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A movie marathon

By Peter Crimmins Special to the Daily Planet
Friday November 30, 2001

Berkeley Video and Film Festival showcases two Berkeley artists during its 37-film run 

On Saturday the Berkeley Video and Film Festival begins its marathon 10-hour, 37-film screening at the Fine Arts Cinema. While the programmers at the East Bay Media Center, who curate the festival, cannot expect the average moviegoer to sit through the entire festival of general-interest features, shorts and documentaries from around the country (a ticket allows in-and-out privileges) a little patience will uncover a few gems. 

One is born-and-bred Berkeleyan Kia Simon, who has two short works in the festival. After making a narrative film, which was featured in last year’s BVFF (“Neverland”), and a documentary about a Sylvester Stallone impersonator from Russia (“Looking For Sly”), Simon said she wanted to do something different and made a couple of films featuring music and dance. 

“The Sway” is a music video for a club dance track by Jondi and Spesh of San Francisco-based Loöq Records. When Simon heard the track – electronic beats and harmonies with no lyrics but a house diva intoning a melody – she invented a story component.  

“It’s a gritty, dark track but it also has a romance to it, so I wanted to come up with something that would match that feeling in terms of a story.” 

The whimsical plot she created follows a young woman pursuing a young man seen on a Muni train through late-night San Francisco streets. Contrasted to the dingy underground trains, crumbly warehouse spaces and club beats are inserted black-and-white images of a coifed-and-gowned nightclub singer fronting a tuxedoed two-man band (that’s Jondi and Spesh behind her) amid floating champagne bubbles. It’s a bit of nostalgia in the sweet and gritty romantic pursuit.  

“There’s something about going to my grandmother’s house when I was a kid and watching Lawrence Welk,” said Simon. “She had a black and white TV, and I know Lawrence Welk was in color, but to me it will always be a flat, low-contrast black and white.” 

There’s an ironic sexiness of a gowned diva like a tall, cool drink popping bubbles floating past offsetting the grainy sort of desperate urban romance that finds flirty consummation under the bleak fluorescent lights and over the day-olds at an all-night Chinese food/donut shop. 

Simon’s other film featured in the festival is a dance triptych called “In Public Space.” Simon put an open call to Bay Area choreographers and dance troupes to create site-specific dances for San Francisco locations. The first, created and danced by the Potrzebie company, takes place in a BART station. Simon, who admits she has a instinctive inclination to make films in or around underground trains, edited together a disparate collection of dance sketches from a choreographers trick bag based on common tics and shuffles made by people during their banal wait for the commuter train. The result is a dance based on everyday glances and movements synchronized into something exuberant. 

Part of the challenge in making dance films is taking a performance meant for a constant time and contiguous space, and adapting it to the fluid pacing and spatial possibilities of cinema. “Sparrow’s End,” the second part of “In Public Space,” was created by Jo Kreider of Flyaway Productions to be performed in a potentially dangerous alley between 15th and 16th streets near Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission district. 

Using dancers dressed in tattered black costumes hanging off the roof of a building (sparrows), and dancers in brightly-colored dressed in the alley beneath, Kreider was proposing a means to reclaim urban space for women.  

The dance includes hair-raising stunts: harnessed dancers hurling themselves off the side of a three-story building and scaling down a fire escape backwards and headfirst.  

Simon edited the performance to accentuate the relationship between the sparrows and the alley flowers below, and the issue of creating urban areas safe for women took a back seat.  

“Moreover, it’s a visceral experience,” said Simon. “I find the costumes really beautiful, and the dangerous stuff on the building really exciting. So I don’t know if I emphasized the reclaiming aspect of the dance, but that’s where it started from.” 

The film’s third part, “Fuzzy Dice” (by Pieces of E Dance Exchange) is an exercise in adapting the same basic movements to difference spaces: the cramped back seat of a parked car, straddling walkway banister inside the Stockton tunnel, and leaping stone steps in Chinatown. 

Other offerings in the Festival showcase creative and innovative ways of putting together film. “The Kicker” by Porter Gale, is a short, informal documentary about Cecilia Clark, last year’s female place kicker on the Berkeley High School football team. A product of the Stanford documentary program, it’s a collage of 16mm black and white images of Clark and her friends, being athletic, with a voiceover in her own words and one of her teammates. The film implies Keith Stevens, a black student, and Cecelia, a white student, would not have met under any other circumstances than football. It takes a casual look at gender issues in extracurricular athletics, and finds its strength as a portrait of the value of teammates off the field. 

The Grand Festival Award for a feature goes to “S.F.” another film about young people of different races coming together. This one, however, is fatalistic and tragic. As a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet,” its storyline is a proven pleaser: Troy, in a white gang fighting a Chinese gang, falls in illicit love with the sister of a fallen leader of the Chinese gang, and the story continues its well-trod course. With the limp script and leaden acting, a better comparison is with the action of “West Side Story” than the poesy of Shakespeare: director Phil Gorn’s shows a knack for fight scenes, tense stand-off staring, and a tame but neatly executed love-making sequence, but the lovers’ stoic and fateful courtship is uninspired. 

There are a few selections in the festival that are well-intentioned but fall short of their mark. “Just Listen” is a short film – more like a music video – following a black, teenage girl through a sequence of domestic neglect and abuse over a smooth R&B track. Neither enlightening nor entertaining, it addresses its issues through shorthand cues and narrative signposts without offering story, character, or context that could have made the crimes meaningful. To an even worse extent, “Prime Opus,” a short animated piece made entirely with Flash software, is a parade of social injustices that are purely textual. A group of figures roll a Sisyphusian boulder up a virtual hill while the names of racial, economic, criminal, and environmental abuses scroll past. It is meatless animation combined with similarly insubstantial liberalism. 

A better animated work also happens to be funny. John Atkinson’s “Daydreamer” is a computer-animated short about a desk worker struggling to stay focused on his deadline. His fight becomes a wrestling match with the “thought-balloon” that keeps popping up over his head with seductive scenes of vacation and relaxation. Atkinson makes little residual cartoon blobs of thought-balloon become lively, mischievous scamps scurrying around the office space. 

Also notably funny are dead-on parodies of TV’s “X-Files” and “The Sopranos.” “The Simplex Files” is a dramatically heightened supernatural investigation into computer chip malfunction (computer failure being as close to baffling paranormal experience as most of us will get); “The Sopranowitzes” is about a family of middle-class Jews and their mobster tactics arranging a bar mitzvah. “Files” pulls a double-whammy in turning the popular TV show on its ear with the technical finesse to rival the real program – you will believe.