Sandow Birk’s New Murals for SF Jazz Center

The amazing new SF Jazz Center, hurtling toward a January 2013 completion date, will not   only house a terrific performance space but also three murals by Sandow Birk and his partner, Elyse Pignolet.  Birk likes to do more than one of a kind.  He translated and illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy; he is completing a translation of the Qur’an that takes the form of over 300 paintings illustrating the sura (chapters) of the book (each image contains text and image together).  And he did an impressive spin on romantic landscape painting with his Prisonation series, a set of 32 oil paintings, one for each California prison, that mimic the romanticism of earlier painters but always include disturbing reminders of the incarceratory function of the remote regions of the state, usually in the form of distant glimpses of these 2001-like monoliths, though in some cases they all but dominate the painting.

The murals for the Jazz Center have a lighter touch.  Done on tile and painted and fired in Southern California then shipped north, the 2500 or so tiles tell the story of jazz in America. They have a light, airy feel to them.  They allude to famous clubs, performers and eras.  The third mural, which Sandow threw in as an extra enticement during the bidding process, will be in the area of the dressing rooms and is the most humorous of them all: people anxiously wait to see if they will get to Heaven, but those who ascend find only the instruments absent from jazz (harps, violins, and so on) while those who descend to hell find themselves in jazz heaven, which joy and pleasure in every moment.  A wry work that performers will certainly enjoy as they head out for the stage.


Chester Arnold’s Paintings

Arnold works on canvases from large to small to elaborate a theme.  In the show at the Catharine Clark Gallery from Nov. 2012 to Jan 2013, he presents a variety of paintings that revolve mainly around mining operations, small operations by a few people that could be from the 19th century.  They have a haunting quality.  Even with people in the images, something seems missing, some sense of purpose, goal, context. The absence of a horizon is a technical means to this end: we feel flattened against the earth–and the mines that penetrate it–without a way to get our bearings in a larger world.  Using a limited palette mostly of earth tones, Arnold constantly implies what’s not seen: agency, aspiration, human connection, companionship, society.   These men, none more so than the half visible bones of a man who apparently perished at one of these anonymous mine sites, have no one to turn to, no one to relate to, no one to come home to, and the shafts that penetrate from the canvas inward have a vertiginous quality, as if the painting harbored a lacuna within itself. The bottoms of the shafts are sheer blackness, nothingness, somewhere far below.  It is not entirely surprising that Kenneth Baker in the S.F. Chonicle should see one painting, “Small Time Operation,” as reminiscent of Courbet’s “L’origine du monde,” with its shockingly frank depiction of female genitalia. Not at all erotic but disturbing, haunting, pointing to a mystery that Courbet, like Arnold and his small band of miners seem bent on confronting, if not understanding.

Making a Documentary Film

Some of the things that I like to consider at the start of a project, i.e., if I am involved in consulting from an early stage are:

1.  Tell me the story.  It is a good litmus test to see if it is possible to give a compelling, coherent shape to the topic or issue in verbal form. The tendency is to go for plot elements–global warming is releasing huge amounts of methane from the polar ice caps and we need to act now: that’s good, and the follow up question would be, How does it become a film since this good be an op-ed, essay, or even a fiction film about a corporate plan to let it occur thinking it can be captured and marketed only to have a catastrophe, sparked by a bitter rival, ensue.  Though simkple, this step can take some time.  Boiling it all down to a good, clear story line takes work, more than most of us can pull off while riding in an elevator although, once done, it will seem obviously clear and necessary. So,

2. What form will it take?  Docs aren’t all the same. There are models (essays, diaries, histories, editorials, reportage, etc.) that can be one basis for the form and there are modes (expository, poetic, participatory, etc.) that are cinematic ways of giving shape to an idea: eg, the methane story could be interactive, with the filmmaker interacting with others via interviews or direct participation in an action, as we see in The Cove, or it could be expostiory, with a voice-over commentator (Peter Coyote?) sketching out the issues and guiding us through an approach to them, or it could be observational, following but not ineracting with a research crew in Hudson’s Bay, say, as they try to measure methane leakage from a given area and talk among themselves about the results.  The filmmaker needs to think about form since it will guide what they shoot and what the gather up, and whether, or to what degree, they need a script (an exposition clearly has to be written up ahead and that may guide the search for images to accompany it).

3. Can you write this up in a 2-5 page treatment?  This would not be a shooting script but a clear statement about the goals and techniques and the sequencing, the order of events that might be expected to unfold to move us from a beginning to a resolution.  As a narrative form, doc (as narrative non-fiction) typically has a beginning, middle and end–unlike life which just goes on and leads to chronolgies rather than stories.  it might instead have a statement, perspective or argument to present/make, but here too there is usually a beginning that gets us thinking, a middle the deepens and elaborates on the issue and an end that offers a solution or possible action.

This trio of things is not sacrosanct. It could be otherwise, but they are a good general start for many projects.  A fourth, which I may say more about at another time, is context: what has already been done or said on the issue or topic, in terms of content, and what has already been made and seen that suggests valuable cinematic techniques and appraoches.  Refinements and elaboration can develop from these starting points as can preparing pitches or grant applications.

Brazil 2012

This was an amazing year in that I was able to make two trips to Brazil. The first, in February, was to participate in a set of dialogues with Peter Forgacs whose films were shown in a major retrospective that travelled, as we did, from  Rio to Sao Paolo to Brasilia. The came just a few months after the publication of  Cinema’s Alchemist, a terrific collection of essays edited by myself and Michael Renov.  [See Books for more info.]

The second was in November when I had an opportunity to give a series of lecturs at universities in Salvador, Cachoeria, and Campinas.  The talks were on aspects of documentary and were to audiences of over 100, a clear sign of the vitality and depth of film fever in Brazil.  Even if commercial opportunities are not enormous they do exist and unversity students have a vivid passion for the study and making of films. Documentary film is exceptionally diverse and imaginative in its range and complexity.  It was a great learning experience.  I am preparing at least one of the lectures, on “The Ironic Text” for publication as a fresh look at the mockumentary as a key part of a larger category better described by irony than mockery or parody.


Today, the blog went live.

Much more content will follow but this is a beginning.  Comments on films, info on books and articles I’ve done, consulting projects, thoughts on the arts and politics of our time, and a touch of fiction too.