It seems unlikely that someone could live for any length of time in the Bay Area and not be aware of the depth and breadth of the local filmmaking community. I mean, I'm not breaking any news here, am I? Documentary makers are in the forefront year after year with a slew of national broadcasts and awards, while experimental filmmakers carry on a 60-year-old tradition of personal expression and urban subversion. Narrative filmmaking, meanwhile, is experiencing a surge fueled by low-cost digital video gear and a return to well-crafted screenplays.
The San Francisco Film Society's first ever Cinema By the Bay series salutes each of these disciplines, honoring the mission and model of the fondly remembered Film Arts Festival. That's more than coincidental; when the beloved local filmmakers' organization Film Arts Foundation (which presented the Film Arts Festival for more than two decades) ran into financial trouble last year, the SFFS assumed many of its functions. A festival wasn't, precisely, one of them; after all, the SFFS puts on the S.F. International Film Festival. So Cinema By the Bay is both an unexpected treat and the re-ignition of a beloved fall institution.
A multitude of shorts programs comprised the heart of the Film Arts Festival (shorts being the most economical and plentiful form), and Cinema By the Bay includes compilations of short fiction ("The Bay in Depth," Sat., Oct. 24 at 2p p.m.) and nonfiction ("It's All True," Sun., Oct. 25 at 4:30 p.m.). The avant-garde is represented by "After Day Comes Night & After That, Day Comes Again: A Tribute to Chick Strand" (co-presented Fri., Oct. 23 at YBCA with S.F. Cinematheque in association with Canyon Cinema), reviving several evocative works by the late icon of the Bay Area experimental film scene of the '60s, '70s and '80s.
Swell, you say, but what about the feature-length films? Rivkah Beth Medow and Greg O'Toole's discomfiting Sons of a Gun (Sat., Oct. 24 at 4:15 p.m.) takes us repeatedly into the messy Alameda motel room where three men with various mental illnesses live under the "care" and supervision of a septuagenarian alcoholic. Part character study and part urban nightmare, the documentary provides sufficient context and commentary to expose the larger social issue (of insufficient beds and services), but not enough to obscure or soften the pain and desperation before our eyes.
Kathleen McNamara's labor of love and support, Why Isn't Chris von Sneidern Famous? (Sat., Oct 24 at 6:30 p.m.), wears its heart on its sleeve from start to finish. A 40-something S.F. rocker with a small but devoted audience, von Sneidern has never gotten past the small-club, small-label stage. I confess the film didn't convince me that he's a special talent deserving of national recognition; a bigger handicap is that von Sneidern is a less-than-compelling character. At least he cops to being self-protective and emotionally guarded, and he's savvy enough to suggest to McNamara that the lack of a story is the film's fatal flaw. All in all, a murky, interesting slice of S.F. subcultural life.
Dia Sokol and Lauren Veloski's serious dating comedy Sorry, Thanks (Sat., Oct. 24 at 9 p.m.) beautifully transcends the narcissism and smugness that distinguishes the typical indie feature about suburban-raised 20-something urbanites. The parallel, shuffling routines of an aimless office worker and a black woman rebounding from a break-up gradually overlap, drawing us out of the shallows of middle-class pleasure-seeking and into deeper contemplations of ambition, purpose, integrity and character. Tricked out, as a bonus, with a steady stream of postcard shots of the Mission.
The unqualified gem of Cinema By the Bay is Scott Crocker's Ghost Bird (Sun., Oct. 25 at 2 p.m.), a doc set aloft by the announcement that the supposedly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker has been sighted in a corner of East Arkansas. Hope leads to hype and a new tourist economy for nearby Brinkley, but is everyone deluding themselves -- not only about the prospects for financial recovery in small-town America, but that we'll ever stop wiping out species. Beautifully crafted (if a bit too long), Ghost Bird is, by turns, wry, heartbreaking, ironic and infuriating. It's a stunner.
The program wraps with a rare and not-to-be-missed performance of "The Anne McGuire Show" (Sun., Oct 25 at 9 p.m.), starring The Divine Miss M performing her lounge act as Freddy (pronounced Freedy, to rhyme with seedy) McGuire with sound-sample maestro Wobbly, paired with a selection of her lovely and occasionally confessional videos. Now that's entertainment.
Cinema By the Bay runs Thursday, Oct. 22 through Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009 at the Clay Theater and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.