Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: “Three Sisters” at Berkeley Rep–the long and the short of Sarah Ruhl’s new version, April 8- May 22, 2011

(l to r) Natalia Payne (Masha), Heather Wood (Irina) and Wendy Rich Stetson (Olga) play the title characters in Sarah Ruhl’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at Berkeley Rep. through May 22, 2011. Photo courtesy of

Clocking in at three hours, it takes time to sit through the Three Sisters which opened last week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage…is it time well spent?  Absolutely, but this engrossing 1901 Chekhov drama unfurls at a slow pace and it helps beforehand to know what you’re in for.  Sarah Ruhl’s new version, which is based on a literal translation of Chekhov, and directed by Les Waters,  comes together in a cohesive flowing whole.   This is what the Berkeley Rep has built its reputation on.   The language has been modernized, it feels light, but the production itself feels grounded early in the last century due in large part to Annie Smart’s lovely set, homey and historically accurate right down to the table linens, and Ilona Somogyi’s provincial Russian gowns and military costumes.  In all, there is the feeling of stepping back into a living breathing portrait where people are initially hopeful but then gradually flounder having done little to build their own lives.

Ruhl, a MacArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2004 for her play The Clean House , is known for tackling big ideas with lyricism.  In the Three Sisters,the big idea, expressed so simply by one of the sisters, is “Life is a raspberry—one little bite and it’s gone.”  Sitting through the play, we see these three lovely raspberries—the Prozorov sisters– bud, ripen and wither…suffering from spiritual malaise, boredom and endless yearning for the high life in Moscow which remains the distant dream, the excuse.  And don’t we all, to some extent, live our lives with some aspect of inertia, dreaming of distant Moscow, but withering on the vine? 

(l to r) Bruce McKenzie (Vershinin) and Natalia Payne (middle sister Masha) experience ill-fated love in Sarah Ruhl’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at Berkeley Rep. through May 22, 2011. Photo courtesy of

The story unfolds through the three Prozorov sisters–women at different stages of life, who all experience evaporated hope—Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson), the eldest is a good-hearted teacher and having peaked, believes herself to be a spinster.  Irina (Heather Wood), the youngest, is fresh-faced, virginal, exuberant and optimistic. Throughout the course of the play she grows up and into womanhood.  Her two suitors reflect the limited romantic options even for the young and beautiful.  The most interesting sister is Masha (Natalia Payne), the pensive middle sister, smoldering with passion and anger, who has settled down into a reasonably boring married life with husband Kulygin (Keith Riddin).  When the new military commander Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie) enters the scene, they begin a flirtation that over time evolves into love that is doomed.  Payne plays Masha brilliantly with growing outbursts of frustration and bitter rage.  

The most questionable performance is Emily Kitchens as Natasha, the scheming petit-bourgheoise bumpkin who seduces brother Andrei (Alex Moggridge) and marries up and into the household where she soon wields power.  Kitchens (who you may recognize as Betsy/Lindsey from A.C.T.’s recent production of Clybourne Park ) plays the role with enough ambivalence to really peak my interest.  Kitchen’s Natasha enters the play as an overly sweet and small-minded girl who means well and takes the mothering of her young Bobol to obsession, but she never really rises to the predatory cunning often associated with the role. In Act 3, where she unceremoniously speaks her mind about firing the elderly helper Afinsa (Barbara Oliver), she is as much dissatisfied with the lack of appreciation due her as the sisters are exhausted with the course of their own miserable lives.

Secondary character Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie) is heroic both in his vision and inured misery.  (He has a wife who regularly attempts suicide and two young daughters that he worries over.)  A real philosopher, his nonstop speculations about the future endure Masha and clearly voice Chekhov’s own concerns.  (Act 1)  “Our projects, our obsessions, theories big and important, the time will come when they won’t be considered important and we can’t imagine what will be vastly important.”  A constant theme in Chekhov’s writing is the belief in progress–that life should be spent working hard in preparation for the future, for work and science would transform mankind, not the idle laziness of the gentry.  One of the play’s richest moments comes in Act 2, as he and Baron Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) sit and philosophize about their lives and their futures, and the quest for meaning and fulfillment.  By Act 4, all hope is dashed.  On the eve of the twentieth century and the cataclysm that awaits Russia, Moscow has eluded the three sisters and those little raspberries have hardened on the vine, a sad end to a slowly building series of disappointments and tragedies…but Chekhov would have it no other way.      

Production Team:

Sarah Ruhl, Playwright
Les Waters, Director
Annie Smart, Scenic Design
Ilona Somogyi, Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols, Lighting Design
David Budries, Sound Design
Julie Wolf, Musical Director
Rachel Steinberg, Dramaturg
Michael Suenkel *, Stage Manager
Cynthia Cahill *, Assistant Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin, Casting
Janet Foster, Casting
Jennifer Wills, Assistant Director
Noah Marin, Assistant Costume Design

Cast (in order of speaking):

Wendy Rich Stetson, Olga
Heather Wood, Irina
James Carpenter, Chebutykin
Thomas Jay Ryan, Tuzenbach
Sam Breslin Wright, Solyony
Natalia Payne, Masha
Barbara Oliver, Anfisa
Richard Farrell, Ferapont
Bruce McKenzie, Vershinin
Alex Moggridge, Andrei
Keith Reddin, Kulygin
Emily Kitchens, Natasha
David Abrams, Fedotik
Cobe Gordon, Rode

Details:  The Three Sisters runs through May 22, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Street (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704.  Performances: Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances.  Tickets: $73 to $34.  Box office:  (510) 647-2949 or .  Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre.  The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

April 28, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two important new films by Bay Area filmmakers about women show how pervasive sexism still is—one tackles mass media; the other the art world—screening this weekend at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21-May 5, 2011

What exactly is it about our society and women?  Despite the fact that women are a majority of our population, and they have made and continue to make vital contributions to our society that equal if not exceed those of the male population, sexism still exists.   That’s the well-argued point of two powerful new documentaries by Bay Area filmmakers Jennifer Siebel  Newsom and Lynn Hershman Leeson screening this weekend at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival  (SFIFF54).   Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation, one of the most buzzed about films at this year’s Sundance festival, explores the mass media’s deplorable impact on our society’s perception of women and how that limits what women even strive for.  Bay Area artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution (WAR) turns the camera on women artists who are underrepresented in leading museums and profiles the all out war feminist women have waged from the 1960’s on for recognition in the establishment art world.  Hershman Lesson is the first person to ever document this important history that has broader consequences for the way women are treated in our society.  The film has hit a rare trifecta in the film festival circuit too—screening to rave reviews at the prestigious Berlin, Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals.  Below are capsule reviews:

Miss Representation  (Director: Jennifer Siebel Newsom, USA, 2011, 85 min, Documentary)

After watching this eye-opening documentary, I found myself keenly tuned in to and sickened by the way women are depicted on television, especially in advertising.  San Francisco filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom has turned the camera on mainstream media itself and examines its deplorable impact on our society’s perception of women.  Through in-depth interviews with leading academics, newsmakers (including Katie Couric, Lisa Ling and Rachel Maddow) and politicians (Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Condoleezza Rice) and actors (Geena Davis, Jane Fonda, Margaret Cho) and youth—basically women in all walks of life—-Newsom shows that we are all being sold (year after year) dated, limited and detrimental stereotypes of what it means to be a powerful woman.   The collective message that penetrates our subconscious is that women’s value lies primarily in youth, beauty and sexuality.  The impact: both men and women have a limited understanding of who women are and what women can be, leading to the under-representation of women in key leadership positions in the U.S. and to unprecedented levels of eating disorders, sexual violence, cosmetic enhancement, and demeaning pornography.  Siebel Newsom, mother of toddler Montana, made this film while pregnant with her second child and makes it very clear that she and other parents ought to be concerned about the messages their daughters in particular are receiving about their options in life.  Oprah liked this important film so much that her OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) snapped it up in February for their OWN Documentary Film Club that plans to do for film what Oprah has done for books.  After painting a bleak picture, the film includes some very positive calls for action, has an extensive social outreach campaign and gives some concrete ways our society can empower women.  (Screens: Friday, April 22, 6 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Theatre and Wednesday, May 4, 5:45 p.m. New People. Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom will attend both screenings.)

!Women Art Revolution (Director: Lynn Hershman Leeson, USA/Canada, 2010, 83 min, Documentary)

“!Women Art Revolution” “WAR” is Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary about women artists who spearheaded the feminist art movement and a shocking visual primer  for the oft-repeated statement “Well behaved women seldom make history.”  “WAR” tracks early feminist artists like Judy Chicago, Nancy Spero, and the Guerilla Girls through a montage of archival footage, much of it taken by Hershman Leeson herself over the past 35 years.  The conclusion: women artists have been doing important work all along but they have been ignored, underrepresented, sidetracked and underpaid in the art world’s male-dominated upper echelons.   Impact:  marginalization, no one knows much about the pioneering women artists who decided to challenge the system.   Hershman Leeson, who spoke to me from her San Francisco studio, said she made the film “to show a history that’s never been written or documented, that makes the known history obsolete.”   The film establishes the importance of this movement in contemporary art but is really addressing the broader cultural history of America, the history of freedom of expression and equality starting with late 1960’s and going forward—it really shows the prejudices that fuel discrimination.”

The film isn’t angry or bitter in its approach—it instead profiles a determined and very intelligent group of women who love what they do and used their resources shrewdly to get attention.  History isn’t what happened in the past; it is what later generations choose to remember.  Thanks to Hershman Leeson for this vital work documenting women’s candid stories of WAR.  Hershman Leeson, whose works are in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, chairs the Film Department at the San Francisco Art Institute and is internationally acclaimed for her pioneering work in new media technology. (Screens, Saturday, April 23, SFMOMA and Monday April 25, 8:40 p.m., Pacific Film Archive)

 SFIFF 54 Details:
Complete program information:  

Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, New People, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Pacific Film Archive

When: April 21 to May 5, 2011

Tickets: $8 to $13 regular screenings, Purchase

April 21, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Love Art? The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival is screening 6 new films about art, starts this Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rutger Hauer plays Pieter Bruegel in Lech Majewski`s "The Mill and the Cross" which transports viewers into the dense frieze of Bruegel`s 1564 masterpiece "The Way to Calvary." The film screens twice at SFIFF54. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival  (SFIFF54) which starts this Thursday and runs through May 5, always brings a wide range of exceptional foreign films to the Bay Area.  Organized by the San Francisco Film Society, SFIFF54 offers 191 films from 48 countries in 33 languages and a multitude of special events and visitors.  In this year’s the line-up are 6 new films about artists, art movements, and art collecting that are so innovative in both their storytelling and in the technology they employ to bring their stories to light that you won’t want to miss them.

Sharpening our eyes to the mysteries and techniques of painting by old masters are three special films that have already received rave reviews in critical circles.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s 3D descent into the Chauvet cave in the south of France, home of 30,000 year old charcoal images, the oldest art known to man leads the way, followed by Polish filmmaker Llech Majewski’s The Mill and The Cross which allows the viewer to actually live inside Pieter Bruegel’s bustling Flanders landscape as he creates his 1564 masterpiece The Way to Calvary.  Amit Duda’s Nainsukh examines 18thcentury Indian court artist and miniature artist Nainsukh amidst breathtaking dream-like shots of Indian life.

After seeing Lech Majewski`s "The Mill and the Cross" about Pieter Bruegal`s "The Way to Calvary", you will never forget the dozen or so characters whose life stories unfold and intertwine amidst the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition. Image: Kunsthistorishes Museum Vienna

In terms of contemporary art, our own Bay Area filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution (WAR) profiles the war women artists waged  for  recognition in the old boy establishment art world through the stories of leading women artists.  The film has already been screened at the Berlin, Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals and has received rave reviews. Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 17 continues on a project that Barney, born in San Francisco, began as an undergraduate at Yale which explores the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity.  Barney has also been selected to receive this year’s Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award which honors a filmmaker working outside the traditional realm of typical narrative filmmaking.  Barney, who considers the screen an extended canvas, has been consistently innovational, merging film with sculptural works, uber athleticism and his own bizarre yet prescient radar.  Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou provides a fascinating and highly personal story of the life of fashion designer and art collector Yves Saint Laurent as told by his lover and business partner, Pierre Berge, who co-organized the famous three day “sale of the century” auction that raked in an astounding $484 million for the couple’s art collection.  What follows are capsule reviews of these films. Full reviews will follow when the films open in the Bay Area.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Director: Werner Herzog, USA, 2010, 95 min, documentary)

Renegade German filmmaker Werner Herzog again reaches remarkable heights in a film that literally goes underground to illuminate the place where it seems that art itself was born—the remarkable Chauvet Pont d’Arc caves in the South of

In Werner Herzog`s "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," the eclectic German filmmaker gains unprecedented access to film the fabled Chauvet cave in the South of France, home of man`s earliest art. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

France. He and a minimal crew were allowed into the extraordinary cave, named after French explorer Jean-Marie Chauvet, who in 1994 made a Tutankhamen-level art find–hundreds of pictures of animals drawn with detail and sophistication by early man an estimated 32,000 years ago.  Not only are its walls decorated, but the cave also contains the fossilized remains of animals now extinct and the cave floor is marked with the footprints of animals and early humans.  Highly subject to erosion, the cave is closed to the public. Herzog shoots in 3D to accentuate the massive, sculptural forms and brings to life what was captured previously in a series of static portraits.  He also interviews the various experts who are allowed down there with him: paleontologists, archaeologists, art historians, and a perfume specialist, who talks about the smells of resin and wood that might have prevailed way back then.  Herzog’s filmic voice is unmistakable and this grand project seems to have completely enthralled him.  At one point, he says that the positions of various legs in the ancient drawings are “proto-cinema” and as he crawls and points, we too feel the magic of this prehistoric artistry.  (Screens: Monday, April 25, 7 p.m. and Tuesday April 26, 9:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Theatre)

 The Mill and the Cross (Director Lech Majewski, Poland/Sweden, 2010, 97 minutes)

Our approach to art history will never be the same after this enthralling film by Lech Mjaewski which invites the reader to literally enter the mind of Flemish master Pieter Breugel and glean the deeper meaning of his 1564 painting “The Way to Calvary.”  A first that we can only hope sets a precedent, Majewski uses Breugal’s preparatory drawings, computer generated blue-screen compositing, 3D imaging, a huge painted backdrop as well as on location shooting to invite the viewer into the craggy landscape where all the rituals of daily life unfold.  What you’ll learn is that against the backdrop of the brutal Spanish Inquisition, Breugel had to be clever and he imbedded his work with a series of symbols that tell a compelling crucifixion story.  There are more than 500 figures in the panoramic painting, including an array of villagers at different stations in life and the red-caped invading horsemen who butchered and then suspended them on huge wheels for all to see.  Rutger Hauer plays a Breugel who imparts wisdom about life and art that makes us hunger for more.  Charlotte Rampling delivers a Virgin Mary whose suffering is palpable. The film is based on Michael Francis Gibson’s novel bearing the same name. (Screens: Saturday, April 23, 12:30 p.m. SFMOMA, Wednesday, April 27, 9 p.m. Sundance Kabuki Cinemas)

Nainsukh (North American Premiere) (Director, Amit Dutta, India, Switzerland, 2010, 82 min, in Hindi and Punjabi with subtitles)

Amit Dutta has established himself as one of India’s most talented experimental filmmakers whose works oscillate between Indian mythology and highly personal narrative.   Nainsukhis Dutta’s second feature film and it very poetically explores

Amit Dutta`s NAINSUKH playing at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 - May 5, 2011.

the life and art of Nainsukh, the 18th miniature painter from Guler in the northern hills of India who became the court artist of Rajput Princes of Jasrota.  Shot on location in Jammu and Kashmir, Dutta re-constructs Nainsukth’s miniatures through compositions set in the actual ruins of the Jasrota palace and its surrounding landscape.  Nainsukh, played by Manish Soni, a well-known miniature artist, trains at his father’s celebrated painting workshop.  In 1740, he moves on to create delicate masterpieces that elaborate on daily court life with a palpable naturalism he gleaned from Mughal painting.  Because he was given rare entry into the common routines of the prince’s life, and was able to accompany him on such activities as tiger hunts, Nainsukh was able to translate all this into a body of art that far exceeded the normal artistic output of the day which was produced in workshops.  The film reveals how Nainsukth renders his figures in very individual and personal ways with exceptional vitality and truthfulness absent the idealized beauty typical of royal court paintings.  The film’s slow meditative pace pulls you into another era.  (Screens: Friday, April 22, 9:15 p.m. at New People, Sunday, April 24, 2:30 p.m. Sundance Kabuki and Sunday, May1, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley)


!Women Art Revolution (Director: Lynn Hershman Leeson, USA/Canada, 2010, 83 min, Documentary)

“!Women Art Revolution” “WAR” is Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary about women artists who spearheaded the feminist art movement and a shocking visual primer  for the oft-repeated statement “Well behaved women seldom make

Women artists like Shirin Neshat whose provocative works about women and Islam catapulted her to fame in the early 1990`s are the subject of Lynn Hershman Leeson`s documentary "!Women Art Revolution" playing at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival. Image: San Francisco Film Society.

history.”  “WAR” tracks early feminist artists like Judy Chicago, Nancy Spero, and the Guerilla Girls through a montage of archival footage, much of it taken by Hershman Leeson herself over the past 35 years.  The conclusion: women artists have been doing important work all along but they have been ignored, underrepresented, sidetracked and underpaid in the art world’s male-dominated upper echelons.   Impact:  marginalization, no one knows much about the pioneering women artists who decided to challenge the system.   Hershman Leeson, who spoke to me from her San Francisco studio, said she made the film “to show a history that’s never been written or documented, that makes the known history obsolete.”   The film establishes the importance of this movement in contemporary art but is really addressing the broader cultural history of America, the history of freedom of expression and equality starting with late 1960’s and going forward—it really shows the prejudices that fuel discrimination.”

