Geneva Anderson digs into art

Film Review: “Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis” Peter Sasowsky’s new documentary looks at the unconventional pioneer of transgenic art

There’s a fine line between genius and madness and artist Joe Davis, the subject of Peter Sasowsky’s documentary Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis (2011), is walking it.   The film screened this weekend at the 14th Annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival (IndieFest), at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater and is an absorbing and inspiring but frustrating portrait of the artist Joe Davis whose unconventional melding of science, technology, and art have helped popularize the field of transgenic art (manipulating living things for artistic ends).   It’s very easy to get drawn into Joe Davis and his world.  Davis a peg-legged, wild-haired, scraggly-looking guy from Mississippi who is brilliant, eclectic, and radically non-conformist.  In 1982, after being expelled from several schools for counterculture activities like writing about atheism, running for student body president on a free marijuana platform, running an antiwar newspaper, and rarely completing what he started, he walked into M.I.T.’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, where he had been denied admission to their program for artists and demanded face to face meeting with the chairman.  The secretary called the cops.  Forty-five minutes later, Davis walked out as a research fellow, an unpaid but prestigious appointment.  Since then, he has used his charisma and zany innate curiosity about the way things work to foster impressive connections at other M.I.T. departments, Harvard Medical School, UC Berkeley and to collaborate with a number of global biotechnology scientists.  And he’s literally been around the world─Amsterdam, Ljubliana, Puerto Rico─championing fascinating ideas and projects that neither the official worlds of art nor science are entirely comfortable with but have gotten him profiled in Scientific American and on ABC’s Nightline (July 6, 2001) as a pioneer of transgenic art.

Davis is a natural subject for a film.  He applies himself to esoteric artistic endeavors at the nexus of art and science, often coaxing very improbable connections.  He’s the first man to record women’s vaginal contractions and translate these into text, music, phonetic speech and reduce these into radio signals, which were beamed from M.I.T.’s Millstone radar to Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti and two other nearby star systems.  His million-watt Poetica Vaginal 20 minute broadcast was ultimately shut down by the U.S. Air Force but the project’s driving concept was to say hello to extraterrestrials and to convey vital information to them about how humans reproduce, putting his own stamp on the message that Carl Sagan and Frank Drake had transmitted from the giant dish in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, 26 years ago and improving upon the first sanitized visual images of humans, with no facial hair and no female sex organs, that NASA had beamed into space on the Pioneer and Voyager space probes.  Conceptually, Davis was correcting what he perceived was an act of censorship that led to misinformation about our species.

Joe Davis, the subject of Peter Sasowsky's "Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis," poses for painter Michael Costello in his Cambridge, Massachusetts studio. Production Still, courtesy Serious Motion Pictures.

Sasowsky takes us along on an unforgettable ride into Davis’ world, producing a film a notch above Danish director Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s humorous documentary, The Invention of Dr. Nakamats (2009), which I reviewed for the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival in 2010.  Several of Davis’ expansive art projects are introduced with very little contextualization from the filmmaker.  In the end, the viewer is left with a highly creative but dizzying portrait of Davis and some gaping holes.  How credible and unique are Davis’ ideas?  Given that the official worlds of Art and Science both essentially rejected him, and his positions at the venerable MIT and Harvard have all been long-term unpaid internships that allow him to experiment but leave him dependent on donations of equipment and expertise from fellow scientists, what is the impact of his work for science and art?   There’s no question that Davis has done extensive research in molecular biology and bio-informatics for the production of genetic databases and new biological art forms.  So far though, he’s creatively applied the existing tools of science to artistic ends which leads me to suspect that most scientists would say that they like having him around but he’s not furthering serious science.  Art is another matter, lacking the rigorous standards of science.  Given that transgenic art is a relatively new area of art, how should we evaluate it?  What is its cultural impact?  What is Davis’ legacy and who are his artist peers?  The puzzlement about how it all adds up is annoying.

“The most absurd things are connected in very absurd ways,” Davis says.  “I like to take the least connected things and try to build connections between them.”   Davis’ innate curiosity is seductive and poetic and the film captures him jumping from one immersive project to the next while navigating his chaotic daily life.  He is captured conversing with a scientist from Clondiage Industries in Jena Germany who will assist him in genetically modifying an apple that will “tempt the Devil.”  In another sequence, he and assistants slather honey over the body of a naked and quite buxom young woman and then sprinkle her with gold dust for a project that tested his audio microscope and allowed him to investigate different types of bacteria by turning their natural movements into unique audio patterns.  He’s also shown amputating and then using electrically stimulated frog legs to power an aircraft, basically applying something we’ve all seen in high school biology labs—the nervous system reacting after death–on a grander scale.   Not your cup of tea?  His Microvenusproject (1990) encoded a simple symbol—a Y and an I superimposed—that is both a Germanic rune representing life and an outline of the external female genitalia into the E. coli genome.  It promptly reproduced into billions of cells and Davis declared himself the “most successful publisher” in history.

Joe Davis returns to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, a trip that served as inspiration for his project, "Call Me Ishmael." Production Still: courtesy Serious Motion Pictures.

Any scientist watching the film might well say… “I could do any of that but I’m just not interested because I’m applying my time to something more important.”   Davis knows that art has no boundaries and is out there passionately probing all sorts of connections, some of which have an amazing hidden logic.  Sasowsky offers a portrait of a man who explores the outer reaches of the cosmos, picks through Cambridge’s trash for materials and constantly battles the forces of eviction from apartments, labs and part-time gigs.  The film alternates between Davis’ daily life, footage of some of his early and most famous projects, family movies from his childhood, and conversations with his mother, sister, ex-wife and adult daughter.  His sister is frustrated and keeps hoping that something he does will lead to income and a means of supporting himself.  But Davis can’t be bothered with these practical concerns—he’s got bigger and more existential fish to fry.  As Davis discusses a number of complicated ideas that he’s got his own creative spin on, the film meanders along without a clear arch—an abstract poetic portrait that ebbs and flows like a kaleidoscope.  If you want substantive details about his processes and contributions, you’ll need to do your own research.

Director, Producer, Director of Photography, Editing: Peter Sasowsky.  Co-producer: Amy Grumbling.  Additional photography: Cecile Bouchier, Andrew Neumann, Stephan Baumgardner

DetailsHeaven + Earth + Joe Davis screens Saturday, February 18, 2012, at 2:45 p.m. and Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 2:45 p.m. at Roxie Cinemas, 3117 16th Street (at Valencia) in San Francisco.  Tickets are $11.

General Information about IndieFest:  All screenings take place at the Roxie Cinemas, 3117 16th Street (at Valencia) in San Francisco.  Film tickets are $11 for each regular screening and $20 for Opening Night (includes the film plus the after-party). 5-film vouchers are $50, 10-film vouchers are $90; $160 for FilmFestPass good for all films and parties.  The parties are $10 each or free with ANY festival ticket stub. Remember, passholders are always admitted first.  To purchase tickets in advance, or for more information, call 1-800-838-3006 or click on

February 21, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFIFF 53 review: “The Invention of Dr. Nakamats,” Japan’s Mr. Gadget is eccentric, rich, and a national hero but he’s no Thomas Edison.

The Invention of Dr. Nakamats (Opfinsdelsen Af Dr. Nakmats) (Dir. Kaspar Astrup Schröder, Denmark, 2009, 57 min)

Dr. Nakamats, the focus Kaspar Astrup Schroder's documentary THE INVENTION OF DR. NAKAMATS, is obsessed with self-promotion.

With over 3,300 patents to his name, Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamats holds the record for the more patents than anyone else dead or alive and is the subject of Danish director Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s humorous documentary, “The Invention of Dr. Nakamats.”  This is one of 28 documentaries screening at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival

 With the energetic Dr. Nakamats as its guide, the film follows this extraordinary Japanese celebrity as he explains his creative process, his mission to elongate life and his many zany inventions.  With no feedback from the filmmaker or any other credible sources to validate his claims, it’s hard to know how to this take this hour-long display of self-promotion.   Fact or fiction?  The ride is enjoyable enough but frankly, the puzzlement is annoying.

As this straightforward point and shoot film progresses, it becomes obvious that it is controlled entirely by Nakamats, who presents as a goofy self-made mad scientist of sorts who makes grievous errors in presenting himself as a person of substance.  There’s something that seems common among inventors that Nakamats seem to lack—humility.   It is a fundamental tenant of science that you stand on the shoulders of others and that others will stand on your shoulders.  Over claiming your contribution is a violation a basic tenant of the creative process.  Nakamats walks all over this.  Overall, the film is entertaining but misses it potential.  It delivers a confusing if not shallow portrait of an individual whose patent portfolio is as zany as he is.   At the end of the film, you’re likely to be asking– Is Nakamats for real?  Did he pay for the film?  Did he really invent the floppy disk, the compact disc, the digital watch, a unique golf putter, a water-powered engine, the “Love Jet” (arousal enhancer) and an invisible “b flat” bra?   Why haven’t I ever heard of him before?  

Screens: 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival—Friday, April 30 (9:30 PM, Sundance Kabuki), Monday, May 3 (1:30 PM, Sundance Kabuki), Wednesday, May 5 (6:30 PM Sundance Kabuki) tickets $12.50,

May 5, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFIFF 53 review: Abandonment Cold Turkey– In Ounie Lecomte’s “A Brand New Life,” a Korean girl is dumped at an orphanage when her father starts over

“A Brand New Life” Dir. Ounie Lecomte (South Korea/France, 2009, 92 min)

A scene from Ounie Lecomte's A BRAND NEW LIFE, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

Abandonment is hard at any age but it is particularly harsh when a child who has bonded with a single parent is rejected suddenly without explanation. That is exactly the situation in Korean-born Ounie Lecomte’s debut film “A Brand New Life,” a drama set in the 1970’s, in an orphanage near Jeonju, a Korean provincial city.  The film opens with heartwarming scene that is universally familiar—a young Korean girl Jin-hee (Kim Saeron) is smiling ear to ear while riding in the front of a bike that her dad is steering.  As she passes the day with her dad, they shop for new clothes together.  At lunch, she sings tenderly to him but her song is one that eerily foretells their future “You’ll never know…how much I loved you.  You’ll regret it one day when time has passed…”

Later, while on a bus trip in the countryside, her dad lovingly washes mud from her feet and shoes. At a bakery, she is asked to choose a cake but is confused and we soon learn why.  As it turns out, these fatherly acts of kindness are not benign—her dad is intent on presenting Jin-hee spic and span, cake in hand, to a Catholic orphanage, where he is abandoning her.  We later learn it’s because she does not fit into his brand new life with his new wife and infant.  To top it off, it appears all he told her was that she was “going on a trip” and didn’t explain what was going to happen.  And so begins Jin-hee’s brand new life as an orphan.

A rattled young Jin-hee, who presumably has already lost her mother, is now facing the incomprehensible double whammy of loosing of her father—a man who is very much alive and well and in whose love and care so she has felt so secure.  She copes with orphanage life through stoic withdrawal and denial, clinging to the belief that her father is coming back for her.

A scene from Ounie Lecomte's A BRAND NEW LIFE, playing at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22 - May 6, 2010.

Slowly an older girl, Sook-hee (Park Doyeon), earns a place in her heart and the two girls bond as they sneak late night bites of cake, spy on others and attempt to nurse an injured bird to health.  Sook-hee tenderly educates Jin-hee about life and adoption–the ticket out of the orphanage. Sook-hee is 12 or 13 and has started her period but carefully hides this fact from everyone to appear younger to prospective adoptive families seeking pre-teen children.

Kindly Western couples visit the orphanage routinely.  Sook-hee wants a shot at family life offered by foreign adoption and tries hard to impress by touting her ambitions and interests.  Shy and forlorn Jin-hee does all she can to avoid being noticed but is always central. Those girls chosen for adoption appear petrified and leave by automobile for their new lives while those remaining gather round and sing a farewell round of Auld Lang Syne with a beautiful second verse immortalizing the orphanage:

In the flowery hills

With peach and apricot blossoms

Like a palace full of pretty flowers

How I miss playing there

Eventually, adoption touches both Sook-hee and Jin-hee and their lives are forever altered and we hope happy.  The film is tightly focused on their experiences at the orphanage.

“A Brand New Life,” depicts the pain and grief facing a young child in Jin-Hee’s situation but it does so in a rather flat storyline. Well-worn metaphors play out with priests delivering sermons to the girls about Jesus’ suffering and his plea “Father, Father? Why have you forsaken me” and the girls caretake a wounded bird.    

The film stands entirely on the exceptional performances of its child actors. Preteen Kim Saeron as Jin-hee is remarkably believable, delivering a stoic and traumatized child who can also be moody and willful.  Her smile and porcelain skin light up the screen.  Park Doyeon also shines as the brave and centered Sook-hee.

Sadly, there is little grounding information imparted about the situation facing Korean orphans in the 1970’s.  The adoption of orphan children actually started because of the devastating Korean War (1950-1953) and soon became something of an industry, with over 150,000 adoptions processed since the 1950’s.  The topic is explored in riveting detail in Dean Liem Borshay’s documentary In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee which just picked up the best feature documentary award at the 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.  Because the bloodline runs through the father and has been so vitally important in Korea, it was not common for a father to relinquish his child after losing his wife unless the loss was due to infidelity or he was unable to provide for the child.  The circumstances surrounding Jin-hee’s relinquishment are left purposefully vague.  It becomes painfully clear in one of the film’s most compelling scenes that Jin-hee believes that she was sent to the orphanage as a result something she did to her infant step-brother that caused a rift in her family.  Her guilt is astonishing.  

Other cohorts at the orphanage represent a spectrum of relinquishment experiences.  Sook-hee never met her parents and was left with an aunt who subsequently relinquished her.  The orphanage’s oldest ward, Yeshin (Ko A-Sung), a young adult, is crippled and her adoption prospects are so bleak that she believes that she has been taken in by a Korean family solely to cook and clean.

In all, life at this particular Catholic orphanage is good, perhaps exaggerated—food and gifts are plentiful and there is little fighting or rivalry between the girls who call each other “sis” and spend late nights throwing fortune cards.  The staff is approachable and seems genuinely concerned for the girls’ welfare.  For the most part, the discipline seems minimal. In her early days at the orphanage, Jin-hee climbs the fence to the top of a high concrete pillar and teeters in front of all the children, appearing ready to jump. When she won’t come down, a nun opens the orphanage gate and tells her she is free to go.  She and all the children then walk away.  Jun-hee is left alone, with no place to go, but back to the orphanage.  

For Jin-hee, letting go of her family and past is too much to ask.  But until she accepts that there will be no white-knight rescue by her father, she will not embrace the prospects or love awaiting her.  But then, she never asked for a brand new life…everything is out of her control.   A poignant film about loss that falls short of its vast potential.

Screens: 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival—Saturday, April 24 (1:45 PM, Sundance Kabuki), Sunday, May 2 (12:15 PM, Clay Theatre), Tuesday, May 4 (Sundance Kabuki) tickets $12.50,

April 28, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment