Saturday, September 28, 2013

Planet earth is blue and there's nothing I can do.


Outer space is such a common setting in cinema that we tend to forget about the realities of space travel. As a reminder, Gravity opens with...

AT 372 MILES ABOVE THE EARTH
THERE IS NOTHING TO CARRY SOUND
NO AIR PRESSURE
NO OXYGEN 
LIFE IN SPACE IS IMPOSSIBLE
After having seen Gravity, it comes as no surprise that director Alfonso Cuaron wanted to be an astronaut. Gravity is a film that is awe struck with the view of earth from space and of humanity's achievements in space. There are numerous satellites, labs, space stations, alongside trash and debris orbiting the planet and Cuaron places his narrative outside one of the stations in this surprisingly crowded landscape.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is in the process of completing a repair at the opening of Gravity, when Houston reports the possibility of incoming debris due Russia shooting down a satellite. Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) is the veteran space mechanic assisting Dr. Stone, mostly with banter meant to entertain Houston, when they receive word of the debris and in a mind blowing, apparently single shot 13 minute sequence, space junk showers down on them, breaking off an arm from the station with Dr. Stone attached and Kowalsky shouting for her to detach, sending her hurling, alone into space.

Gravity follows Dr. Ryan Stone as she faces the challenges of survival in a local that is unfathomably uninhabitable. Makes one pause to consider what astronauts cope with on a daily basis, as the more man puts into orbit, the more essentially immortal space debris collects, posing this precise threat to the men and women tasked with our collective dreams of exploring what lies beyond this tiny corner of the universe. And thus, we watch in helpless horror as she is flung far into space and impossibly collects her wits and determination to survive even as she floats further away from the space station, loses contact with Houston, and oxygen is running out.


Fortunately, Kowalsky is still with her. He helps her by leading the way toward the stations that orbit the earth. These beacons of hope at least can provide some oxygen and perhaps radio contact. So Gravity unfolds as a tense thriller of only two astronauts. And it is exceedingly tense and action packed. But also, the film is much more than a beautifully designed, choreographed, and shot space thriller. Much of the film is spent alone with Dr. Stone, her rhythmic breathing providing the soundtrack as we listen to her monologues as she continues talking to Mission Control, because just because she cannot hear them, doesn't mean they cannot hear her. So we listen as her survival appears impossible and she finds the will to continue to find a way back. The resulting lyricism is a tribute of Sandra Bullock's ability to convey these internal struggles. What does she have to go back to? Is it worth fighting for, or should she surrender to basking the this glorious place, floating in the heavens while watching the sun rise over planet earth.

One also cannot help but marvel at the technical achievements of Gravity. Alfonso Cuaron took a rather simple concept that was rife with technical shortcomings. It took several years to figure out how to make this film, but the results are a testament to Cuaron's place among the greatest filmmakers of today. This film is a huge technical achievement, but unlike other films that have announced advancements in filmmaking, Gravity is also a great film.

And Gravity is the first film that I've seen in 3D, that elevates it beyond a gimmick. The 3D effects made the action unfolding on screen look and feel real. No silly gimmicks of objects flying toward the camera, just the impact of what it might be like to be in a rain of space junk. And thankfully, there were a few comic moments, one involved Marvin the Martian complete with scrub brush helmet floating by. But now I can honestly say that after seeing Gravity, I completely endorse seeing this spectacular film in 3D, which is a first.


Friday, September 13, 2013

An account of First Seattle Erotic Film Festival

In the first installation of "how to start your very own film festival", I only outlined how the films were selected, because that is what making a film festival is about, finding awesome films and then inflicting them upon the unsuspecting public. If only that were true. Turns out there was so much more involved in making a film festival happen.


First, you need a venue. The Seattle Erotic Art Festival was in the process of setting dates for a summer or early fall festival when this process began in May, but one thing was obvious, where ever the festival was going to be held would be appropriate for an art gallery, a store, and maybe even a show, but it would not be appropriate for showing 35mm, 16mm or 8mm film. From the beginning, I knew that Dennis Nyback would be providing content so we needed a venue that still has projectors. There aren't many of those left with the recent transition to digital, so really that left only the Grand Illusion, Northwest Film Forum, and SIFF. Therefore, I booked the Grand Illusion, simply because I have been a volunteer there for several years now. They can seat up to 70 in a theater that is gorgeous. All it took was a quick web-search on the rental rates of the other options to rule them out as venues that we couldn't afford.

Things didn't get really complicated until I sent out the acceptance letters to the filmmakers, because up until that point is didn't really grasp the enormity of the task at hand. That is really when I realized just how much planning goes into putting on a festival of any kind. Once the letters were received, I was immediately flooded with responses from filmmakers asking about hotels, airfare, festival schedules, etc. It never occurred to me that anyone would even consider traveling to the Seattle Erotic Art Festival's first Film Festival, held in a separate venue. And I couldn't even begin to answer any of the questions being asked, as I hadn't previously considered them.

And so I went back to the festival with my head spinning with questions and concerns, but we were still over a month out from the festival and very little was finalized. There would be some sort of hotel sponsorship, but that was still under negotiation. Even the exact festival dates were still in flux, so in retrospect, it isn't at all surprising that all of the festival details were works in progress.At this point, I realized that the Film Festival was a very different beast than the Art Festival. The artists were primarily local, but the filmmakers were scattered all over the globe. The accepted filmmakers hailed from Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, NYC, and the Bay Area. Seattle was not represented. But despite not being local, the filmmakers were often ecstatic about having their film accepted and wanted to participate. Films that explore sexuality in ways that are funny, honest, and realistic, but fall outside of genre conventions don't have an easy path to American film festivals and distribution. It wasn't until gracious directors began taking the time to write about their struggles that I suddenly found myself in the role of activist for erotic cinema and began to take this new role of facilitator for aspiring filmmakers very seriously.

When speaking of erotic cinema, I'm not necessarily talking about films with explicit content. In fact, of the films accepted, only three have any "pornographic" content. Most didn't even involve nudity. The focus of the programming was a mature cinematic treatment of sexuality. The films were varied in subject matter and genre, but what unified them was an unflinching desire to bring little talked about stories to audiences. And I became impassioned with helping in anyway I could, while respecting that these films are not mine to do with what I please.

So then, in the last 4 weeks, the real work started. I needed to get posters made, start getting word out, writing press releases, selling advanced tickets, creating a website, keeping up a social media presence, and so on. And this was really the most challenging part simply because there was so much that needed to be done and it was all on my shoulders. And shockingly, it all mostly got done and the festival happened. Now I realize that the Seattle Erotic Art Festival is a bit of a separate entity from the Film Festival and by next year, should work to have our own staff to handle the social media, press releases, press screenings, ticket sales, event photography, and likely even our own sponsors. And there was so much more I wanted to do, like putting together a festival trailer to show before the screenings and also at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival Art venue. And it killed me to not organized a press screening, but the DVD of the final program wasn't completed in time. Again, the problem of too many eggs in my basket. Some didn't hatch, but yolk didn't get spilled either. I am still in complete amazement that this event happened.

Once the Festival opened on August 2nd, I was filled with terror about all of the things that could go wrong. Would Dennis Nyback show up, or had I forgotten to give him the final dates? Would the ticketing work-out? Would the volunteers show? And what worried me the most was the possibility that no one would come to see the movies.

Friday night was Dennis Nyback's Stag Party Special. I arrived a couple of hours early and the projection booth was already set up for Dennis to run 16mm film. I had picked up the money to make change, but was still very nervous that no one would come since there were very few advance tickets sold. But my volunteer ticket sales help arrived right on time as did Dennis and people came. The only oversight was that I had forgotten to find some appropriate music to play in the cinema before the feature.

And so I tried to relax and watch Dennis' amazing collection of stag film rarities. They were fantastic. I am still surprised by how little has changed in the genre of pornographic cinema. So many tropes were already evident, but what was different was the sexual agency of the women in the films. That and the playfulness. There isn't enough playful sexuality modeled in today's media.

After, I went home and proceeded to be ill. All of the anxiety of the day released after my attempt to have my first meal of the day. And so I gave up my plan to attend the Friday night after party at the proper art festival and called it a night.

But in the morning, I needed to get ready for the second day of screenings. Dennis Nyback was returning with a second program of vintage 16mm films and then, I'd be showing Cheyenne Picardo's movie Remedy. And in checking my email and phone messages from the previous night, I discovered that Cheyenne had been trying to find me and had left the only copy of her movie with someone at the art festival. And thus my panic began all over again. Luckily, I was able to quickly track down who had the DVD, a CD of sexy music was burned, and I attempted some semblance of calm while having some lunch before returning to the Grand Illusion Cinema.

And everything went very smoothly. My volunteer was great and I tried to stay out of her way and not fuss over ticket sales. Dennis arrived and I was even able to watch a bit of his program, or at least enough of it to get to enjoy watching a short that was threaded backwards. I had always wondered what that would be like and it is all upside-down and backwards. Kind of awesome, actually and amazed the audience because people aren't used to seeing film projected anymore. But there were too many people coming in to ask if there were tickets available for Remedy, so I relocated to the lobby to handle festival questions and ticket sales.

Actually, the response to Remedy was outstanding. The filmmaker was in attendance and the theater was 3/4 full of enthusiastic festival goers. The screening even resulted in Cheyenne Picardo being interviewed for an episode of Polyamory Weekly. I tried to hold a Q&A, but sadly, we only had time for a couple of questions. Next year I will want to make certain that we have enough time to hold  proper Q&As after the films, especially if filmmakers are traveling to the festival.

 I had already seen a long cut of the film and was pleased with the final cut, that I was lucky to premiere. Hopefully, the film will do well at future festivals and find a distributor, but it is a marketing challenge. As a film that is very much about the world of professional houses of domination, one wonders if general audiences will connect with the film. But regardless, I greatly enjoyed spending the rest of the night talking to the director over dinner and spending a bit of time at the after party, where I felt a bit underdressed since the attendees were all dancing and showing off their latex finery. 

Sunday was the final day of the festival. The Seattle Erotic Art Festival at the Showbox closed at 4 pm, but I had one final screening scheduled at 5 pm. I was much more relaxed on Sunday and was prepared with a DVD prepared of all of the short films and tried to wait patiently for the audience to arrive. And with the audience, another filmmaker appeared. I had been on the lookout for Paul Deeb of the Pillow Book Gallery as he was the other filmmaker I had expected to bump into around the festival over the weekend, but had heard nothing. But he finally materialized in time for the presentation of his (and partner Tamara Sholl) short film, Trains. Actually, I was a little worried about meeting Paul Deeb, because Trains was the only submission with a real  porn star, Dylan Ryan, so I worried that Deeb could be a porn director that is attempting to break out of the mold a little, but is still a bit sleazy in person. So I had my own biases and reservations. After reading their account of the weekend, it seems like they had a few of those, too.

I was pleased when he and Tamara were awesome. Paul Deeb agreed to a brief Q&A after the films and I did the intro before the nearly sold-out shorts exhibition. Mostly, I was excited to see a few faces in the audience of folks I knew outside of the Erotic Art Festival and even outside of the larger sex-positive community. Watching the shorts it was a relief that the audience was engaged, laughing where they should, and generally acting like an engaged, sophisticated sex-positive audience. And they even had a few questions for Paul after.

And then my job was done. As we all exited the theater the conversations about the shorts continued outside for quite a while before Paul Deeb invited me to join him for dinner. I am so glad I did as I learned so much about "erotic" film festivals. Turns out that most capitalize on the lascivious subject matter instead of treating the film as Art. I still hope to find the time and funds to check out other adult oriented film festivals, but Seattle must be a shockingly mature city as even Dan Savage's porn festival, Hump! is pretty serious in the treatment of the films.

And now that I have returned from my Scandinavian adventure, it is time to begin the process of doing this again next summer.