Archive for December, 2008

Tales from the MLA: profs and job seekers in the trenches

From the annual MLA conference taking place in San Francisco this weekend, bloggers report:

  • Bev, “English professor at a small college in the Midwest,” says the Hilton is a maddening labyrinth, so “I fought my way out this morning at 6 a.m. (because my body thinks it’s still in Ohio) and walked down Market Street to the Embarcadero and back, accompanied only by the snap-crackle-pop of the streetcars, the snoring of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk, and the occasional frantic flutter of a flock of pigeons. … Store windows sparkle with dresses I can’t imagine wearing…”
  • The mass interview room at the Hilton, where dozens of career make-or-break interviews take place simultaneously, “is undignified and it stinks.” The same post cites another blogger who reported on a candidate “whose bag fell over spilling a veritable pharmacy of drugs across the floor.”
  • Another blogger reports: “I am not loving the MLA, as I never have loved the MLA. I’m insecure about my lame-ass institution; I can’t find anyone I know, nor did I do a remotely good job of setting up fun reunions… I’m likely to be eating most meals alone.”
  • In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennifer Howard reports, “This year the unofficial theme is ‘Who’s getting work at all?’ The numbers look terrible. Job listings in language-and-literature fields are down more than 22 percent from last year…”

The conference continues through Tuesday.

Laughing Squid Un-Holiday Party

the crowd
Every once in a while there’s a truly stellar party where you get warm squigglies and have an unflinching love for SF. Yesterday, after an uneventful day going to the Presidio Y and enduring a false fire alarm in my apartment building, I joined up with another friend and went to the un-Holiday party for Laughing Squid. Good times. Folks were friendly and unpretentious, warm and inviting, and as it was a potluck it had a generally community feel to it. My friend had just come from an equally cool party- the “yes we can” house on 6th & Irving was having a Sunset neighborhood party. Hope this is a sign of good things to come.

The MLA’s in town; readings

The annual convention of the Modern Language Association, the foremost professional association for humanities academics, opens today in San Francisco. They’re the ones filling all the convention hotels downtown, so if you see an explosion of tweed at this weekend’s demolition derbies and sex parties, you’ll know where it’s coming from.

If you’d like to hobnob or pick up any of the sexy librarians and litprofs, two offsite readings will be held (courtesy Ron Silliman):

The first, Sunday night, December 28 at 7:00 PM, in the Forum at the Yerba Buena Center, 701 Mission (and thus directly across the street from SF MoMA in one direction & the Moscone Convention Center in another), is sponsored by SPD & the Poetry Foundation, and includes numerous out-of-town celebs, including several (Dale Smith, Carla Harryman, Michael Davidson, Barrett Watten & Timothy Yu) with important links to the Bay Area.

The second, Tuesday night, December 30 at 7:00 PM, at the Hotel Utah at 500 Fourth Street (at Bryant just east of the freeway overpass) is sponsored by Small Press Traffic & includes more than 30 local poets. It’s a terrific opportunity for MLA nomads to check out what’s new & hot in one of the great writing cities of the U.S.

Also, there’ll be a huge exhibit hall at the Hilton where publishers — both university presses and mainstream presses with literary and academic releases — will have booths. It costs money for civilians to enter, unless you have one of those sexy humanities profs in tow. They have free guest coupons.

Sunday Bus Fare: $1.50

Just read on N Judah Chronicles:

-And, for those of you who don’t have a MUNI monthly pass – don’t forget that on Sundays from now until the end of the holiday season, you get an all-day MUNI transfer for just $1.50. This is part of the ShopSF promotion going on that offers locals in the greater Bay Area discounts at stores, hotels and so on.

Film: "Ciao" from Dec 12 at Landmark Lumiere


[Photo courtesy Regent Releasing; film website and trailer here.]

A man named Mark dies suddenly, leaving just one close survivor: Jeff, a former lover. When Jeff accesses Mark’s email account, he discovers that Mark has been corresponding with an Italian man whom he had met online, Andrea. He was about to visit Mark in Dallas for the first time, just for a weekend (in case they didn’t get along after all). After a brief hesitation, Jeff invites Andrea to visit anyway and stay with him.

Andrea takes up the invitation, and thus begins a very quiet drama. When Andrea does arrive, the two begin a conversation — about themselves and their lives, and their relationships with Mark and with one another — that stretches over the weekend, until it’s time for Andrea to go.

That’s it, but it’s enough, and the rest of the film, essentially, is the record of that long conversation.

Considering how heavily Ciao relies upon dialogue for its effect, it’s unfortunate that the writing is often so inexcusably lame, marred by exactly the kind of rigid, superfluous exposition and unrevealing chit-chat that are a feature of student work. “Here’s the box of Mark’s stuff that you asked for,” Jeff says to the parents at one point, as if it wasn’t perfectly obvious what he was up to, and exchanges such as “How are you? — Fine. You?” seem to open every conversation. The two lead actors, who give remarkable performances, often seem to be struggling against these banal moments. However, these moments are fleeting enough, and the long conversation never departs much from the central subject, this absence in both their lives.

Whatever weaknesses the dialogue has, they are overbalanced by the incredible photography and shot design throughout. From the first moments I was struck by the beautiful composition and lighting of each shot; everything is put together with such a fine sense of composition and lighting that almost every scene had an iconic quality. Whereas the dialogue explores the backstory, the story unfolding before us — a story about the growing closeness between these two men — is told through these shots. At first we see each man alone, each in his own space, then as they grow closer, more and more shots include both of them. In the end, of course, each is left in solitude, with his individual loss. The closing sequence is especially brilliant, in that it manages to summarize Jeff’s feelings about his lost lover without being maudlin in the least.

Ultimately, the film develops into a moving exploration of — among many other themes — the experience of friendship, love and loss.

Ciao plays from December 12 at Landmark’s Lumiere Theatre and Shattuck Cinemas.

Skylark Syrah

Robert of SkylarkThought I’d give a shoutout to some good news for my friend Robert, who I keep running into, as he got his wine mentioned in the SF Chronicle as one of the 100 and 91 points in Wine Spectator. Go Robert! And say hi- he’s the sommelier at Boulevard. Photo to the right is him serving Skylark at a No on Prop 8 fundraiser. The wine mentioned in the article is $35, “This Syrah from the Sonoma Coast is stylish and sizable, pepper-packed all through the palate, with focused blueberry and toast flavors.”

SF from Utah & Prop 8

Bald Mtn. I was in Park City for a conference, and when talking to locals, they wanted me to know *right off* that they were against Prop 8, and pro-gay marriage. This is without me bringing it up. They found out I was San Franciscan, and then they asked if boycotting Utah was really going to happen, and then they went on about how they were having protests there, and that “The church gets into a lot of things it shouldn’t.” Anyways, interesting prospective.

Festival Report: Quebec Film Week, Dec 10-14

Mommy_Is_at_the_Hairdressers_07

[Image courtesy of the SFFS and Seville Pictures.]

From this Wednesday night through Sunday, the San Francisco Film Society and SODEC present the inaugural Québec Film Week at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema. Consisting of eight films, all but one of which were recently released, the series focuses mainly on debut films and presents three features by veteran directors. The one older film is an almost obligatory screening of that touchstone of Québécois film history: Claude Jutra’s 1971 classic, Mon Oncle Antoine.

Opening night starts off with one of these fine debuts. Sophie Deraspe’s prior work was in short documentaries, and she brought all that experience to her first feature, a fiction in documentary form entitled Missing Victor Pellerin, about an artist who disappeared fifteen years earlier — that is, if he existed in the first place. It was well-reviewed upon its US release in 2007.

The second film that night is Mommy Is at the Hairdresser’s (pictured above) by the accomplished director Léa Pool. Of the six films I had a chance to preview, this was one of the best. The story plays out in late 1960s suburban Montréal over a tumultuous summer in the life of an adolescent girl, Elise, and her family, which breaks up over the father’s clandestine involvements with other men. After the mother finds out about them — in a powerful, shocking scene, Elise outs him — the mother soon leaves the family, and the rest of the film explores the struggles the family faces without the mother, and the entanglements, romantic and otherwise, among the kids. 

My favorite film by far was Stephane Lafleur’s dry, droll debut Continental, a Film Without Guns, which won the Prix Jutra this year. The title, which still puzzles me, is just the first enigma of many in the story. The description from the festival page — “a meditation on modern loneliness and loss [that] follows a collection of tragic characters and depicts their aimless attempts at connection” — is accurate enough, but it doesn’t even begin to convey how hilarious and touching the film really is. There are many serious turns, many moments that expose the deepest kind of loss and loneliness, but there is a subtle absurdity throughout in the situations the characters find themselves in, and create for themselves, that kept me constantly laughing, and in the end I couldn’t get them out of my head. Definitely don’t miss this one if you have a taste for this kind of thing — and we’ll be hoping for more from Lafleur in the future.

If I had to give an award to the most beautifully-shot film in the series, that would go to The Last Continent, most of which consists of lengthy shots of the Antarctic landscape, illuminated by the brightest, bluest skies on the planet, and accompanied by Donald Sutherland’s soothing voice-over. Directed by Jean Lemire, a scientist and director of three previous films, this film purports to be a documentary about the effects of climate change in Antarctica. In fact, it touches so lightly on the science that it left me a little frustrated, and I often found myself wondering what precisely they were tracking and measuring. But it was interesting all the same: in addition to the incredible photography, it deftly captures life at one of the strangest and most dangerous frontiers on Earth. Plus it entertainingly exposes the social stresses that inevitably develop when a small handful of people is confined to a tiny boat in the middle of a frozen wasteland for several months on end. With four hours of sunlight per day.

The Fight (which is given a much better name, In The Ring, by the subtitles) is another debut feature. It’s highly effective but almost unrelentingly depressing: the ending features the male lead riding his bicycle and smiling, and you can tell that this was supposed to make us feel hopeful, but unfortunately — given what had gone before — that smile was just about the most dispiriting thing I’ve seen all year. And it’s December. That sounds like a bad review, but in fact I thought it was quite a compelling film, put together with an expert sense of pacing and character development. Above all, the best thing about The Fight was the incredible performances given by the male lead, Maxime Desjardins-Tremblay (who also appears in a supporting role in Mommy Is at the Hairdresser’s) and Julianne Cote, who plays the sister. A huge number of the shots are tightly focused close-ups on the actor’s faces, potentially a risky move with adolescents, but here it really works well.

Films not previewed were The Age of Ignorance by Denys Arcand and Borderline by Lyne Charlebois.

Quebec Film Week screens Wednesday, December 10 through Sunday, December 14, 2008 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema. Tickets on opening night include complimentary reception at Shima Sushi. Visit here to get more information, check out the festival schedule, and buy advance tickets.

Famous Bangalore shoemaker was San Franciscan

A story in yesterday’s Times of India profiles Rubin Moses, a famous Jewish cobbler who moved from San Francisco to Bangalore following the 1906 earthquake, married an Indian woman, and established a shop on Bangalore’s Commercial Street — the city’s main shopping street — that lasted until 1985.

Made me think — how many people who fled San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake spread something of San Francisco’s cosmopolitan culture elsewhere?

Film: Alain Robbe-Grillet Series at YBCA, Dec 4-18

[Image via.]

Tonight at 7:30 PM, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts begins its series on the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the postmodern novelist, screenwriter, and director who died in February this year at the age of 85. Tonight’s film is the first one he wrote and directed himself: Trans-Europ Express. In it, an author — played by Robbe-Grillet himself — is passing the time on the Trans-Europ Express by concocting a “sordid melodrama of gangsters, drugs, and bondage,” to quote the YBCA page. Then an actual gangster, who may or may not be be an actual gangster, appears on the train, and the melodrama becomes all mixed up with reality. Fun fact: The film was banned by the British Censors in 1966 because it portrays light bondage! (It turns out that Robbe-Grillet’s wife Catherine, better known as Jeanne de Berg, is something of a BDSM icon.)

Sunday afternoon at 2:00, check out his best-known film: Last Year at Marienbad (trailer), pictured above. When I saw it for the first time, several months ago at the Castro, it pretty much blew my mind, because I didn’t realize it was possible to do something like it, whether in film or any other narrative art form. It takes place at an elite social gathering in a chateau, and begins when a man approaches a woman there and says: “Didn’t we meet last year, at Marienbad? Didn’t you say you would leave your husband, and we would run away together?” She won’t say yes or no, but they continue to talk as though they have made plans; as soon as a second man approaches them — who might be her husband — the conversation breaks up.

That and several other similarly enigmatic conversations are densely repeated and circled back on with changes: they take place in different locations, or different characters speak the same lines, or there are subtle changes to the phrasing, each of which implies a slightly different backstory from what had been implied before. In other words, each sequence selectively undermines the preceding sequences.

No story, as such, ever develops, and you end up remembering the film the way you remember a vivid dream: uncertain about the sequence of events, uncertain about what actually happened, uncertain who the people in it were, or how exactly they related to one another and to you, but entirely certain that the whole thing was imbued with immense significance.

Of course, you might just hate it too. It has that effect on people.

Three more films by Robbe-Grillet — L’immortelle, Eden and After, and The Man Who Lies — are included in the series. Each film is either on a Thursday night at 7:30 or Sunday afternoon at 2:00 PM. Advance tickets and further info on the series is available here.

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