Still from 'Tiny Tim: King for a Day.' (Courtesy Jewish Film Insitute)
We can tally all the reasons why we’re eager for movie theaters to reopen and film festivals to get back on a normal schedule (including those that permanently adopt a hybrid in-person/online program). One that’s rarely mentioned is restoring the feeling of knowing where we are on the calendar.
Holidays serve that function for most people. For film buffs, though, film festivals are our holidays. January historically meant Noir City and Berlin & Beyond. Not this year. But as the vaccine rollout accelerates, the picture for the rest of 2020 will slowly, gradually start to come into focus. Let’s be careful, not cocky, and cautiously optimistic.
The Jewish Film Institute’s offseason mini-fest serves up an eclectic baker’s dozen, including nonfiction portraits of Prague-to-Paramount director Milos Forman (Amadeus), Circuit Court Judge Harry Pregerson, Florida plastic surgeon Dr. Michael Salzhauer, lovelorn New Jersey defense attorney Harley Breite and ukulele star Herbert Khaury.
If that last name rings no bells, it’s because Herbert transformed into the ’60s falsetto phenomenon Tiny Tim. The densely packed Scandinavian documentary Tiny Tim: King for a Day (which returns in April for a theatrical run at the Rafael) examines the unlikely fame and unhappy life of a man whose unusual take on gender roles and mass entertainment made the world ready for Leon Redbone, David Bowie, John Waters, Pee Wee Herman and countless others.
The fiction lineup includes Asia, an intimate mother-daughter drama that is Israel’s submission for the International Feature Oscar. Ruthy Pribar’s frill-free feature debut begins in familiar territory, with rebellious-but-shy teenager Vika (Shira Haas of Shtisel and Unorthodox) drinking in skate parks while her overworked mom Asia (Alena Yiv) racks up shifts as a hospital nurse. Their loneliness, and romantic frustrations, play out in parallel—Asia is strewn with pauses and silences—until Vika develops a degenerative disease, rekindling their bond.
Suzan Lori-Parks’s biting adaptation of Johan Hari’s book Chasing the Scream, about the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, wrestles with an age-old dilemma: How to reconcile the artist and the junkie, the visionary and the victim, the independent spirit with the self-destructive impulse. The determining factor, in this case, is the outside influence and pressure—legal and extralegal—brought to bear by government spooks.
Holiday’s yearslong persecution, the movie tells us, had nothing to do with drugs (although that’s the line the media swallowed) but rather with her insistence on performing Strange Fruit, her mesmerizing 1939 signature song about lynchings. To the Feds, delivering disturbing headlines to affluent white people in downtown clubs was a subversive act with potentially disastrous consequences, apparently.
Director Lee Daniels (The Butler) delivers his most ambitious and lushest work to date—The United States vs. Billie Holiday was destined for big screens everywhere until pandemic-panicked Paramount sold it to Hulu—and every choice is in tune with Andra Day’s smoldering, no-holds-barred performance. It’s a film very much worth seeing, not least for the way it allows Billie’s self-loathing to coexist with her courageous moral authority. Was Billie Holiday a threat on par with Muhammad Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King and Fred Hampton, whom the government also tried, tormented or murdered? A better question is, what do they have in common?
One of the great wonders of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s long life is that for half a century he evaded Beat pigeonholing, nostalgia, irrelevance, parody, self-parody and the assault of 24/7 corporate/media amnesia. The great poet and intellectual ringleader—he authored more than a dozen volumes, cofounded City Lights Bookstore and published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl—was, ultimately, just another denizen of North Beach.
Instead of maintaining a myth or perpetuating a flamboyant San Francisco character, Ferlinghetti was a familiar, accessible figure. That was consistent with his belief that a poet must be immersed in everyday life. Consequently, it encouraged the rest of us to see the poetry in the everyday.
Christopher Felver’s loving 2013 portrait, Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder, is streaming on Fandor (subscription required) and available on DVD at the SF Public Library. Click on the video above to hear Ferlinghetti reading the immortal “I Am Waiting” from his 1999 CD A Coney Island of the Mind. Somehow the line “And I am waiting for the storms of life to be over” doesn’t hit me today as introspective or candid or refreshing or brave but simply sad.
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