The film isn’t angry or bitter in its approach—it instead profiles a determined and very intelligent group of women who love what they do and used their resources shrewdly to get attention.  History isn’t what happened in the past; it is what later generations choose to remember.  Thanks to Hershman Leeson for this vital work documenting women’s candid stories of WAR.  Hershman Leeson, whose works are in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, chairs the Film Department at the San Francisco Art Institute and is internationally acclaimed for her pioneering work in new media technology. (Screens, Saturday, April 23, SFMOMA and Monday April 25, 8:40 p.m., Pacific Film Archive)

Drawing Restraint #17 (North American Premiere) (Director Matthew Barney, Switzerland, 2010, 32 minutes)

Drawing Restraint continues on a project that conceptual artist Matthew Barney began in 1987 while an undergraduate at Yale which explores the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity.  Barney’s theory is that

Matthew Barney`s "Drawing restraint 17" is set in Basel`s Schaulager Museum and makes its North American premiere at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 - May 5, 2011. Image: Huge Glendinning, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

encumbrance can be used to strengthen an artist’s output, much as resistance is used by athletes to build muscle.  Barney’s latest film in the series uses the architecture in and around Basel, Switzerland as a key player in the film.  Basel is home to the Schaulager Museum for which the piece was commissioned.  Split-screen sequences incorporate Goetheanum, a center for the study of “spiritual science” (designed in the 1920’s by architect/thinker Rudolf Steiner), a woman digging in soil rich with worms and a tram ride to the Schaulager Museum (designed by (Herzog & de Meuron).  The main action occurs inside the museum where Barney portrays an artist supervising the construction of a sculpture made form rotting wood beams.  This site becomes a metaphoric wormhole.  (Screens: Saturday, April 30, 5 p.m. Sundance Kabuki Cinemas)  Combined with this year’s Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award  presented by critic and curator Glen Helfand, who will also interview Barney before the audience.  Admission to the interview and screening is $25.

Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou (Director: Pierre Thoretton, France, 2011, 100 min, in French, Documentary)

When iconic designer Yves Saint Laurent died of brain cancer in June 2008, at the age of 71, he left behind a substantial fashion legacy: he had popularized the pantsuit for women as well as the safari jacket, had democratized fashion by offering more affordable prêt à porter (ready to wear) lines, and had launched Opium, a scandalous perfume that many women considered their second skin in the 1980’s.  He also left behind one of the world’s greatest art collections, 700 plus pieces ranging from Egyptian artifacts to important works by Brancusi, Matisse, Degas, Manet, Duchamp, Ingres, Warhol, and many other leading artists assembled over 50 years with his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé.

In Pierre Thoretton`s "Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou" screening at SFIFF54, Yves Saint Laurent discusses his impressions of Andy Warhol`s 1974 portrait of him and its place in his sumptuous art collection.

Pierre Thoretton’s Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou tells Laurent’s story and the story of the couple’s great art (and furniture) collection through both historical and present-day footage.  As Bergé bids farewell to the collection in the famous three day auction orchestrated by Christies at Paris’ Grand Palais on February 23-25, 2009, you’ll see and hear how the couple lived and acquired their collection which they displayed in their exquisite homes in Morocco, France and England.   Mondrian’s 1922 painting “Composition in Blue, Red, Yellow and Black,” which inspired the designer’s groundbreaking 1965 Pop Art chic day dress wasn’t his when he designed the dress but Saint Laurent acquired it later.  In Studio 54’s heyday, Saint Laurent befriended artist Andy Warhol who did his portrait sans the signature glasses.  A very rare early 3 foot tall sculpture in wood by Constantin Brancusi “Madame LR,” was thought to be one of roughly 30 known wooden Brancusis executed between 1913 and 1925.  Throughout the film, it’s clear that Laurent was inspired by beauty in many forms but happiness was illusive.  The film culminates in the frenzy of the famous three day auction of the collection that brought in $262 million on its first night with the Brancusi fetching a record fetched $36,792,835, the Mondrain $27, 191,525 and Matisse’s “Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose” $45,264,579.  (Screens: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 and Thursday, May 5 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas)

SFIFF 54 Details:

Complete program information:

Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Pacific Film Archive

When: April 21 to May 5, 2011

Tickets: $8 to $13 regular screenings, $20 to $25 for Matthew Barney screening and on stage discussion at Persistence of Vision Award.  Purchase

April 18, 2011 Posted by | Art, Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Teatro ZinZanni’s “Caliente” puts Latin fire in the old spiegletent

Christine Deaver heats things up in Teatro ZinZanni’s new show “Caliente: Too Hot To Handle,” under the ZinZanni tent at Pier 29 on the San Francisco Embarcadero through June 19, 2011. Photo: Tracy Martin

I made my first visit to Teatro ZinZanni on Pier 29 last October and the evening was magical—several hours of pure escapism into old-world cabaret.  Caliente: Too Hot to Handle is ZinZanni’s latest Latin extravaganza—offering an evening of dining and entertainment that draws on some of ZinZanni’s most successful traditions– cabaret style music, racy comedy, audience involvement, and dazzling acrobatics.  Caliente stars ZinZanni regular Christine Deaver and Robert Lopez in a rambling storyline, as a brother and sister duo, Tres and Cinco, who galvanize a team of kitchen workers to oppose the closure of their circus tent and realize their full potential.  Singer Rebekah del Rio stands out in the evening’s pastiche of dazzling acts as does Ann Bernard, one of world’s foremost interpreters of the Argentinian malambo dance.  Returning to awe audiences with their flexibility and physical bravado are the French comedic acrobat trio, Les Petits Frères, Ukrainian contortionist Vita Radionova, and Chinese aerialist Ling Rui.  Caliente is developed and directed by San Francisco’s own Ricardo Salinas, a founding member of the critically acclaimed Chicano/Latino performance trio known as Culture Clash which originated in 1984 in San Francisco’s Mission District.  Tobias Larsson, one of ZinZanni’s most popular artists, serves as choreographer.

You may have heard that some 80 businesses on San Francisco port property were notified in January that they will likely have to move to make way for the America’s Cup yacht race, scheduled for 2013.  Teatro Zinzanni  is one of them, so now is the time to visit.

Exteriors can be deceiving: there’s a party going on inside!

While Teatro ZinZanni has been in San Francisco since 2000, I suspect that many people drive by the large off-white tent on Pier 29 and chalk it off as something for tourists. 

Once inside, the magic begins…the energetic vibe is inescapable, uplifting.  Escorts in seductive cabaret-style costumes greet and guide you through the period-style lobby, and into the bar area, bustling like an elegant bordello.  There, you can get any number of exotic drinks and join the line to enter the main tent—Le Palais Nostalgique, which is what all the fuss is about.   This splendid antique “spiegletent” (Dutch for “mirror tent”) is one of the few remaining hand-crafted traveling tents in use and it is every bit a star in the evening, defining the elegant and intimate mood.  Originally these spiegletents were constructed in the Flemish region of Belgium and served as mobile wine tasting pavilions and dance halls for thousands European locales lacking proper entertainment facilities.  Le Palais Nostalgique was built in 1926 and transported from Barcelona, Spain, to the United States for the first time in October 1998, especially for Teatro ZinZanni.

Celebrated for her moving rendition of Llorando (the Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s Crying) Rebekah del Rio plays Blanche, a repressed realtor, who finds her true self in song. Photo Mark Kitaoka.

 The luxurious interior is a site to behold.  At twenty-nine-feet tall, and with a circumference of over 200 feet, the circular antique theater can accommodate about 275 people and still feel intimate.  Every seat has a view and excellent acoustics but those closest to the center, where the performance occurs, are best.  The dining and performance areas are swathed in plush velvet, with lush drapes sporting antique tassels and gold brocade.  

Dinner is Served

It’s relaxing to know that once you’ve arrived at ZinZanni, you’re here for the evening and everything, including dinner, is provided.  The pre-fixe gourmet meal is a full five courses, using seasonal and local ingredients, and is excellent considering the volume they do—about 285 people served all at the same time.  All the food is prepared off-site under the supervision of Chef Patrick Fassino of Restaurant TZ, and, when I visited, everything arrived appropriately cold or warm and exquisitely staged.  I tried and recommend the wine pairing menu– five 2.5 once tasting portions, $38 prix fixe. (Dinner, matinee and wine menus change periodically and are online.)   The courses are delivered with escalating fanfare by the cast and servers about every 40 minutes.  Current Menu: Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam Triple Cream Brie with castelvetrano olives, spiced almonds and crostini, Tortilla Soup with lime crème fraiche and blue corn tortilla strips,  Spinach and watermelon radish salad with mango and jalapeno vinaigrette,  entrée choice of herb-marinated roasted chicken breast with mascarpone polenta, chayote and salsa verde OR grilled fillet of beef with ancho chili butter, organic roasted potatoes and blue lake green beans OR jack cheese and vegetable tamales with black beans, salsa verde and salsa rojo, and caramel panna cotta or coconut cake and passion fruit mango sauce.  Dinner, matinee and wine menus change periodically and are online.   

A brigade of kitchen workers band together and move to the front of the house in Teatro ZinZanni's "Caliente" through June 19 at Pier 29. Photo: Mark Kitaoka.

A brigade of kitchen workers band together and move to the front of the house in Teatro ZinZannis "Caliente" through June 19 at Pier 29. Photo: Mark Kitaoka.

Theme: Job Insecurity

As Caliente gets underway, you soon discover that its theme cuts remarkably close to home with ZinZanni’s own staff and entertainers who face an uncertain future until their new location is cemented.  While the kitchen crew in a performance tent are readying themselves for the busy evening ahead, they receive shocking news from Mr. Ching (Chinese acrobat Ling Rui) who is the new owner’s son.  He tells them through his real estate broker/translator Blanche, (Rebekah Del Rio) that their tent is being razed and they are all out of jobs. Cinco (Robert Lopez) and his sister Tres (Christine Deaver) try to galvanize the staff to revolt but they are met with resistance from the fearful and disempowered workers. Fortunately, one of the workers discovers a loophole in their contract and they learn that they can put on one last performance.  What ensues over the course of the evening is the honing of this motley crew into performers and major attitude adjustment and empowerment as they begin to see themselves as much more than menial laborers.  While this is no political tour de force, Salinas does manage to reference a number of issues and current events impacting the Latino community.     Deaver and  Lopez ham it up as their characters live out their childhood fantasties in the Spiegletent–there’s a zany Donny and Marie theme and elements of Little Red Writing Hood.  

The great thing about ZinZanni is that its talent runs deep and when you least expect it, amongst the all-consuming zaniness that is ZinZanni, you can be blown away by the simple delivery of a song.  Rebekah Del Rio’s splendid “Que Sera, Sera,” coming near the end of the show, is worth the price of admission.  Del Rio has a new album out “All of My Life” that includes English/Spanish songs from Easy Listening to Latin Jazz and traditional Mexican Boleros.

Physicality—European Cirque-style

The enthralling combination of aerial acrobatics that involve legs and arms being supported in unnatural positions by a nothing more than a long rung of twisted fabric is something we’ve become familiar with, thanks to Cirque du Soleil.   At Teatro ZinZanni, it all unfolds just a few feet from you and that closeness makes all the difference between watching and being enthralled.   While this show is not as overtly packed with the circus tricks of past ZinZanni offerings, the performance offers a range of  physical acts that are smoothly integrated with music and involve other professional performers in the cast.    

It’s easy to be seduced by Ann Bernard whose elegant malambo performance on a circular wooden platform just a few feet from you builds in tension and complexity over a period of several minutes.  Bernard, who has performed all over the world, uses boleadoras (leather ropes with hard balls at the end) to beat out an energetic and increasingly frenzied malambo rhythm in 6/8 on the floor.  She matches this with tap dancing and as her shoes strike the floor over and over with precise movements, it evokes the gallop of horses.

Chinese acrobat Ling Rui (also plays Mr. Ching) who has been performing and training in circus arts since he was a child in Southeastern China’s Flag Circus of China gives an amazing aerial straps performance.  The discipline of aerial straps was originally a Chinese specialty involving athletes enacting intensely muscular tricks up and down the straps, much like moves on aerial rings.   Rui’s perfectly toned body, stretched horizontally in positions that are almost impossible to imagine, is breathtaking.

Ukranian contortionist Vita Radionova’s perfectly toned body moving in and out of seemingly impossible poses with ease makes for an incredibly sensual act that is a site to behold.

Les Petits Frères (Gregory Marquet, Mickael Bajazet, Domitil Aillot) who play a janitor, maitre-d’ about to lose their jobs perform a number of daring aerial tricks and gymnastics in “Caliente.” Photo: Tracy Martin.

Les Petits Frères (Gregory Marquet, Mickael Bajazet, Domitil Aillot) who play a janitor, maitre-d’ have been dubbed the “Floating Act” by the European press because of their unique ability to defy gravity with graceful aerial acrobatics.   The group was founded in 1993 at the acclaimed Annie Fratellini Circus School in Paris.At ZinZanni, you are sitting so close that you can see their every move. 

Late Night Cabaret Lunatique:  Teatro ZinZanni recently launched Cabaret Lunatique, a monthly series of hip and decadent Saturday midnight shows, each honoring a different San Francisco neighborhood. Coming tributes: North Beach on April 16; The Mission on May 14; and The Castro on June 11. Live music, singers, clowns, contortionists, dancing, specialty cocktails and a bar menu. Twenty-one-and-over.

Lunatique North Beach this Saturday evening (April 16, 2011):   Features local artists from the Bay Area including comedian Jeff Applebaum; interpreters of Argentine Tango Trio Garufa; aerialist Marina Luna; and contortionist Dwoira Scheffer. They will be joined by sizzling burlesque performer Bombshell Betty, tango dancers Julian & Lisette, clown Aji Slater, and ZinZanni favorite Christine Deaver!  Fantasy costumes welcomed.  Door open 11:15 p.m. Tickets $25 to $35. (415) 438-2668 or

Tickets: Performances Wednesday to Saturday at 6 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m. $117-$145 for a five course meal and 3 hour performance, plus a $12 per guest dining room service charge applied to your beverage bill.  All beverages are separate and are available at the bar before entering the dining area and inside, during the evening performance.  A wine pairing menu which pairs 5 local wines with each of the courses runs $36. 

Seating:  The circular tent seats about 285 people in an arrangement of concentric seating that includes both booths and table.  All tickets are sold under “General Admission and seating is arranged by the Maitre d’ who assigns your seats the night you attend, “restaurant style.”  The best seats are premium seats, closest to the center of the tent.  There are 7 premium tables which seat four and 4 premium tables for two.

Box Office Phone (415) 438-2668

April 16, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Photographer Evvy Eisen’s “Oyster Farm” puts a human face on a front page controversy: Eisen in conversation with historian Dewey Livingston and Kevin and Nancy Lunny of Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, Petaluma Arts Center, Sunday

"The Oysterman," is just one of Marin documentary photgrapher Evvy Eisen's 60 silver gelatin prints in "Oyster Farm" at the Petaluma Arts Center through May 15, 2011. Photo by Evvy Eisen.

Acclaimed Point Reyes photographer Evvy Eisen is presenting her latest photographic essay – “Oyster Farm” through May 15 at Petaluma Arts Center.  Eisen, who specializes in environmental portraits, has taken a series of 60 silver gelatin prints focusing the workers at the historic Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which is located on Drakes Estero in the Point Reyes National Seashore in western Marin County.  Eisen will be in conversation this Sunday, April 10, 2011, at 2-4 p.m., with Marin historian Dewey Livingston on the development of agriculture and mariculture in the Point Reyes area and with Kevin and Nancy Lunny, proprietors of Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.  The Lunnys will also give a slide presentation entitled “Mariculture 101: How to Grow an Oyster.”  

Currently the center of an intense land use controversy, the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm has been thrust into national news and Eisen’s photographs, which are non-political, have thrown her indirectly into the controversy.  Speaking from her Point Reyes home in late March, Eisen said “Normally I do not take positions. I let my art speak for itself.  In this case, the publicity against the farm has been so biased, that I feel the need to help set the record straight.  I hope my photographs will inspire people to inform themselves about the situation and question what they are hearing.”  

Public confidence in the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm was undermined when claims were made that operation hurt seal populations and environment in the pristine waters of Point Reyes National Seashore.  An investigation by the Interior Department’s Solicitor’s Office has now been proven that National Park Service scientists made grevious errors while assessing the environmental impact of the disputed oyster farm, specifically that they mishandled photographic images showing the activities of, birds, and harbor seals at the upper Drakes Estero.  The photographs referred to are the some 250,000 digital surveliance images taken by hiden cameras installed by the National Park Services of the oyster company.   At issue is whether the 71-year-old oyster farm — the only such facility in the Point Reyes National Seashore — can extend its lease, which runs out next year. The farm, which produces 40 percent of the state’s commercial oysters, is located in a small bay nestled into the green coastal hills of the park, about 50 miles north of San Francisco.  The company has been embroiled in a dispute for years with park officials who want to convert the estuary to official wilderness.  Later this year the park service is expected to release its draft environmental impact statement, which will help determine if the farm can stay.  The Lunnys have mounted a very vocal opposition against the California Coastal Commission and environmentalists who have sought to run them out of business.

Eisen spent a year documenting the workers and the farm environment putting a human face on the issue.  She photographs in a classic portrait tradition – using a tripod mounted, medium format camera loaded with black and white film – and creates individual silver gelatin prints in the darkroom.  The exhibit is divided into three sections: portraits, photographs of the working farm and abstractions and still life compositions.  Eisen is also well-known for her Multiply by Six Million, a 15-year project photographing Holocaust survivors in California and France.  The catalyst for this immersive project was a 1992 assignment she got to photograph four Holocaust survivors in conjunction with her son David’s eighth-grade Holocaust project.   The exhibit is available online through the California Exhibition Resources Alliance with portraits from the collection and a clip from a short documentary film she created, which has been shown on the Sundance Channel.

Dewey Livingston is the curator of the Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History at Inverness.  He has been researching and writing about Point Reyes for more than twenty-five years.  He has written five books on West Marin history and assisted Eisen with her OYSTER FARM project.  Livingston’s books will be available for sale and he will be signed them at Sunday’s presentation at the Petaluma Arts Center.

Details:  The Petaluma Arts Center is located at 230 Lakeville Street, Petaluma, CA  94952. (707) 789-0537.  OYSTER FARM ends May 15, 2011.

April 9, 2011 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wolfram Hissen’s “The Running Fence Revisited” screens this weekend at the Sonoma International Film Festival—an emotional portrait of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the fence, and the community that fought over it

In the documentary “The Running Fence Revisited,” Jeanne and Christo reconnect with the community that supported their controversial fence thirty-four years ago. Filming at the Benedetti’s Sonoma County turkey farm: Christo’s nephew Vladimir Javacheff, Best Boy Vincent O’Connell, filmmaker Wolfram Hissen, turkey farmer Walter Benedetti, Jeanne-Claude, and Christo. Photo by Erin Van Rheenen

More than any other filmmaker working with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wolfram Hissen has stayed the test of time.  The German filmmaker made his first film about their work 26 years ago and, six films later, he is still going strong.  The Running Fence Revisited, screening on Saturday and Sunday this weekend at the 14th Sonoma International Film Festival celebrates Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s iconic Running Fence, a 24 mile long white fabric fence that ran through Marin and Sonoma Counties for two weeks in 1976 and profoundly changed the way we all think about art.   The documentary contains precious footage of Jeanne-Claude’s last visit to Northern California in the fall of 2009, and provides a riveting snapshot of the intense and highly creative style of communicating the artistic couple employed as well as touching interviews with the farmers and community members who supported and opposed the controversial project.  Christo insists that the “Fence” itself is not the work of art but rather how the fence interacted with the landscape made the art.  It was the trailing nylon ribbon “suddenly underlined and energized by the topography” and how “the people themselves who got into the discussion, for or against” and the immense paper trail—that were all together “Running Fence.”  And this is the amorphous subject that Hissen tackles so admirably in his film that was commissioned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum for their exhibition “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence” (April 2- September 26, 2010).    

The 47 minute film was shot on location in Valley Ford, Bloomfield and along the fence line began near the Old Redwood Highway close to Penngrove, crossed 18 roads and transected 59 ranches as it stretched across the golden hills of West Sonoma County and dropped into the Pacific just over the Marin County line.  It features many quiet scenes of Christo and Jeanne-Claude just walking and talking arm in arm, habituating the viewer to the slow dreamy rhythm of being in nature.  There is no added sound, save from original sound of the fence itself being whipped about by the wind and music from the footage that was made in 1976-77 in the pickup of William Corda and Joe Pozzi.  

Below is an interview Wolfram Hissen and I started in Washington D.C. last April at the film’s global premiere at the Smithsonian and finished at its West Coast premiere last June at the Union Hotel, Occidental, and at the Charles M. Schultz Museum, in Santa Rosa.  Typical of the today’s international filmmaker, Hissen is constantly on the move:  he maintains a home in France and in New York and is juggling several projects at once.  Once a big chunk of the funding seemed fairly certain, he assembled his crew quickly in the fall of 2009–Derek van Rheenen, Ph.D., assistant director, Erin van Rheenen, gopher and author of an eloquent brochure on the film, and best boy Vincent O’Connell.   He shot most of the film during the special Bloomfield celebration with Christo and Jeanne-Claude (September 2009) celebrating the fence at 33.  (see ARThound, September 13, 2009  “The Running Fence at 33…an extended Family Gathers Round Christo and Jeanne-Claude”  and September 3, 2009 “The Running Fence at 33..Christo and Jeanne Claude Visit Sonoma County.”   

The interview has been edited so that the time frames discussed are relative to 2011.

Geneva Anderson: How did you first get involved with Christo and what inspired you to do this film?

Wolfram Hissen:  Christo made a huge impression on me when I was young.  I am a German citizen, was born in Köln, but was raised in Portland, Oregon, and New York.  In the late 1960’s, our family returned to Heidelberg, Germany and I found that a very strange planet indeed.  My parents were originally from East Germany and so that was another layer.  We were travelling in both East and West Germany and, to me, everything seemed forbidden.  My brother and I were very American and missing everything.  I was about 8 years old and in Heidelberg, the America House had been wrapped by Christo in 1969 (America House Wrapped).  I never forgot that, that someone came to Germany who had the power and freedom to wrap a building and that really totally surprised me. 

Also, my family is very interested in film-making.  My grandfather was a co-inventor of the magnetic tape and always had cameras and recording stuff around.  From about the age of 10 on, I was always wondering what direction I would take.  In art school, I saw the Maysles brothers film “Running Fence” and I remembered the Heildeberg project.   The “Running Fence,” for me, was one of the most important artworks made in the second half on the century.  When I saw that film, I said, one day I am either going to make art like that or film like that.   So this is a magic moment.  It’s 30 odd years after I saw that film. I had decided to make films like that.  I found myself making a film about it and now I am showing it.

GA:  How many films have you done with Christo and Jeanne-Claude?

Wolfram Hissen:  We’ve been working together for about 25 years and this was our 6th film. The “Running Fence” project was relatively fast…it took them 4 years to get approval but with the “Wrapped Reichstag” or “Gates,” it took them over 20 years to achieve those projects.   They always had something to work on if one project was blocked.  We adapted that with our filmmaking too, and I’ve worked off and on since 2008 on the fence film.

My main films are: 1995, Project for the Würth Museum, Künzelsau, Germany. (The floors and stairways of the small private Würth Museum were wrapped and the windows were covered.)

1996, Christo und Jeanne-Claude, Dem Deutsche Volke, Verhüllter Reichstag 1971-95, (alternative title: To the German People: Wrapped Reichstag 1971-1995) , Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, Est-West, 98 minutes.

1997-98, Wrapped Trees, Foundation Beyler, Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland, (The wrapping of 178 trees at the Bayerle Foundation in Switzerland.), Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, EstWest, 26 minutes.

2005 Christo and Jeanne-Claude, On the Way to Over The River, Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, EstWest, 34 minutes.

2008  Along US 50 “Over The River” in progress, Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, EstWest, 89 minutes.

2010  The Running Fence Revisited, EstWest 47 minutes.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California 1972-76 Segments 1, 2B, and 3A, September 10 – 20, 1976, ©Christo Photograph by Gianfranco Gorgoni

 GA: Did you see actually see “The Running Fence”?

Wolfram Hissen:  I did not see the fence.  I was raised in Oregon though and am very familiar with the West Coast.  My assistant director, Derek Van Rheenen, who I have been friends with since we were babies, is also from here.  He’s a professor at UC Berkeley and we’ve collaborated on several films.  I am also quite familiar with the mentality.  To me, being European, I kind of look at CA like an independent country, very different from the rest of the states.  You could say it’s like Belgium and France or Austria and Germany which are European but quite distinct.   Actually, there’s nothing like California.  

 GA:  How did the idea for the film about “The Running Fence” come about?

Wolfram Hissen: Since 1994, we’ve been filming for the “Over the River” project even though the project hasn’t happened yet.   About 4 years ago, Christo and Jeanne-Claude asked me to make a film out of that footage and I said I’d gave it a try.  It went well and that film was shown at the Phillips Collection here in Washington, D.C. for the “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, a Work in Progress” (October 11, 2008-January 25, 2009).  There were a couple of people there from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, including curator George Gurney, and he liked it.   They invited me over to discuss making a film about the Running Fence.  I had already been to the region in 2005 or 2006 because of the next project that Christo planned, for the span of fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado.  I came to see where they did the Running Fence because that project is very much like putting the Running Fence horizontally over the river. 

When I walked into that little post office in Valley Ford, I was so surprised…this was a beautiful post office… and like a shrine to Christo and the fence.  I told myself, one day I am going to a film and this is going to be a part of it.

GA: What exactly is it about Christo and Jeanne-Claude that keeps you making films about them?

Wolfram Hissen:  There’s such a great spirit in them and aspects that I myself share with them—being independent and valuing freedom, liberty.  Also, I believe strongly, like them, that you do not always need to do things that make sense.  If all our lives were about things that made sense, then what would we have.  I also like the temporal aspect– these are ephemeral projects.  And then both of them are just incredible people.  I like being together with them…it’s been 25 years now.  Aside from my parents, there is no one I‘ve learned more from.  I respect them deeply.  They are a brilliant creative team and they work hard all the time, never satisfied and saying ‘it’s good enough.’  For them, every detail is debated over and over. 

The thing that also works very well with us is that Jeanne-Claude was of French origin and I am of German origin but I was raised in the U.S., but for most of my adult life, I’ve lived in France.  I do keep a place in Brooklyn but most of my life I’ve gone back and forth between those cultures.  I really enjoy and get people who have this diverse cultural background and who live this life nomadic life.  You don’t have to explain much—you get each other.   Christo and Jeanne-Claude are people who do not judge that fast, who have openness and experience. They got along with those American ranchers and they knew how to make themselves and their ideas understood.  In each language and each culture, you address this somewhat differently and they are great masters at that.  They had nothing to do with Japan but got along fine, same thing with Germany.  They fit.  That’s such an important part of their art—how to make people understand what you want and what you are planning. 

In the film, Leo Ielmorini says “They knew how to speak to a dumb farmer and to a supervisor.”   It’s not true that Christo and Jeanne–Claude thought they were dumb farmers…far from it.  No, they knew that were talking to someone with different experience and ways of getting things done and they knew how to reach him.  

 GA: Given that the Maysles brothers film “Running Fence” , from 1978,  has been so successful and important, did you want to do something different to distinguish yourself?  Was that a factor for you?

Wolfram Hissen:  No, not at all.  That is a beautiful film, certainly one of the best documentary films I have seen in my life and it influenced my own life.  I saw it when I was a teenager and I thought it was beautiful and something I’d like to do myself.  But with today’s filmmaking and situation, everything has changed, and it doesn’t really make sense to compare to them or to find things the two films have in common.  What we might have in common, Albert and I, (his brother David Maysles died in 1987) is that we are both psychologists and it’s helpful to be a psychologist when you are a filmmaker and to really enjoy people.  The people in CA are really wonderful, unique, and I must say, it’s fun to work with them.  Every day, when I went out– sometimes with the team—and spent time with the ranchers, I really enjoyed it.  I had nothing to worry about and I felt like I knew these people.

GA:  What was your goal for the film then, and how did Jeanne Claude’s death impact the editing?

Wolfram Hissen: When you make this kind of film, you speak to people in a very direct and private way.  On one level, it’s something fun but it’s also profound…this film has been speaking about actually pop art that happened in the 1970’s so we’re looking at a whole generation since then.  I wanted it to be emotional and beautiful.

This was tough project, not that I am complaining, but when Jeanne-Claude also died, the film really became a different project…it became more about her influence and at the same time, it had to remain about the fence and tell that story.  We were talking about things that were temporary and eternal with the overlay of her passing.  She herself expressed this concept very well in words in the film.  It was challenging but I found I had all the material I needed.

GA:  Speaking of material, it seems to me, like it could easily be 90 minutes or more.  How was the length determined and, within that constraint, how did you decide what to leave in and take out?

Wolfram Hissen:  Budget and how much time I could spend with it.  This film really went far with the budget it had.  Initially, the planning with the Smithsonian was to make a film that was 20-25 minutes.  When I did my first research trip to the area, I knew there was so much that I could easily do a 90 minute film.  When I showed the first cut in Washington, D.C., a couple of months before the exhibition opened, the film was 30 minutes long.   I felt there was so much missing, that I needed to tell more, to show more.    

As it stands, I spent twice as much time as I had planned and the film is twice as long and also in the beginning there was a different approach.  I was always a little afraid that something would happen and I didn’t want this film to become another story.  And then, when Jeanne-Claude passed away, that added again a dimension that we hadn’t thought about before.  For instance, the footage in the beginning of the film– those aerial views–they were taken on November 18, 2009, that’s the exact day that she died in New York.  These shots were really taken that day and they are beautiful and everyone agrees they are breathtaking.  I was informed the next day that she ha died but some thoughts ran through my mind about what it all meant.   

GA:  It’s a tender homage, showing her energy and passion.  In the film, you were dealing some people who were older.  Did you have any troubles from that perspective, with their memory and so forth?   They come off as having the wisdom of ages and being very coherent.

Wolfram Hissen:  Well, sometimes they would start to say something fascinating and I was like this is great, keep going …but they would forget what they were talking about and just stop.  But basically it went very well.   I was so fascinated by what they were saying, their intelligence about life.

GA:  You decided to forego adding sound.  How important is sound in this film? 

Wolfram Hissen:  Most of filmmaking is in aesthetic decision.  The main music in the film is actually the artwork of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and there is ambient sound.  This world is so loud we really wanted to invite people to look closely at that footage and listen to what the people have to say. 

In 1991, Derek (Van Rheenen) and I went to Bakersfield and also to Japan to film “The Umbrellas” project and we asked Christo how he chooses the exact spots where he put those umbrellas.  He said, ‘How do you write a symphony?’  The art itself is also musical, lyrical.  If you look at the fence, as Bill LeBaron says in the film, it was in the landscape, it was all movement, ripple.   We decided to focus on the original sound, so the music in the film is the original music from the footage that was made in 1976-77 in the pickup of William Corda and Joe Pozzi and that’s it.  

The Running Fence Revisited film crew: Best Boy Vincent O’Connell, filmmaker Wolfram Hissen, Best Boy and Gopher, Erin Van Rheenen and co-Director Derek Van Rheenen. Photo: Geneva Anderson

GA: What was it like to interview the sculptor Mary Fuller McChesney, who along with her husband, Robert McChesney, vehemently opposed the fence?  She seems entrenched in her attitude about Christo and Jeanne-Claude to this day.  

Wolfram Hissen:  That is ok.  I respect totally that people should be able to have their opinions.  I thought for the film it would be important to have the opposition interviewed.  I also interviewed Mr. Kortum, a Sonoma County Supervisor at the time, who is by now quite old.  And it was difficult to understand always what he was saying but he made his point.  I think from Mrs. McChesney you understand very well why they opposed the fence– because they did not want to be a part of this art– which is fine.  The other reason to be opposed was for the environment, and those claims came from Kortum.  We found out from certain ranchers, like Leo Ielmorini, that this wasn’t a big issue at all.  And time has shown that well too–nothing came of the claims that were made about Christo and Jeanne-Claude or the damage that the fence would cause.

GA:  You captured the common sense of the farmers very well, especially with Leo’s lines about birds not flying into the fence at night. 

Wolfram Hissen:  I especially loved his old-American language, which you don’t hear anymore.  He says Christo and Jeanne-Claude “were smarter than the average bear.”  That’s Yogi Bear.   What kids today know who that is?   Or, he says, “They’ve been around the horn once or twice,” which is a typical expression of immigrants 150 years ago, I mean before the Panama Canal, because you had to go around the horn, which was the southernmost point of South America.  I just love that.   

It is also part of American culture to create or to play with words, like the term “sue happy,” “everyone is sue happy.”   This came up when I was talking about the probably of getting these permissions from all the individual farmers today.  I had never heard that before and I really enjoyed just listening to the farmers talk.  And Roz, in that tiny post office, was wonderful.    

I wanted to make an emotional beautiful film, which to me is like a roller coaster that takes you with it.  In the beginning, it’s just beautiful and then you meet these people and they take you some place with them.   They are funny and you are laughing and forget the world and you just enjoy, taking it in, but then there’s this moment where they’re talking about getting older, aging, saying my father passed away, this person passed away, and that was so important to put in the film.  That’s what I mean by emotional beautiful because all emotions are there—a lot of people at the end of film are crying…and the last words of Jeanne Claude, those words about what they are doing and the temporary aspect of it, are chilling and beautiful.

GA:  What are you doing right now?

Wolfram Hissen:  I am making a film about the American landscape artist Stephen Hannock.  It’s a film about modern landscape painting which is experiencing a revival and the musician Sting, who is a friend of Hannock and a big supporter of his work, is involved.  I’m also working on a series about the West Coast for a German-French art station with my brother.  We also just completed a film on the eruption of Mt. St. Helens that was shown on Nova.   We always have different projects we are working on.  Our films usually take quite a while.  

The Running Fence Revisited, 2010, 47 minutes.  Team: Directors: Wolfram Hissen, Derek Van Rheenen, Best Boy: Vincent O’Connell, Erin Van Rheenen, Gopher: Erin Van Rheenen

 Screens at The 14th Annual Sonoma International Film Festival: Saturday, April 9, 2011,  6:00 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and Sunday, April 10, 2011, 6:45 p.m., Woman’s Club)   Festival Details:

April 7, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The 14th Sonoma International Film Festival opens this Wednesday with a stellar line-up of cinema, food, and wine in gorgeous Sonoma

In Wolfram Hissen's documentary "The Running Fence Revisited," screening Saturday and Sunday at the Sonoma International Film Festival, iconic footage of the Northern, CA coastline is the backdrop for a tender exploration of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 1976 Running Fence. The film was made in conjunction with the Smithsonian American Art Musuem's 2010 exhibition and acquisition of The Running Fence's archival documentation from Christo. Photo courtesy Erin Van Rheenen

This Wednesday, the curtain rises on the 14th annual Sonoma International Film Festival pairing 5 nights and 4 days of nearly nonstop screenings of new independent films from around the world with great gourmet food and wine.  Highly anticipated by its loyal audience of over 18,000, this festival which takes place in eight venues within walking distance from Sonoma’s charming town square has a lot to offer both locals and destination visitors.   “Our audience is very informed and film-savvy,” said festival director Kevin McNeely on Friday. “What gives our festival a very personal feeling is the chance to mingle with filmmakers and actors in our Backlot tent and at screenings and we absolutely deliver on the best in the film, food and wine.”

Susan Sarandon Honored as Thelma and Louise turns 20 

Susan Sarandon will be present this weekend at the Sonoma International Film Festival to receive the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, given only twice in the festival’s 14 year history. Photo courtesy Sonoma International Film Festival.

 This year’s festival will honor acclaimed actress Susan Sarandon with its Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday, April 9, 2011.  The award, given just twice in the festival’s 14 years honors a creative talent who, through the course of his or her career, has created a body of work which symbolizes the highest level of achievement in the motion picture art form. (Bruce Willis was the first recipient in 2009.)  Sarandon is most associated with her performances in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) Thelma and Louise (1991) but won her Oscar for Best Actress in 1995 for Dead Man Walking.  She has been nominated for an Academy Award 34 times and has appeared in over 70 films.  “She is a remarkable talent with an amazing body of work,” said Kevin McNeely, “and she has conducted her private life admirably–doing responsibly cool things with her celebrity.”  Among her many activities, Sarandon is a spokesperson for UNICEF and the Endometriosis Foundation of America (EFA).

The tribute will start Saturday at 630 p.m. at the Sonoma Veteran’s Memorial Hall, with a montage of clips from Sarandon’s films and an on-stage discussion with Sarandon about her career and upcoming projects.  Immediately after the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award, there will be a reception in her honor and a screening of Thelma and Louise (which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year).  The evening will close with the festival’s annual gala, held this year at the Sebastiani Winery.  

The Line-Up

The festival kicks off on Wednesday evening at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art with Marin filmmaker’s Fredrick Marx’s acclaimed documentary Journey from Zanskar and at the Sebastiani Theatre with Rob Hedden’s romantic feature film You May Not Kiss the Bride

Journey from Zanskar tells a moving and important story about the preservation of traditional Tibetan culture, which has survived in remote Zanskar with an untainted and continuous lineage dating back thousands of years.  The film tracks two monks who, with the blessing of the Dalai Lama, take 17 children through the Himalayan mountains to a near-by school to learn and thus preserve the future of their precious culture.  This inspirational film is also controversial.  Because it educates, it has been criticized (Zanskar Resource) for its role in creating a situation that may actually popularize remote Zanskar and thereby accelerate the destruction of its untainted culture and traditions.  You May Not Kiss the Bride tracks a Croatian mobster as he tries to arrange U.S. citizenship for his daughter by setting her up with an American photographer. (Journey From Zanskar, Wed. 6:30 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art) (You May Not Kiss the Bride, Wed. 6:30 p.m., Sebastiani Theatre)

Thursday’s evening line-up includes the French actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies, a drama about friendship which features Marion Cotillard (Oscar, Best Actress 2008, La Vie en Rose) and an ensemble cast.  Set at a beautiful vacation home, the film looks at the small cracks in the surface of relationships and pretenses that are hard to keep up in the face of an unexpected tragedy.  (6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m, Sebastiani Theatre (476 First St. East)

The weekend’s programming kicks into high gear Friday with concurrent screenings in all venues across town.   Among the 74 independent feature films, shorts, documentaries and other films screened will be Friday evening’s West Coast premiere of Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation, one of the most buzzed about films at this year’s Sundance festival.   The film explores the media’s deplorable impact on our society perception of women.  Through in-depth interviews with academics, newsmakers (including Katie Couric, Lisa Ling and Rachel Maddow) and politicians (Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Condoleezza Rice) and actors (Geena Davis, Jane Fonda, Margaret Cho) and youth—basically women in all walks of life—-Newsom shows that we are all being sold (year after year) dated, limited and detrimental stereotypes of what it means to be a powerful woman.  Oprah liked this important film so much that her OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) snapped it up in February for their OWN Documentary Film Club that plans to do for film what Oprah has done for books.  Newsom will attend Friday’s 6 p.m. screening at the Sebastiani Theatre on the square.

Two additional documentaries that I consider essential viewing are German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen’s stunning The Running Fence Revisited and Suzan Beraza’s Bag It

The Running Fence Revisited celebrates Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s iconic Running Fence, the 24 mile white fabric fence that ran through Marin and Sonoma Counties for two weeks in 1976, that profoundly changed the way we all think about art.  This documentary contains precious footage of Jeanne-Claude’s last visit to Northern California in the fall of 2009 and provides a riveting snapshot of the couple’s intense and highly creative style of communicating.   There are numerous interviews with the farmers and community members who supported the controversial project and look back at it with humor and pride.  It also contains some of the most gorgeous aerial footage of our coastline to be seen.   If you’re looking for a film that celebrates life, nature, and art, this is it.  Saturday, 6:00 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and Sunday, 6:45 p.m., Woman’s Club)

Bag It follows Jeb Barrier, an earnest guy who greatly resembles Jason Alexander a.k.a. George Castanza on Seinfield, as he explores the proliferation of plastic in our society, particularly single use disposable plastic bags. (link to trailer) After watching this film, you likely cringe every time you see a plastic bag.  Each year, Americans throw out an astounding 100 billion plastic bags, which will never break down because of their non-biodegradable makeup. As they sit in landfills for thousands of years, they merely break up into tiny pieces that absorb toxic chemicals, only to be fed into the soil and water supply or ingested by animals, particularly marine life. With landfill space running out, plastic bags are also likely to be burned at waste-to-energy plants where toxic chemicals seep into the atmosphere.  On March 28, 2011, the subject made the Wall Street Journal when journalist Vauhini Vara profiled Stephen Joseph, the lawyer who sued Kraft Foods to eliminate transfat in Oreos and is now suing several California cities trying ban plastic bags.  Joseph claims that paper bags are even worse for the environment.  Bag It debunks this and makes a compelling case for imposing a ban on plastic bags and is an educational must-see for everyone. (Saturday, April 9, 9:15 a.m., Mia’s Kitchen at Vintage House)

