Perception of politics at SFIFF

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Tuesday April 21, 2015
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Do movies matter anymore? Did they ever? Were they always merely make-believe, inducing in us an illusion of significance? Perhaps. In the midst of the Sixth Extinction, as radical Islam dominates mediatized terror, body-cams capture cops shooting black innocents, bullies weaponize social media, the political process locks into dynastic stasis, and Silicon Valley millionaires desecrate our once-freaktastic town, movies offer few solutions beyond escape. The next two weeks' worth of digital projections at the cosmopolite Kabuki, cool Clay, cavernous Castro, ratty Roxie, and museum-quality PFA in Berkeley, collectively known as the San Francisco International Film Festival, will make a fine side-dish to your popcorn. Tonight at the Castro Theatre, the opening-night documentary salutes Steve Jobs, a visionary who rendered cinema obsolete.

The press conference on the top floor of the venerable Fairmont Hotel indicated the SFIFF has a high opinion of itself, and reminded us there was another San Francisco, a series of San Franciscos, before the one some feel has been lost forever to a 1% for whom the words "May 1968" have no meaning. May 1968 was the height of an international student revolution including, but not limited to, San Francisco's Summer of Love, inspired by the atrocious U.S. war in Vietnam. The subsequent end of compulsory military service triggered a retreat from political engagement, as Americans turned inward for solutions to socio-economic problems we don't dare face. Political action went underground, politics mimicked make-believe, California got its first movie-star governor, and films became the last vestigial vehicles of relevance.

SFIFF offers a handful of films that might or might not awaken your civic conscience, as they trace the slow, steady decline of a once-vibrant democracy. Oakland was where it all started for The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Kabuki, 4/25, 28), directed by Stanley Nelson, who will do a Q&A after the Saturday show. No glimpse was offered of the film, so I can only hope the two-hour documentary is as riveting as its titular totem animal. Founded in 1966 and dissolved in 1982, this black-nationalist, far-left group had the distinction of being considered "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the late, great, closeted-gay connoisseur of greatest threats. The Panthers' tactic of "policing the police" sounds like an idea whose time has come again.

Attempting to locate where it all went wrong philosophically, Best of Enemies (Kabuki, 4/24; Clay 4/26) focuses on the Right-Left divide in the context of the 1968 national conventions. The clash of Staid vs. Hip galvanizes the televised debates between conservative William F. Buckley and radical Gore Vidal, who wins by calling Buckley a crypto-Nazi, provoking Buckley to self-destruct in a stunning tizzy of homosexual panic. As if to illustrate its thesis that TV killed intellectual discourse, Enemies doesn't even try to elucidate the issues that continue to corrupt the country.

A scene from Stevan Riley's Listen to Me Marlon, playing the 58th SFIFF. Photo: Courtesy of SFFS

The biography Listen to Me Marlon (Kabuki 4/25, 29; PFA, 4/27) offers insights into the complexities of career management for an artistic genius with anti-Establishment political convictions. Brando, the world's greatest avatar of Stanislavski's "method" as translated for the New York theater, revolutionized acting by replacing pseudo-British technique with deeply personal, wildly sexy, passionately poetic embodiments of rebel youth and men of conscience. His private life was a sensationalized fiasco, as were his final films, but he is always worth watching, like a T-Rex in a tar pit, in his death struggle with the forces of American success.

Another look at artistic conscience, What Happened, Miss Simone? (Castro, 4/24) aims to provide a definitive portrait of singer Nina Simone, but as no peep was permitted this press person, I can only express my deepest admiration for the subject matter. That people draw strength from adversity never ceases to amaze conformists. As a black musician devoted to fighting and singing for civil rights, Simone found a resonant power denied better-known performers who evade community engagement. A blood-rare exemplar of musical intelligence, emotional intensity, and poetic integrity.

A scene from Jean-Gabriel Periot's A German Youth, playing the 58th SFIFF. Photo: Courtesy of SFFS

No review of the decline of 20th-century political activism would be complete without celebrating the leftist terrorist crash-and-burn known as the Red Faction Army or Baader-Meinhof Gang, sexy post-Nazi anti-fascists turned desperados who flamed out in a series of crimes-against-the-state that continue to haunt, inspire, and unsettle. A German Youth (PFA, 4/25; Kabuki 5/2, 5) vomits up a compelling compendium of obscure archival footage illuminating the militants' rise and fall, circa 1967-76. Enlightened-militant icon Ulrike Meinhof and her comrades tried wresting the means of media production from state-sponsored military industrialists. First by film, debate, and article. Then by gun, kidnap, and explosion. They failed.