Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Recommended Films 9/28-10/5

DAVID LYNCH'S new film, INLAND EMPIRE, makes its U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival on October 7. The film is ready for regular release throughout Europe and Japan, but there has still been no formal announcement of an agreement with a North American distributor. suggests that Magnolia Pictures will pick up the film, but no one knows for certain what will happen. Astonishing, given the success of his last release, Mulholland Drive (2001), which was all but abandoned by its U.S. distributor, Universal. Of course, U.S. viewers have been treated to Jackass Number 2, Beerfest and Talladega Nights. They can also look forward to another Harry Potter rehash, Flags of Our Fathers, another Batman, another Spider-Man, another X-Men. . . and probably another bit of pseudo-historical fluff based on a Jane Austen novel to satisfy that occasional date that demands something other than explosions.

Well, there's only four months left before the next
Noir City festival. >Sigh.<

THE ABSOLUTE coolest film series in the Bay Area right now is The Mechanical Age at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. These examinations of the romance of machinery as seen through the brilliant device of cinema offer a rare look at the greatest obsessions of the 20th century. Thursday, 9/28 brings David Francis, curator of the British National Film Archive for 16 years, and head of the Library of Congress' Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound division, until 2001, and Joss Marsh, Indiana University professor of Victorian Studies, with a collection of serial chapters from the silent era, starting at 7:30 p.m. The episodic film began long before TV came along. Movie-goers from the 'teens into the 1950s were accustomed to seeing weekly installments of adventure serials. Each chapter ended with the hero or heroine in mortal danger, and the next began with a miraculous rescue. Machinery, from automobiles to Zeppelins to giant robots, were frequently featured in these films, and Francis presents several of these chapters in archival 35mm prints, including The Perils of Pauline with Pearl White, The Exploits of Elaine, and Nick Carter, Detective. Judith Rosenberg plays the piano, thrillingly.

FRANCIS AND MARSH return to the
PFA on Saturday, 9/30 at 7 p.m. for an exploration of ur-cinema: the Magic Lantern. Before pictures moved, Victorian viewers were dazzled by images projected in sequence, accompanying storytellers recounting travels to exotic lands, stories of literature, fairy tales, and other narratives. This evening offers a very rare opportunity to see this progenitor of cinema. This one's a must, folks. Note that it occurs in the Berkeley Art Museum's Theater Gallery at 2621 Durant Avenue, not the usual PFA screening room.

THE MECHANICAL AGE continues at the PFA on Sunday, 10/1, at 2:30 p.m., with Adam Curtis' Pandora's Box, Episode One: The Engineer's Plot (1992). Curtis's series examines the 20th century's technophilia; this chapter examines the Soviet Union's fabled Five Year economic plans as an effort to mechanize systems of human interaction. It obviously offers lessons for today's “science” of “inevitable” globalization. It's followed at 4 p.m. by Sergei Eisenstein's The General Line (1929), the saga of a Soviet woman's efforts to create a collective farm, featuring a glorious montage poem to a cream separator. It's preceded by Ralph Steiner's and Jay Leyda's 1930 short Mechanical Principles (Gears in Motion and Design), a U.S.-produced prayer to the almighty machine.

ANOTHER GREAT series, Arrr, Mateys: Pirates and Piracy, continues at the PFA Wednesday, 10/4, 7:30 p.m., with A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), Alexander Mackendrick's saga of a buccaneer (Anthony Quinn) who finds himself the father figure of a shipful of lost children. The “piracy” half of the bill features Jim Gladman's and Negativland's No Business (2006), a mash-up of Ethel Merman and dog-only-knows-what-else. Viva fair use!

FRATRICIDE (2005) looks like an interesting film from Germany. Director Yilmaz Arslan focuses on an odd couple: a Kurdish teenager who takes a Turkish waif under his wing. As they try to eke out a living amid Germany's EU guest worker community, they find that their friendship may not be enough to transcend the expectations of Kurdish-Turkish antagonism. It plays at the Roxie Cinema, through Wednesday, 10/4.

MAYA DEREN'S films transgressed on at least two levels: they were avant garde, often surreal, and they were made by a woman working in a form and style dominated by men. Her first, and best-known, is Meshes in the Afternoon, in which lovers become killers. Her second film, At Land (1944), explores presence, invisibility, and significance. Both screen at Artists Television Access Friday, 9/29, 8 p.m., with the premiere of new scores by Reel Change, who will also perform for experimental films by David Michalak.

MARTINA KUDLÁCEK gained attention with In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2002), a documentary about the avant garde filmmaker. She's set her editing scissors to a new film about another woman experimental director in Notes on Marie Menken (2006), presented by the San Francisco Cinematheque at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 10/, 7:30 p.m. Menken was a denizen of Andy Warhol's Factory, where she appeared in a number of the films made there, as well as making her own, such as Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1961) and Watts With Eggs (1967).

ROBERT GREENWALD continues his series of digital video guerilla documentaries [Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004), Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)] with
Iraq for Sale (2006), a hard-hitting exposé of the corporations getting very fat off of that ongoing abomination against all that is good and right. Like Greenwald always does, he's avoiding the regular theater circuit, and showing it in benefit screenings at various locations. It plays in San Francisco 10/8 at a screening sponsored by Box Dog Bikes, and 10/8 at CellSpace. Contact the hosts through their respective websites. There are other screenings coming up, check out the Iraq for Sale screenings website for details.