The festival frequently pairs a music documentary with a live music event. Following Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. screening of From Gershwin to Garland: A Musical Journey with Richard Glazier, Richard Glazier will give a 30 minute piano concert of some of the classics from the golden age of American song. (Saturday, 3:30 p.m, New Belgium Lounge at the Community Center)

And if you are fascinated with jazz, you won’t want to miss the artfully shot The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi, a tribute to the Bay Area jazz composer who pioneered the crossover of jazz into pop and did the unforgettable scores for Charles Schultz’s Peanuts animations.  Who can forget “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or the stellar hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”?  George Winston calls Vince Guaraldi and his music “a part of the deep heart and soul of San Francisco and of the experience of childhood and beyond.” Guaraldi’s daughter Dia, and the members of his original jazz trio, will all be at the Saturday screening.  (Friday, 9:30 p.m., New Belgium Lounge at the Community Center and Saturday, 3:45 p.m., Women’s Club)   

Nabil Elderkin’s Bouncing Cats is another inspiring musical documentary that explores hip-hop with a focus on b-boy culture and breakdancing as a tool for positive social change in Uganda where 49 percent of the population is under the age of 14.  The film tells the story of Abraham Tekya, a Ugandan–boy and A.I.D.S. orphan who created the Breakdance Project Uganda that is helping to rehabilitate the war-ravaged nation, child by child.  (Friday, 6:45 p.. and Saturday 12:45 p.m. at Women’s Club)  

Seattleite Karen Stanton’s documentary debut film A Not So Still Life, profiles Ginny Ruffner, one of the major artists of the modern glass/conceptual crafts movement whose fans include Dale Chihuly and Tony Robbins and most likely anyone who watches this film.  In 1991, at age 39, Ruffner, already a well-established artist, was struck by a car and the accident nearly killed her but didn’t put a dent in her spirit.  Glass is forged with fire and so is Ginny Ruffner.  An early party scene at Ruffner’s sprawling home, itself an artwork, is not to be missed. (Friday, 6:15 p.m. and Saturday, 8:15 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art)

Cinema Epicurea

Food is an area where the Sonoma International Film Festival stakes its claim.  Let’s cover their food films first.  Sally Rowe’s A Matter of Taste tracks British chef Paul Liebrandt, the force behind the legendary haute Tribeca restaurant Croton.  What’s great about this film is that she follows him on a hellish roller coaster ride in the elite food world.  In 2000, at age 24, at Atlas restaurant (on Central Park South), he earned three stars from the erudite New York Times food critic Williams Grimes (1998-2003) who praised his daring style and described him as a “pianist who seems to have found a couple of dozen extra keys.”  In the less flamboyant post-9/11 climate, however, he’s unable to repeat his success and has a rough patch that lasts 8 years until he hits his stride again with Croton, where is both chef and owner.  There’s mesmerizing kitchen action, with scintillating porn of him painstakingly creating his mind-warping masterpieces like chocolate covered scallops.  There’s a romance too.  And there’s lots of commentary from his colleagues in the world of elite food including our own Thomas Keller who built an empire from his legendary French Laundry Restaurant in Yountville and then went on to found the more urban Per Se in New York and who remains the only American chef to have been awarded simultaneous three star Michelin ratings for two different restaurants. (Screens Saturday 12:15 p.m., Mia’s Kitchen at Vintage House and Sunday, 12:30 p.m., New Belgium Lounge at the Community Center)

San Francisco-based food journalist Stett Holbrook and Marin documentary filmmaker Greg Roden made a late hour direct appeal to Kevin McNeely to screen “Food Forward,” their pilot for the upcoming PBS food series “Food Forward.”  The compelling film makes its world premiere at the festival on Thursday and shies away from food celebrities to tell compelling stories about committed people across America who are changing the way people eat.  “It’s all about people in Oakland and Manhattan who have rejected industrial food and are growing their own healthy sustainable food in urban settings.” said McNeely. “There are rooftop gardens in Manhattan that are producing enough food for the local farmers’ markets and beekeepers who are producing honey —it’s very cool.”  (Thursday 7 pm at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art).

Also making its world premiere is Robert Lemon’s ¿Tacos or Tacos? a short documentary inspired by the taco trucks of Fruitvale, in Oakland.  The film examines the genesis and metamorphosis of food truck culture into the upscale sensation that we are now experiencing nationwide.  Concentrates on the Bay Area and Austin, Texas, where Lemon is a doctoral candidate at UT.  (Saturday, 9:30 a.m., New Belgium Lounge at the Community Center and Sunday, 3:15 p.m. Mia’s Kitchen at Vintage House) 

“JoyRide” is a favorite of SIFF director Kevin McNeely. Alex Petrovitch and Katherine Randolph (Markwood Films) are what film festivals love to roll their dice on. The Los Angeles couple’s first feature film is written, directed, acted, and edited by them. "JoyRide" is about a couple that needs cash fast and decides to make a reality film about her brother’s drug dealing…they hit the road and are soon in over their heads. Screens Saturday and Sunday. Image: Markwood Films.


 Wine, Food and “Backlot”
In 2009, Sonoma was the first U.S. city to receive the distinctive “cittaslow”  (“slow city”) classification that includes not only slow food and a rich agricultural bounty, but a community attitude that savors life along with the finest food and wine.  This special ambiance infuses the festival too whose culinary center is “The Backlot,” a one-of-a-kind hospitality tent on the North side of Sonoma’s City Hall that is open to all pass holders.  Here, they can mingle and have lively discussions in a chic lounge environment while enjoying the best of wine country vintages and culinary delights provided by Wine Country Party and Events.  Wine and beer will be available for purchase with $5 tickets available at the box office. Sushi by Ed Metcalfe of Shiso Sushi will be served on Friday and Sunday in the Backlot. 

Over 23 wineries and the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance will be represented throughout the festival including Sebastiani, Gundlach Bundschu, Muscardini Cellars, Eric Ross, Banshee Wines, Haraszthy Cellars, Highway 12, Gloria Ferrer, Roessler Cellars, and Nicholson Ranch. A New Belgium Beer Garden and a Gloria Ferrer Bubble Lounge will be located in the Sonoma Plaza. Each screening venue will either offer full dining options or feature a sampling of snacks and treats provided by festival sponsors and partners. (Full description of the wine and food options at various venues.)

Closing Night Festivities: The festival closes on Sunday, April 10th, with an Awards Ceremony in the Backlot Tent at 8 pm.  Winners of the Jury Awards in all film categories including Features, Documentaries, World Cinema, Shorts, and Animation will be announced.  

Festival Details:
Star Pass $750 individual/$1,400 couple (Includes Monthly Cinema Series Hosted by Sonoma Film Society)

* All Access to Festival Films and Events at SIFF Including: pre-Opening Party at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, Opening Reception at MacArthur Place, Festival Gala, Filmmakers Lunches and Dinners, VIP and After Parties, Opening and Closing Night Film Screenings, Spotlight Tribute, Awards Party, and Filmmaker Reception

* Fast Lane Entry to all Festival Events for priority seating

*All-Inclusive Food and Wine at the Hospitality Tent in our Back Lot

 Premiere Pass $300/$550

*Guaranteed Access to Festival Films and Programs during the SIFF including: Opening Night Film Screening and After Party, Festival Gala, Spotlight Tribute, Closing Night Film Screening and Awards Party.

* Four Food and Wine Tickets for the Hospitality Tent in our Back Lot

 Festival Pass $150/$275

*Access to Films and Programs including: Film Screenings, Panels and Discussions, and Closing Night Film Screening & Awards Ceremony.

 Day Pass $60

*Access to Film Screenings for Day Purchased


Single Film Tickets:  $15 general entry tickets can be purchased at box office.  Arrive 30 minutes before screening and wait to be seated.    


Venue Locations:

Sebastiani Theatre – 476 First St. East
Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club – 574 First St. East
New Belgium Lounge at Sonoma Community Center – 276 E. Napa St.
Mia’s Kitchen at Vintage House – 246 First St. East
Sebastiani Winery Barrel Room – 389 Fourth St. East
Sonoma Valley Museum of Art – 551 Broadway
Murphy’s Irish Pub – 464 First St. East
Sonoma Veteran’s Memorial Hall – 126 First St. West

April 3, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment