Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Let's Hear It For: Music & Film

Pee Wee (see his back) Comes to Santa Cruz

It isn't often that two of my biggest passion, music and film, collide so beautifully as they have this past week.

One reason is the 6th annual Santa Cruz Film Festival which began last Thursday with the world premiere of a slasher flick called "The Tripper," filmed in Santa Cruz and directed by David Arquette. (The plot of the heavily criticized film features a man in a Ronald Reagan mask who kills hippies; a local reviewer wrote: "I never thought I would ever feel any sympathy for the ex-president, until this movie.") One of the co-stars is Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman, and Reubens and Arquette pulled up to the Del Mar Theater in matching limos opening night for the kickoff festivites, attended by a score of cineastes and local street people. Pee Wee, despite his much publicized arrest (or perhaps because of it) for public masturbation over 15 years ago, and more recently on child pornography charges (which were dismissed), was a big favorite with the crowd.

The festival is half over and I've only seen five films and assorted shorts so far. All of these were good but the standouts have been "Sound of the Soul," a documentary about a concert of religious music in Fez, Morocco, by performers from different traditions, and "Vanaja," the story of a poor young girl in rural India in the 1960s who wants to become a dancer and has to struggle valiantly against the prejudices and class divisions of her society. The title for the first film comes from an Afghan singer's comment that "music has no religion, no borders, no boundaries. Music is the sound of the soul." The performances by groups from Ireland and England, along with a jazz gospel band from the U.S., and Arab and Berber musicians and singers from Morocco are of a kind that sends chills up the spine. Denominational and sectarian boundaries can only crumble under such sounds of the divine. The festival audience gave "Sound of the Soul," directed by Stephen Olsson, a standing ovation. I bought a CD of the soundtrack in the lobby and loaded the songs into my iPod.

The music in "Vanaja" was incidental to the dancing by the young actress, Mamatha Bhukya, who was discovered by director Rajnesh Domalpalli in this, his thesis film, for a degree from Columbia University. All of the actors were unknowns and Bhukya was specially trained for the film in the traditional dances which had the audience mesmerized. It brought back for me the outdoor concert of traditional Indian dance I witnessed in Mamallapuram in January one night against a backdrop of 7th century carvings covering the face of a large cliff behind the stage. The young actress and dancer in the film was every bit as good as the professionals I saw that evening. Apparently Domalpalli's film has been unable to secure a distribution contract in America, and so he is forced to travel the festival circuit showing it to movie goers at small gatherings like this one in Santa Cruz. The turnout for the film last night was small, but it will be shown again Wednesday evening, with the director in attendance.

The other films I've seen at the festival so far did not feature music, but each was exquisite on its own terms. "Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore" is a documentary from filmmaker Jacob Bricca which was filmed largely in Santa Cruz where the chain store Borders first tried to set up shop in Capitola, and then, when protests convinced the City Countil to downsize the big box shop, moved onto Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, midway between two local bookstores. All seem to be thriving at the moment, but statistics were offered to prove that chain stores ultimately drive local stores, like Printer's Ink in Palo Alto, out of business. Not much was said in the film about Amazon.com, but I suspect the online retailer has taken more business away from the mom 'n' pops than Borders or Barnes & Noble. I've patronized all of them at one time or another, and think that without a radical change in economic policy and values, the days of mom 'n' pop stores are doomed. The internet is just too damned convenient.

Another film in the festival filmed locally was "Meditate and Destroy," a documentary about punk Buddhist Noah Levine, son of Stephen Levine the death-and-dying guru, and a local kid who grew up in Santa Cruz, spending considering time in local jails for drug and graffiti arrest. Levine, who co-led a men's retreat I did at Spirit Rock last year, turned the corner when he took up meditation and the 12-step program, and now leads groups of punk Buddhists on both coasts. He wrote his story in Dharma Punx and now Sarah Fisher's film should make him into a pop icon. The kid's got charisma. I'm still not sure why the punk movement has such disdain for the hippies beloved of my generation, but I'm sure, after reading the book and seeing the film, that tattoos and the Buddhist dharma make a surprisingly nice fit.

The final festival film I saw this past weekend was "Viva Cuba," the delightful story of the friendship between two children who make a road trip the length of Cuba to visit the girl's father. While mostly free of propaganda, the film did deliver the subversive message that we should all stick together and not abandon our friends (and the country demonized by successive U.S. presidents for two generations). My Cuban friend told me that the film was full of wonderful satirical jabs at Cuban icons but that the English translation was unable to translate them successfully. Tarrau Broche and Miló Ávila, who played the girl and boy in the film directed by Juan Carlos Crematta Malberti, were marvelous. And the photography, like that in most films of Cuba, made me dream of someday seeing that place with my own eyes.

There are quite a few other films yet to come featuring music as an integral part of the story. For more info on the 6th annual Santa Cruz Film Festival, click here.

The last film I want to mention was not in the festival but rather was discovered on the shelves on a video rental store near my house. "Gadjo Dilo" came out in 1997 and was directed by Tony Gatlif, an Algerian filmmaker whose "Latcho Drum" four years earlier I saw and loved. Like that film, "Gadjo Dilo" (which translates as crazy stranger), is about gypsies, or the Romany people. But whereas that film was a documentary, this one is the fictional story about a Frenchman, played by Romain Duris, the handsome student from "L'auberge espagnole," who comes to Roumania to record gypsy music in its natural setting. In the process he falls in love with one of the natives, played by the fetching Rona Hartner (my new crush). The story is as real and as heart-warming as it can get, but it was the music that hooked me. I found the soundtrack in the iMusic store and loaded it into my iPod. Originally from Roumania, Hartner now lives in Paris where she is apparently developing a kind of gypsy rap music. Far out.

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