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SFIFF53 Day Four, Part Two: Cold Weather, Utopia in Four Movements

Thompson on Hollywood By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood May 1, 2010 at 3:41AM

Meredith Brody is covering the San Francisco Film Fest:
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Thompson on Hollywood

Meredith Brody is covering the San Francisco Film Fest:

Head still buzzing from Walter Murch’s allusive, inspiring State of Cinema address, I slipped into Cold Weather, from a young indie filmmaker named Aaron Katz, whose first two films, as the catalogue states, are among those that “defined a movement of American ultra-low-budget filmmaking popularly termed ‘mumblecore.'”

I arrived rather late to the mumblecore party, and am not fully convinced of its pleasures. But I decide to see Cold Weather for two typically random film festival reasons: I met the director and his cinematographer, Andrew Reed, earlier today, as they were chatting with head programmer Rachel Rosen. They were fresh from a visit to Bi-Rite Creamery and eagerly reciting the multiple flavors of ice cream they’d each tried. When I suggested they visit Humphrey Slocombe, and mentioned that my favorite flavor there was Secret Breakfast (essence of Jack Daniels, with cornflakes for crunch), Katz’s knowing nod told me it was already on their list. I was charmed. And its 6:15 screening was scheduled perfectly in between Murch’s speech and another special festival event, Sam Green’s “live documentary,” Utopia in Four Movements, leaving just enough time to grab the essential cups of coffee before and after.

Before Cold Weather, the audience is thanked for leaving the “uncharacteristically warm, perfect SF day to come inside and see stormy Portland skies.” At first, I like the beautifully-photographed skies more than what’s going on underneath them. There’s a slacker guy who’s moved to Portland to share a rather bare apartment with his sister and work at a minimum-wage job, hauling tubs around in an ice factory, playing board games, going to see a friend’s DJ gig. Yawn. Hints at a shift in tone appear with the knowledge that he’s interrupted his studies in forensic science, is reading Raffles, and is a fan of Sherlock Holmes. Sure enough, the appearance of an ex-girlfriend in his life triggers something of a detective thriller plot, and a shift in tone that balances tension with humor. Another shift in tone arrives with the somewhat abrupt ending, which leaves some people in the audience audibly unsatisfied.

It’s the first screening I’ve been at with the director and other members of his crew in attendance for a q and a. As usual I find even a few minutes’ conversation adds so much to the experience – which is one of the reasons to attend a film festival. But it makes it difficult for the critic, because I also find that it engenders sympathy for the creative team. The image of all of them living in a house together during the three-week shoot, being scolded for their crummy diet by Trieste Kelly Dunn, the actress who plays the sister, is contemporary Judy-and-Mickey-putting-on-a-show. They made the movie for $100,000 (“50 times what we had for the last two movies”) -- which means they could only afford the rental of a zoom lens they fell in love with for two days. The ending (“our goal is not to frustrate audiences”) is chalked up to the fact that they thought the movie was more about the relationship between the brother and sister than the mystery.

I think the movie could serve as a pilot for a TV series about a slacker accidental-detective and his beautiful, resourceful sister – Dunn is a find, a real old-fashioned photogenic beauty in the Gene Tierney or Linda Darnell mode, verging on Ava Gardner.

What’s next for Katz and his crew? “I have an idea for a really fun period cat burglar movie.”

The largest theater in the Kabuki complex is packed out for Utopia in Four Movements, the “live documentary” by San Francisco filmmaker Sam Green, whose The Weather Underground was nominated for an Oscar. The charismatic, attractive Green prowls the vast stage, triggering static and moving images and narrating them, as a three-person group, the Quavers, hold down the right side of the stage, playing live music. Somewhere in the back sound artist composer David Cerf controls the music/sound mix.

The live narration triggers thoughts of Homer, whose name and works have been mentioned more than once this week. Green weaves together such disparate elements as a history of Esperanto, and visits to Cuba and the world’s largest (and emptiest) shopping mall in Guangzhou, China, with seductive and witty asides: brief mentions of failed Utopian groups, Le Corbusier’s chilling vision of enormous housing complexes marching across a Paris bulldozed of the past, the contents of a time capsule (a bunch of carrots?) buried at a NY World’s Fair and due to be opened in 6939 (!). Footage of forensic anthropologists excavating mass genocidal gaves in order to identify the victims and re-bury them with dignity are chilling, and apparently meant to be optimistic, though it’s hard to believe in the inherent goodness of people. “Maybe hope is faith – a little irrational.” I find some of Green’s philosophies and politics a little fuzzy, but the entire effect of the evening is marvelous and exciting, in the way that perhaps only live performance can be. Utopia in Four Movements is going on the road, appearing in future months at the Seattle and Los Angeles film festivals and Washington, D.C.’s Silverdocs in June, and the Maine International Film Festival in July.

“I wonder what else the Quavers have done,” a friend muses as we leave. “I bet you can go online and buy 3 CDs of theirs by midnight,” I say. And I’m right.


This article is related to: Festivals, San Francisco


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