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Smaller cinematic endeavors triumph

Peter Crimmins Special to the Daily Planet
Friday September 08, 2000

In the almanac of cinema distribution, September begins the in-between season. When the summer blockbusters have cooled off and the holiday fare is yet to come a-caroling, a window of opportunity opens up for smaller, quieter films to be seen and local festival programmers can get a foothold on the moviegoing public. 

The first festival of this season is the MadCat Women’s International Film Festival, a showcase of earnestly experimental short films with a slightly misleading title. Ariella Ben-Dov, the festival founder, programmer, organizer, and all-around cheerleader, has put together a handful of programs by women filmmakers, whose subject matter is not necessarily women. 

The fourth annual MadCat festival kicks off its 2000 incarnation with four programs at the Pacific Film Archive, which runs today and Saturday, jumps across the Bay to the Artist’s Television Access, a storefront screening gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District, then moves further down to the backyard screening space of El Rio, a bar lower in the Mission. 

If the 20th century has been dominated by movies as an historical and psychological imperative, and if moving pictures are landmarks of great moments – public and private – in our lives, Hollywood can smugly pat itself on the back. The films of MadCat stand in opposition to the movie industry’s cultural insistence, but not as entrenched guerillas. The reactionary tone of the most effective films denounce the hegemony of the industry and its products, and at the same time they acknowledge a great affection for its spectacular glories. 

Where “Chaos Hags,” I and II, by Courtney Egan, is a two-minute looping collage of hair and lips and breasts and legs cut out from movie clips (with the “Wizard of Oz” mantra on the soundtrack: “Only bad witches are ugly”), a more forgiving ode to the graceful embrace of cinema is “Madame X,” a narcotic homage montage of on-screen water ballet. It doesn’t have the grandeur of Busby Berkeley, but is does have the fetish. Both shorts screen as part of the “Reinventing Cinema” program Saturday night at the PFA. 

Also in “Reinventing Cinema,” “Illusions” by Julia Dash closely mimics Hollywood’s classic style with a slyly subversive narrative. An African-American woman “passes” as a white executive of a movie studio during the rampant patriotism of the movie industry’s WWII effort. Among its Art Deco interior design and standard camera technique so ingrained in mainstream cinema you hardly notice it’s there, the character is given space to rant about her ambition to use the Hollywood structure to tell stories of real people, not just war heroes. The film is trying to historically buck the system, and is still able to indulge in musical numbers with coifed blondes and tuxedoed soft-shoe. 

It’s not just Hollywood’s sparkle and fade that threaten to be the popular document of history. Television and home movies offer a visual chronicle of our lives and times, and the filmmakers featured in MadCat are prone to problemize their visual cues.  

War, for example, is serious stuff. Survivors of war zones are treated with valor or pity. In the short documentary “Happy are the Happy,” Sarah Jane Lapp and Jenny Perlin asked them if anything funny happened, if dark times. Whereas Roberto Bignini’s Oscar-winning performance of zany antics in a concentration camp (“Life is Beautiful”) often lost sight of its horrors, the moments of jocularity in “Happy are the Happy” are never divorced from the bleak setting.  

Here’s a taste, from Sarajevo: 

A man returns to his village from the war with a new car. 

He spends all day driving the car around the plaza, smiling and waving his hand out the window. His friends tell him he’s being foolish, because everybody has a car. “Yes,” he says, “but not everybody has a hand.” 

Black humor, undeniably grotesque. But not altogether unfunny, in a sort of sick way. “Happy are the Happy” screens Friday night at the PFA in the “World Travelers of the Mind” program, which is followed by “Remembering the Past,” a program in which films continue to problemize historical events. 

In “Lineage,” in the “Remember the Past” program, filmmaker Erika Mijlin mines her father’s home recordings of the Apollo II moon landing. 

Dad had recorded the television broadcasts of Walter Cronkite’s reports of Houston collecting transmissions from space. The great distance between the viewer and the subject renders the true historical event taking place on the Mijlin family’s living room floor, not Tranquility Base.  

“Lineage” uses the static disruptions and blurry images to create a memory-scape of mankind’s giant leap in the summer of 1969.  

Sara Takahashi takes those ambiguities of film – scratches and blurs and distortions of light – personally in “Cut, Cut, Re-Cut,” screening at the PFA on Saturday as part of the “Reframing the Frame” program.  

Her film manipulates home movies from her childhood into what she calls a “prosthetic autobiography,” an account of her family dynamic, burdened by the artificiality of her artifacts.  

Through optical printing, densely layered editing and broken filmstrips Takahashi searches for an absolute truth inside 8mm frames, and gets tangled up in theories of plasticity and projection.  

Her voice over narration wonders if she is getting any closer to her mother, to whom we hear her speaking on a long-distance phone call. 

For more information on the MadCat Women’s International Film Festival, call the catline at (415) 436-9523, or log onto