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Spring 2023 Films at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

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Apologies are definitely in order for those readers who wanted earlier notice of what’s coming up this quarter at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (hereafter BAMPFA).  For those who wanted to see the Andy Warhol rarity “My Hustler,” for example, they’ll just need to hope for another opportunity. In this writer’s defense, technical problems of various types got in the way of having this preview of the BAMPFA’s Spring 2023 film programming produced in a timely manner.  If it’s a small consolation, many of the cinematic gems coming out this quarter have not screened yet.

For instance, the annual “SFFILM Festival At BAMPFA” event doesn’t run until April 14-23, 2023.  This program allows those who can’t get to San Francisco for the annual SFFILM festival to sample some of that festival’s offerings.  However, which SFFILM selections will be screened at the BAMPFA has not been officially announced yet.

“Mysterious Object At Noon,” part of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive program “Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cinema Of Now”

The Mariposa Film Group from “Word Is Out,” part of the BAMPFA “Pioneers Of Queer Cinema” program

Of the programs that have been announced, more than a few of them give hard pushbacks against right-wing culture war efforts to erase the voices of minorities radical conservatives abhor.  For example, now available is the must-see film series “Pioneers Of Queer Cinema,” which runs until May 3, 2023.  Call the series a cinematic conversation between rarely seen but important bits of queer cinema and acknowledged classics of the genre.  En masse, these films put the lie to homophobic canards painting being LGBTQ+ as being either a passing phase or an alleged product of social pressures.

 The subjects of such works as the Mariposa Film Group’s seminal 1977 documentary “Word Is Out: Stories Of Some Of Our Lives (April 2, 2023),” Pat Rocco’s documentary short “Changes (April 27, 2023),” and Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s cinematic time capsule ”Coming Out (April 30, 2023)” freely embraces their LGBT+ identities despite the social risks of the time they were made.  Any boredom with talking heads documentaries get wiped away in “Word Is Out,” for instance, thanks to the realization that its subjects’ talking openly and freely to the camera about being gay or lesbian amounted to an act of courage.  And it’s harder to dismiss trans identity as a “current phase” when you consider Rocco’s interview with transgendered Jimmy Michaels came out in 1970.  Nor can popular amnesia be relied on to dismiss the public presence of LGBT+s as a recent phenomenon when Bressan’s film shows just how alive the gay scene was fifty years ago.

But the more powerful offerings in this program present various ways of delivering the pro-queer message of “we’re here, we’re empowered.”  Right-wing demagogues of the time may have condemned the public TV broadcast of Marlon Riggs’ cinematic essay on Black gay sexuality “Tongues Untied (May 3, 2023)” for “pornographic” imagery.  But the sight of two Black men kissing on screen didn’t prevent Riggs’ powerful essay from being inducted into the National Film Registry.  Su Friedrich’s “Hide And Seek (April 19, 2023)” razzes the uselessness of previous decades’ sex education films for not helping adolescent girls recognize their lesbian identity.  And the group of New York City friends and lovers in Bill Sherwood’s “Parting Glances (March 19, 2023)” don’t let the specter of AIDS permanently bar them from still seeking love and  romance.

Lizzie Borden’s New York Feminisms Trilogy

The “we’re here, we’re empowered” message of “Pioneers Of Queer Cinema”’s offerings get taken to the next level in “Lizzie Borden’s New York Feminisms Trilogy,” a program which runs from March 17-19, 2023.  The three films may involve different genres and divergent aesthetic approaches.  But they’re all unique ways of looking at the challenges of intersectional political struggle.  “Working Girls (March 17, 2023),” follows Yale graduate and art photographer Molly, whose work in a brothel consists of the type of mundanely banal tasks found in many “ordinarily respectable” jobs.  New York City ten years after a “social democratic war of liberation” provides the setting for the Borden classic “Born In Flames (March 18, 2023).”  The presence of a Black-led “women’s liberation army” on the Big Apple’s streets and critical pirate radio broadcasts suggest government control of the city is not as tight as the powers that be would have the public believe.  Borden’s feature film debut “Regrouping (March 19, 2023)” began as an attempt to create a collaborative self-portrait of a collective of feminist artists.  But while the director captures the collective’s unraveling, she keeps her work honest by her willingness to engage in self-criticism.  Borden will appear in person for all three screenings.

“Born In Flames,” part of the BAMPFA “Lizzie Borden’s New York Feminisms Trilogy” program

The director’s in-person appearances for these BAMPFA screenings can be attributed to serendipity.  Borden’s one of the participants in U.C. Berkeley’s conference on legendary radical feminist writer Monique Wittig, which takes place the same weekend as the screening of Borden’s feminisms films.  Borden’s “Born In Flames,” like Beatriz Santiago Munoz’ “Oriana (also March 18, 2023),” might be called an answer film to Wittig’s experimental novel “Les Guerilleres”  Both films serve as the main features in the mini-series “Monique Wittig: Twenty Years Later (March 18, 2023).”   Munoz’s feature debut marries the linguistic structure of Wittig’s “Les Guerilleres” with Caribbean thought and culture.  The film follows a group of characters struggling to establish a post-patriarchal, post-colonialist non-binary world order in a near-future Caribbean.

Another film series, “Orchestrating Time: The Films Of William Kentridge,” coincides with the US premiere of Kentridge’s new opera SIBYL at Cal Performances and Kentridge’s campus residency.  For those unfamiliar with Kentridge or his work, he’s a South African artist who’s worked in a variety of media including print and drawing, animation, sculpture & tapestry.  In addition, he’s directed film adaptations of his staged operas.  

The Kentridge film series has already started up as well.  But since the series runs to April 2, 2023, there are still programs available for screening.  The short film collection “Short Films By William Kentridge: Variations” runs March 25, 2023 and includes “Ubu Tells The Truth,” which mixes live-action and cut-out animation and “Shadow Procession,” which reflects Kentridge’s interest in historic fables and narratives.  One of the Kentridge opera adaptations “The Nose (March 16, 2023),” comes from Dmitri Shostakovich’s use of Nikolai Gogol’s story of the same name.  The titular body part belongs to a bureaucrat named Kovalyov, who’s greatly concerned because that body organ has mysteriously gone missing. 

The most exciting offerings is the “Kelly Reichardt In Person

One of the BAMPFA Spring 2023 calendar’s most exciting offerings is the “Kelly Reichardt In Person” film series, running March 24-31, 2023.  BAMPFA’s very first guest for its Afterimage series returns with a small mini-festival of both relatively recent favorites…and her latest film.  That new film is “Showing Up (March 24, 2023),”  In it, Reichardt regular Michelle Williams plays Lizzy, an art school administrator who finds what limited time she has to finish her sculptures for an upcoming show being eaten up by caring for an injured rescue pigeon.  Williams also leads “Meek’s Cutoff (March 31, 2023),” Reichardt’s anti-Western about a pioneer woman (Williams) who clashes with a macho guide named Stephen Meek on the best path over the Cascade Mountains.

In the triptych of Maile Meloy story adaptations that make up “Certain Women (March 26, 2023),” Williams stars in the middle story as a wife who wants a neighbor’s unused sandstone for her new house yet fears she’s taking advantage of the neighbor’s borderline dementia.  Finally, in the wonderful historical Western “First Cow (March 25, 2023),” itinerant cook Cookie and Chinese immigrant King-Lu develop a scheme to get rich by baking biscuits and cakes for an Oregon frontier outpost.  But the scheme’s success depends on the owner of the titular cow not knowing what’s been happening to his bovine’s milk…

Showing Up Movie Cannes

Photo from “Showing Up,” part of the BAMPFA program “Kelly Reichardt In Person” showing at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

Films from acclaimed Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Also lighting up Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive this quarter is acclaimed Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.  The BAMPFA art installation “Morakot (Emerald) (Now – April 30, 2023)” is a video installation set in the titular Bangkok hotel for foreign visitors.  Its central subjects, two characters from Karl Gjellerup’s “The Pilgrim Kamanita,” get taken out of their 1906 world and plunked into a 1980s world of rapid economic development and Cambodian refugees arriving in Thailand.  In addition, Weerasethakul will appear in person to give the 2023 Townsend Center for the Humanities’ Una’s Lecture on April 11, 2023.  This event features a conversation between Weerasethakul and critic and UC Berkeley Professor Hilton Als as well as a screening of Len Lye’s “Free Radicals” and Bruce Baillie’s “Valentin De La Sierras.”

Most importantly, the film series “Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cinema Of Now (Now – May 12, 2023)” offers a retrospective of Weerasethakul’s films, with the director appearing in person for several of these screenings.  Two of these appearances will be at showings of the Weersethakul classics “Memoria (April 6, 2023),” which stars Tilda Swinton as a divorced botanist in Colombia obsessed with discovering the source of a mysterious loud banging that only she seems to hear and “Blissfully Yours (April 9, 2023),” the story of two couples spending a day in a lush jungle along the northwest Thai border which is also used by Burmese fleeing political repression in their home country.  

The rest of the series mixes both well-known Weerasethakul films and obscurities.

Two such well-known Weerasethakul films are “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (April 26, 2023), a Palme d”Or winner about the titular dying farmer and his encounters with ghosts from his past and other supernatural beings, and the director’s audacious debut “Mysterious Object At Noon (March 23, 2023),” a cinematic exquisite corpse game which starts with recounting the travails of a wheelchair-bound boy and is played along rural Thailand stops.  An example of a Weerasethaul obscurity is “The Adventure Of Iron Pussy (April 29, 2023),” which pairs Weersethakul with S.F. Art Institute graduate Michael Shaowanasai for a tale which outrageously mixes musicals, Westerns, spy action, and transvestite glamor.  Another obscurity, “Mekong Hotel (May 10 2023),” tells several tales set in a hotel located near the Thailand/Laos border.  Here, two people can talk about life, death, and love.  Or a mother’s ghost can haunt another room and pass the time eating entrails.  Or in a third entry, the actor playing the ghost from the second film recounts her memories of armed conflict in this border region during the 1960s and 1970s.

And when I die, I won’t stay dead – featured at Spring 2023 Films at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

A director shaped by far different events of the late 1960s and 1970s will make a Berkeley appearance to give the annual Les Blank Lecture on documentary film.  That director, Billy Woodberry, has made a career out of using film to recount Black history, lore, and literature.  The program “Out Of The Vault: Billy Woodberry In Person (March 22-29, 2023)” presents two of Woodberry’s acclaimed feature films as well as several assorted shorts.  “And when I die, I won’t stay dead (March 22, 2023)” delivers a portrait of forgotten Beat poet Bob Kaufman, an oral street poet always on the outside of the Beat scene.  “Bless Their Little Hearts (March 29, 2023),” aka Woodberry’s feature film debut, is set in the same Los Angeles community as the Charles Burnett classic “Killer Of Sheep.”  It looks at how chronic underemployment devastates and tears apart the family at the story’s center.

BAMPFA’s programming regularly introduces viewers to the work of talented (but currently unknown to Americans) world directors.  “Odessa’s Uncompromising Eccentric: The Films of Kira Muratova (April 1 – May 14, 2023)” offers films by a director whose work rebukes claims that Ukrainian culture is either nonexistent or at best a subsidiary of Soviet culture.  Once banned for creating films that “joined the humdrum to the poetic” and were “absorbed with formal experiments” (yes, these were actual criticisms), Muratova’s work finally received its due thanks to perestroika.

Once her early films finally got released, the director had a late career burst of creative energy.  Among the films being offered in the series are “The Long Farewell (April 9 and May 13, 2023),” which captures a fraught relationship marked by teenage rebellion and personal insecurities between a divorced party bureaucrat and her teenage son.  In “The Tuner (May 4, 2023),” a piano tuner/con artist thinks two elderly society women look like the perfect marks who’ll set him up for life.  However, blocking his dreams of avarice are such problems as fellow scammers, street beggars, and a lapdog with a terrible haircut.

The Sentimental Policeman (May 11, 2023)” is a “fairy tale” about a kindly policeman who wants to keep the abandoned baby he finds.  However, everyone from argumentative Odessians to overzealous orphanage handlers wind up getting in the way.

Documentary Voices Film Series

Other than the programs mentioned above, the Documentary Voices film series continues to April 12, 2023 with its emphasis on ethnographic films.  Of local interest is a special screening of the restored “Drylongso (May 7, 2023).”  Cauleen Smith’s feature debut concerns Pica, a photographer whose works document the endangered urban Black male before his systematic elimination.  This journey will take her from Oakland’s upper-middle-class neighborhoods to the Port Of Oakland’s rundown industrial zones.

Obviously there are a lot more films offered this quarter than space to list them.  Whichever BAMPFA film series or individual film tickles your curiosity, take advantage of the opportunity to see the types of films that fascist Florida Governor Ron De Santis prefers people not be exposed to or even think about.

Note: images are pulled from promotional websites featuring the Spring 2023 Films at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

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Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.

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