, she sold me on the cultural attractions of the city. As a former Detroit resident, she seemed disappointed by the film, commenting that there is much more to Detroit than was shown.

§ Detroit ville sauvage
director: Florent Tillon
France/USA, 2010, 80 min

San Francisco International Film Festival 54
Fri, Apr 29 7:00 / Kabuki
Sun, May 1 2:45 / New People
Wed, May 4 8:40 / PFA

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sound of Noise

Yesterday afternoon I was at the SF International Film Festival to see Sound of Noise, a wacky Swedish comedy about an elaborate musical composition staged all over a large city & involving acts of subversion, kidnapping & vandalism. When a team of balaclava-wearing musicians takes over a bank, it's a gig, not a robbery. Another concert requires the performers to hang from power lines & play on them with saws. The result looked & sounded like Jon Rose's Music from 4 Fences. The audience only learns things as they happen, so the movie has many such absurd & unexpected moments. Music is here a fundamentally aggressive art. Actor Bengt Nilsson is perfectly cast as a determined policeman on the trail of the "musical terrorists." His character is constantly frustrated, & he's abused to the point that his ear bleeds, yet he is never pathetic.

The film played in 2 theaters simultaneously. Co-director Johannes Nilsson & production designer Cecilia Sterner were present. Before the screening, Mr. Nilsson took a picture of Ms. Sterner holding the film's metronome, with the audience waving in the background. The Q & A was held in a separate theater after the show. The movie grew out of a similar short film by the directors called Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers. We learned that the music was recorded first, then the film's images were designed to match, a reversal of the usual process. It was supposed to be shot in Berlin, but at the last minute the budget ran out, so it was filmed in the much smaller Swedish city of Malmö. Since Malmö has no tall buildings, the skyscrapers at the end of the movie were all CGI. One young woman, who was unexpectedly delighted by the film, declared that the description in the festival's catalog failed to do it justice.

§ Sound of Noise
directors: Ola Simonsson, Johannes Stjärne Nilsson
Sweden/France/Denmark, 2010, 98 min

San Francisco International Film Festival 54
Thu, Apr 28 3:45 / Kabuki
Fri, Apr 29 9:00 / Kabuki

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Emma McNairy

I ended last weekend at soprano Emma McNairy's senior recital. A friend has become a fan of her performances at the SF Conservatory & urged me to go with him. She began with a set of Schubert songs which she sang at a measured pace & with a vibrant sound. She has a flirtatious stage presence & a clear desire to communicate. Her Nacht und Träume was especially controlled & still. Her voice is very high. In the Mozart concert aria Popoli di Tessaglia she calmly squeezed out pitches that went higher than the Queen of Night's arias. She also acted up a storm. I think she raised her right eyebrow at us at one point.

I enjoyed the varied & colorful Milhaud songs which gave her more chances to demonstrate her thought-out & unstrained coloratura. She gave dramatic emphasis to the Jake Heggie songs. I was surprised we could all stay silent after her big, open-armed ending for Not in a silver casket. I can imagine her being equally successful in opera or musical theater. Ms. McNairy dedicated her encore, the music hall song After the Ball, to her grandparents, who were in the audience. She sang it in a straightforward way, as if she were speaking to us. Around 30 or 40 people attended, most apparently family & friends. A dessert reception followed.

§ Emma McNairy, Soprano
Senior Recital
with Steven Bailey, piano

Franz Schubert:
Lachen und Weinen
Nacht und Träume

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:
Popoli di Tessaglia... Io non chiedo, K.316/300b

Darius Milhaud: Chansons de Ronsard
À une fontaine
À Cupidon
Tais-toi, babillarde Arondelle
Dieu vous gard'

Jake Heggie: Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia
Song to Ophelia
Women Have Loved Before
Not in a Silver Casket

Ricky Ian Gordon: Song from Orpheus and Euridice

Charles K. Harris: After the Ball

Sunday, April 24, 2011 8p
Sol Joseph Recital Hall
San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Get with the Program

Yesterday I attended a late night screening of animated shorts at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The 9 films covered a range of styles & subject matter. Dromosphere, which apparently uses stop motion to turn a model car into a rotating blur of colored rods, was so tedious that the audience became audibly restless & started giggling. Someone asked aloud, "Is this really happening?" In Pixels, a stream of Lego-like colored blocks turns a live-action New York City landscape into a giant video game. It received a much more enthusiastic response. In A Purpleman, clay puppets act out the true story of a young North Korean "émigré" struggling with life in South Korea. Its child-like claymation style is at odds with its cruel & violent story. The External World is a relentlessly nasty series of sick jokes. It pretends that defecation, masturbation & decapitation are perfectly innocent occupations if enacted by cartoon characters.

Filmmakers Arjun Rihan & Jonn Herschend were present. Mr. Rihan's CGI film Topi was his thesis project at the University of Southern California. It tells a harrowing true story about his great-uncle, who had to flee during the partition of India. This short film took 20 months to make.

Mr. Herschend said he wanted to make something that was PowerPoint all the way through & that involved sex & drunkenness, because it's the wrong thing to do. So he ended up with Self Portrait as a PowerPoint Proposal for an Amusement Park Ride, a text-only PowerPoint presentation containing things that should not have been said. Festival programmer Sean Uyehara teased Mr. Herschend frequently during the Q & A. We also learned that Mr. Herschend is one of the people behind über-hip THE THING Quarterly.

§ Get with the Program
Animated shorts, 72 min

Self Portrait as a PowerPoint Proposal for an Amusement Park Ride
(Jonn Herschend, USA 2010, 6 min)

(Emily Hubley, USA 2011, 3 min)

Topi/The Cap
(Arjun Rihan, USA/India 2009, 6 min)

(Thorsten Fleisch, Germany 2010, 11 min)

Get with the Program
(Jennifer Drummond Deutrom, USA 2010, 4 min)

(Patrick Jean, France 2010, 3 min)

(Max Hattler, England 2010, 10 min)

A Purpleman
(Kim Tak-hoon, Yoo Jin-young, Ryu Jin-young, Park Sung-ho, South Korea 2010, 14 min)

The External World
(David O’Reilly, Ireland/Germany 2010, 15 min)

San Francisco International Film Festival 54
Sat, Apr 23 9:45 / Kabuki
Wed, Apr 27 9:30 / New People
Thu, May 5 5:00 / New People

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

No Exit

No ExitOver the weekend I saw the Electric Company Theatre's "live film" adaptation of No Exit, presented by A.C.T. The production remakes the scenario of Sartre's play by changing the audience's point of view. Each of the main characters enters through the auditorium & is led by the valet into a small room just off stage. We see & hear what happens in the room on 3 large video screens, but the actors never appear before us again; their performance is for the cameras. Even though the set-ups are static, the ingenious staging allows the actors to create cinematic close-ups, two shots & three shots. Edits are created by switching between cameras. A hand-held camera eventually enters the mix as the characters become increasingly over-wrought. The device generates a sense of claustrophobia better than a traditional staging would. The room is clearly small, so I'm sure that the actors' placements have to be exact, but they executed the show flawlessly. There is even a visual joke involving an actor standing in the cameras' blindspot, so that all we see is his disembodied arm. In the final minutes, we discover that both the actors & the audience are trapped in a theatrical ritual.

The intermissionless show runs barely 90 minutes. It would be hard to keep watching the video for longer than that. Afterward, the audience was invited to view the off-stage set. I don't think the staff likes this part of the event. A grouchy usher yelled at us to line up against the back wall, & another made sure that I did not dawdle when I finally got my peek at the set. My curious theater companion noticed a sink full of toothbrushes on the stage. It's not visible to the audience, but the joke is obvious to anyone who has just seen the play.

§ Electric Company Theatre
No Exit

by Jean-Paul Sartre
Paul Bowles (Adaptor)
Kim Collier (Director)

Jonathon Young (The Valet)
Andy Thompson (Cradeau)
Laara Sadiq (Inez)
Lucia Frangione (Estelle)

Presented by A.C.T.
23 April 2011 8p

Stuffed Animal Tower

Topher DelaneyYesterday afternoon I was walking on the 1st block of Sutter Street when I looked through the window of a gutted retail space & saw this enormous tower of stuffed animals. Winnie-the-Pooh sits at the top. A man inside saw me & waved me in. As soon as a I entered, a woman approached me, shook my hand & introduced herself as the artist, Topher Delaney. The space turns out to be Soker Gallery, & this is the last week of Ms. Delaney's show. Many of the pieces are large, & none is quite like the others. There are paintings of squirrels, a collection of guns & grenades accurately carved out of soap, & hanging stones that encode messages in Braille. The talkative gallery owner explained that he moved here from 49 Geary, where he was only visited by Academy of Art College students & bored tourists. Now he enjoys visits from people in the Financial District.

§ Topher Delaney
"The Queen's Croquet Ground"
New Work in Various Media

Don Soker Contemporary Art

March 3 - April 30, 2011

Muybridge at SFMOMA

ZoopraxiscopeOver the weekend I finally saw the Eadweard Muybridge exhibit at SFMOMA. The comprehensive show covers his entire career, from early photos of Yosemite & San Francisco to his famous pioneering studies of animals in motion. I enjoyed exploring the magnificent 360° panorama of San Francisco taken atop California Street in 1878. One version on display stretches 17 feet. I was amused to learn that Muybridge sometimes printed clouds into the skies of his landscapes, including this one. The urge to Photoshop goes right back to the beginnings of photography.

It is evident that Muybridge was first & foremost a commerical photographer. Staged views of a Guatemalan coffee plantation were probably commissioned to impress potential investors. This show also made me aware of a strange artifact known as the Brandenburg Album, which is thought to be a scrapbook assembled by Muybridge's young wife Flora.

Muybridge obviously had fun creating his famous motion studies. A pig, an elephant & even a hippo parade in front of his cameras. In one series he photographs himself politely tipping his hat to a naked male model. I was fascinated to see mock-ups for the studies, made from cyanotype contact prints. The last room displays Muybridge's zoopraxiscope, looking like a miniature locomotive. It must have have been startling to see it project moving images back in the 19th century. A video at the end of the exhibit animates images from the motion studies into brief movies.

Unsupported TransitLater that night a friend pointed out a flashing sculpture in the lobby of a building in his neighborhood. He convinced a resident to let us in, & we saw the moving image of a horse projected inside a large glass jar. It turned out to be Michael Brown's Unsupported Transit, the winning art work from a Muybridge-inspired contest on NPR.

§ Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change
February 26 - June 07, 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cal Performances 2011-2012 Season

Peter SellarsThis morning Cal Performances director Matías Tarnopolsky gave an overview of the up-coming 2011-2012 season to a group of journalists & arts administrators assembled on the stage of Zellerbach Hall. Mr. Tarnopolsky began by expressing gratitude for the audiences themselves, whose engagement with the performances is evident to visiting artists. Last year's Free for All was so successful that it expands into more venues this year. Mark Morris conducts the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in his Dido & Aeneas, which features mezzo Stephanie Blythe, who, according to Mr. Tarnaposky, "rules." Valery Gergiev will conduct all 6 Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Mariinsky Orchestra in 3 programs. The chamber music series focusses on the piano, with recitals by Yefim Bronfman, Lang Lang, Kiril Gerstein, András Schiff, Jonathan Biss, Peter Serkin, Murray Perahia & Richard Goode. Jazz piano is also represented by Herbie Hancock & Keith Jarrett. John Malkovich will appear in a work about an Austrian serial killer that will include an orchestra & opera singers. Early music programs include Ton Koopman leading Bach's B-minor Mass & a recital by the frighteningly photogenic counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky.

Director Peter Sellars appeared at the presentation via Skype from Vienna, where he just finished the 1st rehearsal of the Desdemona project, a collaboration with Toni Morrison & Malian singer/songwriter Rokia Traoré. He amused us by sharing his hatred of Shakespeare's Othello, calling it a play "400 years past its use-by date." We also saw nice videos demonstrating Cal Performances's community enrichment programs. The Opera Tattler has already summarized the season. She attended wearing an orange petticoat & sweater & looked brighter than the orange juice offered at the buffet. Another local blogger admitted to skipping work to be at this event.

§ Cal Performances 2011-2012 Season Announcement
On-line brochure
Press release & calendar

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Cat in Paris

In line at the SF International Film Festival on Sunday morning, I had a small girl in front of me & another in back of me, both saving places for their families. We were all waiting to see A Cat in Paris, a children's animated feature from France about a cat who spends his nights accompanying a nimble cat burglar & his days cuddling with a little girl whose father has been murdered by a dangerous crime boss. These worlds soon intersect, resulting in a series of exciting chases & rescues. I was totally swept up by the movie's fast-moving plot. The characters have a simplified, nearly abstract, design. It is their believable behavior that makes them real. The cat Dino is the most life-like, always behaving in an enigmatically cat-like way. The movie's terrific music evokes the symphonic scores of Bernard Herrmann. It is hard to imagine the film's anatomically correct Colossus of Nairobi appearing in a Disney or Pixar film. The 2 old ladies sitting next to me reacted as enthusiastically as the 2 little girls who bounded out of the theater in front of me. The festival is showing a version that is dubbed into English in a variety of American, British & European accents.

This program included an animated short, Specky Four Eyes. I easily identified with its hero, a small boy forced to wear a horribly thick pair of glasses. I too sometimes prefer taking off my glasses & seeing everything around me as a blur. The film is in French with English subtitles. An actor read the English subtitles aloud at the screening.

§ Une vie de chat
directors, Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli
France/Belgium/Netherlands/Switzerland, 2010, 65 min

Specky Four Eyes
director, Jean-Claude Rozec
France 2010, 9 min

San Francisco International Film Festival 54
Sun, Apr 24, 12:30 / Kabuki
Sun, May 1, 12:30 / New People

San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus

Davies HallOn Thursday night I was in a full house at Davies Hall to hear the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. An interactive slide show ("Clap if you arrived on public transportation.") warmed up the crowd & led a count-down to the start of the show, though a miscue backstage brought the chorus out several minutes too soon. Half the chorus entered down the aisles, & in the 1st number, Everyone Sang, there was a nice call and response between the stage & the auditorium. It was impressive just to see 250 men in tuxedos on the stage at once. The generally serious program included a setting of an Obama speech, a dramatic work by Jake Heggie based on a holocaust memoir, & a set of inspirational songs on vaguely Christian texts. On the lighter side we got a 3 tenors parody, a Wizard of Oz number, & a slickly-produced music video.

The chorus sang the challenging two-and-a-half hour program from memory. They produced a uniform sound that was warm & unforced. My first reaction was that they sounded bottom-heavy, but I think I am just not used to hearing baritones sing the melody. The chorus's pianissimo at the end of Gwyneth Walker's Tree of Peace was beautiful. This is their first concert with their new conductor Timothy Seelig, & he definitely has their attention. His first word to the audience was a humorously blasé "hey." Mr. Seelig comes across as an eager showman & self-promoter.

The inclusion of the Mission High School Chorus & a band from the SF Conservatory of Music emphasized the event's community feel & probably diversified the audience. Sign language interpreter Ethan Pope signed so creatively that the video focused on him during No Words to capture his funny, finger-wagging gestures. He was one of my favorite parts of the show. I was lucky enough to be introduced to him in front of Davies Hall afterward, & I learned that there are regional accents in ASL. Mr. Pope totally makes me want to learn to sign.

§ San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus

Dr. Timothy Seelig, Conductor
Carl Pantle, Principal Accompanist
Lynden Bair, Associate Accompanist
Benjamin Bachmann, Guest Organist
San Francisco Conservatory Chamber Orchestra
Special Guests: Mission High School Chorus, Steven Hankle, Conductor

Everyone Sang
Eric Helmuth. Words: Siegfried Sassoon

Shake the Rafters
Jon Bailey. Words: Bill Bowersock

In the Space of Now
Kevin Robison. Words: Eckhart Tolle

An Exhortation
David Conte. Words: President Barack Obama

No Words
Rob Landes. Words: Rob Landes. Vocal Minority

A Hundred Thousand Stars
Jake Heggie. Words: Gene Scheer. From For a Look or a Touch

Sure on This Shining Night
Morten Lauridsen. Words: James Agee

We are the Stars
James Granville Eakin, III. Words: Algonquin — Native American. From Stargazing

Musical Risotto
Jonathan Willcocks. Words: Traditional

Tale of Two Cities
Carol Hall. Words: Carol Hall. From Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Our Time
Stephen Sondheim. Words: Stephen Sondheim. From Merrily We Roll Along

Tree of Peace
Gwyneth Walker. Words: John Greenleaf Whittier

The Wizard of Oz
Harold Arlen. Words: L. Frank Baum and Noel Langley. The Lollipop Guild

Always With love
Music by Robert Seeley. Words by Robert Espindola. From Songs of My Family

In My Dreams
Music by Robert Seeley. Words by Robert Espindola. From Metamorphosis

We are the Bully Boyz
Music by Robert Seeley. Words by Robert Espindola. From To a Dancing Star

Further Along
Music by Robert Seeley. Words by Robert Espindola. From Exile

Music by Robert Seeley. Words by Robert Espindola. From Brave Souls and Dreamers

The Awakening
Joseph M. Martin. Words: Joseph M. Martin

Thursday, April 21, 2011 8 PM
Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Mill and the Cross

Saturday morning I attended a sold-out screening of Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross at the SF International Film Festival. The film is based on art historian Michael Francis Gibson's book of the same name about Bruegel's The Way to Calvary. Actors dressed as figures from the painting populate a meticulously constructed CGI version of Bruegel's landscape. The film is almost a documentary about the clothing & lifestyles of the period. The scenario interprets the painting as a politcal allegory for the 16th century Spanish occupation of Flanders. An episode in which a peasant is beaten & exposed on a wheel is particularly grisly, as is a similarly unexplained scene of a woman being buried alive. There is no dialogue except for a few pretentious & clunky speeches for Rutger Hauer, Michael York & Charlotte Rampling, playing historical characters. The movie is very static, & its climax occurs when time stops & the actors form a tableux vivant of the central action of the painting.

Mr. Majewski was present at the screening & gave amusingly meandering answers when programmer Sean Uyehara tried to interview him afterward. Mr. Majewski was emphatic about his deep respect for Bruegel. He opined that the old masters made paintings that you can enter, but with contemporary art you are not allowed in. Modern art gets bigger & bigger but shows less & less.

The film took 3 years to make, most of it spent in post-production doing CGI. The first version of a spider web turned out "German," looking too perfectly engineered to be real. Mr. Majewski also humorously described his 1st phone call with Rutger Hauer & explicated the iconography of Dutch still life painting.

§ The Mill and the Cross
director, Lech Majewski
Poland/Sweden, 2010, 97 min

San Francisco International Film Festival 54
Sat, Apr 23, 2011 12:30 / SFMOMA
Wed, Apr 27, 2011 9:00 / Kabuki

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hot Coffee

On the 1st full day of programming at the SF International Film Festival, I attended the sold-out screening of Hot Coffee, a debate-provoking documentary about the civil justice system, directed by lawyer Susan Saladoff. The film begins by asking us what we know about the infamous $2.7 million cup of hot coffee from McDonald's, then disabuses us of the idea that it is a comical & frivolous lawsuit. Through the stories of 4 families, the film shows how pro-business lobbyists influence legislation & the judiciary to prevent ordinary people from challenging corporations in court. I like the way the film shows all its subjects in their homes, demonstrating the direct impact of somewhat abstract legal issues.

The film is dense with information & proposes simple questions we should probably already know the answers to but don't. What are torts & why are they apparently in need of reform? What is this U.S. Chamber of Commerce we always see on political ads? A particularly gruesome & outrageous segment chronicles the unsuspected consequences of signing a mandatory arbitration clause.

Ms. Saladoff was present & told us that she made the movie explicitly to educate the public. She spoke with passion & urgency. Programmer Sean Uyehara moderated the Q & A, conscientiously repeating each question for us. Some complimented the film & others offered critical suggestions about the music & how certain topics were covered. At one point Ms. Saldoff had to cut off members of the audience who began to debate one another. A show of hands demonstrated that everyone who had thought of the McDonald's case as a frivolous lawsuit was moved to think otherwise by the film.

§ Hot Coffee
Susan Saladoff, director
USA, 2010, 88 min

San Francisco International Film Festival 54
Fri, Apr 22, 6:30 / New People
Mon, Apr 25, 6:30 / Kabuki
Tue, Apr 26, 2:00 / Kabuki
Tue, May 3, 4:00 / Kabuki

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Old St. Mary's: Schola Cantorum SF

BannerOn Tuesday, at the inaccurately named Noontime Concert at Old St. Mary's, I heard Schola Cantorum San Francisco perform Baroque music on texts about the crucifixion. The advertised program listed only Vivaldi's Stabat Mater, but this turned out to be incorrect. We instead heard Scarlatti's version plus 4 shorter works by Lotti, Gesualdo & Caldara. Schola Cantorum's 19 singers performed all the pieces with a gentle sway. They have an unforced sound with almost no vibrato. In the church acoustic, the long suspensions & sustained chords of the Lotti pieces floated nicely. The chorus executed some dramatic cut-offs in the Stabat Mater. I liked the piece. Each section has a distinct, often lively, character. Soprano Mara McMillan & tenor David Seigel seemed a tad nervous, but I'm sure they hit every note of their florid solos. The Old St. Mary's audience was very respectful & refrained from applauding until the end of the program.

§ A Mother's Sorrow: Lenten Masterpieces of the Italian Baroque

Schola Cantorum San Francisco
Paul Flight, artistic director
Charles Calhoun, continuo

Crucifixus à 10, Antonio Lotti
Tristis est anima mea, Carlo Gesualdo
Crucifixus à 16, Antonio Caldara
Crucifixus à 8, Antonio Lotti
Stabat Mater à 10, Domenico Scarlatti

Noontime Concerts
A Concert for Holy Week
Tuesday, April 19 12:30 p.m.
Old Saint Mary's Cathedral

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Cherry Blossom Festival

Odori -- Dancing RabbitThis afternoon I was in Japantown for the last day of the Cherry Blossom Festival. The most crowded area was of course the food booths, with especially long lines for the takoyaki & the BBQ ribs. I waited in shorter lines for lumpia & an unagi bowl. For some reason the cultural exhibits were crammed into the JCCCNC building instead of the Kabuki Hotel. Besides enjoying the washi paper dolls & admiring a 300-year-old bonsai tree, I took in the parade. It was the usual assembly of dancers, community groups, politicians & beauty queens. The largest contingent was a group of people proudly dressed as their favorite anime characters. Everyone looked very happy to be there.

Beauty Queens
Beauty queens from Hawaii sat among giant boxes of panko & taught on-lookers the shaka.

Keiko Fukuda
The Grand Marshal was 98-year-old Keiko Fukuda, the highest ranking female judo master & a student of the man who invented the sport. She is so small that all I saw was the top of her head

Hello Kitty
Her Co-Grand Marshal, Hello Kitty, had no such visibility problem.

As always, the parade ended joyously with those sake-swilling guys in loin-cloths.

§ 44th Annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival
April 9, 10, 16 and 17, 2011
San Francisco's Japantown

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Trip

This afternoon I attended a preview of Michael Winterbottom's playful road trip movie, The Trip. British comedians Steve Coogan & Rob Brydon play versions of themselves on a magazine-sponsored junket, sampling gourmet restaurants, posh hotels & gorgeous mountain scenery in the North of England. Every meal seems to include a plate of scallops. The pair's improvised banter, filled with absurd celebrity impressions, makes up most of the scenes. The film is also a rueful comedy about middle age. The two men never acknowledge their warm yet competitive friendship, but it provides the film's heart. I laughed a lot, even if I should have been living with BBC TV & radio for the last 10 years in order to get all the jokes. At least I know enough about England to be delighted by the tomato slices & blood pudding they have for breakfast. The Trip will be shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Monday, May 2 & Wednesday, May 4.

This is the probably the last preview I'll get to before the festival starts next Thursday. I've really enjoyed these press screenings. No waiting in lines, & when it's time, the movie just starts. No commercials, no trailers.

§ The Trip
director, Michael Winterbottom
England, 2010, 100 min

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Future

The Future, a film by artist Miranda July, tells the story of two po-faced hipsters (Hamish Linklater & Ms. July) in suburban LA during their month-long wait to adopt an injured cat from an animal shelter. A banal chain of events leads the couple apart. Blatantly hallucinatory images creep in, & the film gradually takes on a surreal, vaguely nightmarish, shape. At times I felt I was watching a piece of performance art. David Warshofsky is unpleasantly convincing as a middle-aged, sleazy sugar-daddy. Joe Putterlik, as an advertiser from PennySaver classifieds, is so authentic that you know without being told that he's a real person Ms. July stumbled upon & then cast. Besides writing, directing & starring, Ms. July also supplies the puppet-like voice of the cat awaiting adoption.

The Future will be screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival Saturday, April 23 & Sunday, April 24.

§ The Future
director, Miranda July
Germany/USA, 2011, 91 min

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975

This afternoon I saw a preview of The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975, a Swedish documentary by Göran Hugo Olsson about the Black Power movement. The film is assembled from archival footage from Swedish TV, with voice-over commentary from activists, academics & musicians viewing the clips from the vantage point of 2010. The Vietnam War caused a diplomatic rift between Sweden & the US during the film's time frame, & this forms part of the context for what we see. The selected clips get straight to the point. We see the UC Berkeley campus looking like a war zone, a helicopter flying overhead while police shoot into the crowd. Sitting in a jail cell, Angela Davis takes a reporter to school about growing up black in the South. Louis Farrakhan, in a theater-like office in 1974, delivers a controlled rant that ends with a tirade against eating "swine." I left feeling that the struggle for empowerment continues.

Black Power Mixtape plays at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Saturday, April 30 & Tuesday, May 3.

§ The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975
Director, Göran Hugo Olsson
Documentary, Sweden/USA, 2011, 96 min

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Max Raabe & Palast Orchester

Max Raabe ConcertThrough the generous intercession of John Marcher, I had the great fun of hearing again Max Raabe & Palast Orchester at the Paramount over the weekend. They deliver a pitch-perfect evocation of the big band era & Weimar Republic cabaret. Herr Raabe croons & sings falsetto in a voice that could have come from a radio in the 1930s. With slicked-back hair & wearing a permanent dead-pan expression, he presides over the evening, giving us droll commentary in peculiarly precise English: "Some of the topics covered tonight are harmless, & others are about interpersonal relationships."

The fun of the show is the distance between Raabe's aloofness & the music's human content. The audience bounces in their seats during the Cuban Rumba, but Herr Raabe is so efficient that he is practically motionless. When not singing, he steps away from the microphone & leans against the piano. It is even unnecessary for him to cue the terrific, 12-person Palast Orchestra. I love this band. Their ensemble is tight, & yet the members never lose their individuality. As the show progresses, they reveal unsuspected talents. It's startling to see the trombone player put down his instrument & pick up a violin. For "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" 3 musicians step forward to portray the 3 pigs, singing & playing their instruments. The show is so perfectly choreographed that when Herr Raabe suddenly stopped one of the numbers because he forgot to translate the song for us, I couldn't be sure if that wasn't actually planned.

The audience was full of people who were already Max Raabe fans. They were so enthusiastic that the San Francisco encore turned into a sing-a-along. A large number of people arrived in period dress, including John Marcher, who only needed a violin case to complete the illusion. Standing in the bar during intermission, I felt like I was in The Untouchables. After the show, our group went to a packed restaurant around the block, where we saw Herr Raabe sitting at the bar, looking boyish, & doing one thing he never did on stage: smiling.

§ Berlin Nocturne
Max Raabe & Palast Orchester
Saturday, April 9, 8pm
Paramount Theatre, Oakland

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Haydn’s Creation

Friday night I attended Philharmonia Baroque's performance of Haydn's Creation, sung in English. There was an unusually large number of personnel, with close to 100 people on stage, including a chorus of 40. An absurdly long contrabassoon rose straight up like a smokestack from the back of the orchestra. The performance had a consistently cheerful & bouncy mood which fit Haydn's optimistic music well. Some of the arias had a pastoral & even folksy feel, while the big choruses clearly evoke Handel's Messiah, alleluias & all. I was especially impressed by the chorus of joyful praise that ends Part I. The piece could have ended right there. No sin enters this sunny work, & the final duet for a prelapsarian Adam & Eve had them sounding like Papageno & Papagena. The English version of the text has its oddities. I've never heard of a tiger described as "flexible."

Nicholas McGegan led with his characteristically sprightly tempos. He clearly articulated the tone painting passages & brought out the score's dynamic contrasts. I enjoyed hearing the low blasts from the contrabassoon & trombones in the final number of Part II. The audience laughed at the musical depiction of a worm in the 6th day. Tenor Thomas Cooley was a stand-out among the soloists. He sang with great expressive range. Sometimes his clear, lyrical voice reached out into the hall, & other times he brought his sound down to half-voice, drawing the listener in. Soprano Dominique Labelle amused the audience with her imitation of a cooing bird in "On might pens."

There was only one intermission after Part I, making for a long 2nd half. The hall was nearly full. The audience was quiet & attentive, & they applauded only at the end of each part. After receiving a warm ovation, Maestro McGegan thanked us for 30 years of support for Philharmonia Baroque. I happened to be seated behind SFMike, which made it only slightly less difficult than usual for him to crack me up during the performance.

§ Haydn’s Creation
Philharmonia Baroque

Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Dominique Labelle, soprano
Thomas Cooley, tenor
Philip Cutlip, baritone
Philharmonia Baroque Chorale
Bruce Lamott, chorale director

HAYDN: The Creation

Fri, April 8, 8:00 pm
San Francisco (Herbst)


The opening night for this year's San Francisco International Film Festival will feature Beginners, a melancholy romance directed by Mark Mills. I got to attend a preview screening this week. The movie is set with a strong sense of place in Los Angeles in 2003 & follows the romance of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) & Anna (Mélanie Laurent), an apparently rootless actress. The film's other center, seen in flashbacks, is Oliver's father (Christopher Plummer), who comes out at the age of 75 after the death of his wife. The 2 stories compete with each other a bit, though they are both seen through the eyes of Oliver, who suffers from a sense of loss. I recognize Mr. McGregor mostly through the Star Wars movies, & I did not realize how charismatic he is. Even though he spends most of the movie being lonely & affectless, he remains lovable. His quiet presence is very watchable. The movie has a light humor, exemplified by Oliver's needy Jack Russel terrier who speaks through subtitles. Mr. Mills treats the gay theme politely but very much from the outside.

Opening night of the festival is Thursday, Apr 21st at the Castro Theatre. Mr. McGregor is expected to be present.

§ Beginners
Director, Mike Mills

Friday, April 08, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Yesterday evening I attended a preview screening of Werner Herzog's new 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It was shot in the Chauvet Cave, which was discovered at the end of the 20th century & contains pristine paleolithic cave paintings over 30,000 years old. The cave is closed to all visitors except scientists, so this film is our only way to experience its beauty & mystery. The 3D is not just a cinematic device. The walls of the cave are not flat but are instead full of swellings & recessed areas, & the cave art incorporates these contours. Herzog suggests that we find the origins of human spirituality here. And since this is a Herzog film, we get some unexpected diversions, such as a perfumer who sniffs out the cave's odors & an archaeologist, dressed in a reindeer skin, piping out a familiar tune on a prehistoric flute. The film's postscript features an albino alligator, & yet it makes complete sense.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams will be screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Monday, April 25 & Tuesday, April 26. The screenings are in 3D, & it would be pointless to see it any other way.

§ Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Director, Werner Herzog

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Stile Antico

Cinnamon RollsStile Antico is an early music ensemble of 12 young British singers, currently making their West Coast debut. Last night they presented a program featuring Renaissance motets by English, Flemish & Spanish composers, on the subject of Christ's death & resurrection. Before the start of their concert at Calvary Presbyterian, the gentleman in the pew behind me hummed the Kyrie theme from Bach's B-Minor Mass, so I assume that a lot of singers were in attendance.

The group is conductorless, & they sing with very accurate ensemble & intonation. They make a pure tone with no vibrato, but the sound is substantial. I liked the way they made different lines emerge & reach up in Gibbons's Hosanna to the son of David. It was interesting to hear the individual entrances in Gombert's Tulerunt Dominum meum & realize that the voices do not sound identical, even though they blend nicely. The sopranos (maybe it's just one in particular) have an especially big, strong sound.The performers look at each other a lot, though I still could not figure out how they always ended together. The silences at the end of each piece were some of the most beautiful moments in the concert.

2 settings of the same text, "Woefully arrayed," bookended the 1st half. The closing setting, by John McCabe, was the one modern piece in the program, & it was a relief to hear something in a less restrained style, though all the music transported me out of the real world for 2 hours. The appreciative audience was very quiet & even shy about clapping initially, though they mistakenly applauded half-way through Thomas Crecquilon's Congratulamini mihi. The ensemble received a warm standing ovation. The audience was then invited to a wine, cheese & dessert reception with the singers, who chatted eagerly & were charmingly British. The ensemble includes a set of identical twins & an extremely tall alto.

Part of the proceeds of the concert went to San Francisco Network Ministries, a mission aiding people in the Tenderloin. Before the intermission, Rev. Glenda Hope spoke for 5 or 10 minutes about the mission's activities. She shared stories about specific clients & told us some blunt statistics about prostitution.

§ Calvary ConcertConnect
Stile Antico
Passion and Resurrection

Woefully arrayed - William Cornysh (1465 - 1623)
Hosanna to the son of David - Orlando Gibbons (1583 - 1625)
O sacrum convivium - Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 - 1585)
In monte oliveti - Orlandus Lassus (1532 - 1594)
O vos omnes - Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548 - 1611)
O crux, ave - Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 - 1553)
Woefully arrayed - John McCabe (b.1939)
Dum transisset Sabbatum - John Taverner (1490 - 1545)
Tulerunt Dominum meum - Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495 - c. 1560)
Maria Magdalene - Francisco Guerrero (1528 - 1599)
I am the resurrection - Orlando Gibbons
Congratulamini mihi - Thomas Crecquillon (c. 1505 - 1557)
Surrexit pastor bonus - Jean Lhéritier (c. 1480 - c. 1551)
In resurrectione tua - William Byrd (c. 1540 - 1623)

ENCORE: The Lord's Prayer - John Sheppard

Wednesday 6 April 2011 8pm
Calvary Presbyterian

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Page One

This afternoon I attended a preview screening of Page One, Andrew Rossi's newsroom documentary about the New York Times. Besides giving us an affectionate look at work inside the Times's offices, the film questions the survivability of the paper in the age of digital media. The film touches a lot of subjects, including the Pentagon Papers, WikiLeaks, the Judith Miller scandal & the new paywall. There's even an amusing snippet of Gizmodo's Brian Lam purchasing an iPad. We witness story meetings, a down-sizing & a going-away party. Mr. Rossi keeps it all very human by making characters out of the newsroom staff. Reporter Brian Selter is a blogging, tweeting wunderkind. Editor Bruce Headlam remains unflappably wry under pressure. The raspy-voiced David Carr is lovably old-school. He is the paper's bulldog & the film's star.

The preview was held in a small screening room downtown that also houses a life-size Kung Fu Panda. One of the PR people eagerly asked us for our immediately reactions as we left. Page One will be released on July 1st. It will also play at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Friday, April 29th & Sunday, May 1st.

§ Page One: Inside the New York Times
A film by Andrew Rossi

Howard Schultz at the Commonwealth Club

OnwardMonday evening the Commonwealth Club hosted Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in conversation with Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson. At least 400 people, many of them young & in suits, turned up at the Mark Hopkins to see him. Mr. Schultz looked comfortable & spoke volubly but without giving much away. He does not seem arrogant enough to be a corporate chairman, & I believed him when he said he loves Starbucks. The conversation mostly revolved around questions submitted by the audience. Mr. Schultz did not comment on the rumors of a merger with Peet's, except to remind us that the two companies had merged once before in 1984.

He identified consumers' unprecedented access to information as one of the seismic shifts taking place in marketing & claimed that Starbucks is the number one brand on twitter, facebook & foursquare. In his view, social media is for sharing information, but you cannot use it to sell things. While a lot of cafes are pulling their wi-fi, Starbucks not only has free wi-fi but also carries premium content such as the Wall Street Journal. Noting complaints that stores often run out of seating, Mr. Schultz joked that he is still waiting to get his first rent check.

Mr. Schultz offered "health & wellness" as a marketing category that is ripe today, though he admitted that no one has yet "cracked the code." He also told the story of Starbuck's purchase of the company that makes the high-tech Clover Machine, which apparently makes it possible to charge $6 for a cup of coffee.

§ Commonwealth Club
Howard Schultz: Starbucks Chairman and CEO
In conversation with Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief, Wired
Apr 4 2011 - 6:30pm
Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel

Friday, April 01, 2011


At a quarter past noon, Monique Jenkinson, in a wedding gown with a long train, appeared at the top of the stairs under the magnificent San Francisco City Hall rotunda. She preceded to roll herself, in slow motion, down the staircase, unwinding the dress luxuriantly as she went, until it extended the entire length of the steps. The assembled crowd took scores of photos from all angles. 2 girls lay themselves down next to the train & had their picture taken. Couples about to be married stopped to pose with the spectacle in the background. It took Ms. Jenkinson 20 minutes to reach the bottom, at which point she sat up with a blank yet frightened expression. I thought of the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor. Ms. Jenkinson continued walking slowly out the rotunda. A minute later she ran back up the steps & made her final exit as the crowd broke into applause.

§ Monique Jenkinson
Costume: Mr. David

Rotunda Dance Series
April 1, 2011
San Francisco City Hall

Certified Copy

Recklessly, I spent part of a sunny afternoon inside a movie theater to see Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy on its last day at the Clay. A writer (William Shimell), visiting Italy, gives a talk on his latest book, which questions the value placed on originals versus copies. An admirer (Juliette Binoche) invites him to a meeting, & the 2 spend the day together, driving out to a small village & discussing his thesis. Halfway through, they become a simulacrum of a husband & wife, & the talk shifts to marriage. Or at least I think that's what happens. The movie is a play of ideas & deliberately ambiguous. Kiarostami does not explain the relationship of the main characters, & revelations in the second half made me think I should have paid more attention in the 1st half. I felt like I needed to see it again as soon as it was over.

The movie is sensuously photographed, & there are many long takes. Some shots have a stark clarity, others are in shadow or obscured by reflections. The pacing is full of provocative interruptions. The writer's cell phone rings while he is delivering his talk, & he stops to answer it. In a building teeming with happy young couples getting married, we unexpectedly glimpse a bride with a scared, worried face. William Shimell, an opera singer in real life, is suave yet cooly distant as the writer. Juliette Binoche's character is a needy single mother with fluctuating emotions. She is captivating in a shot in which she puts on lipstick & earrings, looking at us as if we were a mirror. The movie is in a fluent mix of Italian, English & French & is very wordy.

§ Certified Copy
Abbas Kiarostami