LONG BEFORE Terry Gilliam was preparing cut-out animations for Monty Python, Czech animator Karel Zeman put together an epic film of The Fabulous Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1961), based on the same fables and legends that Gilliam would mount in 1988. Combining live actors and sets with stop motion, puppetry and other cinematic tricks, Zeman crafted an unusual interpretation. See it at
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Wednesday, 10/4, 7:30 p.m.

OPENING SOMEWHERE in the Bay Area this week is The U.S. vs. John Lennon. See what I've already said about this film here. Heaven help us all if it roosts at the new Century abomination at what used to be the Emporium.

SET YOUR CALENDARS ahead for the 1920 film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with John Barrymore in the title roles, featuring a new score by Boston's
Devil Music Ensemble. At the Balboa Theater, Thursday, 10/12.

Text copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

You Gotta Give 'em Hope

HARVEY MILK, the first openly gay man elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, made this famous declaration:
You gotta give 'em hope.
Milk was assassinated on November 27, 1978—11 months after taking office—for his political views and his homosexuality. A small-minded and frustrated little man, threatened by inclusiveness and progressive thought, shot Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

The city erupted. Protests, both peaceful and violent, continued for months. The gay community, which had flocked to San Francisco's bohemian, laissez-faire nature, were not going to return to the closets they had escaped because a wretch with a gun thought he could gain power by killing.

Today, no one seems to bat an eye about gays in public office in San Francisco. In fact, it appears that heterosexuality is a liability for candidates running in Districts 5 and 8. Milk's death almost tore apart the city by the bay. Milk's life kept the city together. He gave people hope.

Israel started firing missiles into Lebanon on July 12 this past summer. They were responding to rockets fired by Hezbollah terrorists into Israel, as well as the seizure by Hezbollah of two Israeli soldiers (who may have been illegally in Lebanese territory). The rain of warheads into Lebanon continued for a month. Some
1,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed. More than 3,000 were wounded. A million or more lost their homes. Israeli casualties numbered 162, mostly soldiers, dead.

In the rubble of Beirut, a seven-year-old film festival refuses to surrender.
Ayam Beirut Al Cinema'iya is underway with a reduced program of 40 films instead of the planned 100. Artistic director Eliane Rehab and festival director Hania Mroue have managed to get filmmakers into the shattered nation, and screenings will continue through Sunday, 9/24.

In an
interview with the BBC, Mroue talked about housing refugees in Beirut's only art house cinema, and the importance of presenting films as a defense against fear.

“People continued coming to the cinema the next day, even though war had started," [Mroue] says. “They came. I don't understand how and why they came even though Beirut was being bombed, but they came. And even the third day they kept coming.”—BBC News.

The festival includes features, documentaries, and shorts from around the world. Appropriately enough, Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) is included. The only film from the United States is James Longley's Iraq in Fragments (2006).

earthquake on May 7, 1976, killed nearly 600, injured 1,000 and displaced 800,000 in Italy's northern Friuli region. Without electricity, with food and water in short supply, people were shocked to see a couple of youngsters carrying a portable movie projector and several cans of 35mm film. Piera Patat and Livia Jacob had rescued their personal archives of silent film treasures. Recognizing the power of film to bring a community together in the face of crisis, they set up their projector at night, powered by car batteries or other generators, and showed classic films on the remaining walls. This became a ritual that continued after recovery began. It's now the Giornate del Cinema Muto, the largest and most important festival of silent films in the world.

Films give people hope. The courage of Rehab, Mroue and everyone associated with
Ayam Beirut Al Cinema'iya should inspire us all.

They've prepared a moving video letter to the world about their situation, and why they are continuing with not just the festival, but their lives as citizens of Beirut, a historically significant cultural capital. Folks with a broadband connection can link here. Dial-up users should use this link.
My hat is doffed to extra-super-special ginchy agent extaordinaire ES for the tip on this item.
From Beirut With Love directed by Wael Noureddine (Lebanon/France, 2005, 16mm).

Text copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.

Recommended Films: 9/21-9/27

THE THREE greatest comedians of the silent film era are quite distinct from each other:

Charlie Chaplin was a brilliant stage performer whose artistry blossomed within the boundaries of the silver screen.

Harold Lloyd's sheepish onscreen persona gave more power to the extreme physicality of his performance. His “aw-shucks” style also concealed the heart of a ruthless businessman.

Buster Keaton, like Chaplin, was a veteran of the vaudeville stage. Unlike Chaplin, Keaton was a a consummate tinkerer fascinated by locomotives and mechanical processes. He began his movie career by dismantling a camera to see how it worked.

Keaton's understanding of filmmaking as a mechanical process is on display this Sunday, 9/24, in Sherlock, Jr. (1924) at the
Pacific Film Archive. One of the greatest reflexive exercises in cinematic history, Sherlock, Jr. features Keaton as a small-town movie projectionist whose fascination with detective fiction, combines with his spurned affection for the local beauty (Kathryn McGuire) to create a fantasy in which Keaton enters the action he projects onscreen. The film contains many of the gags used in the Keaton family vaudeville act, and is both a technical and humorous marvel. It's part of The Mechanical Age series at the PFA, and it's in 35mm, starting at 4 p.m. An added treat is Broken Down Film (1985), an animated short by Osamu Tezuka—creator of Kimba the White Lion and Tetsuwan Atom, better known in the U.S. as Astro Boy.

Screening right after Sherlock, Jr. is another astonishingly reflexive film of the silent era, The Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Director
Dziga Vertov was the champion of Kino-Eye, a Soviet filmmaking philosophy that decried narrative structure and emphasized montage. The Man With a Movie Camera is Vertov's best-remembered work, and it's a breathtaking example of what cinema, unfettered by theatrical or literary expectations, can achieve. This is one of my Film 101 essential movies. It starts at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, 9/24, in 35mm from the PFA Collection. Judith Rosenberg accompanies the films on piano.

PFA CONTINUES its examination of pirates and piracy with Craig Baldwin's Sonic Outlaws (1995), Wednesday, 9/27, 7:30 p.m. Opening with Negativland's defeat in a copyright infringement case brought by liberal-outside-my-backyard-band U2, Baldwin traces the early history of musical mash-ups as a series of battles for maintaining creators' rights to fair use. It's shown in 16mm, from Baldwin himself. It screens with Uso Justo (2004), Coleman Miller's transformation of a 1950s Mexican soap opera into an experiment in experimental filmmaking. In Beta SP, from Miller's collection.

MUDDY WATERS was unquestionably, one of the greatest, perhaps THE greatest, blues guitarists of all time. As part of the San Francisco Blues Festival, the Roxie Cinema presents Muddy Waters Can't Be Satisfied, a documentary from 2005 by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. It took six years to complete the movie, which concentrates on telling Water's story through his music and interviews with performers he inspired, including Keith Richards and Bonnie Raitt.

On the same bill is
Always for Pleasure, Les Blank's 1978 documentary of New Orleans. Blank is one of the most exciting documentary makers of all time (his 1982 Burden of Dreams remains my favorite film about making a film), and seeing his 28-year-old take on the Big Easy should be especially poignant today. For more on this film, check out the sensational entry from 2005 at Hell on Frisco Bay, one of the best blogs about films in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Both films play for one week at the
Roxie Cinema starting Friday, 9/22, with matinees Saturday, 9/23, and Sunday, 9/24.

PETER WHITEHEAD gained fame turning his camera on England's rock 'n' roll scene during the 1960s. He turned heads in 1965 when he directed a documentary of Peter Brooks' The Benefit of the Doubt, a then-controversial play that obliquely criticized Great Britain's support of the United States' military adventure in Vietnam, using then-new experimental and agit-prop theater techniques. Whitehead put much of the original Royal Shakespeare Company production on film in color, interspersed with interviews of the cast and crew in black-and-white. It plays with The Fall, Whitehead's 1969 meditation on violence and society, featuring Robert Kennedy, Tom Hayden, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Arthur Miller and other bookmarks of the 1960s. Neither of these films get screened often, and they aren't available on DVD or VHS. See them at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Wednesday, 9/27, at 7:30 p.m.

THE MADCAT International Women's Festival shifts into high gear for the final screenings of its tenth season. First up is Maquilapolis: City of Factories (2006), “a documentary about (and by) workers in Tijuana's assembly factories, the maquiladoras,” according to the film's website. Coordinated by filmmaker Vicky Funari, artist Sergio De La Torre and Grupo Factor X, a Mexican women's rights organization, the film has its subjects turn the cameras on themselves, allowing the underpaid women who assemble the cheap consumer goods that North America's consumer lifestyle revolves around to tell their own stories. Among the stories:

Carmen, a single mother and one of the more than one million Mexicans employed at the maquiladoras, works making television components six nights a week for six dollars a day. She comes home to a shack she built out of recycled garage doors, in a neighborhood with no sewage lines or electricity. At 29, she already suffers from kidney damage and lead poisoning from her years of exposure to toxic chemicals.
The film is still being shot, even as it's being screened at various festivals throughout the U.S. and Mexico. It looks like an exciting opportunity to see the real results of the
North American Free Trade Agreement. It screens with South of Ten (2006), Liza Johnson's ten-minute presentation of ten vignettes about New Orleans after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 9/21, at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. It's also shown at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, 9/24, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

MADCAT CONTINUES with Charming Augustine (2005), a 3-D surrealistic exercise based on photos and other records from a Parisian insane asylum of the 1880s. Filmmaker Zoe Beloff examines a case study of a Augustine, a 15-year-old suffering “hysterical paralysis,” drawing parallels between the illness and attempts to document it using the then-experimental techniques of moving pictures. It screens with Case History of a Multiple Personality (1923), a silent clinical film capturing the various personae of a patient attended by Dr. Cornelius C. Wholey, who made the film. See it Saturday, 9/23, 7:30 p.m., at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Tuesday, 9/26 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

AND DON'T FORGET to cast your
vote for the Roxie Cinema in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's version of American Idol: The Architectural Face-off.

Text copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Preserve the Roxie Cinema! Vote Now! Vote Often!

The Roxie Cinema San Francisco's slightly tarnished little jewel of a theater is competing for preservation funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it needs your help to succeed.

As part of a strange reality-TV-inspired exercise, 25 structures throughout the Bay Area have been chosen as finalists in a vote-off to see which will get funding from the National Trust. It's Survivor: Historic Landmarks. I promise to return for a rant about the arrogant cupidity of such an exercise at another time. Right now, I want to ask you to support the Roxie Cinema.

For years, the Roxie Cinema has been THE place for the under-loved and under-appreciated movies and film-goers. It pretty much singlehandedly made successes of films like Rivers and Tides (2001) and Red Rock West (1992). It's currently operated in concert with the New College of California, and as such is probably the most progressive movie theater in the country.

Unfortunately, for years the Roxie Cinema has also been beset by money woes. Maintenance has frequently been deferred, and the building could stand some serious architectural love. Funds from the National Trust would go a long way to helping the building match the quality of the films and the top-notch presentation provided by the hard-working Roxie staff.

Voting often is encouraged in this plebiscite—you're allowed one vote per day, right up to October 31, when the contest ends. Registration is required, but that's a small price to pay to help ensure the future of one of the last truly independent movie houses left. The Roxie is up against some tough (and also deserving) competition, making it even more important for the Bay Area film community to stuff the ballot box!

Go to , register, and vote. Then get all of your friends to vote. Then get all of your friends to get their friends to vote for the Roxie. Rinse and repeat. And vote every day through Halloween. You'll feel better. Really.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Recommended Films 9/13-9/21

Hollywood's Production Code had been moribund for a decade, dead for at least a year, when the film industry established the letter-based rating system in 1968. Intended to allow filmmakers greater freedom in representing adult subject matter while allowing parents to shield children from undesirable content, the system was implemented by former Lyndon Johnson sycophant Jack Valenti, who became president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1966.

Films approved for release by the MPAA are assigned a letter rating, advising theater operators and parents which movies were appropriate for different age groups. Valenti himself explains the system in
this clip from the fondly remembered Amblin-Warner Brothers cartoon show Freakazoid.

Originally, the “adults-only” designation was given the letter “X.” Films like Midnight Cowboy (winner of the 1970 best picture Oscar) and A Clockwork Orange received “X” ratings. Producers of pornographic films—which exploded in popularity during the 1970s —rarely submitted their films to the MPAA, but adopted the “X” designation as a marketing tool, trebling its impact by inventing the “XXX” rating. The moral backlash that began in the 1980s made it difficult for studios to book the rare legitimate “X”-rated films into theaters. Brian DePalma re-edited Scarface (1983) twice, hoping to get the MPAA to reduce its rating to R. After Abel Ferrara's King of New York (1990) was rated “X,” pressure groups convinced the MPAA to surrender the “X” rating to the pornographers. The new “scarlet letter” was the “NC-17” designation, which proved to be just as damning as the original “X.” Film directors are often bound by a studio contract that demands they deliver a film that receives a rating no higher than “R.” David Lynch made extensive cuts to Wild at Heart to get an “R” rating. (Europeans saw the film as the filmmaker intended it—you can see it that way at the Clay October 20 and 21 at midnight). After Stanley Kubrick's death, Warner Brothers used digital manipulation to obscure elements of an orgy scene in his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, to keep from getting an “NC-17” mark. (Again, Europeans saw the original film.)

The rules the MPAA use for determining these ratings are obscure. The individuals who make these calls are also hidden from view. Hence this week's top film recommendation: an in-their-face documentary called
This Film is Not Yet Rated. Director Kirby Dick borrows heavily from Michael Moore's playbook, chasing the anonymous members of the MPAA's rating board through Los Angeles, but the Illuminati-like secrecy of the MPAA all but demands this confrontational approach. Dick hired a private investigator to uncover the identities of the nation's censors, and the trailer shows that Dick spoke with at least two of them, and interviewed one on camera.

This Film is Not Yet Rated plays for one week at the
Lumiere Theatre, starting Friday, 9/15.

The gorgeous Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto provides a double dose of Howard Hawks films starring Cary Grant this weekend. The screwball classic Bringing Up Baby (RKO, 1938) features Grant and Katharine Hepburn playing against type; he as a dotty paleontologist, she as a scatter-brained heiress. “Baby” is a pet leopard, on the loose in Connecticut. Only Angels Have Wings (Columbia, 1939) is a South American adventure film, with Grant as a daredevil mail pilot, Jean Arthur as a New York showgirl far from her concrete jungle, and a 21-year-old Rita Hayworth as Grant's ex-girlfriend. Bringing Up Baby plays at 5:35 p.m. and 9:50 p.m. Friday, 9/15, through Monday, 9/18. Only Angels Have Wings plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 9/15, through Monday, 9/18, plus 3:15 p.m. Saturday, 9/16, and Sunday, 9/17.

Midnight Mass may be dormant, awaiting its annual resurrection, but
Peaches Christ still walks the earth, and she's been helping the Clay Theatre program their series of midnight movies. This week, Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez star in one of best of the the midnight films produced during the 1980s—the last and possibly the best decade of the midnight movie era—Repo Man (Edge City/Universal, 1984). Estevez plays a punk kid whose larcenous nature leads him to an entry-level position reclaiming cars from bad debtors. Stanton's his mentor. It's the sophomore effort for director Alex Cox, who gave the world Sid & Nancy two years later. Deep behind the scenes of this classic is Michael Nesmith, the only real musician in the Monkees, and the real inventor of the MTV-style music video format, with his legendary Elephant Parts (Pacific Arts, 1981). Repo Man plays at midnight Friday, 9/15 and Saturday, 9/16.

The tenth Madcat International Women's Film Festival continues with three screenings this week. Friday, 9/15, two documentaries explore Rural Women: Finding Independence. First is the U.S. premiere of Water and Atefeh, a 2001 mini-dv documentary from Iran about the struggles of a solitary woman, Atefeh, to maintain her small farm during a prolonged drought. Producer/director Nahid Rezaei studied film in Paris, and was once the director of the Iranian Documentary Filmmakers Society. Next is The Angelmakers, a 2005 Beta SP documentary from Hungary that probes the history of the village of Nagyrev. Astrid Bussink gets the residents to open up about a notorious event from 1929, when several women used arsenic to murder their husbands. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. at Artists Television Access.

Tuesday, 9/19,
Madcat offers Motion Stopped: An Evening of Animation. The program is comprised of several short films, but the most intriguing is probably McLaren's Negatives (2006) by Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre. The film explores the nature of legendary Scottish abstract filmmaker Norman McLaren, using the same animation techniques that made his own films so distinctive. Québec native Saint-Pierre gained note with Post-Partum (2004) a documentary about the depression her mother experienced following her birth. Also noteworthy is Phantom Canyon (2006), animated from more than 4,000 separate collages, including images from Eadward Muybridge's Victorian-era photographic examination of human and animal motion, by Stacey Steers. The program starts at 8:30 p.m., pre-show barbecue at 6:30 p.m., at the El Rio.

Wednesday, 9/20,
Madcat presents Psycho Vision: 3D Hallucinations and the Vladmaster, a night of 3-D slides and 16mm movies. Claire and Don in Slumberland is a 30 minute combination of 3-D slides and 16mm film that explores the hyper-rationalism of the mid-20th century, using actual psychology films from 1949 to send two characters on a self-reflective 3-D journey of the soul. Created by Zoe Beloff, this experience looks very interesting. It's preceded by 16mm films from Beloff's own collection, including Dave Fleischer's Mysterious Mose, a 1930 Betty Boop cartoon, and Fleischer's Bubbles, a 1922 Koko the Clown exercise in surrealism. The show starts at 8:30 p.m., the barbecue at 6:30 p.m., at the El Rio.

An extremely rare silent film screens at the
Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Sunday, 9/17, at 5 p.m. The Sentimental Bloke (1919) is one of the few surviving silents from Australia. Based on a 1915 poem by Australian C. J. Dennis, the film follows a larrikin (ancient Australian for fun-loving guy) who vows to clean up his act when he falls for a fair damsel. This print is from a new negative combining elements from Australia and a negative found in the George Eastman House of Rochester, New York. Musical accompaniment is by Jon Anderson.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Galileo was a liberal

Today's entry proves that this blog is mostly about films: What follows has nothing to do with movies.

This is too easy. Iran's wingnut president,
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called on his nation's students to identify, persecute and oust liberal professors from its universities. “A student must yell against liberal thoughts and the liberal economy,” Ahmadinejad said, in a quote reprinted by the BBC. No one should be surprised by provocative statements like that from a leader who has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and suggested that the Holocaust is a “myth.” What makes Ahmadinejad's call for a purge of intellectuals grist for the mill is how neatly it corresponds with one of the tactics of American neo-conservatives.

American wingnut
David Horowitz appears to be in agreement with Ahmadinejad's call for the harassment of liberal-minded educators. Horowitz has published a book called The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (Regnery Publishing, 2006), and he is one of the founders and backers of Students for Academic Freedom, an organization that attacks teachers who offend conservative students by expressing “liberal” viewpoints. Horowitz and Ahmadinejad are convinced that exposure to liberal ideas corrupts the youth of their respective nations. Here are their own words on the topic:

David Horowitz: “You see, beginning in the mid-1960s, the left made a concerted effort to take over our colleges and universities. The turmoil surrounding the Viet Nam war made our schools ripe for leftist pickings, and they did -- they methodically took over our campuses … now, four decades later, they have a stranglehold on hiring, teaching, and administering most of our schools in all 50 states!
“As they’ve taken control, they’ve trampled free speech, virtually banished conservative professors, and turned our schools into little more than huge megaphones for anti-American rhetoric from coast to coast.” (

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "Today students should protest and shout at the president asking why some liberal and secular professors are still present in the universities. Our educational system has been under the influence of the secular system for 150 years. Colonialism is seeking the spread of its own secular system."


Both men have correctly targeted the key threat to the authoritarian regimes in their nations: educated people equipped with knowledge and the ability to make their own decisions. It's not easy to control a population that question edicts like ensuring airline safety by confiscating toothpaste, or that the “crime” of converting to a different religion is punishable by death. This ability to question is at the heart of a liberal education, and has always been a threat to those who seek to wield power autocratically, be they on the right or the left of political spectrum.

One of the tropes of neo-conservatives is that questioning any of their viewpoints is equivalent with supporting the most extreme opposite position. To question the war in Iraq is to support Saddam Hussein, the “insurgents” or Osama bin-Laden. Asking what the war in Iraq has to do with the “war on terror” is akin to supporting the “terrorists.” Anyone wondering how free trade benefits the jobless must be a protectionist or a socialist. Use of playground taunting to prevent rational discussion is a brilliant use of the current means of communication: TV news and talk radio for the professionals; anonymous blogs and online discussion groups for the amateurs.

This tactic was adapted from the Yippies, the anarchist group of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was lead by Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner, Abbie Hoffman and Anita Hoffman, among others. The Yippies' prankish theatricalism revolved around extreme poltical polarity: Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey was as much a “fascist” to the Yippies as Republican Richard Nixon. The Yippies' inability to comprehend the definition of fascism, combined with their juvenile exhibitionism, caused befuddlement among mainstream newspapers and broadcasters, who still had managerial staff that took their public service responsibility seriously, and provided more than entertaining sound bites. The neo-conservative's adaptation of Yippie-style antics has been successful because its confrontationally binary approach makes for entertaining viewing in between the commercials that support the nine major companies that control most of the media today.

It's much easier to hold to a fixed idea than to consider alternatives. By looking at the horizon, a child learns that the world is flat; it takes effort to understand how this surface is part of a round planet. That same child sees the sun rise in the east, travel overhead, then set in the west. Much more effort is required to accept that the earth moves around the sun.

Of course, even more effort was required to develop this knowledge in the first place. Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician and philosopher, taught in the fifth century B.C. that the earth was spherical. The Greeks clung to a view of the universe that placed the earth at the center of the cosmos. As their knowledge of astronomy grew, they continued to adapt their new learning to this belief, resulting in the Ptolemy's geocentric model of the universe, which remained dominant for 1,500 years. In the 16th century A.D., Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus developed the first mathematical model that explained astronomical anomalies in the Ptolemaic view of the cosmos. Copernicus moved the earth out of its central position, placing it—along with several other planets—in orbit around the sun, which now occupied the center of the solar system. This model, which defined orbits as perfectly circular, failed to account for observational anomalies, e.g., the varying location of Mars in the sky. He refrained from publishing his theory until just before his death, afraid of persecution by the Roman Catholic Church, which invested much of its philosophy in an earth-centric world view.

The Copernican model defined orbital paths as circles, not ellipses, making it just as buggy as the Ptolemaic model. Refinements by Tycho Brahe of Denmark and Johannes Kepler of Germany improved Copernicus' model, but it took 17th-century observations of the heavens with the newly-invented telescope by Italian Galileo Galilei to verify not only that the earth orbited the sun, but that other objects orbited other planets, and that the stars were farther away and far more numerous than had been believed before. For this remarkable effort at adding to knowledge, a 70-year-old Galileo was brought before the Roman Catholic Inquisition (the Papal equivalent of Guantanamo) in 1633, and threatened with torture and death unless he declared that the earth was at the center of the cosmos.

Galileo was a liberal thinker. He observed the world, he studied the work of those who had come before him, he used the latest technology, and he trusted his observations and his knowledge more than his core beliefs—the geocentric view of the Roman Catholic Church—which were founded on nothing more than rote recitation.

Liberal thought is not the same as the “liberalism” defined by the nattering nabobs of Fox News and talk radio. Let's take a look at the definition of “liberal” from the American Heritage Dictionary:

Liberal. . . adj. . . 1. a. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry. b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and toleration of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded. c. Of relating to, or characteristic of liberalism.
The Fox News definition of liberal is much the same as its definition of “Islamo-fascist” or the old uses of epithets like “commie,” “red,” “papist,” “bourgeois,” “heretic,” etc., i.e., “a person whose ideas we find threatening.” A true liberal thinker remains open to new ideas. I've known liberal-thinking Republicans and soldiers. I've known closed-minded Democrats and pacifists.

I think the reason folks like Horowitz and Ahmedinejad get their knickers in a twist about liberal thinkers is that it threatens their own tenuous picture of the world. Both men are erstwhile radicals. Horowitz was an editor at the leftist magazine
Ramparts. He was pals with Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton. Ahmedinejad was involved in the revolt that toppled Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1978, and was likely involved in the capture of American hostages in 1979, which lead to the election of Ronald Reagan as president of the U.S. in 1980. Both men found pathways to power, and found it easier to adopt an authoritarian philosophy that helps them maintain their position, than to cling to liberal thought, which is always fraught with uncertainty. In this way, Horowitz and Ahmedinejad have much in common with their respective bogeymen, like Bill and Hillary Clinton or Condoleeza Rice, all of whom surrendered any ideals they might once have had in favor of maintaining personal power and prestige.

Teresa Whitehurst, author of Jesus on Parenting (Baker Books, 2004), offered an interesting meditation on learning and liberalism in “Careful Not to Get Too Much Education...Or You Could Turn Liberal,” an
article at Third World Traveler. She recounted overhearing a conversation between two students at Lipscomb University, a Christian school in Nashville, Tennesee. The elder passed along to the younger advice he'd received from a professor. “You have to be careful not to get too much education, because you could lose your foundation, your core values.”

That statement neatly encapsulates the fear that leads reactionaries like Horowitz and Ahmedinejad to condemn “liberal professors.” Knowledge is dangerous, especially when it's shared among the masses. An educated populace that develops its own conclusions, individually and collectively, is equipped to question the pronouncements of its leaders. That's bad for the people in power, especially when they're in that position undeservedly.

I'm enrolled in college right now, completing a long-delayed bachelor's degree. I've had several professors and teachers, in subjects ranging from math to film history to astronomy. To date, my only experience of a closed-minded, opinionated and arrogant instructor was a tenured English professor who displayed his neo-conservative ideology at every opportunity. His lectures were peppered with expletives, designed to shock and enrage students. One student who challenged him respectfully, following a particularly corrosive tirade of obscenity, was told she should “take this class from somebody else, because I'm not going to change the way I am because it makes you uncomfortable.”

It seems to me that the problem with education today is not a preponderance of liberal thinkers, but the volume of whining from those threatened by free thought.

(Note: This entry is dedicated to extra super special agent M. "It's not too bad.")

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Recommended Films: 8/6-8/14

San Francisco is awash in film festivals. There's the Silent Film Festival, the Jewish Film Festival, Noir City, Frameline (née the Lesbian, Gay and Transgender Film Festival), the SF Indie Fest, the Doc Fest, the Another Hole in the Head Fest, the SF Black Film Festival, the Ocean Film Festival, the International Asian-American Film Festival, the 3rd i South Asian Film Festival, the Hi/Lo Film Festival, the American Indian Film Festival, the Latino Film Festival, the Zeitgeist Film Festival, Resfest, Tranny Fest, Berlin and Beyond, and the grandmother of them all, the International Film Festival, just to name some of the regulars. And these are just some of the ones contained within the 49 square miles of the city proper.

This week, two of the most interesting festivals get underway with their tenth programs:
The Arab Film Festival and the Madcat Women's Film Festival. Both, as you might expect, get my highest recommendation.

The Arab Film Festival offers Americans the all-too-rare chance to see films produced in countries that our pathologically perverse leaders would rather have us experience through their own myth-making apparatus. Almost none of these films will be distributed widely in the U.S., so this is your best chance to see the world through different eyes. Turn off your television and go learn something at the movies. These are the ones that look most exciting to me:

Zozo (2005) is about a young Lebanese boy who makes his way to Sweden as a direct result of the Lebanese Civil War in 1987. Director Josef Fares contrasts the harsh reality of Zozo's life in both countries with elements of magical realism (including Zozo's pet chicken) to craft what looks to be a compelling story about the prospects of a stranger in a strange land. Check out the film's trailer here. A clip from the film can be seen here. Fares is a 28-year-old Lebanese who fled, with his parents, to Sweden at the age of 10, where he's become a successful film director. Zozo won the Swedish Film Institute's Golden Beetle for cinematography (Aril Wretblad) and music (Adam Nordén), the Spirit of Freedom award at the Bahamas International Film Festival, and was Sweden's entry in the 2006 Academy Awards. It shows in 35mm film at the Roxie Cinema at 7 p.m. Friday, 9/8 and at 9:15 p.m., Tuesday, 9/12. You can also catch it at San Jose's Camera 12, Sunday, 9/10, 4:30 p.m.

Waiting tells the story of Ahmad, a Palestinian theater director whose plans to leave the country are disrupted when he takes on the job of assembling a new troupe for the Palestinian National Theatre. Director Rashid Masharawi uses a mock documentary style as the camera follows Ahmad as he travels through refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, seeking performers who best embody the current zeitgeist of Palestine: waiting. Masharawi was born in a Gaza refugee camp in 1962. He's made six documentaries. Waiting is his fourth feature. In the press notes, he writes: “We Palestinians have the feeling of not being in control of our destiny. The hope of a possible solution comes around regularly, but has fallen apart and then we just start waiting again. Waiting has become an integral part of our lives. It’s at the root of our entire being.” Waiting plays in 35mm at the San Jose's Camera 12 , 9 p.m. Sunday, 9/10, and at Berkeley's California Theatre, 5 p.m., Saturday, 9/16.

The Blood of My Brother tells the story of what happens after an Iraqi civilian—a portrait photographer—is killed by American troops. Director Andrew Berends offers an Iraqi-produced look at what is motivating the Shia uprising in the country America “liberated” so effectively that it must keep a force of 140,000 troops there. The official website is here, and you can see the trailer here. See it in Beta SP video at the Roxie Cinema, 6:30 p.m., Monday, 9/11, and at Berkeley's California Theatre, 9:30 p.m., Saturday, 9/16.

Sound of the Soul (2005) is a documentary about the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, held annually in Morocco. Jewish musicians perform alongside African Berbers, a Portugeuse Fado singer, a gospel band from Harlem, and artists from Ireland, Afghanistan, Russia, England, Mauritania and Turkey. Director Stephen Olsson captures a Sephardic singer as she says “I think the organizers of the festival are very brave, because it is not really easy at this time in history to invite Jews to play in public. But everything here felt fine. It was a very powerful moment.” Sound of the Soul screens in Beta SP video at the Roxie Cinema, 6:15 p.m., Saturday, 9/9.

Sacrifices (2002) is Oussama Mohammed's startling look at the ways that power and violence work in tandem to support each other. A Syrian patriarch is dying, and his family coalesces around him as his dissolution prompts changes. Compared to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Sacrifices is not an easy film to see in this country, so take this opportunity if you can. It's at the
Roxie Cinema, 6:30 p.m., Thursday, 9/14. It's also at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, 8:45 p.m., Saturday, 9/9.

Sacred Space Denied: Bethlehem and the Wall (2005) is a 20 minute short video documenting the human cost of Israel's security barrier in the sacred city. Peter J. Nagle and Hanna Musleh demonstrate how the large structure occupies more and more Palestinian territory while it divides families and creates more disruption than security. It's part of a program of short films that screens at the Roxie Cinema, 2:15 p.m. Sunday, 9/10.

I Know I'm Not Alone is Michael Franti's documentary about his trips to Iraq and Palestine. A founding member of the Beatnigs, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and currently the singer and composer for Spearhead, Oakland native Franti uses the camera and his music to document the human cost of perpetual war. It screens at the Roxie Cinema, 9 p.m., Monday, 9/11.

Goal Dreams follows the exploits of the Palestinian national football (soccer) team as it works to overcome obstacles (the players speak different languages, it has no home field, it's surrounded by soldiers, etc.) as they try to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. This Palestinian production, by directors/producers Jeffrey Saunders and Maya Sanbar, was screened on the Bethlehem Wall during the World Cup matches this past summer. See it in Beta SP video at the Roxie Cinema, 4 p.m., Sunday, 9/10, at Berkeley's California Theatre, 9 p.m., Friday, 9/15, and at San Jose's Camera 12, 2:30 p.m., Sunday, 9/17.

