Cinema by the Bay is the San Francisco Film Society’s celebration of San Francisco Bay Area-based filmmaking. The mini-festival returns this year with a long weekend’s worth of feature narratives, documentaries, and assorted short films.
Chris Brown provides the festival’s strong opening with the dysfunctional family narrative “Fanny, Annie, And Danny.” In this film, the truism of winter holidays being periods of extreme emotional stress gets emotional Miracle Gro poured over it. A visit by long absent golden boy Danny to his family’s upcoming “Christmas celebration” amplifies the already emotionally fractured relationships among the other family members. By celebration’s end, this clan will realize that the season’s “joys of family” will become a bitter joke.
The primary engine of this family’s fracturing is the hypercritical influence of utter Mother from Hell, Edie. To Edie, Fanny’s nervous introversion and Annie’s emotional neediness result from their own personal flaws rather than her personal lack of compassion as well as her regular belittling of anyone failing her rigid standards. If she treasures Danny, it’s only because the failed musician’s manager hasn’t been around Edie for her to see his shortcomings. In such an emotionally toxic environment, Annie’s pothead boyfriend/fiancee’s lighting up a joint with hopefully sufficient THC levels feels like a sane response.
Brown and the film’s cast manage to make watching this visual and emotional trainwreck a compellingly painful experience. Fanny’s eloquent body language and Annie’s fantasy-based wedding dreams are particularly wince-inducing. In the end, this San Francisco-based film unsettles a viewer with the realization that one has witnessed lives incapable of further reinvention.
The other festival narrative feature film proves a particularly unsatisfying viewing experience. Given that Alejandro Adams’ “Babnik” concerns Russian sex trafficking, light entertainment was definitely not expected. But this ensemble drama of sex traffickers, indebted victims, and scammers of various stripes lacks even the trashy comfort of entertaining melodrama.
Adams certainly has the prerogative to approach his subject in an almost mundane manner. But he fails his obligation to make that treatment compelling for the viewer. The details of the sex trafficker’s business are banal and not uniquely insightful. The camera’s visual wanderings don’t convince even a somewhat alert viewer that something immediate and important is happening onscreen. The various characters’ dilemmas never feel sufficiently urgent or empathetic. When now-unemployed Artem finds he’s in debt to a sex trafficker for $30,000, his utterly passive reaction makes one want to reach into the screen and shake him until he acknowledges how much trouble he’s in.
Even a last act twist fails to breathe life into “Babnik”’s noticeably dull story.
Providing a slight uptick in quality is Justin Coupe and Palmer Taylor’s documentary “Rivers Of A Lost Coast.” Its ostensible subject is the story of the 20th century craze for Northern California fly fishing. Through tales with fishing veterans, home movies, and photos of the enormous steelheads caught by these sports fishermen, Coupe and Taylor depict the sport’s appeal. An old photograph shows a line of fishermen patiently waiting for a bite on their fishing lines. But the film’s ultimate aim is to relate a cautionary tale regarding the hazards of assuming that nature’s bounty is endless and that nature can easily bounce back from humanity’s worst abuses.
Animation and manipulation of old film footage lends some visual flair to the film. Yet despite its visual tricks, the documentary fails to deliver either a sense of tragedy or even empathy for the now lost rivers of enormous salmon. Impressive tales of catching a 44 pound salmon and other anecdotes do not convey the feeling or the appeal of patiently waiting for a bite to arrive. Even if the film’s interviewees aren’t the most emotionally articulate bunch, the filmmakers should have taken up the slack in communicating the loss of fishing on these wild rivers. Their failure to meet this challenge makes this ecological tragedy feel distant.
A moving fight to avert ecological tragedy is the subject of Jennifer Gilomen and Sally Rubin’s documentary “Deep Down.” The film follows the Kentucky community of Maytown as it deals with Miller Brothers Coal Company’s plans to set up a mountaintop removal operation in town. But the conflict is less miners vs. preservationists as it is maintaining community values vs. monetizing resources. The film’s central subjects, Beverly May and Terry Ratliff, aren’t antagonists as much as interesting people bringing differing but sincerely held viewpoints to the same issue. Beautiful shots of the Kentucky countryside play off against Ratliff pointing out land effectively restored by a mining company.
As Gilomen and Rubin follow this conflict over several years, their sympathies are with the preservationists. When Miller Brothers officials and the state Coal Association speak at the climactic Lands Unsuitable for Mining hearing, they speak of abstract economic advantages and noticeably don’t mention the community at all.
“Deep Down” may allude to the coal beneath Maytown. But it also alludes to the common values that its residents share.
Emiko Omori’s documentary “Ed Hardy—Tattoo the World” is the mini-festival’s don’t miss documentary. It’s a ravishing portrait of Hardy and his role in popularizing tattoo art. Omori also instills in viewers an appreciation for the skill needed to create beautiful art on the unpredictable medium of human flesh. The frequent shots of full body back tattoos and tattoos which take advantage of the human body’s curvatures makes Omori’s film the cinematic equivalent of a monograph on body art. This beautiful film may tempt viewers to get their own tattoos.
“Fanny, Annie, And Danny” screens on November 5, 2010 at 7 PM. “Babnik” screens on November 5 at 9:30 PM. “Deep Down” screens on November 6, 2010 at 4:15 PM. “Ed Hardy—Tattoo The World” screens on November 6, 2010 at 6:30 PM. “Rivers Of A Lost Coast” screens on November 7, 2010 at 2:00 PM. All screenings take place at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street near Valencia,
SF). For advance tickets, go to http://www.sffs.org