More Reviews From The 19th San Francisco DocFest

by on September 22, 2020

In the Sean Penn-directed film “Into The Wild,” protagonist Christopher McCandless’ travels take him to the Southern California desert.  There, he sees Leonard Knight’s folk art sculpture Salvation Mountain and even meets Knight himself.  The sculpture is a colorful expression of Knight’s love for Christ, a mixture of words of praise and Christian iconography as art.  Despite the passage of years and the harsh desert environment, Knight’s Mountain still remains as colorful as ever thanks to the volunteers who provide regular upkeep on the sculpture.

Salvation Mountain is just one of the artworks seen in Leo Zahn’s documentary “Iconicity.”  Zahn’s film essentially takes viewers on a road trip through the Southern California desert to see the colonies of artists and rebels that have sprung up over the years in the area.  Among the stops in Zahn’s film are Slab City, East Jesus, and the Bombay Beach Biennale.

Situating art pieces in the Southern California desert is not a new phenomenon.  Back in 1951, Douglas Aircraft employee Jesse Antone Martin brought to the Yucca Valley the first statue for what would eventually become Desert Christ Park.  The statues were made out of concrete and other materials which could withstand an atomic blast.

But it was Salvation Mountain’s existence that proverbially lit the psychic fuse for the eventual explosion of art in the area.  Some artists came because they found inspiration in the desert’s starkness and decay.  Others came to the desert because it was an alternative to being homeless and harassed by the cops in the cities.  What these new residents wound up creating was everything from performance spaces to art galleries.

The metaphorical humus that inspired these artists to create sculptures was human civilization’s detritus.  Such objects as broken flip-flops, badly stained toilets, bullet casings, and even an abandoned phone booth got inventively repurposed into stunning pieces of art.

In showing some of the resulting artworks, Zahn’s film avoids the tour guide trap of visually rushing the viewer through as many works as possible.  Instead, its camera knows when to glide enough to let the viewer take the time to appreciate some particular artwork’s detail.  Particularly benefitting from this extended gaze are several works in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum, Ricardo Breceda’s often dramatic tin sheet sculptures, and such Randy Palumbo installations as Bell Tower and Lodestar.

The detritus to art alchemy winds up working best with the more representational pieces of art.  Purifoy’s criticism of Jim Crow practice in “White/Colored” would be less effective if the viewer didn’t know the “colored” facility was a toilet bowl.  The “Peace” memorial to fallen American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan gains its extra punch by the viewer’s knowing the sign’s letters were spelled out with spent bullet casings.

It’s fair to ask whether the desert art scene and such events as the Bombay Beach Biennale would inadvertently spark gentrification, as has happened in the cities.  Fortunately, gentrification seems strongly unlikely in this case.  Biennale co-founder Stefan Ashkenazy makes clear that the annual event is not aimed at continual expansion in attendance.  Equally importantly, the steady shrinkage of the man-made Salton Sea will eventually lead to continual dust storms that may well make lands as far away as eastern San Diego uninhabitable.

A qualifier needs to be inserted here.  Future uninhabitability from continual dust storms is more likely to apply to mundanes.  For the artists inspired by the decay in such places as the former U.S. Marine Corps Camp Dunlap, such a phenomenon might mean more living spaces or art materials.

***

Martha Shane and Ian Cheney’s zippy and entertaining documentary “Picture Character” turns out to be a solid “as advertised on the tin” type of film.  This cinematic introduction to the world of picture characters (better known to the world as emojis) does indeed show how emojis are chosen and delves a little into their history and the linguistic issues their popularity raises.

24-year-old NTT employee Shigetaka Kurita created the first emojis back in 1997.  The inspiration for those first 176 characters came from such sources as billboards and the symbols found on public signs.  The popularity of those first picture characters eventually led to more such characters being created over the years.  As Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge points out, emojis convey emotion much better than text.

How can it be ensured that the emotions expressed in an emoji from a French computer is understood in the same way by a computer based in South Korea?  It’s thanks to the work of  an organization known as the Unicode Consortium.  Its members, which include Google and Amazon, have an interest in ensuring that computers around the world are able to communicate with each other in a common code.  Emojis became part of the Consortium’s bailiwick in 2010.

The Consortium acts as the clearing board for approval of new emojis.  Out of the literal hundreds of applications they receive each year, only 60 are chosen.  That selection process, Shane and Cheney show, is a delicate balancing act between time (new emojis’ code will be around long after the Consortium’s members have become dust) and acknowledgment of social realities (e.g. changing emojis’ people skin tones from one uniform color to five different shades).

Since the Consortium’s emoji selection process is held behind closed doors, the filmmakers choose a different path for illustrating the issues raised by attempts to create new emojis.  They follow the paths of three different emoji applications.  The applicants ask for: a woman in a burqa, the popular Argentine drink mate, and a pair of slightly bloody panties (to represent female menstruation).

The personal stories of the applicants’ efforts to get their emoji ideas approved form a significant part of “Picture Character.”  But it feels as if that choice comes at the expense of glossing over more significant issues.  How can a reasonable “are emojis a language” discussion be had without dealing with the apparent precedent of hieroglyphics?  How well must emojis be able to communicate abstract ideas (e.g. schadenfreude, saudade) before it can be called a language?  Should the current model of emoji access (store the code of every recognized emoji along with code for other programs such as Facebook on one personal device) be replaced by a semi-customizable format (have the most currently frequently used emoji stored on a personal device but allow the user to access a bank of emojis to pick and choose characters they’re more likely to personally use)?

Cavils aside, “Picture Character” still manages to provide entertaining moments.  Seeing 3-year-old Maya Chen display a facility with emoji communication will bring smiles rather than feelings of underachievement.  Learning the emoji combination of “Canadian maple leaf + fire” is a must, especially for the 420 friendly.  But it’s Kurita’s humble pleasure that his picture characters have now become everyone’s characters that will leave viewers feeling quietly radiant.

***

Michael Lees’ personal documentary “Uncivilized” is part introspection, part real life adventure story.  It might also be cheekily referred to as a chronicle of a spiritual cleansing via Category 5 hurricane.

Lees has returned to his home country of Dominica after living eight years in the United States.  His return is in preparation for a new adventure: living alone in Dominica’s forests for six months.  But he eventually admits his motivation for this adventure is more spiritual.  The  destructiveness of modern life has raised strong doubts whether its so-called progress is actually something worth embracing.

What the viewer sees of normal life on Dominica certainly makes the director’s homeland a good place to find answers.  This small Caribbean island hasn’t gone out of its way to develop its land within an inch of its life to attract the tourist trade.  Modern conveniences such as running water and Internet access can be found on Dominica.  But the island’s relative lack of development means an isolated place where the director-subject can go on his inner adventure isn’t difficult to find.

Lees’ preparations for his adventure clearly don’t include a wholesale ascetic rejection of the modern world.  The gear he takes into the wilderness includes a machine-crafted machete, a mass produced Bible, and a solar-powered phone and camera.

To the director’s credit, he does a credible job living off the land.  Palm leaves provide roof coverings and walls.  He’s able to find wild fruits and catch crabs for meals.  But cooking and eating a fish which had worms crawling out of it ends for Lees about as well as a reasonable viewer can guess.

Living in the wild when the Category 5 Hurricane Maria makes landfall shows how fragile the director’s forest existence is.  Being cold and thoroughly soaked through and hungry for an extended period of time in the wild does wonders for destroying any preconception of Nature solely as a bountiful Eden.

One of the film’s great ironies is that the answers Lees seek don’t come from his spending the whole 181 days in Dominica’s forest.  It’s his return to live with his parents for the remaining days of his adventure that helps Lees find his moment of enlightenment.  For the ferocity of Hurricane Maria essentially knocked out Dominica’s entire human infrastructure.  So there is no running water, electricity, or even Internet access in Dominica for months.  Rather than insist on the purity of his personal experiment, it’s Lees’ observations of his neighbors’ activities in post-Maria Dominica that provide the clues he personally needs.

Yes, some residents of Dominica leave the island after an extended period of life without water or electricity.  But other residents including Lees and his parents start using modern tools in conjunction with old skills.  Washing clothes in the river is done with modern liquid detergent.  Empty plastic water bottles plus a truck is used to collect and transport more fresh river water than could be carried in an earthen jug.

The director doesn’t mince words about how Dominica’s unique geographical and social situation allows its residents to survive off the land without electricity or running water.  He’s honest enough to note that the story for Dominica’s people would have been different had the land been less fertile or unpolluted.

“Uncivilized”’s ultimate takeaway doesn’t depend on Lees’ adopting Werner Herzog-level cynicism regarding humanity’s relationship to nature.  But the director doesn’t go back to blindly embracing the modern world’s conveniences and security either.  Viewers wishing to learn what Lees’ realization is will need to obtain access to the film.

***

Have vague memories of entertainingly misspent afternoons or evenings catching one of the Spike and Mike animation festivals in the 1980s and 1990s?  Then Kat Alloshin’s cheerful documentary “Animation Outlaws” will remind such viewers of what a wonderful party these festival showings could be.  For the newbies, they’ll learn how this DIY festival of independent animated short films helped launch such pop culture staples as “Beavis and Butthead,” “Wallace and Gromit,” and “Happy Tree Friends.”

