Second Indie Fest Review

by on February 8, 2018

More Reviews From The 20th San Francisco Independent Film Festival

One reason for cherishing the San Francisco Independent Film Festival (hereafter “IndieFest”) is its commitment to prioritize films with unique or unconventional points of view over those that are easy ticket sales bait.  Cathy Lee Crane’s historical quasi-drama “The Manhattan Front” will disconcert audiences seeking comfy fictional historical recreations or safe political opinions.  Its embrace of anarchism and decrying of the “war as a capitalist opportunity” mentality will not suit the vaguely political viewer.

Further aesthetic subversion comes from the film’s unexpected uses of visual metaphor and archival footage.  Though Crane’s characters generally display agency, the unnamed child who makes repeat appearances seems to mock their supposed control of their destiny.  Apparently ordinary archival footage goes beyond scene setting to become subtle historical critiques.  A bravura sequence turns the munitions creation to battlefront pipeline into a grotesque assembly line whose ultimate product is killing men.

The film’s story begins in 1915 New York City.  While World War One rages in Europe, America officially remains neutral.  American munitions manufacturers, though, freely sell armaments to the British.  To disrupt the American arms pipeline, German saboteur Franz von Rintelen hires such agents as Irish stevedore Joe Flanagan to plant some very special cigars.  He also helps create a peace organization to work with the militant labor activists of the Industrial Workers of the World (aka the Wobblies).  The end result of von Rintelen’s efforts will spell eventual political doom for the Wobblies.

Was Crane’s film influenced by John Dos Passos’ famed “U.S.A.” trilogy?  The Ward Moorhouse, Janey and Mac characters have roles similar to their “U.S.A.” namesakes. In Dos Passos’ novels, news headlines and scraps of period songs immersed the reader in the times the author evoked.  Crane certainly uses plenty of period archival footage to take viewers back to 1915.  But some of the period song performances critique such notions as women’s incapability of doing men’s work or the alleged openness of the presidency of the United States to any interested person.  The latter song is sung by a black woman.

Early in the film, Crane seems to establish the visual language that black and white film covers the historical footage while color film is used for the fictional segments.  Yet the fictional business trip to Mexico taken by Janey and Moorhouse associate Mr. Barrow is rendered in black and white.  How should the viewer react to this twist?  Perhaps that switch is Crane’s prompt to the viewer to not take the other archival footage and period speech excerpts at face value.  Certainly the Lusitania sinking may not have been the act of German barbarity alleged by news accounts.

Crane’s film will ultimately disconcert those who prefer the closure of history neatly resolved and characters’ fates known.  The little girl’s unknown game relies on metaphorically treating the film’s fictional characters as useful pawns for some larger but unknown purpose.  The girl’s playthings are tellingly not disposed of.  Meanwhile, America’s entrance into the First World War and the beginning of industrial adoption of the 8-hour workday are not exactly spoilers in the context of Crane’s film.

“The Manhattan Front”’s anti-closure resolution makes its larger political points without need for direct rhetoric.  Rich men still cherish profit-making at workers’ expense.  Workers still need to fight for better working conditions even after the passage of a century.  The repression of the Wobblies doesn’t preclude a future rising of workers to struggle for their rights.  Crane’s film offers a reminder that the politics of fighting for worker dignity and rights never truly stops.

***

Certain right wing scolds love to claim that modern life would be so much better if organized religion was allowed to exert a greater presence.  “Confessions of A Teenage Jesus Jerk” shows in one very tragicomic story how such everyday religious incursion would be a curse.

Actor Eric Stoltz makes his directorial debut adapting San Francisco author Tony Dushane’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.  Its setting is the Reagan era San Francisco Bay Area.  High schooler Gabe, the Dushane stand-in, is a teenage Jehovah’s Witness.  His father happens to be one of the local congregation’s Elders.  However, thriving in his religious Fellowship proves less important to Gabe than his growing curiosity regarding masturbation and other sexual matters.  Of particular importance is his unrequited crush on fellow teen Witness Jasmine.

It’s said a system’s strength can be found in how it handles breakdowns in its operations.  In Gabe’s case, the religion he was steeped in proves particularly inadequate in explaining or de-mystifying the contradictions of sexual desire.  One memorably ludicrous moment sees Gabe’s father counseling a husband greatly concerned about having committed sodomy with his wife.  But things prove far less funny for Gabe when he becomes a scapegoat for female Witnesses’ embarrassment over experiencing awakened sexual desires.

Gabe’s story follows his gradual re-assessment of his treating his religious fervor as integral to his personal identity.  Free-spirited cousin Karen shepherds his sexual awakening as well as his introduction to the then-burgeoning City punk scene.  After Gabe gets temporarily expelled from the congregation, the expulsion may have been aimed at crushing his spirit and increase his craving to not make waves in the future.  But getting exposed to the poetry of Kerouac shows the teen that spiritual awakening is not the private preserve of the Witnesses.

Seeing the word “Masturbation” in flashing neon above an Elder’s head doesn’t mean the film rejects the religious urge.  Religion is just one way of making the universe understandable to people.  But Stoltz’ film has little love for religious desire being twisted into a means of controlling others’ behavior.

***

The Los Angeles-set comedy “The California No” feels like the human relationships equivalent of those old Driver’s Education shorts on traffic safety.  A typical educational short’s protagonist remains blissfully unaware of the preventable trouble lurking in his future.  Lead character Elliott displays such unawareness.  But his problems are compounded by his unfortunate sense of entitlement.

The title of Ned Ehrbar’s film references a common phrase used in Los Angeles.  For those not clued in to Angeleno social mores, Ehrbar’s Director’s Statement explains this social rejection technique.  Basically, the rejecting person says nothing at all to the rejected person’s repeated e-mails, calls, or other communications.  Accumulated frustration or embarrassment hopefully causes the rejected person to finally give up contact attempts.

The protagonist who didn’t get the California No memo is married freelance movie journalist Elliott.  During couples therapy, he discovers his wife Allison acts as if she’s in an open marriage.  The revelation arouses Elliott’s depression, anger, and jealousy.  It causes him to embark on a cascade of increasingly bad personal decisions.

Throughout the film, Elliott never truly abandons an air of being personally wronged by Allison.  He gratuitously brings up his grievance with his wife at seemingly every new encounter with a woman.  Yet the writer’s inability to confront his wife with his anger leads to such self-destructive actions as interviewing a New Age blowhard actor for a supposed article for Vanity Fair.

Elliott’s conflict avoidance skills also apply to his career.  In a wonderfully acerbic sequence set in a Hollywood press junket, the writer’s bored with the actors and filmmakers he’s interviewing saying essentially the same clichéd statements.  Yet that frustration doesn’t translate into coming up with more original questions or even finding another line of writing work.  Instead, his only reward is near-strangulation by a Hollywood star.

Perhaps the life lesson to be drawn from Ehrbar’s entertaining debut feature is that conflict avoidance should never be a goal in and of itself.  Elliott’s increasingly cringeworthy failure to understand that point may make his life miserable.  For those watching Elliott’s antics, the protagonist’s frustrations and cluelessness becomes the stuff of jaw-dropping amusement.

***

IndieFest closes things out with Onur Tukel’s new film “The Misogynists.”  It’s an acerbic cinematic biopsy of the diseased American body politic that facilitated the 2016 electoral victory of Donald Trump.

The film’s main setting is a luxury hotel room on the evening of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  Cameron (Dylan Baker, in manic face punch-worthy mode) sees the unexpected results as a cause for celebrating with underling Baxter.  The long celebration involves lots of cocaine, heavy drinking, and even some beautiful hookers.  But despite this supposed bacchanalia, the unhappy secrets of Cameron’s and Baxter’s lives rise to the surface but won’t cause them to change their ways.

The pacing on Tukel’s film is not perfect.  Baker dominates the screen as Cameron manically shoots off yet another repulsive opinion. His absence causes the film to drag, as can be seen in the scenes where only the main female character and her friend are onscreen.  Despite this shortcoming, the anti-Trump viewer will wish the exhibition venue sold rotten tomatoes to allow more direct viewer interaction with Tukel’s male leads.

Baker’s Cameron lives down to the common image of a Trump supporter.  To him, non-white people can never be real Americans.  Clinton’s defeat means for him a liberating of America’s male population from the spectre of female leadership cooties.  Baxter, by contrast, shares Cameron’s views but is less blatant about it.  His rationalizations of Trump’s victory come off as attempts to make palatable an electoral disaster.  The events of the very long year just past have shown these excuses to be both foolish and badly wrong.  Tellingly, Baxter never truly challenges Cameron’s views.  Without fail, he ultimately follows his superior’s lead.

Both male lead characters live down in different ways to their woman-hating roles.  Cameron has used his managerial position to promote very unqualified men over far more qualified women.   Baxter may not express his misogyny outright.  But his lying to wife Alice shows some of his accumulated passive-aggressive anger towards the very short leash Alice keeps him on.

Cameron and Baxter definitely earn viewers’ scorn.  However, Tukel’s film finds things to criticize in the other characters as well.  Alice may mourn Trump’s victory, but she’s made racist assumptions about black men.  The Room Service guy may have thought having the first female POTUS would have been cool.  But he justifies his not helping to create history with the old “voting doesn’t matter” chestnut.  Grant, a peer of Cameron and Baxter’s, may have called Cameron out on his open misogyny yet he enabled the sexist through inaction.  Fortunately, the motor-mouthed Cameron is left speechless by Grant’s choice for President.

Hookers Sasha and Amber make for odd agents of viewer hope.  Amber’s complaints about female objectification are mired by a personal indecisiveness that doesn’t presage plans to change her profession.  A taxi ride taken by both women devolves into an Islamophobic argument with the driver.  Doing a job in Cameron’s room is for Sasha a return to an old customer.  For Amber, it’s a quick way to earn the month’s rent, with the sweetener of the availability of illicit drugs.  The two hookers represent in a way the type of people who treat working for Trump as just another job.  Yet this job will ultimately reveal to Cameron and Baxter limits on what their wealth can buy.

Throughout the film, the TV in Cameron’s room accidentally turns on and shows footage of rocket launches and birthday parties in reverse.  The director trusts the audience to understand this running gag as a metaphor for Trump’s election presaging a state of continual social and political regression.  The gag’s payoff shows the metaphor’s dark heart.

(“The Manhattan Front” screens at 4:30 PM on February 10, 2018 and 7:00 PM on February 14, 2018.  “Confessions Of A Teenage Jesus Jerk” screens at 9:15 PM on February 10, 2018 and 7:00 PM on February 15, 2018.  “The California No” screens at 7:00 PM on February 10, 2018 and 9:15 PM on February 12, 2018.  “The Misogynists” screens at 7:00 PM on February 15, 2018.  All screenings take place at the Roxie Theatre (3117—16th Street, SF).  For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.sfindie.com .)

More Reviews From The 20th San Francisco Independent Film Festival

One reason for cherishing the San Francisco Independent Film Festival (hereafter “IndieFest”) is its commitment to prioritize films with unique or unconventional points of view over those that are easy ticket sales bait.  Cathy Lee Crane’s historical quasi-drama “The Manhattan Front” will disconcert audiences seeking comfy fictional historical recreations or safe political opinions.  Its embrace of anarchism and decrying of the “war as a capitalist opportunity” mentality will not suit the vaguely political viewer.

Further aesthetic subversion comes from the film’s unexpected uses of visual metaphor and archival footage.  Though Crane’s characters generally display agency, the unnamed child who makes repeat appearances seems to mock their supposed control of their destiny.  Apparently ordinary archival footage goes beyond scene setting to become subtle historical critiques.  A bravura sequence turns the munitions creation to battlefront pipeline into a grotesque assembly line whose ultimate product is killing men.

The film’s story begins in 1915 New York City.  While World War One rages in Europe, America officially remains neutral.  American munitions manufacturers, though, freely sell armaments to the British.  To disrupt the American arms pipeline, German saboteur Franz von Rintelen hires such agents as Irish stevedore Joe Flanagan to plant some very special cigars.  He also helps create a peace organization to work with the militant labor activists of the Industrial Workers of the World (aka the Wobblies).  The end result of von Rintelen’s efforts will spell eventual political doom for the Wobblies.

Was Crane’s film influenced by John Dos Passos’ famed “U.S.A.” trilogy?  The Ward Moorhouse, Janey and Mac characters have roles similar to their “U.S.A.” namesakes. In Dos Passos’ novels, news headlines and scraps of period songs immersed the reader in the times the author evoked.  Crane certainly uses plenty of period archival footage to take viewers back to 1915.  But some of the period song performances critique such notions as women’s incapability of doing men’s work or the alleged openness of the presidency of the United States to any interested person.  The latter song is sung by a black woman.

