Wise to the reality that it's easier to draw attention to a series than to a bunch of one-off screenings, especially when it's christened with the wink-and-a-nod title Local Boy Makes Good, Yerba Buena Center For the Arts unveils a curious quartet of Bay Area-centric features and documentaries beginning tonight with Doug Wolens' The Singularity. The subjects range from artificial intelligence to street photography, sexual intimacy to faith in the face of an apocalypse, yet a tenuous thread connects the filmmakers: the effects of new technology on image-making.
The Singularity (Sept. 12, with Wolens in person) is a no-frills, talking-heads doc in which front-line players and deep thinkers in computer intelligence riff on its implications for human civilization in the not-too-distant future. That's catnip for some of you, I realize, and anathema to others. Especially since we can't reasonably expect the interviews to capture the frisson of discovery or revelation, for the simple reason that the subjects have already expressed their philosophies and predictions countless times in numerous settings.
Wolens smartly eliminates the bad taste of pre-digested oratory -- although Ray Kurzweil's self-satisfaction still seeps through -- by editing the interviews against each other to create a debate. The remarkable thing, though, is how the personalities of the interviewees come through; I was never bored staring at a face and listening to him or her expound at far greater length than the sound bites I'm accustomed to. I think it has something to do with the hi-def digital camera Wolens used, which elicits a response in the viewer more akin to film than video. The Singularity also screens September 16 at the Castro as part of an all-day retrospective of Wolens' docs.
Gibbs Chapman's mother mortar, father pestle
Gibbs Chapman's S.F.-set narrative mother mortar, father pestle (Sept. 19, with the director in attendance) is a beautifully achieved and deeply pleasurable exemplar of banana-peel noir. A disturbance has taken place in the upper atmosphere, portending a day when the world won't end with a bang but with a splat. I couldn't tell, frankly, if the characters are thrown off-kilter by the gradient change in the environment or become more concentrated versions of themselves, but their interactions run the gamut from absurd to surreal to hilariously recognizable. Chapman envelops his droll worldview in a lush, enveloping mise en scene built on a rock-solid base of black-and-white celluloid.
If I tell you that Chapman acknowledged his many collaborators at a recent cast and crew screening as "a Who's Who of Bay Area nobodies" -- to laughter and applause, by the way -- you'll get a sense of how seriously he takes himself. That said, his work is closer to Jean-Paul Sartre than Henny Youngman. Chapman's commitment can be measured by the lengths he had to go to shoot (and mix) a feature on film at this point in time. mother mortar, father pestle is an altogether rare and precious accomplishment, and moviegoers in love with the texture, grain and look of black-and-white film should not miss it (nor, for that matter, should ad agency creatives and directors of TV commercials, always looking for an aesthetic to rip off).
Konrad Steiner's way
Like Chapman, the talented experimental filmmaker Konrad Steiner derives more pleasure from collaborating with other artists than from playing the auteur. His new work, a six-part film called way (Sept. 26, with Steiner on hand), is inspired by the 1988 book-length poem of the same name by the East Bay wordsmith Leslie Scalapino. Indeed, a 2000 recording of the poet reading her award-winning work (she died in 2010) provides the film's soundtrack.
Alas, Scalapino's intentionally mechanical performance dwarfs Steiner's delicate images, based on the two segments of way I saw. In "Hoofer," Steiner plays with the special effect of decomposing celluloid, and Fred Astaire, while Scalapino dissects an intimate relationship. "The floating series" finds the filmmaker giving flesh to the poet's compendium of sexual power dynamics with neon glimpses of young professionals on the make in bars and cafes (shot a decade ago during the first dot-com wave), darkened with frames from Onibaba (1964), Kineto Shindo's haunted black-and-white rendering of a medieval Japanese parable of animalistic passion and control.
I expect this will be heresy to Scalapino's many admirers, but her reading strips the words of emotion, and pleasure. The elliptical nature of this poem, which presumably worked beautifully on the page, takes on the air of an intellectual exercise. It doesn't conjure visual associations, and interferes with our ability to savor Steiner's images. At some point I chose to stop hearing Scalapino's words, and let her voice serve as a backing track. Heresy, I know.
Michael House's Fred Lyon: Living Through the Lens
We are introduced to the spry, upbeat subject of the jaunty 52-minute profile Fred Lyon: Living Through the Lens (receiving its world premiere Sept. 29, with Lyon and filmmaker Michael House in person) packing up his camera and heading out onto the streets of San Francisco. For a good, long while we are under the impression that he's been shooting local landscapes and street life practically every day since the end of World War II, and that it's his primary mode of photography.
That first bit is largely true, but only gradually does it seep out that the likable Lyon made his bread shooting interiors and fashion for House & Garden and Vogue, journalistic images for Life and Look, and print ads for vodka and the like. If anything, this enhances our appreciation for his talent, but it also underscores House's affectionate and uncritical tone: Except for one or two fleeting references, the film leaves unexplored the tension between art and commerce. Indeed, Fred Lyon: Living Through the Lens misses a fascinating opportunity to delve deeper into the artistic qualities and ramifications of this talented man's exemplary commercial work.
The Paris-based House has made a fast-paced film full of small pleasures, including a wealth of evocative images of mid-century San Francisco and egregiously garish apartments of our town's one-time elites. We're encouraged to experience and enjoy Lyon's shots of public and private spaces, rather than to interpret them. Backed by an intermittent soundtrack of buoyant piano-driven jazz, we are happy to oblige.
Lest you think the octogenarian photographer is an old fogey, early on in Fred Lyon: Living Through the Lens we see a collaborator scanning, cleaning up and digitizing Lyon's early images for sale through his gallery rep. There's a wonderful sequence, as well, of him composing a picture entirely on a scanner. To Lyons, creativity is the one constant in every picture he makes.
Local Boy Makes Good screens September 12-29, 2013 at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts Screening Room in San Francisco. For more information, visit ybca.org.