Saturday, February 21, 2009

Genre Studies

Film is such a remarkably fluid medium that, in one week's time, a person can find himself sampling numerous genres with very little overlap. From narrative to documentary, from animated short to a full-length silent film, there is no excuse for boredom.

As part of last week's special Valentine's Day program, the The San Francisco Silent Film Festival finished off the day's festivities with a screening of The Cat And the Canary starring Laura LaPlante, Creighton Hall, and Forrest Stanley. Directed by Paul Leni with some wonderful cinematography by Gilbert Warrenton, this 1927 silent film helped to define the genre in which a group of people with ulterior motives are isolated in a creaky old house filled with mystery, murder, and occasional moments of comic mayhem.

Plenty of semifarcical murder movies have been produced over the years, ranging from those which featured Margaret Rutherford's performances as the nosy Miss Jane Marple in Agatha Christie's murder mysteries to the crime-solving adventures of Agatha Christie's other great sleuth, Hercule Poirot, in such star-studded vehicles as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile

Creighton Hale and Laura LaPlante in The Cat and the Canary

Others in the cast of The Cat and the Canary included Flora Finch as Aunt Susan, Arthur Edmund Carewe as Harry Blythe, Gertrude Astor as Cecily Young, and Martha Mattox in an  absolutely hilarious portrayal of the ominous Mammy Pleasant (the servant of the haunted house who bears an uncanny resemblance to Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West on bad drugs).

A frequent performer at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Dennis James returned to the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer organ after having just accompanied another feature, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans. Although James has no trouble bringing down the house with his phenomenal work on the organ, this time he was aided by his colleague from Seattle, Mark Goldstein, who provided extra spooky sound effects with a computer-assisted Foley device.

A fun time was had by all as The Cat and the Canary offered a rousing climax to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's fourth annual winter event. Here's a clip of Laura LaPlante headed for a nasty shock:

* * * * * * *

Meanwhile, in previewing some of the programs scheduled for the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, I was especially taken by a program of shorts entitled Is It Worth It -- Lemme Work It. Ranging from documentary style shorts to some deliciously wacky comedies, this program has something to please everyone.

One of my favorites was a mockumentary inspired by Christopher Guest's hilarious Best In Show. Written and directed by Emily C. Chang and Dan de Lorenzo, The Humberville Poetry Slam features Giles Li as Liberty Fu (the Corky St. Clair of Humberville), Ben Stahl as Benjamin Prayz, and Michael Barra as a Belushi-like aspiring poet who goes by the name of Fetid. Watch the trailer to get a taste of the film's delicious appeal.

* * * * * *

On a much more somber note, Corinne E. Manabat's documentary about Davina Wan's troubled youth focuses on a young woman who survived against incredible odds. As an immigrant child, Wan felt more than unloved, she was convinced she was living in an abusive household. During her teen years, she joined a New York City girl gang and lost nearly 45 people (including her best friend, Ashley) to a combination of overdoses, murders, suicides, and AIDS.

Excuse My Gangsta Ways includes interviews with Wan, her mother, and some of the people who helped Davina turn her life around. Although her vocabulary reveals her gang roots, Wan is leading a much more disciplined life these days as she pursues a master's degree and volunteers to help people serving time for gang-related offenses. A rare moment of peace shows her playing an electronic piano with her pet dog perched on her lap.

* * * * * * * *

Arthur Ganson is famous for creating kinetic sculptures that "do stuff." His background as a sculptor and engineer adds a delicious sense of whimsey to some of his projects. In Randall Lloyd Okita's beautiful little short entitled Machine With Wishbone, viewers watch one of Ganson's creations act out in an almost surreal landscape. The official synopsis in the film's press materials reads as follows:
"Machine With Wishbone is an entirely live action movie, shot without special effects, featuring the breathtaking work of internationally celebrated artists. Using camera choreography, photo sculpture, and kinetic sculpture, we experience the tale of a stoic mechanical wishbone on its journey through a world of snoring beds, paper birds, and places you have to see to believe."
Machine With Wishbone is greatly enhanced by the music and sound design by Michael Rogers. Here's Okita positioning a shot for the film.

And here's the official trailer

What's even more fun than Okita's six-minute video, however, is watching Ganson demonstrate how he got involved in kinetic sculpture. This 15-minute video of his speech at the 2002 TED conference is a sheer delight:

* * * * * * * *

In a brief and extremely poignant 10-minute video, Hassanain Al Hani tries to put a human face on the suffering of Iraqi refugees in A Stranger In His Own Country. As a result of the American occupation of Iraq, many Iraqis have been forced to leave their homes and migrate to other portions of their nation where they end up in refugee camps. In this brief short, the camera focuses on a middle-aged man's struggle to keep his family fed by doing whatever he can to generate cash. Most of his effort is spent offering coffee to strangers who, when they ask how much it costs, hear him say "Whatever God wishes."

* * * * * * * *

Yellow Sticky Notes, by animator Jeff Chiba Stearns, the founder of the Meditating Bunny Studio, is a delightful six-minute clip detailing years of reminders written on sticky notes. There are things to do, sketches to finish, and many notes to self that all end up in the equivalent of an animated short. Watch it yourself (and enjoy its delightful musical score):

* * * * * * *

In Roseanne Liang's deliciously tart 12-minute short, Take 3, the audience watches three Anglo-Asian actresses audition for roles before New Zealand filmmakers. It doesn't take long for the Anglo filmmakers to abandon any pretext of being politically correct and push the women to deliver the worst forms of stereotypical behavior. Asking the women if they've ever heard of martial arts films, Bruce Lee, or prompting them to just act a little bit sluttier for the camera, the filmmakers try to get the actresses to recreate images of Asian women that have become familiar to Western audiences through pop culture.

With the screen often divided into thirds, we watch the three women go through the ritual humiliation of auditioning for a role only to encounter a wave of ignorance, idiocy, and racism that would be hilarious if it were not so appalling. When they decide to give the filmmakers a true taste of what they've been asked for -- goosing up the "Oh, me so horny -- me ruv you rong time!" dialogue to extremes, the filmmakers become quite uncomfortable (one haughtily reminding an actress that lots of other women are hungry for the job).

Liang has received acclaim at previous international film festivals for her documentary, Banana In A Nutshell. She was also one of the writers involved in the creation of this music video from New Zealand's popular television show, A Thousand Apologies.

* * * * * * *

Finally, you'd be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable documentary short than Oscar Bucher's Waiting For A Train: The Toshio Hirano Story. Hirano may have grown up in Tokyo, where he quickly became a fan of the Kingston Trio's music. But the minute he heard a bluegrass recording, he became smitten and soon became a devoted fan of Jimmie Rodgers (the first star of country music). As he puts an old LP on the record player, you can see the glow of a man who loves music with a deep, deep passion.

After graduating from college, Hirano toured Appalachia to seek out the roots of bluegrass music and was often the first Asian face seen by many children in Kentucky and West Virginia. After living in Atlanta and Nashville, he moved to Austin, Texas (where he met his wife) and finally settled in San Francisco in 1986. Today, he plays in small clubs around San Francisco (you can check his performance calendar on his website: Toshio Hirano).

Seeing Hirano perform has its obvious charms. Toshio has acquired an extensive knowledge of bluegrass music, plays a mean guitar, and can yodel next to the best country singers. Candid shots of him with his family in their Noe Valley home, reciting the Sabbath prayers (Hirano's wife is Jewish), or thumbing through his extensive record collection, show a man who is head over heels in love with music.

But you really can't get the full impact of his music making until you see the joy in his face as he sings Peach-Pickin' Time Down In Georgia or Blue Yodel #9 (Standing on the Corner). Hirano is a man of great enthusiasm as well as humility. He fully understands that, while people may be attracted to his band because of the sheer novelty of seeing a Japanese man performing American country music,  he remains both honored and thrilled that his face can be the key which unlocks the door to bluegrass for people who may not know its beauty. You can hear him in this clip from a Public Radio International news feature:

No comments: