Now Playing! Bay Area Films Lift the Curtain on Artists’ Lives

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 (Collage by Sarah Hotchkiss)

The act of creation, from the book of Genesis to your three-year-old’s drawing, is a source of inspiration. Confined to our domiciles, our imaginations crave something with more gravitas than an eight-episode, European-set soap opera or murder mystery. Here are a batch of first-rate films about and by Bay Area artists that will take you out of your head and your house.

Adios Amor: The Search for Maria Moreno, 2018
Laurie Coyle’s unearthing of the life and activism of the (no longer) forgotten Latina farm worker Maria Moreno is a bravura political history, a mystery yarn, a family saga and an art film. Coyle’s discovery of a cache of remarkable photographs drives the narrative and infuses the one-hour film with an artist’s grace. Move fast: Adios Amor streams for free through midnight Wednesday, April 1.

Our Time Machine, 2019
ReelAbilities Film Festival
S. Leo Chiang’s latest work, co-directed with Yuan Sun, won the documentary competition at CAAMFest last spring among several prizes it’s garnered on its worldwide festival run. The film follows conceptual artist Maleonn as he mounts an ambitious stage production honoring his father, the former director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theatre, who has Alzheimer’s. ReelAbilities Film Festival New York (which moved its program online) streams Our Time Machine this Saturday evening, April 4 at 5:15pm PDT followed by an interactive Q&A with Chiang, all for a mere $6.28.

It Came From Kuchar, 2009
Truly CA
New Yorkers George and Mike Kuchar were no-budget pioneers of 8mm underground filmmaking in the ’60s before relocating to the Bay Area in the ’70s. Jennifer M. Kroot, who had been a student of George’s at the San Francisco Art Institute, crafted a wild, wooly and altogether wonderful portrait of the beloved brothers two years before George’s death.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, 2019
Amazon Prime
If you missed Joe Talbot and Jimmie Falls’ richly resonant ode to San Francisco present and past last year, it takes on a whole other dimension in the present moment. Home (the movie’s main theme) is where everything is, right now. At the same time, we can all use a cinematic tour of the city. The Last Black Man in San Francisco makes this list because it centers art and performance, from street rappers to a climactic guerrilla theater piece.


Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, 2013
Truly CA
“Follow your own weird.” That was the mantra of poet, filmmaker and sexual radical James Broughton, whose postwar endeavors had a lot to do with making San Francisco safe for Beats, hippies, queers, punks and artists of all persuasions. Eric Slade’s doc is deliriously heady and transporting.

Crumb, 1995
Criterion Channel
The underground cartoonist Robert Crumb is a problematic figure, given his sexually avaricious drawings of women. But his transparent honesty and unabashed candor—due to his friendship with filmmaker Terry Zwigoff, his Cheap Suit Serenaders bandmate—as well as his obsessive commitment to his art, makes Crumb rewarding and uncomfortable. Crumb’s agoraphobic brother Charles will break your heart.

Forever, Chinatown, 2016
Frank Wong constructs exquisitely detailed miniatures of Chinatown rooms fixed in his memory. At 32 minutes, James Q. Chan’s gorgeously shot film is, itself, a small gem. Forever, Chinatown is a salute to an artist that is itself a work of art.

Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, 2003
Jamie Metzler’s quirky, funny and infinitely touching 2003 documentary about the amateur wordsmiths who fancied themselves songwriters (and sent their lyrics and checks to post office boxes advertised in the back of comic books and magazines) is one of my favorite films of all time. Out of print and once hard to find, it’s now available to rent for just $3.99 on Vimeo.

Ethnic Notions, 1987
Way back when, the late, great Marlon Riggs made this revelatory compilation (barrage, is more like it) of mass media and pop culture stereotypes of African Americans from the 1920s to the ’60s. It’s still shocking—and relevant—over three decades later. Essential viewing, but not for the faint of heart.