Ahlaam may be the most exciting film in the festival. Shot in Baghdad during the ongoing American occupation and the various insurgencies, Ahlaam tells the personal stories of a young woman who's been in a psychotic asylum since her husband-to-be was seized at the wedding by Saddam Hussein's thugs. American shells destroy the hospital, and she finds herself wandering the streets of devastated Baghdad, where she meets other lost souls—damaged by Baathist brutality and ravaged by American “liberation.” The production of this film makes the experience of Roberto Rosselini and the Italian neorealists look like a walk in the park: The crew carried AK-47 weapons. Some were abducted by insurgents, others were kidnapped by American troops. It's miraculous that the film was made at all. It's even more miraculous that it's made its way through America's blockade of information that runs counter to its own propaganda. This one is not be missed. (I'd point you to the trailer, but the site's been down for the past two days, and even Google's cached site is eerily empty.) See its U.S. premiere in 35mm at the Cubberly Auditorium at Stanford University, Palo Alto, 8:30 p.m., Tuesday, 9/12, at the Roxie Cinema, 9 p.m., Thursday, 9/14, and at Berkeley's California Theatre, 2 p.m., Sunday, 9/17.
The Arab Film Festival continues through 9/15. Check out their site for more programs and information.

The Madcat Women's Film Festival consistently showcases outstanding features, documentaries and lots and lots of shorts by women filmmakers. This festival earned a warm spot in my heart by introducing me to one of my all-time favorite documentaries, Caroline Martel's The Phantom of the Operator, which is sadly, not coming to a theater near you any time soon.

This year's 10th anniversary festival opens with a program called Dwellers, featuring meditations on the concept of habitation (a difficult topic here in the Bay Area, where there's an avaricious clone with a line of credit burning a hole in his/her soul, anxious to become an evictor-in-common and take over your home for a Sunset Magazine-inspired nightmare). Among the shorts in the program is Dear Bill Gates (2005), an imagined correspondence on the co-opting of history and culture for commerce, by
Sarah Christman, co-director of Bush for Peace. Also featured is Kerry Laitala's Terra Firma (2005), a montage of images by Eadweard Muybridge and other photographers, plus footage from A Trip Down Market Street (1906), a Miles Brothers actuality filmed from a streetcar on San Francisco's main drag four days before the 1906 earthquake and fire. There's also Viewmaster Documentaries with Live Narration by Greta Snider, a four minute 3-D collection of GAF nostalgia. Plus more, of course, at the El Rio, Tuesday, 8/12, 8:30 p.m. (barbecue at 6:30 p.m.)

The second
MadCat show is a retrospective highlighting 16mm films that screened at previous MadCat gatherings, at the El Rio, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday 9/13 (barbecue starts at 6:30 p.m.). Included in the program is Chris Willging's Standing at Ground Zero (2001), which focuses on the original “ground zero,” the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. in 1945, through the memories of soldier-turned-pastor Warren Kremi, who was at Nagasaki following the destruction. Also on the program is Sorry, Brenda (2003), the ultimate in subversive fan-fiction TV re-editing. Samara Halperin takes scenes from Aaron Spelling's tortured-teen exploitation series Beverly Hills, 90210, and recasts two characters into a relationship that would leave Tori Spelling speechless.

Madcat continues with more programs next week and the week following. Check out their site, or look here next week.

The Mechanical Age series at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley continues Thursday, 9/7, with L'Uomo Meccanico (The Mechanical Man), an Italian film from 1921, an early science fiction story about a female criminal mastermind and a giant robot. This incomplete 35mm is provided by Cineteca di Bologna. With La Marche des Machines (March of the Machines), a 1929 French cinematic symphony by Eugene Deslaw, in 16mm courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. Plus Robots, a 1930 film by Deslaw, in 35mm, from the Cinematheque Française. The show starts at 5:30 p.m., and it's FREE!.

PFA offers more Mechanical Age treats 3 p.m., Sunday, 9/10, with the animated/live action shorts of Charley Bowers, a recently rediscovered filmmaker of the silent era, who combined Mack Sennett-style slapstick with innovative animation and Rube Goldberg inventiveness to craft cinematic japes about the increasingly mechanized world of the 20th century. There are three Bowers shorts, Egged On (1926), in which he creates an “egg that Mother Nature never considered,” Many a Slip (1927), involving the slip-proof banana peel, and A Wild Roomer (1926), which I'll leave a mystery. These are all in 35mm, courtesy of the Cinematheque Quebecoise, Lobster Films, and the Cinematheque Française. It's followed by Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990), with Johnny Depp, a blonde Winona Ryder and the final appearance of Vincent Price. One of Burton's better efforts, Depp plays the title character, a mad scientist's Frankenstein monster creation whose gentle nature alone can't help him to rise above his mechanical hands. With the Bowers-inspired Swiss short The Way Things Go, at 5 p.m.

The decks are awash with camp at the
PFA as Judy Garland and Gene Kelly sashay through Vincente Minelli's 1948 musical parody The Pirate. With songs by Cole Porter, this witty send-up of the buccaneer films of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn is a true gem that doesn't get half the attention it deserves. And combining the themes of nautical marauding with they exaggerated spectre of copyright infringement, the show also includes Negativland's Gimme the Mermaid (2000), which mixes up Disney's Little Mermaid with “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” by Black Flag plus the ravings of a lawyer in the pocket of the major labels. Wednesday, 9/13 at 7:30 p.m.

The good folks at
Oaklandish offer an unusual evening of films about Oakland at the Parkway Theater, Thursday, 9/14, at 9:15 p.m. Starting with something called Oakland Raider Parking Lot, the show continues with an hour-long collection of silent shorts about Oakland from the 1920s and 1930s, plus newsreels from the 1950s, footage of Bruce Lee in Oakland, the Black Panthers, Sun Ra, and more. This looks like it could be cinema verité that is truly verité.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.