Sunday, April 22, 2018

ROOKY RICARDO'S INFORMED PASSION—The Evening Class Conversation with Dick Vivian

Dick Vivian.  Photo: Michael Guillén.  All rights reserved.
As recalled at Rooky Ricardo's website [Facebook], 30 years ago Dick Vivian bought 35,000 45's from a distributor who had gone out of business years before. He discovered beautiful mint stock of titles very seldom seen anymore and was fortunate to find a cheap store front in the Lower-Haight where he intended to open a store just to get the records out of his garage! At that time, he sold everything for $2.00—what did he know about running a record shop? One thing led to another, a sign was made, racks were acquired and a business was born. A few years later Dick added LP's to the collection to fill things out and—although business was slow in the beginning with overseas collectors knowing more about the shop than people down the street—it was obviously not enough to deter the shop's progress. Thirty years later Rooky Ricardo's has become not just a store but a San Francisco institution, as recognized by the The City of San Francisco who granted Rooky Ricardo's Legacy Business Status on June 21, 2017.

My first visit to Rooky Ricardo's was after wolfing down cornmeal cheddar bacon pancakes at Kate's Kitchen on Haight Street. I was on one of my iPhone photo forays, looking for unusual shop window items to document. When I stopped in front of Rooky Ricardo's the windows were full of so much nostalgic memorabilia that I put my iPhone in my pocket and walked in. Now a visit to San Francisco is not complete without visiting the store and taking time to chew the fat with proprieter Dick Vivian who I recognize as one of the most unique and authentic individuals I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know.

When he agreed to be interviewed, it was for the purpose of honoring Black History Month in February; but, as that ol' white rabbit has muttered, "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get." Here it is already late April; but, I've completely enjoyed savoring my conversation with Dick Vivian and hope you will as well.

* * *

The Del Vikings.  Photo: Unknown.
Michael Guillén: In Byard Duncan's comprehensive interview with you for GQ, you talked about The Del Vikings' "Whispering Bells", the first record that triggered your informed passion for vinyl. Can you recall exactly what it was that excited you? That held you in aesthetic arrest?

Dick Vivian: I remember I grew up in Walnut Creek. I was born in '47 and that record came out in '57. My mother would let me listen to the radio before I went to sleep and I was, y'know, kind of dozing off. I liked stuff like Fats Domino and Gale Storm, but then "Whispering Bells" came on and I had never heard anything like that. The beginning and the way it just kept going, vibrant, and it was—to that point—the most alive song I had ever heard.

I was never a big "Rock Around the Clock" fan and the basic old rock n' roll that was so revered, I never really appreciated it. I didn't realize this until later, but being that we were in California on the West Coast, before we heard so many of the songs when these artists had a hit, they may have already had two or three other hits on the East Coast. The Del Vikings was one of those groups that had recorded a lot of stuff that never made it out here. I liked everything about "Whispering Bells"; it was high energy and positive.

So I really was into music by then and learned how to dance in eighth grade. Actually, by sixth grade I had learned how to do all the couple dancing, which we called "the bop" at the time. The music that I really preferred was danceable music. It could be slow, but had to be danceable. I liked Freddy Cannon and just liked stuff that was very lively.

The year that I really realized how much I loved music was 1960. Then in '61 and '62—in my opinion, '62 was the best year ever in music—it's like all of the worlds came together. We didn't know the difference. There wasn't anything called "soul" then; but, there were Black artists. Everything just came together and the charts were full of variety. Then in '63, things changed a little bit and then, of course, '64 was when rock came in.

I started buying records really young and bought a lot offered by the rackjobbers. That was my favorite thing. Occasionally, I associate records with the smell of a grocery store. Certain stores didn't have the right refrigeration but there was a certain smell that stores like the Lucky Foods in Walnut Creek had. They always had great four-for-a-dollar records.

Guillén: So for Marcel Proust it was madeleine cookies; but, for you, it was the smell of a Lucky Foods grocery store in Walnut Creek, California? So when you say you were listening to records in 1962, which you consider a benchmark year, were you listening to these songs on the radio?

Dick: Yes. I couldn't afford to buy all those records. I had an allowance but I had to wait for when these records were past their prime and they were on sale. Records were 89 cents, then went up to 98 cents, and in some places they could sell them cheaper. Sometimes record stores just wanted to get rid of stock and they would sell them for 11 cents apiece, so then I could stock up.

Guillén: Which radio stations were you listening to at the time?

Dick: We had KYA, and they had a top 60. I collected surveys so every week I was so excited to go down to the record stores and get either the survey that they did or those by KWB, that had a top 40, and KYA that had a top 60, and you could almost say that with my collection of CDs that I liked the bottom half of the top 100, that just didn't really make it. KDIA was the Black station where I first heard most of the things that I fell in love with. I didn't really care about them talking, but they would get excited about a record. We couldn't get some of the stations in Walnut Creek very well so I had to adjust where the radio was in the dining room to actually get them.

Guillén: I grew up in a migrant laborer family and we would move back and forth following the crops from southern California to southern Idaho. I would come up from Brawley, California—which was a hotbed of Black and Chicano music and dance—and arrive in snow white Twin Falls, Idaho with all these songs that they had not heard and would probably not hear for another two years. I can remember me, my sister Barbara and my brother Larry taking the record "Wooly Bully" by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs to the KLIX radio station, which was the only station in Twin Falls, and we said, "We have this record that we think is going to be a real hit with your kids." And it really was a hit that summer in Twin. Did you ever introduce a record to a deejay?

Dick: No, but I did introduce so much music to my high school friends. I did a little deejaying later, bits and pieces, but it was more that I was a "double barrel" because of my dancing capabilities. I was the only boy who knew all the dances, which was a winning situation. Then, I had the 45s so that when friends came over it was just really cool to play 45s. I would take one of those traveling boxes—which are very collectible at this point—full of records to a party. How excited people would get! Because they didn't really listen to a lot of that stuff.

I remember one party where I was at. My high school was small, 300 people, so I knew almost everybody. This one guy Tom Ringy—who went on to be a pretty famous musician—we were talking about "Cry to Me" by Solomon Burke. What I realized later in life was that I liked the stuff that was really good and became the legacy songs for a lot of those artists. That was interesting to me. Nobody played girl groups. The Supremes hadn't come along to be popular yet. The first time I ever heard "Bye-bye, Baby" by Mary Wells, I thought it was a group called the Merry Wells and I thought it was a male lead. I always remember when I first heard a particular song; when I first learned to dance.

Guillén: What you definitely have—one of the things that has drawn me in and why I'm so glad I have befriended you—is what truly is a curatorial perspective. You could call it a deejay's perspective, I guess, but I feel it's more informed and passionate than that. You understand the context of the songs.

Dick: And I am older so I remember a lot more of what actually was and that's what I want to keep intact with people. If I had to say I had one gift in life, it's rhythm. When I make my CD compilations, you can hear that rhythm. Most CDs that you buy, even with great music, are just slapped together and so it's either stuff that is so obscure that either nobody ever heard it or it didn't come out, or it was such a big hit that you see it everywhere. My CDs are what actually was. I do themes, but they could be radio playlists. And I had my specialties. I was always a soul female fan.

I remember that downtown Woolworths, which is now The Gap, had a huge record department. It had a turnstile to get in and a turnstile to get out. My mom worked in the City and I came over, I would have been 14-15, and Woolworths had the Top 100 and the Top 100 R&B/soul records all on dowels coming out of the wall. That was the first time I realized that Motown, Gordy and Tamla were the same company. You never got that information. Most of the artists that I liked didn't have albums at the time and I couldn't have afforded albums anyways.

Guillén: Reputedly, you don't have a preference for albums? You prefer 45s?

Dick: Well, no, though a lot of times I do prefer 45s, that's what I'm known for, but albums had a lot of extras. For me there were maybe five albums that were lifechanging albums. The first Shirelles album had amazing stuff that was never on 45s. I bought Ernie K Doe's "Mother In Law"—which I bought with Blue Chips stamps coupon books—I had The Shirelles' first album, The Orlons had two amazing albums, and "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" by Marvin Gaye. That was given to me as a gift and I wanted that album so bad and it's still the best album he ever did. I don't play those anymore. They're so collectible. I have them all on CD, though I do like hearing them as they were. A lot of the CDs that are put out sound just fine. It's just that a lot of the larger companies in trying to make recordings sound more modern equalize everything so that it doesn't even sound like the same song.

Guillén: There's a sensorial quality to an imperfection.

Dick: Right! And I love it! That's why I love The Marvelettes and why I love Maureen Gray. I wouldn't necessarily say they sang flat, but they were brash. I love that.

Guillén: There's something about that imperfection, that rawness, that approximates the street. In Brawley, California where I grew up half of the year there was a strong ethnic community. I remember when "Dancin' In the Street" by Martha & the Vandellas first came out and the community loved that song.

Dick: It was one of the first songs that stood for something.

Guillén: I remember a public event where all the young people were dancing to that song down the main street of Brawley in a serpentine. I'll never forget that. It was one of the first times I realized how much joy there was in music and dance. Then I'd go up to Idaho, which was lily-livered white, y'know? We used to have a music appreciation class at O'Leary Junior High where each student was allowed to bring two 45s to play for the rest of the class. I took "Bernadette" by The Four Tops and "Jimmy Mack" by Martha & The Vandellas and remember being nearly laughed out of the class. Literally laughed at.

Dick: "Bernadette"?!! I could see maybe "Jimmy Mack", but not "Bernadette"!

Photo: Courtesy of Rooky Ricardo's
Guillén: Backtracking just a bit, I do want to make sure to give a shout-out to your CD compilations, which I believe are such a valuable and affordable gift that you give to the community. Who designs the rather clever covers for you?

Dick: His name is Matt Osborne.

Guillén: Do you give him cues or does he come up with these visuals by himself?

Dick: I give him the theme of each compilation and occasionally I will have an idea; but, he is very talented. We met when he worked at Amoeba and was making buttons. He does these great buttons and magnets. Then he actually opened a camera shop in the back of my store, but now he's got his own store, Glass Key Photo. He's in the other end of town now because he's doing so well. He sells and repairs vintage cameras, which like records have made a huge comeback. They make real money doing what they do. He's so creative. He grew up in Sacramento. He'll get an idea and then run three or four choices by me. Every CD cover has a sense of humor. He and I are so close in our taste and values. Sometimes he'll listen to a CD while he's thinking, but—like I told you earlier—I'm down 10 CDs right now because he's just too busy and it takes a lot of time to type in all the titles. We have this other friend who always notices the typos we've made after we put the CD out; every time.

Guillén: A self-appointed copy-editor, eh?

Dick: A copy-editor. One we all missed and it was wrong for years was "Leftover Lovers", which was the companion piece to "Move On, Drifter", which was all Drifters sound-alikes. "Leftover Lovers" was kind of the same thing and the first song on it was "Little Lonely One" and we spelled "lonely" without an "e". It made it for years without anybody noticing. We have a bunch of stuff lined up. I have a whole new Girl Groups set ready to come out. I like doing soundalike sets. I did "Curtisey-Call" with all the stuff that sounds like, is or was Curtis Mayfield-ish. I'm doing "Sam Crook", which is all going to sound like it should have been Sam Cooke, or was. I have one called "Losers Always Lose", which is a plot-oriented R&B compilation. It's just fun. And it's great for the store. Offhand, I've probably sold about 5,000 of those CD compilations.

Guillén: They do the industry a vital service because I'll find a song or an artist on one of your compilations that I'll then go looking to find what else they've done.

Dick: Yeah, it creates sales. For me, knowing that these great artists to this day don't get the recognition, it's my little way of helping.

Guillén: So let's shift to your lists of Black artists who you feel have not received due recognition.

Dick: Great! I was thinking about my absolute favorite voices. Voices are the most important thing to me, then the productions of course. The artists that I've picked for my list, grouped under male singers, female singers and groups, some people have definitely heard of, some of them have had a few hits, but the reason they're on my list is there's so much other great stuff that nobody really knows about. Some of the artists have had pretty complete CDs done, but people still don't know them.

Take Ben E. King, for instance. Besides a hit as big as "Stand By Me" and a few others, people just don't pay attention and that's what I put on my CDs. What I love are the singles, or the songs, that went under the wire. A lot of times they were local "kind of" hits, they got a lot of air play, they just didn't take off. There are so many singers and songs that never ever became an "oldie". If it didn't get sampled, nobody ever knows about it.

Guillén: Or, at the time, they just weren't released. I think Hattie Littles is a tremendous voice but Motown didn't release many of her recordings until recently.

Dick: Yup. They didn't release them. This is why I picked these particular people. On my list of male Black singers, there are three that people definitely know: Garnet Mimms, Freddie Scott (because one of his songs got sampled so people know him), and Ben E. King, of course.

Guillén: By sampled, do you mean covered?

Dick: No, sampled. Where the song has been used by a hip hop artist or whatever. Like Wendy Rene; she got sampled on a ton of hip hop stuff so they finally released a double album of all of her stuff. She was kind of a back-up singer at Stax. She backed up Otis Redding and William Bell. Now her double album is a big seller. I can't afford to have repressings in my store because they cost too much money and I can't really mark them up.

So Freddie Scott had a big one. I don't think the others did. But they have really strong voices, which was brought out in a lot of the productions. Bert Berns is my favorite of any of the producers, and Jerry Ragovoy. They did amazing productions. I'm a big fan of back-up girls so any song that has back-up women that are strong—various incarnations of The Sweet Inspirations in New York, or The Cookies, or The Blossoms in L.A. —I will love the song much more. Anyways, the other two male singers are Hoagy Lands and Obrey Wilson. Both are not well-known at all and there's not been a CD out of their music.

Hoagy Lands in some way or another is remotely related to Sam Cooke and he sounds just like him. He just passed away a few years ago. He has the most powerful, amazing voice. Obrey Wilson is also under-rated and he had a dramatic voice. With men, I like dramatic voices. I don't like screamers but I like people that go over. I like people who know just how far to take it. They don't get to the screaming stage. Jackie Wilson had great songs but his overall body of work, at least three quarters of it, was not very good. With the five male vocals on my list, their songs are all done tastefully.

My list of female singers includes two of my favorite female singers of all time: Betty Harris and Gwen McCrae. A lot of people still don't know Betty Harris, but she's the New Orleans equivalent of Lee Dorsey. She's the only female who had hits, produced by Allen Toussaint. Gwen McCrae was on Columbia and there's a CD of the Columbia stuff. Be sure you listen to her pre-disco songs. Her voice was so strong. She had one big hit, "Rocking Chair" and she was married to George McCrae who did "Rock Your Baby".

Also on my list is Candi Staton, who again has gotten a lot of accolades, but her first album ["I'm Just A Prisoner"] I have to say is probably one of the best soul albums ever made. Every drop of blood she has goes into every note. Staton's voice has complete control.

Inez Foxx had a big hit with "Mockingbird", but she also did some mid-'60s stuff with her brother Charles. She had such a good voice and she made it into the early '70s and then the album that she had on Volt—which is really good—bombed.

But the best voice, I think, is Sylvia Shemwell (who was one of the Sweet Inspirations). On all these songs that I love, it turns out that Dee Dee Warwick was the main back-up voice, along with Doris Troy, Jo Armstead and Sylvia Shemwell. She was called Stormy Winters for the song "Foolish Dreamer" and "He'll Come Back" is under her name. Sylvia's voice was beyond complete. Someday, if my dreams ever come true before I die, someone will do a list of all the singers under their various names and what songs they backed up.

Group-wise, the most under-rated group, even though they had tons of hits, is The Orlons. Their true talent has never been talked about. I didn't put them on my list, but The Orlons were perfection. Their harmonies were great. They all had great voices. Who I put on my list were groups for you to discover.

I did get a Japanese CD—it's the only way it came out—of The Glories. The Glories were on Date Records and every single thing they did was great. My other favorite girl group voice is Dolly and the Fashions. The lead singer's voice is like silk. One of my CDs has Lindy Adams on it and that must have been her sister because they were on the same label and had the exact same voice. I'd love someday to have more information on her.

I put down Bob & Earl because there are no CDS of their music. Their big hit was "Harlem Shuffle", but they had an extremely long career and they were unbelievable. One of them [Earl Nelson] became Jackie Lee ("The Duck").

A doowop group, just to put one on, is The Dubs. They had one really big hit called "Chapel of Dreams", but the song I want you to listen to—and there's a live version on YouTube—is "Don't Ask Me to Be Lonely." It's the most beautiful doowop record.

Finally, there's The Dreamlovers, actually also doo-wop, who had a couple of hits of their own but they were mainly back-up singers, like the male Blossoms. They backed up almost everything on Cameo-Parkway and they were all over the map. They didn't have enough records of their own, but they're amazing. So there you go.

Guillén: Thank you, Dick. That's an incredible list. Have you ever considered writing a music history?

Dick: No. I'm too lazy. And it's just my opinion. Dancing and music go together, obviously; but, I just wish that when I was younger and in my prime of dancing—I was on a local TV show for three years; my partner and I were one of the two main couples—that someone (now that it's so easy to do all this) would have done a little documentary of me showing how to do the dances. You never see the real Mashed Potatoes anymore, or the real Pony. When I saw John Waters' Hairspray (1988), there's a 13-year-old kid in the opening credits who you see for just about 15 seconds who's doing the Mashed Potatoes correctly. Hairspray is the only dance-oriented movie where they do the dances correctly.

Guillén: Have you ever praised John Waters directly for that?

Dick: I did! I met him accidentally—talk about fate!—before Zuni expanded there used to be a cactus shop. I was a waiter and on the day of my huge 50th birthday party, which I planned for myself, the theme was "Shake A Tail Feather", which was also from Hairspray. I went and got pillow stuffing so that—when you opened up the invitation—tail feathers would come out of the invitation. I'm not kidding you, I had just picked up the invitations from Kinkos—it wasn't easy in those days to be creative—and I put them in the trunk of my car. My first customer that night was the guy who owned the cactus shop, he was a regular, and his companion was John Waters. So I invited him to come to the birthday party. He didn't come, obviously, but I told him, "Look, these are because of you" and I showed him an invitation.

TV 20 Dance Party

Dick dancing with Nick Waterhouse

 He's still got the moves, doing the Rock Steady


Dick's recipe for fried chicken salad


Friday, April 06, 2018

PSIFF 2018 > SFFILM FESTIVAL 2018: JUPITER'S MOON—An Evening Class Question for Kornél Mundruczó

Kornél Mundruczó's Jupiter's Moon (2017) had its U.S. Premiere earlier this year in the World Cinema Now sidebar at the 2018 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) with Mundruczó accompanying the film. As synopsized by PSIFF: "Thoroughly cinematic and replete with images that will take your breath away, iconoclastic Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó's parable-like drama offers up the tale of young Syrian refugee Aryan [Zsombor Jéger] who, after being shot while attempting to cross the border into Hungary, discovers he is possessed of a magical power: he can fly. Aryan wants to use his befuddling new gift to find his missing father. Before he can do that, though, he comes under the influence of unscrupulous refugee-camp doctor Gabor [Merab Ninidze], who sees nothing but dollar signs when considering Aryan's power.

"Mundruczó uses the men's burgeoning relationship and a thriller-like plot to skewer the narrow-minded socio-political attitudes of his fellow citizens, while Aryan's flights provide the director—and his gifted cinematographer, Marcell Rév—with ample opportunity to create some of the most lyrical and, frankly, astonishing visuals to grace cinema screens this year."

Arguably my favorite film from PSIFF's 2018 line-up, I was delighted to see it programmed into the 61st edition of the SFFILM Festival, first on Thursday, April 12, 9:30PM at the Castro Theatre (whose giant screen will best serve the film's exhilarating effects), then next on Tuesday, April 17, 3:30PM at the Roxie. SFFILM encapsulates: "Stepping over and through genres in giant leaps, the transcendent new film by White God's Kornél Mundruczó details the story of a Syrian refugee who discovers he can fly. This ability is not only explored literally, with marvelous long takes of Aryan floating above Budapest, but also metaphorically, as he is identified and exploited as a person to fear and possibly destroy. An extraordinary single-shot car chase provides one of the film's numerous highlights.

" 'The juxtaposition of supernatural thriller tropes and urgent sociopolitical issues in Kornél Mundruczó's latest movie—an original take on the superhero origin story set to the backdrop of the refugee crisis—might prove a delicate one for some viewers to take. Those unperturbed, however, should find much to relish in Jupiter's Moon, a film that somewhat lightly plays with themes of religion and immigration as it rumbles, crashes, and ultimately soars through the streets of the Hungarian capitol.'—Rory O'Connor,"

Mundruczó at the Cannes press conference.  Source: Getty Images
Of Jupiter's Moon, Mundruczó says, "When I was fourteen years old, I read a book called The Flying Boy, and I asked myself, should I believe in this or not? I wanted to create a story that continually makes people ask themselves the same question: 'Should I believe in what I am seeing or not?' "

If genre can be thought of as a mask that both conceals and reveals its subject, then Jupiter's Moon would aptly fit mythologist Joseph Campbell's assertion that certain masks are "transparent to transcendence." Doubt cast into any belief system can either contribute to faith or raise righteous anger to eliminate what it perceives as a threat. Mundruczó is just sly enough not to limit Jupiter's Moon to either a religious parable or a superhero origin story, but confabulates at its heart the very reasons why humans need to believe. Why—in the face of all reason—would we want to believe in the existence of an angel? And what in the world would we do if we encountered one? Granted, I see Aryan as more of an unwitting angel than a superhero and had a specific question for Mundruczó during his PSIFF Q&A.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Jupiter's Moon is an absolutely thrilling piece of filmmaking! Thank you so much. I enjoyed it immensely. Could you speak about the scene where Gabor and Aryan are on the rooftop and it appears that Aryan grants Gabor absolution by touching him on the head?

Kornél Mundruczó: Dramaturgically, that was the end of the second act. For me, Jupiter's Moon is more about Gabor Stern than Aryan. Aryan is more like a silent someone who everyone is talking to; but, Stern is a bastard. He's really a lost soul. He's a loveless alcoholic. He's a strange character who—when he's at his deepest point and has lost his job and is at ground zero—meets Aryan, who (as he becomes a superhero-like figure, an angel) blesses him. That's when Stern's new life begins. That's when he becomes able to love and able to help. That was the logic behind that scene. We needed this key scene of blessing; but, it's not really a religious moment. It's a transcendental moment.

Guillén: Was it also a shift for Aryan? Because it seems that in this scene is the first time he accepts his agency.

Mundruczó: Exactly! Also, he's always saying he doesn't want to be a superhero like Superman who has come from another planet. This scene makes it simple. You have no understanding and no answer for the real miracles. You know they have happened, but as a human, thinking on that level, you cannot imagine what it is that God wants with us, why He is sending anything to our lives? But you have to leave belief open. For us, Aryan's superpower is that he gives exactly what you want. The Nazi boy wanted to be punished. The old woman wanted to die. In those moments he is doing exactly what is being asked for without any huge speeches explaining why. This is his power. At that moment on the rooftop Stern believed deep in his soul, in his heart, that he wanted to be changed. He wanted a new life.

The rest of the PSIFF Q&A

Q: How did you find and cast the remarkable young actor who plays Aryan?

Mundruczó: It's a very strange story because we had only one main conception before starting to cast this movie: I wanted the young man who played Aryan to be a real-life refugee, someone from Syria. That was our aim. As we started the casting, that was exactly the time when the refugee crisis was coming into Hungary. Everyone we cast didn't want to stay in Hungary. They wanted to go more to Western Europe. It was like trying to find gold in sand. It was totally senseless. We could like somebody who the next day wasn't even in the country.

But we were clever and went to Germany because all these refugees wanted to go to Germany, as you probably read in the papers. We did a huge casting there as well and found an amazing boy. I asked him and he said, "Yes, I would like to do this movie with you." Then we tried to make it legal that he would be working in Hungary as a German refugee and, of course, he couldn't be. If he left behind his status as a German refugee, he would have to become a Hungarian refugee and he didn't want that. So we lost him two weeks before shooting.

Yes, I went to the Hungarian drama schools to watch the newcomers and I found Zsombor there. And I determined the casting by the way he would be flying. We did a test with the rig and when I saw Zsombor's body language I knew he was the best choice for the movie. We had planned to use choreographers to stage the flights, but once we saw him, we decided not to because by himself he somehow created the levitation scenes. It was crazy because we were doing everything practically 50 meters high on a wire. But he just created everything and I'm so happy he did.

The only bit of levitation that was not practically done was the final scene at the window where he's alone above the city. You can't do that literally. But the rest of the movie is completely practical. For me, that was a main issue: to make a supernatural hero, a superhero, but as naturalistically as possible, and not playfully remembering the superhero genre. There are some moments in the dialogue where all of the Bibles, all of the holy writings, are filled with these kinds of miracles that are surrounding us somehow, but we wanted to make them real. That was of absolute importance to me. I like movies like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which used practical effects made by a 75-year-old director. I was like, "Wow" because that movie celebrated so much.

Q: Can you speak to the direction of the actors? What's interesting is that the shots are so choreographed but these amazing performances come out of them too.

Mundruczó: For me the main importance was to keep a freedom to dance. On one hand, we used long shots but the actors composed the scenes somehow. I'm not the kind of director who insists that something has to be in a shot because I know already a year ago what I have to create; but, much more to work with the present and creating material that is closer to life, understandable as life, and not just a perspective of a god-like director who knows the truth and tells the truth, blah blah blah. I'm quite tired by that kind of aggression, which is coming even if I shared the truth of the movie. For me, and also as part of the tradition of Hungarian filmmaking, I'm more interested in creating the reality of the present and creating alive material.

You need actors who are open to that and who are adult and responsible for their roles so that I'm left free to move on set, I know the DP will follow me, and I can create the situation, can change words, but at the same time it's not dogmatic. On one hand I would like to create reality, but also blur the reality, which I love. Like in the early films of the Dardenne Brothers where you feel that what you are seeing is happening and you are following the characters into their lives, even if you can't understand. That was the logic to the direction and you need a special group of actors who understand from direction in the past because I have worked with them sometimes.

Q: Can you speak to the cinematography and how the special effects come off so magical?

Mundruczó: All of the effects are practical. We used wires and cranes and riggings. As you can imagine, in a room you have four corners. In front of the character you have the wires going up to the ceiling and then you can deliver everywhere somehow the person who is rigged inside the room. We used the same logic, but just up in the air. We made a metal room. All of the riggers in the corners are also flying up high, as is the camera operator, and the camera and the character are both on wires. We also used a crane and the room can turn. When you lose your perspective in the film, it is because everything is moving, nothing is calculated, nothing is programmed into a computer; but, you can feel the human spirit inside.  The scene where the woman is dying in the glamorous apartment in Budapest was very difficult for us because of the spinning. And actually the most difficult was the first flight in nature.

Q: To achieve the look of the film, then, did you storyboard a lot with your DP?

Mundruczó: There was some storyboarding, but it was very primitive. As I mentioned already, we were more concerned with creating material that was alive. We did a lot of pre-shots with a primitive 5D camera and we rented a large hall to learn how we could do those shots. My conception was very straight. I didn't want to cut the shots. I wanted to make the miracles appear as miracles, even though we didn't have the money to do so. Also, I wanted to combine the horizontal and the vertical axis so that you're walking, fly up, then walking again. Literally, that was the idea and that was super difficult to create. I believe in my little camera. I don't believe so much in drawings. I'm not a video director.

Q: The credits say this movie was blessed by a rabbi? Can you explain that?

Mundruczó: Actually, my producer-husband is a rabbi. He watches me make all my movies and watches to see if they fit with his religion or not. We show him the movies and he blesses them because he can bless them, like he blesses a house or a door. He can bless art pieces as well.

Q: Is there a deep meaning to why the characters often lapse into speaking English?

Mundruczó: There's no deep meaning. As we say in Hungary, it's not even English, it's Globish. Which means that a Syrian refugee coming to see a Hungarian doctor, they speak English, even if it's Tarzan English, or Globish. It's also just close to reality and using this low-quality English between them somehow.

Q: Did making this film meet your expectations?

Mundruczó: That's a big question, and I have to say that it met my expectations, and even a little more because—though I was working with a fantastic team—I wasn't sure if we could create those moments. But everyone gave everything for this movie. We did it for $3.5 million dollars, which is really low for a movie like this, so we started to cut corners. When we came to the chase scene, we thought, "Let's cut out the chase scene." But then the stuntmen came and said we could do it all in one shot and save costs. Also, I'm close to this kind of style of filmmaking. It's less and less popular but still exists. I'm so proud that I'm on this side creating scenes like that. When I was growing up, that was the style of the Soviet sci-fi movies and Eastern European movies. They were always more blurry. That's my tradition and I quite like to do that.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

SFFILM FESTIVAL 2018—Michael Hawley's Preview Of Spotlight on Space, Dark Wave, French Cinema

Spotlight on Space
Every year the festival gathers a few films with a common theme and places them under a "Spotlight" umbrella. This year's designated leitmotif is "Into the Great Beyond" and I was able to preview two of the three films. Klim Shipenko's Salyut-7 is a thoroughly satisfying outer space thriller that won Best Picture at last year's Golden Eagle Awards (Russia's Oscar® equivalent). Based on actual events, the Salyut-7 episode is sometimes referred to as Russia's Apollo 13. In 1985, two U.S.S.R. cosmonauts were sent to rescue a damaged, unmanned space station before it was captured by Americans. Shipenko's retelling of their close call with oblivion is nerve-wracking, humanist, frequently comic and of course, just a little nationalistic. It also boasts special effects that rival Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. My only complaint is the ending seems a bit unsettled for those not familiar with the actual events. Salyut-7 is already available to stream on Amazon Prime, but you'll want to see it on the biggest screen possible. Which I'm sure is why SFFILM chose the Castro Theatre for its single festival screening on April 8. Sometimes it's great fun to experience another country's big-budget blockbuster. This is such an occasion.

Austrian director Johann Lurf's ★ (Star) screens in the festival's experimental Vanguard section. It is essentially a 99-minute representational compilation film in which movie scenes of star-spangled nighttime skies are viewed in succession, with their original music scores, aspect ratio and unsubtitled dialogue left intact. Clips from 550 films are experienced in chronological order, beginning with 1905's Rêve de la lune running all the way up to 2017's Girls Trip. A few are easily recognizable—Night of the Hunter, 2001, various stars of Bethlehem, Star Wars and Star Trek. But the hundreds of others? I had no clue I'd just watched the likes of Wayne's World, Antichrist, Stromboli, The Big Lebowski, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Howard the Duck and I Walked With a Zombie. Numerous Japanese clips (Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi) get screen time, as well as experimental works from Man Ray and Maya Deren. The credits end with a year-by-year listing of all 550 films, which would be more beneficial to viewers if presented at the beginning. All the more reason to watch the film again, I suppose. One caveat—given the subject matter, you might be imagining ★ (Star) as a relaxing and dreamy viewing experience. It isn't. Many clips run just a second or two, and the constantly shifting aspect ratios and audio render it more akin to watching a schizoid astronomer channel-surf.

Dark Wave

I'm not much of a genre film fan, but that hasn't stopped me from being very excited about the films in this year's Dark Wave section. All four, incidentally, hail from outside the U.S. Robin Aubert's French-Canadian zombie flick Ravenous is already streaming on Netflix, but I've resisted having a look in favor of screaming bloody murder with a live festival audience. The movie scores big bonus points for starring Monia Chokri, the actress who played Xavier Dolan's droll competitor for the attentions of a blond Adonis in 2010's highly underrated Heartbeats. France's Dark Wave entry is Revenge, a female-directed (Coralie Fargeat) rape revenge thriller that's promising to crank the gruesome sub-genres' tropes up to 11, while remaining distinctive and smart. Fargeat's film garnered near-unanimous raves on the festival circuit, with The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney proclaiming it a "pop art carnage opera" that is "nothing if not relentless." SFFILM Fest's own description boasts that "one could paint a mansion with the amount of blood that gushes" from Revenge. Color me eager to be nauseated.

The other two Dark Wave entries are from the UK and both have secured considerable critical praise. Michael Pearce's Beast is a piece of intense arthouse horror that premiered at Toronto. Set on the remote isle of Jersey, Beast concerns a young woman whose struggle against her controlling family intensifies after meeting a sexy stranger—one who may or may not be a serial killer. The film's trailer is downright unnerving. Jean-Stepháne Sauvaire's A Prayer Before Dawn is a UK/France co-production that premiered as a Cannes midnight screening. Based on true events, the film stars Joe Cole as Billy Moore, a fighter and heroin addict who's arrested and thrown in Thai prison. While there he trains in the art of Muay Thai boxing, eventually becoming a champion who's permitted to earn his release. (The film was shot in an actual Thai prison). Boxing movies are decidedly not my thing, but I'm giving this one a shot.

French Cinema

Bay Area exhibition of French-language films suffered a real blow when SFFILM discontinued its French Cinema Now series two years ago. Couple that with fewer French films than ever achieving local theatrical release (even ones with U.S. distribution), and we're left with general interest festivals like SFFILM and Mill Valley to pick up the slack. The good news is that this year's SFFILM Festival has programmed three films that were a significant part of the conversation surrounding French cinema in 2017. The not so good news is that a dozen or two other noteworthy works will remain elusive to us, at least for the time being.

I strongly recommend catching Laurent Cantet's The Workshop at the festival. It was one of the best things I saw at this year's Palm Springs International Film Fest and it appears distributor Strand Releasing might no longer be planning a local release. The Workshop premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar and was immediately hailed as the director's best work since 2008's Palme d'or winner The Class. Writer/director Robin Campillo (last year's French Oscar® submission BPM) is back on board as co-screenwriter, a position he's assumed on all Cantet's best films. Actress Marina Foïs (never better) plays a renowned author conducting a student summer writing workshop in a depressed coastal town near Marseilles. The goal is to collectively write a locally-set murder mystery. Things take a dark turn when a taciturn student (a brilliant debut by Matthieu Lucci) who's swayed by right-wing Nationalist politics becomes a threat to both his multi-culti classmates and especially the author herself. Not to be missed.

The other two films I referenced were Cannes premieres, as well as the first movies I made sure to work into my festival schedule. Following the disappointment of 2014's turgid The Search, Oscar®-winning filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) came back last year with Godard, Mon Amour, a combination spoof and homage to the revolutionary French New Wave director circa 1968. In this crucial year for politics around the globe, Godard was newly married and in love (with actress Anne Wiazemsky, the girl in Bresson's Au hazard Balthazar, who co-wrote the screenplay and is played by Stacy Martin). He was also breaking new ground as a political filmmaker. The impossibly handsome Louis Garrel has been appropriately uglied-up and nerdified to play the lead, and judging from the trailer, he's hilariously spot-on in his inhabitation of M. Jean-Luc. Godard, Mon Amour opens at local Landmark Theatres on April 27. But you'll certainly want to catch the film at its two festival screenings with director Michel Hazanavicius in person. The filmmaker last appeared at a SFFILM event when he attended 2009's French Cinema Now with OSS 117: Lost in Rio.

The third film isn't even really French. It's included here because its star is France's most acclaimed screen performer and Cannes is the film's setting. Hong Sang-soo's Claire's Camera was just one of three new features released by Asia's most prolific arthouse filmmaker last year. Isabelle Huppert returns for a second Hong collaboration, building on the artistic success of 2012's In Another Country. This time Huppert plays a teacher attending Cannes because a friend has a film screening there. While wandering the streets she strikes up a friendship with a South Korean film sales assistant who's just been fired from her job (frequent Hong star and real-life main squeeze, Kim Min-hee.) Claire believes her Polaroid camera has a mystical power to change lives, a dabble in magic realism that may be a first for the director. Running a brisk 68 minutes, Claire's Camera was appreciated by critics for its melancholic slightness. The title is a hat's tip to Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee), the revered French director whose conversation-laden explorations of male/female dynamics Hong's films are frequently compared.

Following the glorious one-two punch of Hong's sublime Hill of Freedom (2014) and Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), I was left completely cold by his next two films, Yourself and Yours (2016) and On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). I fully expect Claire's Camera will bring me back into the fold. As for Huppert, Claire's Camera is only one of nine works released since her Oscar®-nominated performance in Elle. In the Bay Area we've only been privy to two of them, Michael Haneke's Happy End and the made-for-TV movie False Confessions. At the very least I'm hoping we eventually see Serge Bozon's Madame Hyde, for which Huppert won Best Actress at last summer's Locarno Film Festival. SFFILM Festival has been a past champion of Bozon's work (La France, Tip Top), making Madame Hyde one of the more eye-raising omissions from this year's festival.

As someone who obsessively follows contemporary French cinema, I was surprised to draw a near-complete blank when it came to the rest of this year's SFFILM Fest French line-up. I knew that Janus Films had done a new 4K restoration of Olivier Assayas's fifth feature, Cold Water (1994), so that was nice to see. If you can't make the fest's one-time screening (like me) I'm sure Janus partner Criterion Collection will be releasing it soon enough. I was also clueless that actor Vincent Cassel had made a Gauguin biopic (Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti). I'll basically see anything this actor appears in, especially when it has a South Seas setting and is screening in our fabulous Dolby Theatre. It turns out the film was put into French cinemas last fall without the benefit of any festival exposure. The few reviews out there praise Cassel's performance, but come down hard on its toying with biographical facts. Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti is slated for a local Landmark Theatres release on July 27.

Animation fans will no doubt be excited to see The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales, a new cartoon feature from Oscar®-nominated director Benjamin Renner (Ernest & Celestine). Based on the trailer alone, Marine Francen's The Sower comes off as a pastoral bodice-ripper, but her New Director's Prize from the San Sebastian Film Festival is a hopeful indicator of it being better than that. Out of all these unknown French entities, I'm most looking forward to My Life with James Dean, Dominque Choisy's slapstick valentine to the passion of cinema. Johnny Rasse stars as a gay experimental filmmaker who has a number of amusing encounters as he exhibits his latest film along France's Northern coast. SFFILM Festival will host the movie's North American premiere, with director Choisy expected to attend.

Cross-published at film-415.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

SFFILM FESTIVAL 2018—Michael Hawley Previews the U.S. Cinema Programming

As someone whose passion for cinema lies primarily with foreign language movies, it has been slightly discomforting to watch U.S. indies and documentaries carve out an increasingly larger slice of the total SFFILM Festival pie. To witness, all three of this year's Big Nights are U.S. indies that premiered at Sundance, and 38 of the festival's 99 feature films also hail from Sundance. When one looks closely at the U.S. films selected, however, it becomes impossible to grouse when there are more terrific-sounding films than a person could possibly watch over the course of a two-week festival. Here's a subjective survey of the U.S. narrative and documentary features I'm intrigued by at this year's SFFILM Fest.

Narrative Features

The only U.S. narrative feature I had the opportunity to preview is a film I can't imagine not being on my 2018 top ten list. Chloé Zhao's The Rider premiered at Cannes last year, winning the top prize in the Director's Fortnight sidebar. It's about as close to a documentary as a narrative film can get, with non-professional actors playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. The Rider's aching heart is the character of Brady (Brady Jandreau), a young Lakota rodeo rider and horse trainer who has sustained a massive head injury. The film transports us alongside Brady's personal journey as he struggles to find another way to live while remaining true to himself. It's a transcendent tale of wounded masculinity, guided by Zhao's sure-handed direction and Jandreau's revelatory, intuitive lead performance. The Rider opens in theaters on April 20, but believe me, you won't want to miss SFFILM Festival's April 7 screening with director Zhao and Brady Jandreau in person.

Sometimes a festival's most tantalizing options are scheduled in tandem. For me, 2018's toughest film choice occurs on Friday, April 6 when Paul Schrader's First Reformed is slotted up against John Cameron Mitchell's How to Talk to Girls at Parties, both with their respective directors in attendance. Touted as a "grindhouse art film," Schrader's First Reformed achieved ecstatic reviews when it toured last autumn's fest circuit (Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York), with many calling it his best work since 2002's Autofocus. The film stars 2017 SFFILM Fest tributee Ethan Hawke as a dying, guilt-ridden New England church minister who suddenly finds comfort in the idea of becoming a suicide bomber. Distributor A24 will release First Reformed in cinemas next month.

In contrast, Mitchell's film (technically a USA/UK co-production) premiered to some seriously scathing reviews when it played out-of-competition at Cannes nearly a year ago. The film has its defenders, however (and the trailer does look pretty fabulous, particularly Sandy Powell's costume designs.) What's kind of shocking is that despite Mitchell's reputation (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) and the presence of Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning in the cast, no film festival north of the Rio Grande has wanted to touch it (San Francisco will be its "North American" premiere and it appears distributor A24 has no immediate plans for theatrical release). Based on an award-winning 2006 sci-fi short story by Neil Gaiman (who will also attend the screening), How to Talk to Girls at Parties stars Tony® Award winner Alex Sharp as a 70's London punk who goes to a party and hooks up with a lady space alien. In the end, my evening's film selection could be determined by venue, with Mitchell's movie getting a boost by virtue of its screening at the Castro.

For many years, new LGBT cinema was pretty much the provenance of San Francisco's Frameline festival. More recently, SFFILM Fest has upped its LGBT roster, possibly because there's so much more product available. (Frameline has also begun programming many of the same films that appear at SFFILM, realizing the two festival's audiences don't necessarily cross over). The LGBT section at this year's fest contains a record nine films, with all but two being of U.S. origin. The one I'm most looking forward to is Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals, a familial drama about three mixed-race brothers whose laconic existence in upstate New York is tempered by their parents' volatile relationship. The focus is on the youngest of the three who's realizing he's somehow "different" from his siblings, which has led some critics to proclaim We the Animals as "this year's Moonlight." A major reason I'm excited to see this film is the casting of Raúl Castillo as the father. The Mexican-American actor first caught my attention in Aaron Katz' idiosyncratic indie mystery Cold Weather, several years before he achieved minor fame playing the character Richie in HBO's Looking. I'm also intrigued by the casting of Sheila Vand as the mother (she was the Iranian vampire girl in A Girl Walks Home at Night Alone), as well as this being the narrative feature debut of documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar. In a Dream, the director's excellent 2008 doc about his father, Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar, won the audience award at SF DocFest and was shortlisted for the Oscar®.

Photo: Chris Waggoner, courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Another critically acclaimed LGBT film focused on POC is Jordana Spiro's Night Comes On, which stars Dominique Fishback. This is the actress's first lead role since her breakout as prostitute Darlene in the HBO series The Deuce. Here she plays an 18-year-old lesbian recently released from juvie who must resist falling back into the criminal life. Two other promising LGBT youth-focused features in the fest line-up are The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Alex Strangelove. The former stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a teen sent to a Christian "gay conversion" camp after being caught making out with the prom queen. Miseducation director Desiree Akhavan was awarded the Grand Jury Prize (dramatic competition) at this year's Sundance. Alex Strangelove is a Netflix-bound coming-of-age comedy directed by Craig Johnson (The Skelton Twins).

Three formidable entities of American indie filmmaking have new films in this year's festival. Ten years after Debra Granik's Winter's Bone scored four Oscar® nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay, the writer/director has finally made a follow-up feature. Leave No Trace stars Ben Foster and Dale Dickey as a father and daughter forced to move on after their idyllic years of living off the grid in an Oregon state park come to an end. Zellner brothers David and Nathan made a big splash in 2014 with Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Now they're back with a post-modern Western, Damsel, starring Robert Pattinson (following-up on his astounding performance in last year's Safdie Brothers film, Good Time) and Mia Wasikowska. The film is a late addition to the SFFILM Festival line-up and the Zellners are expected to attend its only screening on April 14. Lastly, director Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Computer Chess) creates further distance from his mumblecore roots with Support the Girls, a comedy starring Regina Hall as the stressed-out manager of a Hooters-like sports bar.

If indie movies about cranky geezers going on road trips is your thing, SFFILM Fest has a pair of options. In Shana Feste's Boundaries, Vera Farmiga is a put-upon single mom who's forced to transport her thorny father (Christopher Plummer) after he's kicked out of yet another nursing home for pot dealing. Bobby Canavale, Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda co-star. The curmudgeon in Mark Raso's Kodachrome is played by Ed Harris, a renowned photographer who must get to Kansas before the very last developer of Kodachrome film closes its door. Naturally, he can't drive himself, so his estranged son (Jason Sudeikis) and nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) get dragged along for the ride. Kodachrome premiered at Toronto last September and hits Netflix on April 20 without getting a theatrical release. Director Raso, writer Jonathan Tropper and actor Jason Sudeikis are expected to attend the film's single screening on April 7.
Documentary Features

Docs make up roughly 40 percent of all feature films in this year's festival. Contained within the U.S. selection are a dozen which examine some aspect of "the arts." The one I'm most excited to see is Mantangi/Maya/M.I.A., Steve Loveridge's profile of UK/Sri Lankan hip hop star M.I.A. Amongst non-fans she's best known for the infamous "bird" flipped on live TV during Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl show (for which the NFL is still trying to sue for $16.6 million). Casual fans know her for "Paper Planes," the ubiquitous 2008 hit single with beats punctuated by gun shots and a cash register's ka-ching. Loveridge is a personal friend of the performer and his documentary is said to be full of warts-and-all footage shot over the course of 20-plus years. The film won the Special Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance and was announced as the prestigious opening night film for this year's New Directors/New Films series in NYC. A second SFFILM bio-doc about a bad-ass woman musician is Kevin Kerslake's Bad Reputation, which takes on the storied career of iconic punk rocker Joan Jett. It was recently confirmed that Jett herself will attend the festival's lone screening of Bad Reputation at the Castro Theatre on April 14.

