What we're about

Meet others who deliberately seek out challenging foreign, avant-garde, and experimental films screened in San Francisco or Berkeley. After each film, we will get together for conversation at a cafe.

If you, like me, also enjoy thought-provoking literature, check out my Classic Literature and Cafes Club: https://www.meetup.com/Classic-Literature-and-Cafes

Upcoming events (3)

Online Discussion: Armenian Cinema: Color of Pomegranates + Komitas + Calendar

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Join us as we continue our discussions of foreign, avant-garde, and experimental films online. The films chosen each month are freely available on one or more platforms such as YouTube, Open Culture, vimeo, and archive.org. In some cases, the films are also available on public library streaming databases such as kanopy or Hoopla. You will need to find and watch the films prior to our discussion.

On July 9 we discuss three classics of Armenian cinema. Sergei Parajanov’s masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates (1969) portrays the life of 18th-century Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat-Nova. Don Askarian’s Komitas (1989) depicts the final days of the great Armenian composer Komitas, whose life was shattered by the Armenian Genocide. In Calendar (1993), Canadian director Atom Egoyan portrays a hapless photographer sent to Armenia to take pictures of churches for a calendar.

The Color of Pomegranates (1969) Dir. Sergei Parajanov (79 minutes)

“Paradjanov’s paean to his Armenian heritage is an exotic mosaic of the mystical and historical that achieves a surreal effect. In tracing the life of the great eighteenth-century Armenian poet and monk Sayat Nova through his writings, Paradjanov weaves a metaphorical short history of the Armenian nation, telling of Turkish genocide, Persian invasions, and a vast migration to the Russian section of the country in the early twentieth century, all through daringly symbolic imagery. The film is an extraordinary artistic rendering of ceremony and ritual, architecture, iconography, and period music that, even for the uninitiated, works its extraordinary magic.” –Pacific Film Archive

Komitas (1989) Dir. Don Askarian (96 minutes)

“Askarian's film attempts to find a cinematic correlative for the suffering and madness of Soghomon Soghomonian ('Komitas'), a great Armenian musician who spent his last 20 years in mental institutions, traumatised by the 1915 genocide of two million of his people. Presented in a series of eight or so sections, it has the mind-opening intensity of Tarkovsky's spiritual odysseys, the visual beauty of Paradjanov's celebrations of ethnic cultures, and an almost surreal, miraculous poetry that is Askarian's own. The images have the visionary logic of the maddened imagination: faded paintings on a ruined church wall crumble in the rain to reveal jugs foaming with colour; jam-jars are smashed, their contents left to bleed down; strange music echoes from rain drumming on a graveyard of musical instruments; a woman breast-feeds a lamb; Komitas lies on a bed of flames. The pace is leisurely, and the camera moves gently or not at all; time - too much, perhaps - is given to mediate on what is shown. At one point, Komitas says art is worthless, that only nature and light matter. This film affirms that they all matter.”—Time Out

Calendar (1993) Dir. Atom Egoyan (73 minutes)
“After photographing a series of churches in his native Armenia for a calendar commission, a man looks back on the trip to retrace the disintegration of his relationship with his then partner. In Canada, a year later, the glossy prints look down from the walls on his loneliness, while his ex's occasional telephone calls go miserably unanswered. A certain piquancy (for those in the know) is gained from the Armenian-born Egoyan's casting of himself as the lovelorn lensman and spouse Khanjian as the woman he left behind. Egoyan filters his customary themes - the difficulties of personal communication, the relationship between emotional lives and video technology - in a film which incisively balances metaphor and awkward realism, while shuttling nimbly through time and space, between celluloid and video formats.”—Time Out

Note on searching YouTube: Try searching for the director’s last name plus the name of the film you are seeking, e.g. “Murnau Faust.” When searching for a foreign film, you may need to search for it by its original-language title, (e.g. “Bergman Jungfrukällan” instead of “Bergman Virgin Spring”). If you have trouble finding a version of your film with English subtitles, add “subtitles” to your search terms. Some foreign films offer computer generated subtitles if you click on the Settings icon at the bottom of the screen. If you do not find the film you are looking for on YouTube, try searching archive.org, Open Culture, and vimeo.