Alloshin’s film winds up being a bit light on the history of the festival’s operations.  Riverside roommates Spike Decker and Mike Gribble transform a between-punk-rock-acts entertainment measure into an alt-culture phenomenon thanks to old school guerilla marketing.  As the festival expands in popularity, the show faces competition from Terry Thoren’s International Tournee Of Animation.  Spike and Mike also face pressure from their publicists to abandon this DIY stuff to really make their festival big.  No really ugly details are revealed by Alloshin, not even the basic fact that the last Spike and Mike theatrical show was in 2005.

Yet whatever benefits may accrue from more formal knowledge of the festival’s history, that approach would not respect the wonderfully anarchic spirit that made the festival so well loved.  More conventional film festivals may expect word about their event to be formally transmitted by handing out flyers or paid media advertisements.  The Spike and Mike folks turned their marketing into part of the upcoming show.  Flyer distributors dressed up as Gumby or a cowboy surrounded by wind-up cows.  Sometimes, stretching mall security rules was a small price to pay to get the word out about an upcoming show.

For those people who took the plunge from a flyer to attend a Spike & Mike screening, they would find the entertainment extended far beyond getting them to buy a ticket.  Footage of the audience at Spike & Mike screenings includes a moment from a Castro Theatre show where audience members bounced large balls through the air to other parts of the auditorium.  A front man presenter for a festival screening reminded the audience that “there would be no smoking…of tobacco,” which delighted the more 420-friendly attendees.

Another disconnect could also be frequently found in the festival posters.  Over the years, they featured artwork from such artists as William Stout, Everett Peck, and Nick Park.  But sometimes what was seen in the poster image and what was being shown in a particular year probably threw a few Spike and Mike newbies off their game.

For the independent animated shorts that Spike and Mike showed over the course of the festival’s existence went beyond the popular idea of animation as something cel drawn, aimed primarily at kids, and/or coming from Disney or some other Hollywood studio.  The selection criteria Spike and Mike used may have included humor, country represented, animation medium, and male-female balance.  But the results entertainingly confounded festival attendees’ expectations of animation.

Alloshin generously peppers her film with excerpts from the many short films shown by Spike and Mike’s show over the years.  These bits include the cel animation of “The Cat Came Back” and “Frog Baseball” as well as the stop-motion claymation of “Closed Mondays” and “The Wrong Trousers.”  Readers with longer memories will be able to identify more of the film excerpts.  They’ll also notice that quite a few of the films seen in passing have since won plenty of awards, become modern classics, or sometimes both.

“Animation Outlaws” doesn’t harp on the fact that such festival alumni as Nick Park, Mike Judge, and Kenn Navarro went on to become major pop culture figures.  The real benefits of the Spike and Mike shows for these animators, as the viewer learns from quite a few interviews, were more intangible.  Pixar director Pete Docter (“Up,” “Inside Out”) found the festival’s offerings showed him the virtue of staying with an unconventional creative vision.  Nick Park mused with wonderment at giving his first autograph after a Spike & Mike screening.  Animators who had shorts in the festival were brought together to socialize by Spike & Mike at  post-screening parties.

Alloshin’s film entertains best when the viewer approaches it as a cinematic wake for a much beloved subcultural phenomenon.  Wonderfully outrageous personal stories help bring the times of this “concert for animators” to life.  However, it would be nice to learn what finally happened with a particular exhibition negotiation between Spike & Mike and a filmmaker.  Did that animator finally say yes to the festival heads’ offer because they threw in the sweetener of a bag of pot?  If that animator said no, what was he taking?

***

By the time these reviews come out, this year’s DocFest will be over.  However, if most of the films mentioned here interest you, it’s still possible to see them.  “Animation Outlaws” will now be available via Amazon Video, iTunes, or YouTube.  “Iconicity” and “Uncivilized” can be purchased and/or rented off the respective film’s website.

Speaking of post-festival circuit screenings, horror farce short “We Got A Monkey’s Paw” is now available at Alter and Facebook.  First seen by this writer at the “Mindbenders” shorts program of Cinequest 2019, the short film was an entertaining if not perfect tale.  Here’s what was written then:

“A frayed relationship between two roommates provided the takeoff point for Aaron Pagniano’s farcical supernatural short “We Got A Monkey’s Paw.”   Zack collected supernatural paraphernalia ranging from a cursed Ouija board to a rotary phone that will tell listeners the date and manner of their demise.  When he and roommate Jakki accidentally discovered a monkey’s paw, their evening became filled with time travel, a zombie mother siege, and some uncomfortable truths about their relationship.  The comic steam ran a little thin before the wishing chaos got resolved.  Still, Pagniano’s film entertained enough to be one of the program’s stronger entries.”

If readers need a few laughs, check out Pagniano’s short.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

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