Two of the most beloved American media figures of all time are also subjects of SFFILM Fest documentaries. Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is the latest from director Marina Zenowich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired). She uses obscure performance clips and never-before-seen outtakes to tell the story of the brilliant Bay Area actor and comedian. The film will have one screening only, at the Castro Theatre on April 7. Both festival screenings of Morgan Neville's Sundance hit Won't You Be My Neighbor, his portrait of TV's Mr. Rogers, are already at RUSH. The Oscar®-winning filmmaker (Twenty Feet from Stardom) is expected to be in attendance.

The cinematic arts are represented at the festival by two non-fiction features. Amy Scott's Hal is a profile of revered director Hal Ashby, the Oscar®-winning film editor (In the Heat of the Night) best known for directing a string of socially conscious 1970's masterpieces that include Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Being There, Coming Home and The Last Detail. Scott's film boasts interviews with such Ashby alumni as Jeff Bridges, Jane Fonda, Lee Grant and Jon Voight. Then in Half the Picture, director Amy Adrion takes on Hollywood's dismal record of advocating for women filmmakers, featuring interviews with Ava DuVernay (Selma), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) and others. Following the April 9 screening, the fest presents a conversation between director Adrion and Esther Pearl, Executive Director of Camp Reel Stories–A Media Camp for Girls.

Documentaries about photographers have been a popular subject for filmmakers and audiences alike in the past decade, with shutterbugs Robert Frank, Bill Cunningham, Vivian Meier, Annie Leibovitz, Sebastião Salgado and others receiving motion picture tributes. Now we can add Garry Winogrand and James Balog to the list. Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable examines the life and career of the controversial "snapshot aesthetic" street photographer who took over one million photos before his untimely 1984 death at age 56. Winogrand left behind thousands of rolls of undeveloped film, 8mm home movies and audio recordings, all of which director Sasha Waters Freyer employs to tell his story. Following the film's SFMOMA screening on April 14, Freyer will be joined in conversation by author Geoff Dyer, whose new book on the photographer was released last month. The second doc about a famed photographer is Matthew Testa's The Human Element, which profiles James Balog. The environmental photographer is best known for visually documenting the devastating effects of man-made climate change, particularly the rapid disappearance of the world's glaciers (his work was featured in the 2012 film Chasing Ice). Balog and director Testa are expected to attend the festival.

It has been 15 years since Nathaniel Kahn received an Oscar® nomination for My Architect, the filmmaker's bittersweet ode to his famous architect father, Louis Kahn. Following several made-for-TV science documentaries, Kahn finally returns with a new feature this year, The Price of Everything. Using a Sotheby's modern art auction as backdrop, Kahn examines the commodification of art and reflects on how artists lose control of their own creations in today's white-hot art market. Among the artists profiled in the film are Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and Larry Poons. I'd be shocked if The Price of Everything doesn't mention last year's $110.5 million sale of a 1982 Basquiat work, which set a record for an American artist at auction. The graffiti artist turned painter happens to be the subject of another SFFILM Festival documentary, Sara Driver's Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Amongst the score of non-arts related U.S. docs showing at the festival, I had the chance to preview and highly recommend Bing Liu's Sundance Special Jury Prize winner, Minding the Gap. This empathetic and intimate look at young manhood in the economically depressed city of Rockford, IL is entirely composed of footage shot by the Asian-American director over the course of a decade. Liu's focus is on himself and two close friends, one Caucasian and one African American, who all share a passion for skateboarding as well as dark relationships with past father figures. Their collective self-awareness and articulate fervency is especially impressive considering the challenges of their environment. The festival's Hold Review policy limits me from saying more, but I guarantee this is a doc you won't want to miss. Liu is expected to attend the film's screenings on April 13 and 14.

Three documentaries I highly anticipate watching during the festival proper are Bisbee '17, Three Identical Strangers, and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Bisbee '17 is the latest from Robert Greene (Actress, Kate Plays Christine) who once again employs his meta-docu-fiction storytelling techniques to reflect on a century-old Arizona strike in which 1,200 miners, most of them Mexican immigrants, were marched into the desert at gunpoint and left to die. Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers recounts the incredibly strange tale of male triplets who were separated at birth and then reunited at age 19 in 1980, briefly becoming media celebrities who hung out at Studio 54 and appeared in the film Desperately Seeking Susan. Lastly, RaMell Ross' Hale County This Morning, This Evening has been described as a lyric tone poem in documentary guise, which lovingly captures African American life in rural Alabama. Like the bulk of non-fiction films in the festival, all three of these acclaimed works had their world premiere at Sundance, with Three Identical Strangers winning a Special Jury Prize for Storytelling and Hale County This Morning, This Evening bringing home a Special Jury Prize for Creative Vision.

The above-mentioned movies represent just an iceberg's tip of the 39 documentary features appearing in SFFILM Festival 2018, so let's glance at a few others of possible interest. Mercury 13 will have its world premiere here prior to hitting Netflix on April 20. David Singleton and Heather Walsh's film recalls the dashed dreams of a group of would-be women astronauts in the early 60's. (I can imagine the pitch meeting: "It's a white women's Hidden Figures!") Fans of Laura Greenfield's Queen of Versailles will no doubt want to catch her latest glimpse at the lives of the hideously rich, Generation Wealth. Although RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West's bio-doc on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 4, I imagine it would be great fun seeing it at the Castro Theatre with the directors present on April 14 (this screening is now at RUSH). Two docs with an eye toward the future profile a budding young chef (Chef Flynn) and aspiring scientists (Inventing Tomorrow). Last but not least, I really hope not to miss the festival's late-addition screening of This One's for the Ladies, Gene Graham's look at an African American male strip joint in Newark, NJ. (that doubles as a kids' karate school by day).

Cross-published at film-415.