Online Discussion: Man Facing Southeast, Brother from Another Planet, Red Desert

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Join us as we continue our discussions of foreign, avant-garde, and experimental films online. The films chosen each month are freely available on one or more platforms such as YouTube, Open Culture, vimeo, and archive.org. In some cases, the films are also available on public library streaming databases such as kanopy or Hoopla. You will need to find and watch the films prior to our discussion.

On August 13 we discuss three classic films about alienation. In American director John Sayles’ Brother from Another Planet (1984), a mute space alien who resembles a black human crash-lands his ship on Ellis Island and is pursued by interstellar bounty hunters. In Argentine director Eliseo Subielo’s Man Facing Southeast (1986) a patient in a mental hospital claims to be an extraterrestial. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first color film, Red Desert (1964) portrays a depressed woman who attempts to cope with life by starting an affair with a co-worker at the plant her husband manages.

The Brother from Another Planet (1984) Dir. John Sayles (108 minutes)
“Still John Sayles's most provocative work, The Brother from Another Planet blends a stock satirical premise--a look at the world through the eyes of an alien--with a runaway slave narrative, rendering a loosely constructed but keenly observed allegory of race and class in America. The Brother (Joe Morton) is an escaped slave from an unnamed planet who crash-lands his space capsule off Ellis Island. Unable to speak, and marked by his ragged clothing and dark complexion, he's taken for a homeless black man; New Yorkers treat him accordingly, with reactions ranging from pity to contempt. After some dispiriting encounters with white people, he makes his way to Harlem and ends up in a local bar. The regular patrons find him odd, to say the least, but set him up with a social worker after they discover that he can repair video games with just a touch of his hand. Hot on the black man's trail are a pair of white aliens (David Strathairn and John Sayles) dressed in black, who aim to recapture the escapee. Buoyed by Morton's sensitive performance, the film proceeds as a series of vignettes, some of them unforgettable. In a sequence shot on the subway, a child offers to do a magic trick for the Brother: he'll make the white riders disappear. As the train pulls into the 96th Street Station, the whites file out and are replaced by uniformly black passengers headed uptown. It's a remarkable image of de facto racial segregation in urban America.”—TVguide.com

Man Facing Southeast (1986) Dir. Eliseo Subielo (104 minutes)
“In this acclaimed 1986 drama from Argentina, a man suddenly appears in a Buenos Aires mental hospital, claiming to be a visitor from another planet. Written and directed by Eliseo Subiela, Man Facing Southeast feels like a cinematic equivalent to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, being a visually lyrical film with a heavy helping of religious allegory. Rantes, played with an enigmatic serenity by Hugo Soto, is clearly insane according to the overwhelmed but committed Dr. Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), but he also has a genius IQ and (apparently) psychic abilities (or is he performing minor miracles?), and the other patients treat him as a savior. Subiela has it both ways, providing convincing evidence of both Rantes's mortal history as a troubled man and his inexplicable abilities and otherworldly moments that suggest an origin not of this world. The title comes from Rantes's ritual of stepping into the courtyard every day to silently face southeast and stare into the sky, ostensibly to communicate with home.” —Video Librarian

Red Desert (1964) Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni ( 117 minutes)
“Red Desert was shot in the industrialized North of Italy, where Monica Vitti, as the wife of an electronics engineer, suffers what would be called a nervous breakdown at any other time, in any other place. In 1964, Red Desert is post–postwar promise. In his first color film, here is Antonioni, the painter on screen, the abstract expressionist. But the film’s very beauty is hewn from an environmental apocalypse that is at once metaphor and reality: factories, pipes, yellow smoke trailing to the sky; figures lost in a poisoned fog, staring into a poisoned bog. Vitti distills the ambivalence of her earlier performances in L’avventura and L’eclisse into the figure of a woman so anxiety-ridden she is no longer sensual, rather, overly sensitive and barely sensate. The textures of her world have become alien to her. Red Desert asks the question the earlier films were not ready to ask: ‘What is human nature when there is no more Nature?’”—Pacific Film Archive

Online Discussion: Classic Chaplin: The Tramp + Gold Rush + The Great Dictator

Link visible for attendees

Join us as we continue our discussions of foreign, avant-garde, and experimental films online. The films chosen each month are freely available on one or more platforms such as YouTube, Open Culture, vimeo, and archive.org. In some cases, the films are also available on public library streaming databases such as kanopy or Hoopla. You will need to find and watch the films prior to our discussion.

On September 10 we discuss three classic silent films by the great American filmmaker and comic actor Charlie Chaplin. In his early short film The Tramp (1915) Chaplin plays a vagrant who finds work and the girl of his dreams on a family farm. In The Gold Rush (1925) Chaplin stars as a prospector who goes to the Klondike during the 1890s gold rush and is smitten with a girl he sees in a dance hall. In Chaplin’s satirical condemnation of fascism, The Great Dictator (1940), the tyrant Adenoid Hynkel tries to expand his empire while a poor Jewish barber tries to avoid persecution from Hynkel's regime.

The Tramp (1915) Dir. Charlie Chaplin (26 minutes)
Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp was released to the public through Essanay Studios on April 12th, 1915. This short film was a milestone for both Chaplin and his screen character, a tramp he called ‘the little fellow,’ a bum, a hobo knocked around by life who does some knocking around himself. Chaplin’s Tramp is a homeless person most of the time, sleeping where he can, sometimes indoors and sometimes outdoors, taking work where he can get it. He has an eye for ladies, as Chaplin himself did, but very little to recommend him to their company, unlike Chaplin himself. He has to learn to smile though his heart is aching, and if he doesn’t feel like just smiling he is quick-footed enough to give a larger man a kick in the hind end and move away before there can be any retaliation, but life and the laws of slapstick physics will retaliate on Chaplin’s Tramp soon enough.” —rogerebert.com

The Gold Rush (1925) Dir. Charlie Chaplin (95 minutes)
“Chaplin said that The Gold Rush was the film for which he would like to be remembered, and it contains several of his most memorable nuggets of comedy. Into the frozen wastes of the Klondike, where hordes endure hardship in the quest for gold, ventures the Lone Prospector, a familiar little figure with bowler and cane. He finds tenuous shelter in the cabin of a hungry giant, a fellow prospector in whose eyes Charlie is transformed into a wonderfully convincing chicken. In other inimitable, oft-excerpted scenes, our hero is reduced to eating his own boot, performs a graceful soft-shoe with a pair of rolls, and tries to escape a cabin teetering on the brink of an abyss. But The Gold Rush is more than the sum of its moments: Chaplin's comedy of desperation and get-rich-quick fantasies both looks back to the tragic folly of the Donner Party and parallels the mad American hunger for wealth that was then approaching its Roaring Twenties peak.”—Pacific Film Archive

The Great Dictator (1940) Dir. Charlie Chaplin (125 minutes)
“The physical resemblance between the Tramp and another famous man with a little black moustache was not lost on Chaplin. In his first all-talking picture, he plays both a Jewish barber and his double, Adenoid Hynkel, the absolute ruler of Tomainia. As Hynkel and his henchmen Herring and Garbitsch engineer the persecution of Jews and the invasion of neighboring Osterlich, the amnesiac barber may be the only person innocent enough to stop them. Spewing Germanic gibberish or dancing a dreamy pas de deux with a globe-balloon, Chaplin exploits the deflating power of parody, while in the finale, he abandons both character and comedy to deliver an impassioned plea for human tolerance. From this remove, the ending has its own discomfiting overtones of megalomania. But the film in its time was a great success, and Chaplin was asked to deliver the climactic speech on national radio.”—Pacific Film Archive

Note on searching YouTube: Try searching for the director’s last name plus the name of the film you are seeking, e.g. “Murnau Faust.” When searching for a foreign film, you may need to search for it by its original-language title, (e.g. “Bergman Jungfrukällan” instead of “Bergman Virgin Spring”). If you have trouble finding a version of your film with English subtitles, add “subtitles” to your search terms. Some foreign films offer computer generated subtitles if you click on the Settings icon at the bottom of the screen. If you do not find the film you are looking for on YouTube, try searching archive.org, Open Culture, and vimeo.

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