Week in and week out, year after year for nearly five decades, the San Francisco Cinematheque has presented experimental film and video at venues all over the Bay Area. In a carefully considered -- or wildly brash -- strategy to raise the local profile of avant-garde work, the Cinematheque is ambitiously stepping beyond the usual one-off show to present Crossroads, a weekend smorgasbord full of big names and gem-like treats.
A double-barreled salute to local animator Lawrence Jordan jump-starts tonight's festivities. A sneak preview screening of Moments of Illumination, Kathryn Golden and Ashley James's loving nonfiction portrait of the venerable maestro of the collage film, serves as an inviting curtain-raiser. Then Jordan himself, who's been making lovely, mind-expanding films since the early '50s, premieres his latest work, Cosmic Alchemy!
"Moments of Illumination" by Golden/James
Another certified highlight is the local debut of Crooked Beauty (Saturday at 9pm), Ken Paul Rosenthal's stunningly beautiful and profoundly important collaboration with writer and activist Ashley McNamara. Subtitled "navigating the space between brilliance and madness," the "poetic documentary" (to use Rosenthal's words) revisits and recontextualizes the mental illness diagnosis that McNamara received in college -- and spent years overcoming.
"Crooked Beauty" by Ken Paul Rosenthal
The half-hour film is comprised entirely (except for one or two brief blurs of color) of luscious black-and-white images of the natural (or outdoor) world that subtly and obliquely play against McNamara's first-person narration. The co-founder of the Icarus Project recounts her journey from patient to pioneer of a campaign to challenge the stigma, diagnosis, categorization and treatment of so-called mental illness. A film about how we perceive and interact with the world, and sooner or later collide with mainstream notions of "normal," Crooked Beauty gives voice to a particular segment of the community, but speaks to everyone.
That raises the notion of accessibility, a consideration I often express -- perhaps unnecessarily -- when writing about experimental film. The fact is, to most American filmgoers, any movie that isn't made in Hollywood in English is experimental. (A single Bollywood musical would destroy that misconception, but we'll leave that for another day.) So avant-garde films, which eschew narrative and linearity in favor of experiential forays, can be confounding to moviegoers used to being guided through a story.
Now, there's a vast middle ground between the familiar (and often formulaic) and the abstract and difficult to interpret. Sleep Furiously (Sunday at 8pm), Gideon Koppel's seductive study of a Welsh town and its environs, doesn't follow a central character, invent an artificial timeline or otherwise seek out or manufacture drama -- the standard approaches of documentary filmmakers. He patiently insinuates us into the community, hanging out with the bookmobile and the farmer, the sheepshearers and the dog-lovers. Once you get on Koppel's rhythm, the film is just as accessible -- and much more rewarding -- than the usual hit-and-run approach. What's gained through his accretion of detail and depth of texture, and sooner than you might expect, is that we stop feeling like visitors and more like residents.
"Sleep Furiously" by Gideon Koppel
There's a whole lot more on offer, from an appearance by the legendary Barbara Hammer (Saturday at 1pm) to a performance by Stephanie Barber (Saturday at 7pm). Be brash.
Crossroads runs April 16-18, 2010, at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St. (near Mission), San Francisco. For more information visit sfcinematheque.org.