Early in the film, Crane seems to establish the visual language that black and white film covers the historical footage while color film is used for the fictional segments.  Yet the fictional business trip to Mexico taken by Janey and Moorhouse associate Mr. Barrow is rendered in black and white.  How should the viewer react to this twist?  Perhaps that switch is Crane’s prompt to the viewer to not take the other archival footage and period speech excerpts at face value.  Certainly the Lusitania sinking may not have been the act of German barbarity alleged by news accounts.

Crane’s film will ultimately disconcert those who prefer the closure of history neatly resolved and characters’ fates known.  The little girl’s unknown game relies on metaphorically treating the film’s fictional characters as useful pawns for some larger but unknown purpose.  The girl’s playthings are tellingly not disposed of.  Meanwhile, America’s entrance into the First World War and the beginning of industrial adoption of the 8-hour workday are not exactly spoilers in the context of Crane’s film.

“The Manhattan Front”’s anti-closure resolution makes its larger political points without need for direct rhetoric.  Rich men still cherish profit-making at workers’ expense.  Workers still need to fight for better working conditions even after the passage of a century.  The repression of the Wobblies doesn’t preclude a future rising of workers to struggle for their rights.  Crane’s film offers a reminder that the politics of fighting for worker dignity and rights never truly stops.

***

Certain right wing scolds love to claim that modern life would be so much better if organized religion was allowed to exert a greater presence.  “Confessions of A Teenage Jesus Jerk” shows in one very tragicomic story how such everyday religious incursion would be a curse.

Actor Eric Stoltz makes his directorial debut adapting San Francisco author Tony Dushane’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.  Its setting is the Reagan era San Francisco Bay Area.  High schooler Gabe, the Dushane stand-in, is a teenage Jehovah’s Witness.  His father happens to be one of the local congregation’s Elders.  However, thriving in his religious Fellowship proves less important to Gabe than his growing curiosity regarding masturbation and other sexual matters.  Of particular importance is his unrequited crush on fellow teen Witness Jasmine.

It’s said a system’s strength can be found in how it handles breakdowns in its operations.  In Gabe’s case, the religion he was steeped in proves particularly inadequate in explaining or de-mystifying the contradictions of sexual desire.  One memorably ludicrous moment sees Gabe’s father counseling a husband greatly concerned about having committed sodomy with his wife.  But things prove far less funny for Gabe when he becomes a scapegoat for female Witnesses’ embarrassment over experiencing awakened sexual desires.

Gabe’s story follows his gradual re-assessment of his treating his religious fervor as integral to his personal identity.  Free-spirited cousin Karen shepherds his sexual awakening as well as his introduction to the then-burgeoning City punk scene.  After Gabe gets temporarily expelled from the congregation, the expulsion may have been aimed at crushing his spirit and increase his craving to not make waves in the future.  But getting exposed to the poetry of Kerouac shows the teen that spiritual awakening is not the private preserve of the Witnesses.

Seeing the word “Masturbation” in flashing neon above an Elder’s head doesn’t mean the film rejects the religious urge.  Religion is just one way of making the universe understandable to people.  But Stoltz’ film has little love for religious desire being twisted into a means of controlling others’ behavior.

***

The Los Angeles-set comedy “The California No” feels like the human relationships equivalent of those old Driver’s Education shorts on traffic safety.  A typical educational short’s protagonist remains blissfully unaware of the preventable trouble lurking in his future.  Lead character Elliott displays such unawareness.  But his problems are compounded by his unfortunate sense of entitlement.

The title of Ned Ehrbar’s film references a common phrase used in Los Angeles.  For those not clued in to Angeleno social mores, Ehrbar’s Director’s Statement explains this social rejection technique.  Basically, the rejecting person says nothing at all to the rejected person’s repeated e-mails, calls, or other communications.  Accumulated frustration or embarrassment hopefully causes the rejected person to finally give up contact attempts.

The protagonist who didn’t get the California No memo is married freelance movie journalist Elliott.  During couples therapy, he discovers his wife Allison acts as if she’s in an open marriage.  The revelation arouses Elliott’s depression, anger, and jealousy.  It causes him to embark on a cascade of increasingly bad personal decisions.

Throughout the film, Elliott never truly abandons an air of being personally wronged by Allison.  He gratuitously brings up his grievance with his wife at seemingly every new encounter with a woman.  Yet the writer’s inability to confront his wife with his anger leads to such self-destructive actions as interviewing a New Age blowhard actor for a supposed article for Vanity Fair.

Elliott’s conflict avoidance skills also apply to his career.  In a wonderfully acerbic sequence set in a Hollywood press junket, the writer’s bored with the actors and filmmakers he’s interviewing saying essentially the same clichéd statements.  Yet that frustration doesn’t translate into coming up with more original questions or even finding another line of writing work.  Instead, his only reward is near-strangulation by a Hollywood star.

Perhaps the life lesson to be drawn from Ehrbar’s entertaining debut feature is that conflict avoidance should never be a goal in and of itself.  Elliott’s increasingly cringeworthy failure to understand that point may make his life miserable.  For those watching Elliott’s antics, the protagonist’s frustrations and cluelessness becomes the stuff of jaw-dropping amusement.

***

IndieFest closes things out with Onur Tukel’s new film “The Misogynists.”  It’s an acerbic cinematic biopsy of the diseased American body politic that facilitated the 2016 electoral victory of Donald Trump.

The film’s main setting is a luxury hotel room on the evening of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  Cameron (Dylan Baker, in manic face punch-worthy mode) sees the unexpected results as a cause for celebrating with underling Baxter.  The long celebration involves lots of cocaine, heavy drinking, and even some beautiful hookers.  But despite this supposed bacchanalia, the unhappy secrets of Cameron’s and Baxter’s lives rise to the surface but won’t cause them to change their ways.

The pacing on Tukel’s film is not perfect.  Baker dominates the screen as Cameron manically shoots off yet another repulsive opinion. His absence causes the film to drag, as can be seen in the scenes where only the main female character and her friend are onscreen.  Despite this shortcoming, the anti-Trump viewer will wish the exhibition venue sold rotten tomatoes to allow more direct viewer interaction with Tukel’s male leads.

Baker’s Cameron lives down to the common image of a Trump supporter.  To him, non-white people can never be real Americans.  Clinton’s defeat means for him a liberating of America’s male population from the spectre of female leadership cooties.  Baxter, by contrast, shares Cameron’s views but is less blatant about it.  His rationalizations of Trump’s victory come off as attempts to make palatable an electoral disaster.  The events of the very long year just past have shown these excuses to be both foolish and badly wrong.  Tellingly, Baxter never truly challenges Cameron’s views.  Without fail, he ultimately follows his superior’s lead.

Both male lead characters live down in different ways to their woman-hating roles.  Cameron has used his managerial position to promote very unqualified men over far more qualified women.   Baxter may not express his misogyny outright.  But his lying to wife Alice shows some of his accumulated passive-aggressive anger towards the very short leash Alice keeps him on.

Cameron and Baxter definitely earn viewers’ scorn.  However, Tukel’s film finds things to criticize in the other characters as well.  Alice may mourn Trump’s victory, but she’s made racist assumptions about black men.  The Room Service guy may have thought having the first female POTUS would have been cool.  But he justifies his not helping to create history with the old “voting doesn’t matter” chestnut.  Grant, a peer of Cameron and Baxter’s, may have called Cameron out on his open misogyny yet he enabled the sexist through inaction.  Fortunately, the motor-mouthed Cameron is left speechless by Grant’s choice for President.

Hookers Sasha and Amber make for odd agents of viewer hope.  Amber’s complaints about female objectification are mired by a personal indecisiveness that doesn’t presage plans to change her profession.  A taxi ride taken by both women devolves into an Islamophobic argument with the driver.  Doing a job in Cameron’s room is for Sasha a return to an old customer.  For Amber, it’s a quick way to earn the month’s rent, with the sweetener of the availability of illicit drugs.  The two hookers represent in a way the type of people who treat working for Trump as just another job.  Yet this job will ultimately reveal to Cameron and Baxter limits on what their wealth can buy.

Throughout the film, the TV in Cameron’s room accidentally turns on and shows footage of rocket launches and birthday parties in reverse.  The director trusts the audience to understand this running gag as a metaphor for Trump’s election presaging a state of continual social and political regression.  The gag’s payoff shows the metaphor’s dark heart.

(“The Manhattan Front” screens at 4:30 PM on February 10, 2018 and 7:00 PM on February 14, 2018.  “Confessions Of A Teenage Jesus Jerk” screens at 9:15 PM on February 10, 2018 and 7:00 PM on February 15, 2018.  “The California No” screens at 7:00 PM on February 10, 2018 and 9:15 PM on February 12, 2018.  “The Misogynists” screens at 7:00 PM on February 15, 2018.  All screenings take place at the Roxie Theatre (3117—16th Street, SF).  For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.sfindie.com .)

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